Interview with Victor Grossman on Bernie Sanders and Democratic Socialism

Interview with Victor Grossman (VG) by Michael Steltzer (MS)
On Bernie Sanders and Democratic Socialism
Jan. 28th, 2016 in Berlin, Germany


MS: Victor, we are sitting here in this nice café at Straussberger Platz and I am really happy that you are going to give me an interview. Why don’t we just speak a little bit about why you are here in this part of the city. How did you get here?

VG: I was just a little bit too young to get drafted during the Second World War, but not to young to be drafted during the Korean War and I made the terrible mistake of concealing my nasty left wing past when I got drafted. I denied it because in those days, it was a very, very serious situation, it was a very frightening situation. Based on fear, I concealed my past, hoping that I would last the two years without their checking on me. I was lucky I wasn’t sent to Korea, I was sent to Bavaria. But I wasn’t so lucky because they did check on me. And since I knew there was a possible $10,000 fine and five years in prison for having concealed my past, I panicked and fled to Austria, which in those days was divided. I swam across the Danube River to the Soviet zone of Austria and they brought me to East Germany, where I have been living ever since.[1]

MS: So you were actually one of the few that fled from West to East?

VG: That’s right. In fact, my constant gag is I’m the only person in the world who has a diploma from Harvard University and from Karl Marx University and since it no longer has that name. I will probably retain that distinction.

MS: Well, you certainly are a unique person. One of the things that you have done here, I know you were a journalist and you had the opportunity to escort and interpret for many official guests (from the US) who came to the GDR. Maybe you could name a few. I just remember you were the person who accompanied Angela Davis when she was here. Is that true?

VG: No, no, it’s not. I accompanied no official visitors. I was the interpreter for Pete Seeger and his wife when they were here. And I was briefly the interpreter for Joan Baez during her press conference and Earl Robinson, The great left wing composer. I interpreted for him too. He is the composer who wrote the quite well known song about Joe Hill. Angela Davis I met, but I never accompanied her on her visits here. And I don’t recall any other famous…, oh yes, I also interpreted for Jane Fonda when she brought her film about Vietnam to the International Documentary Film Week in Leipzig. I interpreted for her then in her meetings with various people and so got to know her just a little bit.

MS: Well, that is pretty exciting. She was known as “Hanoi Jane” because of that infamous picture that was taken of her in front of an antiaircraft gun in Hanoi, North Vietnam.

VG: Of course, many would argue about the term “infamous”, but, in any case, famous picture.

MS: Very famous, some would say “infamous”, but she became famous for sure.

VG: That’s right. She made a film while she was in Vietnam and she brought this as a documentary film to Leipzig and that was when I got a chance to meet her and do a little bit of interpreting for her.

MS: You have been living here in Berlin since 1950?

VG: In Berlin since 1958. In East Germany since 1952.

MS: One of the reasons I am asking you some of these questions is that you are really quite active regarding the development of politics in Europe and in Germany. You write very regularly and many of us read your bulletins, but you very seldom write about developments within the United States and so I am here to ask you some questions specifically about the presidential campaign that is going on now, and again specifically about Bernie Sanders. How would you explain the phenomenum of Trump and Sanders in the United States today? Both of these candidates and their respective parties are…

VG: … mavericks.

MS: Yes, they are mavericks, but they are way “up front”.

VG: Evidently, or, it seems that a very large number of Americans are so worried about the way things are going for them in their own personal lives. The fact that they have not moved ahead for the last few years in terms of income, that if they are students who are buried in debt for years, if they have medical problems they, despite some advances, still have very serious problems. Or with the mortgages, or with just getting jobs and getting a decent job, a regular job, that they no longer trust the men and women in Washington to represent them. They don’t believe the words they say, they consider them to be clichés. And they look and they search for somebody who is different, who seems to offer a very different path. And some of them, especially those who tend to blame their woes on either immigrants, especially from Mexico and Central America or the “traditional” danger of black Americans, who they blame or are induced to blame for their own worries. And those are the kind of people who might turn to Trump. Others have not looked for these scapegoats, but are still unhappy and looking for answers and have found the answers in the group which became famous during the Occupy movement, the 99% against the 1%. Those are people who say that if that 1% up on top, who have taken everything for themselves, and including all propaganda outlets – which they just do not believe anymore. They are looking for new answers and they are the ones who tend to vote for Sanders.

MS: We were talking a little bit earlier and you said you are a supporter of Bernie Sanders. How do you go about supporting him? What do you think you can do? What are the steps that you take living here in Berlin to do what you can? What do you do?

VG: There is not so much that I can do here in Berlin for Bernie. I do send these bulletins mostly to Americans who are interested in Germany. I write mostly about German developments. At the same time there are so many cross currents that involve Germany and the United States. I make no secret of the fact that I also support Bernie Sanders. At the same time here in Berlin I write articles too about the United States and in these articles I have been trying and will continue trying to explain to people who know almost nothing about Sanders. There has been relatively little in the press here, although in the last month or two there has been more. But many people know almost nothing about Sanders and some of them simply assume that Hillary is going to win, and I to try and explain that. And of course I am going to vote too. I will be voting in November.

MS: Great! When you look at Bernie Sanders he calls himself a Democratic Socialist. You lived in a socialist country for many years and I am sure you have been dealing with the system and the ideology and all of this. How much of that do you think is relevant to that what Bernie Sanders is saying Democratic Socialism is? What sort of an impact is that going to have on that election in the fall of this year?

VG: Well, of course the kind of socialism which was preached and organized here in East Germany, or in the East in general, and that which Bernie Sanders is speaking for are quite different in many ways, but have some similarities too. The main similarity is a regard for the welfare of that 99%, especially for the ones who make the least money, who have the toughest time. In other words, Sanders, as I have said, is out to make sure that people can get educated even if they don’t have a lot of money or without going into debt, can get health care without having to go into deep debt or having to go without medicine or having to choose either medicine or food, that people need not fear being thrown out of their homes, that they don’t fear a long unemployment or fear having barely enough to live on. I think that that ties up Bernie Sanders and socialism without going into theoretical questions of Karl Marx or other things. I think that Bernie Sanders is interested in making sure that as many people as possible get a fair deal and that he realizes that we must oppose the attempts of the extremely wealthy at the top, who want only more and more tax rebates and less and less taxes and less and less for the people at or near the bottom or the middle, but without going into the basic question, which was raised here in East Germany, taking over all the means of production and the banks and the major factories. I don’t think Bernie has spoken for that and I have no idea what he thinks, but it certainly is not part of his program now.

MS: In the development of things, you do not share the optimism that I do. As a staunch Bernie fan, I see a lot moving for him. With the Iowa caucuses coming up in a few days, personally I think it is going to be a landslide. Nonetheless, he might lose and he might not win the nomination, so his competitor would be Hillary Clinton, whom I would call a corporate Democrat or a neo-liberal Democrat, or whatever you want to call her. She would probably run against Cruz or Trump as it looks now. What would you do in that case?

VG: That is a difficult question. First of all, I hope very much that Bernie Sanders wins in Iowa. I am not quite so certain that it will be a landslide. I just hope that he wins even by a small edge. I think that he will win in New Hampshire. I think it is going to be a very, very tight race, at least at the beginning. I think that he has many odds against him. Still, I am not completely pessimistic, but I’m just hopeful. If he does not win the nomination, and, of course even if he does get nominated and loses the election, I would hope that large, large sectors of people who support Bernie Sanders and who actively support him with small amounts of money, with running around trying to organize people to go to the caucuses or to vote for him, I hope that this general movement of people will remain active. In fac,t I hope that it doesn’t die out. In fact, I hope that, even if he does become president. However I am not, I am still… I am not so optimistic because I think that the forces who fear that Sanders would increase their taxes to help the people at the bottom will do everything they possibly can to prevent him from winning. I still have hopes, but I try to be realistic. I hope that whatever happens, people will keep active and keep at it… I was very enthusiastic about the Occupy movement. I thought it was wonderful that people had so much courage and raised this question about the 1%. But then, it died out. It was beaten back in many ways. I would hope that this does not happen in the Sanders campaign, that it stays alive, grows and helps to restrengthen the union movement and the movement of black people and the movement of immigrants and women, gays, students and all the other groups. That they neither give up and say “that’s it”, or if he loses they give up too. I hope that doesn’t happen. Keep at it. There is plenty to be done.

MS: You were saying that Bernie Sanders has so many odds against him. And you mentioned a few, for example, that some of his arguments are going to be misused, like the raising of taxes. What other odds do you see out there that disturb you?

VG: Well, it doesn’t disturb me, but it will disturb a lot of people, that name “socialist”. A lot of people in the United States have all kinds of crazy ideas of what socialism means. Many of them attack Obama alternately as “Socialist”, “Communist” and “Fascist”, which means that they didn’t know what any of them meant. They just know there was something bad. I think an awful lot of Americans they just hear a word like “Socialist” and they are immediately frightened and they think that somebody is not only going to take away their gun, but also their house or their wife or their property. And they are really frightened. I think the more success Bernie has, the more attacks there will be against him as a wild socialist, communist, radical danger. And that is what undoubtedly will be used against him. I hope that people are smart enough to see that words like these have been used for at least a century and a half to frighten people away from voting for their own good. They use this against every attempt to move forward in history. They sometimes use different words for it. They always have somebody who is frightening for them and you have to fight back. I hope that it does not work this time, that people see through that despite all the frightful media campaigns.

MS: So it is basically using the term “socialism” as fear mongering?

VG: Absolutely! I am sure that it has already been used. But the more he wins out, the more it will become almost perhaps hysterical.

MS: Yes, that reminds me of that article by Glen Greenwald we were talking about, where he is speaking about the 7 levels of backlash that are happening now. Greenwald says Bernie is at the 5th level and that the 7th might be coming soon.[2]

Thank you for some of your thoughts. Is there anything else you would like to include in this interview?

VG: I hope that Americans do not fall for the kind of propaganda from a Trump or Cruz, who try to blame the problems that they face either on African Americans, or on Mexicans or immigrants. The same thing is going on now in Europe against this wave of immigrants that is being used by very frightening groups to try to get people to move against their best interests, to try to split people, to set one group against the other. And actually, people should be working together to achieve a better life for the majority. Everything is being done to split people apart and now Europe’s big immigrant wave, which, as in the United States, is all too similar and all too frightening because some people are willing to use any methods to frighten people and set them against the others, making them hate and fear.

MS: Unfortunately I do not see a European or German Sanders campaign to pick up some of that.

VG: There are one or two possibilities. One, of course, is in England with Corbyn, who is trying to do the same thing. And then, too, in Spain and Portugal there have been moves in this direction. There was a move in this direction in Greece too, which has been pretty well smashed, but is not dead.

MS: You are talking about Syriza and Podemos?

VG: Well, Syriza proved disappointing in the end. They were crushed or beaten somehow. Nevertheless, an awful lot of Greek people still have that spirit of fighting back. And the same in Spain and the same in Portugal. They fight back in different ways, but they do want to fight back. And yesterday in Francethere was a big strike movement against unjust measures against people in the transportation system, teachers. This is the kind of thing which shows that some people are ready and willing to fight back. The other side is very strong and is trying to split them up. They hate each other. But it is a long hard fight and I can only say I hope the best side wins.

MS: Well, in France there certainly are, on the one hand the strikes and, on the other hand, within the government you see that this one minister, the last progressive bastion in the government, has resigned or was forced to resign. So now you have a neo-liberal government.

VG: There is a hope that this minister will take part in such a movement too.

MS: Listening to your last comments, it seems to be a phenomenum which is in Europe as well as in the United States.

VG: Yes, both the negatives and, to a degree, the positives, if you look hard.

MS: Thank you, Victor, for this interview.

Michael Steltzer

[1] Victor Grossman (Stephen Wechsler), Crossing the River – A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany, University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

[2] Glenn Greenwald, The Seven Stages of Establishment Backlash: Corbyn/Sanders Edition; The Intercept. Jan 21, 2016.

© Copyright 2016 – Michael Steltzer