Photo via Flickr user Michael Vadon
Last month, a New York Post editorial writer named Paul Sperry wrote a brief biography of 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders titled "Don't be fooled by Bernie Sanders—he's a diehard communist." Sanders, as Sperry and virtually every other political writer have noted, may be Hillary Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination in the 2016, but he wears his socialist allegiance on his sleeve, decrying the plight of the poor, and bashing "the richest one percent," five times before breakfast.
Sperry takes issue with the "mainstreaming" of Sanders as a standard-bearer for the Democratic Party. He attempts to prevent this by drawing the reader's attention to the Vermont Senator's past involvement with scary, scary radical Reds like, for instance, the Young People's Socialist League, the youth branch of America's Socialist party at the time that Sanders was involved.
But while Sanders may have been a young socialist, the groups he used to associate with haven't been too eager to claim him as one of their own. In particular, the current leaders of the Young People's Socialist League told VICE that they don't care much for the Democratic presidential candidate's brand of "socialism."
Today, YPSL mostly focuses on issues pertaining directly to students—specifically, students of Moorpark University, which is the only school that's had an active branch of YPSL since 2011, when the Socialist Party USA voted to let YPSL become a separate entity. According to the group's current chair, Jen McClellan, once YPSL was on its own, its members were free to think smaller.
"We noticed that we didn't have a cafeteria on campus. We just had vending machines, and we were like, 'What's up with that?'" McClellan told VICE in an interview. Under the current leadership, she explained, YPSL's main campaign has been arranging for a food co-op at Moorpark.
But the group's new, hyper-local focus apparently doesn't preclude them from weighing in on the national pursuits of their most famous former member.
"I couldn't in good conscience say I helped the Bernie Sanders campaign," said YPSL's vice chair Justin Simons, who also works as a political organizer for the Socialist Party USA. Simons acknowledged that Sanders was "instrumental" to the YPSL's success in the 1960s and 70s, but said he believes the Vermont Senator's current political positions are fundamentally flawed. Sanders's campaign, Simons explained, "doesn't get at the root of the problem"—the problem being what he called a "cycle of corruption and political adversity for people of all walks of life." In other words, capitalism.
To be sure, Sanders has occasionally departed slightly from the standard socialist message. Though he's constantly condemning Big Banks, Sanders has also praised tech companies like Google and Twitter for creating jobs. But true socialism, Simons explained, means the eventual overthrow of even these relatively friendly-looking capitalist institutions. "We're going to establish a system of ownership where workers are in control of the means of production," he said. "That's the socialist idea."
But Simons critique went beyond economic justice. "Bernie Sanders's position on Israel could use some review," he told me, unprompted, before going on to express his own personal concern with Sanders's preference for a two-state solution. "We call for an end to all aid to Israel," he explained.
He also questioned the wisdom of enlisting Arab nations to fight the Islamic State, something Sanders has called for in his foreign policy platform. "One of the reasons the situation is so bad in the first place is because of Western imperialism," he said. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Simons added, "have a vested interest in destabilizing places like Iraq and taking down the Assad regime in Syria."
More than anything, though, the YPSL simply can't get on board with the Democratic Party. Sanders may have voted against the 2008 bank bailout, Simons said, but the Democratic Party made it happen, leaving him and his socialist student comrades disgusted with the Establishment Left.
In addition to his affiliation with the Socialist Party USA and YPSL, Simons once worked as an organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign and said the experience made him disillusioned of the Establishment Left. The break was solidified, he explained, when Democrats in Congress helped push through the 2008 bank bailout "No one received justice that day." he said.
When I asked about Sanders's friendship and close association with wealthy real estate developer Tony Pomerlau, Simons didn't seem surprised.
"It's not uncommon to have wealthy, powerful friends involved with what you're doing, and sometimes those interests do come ahead of the interests of the public," he said knowingly. "That's an important thing to keep in mind when you're dealing with any large political organization." Which sounds a lot like something Bernie Sanders might say.
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