Bernie Sanders and the nuances of socialism

On Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman moderates a 28-minute discussion between two economists, New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman and professor emeritus Richard Wolff, about the nuances of socialism. Unlike most ‘debates’ on TV that are really shouting matches, since this is on Democracy Now!, you get a sober and thoughtful discussion about what Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism means.

Krugman says that Sanders does not fit the definition of socialist and that he is really a social democrat in the European tradition. He says that while he agrees with pretty much all of Sanders’s policy positions, he does not understand why he calls himself a democratic socialist because that just makes his task of selling his ideas to the public harder because many people have an instinctive negative reaction to the word socialism.

Wolff says that there is no agreed upon definition of socialism and Sanders’s milder form of it fits under that umbrella term and has resulted in people, especially young people, now having a much better opinion of socialism. Wolff also makes the point that the reason that there is such a hysterical response by the liberal media to the success of Sanders is because for a long time they have seen themselves as anchoring ‘the left’ and being the vanguard for progressive ideas (at least progressive in their own eyes). They now suddenly find that there is a big movement on their left and that they are really in the center or the center-right. They cannot seem to come to terms with the idea that rather than being the people driving social change, they are now the reactionaries who, in Bob Dylan’s words in The times they are a changing, ‘stand in the doorway and block up the hall” while there is a battle outside that is raging.

This article makes a point similar to Wolff’s and describes how these people still don’t get it that people like Joe Biden no longer represent the left wing of politics and that prevents them from settling on a centrist or center-right candidate who might have had more success than Biden.

The party’s aging insiders instead looked at the field and decided to get behind the guy who currently reminds them most of the good times they had with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In the process, they ignored the candidates who most resemble 1992 Clinton and 2008 Obama in more germane ways—age, oratorical skill, grassroots following, history of winning votes from important geographic and demographic groups, etc. All those candidates would have changed the party in some way if they attained power, but they all would have changed it into something that Chris Matthews and Joe Lockhart would (or at least should) have recognized. Instead, the old guard made a choice that was as much about familiarity and cronyism as ideology—and now are left, like Biden on the debate stage, with nothing to do but huff and puff about things that happened decades ago as the rest of the party moves on.

While I understand and appreciate Krugman’s point, I think that that ship has sailed. Sanders has unabashedly called himself a democratic socialist all his life and won election after election with that label and he is not going to change now. For him to suddenly announce that he is now a social democrat would suggest that he is trimming his sails to the wind and would go against the long-term consistency that creates such a strong sense of authenticity that draws people to him. Even Chris Christie recognizes this.

For example, in the South Carolina debate, even though he was red-baited by the moderators and other candidates, Sanders went out of his way to point out that the US has overthrown so many governments around the world, something that no major presidential candidate has done before because they all genuflect at the altar of American goodness. Then on the question of whether the decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem should be reversed, he went out of his way to call Netanyahu a racist authoritarian and gave a stirring call for the need to treat the Palestinian people with the respect and dignity they deserve. The response of progressives has been very positive.

The senator’s remarks sparked immediate praise from progressives, political activists, and journalists.

“I just want to make it clear that almost NO ONE in American politics brings up Palestinian human rights without being forced to,” tweeted the Hill‘s Krystal Ball. “MASSIVE KUDOS to Bernie Sanders.”

The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald said on Twitter that Sanders’ answer showed why the senator is unique among the Democratic candidates.

“Is there even a small chance that any candidate other than Sanders would speak so powerfully about the oppression of Palestinians and how it means we need to re-think support for Israel?” asked Greenwald. “I can’t think of one.”

John Cassidy of The New Yorker noted that Sanders has been a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights.

“Well done Bernie Sanders for bringing up Palestinian rights and the situation in Gaza,” said Cassidy. “He’s been consistent on it.”

The Atlantic‘s Peter Beinart said that “the audience cheered when Bernie Sanders spoke about Palestinian rights because ordinary Democrats believe in Palestinian rights.”

“And because they know that, even in the Democratic Party, acknowledging Palestinian humanity requires political courage,” Beinart added.

John Nichols of The Nation said he had never heard a presidential candidate give that impassioned a defense of the Palestinian people.

“Senator Bernie Sanders just gave the best Israel-Palestine answer ever delivered by a serious contender in an American presidential debate,” said Nichols.

Sanders did not have to say either of those things in the debate and he must have known that it would hurt him with the jingoists who think that America never does anything wrong and with the Israel lobby, and both groups will up their attacks on him. But he said them anyway. Why? I think that it is because he thinks that those are important ideas that need to be more widely known and debated and he wanted to get them out to a national audience. Like with his other progressive proposals that have now gone mainstream within the Democratic party, Sanders knows that to penetrate through the fog of American politics, you have to keep hammering away at the same message over and over.


  1. Dunc says

    On both the question of labelling and the Israel / Palestine issue, I suspect that Sanders also understands the importance of having the right enemies. In the current political climate, explicit rejection of the status quo is a plus point for many people, and nothing signals that like being hated by all the right people.

  2. Jenora Feuer says

    I also suspect Sanders has already figured out that there is nothing he can say that will make him liked by the jingoists and the Israel lobby, so he has nothing to lose by being honest (they wouldn’t have supported him anyway) and lots to gain from people who have felt unrepresented.

  3. says

    I hate the “instinctive aversion to socialism” trope. It’s not instinct -- its a result of a vicious and dishonest 150 year long propaganda campaign. It’s not instinct: it’s the FBI murders you, the government purges you, and the media accuses you of everything short of cannibalism. When they talk about socialists shooting people in central park they are projecting -- not acting on instinct.

  4. bmiller says

    Jenora: As the hilariously obnoxious Heywood J at Hammer of the Blogs would note: Dems are NEVER going to get votes from the Trumpian core, so why try to cater to them?

  5. bmiller says

    Marcus has his usual amazing take on things. That may be the most honest thing Hillary Clinton ever said (about the vast right wing conspiracy against her. Although one wonders if part of that campaign was simple class-based distaste? Sort of like some of the conservative Never-Trumper people who are perfectly fine with tax cuts for the plutocrats and gutting anything standing in the way of their rape and pillage campaign but just find Trump gauche.)

  6. mnb0 says

    “Krugman says that Sanders does not fit the definition of socialist and that he is really a social democrat in the European tradition.”
    According to the European definition of socialist all social democrats are socialists, which is completely in the European tradition. To keep it simple (translated from Dutch Wikipedia; readers might notice that The Netherlands are a European country):

    “Socialism is a form of society (I’d prefer set of political views -- MNb) based on equality, social justice and solidarity.”
    There are three versions of socialism.
    1. Social-democracy strives for these goals via a parliamentary rechtsstaat. Probably the first social-democrat was the German Eduard Bernstein, founder of the SDP (Social-Democratic Party).
    2. Communism strives for these goals via a revolution, resulting in the dictature of the proletariat, ie a one-party system.
    3. Anarchism strives for these goals by dismantling the power of nation-states, churches and big companies.

    Then there are all kind of complicating nuances.
    Krugman is simply wrong; the distinction between social-democracy and democratic-socialism is nothing but meaningless semantics.

    As for Israel I’d like to point out that it was co-founded by socialist zionists. Kibbutzes embody the socialist ideals I just mentioned. First president David Ben-Gurion was leader of the Labor Zionist movement, ao. Later presidents Rabin and Peres were leaders of the Israeli Labor Party, with views very similar to Sanders’.

  7. Porivil Sorrens says


    Krugman is simply wrong; the distinction between social-democracy and democratic-socialism is nothing but meaningless semantics.

    This is not, in fact, true. This is my specific field of study, and it really isn’t just ‘meaningless semantics’.

    It’s more that ‘socialism’ is a term of art, which has both academic and colloquial definitions. Krugman is correct insofar as socialism in its academic definition necessarily implies worker ownership of the means of production, which social democracy does not necessarily entail. The social democratic countries in Europe are still capitalist, just with some left-wing political and economic policies.

    Colloquially, social democracy has become associated with socialism, but that’s largely a product of the 20th century broadening the term in order to attack the resurgent labor movements. There are very well recorded periods in history where socialist groups and social-democratic groups have been in open, violent conflict over their differing beliefs on the relation of people to capital. Hence, for example, the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg and her associates being executed by the social democratic party’s Freikorps in 1919.

    As for Israel I’d like to point out that it was co-founded by socialist zionists.

    Shame their commitment to their ideals was effectively nil, given that the founding of Israel was one of the most blatant acts of imperialism in the 20th century.

  8. file thirteen says

    Wolff says that there is no agreed upon definition of socialism, but all the dictionaries I’ve checked conflate it with communism. Krugman is right, but perhaps Wolff is trying to reclaim the term?

  9. file thirteen says

    As far as support for Palestinian rights goes, the only reason Sanders-as-politician can get away with criticising Israel is his Jewish heritage. Any non-Jewish politician would be subjected to a vicious smear campaign like the one engineered against Corbyn and Labour in the UK.

  10. John Morales says

    mnb0, ‘meaningless semantics’ is an oxymoron.

    (Might as well have written meaningless meanings)

  11. Who Cares says

    @file thirteen(#9):
    There is a term for Jews going against Israel: Self hating Jew (technically it is an antisemitic Jew but the term has been co-opted to mean going against Israel as Jew) .
    So being a member of the Jewish faith is no defense for the people deliberately conflating antisemitism with criticizing Israel.
    And after the called AIPAC a bunch of bigots he’d never associate with do you think he won’t get a truck worth of manure dumped on himself from them (or the other people that are pro-Israel)?

  12. file thirteen says

    @Who Cares #11

    I didn’t mean to suggest that nobody has tried slinging that type of manure at him, just that it hasn’t stuck. Compare to Corbyn.

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