Friend and foe alike have called the 74-year-old silver-haired Senator from Vermont an outright socialist. And who better to ask if Sanders is indeed an honest-to-God socialist than a socialist (or since many socialists are atheists, an honest-to-goodness socialist).
Gina Petry, a Marxist, feminist organizer for the Freedom Socialist Party and the Radical Women, recently delivered a research paper to her party contrasting the differences between Sanders and Leon Trotsky, a Marxist revolutionary; theorist and commander of the Red Army during the Russian revolution.
“Most activist socialist parties that exist today came out of the Trotskyite movement, although there are many variations,” Petry explains. To simplify things, Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin were the “good guys” of the Russian revolution (some scholars at the time thought the revolution would serve as a model to the rest of the world), before Joseph Stalin, the Communist dictator took over.
With the Cold War and the red scare of the ’50s distance memories, a recent Gallup poll shows that 63% of people under 30 have a positive view of socialism. A total of 56% of people who plan to vote in the Democratic presidential primary have a positive view of socialism.
To answer the question of whether Sanders is a socialist, the word socialist needs to be defined. In a purest socialist system, the workers are in control and wealth is re-distributed to those who do the work. In a capitalist system, the richest people, the Donald Trumps and Warren Buffetts, are people who primarily own things.
Of course, Sanders doesn’t call himself a socialist, although he doesn’t quite deny it either (he must be pretty weary of the whole discussion at this point). Just like he did at a Georgetown University speech last week, Sanders always calls himself a “social democrat.” Sanders even called himself as much of a socialist as Dwight Eisenhower, a reference to how the rich were taxed more under the Republican Eisenhower.
Social Democrats or Democratic Socialists, advocate a democratic political system and a socialist economic system. Social Democrats major issues are universal healthcare, climate change, campaign reform, and perhaps most importantly, income inequality, the erosion of the middle and working classes and raising taxes on the rich (which most Americans now support). Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark have thrived in recent years under a social democracy.
As Sanders told ABC news after announcing his candidacy for president, “in Scandinavian countries, health care is a right. Higher education and graduate school is free; senior benefits and child care are stronger. In those countries – by and large – the government works for ordinary people and the working class. Not just the billionaires like in this country.”
Sanders belonged to the Young Socialists while attending the University of Chicago. He then ran successfully as an independent to become the two-term Mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Sanders may have been more of a socialist then, a picture of his hero, labor leader Eugene V. Debs graced his desk.
He traditionally worked with Democrats in the Congress and the Senate (and at the local level with people like former Vermont governor Howard Dean), but last March announced that he would run as a Democrat for the first time in the presidential primaries, ostensibly against Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps in the ’80s and ’90s there might not have been any traction for a Sanders presidential bid. But as Seattle’s socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant says on a just released video, “Socialist Alternative endorses Sanders because his campaign shows the potential for an independent presidential candidate. Because of the economic crisis, the millions who’ve lost their homes and jobs, and a recovery that has benefited the one percent, I want Bernie to win.”
However, the Freedom Socialists won’t be endorsing Sanders. “It’s clear to see why people are attracted to Bernie. He breathes new life into a stale race,” says Petry. “But he’s hardly revolutionary. There’s no call for nationalizing industries and banks and no explicit call for re-distribution of wealth.”
Sanders may be perceived as the least hawkish of any presidential candidate because of his opposition to the Iraq war. But in his time in the House and Senate, Sanders voted for military intervention at times in Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Zaire, Sudan and Afghanistan. Petry adds, “he’s been an unwavering supporter of Israel at the expense of Palestinian lives.”
The Vermont anti-war group, Code Pink, labeled Sanders, “Bomber Bernie,” after his support of Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian” bombing of Yugoslavia. Sanders had protestors arrested who came to his office that day, and also called the state police when members of Occupy Vermont interrupted a Town Hall where Sanders was speaking in 2014. That group was protesting Sanders’ failing to speak out on Israel’s attacks on Gaza (he didn’t sign on to a Senate resolution supporting Israel at the time, either).
“Bernie says if he doesn’t get the nomination he’ll support Hillary Clinton,” says Petry, who notes that FSP and SA would both rather see Sanders run as an independent third-party candidate. “He won’t support a real progressive movement. Sanders proposes to do the impossible; improve social equality without touching the foundation of power.”
When asked if the election of Sawant in Seattle and Sanders’ popularity bodes well for the future of socialism, Petry notes, “What’s really important is that (people who run as socialists) stay true to the cause. Elections are not enough, we’re building movements in the streets. And what mobilizes people is truth.”