Written by Charles Scaliger
At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on October 30, senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders attempted to clarify in what sense he is a “socialist.” One voter in attendance, echoing the beliefs of many Americans, remarked, “I come from a generation where that’s a pretty radical term — we think of socialism (with) communism. Can you explain to us exactly what that is?” Sanders responded, in part: “If we go to some countries, what they will have is health care for all as a right. I believe in that. They will have paid family and medical leave. I believe in that. They will have a much stronger childcare system than we have, which is affordable for working families. I believe in that.”
Sanders went on to clarify that he regards himself as a democratic socialist: “What I mean by Democratic socialism is looking at countries in Scandinavia that have much lower rates of child poverty, that have a fairer tax system that guarantees basic necessities of life to working people. Essentially what I mean by that is creating a government that works for working families, rather than the kind of government we have today which is largely owned and controlled by wealthy individuals and large corporations.”
Sanders, the only self-acknowledged socialist ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate, is careful to distinguish “democratic socialism,” which supposedly distinguishes a democratic political system alongside a socialist economic system, from more authoritarian and even totalitarian forms of socialism such as Marxism, Stalinism, Maoism, and communism generally.
In making such a distinction, Sanders is hardly alone. A number of influential socialists, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Eugene Debs, Erich Fromm, and Howard Zinn, view “democratic socialism” as “socialism from below,” demanded and implemented by the grassroots, and “authoritarian socialism,” such as Stalinism, as “socialism from above.” The Scandinavian model of democratic socialism mentioned by Sanders is a popular talking point among democratic socialists, inasmuch as countries such as Denmark and Sweden appear prosperous, happy, and free despite being socialist.
While polls suggest that Bernie Sanders is unlikely to capture the Democratic nomination for president, his newfound national prominence as a presidential candidate has spurred a renewed interest in socialism. Given America’s struggles with violent crime, chronic unemployment, healthcare affordability, and the quality and cost of education, what could possibly be wrong with the sort of socialism that the likes of Sanders and Scandinavia believe in?
The Evolution of Socialism