Bernie Sanders Is Not A Socialist

Bernie Sanders Is Not A Socialist

Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy Are Different Ideologies.

Vermont Senator and Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders has spent quite a bit of time recently defending his brand of "democratic socialism" from those who identify the concept of socialism with the Soviet Union. In a speech where he set out his vision, he described how both FDR's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society were both criticized by conservatives as "socialist." In his view, we need to return to these types of progressive policies. By his definition, "democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy" and "that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt."

These comparisons are revealing about how both Sanders and many of his followers think of democratic socialism. Just because conservative critics called the policies of FDR and Lyndon Johnson socialist doesn't mean that they actually were. As a matter of fact, many scholars have argued that the New Deal helped FDR in undermining the popularity of actual democratic socialists like Norman Thomas (who won 2.2% of the vote with the Socialist Party of America in the 1932 presidential election), thus preserving America's capitalist system.

In 1936, Thomas himself gave a detailed speech arguing that FDR was distinctly not a socialist, but a liberal reformist who created a state capitalist system in which the government acts "for the purpose of maintaining in so far as may be possible the profit system with its immense rewards of private ownership and its grossly unfair division of the national income." Roosevelt wanted "to keep the profit system." According to Thomas, "socialism means to abolish that system." At one point in the speech, Thomas said:

...even if Mr. Roosevelt and the New Deal had far more closely approximated Socialist immediate demands in their legislation, they would not have been Socialists, not unless [critics are] willing to argue that every reform, every attempt to curb rampant and arrogant capitalism, every attempt to do for the farmers something like what the tariff has done for business interests, is socialism.

Today, Bernie Sanders is doing exactly that, arguing that police departments, fire departments, and public libraries are all "socialist institutions." One will often hear liberals making similar statements about how the highway system is fundamentally socialist, or that countries like Denmark and Sweden are socialist (even when the leaders of said countries say they aren't). This comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of socialism. Liberals, instead of arguing against conservative allegations that many government functions are socialist in nature, decided to accept them instead and then attempt to redefine the word "socialist" to their benefit.

A closer study of political ideology, however, tells us that Bernie Sanders is not a democratic socialist. The only presidential candidate who has accurately identified him is Marco Rubio, who associated his ideas with the ideology of "social democracy." These two ideologies- that of democratic socialists and that of social democrats- share significant historical overlap, but are in fact quite different.

Marx and Bernstein

Karl Marx famously argued in his work that capitalism was an exploitative system that should be abolished. Marx believed that capitalist companies had a long-term "tendency of the rate of profits to fall," and that they would attempt over time to reverse that trend by forcing their workers to work harder and for less pay, what Marxists would call "increasing the rate of exploitation." This would lead to more and more conflict ("class struggle") between the capitalists ("bourgeoisie") and the workers ("proletariat") until the workers eventually revolt and overthrow capitalism, establishing an economy owned by the workers ("socialism") which would eventually become a commonly owned and operated economy without classes, money, or a state ("communism").

His thoughts regarding a communist revolution were based in the idea of "historical materialism," that economic conditions drive social forces in such a way that history follows a certain path. In this way, he said that "the bourgeoisie therefore produces... its own grave-diggers" and that "its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." The course of history was more or less set in place, and it was only a matter of time until communism won.

51 years after Marx and Engles published The Communist Manifesto (their most successful and least interesting work), another book of less fame but of enormous importance was published. In 1899, Eduard Bernstein wrote Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein was a revisionist, meaning that he was one of a number of socialist thinkers who attempted to revise the works of Marx in order to fill in the gaps and fix perceived mistakes. Bernstein rejected historical materialism and observed that conditions were actually improving in capitalist society as time went on, with the number of people who were wealthy actually "increas[ing] both relatively and absolutely." In response to this fact, he argued that "socialism... has already survived many a superstition, it will also survive this."

Bernstein flipped the script, arguing that "the prospects of socialism depend not on the decrease but on the increase of social wealth." He believed that it was possible for workers to establish socialism in non-violent ways, both through political reform and their own organizing. Because workers couldn't rely on the natural progression of history to help them, they'd have to do the political organization themselves.

Bernstein viewed democracy as critical to the formation his ideal world, for socialism without it would be "a workers’ movement, but no social democracy." Defining democracy as "a social condition where a political privilege belongs to no one class as opposed to the whole community," he viewed democracy and socialism as two deeply connected ideas. While democracy describes the ownership of political power by all people, socialism describes the ownership of the economy by all people. Social democrats and democratic socialists existed before Bernstein, but his work perfectly explained their view of the world.

Splits in History

For a long period of time, social democracy and democratic socialism were used interchangeably, largely because there was very little gap between the two groups. But as time progressed, a critical debate inevitably broke out: what exactly is the movement's end goal? Bernstein famously said that "to me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything." By this, he didn't mean that he had no values or goals, but rather that he wasn't willing to declare any one set vision of the future as one that must be subscribed to.

Though he points out that Marx had similar views about the future, Marx at least proposed a vague vision of communism to strive for. Bernstein believed that he was just "revising" Marx, but his critics were right in saying that he was actually breaking away from him altogether (according to Engels, Marx once said to Paul Lafargue- his son-in-law and a famous French social democrat- that if he was a Marxist, "I myself am not a Marxist"). Bernstein did a phenomenal job of arguing for democratic progress towards socialism, but he never set a concrete point to strive for.

Among the people who shared his mindset, some argued that immediate government reforms were more important than the long-term aim of building socialism, while others argued the opposite position. We can see a number of examples of these splits in Political Scientist Sheri Berman's fantastic history book, "The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century." In France, there was a split in the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO). Conflict broke out between the Guesdists- those who still had a degree of belief in historical materialism and opposed compromise with mainstream capitalist parties- and the possibilists- those concerned with what is possible right now. They attempted to bridge this gap by releasing a statement declaring that "the Socialist Party, while seeking the fulfillment of immediate reforms demanded by the working class, is not a party of reform but a party of class struggle and revolution."

An even more famous debate featured in Berman's book was the one that broke out in Germany between Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, another famous democratic socialist theorist. Kautsky thought that the German Social Democratic Party should be "a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making one," while Bernstein was of the opinion that it should seek reforms based not on whether or not they contributed to establishing socialism, but on "whether they further the development of the working class, whether they contribute to general progress."

By the middle of the century, without any formal declaration, "social democrat" had come to refer to those who focused their efforts on progressive political reforms, while "democratic socialist" had come to refer to those who focused their efforts on building socialism through democratic means. In intraparty conflicts, social democrats won out more frequently than not. Today, social democrats lead the most popular leftist political parties in most countries. The mainstream political spectrum in the United States today is further to the right, so social democrats only occupy the left-most portion of the Democratic Party while more moderate liberals make up the rest.

In summary, democratic socialists operated on the principle of "move forward, towards socialism," while social democrats simply said "focus on moving forward," leaving what the final idea of what the future might look like open.

Socialism in America

In America, the history was just as interesting. Though starting in the late 19th century through organizations like the Greenback Party, social democracy and democratic socialism were both quite popular in the first half of the 20th century.

Democratic socialists frequently organized around the Socialist Party of America, a popular political party that had two of their candidates elected to the House of Representatives in the 1920's and countless others elected as the mayors of cities ranging from the massive Milwaukee, Wisconsin to the tiny Murray, Utah. Members included people such as Hellen Keller, and Jack London (author of The Call of the Wild), Civil Rights Leader A. Phillip Randolph, and Activist Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle) all ran for office with the party at some point. America's most famous democratic socialist, Eugene V. Debs, ran as their Presidential candidate four times, winning 5.99% of the vote in 1912 and 3.41% in 1920, despite being in jail for speaking out against WWI in the latter case.

Social democrats, on the other hand, often participated in mainstream political parties, existing in the progressive wings of both the Democrats and the Republicans. Social democrats in the first half of the century included Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Senators like Robert M. La Follette, Thomas Gore, Burton K. Wheeler, and William Simon U'Ren; activists like Jane Addams; thinkers like Herbert Croly; and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In Minnesota, social democrats allied with democratic socialists in various incarnations of the Farmer-Labor Party, which later became affiliated with the Democratic Party and now represents another social democrat in the Senate today, Al Franken.

Social democrats and democratic socialists have overlap in their policy demands, and members have moved in and out of the groups over time (for example, A. Phillip Randolph eventually moderated his positions and became more of a social democrat). But the differences were always there. Both groups pushed for women's suffrage, progressive taxation, child labor laws, trust-busting, and workers' protections, but democratic socialists often positioned themselves even further to the left by calling for things like the nationalization of banking.

In 1978, Michael Harrington, a democratic socialist who helped inspire Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, wrote an article called What Socialists Would Do in America If They Could. In it, he suggested "public controls over private investment decisions," "a democrati­cally owned and controlled gas and oil company," "national economic planning for full employment," full-cost pricing, a deeply progressive tax system, publicly-owned social funds, "employee and public representation on the boards of directors of all major corporations and a radical increase in democratic decision-making by primary workers in factories and offices," and "federal support for a vast expan­sion of producer and consumer cooperatives, including funds for community corporations." Of these proposals, Bernie Sanders only has a history of supporting progressive tax reform and economic cooperatives, and he almost never even mentions the latter.

But even with policy differences aside, the ultimate difference is in their final aim. When Norman Thomas said that people like FDR "would not have been Socialists" even if their policies had been closer, he meant that the sign of a socialist is someone who wants an end to capitalism. When he was directly asked by Anderson Cooper whether or not he considered himself a capitalist, Sanders responded that he doesn't consider himself a "part of the casino capitalist process." A democratic socialist would have proudly discussed their anti-capitalist beliefs. But his response indicates that what he actually seeks is a better form of capitalism, which is a hallmark trait of social democracy.

Judging from his past, it appears that Bernie Sanders used to be more radical than he is today. In the 1970's, he was a member of the democratic socialist Liberty Union Party and voiced a documentary on Eugene Debs. In 1999, the Liberty Union Party began criticizing him, and he now draws his inspiration from FDR, instead of the candidate from Debs' party that ran against him.

Sanders the Social Democrat

Today, Bernie Sanders is the most recognizable social democrat in congress, although there are many more in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He's calling for universal healthcare, an end to the war on drugs, progressive taxation, no-cost public college, campaign finance reform, and a $15 minimum wage. But he never mentions worker ownership of corporations, guaranteed job programs, or a nationalized oil company. He speaks about "rebuilding the middle class" and fighting the wealthy "ruling class," but not about replacing capitalism with a publicly-owned and controlled economy.

Bernie Sanders is a social democrat, not a democratic socialist. There's nothing wrong with that- many social democrats, like Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold, have done magnificent work in the Senate in recent years. Bernie Sanders is easily the farthest left candidate in the 2016 election, but he shouldn't describe himself as something he isn't, especially in a nation where socialism is already so severely misunderstood. Doing so has only led to more confusion. As a whole, socialists themselves don't even seem to be sure what to make of it, with views of his candidacy ranging from critical to supportive.

If, as some liberals have claimed, socialism is just "taxpayer funds being used collectively to benefit society as a whole, despite income, contribution, or ability," then the term "socialist" is so broad that it has no meaning. In fact, because Ronald Reagan oversaw more government spending than Jimmy Carter did, this would mean that the most conservative President of the last 40 years was more socialist than the most liberal President of the last 40 years was.

Claiming that things like police forces, the military, corporate welfare, the prison system, the CIA, the DHS, Border Patrol, and the FBI are socialist institutions is absolutely absurd, because socialists have loudly taken negative views towards all or most of those things as long as they've existed. Liberals and social democrats shouldn't just roll with the accusations that they're socialists, they should explain what they believe in their own terms. When pushing for the reforms that he is, Bernie should leave the socialism to the socialists.

Cover Image Credit: The Huffington Post

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No, Socialism Does Not "Sound Good In Theory"

The Myth Needs To Stop

Have you ever heard the phrase, “socialism sounds good in theory, but it fails in practice?” As any in depth reading of the 20th century will show, the latter charge is evidently true. However, socialism, and centralized economies in general, also have a fundamental theoretical issue that many of its proponents fail to take seriously.

Have you ever considered how we determine the price of everything we buy? I feel comfortable assuming that you haven’t, and in full disclosure I hadn’t either until very recently. But it's a question that warrants some deliberation. Let’s explore:

Firstly, the price of one thing kind of depends on the price of everything else. For example, the price of a laptop depends on the price of each of the components that go into it; and the prices of those components are dependent on the price of the labor that goes into mining and collecting the resources those parts are made of; and the price of that labor depends on a near infinite number of factors, all of which must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis that takes into consideration differences in people talents, abilities, and interests. Further, one must also consider more subtle factors such as climate, geography, culture, and politics, all of which indirectly affect something’s price. And I won’t even begin to talk about the risks that entrepreneurs take when pursuing business ventures, because trying to assign a monetary value to risk is impossible irrespective of the special circumstances of a particular situation.

Not only must a supplier calculate the costs incurred and risks associated with bringing a final product to market, but he must also negotiate with consumers – because entrepreneurs will only turn a profit if their product sells; and in order for it to sell customers must be willing to pay the cost; and for that to happen consumers must believe that the benefits they receive will outweigh the costs incurred from purchasing it.

So how exactly do we account for all of those relevant factors and come to an agreement on what something is worth? Doing so for one product appears hard enough, but just imagine trying to do that for every single good and service that gets exchanged. Then imagine trying to do that every single day – because prices of capital products change on a day-to-day basis.

This is called combinatorial explosion, and it’s a fundamental problem with computing. When trying to determine something’s worth, the number of combinations that one has to examine grows exponentially, so fast that even the most powerful computers we have will require an intolerable amount of time to examine them. Exacerbating the problem of combinatorial explosion is the fact that what constitutes value itself is highly subjective. Perhaps you’d be willing to pay more for a hybrid than a pickup truck if you have a job that requires you to commute; and perhaps the opposite would be true if you own a landscaping company. Regardless of what example we use, its obvious that some people value some things more and some things less, and thus you can’t assign definitive monetary value to a product without regard to individuals tastes and preferences – in other words, you need feedback.

Although price calculation is an irreducibly complex problem, it’s one that needs to be solved – and from a purely theoretical standpoint, it’s one that socialism fails to address. Ludwig von Misses elaborated on this idea in his work Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. His critique of socialism, popularly known as the Impossibility Thesis, goes as follows:

The very definition of Socialism is that all the means of production belong to the government. Spin it any way you want to, that they belong to everybody, or to nobody, or to the government, but the important point is that there is no buying and selling of means of production. Nobody can buy or sell steel or coal or a factory, because it is illegal for anyone to own them. That would be Capitalism, if a private person owned any means of production whatsoever and could do with it as he pleased.

So, socialism abolishes private property of capital goods and natural resources. Since the socialist State is sole owner of the material factors of production, they can no longer be exchanged. Without exchange there can be no feedback and hence no market prices. Without market prices, the State cannot calculate the cost of production for the goods it produces. In the absence of economic calculation of profit and loss, socialist planners cannot know the most valuable uses of scarce resources – thereby making the socialist economy, from a theoretical perspective, strictly impossible.

So how have we solved this problem? Obviously there is some phenomenon that works as a price calculator otherwise we wouldn’t have prices.

Well, herein lies the genius of market systems: they provide a distributive computational solution to the problem of overwhelming combinatorial complexity. Because no single person can account for all of the relevant factors that affect prices, the only solution is to leave people free to figure it out on their own. Here is a more technical analysis of how this works:

All people make monetary bids for goods according to their subjective valuations, leading to the emergence of objective monetary exchange ratios, which relate the values of all consumer goods to one another. Entrepreneurs seeking to maximize monetary profit bid against one another to acquire the services of the productive factors currently available and owned by these same consumers.

In this competitive process, each and every type of productive service is objectively appraised in monetary terms according to its ultimate contribution to the production of consumer goods. There thus comes into being the market’s monetary price structure, a genuinely “social” phenomenon in which every unit of exchangeable goods and services is assigned a socially significant cardinal number and which has its roots in the minds of every single member of society yet must forever transcend the contribution of the individual human mind.

So, rather than being set by an arbitrary authority from the top-down, contrary to what advocates of socialism might argue, prices actually emerge out of a collective process of people making individual value judgments and price appraisals from the bottom-up – and in effect, markets act as a de-facto price calculator by facilitating exchanges of goods and services between individuals.

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that markets have issues, and of course our free enterprise system doesn't always live up to our highest expectations. However, when examining issues of the economic variety, one must always stay grounded in reality. Obviously if you use some hypothetical utopia or dreamland that has never existed as the basis for comparison our society will certainly fall short; but when compared to other societies, historical and present, we stack up among the best in the world.

Further, so long as we grant people the liberty to make their own choices, inequities will always exist; and as a consequence there will always be some people who are less well off than we would like. This doesn't mean we should do nothing to help those people who fall through the cracks, and it doesn't mean that all socialists are cranks. What it does mean, however, is that we shouldn’t strive for perfection in the form of a socialist utopia – because once you understand that the world is incomprehensibly complex, that humans are imperfect and imperfect creatures cannot produce something perfect, you come to understand what an absolute miracle it is that our society functions as well as it does.

Cover Image Credit: ChronoZoom

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Are YOU Ready for War?

I mean, the Holocaust occurred, and people never thought that would happen.

Are you ready to live a life without Instagram? How about Snapchat? How about having to deal with power shortages? Could you imagine your life without hot showers? How about Dunkin Donuts?

For the past two weeks, I noticed that Army ROTC has been advertised in the El. It was kind of weird. I mean, why were they advertising the Army? It wasn't until Jersey Shore's premier that I connected the dots.

April 5, 2018

Girardi's and Hudson's Apartment:

We're eating pizza, enjoying family time; we even took a cab to honor Jerzday. As we are all sitting there on the couch, a Navy commercial comes on. Then, we all joke about how we are going to war with Korea. One thing led to the next, and we all start saying what we would actually do if we went to war. Julie wouldn't want to go to Korea, even though she's Korean. Then I admit that I wouldn't mind being station in Korea. After all, I adapt to different cultures pretty easily.

It wasn't until later that night that I realized, that this might be a possibility. All jokes aside, but we might actually go to war. Prices are rising. The military is being advertised. Our ROTC room is being remodeled. It suddenly seems like our program is improving, is it improving because they're going to need us soon?

(I realize that this makes no sense as much as it makes sense to me, but I think I peep something. It may just be a hunch from a sleepless-college-student that reads too many CNN articles, but I think I'm onto something).

Fortunate Sons. There I was zoning out, doing my pushups to the rhythm of one of America's sad realities. (The song is a protest piece against the draft during the Vietnam War).

What would I really do if we went to war? How would I tell my family? The only reason why my family has accepted me being in ROTC was because I kind of lied to them and said I would never end up in "battle". Yet, as the years pass, I realize that I perhaps may enjoy being in the field. I would never branch infantry, but I've been thinking about Field Artillery.

Disclaimer: I didn't mean to lie to my family. I just thought I would branch something that is "safe".

Later That Day:

On my way to Dina's apartment I see this:

a lot about who we are as a society.

Rumors about a draft have started to surface; how insane would that be? People don't believe that will happen. The only issue is that we always want to believe that bad things won't happen, but they do. Not trying to be pessimistic here but, it's kind of hard when history has been there to back my point up. I mean, the Holocaust happened, and people never thought that would happen.

Would that mean that we no longer have luxuries? Will macarons become scarce?

Cover Image Credit: Pixabay

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