What is Democratic Socialism?
There is probably no phrase in American politics more misunderstood than "democratic socialism."
Below we have provided some answers to commonly asked questions to help demystify what democratic socialism is and why you should fight for it.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do democratic socialists believe in?
Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.
Democracy and socialism go hand in hand. All over the world, wherever the idea of democracy has taken root, the vision of socialism has taken root as well—everywhere but in the United States. Because of this, many false ideas about socialism have developed in the US.
Doesn’t socialism mean that the government will own and run everything?
Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.
Today, corporate executives who answer only to themselves and a few wealthy stockholders make basic economic decisions affecting millions of people. Resources are used to make money for capitalists rather than to meet human needs. We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.
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 may be needed to determine the demand for many consumer goods.
Hasn’t socialism been discredited by the collapse of Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe?
Socialists have been among the harshest critics of authoritarianism in so called Communist states. We have also been the harshest critics of authoritarian actions taken by the United States in the effort to crush those Communist movements, both domestically and abroad. Democratic socialists have always opposed the ruling elites of those societies, just as we oppose the ruling elites of capitalist societies. The improvement of people’s lives requires real democracy without ethnic rivalries and/or new forms of authoritarianism. Democratic socialists will continue to play a key role in that struggle throughout the world.
Moreover, the end of the Cold War should not blind us to injustices at home. We cannot allow all radicalism to be dismissed as “Communist” or through other red scare tactics. That suppression of dissent and diversity undermines America’s ability to live up to its promise of equality of opportunity, not to mention the freedoms of speech and assembly.
Private corporations seem to be a permanent fixture in the US, so why work towards socialism?
In the short term we can’t eliminate private corporations altogether, but we can bring them under much greater democratic control. The government should use regulations and tax incentives to encourage large companies to act in the public interest and outlaw destructive activities such as exporting jobs to low-wage countries and polluting our environment. Similar to what is practiced in Germany, the government should mandate worker representation on large corporate boards. The government should also provide incentives and support for smaller companies to transition into worker cooperatives. Public pressure can also have a critical role to play in the struggle to hold corporations accountable. Most of all, socialists look to unions to make private business more accountable.
Won’t socialism be impractical because people will lose their incentive to work?
We don’t agree with the capitalist assumption that starvation or greed are the only reasons people work. People enjoy their work if it is meaningful and enhances their lives. They work out of a sense of responsibility to their community and society. Although a long-term goal of socialism is to eliminate all but the most enjoyable kinds of labor, we recognize that unappealing jobs will long remain. These tasks would be spread among as many people as possible rather than distributed on the basis of class, race, ethnicity, or gender, as they are under capitalism. And this undesirable work should be among the best, not the least, rewarded work within the economy. For now, the burden should be placed on the employer to make work desirable by raising wages, offering benefits and improving the work environment. In short, we believe that a combination of social, economic, and moral incentives will motivate people to work.
Why are there no models of democratic socialism?
Although no country has fully instituted democratic socialism, the socialist parties and labor movements of other countries have won many victories for their people. We can learn from the comprehensive welfare state maintained by the Swedes, from Canada’s national health care system, France’s nationwide childcare program, and Nicaragua’s literacy programs. We can learn from the strong economic democracy cultures of Spain’s Basque region and Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, where worker cooperatives and unions thrive. Lastly, we can learn from efforts initiated right here in the US, such as the community health centers created by the government in the 1960s where high-quality family care was provided alongside with community involvement in decision-making. We can look to America’s strong union history and democratic experimentation such as the usage of Participatory Budgeting in sections of Chicago.
But hasn’t the European Social Democratic experiment failed?
Many northern European countries enjoy tremendous prosperity and relative economic equality thanks to the policies pursued by social democratic parties. These nations used their relative wealth to ensure a high standard of living for their citizens—high wages, health care and subsidized education. Most importantly, social democratic parties supported strong labor movements that became central players in economic decision-making. But with the globalization of capitalism, the old social democratic model becomes ever harder to maintain. Stiff competition from low-wage labor markets in developing countries and the constant fear that industry will move to avoid taxes and strong labor regulations has diminished (but not eliminated) the ability of nations to launch ambitious economic reform on their own. Reforms must now happen at the international level. Multinational corporations must be brought under democratic controls, and workers’ organizing efforts must reach across borders.
Now, more than ever, socialism is an international movement. As socialists have always known, the welfare of working people in Finland or California depends largely on the living standards of those workers in developing nations, from Nigeria to Indonesia. As a result, we must work towards reforms that can withstand the power of multinationals and global banks, and we must fight for a world order that is not controlled by bankers and bosses for the betterment of all the worlds peoples.
Aren’t you a party that’s in competition with the Democratic Party for votes and support?
No, we are not a party. Like our friends and allies in the feminist, labor, civil rights, religious, and community organizing movements, many of us have been active in the Democratic Party. We work with those movements to strengthen the party’s left wing, represented by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The process and structure of American elections seriously hurts third party efforts. Winner-take-all elections instead of proportional representation, rigorous party qualification requirements that vary from state to state, a presidential instead of a parliamentary system, and the two-party monopoly on political power have doomed third party efforts. We organize so that at some point in the future, in coalition with our allies, Ranked Choice Voting will be enacted, and an alternative national party will be viable. For now, we will continue to support progressives and socialists who have a real chance at winning elections, which usually means left-wing Democrats.
If I am going to devote time to politics, why shouldn’t I focus on something more immediate?
Although capitalism will be with us for the foreseeable future, reforms we win now—raising the minimum wage, securing a national health plan, and demanding passage of right-to-strike legislation—can bring us closer to socialism. Many democratic socialists actively work in the single-issue organizations that advocate for those reforms. We are visible in the reproductive freedom movement, the fight for student aid, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations, anti-racist groups, and the labor movement.
It is precisely our socialist vision that informs and inspires our day-to-day activism for social justice. As socialists we bring a sense of the interdependence of all struggles for justice. No single-issue organization can truly challenge the capitalist system or adequately secure its particular demands. In fact, unless we are all collectively working to win a world without oppression, each fight for reforms will be disconnected, maybe even self-defeating.
If so many people misunderstand socialism, why continue to use the word?
First, we call ourselves socialists because we are proud of what we are. Second, no matter what we call ourselves, conservatives will use it against us. Anti-socialism has been repeatedly used to attack reforms that shift power to working class people and away from corporate capital. In 1993, national health insurance was attacked as “socialized medicine” and defeated. Liberals are routinely denounced as socialists in order to discredit reform. Until we face, and beat, the stigma attached to the “S word,” politics in America will continue to be stifled and our options limited. We also call ourselves socialists because we are proud of the traditions upon which we are based, of the heritage of the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. We follow in the footsteps of socialists such as Martin Luther King Jr, Helen Keller, W.E.B Du Bois, John Steinbeck, Fred Hampton, George Orwell, and Albert Einstein and of all the struggles for change that have made America more democratic and just. Finally, we call ourselves socialists to remind everyone that we have a vision of a better world.
A selection of introductory readings to help introduce you to Socialism.
ABC's of Socialism
A fun introduction to Socialism from the authors of Jacobin Magazine.
Albert Einstein's 1949 article published in the Monthly Review detailing why he was a socialist.
Socialism Will Be Free, Or It Will Not Be At All!
An Introduction to Libertarian Socialism
Article from the Black Rose Anarchist Federation discussing the principles of Libertarian Socialism, and its particular theories of establishing a truly democratic Socialist system.