On a Thursday afternoon in November 2015, an elderly politician dressed in a black suit, his remaining white hair combed neatly back, took the podium at Georgetown University. His manner resembled a grandfather overjoyed to be in the presence of young students, his smile infectious. The auditorium’s red carpet was hidden by a sea of students, reporters, faculty—all of them waiting for a revolution. At the time, Senator Bernie Sanders was their Che Guevara.
“Let me take you now back to 1937…in the midst of the Great Depression…President Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” he began, “…implemented a series of programs that put millions of Americans back to work, took them out of dire poverty, and restored their faith in government . . . And, by the way, almost everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea he introduced, was called ‘socialist.’”
A nervous laugh filled the hall, followed by thunderous applause, as Sanders verbalized an ideology many Americans grapple with internally. What is socialism and why do we as a society fear it so much? The policy of state ownership makes us inherently uncomfortable; mainstream democrats dance around the word, careful not to speak it into existence, the Voldemort of our political culture. There are as many variations as countries that have been governed by it; both historical and myth-based, socialism is a fluid thing that has often been misunderstood.
“We’re talking about a word that’s been around for a long, long time,” says Central Connecticut State University sociology professor John O’Connor, reclining behind his desk in his campus office as if to have a conversation about the inconsistent nature of New England weather. “That word has always been contested. There’s never been a single definition of socialism. Early on, that movement tended to be relatively elitist and not very democratic, so in the early days of socialism it is a very top-down, sort of elitist, anti-democratic movement.”
His office is an almost-perfect square room. Professor O’Connor sits facing away from a wall made up of windows and surrounded on three sides by the faces of revolutionary socialists watching from their respective posters: Bernadette McAliskey, Fred Hampton, W. E. B. DuBois, Antonio Gramsci, and Amílcar Cabral. O’Connor has been teaching for twenty years and keeps an open mind when considering socialism.
With roots in the upper-class corner of society in the early 1800s, socialism was a way to change society and make it better for the masses. Comprised of utopian socialists, anarchists, conspiratorial communists, and the like, the initial face of socialism would be unfamiliar to most of us today who know it as either a form of government with shared means of production, or fear it as capitalism’s restrictive half-brother.
“And that changed in the 1840s,” O’Connor says, his head tipped to the side, “and that was with the contribution of Karl Marx who saw in Europe, as factories were emerging, that there was this force that was sort of coming into being, and that is the working class. Karl Marx’s claim to fame with regard to socialism is that he put on the table a socialism from below.”
That force of nearly two hundred years is facing many difficulties to this day. In his Georgetown speech, Sanders articulated a harsh reality that Americans do not want to face: “Tens of millions of American families continue today to lack the basic necessities of life, while millions more struggle every day to provide a minimal standard of living for their families.”
Gradually, the idea of socialism has become less of a concern and more of an alternative as more and more American citizens distrust our current government. Young people, especially, who are experiencing the downfall of capitalism as they grow into fully independent adults, are hindered by student loans and the rising cost of living. They are intrigued by socialism, or at least repelled by capitalism.
“People are more than profits.
On a rainy Monday afternoon, Sean Aspell, a twenty-two-year-old English major at Central Connecticut State University, contemplates what socialism means to him. He sits upright, wearing a red cotton shirt under a tan jacket, with his short brown hair brushed to the side.
“I think capitalism just causes so many problems and has sort of become a dirty word. I think a lot of the problems people are facing are a direct result of, you know, unchecked capitalism.” He uses his hands to gesture as he speaks, his conviction tangible. “I don’t think capitalism in and of itself is a terrible thing. I know it’s resulted in some good stuff, like having competition within industries is always a good thing. But I think it really has been unchecked and has gotten out of control, and a lot of people have suffered because of that.”
As a young democrat, Aspell is a supporter of Bernie Sanders and his politics. “I like the fact that he is kind of as close to a grassroots movement as you can get in this day and age. Do I get onboard with all of his policies? No.” Aspell shrugs nonchalantly, continuing, “Some of it, I think, goes a little bit far, but I’d prefer to go too far left than too far right.” Going too far to the left is code for socialism. Like many Sanders supporters, Aspell doesn’t declare himself a socialist, despite favoring Sanders’ socialist-inspired programs.
Professor O’Connor claims it is all in how we’ve experienced socialism. High school students read about Stalin’s failed attempt to construct a socialist society. “It was a horror show,” he says, throwing his hands in the air. “If people sort of rose up or tried to critique the government, they were dismissed, sent to the GULAG, killed, largely because they weren’t good socialists. They had the audacity to criticize the state. It was a government that was not representative of the people, not responsive to the people, and didn’t meet people’s needs. Socialism becomes a word, really, to control the population. I think that helps explain why some people get wigged out about it.”
“What Sanders is to me is a New Deal liberal.
In the dimly lit room full of textbooks, as the faces of Marx, Trotsky, Fanon, Angela Davis, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Rosa Luxemburg look down on us, Professor O’Connor keeps hope we are able to make strides to prevent those scenarios ourselves. “We also have to be critical of people who self-identify a certain way. We have to think about what they do, not what they say. I think Stalin was a monster that did incredible damage to the cause of socialism, but, you know, he had no problem self-identifying that way. I mean, it forces us to do some work.”
Sanders is no Stalin. Still, there is fuss surrounding his self-identification as a democratic socialist. Certainly, it has to do with society’s tainted view of socialism, but it also has to do with how the media paints Sanders. Professor O’Connor adds, “The media in the United States played a large role in scaring people away from Bernie’s ideas, as did the corporate democrats like Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Mike Bloomberg, and even Elizabeth Warren. They all painted Bernie as a radical when he was nothing more than a New Deal liberal.”
What is a New Deal liberal? It is someone modeled after Franklin Delano Roosevelt. O’Connor folds his hands in his lap. “I don’t think Bernie’s a democratic socialist, at all. In 2015, Sanders gave a speech at Georgetown in which he talked about his democratic socialism. What Sanders is to me is a New Deal liberal.”
While he implemented many great reforms that improved the lives of millions of Americans during the depression, Roosevelt preserved capitalism instead of breaking it down and building a new kind of government from the rubble. O’Connor argues Bernie Sanders aims to do the same thing.
“Bernie doesn’t want to overthrow capitalism,” O’Connor says matter-of-factly. “Bernie doesn’t want to take away, or get rid of, corporations; what he wants to do is he wants to tax them. He wants to change the policy profile in the United States in such a way that it helps workers, families, young people, racial minorities, and women. I never have thought Bernie was a socialist, per se. What he is, is a good New Deal liberal.”
Socialist or not, O’Connor argues that Sanders “helps us think about that word, as we should.” Indeed, we should.
In an MSNBC interview on March 30, 2020, five years after his speech at Georgetown, Senator Sanders continues, firm in his beliefs, and says plainly what we as a country should be concerned with: “Our job right now is to think big, is to act in an unprecedented way both in terms of healthcare and in terms of the economy. Right now, our focus has got to be, in my view, to make sure workers in this country are kept whole.”
In a world shrouded in uncertainty and tension, a society looks to its government for support and security. Everyone wants to be left alone until there is a pandemic. Suddenly, government intervention and institutions are a good thing. Suddenly, universal healthcare is a necessity. Suddenly, we are more than what we can produce. It is important to maintain critical thought in order to generate a government that will be there for us in all times, regardless of media portrayal or semantics. As O’Connor reminds us, people are more than profits.
Ashley Judd is a Blue Muse Staff Writer