Bernie Sanders campaigned for Marxist party in Reagan era

by Joseph Simonson
| May 30, 2019 12:00 AM

Bernie Sanders campaigned for the Socialist Workers Party in the 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns and was investigated by the FBI for his ties to the Marxist group.

Sanders has always played down the extent of his involvement with the party, which included radicals who praised the Soviet Union and Cuban communists, and has denied ever being a member. Asked in 1988 about his role as an SWP elector in 1980, he said: "I was asked to put my name on the ballot and I did, thatís true." In fact, his ties to the party are deep and enduring.

The 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate and United States senator from Vermont, now 77, often scoffs at comparisons between his brand of self-described "democratic socialism" and communism. In recent years, he has said he is merely interested in having the United States look more like Sweden, a social democracy with a broad welfare state but a well-functioning private sector.

But his personal files from his time as mayor of Burlington, from 1981 to 1989, archived at the University of Vermont, show that he supported and campaigned for the communist SWP and maintained a close relationship with its senior members. While Democrats campaigned for President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984, Sanders spent the Reagan era supporting fringe Marxists with no chance of reaching the White House.

In 1980, Sanders "proudly endorsed and supported" Andrew Pulley, the party's presidential candidate, who once said that American soldiers should "take up their guns and shoot their officers." Sanders was one of three electors for Pulley on the Vermont ballot, stating in a press release: "I fully support the SWP's continued defense of the Cuban revolution."

Four years later, he backed and campaigned for the SWP presidential nominee Mel Mason, a former Black Panther, saying it was important for there to be "fundamental alternatives to capitalist ideology." During the campaign, Mason praised the Russian and Chinese revolutions and said: "The greatest example of a socialist government is Cuba, and Nicaragua is right behind, but it's still developing."

"I think Bernie was pretty in-the-camp with us and other socialist organizations," Mason told the Washington Examiner in an interview. "We talked regularly and he also said that if I ever made it to Burlington, he was going to give me a key to the city."
But Mason, 75, now a psychotherapist and former NAACP official living in California, indicated that after the 1980s, he and Sanders had drifted apart, and Sanders began touting insufficiently radical policies.

"We had a long-distance relationship, but that kind of changed after he ran for Congress. I didn't have as much contact anymore. I have a lot of respect for him, but I just don't think the programs he put forward are what workers need in this country," Mason said. "We were calling for the formation of an independent revolutionary labor party. We felt that it was necessary for workers in this country to enact a revolution."

During Pulley's White House run in 1980, he called for the abolition of the U.S. military and the nationalization of "virtually all private industry," as well as the abolition of the military budget and the establishment of "official ... 'solidarity' with the revolutionary regimes in Iran, Nicaragua, Grenada and Cuba," according to a New York Times report at the time.

During that same campaign, Pulley hailed the Cuban revolution as a model for the U.S. and claimed that "racism [had] been abolished" on the island. His running mate, Matilde Zimmermann, described the contention that Cubans lived under a dictatorship as American "propaganda."

"Working people here could learn a lot from the Cuban example," Zimmermann said .
In 1979, members of SWP's leadership circulated a document that called for "the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus," arguing such an act "is a necessary prerequisite for the conquest of state power by the working class."

Archives of the SWP's official paper, the Militant, demonstrate a devotion to what its writers believe was the "true" purpose of the Russian Revolution, before it was supposedly corrupted by Josef Stalin.

A 50th anniversary issue of the publication in 1979 features contributors celebrating the paper's "tradition of revolutionary Marxism in the United States." One contributor from the Canadian Revolutionary Workers League wrote, "The Militant for five decades has been an inspiration and an example to revolutionary socialists the world over."

"They were certainly a revolutionary group ," said Paul Kengor, a professor at Grove City College and an expert on 20th century communism. "One of the SWP's fans was Lee Harvey Oswald, who not only wanted to overthrow our government but actually assassinated our president, John F. Kennedy."

A flier in Sanders' archives shows that he was a featured speaker at the 1982 SWP "Campaign Kick-Off Rally" in Boston for the party's candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and Congress.

"At a time when the Democratic and Republican parties are intellectually and spiritually bankrupt, it is imperative for radical voices to be heard which offer fundamental alternatives to capitalist ideology. I wish Mel Mason good luck on his campaign," Sanders wrote in a letter to the Militant in January 1984.

In the same issue, the newspaper's editorial board called for the "nationalization of the steel industry," as part of a required "revolutionary struggle by workers to form" a new government.

In 1984, Sanders was thanked by the party for his remarks at a 1984 SWP campaign kickoff. "On behalf of Mel Mason and Andrea Gonzŗlez, I want to thank you for your message to the rally to kick off the Socialist Workers Presidential Campaign," reads a letter kept in the Sanders archives.

"Mel and Andrea, in speaking to the over 800 present at the rally in St. Louis, pledged to spend the new year bringing socialist ideas on how to meet the capitalist crisis to thousands of working people across the United States. We look forward to campaigning in Vermont later this year."

In May 1984, the Militant praised Vietnam's communist government for viewing "Workers' needs [as a] priority." In July, the newspaper defended Louis Farrakhan's claim that "the source of war in the Mideast ... is the existence of Israel."

Sanders' involvement with the SWP led to his being investigated by the FBI, prompting outrage from the then-Burlington mayor.

"I would agree with the judge," Sanders said at the time, referring to a civil case arising from the incident, "who is quite correct in pointing out that when FBI agents come into a secretary of state's office attempting to 'investigate' the political background of a mayor of the largest city in the state, there's no question but that this opens up the potential for exploitation by the media and could be a source of embarrassment."

The SWP has a long history of radicalism, starting at its beginning in 1938 when it was founded by devotees of Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary and communist thinker who was assassinated by the Soviet government over his criticisms of the regime. Yet Trotsky's legacy lived on, not only in the Soviet Union and the developing nations, but in the United States, where it attracted trade unionists, academics, bohemians, and an ambitious Vermont mayor.

As adherents of Trotsky, the SWP's members promoted an ideology of international revolution and attended communist conferences across the world. The SWP was careful never to promote armed conflict in the United States, although senior members of the group stated "that under certain circumstances engagement in guerrilla warfare can prove advantageous," District Judge Thomas Griesa wrote in a 1986 court ruling.

In 1970, the SWP called itself a "combat Trotskyist party," a slogan that was echoed by SWP leader Farrell Dobbs in a speech.

"All this will be possible provided there is a combat party capable of giving revolutionary leadership, and to fulfill that role, the party must be politically cohesive and organizationally disciplined," Dobbs said.

"By combat we do not mean only in the insurrection that occurs at the height of the revolution," Dobbs elaborated in a separate essay.

At its founding, the SWP said its purpose was "the abolition of capitalism through the establishment of a Workers and Farmers Republic" and the elimination of most private property in strict accordance with the ideology of Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, and Trotsky. But it also formally objected to the totalitarian impulses of the Soviet regime "in the struggle for power and the transformation of the existing social order."

The SWP's activities both domestically and abroad attracted the attention of the federal government and the FBI. Under the McCaran Internal Security Act, a bill passed in 1950 and directed at subversive groups believed to want to overthrow the U.S. government, SWP members were forced to enter a federal registry. The FBI also led a multi-decade investigation into the party and routinely tried to disrupt its activities. No indictments ever came from the FBI's investigation.

There remains no evidence of Sanders being a member of the SWP, but his archived records show an affinity for other radical organizations far to the left of the Democratic Socialists of America, the party that has backed Sanders' presidential campaigns.

Sanders also kept dozens of socialist publications in his personal files, such as the Socialist Republic, a defunct paper published by the Marxist Industrial Union Party. Articles in the Socialist Republic touted "The Importance of Socialist Propaganda" and "social ownership of all resources and industries." Other leaflets and socialist papers celebrated Marxist revolutionaries in Latin America.

By 1988, Sanders had his eyes set on federal office. While he never shed his socialist label, he endorsed Jesse Jackson in that year's Democratic presidential primary. Sanders was first elected to Congress as an independent in 1990.

"Essentially, it's my very strong opinion that the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic parties are intimately tied to corporate America, to the big money interests, and that neither of these parties will ever bring about the changes in our society that are needed by the vast majority of people," Sanders said in an endorsement message for Jackson.

Mason said:"I'm not in Bernie's head, so I don't know why he's changed, but I think what happens to a lot of folks who come into office as true radicals is that after you've been there for a while and begin to deal with that particular structure, that structure does change people somewhat."