Anarchism/Anti-State

The Bernie Sanders Paradox

Murray Bookchin’s critique of Bernie from 1986.

By Murray Bookchin, Anarchist Library

The posters that appeared all over Burlington — Vermont’s largest city (pop: 37,000) in the winter of 1980–81 were arresting and provocative. They showed an old map of the city with a label slapped across it that read: “For Sale.” A bold slogan across the top, in turn, proclaimed that “Burlington Is Not for Sale,” and smiling amiably in the right-hand corner was the youngish, fairly well-known face of Bernard Sanders, sans tie, open-collared, almost endearingly shy and unpretentious. The onlooker was enjoined to rescue Burlington by voting for “Bernie” Sanders for mayor. Sanders, the long-time gubernatorial candidate of Vermont’s maverick Liberty Union, was now challenging “Gordie” Paquette, an inert Democratic fixture in City Hall, who had successfully fended off equally inert Republican opponents for nearly a decade.

That Sanders won this election on March 3, 1981, by only ten votes is now a Vermont legend that has percolated throughout the country over the past five years. What gives Sanders almost legendary qualities as a mayor and politician is that he proclaims himself to be a socialist — to many admiring acolytes, a Marxist — who is now in the midpoint of a third term after rolling up huge margins in two previous elections. From a ten-vote lead to some fifty-two percent of the electorate, Sanders has ballooned out of Burlington in a flurry of civic tournaments that variously cast him as a working-class hero or a demonic “Bolshevik.” His victories now make the New York Times and his trips outside of Burlington take him to places as far as Managua, where he has visited with Daniel Ortega, and to Monthly Review fundraising banquets, where he rubs shoulders with New York’s radical elite. Sanders has even been invited to the Socialist Scholar’s Conference, an offer he wisely declined. Neither scholarship nor theory is a Sanders forte. If socialist he be, he is of the “bread-and-butter” kind whose preference for “realism” over ideals has earned him notoriety even within his closest co-workers in City Hall.

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