“Bernie’s notion about how he embraces folks like the Sandinistas, and Cuba, and the former Soviet Union, and he talks about the good things they did in China, is absolutely contrary to every message we want to send to the rest of the world,” Joe Biden claimed during Sunday night’s debate. To this, Bernie Sanders had an equally forceful response. “I have led the charge against all forms of authoritarianism,” he replied, “including America’s so-called allies.”
But the issue was not the standards Sanders aggressively and consistently applies to America’s geopolitical allies but those he relaxes for its adversaries. His failure to address that consistent pattern of behavior in this moment and throughout the debate revealed a fact that Sanders himself does not disguise. Bernie Sanders has spent his career telling you that he is a socialist. Believe him.
Before he became a national political figure, Sanders did not shy away from assuming the mantle “socialist,” unmodified by any banal adjectives. In the early 1960s, Sanders volunteered on an Israeli kibbutz—a fact of which he’s quite proud and frequently discusses. But after he became a federal politician, Sanders declined to elaborate on that communal farm’s location or its political affinities. “Surprise,” read the New York Times headline when they solved the kibbutz mystery in 2016: “It’s socialist.” And hardly the “democratic” sort.
In 1990, Sanders told the Israeli journalist Yossi Melman that, when he worked on an Israeli Kibbutz, he was “a guest of the leftist Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement.” That movement, and the pro-Soviet Mapam Party with which it was affiliated, was explicitly socialist. That Kibbutz, Sha’ar Ha’amakim, was co-founded by Aharon Cohen, who was convicted of spying for the Soviets in the late 1950s (though he was later pardoned when the statute he violated was relaxed). “By the time Sanders arrived at Sha’ar Ha’amakim, in 1963, the kibbutz had cooled greatly on Stalin but was still a socialist heaven,” the Forward’s Nathan Guttman observed.
As a student with the University of Chicago, Sanders affiliated himself with the Young People’s Socialist League, an arm of the Socialist Party USA. In 1970, he co-founded the Liberty Union Party—a radical group that called for dramatic federal intervention in the private sector. During his 1976 campaign for statewide office, Sanders argued in favor of seizing utility providers “without compensation to the banks and wealthy stockholders who own the vast majority of stock in these companies.”
Sanders was a seasoned political operative when he joined the Socialist Workers Party at the age of 38. He has since downplayed his association with this organization, but Sanders was no passive participant in socialist politics. In 1980, Sanders “proudly” served as presidential elector for Andrew Pulley, a SWP presidential candidate who advocated nationalizing “virtually all private industry” and who had said that American soldiers should “take up their guns and shoot their officers.”
Undeterred by defeat, Sanders again campaigned for the socialist candidate in 1984, former Black Panther Mel Mason, insisting that it was critical for American voters to have access to “fundamental alternatives to capitalist ideology.” Mason spent the campaign praising revolutionary Marxist regimes like those in China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, Mason confessed that his views on revolutionary Marxism have softened over the intervening decades. “I have a lot of respect for him,” he said of Sanders, “but I just don’t think the programs he put forward are what workers need in this country.” If Mason has matured beyond his dalliance with socialism, Sanders has not.
Pursuant to his role as a SWP elector in 1980, Sanders joined his colleagues in affixing his name to a press release that affirmed his “support” for the “continued defense of the Cuban revolution.” This was no perfunctory statement; Sanders’s affections for the Castro regime were genuine and long-lasting.
In 1989, as the citizens of the Eastern Bloc were dismantling the oppressive regimes under which they’d languished, Sanders took an eight-day tour of this communist island. He returned with the understanding that the Cuban revolution was “far deeper and more profound” than he had previously realized. In an interview with the Burlington Free Press, Sanders confessed that, while Cuban society had its “deficiencies,” they paled when compared to America’s. “I did not see a hungry child. I did not see any homeless people,” he told reporters. “Cuba today not only has free health care but very high-quality health care.” As for Fidel Castro, Sanders observed that “the people we met had an almost religious affection” for their leader.
Even today, Sanders maintains a unique capacity to see the virtues of Cuba’s oppressive socialist regime. In a February interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, the senator was asked about these and other comments that betray a conspicuous fondness for the Cuban communism. He responded by denouncing authoritarianism, broadly and vaguely, but added that it would be “unfair” to overlook the “massive literacy program” Castro implemented when he “came into office”—a euphemism for the bloody 1959 revolution that casts doubt on the sincerity of Sanders’s condemnation of heavy-handed dictatorships. Indeed, the Vermont senator spent the next 24 hours doubling down on his controversial remarks. “He formed a literacy brigade,” Sanders said of Castro when pressed by CNN’s Chris Cuomo, adding, “I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing.” When Cuomo noted that his praise of a ruthless despot diluted his supposedly strenuous opposition to tyranny, Sanders replied simply, “truth is truth.”
Sanders’s tenderness toward Marxist regimes whatever their level of commitment to democracy extends beyond Cuba’s shores. He displayed a similar level of sympathy for the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.
As Sanders entered into his second term as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he devoted particular attention to foreign affairs. In the effort to establish sister-city relations with the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas in 1985, Sanders was treated to a tour of the Latin American nation. Upon his return to the U.S., he said he found Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to be “impressive,” and described some members of his regime as “gentle” and “loving.” “Health care is now free,” Sanders observed in that same interview. “It is terrible,” he added, “but they now have it free.” In an earlier press conference, Sanders remarked, “one of the nice things that I saw is that as a result of government policy, direct government policy in terms of the distribution of food, people are not hungry, by and large.” He continued, “it’s funny, sometimes American journalists talk about how bad a country is, that people are lining up for food. That is a good thing. In other countries, people don’t line up for food. The rich get the food, and the poor starve to death.”
Some of Sanders’s constituents objected to their mayor’s failure to place due emphasis on Ortega’s violations of “basic human and civil rights.” After all, the Sandinista regime had declared a national emergency, which it used to execute mass arrests of regime opponents and shutter critical media outlets. In response, Sanders compared the Ortega’s actions to Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War-era suspension of habeas corpus and Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. The Sandinistas, Sanders wrote, could not “allow their enemy the total freedom to defeat them and destroy their government.”
Nicaragua’s expansive view of what constituted regime opponents included the native Miskito people, who were persecuted en masse and violently ejected from their homes. Asked about the ethnic cleansing of this troublesome minority by the Rutland Daily Herald, Sanders replied simply, “it happens not to be an area of my interest.” Pressed about this ethnic cleansing by local reporters, Sanders went further on behalf of the Sandinista regime. “The use of the word ‘genocidal’ is absolutely incorrect,” he averred, noting that this population was located on the border with Honduras amid a “major CIA effort to undermine that region.” He added, though, this was a “complicated issue within a complicated issue” of which he was “not an expert” and could not “get into that at great length.”
Sanders receives undeserved credit for his superficial condemnations of authoritarianism. Autocracy is an immutable trait shared by all Marxist regimes. Moreover, Sanders has shown no ability to recognize when he is being used by those abusive governments. In 1988, a year before his tour of Cuba, Sanders made an official visit to the nucleus of the communist international, the Soviet Union, to establish another sister-city relationship with the city of Yaroslavl. There, Sanders and his new wife Jane allowed themselves to be dazzled by the Soviet Union’s Potemkin projects.
Though he was once again critical of the “authoritarian” aspects of Soviet life, Sanders observed that the people he met “seem reasonably happy and content.” He marveled at the “cultural programs” in the USSR, which “go far beyond what we do in this country.” He was astonished by the quality of the theaters he toured, where “the highest price of a ticket that you can get was the equivalent of $1.50.” Sanders was also “extremely impressed by their public transportation system,” which he took to be the “cleanest, most effective mass transit system I’ve ever seen in my life.” Indeed, Sanders marveled, “you wait 15 seconds in rush hour between trains.” Quite literally, the Soviets made the trains run on time.
Sanders even maintains some attachment to the regime in Beijing, though its autocratic character is one of the few vestigial traits the People’s Republic of China’s retains from its Marxist inception. “They have made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization,” Sanders told The Hill’s Krystal Ball in 2019, “so they’ve done a lot of things for their people.” The senator made these comments ostensibly in support of his brand of socialism, but he is, in fact, making the case for markets and competition. Chinese prosperity is a relatively new condition that followed the implementation of market-oriented reforms by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. He broke down collective farms, dismantled import barriers, sought out foreign trade agreements, partially privatized the state-run industrial sector, and decriminalized private commerce. The effects were staggeringly rapid. In 1981, 88 percent of Chinese people lived in “extreme poverty” (less than $1.90 per day). By 2015, fewer than 0.7 percent of the population of China endured such hardship.
Given this remarkable consistency, the most charitable claim that can be made in Sanders’s defense is that he was once what Bloc intelligence used to call a “subconscious multiplicator”—an “agent of influence” who unwittingly advanced narratives favorable to Moscow in deference to ideological affinities for socialism. What cannot be disputed is that Sanders spent decades advancing the propagandistic objectives of Marxist regimes.