Democratic Socialism Is a Living Political Tradition

Democratic socialism is a living political tradition that emphasizes the need to weaken the grip of capital, empower the working class, oppose authoritarianism, expand democracy, and shift our economy and society away from private profit and toward the fulfillment of social needs. It’s a vision worth debating — and defending.

A member of the Democratic Socialists of America from San Francisco wears a DSA jacket at a Bernie Sanders rally in Los Angeles on March 1, 2020. Cory Doctorow / Flickr

In June 2019, Bernie Sanders gave a speech at George Washington University about his vision of democratic socialism. For Sanders, democratic socialism represented a “higher path” of “compassion, justice, and love” — and a “political revolution” where working people organized to claim new political and economic rights and freedoms currently denied by capitalism.

He also named some of those systemic barriers: the greed of Wall Street; the insurance and drug companies opposing Medicare for All; the agribusiness and fossil fuel industries accelerating our ecological catastrophe; and the violent military-industrial and carceral complexes that stand behind them all.

Sanders’s two presidential campaigns resonated precisely because of these conditions. They popularized the idea of democratic socialism for a broader American audience than ever before. Yet the deeper meaning of democratic socialism was not preordained prior to the rapid growth of this movement between 2015 and 2020 — it evolved in real time. Today, with Sanders having withdrawn from the race and the Democratic Socialists of America now numbering over seventy thousand members, making it the largest socialist organization in the US going back to at least World War II, pressing questions remain about both the guiding principles and the ultimate horizon of democratic socialism.

The essays gathered in this collection reflect on what makes democratic socialism a distinct political position, both historically and in the present. Taken together, they suggest that democratic socialism is less a systematic political philosophy than a living political tradition — one defined as much by a common intellectual inheritance as by situational circumstances like opposition to authoritarian interpretations of Marxism, the impact of the Cold War, and the legacy of the New Left. This historical legacy distinguishes democratic socialism from both its liberal and communist counterparts, but also reveals the close and symbiotic relationship between these strands of thought.

As a result, the boundaries of democratic socialism as an American political tradition have been rather porous, incorporating both liberal and socialist ideas. For one, Sanders’ praise of Franklin Roosevelt in his 2019 speech reveals how democratic socialists have traditionally found inspiration in the New Deal order. Precipitated by an unprecedented capitalist crisis, the New Deal was enabled by a novel convergence between liberal-progressive reformism and working class militancy — even if, as the contributions by Mimi Abramovitz and Steve Fraser suggest, its achievements were incomplete and ultimately undone by the changes that followed the crises of the 1970s.

The democratic-socialist tradition has also drawn from more radical currents — including the diverse socialist and labor republican movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, the Communist Party USA during the Popular Front years, the New Left of the 1960s, and the antiwar and alter-globalization movements of the 1990s and 2000s. As Stephanie Mudge notes in her essay, these and other movements were a “recurrent, constituent part” of the country’s political life — so much so that the question should not be why there is no socialism in the United States, but rather “why American socialist politics gives rise to such vehement insistence that it does not exist.”

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, what Mudge lists as the real causes behind the erasure of American socialism from popular consciousness — party realignment, racial fissures, anticommunist repression, and the Cold War — were fully replaced with the supposed common sense that socialism was simply intractable in this country. Today’s renewal of democratic socialism is therefore situated between a past that it is fighting to reestablish and an always-uncertain future.

The Socialist Horizon

Most of the essays included in this volume see the aspirational nature of democratic socialism as stemming from navigating between the parallel paths of Communism and European social democracy in the shadow of the Cold War. Contributors like Nancy Holmstrom, Paresh Chattopadhyay, and Stephen Eric Bronner all underscore democratic socialism’s rejection of the Soviet model as a form of domination by an exploitative and repressive state. On the other hand, although some like Sheri Berman maintain there can be a mutually beneficial relationship between capitalism and the welfare state, most democratic socialists also seek to go beyond this model.

This is because, while social-democratic measures may offer some protection to workers from the vagaries of the market, social-democratic governments were historically unable and unwilling to break with capitalism’s structural pressures. Today, the line between social democracy and democratic socialism therefore rests on how possible one thinks it is to weaken the structural power of capital with the goal of transitioning to a socialist society.

Few democratic socialists would disagree that Europe’s relatively generous welfare states were the products of specific historical circumstances, where the postwar economic boom, union density, and barriers to capital flows all led the capitalist classes to buy into the system. Given time, capitalist social relations will undermine the political institutions intended to mitigate their worst effects.

Hence the goal is not to turn back the clock to the Glorious Thirty Years of the postwar order, but to strategically think about how the expansion of social rights that we associate with the social democratic welfare state can be fused with the more ambitious project of transitioning to a society organized around collective ownership and control.

Almost all of the volume’s contributors thus see capitalism as an inherently antidemocratic system that creates an impersonal but hierarchical system of domination. As Peter Hudis notes, democratic socialism must operate within this horizon of a transition to new forms of labor and human relations freed from the constraints of capitalist value production. This acknowledgement of the possibility, if not the historical necessity, of a society organized on better principles, is the beginning point of today’s democratic socialism.

Instead of the capitalist profit motive, democratic socialism envisions new institutions and social relations based on values like solidarity, non-domination, and cooperative interdependence. As Smulewicz-Zucker and Thompson suggest, this vision echoes the republican ideals of nineteenth-century socialist and social democratic working class movements. But it also diverges in important ways from anarchism, the other major offshoot of the republican legacy.

Among the major differences between these traditions, noted by both Kevin Anderson and Barbara Epstein, is anarchists’ traditional reluctance to engage with the state’s representative democratic institutions, instead seeking to establish autonomous spaces of collective life. In contrast, democratic socialists have had a more ambiguous attitude toward the state, seeing electoral and legislative activity as key in winning meaningful short-term reforms and building working-class power.

At the same time, democratic socialists today increasingly see electoral participation as only one facet of a broader political strategy that aims to build independent working class power to such a capacity that it may expand political and economic democracy.

As Fraser correctly observes, voting remains the most passive, private, and individualized form of public participation, especially in representative systems atrophied by counter-majoritarian institutions and informal capitalist power. In calling for the democratization of both the state and social relations, democratic socialists instead draw on an emancipatory understanding of democracy as autonomy, self-organization, and a general condition of equality across social relations.

Here, democratic socialism’s New Left roots also allow it to build on modes of politics beyond electoral activity, through various social movements and instances of self-organization. This comes through in a number of contributions.

Richard Wolff and David Schweikart each raise the possibility of a market socialist economy based on worker-owned and -controlled cooperatives. In their chapter on the Black Panther Party, K. Kim Holder and Joy James explore how its community programs became a form of “theory-in-practice” for socialist education. And Lester Spence argues that democratic socialism also involves re-envisioning the neoliberal city, transforming the public spaces that have become playgrounds for capital and the police into urban sites for new experiences of community and solidarity.

Economic Democracy

Democratic socialism rests on the notion of economic democracy, seeking to empower workers and their communities to take control of the production and distribution of social wealth, and to reinvest it into society. But some of the above “bottom-up” efforts at self-organization have historically been in tension with the planning and coordination of production and investment through the state as the means through which to accomplish economic democracy. Not surprisingly, the question of economic organization leads to some of the clearest disagreements among the essays gathered here.

Some, like Tony Smith, find the germ of this order within contemporary capitalism, insofar as it already rests on socialist practices like worker cooperation, public funding of scientific-technological labor, free collaboration in open-source projects, and collective social knowledge inherited from past generations. From a different perspective, Fred Block reflects on the possibility of a fairly decentralized socialist finance system that would allocate credit for social projects based on priority of needs.

Yet while a number of contributors point toward decentralized measures like participatory budgeting and worker cooperatives, others like Holmstrom argue for the necessity of state planning, both to address the ecological crisis and to free cooperatives from the inevitable competitive pressures they would face even in a market-socialist system.

Despite these differences, there is no question that the ultimate purpose of a socialist economy would be to shift production away from private profit and toward the fulfillment of social needs. This would require radically changing not only how the labor process is organized, but also how we divide our time between work and leisure.

Inherent in the democratic-socialist horizon is a society based on the association of free and equal individuals and a truly social form of labor. As Abramovitz underscores, the social-reproductive labor necessary for capitalist growth is heavily gendered and racialized, placing extra time demands on care workers. In that sense, as Wilson Sherwin argues, the demand for reduced work time and the reclaiming of leisure may bring together a multiracial anti-capitalist struggle and serve as a non-reformist reform providing the working class with further organizational capacity.

Since the DSA’s formation in 1982, democratic socialism in America was indelibly marked by the closing of both the New Deal welfare state and the New Left. It spent the 1990s and much of the early 2000s in the shadow of the disappearance of “actually existing socialism” and the persistence of the neoliberal and neoconservative projects. Today, its renewal is a silver lining in the midst of escalating social, economic, ecological, and political crises whose impact will be felt for generations.

By bringing together a rich and varied set of reflections, An Inheritance for our Times makes an important contribution for helping democratic socialists think through these challenges. What it lacks in a unified programmatic theory of democratic socialism, it provides by demonstrating how its principles continue to be subject to a rich and necessary debate. It underscores that if the democratic socialist movement can hope to preserve and build on its modest gains of the past few years, it must continue to grapple with its own organizational form and practices in light of both its history and the demands of the present.

Only in this way will democratic socialism remain a living and viable political project, avoiding becoming a mere slogan onto which we simply project always-deferred hopes of a collective freedom.