Courtesy of Occupy Democrats. The idea of democratic socialism has become quite popular recently, as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is a proud, self-described “democratic socialist”. Sanders and his supporters are quick to point out that this distinguishes their views from other strains of socialism, like Marxism or national socialism. Is this true, and what is democratic socialism after all?
Surprisingly, it seems hard to get a coherent definition of democratic socialism. Most supporters and adherents seem to give vague definitions that put it in the most positive light, like with this meme. Phrases like “creating opportunities for everyone” or “a society that meets human needs” are popular, but lacking in specifics.
Notice, in reading this meme, it’s impossible to discern what the term means. Apparently, a democratic socialist is still a capitalist, but one who wants government to create opportunities for everyone? A capitalist that wants the economy run “democratically” to meet human needs?
These are vague, contradictory notions, and like any good political scientist we have to dig deeper to distinguish intentions from the actual philosophy. After all, capitalists, socialists, and everyone in between believe they advocate the most just system to meet human needs, so we need to be more specific.
Socialism vs. Capitalism
First, we need to understand the difference between these two terms. Putting all the rhetoric and special pleading aside, the key difference, philosophically, is the recognition of private property in society.
Socialism does not recognize private property, as it seeks to make all goods owned collectively, either by a government or some other collective entity. Its goal is equality of distribution, which can only happen when property can be rearranged or allocated by some authority.
Capitalism is defined as a system of private ownership of goods. Pure, or laissez-faire capitalism, is a somewhat redundant term that clarifies a system where the government or collective may not take or set the use of property, unless someone violates another person’s property rights. Capitalism’s goal is not equality of distribution, but the recognition of individual rights, particularly property rights.
The two terms are opposite ends of the spectrum in regards to property. Most societies fall somewhere in between the two and have what’s known as a mixed economy. This has some elements of capitalism and property rights mixed with elements of socialism, either government controls or public ownership of goods. Modern liberals traditionally fall on the spectrum closer to the socialism side, while conservatives fall closer to the capitalism side. However, anomalies can exist, like with Denmark, as its economy is actually less controlled, in many ways, than the US.
It’s important to note that the two terms have definitions, and describe two contrasting philosophies. It makes no sense to be a socialist who believes in elements of capitalism. That would be, in essence, saying, “I believe in a system where all property is collectively owned, but I also believe that some property should be privately owned”. It’s a contradiction, like being a religious atheist, or a violent pacifist. If one indeed wants to choose from elements of both socialism and capitalism, they believe in a mixed economy, and should identify somewhere on that spectrum (i.e. social democrat, or Reagan conservative).
Wikipedia has a good definition, really the only correct definition possible, of democratic socialism:
a political ideology advocating a democratic political system alongside a socialist economic system, involving a combination of political democracy with social ownership of the means of production.
Being a democratic socialist distinguishes one from other types of socialists by means only. We’ve already seen socialism is defined as a society where private property isn’t recognized, where goods are owned and controlled collectively. The next question is how can that be achieved? Almost everyone recognizes that the means of imposing socialism in the 20th century under regimes like the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and North Korea were horrific, leaving close to 100 million dead. It’s understandable that one would want to distinguish their ideology from this, and that’s where the “democratic” designation comes in.
Whereas Lenin, Mao and Kim Il Sung tried to bring about socialism through totalitarian means, democratic socialists aim to bring it about, and sustain it, by democratic means. The theory is instead of an authoritative body deciding the allocation of property, it would be democratically decided upon. This is the only sense the term can have any specific meaning. Otherwise, “socialist” takes on a new meaning that describes a different sort of economic system.
How Does Bernie Sanders Define it?
Very vaguely, it turns out. Recently, he gave a speech that was specifically meant to define democratic socialism. These are some of his definitions:
- “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.”
- “Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.”
- “It means that economic rights must be an essential part of what America stands for.”
- “It means that health care should be a right of all people, not a privilege.”
- “Democratic socialism means that…every person in this country, who has the ability, the qualifications and the desire, the right to go to a public colleges or university tuition free.”
- “Democratic socialism means that our government does everything it can to create a full employment economy.”
- “Democratic socialism means that if someone works forty hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty: that we must raise the minimum wage to a living wage”
- “Democratic socialism means that we have government policy which does not allow the greed and profiteering of the fossil fuel industry to destroy our environment and our planet”
- “Democratic socialism means, that in a democratic, civilized society the wealthiest people and the largest corporations must pay their fair share of taxes.”
These are pretty vague, and don’t really distinguish a philosophy separate from other liberal democrats. Wanting a good economy, no corruption, and people to have goods and services is not a specific ideology. Every politician wants this. How is it to be done? What is the government’s objective, to ensure equality or liberty? Towards the end he continues with these points:
- “I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”
- “I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas.”
These statements are in direct contradiction to socialism. What he’s really describing is the political philosophy of social democracy, which advocates for economic intervention within a capitalist framework, and a sizable welfare state.
How Do Other Democratic Socialists Define it?
Again, very vaguely. According to Democrat Socialists of America, it means that both society and the economy should be run democratically. This implies that private property wouldn’t exist, and the economy would be controlled by a collective authority, but they’re never explicit on this point. It’s not clear how an economy can effectively be run democratically when most people don’t know the first thing about running an oil, steel, biotech or social media company, but that’s a more practical criticism.
The Huffington Post describes what it’s not, but not what it is.
Salon re-quotes Sanders on 12 reasons why it’s great to be a democratic socialist.
The Daily Kos criticizes people for not understanding the fundamental difference between democratic socialism and communism, but then doesn’t explain a difference, and seems to confuse it with a social democracy.
This meme is correct in that democratic socialism is different (theoretically) than traditional Marxism and communism. It intends to create the same ends, but with different means. However, Bernie Sanders and his supporters appear to be using the term democratic socialist improperly. A socialist cannot be consistent and also advocate capitalism. Either they are not honest about their true socialist views on achieving a collectively “owned” economy, or they are simply confusing the term with more accurate descriptions, like social democrat or progressive. In doing so, they are trying to “soften” the word socialist, conceal its true meaning, and make it more palatable to the public.
It may seem like semantics, but properly defining and categorizing different philosophies in politics is important. The ideas and attempts at socialism in the 20th century had horrific results, far worse than any other ideology, including fascism. It’s not enough to proclaim good intentions, as Lenin promised peace, land and bread to the Russian people. Ideas matter, and it’s important to understand what each one specifically advocates.
There’s a reason why true socialist societies devolve into totalitarian regimes. People tend to dislike having their property rights violated, just like they dislike their other liberties violated. This means the only way to accomplish taking property is through coercion, whether it be veiled threats or an overt use of force. Whatever collective mechanism does this has a great tendency to lead to infringement of liberties, not only in the economic realm, but also in other areas. The closer societies move toward socialism, generally, the more coercion that must be used. There hasn’t been a successful case of democratic socialism that’s been tried, so it’s fair to be skeptical of the notion, and to demand a specific definition of their ideology.