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What Democratic Socialism Is and Is Not


In recent weeks, Donald Trump and other Republicans have begun to tar their Democratic opponents with the “socialist” brush, contending that the adoption of socialist policies will transform the United States into a land of dictatorship and poverty.  “Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism,” Trump warned the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in early March.  “They want to replace individual rights with total government domination.” In fact, though, like many of Trump’s other claims, there’s no reason to believe it.

The ideal of socialism goes back deep into human history and, at its core, is based on the notion that wealth should be shared more equitably between the rich and the poor.  Numerous major religions have emphasized this point, criticizing greed and, like the revolutionary peasants of 16th century Germany and the rebellious Diggers of 17th century England, preaching the necessity for “all God’s children” to share in the world’s abundance.  The goal of increased economic equality has also mobilized numerous social movements and rebellions, including America’s Populist movement and the French Revolution.

But how was this sharing of wealth to be achieved?  Religious leaders often emphasized charity.  Social movements developed communitarian living experiments.  Revolutions seized the property of the rich and redistributed it.  And governments began to set aside portions of the economy to enhance the welfare of the public, rather than the profits of the wealthy few.

In the United States, governments at the local, state, and federal level created a public sector alongside private enterprise.  The American Constitution, drafted by the Founding Fathers, provided for the establishment of a U.S. postal service, which quickly took root in American life.  Other public enterprises followed, including publicly-owned and operated lands, roads, bridges, canals, ports, schools, police forces, water departments, fire departments, mass transit systems, sewers, sanitation services, dams, libraries, parks, hospitals, food and nutrition services, and colleges and universities.  Although many of these operated on a local level, others were nationwide in scope and became very substantial operations, including Social Security, Medicare, National Public Radio, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. armed forces.  In short, over the centuries the United States has developed what is often termed “a mixed economy,” as have many other countries.

Nations also found additional ways to socialize (or share) the wealth.  These included facilitating the organization of unions and cooperatives, as well as establishing a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and a progressive tax policy―one with the highest levies on the wealthy and their corporations.

Over the course of U.S. history, these policies, sometimes termed “social democracy,” have enriched the lives of most Americans and have certainly not led to dictatorship and economic collapse.  They are also the kind championed by Bernie Sanders and other democratic socialists.

Why, then, does a significant portion of the American population view socialism as a dirty word?  One reason is that many (though not all) of the wealthy fiercely object to sharing their wealth and possess the vast financial resources that enable them to manipulate public opinion and pull American politics rightward.  After all, they own the corporate television and radio networks, control most of the major newspapers, dominate the governing boards of major institutions, and can easily afford to launch vast public relations campaigns to support their economic interests.  In addition, as the largest source of campaign funding in the United States, the wealthy have disproportionate power in politics.  So it’s only natural that their values are over-represented in public opinion and in election results.

But there’s another major reason that socialism has acquired a bad name:  the policies of Communist governments.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, socialist parties were making major gains in economically advanced nations.  This included the United States, where the Socialist Party of America, between 1904 and 1920, elected socialists to office in 353 towns and cities, and governed major urban centers such as Milwaukee and Minneapolis.  But, in Czarist Russia, an economically backward country with a harsh dictatorship, one wing of the small, underground socialist movement, the Bolsheviks, used the chaos and demoralization caused by Russia’s disastrous participation in World War I to seize power.  Given their utter lack of democratic experience, the Bolsheviks (who soon called themselves Communists) repressed their rivals (including democratic socialists) and established a one-party dictatorship.  They also created a worldwide body, the Communist International, to compete with the established socialist movement, which they denounced fiercely for its insistence on democratic norms and civil liberties.

In the following decades, the Communists, championing their model of authoritarian socialism, made a terrible mess of it in the new Soviet Union, as well as in most other lands where they seized power or, in Eastern Europe, took command thanks to post-World War II occupation by the Red Army.  Establishing brutal dictatorships with stagnating economies, these Communist regimes alienated their populations and drew worldwide opprobrium.  In China, to be sure, the economy has boomed in recent decades, but at the cost of supplementing political dictatorship with the heightened economic inequality accompanying corporate-style capitalism.

By contrast, the democratic socialists―those denounced and spurned by the Communists―did a remarkably good job of governing their countries.  In the advanced industrial democracies, where they were elected to office on numerous occasions and defeated on others, they fostered greater economic and social equality, substantial economic growth, and political freedom.

Their impact was particularly impressive in the Scandinavian nations.  For example, about a quarter of Sweden’s vibrant economy is publicly-owned.  In addition, Sweden has free undergraduate college/university tuition, monthly stipends to undergraduate students, free postgraduate education (e.g. medical and law school), free medical care until age 20 and nearly free medical care thereafter, paid sick leave, 480 days of paid leave when a child is born or adopted, and nearly free day-care and preschool programs.  Furthermore, Sweden has 70 percent union membership, high wages, four to seven weeks of vacation a year, and an 82-year life expectancy.  It can also boast the ninth most competitive economy in the world.  Democratic socialism has produced similar results in Norway and Denmark.

Of course, democratic socialism might not be what you want.  But let’s not pretend that it’s something that it’s not.

Lawrence Wittner (https://www.lawrenceswittner.com/ ) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Ogden Monk March 28, 2019 7:33 pm 

    The term for the political economies of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is social democracy. Most of Sweden’s industries are privately owned, but with strong unions and a large public sector. To move into the paradigm of socialism the majority of enterprises would have to be worker-owned and community directed. The state might be the owner-director of the natural monopolies and the ‘commons.’ Rather than wresting economic power from an ownership elite, the economic power would reside in the hands of the people.

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