News Release

Is Sanders a Socialist, or a New Dealer?

Sanders won the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. In June, he gave a speech on democratic socialism in which he said: “President Trump and his fellow oligarchs hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, the co-chair of the Sanders campaign, was recently interviewed by Christopher Matthews and said: “Bernie is an FDR Democrat. … I represent Silicon Valley. Let me tell you, Bernie Sanders is not talking about nationalizing Apple.”

VICTOR WALLIS, zendive at aol.com
Wallis writes in his forthcoming book Socialist Practice: Histories and Theories: “The dynamic of Democrat/Republican collaboration is now long established. On the one hand, Democratic electoral strategists rejoice in the most outlandish (racist, misogynist, etc.) conduct of Republicans, as this allows the Democrats to present themselves as guardians of rationality and decency. On the other hand, Republicans, having no policies to address the economic needs of the majority, revel in being able to tar the Democrats as ‘socialists,’ thereby setting firm limits on the degree to which Democrats, recoiling from the dreaded ‘red’ label, can legislate an authentically popular agenda. The result is that whichever of these two parties working-class people vote for, they are voting — except in rare cases of individual candidates — against their own best interests.

“This dynamic affects the way activists sympathetic to socialism define themselves in the political arena. Given the systematic bias of the electoral system and the mass media against third-party challengers, there are powerful inducements for socialists to seek office as Democrats. This leads them to water down their conception of socialism to the point of rejecting any explicit challenge to the power of capital. What remains, typically, is an invocation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and his 1944 ‘Economic Bill of Rights.’ Although these expanded the scope of social welfare, thereby strengthening the economic power of the working class (for which they were widely denounced as ‘socialist’), they stopped short of questioning the legitimacy of the profit-system as such. The resulting political order has been variously dubbed ‘mixed economy,’ ‘welfare capitalism,’ and ‘social democracy,’ but some of its advocates in the U.S. – notably, Senator Bernie Sanders – refer to it as ‘democratic socialism.’

“Given that the New Deal agenda did not entail dissolution of the capitalist class, the practice of implying that it was somehow socialist is highly misleading. Its socialist aspects, although real enough (as far as they went) in terms of their benefits, were in the nature of partial and transitory concessions. What the New Deal meant was that capital gave up a portion of its power in order — as Joseph P. Kennedy said at the time – not to face the prospect of losing all of it. But when the historical moment was right, capital struck back. …

“[I]n the U.S. political context, programs even far more limited than that of Sanders do not escape the accusation of being socialist (recall the attacks made beginning in 2008 against Barack Obama). It therefore makes political sense for Sanders — especially considering the more fully socialist (including anti-imperialist) position he staked out earlier in his career, as well as his lifelong public admiration for Eugene Debs — not to disown his association with the word socialism. What his acceptance of the word ultimately reflects is the fact that socialism, despite any negative historical baggage and (above all) despite its sustained stigmatization, embodies the positive social goals that most people seek.”

Wallis is author of Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism (2018) and Democracy Denied: Five Lectures on U.S. Politics (2019). See his website: VictorWallis.com.