(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Features

Bernie Sanders, the tyrants’ friend

The Democratic presidential hopeful’s record reveals a far-left fellow traveller with some very murky associates

Until the end of February, Bernie Sanders appeared on the verge of capturing the Democratic nomination for president.  Then, African-American voters in South Carolina slowed his momentum.  Other moderate candidates dropped out of the race and endorsed Joe Biden, which led to a string of victories culminating in Biden sweeping Michigan, Mississippi, and Missouri.  For this election cycle, the Democratic Party appears to have escaped the nightmare of nominating an ideological extremist who might well lose to Donald Trump.

Bernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” and has a long history of radical beliefs on both domestic and foreign policy.  Had he and his followers been able to capture the Democratic Party, both major American parties would be under the sway  of populists with contempt for democratic norms and a penchant for extreme solutions to national problems.

Sanders has never made any secret of his deep hostility to American institutions and values. He has never denied his distaste for capitalism and his enthusiasm for domestic policies designed to cripple it. He has been open about his desire to extend the reach of government control of the economy well beyond the bounds of the welfare state as it has evolved in the Nordic countries he sometimes lionises as his model.

He has not hesitated to reaffirm his praise and support for governments that crushed civil liberties and brutalised their populations. Even after some of his more cringeworthy endorsements of Stalinist regimes were reported in the press, Sanders refused to apologise or express any contrition. He has been enamoured of the communist regime in Cuba ever since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.

Critics have noted that praising Cuba’s literacy campaign is akin to crediting Hitler with launching one of the first efforts to curtail cigarettes

He recently said on the television programme Sixty Minutes: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. When Fidel Castro came into office you know what he did? He had a massive literacy programme.” Precious few Sanders criticisms of the Cuban government’s “authoritarian” practices have ever surfaced. In 1989, after a visit to the country, he acknowledged “deficiencies”, but lauded Cuba for solving the problems of hunger, homelessness and healthcare and  insisted that the Cuban people “had an almost religious affection” for Fidel Castro.

Sanders as a socialist firebrand, running for Congress in 1985

As critics pounced on his remarks, Sanders took to denying that Cuba is a model of democratic socialism, instead calling it a dictatorship. But he has never explained when he discovered its flaws. Was Cuba any less of a dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s than it is today? Why after 60 years of communist rule have there not still been free elections?

His recent comments, even more morally obtuse, show no awareness that this literate population has no access to a free press, is subject to ruthless censorship and that Cuba is ranked among the world’s repressive societies. Critics have noted that  praising Cuba’s literacy campaign is akin to crediting Hitler with launching one of the first efforts to curtail cigarette smoking.

Sanders was just as blind to the efforts of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua to institute a one-party state. In 1985, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he boasted of being the “highest-ranking American” to visit the country on the seventh anniversary of its revolution. Recognising Nicaragua’s backwardness, he nevertheless praised its leaders, particularly Daniel Ortega. He justified the regime’s suspension of civil liberties and closing of independent newspapers on the grounds that it was combating existential enemies, and compared its measures to an American crackdown on domestic Nazis during World War II.

This could not be written off as youthful naiveté. Sanders was far from a teenager or credulous student when he went as a revolutionary tourist to Cuba, Nicaragua and, in 1988, the Soviet Union, where he praised the Moscow Metro and expressed hope that after “a dismal history” the USSR could move “forward into some of the early visions of their revolution”.

Implicit in that dream of an untarnished Bolshevik revolution and the serial discovery of a new revolutionary government that would avoid the errors and pitfalls of its predecessors is the false equation of Marxism-Leninism with democratic socialism. The USSR created the Third International, a directing body for the coming world revolution, to compete with the Socialist Second International, and worked tirelessly to undermine and destroy democratic socialist parties throughout the world.

Within a few years of the Bolshevik revolution, socialist parties throughout Europe and the US distanced themselves from communists, recognising that their Leninist principles, ideological fanaticism, and hostility to democracy made cooperation impossible.

Marxism-Leninism, however, was not limited to the traditional communist parties. One of the casualties of the Soviet Communist Party was Leon Trotsky, who had enthusiastically endorsed democratic centralism before Stalin exiled him. Trotsky organised a Fourth International, a coalition of Trotskyist parties, in the 1930s. One of its largest affiliates was in the US. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), was a Marxist-Leninist party that criticised Stalin’s supposed abandonment of Leninist principles. But it supported the Soviet Union since, by abolishing capitalism, it had become a workers’ state, despite its Stalinist distortions.

Sanders never outgrew his loyalty to third-party politics

Throughout the world, Trotskyist parties were pitifully small and congenitally prone to getting smaller through frequent splits over obscure doctrinal issues. One method ordered by Trotsky in the 1930s to overcome their isolation was to practise “entryism” — joining existing socialist parties and working within them to undermine their leaders and convert their members to Trotskyism. This parasitic practice rarely significantly bolstered the Trotskyist ranks, but caused chaos and unrest among socialists, leading them to regard the interlopers as dangerous and untrustworthy allies. The Socialist Party of the United States briefly allowed Trotskyists to join in the 1930s and quickly regretted the decision.

This excursion into left-wing factionalism has a bearing on  Sanders’s claim to the mantle of democratic socialism. Despite running for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, Sanders has never been a member of the Democratic Party, and has never been affiliated with a mainstream socialist party. From his early days in Vermont, as one of the thousands of hippies and New Leftists who migrated to the state in the late 1960s, he belonged to tiny left-wing parties and groupings. Unlike most of the New Leftists who cut their political teeth in the anti-Vietnam protests, he never outgrew his loyalty to third-party politics.

In the 1970s he ran twice  for governor and twice for the Senate as the candidate of the tiny Vermont-based Liberty Union Party, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist party, never receiving more than 10 per cent of the vote. In 1976 he called for “the public ownership of Vermont’s private electric companies without compensation to the banks and wealthy stockholders who own the vast majority of stock in these companies”, and tacked on a demand for the public takeover of other major industries, including banks, corporations, and drug companies.

The Liberty Union party was apparently the last political party Sanders ever joined. He quit in 1977, frustrated by its inability to expand its reach. In 1980 the party backed the presidential campaign of the traditional Socialist Party, but Sanders switched his support to the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. While he never joined the SWP, he was prominently identified with it from 1980 to at least 1984, serving as one of its presidential electors in Vermont in 1980, campaigning and speaking on behalf of its presidential candidate, Andrew Pulley, in the 1980 election and its 1984 candidate, Mel Mason. He also backed its candidates for office in Massachusetts in 1982.

Sanders praises communist regimes and anti-US movements abroad

The SWP (which has no connection with the British SWP) continued to define itself as a revolutionary party committed to such Leninist concepts as democratic centralism and critical support for the Soviet Union. Emboldened by the anti-war movement of the 1960s, the SWP enjoyed a brief renaissance during the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly among students.

Pulley’s presidential campaign featured calls for abolishing the American military, nationalising nearly all private industry, and solidarity with revolutionary regimes in Iran (Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy), Nicaragua and Cuba. In 1969 Pulley had given a speech asserting that “the first thing to be done was to get the GIs to demonstrate peacefully and the ideal thing would be for them to take up their guns and shoot their officers.” In 1984, Mason justified the SWP’s campaign on the grounds that it was crucial to offer “fundamental alternatives to capitalist ideology”.

In 1980 sanders claimed that “although I am not in agreement with the SWP on all issues, I strongly support that party’s attempt to become a nucleus for a national labour party which will fight for the interests of low-income and working people.” Demonstrating that on some issues he has remained resolute for 40 years, he insisted that “there is no question that the Democratic, Republican and Anderson [John Anderson, independent candidate for president] parties are dominated by millionaire business interests. The standard of living of working people will continue to decline until workers begin to stand together, and fight for worker control of the economy.”

Sanders did not specify which SWP issues he opposed; the SWP accused President Jimmy Carter of exploiting the Iran hostage crisis to provoke a war and claimed the hostages were mostly American spies. The SWP also opposed Israel’s right to exist, calling it “a settler-colonialist and expansionist capitalist state maintained principally by American imperialism, hostile to the surrounding Arab people . . .  an imperialist beachhead in the Arab world that serves as the spearhead of imperialism’s fight against the Arab revolution. We unconditionally support the struggles of the Arab peoples against the state of Israel.”

Sanders currently insists that he supports Israel’s right to exist. He has parried the accusation that he is anti-Israel by noting he lived on a kibbutz in 1963. What he never mentions is that it was affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair, a far-left socialist-Zionist movement that as late as 1953 was solidly pro-Stalinist.

He has refused to speak to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the bipartisan lobbying organisation for Israel among American Jews, denouncing it as a forum for bigots, but has enlisted figures such as congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Linda Sarsour, both with histories of antisemitic statements, as surrogates for his campaign. 

By the early 1980s the SWP was in tatters as its leadership purged many of its members. Sanders, who had won election as mayor of Burlington  by ten votes as an independent, proved to be a surprisingly tactical and non-ideological politician. He prioritised jobs for workers at a defence plant when anti-war activists tried to blockade it, and earned the enmity of local anarchists upset by his cooperation with businessmen to develop the city’s waterfront.

But he also created a foreign policy for the city centred on support for revolutionary movements in Latin America. He parlayed his political independence to several successful campaigns for the House of Representatives and then election to the Senate in 2006, where he caucused with the Democrats without ever joining the party.

Every once in a while, Sanders suggests that the evils of capitalism require extra-legal means. While he has not repeated his 1976 demand to seize privately-owned electric companies, he has demanded that “fossil fuel executives should be prosecuted for the destruction they have knowingly caused”, regardless of the inconvenient fact that their actions were not illegal.

While Sanders’s views on domestic policy are far to the left of every Democratic presidential candidate in this century, it is his admiration and praise for communist regimes and anti-American revolutionaries abroad that distances him from other Democrats and the long and honorable democratic socialist tradition.

As mayor, he set up a sister city relationship with the Russian city of Yaroslavl. He honeymooned in the USSR rather than  Sweden.  He lavished praise on Castro and Ortega, not Olof Palme and Willy Brandt.  A strange democratic socialist.

While there is no evidence that Sanders is a Marxist-Leninist, his long-ago political alliances and contemporary nostalgia for repressive regimes and circumventing the rule of law suggests that his political surge portends a future struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover