In the Trenches

Critics claim democratic socialism is pie-in-the-sky idealism. But socialists have always been at the core of reform struggles.

Election of officers to a CIO union local, April 1942. Arthur S. Siegel

With her recent article in the Washington Post,, Sheri Berman has resuscitated a genre that’s lain largely dormant for decades: the liberal anti-socialist polemic.

Berman’s column ranges across more than a century of socialist history to construct an opposition between two trends on the Left: social democrats, who she likes, and democratic socialists, who she very much does not. While democratic socialists have stubbornly clung to the ill-defined dream of transcending capitalism, social democrats have pragmatically accepted that capitalism is here to stay and gotten down to the business of reforming it. Her conclusion is simple: people should reject democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in favor of social democrats like Joe Biden, whose acceptance of capitalism and whose amenability to compromise means they can actually deliver the goods.

Yet while Berman is correct that Ocasio-Cortez is a very different kind of politician than Biden, the difference between the two doesn’t come down to who offers “viable solutions.” Ocasio-Cortez’s popularity stems directly from her advocacy of a whole host of concrete reforms, from Medicare for All to ending ICE.

Berman’s historical account of the socialist movement, which she uses to impute to contemporary socialists a hostility to reforms, is no more accurate. In fact, her discussion of socialists both contemporary and historical is so far afield from the actual positions they have held that, in reading it, one begins to suspect that she attributes imaginary positions to her ideological opponents in order to avoid confronting their real ones.

Shoddy History

Berman’s history lesson begins like this: in the late nineteenth century, the socialist movement underwent a fragmentation. Capitalism had proven itself more vital and capable of expansion than Marxists had anticipated, and three responses emerged.

The Leninists decided that since capitalism wasn’t going to die on its own, it needed to be killed. The democratic socialists, represented by figures like Rosa Luxemburg, thought that even if capitalism wasn’t currently on its deathbed, it would be soon, so socialists should simply await its departure. Finally, the social democrats, exemplified by the German Eduard Bernstein, recognized that capitalism was here to stay, and proposed concentrating on winning elections — a path to “reform without bloodshed.”

Part of the difficulty in assessing Berman’s argument is that — similar to calling Joe Biden a social democrat — her language remains stubbornly unmoored from the labels used by the figures she is discussing. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky, fierce opponents of Bernstein, called themselves “social democrats” (as did Lenin, for that matter). None of them referred to themselves as democratic socialists, a phrase that really only acquired popular currency after World War II.

But once one gets past the unusual terminology, even the slightest acquaintance with the history is enough to expose Berman’s inaccuracies. Rosa Luxemburg, for instance, is grouped with the French socialist Jules Guesde, a figure who thought reforms were unimportant. Yet in the first paragraph of her most famous pamphlet, Reform or Revolution?, Luxemburg argues, “The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.” Throughout her career, before her murder at the hands of those Berman calls social democrats, Luxemburg was keenly attentive to the struggle for various reforms — writing perceptively, for example, on the tactics of the SPD’s parliamentarians in the campaign for the eight-hour day.

Berman also runs aground when she tries to differentiate Luxemburg and Bernstein on the question of democracy. According to Berman, Bernstein embraced democracy wholeheartedly while Luxemburg viewed it as, at best, a possible means to achieve socialism. But such a verdict is only possible if one equates democracy with parliamentary institutions. Bernstein expressed absolute fidelity to the legislative route to reform, while Luxemburg tended more toward mass extra-parliamentary action.

Even more glaring is Berman’s omission of colonialism. Where Luxemburg was a dedicated foe of European colonialism, Bernstein was one of its most enthusiastic proponents in the socialist movement. “Under direct European rule,” he wrote, “savages are without exception better off than they were before.” He praised the British Raj in India as the height of liberal European colonialism, less than a decade after a series of famines exacerbated by Britain’s imposition of liberal economic policy claimed some 15 million lives on the subcontinent. For Berman, apparently, this is not enough to tarnish Bernstein’s democratic credentials.

Socialists and Reform

Berman’s attempt to paint socialists as opponents of reform becomes even more ridiculous in the context of American history. From the building of the union movement to the fight for women’s liberation in the 1970s, socialists of various stripes have played a central role in reform movements.

The NAACP was founded largely due to the efforts of William English Walling, an American socialist who bitterly opposed Bernsteinism in the American movement. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), perhaps the most important force for egalitarianism in American life in the 1930s and 1940s, was built out of union struggles led by socialists and communists. Even the Industrial Workers of the World, typically remembered for its revolutionary zeal, pressed demands like restricting anti-union injunctions to improve workers’ lives.

This history also reveals a profound flaw in Berman’s argument that parliamentary democracy has delivered “reforms without bloodshed.” Contra Bernstein, winning ameliorative measures has often required high levels of struggle outside the electoral sphere — and capital and the state have been more than willing to spill blood to resist them. The effort to enfranchise black Americans was only won after a series of pitched battles, from demonstrations to free the Scottsboro Boys to marches in Selma amid police batons. The New Deal, the centerpiece of American reform for social democrats like Berman, came only after intense local struggles by radical groups like the Unemployed Leagues, and was extended only after workers battled cops and company thugs to achieve union recognition. Though political democracy has certainly been a critical advance, it is equally true that, by itself, it has all too often proven insufficient to civilize bourgeois society.

What about Berman’s argument that democratic socialists are too hostile to compromise to achieve anything? The contention is somewhat difficult to assess in the US, where socialists have been rigorously excluded from political power. But two broader points are relevant.

First, American liberalism has, if anything, been far too good at compromising. Consider, for instance, Bill Clinton’s adoption of Newt Gingrich’s war on welfare or Barack Obama’s refusal to push through a public option in the Affordable Care Act. Second, and more fundamentally, the compromises that social democrats made throughout the postwar period failed to tame capitalism. The economic crisis of the 1970s undermined the social-democratic institutions built up after World War II, sparking a massive growth of economy inequality, even in places like Sweden.

The result has been increased insecurity for workers and a concomitant rise in far-right parties. While Berman argues that socialists bore the blame for the ascent of fascism in the interwar period, in reality, then as now, it is the crises of capitalism that give the far right room to grow. And social democrats have not succeeded in containing those crises.

The Centrist Cul De Sac

When it comes to contemporary socialists, Berman can’t quite come out and say that they oppose reforms (though the attempt to find them guilty by association with figures like Luxemburg structures much of her article). While Rosa Luxemburg’s writings may be fairly obscure, anybody who has seen Ocasio-Cortez on the news knows she has a laundry list of reforms that would improve people’s lives in the here and now. Instead, Berman shifts tack, asking whether democratic socialists today are willing to make the hard compromises necessary to “protect democracy,” like supporting centrist politicians such as Hillary Clinton in the US or Emmanuel Macron in France.

But if the last few years have shown anything, it is that these sorts of technocratic liberals are poor vehicles for beating back the anti-democratic right. This is perhaps clearest in the case of Macron, who has quickly revealed his own administration to be a threat to democracy and the rule of law. Closer to home, Berman’s lauding of Joe Biden suggests that, while she has written perceptively elsewhere on the failures of the technocrats, she is ultimately more worried about socialists gaining a hearing than the continued dominance of technocratic liberalism. Biden is, after all, currently being fêted by the same forces that argued in the 1980s that the Democratic Party needed to abandon “special interests” like unions, women, and African Americans. The politics of triangulation are what landed us where we are today; they will not be how we get out.

This posture, together with her travesty of socialist history, suggests that the series of questions Berman poses to democratic socialists at the end of her article (“ Is democracy, even when flawed, a means or an end?” “Are democratic socialists willing to abjure ideological purity and accept a politics that is effective, not merely expressive?”) are little more than concern trolling. If Berman were really interested in finding out what socialists today think about a host of issues, from socialist planning to democracy, the answers aren’t hard to find. Rather, her questions serve roughly the same purpose as Hillary Clinton’s infamous response to Bernie Sanders: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow . . . would that end racism? Would that end sexism?”

Clinton was ultimately successful in defeating Sanders in the Democratic primaries. But what is crystal clear is that attempts like Clinton’s and Berman’s to discredit socialism remain thoroughly unconvincing to a generation coming of age in the shadow of the financial crisis. Socialism in the US continues to grow, bringing to mind Rosa Luxemburg’s famous credo for the workers’ movement: “I was, I am, I shall be!”