Geoffrey M. Hodgson
Bernie Sanders campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in the US in 2015-2016. In the primary elections he received over thirteen million votes. He won 23 primaries and caucuses and approximately 43 per cent of pledged delegates, compared to 55 per cent for Hillary Clinton.
Sanders is a long-avowed “socialist”. What does he mean by this term? This is not an attack on the personality of Sanders, nor an attempt to smear him. Instead it is a search for the truth. What does he mean by “socialism” and what are his intellectual roots?
Does democracy imply socialism?
This is not a story about Russian spies. It is about Russian dolls. Sanders is the outer form of a Russian doll, with the slogan of Democracy across his chest. This slogan is used to promote socialism, typically with some vagueness about its meaning.
For Sanders, democracy implied socialism and substantial public ownership. In a 1987 interview he explained:
“Democracy means public ownership of the major means of production, it means decentralization, it means involving people in their work. Rather than having bosses and workers it means having democratic control over the factories and shops to as great a degree as you can.”
Nineteen years later, Sanders was still repeating this argument that extended democracy implied a greater role for government. But he then side-lined the question of public ownership. When asked in 2006 what democratic socialism meant, he responded:
“[The] government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have health care; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality child care, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly.”
Given his rising prominence in the US, among a population that has not normally been sympathetic to socialist ideas, it is understandable that Sanders played up democracy and played down public ownership. But there is no evidence that he has abandoned his support for widespread common ownership.
Sanders is not alone in sometimes hiding his socialism behind the word democracy. Michael Moore did it in his ironically-titled 2009 film Capitalism: A Love Story, where he argued that
“capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil. You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that is good for all people, and that something is democracy.”
But democracy is a system of government, and it is not in itself a type of economy.
Like Moore, Sanders in recent years has been economical with the truth. As we have entered the new millennium he has left the details of his socialism vague. He grants his audience the freedom to choose its meaning.
Socialism: A love story
They may impute its original radical meaning of widespread common ownership. Or they can infer that Sanders is promoting a version of social democracy, as found in Denmark, Norway or Sweden. Sanders said in 2015 that
“we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”
Lars Løkke Rasmussen
We certainly should learn from these Nordic countries, but we should not dupe people into believing that they are socialist. A few days after Sanders’ comment, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen attacked the misconception that the Nordic model is a form of socialism:
“I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”
The Nordic countries mentioned by Sanders have relatively high levels of taxation and relatively low levels of economic inequality. They have strong welfare states. But they have not achieved anything close to socialism in its original sense. The private sector is still dominant. But by giving little guidance about what he means by socialism, Sanders can please a wider audience.
In a country where even minimal government involvement in the economy is habitually described by its opponents as socialist, Sanders has been opportunist. As he has come closer to power he has accepted the socialist label without much further explanation, knowing that for millions of Americans this is taken to mean even the mildest level of government economic intervention.
Sanders has allowed this inaccuracy to prevail, thus establishing a wide following among liberals, social democrats and radical socialists. He may have told the truth, but not the whole truth.
A mixed economy?
As he has got closer to the pinnacles of power, Sanders has accepted a place for small-scale private enterprise. Similarly, the UK Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn has acknowledged the reality of a mixed economy.
But crucially, neither Corbyn nor Sanders have elaborated a positive defence of the private sector.
Genuine advocacy of a mixture requires making the case for more than one type of ingredient. As well as their support for the public sector, they could have argued, for instance, that a substantial private sector is necessary for a viable civil society, to reap the benefits of competition, and to help sustain innovation and technological advance. Sanders and Corbyn have failed to make such arguments.
These arguments are rare among traditional socialists. The widespread absence of a defence of the private sector speaks as loudly as their calls for government intervention or common ownership. It suggests that a private sector is being reluctantly tolerated, and it would all be swept up into public territory if the opportunity arose. A mixed economy is to be accepted for now, as the system makes its transition toward full-blooded socialism and the abolition of all private enterprise.
Democratic socialism would take too many meetings
There is a further problem with the notion of democratic socialism that is adopted by Sanders and Corbyn. They promote a vague vision of extensive democratic control in the economy. Neither of them explain in detail how this extensive democratic decision-making is going to work. Would employees and consumers have a say on everything? How would they decide? How would the hierarchy of decision-making be structured?
The adjective democratic is kept as vague as the noun socialism. The details and feasibility of any such arrangement are simply ignored. If votes were held on every important question then the population would be overburdened with a myriad of decisions. Our lives would be taken up with meetings and voting.
It is impossible for anyone to gain expert knowledge on anything but a small number of technical and scientific issues. It would be counter-productive to put these technical issues to the vote. While many socialists have paid homage to some vague notion of “democratic control”, no-one has shown in theory or in practice how it would function in detail.
More Russian dolls inside
Let us go further into Sanders’ past. In the 1980s, when he was mayor of Burlington in Vermont, Sanders promoted a twinning programme with Yarolslavl in the USSR. He and his wife spent their honeymoon in the USSR in 1988.
This may be excused as an attempt to develop international understanding between varied communities, but this visit by an enduring, self-declared “socialist” to a “socialist” country under Communist Party rule would have been used to damage his presidential campaign in 2016, if he had won the nomination.
Going further back, as a young man in Chicago in the 1960s, Sanders was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, which was the youth wing of the Socialist Party of America.
Founded in 1901, this party went through several splits and ruptures, but it was generally clear what it meant by socialism.
“[The] Socialist Party is to bring about the social ownership and democratic control of all the necessary means of production – to eliminate profit, rent, and interest, and make it impossible for any to share the product without sharing the burden of labor – to change our class society into a society of equals, in which the interest of one will be the interest of all.”
This formulation – involving widespread common ownership of the means of production – is in line with the original vision of socialism, as promoted by Robert Owen, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and numerous other socialists.
Finding Lenin and Trotsky
Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) was the most famous leader of the Socialist Party of America and four times its presidential candidate, peaking at 913,693 votes in his 1920 campaign. Adopting the Marxist language of militant class struggle, Debs supported the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He also praised the attempted 1919 armed insurrection led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg against the new-born German Republic.
In 1977 Sanders made a 30-minute documentary about Debs and his ideas. Sanders never recanted the version of socialism promoted by Debs and the Socialist Party of America.
In 1980 Sanders served as an elector for the Socialist Workers’ Party (USA), in an attempt to put this Trotskyist group on the presidential ballot, although Sanders was never a member of that organization.
Although Sanders was hugely popular during the 2015-16 primaries, if he had become the Democratic presidential candidate, then his Republican opponents would have milked this information about his Trotskyist links and his Russian honeymoon.
Leninism and democracy
Sanders is too vague about his socialism and his links with past radical socialists to draw too many definite conclusions. But the links are there, all the way back to Trotskyism and Leninism. It is ironic to compare how Sanders tries to champion democracy today, with the treatment of democracy by his Leninist antecedents.
In August 1917 Lenin explained in his State and Revolution that the forthcoming seizure of power would be highly democratic for the working class.
In November 1917 the Bolsheviks overthrew the liberal-socialist government of Alexander Kerensky. By the end of 1918, in the midst of a vicious civil war, all parties except the Bolsheviks were banned, and Russia had become a one-party state.
The “immense expansion of democracy” that Lenin had promised in his State and Revolution was not delivered. It would not have been feasible, even under the most conducive of circumstances.
As it turned out in Russia, there was no possibility of organizing a political force to counter, criticize or modify Bolshevik policy. Without organized alternatives to the ruling elite, democracy becomes a sham.
When the exiled Kerensky spoke at a London meeting in 1921, someone there claimed that the Bolsheviks were democrats. Kerensky responded:
“If it is democracy to banish your opponents, to suppress all meetings and newspapers, and to lock up people who disagree with you without trial, by what signs do you ask me to recognise tyranny?”
Let’s be honest about socialism
Sanders has tapped into legitimate discontent about inequality and poverty in the US, but has failed to explain how his version of socialism will work. He has kept the meaning of the s-word vague, thus providing himself with radical appeal with limited long-term practical substance, other than the adoption of some measures of reform within a capitalist economy.
From its inception in 1827 and for much of the twentieth century, socialism had the radical meaning of widespread common ownership that both Sanders and Corbyn originally promoted. Subsequently, some thinkers tried to shift its meaning, but no consensus emerged on its new substance.
Socialists should stop hiding their socialism behind the word democracy. Many socialists believe in democracy, but democracy and socialism are not the same thing.
Real-world socialism has failed to sustain democracy. This is a problem for socialism and it should not be ignored.
The connection between claimed “democratic socialism” and socialism in its totalitarian incarnations is avoided by Sanders and Corbyn by comparing the ills of real-world capitalism with an imaginary, idealized socialism that is unfeasible as it is invisible.
Sanders and Corbyn do not compare the ills of real-world capitalism with the ills of real-world socialism. If they did this honestly, then they might reach different conclusions. Instead of chasing socialist unicorns they might seek for the best within capitalism and then try to improve it further.
24 February 2018
Published January 2018
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Clarke, Peter (1978) Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). The quote by Kerensky is found on p. 220.