Bernie Sanders And The Definition Of Socialism

By Ricardo Fuentes Ramirez*


Among the most interesting aspects of the current electoral process in the US is that candidate Bernie Sanders openly identifies himself as a “democratic socialist.” It has prompted many to discuss what is, or what is not, socialism. The problem is that “socialism” is a word used to refer to many different things. Here are just a few of its unofficial definitions:


  1. Transitional stage between capitalism and communism (traditional Marxist definition).
  2. An economic system based on state ownership of economic resources and central planning (as practiced in the former Soviet Union).
  3. An economic system characterized by democratic planning, rather than the market as the primary mechanism for the allocation of resources, usually through workers’ control in the firm, and participatory democracy for society as a whole (see the work of economists Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel, and David Laibman).
  4. An economic system characterized by workers’ control of the firm, and the absence of exploitation, that is, the appropriation of the wealth by a ruling class created by a dominated class (see the work of economists Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff).
  5. An economic system characterized by a high level of government intervention in the capitalist market economy through very progressive taxation and ensuring universal access to services like health and education (also known as “Social Democracy” and is mostly associated with the “Nordic model” in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden).
  6. Any instance of provision of goods and services by the state (for example, filmmaker Michael Moore suggests in some of his documentaries that the US postal service or firefighters are examples of socialist institutions).


Sanders’ candidacy has triggered a series of articles, videos, and even memes, each using one of these definitions, and presenting it as what socialism ‘really’ means. In addition, as noted on occasions by Noam Chomsky, we live in the aftermath of the two great propaganda systems of the 20th century, the Soviet and US propaganda systems, both asserting the second definition (in the US case, also associating the concept with dictatorship and totalitarianism, and in the Soviet case with the idea that they had achieved the communist utopia).

Sanders adheres to the fifth definition in our list. Adding to the confusion, many of his followers use the word referring to the sixth definition.

Taking into account the theoretical and practical tradition in which the concept ‘socialism’ developed, I do think we can identify the “correct” definition (in my opinion, some combination of the definitions 1, 3 & 4). However, identifying the correct definition is ultimately an academic endeavor if in practice all of these definitions continue being used simultaneously. As expected, the conversation becomes rather confusing, and ultimately unproductive. Should it be our priority to call-out those who are using the word ‘socialism’ wrong? Beyond the use or misuse of the word, what about Sanders’ proposals? What follows is a brief analysis without using the word ‘socialism.’

Bernie Sanders believes in regulated capitalism, characterized by a high level of government intervention in the market economy, very progressive taxation, and ensuring universal access to services like health and education. As stated above, this model has been used in a relatively successful manner in Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden). On one hand, these countries have consistently ranked highly in terms of most human development indicators. These countries are among the most educated and healthiest countries in the world , with the highest living standards, lowest inequality (implying the high living standards are not only reserved for the top 1% as in the US), and highest gender equality.

On the other hand, despite progressive institutions that promote equality, these economies still remain vulnerable to the recurring crises of capitalism. This is inevitable, for capitalism (whether neoliberal or regulated) has within it a number of tendencies that always push it toward crisis. There are overproduction crises, financial crises, profit-squeeze crises, falling profit rate crises, and many others. If it isn’t one crisis tendency, it will be another, but capitalism will always tend to crisis. Crises in regulated capitalism always present an opportunity for “the 1%” to fight for a return to neoliberal capitalism. In many European countries, which previously resembled the Nordic model more than the American neoliberal model, the political right wing and big business have won the battle. In the Nordic countries, the right wing has had overwhelming victories, but the battle continues.

Our aim is not only only to achieve high living standards for working people, or universal access to quality healthcare or education, but we also want these achievements to be long lasting. The model proposed by Sanders cannot be our final goal if we do not want these gains to be under constant threat. For these achievements to be long lasting, we would have to move to a model closer to definitions #3 and/or #4, where large corporations lose the political and economic privileges they have today (even in the Nordic model). However, this does not preclude the possibility of the Sanders/Nordic model being a first step in that direction. Even if definitions #3 or #4 are our final goals, it is very likely that the first steps in that direction would coincide with most of Sanders’ proposals. Then the conversation we must have is not whether Sanders or the Nordic countries are, or are not, socialist. It should be whether these proposals fit with our short, medium, and long-term goals.

The challenge is to develop a political practice that prevents on one hand, a short-sighted view that only emphasizes the possible ‘realistic’ reforms in the short term, and on the other hand one that also avoids a hyper-sighted vision, so focused on reaching the long term goal that it does not enable a practice in the present that actually contributes to social transformation. Avoiding both vision problems will be the key.


*Ricardo Fuentes Ramirez is a CPE staff economist and an Adjunct Professor of Economics in the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez