Editorial written by Ben Szioli
Edited by (non-criminal, non-billionaire, non-dead) Jeff Epstein, Citizens’ Media TV
In the 2020 Democratic primary polls, Senator Bernie Sanders sits narrowly in second place, first in line to take the lead when former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign inevitably collapses. With the possibility of frontrunner status come baseless attacks, chief among them: red-baiting, the Red Scare technique of calling your opponent a communist to avoid substantive criticism. Facing the false equivalency between socialism and communism, I hear some Bernie supporters correct their adversaries: “Bernie isn’t a socialist; he’s a democratic socialist.”
And if I hear it one more time, I might snap. A statement like “Bernie isn’t a socialist; he’s a democratic socialist” actually reveals a lack of knowledge.
These Bernie supporters often continue: “Democratic socialism is capitalism with a conscience,” they say, which is just as false as “Bernie isn’t a socialist.” Both these misconceptions (and more) start with a misunderstanding of the word “socialism.”
ALL DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISTS ARE SOCIALISTS
Painting with a broad brush, you can define socialism as an economic system where all resources and infrastructure are publicly owned. This is opposed to capitalism, where resources and infrastructure are privately owned. There are many ways to realize socialism through politics, and therefore there are many political systems involving socialism. Communism is just one such system, based partly on the Soviet model.
Democratic socialism is a totally different (older) political philosophy, in the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg, Eugene Debs, and the UK’s Fabian Society. Right off the bat, then, when you say “democratic socialism is not socialism,” you’re comparing apples and oranges, because democratic socialism and socialism aren’t competing theories: one is an economic system and the other is a political philosophy.
Further, democratic socialism is defined as a philosophy that advocates worker organization and democracy in order to transition to a socialist system. Basically, that means democratic socialists unionize and vote in order to build socialism in the future. It also means that by necessity, all democratic socialists must be socialists, revealing the statement “Bernie isn’t a socialist; he’s a democratic socialist” to be nonsense.
SOCIAL DEMOCRACY IS CAPITALIST
More savvy Bernie supporters, such as progressive commentator Kyle Kulinski, may be chomping at the bit by this point: “But Bernie isn’t a democratic socialist; he’s a social democrat,” they might say.
This is a much more reasonable statement, but it still isn’t true.
Social democracy is a political philosophy combining liberal capitalism and social controls like market interventions or welfare. These social controls protect workers from the inherent flaws of capitalism, preserving and continuing it. In the United States, social democracy is probably best exemplified by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
In the immediate future, social democratic policy and democratic socialist policy overlap. They both advocate expanding welfare to save lives, organizing workers to provide a better bargaining position, and reducing inequality by redistributing wealth in a democratic fashion.
Looking at that definition, it is easy to see why you might think Bernie is a social democrat. His policies fit the bill. However, we would expect the policies of any democratic socialist to line up with those of a social democrat. The difference between the two philosophies can’t be seen in the short term. Looking at the bigger picture, the main difference is just that social democrats are capitalists and democratic socialists are socialists.
BERNIE IS A DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST
Based on this distinction, it’s easy to understand the differences between Bernie and a candidate like Senator Elizabeth Warren. At the July 30th debate, Jake Tapper tried to explore this topic, asking Warren if she stands by her past statements that she is a capitalist. She waffled, but the effect of her answer was “yes.” It was the only moment of tension between her and Bernie all night, as he stood by awkwardly at the podium to Warren’s right.
Bernie, on the other hand, has described himself as “anti-capitalistic” and once said in an interview, “I favor the public ownership of utilities, banks and major industries,” which is essentially a regurgitation of the definition of “socialism” that we discussed earlier. It can’t be clearer. All democratic socialists are socialists, and so is Bernie. Shying away from that truth to win votes is dishonest, and that’s why Bernie still calls himself a socialist to this day.
YES, IT MATTERS
“What’s the harm,” you might ask, “in saying that Bernie isn’t a socialist?” Well, dishonesty aside, it’s bad messaging.
Bernie supporters shouldn’t shy away from conflict between capitalism and socialism. Capitalism has proven itself harmful, and the Red Scare is over. Calling things “communist” won’t work anymore. Bernie isn’t a communist; he’s a democratic socialist. We need not defend communism to defend Bernie. We can just advocate for the best policies. This is a sentiment that candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg has repeated a few times.
Further, by running as a proud democratic socialist, Bernie is mainstreaming the term “socialism,” which is a major goal of democratic socialism. The mainstreaming of socialism is not just conducive to socialist organizing – it’s vital. For that reason, trying to shirk the label of “socialist” is counterproductive to Bernie’s campaign. It emboldens the redbaiters at a time when they have nearly weakened out of existence, and it obscures the contrast between Bernie and the other nineteen presidential candidates.
Every other voice in the 2020 primary would ultimately preserve capitalism if they were given the chance. What makes Bernie different is that he would not. Bernie has to take that contrast and run with it, to show voters that nobody but him can deliver fundamental change. In the end, the plans of every other candidate regress back to the same capitalism that is crushing us today.
Bernie, through socialism, is offering something different. It is foolish for his supporters to avoid a debate that they are likely to win. Bernie owns his socialism; his supporters must own it too.