Sanders’ socialism may be light on “democratic”

Bernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” But when it came time to pick a honeymoon destination, Sanders didn’t select Denmark. He honeymooned in the Soviet Union.

In my mind, this raises the possibility for Sanders, socialism is the imperative, and “democratic” is just a preference — “superstructure,” as a Marxist might say.

Nor do we have to rely on Sanders’ honeymoon to entertain this suspicion. Stanley Kurtz believes that Sanders’s 1979 documentary on socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs may offer a revealing glimpse of Sanders’ socialist vision.

The vision isn’t pleasant. According to Stanley:

[T]he Debs documentary suggests that Sanders’s ultimate goal lies beyond even European social democracy. The man who made this documentary was pretty clearly a classic socialist: committed to relentless class struggle, complete overthrow of the capitalist system — preferably by the vote, but by violence if necessary — and full worker control of the means of production via the government. . . .

These days, Sanders calls for a “political revolution,” and the Debs documentary clearly admires labor unions and politicians who seek to bring about revolution by peaceful democratic means. Yet just as clearly, Sanders admires Debs for saying that, in the last resort, violent revolution remains an option.

Sanders’ treatment of Debs’ support for Russia’s communist revolution of 1917 is particularly striking. Here, at least, you might expect a bit of distancing or criticism from a truly “democratic” socialist. Yet. . .[n]owhere does Sanders suggest that the Russian Revolution and its aftermath may have raised legitimate concerns about socialism. Sanders’s honeymoon in the Soviet Union and his trips to Cuba and Nicaragua make a lot of sense in light of his documentary on Debs.

Some of the quotations from Debs which Sanders speaks in his own voice and presents in an entirely positive light in this documentary will take you aback. For example: “while there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Crime here is seen as nothing but a product of exploitative capitalism.

Sanders also clearly approves of Debs’ attribution of racial animosity in the South to a plot by employers to undercut “working class unity.” This is classic Marxist doctrine. Sanders also emphasizes the importance of Marx’s writings to the development of Debs’ socialist thought.

The direct subject of the Debs documentary is Debs’ socialism, not Sanders’. However, Sanders himself provides the voice of Debs. The implication is clear; there’s little if any distance between the two.

The documentary was made in 1979. However, Stanley points out that in Sanders’ 1997 memoir, Outsider in the House, he proudly invokes his Debs documentary and declares that Debs “remains a hero of mine.”

By then, Sanders was 56 years old. If he has revised his view of Debs and his socialism since, he should tell us when and why.