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Home arrow American Politics arrow Bernie Sanders’ ‘Democratic Socialism’ by Steve Jonas
Bernie Sanders’ ‘Democratic Socialism’ by Steve Jonas PDF Print E-mail
October 28, 2015

A lot is being made, both pro and con, of Bernie Sanders’ most honest declaration that he is a “Democratic Socialist.”   To his credit he has not backed away from that statement in the face of the totally expected red-baiting coming from the Repubs., led at this time by Trump.  Among the best responses would be: “Some people say I’m old (I don’t). But nothing’s older than that one, nor as meaningless,” or “Is that all you’ve got, Don? Try again.”

But let’s dissect Bernie’s “socialism,” to see what it really is. At the bedrock of the historical definition of socialism stand “collective ownership of the means of production,” “production for use, not for profit,” and in the Leninist sense, “concentration of state power in the hands of the working class and their representatives.” Not making any value judgments here, but Bernie’s “democratic socialism” simply does not qualify as “socialism” in terms of its historical definition. (I have further defined “socialism” in its historical sense elsewhere.) Further, Bernie has made it clear that if he does not get the nomination he will not challenge the Democratic Party’s candidate, who will surely have the ruling class’ imprimatur. So he is committed to staying within that boundary.   Nor does he advocate the nationalization of any industries currently held in private hands.  Nor will he challenge any of the major elements of the current ruling class’ foreign policy (although he might tinker with it a bit, here and there).

Bernie’ “socialism” focuses primarily on domestic policy and is nothing more nor less than the New Deal on steroids. (And sorry, Don T.. that just ain’t really very Red.) Indeed under various forms of “Democratic Socialism” in Western Europe, going back 100 years to Karl Kautsky of the German Socialist Party (SPD) and beyond, it serves/is-a-form-of capitalism, one in which the government plays an important role in the political economy. In fact, in all of the capitalist countries in Western Europe, in some of them going back more than a century, under democratic socialism the government indeed has a major role to play in the economy and in providing the underpinning for capitalist enterprise.   But the capitalist ruling class has never given up its ownership of the central elements of the means of production. Nor has it turned over its control of the state apparatus to the working class or its representatives.

Otto von Bismarck (without the Prussian Army’s spiked helmet): Already in the late 19th century, a rancid feudalist like Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, granted health benefits to the working class that Americans can only dream about. He did it because the German workers didn’t beg, they fought.

Under working class pressure in Europe the ruling classes have provided certain benefits to the workers, going as far back as the 1880s. For example, at that time the Prussian Empire instituted what became the first national health insurance program in history. In his speech introducing his program to the Reichstag (Prussian parliament), Chancellor von Bismarck said words to the effect of: “the workers are revolting; we had better give them something.”
“Bernie’ “socialism” focuses primarily on domestic policy and is nothing more nor less than the New Deal on steroids…”

Thus Bernie is certainly not a socialist in the Marxist/Engelsian sense and he makes no claims to be. He is a “social democrat” in the (underlying capitalist) European sense, and also has a strong interest in certain issues of social justice that are peculiarly U.S.

Over time, central and western European governments, especially those subject to major trade union, and at one time Communist and Socialist Party, pressure have taken major roles in such realms as: transportation, environmental protection, infrastructure, social insurance, social supports, regulation of working conditions, national health insurance, and regulation of the finance sector. But that did not make those countries socialist, even though the term “social democratic” has been applied to them. Indeed, the more correct term would be something like “social capitalist” or “national interest capitalist.”

Indeed, for the most part, the social democrats in Western Europe have served the underlying interests of their own capitalist ruling classes ever since Kautsky led the SPD to support war credits for the Kaiser at the beginning of the First World War in 1914. In our own time, Bernie was certainly strongly against the Wars on Viet Nam and Iraq, but other aspects of his current foreign policy positions, whether driven by ideology or political expediency/necessity (depending upon your point of view), are hardly “socialist” in any sense of the word.   Socialists (rather than social democrats) in the United States of course have had a very different history.

But I don’t think that we should judge Bernie on something that he is clearly not and does not claim to be. We can criticize him on a variety of grounds, perhaps most importantly for prompting, inadvertently or not, the myth that achieving his program(s) is something that is actually achievable in the present United Sates with its present ruling class.

Finally, the Sanders candidacy can be of great use to the true Left in the United States. He puts forth a whole set of policies and programs that he could never get through the Congress, even with “Democratic” majorities. Of course through Repub. manipulation of the electoral process and the underlying non-democratic nature of the U.S. federalist government (see the disproportionate make-up of the Senate, originally designed to protect the interests of the slaveholding states for openers) we are hardly likely to see those anytime soon, certainly in the House. In one way or another the U.S. ruling class would make sure of that. But the true Left in the United States could use Bernie’s platform to say to the workers and their allies, “we are going to need something quite different from the present form of state/government if we are ever going to catch up even with the still-capitalist countries of Europe.”   More on these matters anon.

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