Socialism Means Expanding Democracy to All of Society

Socialism is again a major current in American life, and the Right has been freaking out over it nonstop. Socialists have to explain what we’re really for: giving people a say in how every aspect of their lives is run.

Members of the Transport Workers Union meet in New York City on November 2, 1946. Michael J. Quill, head of the union, speaks to the workers from atop a sound truck. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

A ghost is haunting the United States — the ghost of socialism. All kinds of elites and defenders of the status quo stand united against this demon: presidents and megachurch preachers, Fox News hosts and Facebook censors, Wall Street CEOs and local sheriffs.     

Can you name a single Republican who doesn’t accuse their Democratic opponent of being part of an evil socialist conspiracy? How many Democrats don’t respond by throwing socialists under the bus and claiming to be the only reasonable alternative to left and right extremism? This means two things:

  1. The rich and powerful can see that socialism is a real threat to their way of life.
  2. Now is the time for socialists to let the people know our real beliefs, goals, and strategies, and replace these childish ghost stories with a clear explanation of the better world we’re fighting for.  

How did you like that bold introduction? I kind of stole it from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but it’s okay — we’re all comrades. Here are the opening lines of their Communist Manifesto:

A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?

Two things result from this fact:

I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power.

II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself.

The Communist Manifesto might be the most influential book in the history of the world, if you don’t count the ones about God or teenage wizards. Within months of its publication in 1848, revolutions broke out across Europe. Terrified elites thought that the two young authors must have immense powers, either to prophesy uprisings or to create them. In fact, Marx and Engels had no idea that 1848 would become a historic year, but they did know change was in the air because they had been spending a lot of time with pissed-off workers. Which was and still is an unusual habit for intellectuals.

People in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere didn’t rise up that year because Marx told them to. But after they had taken to the streets, the Manifesto provided many of them with a vision of what their revolt — and future ones — could achieve. This has been the aim of socialism ever since: to demonstrate how the courage and creativity that people already possess can point the way toward a different society that will be built on those qualities rather than be threatened by them.

For capitalists and their servants, socialism has long been a zombie that just won’t die. For almost two hundred years, they’ve had socialists scapegoated, fired, deported, and worse. And then . . . just when they thought it was safe to get back in their yachts . . . there we are again, ghoulishly trying to dismember their mansions and mutilate their inherited wealth.

The Manifesto’s introduction feels especially relevant today. The United States in 2023 isn’t 1848 Paris. But socialism is very much back in the spotlight — and crosshairs. It started with the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements and then burst into full view with the popularity of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the election of dozens of other socialists across the country, and the explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Republicans, whose party symbol is an enormous stomping animal that is terrified at the sight of a mouse, were obsessed with socialism even back when few of us were around, so of course they are freaking out (and fundraising) over the new Red Scare. They demonize Medicare for All as a plot to take away health insurance (huh?) and the Green New Deal as capital punishment for those caught eating a hamburger. I’m surprised some right-wing freedom lover hasn’t yet held a press conference to declare traffic lights a communist plot.

More alarming is the growth of armed militias and delusional mobs that are convinced that everything around them — from vaccine clinics to fourth-grade lesson plans about slavery — is part of a vast communist conspiracy. Social media has accelerated the spread of misinformation, but the sentiment is as old as the first slave patrol. The American Dream has always been to become so rich and powerful that you can spend the rest of your life obsessed that everyone else is out to get you. This is a country that produces $20 trillion in wealth each year but freaks out at poor children asking for help at its border, a place where Land Rover shoppers cry tyranny if the dealership receptionist asks them to put on a mask, and police in full body armor fire panicked rounds into unarmed bodies.

Meanwhile, the socialists they are so scared of are often a tame bunch. From Fox News, we learn about our sinister plans for universal uniforms of gray cardigans and gender reassignment surgeries for anyone caught with a copy of the Constitution, and we shrug in confusion at each other in the church basement where we have monthly meetings: “Did you say that? I didn’t say that.”

The dreaded socialist agenda is actually rather moderate at the moment. Free universal health care is already in place in every other wealthy capitalist country in the world besides the United States. Abolishing ICE and Homeland Security just means going back to the way things were before 9/11. The policies that make up the Green New Deal are more unprecedented but still modest first steps compared to radical changes demanded by global burning.

When Bernie ran for president in 2016, one of his most prominent supporters was former labor secretary Robert Reich, who had recently written a book called Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. It might seem odd that someone who wants to save capitalism would support a candidate who famously calls himself a socialist. But Reich’s vision of a “saved” capitalism was not so far from Sanders’s “democratic socialism,” which he often described as an expansion of the great capitalist reforms of the twentieth century such as Social Security and Medicare.

Many conservatives would argue that this proves that Robert Reich is really a socialist, while some leftists might insist that it shows Bernie Sanders really isn’t one. To me it just shows that capitalism has corrupted politics to the point that you practically have to be a socialist just to push for the most basic and commonsense reforms. This is a big reason why socialism is gaining support, but it’s important to make sure these reforms are seen as our first steps rather than our final goal.

Because few people have had the opportunity to learn what socialism means, much less be involved in a socialist organization, the word can mean almost anything to the left of Joe Rogan. As a result, the word socialism is in the air more than it has been in generations, but more as a floating piece of pink crepe paper rather than a bright red flag. That has begun to change as socialist candidates have helped turn programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal into what is sometimes called a “minimum program” for socialism. Socialists need to build on that minimum and add some more flesh and blood to socialism’s specter.

Socialism is defined less by specific laws than by who has the power to oversee them. It’s about eliminating distinctions between the government and the governed. The reason many people don’t support economic and environmental policies that are “in their interest” is that they don’t think the politicians and bureaucrats who would implement those policies would ever act in their interest. And it’s hard to argue with their experience. That’s why a fuller definition of socialism should start with two simple but far-reaching concepts:

  1. Working people control the government.
  2. The government controls the economy.

Number 2 has been the main feature of many countries that call themselves socialist or communist. But it’s Number 1 — democracy at every level of society — that transforms mere state control of the economy into socialism. Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Rosa Luxemburg were all freedom fighters living under kings and dictators. They were socialists because they concluded that full democracy was impossible under capitalism. By democracy, they didn’t mean having a vote on one day in November, but taking an active part in all of society’s important decisions.

Because we are so used to picturing the masters of both government and economy as narrow centralized powers that rule over us from a handful of buildings, it is hard for us to picture changes in society that go beyond replacing the people in those buildings with others who are hopefully more honest and noble. Socialism wouldn’t just replace those people but the system that centralizes so much power in a few buildings. It would broaden the bases of decision-making to thousands of buildings and public squares and community centers. It is a system in which the people control the government by changing what government means.

Unlike billionaire dreams of libertarian moon colonies, these ideas have come not from unchecked imaginations and egos but from the concrete experience of popular resistance. Socialists first got a glimpse of revolutionary mass democracy, for example, in 1871, when an uprising in France created the revolutionary citywide assembly known as the Paris Commune. This was a new form of government in which officials were paid no more than the average worker’s wage and were immediately recallable if voters were unhappy with them. An excited Marx noted that “instead of deciding once in three years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent them,” the commune allowed voters to replace those elected as easily as bosses can replace employees in the workplace.

Just as democracy should exist beyond Election Day, it should also exist outside government buildings. Socialism is about giving people a say in how every aspect of their lives is run, which is not only noble but also more effective. Ten years ago, I got a taste of this potential as a minor participant in Occupy Wall Street. What started as a tiny protest encampment on the doorstep of some of the world’s most powerful banks soon sprouted committees that created kitchens, libraries, art, and whatever projects anybody wanted to pursue — from supporting nearby picket lines to challenging deportations and foreclosures. Others have had similar experiences in local mutual aid networks that have sprung up during the COVID pandemic and after natural disasters, as well as in indigenous-led protest encampments to stop oil pipelines. Many would agree with Occupy participant Nathan Schneider, who wrote that “the skill and imagination on display mounted ever more as an indictment of the alienated world outside that kept us from sharing what we could do with each other, tricked us into selling our time and talents for money.”

It is this type of radical participatory democracy, functioning as the foundation of a centrally organized political and economic system, that is the heart of the socialist vision. Many older people know that the name of Russia’s “communist” government was the Soviet Union, but few know that soviet was Russian for council. The Russian Revolution was created and (briefly) led by democratically elected soviets, which sprang up in factories, military barracks, and peasant villages across the country to conduct the revolution in their local areas and elect delegates to the regional and national soviet government.

“No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented,” wrote the great socialist journalist John Reed in 1919 about these unique councils. As with the Paris Commune, delegates to the soviet could be voted out immediately by unhappy voters. Housewives, domestic servants, and other working people who didn’t labor in factories could organize themselves into bodies and gain representation in the soviets. Only employers and police were excluded.

Soviets and other democratic working-class bodies have popped up in many other revolutions in the past century, including in Spain in 1936. Here is how George Orwell described Barcelona that year in his thrilling Homage to Catalonia:

Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said “Señor” or “Don” or even “Usted”; everyone called everyone else “Comrade” or “Thou,” and said “Salud!” instead of “Buenos dias.” . . . And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no “well-dressed” people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

You may know Orwell as the author of Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm, which are taught in many schools as works of anti-socialist propaganda. You probably don’t know that Orwell was a socialist who rejected dictatorships that called themselves communist but supported the real thing when he saw it. (Unfortunately, Orwell’s rightful mistrust of the authoritarian government that emerged out of the Russian Revolution led him in his final days to send a list of suspected communists to a secret agency inside the British government — which, if you’ve read the end of Nineteen Eighty-four, you’ll know is the most Orwellian ending imaginable.)

The revolutions in Russia and Spain didn’t last. Neither did Occupy Wall Street, for that matter, or Bernie’s presidential campaigns. That doesn’t prove that the task of socialism is impossible — any more than the history of dozens of failed slave insurrections proved that plantation slavery would never end. But it does mean that we too are haunted, by our fears of the capitalist future but also by the failures of previous generations. These defeats, Marx once wrote, “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” which means that socialists have zombie issues of our own.

It’s often said that socialism has been proven not to work. Some of this is blatant propaganda, like the common right-wing claim that socialism has killed a hundred million people. This strangely round number is arrived at by counting all the victims of horrific famines in the early years of self-proclaimed communist governments in China and the Soviet Union. But anti-communists never do the same math for capitalism. It’s estimated that ninety million people die around the world of starvation every single decade — and that’s before we include the hundreds of millions who have died from capitalist wars, enslavement, and genocide.

But capitalism’s cruel failures don’t change the fact that neither “communist” dictatorships nor the limited reforms of “socialist” elected governments have succeeded in creating the liberated democratic societies that Marx and Engels described in the Manifesto.

Socialists don’t have all the answers for how to move humanity past capitalism — not if we’re being honest. That means that even as our movement is making a historic comeback, we are still relatively weak and timid, especially in the face of a menacing right wing that benefits from an unbalanced political order where a few thousand delusional dingbats seem to carry as much weight as millions of Black Lives Matter protesters. It’s exciting to see radical demands enter mainstream discussion, but we’re still living in a funhouse mirror world where one side openly plots armed attacks on Capitol buildings and the other wonders if it’s allowed to say “defund the police” out loud.

The alarming rise of fascist marches and white supremacist groups has exposed for many some of the deep injustices that have always been at the heart of the American political and economic order. This has both pushed many progressives closer to socialism and made many afraid of radicals taking things too far and creating a backlash. This is a major reason why Bernie Sanders lost the 2020 Democratic nomination to Joe Biden. Bernie was the most popular politician in the country, while Joe was a human version of a fourth-place trophy at a karate tournament. But Democratic primary voters chose the guy who stood for doing nothing in the hope that his mediocrity would be less threatening to their neighbors and keep them from voting for Donald Trump. That strategy may have helped win the election for Democrats, but it did nothing to address the deeper issues that got us into the kind of mess that made it even thinkable for Trump to get votes from anyone beyond his fellow superrich creeps on Jeffrey Epstein’s frequent-flyer plan.

The specific circumstances of the 2020 election may have been unique, but we always face hard choices between hope and fear. Any step toward progressive change — whether through elections, strikes, or protests — inevitably unleashes the vortex of fury, panic, and slander that has always rained down on those who fight for liberty and justice for all. When our anxiety about this reaction leads us to water down our hopes and lower our demands, it doesn’t stop our opponents from growing. It makes their side more confident, our side more timid, and reinforces the tilted logic of a political system where Republicans excitedly welcome delusional conspiracy theorists and Democrats kneecap their most popular members for wanting everyone to have health care.

But it’s also true that elites and reactionaries truly do see the specter of socialism everywhere — just as they did when Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto. And there is a reason for that. Among elites there are always some dolts who really think they earned what they have, but there are also smarter ones who are acutely aware that their power and privilege comes from an unjust order. This can often make conservatives more sensitive than liberals to just how vulnerable capitalism really is.

There is some truth, therefore, in right-wing fears that all social welfare programs carry within them the dangerous germ of socialism. When Republicans preach that we’re heading down the fiery road of communist damnation because we’re not letting enough people die of hunger and disease, they are pointing out that these programs are proof that capitalism cannot meet society’s most basic needs.

Here’s another example. In 2003, the Supreme Court finally overturned a Texas law that had criminalized gay sex, and the super-conservative justice Antonin Scalia warned that “if moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is ‘no legitimate state interest’ . . . what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples?” At the time, no states had legalized same-sex marriage, and many liberal commentators scoffed that Scalia was using scare tactics by raising the far-fetched prospect of gay people getting married. But Scalia was right, which for once was a good thing.

Then, as marriage equality laws spread across the country, conservatives shouted that traditional gender roles were being undermined, liberals again dismissed their desperate alarmism, and again the conservatives turned out to have good reason to worry. Same-sex marriage has indeed undermined assumptions not only about sexuality but gender as well. Children and teens especially are far more likely now to dress and think of themselves in the way that feels right to them, and not in accordance with some imagined prehistoric gendered chore wheel where Man = Hunt, Woman = Gather. (On the other hand, as many exasperated activists would point out, most of the biggest LGBTQ organizations focused on the “respectable” — that is, better for fundraising — issue of marriage equality at the expense of fighting for trans rights. The resulting paradox is that trans and nonbinary people have unprecedented cultural impact but face terrifying legal assaults across the country.)

Liberals generally define themselves as the rational middle between extremists on both sides and think that if everyone just listened to reason, there wouldn’t be so much conflict. This makes them both annoying at parties and unreliable in struggle — cheering on protests at first, but then, when the backlash inevitably comes, assuming that radicals must have provoked it by pushing for too much too soon. In truth, they are the ones with the wild delusion: that this system merely needs a few repairs here and there, even as it staggers under the weight of ecological collapse and billionaire-funded fascism.

Liberals mock Republicans for being irrationally haunted by the specter of socialist barbarians at the gates. But socialists know that ghosts are real. They are the pale hints of a world beyond the one we can see in our daily lives. Our job is to maintain the courage to keep walking in their direction, even when we’re not entirely sure of the way, and to keep reminding one another that we have nothing to lose but our nightmares.