What Is 'Democratic Socialism'?
How do we make sense of this statement made by the Democratic Socialists of America (The “the largest socialist organization in the United States,” according to itself)?
“Electoral tactics are only a means for democratic socialists.”
This piece is also set within the context of the rise of the British “radical socialist”, “democratic socialist” and Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn MP. (According to his followers, Corbyn “almost won” the British election in June 2017.)
Democratic socialism itself must also be seen within the context of 20th century communism and Stalinism.
What I mean by that is that there has been a brazen attempt to separate socialism and even communism itself from Stalinism -- and from all the other forms of socialism which have led to dictatorships or totalitarianism. Interestingly enough, even Trotskyists have also almost entirely defined themselves in opposition to Stalin and the Soviet Union. Of course, virtually no kind of socialist/communist is ever going to explicitly commit himself to dictatorship or totalitarianism and hardly any socialist/communist ever has. (Even the National Socialist Adolf Hitler and the International Socialist Josef Stalin never explicitly committed themselves to totalitarianism.)
At one point in history, even self-described communists began to recognise the Problem of Stalin. In actual fact, they really recognised the Problem of Communism. This meant that Stalin became communism's very-convenient scapegoat. In the end, it was all down to Stalin and to no one else! Marx, for example, had absolutely nothing to do with oppression, dictatorship, and even the victims of “class war.” Indeed, many socialists have also claimed that Lenin, Trotsky, and many other Marxist/socialist oppressors were entirely blameless. As I said, Stalin became -- and still is -- the ultimate bogeyman and scapegoat for many -- though certainly not for all (e.g., the British Labour Party's Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray) -- socialists and communists.
Yet even the “radical” French structuralist and philosopher, Michel Foucault, thought otherwise.
“In the Gulag one sees not the consequences of any unhappy mistake, but the effects of the ‘truest’ of theories in the political order [i.e., Marxism/communism].”
Despite the above, Mikhail Gorbachev still described his own perestroika as a "new, humane and democratic socialism.” It was partly because of this that many other communists and Marxists suddenly began to class themselves as “democratic socialists”.
The basic thing is that no matter how the word “democratic” -- in “democratic socialism” -- is defined or used, it's still deemed to be an aspect of socialism. That is, socialists believe that “the means of production”, education, transport, all the public services, the utilities, the (entire?) media and probably much more should be owned by the state. (Or, as its sometimes inaccurately -- or even deceitfully -- put by the followers of Corbyn, all these things should be “socially-owned”/“publicly-owned”.)
So now let's update to 2017 and the United Kingdom.
With the rise of the British “Shadow Prime Minister” and Member of Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, there's been a strong emphasis on the words “democratic socialism”. This is a relatively new emphasis; though the words “democratic socialism” do date back decades.
Indeed, some of Corbyn's followers have also had the audacity to claim that Corbyn is a “social democrat” who believes in “social democracy.” This means that the supporters of Corbyn are intentionally – perhaps cunningly -- fusing democratic socialism with social democracy. Corbynites even cite the Scandinavian countries as being an influence on Corbyn. However, there's a small and inconvenient fact here: no Scandinavian government is democratic-socialist, let alone outright socialist. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are all parliamentary (representative) democracies with constitutional monarchies; with two Kings and a Queen as heads of state. These countries are also run by Social Democratic, Liberal, and Conservative parties.
So what, exactly, is democratic socialism and how does it differ from plain socialism and communism?
The Democratic Socialists of America
Take the Democratic Socialists of America, which was formed 1982 and is still with us today. In the past, the DSA has endorsed Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama and, more recently, Britain's very own Jeremy Corbyn.
I mentioned earlier that many of Corbyn supporters state that Corbyn is a “social democrat” who believes in “social democracy”. So it's worth noting that the Democratic Socialists of America has its roots in a split with the Social Democrats, USA. The SDUSA was deemed to be too “right-wing.” The group which arose from the split was called the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC); and that group led to the Democratic Socialists of America.
The Democratic Socialists of America endorse what Michael Harrington called the "left-wing realism” which is “found today in the Democratic Party.” Similarly, many Marxists, Trotskyists and communists back the left-wing realism which is found in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party.
What about the politics of the Democratic Socialists of America?
The following is the DSA'S view of democratic socialism:
"We are socialists because we reject an economic order based on private profit, alienated labor, gross inequalities of wealth and power... We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution... We believe that such a strategy must acknowledge the class structure of American society and that this class structure means that there is a basic conflict of interest between those sectors with enormous economic power and the vast majority of the population."
We can see that this passage might have come straight out of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto -- if in a slightly updated form.
That means that when it comes to the Democratic Socialists of America (at the least), the term “democratic socialism” firstly means acknowledging and then winning the class war. It also means the total control of all “resources and production”; alongside complete “economic planning”. Doesn't all this sound very familiar to you?
So where, exactly, is the democracy in the DSA's democratic socialism? The Democratic Socialists of America's answer to that will no doubt be as simple as this:
No state or government which allows capitalism -- in any shape and form -- can be truly democratic precisely because it allows “gross inequalities”, “alienated labour” and the “conflict of interests.”
Quite simply, the Democratic Socialists of America believes that democracy will not exist until socialism -- in its complete form -- is put in place.
And like the activist group Momentum within the Labour Party (which once said that it "exists to build on the energy and enthusiasm from the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign”), the DSA places its cards on the table in this way:
“Much of progressive, independent political action will continue to occur in Democratic Party primaries... democratic socialists will support coalitional campaigns based on labor, women, people of color and other potentially anti-corporate elements... Electoral tactics are only a means for democratic socialists [my bold]; the building of a powerful anti-corporate coalition is the end...”
In the United Kingdom, this is called “entryism.” That word is defined in this way:
“Entryism is the infiltration of a political party by members of another group, with the intention of subverting its policies or objectives.”
Indeed, the overall role of the Democratic Socialists of America (just like Momentum in the British Labour Party) is to “realign” the Democratic party and make it, well, outrightly socialist/Marxist.
There are other democratic socialists who believe in such non-electoral radicalism too.
The “socialist activist” and Marxist, Hal Draper, for example, actually used the words "revolutionary-democratic socialism" as a term for his own political position. And we mustn't forget here that many communist regimes in the 20th century classed themselves as democratic. (E.g., the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the Democratic Government of Albania, Democratic Kampuchea, etc.)
Thus these -- and many other -- socialists don't see any conflict at all between outright revolution/”radicalism” and democracy. Indeed, they don't see any conflict or contradiction between their democratic socialism and revolution. All this must surely mean that such people simply can't be believers in social democracy (in the Scandinavian or European sense) in any historical or meaningful sense of that term. In other words, the word “democratic” in “democratic socialism” is pretty much a pretense. Indeed, most of the history of socialist states, ideology and practice shows us that very clearly.
Paul Austin Murphy is a writer on politics and philosophy. He's had articles published in The Conservative Online, Intellectual Conservative, Human Events, Faith Freedom, Think-Israel, Brenner Brief (Broadside News), New English Review, etc. His philosophy blog can be found here. His blog on politics can be found here.