The truth about Bernie Sanders' "socialism": Everything you need to know about the candidate's mould-breaking political philosophy

Sanders has taken the Democratic primary by storm, a feat that would have been unprecedented until very recently

Published October 21, 2015 6:58PM (EDT)

  (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

On Sunday, after a week of being asked whether he was a socialist or a capitalist, and accused of being a communist by some of the more hysterical Republican candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced that he is planning a “major speech” to explain to the American people what “Democratic Socialism” is really all about. “I think we have some explaining and work to do,” Sanders told a crowd in Iowa, conceding that the S-word has long made many Americans “very, very nervous.”

After nearly a century of red-baiting and anti-socialist propaganda, this will happen. But today is a much better time to run as a socialist than in the past, and Sanders could be just the man to open up our political playing field to future socialists -- or Democratic Socialists, to be more accurate -- if he can finally remove the stigma from the word. Of course, communism fell a quarter-century ago, and for many millennials who grew up in a post-Cold War period, the word socialism actually evokes a more positive response than capitalism, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. This is certainly a good sign for the future of socialist politics; however, the majority of Americans today are not millennials, and there is great deal of ignorance when it comes to these words, which tend to elicit a whirlwind of emotions.

There seem to be two common, yet very different, thoughts that come to the minds of many Americans when they hear the word socialism. For some, it automatically means 20th century communism, i.e. a Stalinist or Maoist dictatorship where the state controls all ways of life and plans the entire economy while enslaving all dissenters. On the other hand, it is thought of as a massive bureaucratized welfare state, where citizens are lazy and rely on the government for “free stuff.” In America, this view has always had a racial undertone, with a narrative that it is African Americans or Hispanic immigrants who are getting the free stuff off of the hard work of white people. Today, this dog-whistle strategy is alive and well, as we see in one of Donald Trump’s recent tweets: “Notice that illegal immigrants will be given ObamaCare and free college tuition but nothing has been mentioned about our VETERANS.”

Now, it is important for Sanders to explain to the people what he is and what he is not. Sanders calls himself a Democratic Socialist, and does not argue when reporters leave out the first word, as they tend to. But in reality, Sanders is less a Democratic Socialist and more a “Social Democrat.” The Scandinavian countries that Sanders rightfully praises, such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, are Social Democracies. These countries have strong welfare states (another term that has been demonized through dog-whistle politics), which means universal healthcare, free college tuition, a well regulated market, etc. These countries are still very much capitalist societies, just with rules that create a more even playing field. Democratic Socialism, on other hand, is the belief that both the political and economic spheres should be run democratically. It is important to note that Democratic Socialism does not want to replace corporate ownership with state ownership, and is critical of state bureaucracy as well as corporate bureaucracy. On the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) website, this is explained in further detail:

“Today, corporate executives who answer only to themselves and a few wealthy stockholders make basic economic decisions affecting millions of people. Resources are used to make money for capitalists rather than to meet human needs. We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them. Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. Democratic socialists favor as much decentralization as possible... Democratic socialists have long rejected the belief that the whole economy should be centrally planned. While we believe that democratic planning can shape major social investments like mass transit, housing, and energy, market mechanisms are needed to determine the demand for many consumer goods.”

Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy do have much in common, of course, but the latter is more concerned about providing basic necessities to all citizens, while the former is focused on spreading ownership of capital and creating a truly democratic society. Sanders promotes policies that reflect both. As a Social Democrat, he advocates universal healthcare and free college tuition, while as a Democratic Socialist, he promotes employee ownership and worker cooperatives.

Most of these policies are not considered very radical in other industrialized societies -- just common sense. Yet in America, words like “slavery” and “communist” and “genocide” tend to pop out the mouths of certain people in opposition -- and not just fringe lunatics on social media. Indeed, now that Sanders has become a major presidential candidate, right wingers are falling back on their McCarthyist tradition. Rand Paul, who has tried to sell himself as the mature and reasonable Republican candidate, is obviously feeling his growing irrelevancy, and attacked Sanders in the paranoid tradition of the John Birch Society.

“It amazes me, and it actually kind of scares me. I’ve been making and spending more time going after Bernie and socialism because I don’t want America to succumb to the notion that there’s anything good about socialism,” said Paul in a radio interview, “I think it’s not an accident of history that most of the time when socialism has been tried, that attendant with that has been mass genocide of people or any of those who object to it. Stalin killed tens of millions of people. Mao killed tens of millions of people. Pol Pot killed millions of people. When you have a command economy, when everything is dictated from one authority, thats socialism.”

(I was not aware that the Scandinavians were a bunch of genocidal maniacs. Thanks, Rand!)

Of course, as DSA explained above, a centrally planned, command economy is not advocated by Sanders, and his policies have nothing to do with 20th century communism. Neither does he want to abolish private property, as most GOP candidates will begin spewing eventually.

“Democratic Socialism means democracy,” said Sanders on Sunday, “It means creating a government that represents all of us, not just the wealthiest people in this country.”

Sanders’ message has obviously resonated with many of the American people, who are fed up with Washington D.C., and the latest polls reveal that he has received the largest boost from the Democratic debate (he also leads Trump by 9 points). His speech on Democratic Socialism could help in finally un-demonizing a word that has long been used as a political smear. Sanders must emphasize that Democratic Socialism is nothing like communism, and it is not about “free stuff,” but fairness and democracy. While working people have seen their wages stagnate over the past few decades, the top 0.1 percent has seen their share of household wealth triple. This is not an accident, but a result of globalized capitalism, where so few own so much of the worlds productive and intellectual property. Democratic Socialism (and Social Democracy) is not about abolishing private property or the market, but spreading ownership and creating a market that works for everyone, or as Robert Reich puts it in his latest book, Saving Capitalism: For the many, not the few.” All of the loved socialistic programs that the United States has already adopted, like Social Security and Medicaid, is another point that Sanders should emphasize.

A great deal of Americans -- especially millenialls -- seem ready to move past the paranoid tradition and fear-mongering of old. The Sanders' campaign is bringing socialism back to the mainstream, but as he has made clear, only a "political revolution" can really bring it to Washington.

Babies for Bernie Catches Fire on Social Media

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

MORE FROM Conor Lynch