Last week, Bernie Sanders announced the end to his presidential campaign. Joe Biden has continued winning states in the Democratic primaries, and it seems very likely that the 2020 election will be between Biden and the incumbent Trump. As a progressive whose ideal ballot consisted of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, I’m disappointed by this turn of events, especially since Sanders was leading the polls when the race began. So what went wrong? Why wouldn’t the American people like a nice old man who supported people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and the poor? What was so radical about that?
There’s one surprising answer to that: the Cold War.
Bernie Sanders identified as a socialist. While socialism has gained recent popularity amongst millennials, the previous generation of American people have been taught to associate it with some great evil because of Cold War doctrines. I firmly believe that the misconceptions around the definition of socialism were one of the main causes for Sanders’ loss of votes, so I want to debunk some of the common myths around this political policy.
First of all, let’s take it back to the roots. In the 1840s, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote a series of works that formed the basis of modern socialism. At the time, many countries still had an appalling economic gap between the nobility and the working class. Between them lay the bourgeoisie, or middle class, that had no noble titles but lived comfortably off the labor of the working class. Laborers were forced to work unreasonably long hours in unsafe conditions. Marx and Engels wanted to overthrow the monarchy and abolish the middle class that was exploiting the poor. They planned to set up a system where there was no such thing as social class, the laborers controlled the government and economy, and wealth was evenly distributed so no one went hungry. At their core, Marx and Engels’ theories actually weren’t too far from the founding principles of democracy in the United States.
However, many of the socialist governments that rose from these doctrines had little in common with the Marxist utopia. As socialism gained popularity, it branched off to form a feisty little sister: communism. Communism was built on socialist principles, but it was more extreme. It called for revolution and pushed the working class to rise up against their oppressors, and it was communism (not socialism) that took hold in many countries in the early 1900s.
There’s no nice way to put it: Joseph Stalin created the American fear of communism. When the Soviet Union was established as a communist state atop the remains of imperial Russia, Stalin took control as its leader. Since there weren’t many large communist countries at the time, he became the face of communism worldwide, but he managed to violate nearly every Marxist principle in the process. I will even go as far to say that Stalin was not a true communist. Let’s compare Stalin’s policies to the basic cornerstones of Marxist communism.
Marx: We must put an end to the privileged upper classes.
Stalin: Let’s set up a bureaucracy of elites to hold all the power.
Marx: No one should go hungry.
Stalin: Come on, surely you can get through this widespread famine while I figure out my five-year plans.
Marx: Nationalism is a disease that divides the human race.
Stalin: Okay, Soviet republics, we’re going to cram Russian culture down your throats and make you all swear allegiance to our flag.
Marx: End the oppression and set people free!
Stalin: If anyone opposes me, send them to the gulags in Siberia.
Thanks a lot, Stalin. Now everyone thinks this is what communism is supposed to look like. And this is the form of communism that has cropped up in the rest of the world. When people say “communism”, people don’t picture a happy little country where everyone has enough to eat. They picture the Berlin Wall, political prisoners, and strict censorship. This is not the world Marx and Engels imagined.
The problem with any doctrine, philosophy, or religion is that it is open to interpretation, and no two humans interpret the world the same way. A tyrant can adopt the façade of a belief to justify the horrors of his regime. We see “Christian” leaders who advocate for gay conversion therapy, “Muslim” leaders who push back against women’s rights, and “Jewish” leaders who fully support the Israeli occupation of Palestine by any means. We see pro-life politicians claim they’re just here to “save the innocent children” while ignoring the innocent children who now won’t have access to abortions. We see a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and it can damage the perception of entire groups in society. I don’t need to even mention how the 9/11 attacks brought on a wave of Islamophobia or how the coronavirus outbreak has led to racism against Asians.
The United States had good reason to fear Stalin. He was a ruthless dictator who caused a lot of destruction in his brutal reign. Although his successors took a less aggressive approach, Stalin had established a corrupt form of government that exploited the people of the Soviet Union, and that became the model for communist countries worldwide. This system created intense dissatisfaction, which led to the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the general decline of communist influence in the world.
However, several countries in Europe have adopted a new policy: democratic socialism. Citizens pay high taxes, but the government provides free or nearly free healthcare, childcare, and education. According to the Gini scale of wealth inequality, the gap between rich and poor in these countries is significantly lower than in the United States. There aren’t armed soldiers on every street corner or a wall holding these people in; in fact, these countries often rank highest on the “happiest countries in the world” lists.
So what’s the secret? How have they not become a totalitarian regime with prison camps and crippling poverty?
The problem with failed communist countries isn’t Marx’s ideas, it’s how far the leaders of these countries have strayed from Marx’s ideas. I think any time there are people fleeing a country, it means that something is probably wrong with how that country is run. The countries that come up in conversations about human rights abuses in communist countries – the Soviet Union, North Korea, China, Romania – have all been victims of a form of pseudo-communism. If you break down their economies, you’ll find that they aren’t really socialist at all. China is a tycoon in private enterprise. North Korea has been run by a single rich, powerful family since it was established in 1948. And we already talked about Stalin. None of these countries are centered around the Marxist model.
Communism and socialism are very broad terms. There’s a huge difference between a democratic country with healthcare for all and an autocracy where the government spies on its citizens. As Marx and Engels explicitly stated in the Communist Manifesto, the main goal of their doctrine was to create a nation that served the common folk, not the elite. But since Stalin and his cohorts spread the idea that these leftist governments created terror and poverty, there’s a stigma attached to the very concept of socialism.
It’s only been 30 years since the end of the Cold War, which means many Americans still remember the strong anticommunist movements in the West. The United States positioned itself as the perfect foil to the Soviet Union and established the idea that a “good government” was one that stayed as far from Marxism as possible. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s fiery speeches against the Warsaw Pact rallied the whole nation behind the concept that a right-wing, conservative, capitalist government was the strong good guy against the communist bad guy. This is the era my parents grew up in, and some of these beliefs continue even today. Why? Because he was, to a point, correct. The Soviet government was violating human rights. The people were suffering. But that was because of the corrupt Soviet bureaucracy, not because Marx and Engels had a flawed ideology.
And while Reagan was busy pointing the finger at all the terrible things about the Soviet government, no one was talking about how his far-right policies were denying healthcare to the poor, opposing civil rights bills, or allowing thousands of people to die of AIDS. A country on the far right is equally dangerous as one on the far left. Let’s not forget the names of some of the biggest anticommunists before Reagan: Francisco Franco. Benito Mussolini. Adolf Hitler.
No matter how many countries are making democratic socialism work, many Americans still cling to their conservative capitalist government because they are afraid of a Stalinist regime. They lean to the right because they think blocking leftist policies is the only way to preserve the democracy. They fear oppression so much that they create it. They would rather suffer without healthcare, abortions, or a living minimum wage than run the risk of letting socialist policies slip into the Senate.
And that’s when we bring up Donald Trump. If you asked me to sum up capitalism in two words, I’d say “Donald Trump” – a wealthy businessman-turned-president who values low taxes over welfare programs. It’s as if he read the whole manual on Republican economic strategies, then rewrote the whole thing on the wall in capital letters with a permanent marker. Our economy is under an extreme form of Republicanism, where services for the poor are sacrificed for tax cuts for the rich. He is the epitome of far-right conservative capitalism. And look where it’s gotten us.
Most modern democracies were built on the social contract theory, but we rarely adhere to it. The social contract is an arrangement between the government and the citizens – the citizens surrender some of their freedom to the government so the government will protect them. Successful democratic socialist countries stand by this principle far more than the United States currently does. The citizens entrust the government with their tax money so the government can ensure services to them; the government is their caretaker. As long as the nation is still a true democracy with fair elections, a socialist nation can thrive. The government becomes an ally of the people, not the enemy, and when people trust the integrity of their government, society finds peace.
This is the world Bernie Sanders offered us. But people refused to vote for him because they feared the word socialism. They went with Biden because they’re scared of change. He won’t implement major reforms to shake up the capitalist economy. He won’t raise taxes for the rich to provide free college for everyone. His policies may be more liberal than Trump’s, but he’s not going to transform the nation. He won’t rock the boat.
But sometimes you need to rock the boat when the boat is going under.
I am a socialist. I’m not afraid to say that. It shouldn’t be a “bad” word or a “controversial” word. Many socialist Democrats in the United States use the term “progressive” because it doesn’t carry the same stigma, and I use the label of progressive with great pride. But the fact that supporting universal healthcare or low-cost education is considered a radical idea in this country says a lot about the United States as a whole.
I wasn’t very politically aware until I was 14, and I still haven’t formed opinions about certain topics because there are pros and cons to everything. I didn’t choose to be a Democrat because it was the “cool” thing to do; I simply noticed that many of the people representing the Republican Party at the time were violating human rights while many of the people representing the Democratic Party were advocating for better human rights. Of course, that’s not to say that I believe all Democrats are good and all Republicans are bad. But if believing in equality is considered radical, then call me a radical. I’ve had trolls call me a “commie” and conservative Republicans call me “one of those dumb liberals”. And I have compassion for them. They’re the ignorant ones. They’re making stupid decisions out of fear. They’re sacrificing their God-given rights because they don’t understand the brighter future they could have. And they deserve better. We all deserve better.
I urge you all to share this article and help fight the misconceptions surrounding the progressive movement. Look around you. Look at the immigrant children in cages. Look at the transgender people who have been denied the right to serve in the military. Look at the rising coronavirus death toll because President Trump insisted it was just a little “Chinese virus”. In the words of Disney’s Pocahontas, this is where the path of hatred has brought us. This happened because we were afraid of change. And it will keep happening until we learn to bend.