Bernie Sanders’s Documentary on Eugene Debs

by Stanley Kurtz

Bernie Sanders is planning to give a “major speech” explaining what democratic socialism means to him. That will certainly be of interest, but Sanders’s 1979 documentary on socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs may offer a more revealing glimpse of Sanders’ socialist vision than even his forthcoming speech. Sanders wrote, directed, and starred in this documentary. You can see the video here, and read the transcript here.

It’s true that this is a documentary about Debs’s socialism, not Sanders’s. Yet in his 1997 memoir, Outsider in the House, Sanders proudly invokes his Debs documentary and declares that Debs “remains a hero of mine.” Sanders himself plays the voice of Debs in the film. Sanders’ documentary lacks any hint that Debs might have either made mistakes or taken positions that may seem troubling in retrospect. Debs is Bernie’s hero and Bernie clearly wants Debs to be your hero too.

Nowadays, Sanders points to Scandinavian welfare states as the embodiment of his democratic socialism. I don’t doubt that Sanders would like to see America move in that direction, and that is troubling enough. Yet the Debs documentary suggests that Sanders’s ultimate goal lies beyond even European social democracy. The man who made this documentary was pretty clearly a classic socialist: committed to relentless class struggle, complete overthrow of the capitalist system — preferably by the vote, but by violence if necessary — and full worker control of the means of production via the government.

There’s plenty of continuity with Sanders’s current rhetoric here, like his controversial remarks decrying the number of deodorants consumers get to choose from in capitalist society. These days, Sanders calls for a “political revolution,” and the Debs documentary clearly admires labor unions and politicians who seek to bring about revolution by peaceful democratic means. Yet just as clearly, Sanders admires Debs for saying that, in the last resort, violent revolution remains an option.

Sanders’ treatment of Debs’ support for Russia’s communist revolution of 1917 is particularly striking. Here, at least, you might expect a bit of distancing or criticism from a truly “democratic” socialist. Yet Sanders obviously admires Debs’ decision to give “unqualified support to the Russian Revolution which had just taken place under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.” When Sanders turns to explaining the decline of Debs’ Socialist Party after 1917, he attributes it to the party’s opposition to World War I and to fear of persecution. Nowhere does Sanders suggest that the Russian Revolution and its aftermath may have raised legitimate concerns about socialism. Sanders’s honeymoon in the Soviet Union and his trips to Cuba and Nicaragua make a lot of sense in light of his documentary on Debs.

Some of the quotations from Debs which Sanders speaks in his own voice and presents in an entirely positive light in this documentary will take you aback. For example: “while there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Crime here is seen as nothing but a product of exploitative capitalism. Sanders also clearly approves of Debs’ attribution of racial animosity in the South to a plot by employers to undercut “working class unity.” This is classic Marxist doctrine. Sanders also emphasizes the importance of Marx’s writings to the development of Debs’ socialist thought.

Given that Sanders holds out Debs as a hero in this documentary, given the complete harmony between the documentary’s point of view and Debs’ own point of view, given Sanders’ failure to create any distance between the documentary itself and Debs’ most controversial statements and actions, and given Sanders proud invocation of the documentary and his admitted hero-worship of Debs twenty years after the film was made, it seems fair to say that this documentary offers an important window onto Bernie Sanders’ socialism.

If the socialism Sanders outlines in his forthcoming speech looks any different from the socialism he obviously held between 1979 and 1997, I hope Sanders will address the discrepancy.

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