Bernie Sanders, Genteel Socialist

Not much has been said yet about the fact that the man now giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, is a self-proclaimed socialist with a picture of Eugene Debs hanging in his Senate office in Washington. Even when his socialism is discussed, for example in a recent Politico article by David Greenberg, more time is spent describing the history of American socialism and relatively little explaining how Sanders fits in.

Why is this? For one thing, the Vermont Senator is running as a Democrat and caucuses with that party in Congress. And behind that fact lies a wider development in our politics: The distinctive traits distinguishing socialism from more mainstream Left-wing politics in America have faded, leaving the movement more prone to fusion with Democrats.

At its peak during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American socialism was based in labor unions and fueled by immigrants with backgrounds in Left-wing political activism. Its followers believed in decisive action against the flawed institutions of democratic capitalism in the United States. Not just decisive but seditious, in the case of the anarchist who assassinated President William “Denali” McKinley in September of 1901.

Anarchists, communists, socialists, and free silver advocates all opposed various parts of the American political economy during this period and played prominent and active roles in national events prior to the New Deal. Socialists such as Sanders’ hero, Eugene V. Debs of Indiana, helped organize large labor actions directed at the “Robber Barons,” most notably Pullman and Ford. Debs went to jail for his involvement in the Pullman strike.

Big Bill Haywood, born and raised in Salt Lake City, helped organize miners throughout the country. He was an even more controversial socialist than Debs, having been tried and acquitted for the murder of Utah Governor Frank Steunenberg, a frequent antagonist of unions. Haywood and Debs both spent time in prison for their opposition to U.S. involvement in the First World War. Haywood was actually charged with treason under the Espionage Act of 1917 and, after getting convicted, ended up skipping bail and exiling himself to the Soviet Union.

The firebrand socialist leaders of that era appealed to the interests of their political supporters, who tended to be industrial workers, immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Like Sanders, they viewed the political and economic order as fundamentally unjust and in need of radical change to create a better and fairer world. Unlike Sanders, they proclaimed an undiluted Marxism and did not shy away from inflammatory statements about confiscating property or fomenting revolution.

But look what happened to their political base: what was a heavily unionized American labor pool became less and less so. Today, union membership has declined steeply and those unions that are still large and popular are for public sector employees. Public sector unions seek more lucrative pensions, not an overthrow of the owners of the means of production.

When asked today about his “socialism,” Sanders may point to the picture of Debs on his office and cite a commitment to justice and fairness in helping the “little person” against large organized economic interests. In reality, what he espouses is not fully articulated socialism but simply wealth-redistribution through taxation. The Sanders campaign webpage has a great deal about Sanders’ concern for income “inequality” and “decent” pay and wages. But it says very little about revolutionary aspirations or the need to confront the owners of capital. It does not advocate storming the offices of Google or Apple and snatching iPhones and Chromebooks, liberating the goods from the wretched hands of the capitalist blood suckers Tim Cook, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin.

Today’s socialism is surprisingly flaccid and tame—even the Occupy Movement that sprang up with the onset of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. Occupy’s rather ragtag group of protestors moved into parks in New York and elsewhere to protest a hodgepodge of injustices they perceived in our political and economic system. There were arrests, some confrontations, a lot of staged events for television cameras, as well as many iPhone selfies and hippie dance circles. But there were no widespread outbreaks of violence. Nothing matched the pitched battles between unions and private security forces common in the Debs-Haywood era—or even the teargas-filled melee in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic convention or associated countercultural clashes of that time.

The Occupy people became famous for their strange way of communicating, not for shooting those in power or even threatening such actions. And that’s not surprising in a country that is largely middle class, suburban, and politically inclusive.

Thomas Edsall’s underrated book Chain Reaction (1992) describes how the Republican Party became successful in national elections during the 1970s. Edsall’s main argument was that the Democratic Party that emerged from that watershed 1968 convention pushed policies that were outside the mainstream and unpalatable to most Americans. Higher taxes for the rich, forced racial integration, large social programs (that did not sufficiently provide resources to the middle class) and lenient attitudes toward the accused, were all positions that socialists such as Debs and others had long advocated. Those same positions turned off many moderate voters, though—particularly the so-called Reagan Democrats. By finding a wedge group to pry away from the Democratic coalition, Reagan and other Republicans were able to consistently win national elections. The Democrats of the 1990s turned away from radical ideas and accepted the new consensus of lower taxes, free market institutions, and less government.

This insight that the majority and the middle matter was also a fascination for a clear-eyed observer of politics, the late economist Gordon Tullock. Tullock is most famous for his work on the development of the school in economics known as public choice as well as his groundbreaking insights into the costly inefficiency of what economists call “rent-seeking”—the competition among individuals for government-granted privileges known as rents.

But Tullock also wrote about many other matters, including how politicians redistribute within a society to maintain political support. Tullock noted that many social welfare programs were designed without means testing. He lamented the fact that the poor were poor, and marveled at the way in which government programs that appeared to be focused on the poor in fact benefitted the middle classes. He concluded, correctly, that the vast majority of government benefits inevitably flow to the largest group of potential voters—in our case today, the middle class.

Social Security, Medicare, the mortgage tax deduction, government-subsidized student loans, and tax deductions for children are among the many costly redistributive programs focused on the middle class. Best of all for politicians, these programs are paid for with the shrouded system of payment known as income-tax withholding. You don’t see a complete bill for the programs.

So what does this mean for the entire concept of “socialism” as Sanders describes it? Can socialism or its cousin, communism, ever be brought about—or even discussed straightforwardly—when an economy becomes service-oriented and affluent? I think the answer is no. Sanders seems to be borrowing from the sentiments of his hero but in the service of a much different cause. “Socialism” for Sanders focuses on the largest political group—the middle class. It still has the “us versus them” rhetoric that Debs would have recognized. We must take from the rich and give to the somewhat, relatively poorer (although not the real poor per se). However, no one wants blood in the streets or violent protests.

Redistribution through democratic processes will suffice, in a more peaceful era of quiet revolutions.

Patrick Lynch

Dr. G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund. He is currently working on a book length manuscript focusing on the "state of nature" in political theory.

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  1. libertarian jerry says

    Bernie Sanders immorality stems not from the fact that socialism is a gutter philosophy based on power,greed,envy and coveting. Its not from Bernie Sanders complete ignorance of economics in the fact that the freer the market place the more prosperity for everyone. Or the fact that,despite its rough edges,capitalism (the free Market) has raised the standard of living,worldwide,throughout history,of more people,faster, then all of the redistribution socialist schemes ever tried. Or the fact that socialism has destroyed the lives of millions throughout history. Bernie Sanders immorality stems from his role as a “useful idiot” that paves the way for the sociopaths,the dictators,the Gulags,the police state and the enslavement of his fellow citizens. What happens to the people who refuse to obey redistribution legislation? Who refuse to pay their “fair share” of taxes? Who go into the vast underground economy? Who refuse to surrender their property? Bernie Sanders expects that people will act the same way after a law is passed as before. It won’t happen. Only guns,violence,threats and the use of terror makes socialism “work.” The thing is that all 10 Planks to the Communist Manifesto,albeit in modified form,are in place,today,in America. From the Income Tax through to Public Education. And what are the results? National fiscal bankruptcy,destruction of the purchasing power of our money and an unsustainable debt that we have unfairly placed onto the backs of future generations.There is an old saying. To paraphrase, “God forgive those that do things in the name of evil but God help us from those who do things in the name of good.” People like Bernie Sanders are the kind of do good,misguided people that will hammer the last nails into the coffin of the once great American Republic and help pave the way for the thugs that will create a society of indebted,terrorized serfs.

    • Neil Bernhoft says

      “The distinctive traits distinguishing socialism from more mainstream Left-wing politics in America have faded.” Finally someone admits the Democrat Party is Socialist. Since when is the mainstream left wing? The mainstream media for sure.

    • bewarelargecrowdsofstupidpeople says

      Bernie Sanders paving the way for gulags because he’d like to see higher wages and childcare? Stretching it just a bit there pal.

      • dr. james willingham says

        Genteel socialism is like Fabian socialism, always ready in the long run to cooperate with Communistic socialism, the goal being the triumph of socialism. Lest, any one think I am taking the part of so-called capitalism, meaning corporate, monopolistic capitalism, let me say that socialism is an invention of the capitalism to control the poor. The directors of the whole shebang of socialism is International Bankers and their monopolistic corporations which have had control of the USA since the adoption of the Federal Reserve Act in 1912/14. Socialism of any variety has its administrative class, doing the bidding of the controllers, the so-called capitalists. The tax was meant to deprive the people of their wealth, and it really does not effect the monopolistic leaders and their Bankster buddies, because their money is in the trusts and the foundations. The real aim is control, control, control, and guess who has the control? I sure would have liked to have seen Armand Hammer’s beautiful apartments in Moscow, but then he had controllers who have admitted that they were members of the cabal. Really! Research, Research, Research is the name of the game in dealing with such issues, years of research.

    • upperatmos says

      “Bernie Sanders immorality stems not from the fact that socialism is a gutter philosophy based on power,greed,envy and coveting.”
      What’s capitalism based on, exactly?

      “Its not from Bernie Sanders complete ignorance of economics in the fact that the freer the market place the more prosperity for everyone.”
      You mean like all that prosperity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries? This Ayn Randian nonsense has been disproven time over time, yet “useful idiots”, such as yourself, continue to espouse them. What do think motivated Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican, I might add) to take up his Trust Busting initiatives. Why is it that with all the deregulation in the past thirty years, we have over 45 mil children living in poverty?

      “despite its rough edges,capitalism (the free Market) has raised the standard of living,worldwide,throughout history,of more people,faster, then all of the redistribution socialist schemes ever tried.”
      Capitalism under the socialist policies enacted by FDR, policies more socialist than what Sanders is proposing.

      “Or the fact that socialism has destroyed the lives of millions throughout history.”
      And capitalism hasn’t? Let’s see… starting with the opium wars in China, let’s also take a look at Viet Nam, Chile, Honduras, Iraq, Palestine, Colombia……

      “his role as a “useful idiot” that paves the way for the sociopaths,the dictators,the Gulags,the police state and the enslavement of his fellow citizens.”
      The prison population of the US is greater than any other country in the world. Our NSA does dragnet surveillance on all electronic communications. Our current minimum wage does not pay enough to live on. And corporations have been sending jobs overseas en masse since Reagan.

      “Only guns,violence,threats and the use of terror makes socialism “work.”
      Unlike the US, I see comparatively miniscule “guns, violence, and threats” in Sweden, Denmark, France, or Germany — all practicing more socialistic policies than we are.

      “National fiscal bankruptcy,destruction of the purchasing power of our money and an unsustainable debt that we have unfairly placed onto the backs of future generations.”
      Let us take a short stroll down memory lane. Clinton left office with a balanced budget and 200 bln in the black. What happened then?

      Your delusions are not based in reality.

      • libertarian jerry says

        Upperatmos………….Nice try, but your diatribe is all over the map. Setting up a straw man calling it Capitalism when it is really crony capitalism you are describing is unfair. America is bankrupt,our money is becoming worthless,our unfunded liabilities and national debts are unsustainable. As far as the foreign countries that you mention such as Sweden,America spends much more of a percentage of it’s GDP on transfer programs then all the nations you mentioned. That’s right America is more socialist then Sweden. Then you act as if I’m a Republican,which I am not. I didn’t support Ronald Reagan and as far as Bill Clinton is concerned it was the Republican Congress that “balanced” the budget,but that again is a lie because both the Republicans and Clinton took money from Social Security to balance a budget that was out of balance. I could go on but it seems that the one who is delusional must be you because you know nothing of history,economics or what makes the world run.

  2. dr. james willingham says

    Sander’s socialism and communism are but different faces of the same powers that be, powers that created socialism in, at least, two forms, namely, Fabian Socialism and Communism, both of which worked together to achieve the aims of the powers. That aim was the control of the poor, and it involved the creation of a New Class, the class of the controllers, the administrators, the party as Milovan Djilas put it in his book of the same title. the communist Party had all the perks in Russia and the average citizen got squat. In the more Fabian countries, like England and Scotland, the people who park their Mercedes and BMWS in the parking lots of the local administrative offices of the welfare departments are the the ones with the perks while the average Brit, like the average American lives from hand to mouth. Behind it all the powers want the property and the control, and in America they have 80% of the property or wealth of the nation, all the while constituting less than 2-5% of the population. You all might be interested in the lavish apartments of the powers that really ran the show, though they pretended otherwise, cf. Chernobyl: The Final Solution.

    • Evangelical says

      The “Administrative Class” exists anyway. Capitalism is the rulership of the owners (usually the 1% or less). How do you like that Capitalist oligarchy?

      • dr. james willingham says

        Ever read Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope or Milovan Djilas’ The New Class, or Bella Dodd’s School of Darkness or Cleon Skousen’s The Naked Capitalist or the Creature from Jekyll Island, just to mention a paltry few of the many resources available on the issue?

  3. Evangelical says

    A disgustingly disingenuous conclusion.

    Bernie Sanders doesn’t want to “tax the middle class” to pay for freebees, but to tax the 1% and the 10% to pay for building a middle class by supporting those below the mean and bottom 50% of the median. Heaven forbid we should pay for school and medical care for those who can’t afford them. Those people should just be forced into poverty and garbage.

    HURRAH!

    • libertarian jerry says

      Tell me comrade evangelical,what happens to the 1% or 10% who refuse to pay their taxes? Who take their wealth out of America. Who refuses to create wealth so they can be exploited for the sake of someone who refuses to work for a living. And since when is medical care and education a right? America is bankrupt both morally and fiscally because of the ideas of useful idiots like you and Bernie Sanders. Vladimer Lenin would be proud of you.

      • Jeffrey Bockser says

        You Libertarians are a total scream. Your dislike disdain for government and the useful benefits it dispenses are amazing. Hold on to your money, and if your life is somehow disrupted by misfortune, you can die in the anal misery of your own making. Your
        demonization of socialism as a positive idea through exaggerated distorted arguments sounds crazy to most balanced individuals.

        • libertarian jerry says

          Nice try Jeffery, if you can’t win the argument rationally you attack the opposition by throwing mud and name calling. The “useful benefits” of government have bankrupted the nation, Now what? More name calling.

          • Jeffrey Bockser says

            Who is throwing mud and name calling? I didn’t call you any names. I just described your behavior. I stand by my remarks. I do admire that you think about societal events, as opposed to most people.

    • Joe Lammers says

      “Bernie Sanders doesn’t want to “tax the middle class” to pay for freebees, but to tax the 1% and the 10% to pay for building a middle class by supporting those below the mean and bottom 50% of the median. Heaven forbid we should pay for school and medical care for those who can’t afford them. Those people should just be forced into poverty and garbage.”

      I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the “!% & 10%” already pay the bulk of income taxes collected by the government, and school is already “free”, (Obamacare supposedly makes medical care free for the “poor” but not really). I’m not aware of any politician who is seriously proposing that public education, for instance comes to an end, or people in the top 10% of income be exempted from taxes. Sanders is merely advocating an ever increasing welfare state with, apparently, no limits.

  4. bobobass says

    What does Bill Haywood have to do with this article? It looks to me like that paragraph was cut and pasted from some other writing piece in order to conflate the most extreme case of actual murderous violence- not in any way akin to the violence of actual labor struggles in any way- to Debs, the union movement, and therefor Bernie Sanders.
    Clearly, the author is using deceptive logic by randomly putting in this extreme case from history into an entirely unrelated analysis.
    Reminds me a little of the journalism of ol’ Bill Haywood’s day.

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