Is a “Socialist” Really Unelectable? The Potential Significance of the Sanders Campaign


According to a survey taken by Pew Research Center in late 2011, 49% of 18 to 29 year-olds in this country had at that time a positive view of socialism, whereas only 43% viewed it negatively. (For older people, the negative figure was 60%.) The same poll showed that this age group was more inclined to view capitalism negatively (47%) than positively (46%).

I have not seen an updated poll but doubt that many youth have become more supportive of the existing system in the several years since.

These figures surprised the researchers, but they should not be so hard to explain. The main reason is surely the failure of capitalism to better young people’s lives or give them hope. The collapse of manufacturing, the scarcity of good jobs, the high costs of education and crippling college loan debts, poverty that keeps them at home with their parents—that’s what capitalism means to them.

The Occupy Movement (beginning three months before this poll was released) drew dramatic attention to income inequality; its most enduring legacy is the popularization of the awareness of that staggering statistic Bernie Sanders keeps repeating: one-tenth of the top 1% controls 90% of the country’s wealth. Views are surely also affected by the receding impact of Cold War brainwashing, the sort inflicted on people of my generation from childhood via such insidious anti-Soviet propaganda as the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

(I’m quite sure my first exposure to words like “capitalism” and “imperialism” were in those conversations between the animated trench coat-wearing spies Boris and Natasha. In those days, in this country, the very term “capitalism” was avoided due to its use by communist critics; “free market economy” was the preferred euphemism.)

Post-Cold War Revival of Interest

Then (when I was in my 30s) the Cold War ended, suddenly, unexpectedly, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet client regimes in Eastern Europe, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and dissolution of the Soviet Union. This complex series of events was, in this country, generally depicted as an “inevitable” collapse of a “system that failed.” Neocon theorist Francis Fukuyama crowed that capitalism had decisively triumphed; he even pronounced “the End of History.”

This was of course a response to the Marxist conception of capitalism as one mode of production, with an origin in time, and a terminus in time, just like other antiquated modes of production including slavery and feudal serfdom. A system that produces the basis for collective ownership of the means of production and for state planning designed to serve the needs of the masses. Marx did not think socialism would be the “end of history,” but that it would—over an indeterminate span of time—produce ever greater equality and ultimately lead to a classless society (communism). He (echoed by Lenin) envisioned the ultimate “withering away of the state” and was perhaps optimistic about the prospects of attaining that end within a century or so.

Mao Zedong more realistically suggested that the transition from socialism (in which, he emphasized, classes and class struggle continue to exist) to communism would be a tortuous path with ups and downs, including periods of capitalist restoration. In any case, in the Marxist view, the “end of history” is anything but the triumph of capitalism. It is the end of the human record as a chronicle of class struggle, which began with the emergence of class division in the Neolithic period (following at least 100,000 years in which modern humans were not divided into classes and lived in a state of “primitive communism”). It is the beginning of (and return to) classless society.

If that long-term ideal and prognosis seems unrealistic, so in Marx’s time television, nuclear weapons, space travel, the mapping of the genome, would all have seemed hard to imagine. The human mind is capable of spectacular achievements. Surely the construction of an egalitarian society is among them, and in the short term, at least, the construction of a society far less unequal, less unfair and less misery-producing than capitalism.

The cocky declarations of capitalism’s triumph have, post-2008, given way to more sober evaluations of the contradictions within the system, and at least tacit recognition that is will be crisis-prone for the foreseeable future. Youth need not be steeped in Marx or his vision of historical change to at least be attracted by this much-vilified “socialism” (of some stripe) as an alternative. As the World Social Forum organizers say: another world is possible.

The Sanders Phenomenon

Perhaps Sen. Bernie Sanders read about the Pew poll in 2011 and began to think that it might be feasible to run for president a few years later, specifically as an unapologetic “democratic socialist.” Perhaps he projected that he’d have the youth on his side. (Indeed, of the voters in the Iowa caucuses he received over 80% of the 18-29 year-olds’ votes.)

When Sanders announced his campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination last April, the pundits raised their eyebrows. A socialist? Interesting, they thought, mildly amused. They could not deny that Sanders was a popular senator, and for the most part mainstream politician serving in Congress for a quarter of a century; he had to be indulged, treated with a modicum of respect.

Clinton supporters in the Democratic Party however, including Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), and Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), by September were openly questioning Sanders’ “electability.” But as Sanders’ star rose and crowds mushroomed, he met with greater recognition as a potential threat to the system’s (favored) candidate who was expecting a coronation. Hillary Clinton started to attack the senator’s record on gun control; Sanders replied he had a D- rating from the National Rifle Association. She had her daughter Chelsea charge (in Iowa on Jan. 12) that his health care plan would “strip millions and millions and millions of people of their health insurance”—an accusation quickly and easily refuted.

A poll released on Jan. 12 showed Sanders leading Clinton in the Iowa primary 49 to 44 per cent (up from 40 to 51 on Dec. 15). So it was definitely time to make the S-word an issue. On Jan. 19 David Brock, the head of Clinton’s super-PAC “Correct the Record,” appeared on Bloomberg TV to gravely address “the elephant in the room.” “He’s a socialist,” growled Brock.  “Think of what the Republicans will do with the fact that he’s a socialist in the fall.” (The Sanders campaign responded that Brock is “a mud-slinging, right-wing extremist” who tried to destroy Anita Hill, the African-American woman who 25 years ago accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment as Congress considered his nomination as Supreme Court justice.)

Brock followed up on Jan. 21 by claiming ridiculously that “black lives don’t matter much to Bernie Sanders.” The same day, “Morning Joe” on MSNBC highlighted Sanders’ self-identity as a socialist, featuring a clip of Clinton-supporter Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) declaring: “I think it would be absolutely impossible for a self-declared socialist to win states like Missouri.”

But on his program, Joe Scarborough (former Florida Republican Congressman) surprisingly declared he thought it quite possible Sanders could win, to the evident consternation of a Clinton supporter among his guests firmly declaring Bernie to be unelectable. Co-host and daughter of Cold War strategist Zbigniew Brzezinsky, Mika Brzezinsky, just looked puzzled as usual.

Flipping the channel I watched Chris Cuomo, son of the New York state governor and super-opinionated co-host of CNN’s “New Day,” interrogating another Democratic strategist about the popularity of a “self-avowed socialist” and radiating indignation.

Cuomo seems even more alarmed now, after the virtual tie in Iowa. You just want to tell him: “Look at the Pew polls, you clueless child of privilege and power, who uses your cushy job as a pulpit as a ‘journalist’ to channel Clinton campaign talking points. Don’t go so apoplectic. Young people don’t share your revulsion at socialism. A lot of them like the idea.”

The South Carolina “Firewall”

But let us assume that this line of attack, emphasizing the “unelectability of a socialist in America” becomes intensified over time. It likely won’t work in the New Hampshire primary, where Sanders is better positioned to win than he was in Iowa. (And the jury’s not really even out yet on the result of the Iowa contest.) Hillary’s hurting, but her campaign posits the South Carolina primary as her “firewall”—a sure victory after a likely setback in New Hampshire.

African-American MSNBC anchor Joy-Ann Reid (and open Hillary supporter) has been opining that Sanders would have a hard time “as a white, elderly socialist from a liberal state” to win the South Carolina primary. But you have to wonder. If young whites in Iowa stunned the pundits, might not young blacks in South Carolina do it too? Is Reid suggesting that African-Americans are more disposed to love capitalism than others in this country, and to prefer 68-year-old white Wall Street women to a 74-year-old socialist white man? Because the Clintons have done so much for the African-American community?

The Sanders campaign might be able—in its direct, matter-of-fact way that strikes many as refreshingly honest—to point out that when Hillary was a Goldwater Republican (in college in 1965), Bernie was organizing civil rights protests with the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He doesn’t wear his Civil Rights credentials on his sleeve though. They were part and parcel of his youthful commitment to his particular conception of socialism.

The campaign could point out that the Clintons have hardly on balance contributed to racial justice in America, considering that the massive wave of incarcerations of young black men for victimless crimes in this country surged during the Bill Clinton presidency, leading to the current state of affairs in which there are more young African-Americans in prison, not only than young blacks in college, but more than young blacks in slavery in 1860. (It’s worth mentioning too that Hillary’s signal achievement as Secretary of State was the U.S./NATO-led destruction of North Africa’s most affluent nation, Libya, resulting in a vicious wave of racist attacks on various black African communities. She’s done so much for black people!)

One should not assume that black voters in South Carolina are so enamored of the Clintons that they will ignore such issues, while recoiling from “socialism.” The history of ostensibly socialist movements is in fact filled with African-Americans, including Harry Haywood, D. E. B. DuBois, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many others. The celebrated poet Langston Hughes was a self-described socialist and prophet of revolution. Dreams deferred, he wrote, might explode.

Among the most prominent and respected African-American supporters of Bernie Sanders is Cornel West, formerly a professor at Harvard and Princeton and now at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Author of the best-selling Race Matters (1994) and many other works, he is a Christian philosopher who studies the prophetic tradition in the African-American Church and integrates aspects of Marxism into his thought. He is a leader of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Like Sanders, he inveighs against the mainstream media, understanding this to be an arm of corporate America, leveling his sharpest attacks on the cable channel most slavishly devoted to the Democratic Party establishment.

“MSNBC and company—this is the Karl Rowanization of black journalists,” he declared recently, referring to Carl Rowan, the African-American journalist in the 1960s who had his own TV show and whom West calls “the most honored mainstream Negro of his day.” (Rowan attacked Malcolm X and disparaged Martin Luther King. He served the power structure that employed him, as does anchor Joy-Ann Reid in her unabashed allegiance to the Goldman-Sachs candidate Hillary.)

West, who on his Facebook page calls Sanders “a long-distance runner with integrity in the struggle for justice for over 50 years,” clearly believes that Sanders can win significant support among African-Americans in the South Carolina primary, maintaining momentum and defying those whistling in the dark about his “unelectability.” And one can predict that the more threatening Bernie becomes, the more raised eyebrows, knitted brows, and worried frowns will appear on the faces of media “experts,”  “news analysts” and “senior correspondents” whose training does not allow them to see things as they really are.

Let them (as MSNBC’s least-liked anchor Chris Matthews has been doing)  lecture the Bernie kids on how he’s just an idealistic “revolutionary” whereas Hillary, while sharing the same basic goals, realizes (given her maturity and vaunted “experience”) that change has to be “evolutionary”—as though there have been consistent, positive, incremental changes in the world due to her efforts over the last two decades. Let us see how effective this arrogant condescension will prove.

A Teaching Moment

This could be a teaching moment. Let us suppose that as Bernie is more and more barraged with such primitive red-baiting and the supporters simply get more whipped up. In Iowa 43% of likely voters identified themselves as socialists (whatever they meant by that) according to a January poll. When you tell people who don’t share your tired old Cold War blinders, and are attracted to a self-described socialist, that they can’t really be serious, that they can’t really expect to win, because…well, there’s just too much opposition to socialism—you just might provoke some heated debate. A national conversation about what socialism entails might finally become possible. That would be a good thing.

A lot of people on the radical left—which is where I locate myself—have focused their attention on trashing Sanders as just another bourgeois politician, not a “real” socialist but someone trying to mobilize the youth vote (as Obama did in 2008) to maintain the Democrats in power. Some argue that he’s a “sheepdog” herding his followers ultimately into Hillary’s camp. (This view presupposes of course that she is the inevitable nominee.)

Those questioning his socialist credentials (and his call for a “political revolution”) argue that he is really campaigning for the system.  He’s hoodwinking the people.

Some examples. Osborne Hart, Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, declares, “Capitalism is the problem workers face. Sanders’ platform is for reforming capitalism. The SWP points to the example of the Cuban Revolution, where working people overturned capitalism.”

The Socialist.Worker website similarly contends: “We need to win the new left born out of Occupy, public-sector union struggles and the Black Lives Matter movement to breaking with the Democratic Party and building an electoral alternative as a complement to struggle from below. Bernie Sanders’ campaign inside the Democratic Party is an obstacle to that project.”

Steven Argue of the Revolutionary Party warns, “The left and working class in general has much to lose by backing Bernie Sanders…a scoundrel faux socialist, war monger, and supporter of America’s brutal police.”

The Revolutionary Communist Party contends: “The Bernie Sanders campaign—like those of every candidate who the ruling class allows to be taken seriously—essentially takes as its starting point stabilizing, strengthening, and ultimately enforcing the whole structure of a world dominated, exploited, and oppressed by the U.S. empire. And telling people that those interests are their interests.”

And: “Throw off your blinders and get into BA [RCP chair Bob Avakian]!  A whole better world really is possible and you need to be part of the solution and not—like Bernie Sanders—part of the problem.”

What is more important now: sectarian sniping or popularizing an ideal?

Reading these ringing declarations by left sects, I think to myself: What is more important? To broadcast to people what they already know—that Sanders’ conception of “socialism” is really Scandinavian-style capitalism (capitalism with a “human face”) and not socialism in the Marxian sense, which results from the overthrow of the capitalist class?

Or: to note and appreciate the historical significance of Sanders’ campaign in returning the very term “socialism” to public discourse and emboldening people to openly identify with a concept anathema to Wall Street, the 1%, and the entire (widely hated) political establishment?

Cornel West appears to choose the latter option. This is all the more interesting in that he has been friendly for years with the RCP that’s trashing Bernie while West stumps for him. The irony is that the above-mentioned Avakian owes West big time.

Chairman Bob left the U.S. in 1980 for Paris and was not seen again in public until, with great fanfare, his party announced in 2003 that he had given talks on the East and West Coast and that these were available for purchase on DVD. It was not clear then or now that Avakian had permanently returned to the U.S. from Paris; the RCP refuses to comment on his whereabouts. But since few had seen him for twenty-three years, his sudden reappearance if only on video was a cause of jubilation among his followers.

Cornel West wrote words of praise for Avakian (as a “long-distance runner in the freedom struggle against imperialism, racism and capitalism”) that appeared as a blurb on the cover of his autobiography published in 2005. (Notice the similarity to his recent description of Sanders.)

He signed a statement in 2007 that appeared in the New York Review of Books—“Dangerous times demand courageous voices. Bob Avakian is such a voice.” The expensive ad was essentially designed to show anyone interested that Avakian had lots of well-known friends and that if the state went after him, they would have his back.  Many intellectuals asked to sign, including Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky (not to mention myself), politely declined, noting that Avakian was under no specific legal threat and that the ad seemed designed to imply that he was in order to get signers to publicly aver that they “have come away from encounters with Avakian provoked and enriched in our own thinking,” declare that his “ability…to freely function” was “a concern,” urged that people “engage with the thoughts of Bob Avakian and bring them into what needs to be a rich and diverse dialogue,” and “[serve] notice to this government  that we intend to defend” Avakian’s rights “to freely advocate and organize for his views.”

West was one of the signatories. West also urged support for RCP bus tour in 2012 designed to promote Avakian and interviewed him for a PRI radio program in 2013.

But the slowly resurfacing Avakian hadn’t given a public talk since 1980. As I understand it, the plan was for a dramatic Second Coming at a prestigious venue in the company of well-known public intellectual. Thus in November 2014 West joined Avakian for a “dialogue on revolution and religion” at the historic Riverside Church in Harlem. An overflow crowd heard the long-winded Avakian preach for two hours, interrupted increasingly by calls from the crowd for him to wrap up and let West take the podium. West spoke about half an hour, and then there were questions from the audience.

It wasn’t really a dialogue, and had little analytical content, but that was probably not the point. “BA”—as he’s affectionately called by adherents of his cult (officially, the “culture of appreciation, promotion and popularization” of a man the RCP officially describes as “a rare and precious leader” who as “as simple fact” is the only person who could have developed Marxism such that “today being a communist means following Bob Avakian and the new path that he has forged”) had shown that he was real and ready for prime time.

In sum: West has helped midwife the public rebirth of BA, who thinks Sanders is in the enemy camp. But West is a far firmer ally of Sanders than he is of “the rare and precious leader.”

Who’s got blinders on?

What does it tell us that even the public intellectual closest to the RCP—someone who longs for a revolutionary uprising as much as Avakian—is implicitly denounced by the RCP as “part of the problem” by supporting Sanders? It shows that the party is totally out of touch with reality. All it can do is say “drop your blinders and get into BA!”

And the other radical left sects tend to similarly dismiss or attack the Sanders campaign as being short of really revolutionary, really socialist. As though there’s any party out there really rooted in the masses, able to develop what Mao called the “mass line”—any party whose burning potential is being stymied by Bernie’s sudden popularity!

West’s endorsement of “Brother Bernie” is in his words “not an affirmation of the neo-liberal Democratic Party or a downplaying of the ugly Israeli occupation of the Palestinians” (which Sanders has not significantly opposed). Of course not. It’s a gamble that Sanders’ ongoing attack on Wall Street and open acknowledgement of a “democratic socialist” identity will lead to an electoral victory that will curb the power of the top stratum of capitalist parasites and diminish the prospects for more imperialist war.

Such a result would not (of course) constitute socialism. It would not mean a real “revolution” in the Leninist sense. It might be a replay of Roosevelt and the New Deal (a series of measures largely designed to prevent a revolution in this country in the 1930s). But should we prefer to that outcome a victory of a Clinton or Cruz—-on the premise that such a presidency would exacerbate social contradictions to the point where the people (under the leadership of rare and precious leaders leading tiny sects whose rank-and-file members spout rhetoric they themselves hardly understand) will rise up in a repeat of the Bolshevik Revolution?

In 1980 at age 24, already filled with contempt at the whole U.S. electoral process and viscerally opposed to any participation in it, I compared Carter and Reagan and hoped Reagan would win. Because I thought Reagan would so provoke the masses by his vicious cuts in social spending and his crazed Cold War mentality that his election would hasten the day of the needed revolution. I was overly optimistic and badly mistaken.

These days I think that the election of a Cruz or Rubio—idiots who could easily trigger more war in the Middle East, North Africa or Ukraine, while abetting the further concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, immiserating more millions—could possibly produce a revolutionary situation, where (to paraphrase Lenin) the old system can’t continue in the old way, the masses can’t live in the old way, and there is revolutionary leadership. But I don’t hope for the election of either; the prospect indeed fills me with dread.

Because I see no genuinely revolutionary party on the horizon remotely capable of effectively communicating with, much less leading the masses. I only see left sects trailing after each new mass movement, like Occupy or Black Lives Matter, striving to lead, recruiting a few new followers here and there, but more often than not alienating those they seek to influence by their wooden dogmatism, antiquated rhetoric, personality cults, lack of strategy and (often) the haggard zombie-like affect of their members trying to recruit.

On the other hand there is Sanders, a European-style social democrat calling for a “political revolution” and energizing the young generation to support him. In U.S. political history, this is not insignificant. Nor is it principally a bad thing. The Sanders campaign, whatever else it is, is a sign that young people are becoming okay with (some concept of) socialism. That can only be good for those seeing themselves as advocates of “real” socialism.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: