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2 March 2020updated 30 Aug 2021 1:12pm

Is Bernie Sanders a socialist, or a social democrat?

Why the Democratic presidential frontrunner may be best described as a “class-struggle social democrat”.

By George Eaton

For decades, “socialist” was a purely pejorative term in mainstream US political debate. The next Democratic presidential candidate, however, could be someone who claims the label as a badge of honour. 

Bernie Sanders, the current frontrunner, is a self-described democratic socialist who has sharply differentiated himself from his rivals. “Elizabeth [Warren] has said that she is capitalist through her bones. I’m not,” Sanders recently remarked.

Others, such as the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, say that Sanders is not so much a socialist as a social democrat.

“He doesn’t want to nationalise our major industries and replace markets with central planning; he has expressed admiration, not for Venezuela, but for Denmark,” Krugman wrote recently. “He’s basically what Europeans would call a social democrat.” Sanders’ use of the term socialist, he added, was “mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie”. 

A socialist is traditionally defined as someone who believes in the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, or the wholesale replacement of capitalism with an alternative economic system. Sanders’ policy programme does not amount to this. 

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Some of his headline promises, though radical in a US context, are entirely mainstream in a European one. Few on the continent would blink at a manifesto that proposed universal healthcare, a top income tax rate of 52 per cent (on those earning over $10m a year) and a corporate tax rate of 35 per cent (the pre-Trump level).  

Sanders himself has repeatedly invoked the social democratic Nordic model. Once asked to explain the difference between his socialism and that of Venezuela, he replied: “I think that countries like Denmark and Sweden do very well. I think it depends on what we mean by socialism. If we mean socialism is what the old Soviet Union was, that’s not my thing.”

It is important for Sanders’ electoral prospects to make this distinction; polls suggest more than half of American voters take an unfavourable view of socialism.

And while there are elements of Sanders’ programme that suggest he is a social democrat, others are more radical. His spending pledges, including Medicare for All, the abolition of university tuition fees, the cancellation of $1.6trn of student debt, and the Green New Deal (a plan to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy and create 20 million jobs) would increase US public expenditure by up to $60trn over the next decade. Federal government spending would rise by an estimated 20 percentage points from its current level of 20.7 per cent of GDP, setting a peacetime record (by comparison, F D Roosevelt’s New Deal increased federal spending by around eight points). Total US public spending, which currently stands at 38 per cent of GDP, would approach Nordic or French levels (over 50 per cent of GDP). 

He has also pledged to introduce worker ownership funds that would allow employees to acquire up to 20 per cent of public corporations (twice the level proposed in Labour’s 2019 manifesto) and would give workers the right to elect 45 per cent of company directors (Labour proposed a third).

Sanders’ most radical qualities, however, are the speed with which he would seek to transform America’s economic model, and his political style, which is based on confrontation, rather than conciliation. Instead of appealing to altruism or making cautious demands, Sanders inveighs against “the billionaire class”, “oligarchs” and “the top 1 per cent”. 

For this reason, the best description of the Vermont senator’s position may be that suggested by Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara: “a class-struggle social democrat”. As Sunkara writes in The Socialist Manifesto: “Whereas social democracy morphed in the postwar period into a tool to suppress class conflict in favour of tripartite agreements among business, labour and the state, both of these leaders [Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn] encourage a renewal of class antagonism.”

This description captures the nuances of Sanders’ politics in a way that a socialist/social democrat binary does not. For Sanders, reforms are not intended to humanise capitalism and achieve a new economic settlement, but to radicalise public sentiment and create the conditions for more profound change (the French philosopher André Gorz usefully distinguished between “radical reforms” and “reformist reforms”). His programme is designed for an era of extreme inequality and social polarisation, not for one of consensus and cohesion.

Sanders’ reformism may separate him from revolutionary socialists but his militancy sets him apart from traditional European social democrats. When the international secretary of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, Johan Hassel, recently attended a Sanders rally in Iowa he was predictably unimpressed. “We were at a Sanders event and it was like being at a [Swedish] Left Party meeting,” he commented. “It was a mixture of very young people and old Marxists, who think they were right all along.”

Ever since the 2008 crash the left has struggled to reinvent itself, in contrast to a ruthlessly effective right. For Sanders, winning the White House and then achieving change would be a formidable task. His victory, however, would represent the triumph of a politics that is neither wholly socialist, nor social democratic, but a new fusion of both.