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No, 'New York Post': Bernie Sanders Is Not a Communist

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.