Sanders, as everyone knows, calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The word “democratic” is fundamental here, because historically socialism has not, typically, come about as a result of free and fair elections. In most socialist countries, like the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic where your humble author was born, socialism was imposed at the point of a gun. Sanders, therefore, is wise to distance himself from the socialists of yesteryear and insist that socialism in America should be chosen, freely and fairly, by the electorate.
As many of Sanders’s supporters have repeatedly and rightly pointed out, socialism is not communism. In fact, for most of the 20th century, socialism was understood to be a halfway house between capitalism and communism. The latter was a utopian vision of the future characterized by classless, stateless, and moneyless communal living. Strictly speaking, therefore, no communist country was ever “communist”—not even the Soviet Union (a.k.a., the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
What then was socialism? Socialism was an economic system where the means of production (e.g., factories), capital (i.e., banks), and agricultural land (i.e., farms) were owned by the state. In some socialist countries, like Poland, small privately owned farms were allowed to operate. In other countries, like Yugoslavia, small mom-and-pop shops also remained in private ownership. Strict limits on private enterprise limited accumulation of wealth and supposedly provided for a relatively high degree of income equality.
Two important caveats need to be kept in mind. First, lack of private enterprise resulted in low economic growth and, consequently, low standards of living. Thus, while income equality was relatively high (if party bosses and their cronies were excluded from the calculations), people in Soviet-bloc countries were much poorer than their counterparts in the West. Nobody has yet figured out a way of combining genuine socialism with high rates of growth over a long period of time.
Second, top members of the communist parties, which ran socialist countries, were generally exempted from limits on wealth accumulation. As such, communist leaders from Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia to Kim Il Sung in North Korea enjoyed luxuries unimaginable to the rest of the populace. Most importantly, top members of the government were above the law. They could not be accused, arrested, or convicted of ordinary or even extraordinary crimes (e.g., Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot). As such, inequality of status between the governing class and the governed masses in socialist countries was as great, if not greater, as it was under feudalism.
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