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Scott Walker Scott Walker

Scott Walker

Eric Litke
By Eric Litke March 4, 2020

No, Bernie Sanders is not a communist, contrary to Scott Walker claim

If Your Time is short

  • Sanders visited the Soviet Union on a kinda-sorta honeymoon and has praised communist leaders in the past.
  • Walker offers no hard evidence of his claim, which one expert calls "scare-mongering."
  • Sanders' policies line up with democratic socialism — which focuses on democratically achieved expansion of social welfare programs — not communist hallmarks like authoritarian rule, government ownership of all private property or an end to capitalism.

In his life out of public office, Scott Walker is nothing if not direct.

The former Republican governor of Wisconsin has been prolific on Twitter since leaving office, and he has recently turned his attention to Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. One word keeps coming up.

"Bernie is a Communist who admires Communist dictators and he should never be President of the United States of America," Walker tweeted on Feb. 24, 2020.

The label is hardly a first for Sanders. 

Walker also made the claim in a column and several earlier tweets, one of which invoked Sanders’ oft-cited Soviet Union honeymoon. President Donald Trump said the same in a Feb. 2, 2020, interview before the Super Bowl. And former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg invoked communism while criticizing Sanders’ monetary policy at the Feb. 19, 2020, Democratic primary debate.

Seems like it’s time to separate fact from rhetoric.

Based on Sanders’ political views, is he a communist?

Defining political ideologies

When we asked Walker for evidence of his claim, a spokesman cited a laundry list of past actions, including Sanders praising leaders of communist governments, visiting the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and traveling to several communist countries.

For the record, PolitiFact National rated a claim that Sanders honeymooned in the Soviet Union Mostly True in 2015 . It wasn’t exactly a traditional honeymoon, but Sanders and his wife left the day after their wedding to be part of a 12-person delegation for a sister city program between Burlington, Vt. — where Sanders was mayor — and the city of Yaroslavl.

As further support, Walker’s spokesman, Jim Dick, described Sanders’ socialist policies and cited a Vladimir Lenin quote that "the goal of socialism is communism." (Walker tweeted the same line shortly after this statement was sent to PolitiFact Wisconsin.)

That’s not exactly hard evidence.

So let’s dig deeper.

Asking the experts

Sanders has distinguished himself in the presidential field with a platform that calls for universal health care and free access to public colleges and universities.

Featured Fact-check

Sanders — an independent in the U.S. Senate — describes himself as a democratic socialist. And for the record, he has said he is not a communist, in responding to Trump’s pre-Super Bowl assertion.

Experts point to several clear dividing lines between Sanders’ philosophy and communism — while unanimously calling Walker’s label an exaggeration.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines communism as a form of socialism, noting that Karl Marx and others in the 19th Century used the terms interchangeably.

But the ideologies have diverged since, said Joshua Tucker, professor of politics at New York University.

Socialism, as it plays out today in some European countries, is generally associated with a large social welfare state, including free healthcare and education, generous pensions and general "cradle to grave" security.

Communism on the other hand typically involves a one-party government that owns all property and controls the means of production. In other words, the government exerts a great deal of control over both economic and individual behavior.

"(Under communist ideology) the state would own all the sort of large level companies – airports, factories, hospitals, all these sorts of things, and this is not what Sanders is talking about at all," Tucker said. "He does want to see the state playing more of a role in reducing inequality in society, and one of the ways you do that is providing more social welfare benefits."

The means of reaching the desired outcome is also a key split between modern democratic socialism and communism, said Russell Muirhead, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College.

"Democratic socialists are committed in the first case to persuading citizens of their particular policies and views, and if they can’t persuade, they refuse to try to implement those policies. Democracy comes first," he said in an email. "Communists are so sure that they have the whole truth that they’re willing to impose their policies even if they can’t persuade other people, even if it requires a sustained and brutal application of violence. That’s why we associate communism with tyranny."

Lowell Barrington, associate professor of political science at Marquette University, said Sanders has made himself "vulnerable" to attacks like Walker’s because he has spoken positively of communist leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro. But he echoed others in saying Sanders’ proposals are more in line with the northern European brand of socialism than the authoritarian communist regimes seen in the Soviet Union, Cuba and the People’s Republic of China.

Said Tucker: "The bottom line is, the way we classically think about communism, there’s no way you can call what Bernie Sanders is pushing for … communism. That’s scare-mongering."

Our ruling

Walker says without qualification that Sanders "is a communist."

He offers as evidence Sanders’ past visits to communist countries and statements praising communist leaders. 

But experts detail clear differences between Sanders’ democratic socialism — which focuses on democratically achieved expansion of social welfare programs — and any commonly accepted definition of communism. Sanders isn’t pushing for authoritarian rule, government ownership of all private property or an end to capitalism.

We rate Walker’s claim False.

Our Sources

Scott Walker, twitter, Feb. 24, 2020

Email exchange with Jim Dick, spokesman for Scott Walker, Feb. 25-26, 2020

Bernie Sanders website, Bernie Sanders on the issues, accessed Feb. 26, 2020

Email exchange with Mark Beissinger, professor of politics, Princeton University, Feb. 26, 2020

Email exchange and interview with Joshua Tucker, professor of politics, New York University, Feb. 26-27, 2020

Interview with Russell Muirhead, professor of political science, Dartmouth College, Feb. 26, 2020

Email exchange with Jonathan Zatlin, associate professor of History, Boston University, Feb. 26, 2020

Email exchange with Lowell Barrington, associate professor of political science, Marquette University, Feb. 26, 2020

PolitiFact, George Will describes Bernie Sanders' Soviet Union honeymoon, Aug. 12, 2015

Encyclopedia Britannica, definition of communism

New York Times, What is Democratic Socialism? Whose Version Are We Talking About?, June 12, 2019

Real Clear Politics, Sanders: "Obviously I Am Not A Communist," But Maybe Trump "Doesn't Know The Difference," Feb. 9, 2020

Washington Examiner, 'He’s a communist': Trump trashes Sanders ahead of Iowa caucuses, Feb. 2, 2020

NBC News, Will Bernie Sanders' long-ago praise of Socialist regimes hurt Democrats in November?, Feb. 21, 2020

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More by Eric Litke

No, Bernie Sanders is not a communist, contrary to Scott Walker claim

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