Bernie Sanders is probably the most famous socialist in the world today. The United States Senator from Vermont who ran for president twice in 2016 and 2020 electrified audiences across the US and brought the word “socialism” back into politics in a way that had seemed unthinkable for decades.
Since conceding the race and backing Joe Biden in April 2020, Sanders has continued to push for the kind of transformational change that animated his two campaigns, and although he has ruled out a third run in 2024, he remains a force to be reckoned with in US politics. He may not have become the President of the United States, but in many ways, his political influence is greater than ever before.
Last week, Bernie Sanders visited Europe to promote the Dutch and German translations of his latest book, It’s OK to Be Angry about Capitalism, with sold-out engagements in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. After his packed event at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt on 12 October, he sat down with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Ingar Solty for a discussion about the centrality of the working class for socialist politics, the challenges posed by artificial intelligence and other technological innovations, and what democratic socialism means in the twenty-first century.
Senator Sanders, you inspired millions to become socialists around the world, and today you’re passing on the baton to a new generation. What inspired you to become a socialist?
I read a lot. I went to the University of Chicago, which is a very good university. I didn’t do all that well in my classes, but I buried myself in the basement of a very good library and did a lot of reading. I also became involved in the civil rights movement and in the labour movement, at least a little bit. I learned a lot, and that helped to shape my political views.
In terms of political strategy, you call for a multiracial working-class movement for economic, climate, gender, and racial justice. Lately, you’ve been paying a lot of attention to the strike wave in the US auto industry. Why is the labour movement so important and what can it offer that single-issue movements can’t?
I come from a working-class family. My wife comes from a working-class family. As a child, I saw the impact and stress that a lack of money brought. If you have to struggle every day for basic necessities, that has a huge impact on your life. But that really does not need to be the case. We can create a society where all people have a decent standard of living — that is not utopian, that is absolutely practical and can be done.
How, from a moral perspective, do you ignore that reality? From a political perspective, the simple arithmetic is that the working class is the majority of the people. How do you win elections without speaking to, involving, and responding to the needs of the working class? It doesn’t add up to me. Every politician has to speak to the majority of the people — the American working class — but unfortunately, for a number of years, the Democrats have forgotten that simple lesson.
Some on the Left have shifted away from the working class, because it isn’t “progressive” enough or doesn’t vote. What makes the working class special?
That’s where the people are. Most people are not in the upper-middle class. Most people are in the middle class and working class, and they’re struggling. If we can bring those people together, that is where political power lies. When working-class people stand together behind the progressive agenda, we can transform America and transform the world.
Some left-leaning politicians in Europe look at right-wing voting patterns among workers and conclude that they are either integrated into the system or even reactionary, and that to win them back, the Left has to talk about crime, migration, and the problems related to it. You have never been divisive, you always focused on the multiracial working class. What would you say to those tendencies in Europe?
I think at the end of the day, people want decent jobs. They want security. As I’ve been mentioning in many of my speeches recently, the jobs that many of us have today are not going to be here in ten or 20 years, and that causes mass anxiety. What kind of work? What happens to me? Am I going to be able to feed my family or is a robot going to take my job? Who’s going to make those decisions?
We can create a society where all people have a decent standard of living — that is not utopian, that is absolutely practical and can be done.
What we need to do — and this is not easy, I don’t think for a moment that this is easy — is create a vibrant democracy. We need to bring people into the discussion, hear the concerns they have and their ideas for the future. I have zero doubt that in America we have the capability to bring working-class people — whether white, black, or Asian-American — together around the progressive agenda.
In your book, you argue that the success of the far right results from how they speak to the anger and alienation of the working class, but then direct it against minorities, immigrants, etc. We know that fascism thrives when the crisis of capitalism is dire and the situation is untenable but the Left can’t an offer alternative route out of the crisis. How can we convince people that there is a route out of the crisis in which everyone wins?
You’re beginning to see it a little bit in the United States today with the strike of the United Automobile Workers. The leadership there is doing a brilliant job telling the workers in the automobile industry and American workers in general that they are taking on corporate greed.
You’re quite right: when things begin to disintegrate economically, people get nervous and they want solutions. The right wing has solutions that are wrong and ugly and cruel and dishonest. They blame the migrants, gay people, black people, Jews — you name it. That’s always been the case.
What progressives have got to do is explain to people, to educate and organize. Why are you suffering economically? Why are the wealthy not paying their fair share of taxes? We have to do that patiently, but effectively bring people together and then point out where we want to go.
That leads me to my next question. In your talk yesterday, you said that capitalism needed to be tamed, but also replaced with a democratic, socialist alternative. What would that look like?
I don’t have an answer in my back pocket, but that’s the discussion we have to have. For a start, it means that we have to end this massive income and wealth inequality. That is an issue that is not talked about in America — and I doubt talked about in Europe — anywhere near enough.
What does it mean? I’ll give you one example: Since COVID, the world has created 42 trillion dollars in new wealth. Two-thirds of that wealth, 26 trillion dollars, has gone to the top 1 percent. That’s an extraordinary fact! In America, three people own more wealth than the bottom half of American society, the top 1 percent have never had it so good in the history of the world. That’s one area we’ve got to work on.
Now, how do you create a democratic society? What does that mean? It means not only your right to vote every four years. What about the power you have on the job? Do you simply go to work and get your paycheck, having no power over what you do?
I think that’s dehumanizing, and I think we have to be very aggressive in figuring out ways to give working people more responsibility and power at work. There are millions of people in America, and I’m sure in Europe, who wake up in the morning and say, “Oh God, I’ve got to go to work.” They hate their jobs and sometimes they get sick, literally physically sick, but they’ve got to work to feed their families.
I have zero doubt that in America we have the capability to bring working-class people — whether white, black, or Asian-American — together around the progressive agenda.
That model has gone on for hundreds of years.
It’s time to change the model. We can create an economy where working people are part of the process — making decisions, feeling really good about it — and we are seeing examples of that in my small state of Vermont. We have a number of companies that are worker-owned or where workers at least have a say, and you can see it when you walk in the door. People feel much better about their work. I think that’s something that has to be radically expanded.
We also need another kind of education. We don’t need hierarchical education, we need education that is much more fluid, where young people have more say. We’re seeing some of that as well.
I don’t have all the answers, we need a lot of discussion on what democracy is, but I will tell you for damn sure: democracy means more than just voting every four years. In America, you’re often voting for a candidate funded by very wealthy people. In the year 2023, we’ve got to begin to move in a more progressive direction than that.
Bernie Sanders: It’s OK to Be Angry about Capitalism
Bernie Sanders' new book ”It’s OK to Be Angry about Capitalism” is a powerful testament to his political life's work and a militant appeal to the next generation to fundamentally challenge the hypercapitalist system. In doing so, Sanders' vision goes far beyond the demands of his campaign days. He shows that economic rights must be recognized as human rights in order to combat growing inequality, and he encourages his readers to create a society that provides a decent standard of living for all.
The German translation of ”It’s OK to Be Angry about Capitalism” (”Es ist okay, wütend auf den Kapitalismus zu sein”) is published by Tropen Verlag. The book premiere at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin was the only public event in Germany.
Moderation: Jana Pareigis (Journalist)
The conversation is in English.
You argued in your book that artificial intelligence will be a curse as long as it operates under the ownership and control of capitalist class, but that it could also be beneficial.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that throughout history, people have always struggled. We take it for granted. You have to work to earn a paycheck. Artificial intelligence and robotics could be transformative for human society and create enormous wealth.
The question is, who benefits if a machine could do the work you do today? We can use that machine to shorten your workweek, give you more time for leisure, for cultural activities, for family time, whatever it may be — that’s a good thing. But not if it simply throws you out on the streets.
Of course, the broader question that people are asking is will machines have more influence over life than human beings at one point? Will machines and artificial intelligence outsmart human beings? That’s another question of greed.
So what is the strategy? How can we ensure that technologies liberate people as opposed to enslave people?
Well, it’s the same old fight. It’s a fight for power, and it’s going on right now. This is a major political fight that says technology can be good if it is controlled to benefit human beings. That has got to be front and centre in the political debate.
I spoke with Jacobin editor and The Nation president Bhaskar Sunkara a few days ago about your campaign and the chances of you becoming the Democratic nominee and potentially president. Back in 2020, that felt very possible. At the same time, you talk a lot about oligarchy and the vested interests and organized power of the capitalist class. Looking back, what preparations did you make to take on that organized power?
I mean, we knew what was going to happen. We knew that we were taking on the media establishment, the economic establishment, the political establishment. But I think what we showed in 2016 is that up until then, there was this myth that the American people were happy with the status quo, that people want status-quo politics. Then we came and said, “Sorry, that’s not true.” Young people certainly do not, and many working-class people are also looking for transformative change.
In 2020, we were better prepared to take on all elements of the establishment, and we won the first three primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. We lost in South Carolina, and at that point, before Super Tuesday, the establishment made it very clear that they wanted candidates out and to rally around Biden. That’s the reality that we faced.
Had your campaign not been torpedoed by the Democratic establishment, what was your action plan? What did you hope to accomplish in the first 100 days?
You’re right to say it would have been 100 days. I think that’s important — people are tired of talk and no action. The programme would have been to move very boldly to guarantee health care to every American. I think moving towards where the Canadians have been rather than the Europeans would have been a simple solution that would guarantee health care to all people as a right without any out-of-pocket cost.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that throughout history, people have always struggled.
We would have attempted to lower the cost of prescription drugs by half. We would have made public colleges and universities tuition-free. We would have substantially raised taxes on large corporations and the wealthy. We would have begun a very, very vigorous effort to create millions of jobs by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels.
The United States has many, many long-term systemic crises, and that’s what we would have dealt with in the first 100 days.
Senator Sanders, you’re not going to run again in 2024. You support Biden in a coordinated effort to beat Trump. You also point to the real progress that Build Back Better would have meant for the working class.
You asked about my first 100 days. Build Back Better had a lot of it in there.
But at the same time, you criticize the Democratic establishment for caving in to the billionaire class. How do you deal with that in day-to-day politics? How do you create a third pole for democratic socialism, but at the same time work with and through the Democrats?
With great anxiety and pain. It is not an easy process, but that’s what my job is. I’m a United States Senator, and my job is to do the best that I can for the people of Vermont. But at the same time, I understand that real change for America is not going to happen unless there is a strong grassroots movement.
A lot of my time goes into building that movement, and I think we’re seeing that it’s not just me, it’s other progressives as well. We’re seeing it right now in the growth of the trade union movement. Many of the ideas that workers are talking about are ideas I’ve talked about for years.
I live in two worlds. I’m a senator, I have to do my job. That’s what I’m paid to do. But I also have to work hard to grow a political movement that will bring the transformational change the country needs.
You have been a democratic socialist for six decades, and the neoliberal counter-revolution against gains made by the working class during the New Deal covers more than four of them. You probably know the Bertolt Brecht quote that ends with, “The strongest fight their whole life. They are the indispensable ones.” How does one fight for a whole life and, like you, maintain such a light-hearted spirit?
Well, one does what one does. I am very fortunate that the people of Vermont have allowed me to go to Washington to represent them, and have allowed me to wage the fights that I have fought. It’s a privilege. I’m very proud that I have been allowed to do it, and I take that responsibility seriously.
I’m in a position in the United States Senate that a lot of other strong progressives are not, so I will use my power and my recognition as best I can to create a democratic socialist society where we make sure that all of our people have a decent standard of living, where we deal with climate, and where we create real democracy, economic democracy.
To me, it’s not a job. It’s a privilege to be in the position that I am and to be able to do the work I do, and to meet so many great people in America and all over the world.