Why Vermont? Why did Sanders decide to go back to the land in New England rather than join the free-speech radicals at Columbia? Schooled in the civil rights movement in Chicago, why go to a rural state where the sighting of an African American was a rare occurrence. The 1960 census reported that the number of nonwhites living in Vermont was 690 in a total population of 366,545. Why choose a state where there were so few socialists and leftists, let alone Jews?
Larry Sanders might have planted the Vermont seed when he took his little brother to see an exhibit in Manhattan about picturesque, cheap land in Vermont. It’s certain that Sanders’s desire for a rural, communal life was stimulated in part by his visit to an Israeli kibbutz in 1964.
In the summer of 1964 the Sanders brothers traveled abroad, separately. Larry was touring Europe; Bernie had wanderlust after graduating from the University of Chicago and wanted to rendezvous with his big brother. They decided to spend most of their time together in Israel. “It never occurred to us not to visit Israel,” Larry told Tablet in 2014. “It was quite natural.”
Sanders spent six months on a kibbutz. The word means “group” in Hebrew; the Kibbutz Program Center further defines it as “a voluntary democratic community where people live and work together on a non-competitive basis. Its aim is to generate an economically and socially independent society founded on principles of communal ownership of property, social justice, and equality.” That could be a blueprint for the rural communities, or “communes,” that hippies set up in Vermont, and the Center’s description of kibbutzim could have described back-to-the-land hippies: “Their dream was not just to settle the land, but to build a whole new kind of society.”
Sanders rarely mentions his time as a young man in Israel or the impact of living on the kibbutz. No one has been able to unearth the name of the kibbutz, though a close friend says it was one of the oldest. His brother says Sanders interrogated kibbutz leaders on their economic plans and was amazed that the men played a major role in family life and raising children—so different from his own upbringing. “The kibbutz was marvelous in that sense,” Larry told Tablet. “People could do things in which they had no background whatsoever.” Living on the kibbutz showed him and his brother that “you didn’t need big bosses, you didn’t need massive wealth” to live well, and socialism was something “that could work.”
Sanders told friends that seeing Israelis grow vegetables that would sustain them made a huge impression on him, according to the Tablet article. He recognized the lifestyle as a “utopian form of existence,” and he appreciated the agrarian, egalitarian nature of kibbutz life as a “less alienating form of labor” in the Marxist sense.
“What I learned, is that you could have a community in which the people themselves actually owned the community,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “Seeing that type of relationship exist, and the fact that these units in the kibbutz were working well economically, made a strong impact on me.”
No doubt when Sanders lived in Stannard he witnessed the kibbutz-like style of living in neighboring communes. Stannard was in Vermont’s commune belt, close to Earth Peoples Park, a renowned commune near the Canadian border. He lived within range of other communal farms, such as New Hamburger Commune in Plainfield and Quarry Hill in Rochester. Sanders and his close friends say he himself never lived on a commune, but living in that place and time he surely experienced communal situations, even if simply sharing common living space. No one had the money or the desire to live alone; of necessity everyone shared.
While nearby hippies were hoeing vegetable beds, canning tomatoes, and otherwise getting back to the land, Sanders went back to the typewriter. In his ramshackle farmhouse on a dirt road outside Stannard, he spent hours banging out rambling essays on subjects ranging from cancer and public education to the sexuality of children.
Drawing on the teachings of Wilhelm Reich that he had embraced in college, he argued in an essay for the Freeman that cancer may be caused by emotional distress. That was especially the case, he wrote, with breast cancer, which he attributed to sexual repression of young girls, referring often to The Cancer Biopathy, Reich’s 1948 book that proposed a direct link between emotional and sexual health, in particular the dire consequences of suppressing “biosexual excitation.” Reich had patented the Orgone Box, with which users could enhance their orgasms, the better to ward off cancer. The Food and Drug Administration had banned the interstate shipment of the boxes and jailed Reich when he violated the ban. He died in jail in 1957.
At twenty-eight Sanders knit Reich’s ideas into his fully formed philosophy, conflating health and cancer with sex and social mores. “How much guilt, nervousness have you imbued in your daughter with regard to sex?” he asked in his essay.
If she is 16, 3 years beyond puberty and the time which nature set forth for childbearing, and spent a night out with her boyfriend, what is your reaction? Do you take her to a psychiatrist because she is “maladjusted,” or a “prostitute,” or are you happy that she has found someone with whom she can share love?
Are you concerned about HER happiness, or about your “reputation” in the community?
The provocative essayist also posed questions about public education:
With regard to the schools that you send your children to, are you concerned that many of these institutions serve no other function than to squash the life, joy, and curiosity out of kids? When a doctor writes that the cancer personality “represses hate, anger, dissatisfaction, and grudges, or on the other hand is a ‘good’ person, who is consumed with self-pity, suffers in stoic silence,” do you know what he is talking about, and what this has to do with children, parents, and schools?
In a letter to the editor published by the Freeman in March 1969 that would please proponents of home schooling, Sanders ranted:
One of the most heartening signs in recent years is the growing belief among people that the formal education process (i.e., schools) are not only “not good” but that they are positively destructive and harmful. People are becoming aware that the function of schools is not to educate children but, in fact, to do the very opposite—to PREVENT education.
Later in the letter he wrote:
It is quite clear that the basic function of the schools is to set up in children patterns of docility and conformity— patterns designed not to create independent and free adults, but adults who will obey orders, be “faithful” uncomplaining employees, and “good” citizens.
But Sanders was not a total downer. Yes, he was bummed out about the Vietnam War and many aspects of modern politics. In the opinion pages of the Freeman he railed against “napalm, bombings, torture of whole villages,” and “a United States congress composed of millionaires and state legislatures controlled by lobbyists.” But he ended on an upbeat note:
The Revolution is coming, and it is a very beautiful revolution. It is beautiful because, in its deepest sense, it is quiet, gentle, and all pervasive. It KNOWS. What is most important in this revolution will require no guns, no commandants, no screaming “leaders,” and no vicious publications accusing everyone else of being counter-revolutionary. The revolution comes when two strangers smile at each other, when a father refuses to send his child to school because schools destroy children, when a commune is started and people begin to trust each other, when a young man refuses to go to war, and when a girl pushes aside all that her mother has “taught” her and accepts her boyfriend’s love.
The revolution comes when young people throughout the world take control of their own lives and when people everywhere begin to look each other in the eyes and say hello, without fear. This is the revolution, this is the strength, and with this behind us no politician or general will ever stop us. We shall win!
Ultimately Sanders was unable to stay in Stannard. There was no money in writing. The town may have been too remote for him and his infant son. He might have soured on the communal lifestyle. Or his citified upbringing and college life might have made him crave more human interaction. For whatever reason, Sanders migrated to Burlington and had settled there by 1971. He and Levi moved into the back of a small brick duplex at 2951⁄2 Maple Street, not far from the campus of the University of Vermont.
According to friends at the time, Sanders struggled to keep food in the refrigerator and lights on in the house. He attempted to make money as a carpenter, with little success. He sold a few freelance articles to low-budget publications. “He was always poor,” says Sandy Baird, who knew Sanders at the time. He went on unemployment for a while in 1971. At one particularly destitute moment, according to a friend who lived around the corner, he couldn’t pay his electric bill and had to get his power by running an electric cord up from the basement.
Levi’s mother visited often to share in raising their son, who called his father “Bernard.”
Excerpted from "Why Bernie Sanders Matters" by Harry Jaffe. Published by Regan Arts. Copyright 2015 by Harry Jaffe. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.