What Makes Bernie a Socialist?

Some notes on a recent speech.

This month, Bernie Sanders delivered a speech attempting to cast his vision for “democratic socialism” and preempt Cold War suspicions. It comes four years after his last bid for the Democratic nomination, which was also marked by a speech essentially trying to accomplish the same goals. Though a number of Bernie’s faithful have hailed the 2019 speech as an inspiring and clarifying moment, it remains unclear to me what, exactly, makes Bernie a socialist, and the few places where he tries to explain raise further questions.

In His Own Words

Rather than giving a definition, Bernie tries to demonstrate what he means by “democratic socialism” by appealing to a range of figures, moral intuitions, and contemporary problems. First, he tells us democratic socialism is a path. In contrast to the “path of hatred and divisiveness,” Bernie says the path of democratic socialism is “a path of compassion, justice and love.” This is immediately followed by a reference to FDR, who, it seems, is representative of that path. In perhaps the clearest moment of the speech, Bernie says “we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion. This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.”

Reading charitably, Bernie isn’t arguing for a return to the New Deal, but he sees it as the inauguration of a viable reformist project. Exactly what the completion of the New Deal would be, what business remains unfinished, Bernie doesn’t say. Instead, he offers a few more pieces of a kind of moral frame in which that completion might take place. He says democratic socialism means that economic rights are human rights; he quotes Martin Luther King Jr. calling for “a better distribution of wealth”; he emphasizes the unity of the nation; and he condemns the material effects of wealth inequality.

This is a frame that gets people excited, and rhetoric should do that. It tells us very little, however, about what achieving these goals might entail. We get a proposed economic bill of rights, for example, but these, like all rights, are only as good as the material conditions in which they operate. Further, Bernie doesn’t offer us a vision of what a democratic society looks like, even while he rightly names some things that shouldn’t be part of it, like payday loans and access to higher education. Most conspicuously absent, however, is any language about who should own the means of production, which is the primary question of socialism. In 2015, Bernie at least said he did not “believe the government should own the means of production,” stopping short of saying “the workers” ought to, but now the language is gone entirely. In fact, “production” does not even appear in the speech.

That might seem like a weird litmus test, and I’ll say more in a minute. I don’t think you have to be a communist, though, to recognize that socialism has at least something to do with how production is owned and organized.

In any case, in addition to the cloudiness of what Bernie actually proposes, the strangest rhetorical move is his suggestion that “while President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism. They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires.”

Bernie is right, of course, that the wealthy are all-too-ready to accept bailouts from taxpayers distributed via the government when it means they get to avoid bankruptcy and feel what it means to lose in the crisis-ridden competition of capitalism. But I have to admit I was honestly surprised to see the Bernie campaign sincerely adopting the meme that socialism is when the government does stuff or gives people money. What is implied here is that it’s reasonable to call any governmental distribution of taxes “socialist,” even if it’s in the wrong direction, a designation that wouldn’t make it through most first year political science classes, let alone most historically socialist thinkers, parties, or movements.

“Overnight,” Bernie goes on to say, “Wall Street became big government socialists and begged for the largest federal bailout in American history—some $700 billion from the Treasury and trillions in support from the Federal Reserve.” The most charitable reading I can give here (and I feel like I’m reaching) is that this is a poorly thought-out moment of playful and ironic rhetoric, but even if that’s the case it reinforces a deeply problematic and limiting understanding of what socialism is. The best case scenario is that this is a bad rhetorical choice from a speechwriter who spends more time watching C-SPAN than reading up about socialism.

“And that is the difference between Donald Trump and me,” Bernie summarizes. “He believes in corporate socialism for the rich and powerful. I believe in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country.” Wincing through the phrase “corporate socialism,” what Bernie means by his own “democratic socialism” is again never spelled out. We’re left to speculate. Is it giving the kinds of tax breaks we give to corporations to small businesses and individuals instead? Is it bailing out workers when they’re about to go bankrupt? Is it universal basic income? Is it a welfare state in which capitalism is allowed so long as it plays by the rules (rules that, history showed, are quickly and easily obliterated)? These seem like rhetorical questions given Bernie’s invocation of the New Deal, but, given the speech itself, who could say?

Bernie wants to make a point about the distribution of wealth, and it’s a good point to make—rich people don’t dislike distributing wealth, they just want it distributed to them—but this isn’t the same thing as calling bailouts in a moment of market crisis “corporate socialism.” If Bernie’s socialism means widening the middle class while leaving all the exploitation of capitalist production patterns in place, it would certainly be better than a meaner exploitation, but a kinder exploitation is still exploitation. At the risk of belaboring the point, it’s important to make this clear. Socialism is not the government subsidizing people or business. Socialism is a fundamental transformation of the relationships of production in a society away from privately owned wealth and toward collectively owned, worker-controlled wealth. There are many ideas about how to do that, what it means, etc., but these are not platitudes. What democratic socialism historically names, again plural as it may be, is not so much a disagreement about what socialism is but a tradition of thinking primarily about strategy, using electoral and legal methods to produce greater and greater reforms, and organization, created against the foil of one-party communist states.

Given Bernie’s speech itself, I have to admit that I simply don’t understand what Bernie Sanders thinks democratic socialism is. It’s an alternative moral framework. It’s a different worldview. It’s upset about certain living conditions and a national moral hypocrisy. But nowhere does it seem to have any connection to socialist politics. I hope I’m not overblowing this, but it seems to me there is nothing in this speech that couldn’t be said by any other liberal candidate apart from some rhetorical flairs; if you read the speech and replace “democratic socialism” with “democratic capitalism,” a lot of the text would translate to a few other significant candidates in the Democratic primaries. “Democratic socialism” feels more like a brand than a horizon or historical context for political action.

A US Tradition of Democratic Socialism

So it’s not clear, to me anyway, how Sanders is a democratic socialist based on his own attempts to relate it to other motivations or values. But perhaps even more confusing is who he does and doesn’t cite as antecedents, strangely ignoring the history of democratic socialism in the United States itself. I should admit here that I’m a communist, but I still remain impressed by the heroic struggles of democratic socialism in the US, which is what makes it so odd to see them written out of Bernie’s public clarifications.

FDR, no favorite among the socialists of his day, gets the lion’s share of positive references. The only socialist Bernie quotes is Martin Luther King Jr., and MLK’s socialism, while interesting and often overlooked, remains woefully underdeveloped. It’s a good thing to remind liberals from time to time, but you couldn’t build a program out of it. Though I don’t expect Bernie to be quoting Lenin or Castro, with all his references to FDR, how could Bernie overlook a single mention of, say, Eugene Debs? Bernie’s affinity for Debs is well-known; why not point to the most electorally successful and charismatic face of democratic socialism in US history rather than the paltry shadow of FDR’s New Deal? Or further, why not point to the mass movement of card-carrying socialists that made the New Deal a necessary compromise amid all the talk about “we” and “us?”

Moreover, to want to follow through, as Bernie says, on the “unfinished business of the New Deal” is already an abdication of the real history of democratic socialism. When the New Deal was officially passed, it wasn’t just the Communist Party of the USA that complained it was too soft. Norman Thomas, Debs’ more moderate successor as leader of the Socialist Party of America, rightly said the New Deal laid the foundations for a new era of capitalism. If nothing else, endorsing the New Deal as a laudatory opening that should be brought to fruition seems like wiping a muddy pair of boots over the legacy of Debs and the most important and vibrant period of socialism so far in US history.

It’s important to interrogate these rhetorical moves, not only because socialism is an identifiable, if plural, tradition of political thought and action (one that historically does not include the New Deal), but also because failing to do so severely limits our political imagination. Perhaps Bernie is trying to connect his campaign to something more immediately recognizable to the US voting public—but if he’s being honest, he’s not carrying on or promoting the legacy of democratic socialism, the kind that got people like Debs and others incarcerated. He’s part of a long line of left-liberal capitalists.

I don’t want to completely dismiss Bernie as a fool or a meaningless flash in the pan. He’s neither. Socialist fans of Bernie have tried to split the difference here by saying this is only one step along the way to socialism, and if we view Bernie as purely instrumental to the socialist cause rather than as its representative that might be true. No doubt, a Bernie Sanders presidency would do more for the working class than any of the other serious electoral options, and as Rosa Luxemburg said there’s no reason a revolutionary can’t support reforms as long as they’re directed toward a revolutionary end, and as long as socialism doesn’t stop at the ballot. Likewise, it’s absolutely true that even Bernie’s idiosyncratic use of “socialism” has reinvigorated actual socialist movements. Bernie, in spite of his own shortcomings, has made it easier and more appealing to be a socialist in the United States and even elsewhere.

But if we let Bernie’s vision of democratic socialism define the terms for what “socialism” identifies, without stepping in to clarify what’s really at stake or to call our attention back to the history of both capitalism and socialism, it threatens to severely reduce the political field of vision for newly minted socialists. In real ways, it poses significant challenges (not unlike those posed by the New Deal!) for those of us who wish to live in a society that is truly democratically controlled by the people, one where capitalists are not simply punished, restrained, or nicer, but abolished as a class—a society that wasn’t historically limited to the goals of Marxist-Leninists.

In any case, that’s not the kind of society that Bernie seems to be looking for, and, heartbreaking as it might be, there’s no harm in saying so. If nothing else, if Bernie is really committed to the struggle of the working class, building a class consciousness that won’t settle for a kinder exploitation will push him further, too. This would be to bring the unfinished business of Bernie’s own campaign slogan to fruition—“Not me, Us.”