So what is democratic socialism? Both the Washington Post and NY Times recently tried to answer that question. In the first Democratic presidential debate candidate Bernie Sanders described in part what it means for him to be a democratic socialist:
And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent - almost - own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.
That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have - we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.
For Sanders, economic justice and leveling the opportunity and income gap between the rich and poor is what part of what it means to be a democratic socialist. Yet historically the term has meant more that economic justice, it also included democratic control of the economy.
Democratic socialism emerges as a political movement in response to Karl Marx’s criticism of capitalism in the mid nineteenth century. To simplify, Marx had argued that the core problem of capitalism was a class exploitation and struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat where the latter sells labor power which is extracted as surplus value by the former. The bourgeoisie own the means of production and over time in their race to maintain profits they increasingly replace human labor power with machines, they drive down wages placing more and more individuals into poverty. This process creates an economic crisis, intensifying class struggle, and eventually creating conditions for a capitalist struggle. As the theory was eventually amended by Engels, it suggested an economic inevitability for the revolution. With Lenin, the communist party would serve as a vanguard movement to lead the revolution. As further amended by Stalin, this party in practice was highly undemocratic.
Starting in the late nineteenth century individuals such as Eduard Bernstein in Evolutionary Socialism argued that the revolutionary tactics and economic inevitability of the revolution were not practical or certain. He and others agreed with much of the basic criticism of Marx but instead tied the future of a classless society to parliamentary democracy. Specifically, the emphasis was upon linking universal franchise to socialist ideals with the hope that socialism could be brought about by elections. For Bernstein, socialism was an ethical imperative, it was about treating everyone with respect, and it was grounded in the French Revolution ideas of promoting “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” It was taking the ideals of political liberalism and translating them into economic democracy. In effect, workers would have democratic control not just of the government but of the economy.
There was serious debate over whether parliamentary socialism was possible, with writers such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, and Leon Trotsky reaching various conclusions. But the core argument about what constituted democratic socialism centered on democratic control of the marketplace–it was democratic control of capitalism. It was about ensuring that workers and not capitalists made decisions about what to invest, not letting the choice simply remain in the boardrooms of corporate executives.
The dividing line between democratic socialism and what we might call enlightened capitalism or liberalism is significant. John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy argued that social injustices could be addressed by simple redistribution of economic resources–the classic welfare state. Here the government would tax the rich and redistribute economic resources, or use its power to improve the economy. Eventually this would be the Keynesian economics of the New Deal and Great Society. It is state capitalism for the benefit for middle class and poor, but it is still capitalism. Yes, the government can act and manipulate the economy for the benefit of the people, but it can also do that for the benefit of the rich. This is what the US government has essentially done for the last couple of generations, and this is the criticism that Sanders is leveling.
In so many ways, Sanders is a left liberal following Mill and Keynes–we can use state capitalism to augment economic redistributions–but he is not a democratic socialist in the classic meaning where the emphasis is upon democratizing both the political and economic systems. It is about subordinating market choices and the free market to serving democratic imperatives.
Michael Harrington was perhaps America’s finest theoretician of democratic socialism. He was one of the founders of the Democratic Socialists of America. His book The Other America in the early 1960s is one of the clearest criticims of American capitalism and it inspired many. But in his Socialism Past & Future he crisply defines democratic socialism as:
[D]emocraticization of decision making in the everyday economy, of micro as well as micro choices. It looks primarily but not exclusively to the decentralized, face-to-face participation of the direct produces and their choices in determining the matters that shape their social lives. It is not a formula of a specific legal mode of ownership, but a principle of empowering people at the base...This project can inspire a series of structural reforms that introduce new modes of social ownership into a mixed economy.
Democratic socialism is not the central state planning of the economy where the government owns all the businesses. It is as Alec Nove describes in the Economics of Feasible Socialism a variety of business types, but all are connected by the idea that there is democratic control over basic economic choices. What China has with its state-owned enterprises is not socialism, it is state capitalism, and mostly to the benefit of a few. Few Chinese have much say over the economic choices being made in that country, one where there is a sharper and sharper class divide.
Democratic socialism for Harrington, and Dorothy Day, as well as Norman Thomas, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman, is also as Bernstein argued, infused with ethical imperatives about respecting human dignity and the banner of individual rights as articulated by classical writers such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Democratic socialism would assail the power of the rich and of corporations in America, contending that is not enough just to tax them and redistribute wealth. Instead, it is about saying they do not get to make the political and economic choices that govern the rest of society. It is saying that the people get to own the economy and decide for themselves. Capitalism does not dictate how democracy operates, it is vice-versa.
This is what democratic socialism has historically meant. Hillary Clinton is not a democratic socialist. Nor is Obama. Both are state capitalists. Sanders may or may not be one or he may be redefining what the term means. But orthodox democratic socialism is something different than what Sanders described in the first Democratic Party debate.