Bernie Defines Socialism - Where Do We Go From Here?

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Steve Liss/the LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

By Duane Campbell

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made his promised substantive speech on democratic socialism to a packed crowd of 700 students and press at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. on November, 19, 2015.  He explained democratic socialism and his policy proposals by touching upon New Deal liberalism, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson, and Pope Francis. He also addressed current issues facing the nation’s voters, with an emphasis on climate change, global terrorism, and the promise of young people.  The speech is available here.

Two DSA vice-chairs have prominently commented on the talk in the media and offered ideas important for socialists to examine in considering both the speech and its limits.

DSA Vice Chair Harold Meyerson , editor of the American Prospect and a regular columnist in the Washington Post,  describes themes of the speech in an article titled "Bernie Defines Socialism" noting that while Sanders built the speech on the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt,

Getting down to particulars, Sanders continued that democratic socialism meant creating an economy that works for all, a universal health-care system based on the principle that health care is a right, free tuition at public colleges and universities (and higher Pell Grants and lower interest rates on student loans, which would also make private colleges more affordable), a governmental commitment to full employment, a living wage (with a minimum wage of $15), paid family and medical leave, more progressive taxation, and the automatic voter registration of all Americans when they turn 18.

Meyerson also describes some of the development of the democratic socialist movement in the U.S., which Sanders did not.

Michael Harrington argued in his 1967 book Toward A Democratic Left that the presumably socialist-free American political landscape actually harbored within the Democratic Party what he termed “a hidden social democracy.” The nation’s more progressive unions, the civil-rights activists, the middle-class liberals (then mounting protests against the Vietnam War)—these were the groups whose European counterparts made up those nations’ social democratic parties. Accordingly, Harrington concluded, American socialists should enter—publicly, unashamedly—the Democratic Party, those hidden social democrats’ political home, where they could work for the kinds of social changes attainable in everyday politics while also campaigning for a future of a more democratic economy and society. In 1973, he founded an organization, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (now known as the Democratic Socialists of America), which did just that. (Full disclosure: I’m a vice-chair of DSA, though—also full disclosure—I haven’t been to a DSA meeting in years.)

In an interview entitled “A leading socialist explains what Bernie Sanders’s socialism gets right – and wrong” DSA vice-chair,  Bhaskar Sunkara, responded to the Sanders speech in Vox. Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin, a magazine that offers "socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture. The print magazine is released quarterly and reaches over 10,000 subscribers, in addition to a web audience of 600,000 a month.”

Sunkara characterized the speech as

a decent start and not far enough. Socialism has been lost in American politics for a generation, swallowed up by Cold War politics and the broader assault on the labor movement, and the defeat of even the most modest of incremental reform tendencies within liberalism, so just having someone calling themselves a socialist on the national stage is incredible. It gives people like me the chance to contrast our vision of socialism with Sanders's, while still being broadly supportive of many of the things he wants to do and the impulses of those who support him.

Sunkara says,

Socialists support struggles for redistribution. They're vital. But our focus is often on ownership and control, not just these questions of distribution. So while we support things like breaking up the banks, we do so as a prelude to something like bank nationalization and socializing finance.

Sanders is, in many ways, a good social democrat. That's not a bad start, but we want to not only build a welfare state, but go beyond it. We want a society in which political democracy is extended into economic and social realms as well, where workers own and control their places of employment, not just get a decent wage.

The Sanders speech and his campaign opens an important political space for a discussion in the media of democratic socialism and the need for political and economic change, an opportunity that has been substantially closed for most of the last 50 years.

Bernie’s view of democratic socialism is substantive. He was able to make his case in an hour-long presentation, not the 2 minute time limits of the so-called national debates on television.

The speech and reactions to it provide an opportunity for the left to dialogue and to discuss our differences.  More importantly, we need to create a broad left with the ability to reach out to millions of working people.  We need 10,000 organizers able and willing to discuss and clarify these issues while building a political movement that builds on the Sanders campaign and continues to build after the campaign.

Frankly, we can’t build socialism individually.  We need to work together. DSA is committed to both helping people to understand the nature and necessity of democratic socialism AND to building the organization and infrastructure to create a vibrant socialist movement.

People of good will can join us in Democratic Socialist of America. Readers can sign up at the link at the upper right.  

Many hands make the burden lighter.

Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist for over 40 years, and former chair of Sacramento DSA. He blogs on politics, education and labor at www.choosingdemocracy.blogspot.com and www.talkingunion.wordpress.com.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

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