A Marxist exploration: Bernie Sanders, political revolution, and socialism

Sen. Bernie Sanders pauses to answer a question on his way to the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images
Share with your friends


Bernie Sanders’ popularity is a stunning phenomenon. It shows that vast numbers of people in the U.S. are looking for a way out of a capitalist-run society.

Socialism is no longer a dirty word, but an intriguing alternative to voters disgusted with big business and banks, the government and its millionaire politicians. Amid the spewing of bigotry and grimy politics that mark this election season, Sanders’ candidacy provides a fine opportunity to explore the uplifting ideas of socialism and revolutionary change.

Socialism — what it is and isn’t. In a November 2015 speech, Sanders said that democratic socialism “builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans.” Sanders’ deep admiration for FDR is revealing. Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal measures did not reflect any love for the working class. They merely caught up with the much greater social benefits in Europe, which came about for the same reason as FDR’s improvements — needing to keep angry, desperate workers from threatening capitalist rule. FDR’s moderate reforms didn’t come close to what a truly socialist society would provide.

Clara Fraser, a founder of the Freedom Socialist Party, defined socialism — and by contrast, capitalism — in her book Revolution, She Wrote. “Socialism is not production for profit. It is production for use. It is not production for private ownership and the private ownership of resources. It is for public ownership, common ownership of the wealth. It is not inequality and misery and persecution and discrimination; it is equality and fairness. It is not poverty and want; it is freedom from want. It is freedom from war. It is freedom from ugliness and squalor. … There can be no liberation without socialism and no socialism without liberation for everybody.” As “freedom from war” implies, socialism is also not national. It is international.

Socialism is a transition between capitalism and communism. A stateless, classless, egalitarian society where human potential can flower fully — communism — isn’t achieved overnight. By freeing society from the profit motive, socialism is the bridge that takes us there.

Political versus social revolution. Sanders identifies his goal as political revolution. Assuring supporters that this is possible, he says, “They have the money, but we have the people.” In other words, reforms can be won when masses of people pressure politicians, banksters and big business to do the right thing. Sanders’ idea of political revolution is essentially gaining more “people power” under the present system — the expansion of bourgeois democracy.

The Marxist meaning of political revolution is quite different. It is the forcible overthrow and replacement of a given government and its officials. An example would be if people in the former USSR had been able to replace the Stalinist bureaucracy there with workers’ rule, instead of suffering a return to capitalism.

Political revolution does not affect the essential class character of the state. A social revolution, on the other hand, changes which class rules. When a capitalist class is overthrown and the economy is restructured to serve the interests of working people, this is a social revolution. The time for it is ripe when the old way of organizing how society’s wealth is produced and allocated is no longer capable of moving humanity forward.

Sanders clearly doesn’t intend to lead either revolution in the Marxist sense. He is a reformer, seeking improved social welfare within the framework of a capitalist economy.

About that reformism. Many of Sanders’ goals, such as greater economic equality, breaking up the banks, and free college, are urgently needed and enormously appealing. As his campaign grew and activists pressed him, he addressed systemic racism, abuse of immigrants, abortion rights, LGBTQ equality, and union rights.

In important ways, however, some of his ideas and actions are not socialist or even progressive.

Sanders has alluded to foreign workers as a threat to U.S. jobs, rather than as allies in an international working-class struggle. He has supported U.S. imperialism by approving military blockades and sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s and by voting for NATO’s war in ex-Yugoslavia in 1999 and for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He doesn’t talk about dismantling the Pentagon as a way to find money for services and human needs. And he supports Israel despite its genocide of Palestinians.

Sanders thinks that his progressive demands are achievable under capitalism. Marxist socialists think the opposite.

Fighting for reforms is important. It gives workers and the oppressed a sense of their own power, and at times wins improved conditions or expanded rights. But sometimes they cannot win, especially when capitalism itself is struggling.

In any case, reforms cannot lead to the deep changes that people really need. And they are always at risk or reversed — like affirmative action, the right to vote, labor rights, job safety rules, reproductive choice, etc. Most importantly, reforms don’t get rid of the system — a system that profits from endless war, speed-ups and layoffs, systemic racism and sexism.

Sanders’ main job in this election is to make sure the Democratic Party’s unhappy constituents don’t bolt. The Freedom Socialist Party doesn’t recommend voting for him, but instead for a socialist independent of the Democrats and Republicans. We will publicize our recommendations in an upcoming issue of this paper and online.

Imagining a socialist USA. James P. Cannon’s remarkable book America’s Road to Socialism offers a practical perspective on socialism in America. Cannon, a 20th-century Trotskyist and labor activist, advises, “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that anything contrary to [capitalist] rules and ethics is utopian or absurd. What’s absurd is to think that this madhouse is permanent and for all time.”

Revolutions happen; that’s just plain history. There have already been two in the U.S., the War of Independence and the Civil War. And, in building socialism, radicals in the heartland of imperialism will actually start with an advantage, because of the abundant resources, wealth, and level of technology. Moreover, revolution in this country will make it possible for the millions around the world to carry out their revolutions, out of Uncle Sam’s threatening shadow.

Those who support Sanders because of his professed socialism should not get discouraged or give up, no matter what happens between now and November. The next U.S. revolution will come. And the Freedom Socialist Party issues a standing invitation to check FSP out, get involved, and make it happen.

Send feedback to FSnews@socialism.com.

Also see: Donald Trump’s appalling rise

Also see: Primary season: an exercise in un-democracy.

Share with your friends