Obama and I took a class about socialism's dark side. Bernie would have learned a lot.

tags: Barack Obama, socialism, Bernie Sanders, 2020 Election

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book, "The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” will be published this fall by Johns Hopkins University Press. 

In the spring of 1983, when I was a senior at Columbia University, I took a course entitled “The Sociology of Socialist Societies.” Like a lot of young American leftists, I was a bit starry-eyed about socialism. But the class quickly disabused me of that.

We read a memoir by Hungarian dissident Miklós Haraszti, whose bosses in a tractor factory fleeced and brutalized him. We also read American journalist Hedrick Smith’s unsparing account of the Soviet Union, an ostensibly class-free society that was hugely hierarchical and unequal. Yes, we learned, socialist economies provided health care, education and other state services to their citizens. But if you dared to criticize the state itself, it could remove your services — and, of course, your freedom — at any time.

A few students in the course gamely tried to defend these systems, arguing that the sacrifice of civil liberties was a small price to pay for guaranteed social welfare. The rest of us kept quiet. And that included a tall African American, also a senior, who sat next to me in class: Barack Obama.

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