Umm, Bernie Sanders Is Not a 'Jewish Bolshevik' and He's Not Bringing the Gulag to America

It's not surprising that ex-Soviet Jews have a kneejerk response to the word 'socialism.' But it's a gross manipulation of Soviet Jewry's suffering to contend that Sanders' platform of social reforms make him a throwback to Trotsky

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Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a campaign rally in Dover, New Hampshire, U.S. September 1, 2019
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a campaign rally in Dover, New Hampshire, U.S. September 1, 2019Credit: \ Brian Snyder/ REUTERS
Vincent Calabrese
Vincent Calabrese

Many of us in the Jewish community are familiar with a certain character, whom we'll call Misha.

The Mishas of the world are by no means homogenous. Misha may himself have been born in the former Soviet Union, or perhaps he is the child of emigres. He may be an enthusiastic practitioner of the Judaism that was denied him under Communist rule, or he may be a fierce protector of his secular inheritance. He may prefer vodka, or he may have been acculturated into the whiskey culture of a North American kiddush.

But no matter their personal idiosyncrasies, there is one thing which unites our Mishas, and of which each is unshakably sure: he knows the truth about socialism, and will brook no opposition when holding forth on the subject.

Misha speaks with an unimpeachable sense of his own moral authority, as one who really knows what life under socialism is like, and is always eager to use this authority as a cudgel against those who see things differently.

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He is thus entirely comfortable, for example, declaring that there is actually no difference at all between Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination on a platform of social democratic reforms like the introduction of single-payer healthcare and revitalization of the trade union movement, and the leaders of the Soviet revolution.

Sanders, Misha will declare with perfect equanimity, "is Trotsky riding his military train through the Russian steppe, only to be suddenly transported through time and space into present-day America."

Raising one’s voice, gesticulating with one’s hands - fairly common techniques among politicians the world over who wish to convey that they are passionate about the matter at hand - in Misha's eyes these are the essence of Leninism.

The idea that there may be more to socialism than the authoritarian state communism of the Soviet bloc is of no interest to him.

That Sanders belongs to an indigenous American socialist tradition with its source in Eugene Debs, whose Socialist Party of America achieved considerable success in the early decades of the 20th century before succumbing to the dual pressures of government repression and factional infighting; that this tradition has always been animated much less by Marxist theory than by the conviction that, in the age of corporate capitalism, a form of socialism is the best realization of classical American political ideals - none of this is relevant to Misha.

For, he will patiently explain, he has seen socialism, and he simply knows that socialism means political purges and secret police.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) listens to a question at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, IowaCredit: AFP

He cannot be bothered with task of explaining just how the expansion of a healthcare system which currently covers about 60 million Americans to serve the rest of the population would lead to the gulag, but if you express skepticism about this vision your naïveté will earn his scorn.

Indeed, Misha’s experience with Soviet oppression has rendered him so allergic to the rhetoric of socialism that he is unable to take seriously that anyone might come to be concerned with inequality and injustice except through naïveté and ignorance.

Sanders, he will say with amazing confidence, and in the absence of any evidence at all, "knows about the "inequalities" of today's America from the New York Times and the mass rallies of spoiled well-to-do's he holds across the country."

That Sanders’ supporters in fact tend to be poorer than average, let alone that there are real political and economic inequalities in the United States which are not the fantasies of the liberal media and which merit the dismissal of any scare quotes - these are ideas that do not cross his mind.

While those of us who are sympathetic to Sanders’ variety of socialism, or even those of us who simply value intellectual probity, may be frustrated by Misha’s excesses, in the end it is difficult to be angry with him. The oppression under which Soviet Jewry, along with millions of other Soviet citizens, suffered for so long was heinous and not to be dismissed lightly.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders advocates for cheaper health care alongside type 1 diabetes patients, at a rally at a Canadian pharmacy after purchasing lower cost insulin in Ontario, Canada, July 28, 2019Credit: \ REBECCA COOK/ REUTERS

For most people, the niceties of political theory are less impactful than the symbols and rhetoric - the red flags and slogans about the injustices of capitalism - which make up the day-to-day experience of politics for most.

It is unsurprising that life under the often-nightmarish Soviet system has produced a kind of unreasoning reaction among some individuals, one which refuses to distinguish between that system and a platform of social reforms long ago enacted in countries such as  Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and indeed Israel.

In the end, this is a family affair - Misha is one of our own, and we ought at least to try to humor him.

Perhaps, on the off chance that Bernie Sanders does become president of the United States, and Americans are confronted with the apocalyptic reality of a student-debt forgiveness program financed by a half-cent tax on financial speculation, Misha will learn that it pays to make distinctions.

Vincent Calabrese is a doctoral student in Jewish thought at the University of Toronto. Twitter: @vpcalabrese

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