Defying the pundits, Bernie Sanders dominates the struggle for the Democratic nomination by describing himself as a “democratic socialist” and calling for a “political revolution.” True, almost everyone assumes that Hillary Clinton will be the nominee, and this is probably correct. Yet the Clinton campaign stands for nothing — it is what my friend Jeff Goldfarb calls “gray — whereas Sanders has forced the attack on inequality to the center of the stage. Still, there is much confusion concerning the two key words of Sanders’ campaign, “socialism” and “revolution.” Do these words have any meaning or are they only the residues of an earlier stage of world history?

To understand that they do have meaning we have to understand Sanders himself. He is a product of the 1960s, a period in which the word “revolution,” and the ideas of democratic socialism flourished. But whereas most of his generation followed the pied piper of identity politics into the elitism, neo-liberalism and political reaction of the 70s, Sanders was one of a small minority that remained faithful to the ideas of his youth. (Full disclosure: I am another such.) His use of the terms “socialism” and “revolution” reflects this. Let us consider them one at a time.

The idea of socialism cannot be separated from the idea of communism, as originally formulated by such figures as Jesus and Plato. Marx of course was a major figure in this tradition, partly because of his critique of private property and partly because of his analysis of the modern form in which private property is organized, namely capitalism. In the late nineteenth century, socialism became linked to the idea of government ownership of property, and/or management of the economy. The reason for this was that capitalism produced a need for a modern state, and the political movements of the era, including socialism, liberalism and fascism were state-building movements. However, what is crucial to see is that the idea of socialism was never just that of big government. Rather, the idea was to base society on social justice and cooperation, rather than self-interest.

By the 1960s, this meaning of socialism had become clear to all progressives. Thus, the movements of the sixties, such as civil rights, feminism and gay liberation- were all concerned to push the idea of a socialist revolution beyond mere economics, into such spheres as family life. This link was lost in the seventies. But Sanders is reminding us that the idea of socialism was not based on more government, but rather on a different moral, psychological and cultural basis for society.

The same is true for the idea of revolution. In the period in which the main historical activity was building the state, a revolution meant a change in the social class controlling the state. Thus people spoke of “bourgeois revolution” and “working class revolution.” By the sixties, however, the left confronted a new agenda– how to establish a different moral order than the greedy, fearful and frequently murderous one associated with capitalism. Sanders is going back to this idea of revolution, not to armed uprisings and the like.

The point is that there was huge progress made in the ideas of the left — such ideas as socialism and revolution– and this progress was reflected in the movements of the sixties. But just as progress is possible, so is regression. Beginning in the 1970s, the entire meaning of a left was forgotten, marginalized and suppressed, It was not the right or business that did this: it was Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, who embraced the idea that we no longer needed ideas like socialism and revolution, but rather should depend on “growth,” an idea that is neither left nor right. The present inequality is the result of the Clinton/Obama Democratic Party, which is why we so desperately have needed, and now have, a figure like Sanders.

2 thoughts on “What is Socialism? What is Revolution? A Note on Bernie Sanders

  1. I guess that if we skip from the 18th century (before socialism existed) to the 21st (when it is no more), the socialism looks like a fairy decent alternative.

    What a pity, the 19th and 20th century, reality interfering with neat abstract constructions….

  2. I realize I am probably tossing quite a bit of gray around lately, but…..

    I am with you in liking the fact that Bernie Sanders unapologetically describes himself as a “democratic socialist” , and with you even more in that his idea of “revolution” consists in bringing about a new MORAL order. But it is here where, I think, things get kind of, well, gray…..

    First of all, what’s the content of Sanders’s “socialism”? It is certainly not one that wishes to abolish the market. It is certainly not redolent at all of the state socialism (also, with justice, called by Trotsky “state capitalism”) of the old Soviet Bloc. It is a socialism that looks a bit like the Scandinavian countries, which have also been called, also with justice, “capitalist social democracies”. He sounds a lot like Robert Reich, in fact (who has positioned himself as one of Sanders’s biggest fans, remarkable as it is coming from an old Clintonista). Reich’s most recent book — more of a manifesto than a book — is “Saving Capitalism.” Is Socialism a means for saving Capitalism or replacing it? Is Norway or Denmark — and yes, we SHOULD emulate them! — a social democracy or democratic socialist? I am not engaging in this for sheer wordplay: words and their meanings matter. But it is important to get down to specifics about WHAT kind of socialism one is talking about when one talks about Bernie Sanders. You can be sure that the Right will float that signifier all the way over to Stalin, Brezhnev, and Mao. What I like about Sanders is that he explains what he means very, very clearly and earnestly. Let’s hope the right people are listening.

    (This, by the way, is also a rejoinder to the comment by Pait below. Whose socialism are you talking about? Proudhon’s? Fourier’s? Marx’s? Lenin’s? They are all very different from each other and, more or less, no longer live options in their original forms. But that doesn’t leave us with a staunchly non-socialist “reality” at odds with “neat abstract constructions.” It leaves us with…..other options. Pait’s comment sounds like the whole “end of history” rhetoric that was in the air in the late 80s, and put to rest by the fact that, well, history didn’t end. Talk about a neat abstract construction. Fukuyama and the Mayan Calendar Cults had something in common after all.)

    “Communism”: I think that the attempt to yoke Plato, Jesus, and Marx together as making some kind of common cause here is a mistake, and I will leave it to Zizek to try to work out the consequences of “communism” if he can ever concentrate long enough to complete an actual thought. The ideas of social justice and cooperation, I would argue, point in the direction of genuine democracy, which is the real spectre behind Marx’s thinking, one he did not quite grasp, and which was quite alien to his Soviet and Maoist disciples. There’s nothing democratic in Plato, and Jesus, it seems to me, wants to hand over “the political” to the life of the ekklesia, or faith-commnity that morphed into “the church”, which works if you are Christian but if not, not. What I like about Sanders is his commitment to democracy in his sincere effort to detach the rule of money from the self-rule of the democratic community of citizens.

    Finally, I don’t see Hillary Clinton’s vacillations as “gray”, in the sense that is currently being discussed in PS. Galdalf was “the grey” — cognizant of nuance and willing to act both decisively and with practical wisdom (e.g., he refused to bear the ring, didn’t he?). Hillary Clinton is more like Saruman — formerly “the white”, then “of many colors”. All things to all citizens. Until she is elected. Then, as the song says, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss…..”

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