Socialists once declared, with Marx, that “the means of production and distribution must be in the hands of the workers.” This was interpreted to mean that industries must be either bought or appropriated from private hands and ‘nationalized,’ i.e., put in public rather than private hands. In most industrialized democratic countries, whenever the Labor or Socialist Parties won a majority–and this often happened in the 30s, 40s, and 50s–one of the first things they did was to nationalize big industry. More often than not, nationalization, although bringing many benefits for the workers at first, turned out to have many disadvantages, and certainly did not bring the hoped for millennium.
In popular American discourse, the Scandinavian countries–Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland–are often referred to as ‘socialist’ countries. Yet these countries have a stock exchange, free markets, private enterprise, and corporations. It is clear these countries are not socialist countries in the conventional, original sense of the word ‘socialist.’
Although having some small successes in America here and there early in the last century, socialism, unlike in European and other countries where it has been for the most part a favorable term, is something most Americans look upon with disfavor, even distaste, if not abhorrence.
Here is how President Harry S. Truman, in Syracuse, New York on October 10, 1952, described one American view of ‘socialism:’
Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years. Socialism is what they called public power. Socialism is what they called social security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.
Nevertheless, Bernie unabashedly and unapologetically calls himself a socialist. A brave, if not foolhardy, thing to do if seeking success in American politics. Yet Bernie does it and succeeds. He is a wonderful, admirable, and refreshing presence in American politics. Where did he come from? How did Bernie become Bernie? There is an interesting speculation about the origins of Bernie’s socialism in Frank Wolff’s book, Yiddish Revolutionaries in Migration: The Transnational History of the Jewish Labour Bund, translated by Loren Balhorn and Jan-Peter Herrmann, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2021:
During Bernie Sanders’s first run for the Democratic presidential nomination, historian Daniel Katz pointed out that the key to understanding Sanders was not socialism as such but rather its specific Yiddish current….his fight against…oppression was informed by his experiences of Yiddish socialism [i.e., the Jewish Labor Bund].
Bernie has told us that his parents were working-class immigrants from Poland. Were they Bundists?
Bernie’s Book: It’s OK To Be Angry About Capitalism
(with John Nichols) Crown, New York, 2023
Bernie’s book, written in collaboration with John Nichols, is clear, engaging, and impassioned. It is full of facts that unequivocally indict the capitalist system in America as dysfunctional, unjust, and, sometimes, cruel. By contrast, he marshals facts and figures demonstrating how well social democracy works in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Bernie then puts forward his own proposals that are viewed by our political establishments as “radical” and “extreme,” but are actually, especially when compared to the way other industrialized, democratic countries do things, totally moderate, rational, sensible, caring, and humane.
Bernie tells us that “The vast majority struggle to survive, while a handful of billionaires have more wealth than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes.”
Why has Trump won working-class support? The answer, says Bernie, lies “In the degree to which the Democratic Party has abandoned them for wealthy campaign contributors and the ‘beautiful people.’” Additionally, “many of these so-called racist Americans voted for Barack Obama, our first Black president, and for ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ and ‘Yes We Can,’ but their lives did not get better.”
Bernie points out that “60 percent of our people live paycheck to paycheck–and real inflation-adjusted wages have not gone up for fifty years” and that “some 85 million of us are uninsured or underinsured” and that “sixty thousand die each year because they don’t get the medical care they need.”
Childhood poverty and childcare? Bernie tells us that “we have the highest childhood poverty rate of almost any major country on earth…and our childcare system is a disaster.”
Income and wealth inequality? “We now have more income and wealth inequality than ever before, with the richest three billionaires owning more wealth than the bottom half of our society–165 million people.”
Bernie advocates a guaranteed jobs program that puts people to work at livable wages; that we should lead the world in combating climate change; rebuild our crumbling infrastructure; publicly fund a ‘Medicare for All’ system; provide free public education for every American of every age; legislate a progressive tax system that ends our “grotesque level of income and wealth inequality;” provide access to abortion; end all forms of bigotry.
People argue that his proposals are impractical and too costly. Bernie answers:
To those who say that, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, there is not enough to care for all the people, our answer must be: “That’s absurd. Of course there’s enough!”…. Senator Sinema voted with the Republicans to provide a $35 billion carve-out for Wall Street private equity vultures from the corporate minimum tax. We couldn’t take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry or big oil companies. We couldn’t provide $300 a month for low-income families to take care of their toddlers and escape poverty. But we could provide a last-minute $35 billion tax break to extremely profitable Wall Street firms and their executives who had contributed to the Republicans and Senator Sinema.
In case you’re nevertheless thinking that Bernie the socialist is too radical, here’s a quote from his book to allay your fears: “There’s nothing wrong with a business or an entrepreneur making a profit.” There isn’t a word about nationalization in his book.
The important point: Bernie makes it clear it’s very much okay to be angry at capitalism.
Hopefully, such anger leads to changing things, turning Bernie’s decent, moderate, and rational proposals to reality.