Defining Democratic Socialism
What is democratic socialism? Something like what they have in Norway and Denmark? Are England, France and Germany democratic socialist countries? Was Franklin Roosevelt New Deal socialist? Is democratic socialism just another name for Soviet-style Communism?
The reality is that there is no one “correct” definition of “democratic socialism.” The term has a history, and it has evolve throughout that history. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a “big tent” socialist organization, I think we should fight for a definition of “democratic socialism” that is more socialist than Norway and Denmark, while being something quite distinct from Soviet-style Communism.
The Transition from the Middle Ages to Capitalism
Before defining “democratic socialism,” I think we have to define capitalism. Prior to the Industrial Revolution capitalism was not the dominant economic system. The aristocracy held political power, and capitalists had to appeal to the aristocracy in order to prosper. The aristocracy held power because people accepted that divine right gave the aristocracy legitimacy. Capitalists challenged divine right, arguing that the aristocracy should submit to the natural laws of the free market, nor should they be allowed to exist above the societal laws of their community. The working class supported the capitalists in their critique of the aristocracy, though when the capitalists overthrew the aristocracy it started to become clear that the capitalist’s critiques of the aristocracy were very self-serving.
Capitalism is an economic system where an inherently limited number of people have power due to their possession of private property (land, machinery, intellectual property) that is used to create the commodities needed by society. They sell these commodities at a profit. The capitalist class reinvests the profits into more land, machinery, research, etc. in order to continue to compete on the free market. While capitalism is the dominant economic system most production must be able to compete effectively on the free market. Capitalists must compete against each other on the free market, do whatever makes sense, in order to stay in business. Out of a need to meet their basic needs, most workers are obligated to sell their labor to the capitalists. Under capitalism even the aristocracy has to fight on the free market for survival and legitimacy.
Allow me to make one comment at this point: There is no question that the free market has driven many innovative and hard working people to produce a lot of amazing things. One can critique capitalism for compelling capitalists to oppress workers while recognizing its many admirable accomplishments. The socialist argument is that humanity can do even better, far better.
In the Middle Ages peasants depended on the protection of the aristocracy for their welfare. It might be more accurate to say that the aristocracy owned the peasants, so they protected their property out of self interest. The aristocracy needed the peasants in order to survive. As the capitalists gained economic and political power over the aristocracy, they needed workers for their factories and farms. As the aristocracy was forced to compete on the free market against industrial capitalist farmers, for example, the aristocracy could no longer operate as they had for hundreds of years. They could no longer afford them, so they were forced to kick their peasants off of their lands.
A portion of the peasants, now homeless, migrated to the cities looking for work in the factories, while others worked for capitalist farmers. In the cities peasants either became workers, vagrants or vacillated between both. As workers they held very little power over the economy, their workplace, their lives. There were very few governmental protections or supports. Their ability to feed themselves and their families was almost entirely dependent upon their relationship with their employers. As vagrants they had no power.
Twentieth Century Social Democracy
In the twentieth century, after the horrors of World War II, the working class fought for better living conditions. The workers had fought in World War I and gotten very little out of it. After fighting in World War II, putting their lives in danger for their nation, they demanded more from their governments, especially in Europe. When we think of “European socialism,” the Nordic model, and the reforms in France, England and Germany, we are actually thinking of what socialists call “social democracy.” Social democracy is still fundamentally capitalism, where the capitalists are still the dominant class, but the workers have far more power than in the nineteenth century. Under social democracy workers demanded free health care, free college, worker protections, safety regulations, maternity leave, high quality public housing, public transportation, public utilities, retirement, etc. These demands dramatically improved the lives of the vast majority of the people in Europe.
Democratic socialists argue that, as great as social democracy was in the twentieth century, capitalists will always chip away at working-class victories. We have seen this to be the case over the last seventy years. In England, for example, major working class victories after World War II (listed above) have been rolled back. In order to be free workers must fight for more than social democracy. In order to achieve sustainable democracy, actual democracy, the workers must fight for a world in which the workers hold dominant power over the economy, replacing the capitalists. Democratic socialism would be more democratic than social democracy, not less.
Democratic Socialism and Worker Power
Democratic socialists believe in fighting for a world where the workers are not satisfied with social democracy. We want a world in which there are no billionaire with a disproportionate voice over our government, media, and workplaces. What if workers owned all of the businesses? They would not have to sell their labor to survive, just as small business owners are not selling their labor, but rather investing in their own business. The workers could distribute the profit between themselves. What if people had democratic control over the economy and decided which goods and services were better distributed through central planning, like health care insurance for medically necessary services, fire protection, electricity, water and roads; which ones, like cell phones, beer, cruises, home decor and art supplies, were better distributed on the free market; and which ones, like food, housing, and education were distributed through a combination of methods.
No matter what, the workers will only gain a better quality of life through political struggle for working-class power and democracy. And since the capitalists currently have more money, and own the businesses that produce society’s goods and services, the workers must unite to build power where they can. There are more workers than capitalists. There will always be more workers than capitalists. The capitalists’ Achilles heel is the fact that they can only make profit by purchasing the labor of the working class and selling their goods and services competitively on the free market. The workers can build power by withholding their labor until their demands are met. When workers act collectively, they can use the capitalists need for profit to their advantage. Workers won social democracy by using their collective power, by forming unions and striking. By coming together the workers have the ability improve their quality of life.
A side benefit of workers acting collectively, if they observe an ethic of solidarity, they can fight fascism and xenophobia. Working class people have been guilty of racism and supporting fascist strong-man leaders. When workers stand in solidarity with each other, they build resistance to fascists that seek to pit the working class against each other, whites against people of color, American workers against Chinese workers, Christian workers against Jewish workers, against Islamic workers.
How does Democratic Socialism Compare with Twentieth Century Communism
Of course, this is an elephant in the room. Is socialism inherently dangerous? Is socialism inherently totalitarian. I think the answer to this question is an obvious “No!” I recognize to many people this answer not obvious, and in fact is highly contested. This a very long conversation, while my intention here is to be brief. To keep myself concise I will limit myself to arguing that the conditions in twenty-first century United States are so different than Russia in 1917, China in 1949 and Cuban in 1959. Most importantly, the conditions of international politics were more unfriendly towards the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of Cuba than the US. The United States was birthed out of a Revolutionary war against England, supported by France, Spain and Holland, but after the October Revolution the pre-industrial nation of Russia, struggling economically, fought a civil war against the counter-revolutionaries, supported by the far more wealthy United States, United Kingdom and France. China, also pre-industrial, experienced many internal political and economic struggles, while having poor relations with not only the post-World War II power, the United States, but also fellow Communist Soviet Russia. Cuba, 93 miles away from Floria, endured a trade embargo from the United States, which discouraged many other western nations from trading with them. These struggles without the outside did not cause these countries to become authoritarian, but they contributed. Drastic times can allow leaders to accumulate power, especially when the alternative is losing a civil war. Besides, Russia, China and Cuba were not nations rooted in rich democratic institutions.
There is a socialist joke: the United States has an advantage over every other country. The United States can’t invade itself if it becomes socialist, or cripple its own economy. Of course, twentieth century Communism must answer for its sins, which cannot be dismissed away with a few jokes. At the same time, capitalism cannot merely dismiss all talk of socialism by making reference to Stalin and Mao, as if all socialism necessarily leads to Stalin and Mao, not to mention the sins capitalism refuses to recognize.
Democratic socialists are not seeking a French Revolution or October Revolution style transition. Replacing capitalist control over the economy can only happen through the slow, strategic building of worker power at all levels of society. Democratic socialism builds on existing democratic institutions to create more, stronger, democratic institutions. Today real estate tycoons, business leaders, and financial investors have disproportionate power over how our society is run. Workers must join together to overthrow the one percent’s power in their workplaces, their local, state and federal governments, in the media, in scientific research and academic institutions, in their local utilities, and in the military.