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.”