Skip to main content

Jacobin - July 9, 2020

"Among the major differences between these traditions, noted by both Kevin Anderson and Barbara Epstein, is anarchists’ traditional reluctance to engage with the state’s representative democratic institutions, instead seeking to establish autonomous spaces of collective life. In contrast, democratic socialists have had a more ambiguous attitude toward the state, seeing electoral and legislative activity as key in winning meaningful short-term reforms and building working-class power."

In June 2019, Bernie Sanders gave a speech at George Washington University about his vision of democratic socialism. For Sanders, democratic socialism represented a “higher path” of “compassion, justice, and love” — and a “political revolution” where working people organized to claim new political and economic rights and freedoms currently denied by capitalism.He also named some of those systemic barriers: the greed of Wall Street; the insurance and drug companies opposing Medicare for All; the agribusiness and fossil fuel industries accelerating our ecological catastrophe; and the violent military-industrial and carceral complexes that stand behind them all.Sanders’s two presidential campaigns resonated precisely because of these conditions. They popularized the idea of democratic socialism for a broader American audience than ever before. Yet the deeper meaning of democratic socialism was not preordained prior to the rapid growth of this movement between 2015 and 2020 — it evolved in real time. Today, with Sanders having withdrawn from the race and the Democratic Socialists of America now numbering over seventy thousand members, making it the largest socialist organization in the US going back to at least World War II, pressing questions remain about both the guiding principles and the ultimate horizon of democratic socialism.The essays gathered in this collection reflect on what makes democratic socialism a distinct political position, both historically and in the present. Taken together, they suggest that democratic socialism is less a systematic political philosophy than a living political tradition — one defined as much by a common intellectual inheritance as by situational circumstances like opposition to authoritarian interpretations of Marxism, the impact of the Cold War, and the legacy of the New Left. This historical legacy distinguishes democratic socialism from both its liberal and communist counterparts, but also reveals the close and symbiotic relationship between these strands of thought.As a result, the boundaries of democratic socialism as an American political tradition have been rather porous, incorporating both liberal and socialist ideas. For one, Sanders’ praise of Franklin Roosevelt in his 2019 speech reveals how democratic socialists have traditionally found inspiration in the New Deal order. Precipitated by an unprecedented capitalist crisis, the New Deal was enabled by a novel convergence between liberal-progressive reformism and working class militancy — even if, as the contributions by Mimi Abramovitz and Steve Fraser suggest, its achievements were incomplete and ultimately undone by the changes that followed the crises of the 1970s.The democratic-socialist tradition has also drawn from more radical currents — including the diverse socialist and labor republican movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, the Communist Party USA during the Popular Front years, the New Left of the 1960s, and the antiwar and alter-globalization movements of the 1990s and 2000s. As Stephanie Mudge notes in her essay, these and other movements were a “recurrent, constituent part” of the country’s political life — so much so that the question should not be why there is no socialism in the United States, but rather “why American socialist politics gives rise to such vehement insistence that it does not exist.”By the beginning of the twenty-first century, what Mudge lists as the real causes behind the erasure of American socialism from popular consciousness — party realignment, racial fissures, anticommunist repression, and the Cold War — were fully replaced with the supposed common sense that socialism was simply intractable in this country. Today’s renewal of democratic socialism is therefore situated between a past that it is fighting to reestablish and an always-uncertain future.

The Socialist HorizonMost of the essays included in this volume see the aspirational nature of democratic socialism as stemming from navigating between the parallel paths of Communism and European social democracy in the shadow of the Cold War. Contributors like Nancy Holmstrom, Paresh Chattopadhyay, and Stephen Eric Bronner all underscore democratic socialism’s rejection of the Soviet model as a form of domination by an exploitative and repressive state. On the other hand, although some like Sheri Berman maintain there can be a mutually beneficial relationship between capitalism and the welfare state, most democratic socialists also seek to go beyond this model.This is because, while social-democratic measures may offer some protection to workers from the vagaries of the market, social-democratic governments were historically unable and unwilling to break with capitalism’s structural pressures. Today, the line between social democracy and democratic socialism therefore rests on how possible one thinks it is to weaken the structural power of capital with the goal of transitioning to a socialist society.Few democratic socialists would disagree that Europe’s relatively generous welfare states were the products of specific historical circumstances, where the postwar economic boom, union density, and barriers to capital flows all led the capitalist classes to buy into the system. Given time, capitalist social relations will undermine the political institutions intended to mitigate their worst effects.Hence the goal is not to turn back the clock to the Glorious Thirty Years of the postwar order, but to strategically think about how the expansion of social rights that we associate with the social democratic welfare state can be fused with the more ambitious project of transitioning to a society organized around collective ownership and control.Almost all of the volume’s contributors thus see capitalism as an inherently antidemocratic system that creates an impersonal but hierarchical system of domination. As Peter Hudis notes, democratic socialism must operate within this horizon of a transition to new forms of labor and human relations freed from the constraints of capitalist value production. This acknowledgement of the possibility, if not the historical necessity, of a society organized on better principles, is the beginning point of today’s democratic socialism. ...
Read full commentary at Jacobin