In November of 1989, as the citizens of East Germany broke through, and then demolished, the Berlin Wall, a 48-year-old socialist in the United States was plotting his next move. After losing a campaign for Vermont’s lone congressional seat in 1988, and choosing not to run for re-election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the following year, Bernie Sanders sought shelter, as so many newly unofficed politicians had before him and have since, at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he taught a course on third-party politics. The Sanders family settled into a mellow Cambridge routine: While his wife, Jane, took some courses at Harvard, and their children attended the Cambridge public schools, Sanders recalls in his recently reissued 1998 memoir, Outsider in the House, “I went to more football games that fall than I had in 20 years, and became addicted to the cinnamon raisin buns at Au Bon Pain at Harvard Square.”
But the former mayor wasn’t just cooling his heels. In an op-ed he wrote for The Harvard Crimson that month, Sanders wrote that watching the dramatic events unfolding abroad—“glasnost; perestroika; free speech; open parliamentary debate televised before millions of viewers; the beginning of organized political opposition to the Communist Party; mass strikes and demonstrations by workers and ethnic minorities; serious publications dealing honestly with the nation’s sordid history which had been covered up for decades by officials lies”—prompted him to consider the need for something similar to happen at home.
Probably because his first name is given in the byline as Bernard, rather than Bernie, the piece has not resurfaced since Sanders announced his presidential campaign. That is unfortunate, because the article suggests a salient metaphor for what his campaign could mean for this country, and what our failure to take advantage of it might augur.
“In my view the time is now for a glasnost in the United States,” Sanders wrote, “a soul searching for our own basic truths, a major debate over our current values, an honest analysis of the real structure of our society and the creation of a mechanism to search out our dreams for the future.”
Glasnost is usually translated into English as “openness,” but Sanders’s description of a collective, society-wide “soul searching” is much closer to the mark. While perestroika (“restructuring”) referred to a series of institutional political and economic transformations that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed in the late 1980s, glasnost became a signifier for the widespread loosening of censorship rules, travel restrictions, and government secrecy, which ultimately played a role in the end of the Cold War and of the Soviet Union.
Glasnost, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev conceived it, was intended to promote a vigorous public debate about the serious problems plaguing society, to expose and disempower corrupt and ineffectual functionaries (the universally derided “apparatchiks”), and to make the government more responsive to the people. In his Harvard Crimson article, Sanders made explicit his belief that glasnost was synonymous with what he now calls “political revolution.”
“Enormous credit must be given to Mikhail Gorbachev and the current leadership of the Soviet Union,” Sanders wrote, “for helping to bring about an extraordinary, non-violent revolution which is forcing citizens of the Soviet Union to rethink, in almost every way, the basic foundations of their nation.”
Without glasnost, Gorbachev believed, there could be no perestroika; without a popular outpouring of anger and dissent, the powerful and the privileged, those who profited from the status quo, would continue to block the thoroughgoing systemic reforms he had proposed. Similarly, Sanders acknowledges that the sweeping political changes necessary for making the United States a more just and equal nation are impossible—he is, indeed, that much-abused word, “unelectable”—without a groundswell of support among the marginalized and the disillusioned.
With increasing access to the outside world, Soviet citizens in the 1980s became aware of how profoundly their government was failing them. Throughout his campaign, Sanders has broken the taboo against politicians telling Americans how far they lag behind other developed countries in terms of providing education, healthcare, and employment benefits—indeed, in general satisfaction with life.
Under glasnost, Soviet citizens were permitted for the first time to openly discuss and acknowledge the darker episodes in the country’s past; similarly, it was refreshing to hear a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States acknowledge in October that the country was “founded…from way back, on racist principles.”
In the Harvard Crimson piece, Sanders suggested “four issues (out of many) at the heart of our existence as a nation which, within the context of an American Glasnost…need to be discussed vigorously…wherever Americans come together.” These are the four questions he raised:
- Do we need radical changes in our economic system to provide a fairer distribution of wealth and economic decision-making?
- How do we create a real democracy in which the average citizen has the opportunity to vote in elections in which meaningful choices are presented? Further, how do we create a political climate in which citizens play an active role in the affairs of their community?
- Do we need a new political party in this country which represents the interests of working people, poor people, minorities, women, environmentalists, peace activists and all people who are not being adequately represented by the Democratic and Republican parties?
- How can we create a media in this country which allows for a wide diversity of viewpoints, when ownership of the media is currently in the hands of very wealthy and powerful corporations which are primarily concerned with protecting their own economic interests?
With the not-insignificant exception of the third, these are the same questions that Sanders is raising today.
Obviously, before glasnost, political discussion in the Soviet Union was much more restricted than it is in the United States today. Yet, as Sanders noted in the 1989 op-ed, the absence of overt censorship does not mean that the most fundamental issues are debated in the mainstream media with the seriousness they demand. “If the citizens of our country believe that this nation does not exist under the blanket of the Big Lie,” he wrote, “they are sorely mistaken. We are told every day by the politicians and the media how ‘free’ we are. Unfortunately, we are not given the freedom to explore that assertion. We need a glasnost!”
To some extent, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign has already prompted the “soul searching” he called for more than a quarter-century ago. But if the glasnost he represents is not followed by the serious structural reforms he says we need, might our Union meet the same fate as the other?