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Is Bernie Sanders Actually A Democratic Socialist?

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tags: Germany, political history, socialism, Bernie Sanders, 2020 Election, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez



Michael Sheng, professor of history at the University of Akron, is the author of Battling Western Imperialism: Mao, Stalin, and the United States (Princeton, 1997).

 

In his “State of the Union” address, President Trump railed against “socialism,” taking aim at rising left-wingers in the Democratic Party,such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who often identify themselves as “democratic socialists.” But are these policies actually socialist? According to Webster Dictionary, socialism is “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state,” where as social welfare is “organized public or private social services for the assistance of disadvantaged groups.” Social welfare was in fact an antidote to socialism initiated by one of the most conservative politicians in world history, Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of newly unified Germany. 

 

When Germany was unified in 1871, Europe had already witnessed a steady increase of socialist-communist influence. “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism,” Karl Marx declared in 1848 while revolutions were spreading all over the continent. In the 1870s, the Social Democratic Party rose quickly in Germany, and Bismarck called those socialists “this country’s rats” and “enemies bent on pillage and murder.” Bismarck tied the socialist party to the attempted assassination on William I and banned the party. At the same time, he led the legislative action to establish a social welfare system in order to reduce the appeal of radical socialism/ communism to the working class and to increase commoners’ loyalty to the German state. Three important legislations laid the foundation of German social welfare system: the Health Insurance of Workers Law of 1883, the Accident Insurance Law of 1884, and the Old Age and Invalidity Insurance Law of 1889. Thus, the German social welfare system, arguably the first of its kind in human history, was created as an antidote to undermine socialist/communist radicalism in politics.

 

The hatred of Bismarck and many other establishments against socialism/communism was based on the ideology’s doctrine of abolition of private ownership via class struggle and “proletarian dictatorship.” Given what happened in Soviet Union under Stalin, or China under Mao, when millions landlords and business owners were killed and their properties were confiscated, Bismarck’s harsh words against radicals bending on “pillage and murder” may not seem too off the mark. However, Bismarck or any other politician could not possibly foresee the split of socialist/communist parties during the First World War. Many radical leaders in the Second Communist International abandoned Karl Marx’s calling for proletarian international solidarity against their own “bourgeoise” national government, and they became “national socialists.” At the same time, Lenin split with those “national socialists,” and formed the Third Communist International (Comintern). He condemned his fellow socialists as “revisionists” who betrayed Marx’s famous saying: “working class has no fatherland.” He went on to wage revolution against the Russian “bourgeois” state and succeeded. 

 

The split of socialist camp in Europe had profound social and political consequences, including bloodshed. A case in point was Mussolini in Italy, who betrayed his father’s socialist belief and enlisted himself to fight in the war. Later, his Strom Troopers were fighting on the streets against their former comrades, who seemed to be loyal to Moscow rather than to Rome. One of Mussolini’s admirers was Hitler, who later named his party as “national socialist party” (NAZI). The elite establishments in both Italy and Germany faced a tough choice between Marxist socialists determined to wage class struggle against private ownership and national socialists who wanted to make their nation “great again.” The nationalists seemed to be more popular and gained more seats in parliaments than their former comrades. The rest was history; Mussolini and Hitler gained power in their respective countries. 

 

In the US, the influence of socialism was on the rise during the “Gilded Age” because of unregulated and fast capitalist development. But Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party did not succeed by any means, thanks to the “antidote” provided by progressive reformers, who were largely middle-class professionals. They tried to prevent social revolution of the European typeand they did not want to see the tragedies in St. Petersburg or of the Paris commune occur in the New World. Their strategy was to educate the public to push for legislations on behalf of public interest, especially thepoor and marginalized, and against the greedy instinct of the corporate world. Consequently, we have “Workmen’s Compensation Law” and federal regulatory agencies such as FDA in place to make unregulated capitalist market economy behave more rationally, and to prevent the cumulation of private “wealth against common wealth.” 

 

Thanks in part to the effectiveness of the “antidote,” Socialism has never been influential in America. Therefore, the public is much less informed about the nature and history of socialism than the European counterpart. Some political hackers could take advantage of this knowledge gap to accuse someone they disliked, such as Obama, as a “socialist,” or to name the “Obama Care” as a “socialist legislation.” People who would buy what the political hackers would sell need to know the basic definition of socialism, which is an ideology advocating “public,” “collective,” or “common” ownership of productive means against private ownership. In practice, socialism became quite popular in Western European countries, such as UK or even Canada, where many “Crown Corporations” were owned and controlled by the government. The problem was that they were all losing money, and dependent on taxpayers’ support to stay alive. During the 1980s, the so-called Reagan-Thatcher decade of conservatism, these socialist enterprises were all but privatized. In the 1990s, Tony Blair led the Labor Party to get rid of the “common ownership” clause in its constitution, moving it from the left to the center. That allowed the Labor Party to win election after election.

 

At the same time, Bill Clinton moved Democratic Party to the center, and won the elections twice. In the era of Trump, some elected Democratic officials again seem to move decidedly toward the left, some openly call themselves “democratic socialists.” Given the history of socialism in this country and around world, is this really a winning strategy? If you are in favor of “Medicare for all,” you don’t have to call yourself a “democratic socialist” because Medicare is not exactly an enterprise of “productive means,” as is US Steel or Exxon-Mobile. This is especially true if you argue that health care is a human right for everyone. Of course, you should call yourself a socialist if you really believe in the abolition of private ownership and social control of productive means by the state/government. For the sake of history, please tell your voters what you really believe, and don’t just throw out a label without a precise definition.


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