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Democratic Presidential Nominee candidate Senator Bernie Sanders Photograph by Samuel Corum — Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is a socialist, but he’s not a Socialist

Sep 19, 2015

As Bernie Sanders climbs the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, and with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour party in the United Kingdom, there's been a lot of talk in recent weeks about socialism. For Americans who've spent most of their lives worrying only about Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, it's fair to be confused about who believes what, and what all of the words being thrown around actually mean.

Here's a basic breakdown. It may not you prepare for your comparative politics exam, but it should help you figure out who supports what while you're watching the news.

When people are discussing Marxist revolutions, socialism is often referred to as a kind of transitory state between capitalism and communism. That definition was never really applied in the real world, though, as once such revolutions began to form in the early 20th century the words "socialist" and "communist" started to become interchangeable. For instance, it was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but the party was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

During the Cold War era, socialism was generally referred to as an economic system with state-owned businesses, where private property is banned. For much of the 20th century, to admit in the United States that you were either a socialist or a communist constituted political—and sometimes professional—suicide.

A quick note on capitalization: when you capitalize "Communist" or "Socialist," you're referring to the relevant party, not the system of thought. So, while Bernie Sanders may believe in socialist principles, he's never (to our knowledge) been an active member of a Socialist party. So he's a "socialist" but not a "Socialist."

This brings us to today's political candidates. Bernie Sanders has made great strides in the Democratic (note the capitalization!) primary polls, all while talking about the democratic-socialist ideas he has espoused for decades. But you won't find him talking about banning private property or nationalizing industries. (The Guardian notes that he may have considered the idea in the 1970s. but since then has not mentioned it much.)

Instead, Sanders' ideas are more akin to the type of economic plans you see in Northern European states, particularly in Scandinavia: a strong welfare state, government-sponsored health care, and expanded benefits for lower-income people. This is similar to "Eurosocialism" or "The Nordic Model," the versions of "socialism" offered by politicians across Europe, such as French President Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party of France.

Jeremy Corbyn, though, is a bit different. As Fortune's Geoffrey Smith explained earlier this week, Corbyn is a throwback to the socialist policies of Britain's Labour party, such as nationalization of the railways. These types of policies were dropped from the Labour party in the 1990s by Tony Blair and his allies in a successful attempt to move the party to the center and win back control of the British Parliament. In doing so, Blair turned a party that was fairly radical into something much more like the American Democratic Party which, despite what some within the right wing may tell you, is far from socialist.

So there you have it. Bernie Sanders is a socialist, but not in the way you may think. Jeremy Corbyn is further to the left than Sanders, but still isn't part of a Socialist Party. And neither of them is likely to try to take away your farm.

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