Socialism, Bernie Sanders and the working class
A couple weeks ago, one of my coworkers and I started talking politics near the end of our shift. With the 2016 presidential primary in full swing, the election is now the topic of choice in our break rooms, box lines and union meetings. One thing led to another and this coworker asked me whether I was a Democrat or Republican. I said, “Neither one, I'm a socialist.” Immediately I braced myself for any number of negative reactions. I expected either an intense debate, loud profanity, or the silent treatment. You can imagine my surprise, when my coworker responded, “Yeah, me too.”
Since the 2008 financial crisis, socialism has become more popular in the U.S. Young people increasingly express support for socialism. According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, 43% of people ages 18-to-29 report a positive view of socialism. Nearly half the country says they would vote for a socialist presidential candidate (Gallup, 2015).
My coworker is part of that 43%. He's a big Bernie Sanders fan and plans to vote for the self-described 'democratic socialist' in the upcoming Florida Democratic Party primary. He's drawn to Sanders because of his fight against income inequality, his refusal to take Wall Street campaign money, and – importantly – his support for legalizing marijuana. At the same time, my co-worker is not particularly pro-union. He is also not actively engaged in the ongoing shop floor struggles with management. Socialism and class struggle should go hand-in-hand, so suffice to say, it's complicated.
There's no doubt that working people in the U.S. would benefit a lot from many of Sanders' proposals. Medicare for All, free college tuition and a $15 per hour minimum wage would be steps forward. Sanders' call to break up and heavily regulate banks is a welcome contrast to Secretary Hillary Clinton's record of loyally serving Wall Street. For all his talk of a “political revolution,” however, the Sanders brand of democratic socialism actually fits quite comfortably in the capitalist system.
For many commentators, 'socialist' simply means 'government spending.' The problem with this definition, is that it sidesteps the question of class. At its most basic, the state is a weapon for one class to dominate another. In capitalist countries, banks, corporations and a wealthy oligarchy – in other words, the 1% – hold economic and political power. To protect their wealth, the ruling class exercises its power through the state, which is made up of laws, police, the courts, legislatures and more.
Under capitalism, the state takes a variety of forms, ranging from social welfare states (Sweden, Denmark) to open fascism (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy). While today most capitalist states hold elections, they are actually dictatorships. They are ruled by a tiny minority class of monopoly capitalists. Just look at the U.S.'s campaign finance system, which is dominated by corporate-funded super PACs. Although the U.S. holds elections every few years, the candidate with the most money wins 91% of the time, according to the Washington Post.
Sanders draw much of his political vision from the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many of the laws and reforms passed during the New Deal did improve the lives of working people. However, these gains weren't handed out by the U.S. government voluntarily. In fact, Roosevelt ran on a moderate pro-business, free trade platform when he was first elected in 1932. Even the first New Deal policies pushed by Roosevelt did very little for poor and working people. This only changed because of an outbreak of militant strikes and protests by working people fed up with the poverty and suffering created by the Great Depression. It was the working class, not politicians that forced Roosevelt to enact progressive reforms, like Social Security and child labor laws.
These gains made by working people are always under attack by the ruling class, especially during times of economic crisis. In the U.S., both Republicans and Democrats have attacked New Deal-era reforms like Social Security and the right to organize unions. Countries across Europe like Greece and Ireland forced deep budget cuts on people's pensions, health care and other social programs.
Capitalist attacks on reforms won by workers even happen in Scandinavia, which Sanders also looks to for inspiration. Because of the global economic crisis, Denmark cut unemployment benefits and reduced early retirement plans for seniors. Sweden has slowly privatized hospitals over the last two decades. In 2015, Sweden's unemployment rate reached 8.5%, despite its large social safety net.
Socialism is not a set of policies or reforms introduced to capitalism. It is not massive government spending on health care or infrastructure, either. The ruling class can enact these reforms one day and take them away the next without ever threatening the class dictatorship of the 1%. Political and economic power still rests with the banks and corporations. The vast majority of people – the working class – have no wealth or political power under the capitalist system.
Instead, socialism is a system in which the working class holds political and economic power. The working class holds political power and is able to assert its will. The working class controls the economy and uses it to meet the needs of the people, instead of increasing the wealth of the 1%. Socialist economies guarantee universal health care, free college education, paid maternity leave and free child care, along with countless rights unimaginable under capitalism. Countries like Cuba, for instance, guarantee full employment and provide free or affordable housing to all citizens. A socialist system puts ordinary working people – the vast majority – in power instead of a handful of billionaires. This makes socialism far more democratic for the vast majority, than anything capitalism has to offer.
My coworker and I continued talking for the rest of the shift. Our conversation about Sanders led us to the importance of unions under capitalism, especially in a workplace like ours. The fact that Sanders' campaign money mostly comes from unions and working people – not corporations and banks, like his rivals – serves as a good jumping off point to talk about class power and politics. But we have to be clear: Socialism with real political power for the majority will come from the revolutionary struggle of the working class against capitalism, not reforms and laws passed by politicians.