Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism reminiscent of Tommy Douglas’ CCF: SFU lecturer John-Henry Harter
Bernie Sanders has a vision for America.
The Vermont senator calls it democratic socialism, and members of the Democratic Party appear to be embracing the dream.
Following votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Sanders has emerged as the frontrunner for the presidential nomination of his party.
As SFU history and labour studies lecturer John-Henry Harter notes, the 78-year-old self-declared democratic socialist has a shot to take on President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election.
Looking at Sanders’ politics, Harter says he’s reminded of Canada’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.
The CCF is commonly associated with Thomas Clement ‘Tommy’ Douglas, who formed the first democratic socialist government in North America, when the party won the election in Saskatchewan in 1944.
“I would argue that Sanders and the policies he's putting forward would be the Canadian equivalent to the CCF,” Harter told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight.
According to Harter, Sanders is like the “old school CCF”, which he said makes sense because CCF’s policies were about making life better for the people.
“They're the ones who brought in universal healthcare in Saskatchewan, and then eventually we got in the rest of Canada,” Harter said.
Douglas is the father of Medicare in Canada, a healthcare system that has informed Sanders’ plan for universal healthcare in the U.S.
Referring to Sanders, Harter said: “So I think that we call him a social democrat, like he is truly a candidate on the left and he's far to the left of the Democratic Party generally.”
The CCF is the forerunner of the NDP, but Harter noted that the New Democratic Party is no longer a socialist party.
“They're just another pro-capitalist party,” Harter said.
In their April 2013 convention under the leadership then of Thomas Mulcair, NDP members voted to remove references to “democratic socialism” in the preamble of the party’s constitution.
The purge of democratic socialism was supported by Jack Layton, who led the NDP’s breakthrough in 2011 to become Canada’s Opposition Party. Layton died shortly after the election of that year.
The old NDP constitution stated that the party “believes that the social, economic and political progress of Canada can be assured only by the application of democratic socialist principles to government and the administration of public affairs”.
It defines the principles of democratic socialism as: “That the production and distribution of goods and services shall be directed to meeting the social and individual needs of people within a sustainable environment and economy and not to the making of profit.”
In its founding convention in Saskatchewan in July 1933, the CCF adopted what has become to be known as the Regina Manifesto.
“We aim to replace the present capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated, in which economic planning will supersede unregulated private enterprise and competition, and in which genuine democratic self-government, based upon economic equality will be possible,” the manifesto’s opening line reads.
The manifesto explained that when “private profit is the main stimulus to economic effort, our society oscillates between periods of feverish prosperity in which the main benefits go to speculators and profiteers, and of catastrophic depression, in which the common man's normal state of insecurity and hardship is accentuated”.
“We believe that these evils can be removed only in a planned and socialized economy in which our natural resources and principal means of production and distribution are owned, controlled and operated by the people,” the manifesto declared.
In a speech at the George Washington University in June 2019, Sanders defined his vision of democratic socialism.
“After decades of policies that have encouraged and subsidized unbridled corporate greed, we now have an economy that is fundamentally broken and grotesquely unfair,” Sanders said about the situation in the U.S.
As an alternative to “unfettered capitalism” and its associated evils of “hatred and divisiveness”, Sanders said that America should “find the moral conviction to choose a different path, a higher path, a path of compassion, justice and love”.
“It is the path that I call democratic socialism,” he said.
To reach this goal, the U.S. should “protect economic rights of all people in this country”.
“As FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] stated in his 1944 State of the Union address: ‘We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence’,” Sanders said.
According to Sanders, the U.S. must “guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights – the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment.”
Sanders called on his audience to ask themselves: What does it actually mean to be free?
“Are you truly free if you are unable to go to a doctor when you are sick, or face financial bankruptcy when you leave the hospital?
Are you truly free if you cannot afford the prescription drug you need to stay alive?
Are you truly free when you spend half of your limited income on housing, and are forced to borrow money from a payday lender at 200% interest rates.
Are you truly free if you are 70 years old and forced to work because you lack a pension or enough money to retire?
Are you truly free if you are unable to go to attend college or a trade school because your family lacks the income?
Are you truly free if you are forced to work 60 or 80 hours a week because you can’t find a job that pays a living wage?
Are you truly free if you are a mother or father with a new born baby but you are forced to go back to work immediately after the birth because you lack paid family leave?
Are you truly free if you are a small business owner or family farmer who is driven out by the monopolistic practices of big business?
Are you truly free if you are a veteran, who put your life on the line to defend this country, and now sleep out on the streets?
To me, the answer to those questions, in the wealthiest nation on earth, is no, you are not free,” Sanders said in his speech.
For SFU lecturer Harter, Sanders is “reminiscent of the CCF”.
“He is a true left populist like many CCF leaders,” Harter said. “He is to the left of the current NDP, thus my comparison to CCF instead.”