Commentary: Bernie’s Democratic Socialism (December, 2015)

by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

To put this in some context, there have been hundreds of interpretations of “socialism” by its advocates, not including those who used the word as an epithet. A crucial date in “socialism” was the publication of “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 1848 “year of revolution.”

Marx and Engels called their ideology and program “communism” rather than “socialism,” because “socialism” was at that time (said Engels) the province of various Utopians and quacks who had no real theory, but “who, by all manner of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances, in both cases men outside the working-class movement, and looking rather to the educated classes for support.”

Marx and Engels set forth a powerful argument that with “bourgeois capitalism” in control, the lot of the working class would get steadily more wretched and desperate. Eventually, at some tipping point, the working class would rise up, seize power and property from the ruling class, and bring about the peaceful and happy socialist era.

“Socialism” to Marx and Engels was a middle-class movement, “communism” a working-class movement. But by whatever label, socialism yearned for the oppressed working class to seize “the commanding heights of the economy,” whereby the socialist State would own and control the major means of production.

Bernie is a proponent of democratic socialism, which should be a relief to us all. Unlike Marx’s communism, it seeks to gain political control of the State by winning elections, not by armed revolution led by the working class. But Bernie remains a hard core class warrior, who for decades raucously denounced any cooperation with “the Demicans and Republicrats” that he considered to be corrupt sham parties under the control of greedy capitalists.

Bernie’s “democratic socialism” is what a hundred years ago was called “reformist” or “revisionist” socialism, in that it not only renounces class struggle violence but also allows cooperation with non-socialist liberal parties, a practice that Marx detested.

Bernie’s modern U.S. version goes further: it abandons the central socialist premise that “the government should own the means of production.” In his version, the owners of the means of production can continue to pursue profits, if they comply with the instructions of the State. (Ironically, this is the fascist economic model.)

The bulk of Bernie’s speech recites his familiar list of outrages – the greedy rich pillaging the struggling poor, Wall Street bank bailouts, billionaires corrupting politics, high youth unemployment, unpayable student debt, too many people incarcerated, no Medicare for All, and of course “climate change” raging on unabated. The correction of these outrages constitutes his democratic socialist program.

Bernie lauds Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 Economic Bill of Rights, which declared that everyone had a right to “useful and remunerative jobs,” “a decent living,” “adequate medical care,” good education, a decent home, and the “right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.”

Roosevelt argued that these new rights were essential to freedom – without addressing whose freedom would be reduced by being made to pay for the vast array of benefits. That small problem he passed on to Congress, which largely ignored it.

How would Bernie pay for all the free stuff? He ignores the federal government’s $19 trillion debt, plus another $100 trillion in unfunded promises due over the next 75 years. His standard answer is that “the rich and the big corporations must be made to pay their fair share of taxes.”

The top 10 percent of federal taxpayers earned 48 percent of income (in 2012), but paid 70 percent of all federal income taxes. Bernie would presumably somehow raise that share of taxes from “the rich” to 90 or 100 percent, but even at that level of taxation, there’s no way a President Sanders could raise enough tax dollars to cover a significant fraction of his unlimited campaign promises.

Bernie’s democratic socialist platform for 2016 is quite a retreat from the Socialist Workers Party platform of 1980, which called for elimination of the defense budget, nationalization of the auto, steel and oil industries, and closing all nuclear power plants. That was the platform of SWP presidential candidate Clifton DeBerry. Bernard Sanders of Burlington was one of DeBerry’s three Vermont electors. He won 75 votes.

This year, with an energetic campaign and some very good advertising, Bernie seems to be doing quite a bit better.

– John McClaughry is founder and vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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