The faculty member who taught Russian history during most of my years at LSU told me that when he first developed his course on revolutions, he wasn’t sure if he should include National Socialism. But he did, and what he learned convinced him that Hitler had indeed led a revolution.
In the U.S., liberals more than conservatives are attracted to that term, perhaps because historians have applied it to movements that overturned undemocratic regimes in the name of popular empowerment. Even though their consequences as often as not have been far from liberating — Russia and China come to mind — liberals still don’t associate revolution with tyranny. When democratic regimes are overturned, they tend to think of coups. But Hitler didn’t come to power by way of a coup. He tried that in 1923, failed, and learned. Ten years later he came to power by winning more votes than any other candidate.
In the current campaign season, it was Sanders who appropriated the term “revolution” for his political program. He and his adherents say they’ll continue to work for it. But, really, there’s nothing revolutionary about what they espouse. Setting the federal minimum wage at the level of a living wage would restore what we had 50 years ago. Universal single-payer health coverage is what Lyndon Johnson wanted, although he had to settle for Medicare. A free college education is what California used to give its residents, and all the Southern and Western states used to have very low tuition rates. Reenacting the Glass-Steagall Act to separate commercial and investment banking is in this year’s Republican platform.
Revolutions are about subverting existing power relationships. In that regard, Sanders’ only relevant proposal is campaign finance reform. He could have gone much further and still been not much farther left than liberal.
Take debt relief. Debt is the main way people of slender means are kept enthralled to the powerful. Sanders called for lowering interest rates on federal college loans. Why not total forgiveness in return for a year or two of public service? He said nothing about capping credit card interest rates, which in most cases are far higher than the rates that states formerly outlawed as usury.
More radical, but not beyond the pale, would be ending poverty via a negative income tax — a system in which people earning below a certain amount receive supplemental pay from the government instead of paying taxes to it. There was much interest in the NIT in the '60s and '70s. Milton Freedman, the iconic conservative economist, espoused it in “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962), partly because it would allow us to abolish most of the governmental programs to which poor people are held in thrall, and thus enhance their self-esteem.
And if Sanders were a true revolutionary, he would challenge the national security state, which holds us all captive. It has co-opted our understanding of patriotism and public service. It has set our cultural tone of aggression and violence. It keeps us under constant surveillance. It largely determines our foreign policy. It consumes the greatest portion of our discretionary federal spending. And it’s enormously destructive to the physical environment.
I’ve known revolutionaries, my Bernie friends, and believe me, you’re no revolutionaries. Thank goodness. If a revolution comes to this country, it will be led by a fascist. It may come sooner than we expect.
— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.