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Democratic Socialist Ideas and Social Democratic Realities

Gary Dorrien—

Democratic socialism, an idea with a rich history in European politics and a slight history in U.S. American politics, is surging today in the U.S. partly because America has so little of it. European Social Democracy has helped to build the world’s most humane societies by universalizing the rights of freedom and democracy, albeit while failing to dismantle cultural structures of white privilege. Elections are publicly financed, healthcare is a human right, higher education is free, tax and solidarity wage policies prevent severe economic disparities, and parental leave policies are generous. In the U.S. a rebellion is underway against extreme inequality and the U.S. contrast to Europe, making the language of democratic socialism speak American.

The original idea of socialism goes back to the 1820s, in France and England, where Charles Fourier and Robert Owen were the pioneers. It was to achieve the unrealized demands of the French Revolution, which never reached the working class. Instead of pitting workers against each other, a cooperative mode of production and exchange would allow them to work for each other. Socialism was about organizing society as a cooperative community. That could mean very different things, as evidenced by the profusion of cooperative, religious, anarcho-syndicalist, orthodox Marxist, Social Democratic, Fabian, guild, Leninist, and mixed models of socialism that arose.

No definition of socialism as state control of the economy or any particular ownership scheme is common to the many traditions of socialist thought. Historically, Marxism played the leading role in reducing the idea of socialism to collective ownership. Marx taught that the structure of economic ownership determines the character of an entire society, and socialism is the collective ownership of the means of production—a sufficient condition for fulfilling the essential aspirations of human beings. He developed the most powerful critique of capitalism ever conceived, inspiring numerous traditions of Marxian criticism. His focus on the factors of production and the structural capitalist tendency to generate crises of overproduction and crash made permanent contributions to socialist thought. But Marx’s dogmatic determinism, catastrophe mentality, and doctrine of proletarian dictatorship wrecked immense harm. He developed his theory during an era in which democracy was merely a form of government, and thus of low importance to him. His denigration of moral-everything obscured his own ethical wellspring. And his fixation on collective ownership relegated anti-racism, feminism, and all other social justice causes to secondary reform status.

Every kind of socialism retains the original idea of organizing society as a cooperative community, yet there is no core that unites the many schools of socialism or democratic socialism. I believe the best candidate for an essential “something” in democratic socialism is the ethical commitment to social justice and radical democratic community. This impulse retains the original socialist idea in multiple forms, inspiring struggles for freedom, equality, recognition, and democratic commonwealth.

The idea that socialism is compatible with liberal democracy and the related idea that socialism is compatible with capitalist markets have long histories in cooperative, ethical, and religious traditions of socialism. Both ideas, however, were anathema to orthodox Marxists. The storied debate over “revisionism” in German Social Democracy was principally about the role of democracy in socialism, giving rise to a self-conscious name, “democratic socialism.” Meanwhile even the Social Democratic founders of democratic socialism did not contend for market socialism, an idea that the cooperative, ethical, and religious socialists had to themselves for decades.

Most nineteenth century British and Continental socialists believed that capitalism is antagonistic toward democracy and socialism is intrinsically democratic, but Marxists contended that existing democracy was a bourgeois fraud and real democracy would emerge only from a proletarian revolution, after which there would be no need of a state. For a socialist to lionize democracy as the best road to socialism was ridiculous. Democracy would come by making the state irrelevant, as Marxists believed, or by smashing the state, as anarchists believed.

Democratic socialists refused to subordinate democracy and its reform causes to a catastrophe vision of deliverance or the demands of a leftwing dictatorship. They said socialists had to be resolutely democratic on their way to achieving socialism, and not merely on tactical grounds. Eduard Bernstein rocked the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1899 by saying so. He was tagged as a “revisionist” betrayer of Marxism, to his credit, whatever else he got wrong. The Social Democrats who founded the Socialist International in 1889 believed that socialist revolutions were inevitable wherever capitalism arose. They puzzled that no socialist revolution had occurred in any advanced capitalist society. Bernstein tore apart the idea of Marxism as a super-explanation for everything that happened and did not happen. The founders were wrong about socialist revolutions occurring in all industrialized societies, or any at all.

The democratic socialist vision of democratized power is more radical than the Social Democracies that democratic socialists create when they gain power. Sooner or later the gap between the idea and the politics, when it grows too wide, demands a revision of the idea, and usually the politics. The watershed revisionist episodes in Germany, Sweden and Britain were creative responses to stagnant orthodoxies and unsettling concessions to the power of liberal democratic capitalism. Today every Social Democratic and workers’ party is struggling to rethink its mission in the face of economic globalization and backlash movements based on racism and xenophobia. In Germany the SPD has become habituated to its junior-partner alliance with the Conservative Party, and in Sweden has disavowed its historic attempt to democratize major enterprises, the Meidner Plan. But Germany has co-determined enterprises, a solidarity wage policy, universal healthcare, and free education, and Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have high wages, strong unions, universal healthcare, free education, monthly stipends to college students, 480 days of paid leave when a child is born or adopted, and vibrant economies that are one-fourth publicly owned. The surge for democratic socialism in the U.S. is about wanting more of that.


Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University. His previous books include The New Abolition and Breaking White Supremacy.


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