In the early part of the 20th century, there was a broad movement of people in the United States who advocated the overthrow of capitalism. Among them were many revolutionaries like Eugene Debs, William Z. Foster, Lucy Parsons, and Paul Robeson.
However, there was another current of people who called themselves “socialists” but had no interest in revolution. They were called “sewer socialists.” The term originated in reference to Victor L. Berger, a “socialist” who ran on a platform of improving the city’s sewer system and eventually became the mayor of Milwaukee. The sewer socialists did not want to overthrow capitalism, but simply to be elected to local public office and improve government policy. They wanted to make a global system built on exploitation of people all over the world a little more comfortable for those living within the western economic centers.
The battle between these two poles of the left movement – with the revolutionary and anti-imperialist wing of socialism on the one hand and the “sewer socialist” wing on the other — played out on a global level. Commenting on the debate, Russian socialist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described the trend this way: “The bourgeoisie of an imperialist ‘Great’ Power can economically bribe the upper strata of ‘its’ workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million… this little sop is divided among the labour ministers, ‘labour representatives’… labour members of War Industries Committees… labour officials, workers belonging to the narrow craft unions…”
In the modern United States, it isn’t sewer socialism but “Vermont socialism” that plays the role of the ‘Labor Ministers.’ US Senator Bernie Sanders is running for president, and openly describes himself as a “socialist.” Despite using this word to describe himself, with many well intentioned anti-capitalist activists supporting him, Sanders’ platform in reality articulates a strategy for strengthening global monopoly capitalism and its expanding militarism.
Big Oil’s Campaign Against Russia
Currently, Wall Street is doing all it can to suppress Russia, a rising competitor on the global markets. US oil and natural gas corporations in particular want to attack and isolate the Russian Federation, as hydraulic fracking floods the market and drives down oil prices and profits. As Russia stabilizes and expands, continuing to export more and more natural gas, big business desperately needs to purge the country’s oil from the global market.
In service of the western oil and natural gas cartels, US agents overthrew the democratically elected government of Ukraine. The orgy of street violence in Kiev that deposed Yanukovich was conducted with the direction of the CIA and billions of dollars in US funding. In Ukraine, the intervention of the United States has pushed a formerly peaceful country into civil war and installed a fanatically anti-Russian government. Russia now faces a hostile, US-aligned regime directly on its doorstep. Civil war is unfolding as the peoples of eastern Ukraine have taken up arms against it.
US-funded terrorists are waging a campaign of death and destruction in Syria, another Russian-aligned country. Hundreds of thousands have already been killed. The US and its allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan continue to pour money into the so-called “Free Syrian Army” — a group that openly tortures, kidnaps, and beheads innocent people, and has a history of collaborating with ISIS.
Despite giving demagogic anti-corporate speeches, Sanders brags that he is even more in line with big oil’s anti-Russia campaign than President Obama. “The entire world has got to stand up to Putin. We’ve got to deal with sanctions, we’ve got to deal with freezing assets,” he declared in a TV interview with FOX news host Bill O’Reilly.
In the same interview, he declared: “You’ve got to totally isolate them politically. You’ve got to totally isolate them economically… You freeze assets that the Russian government has all over the world… International corporations have huge investments in Russia, you could pull them out…”
A “Socialist” who Loves War and Israel
Sanders is very much a friend of the military industrial complex. In his home state of Vermont, Sanders “rarely misses a photo opportunity with Vermont National Guard troops when they are being deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.” While criticizing Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Sanders consistently votes for the massive US military budget. In fact, Sanders is vocally very supportive of Obama’s drone strikes program, and has worked to bring US military research corporations into his home state to set up facilities.
As a highly rated ally of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, Sanders has consistently voted and spoken out in support of Israel. When criticized for it, he often replies with standard Israel lobby talking points, saying things like, “Hamas is sending missiles into Israel… some of those missiles are coming to populated areas…” Other than vaguely saying that Israel may have “overreacted,” he blatantly supports and defends Israeli military policy.
Sanders openly believes that the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation is “terrorism,” and that the existence of a “Jewish state” on Palestinian land is somehow ethical. In his 2013 interview with Playboy, he declared: “The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to end terrorism against Israel and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
A Friend of the Rising Police State
As a loyal ally of military corporations, he not only supports their war against people in Ukraine, Syria, and Palestine, but also their profitable activities at home. Big business is making huge profits from a prison industrial complex as well as the rapid expansion of the role of police in US society. As police patrol the halls of elementary schools, and “stop and frisk” people on the streets without probable cause, it is young African-Americans who are their primary targets.
Sanders has never been an opponent of the prison industrial complex or the rising incidents of police violence. In Michael Moore’s 2009 film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Moore interviewed Sanders and asked him to explain what it meant to be a socialist. Sanders responded with a vague, populist rant in which he portrayed the police as victims: “We’ve become very religious in worshipping greed. We put on the front pages of magazines guys who have made millions of dollars, we ignore the cops… who every day are doing so much in improving the lives of people.”
More recently, in response to the massive uprising against police brutality and mass incarceration in the United States, Sanders has declared: “Look, the issue here is…. I was a mayor for eight years, and being a cop is a very, very difficult job. But the word has got to get out that when police act inappropriately, and of course in this case there has to be a thorough investigation.” Sanders gives standard, Obama-style talking points on the issue, saying he supports “body cameras” and wants more community cooperation and involvement with police departments.
Inevitably, whenever the issue of police brutality is raised, Sanders changes the subject to economics. In response to the Baltimore uprising after the killing of Freddie Grey, Sanders declared, without ever even mentioning Grey’s name: “In the neighborhood where this gentleman lives, as I understand it, the unemployment rate is over 50 percent, over 50 percent. What we have got to do as a nation is understand that we have got to create millions of jobs, to put people back to work, to make sure that kids are in schools, and not in jails…. so they’re not hanging out on street corners.”
No one can deny that unemployment is a huge problem, especially for Black and Brown communities in the United States. However, Eric Garner wasn’t choked to death by a bill collector. The direct issue at hand is the fact that police officers have essentially been given a “license to kill” by the courts, and routinely face no penalty after blatantly and intentionally killing people of color.
By diverting the conversation to economics and not calling out the police in harsh terms, and then using racially loaded phrases like “hanging out on street corners,” Sanders is essentially saying: “If only Black people had more economic opportunities, they wouldn’t be worthless, low-life criminals who the police have to kill.”
A Bigger Slice of Empire?
Often Bernie Sanders is asked what it means to be a socialist. He does not respond with a call for public management of the economy, “workers’ control of the means of production,” a workers and farmer’s government, or any of the definitions of “socialism” used by socialists historically. Instead, he talks about Norway, Sweden, and other US-aligned imperialist countries. He emphasizes that these countries have a national health service, and provide free university education.
Vermont itself is a good example of such policies existing in practice. Vermont has single-payer health insurance for its residents. Same-sex marriage is legal, as is smoking marijuana.
Vermonters, 95% of whom are white, according to the US census, live a little more comfortably than most people in the United States. As they enjoy their legalized pot and single-payer healthcare, the US military is testing its drones over their heads, flying them across the “Green Mountains” of Vermont. The state’s well funded public universities, where Vermonters pay much lower tuition, are contracted to conduct research into how to make these imperialist killing machines more effective.
Sanders’ political viewpoint, based on his experience of decades in governing his home state — where only 1.2% of the population is Black — has been: “If we give white middle class Americans a bigger slice of the pie, they will be far more willing to line up with Wall Street against Russia, China, Iran, and the Palestinians.”
Lenin accurately described leaders like Sanders as “opportunists and social-chauvinists,” saying, “They are defending the temporary privileges of a minority of the workers…” Back in 1916, Lenin urged his followers to “go down lower and deeper, to the real masses… teach the masses to appreciate their true political interests, to fight for socialism and for the revolution.”
The following year, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were victorious. Capitalism, along with its mischievous and demagogic defenders like Bernie Sanders, was overthrown in Russia. That was nearly 100 years ago. How this battle will play out among 21st-century leftists remains to be seen.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.