Now that Bernie Sanders is becoming more competitive with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, his past is being scrutinized by the right and the left.
In an op-ed in the New York Post, Paul Sperry — a media fellow at the Hoover Institution — is concerned with how the press is mainstreaming him as just a “progressive” and a “pragmatist.” Not true, says Sperry: “…he’s not even a socialist. He’s a communist.”
To make his case, he looks at Sanders’ left-wing past, calling him a “Communist collaborator during the height of the Cold War.” In other words, a much younger Bernie Sanders was further to the left than he is now. That is certainly true, but I would dub him a “fellow traveler” of the old pro-Communist left. That is quite a different thing than being a Communist.
First, Sperry notes that Sanders joined the Young People’s Socialist League while a student at the University of Chicago. He correctly identifies it as “the youth wing of the Socialist Party USA.” YPSL, as historians of the left know, was highly anti-Communist and its affiliated adult wing was led by the most famous Socialist of the day, Norman Thomas. Thomas’ group had a strong record of fighting the Communists on a regular basis, opposing the Soviet Union, and backing the West in the Cold War. Indeed, Thomas even helped the CIA destroy Communist unions in Europe by arranging the funneling of money through groups affiliated with his party.
Had Bernie Sanders been a Communist, instead of joining YPSL, he would have joined the Labor Youth League, or its successor, the DuBois Clubs. Both were the official youth arm at the time of the Communist Party USA. Indeed, the DuBois Clubs organizing conference was held in Chicago.
Second, Sperry notes that Sanders organized for the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), which he says was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. That is misleading. There were Communists in all the CIO unions, some in the leadership and others hired as low-level organizers. There certainly were Communists in the UPWA, and some were influential. But as this accurate account in Wikipedia explains, Philip Murray, head of the CIO, expelled all the Communist-led unions for violating the Taft-Hartley Act. The UPWA was not among those expelled. It certainly had a militant history of waging strikes, and took a leadership role in aligning itself with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. This is no evidence for including it as a Communist union.
Turning to Vermont, Sperry documents Sanders’ well-known shift to the far left. (This has been written up before much more carefully by Stanley Kurtz in National Review.) The gist of Sperry’s arguments come down to asserting that Eugene V. Debs was a supporter of the Bolsheviks and Lenin. Evidently, Mr. Sperry knows little about the history of American socialism. He even writes that Debs was “jailed for espionage.” Actually, Debs was jailed for speaking out against World War I in a speech in Canton, Ohio, which the Wilson administration saw as “sedition” that would harm domestic morale. He was exercising his First Amendment right of free speech. When President Warren Harding freed him from jail before Christmas Eve in 1921, he wrote a friend that Debs had done nothing wrong and should never have been imprisoned.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the real Communists had their own party, and were affiliated with the Third International that Lenin created. Debs at first thought the Socialists should affiliate, but when he saw the conditions demanded by Lenin to join the Comintern, he quickly changed his mind. It is true that in the early days, he and the Socialists thought the Bolshevik Revolution was part of the worldwide movements of the left that they supported. Ultimately he rejected the Communists’ demands, saying that his party “did not need a Pope in Moscow” telling them what to believe. As James Weinstein, a historian of American socialism, writes, “The Socialist Party gravitated slowly toward anti-Sovietism.”
Mr. Sperry is on firmer ground when he turns to Sanders’ activity in Vermont after he moved there in 1968. He certainly was, as a friend of his said, more Old Left than New Left, “a 1930s radical, not a 1960s radical.” Nevertheless, the positions he took were also in tune with the New Left of the ’60s rather than those of the Thomas wing of the Socialist Party. Indeed, during the ’80s, Sanders’ positions on Cuba and Nicaragua were no different than those taken by most American hard leftists, especially by Students for a Democratic Society and later, The Weather Underground. He certainly said a lot of stupid things and appeared before Communist front groups.
Conservatives should oppose Sanders not for his views of twenty to forty years ago, since he has obviously rethought his old Leninism and discarded it. They should oppose him because what he advocates today would bankrupt our country, destroy American business, increase taxes, and lead to the suffering of the very working and middle classes whose interests he purports to favor. But to write, as Sperry does, that he is a “hardcore commie” only creates sympathy for him among those naïve followers who will bemoan the new Red-baiting taking place.
At the same time, on the far left, Sanders is disdained as a sell-out. Writing in Salon, Harry Jaffe argues that Bernie is NOT a socialist but rather “a Democrat in every way but name.” What upsets him is that once Sanders got to Congress and then the Senate, “he voted with the Dems, nearly 100 percent of the time.”
A biographer of Sanders, and author of Why Bernie Sanders Matters, Jaffe believes Sanders is “moving away from socialism” and that the “socialists don’t want Sanders.” He argues that while true socialists believe that the State must take control of the means of production, Sanders told Georgetown University students: “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.”
Jaffe is such a sectarian retrograde that he doesn’t realize that being a Democrat these days does not disqualify you from being a socialist. Sanders favors big-government social-democratic measures, most of which most Democrats now support since the party moved further and further to the left. The old-style centrist Democrats in the party, like the old Bill Clinton and the now -defunct Democratic Leadership Council in the 90s, are almost extinct.
As an editorial in the Wall Street Journal points out about Sanders:
He’s a sincere socialist who follows his principles, however unrealistic or calamitous, to their logical conclusions. Mrs. Clinton will conceal her true ambitions if that’s what it takes to win, and she’ll drop on her opponents any political anvils that happen to be handy.
Hillary Clinton would move in Bernie’s direction, except more slowly. It’s simply a matter of when to spring for a single-payer system, which she realizes would not get her elected if she advocates it at present.
The Nation magazine, the flagship publication of the liberal/left, certainly doesn’t think that Sanders is a sell-out. They even put aside their policy of not endorsing candidates to give him their blessing. Indeed, they favor him because they like his policies and the programs he would enact, like a national $15 an hour minimum wage, a single-payer health care system, free college and taxing the rich to pay for that, and much more. That is what he and the editors mean by a “political revolution.” In short, Sanders would undertake redistribution of the wealth by the government, which, as in Cuba, would make everyone equally poor. That’s the last thing our country needs.