Is Bernie Sanders a socialist?

Editor’s note: The following is an extended version of the comments quoted by Damon Linker in the Week. For less sympathetic coverage of Sanders, see Peter Dreier at HuffPo and Michael Kazin at Slate. C-SPAN will air the National Press Club event on Jack’s new book this Sunday at 6:45 Eastern, 3:45 Pacific, but the full video can be found here.

Is Bernie Sanders a socialist? I know from my mother who lives in Vermont that particularly at constituent events, he more often identifies as an “independent” than a socialist. At other times he’ll take advantage of his socialist reputation, such as appearing on an episode of the 2011 C-SPAN miniseries “The Contenders” on Eugene Debs. But of late, it is the media emphasizing the socialist label for Bernie.

In the context of the historic American Socialist movement, Bernie is squarely in the tradition of the Socialist Party politicians elected in the first half of the 20th century in places as far flung as Milwaukee; Schenectady, NY; Butte, MT; Minneapolis; Reading, PA; and Bridgeport, CT – success through delivering on core constituency service and clean government. His first election as mayor of Burlington in 1981 was due to a property tax revolt and the opportunistic support of the police union. In 2013, I attended the annual Fourth of July parade in picturesque Warren, VT, where respectful but modest applause for Governor Shumlin was followed by absolute pandemonium for Bernie (as he is known simply to Vermonters). The two things that have sealed this – and 70% of the vote – are an A rating from the NRA and zeal in securing veterans benefits.

Politically shrewd as he is, I hoped Bernie would decide to marshal his well-earned influence behind a candidate who can better replicate his model of success nationally such as Jim Webb. Maybe I was naïve to think he could do this without first running a campaign himself, and I imagine both Webb and Martin O’Malley are happy to have Bernie deliver the truly rough punches to Hillary. But perhaps what Bernie has been thinking is that he wants to replicate the Ron Paul model of inspiring and leaving a large activist organization in his wake.

This exact thinking is revealed in a blog by the editor of Jacobin (see Counterpunch for the truly nasty anti-Bernie argument on the left). My fear is that such a large opening for a consciously “socialist” politics in America today will inevitably be filled by the uber-PC Jacobin, which has been in the forefront calling for a merger of the various remnants of the Communist Party with the Democratic Socialists of America, along with such ideologues in the professional class of the labor movement who tend to look to the 1930s Popular Front as their usable past.

Here we come to the core arguments of my book: 1) that the reason radicalism has been so painfully irrelevant in the post-9/11 era is because it suffers the same affliction as liberalism, the idolatry of identity politics, and 2) that it was the Popular Front that displaced the historic Socialist Party, of the original middle American radical Eugene V. Debs and the quintessential progressive isolationist Norman Thomas, profoundly committed to the ballot box and to Jeffersonian virtue, with what became contemporary liberalism – the elevation of protest over politics at the expense of democratic virtue.

Yet the real turning point to contemporary liberalism was the civil rights movement and the new left, whose foundation was in the replication of this model by the Trotsky protégé Max Shachtman, whose followers took over the corpse of the Socialist Party at the end of the 1950s and ultimately became a core component in the forging of neoconservatism. The irony is that Bernie Sanders’ political pedigree runs against the grain of all this: beginning in a radical dissenting faction of the Shachtmanite Young People’s Socialist League in the early 1960s, and then squarely situated in the most impeccably small-d democratic segment of the new left, that hoped to revive the possibilities for a new party and a spirit resembling the historic Socialist movement.

I do not expect Bernie to substantially revive the old faith in the ballot – it is true that he is more Swedish welfare statist than Jeffersonian radical. At the same time, it is misleading to say that he would be perfectly at home in a mainstream European center-left party; the example of the 1960s was ultimately adopted by, and profoundly transformed, the European social democratic left and turned upside-down the Cold War-era question of “American exceptionalism.” Indeed, if only by virtue of the necessities of running for president, Bernie’s reliability on foreign policy and the surveillance state have risen substantially.

What Bernie can and likely will do, though it is not necessarily his intention, is pry open the contradictions in contemporary liberalism, as it is led by the force of events to emphasize economic inequality, civil liberty, and responsible government at the ultimate expense of its identity politics zeal. Bernie has made his displeasure with identity politics known in the past – though he may not push hard on a critique of contemporary liberalism, he will certainly provoke the discussion as Elizabeth Warren would not.

I wrote my book because my family background was in the labor movement and the increasingly forgotten non-Communist left, and that the historic Socialist Party denounced by some new left historians as “the left wing of McCarthyism” deserved to be reconsidered on its own terms a generation after the Cold War. The result may have been a book that greets most self-identified socialists in the United States of 2015 as something from another planet. Yet Bernie Sanders represents just enough of a link to that past to raise some interesting if not troublesome questions.

(Image source)

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