Sanders, The Democrats, and the Phony “Socialist” Bogeyman

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Detail of “We are Here, We are Many, We are One” by Drake Deknatel

            In my view, any of the Democratic candidates would have been preferable to Trump. I am particularly troubled though, that Senator Sanders has drawn the kind of criticism he has. The resistance to him shows how little the average American really understands about history.

            Most people apparently think socialism is just a soft form of communism. Not so!

Many early communists despised the socialists almost as much as they hated the capitalists. The two ideologies are fundamentally opposed. Communism preached the need for a class war—a violent revolution that would place the working class in charge of things. Socialism offered an antidote to that violent conflict.

            Like the communists, Socialists realized the crushing impact imposed by the industrial revolution. Traditional ways of life were destroyed, child labor became normal, cities were turned into stinking slums. While the communists wanted to turn this situation into a violent revolution, socialists simply realized that the middle, lower and working classes—people who actually produced things, should get a fair share of the profits and other reasonable forms of relief. 

            As a result, almost every country in Western Europe eventually evolved into what American conservatives call a “socialist state.” Apart from name-calling, what does that term “socialism” actually mean? Any viable, enlightened, modern state would realize that its survival in a highly globalized competitive world would include ensuring the good health, good education, affordable rent, and reasonable wages for its population.

 A recent list of states that have higher per capita incomes than the US includes almost every state in Scandinavia and Western Europe. It also includes Australia, Canada, Japan, I could go on and on.  The list includes almost every major US ally. In general, these states all have better rates of literacy, lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy. Life expectancy in the US (once a basic measure of a “developed” country) has recently been dropping. That is a truly shocking indicator.

            For the most part these so called “socialist” states provide healthcare, affordable higher education and have rate higher on happiness indexes. Many even have even better ratings on Democracy and rule of law. They also spend much less on their militaries. In my view, what right-wing ideologues call socialism is really just civilization 101. It is essentially the continuing evolution of what viable nation-states do for their people.

            The simple truth is that pure capitalism has no moral or ethical content—it is based on the crude idea that life is just a dog eat dog fight for survival. The morality and ethics in our society don’t come from capitalism, they come from other cultural inheritances—religious or humanistic. If you read the history of the labor movement in England, for example, you will find it has borrowed more from its Christian adherents than it ever really did from hard-core Marxism.

One of the most sinister and misguided trends in the US in recent years is the fascination of the conservative rightwing to glorify the works of Ayn Rand. A bitter product of Stalinism, she preached that selfishness was a virtue! Curiously, not a single major religious figure of the last 2,000 years has ever embraced that notion.

Rand’s ideas turn basic morality upside down. Ask yourself: who benefits from that moral confusion? Only the predators. Nothing has done more to destroy traditional values in the last century than capitalism. Furthermore, nothing is more antithetical to democracy that a pure monopoly. Unregulated capitalism tends to lead to pure monopoly. Monopolies tend to destroy themselves. At the very least, they eventually eliminate what most people cite as the great advantages of capitalism: competition (which supposedly keeps prices for consumers down) and creativity, (which becomes irrelevant if you have no competitors and are making a ton of cash just as things are.) That is why Marx and others claimed capitalism would eventually be destroyed by its own internal contradictions.

            At the end of the 19th century, civilization’s choice seemed to be between a ruthless, Darwinian capitalist power structure and the option of violent revolution by the oppressed and impoverished working class. Socialism was the moderate, peaceful and just alternative to a dog-eat-dog world. That is why the governments of Western Europe evolved into various forms of socialism. It works.

            In a 1951 article entitled “Why Socialism?” Albert Einstein, one of the most brilliant minds of modern times, wrote that: “The real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development.” Tellingly, he added “Socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end.”     

            If someone were to ask me if I believe in “Democratic Socialism”, the answer would be easy. “Yes, I really like Democracy, and I like people too. I think people should be treated fairly.”  It’s really as simple as that. We live in a nation where the 1% control almost 90% of the wealth. Can that be fair, just, or sustainable? I think not. In the sense that conservatives use the term, almost any public spending in the service of the public good could be viewed as “socialist.” So what?

            By historical standards, Sanders is really a moderate. I don’t understand why so many Democrats are so uncomfortable with him. I suspect it is just largely the “socialist” label. Democrats should face the simple fact that the extreme right wing will keep calling any democrat, no matter how moderate, a “socialist” as long as we (as a party) fail to clarify what the word really means.

            I well remember how Democrats in the late 80’s failed to explain or defend the term “liberal.” They just let it become a pejorative. We have all been paying the price ever since.

            That said, I think Sanders’ supporters should face the facts. Bernie is certainly too old to run again, but he has transformed the party. Clearly, Sanders also realizes it is time to just get rid of Trump. Sanders supporters should stop trying to score points at Biden’s expense. In the 20’s and 30’s of the last century lots of progressive parties which had serious differences with each other chose to create “United Fronts’ against fascism. That is kind of the reality and need we face today. That is how bad things really are.

Sanders’ endorsement of Biden seemed sufficiently full-throated for me.  I don’t think Biden supporters should complain. I also don’t think Sanders and his supporters should feel at all defeated: they have made it possible to talk about “socialism” and what it really means again. Given how fiercely this country has been propagandized about socialism, that is a tremendous breakthrough

As I see it, the failure of Sanders to gain traction in this election is largely about two things. The first is the fact that most of the other Democrats have moved so far in his direction in terms of policy that the race starts to break down over age, gender, race, etc. All of that divided the progressive vote. The second issue is the unexpected coronavirus pandemic. Trump’s colossal mishandling of this catastrophe (coupled with the sheer exhaustion of life with Trump) have led many to simply long for a return to some sense of balance. The vast majority of Democratic voters in the primaries have decided it is not time to radically revise the whole system—when you are drowning, you don’t really want a swimming lesson, you just want to get to shore.

I’m not sure voters made the right choice, but it seems to be the majority choice. The thing now is to make that choice work. The realities of “re-starting” the economy may bring on different choices later on down the road. The progressive wing should work for that, even while we should all do our best to get rid of Trump.

As to “Socialism” even if we totally embraced Sanders’ entire program, in terms of the political spectrum in most developed democratic countries, it would probably only bring us back to the moderate center.  The job for progressives is to get Biden elected and then to continue to educate people about what socialism really means.

The truth is, the GOP will call any Democrat a socialist, no matter what their real position is. For the GOP, given the steady diet of nonsense and disinformation Americans have been fed for years, it is just a cheap way to score easy points. The only cure for this is real education about what the word “Socialism” really means.

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