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Sanders’ Socialism: Neutering a Radical Tradition


Socialism is one of the most abused and misunderstood words in American and human history, and this year’s election is no exception. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is on the receiving end of hysterical attacks from liberal and conservative elites due to his alleged support for socialism. A recent example is the attacks from Princeton sociologist Paul Starr, co-editor for the American Prospect magazine, and former health care advisor to the Clinton presidency.

In an interview on National Public Radio, and in a piece from Politico, Starr conjures up phantoms of lost liberty under the alleged threat of Sanders’ “socialism,” warning that Americans should not take the candidate’s “calls for revolution as just a rhetorical flourish.” Starr retains a vague notion of what socialism is, at least the authoritarian version that was tried in numerous countries, including the Soviet Union. He defines it primarily as “nationalization of industry and economic planning,” although he also concedes that libertarian (bottom-up) socialism dictates “socializing private property” for “communal ownership.” At no point in this definition, however, does Starr indicate that he is aware of the core of citizen-based socialism, as advocated by revolutionaries such as American unionist Eugene Debs, or Russian socialist-anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, or scores of other radicals throughout history. The core of citizen socialism remains and has always been worker ownership of the means of production, to be achieved through the expropriation of the private property of the capitalist class.

Starr completely ignores this point in his Politico essay, as he claims that Sanders’ socialism is demonstrated via his support for a system of progressive taxation on the rich, in pursuit of the redistribution of wealth from rich to middle class, working class, and poor.

Starr complains that Sanders calls for taxation of the rich “at confiscatory levels”: “The Vermont senator calls for increasing the top marginal tax rate on capital gains to 64.2 percent, which would not only be nearly triple the current rate and a peacetime record in the United States but also far higher than in any of the countries Sanders admires. In contrast, Denmark’s tax rate on capital gains—the highest rate in Europe—is 42 percent; France’s, 34.4 percent; Sweden’s, 30 percent; and Germany’s, 25 percent.”

The numbers Starr cites are meant to distinguish Sanders’ “socialism” from the social democratic system that prevails in Scandinavian countries that Sanders admires. Social democracy, as practiced in northern and western Europe, is defined by a commitment to political democracy (through elections), complimented by progressive taxation on the rich, generous social welfare spending for the masses, and greater government regulation of capitalist enterprises. The social democracy model, of course, runs contrary to socialist efforts to expropriate the property of the capitalist class.

Radical historian Paul Street speaks about the disconnect between Sanders’ “socialism” and the actual socialism of Eugene Debs and others (CounterPunch, “Defending Socialism: Foner and Sanders vs. Eugene Debs,” 11/6/2015). Starr seems unaware of the distinction. But those who are familiar with Debs will recognize Starr’s claims to be little more than propaganda. For example, in Debs’ 1905 speech on “Revolutionary Unionism,” he called for the unification of laborers” to “assert their combined power” to “break the fetters of wage slavery.”

Although Sanders has invoked Debs as a source of personal inspiration, I have yet to see him refer to wage slavery as endemic in a capitalist economy, as Debs did. Debs spoke derisively of the business owner, who “holds the exploited wage worker in utter contempt…No master ever had any respect for his slave, and no slave ever had, or ever could have, any real love for his master.” “Prostitution,” Debs wrote, “is a part, a necessary part, of capitalist society.” He called for workers to “assume control of every industry” and for ownership to be “transferred from the idle capitalist to the workers to whom it rightfully belongs.”

Travelling further back in history, the Russian socialist and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin spoke in similar terms about the need for revolution during the late 1860s. As a union activist and member of the International Working Men’s Association (the “First International”) Bakunin spoke with passion about the need to overthrow capitalism, in its place creating a federation of self-governing unions and communes. He opposed any sort of centralized planning (as eventually occurred in the Soviet Union), warning that government socialism was “all the more dangerous because it appears as a shame expression of the people’s will.” Bakunin’s ideology ran contrary to Marx and Engels’ support for centralizing the means of production under the state, as advocated in the Communist Manifesto. In an 1867 speech, “Federalism, Socialism, [and] Anti-Theologism,” Bakunin spoke with contempt of capitalism. To owners of industry

“go all the benefits as well as all the corruptions of present-day civilization: the wealth, the luxury, the comfort, the well-being, the sweetness of family life, the exclusive political liberty with the power to exploit the labor of millions of workers and to govern them as they please and as profits them…As to the representatives of manual labor, those countless millions of proletarians or even the small landholders, what is left for them? To them go misery without end, not even the joys of family life – since the family soon becomes a burden for the poor man – ignorance, barbarity, and we might say even an inescapable brutality, with the dubious consolation that they serve as a pedestal to civilization, to the liberty and corruption of the few.”

These are strong words, representing a fundamental rejection of the entire economic system upon which the west was built. Contrast this with the rhetoric of the Sanders campaign. A recent example is Sanders’ Iowa “Caucus Night Speech” following his neck-and-neck finish with Hillary Clinton: “What the American people understand is this country was based and is based on fairness. It is not fair when the top 1/10th of one percent today owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. It is not fair when the 20 wealthiest people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America. So you guys ready for a radical idea? Well, so is America. And that radical idea is, we are going to create an economy that works for working families not just the billionaire class.” Sanders went on to demand that it was “Wall Street’s time to help the middle class,” calling for a variety of progressive political reforms, to the cheers of supporters. Sanders spoke of the “starvation wages” that have emerged in the U.S. among the working poor. Given, such language is quite powerful in directing attention to the injustices of the modern gilded age. But nothing in these comments suggests a commitment to the kind of revolutionary program advocated by socialists like Bakunin and Debs.

A closer look at “The Issues” on Sanders’ website reveals the details of his promised “political revolution,” which seeks to reduce income and wealth inequality. Sanders’ proposals include:

* An increase in the minimum wage so that it reaches a living wage level, with workers earning enough to pay for basic needs.

* Public works spending to rebuild the United States’ aging infrastructure, in addition to a youth jobs program.

* Opposition to future “free trade” agreements and a repeal of existing ones such as NAFTA.

* A push for pay equality between men and women via legislation mandating equal pay for equal work.

* Free college tuition for public colleges and universities, to be paid for by a tax on Wall Street investors.

* Expansion of Social Security benefits and disability benefits.

* A single payer, universal health care system to replace for-profit health care.

* Support for the Employee Free Choice Act, to encourage the rapid re-unionization of the country.

* The restoration of Glass-Steagall-style anti-monopoly rules to break up the big banks.

* Investment in renewable energy, including electronic vehicles, a move toward mass, high-speed rail transit, and the introduction of a carbon tax on fossil-fuel polluters.

* “Getting big money out of politics” via the repeal of Citizens United, and mandating the public financing of elections.

* Legislation requiring up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, to be covered by private and public employers.

* A complete reworking of the federal tax code, with an eye toward a stronger progressive tax system.

The above proposals mimic those already existing throughout much of the first world. They are hardly the stuff of “socialism,” contrary to Sanders’ claims. Nowhere in this platform does Sanders lay out a plan for the expropriation of the means of production, which is a requisite of socialist revolution. The only item on the list that comes remotely close to socialism is the establishment of universal health care. This initiative by itself, however, does not put a country on the path to socialism if it rejects either the nationalization of industry, or a worker overthrow of the capitalist economic system.

Starr prefers to look at Sanders’ tax proposals as proof of his commitment to socialism. It is here that his views are truly misguided. Sanders demands “that the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes,” which is a far cry from eliminating corporations altogether in favor of worker ownership of the economy. His income tax proposal calls for a top marginal tax rate for the wealthy of 54 percent, which looks modest compared to the top tax rate under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961, which stood at 91 percent. What of Starr’s claim that Sanders’ taxes on investors will amount to defacto socialism via the “confiscation” of the capitalist classes’ wealth? The introduction of a financial transactions tax would certainly be a strong, progressive step for the U.S., as would Sanders’ plan to increase the estate tax, close business tax loopholes, and seek to shutdown offshore tax havens. The increase of the capital gains tax represents an unwanted burden as far as American investors are concerned. But these taxes, when combined, do not come anywhere close to socialist expropriation. Consider for a moment the estimate of the Tax Foundation that under Sanders’ tax initiatives, the wealthiest one percent in the U.S. will see their after-tax incomes decline by nearly 18 percent overall. Obviously, 18 percent represents a significant concession on the part of the rich, but socialism it is not.

The discussion of the Sanders campaign in “mainstream” media discourse is heavily propagandistic, completely failing to provide audiences with an accurate understanding of the difference between socialism and social democracy, the latter of which Sanders actually embraces, despite his rhetorical support for the former. A Lexis Nexis search for the first two months of 2016 (January 1 through February 25) finds that the “liberal” New York Times ran 73 stories, or more than 36 a month, discussing the Sanders campaign alongside references to “socialist” politics or to “socialism.” In contrast, the paper printed just two stories discussing Sanders and referencing a “social democrat” approach or discussing “social democracy.” During the same period, MSNBC ran 45 stories associating Sanders with socialism, and just three stories associating him with social democracy. At Fox News, 130 stories were run discussing Sanders and socialism, with just one story referencing social democracy. In that single story, Fox conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer incorrectly referenced both Sanders and Obama as embracing European style social democracy, despite Obama’s consistent rejection of this approach. In short, the mass media are more than happy to follow political elites’ lead in preventing any informed, intellectual discussion of the difference between social democracy and socialism.

The perversion of public discourse on socialism means that Americans – even those that claim to support this economic philosophy – are unlikely to comprehend its actual meaning. A Gallup survey from June 2015 found that certain demographic groups, including the young and Democrats, were more likely to hold positive views of socialism. Sixty-nine percent of those aged from 18-29 expressed a willingness to vote for a presidential candidate who was a “socialist,” while 59 percent of Democrats also supported such a candidate. Overall, 47 percent of all those surveyed indicated they would support a “socialist” candidate, but this finding probably means little considering the abuse of the term in mass discourse. Conservative Democrats like Barack Obama are lambasted continually in right-wing propaganda as socialist, communist, and Marxist. Liberal-left progressives support Sanders’ “socialism,” in contradiction to its traditional meaning. Under these conditions, socialism counts for little when reflecting on its potential for promoting revolutionary change.

Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2015). He can be reached at:

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