Recently, in my daily interactions with the radical Left, I have come to notice a dismissal of Democratic Socialism as a viable Socialist theory. Anarchists and Marxists often confuse Democratic Socialism with parliamentarianism or reformist social democracy. The critique, although misguided, is that working within the system for change is ineffectual and counter-productive. My contention is that labeling Democratic Socialism as a reformist, as opposed to a revolutionary, theory is fallacious and stems from simple confusion. My goal in this essay is to define Democratic Socialism and then defend it against Marxism and Anarchism.
First and foremost, I want to be clear that I respect Marxists and Anarchists (generally) and find them to be my comrades in the struggle. This is not an attack on any other Leftist philosophy so much as it is a defense of Democratic Socialism, and a call for respect and recognition of the strong points of the political philosophy within Leftist circles. I simply want to correct common misconceptions about the political theory of Democratic Socialism, and offer an intellectual defense of its tenets.
Democratic Socialism is a broad label, allowing for more philosophical range than Marxism or Anarcho-Communism. This fact is what often times leads to confusion as to what exactly Democratic Socialism is. To be sure, some progressive reformists claim the label, and this leads many other Leftists to think that Democratic Socialism has more in common with liberalism than it does with revolutionary socialism. However, the pure reformists are a small minority within Democratic Socialism, and do not represent its core; a core that I contend is inherently revolutionary. On Wikipedia, Democratic Socialism is defined thusly:
“Democratic socialism is a political ideology advocating a democratic political system alongside a socialist economic system. This may refer to extending principles of democracy in the economy (such as through cooperatives or workplace democracy), or may simply refer to trends of socialism that emphasize democratic principles as inalienable from their political project.
As we can see, there is some overlapping with social democratic reformism, but that is not the defining characteristic of the philosophy. The general broadness of the label is what allows for reformists to sneak in. However, this leads me to a defining characteristic of the position; one that I think makes it appealing : we Democratic Socialists work for and welcome meaningful reforms within the current system while pushing for revolution by raising class consciousness, organizing, and working with other Leftists. I think it would be a mistake, and a betrayal of the working class, if we rejected all reforms in favor of a spontaneous, grassroots revolution (that will likely not come in the foreseeable future). Many Marxists and Anarchists (although not all, obviously) are too hypnotized by the possibility and necessity of a proletarian revolution that they mock, or even actively oppose, reforms such as a higher minimum wage or universal healthcare. This is an example of abstract ideology taking precedence over tangible, material gains for the working class. This should concern all Leftists who genuinely love the working class and desire to operate in its interests. Working towards and embracing meaningful reform while simultaneously organizing for revolution is, to me, a defining characteristic of this theory. Democratic Socialism, In my opinion, has the benefit of being less abstract and more practical than other forms of revolutionary socialism.
Speaking of other forms of revolutionary socialism, lets compare and contrast Democratic Socialism with Marxism and Anarchism to see if we can flesh out key differences.
The reason I favor Democratic Socialism over Marxism (including Marxist-Leninism and Maoism by extension) is why many anti-authoritarian Leftists favor other forms of Socialism over Marxism: its dictatorial, one-party orientation, and its historical failures. Marxism has been tried in different countries over the past century with differing degrees of success. However, the common thread that runs through these Marxist countries is a gross, and sometimes brutal, authoritarianism. As we have seen with Soviet Russia under Stalin, a one-party dictatorship with harsh repression of opposition (including leftist opposition) is not only anti-democratic and tyrannical, but bound for failure. When you abandon democracy and put a small group of men in control of the masses, you end up with an oligarchy; you end up with bureaucracy, you end up with a trajectory that, sooner or later, betrays the basic values of socialism: free speech, equality, direct democracy, worker autonomy, and basic individual freedom. By adopting the militaristic, violent and aggressive template of Capitalist Imperialist world powers, Marxism becomes the right-wing of the Left. By adopting highly centralized planned economics, Marxism embraces a historically failed economic model. These, among many others things, are why many socialists today reject Marxist-Leninism as a viable socio-economic theory, and its why Democratic Socialism rejects Marxist-Leninism as well. Democratic Socialism shuns the concepts of a “vanguard party” and a “dictatorship of the proletariat” as failed ideals that simply lead to oligarchic tyranny in favor of classically democratic ideals that allows for free speech, free press, free association, etc. We prefer decentralized democracy, community control over resources, a strong social safety net, and a socialist economy propelled by worker ownership over the means of production (as opposed to State ownership). To be clear, this love of democracy does not mean that we would allow socialism to be voted away. We view capitalism (and the exploitative, hierarchical, authoritarian, environmentally destructive relationships that are inherent to it) as a fraud; as a pyramid scheme; as an act of violence and theft. We reject private ownership over the means of production and we reject profit as a viable motivator or social incentive. In the same way that we wouldn’t allow armed robbery or assault and batter in our society, we wont allow the criminality of capitalism to take root in our society. We advocate a democratic political system and a socialist economic system. There will be no compromise on this. We do not allow people to vote away basic human rights, and we do not allow people to sell themselves into slavery. Period.
So, many may say, why not Anarchism? After all, many Anarchists would read the above paragraph, more or less nodding in approval of the stated critiques of Marxism. To be completely honest, I considered myself an Anarchist for a while, and still consider myself a fellow traveler. I think the purity, the freedom, and the anti-authoritarianism of anarchy is beautiful, complex, and desirable. However, try as I might, I cannot convince myself that Anarchism is compatible with large-scale, modern societies. Less so with the space-faring creatures many of us aspire to be in the not-so-distant future. I think there is an important role for the State to play, although a radically different one than it currently plays in most of the world. I also believe that States are emergent properties of societies; get enough people together and they will want to organize their social interests, and a government of some form is what naturally emerges from this social desire. States are not inherently bad, as most Anarchists believe (in fact, they can be used as tools to ensure the protection of rights, as defenders of universal standards in education, justice, healthcare, etc.; however they do need to be radically altered in order to meet a Democratic Socialist standard. This radical alteration is a difficult one, but it rejects both the Marxist notions of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the Anarchist notions of intrinsic State malevolence. It rejects both the upholding of an over-bearing, highly centralized, oligarchic government as well as the obliteration of all governments. Democratic Socialism adheres to a conception of the State that finds a middle ground between Marxism and Anarchism. It realizes the seeds of truth in the Marxist conception of the State as well as realizing the seeds of truth in the Anarchist critique of the State. Having said that, I want to point out that Anarchism, or parts of it, can be seamlessly integrated with Democratic Socialism. If we regard Anarchism as less of an end goal and more of a method, it fits quite well with Democratic Socialism. As a method, Anarchism seeks to identify institutions of authority and relentlessly question their legitimacy. If the authority of a given institution cannot be justified, it is to be dismantled and either left in ruin or reconstructed in a different way. Democratic Socialists should use this method constantly; it should always be in the background when assessing the merits of any institutions or societal structure. Although we may never get to a truly Anarchist end point, we may still use an Anarchist methodology and incorporate an Anarchist spirit into Democratic Socialism in order to stay ever-vigilant. Anarchists are an important group to have in any society, they act as the ultimate critic of authority and inequality. They restrain not only the State, but all other institutions in society, with a powerful and vigilant anti-authoritarianism. In fact, as contradictory as it may seem, I would argue that in a Democratic Socialist society, anarchists should hold high positions within local governments for exactly these reasons.
This, of course, is only a brief, cursory examination and defense of Democratic Socialism, and there is much fertile soil to examine and discuss. My main goal here is simply to show that Democratic Socialism is 1) not a reformist philosophy, 2) has a practicality that other Leftist philosophies lack, and 3) is a defensible, revolutionary position that should be confidently taken up by many Leftists who see the flaws in both Anarchism and Marxism, but do NOT want to resort to a soft social democracy or liberalism. After all, Democratic Socialists want nothing more than an immediate end to capitalism; our environment and, by extension, our very lives depend on it. All of human history has been a struggle among classes; a struggle for freedom and control over our own lives; a struggle for autonomy and fulfillment. I believe that Democratic Socialism is the next big step in that direction. It requires more responsibility on the part of individual citizens, and it requires lots of hard work, activism and organization, but I deeply believe that not only is it possible within our lifetimes, but its absolutely necessary. If Capitalism is left to continue its rampage across the environmental and human landscape, our species is in for some very dark, horrendous, and unacceptable suffering before the century is out. The survival of our species and the protection of posterity depends on the overthrow and transcendence of Capitalism, and I believe Revolutionary Democratic Socialism, and the paradigm that goes with it, is the most practical vehicle by which this can be done.