Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will most likely not be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president. But not only has he succeeded in pushing his party further to the left, but he has also legitimized socialism as a potentially feasible form of government in the United States.
But aside from saying he is a democratic socialist, Sanders has never explained why he has not tried to build an independent socialist movement. Instead of running for president on a separate third-party ticket as past socialist candidates have (Norman Thomas, the longest standing Socialist Party leader, ran for president six different times but on the SP’s own line), he ended his independent status and joined the Democratic Party, running instead in its primaries.
The reasoning behind this decision can be found in the late Irving Howe’s little-known book, “Socialism and America,” published in 1985. In that year, Sanders was in his early 40s and was mayor of Burlington, Vt., where he was aligned with a group of left-wing independent progressives who had been elected to the City Council. He also endorsed the far-left foreign policy campaigns of that era — including support of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Castro regime in Cuba — and even presided over a speech by the extreme leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, who delivered remarks in the City Hall.
As someone involved in the American left and as a self-proclaimed socialist — and who had himself made a shoddy documentary film on America’s first Socialist leader, Eugene V. Debs — Sanders undoubtedly knew of and probably read Howe’s journal Dissent, the intellectual voice of democratic socialism.
In his book, Howe offered a political prescription of how American socialists should work to build a socialist movement in their country. Howe asked a question: What if a left-wing movement resurrected the strategy used by American Communists during the years of the Second World War — that of a popular front in which socialists aligned with liberals in a common fight for programs both favored?
That strategy, Howe wrote, would have the socialists advocate policies “pursued out of an honest wish to advance the socialist idea by inching forward with the social reforms we associate with the welfare state.” It could be done, he suggested, without abandoning the socialist principles to which they held, and without becoming an “accomplice of the status quo.”
Howe well understood that the major liberal party often appropriated concrete programs first advocated by the socialists, and that it was virtually impossible to form a third party that could win a national election. He thus argued that those who declared themselves socialists had to work within the existing political party system and run for national office on their ballot line, not on a separate third-party socialist ticket.
The problem with the liberalism espoused by the Democratic Party, Howe thought, was that it did not extend its democratic concerns to economic life; that is, the governance of corporations and the entry of regular people into decision-making. Democratic socialists did not believe in nationalization of the means of production but did want a market system in which corporations were highly regulated and controlled by the public. That way, a socialist order would not collapse and retreat to liberalism. Future generations then would adopt its banner. Believing that the United States was in a “transition period” between democratic capitalism and democratic socialism, Howe proposed precisely what Sanders is now doing as a strategy to transition more quickly to socialism.
First, socialists had to propose “structural reforms” that went beyond the welfare state; that changed the relationship of power and property — such as ending corporate control of investments and having the public decide on where to invest. Once socialists entered and ran for office within the Democratic Party, they would function as a “partial ally of liberalism,” sharing its values and agreeing on some objectives, while proposing their own programs for a total “democratization of economic and social life” — the kind liberals themselves never advocated. Sanders’s total expansion of Obamacare into full-fledged socialized medicine would be one such example, pushing the existing welfare state further to the left. Instead of different insurance plans all run by private insurance companies, a single-payer system would have medical care completely run and paid for by the U.S. government. It would be a move further away from liberal policy measures, and another step toward achieving a fully socialist economy and polity.
The road to socialism put forth by Irving Howe in the ’70s and ’80s has been adopted in full by Bernie Sanders. Socialism, as Howe put it, could “force liberalism to a militant posture in coping with social injustice,” which socialists should welcome because it brings otherwise moderate Democrats closer to real socialism. Sanders has succeeded, to use Howe’s words, in being “both the voice of protest and the agency of reform.”
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