It's a fine irony that after years of allegations President Obama was a covert "socialist," we now have the genuine article in Senator Bernard Sanders, and no one knows what to make of his unblushing socialism. In part this is due to the anti-intellectualism endemic to America, and the provincialism of those who consider themselves intellectuals in America. No one knows much about socialism; all have felt free to disparage anyone who does. Sanders' surging candidacy, combined with the prairie fire sweeping Latin America and now Europe, is the come-uppance to all this know-nothingism regarding one of the world's major political traditions.
Socialism of many varieties has been enjoying a comeback in Latin America for some time. Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Lula da Silva of Brazil, the late Hugo Chavez have been the region's dominant leaders in this century. And now there is a remarkable resurgence of European socialism, no longer just a shopworn label for tired parties which long ago renounced their Marxist commitments. The deep roots of socialism's opposition to capitalism as an amoral system of exploitation can be seen in the electoral victories of PODEMOS in Spain and Greece's Syriza, in the formation of new radical Marxist parties in continental Europe's leading powers (Die Linke in Germany, the Front de Gauche in France), and, most recently, in Britain's Labor Party leadership contest, won by Jeremy Corbyn, an uncorrupted man of the left like Sanders.
The American punditocracy can gnash its teeth, but the members of Labor have spoken loudly -- they want no more of Tony Blair's neoliberal truckling to capitalism and New Labor's acceptance of "austerity" at the expense of social rights won by Labor over the past century, above all the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS was the postwar creation of Labor's greatest prime minister, Clement Attlee, and his Health Secretary, Aneurin Bevan, a Welsh coalminer. If you want to be reminded of what a real socialist sounds like, hear Bevin in 1948, denouncing England's ruling class Conservatives as "lower than vermin." Socialism was then a fighting faith, and the appearance of Sanders, Corbyn, and many more at the heart of modern capitalism suggest it might be so again.
But what difference does it make in the U.S. context that Sanders is an avowed socialist? Why should anyone care, given that his policy prescriptions already place him firmly on the Democratic left? Shouldn't we care more about policies than ideological labels?
Here are some reasons why it matters that Senator Sanders has identified himself as a democratic socialist for the past 40 years. First, the socialism Sanders avows is part of an American tradition hardly anyone talks about outside of history classes. Sanders calls himself a "Debsian socialist." Just over 100 years ago, the former railroad union leader Eugene V. Debs received six percent as the American Socialist Party's candidate in 1912's presidential contest, during which the two leading candidates (Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Progressive Theodore Roosevelt) were pulled to the left by his attacks on corporate capitalism. This number alone does not impress. More substantive is that Debs' party held well over 1,000 elected offices in its pre-World War One heyday, and the socialist tradition lasted into the 1930s, 40s and 50s in industrial cities like Bridgeport, Connecticut, Reading, Pennsylvania, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, all of which had Socialist mayors. By then, there were two versions of American socialism, one democratic and reformist, the other authoritarian and revolutionary. For a while, the latter was more attractive, as during the New Deal and World War Two, about 1 million Americans passed through the Communist Party, mainly Eastern European immigrants and African Americans attracted to its militant interracial trade unionism, despite its pro-Soviet loyalties.
But Sanders' socialism is not primarily about reviving one strand of American radicalism. Around the world, socialism remains a potent idea -- to be not just "populist" or "anti-corporate," but anti-capitalist, imagining a world where, indeed, society is organized on the principle "from each according to his or her ability" and "to each according to his or her need." A significant fraction of the world's people, especially in Europe's social democracies and Latin America, define themselves as socialists. Obviously, there are many varieties, from Canada's New Democrats to Cuba's Communists. A few still support one-party rule, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most socialists recognize the absolute necessity of building a pluralist democracy with full rights for everyone, capitalist and anti-capitalist.
The variety of socialism that Bernie Sanders supports is the Scandinavian or Canadian model, in which the government acts on behalf of all of society to guarantee social and human rights: the right to decent health, to education, to employment, to a long life free from worries about old age. Capitalism doesn't just fail to ensure such rights and "social goods," it actively blocks them in its insistence on taking profit anywhere it can.
The senator talks of having a "class analysis," which means analyzing the differences in power and influence between different social classes. If you live in the American fairyland where almost everybody is "middle class," and it's rude to acknowledge the dominance of a permanent monied elite, than such talk is strange. But all societies are organized into classes -- those who produce wealth (workers, including the vast numbers in "service industries"), those who control the wealth produced by others (capitalists), in between the professionals and managers who facilitate this process, including university professors, as well as small businesspeople and the self-employed. Obviously, this is a spectrum, not a set of simple categories, but it is the reality we inhabit, and Sanders speaks for the large majority who are neither capitalists nor part of the professional-managerial class. He asserts the capitalist class has claimed the overwhelming preponderance of power in our political system, and that this domination is wrong: working people, the working class majority, should rule, if this is to be a real democracy. That would be socialism.
What would a working-class government actually look like? Let's concede the obvious: Sanders is no Castro; he does not propose to nationalize all private property and hurry the capitalists into exile. If Sanders turned this country into a social democracy, we would probably look a lot more like Germany, a highly advanced economy in which employees are guaranteed a share of decision-making on all major corporate boards via their unions, and excellent health care and world-class education are free to all. Yet capitalism is also alive and well in Germany, as the social-democratic version of socialism presumes a mixed economy.
If you think, as many on the American Right seem to, that public libraries and public schools and Medicaid and a minimum wage are all evidence of a creeping socialist tyranny, then what Bernie Sanders proposes must seem truly frightening. But in most of the world, it's simply part of common sense. Maybe it's time we catch up with socialism, or just "socialize" our democracy.