The highway of Democratic Party presidential contenders has converged into a two-lane road, and Bernie Sanders seems consigned to the slow lane. That may be the result of public unease with his socialist economic views. Perhaps sensing the danger, the Sanders campaign has studiously avoided using the term “socialist” by itself. Instead, it always pairs it with “democratic.”

Is Bernie Sanders a democratic socialist instead of a regular, run-of-the-mill socialist? And is there any meaningful difference?

Socialist Sanders

As to the first question, Senator Sanders can speak for himself.

For most of his career, Sanders has taken his socialism neat — without the “democratic” chaser. In the 1960s, Sanders joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth wing of the Socialist Party USA.

In June 1989, he told the National Committee for Independent Political Action in New York City: “In Vermont, everybody knows that I am a socialist and that many people in our movement … are socialists. … And I think there has been too much of a reluctance on the part of progressives and radicals to use the word ‘socialism.’”

In July 2015, when asked by a Nation magazine interviewer about the term “socialism,” Sanders said: “Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.”

So for Sanders, at least, there is no reason to use the modifier. Sanders is a socialist and – to his credit – an unapologetic one.

In keeping with his ideology, Sanders has defended decidedly undemocratic socialist regimes. In 2003, he signed a letter supporting Hugo Chavez, the dictator of Venezuela, who nationalized industries and cracked down on the press. His support extended to Chavez’s successor, socialist strongman Nicolas Maduro, who returned the favor in 2016 when he referred to Sanders as “our revolutionary friend.”

Sanders’s most famous defense of undemocratic socialism came in his 60 Minutes interview last month, when he praised Fidel Castro for his literacy campaign. According to Sanders, Castro’s regime “went out and they helped people learn to read and write. You know what, I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing.”

Yes, and so is making the trains run on time. That was how sophisticates of the pre-war era justified their defense of Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

The Senator’s defense was painful for Cuban refugees to hear. They know that the purpose of Castro’s literacy campaign was to enable the promulgation of government propaganda, and thus facilitate control of the population. Thanks to Castro, newly literate Cubans could read the new government published textbooks, bearing such chapter titles as “Fidel is our Leader,” and “The Land is Ours.”

In that way, Castro’s literacy campaign was similar to the campaign of Hitler’s National Socialist regime to ensure that every German family had a radio. At the time, radios were considered a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels saw their potential as Nazi indoctrination tools.  Under Goebbels’s direction, the Volksempfänger, or “people’s receiver,” was mass-produced and marketed at a price so low, that any German family could afford one, thus making Hitler’s screeds audible in every German home.

Hitler radio       Castro literacy

Castro’s literacy campaign was based on the same premise as Goebbels’s: communication engenders compliance.

But what if Senator Sanders shed his habit of defending anti-democratic socialist regimes, and restricted his defense to democratic socialist regimes (assuming he could find any).  Would that make his ideology more palatable?

Socialism, with or without the modifier, refers to public ownership of the means of production. It the systematic replacement of market forces with a command economy.

Injecting the modifier “democratic” does make a difference, but the difference is more theoretical than real. If a command economy is democratic, then the commands must garner majority support. But of course subjecting every economic decision to a vote will usually prove impractical. It might work in the kind of small, close-knit kibbutz where Sanders resided for a few months in 1963. But such a system is completely unworkable at a national level.

Imagine what adopting and actually implementing democratic socialism in the United States would entail. Every time General Motors decided to build a new factory, or to close an old one; every time Apple decided to introduce a new product or to update an existing one — the decision would be subject to a popular, democratic vote.

We saw in Iowa how long it takes to count primary votes. Implementing the same democratic process for business decisions would be just as cumbersome. By the time Apple’s new product decision was voted on, the product would probably be obsolete.

That is why democratic socialism, in practice, leads to economic decisions being made, not democratically by the people, but bureaucratically by some sort of council. In fact, democratic socialism differs in name only from communism. The word “soviet” in the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics referred to workers councils established to run the economy and make decisions. Such councils were deemed necessary because the workers themselves were expected to be too busy manufacturing a cornucopia of products to attend to such minutiae. So “soviets,” or councils, were needed to run their socialist economy.

Whether the sort of command economy favored by Bernie Sanders is called socialist, democratic socialist, of soviet socialist — ultimately doesn’t matter. Whatever the form, business decisions would be imposed by bureaucrats from above, rather than generated by market forces from below.

Even if it were possible to subject economic decisions to real popular votes, that would not make socialism better. The millions of Americans who have private insurance and wish to keep it, would not accept its removal with equanimity simply because their insurance was confiscated by a majority vote.

Democracy does not transform venality.  Imagine if a vote were taken in the Confederacy in 1861 to determine whether the newly seceding states should maintain slavery? And imagine that the Confederate government, in a sudden progressive frame of mind, decided to let all residents, white or black, male or female, vote on the matter. Based on antebellum demographics, the outcome would not be in doubt. The white majority would vote to preserve slavery. Would such a decision find legitimacy in the fact that it was rendered by a majority? Would a “Democratic Slavocracy” have any greater moral luster than a regular “Slavocracy”?

The problem with Bernie Sanders’s effort to sell the nation on democratic socialism is that socialism is never democratic. Inevitably, implementation is carried out by a cadre of privileged professionals, not by the populace. But even if it could be implemented democratically, it would still be repellant. Inject majoritarianism into socialism and you still have socialism, with all its inherent shortcomings and vices. The Democratic Party mainstream seems to grasp that reality, which is not good news for the Sanders campaign.



Filed under Politics


  1. Kirk Boyd

    As always, Larry, I enjoy reading your essays and learn from them. I also recommend To Put it Bluntly to others. Thanks for your diligence putting these pieces together. I have a question about this one: Is the University of California a Socialist institution?


  2. A lot of straw men (and women :=) ) here. I am no Sanders fan, so I can’t speak definitely for what he believes. But many maintain what he means by democratic socialism is the kind of socialism as practiced in Swenden, Denmark, and other Scandinavian countries. That is always what I thought he meant. This may not fit your classical definition of socialism, but so be it. Attack Sanders for misusing the term..

    As an aside, if socialism means workers own the means of production, that would not mean that business decisions must be the subject of a national referendum or even a referendum of a company’s employees. One could easily envision the the development of specialized employee committees for specific management issues at wherever they work.

    If the notion is that socialism means workers own the means of production, the United States is already a socialist country. Workers through their pension plans, IRAs, 401(k)s, and mutual funds already own controlling interests in most the means of production already. That they have not recognized the power they hold, but that is another issue.

    You attack Bernie for saying, “you know what, I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing.’
    Yes, and so is making the trains run on time. That was how sophisticates of the pre-war era justified their defense of Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.”

    Thus, you seem to argue that if there is a bad motive for teaching people how to read, than it is a bad thing to do. Teaching people to read may make it easier to feed them propaganda, but it also creates a way for them to learn other points of view.

    By the way “making the trains run on time” argument can be made against the current President. I’ve made it myself.

    It is fair game to demand that Bernie make clear what he means by “democratic socialism’, it is patently unfair to define the term for him and say therefore he must adhere to that definition.

    • D.L. Berger

      Provocative to say the least but I believe your statement, “In fact, democratic socialism differs in name only from communism,” is not only a stretch, but cannot be justified by your lack of differentiation between democratic socialism and social democracy.The social democratic societies of Scandinavia flourish yet world leading company’s like Mærsk, Lego & Ikea are privately held. Publicly traded Novo Nordisk in social democratic Denmark is one of the leading Pharma companies worldwide. This doesn’t seem to fit into your model of “Socialism, with or without the modifier.”

      I’ve lived in Scandinavia and worked at the leading Cardiac Hospital of social democratic Denmark and its counterpart in post perestroika democratic socialist Russia. Without going into details, the experience couldn’t be more apparent. Perhaps your goal was to provoke your readers with your wordplay. If so, then we’ll done!

      • Thank you for your observations about the social democratic societies of Scandinavia. I would just remind you that Bernie Sanders and his campaign describe themselves as democratic socialists, not social democrats.

    • I didn’t define democratic socialism for Bernie Sanders. The socialists did. And they have defined it the same way I did. See the website of the Socialist Party of the USA:
      Their definition does not mention Scandinavian countries — which, by the way, have free market economies with generous welfare programs.
      I like your comment: “Workers through their pension plans, IRAs, 401(k)s, and mutual funds already own controlling interests in most the means of production already. They have not recognized the power they hold, but that is another issue.”
      In fact, it is a very telling issue. Unions could choose to use their financial resources to buy up companies and whole industries. But they don’t. Why not? Perhaps the unions recognize the value of capitalist ownership more than the socialists do.

  3. Money line from an otherwise anachronistic and senseless essay: “Democracy does not transform venality.”

    True enough. But venality sure has transformed democracy.

    And this is why we need a strong dose of honest socialism.

  4. D.L.Berger

    Thomas Friedman in his column today strongly supports you opinion regarding Sander’s democratic socialism. Perhaps he too reads your blog.

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