Is Bernie Sanders Dangerous to Socialism?
by Emma Caterine, Truthout | Op-Ed –
“… the mistakes that are made by a truly revolutionary workers’ movement are, historically speaking, immeasurably more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best possible ‘Central Committee.'” – Rosa Luxemburg, democratic socialist, Rosa Luxemburg Reader (p. 265, p. 444).
On October 18, 2015, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders decided that Iowa City would be where he declared what “democratic socialism” means to him. A bit shy of a 13-point program, Sanders did cite some helpful examples of what he considers socialist institutions: Social Security, Medicare and the police. Interestingly, the last time I heard these institutions in the United States referred to as socialist was when they were being attacked by libertarians like Ron Paul and Ross Perot. Apparently the populist independent-turned-Democrat from Vermont and the unrepentant capitalists share the viewpoint that government institutions are inherently socialist.
I could laugh off the reactionary ravings of the right-wing. But my heart sank when I saw Sanders’ statements. Empirically and historically incorrect, they endanger any hope for building socialism in the United States through a doublespeak of calling liberal institutions socialist.
It may seem nitpicky to the unfamiliar, but Sanders’ politics are actually what is commonly referred to as social democracy. Social democrats believe that the purpose of the state is to intervene in, but not take over, the capitalist economy in order to promote social justice. The countries that Sanders loves to idolize – the Nordic nations – are often called social democracies. While less broad and generous than the Nordic welfare programs, the United States’ Social Security and Medicare programs can also be called social democratic programs.
In fact, echoing the “Obama is a socialist” sentiments of the modern Tea Party, opponents of Social Security in the late 1930s claimed that it was socialism. But it is very much not. Socialism is ownership by workers of the means of production, or worker control of the economy. The different types of socialism are different proposals of how to accomplish these aims, from the “transitional programs” of Trotskyists to the autonomous collectives of syndicalists.
Social Security, on the other hand, is intervention into the capitalist economy. Rather than building workers’ power, Social Security gives them “social insurance” based on the very same unequal metrics – wages that created the need for the intervention. It is like a consolation prize for losing capitalism! President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal brought on a “golden age of capitalism,” and is still referenced as such by the capitalist apologists of today.
In a time when resistance by people of color against racist police is held as the modern example of “people power,” even some liberals must have been thrown by Bernie Sanders’ classification of police as socialist. But the New York City Police Department is described as at the “cutting edge” of policing, and “pioneering” new ways to be more sensitive to “the community.” Surely this “progressive” police department would demonstrate the “socialism” Sanders says is exemplified by police. But rather than the workers democratically controlling how policing operates, the NYPD is run by a strict hierarchy. There are 13 tiers, from the new officers making $41,975 per year to NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s $205,180. While the department receives $4.8 billion per year from the government, it is talked about like a global franchise. The assertion that the police are a socialist institution is even more preposterous when historically they have functioned to protect the property of the wealthy and prevent leftist uprisings by groups like the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the American Indian Movement.
Bernie Sanders’ statements are inaccurate, but is he dangerous to socialists? Unfortunately, social democrats like Sanders have demonstrated in the past that at crucial moments, they will side with the right-wing over actual socialists.
Reprinted with permission from Truthout