In 1916, amid the carnage of World War I, the great German-Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote that humanity was facing a choice between socialism and barbarism.
Earlier today, speaking at the George Washington University, Bernie Sanders noted that we live in a time of rising authoritarianism, citing the regimes of Putin, Xi, Orban, Duterte and Trump as indices of the growing threat. His speech was billed as offering his definition of socialism, which, a la Rosa, was said to be the alternative to oligarchy and authoritarianism.
Socialism as Sanders proceeded to define it is indeed an alternative to oligarchy and authoritarianism. What his speech left hanging was whether his socialism was in fact socialism.
In 2015, as his campaign was just taking off, Sanders came to a different D.C. university—Georgetown—to deliver what was also then billed as his definition of socialism. Before a crowd of wildly cheering college students, he reeled off a series of social democratic proposals—the universal right to health care, to college education and the like – with constant reference to the great American leader who did indeed lead the successful war against barbarism in the 1940s: Franklin Roosevelt. His speech was so FDR-centric that I wrote at the time:
Throughout the 1930s, Republicans claimed that Franklin Roosevelt was really a socialist. Today, Bernie Sanders said they were right.
Then, as today, Sanders referenced Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union speech – FDR’s last great speech—in which Roosevelt proposed an Economic Bill of Rights. Today, Sanders formally proposed “a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights,” which included a right to a living-wage job, to “quality health care,” to “a complete education,” to “affordable housing,” to “a clean environment” and to “a secure retirement.”
As if citing Roosevelt were not enough, Sanders also cited Harry Truman, whose efforts to create a Medicare for All program in the 1940s were thwarted by conservatives and the medical profession. He quoted Truman, talking about his critics, at length:
Socialism [Truman said] is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years. Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.
Nor did Sanders’s talk simply identify socialism with the social democratic reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal. It also contained two crucial omissions.
First, even as Sanders cited Roosevelt and Truman, but he also did not cite any avowed American democratic socialists, save, in passing, Martin Luther King Jr. He made no mention of his great hero, Eugene V. Debs. Nothing on Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s candidate for president in each of FDR’s four elections. Nothing on A. Philip Randolph or Bayard Rustin or Michael Harrington. No reference to Thomas’ line when asked if Roosevelt had actually carried out the Socialist Party’s program. “He carried it out,” Thomas said, “on a stretcher.”
Second, Sanders also omitted his own more socialistic proposals. His speech skipped over some groundbreaking social democratic reforms that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both advocated in the course of the campaign, including dividing corporate boards between shareholder and worker representatives. He made no mention of an American version of the Meidner Plan – a 1970s proposal never quite implemented in Sweden that would gradually transfer the ownership of corporations, through the yearly payment of profits in the form of stock to their employees’ organizations, to their workers.
In short, Sanders’s socialism, as he defined it, is an expansion of America’s semi-demi-welfare state to include more economic rights. It’s an effort to make us a more functional social democracy—which, of course, is no small proposal and by American standards, a great leap forward. But he could have made the same proposals and labeled them neo-Rooseveltian liberalism without straining historical accuracy.
How, then, did his speech depart from his 2015 Georgetown outing? Chiefly, in noting that the world had grown more dangerously authoritarian and xenophobic in the intervening years—a discussion that Sanders also cast in a neo-Rooseveltian light. Twice in his talk, he cited Depression-era rallies at Madison Square Garden: the first, the infamous pro-Nazi rally of 1939; the second, FDR’s election eve speech of 1936—surely, Roosevelt’s most radical oration—in which FDR sounded the anti-oligarchic and anti-authoritarian themes that Sanders is sounding today. This speech, too, Sanders quoted at length:
We had to struggle [Roosevelt said] with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
No line in Sanders’ speech drew a louder spontaneous standing ovation than that one—the one about welcoming their hatred. And it wasn’t Bernie’s line; it was FDR’s.
Sanders’ conflation of democratic socialism with the progressive reforms of an FDR is at some level eminently understandable. Social Security is indeed a social democratic program, as is Medicare; their shortcomings, as Sanders surely realizes in seeking to bolster the first and universalize the second, is that they’re not social democratic enough. In running as a democratic socialist who seeks to complete and update FDR’s agenda, Sanders straddles the very fuzzy border between social democracy and American left liberalism. There, coming from the socialist side, he meets Warren, coming from the liberal side, and a growing number of their fellow Americans.