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Bernie Sanders and Socialism Part II Revolutionary Socialism

Bernie Sanders is the first viable presidential candidate for a major political party to describe himself as a socialist.  The importance of this event in American political history must not be underestimated and is the reason for this series on the three major movements in the history of socialism (utopian, revolutionary and evolutionary).  The first post covered utopian socialism and concluded that Senator Sanders is not a utopian socialist.  This post will examine revolutionary socialism.

Once again all these socialist movements share three characteristics.

  1. The goal of equality, especially economic equality
  2. The distrust of, if not outright opposition to, private property and economic competition
  3. The creation of a just society through scientific analysis and organization directed by a centralized power

Revolutionary socialism refers to the movement that contends that socialism can only be established by seizing political power and overthrowing the capitalist system.[1]  The major revolutionary socialists were Karl Marx (1818-1883), Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), and Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924).[2]  Given the victories of revolutionary socialism in the former Soviet Union, China and other communist countries, there can no doubt that revolutionary socialism has been the most influential form of socialism.

The ultimate goal of revolutionary socialism is to create a society in which “the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.”[3]  This ideal society would no longer suffer from the twin evils of economic competition and private property, which create inequality and class antagonism.  In fact, Marx and Engels quite clearly state “… the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”[4]

Now, we must understand that Marx and Engels mean private property as it exists in what they consider to be the unjust capitalist socio-economic system.  According to Marx and Engels, capitalist society is fundamentally divided into two classes—the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, and the proletariat or wage-laborers, who work to produce the goods of society.   In order to increase profit the bourgeoisie seek to give a wage that “merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence.”[5]  In the revolutionary socialist interpretation of private property the bourgeoisie have all the property and because of their mere subsistence wage, the workers do not have property and are akin to slaves.  As a result these classes are antagonistic to one another.  Bourgeois private property is “the exploitation of the many by the few.”[6]

The manner in which this ideal society is to be established is what distinguishes revolutionary socialism from utopian socialism.  Rather than using the peaceful means of persuasion and reason to change the views and practices of the bourgeoisie, it will be necessary for the proletariat to seize power.

The first step will be to establish democracy.  By virtue of their numbers the proletariat will become the ruling class.  The proletariat will then “use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, … and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.”[7]  When the proletariat has accomplished this, it will “have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms, and of classes generally.”[8]  Thus the classless society will have been established, and productivity will be increased as all work for all.

The contrast between the utopian and revolutionary socialists in establishing their ideal society is based on a fundamental difference over human reason.  The utopians believed that man is essentially good and governed by reason.  This is why they advocated persuasion.   Revolutionary socialism denies that reason governs the individual or social relations.  Reason is governed by economic interest and class consciousness.  “Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?”[9]  Politics is no longer an activity of seeking to persuade people to do what is just.  Rather “political power … is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”[10] Therefore, social change must come via forcible revolutionary action.

So is Bernie Sanders a revolutionary socialist?  Not really.  Although he likes to use phrases like a political revolution, he does not mean a violent overthrow of American government and society.  He believes that America’s political and economic system is corrupt and must be radically transformed, but he denies that his socialism wants the government to own the means of production.[11]

Critics of revolutionary socialism abound.  Christianity rejects the atheistic materialism of revolutionary socialism and consequently its view of reality and human nature.  With its belief in God and providence, the Christian faith does not view history progressing by necessary economic forces but by the will of a loving God who will accomplish all of his purposes in the end. In addition, while recognizing that our sinfulness can and has led us to justify oppressive social structures, Christianity holds that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-31) and therefore cannot be understood only in terms of his economic condition.

The next post will have evolutionary socialism, a major critic of revolutionary socialism, as its subject and ask whether Bernie Sanders is an evolutionary socialist.

[1] I shall be using revolutionary socialism and communism interchangeably.  This is due to the influence of The Communist Manifesto written in 1848 by Marx and Engels, which is still the best brief introduction to communist thought.  It is readily available online in several places.  I shall be quoting from the translated edited by Samuel H. Beer for the Appleton-Century-Crofts edition of 1955 for the Crofts Classics series.

[2] The main difference between Marx and Engels and Lenin is that the former two felt that the natural forces of history would result in a revolution led by the proletariat, whereas Lenin believed that a vanguard of professional revolutionaries was needed to lead the proletariat.  This position is outlined in his work What Is to Be Done? (1902).

[3] Manifesto, p. 32.

[4] Ibid.,  p. 24.

[5] Ibid., p. 25

[6] Ibid., p. 24.

[7] Ibid., p. 31.

[8] Ibid., p. 32.

[9] Ibid., pp. 29-30.

[10] Ibid., p. 32.

[11] The best single source for Senator Sanders’ views is his speech of November 19, 2015 at Georgetown University.  It is available in full on YouTube.

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