New York Times columnist Paul Krugman believes “Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term,” (Bernie Sanders Isn’t a Socialist) and frets that “his misleading self-description will be a gift to the Trump campaign,” should Sanders win the Democratic presidential nomination. As we know, Sanders himself is rather busy these days and might not get to this for awhile, so I thought I’d take a crack at easing Krugman’s troubled mind in the interim.
Why does Krugman reach his conclusion? Because Sanders “doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning.” And why does Sanders persist in this misnomer? Krugman reckons it’s “mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie.” In short, it’s a form of “self-indulgence” for him not to acknowledge that he’s “basically what Europeans would call a social democrat.”
At the core of socialism is the recognition that the nation and the entire world ultimately belong to us all, and we are all responsible for it all.
The source of Krugman’s peculiar assertion that he understands Sanders’s political philosophy better than Sanders himself seems to be a strict equation of socialist politics with nationalization and central planning. What Sanders actually calls himself is a “democratic socialist”—a term that never appears in Krugman’s article—because he doesn’t believe that billionaires should be running the show and the working people of the country should. Which is to say that our economy, like our government, should be subject to democratic control. At the core of socialism is the recognition that the nation and the entire world ultimately belong to us all, and we are all responsible for it all.
From there, various socialists and socialist organizations or parties may diverge widely. Some do put nationalization of major industries front and center on their agenda; others emphasize workers’ control and ownership—the idea of extending democratic rights to the workplace; still others deal exclusively with more immediate concerns like wages too low, rents too high, and economic wealth and power too concentrated. And any of them may shift emphasis over time in response to current conditions.
Krugman is correct enough in saying that the Sanders point of view often goes by the name social democratic. The major left parties in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, for instance, are called just that. But in the United Kingdom and Norway their counterparts are called the Labour Party, and in France the mainstream left is the Socialist Party.
In informal socialism classes I’ve done over the years we’ve always returned to our high school definitions of denotation and connotation—dictionary meaning and street meaning and applied that to the names that socialists and their parties have used. And really, it’s nothing more than recognizing that dictionary definitions of democrat and republican won’t tell us a lot about the Democratic and Republican parties – or their voters – either.
So why democratic socialist rather than social democrat? Indeed, as a Swiss journalist interviewing me as a 2016 Sanders convention delegate told me, there was all this flurry in Europe about the radical Bernie Sanders, but when you checked him out he was a social democrat, which is to say he was espousing views familiar to all of Europe. Well, in the U.S., the term social democrat hasn’t been much used outside of college political science and history classes for the last hundred years. The Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, on the other hand, did draw significant national attention and generally positive notice during the twentieth century. So Sanders has chosen to draw on more familiar American history rather than European tradition.
And why the specific “democratic socialist” label? I did once hear a French socialist describe it as akin to speaking of “buttery butter”—a redundancy insofar as the idea of socialism inherently represented an expansion of democratic principles. But he did know the answer to his own question—it was to make it as clear as possible that this idea of socialism had nothing to do with the undemocratic system that the Soviet Union developed and called communism.
So far as this socialism thing being "mainly about personal branding" for Sanders, there sure are a lot more people talking about democratic socialism since Bernie Sanders brought the idea into millions of living rooms during the 2016 Democratic debates. If there’s been another presidential candidate to get this far with so little reliance on their personal story or "branding," I can’t remember who. As Sanders always says, “Not me, us”—this is not about Bernie Sanders the man, but about the movement to implement the campaign’s goals.
And if by “shocking the bourgeoisie,” we mean earning the enmity of overly compensated Fortune 500 CEOs, well yes, it is well understood that they will not look favorably on a campaign that aims to reduce their economic and political power.
I hope this helps a little, Paul.