What Is Actually Radical About Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Socialism Isn’t the Socialism

It isn’t a particularly radical political vision—it’s an unflinching commitment to democracy.

Theo Anderson November 19, 2015

(Phil Roeder)

What you are ask­ing for is a cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders to an over­flow audi­ence of stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go on Sep­tem­ber 28, his voice boom­ing off the mas­sive stone walls of the school’s Rock­e­feller Chapel. He was answer­ing a student’s ques­tion about how to trans­late the rel­a­tive­ly inti­mate, small-scale pol­i­tics of Ver­mont to the nation­al level.

It may be that a political revolution of the kind that Sanders predicts is an impossible dream. On the other hand, perhaps only a grand vision of “the world that should be” is equal to the scale of the challenges we face.

I think what you’re talk­ing about,” Sanders said, is cre­at­ing a nation— it’s pret­ty rad­i­cal stuff — in which we actu­al­ly care about each oth­er rather than look­ing at the world as, I’m in it for myself. And to hell with every­body else.’”

The brouha­ha over Sanders’ self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist” has large­ly missed what is tru­ly rad­i­cal about that iden­ti­ty. It’s not the social­ism. Sanders has nev­er used the S” word with pre­ci­sion — for him, it seems to be sim­ply a short­hand for robust invest­ment in pub­lic ser­vices and the com­mon good.

That short­hand has proved remark­ably use­ful, allow­ing him to dis­tin­guish him­self from lib­er­als and most Democ­rats, while point­ing out that much of what he calls social­ism is already deeply embed­ded in Amer­i­can soci­ety in a vari­ety of pop­u­lar pro­grams and insti­tu­tions, most notably in pub­lic libraries and parks, in the Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare pro­grams, and in var­i­ous aspects of the mil­i­tary. The ambi­tious agen­da he has laid out would amount to the largest peace­time expan­sion of gov­ern­ment in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­to­ry,” as the Wall Street Jour­nal has not­ed. At the first Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, the for­mer sen­a­tor from Vir­ginia, Jim Webb, used one of his few speak­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to toss a pail of cold water on Sanders’ pro­pos­als. I don’t think the revolution’s going to come,” he said bland­ly, and I don’t think the Con­gress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff.” 

Webb was cor­rect about the odds of Con­gress pass­ing much of Sanders’s agen­da for pub­lic spend­ing. But he was wrong to con­flate that agen­da with the rev­o­lu­tion Sanders has in mind. What makes Sanders a rad­i­cal, and what con­sti­tutes the essence of his rev­o­lu­tion, isn’t his com­mit­ment to cer­tain spend­ing pri­or­i­ties or a par­tic­u­lar eco­nom­ic plan — it’s his fierce com­mit­ment to democracy.

Change nev­er takes place from the top down,” he told his audi­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. It always takes place from the bot­tom up. It takes place when peo­ple by the mil­lions, some­times over decades and some­times over cen­turies, deter­mine that the sta­tus quo — the world that they see in front of them — is not the world that should be, and they come togeth­er. And some­times they get arrest­ed. … And some­times they die in the strug­gle. And what human his­to­ry is about is pass­ing that torch from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion to generation.”

Though they are very dif­fer­ent in their approach­es to achiev­ing it, Sanders shares this com­mit­ment to a rad­i­cal ver­sion of democ­ra­cy with Saul Alin­sky, the activist and orga­niz­er who made Chica­go his home and has played an out­sized role in our recent nation­al pol­i­tics. Alinsky’s book Rules for Rad­i­cals, the sum­ma­ry of his orga­niz­ing phi­los­o­phy that was pub­lished a year before his death in 1972, is par­tic­u­lar­ly noto­ri­ous among right-wing pun­dits, and he was often invoked by con­ser­v­a­tives in the 2008 and 2012 elec­tions as evi­dence of Barack Obama’s secret rad­i­cal­ism. Oba­ma was, famous­ly, a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er in the 1980s for a Chica­go-based orga­ni­za­tion, the Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project, inspired by Alinsky’s strate­gies. Hillary Clinton’s ties are even more direct. She was born in Chica­go and grew up in a sub­urb, and she wrote her the­sis at Welles­ley about Alin­sky. In a let­ter she sent him in 1971, Clin­ton wrote that the more I’ve seen of places like Yale Law School and the peo­ple who haunt them, the more con­vinced I am that we have the seri­ous busi­ness and joy of much work ahead.” His ghost will no doubt be con­jured once again if Clin­ton wins the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nomination.

As with Sanders, though, Alinsky’s rad­i­cal­ism wasn’t a mat­ter of the spe­cif­ic reforms he pushed for, which were about win­ning incre­men­tal and often rel­a­tive­ly mod­est improve­ments in the lives of the poor and dis­en­fran­chised. Rather, he was a rad­i­cal and a rev­o­lu­tion­ary because he actu­al­ly believed in democracy.

There are many dimen­sions to democ­ra­cy, of course. But for both Sanders and Alin­sky, it is essen­tial­ly about the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er in soci­ety. As Alin­sky explained in Rules, My aim here is to sug­gest how to orga­nize for pow­er: how to get it and to use it.” When Sanders talks about how to end eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, he’s propos­ing the same project.

To believe in democ­ra­cy is to believe that a broad­ly engaged elec­torate, in which pow­er is rel­a­tive­ly equal­ly dis­trib­uted, fos­ters a soci­ety that works bet­ter. If you don’t believe in peo­ple,” Alin­sky once told Chica­go radio per­son­al­i­ty and author Studs Terkel in an inter­view, then what you have to believe in, of neces­si­ty, is a dic­ta­tor­ship, an elit­ist soci­ety, an aristocracy.”

Few polit­i­cal lead­ers of any par­ty would say that they doubt the wis­dom of the peo­ple.” But the actu­al test of that com­mit­ment is how well our sys­tems — edu­ca­tion­al, eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal — pre­pare and empow­er them to con­tribute to a com­mon faith,” as the philoso­pher and the­o­rist John Dewey called his vision of the demo­c­ra­t­ic project. The foun­da­tion of democ­ra­cy,” Dewey wrote, is faith in the capac­i­ties of human nature; faith in human intel­li­gence and in the pow­er of pooled and coop­er­a­tive expe­ri­ence. It is not belief that these things are com­plete but that if giv­en a show they will grow and be able to gen­er­ate pro­gres­sive­ly the knowl­edge and wis­dom need­ed to guide col­lec­tive action.”

For those with pow­er, the dilem­ma is that shar­ing it with the peo­ple can pro­voke unpleas­ant ques­tions about what con­sti­tutes the com­mon good. One con­ve­nient solu­tion is to use pow­er to change the sub­ject. Alin­sky was a rad­i­cal because he — like Sanders — nev­er allowed any­one to change the subject.

He focused relent­less­ly on the ques­tion of pow­er — how it is gained and dis­trib­uted — and he made con­crete demands at the micro lev­el, work­ing for reform brick by brick and block by block. He kept his dis­tance from elec­toral pol­i­tics in the belief that for­mal polit­i­cal ties and ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ments would only hin­der his prag­mat­ic approach to orga­niz­ing. But he grudg­ing­ly allowed that there was no choice but to work with­in the polit­i­cal sys­tem. We will start with the sys­tem because there is no oth­er place to start from except polit­i­cal luna­cy,” he wrote in Rules for Rad­i­cals. It is most impor­tant for those of us who want rev­o­lu­tion­ary change to under­stand that rev­o­lu­tion must be pre­ced­ed by reformation.”

That this strat­e­gy bore fruit is unde­ni­able. Alin­sky achieved much for neigh­bor­hoods in Chica­go that had very lit­tle, leav­ing a lega­cy that has inspired gen­er­a­tions of orga­niz­ers. But it’s also evi­dent, more than four decades lat­er, that he fell far short of achiev­ing either the ref­or­ma­tion or the rev­o­lu­tion that he sought.

The divide between those with and with­out pow­er is stark­ly, shock­ing­ly vis­i­ble on the South Side of Chica­go, where Sanders gave his Sep­tem­ber speech. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s expan­sive lawns and goth­ic archi­tec­ture are set among some of the poor­est, most vio­lent neigh­bor­hoods in the city and the nation. On the day that Sanders deliv­ered his speech, 14 peo­ple were shot in the city in a 15-hour peri­od. Six of them died, includ­ing a moth­er and grand­moth­er as they stood out­side, prepar­ing to get in a car and vis­it relatives.

Alin­sky like­ly would not be sur­prised that the rev­o­lu­tion he sought has not been real­ized. He was aller­gic to, and impa­tient with, the kind of dra­mat­ic pro­nounce­ments that define Sanders’s style. All the talk of peace and love and coop­er­a­tion among young peo­ple in the 1960s, Alin­sky told Terkel, had a mys­ti­cal qual­i­ty that was dis­con­nect­ed from real­i­ties on the ground. You’re not ask­ing for a rev­o­lu­tion,” he said. You’re ask­ing for a revelation.”

For all his clear-eyed real­ism, though, Alin­sky, who was a sec­u­lar Jew, did acknowl­edge the crit­i­cal impor­tance of a cer­tain ele­ment of faith and hope in the quest for social jus­tice, and his part­ing words in Rules sum up much of what the Sanders cam­paign is all about: We must believe that it is the dark­ness before the dawn of a beau­ti­ful new world; we will see it when we believe it.”

It may be that nei­ther Alinsky’s ground-lev­el strat­e­gy nor Sanders’ effort to build a broad, nation­al coali­tion can reverse our march toward increas­ing inequal­i­ty and the con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er among elites. It may be that a polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion of the kind that Sanders pre­dicts is an impos­si­ble dream.

On the oth­er hand, per­haps only a grand vision of the world that should be” is equal to the scale of the chal­lenges we face. Per­haps mil­lions of peo­ple at every lev­el,” as Sanders offered at the con­clu­sion of his Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go talk, can indeed come togeth­er to fos­ter a healthy democ­ra­cy, redis­trib­ute pow­er and make the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sys­tem work for all people.

That may require a leap of faith. So, too, may a rad­i­cal com­mit­ment to democ­ra­cy. And giv­en the make­up of Con­gress and the appar­ent apa­thy of much of the elec­torate, there is ample rea­son for doubt. But if you believe in a free and open soci­ety,” as Alin­sky once put it, what are the alternatives?” 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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