Democratic Socialism

Democratic socialism is a political philosophy that advocates achieving socialist goals within a democratic system.

Democratic socialists oppose the Soviet economic model, rejecting the authoritarian form of governance and highly centralized command economy that took form in the Soviet Union in the early 20th century.

Democratic socialism has promoted as economic solutions to capitalist systems public property through a democratically elected government of major industries, utilities, and transportation systems; some limits on the conversion of public resources to private property; governmental regulation of the economy; extensive publicly financed assistance and pension programs;and self-management and democratic management in companies sometimes including wider schemes of market socialist, participatory and decentralized planned economy.

The modern history of democratic socialism goes back to early to mid 19th century socialist thought and movements associated with the label “utopian socialism” as well as a socialist republican movement such as Chartism. There is considerable controversy among scholars regarding Karl Marx’s attitude toward democracy, but two lines of thought developed from Marx: one emphasizing democracy and one rejecting it while other socialists rejected Marx. In the United Kingdom the Fabian Society was formed and it tended to emphasize “the democratic elements of democratic socialism: electoral success, the rational presentation of their position (in innumerable publications), careful study of the current social situation, and gradualism.” Another important source of inspiration was Eduard Bernstein´s proposal of “evolutionary socialism” which argued that socialism could be achieved by peaceful means through incremental legislative reform in democratic societies as opposed to revolutionary socialism.

The 20th century saw the ascendence of socialist, labor, and social democratic parties in Europe who started to be elected in democratic elections to form governments in their countries. The terms “democratic socialism” and “social democracy” have significant overlap and during the late 20th century those labels started to be both embraced, contested and rejected due to the emergence of developments within the world´s left such as eurocommunism, the fall of eastern communist governments, the “Third Way”, the Latin American Pink tide, and the rise of anti-austerity movements in the late 2000s and early 2010s motivated by the Great Recession. This last development contributed to the emergence of politicans such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US who assumed the label democratic socialist to describe their rebellion against centrist politicians within the UK Labour and US Democratic parties respectively.

Democratic socialism is defined as having a socialist economy in which the means of production (including wealth) are socially and collectively owned or controlled alongside a politically democratic system of government.

Some tendencies of democratic socialism advocate for revolution in order to transition to socialism, distinguishing it from some forms of social democracy. For example, Peter Hain classifies democratic socialism, along with libertarian socialism, as a form of anti-authoritarian “socialism from below” (using the term popularized by Hal Draper), in contrast to Stalinism, a variant of authoritarian state socialism. For Hain, this democratic/authoritarian divide is more important than the revolutionary/reformist divide. In this type of democratic socialism, it is the active participation of the population as a whole and workers in particular in the management of economy that characterizes democratic socialism while nationalization and economic planning (whether controlled by an elected government or not) are characteristic of state socialism. A similar, but more complex argument is made by Nicos Poulantzas. Draper himself uses the term “revolutionary-democratic socialism” as a type of socialism from below in his The Two Souls of Socialism and writes: “The leading spokesman in the Second International of a revolutionary-democratic Socialism-from-Below was Rosa Luxemburg, who so emphatically put her faith and hope in the spontaneous struggle of a free working class that the myth-makers invented for her a ‘theory of spontaneity'”. Similarly, about Eugene Debs he writes: “‘Debsian socialism’ evoked a tremendous response from the heart of the people, but Debs had no successor as a tribune of revolutionary-democratic socialism”.

In contrast, other tendencies of democratic socialism follow a gradual, reformist or evolutionary path to socialism rather than a revolutionary one, with socialism as an eventual long-term outcome. This tendency is often invoked in an attempt to distinguish democratic socialism from Marxist–Leninist socialism as in Donald Busky’s Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey, Jim Tomlinson’s Democratic Socialism and Economic Policy: The Attlee Years, 1945–1951, Norman Thomas Democratic Socialism: a new appraisal or Roy Hattersley’s Choose Freedom: The Future of Democratic Socialism. A variant of this set of definitions is Joseph Schumpeter’s argument, set out in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1941), that liberal democracies were evolving from “liberal capitalism” into democratic socialism, with the growth of workers’ self-management, industrial democracy and regulatory institutions.

As an example, the Democratic Socialists of America define socialism as a decentralized socially-owned economy, but while ultimately committed to socialism they focus their political activities on reforms within capitalism:

Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. Democratic socialists favor as much decentralization as possible. While the large concentrations of capital in industries such as energy and steel may necessitate some form of state ownership, many consumer-goods industries might be best run as cooperatives.

Democratic socialists have long rejected the belief that the whole economy should be centrally planned. While we believe that democratic planning can shape major social investments like mass transit, housing, and energy, market mechanisms are needed to determine the demand for many consumer goods.

As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people.

For Labour Party (UK) politician and ex MP Peter Hain:

Democratic socialism should mean an active, democratically accountable state to underpin individual freedom and deliver the conditions for everyone to be empowered regardless of who they are or what their income is. It should be complemented by decentralisation and empowerment to achieve increased democracy and social justice…Today democratic socialism’s task is to recover the high ground on democracy and freedom through maximum decentralisation of control, ownership and decision making. For socialism can only be achieved if it springs from below by popular demand. The task of socialist government should be an enabling one, not an enforcing one. Its mission is to disperse rather than to concentrate power, with a pluralist notion of democracy at its heart.

The term is sometimes used to refer to policies within capitalism as opposed to an ideology that aims to transcend and replace capitalism, though this is not always the case. For example, Robert M. Page, a reader in Democratic Socialism and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham, writes about “transformative democratic socialism” to refer to the politics of the Clement Attlee government (a strong welfare state, fiscal redistribution and some public ownership) and “revisionist democratic socialism” as developed by Anthony Crosland and Harold Wilson:

The most influential revisionist Labour thinker, Anthony Crosland…, contended that a more “benevolent” form of capitalism had emerged since the Second World War… According to Crosland, it was now possible to achieve greater equality in society without the need for “fundamental” economic transformation. For Crosland, a more meaningful form of equality could be achieved if the growth dividend derived from effective management of the economy was invested in “pro-poor” public services rather than through fiscal redistribution.

Some proponents of market socialism see it as an economic system compatible with the political ideology of democratic socialism.

The term “democratic socialism” can be used even another way to refer to a version of the Soviet model that was reformed in a democratic way. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev described perestroika as building a “new, humane and democratic socialism”. Consequently, some former Communist parties have rebranded themselves as democratic socialist, as with the Party of Democratic Socialism in Germany.

Philosophical support for democratic socialism can be found in the works of political philosophers like Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth, among others. Honneth has put forward the view that political and economic ideologies have a social basis, that is they originate from intersubjective communication between members of a society. Honneth criticizes the liberal state because it assumes that principles of individual liberty and private property are ahistorical and abstract, when in fact they evolved from a specific social discourse on human activity. Contra liberal individualism, Honneth has emphasized the inter-subjective dependence between humans, that is our well-being depends on recognising others and being recognized by them. Democratic socialism with an emphasis on community and solidarity can be seen as a way of safeguarding this dependency.