Bernie Sanders advocated for the nationalization of most major industries, including energy companies, factories, and banks, when he was a leading member of a self-described “radical political party” in the 1970s, a CNN KFile review of his record reveals.
Sanders’ past views shed light on a formative period of his political career that could become relevant as he advances in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Many of the positions he held at the time are more extreme compared to the more tempered democratic socialism the Vermont senator espouses today and could provide fodder for moderate Democrats and Republicans looking to cast the Democratic presidential candidate and his beliefs as a fringe form of socialism that would be harmful to the country.
Aspects of Sanders’ plans and time in the Liberty Union have been reported before, but the material taken together, including hundreds of newly digitalized newspapers and files from the Liberty Union Party archived at the University of Vermont, paint a fuller portrait of Sanders’ views on state and public-controlled industry at the time.
In a statement to CNN, Sanders campaign spokesman Josh Orton said, “Throughout his career, Bernie has fought on the side of working people and against the influence of both the powerful ultra-rich and giant corporations who seek only to further their own greed. The record shows that from the very beginning, Bernie anticipated and worked to combat the rise of a billionaire ruling class and the exploding power of Wall Street and multinational corporations. Whether fighting to lower energy prices or expand access to capital for local development, Bernie’s first priority has always been – and will always be – defending the interests of working people across the country.”
After moving to Vermont in 1968 several years after graduating college, Sanders became an active member of the left-wing Liberty Union Party. Under the Liberty Union banner, Sanders, then in his early 30s, ran for governor of Vermont in 1972 and 1976 and as a candidate for US Senate in 1972 and 1974. Sanders, also served as chairman of the party from 1973-1975. During this time, Sanders and Liberty Union argued for nationalization of the energy industry, public ownership of banks, telephone, electric, and drug companies and of the major means of production such as factories and capital, as well as other proposals such as a 100% income tax on the highest income earners in America. Sanders also rejected political violence and criticized the anti-democratic nature of communist states such as the Soviet Union.
“I favor the public ownership of utilities, banks and major industries,” Sanders said in one interview with the Burlington Free Press in 1976.
In his career as a US Senator, Sanders has backed away from such ardent calls for nationalization, but maintained similar rhetoric on wealth inequality. In one 2015 speech, he said he didn’t want the government to take over private business or “own the means of production.” But his early views are notable because they are far to the left of the current Democratic party and most candidates running for office.
Sanders left the Liberty Union Party in 1977, over what he said was the party’s lack of activity between elections. Sanders said in his farewell that workers would need to take control for the country to be sustained.
“The function of a radical political party is very simple,” he said. “It is to create a situation in which the ordinary working people take what rightfully belongs to them. Nobody can predict the future of the workers’ movement in this country or the state of Vermont. It is my opinion, however, that if workers do not take power in a reasonably short time this country will not have a future.”
The energy industry
In 1973, during his time as chairman of the Liberty Union Party, Sanders took to a Vermont paper to oppose Richard Nixon’s energy policy and oil industry profits, calling for the entire energy industry to be nationalized. Consumers at the time had been facing steep price increases and heavy shortages as a result of the OPEC oil embargo.
“I would also urge you to give serious thought about the eventual nationalization of these gigantic companies,” Sanders wrote in a December 1973 open letter to Vermont Sen. Robert Stafford that ran in the Vermont Freeman. “It is extremely clear that these companies, owned by a handful of billionaires, have far too much power over the lives of Americans to be left in private hands. The oil industry, and the entire energy industry, should be owned by the public and used for the public good – not for additional profits for billionaires.”
Electric and telephone utilities
Efforts to push for public ownership of Vermont’s utilities like telephone and electric companies played prominently in Sanders’ political career in the 1970s. Sanders ran for Senate in a January 1972 in the special election and governor in that year’s November election, registering in the low single digits in both races.