There is some talk in the media about whether Americans can accept a socialist president. Many young people are beginning to view socialism favorably. Bernie Sanders self-identifies as a democratic socialist (though truthfully, he is not. He’s a mere social democrat). You hear a lot of talk about how “Medicare is socialist”, “public roads are socialist”, and even “military spending is socialist.” Americans are mislead by politicians and the corporate press into believing that socialism is merely Keynesian style government expenditure. This would come as a great shock to not just John Maynard Keynes and his followers, but to actual socialists today. The ‘socialism’ of Bernie Sanders has very little to do with socialism as it’s understood today and historically.
Here are 5 things that every socialist must believe.
1. Materialist Conception of History
Since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, socialists of all types believe in the materialist conception of history, aka historical materialism. Very briefly, historical materialism states that the way society organizes production gives way to certain relations of production, political systems, social relations, cultures, and so on. So long as society is split into different classes, there will be class struggle born out of the antagonisms of different class interests. In capitalism, the two main classes are the proletariat (workers who have nothing to sell but their labor-power and thus must rent themselves out to capitalists for a wage) and the bourgeoisie or capitalists (those who own the means of production and occupy the dominant position by being able to exploit wage laborers). Real, material conditions such as how individuals and classes are situated in the production process should be the main object of our analysis. Socialists may differ about the extent to which material conditions create or influence certain political systems, social relations, cultures, etc., and vice versa.
All socialists without exception are anti-capitalists. If you hear a so-called ‘socialist’ talk about how he is for regulating capitalism, not replacing it; how he is against big corporations, but for small businesses, he is not a socialist. Socialists believe that capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production. As mentioned above, the proletarians, possessing no means of production themselves, must rent themselves out to capitalists. Capitalists exploit wage laborers by extracting more value (surplus value) from the worker’s labor than they paid her for. Socialists want the end of the capitalist system. In its place, they want a new society not based on the economic exploitation of its workers, but based on satisfying human needs. They want a society where workers control the means of production. If a person does not talk about the end of the capitalist system and the socialization of the means of production where workers are in control, that person is not a socialist.
Socialists are unequivocally, unabashedly anti-imperialists. Capitalists wield the military power of the State to promote their economic interests around the world. Imperialism drafts the working class of one country to kill the working class of another country for the profit of the rich and powerful capitalists. While socialists disagree on the exact nature of imperialism (famously Vladimir Lenin saying it’s the highest stage of capitalism and Rosa Luxemburg believing it’s not a stage of capitalism but built into it from capitalism’s birth), you cannot be a socialist and defend imperialist wars. To do so is to stand with the oppressors against the oppressed. Eugene Debs, a great American socialist, was jailed for his opposition to the First World War. Here is an excerpt from the speech in Canton, Ohio that landed him in jail. I believe it adequately expresses the socialist position on anti-imperialism:
The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.
They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.
And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.
Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.
That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.
4. Against Oppression in All Forms
Socialists stand with the oppressed against their oppressors. Socialists do not pick and choose which among the oppressed they support. They do not decide to stand in solidarity with African Americans and turn their backs on the struggles of Palestinians. They do not support higher wages for American workers while continuing the slaughter of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Socialists are internationalists and intersectionalists. The importance of a struggle for freedom and equality does not depend on where the oppressed is born or what race, gender, sex, or ethnicity they are.
5. Revolution, not Reform
Socialists believe a just society will not come about by reform. Only when the working class and oppressed peoples organize themselves and revolt will a new society be born. This is not because socialists like violence or fetishize revolution. If capitalists were willing to give up ownership and control of their businesses to their workers and accept the redistribution of all the wealth that they stole from economically exploiting their workers, socialists would not object. But socialists are not naive. The rich and powerful have never willingly surrendered their privilege. Historically, all gains in the standard of living, in freedom and equality have been won by the organized, mass movements of the working class and oppressed peoples. Even today, the modest call for a livable wage is met with derision by the rich and their sycophantic press. Given the real situation in which the working class finds itself, revolution is not the answer chosen by socialists but the one the capitalists force upon those they exploit.
This is not to say that socialists oppose all reforms. Rather, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg in Social Reform or Revolution:
Legal reform and revolution are not different methods of historical progress that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. They are different moments in the development of class society which condition and complement each other, and at the same time exclude each other reciprocally as, e.g., the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.
….It is absolutely false and totally unhistorical to represent work for reforms as a drawn-out revolution, and revolution as a condensed series of reforms. A social transformation and a legislative reform do not differ according to their duration but according to their essence. …He who pronounces himself in favor of the method of legal reforms in place of and as opposed to the conquest of political power and social revolution does not choose a more tranquil, surer and slower road to the same goal. He chooses a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new social order, he takes a stand for surface modifications of the old order.
So What Is Bernie Sanders?
So where does Bernie Sanders stand? It is unknown if he is a historical materialist. Even if we grant him that, his record doesn’t look too good from the standpoint of socialism. He is not anti-capitalist; rather he calls for increased regulation on financial institutions. He does not call for workers’ control of the means of production; rather he calls for increased amount of workers’ cooperatives, which, while being possibly the seeds of a socialist society, do not replace the fundamental imperative of the capitalist mode of production: the demand for production of surplus value above all else.
On imperialism, Sanders fails miserably. He support the Bush-Obama imperialist war in Afghanistan, most recently calling to keep soldiers there against even his own Democratic base. He continues to support the Israeli oppression of Palestinians — an unacceptable, shameful position. His political ‘revolution’ is as pathetic as those who cower from it. While Sanders calls for a political revolution, as he explained in the first primary debate, what he really meant by that was increased voter turnout.
To echo Rosa Luxemburg’s call to the revisionist social democrat Eduard Bernstein, we socialists must propose that Bernie Sanders “appear formally as what he is: a petty-bourgeois democratic progressive.” Sanders is not a socialist. Rather, he is a social democrat. He believes in giving capitalism a human face, not abolishing it.
This is not to say that there is no potential here. Many socialists have ignored the immense opportunity presented by Sanders presidential campaign. No socialist today can gather crowds of tens of thousands of people. We need to take advantage of the popular discontent with establishment Democratic politics. The masses of people brought together by the Sanders campaign have the potential to form networks that last longer than the span of this election cycle.
Infiltrate, educate, agitate. Those three words should be the plan of action for any socialist wondering what to do about the Sanders campaign. Infiltrate the movement and meetings. Educate people on the limitations of electoral politics, the necessity of building effective workers’ power and creating mass movements that do more than advocate pressing a button on the ballot box. Agitate by building class consciousness, constructively promote socialist ideas and critically engage with supporters in a way that builds them up as people, not alienates them through condescension.