With Bernie Sanders calling himself a socialist, not to mention calling for a “revolution,” and Bill Gates saying socialism may be the only salvation against climate change, something is certainly happening—but what?

Socialism is a confused label. First, it meant an economic system with no private owners of means of production, no capitalists—an end point. This socialism had to have state or collective ownership of workplaces. No Gates, no Walton, no Moneybags. Next, some changed their tune so socialism meant tumultuous events of modest duration wherein productive property was taken from its former owners—a process.  Then socialism morphed, for others, to mean a much longer process during which capitalism would be increasingly restrained, regulated, and even abated, leaving more state and collective production than capitalist production. To the mainstream, socialism meant government expansion and finally government domination as a gulag. This definition sought to make socialism a non starter, so capitalism seemed  the only non-suicidal option.

At the fringes, there have also been various strains of anti-authoritarian socialism, sometimes meaning anarchism, sometimes a councilist approach.

Now comes a twist that seeks to eliminate all the others as well as confusion and rejection. Sanders’ socialism seems to mean only restricting the most egregious capitalist excesses by pursuing enlarged government protections against market madness, with no greater goal. Why not just join up? Times change. Words should change, too. Eliminating the gulag connotations and associated scare tactics, will, if it happens, certainly be a good thing. But why are even some plutocrats getting soft on socialism?

Perhaps plutocrats are awakening to the realization that capitalism without major restraints will destroy the planet. This is Bill Gates. It is also Hillary Clinton when she says we need to save capitalism from itself.

For those who want to salvage their domination without annihilating all life, there is a need to reverse the market madness of recent decades. Some plutocrats even realize that that means “socialism,” at least in the social democratic variant. So, a shift is occurring.

However, if those who want a new world that eliminates all systemic injustice get on board in with what in the end means merely government mitigation of capitalism’s self threatening faults, then no one will be seeking a truly new world.  Would a shift in climate change policies to avoid flooding New York and Miami or impoverishing us to starvation be good? Yes, of course. Less climate calamity is better than more. Less poverty is better than more, but if we leave the underlying structures of the current economy in place, they will regenerate pressures for the worst excesses.

Does this mean “socialist” short-term policy choices should be opposed? No, it means they will be unstable and far from sufficient.

And now comes the strange bedfellows dynamic. A capitalist with zero intention of eliminating his or her dominant position can nonetheless support highly contested policies called “socialist” to ward off ecological armageddon, polarized populations pushed to rebel, and so on. He or she may seek to mitigate what he or she thinks are suicidal excesses of the system to save the system.

At the same time, a poor person can support the same policies to ward off disastrous immediate outcomes, but with the difference, hopefully, of steadily becoming ever more clear that there is a larger aim that needs to be continually conceived, celebrated, and sought.  As we support and seek short-term changes that elites sometimes also favor, to avoid losing our aspirations, we have to inject into each discussion about income distribution, modes of allocation, methods of decision making, job definitions, education, health care, family policies, immigration, war and peace, and ecological survival, clarity that favored short-term policies leading to much larger gains and new relations.

In that context, surprisingly, Sanders isn’t just calling himself a democratic socialist—unexpected enough—he is also saying, over and over, that a better future can’t be had without a revolution, meaning, for him, millions of people participating in political activism. He doesn’t spell out how that happens or what changes beyond the short-term policies he favors it would seek. But, he does say that working people should determine the future, not elites. And isn’t that precisely what a person serious about fundamental change, ought to be saying, and what we who have those aspirations should be seconding and working to make happen, whether Sanders stays the course or not?

It is hard to see how a presidential candidate could use a massive stage in the U.S., right now to help open the door to a better future more effectively, and for a larger audience. Maybe one could, while retaining sufficient access to keep at it. Maybe not. But what does matter is not to fold our tents into a part way mentality as if part way is all the way or to endlessly castigate a part way mentality will accomplish nothing much positive, and perhaps even be counterproductive. On the other hand, to pose positive alternatives, in plain language, and to construct lasting organizational vehicles for pushing short-run gains into ever-larger gains within and beyond Sander’s own efforts, whether he is elected or not, has real potential of a sort not seen in the U.S. for decades.



Michael Albert is an activist, economist, speaker and writer. He is co-founder of Z Communications and author of numerous books, including Parecon: Life After Capitalism.