Bernie Sanders Is Not A Socialist

Vermont Senator and Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders has spent quite a bit of time recently defending his brand of “democratic socialism” from those who identify the concept of socialism with the Soviet Union. In a speech where he set out his vision, he described how both FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society were both criticized by conservatives as “socialist.” In his view, we need to return to these types of progressive policies. By his definition, “democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy” and “that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.”

These comparisons are revealing about how both Sanders and many of his followers think of democratic socialism. Just because conservative critics called the policies of FDR and Lyndon Johnson socialist doesn’t mean that they actually were. As a matter of fact, many scholars have argued that the New Deal helped FDR in undermining the popularity of actual democratic socialists like Norman Thomas (who won 2.2% of the vote with the Socialist Party of America in the 1932 presidential election), thus preserving America’s capitalist system.

In 1936, Thomas himself gave a detailed speech arguing that FDR was distinctly not a socialist, but a liberal reformist who created a state capitalist system in which the government acts “for the purpose of maintaining in so far as may be possible the profit system with its immense rewards of private ownership and its grossly unfair division of the national income.” Roosevelt wanted “to keep the profit system.” According to Thomas, “socialism means to abolish that system.” At one point in the speech, Thomas said:

…even if Mr. Roosevelt and the New Deal had far more closely approximated Socialist immediate demands in their legislation, they would not have been Socialists, not unless [critics are] willing to argue that every reform, every attempt to curb rampant and arrogant capitalism, every attempt to do for the farmers something like what the tariff has done for business interests, is socialism.

Today, Bernie Sanders is doing exactly that, arguing that police departments, fire departments, and public libraries are all “socialist institutions.” One will often hear liberals making similar statements about how the highway system is fundamentally socialist, or that countries like Denmark and Sweden are socialist (even when the leaders of said countries say they aren’t). This comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of socialism. Liberals, instead of arguing against conservative allegations that many government functions are socialist in nature, decided to accept them instead and then attempt to redefine the word “socialist” to their benefit.

A closer study of political ideology, however, tells us that Bernie Sanders is not a democratic socialist. The only presidential candidate who has accurately identified him is Marco Rubio, who associated his ideas with the ideology of “social democracy.” These two ideologies- that of democratic socialists and that of social democrats- share significant historical overlap, but are in fact quite different.

Karl Marx famously argued in his work that capitalism was an exploitative system that should be abolished. Marx believed that capitalist companies had a long-term “tendency of the rate of profits to fall,” and that they would attempt over time to reverse that trend by forcing their workers to work harder and for less pay, what Marxists would call “increasing the rate of exploitation.” This would lead to more and more conflict (“class struggle”) between the capitalists (“bourgeoisie”) and the workers (“proletariat”) until the workers eventually revolt and overthrow capitalism, establishing an economy owned by the workers (“socialism”) which would eventually become a commonly owned and operated economy without classes, money, or a state (“communism”).

His thoughts regarding a communist revolution were based in the idea of “historical materialism,” that economic conditions drive social forces in such a way that history follows a certain path. In this way, he said that “the bourgeoisie therefore produces… its own grave-diggers” and that “its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” The course of history was more or less set in place, and it was only a matter of time until communism won.

51 years after Marx and Engles published The Communist Manifesto (their most successful and least interesting work), another book of less fame but of enormous importance was published. In 1899, Eduard Bernstein wrote Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein was a revisionist, meaning that he was one of a number of socialist thinkers who attempted to revise the works of Marx in order to fill in the gaps and fix perceived mistakes. Bernstein rejected historical materialism and observed that conditions were actually improving in capitalist society as time went on, with the number of people who were wealthy actually “increas[ing] both relatively and absolutely.” In response to this fact, he argued that “socialism… has already survived many a superstition, it will also survive this.”

Bernstein flipped the script, arguing that “the prospects of socialism depend not on the decrease but on the increase of social wealth.” He believed that it was possible for workers to establish socialism in non-violent ways, both through political reform and their own organizing. Because workers couldn’t rely on the natural progression of history to help them, they’d have to do the political organization themselves.

Bernstein viewed democracy as critical to the formation his ideal world, for socialism without it would be “a workers’ movement, but no social democracy.” Defining democracy as “a social condition where a political privilege belongs to no one class as opposed to the whole community,” he viewed democracy and socialism as two deeply connected ideas. While democracy describes the ownership of political power by all people, socialism describes the ownership of the economy by all people. Social democrats and democratic socialists existed before Bernstein, but his work perfectly explained their view of the world.

For a long period of time, social democracy and democratic socialism were used interchangeably, largely because there was very little gap between the two groups. But as time progressed, a critical debate inevitably broke out: what exactly is the movement’s end goal? Bernstein famously said that “to me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.” By this, he didn’t mean that he had no values or goals, but rather that he wasn’t willing to declare any one set vision of the future as one that must be subscribed to.

Though he points out that Marx had similar views about the future, Marx at least proposed a vague vision of communism to strive for. Bernstein believed that he was just “revising” Marx, but his critics were right in saying that he was actually breaking away from him altogether (according to Engels, Marx once said to Paul Lafargue- his son-in-law and a famous French social democrat- that if he was a Marxist, “I myself am not a Marxist”). Bernstein did a phenomenal job of arguing for democratic progress towards socialism, but he never set a concrete point to strive for.

Among the people who shared his mindset, some argued that immediate government reforms were more important than the long-term aim of building socialism, while others argued the opposite position. We can see a number of examples of these splits in Political Scientist Sheri Berman’s fantastic history book, “The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century.” In France, there was a split in the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO). Conflict broke out between the Guesdists- those who still had a degree of belief in historical materialism and opposed compromise with mainstream capitalist parties- and the possibilists- those concerned with what is possible right now. They attempted to bridge this gap by releasing a statement declaring that “the Socialist Party, while seeking the fulfillment of immediate reforms demanded by the working class, is not a party of reform but a party of class struggle and revolution.”

An even more famous debate featured in Berman’s book was the one that broke out in Germany between Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, another famous democratic socialist theorist. Kautsky thought that the German Social Democratic Party should be “a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making one,” while Bernstein was of the opinion that it should seek reforms based not on whether or not they contributed to establishing socialism, but on “whether they further the development of the working class, whether they contribute to general progress.”

By the middle of the century, without any formal declaration, “social democrat” had come to refer to those who focused their efforts on progressive political reforms, while “democratic socialist” had come to refer to those who focused their efforts on building socialism through democratic means. In intraparty conflicts, social democrats won out more frequently than not. Today, social democrats lead the most popular leftist political parties in most countries. The mainstream political spectrum in the United States today is further to the right, so social democrats only occupy the left-most portion of the Democratic Party while more moderate liberals make up the rest.

In summary, democratic socialists operated on the principle of “move forward, towards socialism,” while social democrats simply said “focus on moving forward,” leaving what the final idea of what the future might look like open.

In America, the history was just as interesting. Though starting in the late 19th century through organizations like the Greenback Party, social democracy and democratic socialism were both quite popular in the first half of the 20th century.

Democratic socialists frequently organized around the Socialist Party of America, a popular political party that had two of their candidates elected to the House of Representatives in the 1920’s and countless others elected as the mayors of cities ranging from the massive Milwaukee, Wisconsin to the tiny Murray, Utah. Members included people such as Hellen Keller, and Jack London (author of The Call of the Wild), Civil Rights Leader A. Phillip Randolph, and Activist Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle) all ran for office with the party at some point. America’s most famous democratic socialist, Eugene V. Debs, ran as their Presidential candidate four times, winning 5.99% of the vote in 1912 and 3.41% in 1920, despite being in jail for speaking out against WWI in the latter case.

Social democrats, on the other hand, often participated in mainstream political parties, existing in the progressive wings of both the Democrats and the Republicans. Social democrats in the first half of the century included Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Senators like Robert M. La Follette, Thomas Gore, Burton K. Wheeler, and William Simon U’Ren; activists like Jane Addams; thinkers like Herbert Croly; and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In Minnesota, social democrats allied with democratic socialists in various incarnations of the Farmer-Labor Party, which later became affiliated with the Democratic Party and now represents another social democrat in the Senate today, Al Franken.

Social democrats and democratic socialists have overlap in their policy demands, and members have moved in and out of the groups over time (for example, A. Phillip Randolph eventually moderated his positions and became more of a social democrat). But the differences were always there. Both groups pushed for women’s suffrage, progressive taxation, child labor laws, trust-busting, and workers’ protections, but democratic socialists often positioned themselves even further to the left by calling for things like the nationalization of banking.

In 1978, Michael Harrington, a democratic socialist who helped inspire Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, wrote an article called What Socialists Would Do in America — If They Could. In it, he suggested “public controls over private investment decisions,” “a democrati­cally owned and controlled gas and oil company,” “national economic planning for full employment,” full-cost pricing, a deeply progressive tax system, publicly-owned social funds, “employee and public representation on the boards of directors of all major corporations and a radical increase in democratic decision-making by primary workers in factories and offices,” and “federal support for a vast expan­sion of producer and consumer cooperatives, including funds for community corporations.” Of these proposals, Bernie Sanders only has a history of supporting progressive tax reform and economic cooperatives, and he almost never even mentions the latter.

But even with policy differences aside, the ultimate difference is in their final aim. When Norman Thomas said that people like FDR “would not have been Socialists” even if their policies had been closer, he meant that the sign of a socialist is someone who wants an end to capitalism. When he was directly asked by Anderson Cooper whether or not he considered himself a capitalist, Sanders responded that he doesn’t consider himself a “part of the casino capitalist process.” A democratic socialist would have proudly discussed their anti-capitalist beliefs. But his response indicates that what he actually seeks is a better form of capitalism, which is a hallmark trait of social democracy.

Judging from his past, it appears that Bernie Sanders used to be more radical than he is today. In the 1970’s, he was a member of the democratic socialist Liberty Union Party and voiced a documentary on Eugene Debs. In 1999, the Liberty Union Party began criticizing him, and he now draws his inspiration from FDR, instead of the candidate from Debs’ party that ran against him.

Today, Bernie Sanders is the most recognizable social democrat in congress, although there are many more in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He’s calling for universal healthcare, an end to the war on drugs, progressive taxation, no-cost public college, campaign finance reform, and a $15 minimum wage. But he never mentions worker ownership of corporations, guaranteed job programs, or a nationalized oil company. He speaks about “rebuilding the middle class” and fighting the wealthy “ruling class,” but not about replacing capitalism with a publicly-owned and controlled economy.

Bernie Sanders is a social democrat, not a democratic socialist. There’s nothing wrong with that- many social democrats, like Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold, have done magnificent work in the Senate in recent years. Bernie Sanders is easily the farthest left candidate in the 2016 election, but he shouldn’t describe himself as something he isn’t, especially in a nation where socialism is already so severely misunderstood. Doing so has only led to more confusion. As a whole, socialists themselves don’t even seem to be sure what to make of it, with views of his candidacy ranging from critical to supportive.

If, as some liberals have claimed, socialism is just “taxpayer funds being used collectively to benefit society as a whole, despite income, contribution, or ability,” then the term “socialist” is so broad that it has no meaning. In fact, because Ronald Reagan oversaw more government spending than Jimmy Carter did, this would mean that the most conservative President of the last 40 years was more socialist than the most liberal President of the last 40 years was.

Claiming that things like police forces, the military, corporate welfare, the prison system, the CIA, the DHS, Border Patrol, and the FBI are socialist institutions is absolutely absurd, because socialists have loudly taken negative views towards all or most of those things as long as they’ve existed. Liberals and social democrats shouldn’t just roll with the accusations that they’re socialists, they should explain what they believe in their own terms. When pushing for the reforms that he is, Bernie should leave the socialism to the socialists.

Originally published at on December 8, 2015.

Writer on politics, public policy, and current events. All opinions here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of employers past or present.

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