Socialist or Democratic Socialist? Which is it Bernie?

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Bernie SandersPoor Bernie! In recent days he has been very vocal lamenting the hijinks of the Democratic Party towards his campaign, as well as, expressing frustration at the poor coverage he receives from the mass media outlets following this Democratic race for the presidential nomination. For a man/politician who has spent much of his public life in the spotlight of his own declared independent status, one might have expected more awareness on both counts.

His biographical information is readily available in multiple places. In the glaring heat of the lights that now focus and follow him everywhere, how significant is it that we accurately portray his ideological purity. Socialist or democratic socialist? Is there really a difference? Does it even matter? What seems reasonably clear from that record, going all the way back to his university days in the early ’60’s, is a deep-felt concern for the average citizen and the common good. He has consistently been a progressive voice on many issues like income inequality, campaign finance reform, civil rights, mass surveillance and several other contemporary issues. That however does not make him stand alone as some providential voice crying from the sidelines.

Bernie, as he is affectionately called by one and all, is a self-avowed socialist who talks a lot about promoting democratic socialism, by which he seems to mean and favour the Scandinavian model,  into the dominant reality in American policies and governance. The earlier stigma associated with the term socialism was intense, particularly during the long Cold War, and resulted in no small measure from a blurring or conflation of this term with the more vile [and threatening] communism especially of the Marxist-Leninist variety, made practical in the Soviet Union and its erstwhile allies. Luckily for Bernie, much of the sting of that former stigma has dissipated with the collapse of the Soviet empire and many of its satellites, and indeed, a younger generation less encumbered by and experienced with the political propaganda of the Cold War either seems less hostile toward or less likely to know what the term socialism/socialist actually means.


The volume of the literature on the subject of socialism is immense. Nonetheless, I will offer my very brief description of what I believe this ideology to be, and subsequently, distinguish it from social democracy.

Socialism is a social and economic system that has as its primary objective the replacement of capitalism. It asserts that by changing the underlying means of production from private ownership [as in capitalism] to social ownership [held by the state] many, if not all, of the inequalities associated with capitalism will be overcome. It further requires that this economic transformation be accompanied by a democratic control over these same means of production. This form of socialism has been called evolutionary to distinguish it from the revolutionary type often associated with Karl Marx.

Social democracy, despite often being used interchangeably with socialism, is not the same thing. Social democracy does posit an evolutionary transition from capitalism as it presently exists, but it in no way seeks the complete overthrow of that economic system. It plans to facilitate a more just and egalitarian capitalism by humanizing it in some of the following ways: greater regulation of the economy for the general interest; promotion of welfare state provisions; redistribution of income and wealth [via progressive taxation]; collective bargaining rights for workers; and a commitment to more democratic participation for everyone.

What has Bernie got to say for himself?

All that socialism means to me, to be very frank with you, is democracy with a small ‘d.’ I believe in democracy, and by democracy I mean that, to as great an extent as possible, human beings have the right to control their own lives.

If you read what [Eugene] Debs said about the goals of socialism, it’s no different from what I’ve been saying — that all socialism is about is democracy.

I think the issue of socialist ideology and what that meant or means is not terribly important. I think the positive of it is that it indicates to people that I am not a conventional politician.

To me, socialism doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means, it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.

I wouldn’t deny it. Not for one second. I’m a democratic socialist.

In terms of socialism, I think there is a lot to be learned from Scandinavia and from some of the work, very good work that people have done in Europe.¹

From the above statements, I think it is obvious that Bernie is at best a social democrat with a strong affinity for the kind of changes that FDR used earlier in the 20th c. to help establish the American middle class. He laments the recent losses [30 odd years] of this once large class within American society and champions their issues to resurrect, rejuvenate, and enhance their lot.  In the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008-2013, this voice resonates with a goodly segment of the American public. Will it prove sufficiently enticing to garner him the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2016? Not a chance! But it will continue to offer a different vision of an American near future that would address some of the more glaring examples of inequality, injustices, failures in participatory democracy as well as highlighting the benefits of attending to the common good.


¹ I am indebted to Michael Kruse for these quotations from Bernie Sanders. 14 things Bernie Sanders has said about Socialism



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