What socialism is — according to Bernie Sanders

He's enflamed conversation about socialism across America.

  • U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has been calling himself a democratic socialist since the 1960s.
  • Bernie's use of the word "socialist" has attracted both love and ire from the left.
  • His definition of socialism is vague, but is the basis for many peoples' understanding of the concept.

The unexpected level of serious consideration that many Americans are giving to socialism is due, in large part, to the popularity of Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic primaries. The U.S. senator's support for "socialist" policies catapulted him from an obscure senator from Vermont to the most admired politician in America. However, it has also sparked an ideological debate in this country that will likely continue for some time.

This said, what exactly is socialism according to Sanders? What would it look like in practice? Most importantly to academics, is it socialism at all?

Bernie Sanders explains what socialism is

Luckily for us, Senator Sanders explained his political philosophy in a speech he delivered at Georgetown University in 2015. (The entire speech can be viewed here.)

He begins by referring to the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt and pointing out the good that it did for a country in the depths of the Great Depression:

"He saw one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. And he acted. Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combated cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country. . . . And, by the way, almost everything he proposed was called 'socialist.'"

The senator then muses on several issues facing the United States, income inequality, unemployment, high rates of childhood poverty, the high cost of medical care, and a declining faith in our political system, among others, and decides that the concentration of wealth and power is both the root cause of them and the key reason why we have failed to solve them. His solution, of course, is "socialism." It is then that he gives us his conception of what that is:

"Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy. Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt."

He goes a bit into the particulars of policy and explained that his conception of socialism would require — this is what it would look like — universal health care, total employment, free college education, more public spending, a living wage, environmental regulations, and a robust democratic culture to come into existence. He flatly denied any interest in nationalization, telling the audience:

"So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this: I don't believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal."

The contents of this speech were very similar to other statements he has made about socialism across his entire political career. The entire speech could have been summed up neatly in a quote he gave to the Associated Press back in 1997:

"To me, socialism doesn't mean state ownership of everything, by any means, it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living."

Wait a moment, praise for the New Deal?  No interest in nationalization? That definition sounds a lot like capitalism!

You might have noticed that this program focuses on making capitalism work better and not replacing it with an entirely new system based on social ownership. This has made his definition of socialism a matter of contention.

While "socialism" is a system based around replacing private ownership of the means of production with social ownership, which generally means having the workers own and operate them instead — either through cooperatives or the state — Bernie hasn't shown much of an interest in using the government to promote this change.

Bernie's explanation of "socialism" is, in fact, closer to what political philosophers refer to as "social democracy." This is a capitalist system, since the means of production are still privately owned, where the state heavily regulates the economy and has an active welfare system in place to correct for the worst problems inherent to capitalism like inequality, cyclic instability, or the profit motive encouraging people to do things against the public interest.

If one looks to Bernie's more general positions, which have been rather consistent over the last few decades, there are really only a couple of points that are explicitly socialistic. The first is his call for universal, single payer, health care which replaces private insurance. This does call for the government to take over or replace an entire industry, the health insurance industry, for the sake of the people.

Secondly, his calls to increase the number of worker cooperatives in the United States is praised by the left, since it would be creating businesses where the workers are in control of the means of production. While this is socialistic, it isn't horribly radical and some thinkers on the left question if making more cooperatives actually fixes the problems they see as inherent to capitalism.

What do experts have to say about this definition?

There is a consensus among experts that Bernie isn't a socialist under the broad definition of the ideology given above. They instead place him squarely in the company of social democrats.

Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman did precisely that in a recent article. After musing on the American discussion of the ideology, he explained that while many Americans are now calling themselves "socialists":

"... neither the politicians nor the voters are clamoring for government seizure of the means of production. Instead, they've taken on board conservative rhetoric that describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism, and in effect said, 'Well, in that case I'm a socialist.' What Americans who support 'socialism' actually want is what the rest of the world calls social democracy: a market economy, but with extreme hardship limited by a strong social safety net and extreme inequality limited by progressive taxation. They want us to look like Denmark or Norway, not Venezuela."

Philosopher Noam Chomsky, who himself is an anarcho-syndicalist, called Bernie an "Honest New Dealer" while saying, "Bernie Sanders may use the word 'socialist,' but he's basically a New Dealer. Now, in the current American political spectrum, to be a New Dealer is to be way out on the left."

What do other socialists have to say about it?

The Democratic Socialists of America like him, but make clear that they are to his left. As they explain when clarifying their support for and ideological relationship to him, in 2016 they "made clear that Bernie's New Deal or social democratic program did not fulfill the socialist aim of establishing worker and social ownership of the economy. But in the context of 40 years of oligarchic rule, Sanders' program proved sufficiently radical and inspiring."

Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder and editor of the popular left-wing magazine Jacobin, explained his views on Bernie's ideology in an interview with Vox. In it, he calls Sanders "a good social democrat" but concludes that Sanders "vision" does not go as far to the left as that of democratic socialists. He also wrote a piece in Jacobin explaining these differences and musing on the potential effectiveness of a Sanders campaign as far as it concerns the goals of the left.

While America's favorite democratic socialist might really be our favorite social democrat, Bernie Sanders has still managed to begin a debate about the ideal way to organize an economy that many people thought had been eternally settled a couple of decades ago. His ideas on what "socialism" is and what our society should look like are valuable additions to American political discussion, especially as we near 2020.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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