On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders took the stage at George Washington University to deliver a speech that was billed as a full-bore defense of socialism. Opponents of that collectivist economic philosophy could be forgiven for being a little concerned that Sanders’s boldness presaged a new age of unabashed Fabianism in American politics. Fortunately, their fears were proven unfounded. Sanders’s speech clarified many things, perhaps foremost among them that socialism still has a serious stink about it.
Sanders began his speech by describing a series of seemingly disparate events that he says were indicative of a “movement of working people” striving toward justice. Teachers marching for school funding, laborers unionizing, activists seeking a higher federal minimum wage, minorities demanding the civil rights that are their legal and constitutional due; this is the gist of the senator’s movement toward “Democratic Socialism.” The question is, what does any of this have to do with the government ownership of the means of production and the distribution of resources according to the demands of the state?
Sanders set out to establish a universal definition of what constitutes “socialism,” but only further muddied the waters. The septuagenarian socialist attempted to draw a firm distinction between his people-positive brand of statism and the “corporatist economics” espoused by a rising tide of right-leaning populist leaders around the world. He cited figures such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and, of all people, China’s Xi Jinping as examples of the authoritarian oligarchy standing athwart utopia. But Sanders has confused reactionary cultural traditionalism with free-market economics. For his part, Orban is “out-socializing the socialists.” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls Duterte’s approach to growth and development “statist.” Putin has reversed Russia’s post-Soviet trend toward privatization, with an estimated 55 percent of the productive economy and 28 percent of the Russian workforce under state control. And lord knows the general secretary of the Communist Party of China is not exactly a Milton Friedman fan.
Much of Sanders’s speech wasn’t devoted to his economic philosophy but Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. The senator heaped praise on the enduring achievements of the New Deal (steering cautiously around the many New Deal initiatives that failed or blew up on the launch pad), but this, too, exposes the continuing bad odor around socialism.
“Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years,” Sanders said, quoting Harry Truman’s attack on FDR’s opponents. But that admission concedes that the label “socialism” was a potent slur—one that the New Dealers sought to defuse. Even Roosevelt himself objected to the brand. “I am against private socialism as thoroughly as I am against government socialism,” the 32nd president said in the attempt to justify the virtual nationalization of electric utilities. Indeed, Sanders even dedicated a substantial portion of his speech to the claim that the social-welfare programs of the 1930s—both those that were implemented and those that were only envisioned—are not socialism, per se.
Finally, to further confuse the issue, Sanders insisted that Donald Trump believes in a kind of socialism himself: “corporate socialism.” From crony capitalism, to state and local tax incentives, to bailouts for firms negatively impacted by faulty public-sector policies—Sanders railed against the kind of “socialism” that limited-government conservatives also resent.
It’s not exactly comforting to hear a viable presidential candidate wrap his arms around “socialism,” even if the candidate’s elucidation of the concept is utterly incoherent. But it is some comfort that he cannot quite bring himself to defend the philosophy’s core maxims, in part, because they remain deeply inimical to the American experience. After all, it’s not like Sanders doesn’t believe in the assumption of the ownership of the means of production by the state.
He has argued for the nationalization of major industries, including energy producers and financial institutions. He has joined Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in calling for legislation that would transform the U.S. Post Office into a financial lending institution. His Medicare-for-all proposal explicitly outlaws the provision of most private health-insurance companies, nationalizing the industry and leaving behind a risk pool too small to sustain a private industry dedicated to supplemental insurance. He has praised the merging of work and private life in the Soviet Union—a feature of life in a proletarian dictatorship in which the two circumstances are much less distinct.
Sanders has not renounced these views, so it is reasonable enough to assume that he still holds them. He’s just too self-conscious about it to say as much. That’s no small victory for the forces arrayed in support of the free market. Like all socialist revolutions, if there’s going to be one in America, it’s going to be forced on the public from above by elites who believe themselves tribunes of the working class. In that sense, Sanders’s speech was a familiar, except for one thing. At least in the rest of the world, aspiring socialist autocrats have the courage to tell you what they believe.