“Democratic Socialism”: What Is It and Can It Be Trusted To Bring About Much Needed Change?

With the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders for president who calls himself “socialist”, once again the idea of “democratic socialism” has found some followers among liberals and even many progressives, and posts are appearing in social media under that banner that claim to be anticapitalist and socialist. Therefore, it’s important to understand what its proponents mean by “democratic socialism” and what they really want (and don’t want). Specifically, we need to understand if those who claim to be “democratic socialist” are in fact anticapitalist as they say they are and if their “socialism” is indeed socialism as they claim it to be or if this is yet another ploy to try to maintain the current system of capitalism.

The concept of “Democratic Socialism” is not new. In fact, it’s pretty old and has appeared in different times and places, although not always with the same name. It seems to appear every time capitalism comes under fire and socialism finds some followers. 

My intention by writing this is not to hash out old 19th or early 20th Century discussion of revolution versus reformism in general terms. That’s already been done enough times and much of it is still quite relevant, today. My purpose is to shed some light on what it means today and what its proponents are really proposing.

First, let’s see what they have in mind by the “democratic” part of it since I think this is key – how they understand it and what they are trying to contrast it with: “undemocratic socialism”? What is it about socialism that they think is or can be undemocratic, if left alone? Is socialism undemocratic by default that “democratic socialists” want to remedy and make “democratic” or is there something else going on here?

Capitalism and socialism are economic systems. Economic systems have to do with how goods and services are produced, who owns the means of production and the fruit of workers’ labor, which then determines how the wealth is distributed, the position of workers vis a vie the production process, which determines how and by whom the production decisions are made, such as the impact on the environment or on the community and whether the driving force behind production is profits for private owners or the needs of the society. Democracy, on the other hand, is how decisions are made, including what, how, where, how much and for whom to produce, what the priorities of the society should be, what resources should be put into what objectives, etc. 

Both economic systems have their own interpretations and elements of democracy that best suit the economic system and which allow it to function in its own unique way. That’s because each economic system has its own unique needs, demands, constraints and requirements in order to continue to function. These needs and requirements necessarily shape or condition the “democracy” that the system can contain, allow and excercise. In other words, democracy is not some abstract concept that stands on its own, detached from the society and its economic life, but rather follows and is shaped by the system. Within capitalism, for example, individual private producers have the freedom to hire workers and produce whatever they find profitable. They also have the freedom to fire workers when the enterprise is no longer profitable, as it happens periodically after periods of overproduction. In like manner, it also gives workers the freedom to sell or not sell what they own, namely their labor, in order to survive, making them the de facto slaves of owners by necessity, though in theory, they are free to make the trade or not. 

Since independent owners and producers who are otherwise competitors and adversaries, need to govern collectively in a way that the interests of their class as a whole are protected, they need a government as a facilitator and arbiter, giving equal equal voice to them all to reflect and act on the needs of the class. This necessitates a democratic process for all the individual and independent owners to reach consensus for the class as a whole. This is why every few years, they hold elections to see who can best represent their class interests at any given time and under given circumstances. But, this doesn’t mean the class of owners is open to giving up its political power and letting workers get empowered and take the state power and set their own policies and priorities. They have a variety of ways and tools at their disposal to make sure that doesn’t happen and that the state power and all the organs of power and influence, from the military and police to the Congress or parliament to the courts and media, and in general the decision making, stays in their hands. They accomplish this using all the means of power they have. Money and power brings about political clout which then brings more money and power, which in turn increases their influence and control over policies and politics even more, which brings even more power and control and thus the system remains intact and protected from change. Workers thus remain powerless as they also remain locked into having nothing but the strength of their muscles to barter for food.

So, democracy in capitalism is reserved for the owners’ class only – in its true sense that is. Workers can speak up and even organize, as long as they don’t present a threat to the power structure in place and as long as they don’t participate in and don’t have a voice in decision making, either in the ways and means of production where they work or in questions affecting the society as a whole, such as trade, wars, quality of life, treatment of the environment and animals, etc. For the majority, therefore, the democracy offered by capitalism is in essence dictatorship. What’s more, during popular uprisings and revolts, the class in power puts aside any pretense of democracy and rolls its tanks on the streets and shoots into protesters. In the U.S. which is considered democratic, police kill on average about two people a day, mostly from African Americans and the poor, not to mention violent crackdown on peaceful protesters, the massive domestic spy program, punishing of whistle blowers, privately owned media or the literal buying of elections by billionaires.

Socialism, obviously has different needs and requirements and different ways of exercising democracy. Democracy in socialism means deciding democratically what people’s needs are and how to best meet them. It means decisions must be made democratically, but ultimately based on people’s needs and their impact on communities, people’s well being and the environment, rather than the profitability of private owners. what it doesn’t mean is letting capitalists regain their power and influence and retake the state power and reestablish capitalism, just as democracy in capitalism doesn’t mean workers can organize and take state power for their benefit. In other words, again, democracy is tied to the economic system and its needs and ways, not an abstract concept devoid of class content and real life implications. 

The Web site of Democratic Socialists of America says: “At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end.” The “end” is not social justice, ending wars, hunger, atrocities and destruction of the environment, but “democracy”, which presumably applies to all, including the enemies of people who deprive the vast majority of not only democracy but of freedom and a decent and humane life. It doesn’t matter that the capitalists have the advantage of possessing all the levers of power which they use to take our freedom. What matters is to be “democratic” towards all, whatever the outcome, which we should accept as long as it meets their definition of “democracy”. The ruling class is in fact acting out that very same idea of “democracy”. We have the freedom to democratically change things. So, what’s the problem?

Democracy for one group may and often does mean dictatorship for another. That’s not a novel thing. No democracy allows one to shoot a gun in public or to ignore rules of traffic or to scream “fire” in theaters. In all these cases, the safety of the public takes precedence over the rights of the individual. If democracy were in fact absolute and detached from the realities of the society, we would have had those rights and many more. Capitalism imposes on people the rules necessary for the stable and uninterrupted functioning of its economic system, which may or may not be heavy handed or coercive. Its approach depends on the level of political awareness and level of organization among people and more simply, how much of a threat it feels from the working poor. Likewise, socialism has its own rules for a stable and uninterrupted functioning. But, unlike in capitalism, where the perceived threat is from the working class who must be kept out of power, in socialism, the class to be kept out of power and prevented from organizing and returning to power is the capitalist class. 

So, yes, both systems contain within them democracy and dictatorship. The difference is who stays in power and who is kept out. What methods to use to accomplish that depends on the circumstances. For example, if the working class has no viable organization or leadership or even class consciousness, as is the case in the U.S. and elsewhere, capitalism can afford to give some limited and conditional freedoms. But, when people are in the streets in the millions, then that’s a different story altogether and requires a totally different approach. In Cuba, on the other hand, with the corporate empire breathing down their necks and waiting for an opportunity to jump on them and undo their socialism and bring back a corrupt and dependent capitalist regime to serve the interests of multinational corporations, they don’t have the luxury of leaving CIA instigators and provocateurs free to organize and incite violence and destabilize the government. Again, different circumstances require different approaches.

Now, back to our “democratic socialists”, what they forget or ignore is the centrality of the state power which includes the military, the spy agencies, the police, legislature, the judicial, the propaganda organs, the non governmental organizations, the think tanks, etc.; that is, everything that helps keep the capitalists in power. They propose to make reforms within the capitalist system. And, even if they do succeed in making reforms that could in theory amount to any noticeable improvement in the lives of the majority, by leaving the power structure in place, they would leave the door open for the ruling class to undo those reforms anytime they want or find it feasible politically – if not during the presidency of the “socialist” president who supposedly would implement those reforms, then during the next presidency, which would be won “democratically” and would be honored according to the principles of “democratic socialism”. And that would be fine with “Democratic Socislists” because democracy is “the end”.

And this is the crux of the matter; this is what’s really meant by “democratic” socialism. State power in their worldview is independent and plays no role and at best is equally available to all classes for the taking, if they garner enough votes. They forget that it is through this very system that the owner class accumulated all their wealth and power and due to that wealth and power, it’s not a level playing field and that without a change in the power structure, no significant and long lasting change can come about.

There are different ways one can promote the current system and try to maintain the status quo. Some argue openly and unabashedly and without reservations that capitalism is the best system known to man. That’s the most honest way and those who promote it either truly believe in it or have a vested interest in it (these two usually go together). Another group takes a much more coy approach and isn’t so forthcoming about its real intentions. There are two ways to dissuade others from reaching a destination: either try to persuade them that their chosen destination is a bad one or suggest a way for reaching it that you know won’t lead to it.

By advocating “socialism” within the capitalist system and by advocating “democratic” means of achieving it, “democratic socialists” herd disaffected and disenfranchised people back into the voting booths. That may seem harmless and even benevolent, but in reality, it keeps the solution within the capitalist system, instead of organizing at the grassroots and from bottom up for real and fundamental change, which would be backed and guaranteed by state power. 


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