Skip to main content

Four Takes on Bernie Sanders' Democratic Socialism Speech

Here are four different takes on the speech Bernie Sanders gave on Democratic Socialism. As Kshama Sawant says, "Such an audience for socialist ideas has been unprecedented in the U.S. in several generations."

Bernie Sanders delivers a speech on democratic socialism at Georgetown University on Thursday.,Carlos Barria / Reuters

Kshama Sawant on Bernie Sanders' Democratic Socialism

Sanders spoke today, November 19, at Georgetown University about democratic socialism. Kshama Sawant, Seattle's Socialist Alternative City Councilmember, responds to his message in this video (see transcript below).

Sisters and Brothers,

Socialism is rising.

Just a few minutes ago, Bernie Sanders addressed working people in the United States to speak about democratic socialism. Hundreds of thousands will watch it. Such an audience for socialist ideas has been unprecedented in the U.S. in several generations.

Bernie Sanders is giving voice to the enormous desire for change after a decade of economic crisis where millions lost their jobs and homes and the "recovery" has overwhelmingly benefited the 1%. There is deep anger because the political process has been completely dominated by big corporate interests; structural racism and sexism remain entrenched; and because no decisive measures are being taken to address global warming.

Underlying all of this is a diseased and decaying social system - the failed system of capitalism.

Poll after poll show that people under 30 now support "socialism" and "capitalism" in roughly equal numbers. And we also see that support for socialism leads over capitalism by 12 percentage points within Democratic Party supporters nationally.

But what is socialism?

Socialism is a democratic society based on human need not corporate greed. A society of social, gender and racial justice. A world where black and brown lives matter. A world that will have addressed the crisis of climate change.

How can such a society be achieved?

Take the huge challenge of climate change: 90 companies have caused almost two thirds of all carbon emissions in human history. All for amassing limitless profits. Capitalism is destroying the planet.

We need to take these companies into democratic, public ownership in order to move fully towards renewable energy, and to keep fossil fuels where they belong - under the ground.

Socialism is about working-class democracy, where the 99% make the key decisions, instead of Wall Street and their global capitalist casino.

The 500 largest corporations and giant banks that dominate our economy, control our political system and degrade our environment should be taken into democratic public ownership. This way, the resources of society could be used to benefit society as a whole.

The great German socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, posed the alternatives facing humanity long ago - she said that the future will either be one of socialism or barbarism.

We see barbarism globally today in many forms. We see it in the development of the Islamic State and the horrific attacks in Paris and Beirut last week. We saw it in the barbarous invasion of Iraq by a US government on behalf of a tiny cartel of rapacious oil companies.

The devastating consequences of the Iraq invasion, as well as the preceding decades of imperialist policies, are tearing apart the very fabric of society in the Middle East, fueling the rise of ISIS, and creating the biggest refugee crisis in world history.

We see the shadow of that barbarism here in the US, with huge poverty next to exorbitant wealth, and the rise of anti-immigrant, racist policies emanating from the Republican Party.

We have an alternative to this barbarism. A socialist world.

Bernie said that he supports a coalition of countries to fight ISIS. However all those governments represent the interests of their local capitalist ruling classes. As a socialist, I believe we need a movement of working people, of all nationalities, of all religions or no religion. A movement in the common interests of working people in the Middle East and internationally, to challenge both ISIS and Western imperialism, to create an alternative to the deep humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.

Bernie Sanders spoke today of FDR, the New Deal, and Social Security.

It is no accident that the victories on Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s took place during times of great, historic movements of the working class and youth.

In 1935, when Social Security was passed, workers across America were on strike for a better life. They fought to unionize through sit down strikes. They took over and occupied their factories, and refused to give them back until their unions were won and their demands met.

It was these American workers, this radical labor movement, that won Social Security. Contrary to the popular myth, it was not handed to them by the benevolence of the ruling elite headed by FDR. In fact, Roosevelt had run for office in 1932 on a promise of fiscal conservatism - of shrinking social programs, not expanding them.

The workers movement that won the New Deal was led by socialists.

Similarly, Medicare and Medicaid were won in the context of the radicalized 1960s Civil Rights movement. The battle against segregation, lynchings, against the grotesque brutality of Jim Crow racism. They were won under the pressure of the black activists and also of the developing movement against the war in Vietnam.

Social struggle needs to be combined with building a new political force for the 99%. Bernie Sanders' campaign, which raised $28 million in the past three months and has refused corporate donations, shows the potential for independent working class politics to fight against corporate politics.

Bernie is absolutely correct to call for a federal 15 dollar minimum wage, single payer health care, free college education, and defeating the power of the billionaire class to defend democracy.

That's why I want Bernie Sanders to win the presidency and defeat the agenda of the Billionaire class.

But in order to win, Bernie Sanders needs to take on Wall Street and all those corporations who dominate Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic Party machine.

To win, Bernie Sanders needs a mass movement from below and an organization, independent of corporate cash. He needs a mass party of and for working people.

Let's come together to build such a movement and such a party, against the Republican right wing and independent of big business, Clintonite Democrats.

This race is not a race between two progressive candidates. Hillary Clinton served on the Wal Mart board of directors, while Sanders supports the fight for $15. Hillary Clinton is a hawkish supporter of military intervention and voted for the Iraq war. Clinton is the candidate of Wall Street and the Billionaire class.

Clinton does not deserve the support of working people and progressives and can not be supported by socialists.

Win or lose, Bernie Sanders' inspiring campaign offers a unique opportunity to spread socialist ideas to a new generation, to build an independent mass party of working people, to build a new movement capable of defeating the stranglehold of Wall Street over our society.

We can organize the fight back against the billionaire class. Join me in this struggle, join Socialist Alternative.

The Socialism of Bernie Sanders - Jacobin Magazine

The novelty of Bernie Sanders has long been his adoption of the term "democratic socialist" to describe his political beliefs. On the presidential campaign trail, by way of definition, he's repeatedly pointed to European countries with relatively robust welfare states.

On Thursday, in a major campaign address, he turned back stateside. Sanders cast himself not as the heir of Eugene Debs -- a portrait of whom hangs in his congressional office -- but of Franklin Roosevelt. In short, for Sanders, democratic socialism means New Deal liberalism.

What should socialists of a more radical bent make of such a definition? To what extent is the Sanders campaign good for social forces to his left? And how should we view the foreign policy portion of Sanders's speech, in which he both criticized US intervention and praised NATO?

Three Jacobin contributors give their thoughts:

Nicole Aschoff is the managing editor at Jacobin and the author of The New Prophets of Capital. Connor Kilpatrick is on the editorial board of Jacobin. Paul Heideman is a PhD student in the sociology department at New York University.

Nicole Aschoff

Bernie Sanders is obviously the best presidential candidate, but he is a deeply flawed representative of the Left. Yesterday's speech illustrates why.

Sanders's Keynes-plus story advocates reining in the big banks, building a stronger social safety net, and deepening democracy. Fine. No disagreement there.

But Sanders never mentioned the word capitalism -- a rhetorical maneuver that sidesteps the systemic basis of inequality and poverty, both in the US and globally. Instead of the imperatives of class and competition he decries greed and corruption in a narrative that sits uncomfortably close to "crony capitalism," the Right's favorite villain.

Sanders says we need to take back our government, to implement laws and taxes and programs to dilute the privilege of the rich. That's a good start. But how? FDR's maverick capabilities rested on a foundation of mass working-class resistance. Sanders likes unions to be sure, but building working-class institutions isn't a central part of his story.

Working for a wage is a defining feature of our society. It is only by organizing and gaining control over our work lives that we will build the collective strength to challenge capital.

Finally, Sanders's geopolitical intervention was predictably awful. He didn't liken Syrian refugees to rabid dogs like Ben Carson or shout for more boots on the ground like Hillary Clinton. But his declaration that the problem of ISIS is primarily a problem of religion that "Muslim nations" must solve is willfully blind to the hand-in-glove relationship between capitalism and militarism.

The US has roughly eight hundred military bases globally and a nearly $600 billion annual defense budget that it uses to unrestrainedly pursue its political and economic interests. With his entreaty to build a bigger, better NATO and set aside "historic disputes," Sanders fails to challenge this terrifying reality.

Connor Kilpatrick

There was nothing much surprising about Bernie's speech. This was the democratic socialism not even of Martin Luther King Jr (who nevertheless got some great shout-outs from Sanders) or Michael Harrington, but of FDR and LBJ. Which is to say, not "socialism" in recognizable form.

The Sanders definition seems to be "things that the government does that are good." If this was true, then socialism could exist within any society at any point in time, even one as rigidly capitalist as ours.

It doesn't help when one of his largest celebrity backers -- Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane -- says we could "use a little bit of democratic socialism," as if he were talking about a few more splashes of hot sauce in a bowl of chili.

But having our bloated military does not mean that soldiers live under socialism. The high marginal tax rates and labor union density under President Eisenhower -- as Sanders likes to point out -- did not make us socialist. Even the most reactionary capitalist regimes have some degree of a welfare state. Gen. Pinochet kept Chilean copper mines nationalized even after he launched a coup in the name of neoliberalism. And the intensely anticommunist Singapore has one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds. It does not make it a socialist society in the slightest.

But at the same time -- frustrating as it may be -- the popular association of socialism with Scandinavian social democracy rather than "the country with all the gulags that doesn't exist anymore" is a far better starting point for a renewed anticapitalist politics.

We need to accept how much ground has been lost. Today, just 6.6 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, and the Supreme Court is only a few months away from launching an all-out war on public-sector unionism. In many ways, the US left suffered a fatal wound in the late 1940s, before finally collapsing in the 1970s. Bernie's welfare-state liberalism is radical in today's political context.

So is it important that Sanders even bothers to use the s-word at all? I think so.

Standing on a national stage and using that term implies that there is a radically egalitarian force that is in opposition and even hostile to capitalism -- even if in his particularly strained definition that means that socialism is already here in the form of the US Post Office (and simply on the ropes). Sanders still implies a conflict between the two -- not a corporatist harmony.

It's that definition that we can use. While Sanders thankfully raises the specter of class conflict, it's up to actual socialist activists to define a possible world on the other side of that conflict -- to get a little utopian.

In May, Americans were asked whether they had a favorable opinion of socialism and capitalism. Democrats were split evenly: 43 versus 43 percent. In October, YouGov ran the poll again. This time, 49 percent said they viewed socialism positively, versus 37 percent for capitalism -- a remarkable shift in just five months. I think it's safe to say that that is entirely the work of the Sanders campaign.

If a not-very-politicized liberal was to ask me "what's socialism?" I'd probably go with Richard Wolff's definition and say that it means democratically deciding who makes what, how that's organized, and what we do with the surplus. It knocks down the wall that liberalism erected hundreds of years ago between politics and the economy. And it means a world beyond class society.

But hey, "more welfare state-ism, less billionaire-ism"? We can work with that.

Paul Heideman

As with so much of Bernie Sanders's campaign, his speech defining democratic socialism offered much for American socialists to cheer, and much that could only be greeted with puzzlement, or even disgust.

At the core of the speech was Sanders's argument that his version of democratic socialism is a twenty-first century updating of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. As Sanders pointed out, all of the elements of the New Deal that most Americans take for granted today -- social security, minimum-wage laws, collective bargaining -- were initially condemned as "socialism." Sanders could certainly do worse in terms of inspiration than Roosevelt, who, when asked about business opposition to the New Deal, answered, "I welcome their hatred."

Sanders's updates to the New Deal can only be welcomed by socialists today. He calls for single-payer health care, free public college, and taxing the rich. While none of these would make the US socialist, they would bring about a massive increase in the dismal standard of living of American workers.

Rhetorically, the speech had some nice bits as well. Sanders declared unabashedly that the US has a ruling class, and that progressive change can only come through confronting it. It was, as so often is the case with Sanders, both gratifying and a little strange to hear from a leading presidential contender.

Yet this message also reveals some of the limitations of Sanders's "political revolution." FDR, after all, did not come into office promising the "four freedoms" Sanders has celebrated, but rather a balanced budget. It was only in the face of the growing wave of class struggle in the United States that FDR himself began to embrace more reformist policies, and that a section of the American ruling class could be persuaded that such reforms were necessary to placate that struggle.

This is the contradiction at the heart of Sanders's campaign: while he calls for reforms that no socialist could oppose, his talk of political revolution falls woefully short of the kinds of struggles needed to win those reforms. There is also little evidence at this point that his campaign is providing a spur to those kinds of struggles.

Sanders's talk of revitalizing democracy in American becomes even less convincing when his foreign policy enters the picture. In his speech, Sanders attacked previous US interventions, from the invasion of Iraq to American backing of coups in countries like Guatemala and Iran. Yet his proposed alternatives made it unclear on what grounds he objected to such actions.

In contrast to George W. Bush's unilateral adventure in Iraq, Sanders harkened back to the establishment of the NATO alliance after World War II. But NATO was hardly a force for democracy. The US maintained support for the brutal Greek junta of 1967-74 because of Greece's place in NATO. In Italy, NATO agents helped maintain far-right paramilitary networks linked to the reactionary terrorism attacks of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The suggestions for current foreign policy were not much more encouraging. Sanders lauded King Abdullah II of Jordan (it is never a good look for a socialist to praise a monarch) for his role in the fight against ISIS. Yet Jordan, like most American allies in the Middle East, is a highly repressive country, where criticizing the king entitles someone to three years of imprisonment in the country's notoriously torture-filled jails.

While Sanders is willing to criticize many of the most egregious over-extensions of American empire, it seems he has no interest in contesting the American suppression of democracy across the globe. And this cannot but undermine the struggle for democracy and freedom at home.

Sanders is certainly correct that achieving his reforms will require a political revolution. But it will have to be one that embraces a far more encompassing vision of democracy than he himself has.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)