Bernie Sanders – Dangerous Trotskyist?

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

In the hunt for dirt on Bernie Sanders, hostile journalists have come up with very little. He had his honeymoon in the Soviet Union. He wrote some dodgy stuff in an alternative newspaper as a very young man. And that’s pretty much it.

It’s hard to find anything really juicy in Sanders’ past because his politics have been fairly consistent from the time he joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) in the early 1960s until today. It was in the YPSL that he learned to be a democratic socialist and he remains a democratic socialist even now.

But one story has recently surfaced which is getting a bit of circulation and it concerns Sanders’ years as a dangerous Trotskyist.

The story, reported to a wide audience on 17 January by the Daily Beast website (which is edited by Noah Shachtman, apparently a distant cousin of Max), runs like this:

In 1980, when the Democrats ran Jimmy Carter for re-election as president Bernie Sanders did not sign up to support him. Instead, he agreed to lend his name to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and was an official Elector for the party for the state of Vermont.

I should explain that in the American electoral system, the president is chosen by the Electoral College. Every party that competes for the presidency therefore must name their Electors. In the unlikely event that the SWP had won a majority of votes in Vermont that year, Sanders would have been an elector. (In the event, Vermont had 3 Electors and they all voted for Ronald Reagan. The SWP candidate placed 9th out of 9 candidates, receiving just 75 votes in the state.)

Why did Sanders agree to be an Elector for the SWP? Most likely because he was sympathetic to their ongoing effort to challenge the federal government’s decades-long attempt to infiltrate and destroy their small party. Sanders said as much at one of the very few SWP events he spoke at.

“For the last 40 years,” Sanders said, “the Socialist Workers Party has … been harassed, informed upon, had their offices broken into, had members of their party fired from their jobs, and have been treated with cold contempt by the United States government.”

There is no evidence that Sanders joined the party or supported its platform.

Four decades later, some of the right-wing media have jumped on the story, with the Daily Beast challenging Sanders’ claim that he has been a “democratic socialist” all his adult life. “He has not always been the democratic socialist he claims to be,” they declared. “Sanders could have supported the Socialist Party, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, or Social-Democrats U.S.A., the three leading democratic socialist organizations existing in 1980. He rejected them. Instead he embraced a Marxist-Leninist communist sect that proclaimed its solidarity with Iran.”

One wonders where they collected that list of “the three leading democratic socialist organizations,” though I imagine the source was Wikipedia. Anyone who was around at the time, or did actual research, would have been unlikely to include Social Democrats USA in the list, for example.

Sanders not only lent his name to the SWP, but apparently spoke at one (maybe two) of their meetings. In 1984, it is reported that he said “at a time when the Democratic and Republican parties are intellectually and spiritually bankrupt, it is imperative for radical voices to be heard which offer fundamental alternatives to capitalist ideology.” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the SWP’s particular brand of Trotskyism and actually reflects the view that Sanders has held for his whole life.

Other websites followed up on the Daily Beast’s “scoop”, including the Washington Examiner which revealed that in 1979, members of the SWP’s leadership circulated a document that called for “the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus,” arguing such an act “is a necessary prerequisite for the conquest of state power by the working class.”

Their crack researchers also discovered that the “archives of the SWP’s official paper, the Militant, demonstrate a devotion to what its writers believe was the ‘true’ purpose of the Russian Revolution, before it was supposedly corrupted by Josef Stalin.”

The paper even found “an expert on 20th century communism” who told them that “one of the SWP’s fans was Lee Harvey Oswald, who not only wanted to overthrow our government but actually assassinated our president, John F. Kennedy.”

So, there you go. Bernie Sanders has now been exposed as a secret Trotskyist, a defender of the Iranian Islamist regime and linked somehow to the Kennedy assassination.

Incredibly, none of this has seemed to impact on the Vermont Senator’s campaign. The latest polls show him winning both Iowa and New Hampshire.