What does “democratic socialism” mean? When Bernie Sanders, the man who brought the term back into public use, is asked to define it, he typically responds by reeling off a set of proposals long established as policy in other developed countries or formerly enjoyed in the United States: universal health care, a minimum wage reflecting actual subsistence needs, tuition-free college education and so forth.
Such proposals barely meet the standard of moderate reform, and in most cases not only reflect the working assumptions of Canada, Western Europe and Japan, but achievements won and then lost in the U.S. itself. We had, for example, tuition-free, college-level public education of outstanding quality in mid-20th century America, and if the national minimum wage of 50 years ago had merely kept pace with inflation and productivity, it would be today not the $15 per hour that Sanders advocates but more than $20, with the average wage (which Sanders doesn’t address) not the less than $45,000 it currently is but $75,000. As for universal health care, now at last a part of the national conversation again, it was a plank of the Democratic Party platform in 1948 when Harry Truman was running for president. How futuristic can you get!
None of this amounts to “socialism,” of course, because the above benefits and more, are routinely provided elsewhere by center or center-right governments such as Theresa May’s in Britain, Emmanuel Macron’s in France or Angela Merkel’s in Germany, and no country in the world, large or small, is outside the orbit of international finance capitalism today. So, “democratic socialism,” far from being a term that defines itself, seems an almost utopian conception that even those who drape themselves in it are unwilling or unable to discuss.
I won’t begin with Karl Marx, who was contributing journalism to the New York Tribune as America’s Civil War broke out, but with Abraham Lincoln, who defined it as a struggle to see whether “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” might survive on earth. Lincoln’s description of democracy seems to me to imply the goals of socialism as well. A government of and by the people was necessarily one that was “for” it too, in the sense of promoting the common welfare. Democracy was, then, a process, and socialism a result, subject to change as the people redefined their welfare in terms of evolving circumstances and values. This did not mean that socialism would have no fixed content. Marx believed that socialism entailed collective ownership of the means of production. This need not entail a rejection of private enterprise as such, but rather its supervision and control by the polity: an economy, too, that would be by, of and for the people. It certainly should not mean the monopolistic state capitalism that misnomered itself “socialism” in the Soviet Union or Communist China.
Part of the confusion arising from democratic socialism is the term social democracy, which is often used interchangeably with it. These are not the same things. Social democracy is a term that describes the state-supervised capitalism that was introduced into northern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, which provided core benefits — education, health care, unemployment insurance, pensions — that attempted to cushion the general population from the shocks of private markets and the so-called business cycle of recurrent economic crises. But such benefits, even if long established, are not finally secure in a capitalist system, as their rollback in France and elsewhere today makes clear. In America, where such benefits fell far short of European models and were often, as in health care, linked to exploitive private markets, their fate has been even grimmer. Free public higher education has been lost, and primary public education has all but collapsed except for affluent localities with their own tax base, to be replaced by for-profit charter schools. Pension plans, underfunded for decades both by private employers and the state, are in crisis, exposing present and coming generations of seniors to penury.
Such disasters are not accidents. Publicly funded higher education was lost to a long-term shift of the tax burden from businesses to the general taxpayer over many decades. Pension underfunding resulted from the lack of public oversight, which is to say, of democracy.
Put simply, democracy does not function under a capitalist system, and therefore “social democracy” is as much a misnomer under it as “Soviet socialism” was under Stalin. No one, certainly, can believe that ordinary citizens have any effective control over a system dominated by giant corporate monopolies that dictate the terms of their economic existence and buy the politicians and judges they need to enforce their will. Whenever I have asked my students how many of them feel they have or expect to have any control over the society in which they live, I have been met with complete silence. So much for a democratic capitalism.
It is argued that representative government only emerged with the development of free market capitalism itself. This isn’t true. Popularly elected legislatures go back to the Middle Ages, and the 17th century English parliaments I have studied were in many respects more responsive to public welfare and threats to the rule of law than our present-day Congress. If that was true in a period of so-called absolute monarchy, what exactly have we got to brag about today?
The fact is that every victory won over monopoly capitalism has been the result of bitter popular struggle, and that the same battles must be fought again and again. Democracy will always only come from below, until the distinction between “below” and “above” no longer exists. To expect that any rights or benefits can be relied on from any political system that is not truly democratic is a fool’s game. The state is us, or it’s an oppressor. The economy is ours, or we are its slaves. It may be a negative way to define it, but that’s what democratic socialism is. If we keep our eye on that ball and refuse to settle for anything less, and if we remember that democratic socialism is not a finished product but always a process, it is achievable.