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Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist: A Primer

Many people have asked me to explain the “democratic socialism” of Bernie Sanders. Below are answers to a set of questions recently posed by a bright young interlocutor.

Donald Trump said this week, “We’re dealing with a socialist, perhaps even a Communist.” How do you define “democratic socialist” and how is that different from “socialist” in general?

In the most general terms, “socialism” is the idea that the productive wealth of a society—factories, offices, large-scale service firms, etc.– should not be owned, controlled, and deployed for the benefit of a small class of people, but should be owned, controlled, and deployed for the benefit of the society as a whole. The basic rationale for such “socialization” of productive wealth is simple: the knowledge, techniques, and relations of production that produce wealth are all social. In the story of Robinson Crusoe an individual works more or less from scratch (with his “man Friday!”) on “virgin” nature. But in reality all wealth is social. Particular individuals may innovate. They may even deserve special rewards for their innovations. But most members of “the one per cent” are not innovators of this kind. Further, even those that are innovators did not grow up in the wild and innovate through their own efforts alone. They matured in a society with an educational system and a knowledge base and an infrastructure and a division of labor, and their innovations involved a complex network of others. The idea of socialism is the idea that because all innovation and all production is “social” in this way, the production process ought to be organized in a way that ensures some democratic social control and some broad social welfare.

Socialism is a very old idea, and it can be traced back to Plato, the early Christians, Sir Thomas More, and many important modern writers who wrote before Karl Marx was even born. Marx and Engels were socialists who claimed that their socialism was “scientific.” Marxism is a complex subject. Suffice it so say that the founder of Soviet Communism—Lenin—was a Marxist, but so too were founders of German social democracy and advocates of a parliamentary road to socialism, such as Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky. More importantly, while most Marxists have been socialists, and some even democratic socialists, most socialists are not Marxists at all. Some examples include Albert Einstein, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, W.E.B. Dubois, and perhaps even Martin Luther King, Jr.

Democratic socialism is a variant of socialism that emphasizes the importance of democracy in two ways: a socialist society ought to be run on a democratic basis and not as a dictatorship—as Lenin and his Soviet and Chinese followers believed—and it ought to be achieved by working through the institutions of a liberal, representative democracy, mobilizing citizens and voters, winning elections, and legislating social reform.

In the 20th century U.S. a number of important figures were democratic socialists, most notably Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas, and Michael Harrington, whose book Socialism is the best book on the topic. Harrington was the founder of Democratic Socialists of America, a group that is strongly backing Bernie Sanders. This group does NOT believe in state control of all economic assets. It believes in the use of a democratic state to institute egalitarian social reforms and a more “progressive” system of taxation, and to steer social investments in more public ways (think public transportation as opposed to publicly-subsidized, privately owned sports mega-statiums). Sanders has had some ties to this group—which has always seen itself as “the left wing of the Democratic party—and the things he supports are the kinds of things this group has long supported, and also the kinds of things that European social democrats—in Germany, the UK, France, and Scandinavia—have long supported.

Trump is red-baiting when he calls this “Communist.” Such a vision of socialism is democratic and historically it is anti-Communist.

Likewise, what does Sanders mean when he talks about starting a “political revolution,” and what do people think when they hear the term? Is he conjuring images of tanks rolling in the streets?

It is much clearer what Sanders does not mean than what he means by “political revolution.” He does not mean a classic “revolution.” Classical “revolutions” typically involved tanks in the streets deployed by authoritarian governments (like Tsarism) to suppress revolutionary and insurrectionist masses of citizens. This entire scenario is alien to Sanders. Sanders is a small “d” democrat who has spent his entire adult life participating in the normal institutions of representative democracy, running for office—for mayor, Representative. Senator, President– in free elections, debating his opponents in open forums, collaborating with other legislators to pass legislation. The “conjured images” are bogeymen, and have no basis in reality. What does Sanders mean by “political revolution?” He seems to mean the mobilization, through campaigning, of masses of new voters—voter participation in the US is very low—and the strengthening of institutions such as labor unions, civil rights and labor organizations, and student groups so that the members of these groups can be more active citizens inclined to support his agenda. Sanders is in no way a “revolutionary” in spite of his appeal to “political revolution”—a term that has indeed been used by many leaders in American history (the New Deal was called by historian Carl Degler “the third American Revolution.”) I must say that I find Sanders to be very vague about “political revolution,” and I am also skeptical that the kind of broad-based social and political movements he supports can be brought together to achieve the goals he seeks. But I think it is a noble effort, and in the past efforts such as these have played a crucial role in making the U.S. a more democratic and socially just society.

Do Americans need a civics refresher course to understand what he’s talking about?

Sadly, yes. If the broad mass of Americans were more historically informed, they would know that self-styled socialists have played an important role in U.S. history, that most of the leaders of the early trade and industrial union movement were socialists, that important New Deal figures were socialists, that one of the most important leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement—Bayard Rustin—was a socialist, and that a socialist—Michael Harrington—is widely credited with having inspired LBJ’s “Great Society” programs through his book on poverty, The Other America.

Indeed, the so-called “neoconservative” movement in the U.S. was founded by former socialists, many of whom had earlier been not simply socialists but Communists or Trotskyists. These people turned hard to the right. But others, like Harrington, and Irving Howe, the founder of Dissent magazine, and like Sanders, continued to be active in the struggle to democratically achieve democratic socialism. Sanders is an authentic American democrat who works hard to advance his ideas—the supreme virtue of democratic citizenship.

Is there a strain of democratic socialism that advocates state control of the economy?

This is a complicated question. The simple answer is no.  One of the defining features of modern democratic socialism is an opposition to the widespread “collectivization” of the economy as was practiced by the Soviets.  Some European democratic socialist parties have supported public enterprise and some forms of nationalization of certain industries—but so have non-socialists in Europe. (Indeed, one need look no further than the enormous bailout of U.S. banks in 2008 to see that it is not only socialists who advocate for government socialization—they simply advocate socializing the losses of big business, and not the gains.) But none support the wholesale collectivization of the economy.

Sanders clearly supports a “mixed economy,” as any of his statements or position papers makes clear.

On experiments with public ownership, I recommend this piece in the Nation by Gar Aperovitz: http://www.thenation.com/article/socialism-in-america-is-closer-than-you-think/

How is what Sanders wants the same/different from what modern European social democrats want/have? Or from modern Russia? Or China?

It is very similar to what European social democrats have long advocated and enacted, as he himself has stated repeatedly.  It is also much less ambitious than the most ambitious social democratic party platforms.

For reasons explained above, it is totally different from the Soviet or Chinese or Cuban or North Korean models.

Sanders does NOT advocate the abolition of private property in the means of production. He does not even advocate massive wealth expropriations. He advocates breaking up banks and more progressive income taxes and the public subsidization of health care and public education (most of these things are quite common in Europe). Further, all of his policy proposals are contributions to the ongoing democratic debate of a democratic society, advanced as proposals to be legislated when and if a democratic majority of citizens can bring such an agenda into office through democratic elections.

Sanders is running for President of the U.S. and seeking the freely given electoral support of American citizens. He is not organizing a vanguard revolutionary party intent on seizing power!

In other words, he is a democratic socialist.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

  • patriot_gal

    The Young Democratic Socialists of America are holding their winter conference this weekend, February 12-14, in Brooklyn, NY. http://www.ydsusa.org/yds16_info

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