Skip to main content

Vox, October 2014

A specter is haunting the 2016 Democratic Party primary. The specter of socialism. Bernie Sanders's presidential bid is forcing Americans to reckon with an ideology that has profoundly shaped the politics of just about every other developed country, and has shaped America more than we might like to admit.

According to Sanders, socialism — or "democratic socialism," his preferred formulation — is basically mainstream Democratic Party liberalism but more so. It entails single-payer health care, not Obamacare. It entails tuition-free college, not subsidized loans. It entails government jobs to deal with our unemployment problem, not stimulus through tax breaks. These are big policy changes, but they also don't really seem to amount to the overthrow of capitalism — especially since actually existing capitalism in the United States has long included regulation of business and a welfare state.

But Sanders isn't wrong. Looking at the history of socialism as a movement — from its utopian beginnings to Marx's refinement and popularization and the split of socialists into reformers and revolutionaries at the start of the 20th century — reveals an ideology that has changed over time and shaped most countries around the world, including the United States, and that in some ways just isn't as sharp a break with a status quo as the pearl-clutching tone of Anderson Cooper's questions might lead you to believe.

1) Is Bernie Sanders a socialist?

Sanders is, in his own words, a "democratic socialist." To him, that means he supports the policies in place in many democratic countries, particularly Northern European ones like Sweden, Finland, or Denmark.

"In virtually all of those countries, health care is a right of all people, and their systems are far more cost-effective than ours, college education is virtually free in all of those countries, people retire with better benefits, wages that people receive are often higher, distribution of wealth and income is much fairer, their public education systems are generally stronger than ours," Sanders told Vox's Ezra Klein earlier this year. "When I talk about being a democratic socialist, those are the countries that I am looking at, and those are the ideas that I think we can learn a lot from."

That set of policies — often called "Scandinavian social democracy" or the "Nordic model" — was adopted largely at the instigation of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark's "social democratic" parties, which serve as their countries' primary left-of-center political entities, usually in conjunction with agrarian parties as a "red-green" coalition.

Over the course of the 20th century, as those parties took power across the region, they gradually cobbled together a large, comprehensive safety net, where programs were generally universal — think free health care for all, not Medicaid-style free health care just for the poorest — and which, because of that, came to enjoy wide public support. The agrarian parties are largely to thank for the universalistic aspect; farmer income tended to vary considerably, which made non-means-tested benefits attractive. Enabling and sustaining this system were large and powerful labor unions. In Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, a little under 70 percent of workers are in unions, which also run the countries' unemployment systems; many non-union members are nonetheless covered by collective bargaining contracts.

To Americans, this may just look like a hardcore version of the Democratic Party platform. But social democratic parties have traditionally identified as socialist, and emerged out of socialist movements. And historically, social democracy developed not as a more moderate form of capitalism, but as a revised and refined version of Marxism.

  1. Okay, so what's social democracy, and is it different from socialism?

Social democracy is a version of socialism that emphasizes the need to achieve socialist goals — worker empowerment, a more even distribution of wealth and income, universal access to health care, education, and other essential services — through representative democracy rather than through revolution. It's the version of socialism that's enjoyed the most real-world success, both in the Nordic countries and in other rich nations, and it's the version that the main left-of-center parties in all European countries, many Latin American ones, and Australia and New Zealand embrace.

The term "social democrat" dates back at least to 1848, when Karl Marx used it to translate the name of a left-wing party of the French middle class that he disliked. By 1875, it was being used in the name of the Social Democratic Party (also known by its German acronym, SPD), which has been the dominant German socialist party ever since. But it only became a clearly distinct approach to socialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when, a few decades after Marx's death, a historically consequential debate broke out between two prominent members of SPD: Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg.

The basic question was whether socialists should work toward revolution and the outright collapse of the capitalist system — or whether they should work to pass social reforms that make capitalism more humane.

Bernstein favored the reformist approach. Socialists, he believed, should abandon the goal of bringing capitalism to a point of crisis and achieving some final socialist end state. The point of having a socialist movement is not to "achieve socialism" in some sense, but to exist as a force pushing to make life better for workers. "The movement means everything for me," Bernstein famously wrote, "and … what is usually called 'the final aim of socialism' is nothing."

Luxemburg thought this was rank apostasy. It contradicted the Marxist theory that capitalism was prone to crisis and would, in time, develop to a point at which it would collapse and give rise to socialism. Bernstein's version of Marxism suggested that such a revolution may not be necessary — and indeed, that socialist goals were best achieved not through revolutionary foment but merely by passing social reforms.

"According to scientific socialism, the historic necessity of the socialist revolution manifests itself above all in the growing anarchy of capitalism, which drives the system into an impasse," Luxemburg wrote. "But if one admits with Bernstein that capitalist development does not move in the direction of its own ruin, then socialism ceases to be objectively necessary."

This debate, between reform and revolution, predated Bernstein and Luxemburg, and it continued after them. But their dispute clarified it as the central divide among socialists in the early 20th century. Luxemburg was critical of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia and wary of the failed communist revolution in Germany in which she participated (and perished). But she helped lay the theoretical groundwork for that general approach, of achieving socialism through revolt and mass social upheaval. Bernstein, in turn, established a socialist tradition in which electoral politics was of the utmost importance. This became the strategic inspiration for the SPD, the Socialist Party in France, and just about every other Western European country's major left party.

In this, Bernstein was helped by the existence of non-Marxist "ethical socialists," who, unburdened by Marx's focus on capitalism's tendency toward crisis, also tended to emphasize social reforms and electoral politics ahead of revolution. The most important group here was the Fabian Society in Britain, which grew to be a key intellectual hub of the nascent Labour Party. ...
Read Vox's four other questions and answers on Socialism