The Socialism of Bernie Sanders

Jacobin contributors on Bernie Sanders' democratic socialism speech and what his candidacy means for the Left.

Bernie Sanders delivers a speech on democratic socialism at Georgetown University on Thursday. Carlos Barria / Reuters

Paul Heideman (PH)
Nicole Aschoff (NA)
Connor Kilpatrick (CK)

The novelty of Bernie Sanders has long been his adoption of the term “democratic socialist” to describe his political beliefs. On the presidential campaign trail, by way of definition, he’s repeatedly pointed to European countries with relatively robust welfare states.

On Thursday, in a major campaign address, he turned back stateside. Sanders cast himself not as the heir of Eugene Debs — a portrait of whom hangs in his congressional office — but of Franklin Roosevelt. In short, for Sanders, democratic socialism means New Deal liberalism.

What should socialists of a more radical bent make of such a definition? To what extent is the Sanders campaign good for social forces to his left? And how should we view the foreign policy portion of Sanders’s speech, in which he both criticized US intervention and praised NATO?

Three Jacobin contributors give their thoughts:

  • Nicole Aschoff is the managing editor at Jacobin and the author of The New Prophets of Capital.
  • Connor Kilpatrick is on the editorial board of Jacobin.
  • Paul Heideman is a PhD student in the sociology department at New York University.

Nicole Aschoff

Bernie Sanders is obviously the best presidential candidate, but he is a deeply flawed representative of the Left. Yesterday’s speech illustrates why.

Sanders’s Keynes-plus story advocates reining in the big banks, building a stronger social safety net, and deepening democracy. Fine. No disagreement there.

But Sanders never mentioned the word capitalism — a rhetorical maneuver that sidesteps the systemic basis of inequality and poverty, both in the US and globally. Instead of the imperatives of class and competition he decries greed and corruption in a narrative that sits uncomfortably close to “crony capitalism,” the Right’s favorite villain.

Sanders says we need to take back our government, to implement laws and taxes and programs to dilute the privilege of the rich. That’s a good start. But how? FDR’s maverick capabilities rested on a foundation of mass working-class resistance. Sanders likes unions to be sure, but building working-class institutions isn’t a central part of his story.

Working for a wage is a defining feature of our society. It is only by organizing and gaining control over our work lives that we will build the collective strength to challenge capital.

Finally, Sanders’s geopolitical intervention was predictably awful. He didn’t liken Syrian refugees to rabid dogs like Ben Carson or shout for more boots on the ground like Hillary Clinton. But his declaration that the problem of ISIS is primarily a problem of religion that “Muslim nations” must solve is willfully blind to the hand-in-glove relationship between capitalism and militarism.

The US has roughly eight hundred military bases globally and a nearly $600 billion annual defense budget that it uses to unrestrainedly pursue its political and economic interests. With his entreaty to build a bigger, better NATO and set aside “historic disputes,” Sanders fails to challenge this terrifying reality.

Connor Kilpatrick

There was nothing much surprising about Bernie’s speech. This was the democratic socialism not even of Martin Luther King Jr (who nevertheless got some great shout-outs from Sanders) or Michael Harrington, but of FDR and LBJ. Which is to say, not “socialism” in recognizable form.

The Sanders definition seems to be “things that the government does that are good.” If this was true, then socialism could exist within any society at any point in time, even one as rigidly capitalist as ours.

It doesn’t help when one of his largest celebrity backers — Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane — says we could “use a little bit of democratic socialism,” as if he were talking about a few more splashes of hot sauce in a bowl of chili.

But having our bloated military does not mean that soldiers live under socialism. The high marginal tax rates and labor union density under President Eisenhower — as Sanders likes to point out — did not make us socialist. Even the most reactionary capitalist regimes have some degree of a welfare state. Gen. Pinochet kept Chilean copper mines nationalized even after he launched a coup in the name of neoliberalism. And the intensely anticommunist Singapore has one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. It does not make it a socialist society in the slightest.

But at the same time — frustrating as it may be — the popular association of socialism with Scandinavian social democracy rather than “the country with all the gulags that doesn’t exist anymore” is a far better starting point for a renewed anticapitalist politics.

We need to accept how much ground has been lost. Today, just 6.6 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, and the Supreme Court is only a few months away from launching an all-out war on public-sector unionism. In many ways, the US left suffered a fatal wound in the late 1940s, before finally collapsing in the 1970s. Bernie’s welfare-state liberalism is radical in today’s political context.

So is it important that Sanders even bothers to use the s-word at all? I think so.

Standing on a national stage and using that term implies that there is a radically egalitarian force that is in opposition and even hostile to capitalism — even if in his particularly strained definition that means that socialism is already here in the form of the US Post Office (and simply on the ropes). Sanders still implies a conflict between the two — not a corporatist harmony.

It’s that definition that we can use. While Sanders thankfully raises the specter of class conflict, it’s up to actual socialist activists to define a possible world on the other side of that conflict — to get a little utopian.

In May, Americans were asked whether they had a favorable opinion of socialism and capitalism. Democrats were split evenly: 43 versus 43 percent. In October, YouGov ran the poll again. This time, 49 percent said they viewed socialism positively, versus 37 percent for capitalism — a remarkable shift in just five months. I think it’s safe to say that that is entirely the work of the Sanders campaign.

If a not-very-politicized liberal was to ask me “what’s socialism?” I’d probably go with Richard Wolff’s definition and say that it means democratically deciding who makes what, how that’s organized, and what we do with the surplus. It knocks down the wall that liberalism erected hundreds of years ago between politics and the economy. And it means a world beyond class society.

But hey, “more welfare state-ism, less billionaire-ism”? We can work with that.

Paul Heideman

As with so much of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, his speech defining democratic socialism offered much for American socialists to cheer, and much that could only be greeted with puzzlement, or even disgust.

At the core of the speech was Sanders’s argument that his version of democratic socialism is a twenty-first century updating of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Sanders pointed out, all of the elements of the New Deal that most Americans take for granted today — social security, minimum-wage laws, collective bargaining — were initially condemned as “socialism.” Sanders could certainly do worse in terms of inspiration than Roosevelt, who, when asked about business opposition to the New Deal, answered, “I welcome their hatred.”

Sanders’s updates to the New Deal can only be welcomed by socialists today. He calls for single-payer health care, free public college, and taxing the rich. While none of these would make the US socialist, they would bring about a massive increase in the dismal standard of living of American workers.

Rhetorically, the speech had some nice bits as well. Sanders declared unabashedly that the US has a ruling class, and that progressive change can only come through confronting it. It was, as so often is the case with Sanders, both gratifying and a little strange to hear from a leading presidential contender.

Yet this message also reveals some of the limitations of Sanders’s “political revolution.” FDR, after all, did not come into office promising the “four freedoms” Sanders has celebrated, but rather a balanced budget. It was only in the face of the growing wave of class struggle in the United States that FDR himself began to embrace more reformist policies, and that a section of the American ruling class could be persuaded that such reforms were necessary to placate that struggle.

This is the contradiction at the heart of Sanders’s campaign: while he calls for reforms that no socialist could oppose, his talk of political revolution falls woefully short of the kinds of struggles needed to win those reforms. There is also little evidence at this point that his campaign is providing a spur to those kinds of struggles.

Sanders’s talk of revitalizing democracy in American becomes even less convincing when his foreign policy enters the picture. In his speech, Sanders attacked previous US interventions, from the invasion of Iraq to American backing of coups in countries like Guatemala and Iran. Yet his proposed alternatives made it unclear on what grounds he objected to such actions.

In contrast to George W. Bush’s unilateral adventure in Iraq, Sanders harkened back to the establishment of the NATO alliance after World War II. But NATO was hardly a force for democracy. The US maintained support for the brutal Greek junta of 1967–74 because of Greece’s place in NATO. In Italy, NATO agents helped maintain far-right paramilitary networks linked to the reactionary terrorism attacks of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The suggestions for current foreign policy were not much more encouraging. Sanders lauded King Abdullah II of Jordan (it is never a good look for a socialist to praise a monarch) for his role in the fight against ISIS. Yet Jordan, like most American allies in the Middle East, is a highly repressive country, where criticizing the king entitles someone to three years of imprisonment in the country’s notoriously torture-filled jails.

While Sanders is willing to criticize many of the most egregious over-extensions of American empire, it seems he has no interest in contesting the American suppression of democracy across the globe. And this cannot but undermine the struggle for democracy and freedom at home.

Sanders is certainly correct that achieving his reforms will require a political revolution. But it will have to be one that embraces a far more encompassing vision of democracy than he himself has.