Materialism and Moralism:  Why Bernie Sanders is not a Socialist***

I anledning af præsidentvalget i USA har der i de nationale og internationale medier været meget tale om kandidaten Bernie Sanders som for anden gang stiller op til valget som landets næste præsident i 2020. Han er blevet yderst populær blandt arbejderklassen fordi han er progressiv og ofte ser ud til at tale socialismens sag, noget som ses sjældent på den åbne US-Amerikanske politiske scene. Også på den danske venstrefløj har der været en del tilfælde af opbakning af Sanders som mulig fremtidig præsident. Der er dog rigelig grund til kritik når Sanders betegnes som socialist. Denne kritik kommer Jacob Richter nærmere ind på her.


Jacob Richter

Jacob has a B.A. and an M.A. in philosophy. He has written several articles and essays with a main focus on political philosophy.

The unexpected rise of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US Presidential election was an ideological watershed moment that has, paradoxically, created just as much confusion as clarity in its wake.  Following a decades-long retreat by the socialist movement it is understandable why the naive and pessimistic on the left could have believed Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history” and the victory of capitalism and liberal democracy over socialism and the Soviet Union.  However, any competent socialist could have reassured you that the wheel of history cannot be stopped and that socialism is capitalism’s shadow, an ever-present specter that arises from the internal contradictions of its process of development. At such a low-point for the forces of the left, the enthusiasm around Sanders’ success in 2016 is understandable, but significant historical moments demand an incisive analysis, lest we risk allowing a sincere theoretical misapprehension to evolve into genuine practical errors.

Let’s first look at why Sanders is believed to be a socialist in the first place. Firstly, he claims to be one, albeit of the democratic variety.  Secondly, he’s referred to as one by ideological opponents, the most notable of whom is the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who has taken many opportunities to publicly assure the world that the United States will never be a socialist country, whether it be at campaign rallies or during each of the previous two State of Union addresses.  Sanders has also been accused of being a communist by Trump and other conservative politicians and supporters who claim him as an authentic socialist point to his nonchalance at being called one half a century ago. The McCarthy Era speculative nonsense can also be found oozing out of the mouths of respected liberal political commentators such as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who recently went on a bizarre rant revealing that he apparently fears that he will be publicly executed in Central Park if Sanders becomes president and turns out to be a communist.

Let’s evaluate these claims in reverse order which seems appropriate since this allows us to pass from most absurd to least absurd.  Given that Chris Matthews claim has absolutely no basis, and during the rant he even admits—and his colleagues agree—that Sanders’ conception of socialism is clearly closer to Denmark than it is to Cuba, much less whatever form of socialism requires publicly executing mediocre white men.  Further given that Matthews has recently resigned from his position for, among other things, comparing the most prominent Jewish political figure in the United States and his movement to a Nazi invasion, I think we can safely say that his opinion does not matter and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Turning to the paranoia of conservative politicians, I think we can safely reject the opinion of members of a party who were quite content to characterize the center-right President Barack Obama as a communist, including the Ivy League-educated brainiac Ted Cruz, as well as the opinion of Donald Trump for being, well, Donald Trump.  Reading through the statements of attendees to the “America vs. Socialism” themed Conservative Political Action Conference reveals that they lack a coherent definition of what socialism even is. At times it seems to mean progressive liberals, others it seems to mean poverty as a result of imperialist exploitation, still, others equate it with supporting abortion, or the “oppression” of millionaires by raising their taxes, and still others seem to believe that socialism is when the government does things besides violently enforcing property rights and bombing nations in the Global South. Given the incoherence and absurdity of these definitions, I think we can safely move on to the more substantive claim made by Sanders himself.

Sanders claim to be a socialist is a bit more difficult, and therefore much more important, to make a critical assessment of in order to reach clarity.  Those who seek to validate this claim point to his history fighting for labour rights and social justice, membership in democratic socialist parties, advocacy for the nationalization of industries, opposition to imperialist interventions, and ostensible praise for socialist movements and states.  Sanders claim receives further validation from the critical support given to his campaign by USAmerican socialist parties like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Given these circumstances, in concert with the general dilution of the term socialism (a phenomenon that bourgeois politicians have been contributing to since at least the early 19th Century, as Marx documents in the preamble of the Communist Manifesto), it’s understandable why Sanders history and these endorsements are taken as an indication that he is a socialist.  However, there is an important distinction between progressivism and socialism.

This last point leads us back to the title of this article.  Further confusion arises from the fact that socialism is taken as a moral term by socialists rather than a description of one’s politics.  Is Sander’s support for raising the minimum wage good? Yes. Is his support for extending healthcare coverage to all USAmericans a good thing?  Yes. Is his desire to cut the US military’s budget and scale back it’s imperialist domination of the Earth a good thing? Yes. Is his unambiguous support for persons of color in their struggles against racism, women and LGBT+ persons in their struggles against patriarchy, the neurodivergent and physically disabled in their struggles against structural ableism, and so on admirable?  Absolutely. Do any of these things taken by themselves or together make him a socialist? No.

Among those who make this point include academics like Samuel Goldman, conservative assistant professor political science at George Washington University who characterizes Sanders politics as “welfarism”, Lane Kenworthy, social-democratic professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona who describes Sanders as a “democratic socialist capitalist”, Mike Konczal, a liberal economic policy expert at the Roosevelt Institute states that Sanders’ policies is “not socialism, [but] social democracy”, Andrei Markovits, a professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan has stated that he would give Sanders an F on an exam for his equation social programs in a capitalist state with socialism, and Noam Chomsky, an anarcho-syndicalist who has characterized Sanders as a “decent, honest New Dealer”.  This assessment is further echoed by liberal publications including The New Republic, The Economist, and Forbes.  In an interview with Vox, Bhaskar Sunara, the editor of the democratic publication Jacobin, has clarified that he considers Sanders a social democrat and not a socialist.  Sanders conflation of socialism with Nordic social democracy had reached such a high pitch in 2015 that former Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen felt compelled to correct the record by stating clearly that Denmark is a capitalist nation with a market economy and that Nordic model is merely an “expanded welfare state”.

Circling back to the socialist organizations which critically support the Sanders campaign we find further skepticism about his politics.  The Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Workers Party, and Socialist Party USA have all publicly stated that they do not consider Sanders anything more than a capitalist reformist.  Howie Hawkins of the Green Party argues that Sanders’ conception of socialism is nothing more than “old-fashioned liberalism” since it does not entail a complete restructuring of the entire economic base of society.  Peter Diamondstone, a former colleague of Sanders during his time in the Liberty Union Party has stated that Sanders was once a socialist, but no longer is one. When asked about Bernie Sanders, the Marxist political analyst and academic Michael Parenti has stated that he was once a close friend of Sanders who broke with him over his support for the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Yugoslav War.

In response to these assessments, many socialist supporters have argued that Sanders has to act as a social democrat and publicly limit his advocacy to social democratic politics due to the material and ideological limitations of the United States’ political climate, a sort of socialist Trojan Horse.  But is this objection not precisely the point of a structural critique? Sanders as an individual is irrelevant, and his internal thoughts are unknowable; all we have available to us is his actual statements and actions and the real activity and trajectory of the movement which he has inspired. To acknowledge this is to move beyond individual moralism and into systemic criticism, which is where socialists need to be in order to properly assess the present and orient their activity towards the future which they want to bring about.

Having assessed the ideological dialectic of others’ claims and assessments about Sanders’ politics has led us to the point where we can finally dig into the most salient objections to why Sanders should absolutely not be confused for a socialist.  Sanders is what is known in Marxist discourse as a revisionist, and opportunist, and social-imperialist, and I will elaborate on these three concepts and why they apply to Sanders.

Firstly, Sanders is a revisionist because he openly repudiates (whether due to his personal beliefs or due to structural constraints) the necessity of the struggle for and seizure of political power through revolution, as well as the aforementioned conflation of revolutionary socialism with reformist liberalism.  Secondly, Sanders is an opportunist because he has made a conscious decision to funnel the rising frustration with neoliberalism and capitalism back into support for the liberal Democratic Party, both by his capitulation to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and by his continued decision to run as a Democrat rather than attempting to further his movement independent from them by forming his own party.  Finally, he is a social-imperialist, which Lenin defined in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism as a person or party that is “socialist in words and imperialist in deeds” due to his foreign policy record and statements he has made, which we will briefly review before concluding this article.

While his supporters are keen to point out statements made and votes he has cast against U.S. imperialism, a notable example being his recent condemnation of the coup in Bolivia that ousted democratically elected president Evo Morales in late 2019 although his absolute failure to do the same in the case of the attempted coup in Venezuela against Nicolás Maduro, earlier in the year, seems inconsistent in this light and his opposition to the Iraq War (although it is necessary to point out his previous support for sanctions against Iraq), singular statements are not sufficient for one to be considered an anti-imperialist, which denotes a principled opposition to imperialism in general and the imperialist actions of one’s own nation in particular.  During his tenure in the Senate, Sanders has voted in support of U.S. interventions in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and Yugoslavia. Sanders has expressed support for drone strikes, the F-35 fighter jet which is the most expensive program in military weapons history at $1.5 trillion in order to create jobs in Vermont and has displayed his willingness to support U.S. imperialism by repeatedly voting to approve the U.S. military budget throughout his years in office.

His willingness to tacitly approve of imperialist military aggression through his actions and justify them by negotiating for benefits for workers in Vermont is something Rosa Luxemburg criticized as a self-defeating strategy in Opportunism and the art of the possible:

“Now if one says that we should offer an exchange – our consent to militaristic and tariff legislation in return for political concessions or social reforms – then one is sacrificing the basic principles of the class struggle for momentary advantage, and one’s actions are based on opportunism. Opportunism, incidentally, is a political game which can be lost in two ways: not only basic principles but also practical success may be forfeited. The assumption that one can achieve the greatest number of successes by making concessions rests on a complete error. Here, as in all great matters, the most cunning persons are not the most intelligent. Bismarck once told a bourgeois opposition party: ‘You will deprive yourselves of any practical influences if you always and as a matter, of course, say no.’…We who oppose the entire present order see things quite differently. In our no, in our intransigent attitude, lies our whole strength. It is this attitude that earns us the fear and respect of the enemy and the trust and support of the people.”

Furthermore, Sanders has voted in favor of extraditing black revolutionary Assata Shakur to face “justice” in the U.S., has stated that he would not move the U.S. embassy back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, thereby tacitly supporting the continued displacement of Palestinians by Israeli settler colonialism and has voted in approval of providing military hardware to the Israeli state on several occasions and claimed that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel is motivated partly by anti-semitism rather than a principled objection to war crimes and ethnic cleansing.  Sanders further displays his social-chauvinism in his opposition to open borders, which he characterizes as a right-wing conspiracy to depress the wages of USAmerican workers. In addition to this Sanders feels compelled to characterize the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (colloquially referred to as North Korea) as the aggressor in its continued conflict with the United States and a threat to the entire planet, a conflict that the historical record clearly demonstrates is primarily driven by U.S. aggression on the Korean Peninsula. In addition to this, he also continues to characterize issues within Cuban society as the fault of “authoritarianism” rather than taking responsibility for the U.S. embargo that Cuba has been forced to develop under for its entire existence as a revolutionary society, which is, of course, the only thing that he can actually impact as a USAmerican politician; he has praised Cuba’s literacy programs, while remaining silent on its principled resistance to U.S. imperialism.

These issues which I have compiled are not even an exhaustive list of Sanders’ opportunism and support for imperialism, believe it or not, and I highly recommend that skeptical readers look further into the subject themselves.  I believe that I have thoroughly demonstrated that Sanders ought not be considered a socialist at this point, but I would now like to take the opportunity to elaborate on what the significance of this is rather than reading my readers in a state of hopelessness at the state of the left given that one of the most popular “socialist” politicians in the world is not, in fact, a socialist.  Despite not being a socialist, Sanders is, in fact, significant, but as a symptom of a historical moment, the watershed that I mentioned at the beginning of the article, that socialist must understand and seize upon. In order for a self-styled “socialist” to become popular in the United States, where “socialist” has the connotations of a slur rather than a description, there must be a significant segment of the population which is utterly frustrated by the status quo and alienated by establishment politicians and desperately seeking an alternative (any alternative as the success of Donald Trump has made clear).

We, as socialists, must provide that alternative, and help direct that revolutionary energy beyond the limitations of the liberal political horizon.  

 

 

 

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