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The ‘Democratic Socialism’ of Bernie Sanders

Views: 612 To a socialist Senator Bernie Sanders is far and away the least distasteful of the current contenders for the American presidency. He seems decent and …

by Stephen Shenfield



6 min read

To a socialist Senator Bernie Sanders is far and away the least distasteful of the current contenders for the American presidency. He seems decent and sincere. Although he is running in the Democratic Party primaries, he has a long history as an independent politician, starting with his election in 1981 as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He is not corrupt—that is, beholden to specific capitalist interests in the way that Hillary Clinton (like Obama) is beholden to Wall Street or the Bushes were to Big Oil. And despite efforts of interviewers from the corporate media to get him to comment on the latest petty scandal he talks seriously about serious social issues of vital concern to working people—growing inequality of wealth, poverty, unemployment, healthcare, education, decaying infrastructure, the environment, climate change.

None of this, however, makes Bernie Sanders a socialist. If you read his website and those of his supporters and listen to videos of his speeches you will find that he never talks about a new system that might replace capitalism. (For more explanation and discussion of the meaning of ‘socialism’ see my new website http://www.whatissocialism.net.)

When Sanders calls himself a ‘democratic socialist’ he means that he wants to make American capitalism less unjust and more democratic. He wants to run capitalism in the interests of working people.

This is an old idea—one already tried by the Labour Party in Britain and by ‘social-democratic’ and ‘socialist’ parties in other countries of Northern and Western Europe. The results were always less impressive than originally expected and have eroded over recent decades as governments come under increasing pressure to cut social expenditures. Bernie often refers to this European experience as a model for the United States to follow, neglecting to mention the limitations and setbacks.

A ‘Progressive’ Economic Agenda?

On his website Sanders sets out ‘a progressive economic agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, protects the environment and provides health care for all’. Important points on this agenda are as follows:

Public Works

‘a plan to rebuild America’ and put 13 million Americans to work by investing a trillion dollars over five years in infrastructure (bridges, roads, public transit systems, rail, airports, seaports, dams and levees, water pipes, wastewater treatment plants, the electrical grid, etc.)

Improve Wages and Conditions

$15 an hour minimum wage by 2020

require employers to provide 12 weeks paid family and medical leave, 2 weeks paid vacation, and 7 paid sick days

enact the Employee Free Choice Act to make it easier to organize trade unions

Increase Taxation of the Rich

higher rates of taxation on large corporations, the rich and Wall Street speculators

Reform Banking

break up huge financial institutions so that they are no longer ‘too big to fail’

restore legal constraints on banks gambling with customers’ money (i.e., provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act repealed in 1999 that separated commercial and investment banking)

Reform Agriculture

support family farms and encourage direct sales to local consumers

Protectionist Measures

repudiate free-trade agreements that ‘have driven down wages and caused the loss of millions of jobs’

Education and Childcare

free tuition at public colleges and universities

a universal childcare and pre-kindergarten program


a single-payer system of national health insurance (‘Medicare for all’)

lower prices of prescription drugs

Other Social Provisions

expand affordable housing

strengthen and expand social security

Source: www.berniesanders.com/issues

The influence of the European welfare-state model is clear—although there is nothing about improving unemployment benefits, which in the United States depend on the circumstances in which a job is lost and last only six months. Certain points, such as the pro-union law and the big public works program, are reminiscent of the 1930s New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), whom Bernie admires as ‘a great American president’. (Obama also promised a pro-union law but broke that promise; he did institute a public works program, but on too small a scale to have much impact on either unemployment or the country’s infrastructure.)

Crucial to Sanders’ economic agenda is his rejection of the ‘neo-liberal consensus’ in favor of ‘globalization’—the unregulated movement of goods and capital across national borders. He denounces the free-trade agreements promoted in recent decades by Democratic and Republican presidents alike and advocates protectionist measures to help revive the US manufacturing sector. He seeks to return to the previous system of separate national blocks of capital (capitals) represented on the world stage by national governments.

It is understandable that ‘de-globalization’ should appeal to workers suffering from the havoc wrought by globalization. However, it represents not progress beyond the boundaries of capitalism but rather a new swing of the pendulum within capitalism. Restoration of an older form of the world organization of capital, marked by the rivalry of separate nation-states, cannot be described as progressive. After all, it was this rivalry that gave us two devastating world wars in the twentieth century, not to mention the Great Depression. And it still generates military confrontations in those regions where it remains entrenched, such as the South China Sea.

Representing National Capital

Bernie constantly says that he represents ‘working class people’ or ‘working families’.1 And it is true that he talks a great deal about the problems that American workers face and what he intends to do to help them. But often he gives his policy proposals a rather different rationale, justifying them in terms of the long-term interests of the United States as a nation competing with other nations in the world economy. Such arguments confirm the view that what Sanders primarily represents is national capital. Let me cite a few examples.

In a long speech on the floor of the Senate on 10 December 2010 Sanders said:

If our goal is to create the millions and millions of jobs we need and … make our country stronger internationally in a very tough global economy, a better way to do that [than giving corporations tax breaks] … is to invest heavily in our infrastructure… We remain far behind most other countries around the industrialized world. China is exploding in terms of the number of high-speed rail lines they have. We have to do better (my italics—SS).2

He proceeded to complain that the Federal Reserve had bailed out central banks in countries that were competitors of the United States, such as South Korea, Germany, Bahrain and Mexico. The US should be lending money to create jobs at home, not in foreign countries. This highlights an easily overlooked but very important point: to the extent that Bernie does defend workers’ interests these are the interests of American workers only (there is some overlap between the interests of national capital and the short-term interests of the national working class). I have searched in vain for any expression of concern for the plight of workers outside the United States.

Similarly, on another occasion Bernie justified his proposal for free tuition at state universities as follows:

In a highly competitive global economy in which we need a highly educated workforce does it make any sense that the US should be slipping behind other countries in the proportion of people with college degrees? We lose all of the intellectual potential of those young people.3

He went on to ask:

Does it make sense to have a cost-ineffective healthcare system designed to maximize the profits of health insurance and pharmaceutical companies?

Here he pits the interest of national capital in cost-effective healthcare for the workforce against the special interests of particular sectors.

Speaking at Georgetown University on 19 November 2015, Sanders said:

We need to develop a political movement that is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation.

In other words, the capitalists are too greedy and shortsighted to see where their own long-term interests lie. They are devouring the goose that lays the golden eggs. FDR was called ‘a traitor to his class’ because he dared do what was necessary to save the capitalists from themselves. Now the senator from Vermont offers his services as a new FDR to a later generation of wealthy ingrates.

Sanders recalls that when he was elected mayor of Burlington he discovered that

local insurance companies were getting the city’s business at substantially higher than market rates. I instituted a radical socialist concept, ‘competitive bidding,’ which saved the city tens of thousands of dollars.5

Only a ‘socialist’ mayor, free of corrupt ties with specific businesses, can be trusted to run a city in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole.

Use of Language

Bernie deserves due credit for pioneering certain positive changes in how Americans talk about politics.

Even though he is not a socialist in our sense, he has helped legitimize the word by using it in a positive sense.4 Another scare word that he has not been afraid to use is ‘revolution’—he talks about the need for a ‘political revolution’ to ‘get big money out of politics and restore democracy’. He does not, however, call for a ‘social revolution’ or ‘economic revolution’.

Sanders has also introduced a more truthful vocabulary for talking about social class. Unlike establishment politicians who divide and rule by pitting a hardworking and respectable ‘middle class’ against the shiftless and semi-criminal ‘poor’ (terms that in the US also have racial overtones), Sanders always stresses the conflict of interests between the ‘ruling class’ or ‘billionaire class’ and the vast majority of society.

Political Reforms

Besides his economic agenda, Bernie seeks to halt and reverse ‘a rapid movement in this country toward a political system in which a handful of very wealthy people and special interests will determine who gets elected’. He will seek a constitutional amendment making it clear that the legislative branch has the power to regulate campaign finance, thereby overturning Supreme Court decisions based on ‘the absurd notion that money is speech [and] corporations are people’. He will also ‘move toward the public funding of elections’, strengthen voting rights and make Election Day a national holiday (www.berniesanders.com/issues/money-in-politics).

Socialists welcome any steps to preserve and expand democratic elements in the political system because erosion of these elements makes it even more difficult to spread socialist ideas and establish socialism by peaceful democratic means. Nevertheless, the changes proposed by Sanders would hardly amount to a ‘political revolution’. Big money would still have ample opportunity to make its voice heard. Thus Bernie does not appear to have definite ideas about how to loosen the stranglehold of the corporate media.

It should be noted that Sanders’ plans for laws to constrain the behavior of employers cannot be effectively implemented until class bias in the work of the police and the courts is overcome. For example, there seems little point in raising the minimum wage when private employers routinely flout existing minimum wage laws with impunity (only government employees are guaranteed the minimum wage).

Secret Radical?

There has been some speculation among American leftists about whether Sanders may cherish secret hopes for social change more radical than his public program. Is his ‘political revolution’ merely a first stage in a longer-term strategy?

Two reasons are given for thinking that this may be so. One is the possible influence of Bernie’s older brother Larry. Larry was the first to get involved in politics when they were growing up together in Brooklyn and took Bernie under his wing. It is believed that Larry is further to the left than Bernie. Larry migrated to Britain in the late 1960s, was active in the Labour Party, left the Labour Party in 2001 to join the Green Party and is now its health spokesperson. Asked about his relationship with his brother, Bernie says that they remain in close touch but denies that they ‘confer’—the days when Bernie looked up to Larry as his mentor are long gone.

The second reason is Bernie’s experience of living and working for several months at a kibbutz in Israel in 1963, when he was aged 21. Sanders does not talk about this experience and we do not know what it means to him.

Thus the idea of Bernie as a secret radical has an extremely weak foundation. It may be recalled that people indulged in similarly baseless wishful thinking about Obama.


Although Bernie Sanders has done very well considering the forces arrayed against him, he will not be chosen by the Democratic Party as its presidential candidate. Even if he manages to draw level with Hillary Clinton in terms of the popular vote, the convention ‘superdelegates’—unelected representatives of the party establishment—will ensure that it is she who is chosen.

Nevertheless, the Sanders campaign has expanded the narrow confines of American political language and helped weaken the duopoly of the Democratic and Republican party establishments. This may open up new opportunities for people outside the ‘system’—including genuine democratic socialists.


  1. See, for instance, New York Post, 11 October 2015.
  2. Bernie Sanders’s Speech: The Complete Historic Filibuster on Economic Inequality, the Declining Middle Class, Our Crumbling Infrastructure… and What We Can Do About It (2015).
  3. See the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCSIog8hBz0
  4. For further discussion of this point see my article ‘American public opinion and the S-word’ in the February 2010 issue of The Socialist Standard (http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2010/no-1266-february-2010/material-worldamerican-public-opinion-and-s-word).
  5. Bernie Sanders with Huck Gutman, Outsider in the White House (London and NY: Verso, 2015), pp. 71-2.

Tags: capitalism, politics, reforms

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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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