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Is Bernie Sanders Dangerous to Socialism?

The presidential candidate falsely equates liberal, social democratic institutions, like Social Security, with socialism.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivers an address on how to spur the US economy at Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, February 9, 2015. (Photo: Brookings Institution)

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“… the mistakes that are made by a truly revolutionary workers’ movement are, historically speaking, immeasurably more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best possible ‘Central Committee.'” – Rosa Luxemburg, democratic socialist, Rosa Luxemburg Reader (p. 265, p. 444).

On October 18, 2015, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders decided that Iowa City would be where he declared what “democratic socialism” means to him. A bit shy of a 13-point program, Sanders did cite some helpful examples of what he considers socialist institutions: Social Security, Medicare and the police. Interestingly, the last time I heard these institutions in the United States referred to as socialist was when they were being attacked by libertarians like Ron Paul and Ross Perot. Apparently the populist independent-turned-Democrat from Vermont and the unrepentant capitalists share the viewpoint that government institutions are inherently socialist.

I could laugh off the reactionary ravings of the right wing. But my heart sank when I saw Sanders’ statements. Empirically and historically incorrect, they endanger any hope for building socialism in the United States through a doublespeak of calling liberal institutions socialist.

It may seem nitpicky to the unfamiliar, but Sanders’ politics are actually what is commonly referred to as social democracy. Social democrats believe that the purpose of the state is to intervene in, but not take over, the capitalist economy in order to promote social justice. The countries that Sanders loves to idolize – the Nordic nations – are often called social democracies. While less broad and generous than the Nordic welfare programs, the United States’ Social Security and Medicare programs can also be called social democratic programs.

In fact, echoing the “Obama is a socialist” sentiments of the modern Tea Party, opponents of Social Security in the late 1930s claimed that it was socialism. But it is very much not. Socialism is ownership by workers of the means of production, or worker control of the economy. The different types of socialism are different proposals of how to accomplish these aims, from the “transitional programs” of Trotskyists to the autonomous collectives of syndicalists.

Social Security, on the other hand, is intervention into the capitalist economy. Rather than building workers’ power, Social Security gives them “social insurance” based on the very same unequal metrics – wages that created the need for the intervention. It is like a consolation prize for losing capitalism! President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal brought on a “golden age of capitalism,” and is still referenced as such by the capitalist apologists of today.

In a time when resistance by people of color against racist police is held as the modern example of “people power,” even some liberals must have been thrown by Bernie Sanders’ classification of police as socialist. But the New York City Police Department is described as at the “cutting edge” of policing, and “pioneering” new ways to be more sensitive to “the community.” Surely this “progressive” police department would demonstrate the “socialism” Sanders says is exemplified by police. But rather than the workers democratically controlling how policing operates, the NYPD is run by a strict hierarchy. There are 13 tiers, from the new officers making $41,975 per year to NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s $205,180. While the department receives $4.8 billion per year from the government, it is talked about like a global franchise. The assertion that the police are a socialist institution is even more preposterous when historically they have functioned to protect the property of the wealthy and prevent leftist uprisings by groups like the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the American Indian Movement.

Bernie Sanders’ statements are inaccurate, but is he dangerous to socialists? Unfortunately, social democrats like Sanders have demonstrated in the past that at crucial moments, they will side with the right wing over actual socialists.

It was December 30, 1918, in Berlin, and Rosa Luxemburg had enough. “Red Rosa” had long been a firebrand in German politics: organizing sex workers, fighting against capital punishment and war, successfully calling multiple general strikes and writing a book on Marxist economics that both compliments and builds on Marx’s Capital. Supporting the kaiser in World War I and resisting the new workers’ councils, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of Germany had proven to be detrimental to the fight for socialism. The war had split the socialists of the country: the SDP believing in reforming capitalism, the Communist Party (which Luxemburg had formed after the war) wanting to replicate a more democratic version of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

“Our solution,” Luxemburg declared in a speech, “offers the only means of saving human society from destruction.” Luxemburg and her Communist Party of Germany threatened the Social Democratic Party with open defiance. So the SDP ordered the Freikorps, right-wingers known as a “precursor to Nazism,” to suppress the rebellion. Luxemburg was captured, tortured and killed. Obviously we do not live in quite as turbulent times as Germany was in then, but the simultaneous rise of populism on both the left (represented by Sanders) and the right (represented by Donald Trump), with no challenge to capitalism itself, should at least concern American leftists.

The socialists of this country must cease pulling punches with Bernie Sanders, often held in the hope that his candidacy is an entryway to actual socialism. When we make such compromises, we underestimate how well Sanders can make his social democratic ideas a dead end in capitalism, rather than a path to socialism. We need transitional programs like Socialist Alternative’s strategy in Seattle. That is pragmatism. There is nothing pragmatic about the dead end of social democracy. And there is nothing revolutionary about socialism in name only.

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