Socialist as U.S. President?

Bernie Sanders has expanded the range of the democratic socialist tradition in the U.S. and moved beyond its complicity with U.S. imperialism. But this is precisely what he and his agenda will be attacked for.

Published : Feb 05, 2020 07:00 IST

Senator Bernie Sanders at a function commemorating Martin Luther King Jr Day, in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 20.

Senator Bernie Sanders at a function commemorating Martin Luther King Jr Day, in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 20.

United States Senator Bernie Sanders came to his political understanding through two movements. The first was the movement for civil rights in the U.S., which had by the early 1960s become the major fault line within the country. At the University of Chicago, Sanders joined the Congress of Racial Equality and would fight to desegregate housing for students and for desegregated public schools. Although he did go to the 1963 March on Washington, Sanders understood early that politics had to be a combination of massive demonstrations and local struggles. The second was the movement to end the U.S. war in Vietnam. He was a member of the Student Peace Union, which alongside the broader national student movement put the high human cost of the war at the centre of its work.

These two fights—for civil rights and against war—define Sanders’ agenda. American wars, such as against Vietnam and Iraq, are not only destructive of human possibility but are also immensely expensive. It is these wars that draw immense social wealth away from addressing the basic questions of hunger, housing, education and health care that drive deep social wedges between people.

War spending

In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr, drew the connections in his important “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York City. It was “deadly Western arrogance”, King said, that put the people of the U.S. “on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor”. This was a powerful indictment of imperialism, which linked the use of napalm overseas to child poverty in U.S. cities. The U.S., King said, made a “peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments”. Socialism in the U.S. would be an arid moral argument if it did not make a strong link between U.S. wars and U.S. suffering. Without a major drawdown in war funds, there is little possibility that the domestic agenda of any of the progressive candidates could be fulfilled.

Of all the candidates in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, only Sanders has taken a position against war funding. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who agrees with Sanders on several domestic policies (including on health care), voted for U.S. President Donald Trump’s war budget, which amounted to over $738 billion (the highest expenditure for the military thus far). Sanders has not voted for any of Trump’s war budgets since he took office in 2017.

Sanders, who joined the Young People’s Socialist League while in college, has been strategic about his use of the term “socialism”. That League was the youth detachment of the Socialist Party of America, which was founded in 1901 and was the platform for Eugene V. Debs’ runs for President five times until 1920.

Decades later, in 1982, by which time the socialist movement had withered as the U.S. went further and further rightwards, Michael Harrington led a section of socialists to form the Democratic Socialists of America. Harrington had written a powerful book on poverty in the U.S. called The Other America (1962) and had been a voice in the socialist world that called for a socialist domestic policy alongside an aggressively anti-communist foreign policy (“I am anti-communist on principle,” Harrington said in 1965). The anti-communist seam in this U.S. socialist project gives weight to the phrase “democratic socialism” that defined Harrington’s politics and defines Sanders’. The word democratic is intended to mark their tradition against what they see as an undemocratic communism.

Last year, Sanders defined his “democratic socialism” in terms that should be fairly mainstream in any thoughtful society: “the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment”. One would imagine that there would be no debate over these rights. But, indeed, inside the U.S., there is more than a debate about this; there is hostility.


Democratic socialism, even if it tries to distance itself from communism, is not able to do so; each attempt to push away from the Left reinforces the seam of anti-communism that has been buried deep in U.S. society and that turns around and dismisses democratic socialism itself. That anti-communism was set in place a century ago by virulent propaganda against the Soviet Union and then later China, ideological considerations that remain so alive that they are able to be conjured up today against Russia (Russian interference in U.S. elections) and against China (U.S.-China trade disputes).

Trump has been banging away on the campaign trail associating Sanders’ socialism with Venezuela, using every negative stereotype against the traditions of the Left to disparage any attempt to create a humane society. Even at the United Nations last year, Trump said, bizarrely, that socialism and communism “are not about justice; they are about power for the ruling class”. “America,” Trump said conclusively, “will never be a socialist country.”

Sanders’ New Deal

Sanders has walked a fine line. On the one side, he has not risked taking a full left turn with his policy agenda. “I don’t believe the government should own the means of production,” he said in 2015. On the other side, he has emphasised his roots in the New Deal of the 1930s, when the government, in reaction to the stock market collapse of 1929, spent its funds to salvage the economy.

Sanders has said he would like to push a New Deal agenda for the 2020s. He is not interested in negotiating a vitiated agenda with the Republicans, but he would like to be the organiser-in-chief creating a mass movement behind his agenda. The agenda he proposes, particularly the drawdown of war spending, will awaken what U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”, the lobbies for war and destruction that are amongst the most powerful forces in the U.S.

The New Deal spending of the 1930s certainly provided relief and recovery to an economy that had been damaged by a lack of state regulation. But given the constraints on the government and the power of big business, the New Deal was not able to change the parameters of the U.S. economy, of its politics and of its social life. Even economic growth had to wait until war spending escalated as the U.S. prepared to enter the Second World War. The recovery that took place in the 1940s as a consequence of war spending sharpened class divisions and deepened racial divides and led, inexorably, to the civil rights movement, which radicalised Sanders.

It is war—the essence of imperialism—that is the shadow over any hope of a genuine socialist agenda in the U.S. Sanders’ objection to the size of the U.S. military budget and to the war on Iran are important signs that he will not bury himself on domestic issues and ignore the centrality of war and intervention for the U.S.

It is the honesty of his message that has enthused young people and has given them hope in a time of great despair. Sanders’ call for a democratic socialism has drawn millions of people to reconsider their prejudices about socialism.

Whatever the limitations of the democratic socialist tradition in the U.S., Sanders has expanded its range and moved beyond its complicity with U.S. imperialism. But this is precisely what he and his agenda will be attacked for; it will be led by the war lobbies and the warmongers, the sections of the U.S. power elite who cannot tolerate a candidate who is not committed to expanding the military, deploying patriotism to undercut class conflict, and bombing the world into submission.

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