By Dave Lindorff
February 13, 2020
With Bernie Sanders now having won New Hampshire (and probably Iowa, where he won the popular vote) and confirmed his position as the frontrunner for president in the Democratic Party primaries (the New York Times’ poll guru Nate Silver is giving him a better than 40% chance of gaining enough delegates by the end of the primary season to win the nomination on the all-important first ballot at the National Convention in July), it’s becoming open season on socialism and its more anodyne relative democratic socialism.
A few days ago, right-wing columnist Marc Thiessen, writing in my local paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, mocked the catastrophic mess of the Iowa Democratic Caucus, where there is still, six days after the voting, no clear decision on who won, Sanders or Pete Buttigieg, blaming the fiasco on “the same brilliant minds who came up with Medicare-for-All and the ‘Green New Deal.’” His conclusion, “The Democrats’ failure in Iowa stemmed from the same fundamental flaw that has caused socialism to fail (sic) wherever it is tried — the hubris of a tiny cadre whose grand visions and lack of humility far exceed their ability to deliver.”
Thiessen’s thesis fails on a number of factual grounds, of course. First of all, the failure of the Iowa Caucus was not the work of socialists at all or of the Sanders campaign. In fact the self-described social democrat in that race, Bernie Sanders, was the victim of the foul-up (if that is what it was and not sabotage). It was the work of neoliberal veterans of the 2016 Clinton campaign and the earlier Obama years who had teamed up to found a tech company, Shadow Inc., which got contracted by the neoliberal Democratic National Committee in secret to create a totally unneeded smartphone-based app for counting and tracking the votes in state caucuses and primaries. The app was so poorly designed, so untested, and was presented so late and with no training to Iowa caucus workers that it failed stunningly, even awarding delegates to the wrong candidates. This has led experts to conclude that it may be impossible to find out who really won the Iowa delegate count. What is clear and unarguable is that Sanders won the popular vote, both on the first round of voting, and on the second when supporters of losing candidates were allowed to shift their vote to their second-favorite top-tier candidate.
What Thiessen should have said was “The same brilliant minds in the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee who stole the primary from Bernie Sanders in 2016 are trying to do it again.”
But he couldn’t say that because he was so eager to tar “socialism” with the blame. He even linked the alleged “socialist” fiasco to Soviet Russia, citing a Soviet-era joke about it taking 10 years to get delivery of a car after purchase.. Of course that would have ruined his plan to use the cock-up as an opening to besmirch “socialism.”
Thiessen’s not alone, though, in his willful ignorance about socialism — or in his willingness to lie about its reality in countries where its virtues have been practiced for over half a century.
For another example of how luridly ignorant and dishonest the media and the political opponents of socialist ideas are in this intellectual backwater of reaction we rather ironically call the United States, take the MSNBC talking-head host, Chris Matthews. Speaking on an MSNBC panel after last Thursday evening’s New Hampshire Democratic candidates’ debate, Matthews opined that if Sanders were to win the presidency, he would end up establishing a dictatorship and start having his opponents shot.
Even his co-panelists were aghast it the absurdity of this claim, but Matthews doubled down saying, “I believe if Castro and the reds had won the Cold War there would have been executions in Central Park and I might have been one of the ones getting executed,” adding, ”I don’t know who Bernie Sanders supports over these years, I don’t know what he means by socialism.”
Fellow MSNBC host Chris Hayes noted that Sanders frequently cites the decidedly peaceful democratic nation of Denmark, which boasts such socialist-inspired policies as government-run health insurance, free college, government-owned public transit and expansive paid maternity/paternity leave. To that Matthews replied combatively, “How do you know that? Has he said that?”
Well, yes, countless numbers of times, Chris, but maybe it doesn’t get reported on your network.
This is, I’m afraid, only the start. So propagandized has the US been by almost a century of lurid anti-Communist and anti-socialist red-baiting in our schools, our media and in the rhetoric of our political duopoly of pro-capitalist parties that all too many Americans unthinkingly accept and parrot this kind of ignorant nonsense. People don’t even realize that our own excellently run Veterans Health Care system is a purely socialist example of a UK-style National Health System, government-owned with doctors on salary, or that our Medicare program is a socialist-style, single-payer government-run health insurance program like Canada’s. You just have to be old or disabled to qualify for it.
Look at Trump’s vow in his State of the Union rant, to “never allow socialism” to “take over” the United States. Think I’m paranoid? Look at how MSNBC commentator Jake Johnson (supposedly a political scientist professor!) freaked out when Bernie Sanders spokeswoman Nina Turner referred to Democratic Primary late buy-in candidate Mike Bloomberg, $60-billion former mayor of NY City and world’s 12th-richest person, an “oligarch.” Johnson called her word choice “unfair and inaccurate” and added that the word had “implications in this country that I think are unfair and unreasonable.”
In other words, to people like Johnson, it’s countries like Russia, Ukraine, Byelorus and maybe China that have “oligarchs,” but not the US, where we instead have “billionaires” whom we often refer to euphemistically as “philanthropists” because they donate a small portion of their year’s profits to charities of one kind or another.
Turner argues there is little or no difference. “Buying his way into the primaries” which Bloomburg, who is bypassing all the early contests while spending so far over $350 million on advertising and on hiring paid ‘influencers’ to promote his brand, is doing, she argued, makes him an “oligarch.”
This is the problem in a nutshell: The harsh reality is that the US today has among the most extreme wealth and income gaps in the world — indeed in the history of mankind. Our government — and this has been documented — is today almost totally responsive only to the needs and wishes of the wealthy and their corporations, whose lobbyists, it turns out, actually write most of the legislation that gets passed into law by Congress. The rich, who are for the most part beyond the law, pay little or nothing in taxes, shift their profits and wealth abroad to off-shore banking shelters with impunity, and legally bribe the members of Congress and the candidates for the presidency as well as their cabinet officers with what are called “campaign contributions,” free trips on corporate jets to exotic resorts, and promises of lucrative do-nothing positions on corporate boards after they leave their political jobs as errand-boys and girls for the rich and powerful.
So let’s take a look for the uneducated, ignorant and propagandized at what socialism and democratic socialism actually mean in the real world.
Socialism is for starters fundamentally democratic (democratic socialism is really a tautology). It advocates and celebrates the idea of people controlling their government by the electing of representatives who run the government, but also envisions extending that democratic control to the workplace, particularly in areas of economic activity where there is a paucity of competition (as in the energy industry, the arms industry, the power sector, utilities, health care the media and mass transit}. Sometimes that control comes in the form of government takeover of an industry, as for example of healthcare in the UK, the railways in Germany or France, or the Post Office in the US. Sometimes it can come in the form of giving workers and even local communities — so-called stakeholders in the proper running of a company where they work or live — seats on the boards of enterprises. This is a requirement for large industrial firms in Germany and some other countries.
The US, since at least 1917 and the success of the Russian Revolution, has deliberately conflated socialism with Soviet Communism and later with Chinese Communism. (I should add that the US has also, all the way back to 1917, actively worked through economic strangulation and military action, to crush any attempts around the world to actually create a socialist society, from the Russian Revolution through election manipulation in France, Italy and Australia, to embargo and subversion in Cuba, coups in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, and elsewhere, and wars in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Congo and other countries. This sordid history makes the common argument spouted in the US that socialism “doesn’t work,” spurious in the extreme.)
Actually though, even Lenin himself readily admitted that Russia had not succeeded (and could not expect to succeed) in achieving the “socialism” described above, because of its primitive level of industrial and class development, and so it was limited to a kind of “state capitalism.” He was correct, but the thought leaders in the US ruling class backed by the lickspittle “independent media” in this country have ignored that point and stick with the false claim that the Soviet Union and Maoist China, with all the horrors of dictatorship they imposed on their peoples, provide examples of the “evils of socialism.” (Never mind that before the Russian and Chinese revolutions peasants were virtual or even legal slaves of the land-owners, the countries were a ruled by a Czar or a bunch of brutal warlords, respectively, and freedom didn’t exist for the vast majority of the people.)
Back in the early 1960s, as first President Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson worked to establish what eventually became the Medicare program for the elderly and disabled, an actor named Ronald Reagan was hired by the American Medical Association to attack the idea in a series of paid public advertisements on radio and TV. As Reagan warned darkly, if “socialized medicine,” which is what he called government insurance for the elderly and disabled, were established by Congress, “behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until, one day as Norman Thomas said, we will awake to find that we have socialism… and one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was like in America when men were free.”
Of course, by 1981 when Reagan was elected president, Medicare and Medicaid had been operating for 16 years. By that point, Americans loved both programs, which were significantly improving the health and longevity of the nation’s people even if they didn’t always realize they were benefitting from a program that is socialist in form and inspiration. Freedom in any event hadn’t declined at all. Indeed freedom from poverty was far greater because far fewer of the elderly were going bust paying for medical care, and far fewer younger adults were being bankrupted trying to care for their aging parents, grandparents and disabled family members.
Medicare, Medicaid, free public college, subsidized transit and the like are not, in themselves, socialism, but they are socialist ideas, as are electric power cooperatives and municipally owned water systems. Bernie Sanders’ idea of expanding and improving Medicare into a program of Medicare for All so that nobody (and nobody’s employer) needs to pay thousands of dollars annually for individual medical insurance or tens of thousands of dollars for family medical insurance and related health care costs. Sanders favors free public college because a nation’s young people are all of our responsibility. If they succeed, we all succeed as a nation. And they cannot succeed if they graduate with a degree and $50-100,000 in student loans, some bearing interest as high as 9%.
Socialism has nothing to do with freedom and democracy or a lack of it and everything to do with building a caring society that seeks to raise everyone and give everyone the opportunity to work and succeed in that society. Socialism is not scary, it’s not Communism and it’s not dictatorship, whatever the wack-jobs like Jake Johnson, Chris Matthews of MSNBC or Sanders’ latest red-baiting attacker, Joe Biden, may say.
Bernie got it right when he told Pete Buttigieg, who has the financial backing of 40 billionaires, “You cannot take support to billionaires and then say you’re going to be for the people.”
For me, the simple way to look at it is this: socialism is the idea that democracy should be expanded beyond the political sphere to include the economic sphere. It takes the freedom which today exists largely only in the home and on one’s front yard but that gets chipped away elsewhere and doesn’t even exist inside the workplace, and extends it to the workplace and beyond. Socialism’s premise is that government and society at large have a responsibility for the welfare of a country’s most vulnerable, and that the aggregation of vast wealth and the existence of grinding poverty are antithetical to a good society. Capitalism’s premise, in contrast, is that the pursuit of wealth in itself is a positive thing, and that the achieving of wealth is prima facie evidence of the virtue of the person who has it, while poverty is the deserved result of a person’s presumed lack of industry.