As is widely known, Senator Bernie Sanders often refers to himself as a socialist. Socialism is a kind of economic system distinct from capitalism, which is the globalized corporate system currently threatening to destroy planetary ecology. There is no nation that has a socialist economic system, although there are some who make that claim and many others who are accused of it. I say “accused of it” because socialism is a bugaboo to the 1%, something unthinkable and intolerable. There are many reasons for this, but the basic reason is that in a socialist economy there is no financial elite, no ultra-wealthy people and those less fortunate; in short, there is no 1%.
But to return to Senator Sanders. On Saturday night, at a candidate forum in California, he responded to recent remarks made by former President Obama, who warned the Democratic Party against people who wanted to “tear the system down” and go “too far left.” Senator Sanders commented that he did not view his proposals such as Medicare for All as “tearing down the system,” but as practices and policies that should have been put in place decades ago. He further added that it was his belief that most Americans are eager to see the changes he proposes, and they are accordingly in sync with the wishes of a plurality of our citizens.
There are several things to consider in this, but the main point is that Senator Sanders spoke the truth: none of the things he advocates entail “tearing down the system,” but are entirely compatible with the economic status quo–the capitalist system. At no time has he ever advocated replacing private ownership of the means of production by public ownership, seizure and occupation of plants and other production facilities by the people who work and operate them, nor has he opposed the profit motive central to capitalist economics. What he has consistently offered are mild reforms quite common in other capitalist economies, especially in parts of Europe and Scandinavia. There is nothing revolutionary or particularly new in his proposals. They only seem radical to people like Obama because they mean devoting more of government attention and resources to reforms that would ease the lives of America’s 99%.
Bernie Sanders is not a socialist. He has a sentimental attachment to the word, possibly because of his well-known admiration for Gene Debs, a socialist revolutionary whose life and political career in many ways marked the political high-watermark for socialism in America. Debs was rightly admired–even by many who politically opposed him–for both his integrity and humanity: a man who deeply cared about the fate of common people, and was unafraid to confront the injustices of his time and place…a confrontation that led to his imprisonment for opposing US entry into World War I.
Sentiment aside, it is important to be clear that what Senator Sanders advocates seems radical only to greedy, self-serving people like the Clintons, Obamas, Trumps, and the rest of their class. To them, “the American people” are those they know by first and family name, while the rest of us exist in a sort of shadow world with which they have little contact. They no more know than they care about the realities of our struggle to get by in a world, a society, that they have themselves made difficult for us. Senator Sanders is different in this important regard, and it is for this that he is rightly popular with common people–the 99%.
I am a socialist. I do not for a moment believe that, were all the reforms Senator Sanders favors put into place, our system would cease to be both oppressive and dangerous. It is systemic change–real revolution, not tinkering around the edges or softening the worst features of the status quo–that is required for human survival. I don’t know that the Senator realizes this, and perhaps many of his followers do not, either. Regardless of what the case may be, it is important to keep these ideas in the conversation we have as the effort goes forward to nominate and elect Bernie Sanders to the White House. Socialist he is not, but a good human being with considerable courage and determination to right some of our nation’s worst problems, he is.
For a socialist such as myself, Bernie Sanders is not “the lesser evil,” but “the imperfect good.” If he is nominated to be the Presidential standard-bearer of the Democratic Party, I would work and vote for his election, while fully expecting the relatively mild remarks made by Obama to be greatly eclipsed by the vehemence of opposition coming from the Democrats’ corporate base. The challenge Bernie Sanders will face is that he will be required, in the form of a series of increasing reversals and dilution of his positions, to effectively pledge allegiance to continued rule of our nation by the 1%. If he fails to satisfy, he can expect to get “the McGovern treatment,” where he will be denounced as a wild-eyed radical advocating crazy, unrealistic policies.
When it comes to this, will Bernie Sanders back away from “tearing down” rule of/by/for the 1%? That is a question we should all hold firmly in mind.