Bernie Sanders, Karl Marx, and “Democratic Socialism.”


Despite his bleak prospects for securing the Democrat nomination, Bernie Sanders has amassed a popularity that indicates his ideas are far from dead. Sanders is a Socialist, and young people in particular love it. But, they are quick to remind us, he is not like the brutal Marxist regimes we read about in our history books…he’s a DEMOCRATIC Socialist. We are told that this is a considerable difference.

But is Democratic Socialism so different from historic Marx’s Socialism? Let’s take a look at the history of these ideas:

Pierre Leroux

The term “Socialism” was coined by Pierre Leroux, a Saint-Simonian (referring to those influenced by Saint Simon, who is often considered the father of Socialism, although this is contestable). The Saint-Simonians, in the tradition of all the early Socialists, favored the complete abolition of private property, which they believed was the basis for exploitation. They therefore wanted to abolish private property in its entirety.

The early socialist ideas were muddy, though. When the Saint-Simonians were referring to private property, they only wanted to abolish what we now refer to as “capital goods” or “the means of production,” in Marxist terms.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Another early Socialist and the first self-proclaimed anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, would define these concepts further in his work “What is Property?” Proudhon theorized a “usufructuary” system, meaning that he believed that every individual had the right to mix his labor with capital goods and retain ownership of the product. In his famous maxim “Property is robbery,” Proudhon was claiming that Property was not a right, and therefore each individual should have equal access to capital goods. “Possession,” Proudhon writes. citing Alexandre Duranton, “is a matter of fact, not of right.” [1] This book is credited with convincing Karl Marx that all property should be abolished.

Up to this point, the abolition of property still allowed for the exchange of goods produced with labor, but there would be no property rights in goods used for production (and there was no question about capital goods that may have been produced with labor). This was largely a condemnation of the landed aristocracy of Europe with implications for the community ownership of the means of production, as we now define it.

The interesting point about these historic socialist, as well as the various Associative Socialists of the time (e.g. Robert Owen, who used the words “Socialism” and “Communism” interchangeably), is that they all opposed the State as well as private property. Some were essentially anarchists, such as Proudhon and Charles Fourier, while the others at least shared some anarchistic inclinations, such as “Saint Simon’s Parable” that illustrates the uselessness of government workers compared with the usefulness of every other type of worker.

Pulling from the French Socialists, a German named Johann Karl Rodbertus would reluctantly advocate the use of the state to bring about Socialist ideals.

Johann Karl Rodbertus

Rodbertus brought the French ideas of Socialism to political elites in Germany, but he was not originally a State Socialist. He also was leery of “that democratic and radical socialism . . . whose best-known representative is Marx” [2]. But Rodbertus was concerned not just with the wealth stolen from the worker by landowners; he came to conclude that this “spoilation” of workers’ wealth would continue through the exchange of goods (something that all the previous socialists were comfortable with). Therefore, Rodbertus realized, the only solution was the community ownership of property AND the community regulation of consumption through the distribution of the “national dividend.” In this, the State had a necessary role in Socialism, which was now beginning to resemble Marx’s socialism.

At this point, though, Socialism and Communism are still ill-defined and interchangeable terms. This would be the case until the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto. In it, Marx and Engels critique other socialists and offer their own, presumably superior, brand of “Scientific Socialism.”

Communism, to Marx and Engels, was not divorced from Socialism; Socialism was simply one element of Communism, and the most important. “The distinguishing feature of Communism,” they write, “is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property.” [3] By “bourgeois property,” they mean private property. Up to this point, this has been true of every form of socialism proposed. But by merely aboliting property, they feared, there was also the danger of it being appropriated once again for the exploitation of labor. Thus, property could not be abolished; it must be owned by the State.

To Marx and Engels, what made Communism different was that it intended to “raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” [4] Marx was not only a Democratic Socialist, according to his own theory, but he was the ORIGINAL Democratic Socialist.

He then wanted “to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class.” [5] To achieve this, Marx theorized that capitalism would naturally lead to socialism which would naturally lead to Communism (which entailed concepts other than just socialism. It assumed the abolition of nationality, for example, which wasn’t necessary to achieve mere socialism).

When Proudhon criticized Communism, he was doing so on the grounds that Marx was authoritarian. Another anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin – himself an admitted Communist – agreed with Proudhon’s critique of Marx despite accepting his economic ideas. Bakunin also advocated a system based on democratic principles, or “popular instinct” which “is never mistaken.” They feared Socialism in the hands of government (presumably, even if that government were run by somebody like Bernie Sanders).

In short, Bernie Sanders is hardly being novel when he claims to be a Democratic Socialist, and we nay-sayers are not incorrect to compare him to Karl Marx on this merit.

There are, however, obvious differences between what Sanders advocates and what Karl Marx advocated. Sanders falsely claims that the differences are in the “democratic” element, but his real differences lie in the “socialist” element of his ideas. Sanders claims not to want to emulate the Soviet Union (which itself never claimed to achieve Communism, as it remained in the Socialist stage of history throughout its existence, according to the Soviet government). Instead, he wants to emulate Scandinavian countries.

Their deviation from Marx is significant. Marx was a complete socialist; the Scandinavian countries have significant elements of capitalism. In fact, they rank among the freest economies in the world (some ranking higher than the United States) with more secure property rights than the majority of the world’s countries. The Sanders supporters are entirely incorrect to insist that the differences in Sanders’ Socialism and Marx’s socialism is democracy. The real difference is that he claims to retain levels of capitalism – the economic system he castigates endlessly. Implicit in his policies is the admission that Socialism is destructive and capitalism is the solution to this destruction, unless you’re willing to believe that he has found that magic balance of a mixed-market economy that just happens to move us closer to the destructive level of socialism that took over one-third of the global population at one point in the last century.

I’m obviously skeptical that Bernie Sanders has found this magical formula for “good socialism,” but I can’t disprove it in this post. What I can say is that his notion of Democratic Socialism is absolutely a Marxist concept. Marx wanted to move the world to Socialism by concentrating more power into the hands of the State to get to Communism. Whether or not this is Bernie Sanders’ end-game is inconsequential; his policies still fit Marx’s theory and prescription. Calling Sanders a Marxist is entirely accurate, even if he doesn’t realize it.

To the degree that he isn’t a Marxist, it is only because he has implicitly acknowledge the need for capitalism. He believes in retaining some level of property rights and free trade to assuage the destructive elements of socialism he’s ensuring us that he wishes to avoid. If he’s sincere in this, then it begs the question: why shouldn’t we move toward more capitalism? If you buy Bernie’s arguments yet act as if the advocates of capitalism are adhering to absurd ideas, you’re contradicting your own arguments outright. So either the Bernie Sanders end-game really is the Marxism he promises he isn’t after, or he understands the virtues of capitalism but also understands that he can exploit what Vladimir Lenin called “useful idiots” to gain political power.

In either case, Bernie Sanders should not be trusted, his policies should not be glorified, and Democratic Socialism should absolutely be acknowledged as a Marxist policy because that’s what it has always been.

[1] Proudhon, “What is Property?” Chapter II.
[2] Charles Gide, “A History of Economic Doctrines,” Forgotten Books (1910), 416.
[3] Marx and Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” Penguin Classics, 235.
[4] Ibid, 243.
[5] Ibid.

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Chris Calton is a senior contributor to The Liberty Conservative and through his work tries to educate people about Anarcho-Capitalist ideas and general anarchist history.

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