I moved to Europe right after September 11, 2001, and settled in Berlin a year later. While still in high school, I canvassed in Texan suburbs for Ralph Nader, presidential candidate of the Green Party in the 2000 elections. It did not go well.
After the victory of George W. Bush, I was looking for more radical ideas. I read the “Communist Manifesto” and a few other things. My eyes turned to Europe: In contrast to the depressing two-party morass of the US, Europe had a vibrant political landscape with lots of socialist parties. When I arrived in Berlin, a “red-red” government – made up of not just one, but two socialist parties (the SPD and the PDS – had just assumed office.
In the years since then, I’ve benefited a lot from Germany’s social systems. I was able to go to university for free. (Technically, tuition was about 600 euros per year, but that included a ticket for public transport). For two years, I also got a state scholarship to pay for my living expenses. I got medical insurance for less than 150 euros a month. Fortunately I haven’t had many health problems yet, but standard insurance would cover just about anything without a co-pay of 0 or 5 euros. And I have gotten several hundred hours of free psychotherapy over the years.
Free college, universal health care – this is the definition of “socialism” in US public discourse, from Bill Maher to Paul Ryan. This is what Bernie Sanders is talking about when he says the US needs “socialism.”
Sanders refers to himself as a “democratic socialist,” and this means he wants a social system like they have in Sweden, or anywhere in Europe. I am so happy to see millions of young people in the US talking about socialism – sometimes that even makes me want to move back.
Another Look at Germany
But is Europe socialist? Let’s have another look at Germany, its economy and its social services.
The health care system is cheap compared to the US, but also chronically underfunded. My father-in-law recently needed an endoscopy, and they wanted him to wait months for an appointment. German hospitals are terribly understaffed, and nurses complain they are often all by themselves during the night shift at a station.
Millions of people are unemployed in Germany. Many receive Hartz IV, long-term unemployment benefits, but these only cover the bare necessities of survival. If someone misses an appointment at the Jobcenter, they can have even this meager support cancelled. A massive bureaucracy forces unemployed workers to accept any job at all – this is one way that Amazon gets workers to do back-breaking labor for low wages. This is why Germany is a European leader in terms of low wages, limited contracts and part-time jobs. Women are particularly affected by these precarious working conditions – the wage gap between men and women is larger than anywhere else in Europe.
Currently, one in five children in Germany is growing up in poverty. Upwards of 800,000 people don’t have their own home, while over 50,000 people are living on the streets. You can’t take the train in Berlin without seeing all-encompassing poverty.
Germany is an incredibly wealthy country – why can’t it afford to give high-quality health care, housing and jobs to all its residents?
A capitalist country
Germany is a capitalist country. This means economic resources are allotted according to the needs of maximizing capital accumulation. Some of the worst effects of capitalism are mitigated by state regulation. But these regulations don’t mean we have socialism. At the end of the day, the capitalists are in charge.
A recent example: The car-maker BMW just had their offices raided. It seems they were using illegal software to manipulate exhaust tests. Their diesel engines were spitting out nitrogen oxide at a rate far above the legal limit. The very same week, BMW announced it would be paying out more than one billion euros in profits to the Quandt siblings.
These profits were created by the labour tens of thousands of BMW workers. When these workers went on strike earlier this year, demanding a reduction in the working week, the owners claimed this would be too expensive. Now just two of them are getting a cool billion. What did they do to deserve these benefits? They own the means of production. Or, more specifically: their grandfather was particularly adept in working with the Nazis and exploiting slave labour.
This is supposed to be “democratic” socialism? How is it democratic for a tiny minority of the population to own all of society’s wealth? I think socialism can only be based on democracy – but for me, that means putting the means of production under democratic control of the workers and all of society. When thinking about the vast industrial resources owned by BMW, it hardly seems democratic to leave them under the control of a few Nazi heirs. It needs to be the workers themselves, and the whole population, who decide how these resources can best be used to satisfy transport needs.
Expropriate the expropriators
Socialism means expropriating the capitalists. A socialist program cannot be carried out by the existing state, no matter what party is in government. The state exists precisely to protect the capitalists’ wealth. The police, the army, the courts, the bureaucracy – at the end of the day, their whole purpose is to protect the interests of the tiny minority of people who own the means of production.
So no, Europe is not socialist. Capitalism in Europe might be somewhat differently organized than in the US. But not much. All around the world, with very few exceptions, every state exists to make sure the rich get richer, by expropriating the wealth we as workers create every single day.
What Europe does have, in contrast to the US, is a stronger tradition of real socialism. In many European countries, workers built up their own political parties. These parties have been corrupted by pro-capitalist bureaucrats, but they leave behind tiny remnants of class consciousness. In the US, in contrast, the workers’ movement has for almost a century been tied to the bourgeois party of the democrats.
Europe has also been much closer to real socialism. In revolutionary struggles like the Paris Commune of 1871 or the German Revolution of 1918-23, working people to take power. In Russia in 1917, workers were even able to seize power and begin the construction of socialism. Unfortunately, the first two revolutions were defeated, and the third degenerated as a result of the extreme poverty and isolation of Russia. Nonetheless, these experiences left behind all kinds of lessons.
More than just reforms
That’s what we can learn from Europe. Getting rid of capitalism requires more than voting for candidates who promise social reforms within the existing system. The fight for improvements to our lives needs to be part of a strategy to break the power of the capitalists.
That’s why, all over the world, we need to build up genuinely socialist parties based on working people, independent from all wings of the bourgeoisie. These parties also need to be independent of social democratic politicians like Sanders, who defend and administer the capitalist system.
In the 15 years I’ve been in Europe, Social Democrats and “Socialists” of the bourgeois variety have been responsible for lots of military interventions and austerity programs. It was the SPD in Germany that created the Hartz IV system and sent German troops to Afghanistan. It was so-called socialists who imposed brutal cuts on Greece via the EU.
“Government socialists” promise to make this system more “humane” – but they end up administering an inhumane system. Bernie Sanders himself has voted in favor of imperialist wars, and supports the US arms industry. Were he to be elected president, he would apply the same policies that his co-thinkers in Europe do.
In Berlin, I now organize together with hospital workers fighting for better conditions. I support university employees who struggle against our “socialist”. I work to build up a revolutionary socialist party of working people. And that, with slight adjustments, is the same program we need even in the Texan suburbs I started out in.