If Bernie Were A Socialist

by Rich Rubenstein on February 23, 2016 · 2 comments

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If Bernie Sanders were actually a socialist, what would his program for America look like?

In our current polarized political atmosphere, the right wing thinks that Bernie is at least a socialist, if not a closet Commie. Many professed leftists are sure he isn’t one of them. The confusion isn’t reduced by the fact that Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” which, it turns out, means that he admires European-style capitalism.

Bernie believes in taxing the rich in order to finance programs of assistance to the poor. He believes in trying to make business (especially the banking business) more competitive and socially responsible. He believes in a health insurance system like Canada’s, strong trade unions like Germany’s, and the tuition free public college education that students enjoy in the Scandinavian countries, Chile, and Malta, among other places. And, of course, he believes in higher wages and better working conditions for American workers.

If Bernie is a socialist, so was my grandpa Louie, who thought that Franklin Roosevelt, the savior of American capitalism, was the Second Coming.

But, in fact, Bernie’s domestic politics (we don’t quite know what is foreign policy is) are considerably to the right of FDR’s. If he were a socialist, one would expect him to be at least a New Deal Democrat. Yet Roosevelt’s New Deal stood for certain principles that Sanders has not – and probably will not – embrace. For example:

• A decent job is a right, not a privilege

One might have expected Bernie to make the right to a job a major campaign issue, but, as Jeff Spross writes in The Week (2/9/16), “so far Sanders has not focused on the failure to reach full employment with the same bulldog ferocity he brings to single-payer or inequality or breaking up the big banks.” There is a reason for this. A right to employment implies a Federal remedy when that right is denied. Its corollary is a second principle:

• If private enterprise cannot provide full employment, government should act as the employer of last resort.

FDR’s administration decided during the Great Depression that if private enterprises could not employ Americans willing to work, the government would do so. Between 1933 and 1943, the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and other federal agencies put millions of people to work on projects needed by the country, ending these wildly popular programs only when World War II spending and conscription eliminated unemployment.

The idea that the government should function as an employer of last resort seems radical today, but it was once considered nothing more than common sense – a form of social responsibility rather than of socialism. Another common sense principle, closely related to an enforceable right to jobs, was this:

• When the infrastructure needs rebuilding, it is government’s responsibility to plan, coordinate, and accomplish this task.

The unemployed workers employed by federal agencies in the 1930s did not just do random jobs; they worked on preserving the natural environment, rebuilding roads and bridges, and creating new industrial infrastructure based on emerging forms of energy like hydropower. The New Deal’s crown jewel was the Tennessee Valley Authority. The largest regional planning project in American history, TVA supported the creation of publicly owned dams, navigation facilities, power plants, and electric utilities in a region comprising seven impoverished southern states.

If Bernie Sanders were a good New Dealer, he would be calling for massive public investment in the infrastructure of America’s impoverished cities and rural areas. The moderate New Dealer, Harry Truman, offered war-ravaged Europe the Marshall Plan. Couldn’t Bernie the democratic socialist offer the American poor at least as much?

Finally, if he were as far to the left as Roosevelt was, Bernie Sanders would study programs like the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), NRA (National Recovery Administration), and PWA (Public Works Administration), compare them with Germany’s current Industrial Policy, and call for implementation of the principle that

• The health of American and world society requires that socioeconomic development be democratically planned, not simply determined by market forces.

This sort of planning does not mean putting private enterprise out of business. The U.S. military-industrial sector is both planned and privatized, and private corporations in Germany are, if anything, too strong even under that nation’s Industrial Policy. It does mean insisting that the Market is not God, and recognizing that the only real cure for the current marketization of politics is democratization of the economy.

Economic democratization will no doubt mean creating some new political institutions. Even now, however, Sanders could call for a program of economic conversion that cuts U.S. military spending in half and devotes the same resources to rebuilding the civilian infrastructure. Let him stop waffling about defense and do that! Let him demand, as well, that what U.S. law calls “management rights” be revised to give labor unions and community organizations an effective voice in making crucial decisions on issues like automation and the removal of companies to other locations. And, let him proclaim that, if current downward trends are to be reversed, American society needs at least as much economic and social experimentation today as it did in the 1930s.

Still, some would say, this platform would not be socialist. It would not advocate public ownership of the means of production.

That’s ok. If Bernie would just come out as a left-wing New Dealer, many of us would applaud . . . and join his movement.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anje February 23, 2016 at 6:40 pm

Nice piece but Sanders would still be shilling for the Democrats and still shuffling dissent into the dead end of electoral politics, exactly what FDR did at a time when capitalism was actually threatened.

You lost me completely at if Bernie Sanders were a truer New Dealer we would be interested in joining his movement. Count me out UNLESS the most important plank of all, he abandons the Democrats and builds a massive, independent 3rd party with its power in the streets and communities of this country. ONLY independent action will move us forward; everything else, no matter how radical-sounding, is a step to the back of the bus. They don’t call the Democratic Party the graveyard of movements for social change for nothing.


Rich Rubenstein February 23, 2016 at 7:06 pm

I agree with Anje’s aim to create an independent working people’s party. But calling for such a party doesn’t create one. Splitting the Democratic Party seems to me to be part of a strategy for change, and that will happen if the movement currently associated with Sanders moves far enough left. I take Anje’s point that FDR (with the aid of military spending) saved capitalism. He and his successors did this by abandoning all the New Deal doctrines described in my blog. (There was no expansion or repeat of the TVA, CCC, WPA, etc. Roosevelt himself said that “Dr. Win the War has replaced Dr. New Deal.”) These were doctrines that he “borrowed” in the first place from socialists, and I think they have the power to help socialism revive.


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