Sanders and Me and not so Democratic Socialism
Sen. Sanders got a huge pass this primary season. Captivated by the deep dishonesty of one probable nominee and the crude ignorance of the other (not to mention his plain crudeness), the media, and informal commentators like myself, have not given the Democratic candidate and his program the attention they deserve. Also, in the current primary contest, it’s difficult not to like the guy. I have said several times that he inspires in me a kind of twisted affection. Plus, he has real pluck. But, let’s face it: He is probably done, or done for.
Sen. Sanders has gone very far into the primary while maintaining perfect dignity in his demeanor. He has seldom stooped to personal insults even when he was being severely tried by a Ms Clinton who seems to consider the man’s very candidacy a grave offense, an offense against the natural order of things, a crime of lèse-majesté, even a form of woman abuse. In the meantime Mr Sanders will have single-handedly rehabilitated the word “socialism.” This matters for the future of this nation. Time to look at it critically.
I, personally, especially like Sanders the man. I have reasons to. We are the same age; we went to college at about the same time, both in good universities. He took a fairly active part in the desegregation movement. I did not because it was too early in my American sojourn. (I wish I had taken part.) Nevertheless at age 25, Sanders and I were both leftists. The main difference between us is this: Fifty years later, he has remained impeccably faithful to the ideals of our youth while I walked away, faster and faster, really. I learned to understand the invisible hand of the market. I did some good readings. I was lucky enough to observe my leftists academic colleagues in action at close range early on. Cannily, I observed that the victorious Vietnamese Communist Party did not establish a workers’ paradise in its part of the world. I loathed authoritarianism in any guise. The Senator, meanwhile, spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union.
When that latter country fell apart and its archives were open, the Senator had nothing to say about the eighty years of mass atrocities they revealed. I am guessing he did not think he had to because he believed in the democratic brand of socialism. It’s hard to tell how much history he knows. (I think that liberals in general are ignorant, including academic liberals. I could tell you stories about them that would raise the hair on the back of your neck.) It does not take much knowledge though to guess that Lenin and the 1916 Bolsheviks did not originally set out deliberately to create a tyranny. Too bad they had to come to power by overthrowing by force of arms a democratically elected government. (See “Kerensky.”) Still, they named the new country “The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics,” and the word “soviet” means “council,” and “republic” means what it means. But, building socialism wasn’t working out; too many people with bad attitudes. So Lenin had to nudge History a little bit with bayonets, with barbed wire, with organized famines and soon, with a bullet to the back of the head of those who stood in the way. The Bolsheviks were forced to choose between socialism and democracy. They chose the former and they got neither. There is no record of Sen. Sanders making any relevant comment. (As always, I am eager to correct my errors.)
It’s less clear whether the Communist Party of China ever had a democratic plan. The unauthorized biography of Mao by his personal doctor reads like a tissue of horrors right from the start. (Dr. Li Zhisui. The Private Life of Chairman Mao, 1994) The Communist Parties of Eastern Europe simply came to power in the wagon train of the Red Army occupying their countries. None of them ever got close to getting there through free elections. The most interesting is the case of East Germany, ruled by a fusion of a native communist party and of preexisting democratic socialist parties. Together, they achieved a fair degree of material success for the East German people yet, they never managed to make do without a police state. Today, Sanders’ backers may not remember or they may not know that the German Democratic Republic, as it was called with a straight face, disappeared overnight. Someone had left a back door open to this paragon of socialist success and the people immediately started voting with their feet by the tens of thousands.
This is all irrelevant, Senator Sanders’ supporters would claim. You are describing a grave perversion of socialism; again, we only want democratic socialism.
During much of my adult life, the ill-defined words “socialism” and “socialist” were used with all kinds of modifiers: “African socialism,” “Arab socialism.” In all cases, the regimes so named led their countries straight to poverty, usually accompanied by official kleptocracy. In India, a really democratic country, the mild Ghandian-Nehruan form of socialism produced deep poverty for two generations including in the large, educated Indian middle class . (Just compare and contrast with un-socialist South Korea which started in 1953, after a devastating war, much poorer than India had been in 1949 when it became independent.) Socialism – whatever that is – is normally the road sign that points toward generalized poverty. Perhaps, this is only the result of a fateful case of reverse magic naming: Call something good, reasonable “socialist” and it begins degrading and sinking! Go figure!
OK, this is all about ancient times, they say. So, let’s look at current examples.
In Venezuela, socialism started under unusually favorable conditions because the country had considerable oil income that minimized the need for high taxation, a major reason for discontent in most socialist experiments. Yet, the socialists in power there made such a mess of it that today, only a few years later, the country suffers about 400% inflation (in 2016). If you had a dollar’s worth of local money there 12 months ago, it now only buys about a quarter’s worth of milk or bread. The skilled middle-class is leaving or trying to. They may return later; or, they may not. If they don’t, it will take a couple of generations at best to rebuild the country’s human capital after the socialist experiment ends.
Note that the sharp drop in world oil prices has affected many countries. It’s only in “Bolivarian” socialist Venezuela that you will see mass exodus and severe shortages of necessities.
In Brazil, The Workers’ Party is in power. The sitting president is a woman whose bona fide, whose socialist credentials are not in question. When she was young, she was imprisoned and even tortured for her belief in socialism, or because she was a guerrilla. (That’s the name for a left-wing terrorist.) She would now be impeached for making up optimistic economic figures for her country, except for the fact that the man constitutionally designated to replace her is also under indictment for corruption. It was bound to happen. The federal government in Brazil eats up 40% of GDP. The huge national oil company, Petrobras is nationalized; it belongs to the government, a favorite socialist arrangement. So oil revenues belong to everyone which means they belong to no one. Why not help myself a little, generations of Brazilian politicians have figured? There are no shareholders to keep tabs and to complain, after all. Socialism and kleptocracy are like father and son.
But, but, you say, those are Third World countries that have not yet recovered from the corrupting influence of colonialism (200 years later). Point well taken. Here is another case I know well, of a socialist country that has not been colonized since about 50 (BC.) France has been under the guiding hand of the French Socialist Party for nearly five years this time around. By the way, France is a democratic country with fair elections and a free press. The Socialists won fair and square. They were in power for 23 of the 35 years since 1981. They largely implemented their program and there were few rollbacks – except by themselves, a few times when they understood the disastrous effects of the reforms they had implemented. I am thinking of a broad de-nationalization of banks in 1981-82. (This is directly relevant to Sen. Sanders’ thinking.)
The French Socialist Party in power never tried to restrict freedom of the press and it did not fill the prisons with its opponents. (Instead, it emptied them hastily of violent criminals, according to its security critics.) By and large, its rule has been quite civilized. There is just that pesky problem of chronic unemployment which never dips much below 10% (25% for the young; sky is the limit if you are young and your name is “Mohamed”). There is also the fact that economic stagnation is now seen as normal by the young. Has been for a couple of generations, now. And then, there is the unbelievable cultural sterility of French society (another story, obviously that I partially tell elsewhere on this blog. Ask me.)
True story: a few months ago, members of the socialist government celebrated loudly. That was because the government office of economic analysis had revised upward its estimate of annual economic growth from GDP: + 0.4% to +0.6% ! (Yes, that’s 6 tenth of one per cent. It’s true that today, in the spring of 2016, it’s at a respectable annual 2% plus.)
“No, no,” cries Sen. Sanders ( and I can almost hear him from here) “I don’t mean ‘socialist’ as in ‘Union of Socialist Soviet Republics,’ and I don’t mean Red China, and I don’t mean North Korea, certainly, and I don’t mean Cuba (although…), and I don’t mean Venezuela today, or Brazil. And, I don’t even mean France although I could not explain why exactly. (Bad call here, Senator. The French single-payer health care system works well; it’s cheaper than US health care, and French men live two years longer than American men.) I mean socialism as in Denmark and Sweden. Now, here we are at last. In part Two, we will look at what passes for Swedish “socialism.” (Denmark is too small to be an example, perhaps.)