Socialism: Democratic Party Style

Photograph Source: Matt Johnson and Elizabeth Warren – CC BY 2.0

Does it matter that Bernie Sanders says that he is a socialist while Elizabeth Warren insists that she is not? The short answer is: No.

A slightly more nuanced, but still short, answer would be: “maybe just a tad, but not necessarily in a way that redounds in Sanders’ favor, even for those of us who think that, in the long run, a turn to socialism is America’s and the world’s best, perhaps only, hope.

At this point in the nomination process for the 2016 election, it mattered more than it now does. Sanders had just decided to run –making him automatically the top, indeed the only, “progressive” in the field. Had Warren been running too, we would then have been in much the situation we are now.

She decided to sit it out. I would venture that among her reasons at the time was that the party establishment and their corporate backers had a candidate in the race, Hillary Clinton. She probably realized that the fix was in. Or she decided not to do anything that could be perceived as an effort to divide the “the smash through the glass ceiling” vote; or both. Or she had something else on her mind altogether, like thinking that she wasn’t yet ready.

Clinton’s functional equivalent now is Joe Biden, the Great Moderate Hope. In almost every respect, his politics is as bad or worse than hers. The main difference between those two is that he is more pathetic; almost as much as Donald Trump, he is his own worst enemy.

Had not a virtual personality cult grown up around that very unlikely, indeed preposterous, excuse of a human being, he would likely have defeated himself in 2016.

And if he had somehow managed to squeak by then, as he actually did thanks to the Electoral College system and his good fortune in having Clinton for an opponent, he would be on track for defeating himself now.

Biden is too insipid to inspire a cult. Hillary is insipid too, but around her there was at least an enthusiastic coterie of supporters comprised of college educated white suburban women of a certain age (hers), African American politicians whom the Clintons had been courting for decades, unreconstructed Obamaphiles of all ages and hues, and kindly but essentially apolitical folks who felt that, by standing by her man for as long as she did, she’d paid her dues, and therefore that the nomination was due her.

Before the race got underway – in other words, before the Sanders phenomenon began to materialize — I had hoped that Warren would be the one to challenge Clinton from the left.

With all the glass ceiling brouhaha Hillary was stirring up, my thought was that she would have a better chance than a candidate without lady parts; and I figured that a white woman, with or without a trace of Cherokee blood, would do better in November than a seventy-eight year old man with a Brooklyn accent.

Had the ambient level of moral turpitude then been what it has become under Donald Trump, I would have added fear of a revival of anti-Semitism to the list. Anti-Semitism, as distinct from anti-Zionism, had all but gone extinct in the United States and other liberal democracies until Trump took to setting it loose, among other long vanquished “darker angels of our nature.”

That anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are not the same ought to go without saying. But the Zionist propaganda system, which all but exists to conflate the two, is very effective. Sometimes too, the difference gets lost as opposition to Israel and the broader Zionist movement, understandably and justifiably, grows thanks to the increasingly salient degeneration of Israeli politics and society. The truism therefore bears repeating.

In any case, even had Warren not taken herself out of consideration for 2016, differences between her positions and Sanders’ – including her view of socialism and his – were of no more interest four years ago than any other idle speculation of no immediate electoral consequence.

The race would be between Clinton and whichever clown the Republicans would eventually nominate. This seemed sure, just as it seemed sure that Trump would not be the clown who would end up on top.

He, it seemed, was in the race just to boost his brand. Corporate media were happy to go along to boost their ratings. Trump wasn’t good at much but in the degraded cultural landscape where reality shows flourished, he did know how to give good TV.

But our electoral seasons are ridiculously long, and in the fullness of time, anything can happen. Anything did. Along with the rise of Trump and Trumpism, the Sanders “revolution” happened.

I didn’t see it coming – hardly anyone did – because, as the peerless Bush 43 might have put it, I “misunderestimated” Sanders. I also failed to appreciate the extent to which what “socialism” had come to mean to millennials and even GenXers differed from what it meant to those of us who came of age politically before the eighties and for some two hundred years before that.

Understanding that mistake is key to understanding why it hardly matters that Sanders says that he is a socialist while Warren says she is not, even as their politics seem remarkably similar.

How similar? Similar enough that an informed observer would have a hard time determining whether a particular policy proposal came from one or the other, and a harder time ascribing any differences that might be discerned to the candidates’ ostensibly different views of capitalism and socialism.

The conventional wisdom has lately become that Sanders is more radical, that he is a revolutionary intent on building a new world on the ashes of the old, while Warren just wants to make the old world work better.

But this is, to put it quaintly, balderdash; they both just want to make the old world work better; and it is far from clear even that one is more radical than the other.

In pursuit of their goals, they both want to put what Sanders calls “the billionaire class” down a couple of notches. I suspect that if I were a billionaire or even close, I would actually fear Warren more because she seems to know better than Sanders how to do it. She has a plan for that.


The theory and practice of socialism fared poorly after the Soviet Union’s demise and “Communist” China’s turn onto “the capitalist road.” The effects were felt immediately all over the world, and continue to resonate.

In the United States, “socialism,” the word and the practice as well, had long had ambiguous, generally derogatory, connotations; either it was demonized or else deemed hopelessly, indeed dangerously, utopian.

Throughout his long career, Sanders was one of the few, actively engaged, non-sectarian American politicians who never stopped talking about socialism or identifying with it.

But what he identified with, especially in recent years, was at some remove from the socialism of most socialists over the past century and a half.

There can be no question, though, that he, more than anyone else, deserves credit for bringing the word – and therefore, inevitably, what it has referred to in various times and places – back into mainstream political discourse.

Sanders is understandably vague about what the socialism he speaks of involves. Warren, on the other hand, is adamant that not only is she not a socialist, but also that she is “capitalist” to her core. On this, however, it would be fair to say – “with all due respect,” as the saying goes – that neither of them knows quite what they’re talking about, and that Sanders knows least of all.

They do not so much disagree on what they want, but on what they want to call what they want.

Verbal disputes generally don’t much matter, but they do sometimes matter somewhat. Now that the word “socialism” is back, thanks in large part to Sanders’ 2016 campaign, mainstream and some not-so-mainstream political discourse in the United States is in danger of falling into some familiar and easily avoidable confusions that, left uncorrected, can only impede efforts to revive and reconstruct a bona fide American left.

It has been pointed out frequently and incisively, even in mainstream media, that Sanders confounds “socialism” with “social democracy.”

Socialists uphold notions of social property. For them, property rights, not necessarily in everything, but at least in major productive assets – rights to control those assets and to benefit from their use – is to be held in common.

Social democrats, on the other hand, are fine with private ownership and indeed with capitalist market relations generally. But they too are egalitarians. They aim to diminish material inequality through progressive taxation and redistributive state policies.

Socialists deploy those mechanisms too, of course, but they rely mainly on diminishing inequality at its source — by eliminating or, at the very least, severely restricting private ownership of means of production.

They have been at it from time immemorial.

But the socialist tradition that Sanders endorses and Warren rejects was a creature of the French Revolution in its more radical phases, and of the industrial revolution.

From the1880s on, most socialist currents defined their political orientations in relation to the “orthodox” Marxist theory and practice that coalesced after Marx’s death, and that became the reigning doctrine of the Second International. This was classical Marxism’s Golden Age; it ended with the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.

From that point on, “social democracy” mainly designated the non- and anti-Communist socialists of the reconstituted Second International. In time, most of these parties evolved into ordinary political parties of the center-left.

With the Communist movement under siege and tightly controlled by Moscow, newer political parties with a socialist bent generally followed a social democratic line, even if some of them called themselves “socialist,” not “social democratic.” This was generally the case in the Scandinavian countries, where the model Sanders invokes took root and flourished.

Within social democratic circles, views about promoting equality through common, as distinct from private, ownership of major productive assets varied. Thus the lines are sometimes blurred; social democracy can be more or less socialist, and vice versa.

Social democrats and socialists alike rely not just on redistributive taxation, but also on flourishing labor movements and on affirmative state policies that provide public goods and address social needs through state action rather than by relying on market mechanisms and private enterprise.

In practice, then, Sanders’ socialism is of a piece with New Deal – Great Society liberalism. It is not clear what the difference is in Sanders’ mind, and it is odd that he would invoke a foreign model when there is an alternative at hand very much in the American vein.

But there is no denying that talk of democratic socialism on the Scandinavian model served him well in the past, so why not go for it this time too?

Warren and other pro-capitalist progressives, Democrats who really would fit comfortably into what Paul Wellstone, years ago, called “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” get all muddle headed and ahistorical when the question of socialism arises.

We should not make too much of the Democrats Wellstone had in mind; they did once have a place in the Democratic Party, but there were never very many of them, and they never accomplished all that much.

But he was surely right not to conclude that no good at all could come from the less odious duopoly party. For some time, though, this was more an article of faith than an observable phenomenon. But the times are changing.

Warren, who came to the Democratic Party and to the Left late in life, is living proof.

She ought to know better than to identify socialism with centrally planned command economies; and, smart and well informed as she plainly is, she should know too that market socialism has long been a central concern of socialist theorists.

In light of the legal and legislative work she has done, she should also know that there is a lot more planning and reliance on non-market mechanisms in capitalist economies than her remarks on capitalism and markets suggest.

Other professedly pro-capitalist Democrats are even more confused. They seem to think that socialism means state ownership of virtually everything. Warren is not that muddled. What socialism involves and what forms it can take involve complicated issues with which we Americans have had little experience, and which, before 2016, we hardly thought about at all.

In any case, what worries me about Warren is not so much her views on capitalism and socialism or markets and plans or even her willingness, when pushed, to praise capitalism and denigrate socialism, but her claim, repeated many times, that Teddy Roosevelt is her political hero.

Why not, for example, Eugene Debs? I could see Sanders saying that. But, again, it would mean next to nothing. On the other hand, Warren’s Teddy Roosevelt comment could betoken something more portentous.

That she admires a “trust buster” is fine. I even think that, in the circumstances that obtain nowadays, she could also be cut some slack for her more or less explicit praise for the Roosevelt family tradition, honored by Franklin as well as Teddy, of saving capitalism from the capitalists. This was, in fact, TR’s main reason for breaking up the trusts; indeed, it was the main idea behind the Progressive movement generally. And it was what FDR set out to do with the New Deal.

Could “democratic socialists” who talk about a Green New Deal be fine with this too?

Social movements and political settlements have many facets not all of which pull in the same direction. The original New Deal was about saving capitalism, but there were counter-systemic elements implicit in some of its programs.

This being the case, leftwing New Dealers hoped, not unreasonably, that one thing would lead to another in ways that would put socialism, the real deal, on the agenda. Nothing prevents Green New Dealers from coming around to a similar view – or, despite what she might say, from thinking that Warren’s plans for this and that domestic program might be our best shot at this point for getting from where we now are to a genuinely socialist destination.

If Warren’s naming Teddy Roosevelt as a hero mattered only in the way that her support for what she calls capitalism does, there would be no cause for concern. But there was another side to Roosevelt that is concerning, especially in circumstances in which the trajectories of foreign and domestic politics have become increasingly intertwined, notwithstanding all the blather from Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats about politics stopping “at the water’s edge.”

In line with the thinking of the major European powers in roughly the same time frame, Roosevelt wanted to extend American dominance over non-European peoples. He wanted to make America not just an imperial power, as it already was in the Western hemisphere and in parts of the eastern Pacific, but also a colonial power like Britain or France. He was intent on using military force to that end.

Tulsi Gabbard is the only contender for the Democratic nomination whose foreign policy views more nearly resemble those of the American Anti-Imperialist League (1898-1920) than Teddy Roosevelt’s. For better or worse, though, and notwithstanding her more than satisfactory performance in the first debate, she seems to be a non-starter in the race for the White House. Even her chances of becoming the eventual winner’s running mate seem slight.

Of the others, the only one whose views appear to be evolving in a generally non-bellicose and non-interventionist direction is Sanders. Unlike most Democrats, he is at least not a Clinton-style liberal imperialist or a neocon itching for war with Russia or China of both.

Warren, so far, has had precious little to say about such matters, except insofar as the Teddy Roosevelt reference speaks to it.

At this early stage in the nomination process, it is far from clear how, if at all, this bears on the choice between Sanders and Warren.

What is clear, though, is that his express support for socialism and hers for capitalism have nothing to do with that potentially vexing and soon to become timely question. It may matter for public relations, but its substantive importance is nil.

With any luck, this could soon change, almost certainly not in time for the 2020 election, but very likely in time for its aftermath.

The pendulum is swinging back. The tell is not just that Sanders or Warren could be our next president or that a sizeable, perhaps a majority, of Americans yearn not only for Trump’s demise but also for de-Trumpification. It is also that it has become politically timely to talk about socialism at all.

When the political scene is in a left-leaning phase, the varieties of socialist experience cease to be of theoretical interest only; in various ways, they come to matter in ordinary politics as well. This was the case up through the mid-seventies in the United States and other Western countries. Before Trump, it had not been the case since.

Richard Nixon was a moral monster and a crook to a degree not seen again until Trump. Like Trump, he deserved impeachment with every bone in his body. But he was also our last liberal president, our last environmental president, and our last president seriously interested in détente with rival nuclear powers.

For those reasons, it would not be too far-fetched to say that he was as much or even more of a “socialist” than Sanders is.

But, of course, no one would have called him that then or now – not with real socialists out and about, and especially not at a time when debates about socialism and capitalism, and about markets and plans had real world political consequences.

After Trump is dispatched, and if Democrats at all levels go on to extend and deepen what they got underway in 2020, perhaps we can find our way back to that again — updated, of course, in light of all that has transpired between the Nixon era and our own.

But we are not there yet. We are instead approaching a point where genuine progressives, regardless how they describe themselves, need urgently to unite not just against Trump and Pence and the sadistic incompetents Trump has empowered, but also against the last Clintonites – Joe Biden especially – whose neoliberal and liberal imperialist politics made Trump and Trumpism possible and even inevitable.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).