I recently added myself to the ranks of those pointing out that Bernie Sanders, despite calling himself a socialist, is not voicing socialist principles. Socialism is antagonistic to capitalism, whereas Bernie Sanders believes in a regulated form of capitalism on the Nordic model. I am one among many to make this point, though I also forcefully insisted that this means Bernie Sanders must either be unaware of the definition of socialism or lying about it.
Now, the liberal Columbia historian Eric Foner has written an article in The Nation, in which he offers Bernie Sanders some advice as to how to talk about socialism. Ostensibly, Foner agrees with Sanders’s socialist critics, saying that when Bernie Sanders defines “democratic socialism,” he should not simply say the word “Sweden” over and over, but should look to the tradition of real American radicals such as the Indiana socialist Eugene V. Debs. Foner points out that we have a long tradition of uncompromising left-wing politics in America, from Tom Paine to the abolitionist movement to the Populism of the early 20th Century.
But, oh dear: even though he is ostensibly encouraging Sanders to embrace actual socialists, when Foner goes to define it he literally uses the Sanders definition, in which socialism is a more egalitarian form of capitalism. Here’s what Foner says:
As to socialism, the term today refers not to a blueprint for a future society but to the need to rein in the excesses of capitalism, evident all around us, to empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy, and to develop policies that make opportunity real for the millions of Americans for whom it is not. This is what it meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs, the great labor leader and Socialist candidate for president who won almost a million votes in 1912. Debs spoke the language of what he called “political equality and economic freedom.” But equally important, as Debs emphasized, socialism is as much a moral idea as an economic one—the conviction that vast inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity are simply wrong and that ordinary people, using political power, can produce far-reaching change. It was Debs’s moral fervor as much as his specific program that made him beloved by millions of Americans.
Now, here’s the sort of rhetoric that Bernie Sanders uses already:
If we are honest in striving to be a moral and just society, it is imperative that we have the courage to stand with the poor, to stand with working people and when necessary, take on very powerful and wealthy people whose greed, in my view, is doing this country enormous harm.” – from speech at Liberty University
Today, we live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals. The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time. – from BernieSanders.com
It’s already exactly the sort of thing Foner is suggesting; it’s virtually indistinguishable. So Foner is not in fact asking Sanders to newly embrace the beliefs of the great American radicals. In fact, literally all Foner is asking for is more references to William Jennings Bryan instead of Norway. It’s just pure nationalism; Foner is not suggesting a more uncompromsing set of principles, but simply giving practical political advice. Foner thinks it’s good strategy to draw on American figures, since American politicians should be wary about praising Scandanavia, due to the longstanding national suspicion that everything European is vaguely bland and effete.
Lest anyone be snookered into thinking Foner is correct in viewing Eugene Debs as somehow sharing Sanders’s view of socialism as a friendlier form of capitalism, let me now call to the stand: Mr. Eugene V. Debs, who administered a ruthless thrashing to the Foners/Sanderses of his own time:
These people, mostly honest, imagine themselves Socialists — that is, in a mild, not a malignant form. They have decided that there is no class struggle, and now they propose to determine whether or not to organize a new party — that is to say, whether or not capitalism will abolish itself. If a new party should be decided upon, it must not be partisan. Can any sane person conceive of such a monstrosity? Think of the wolf and the lamb in loving embrace, the fox and the pullet dancing a two-step and the lion and the ox scouting the class-conscious doctrine over peaches and cream, while the ass mused, “I have long been waiting for this party of ‘all the people.’” Socialism was born of the class antagonisms of capitalist society, without which it would never have been heard of; and in the present state of its development it is a struggle of the working class to free themselves from their capitalist exploiters by wresting from them the tools with which modern work is done. This conflict for mastery of the tools is necessarily a class conflict. It can be nothing else, and only he is a Socialist who perceives clearly the nature of the struggle and takes his stand squarely and uncompromisingly with the working class in the struggle which can end only with the utter annihilation of the capitalist system and the total abolition of class rule. We count every one against us who is not with us and opposed to the capitalist class, especially those “reformers” of chicken hearts who are for everybody, especially themselves, and against nobody. While I believe that most of these “reformers” are honest and well-meaning, I know that some of them, by no means inconspicuous, are charlatans and frauds. They are the representatives of middle class interests, and the shrewd old politicians of the capitalist parties are not slow to perceive and take advantage of their influence. They are “Socialists” for no other purpose than to emasculate Socialism. Beaten in the capitalist game by better shufflers, dealers, and players, they have turned “reformers” and are playing that for what there is in it. They were failures as preaches and lawyers and politicians and capitalists. In their new role as “reformers” they dare not offend the capitalist exploiters, for their revenue depends upon their treason to the exploited slaves over whom they mourn dolefully and shed crocodile tears. I respect the honest effort of any man or set of men, however misguided, to better social conditions, but I have no patience with the frauds and quacks who wear the masks of meekness and in the name of “brotherhood” betray their trusting victims to the class that robs them without pity and riots in the proceeds without shame.
Is it worth my pointing out that by portraying Debs as a mere “opponent of inequality” and supporter of “political equality and economic freedom,” Foner is abrogating his duty as a historian? That when he says a gentle respect for equality “is what [socialism] meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs” he is telling a massive fib? That he is almost certainly distorting the historical record of Debs’s views because doing so will advance Foner’s own liberal political beliefs? Is it worth pointing out the unbelievable irony of him attempting to use Debs’s legacy to further precisely the kind of reformist politics that Debs himself explicitly denounced in the strongest possible terms?
Let me conclude with some true statements, amid this thicket of confusion over socialism that liberals seem to be exerting considerable effort to create. Eugene V. Debs was a socialist. Socialism means an end to capitalism. Bernie Sanders does not want to end capitalism. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist. Eric Foner does not want to end capitalism. Eric Foner is not a socialist. Eric Foner either doesn’t understand Eugene V. Debs, or is intentionally downplaying Debs’s radicalism for political purposes. And the most incontrovertible fact of all: with every additional sentence Eric Foner writes about Eugene V. Debs, Debs rotates in his grave with ever-increasing velocity.