The American Left has been celebrating for the past few days, as Bernie Sanders’ second presidential campaign has rapidly gained steam. Sanders was able to raise nearly $6 million in the first 24 hours after his announcement, and he is close to reaching 1 million volunteer sign-ups on his website. But there is a vocal minority on the Left who aren’t so happy about Sanders’ bid for the presidency. Some leftists are arguing that Senator Sanders has problematic positions on a number of issues, that he is not as left-wing as he is often made out to be, and that the Left should not support his candidacy.
This Left skepticism of Bernie Sanders is largely baseless, however. Bernie is by far the most left-wing presidential candidate in the race, and his platform represents the most transformative change that the Left can reasonably hope to achieve in the near term. Sanders’ so-called “problematic” positions— like his opposition to reparations for slavery, his refusal to endorse the “Abolish ICE” slogan, and his alleged “softness on US imperialism”— are really not problematic at all. Furthermore, we have good reason to believe that Sanders’ long-term vision is thoroughly socialist and anti-capitalist. Sanders wants to eliminate wage labor and guarantee a high standard of living for everyone. He just recognizes the merits of a gradualist approach for carrying out his socialist program.
Bernie isn’t “soft” on imperialism
Many on the Left have criticized Bernie for being “soft” on the military-industrial complex and US interventionism around the world. This issue has especially risen to prominence in recent months, as the economic and political crisis in Venezuela has worsened. Some leftists are furious at Sanders for failing to fully defend Nicolás Maduro’s nominally socialist government. Sanders has staked out a nuanced position on the Venezuela issue, criticizing Maduro for his anti-democratic moves and his refusal to accept humanitarian aid, while also opposing US sanctions on the country. But to pro-Maduro leftists, this is not enough.
They argue that Maduro is the rightful democratically elected president of Venezuela, and that any anti-democratic moves on Maduro’s part, like banning opposition parties or ruling by decree, are either necessary evils or are being exaggerated in the mainstream media. I don’t have time to address this issue in full here, but you can read my recent blog post on Venezuela for more detail. Needless to say, there are many valid criticisms of Maduro’s regime, and his legitimacy as Venezuela’s president is seriously in doubt. It is also true that US sanctions on the country are exacerbating the ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis, and must be ended immediately. Bernie’s position on this issue is eminently reasonable.
Furthermore, Sanders has consistently attacked the bloated American military budget for decades, calling for major reductions in military spending in order to fund social welfare programs at home. He also has repeatedly condemned US interventionism and attempts at regime change in foreign countries. It is not an exaggeration to say that Sanders’ foreign policy positions are the most left-wing of any federal elected official.
It seems that in order to placate the most radical “anti-imperialists” on the Left, Sanders would have to advocate something close to the unilateral dismantling of the US military. But as long as there is no world government to keep the peace among nations, the idea of unilateral disarmament is simply untenable. It makes good sense for the United States to maintain a sizable army and navy, alongside a modest nuclear arsenal, in order to deter aggression from rising great powers such as China and to a lesser extent Russia. This does not mean that the bloated American military budget should not be substantially scaled back— it ought to be. But Sanders’ proposals are completely reasonable and are proportionate to the size of the problem.
Why reparations are a bad idea
Bernie skeptics often argue that Bernie Sanders has a “race-blind” approach to politics, focusing excessively on class issues at the expense of racial justice. They point to his opposition to reparations for slavery as proof of this. It’s argued that providing monetary reparations to African-Americans is necessary in order to eliminate the legacy of systemic racism in the United States.
These criticisms have gotten more intense now that Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have come out in favor of reparations. It seems that Sanders is being outflanked on the Left by Harris and Warren— candidates that don’t even identify themselves as democratic socialists. However, Sanders is simply correct on this issue. Reparations would be a highly divisive and counterproductive endeavor which would harm, not improve, the standing of African-Americans in the United States. Polling has shown that 68% of Americans, and a staggering 79% of whites, oppose reparations for slavery. Sanders himself opposes them on the grounds that they would be divisive:
The simple matter of fact is that, if the US government were to give a monetary lump sum to every African-American in this country, the vast majority of white Americans would view this as an undeserved redistribution of wealth from working-class white people to black workers. It would create a tremendous amount of resentment and would likely cause whatever Left government that enacted the reparations to be voted out of office. It’s vitally important that the Left not advocate for policies that emphasize and deepen the separation of American workers based on race. As Bernie likes to say, we need to bring people together rather than dividing people up.
Additionally, the logistical problems with such a reparations program would be immense. Because of the widespread intermarriage between African-Americans and other ethnic groups over the decades, the government would have to be in the grotesque business of determining who is “black enough” to deserve reparations payments, dredging up genealogical records to find out who is a descendant of slaves and who is not. This would only reinforce, rather than undermine, right-wing pseudoscientific racial ideologies that assert the existence of a “black race” with an essential character.
Furthermore, reparations very likely would not do much of anything to end systemic racial disparities in wealth and income in this country, because it would leave the structure of the economy intact. Giving black families a one-time payment of a few thousand dollars might help them make their rent payments and shore up their savings for a year or two, but there would still be widespread discrimination in the job market and long-term outcomes would likely be unchanged.
But in a post-reparations scenario, the political will for further efforts to address systemic racism would largely evaporate. The Right would be able to argue, “Hey, we already did reparations for slavery, now racism must be over.” And millions of Americans would buy into those arguments. In the long run, reparations would only harm the standing of African-Americans in this country, rather than helping them.
Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren’s support for reparations is merely a cynical ploy to win more votes from African-Americans in the Democratic primaries, and it certainly doesn’t make them any more left-wing than Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ platform of universal social programs would do much more for black Americans than any one-off reparations payment ever could.
Bernie is right on immigration
Some on the Left have also criticized Sanders’ stance on immigration. Bernie Sanders has been reluctant to back the slogan “Abolish ICE,” and has said that abolishing border controls is “a Koch Brothers idea.” Instead, he supports a comprehensive immigration reform package which would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants residing in the country. He also advocates an end to mass deportations, and wants to grant full citizenship to DACA recipients.
Those leftists who do want a complete and immediate dismantling of the immigration enforcement apparatus of the United States are understandably very upset about his refusal to endorse this idea. But calling for open borders and the abolition of ICE is simply a mistake. While full freedom of movement across the globe should be a long-term goal for socialists, this can only be achieved in the context of a world government which could put an end to the very large disparities in wealth between countries that we see today.
Without global political integration, unilaterally opening our borders with Latin America would likely cause a chaotic wave of mass migration that the United States would simply be unable to handle. It would also cause a brain drain in Latin American countries which would ruin their economies, thereby motivating further migration into the US, in a downward spiral. In the absence of a world government, immigration restrictions will still be necessary. Our goal should be to establish an immigration policy that allows for the successful integration of immigrants into American society, ensuring that they have access to living wage union jobs which do not push down wages for native-born workers.
This means providing legal status for the millions of law-abiding, gainfully employed undocumented immigrants in this country. But it does not mean dismantling our entire immigration enforcement system. Furthermore, the proposition of abolishing ICE and adopting an open borders policy is wildly unpopular among Americans. Advocating for it only marginalizes the Left and makes it harder for us to take power. The fact that Sanders understands this, and has chosen not to adopt it as part of his 2020 platform, is a strength, not a weakness of his campaign.
Bernie really is a socialist
There’s a broader, more general argument that is often made against supporting Bernie Sanders: he’s not really a socialist. While Sanders has consistently identified as a “democratic socialist” for decades, there is a widespread belief on the Left that he doesn’t qualify as a socialist in the robust sense of the term, because he doesn’t publicly advocate for the collective ownership of the means of production. Some leftists even argue that Sanders is harming the socialist movement by actively sowing confusion about the definition of socialism, such as when he defines it as “having a government that reflects the interests of ordinary people, rather than… the billionaire class.”
But these concerns are misguided. First of all, democratic socialists should be very wary of defining socialism in terms of specific forms of property. If socialism is defined as “collective ownership of the means of production,” then authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union and North Korea would qualify as socialist, which is a proposition that the democratic wing of the socialist movement has always denied.
Instead, it is much better to define socialism in terms of concrete ethical goals, like the abolition of the exploitative employer-employee relationship, and the de-commodification of social goods like healthcare, education, housing, and food. Some of these goals, like the abolition of wage labor, cannot be achieved in the here and now, but must wait until advances in automation technology make them possible. Ultimately, it will likely be necessary to bring most industries into public ownership in order to fully achieve these goals, but advocating for this in the meantime can only be counterproductive.
Furthermore, Bernie Sanders does advocate for forms of collective ownership of industry. As recently as 2017, he introduced a bill which would provide incentives for the development of worker-owned enterprises. But Sanders understands that simply promoting worker cooperatives or nationalizing industries won’t improve the lives of most workers. That’s why his most urgent priority is the establishment of a robust welfare state, modeled on the example of Norway and Sweden.
It is a great merit of Bernie Sanders that he understands which policy proposals will be popular among American workers today, and which will not. The calls of many leftists to “push Bernie to the left” and to “keep him accountable” simply fail to recognize the fact that Sanders’ current platform is close to the furthest left we can go without starting to alienate substantial numbers of American voters. Going further left would only harm, not help, the socialist project.
One of the ways we know that Sanders is committed to a transformative socialist vision is the simple fact that he has continued to insist on using the phrase “democratic socialism” to refer to his political ideology, even when this probably modestly hurt his short-term appeal. If Sanders was simply a moderate social democrat or a New Deal liberal, he would not have bothered trying to revitalize the term “socialism.” Clearly he sees the value in promoting the label to refer to an ideology that is opposed to capitalism. Unlike Elizabeth Warren and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie has consistently refused to identify as a capitalist:
“[Debs] fought to achieve a truly democratic society in which working people, not big money, would control the economic and political life of the nation… Eugene Victor Debs remains a hero of mine. A plaque commemorating him hangs on the wall in my Washington office.” — Outsider in the White House, 2015
Sanders is possibly the only member of Congress today who would be willing to associate himself with someone like Debs, who advocated for “the emancipation of the working class from wage-slavery.” This should give you an idea of just how radical Bernie really is.
For Sanders, and for millions of socialists all over the world, democratic socialism means reducing exploitation and expanding economic rights (healthcare, housing, childcare, etc.) as much as possible given our current level of technological development. Increasing automation will end the need for wage labor in the next century or so, but we shouldn’t try to rush toward that that kind of society prematurely. Getting Sanders elected President of the United States in 2020 is the first step in the long process of socialist transition.
Advocating for policies that are premature or simply inadvisable does not make someone more left-wing. It just makes them counterproductive to the socialist movement. That’s why nobody is more left-wing than Bernie Sanders.