In the spring of 1983, when I was a senior at Columbia University, I took a course entitled “The Sociology of Socialist Societies.” Like a lot of young American leftists, I was a bit starry-eyed about socialism. But the class quickly disabused me of that.
We read a memoir by Hungarian dissident Miklós Haraszti, whose bosses in a tractor factory fleeced and brutalized him. We also read American journalist Hedrick Smith’s unsparing account of the Soviet Union, an ostensibly class-free society that was hugely hierarchical and unequal. Yes, we learned, socialist economies provided health care, education and other state services to their citizens. But if you dared to criticize the state itself, it could remove your services — and, of course, your freedom — at any time.
A few students in the course gamely tried to defend these systems, arguing that the sacrifice of civil liberties was a small price to pay for guaranteed social welfare. The rest of us kept quiet. And that included a tall African American, also a senior, who sat next to me in class: Barack Obama.
We learned about socialist realities
The former president has never released his college transcript, and I’ve long suspected that “The Sociology of Socialist Societies” is part of the reason. Imagine what his legion of enemies — already disposed to see Obama as a dangerous radical — could have done with that course title.
Obama rarely spoke in class, and I have no idea what he took away from it. But I can assure you that the course did not romanticize socialism in any way. If Obama did the reading, he discovered that socialist societies oppressed their citizens in the name of a revolution that never delivered on its promise of human dignity and liberation.
Just don’t tell that to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
As we’ve been reminded over the past few weeks, the Democratic presidential candidate is stuck in a Cold War time warp. Like the students in my class in 1983, Sanders continues to congratulate Cuba and other socialist regimes for improving the lives of their people.
At the Feb. 25 debate in South Carolina, Sanders condemned Fidel Castro’s human rights record but said he had made progress on education.
It was a doubling down on what he had said two days earlier on CBS News' "60 Minutes": "We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad.” He noted gains in literacy under Castro and asked, “Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?"
The answer to that question is simple, or at least it should be: yes. Everything Castro did was bad, because his regime was dedicated to destroying freedom. Providing social services under a dictatorship might keep people alive, but it will not allow them to flourish.
The war continues:Sanders 'socialism' represents a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party
Those who think otherwise should listen to artist Tania Bruguera, an out lesbian and one of thousands of gay Cubans jailed or exiled by the Castro regime. “Yes, they taught us to read and write,” Bruguera told The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen. “And then they forbade us to read what we want and write what we think.”
Apparently, Bernie Sanders never got that memo. After visiting Nicaragua in 1985, he praised leftist dictator Daniel Ortega as “a very impressive guy.” And following a 1989 visit to Cuba, where Sanders and his wife tried to meet with Castro, Sanders reported that he hadn’t seen any homeless people or hungry children.