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Is Bernie Sanders really a socialist?

The presidential election is redrawing the line between Democrats and the left

October 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

For years, Barack Obama has been trying to convince a sizable portion of Americans that he is not, in fact, a socialist. To be fair to the president, he’s really not. But now that the Democratic Party has an openly socialist candidate in Bernie Sanders, commentators aren’t quite so sure they believe him. After a debate performance in which Sanders was made to answer for his ideology and declared himself an anti-capitalist, publications across the ideological spectrum were questioning his leftist bona fides in a way that seems even stranger than watching presidential candidates debating capitalism by name.

At The American Conservative, a publication one might expect to be frothing with rage over the Bolsheviks on TV, Samuel Goldman writes that “Democrats are not socialists, and neither is Bernie Sanders.” While socialists seek popular control over the means of economic production, Goldman argues, Democrats support “regulated competition and redistributive policies that direct private profits toward the relative losers in market exchange.” It’s New Deal–style welfarism, he writes, not socialism. I guess conservatives won’t call you a socialist unless you don’t want them to.

But conservatives aren’t the only ones calling Sanders a capitalist stooge. At Vox, Ezra Klein explains that “Sanders isn’t a socialist. He’s a democratic socialist. The difference is big, and it’s real.” In Klein’s version, Sanders and Hillary Clinton represent two sides of the (capitalist) Democratic Party: one that trusts Big Business and one that doesn’t. Hillary is a “new Democrat” who holds a special place in her heart for corporate executives, and Bernie is an “old Democrat” who wants to regulate and tax them and use the proceeds to fund public-welfare programs. Sanders shares his politics with the mainstream center-left parties just about everywhere else in the world.

The New Republic’s Jeet Heer doesn’t see the same cleavage between the two Democratic rivals that Klein does. “The areas of agreement between Sanders and Clinton are large: Both support a market economy, and both see capitalism as requiring regulation and reform,” he writes. “If Sanders doesn’t call himself a capitalist, that mainly signifies a greater distrust of big corporations and desire to make the rich pay higher taxes.” Revolution this is not; the difference between the candidates is a question of degrees, not a qualitative distinction. That makes sense, since they’re both members of the same political party; we’re not watching a rematch of “Rocky IV” here.

Even though Sanders wants his city and country to be shrewd when negotiating with big corporations, he still plays by their rules.

As the one proud socialist on the Senate’s left fringe, you might think Sanders isn’t used to this precise kind of ideological scrutiny. That isn’t the case. He has been hearing that he’s “just a Democrat” for 30 years. In the pages of the November-December 1986 edition of Socialist Review, Sanders — then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont — was denounced as a sellout in blistering terms. In his essay “The Bernie Sanders paradox: When socialism grows old,” political theorist and fellow Vermonter Murray Bookchin wrote of the mayor, “To mock his stolid behavior and the surprising conventionality of his values is to conceal his commitment to ’30s belief in technological progress, businesslike efficiency and a naive adherence to the benefits of ‘growth.’” Like Heer, Bookchin doesn’t see the big difference.

Bookchin was working from an ideological rivalry with Sanders — he was a libertarian socialist, which has more in common with anarchism than Denmark — but as a politically engaged resident of Burlington, he got a close look at how Sanders’ beliefs translated into action. He was not impressed by what he saw. “Bernard Sanders’ version of socialism is proving to be a subtle instrument for rationalizing the marketplace — not for controlling it, much less threatening it,” he complained.

In particular, Bookchin focused on a lakeside development plan aggressively backed by the mayor. While residents used town-hall democracy to ask for open space and public access, the Sanders administration backed a proposal for a Radisson Hotel expansion, a parking garage and luxury condos with the classic developer argument that the plan would provide jobs and tax revenue. It’s the kind of classic sellout move that belongs in a kid’s movie or a Counting Crows song, and when Sanders asked the public to approve a city bond for the plan, he was turned down not by arriviste yuppies but his working-class base.

“The ultimate effect of Sanders’ aging form of ‘socialism,’” Bookchin wrote, “is to facilitate the ease with which business interests can profit from the city.” He even went so far as to compare Sanders’ taxpayer-funded development plan with Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics. “This ‘managerial radicalism’ with its technocratic bias and its corporate concern for expansion is bourgeois to the core — and even brings the authenticity of traditional ‘socialist’ canons into grave question.”

In short: Even though Sanders wants the city (or country) to be shrewd when negotiating with big corporations, he still plays by their rules.

For Bookchin, the rise of Bernie Sanders was a matter of grim concern for the whole American radical community and a personal disappointment. He’s not running for mayor as a radical anymore; he’s running for president as a Democrat, and the country, from the right to the left, seems to realize that. At least Sanders’ campaign offers a clarification about what capitalism is and what it means to be against it — even if he doesn’t realize what side he’s on.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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