The Limits of Democratic Socialism

Democratic socialism has become increasingly popular within the last seven years — particularly among millennials and Gen-Zers. This trend has largely been fueled by Bernie Sanders’s two consecutive presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, along with the rise in prominence of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Indeed, it is no surprise why so many young people are flocking toward socialism. People in my generation have been saddled with crushing college debt, low-paid, non-unionized jobs, a lifetime of endless war, and the brutal reality of the ever escalating climate crisis.

As J.T. Chapman observes in his socialist YouTube series, “Second Thought,” for millennials, the “Good old days,” never existed. Many of us came of age during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then our early adult lives have been defined by the Iraq war, the Great Recession, COVID-19, and the Trump presidency. (No wonder we are all so screwed up!) Most of us will never achieve the stable, middle-class life our parents enjoyed.

Thus, it makes sense that young working-class Americans would be drawn to figures like Sanders who offer proposals to ameliorate some of capitalism’s worst ravages.

But what exactly is “democratic socialism”? Why do its adherents feel the need to stipulate that it is “democratic”? Isn’t socialism inherently democratic? (Spoiler alert: It is — far more so than capitalism.) Do they call themselves “democratic socialists” in an effort to distance themselves from (ostensibly) “authoritarian” forms of socialism and something called “Stalinism”?

Social Democracy: Socialism without the struggle

Democratic socialism (or social democracy; the two terms are more or less interchangeable) is an effort to curb or lessen the power of capital and the bourgeoisie without actually engaging in a revolution. Democratic socialists promote policies that improve working-class conditions such as unions, a living wage, rent control, and (here in the U.S.) universal health care.

Social Democrats like Eduard Bernstein, a prominent member in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) believed that, with the right reforms, capitalism would naturally transition into socialism. Workers’ conditions were improving in Germany during the early part of the 20th century, largely thanks to mass unionization efforts. As such, Bernstein naively believed that class antagonisms were no longer as sharp and intense as they “once were.” No messy, violent working-class revolution would be necessary.

And Bernstein was not alone in this view, which has been termed “revisionism” for the way that it attempts to “revise” and “modernize” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ ideas. An entire “revisionist” wing existed within the SPD — the largest socialist party in Europe, at the time. The revisionist moderates viewed peaceful reforms as a more “realistic” path to socialism. Socialism, for Bernstein’s revisionist wing of the SPD, was “no longer an economic, but rather a moral, imperative,” writes Paul D’Amato* in his socialist primer, The Meaning of Marxism, “and as such could also be an idea appealing to the well-do-do.”

For Bernstein, in a rather revealing statement, “the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.” Bernstein envisioned socialists and business owners co-existing peacefully, so long as the former did not “demand too much” from the latter. So long as socialists only focused on incremental, piecemeal changes, perhaps they would not “provoke reaction” from the bourgeoisie. In other words, social democracy is an attempt to appease the elite.

But, as Rosa Luxemburg, one of the more radical members of the SPD, observed, the revisionists have not undertaken a “shortcut” to socialism. Theirs is not a more “tranquil, calmer, and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal,” she wrote in her classic Marxist essay, Reform or Revolution. (Emphasis hers.)

“Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society,” writes Luxemburg.

If we follow the political conceptions of revisionism, we arrive at the same conclusion that is reached when we follow the economic theories of revisionism. Our program becomes not the realization of socialism, but the reform of capitalism: not the suppression of the system of wage labor, but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of the suppression of capitalism itself. [Emphasis in original.]

Vote Harder!

Democratic socialists tend to prioritize electoralism over traditional forms of protest and activism. They believe that if we simply elect enough democratic socialists into Congress or Parliament, they will “legislate” socialism into existence. If only it were that easy! Democratic socialists share this myopic focus on voting with liberals.

Marx and Engels ridiculed this desire to place all hopes in the electoral system as, “parliamentary cretinism.” This was not to suggest that Marx and Engels saw no value in elections. For them, elections were prime opportunities for socialists to “bring before the public their revolutionary attitude.”

However, the pair were highly critical of social democrats who seemed to put off socialism “as an heirloom for their children,” while focusing all their attention on “all sorts of trifles, tinkering away at the capitalist social order so that at least something should appear to be done without at the same time alarming the bourgeoisie.”

Sadly, the historical record of democratic socialists in government has mostly confirmed Marx and Engels’s skepticism of the electoralist strategy. During the First World War, the leaders of the SPD, along with the leaders of the other major socialist parties in Europe, cast their support for their “own” government’s war effort. They did so in direct defiance of the principles of working-class internationalism.

Likewise, the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, was brought down, in 1973, in part, by Allende’s unwillingness to smash the state apparatus. Allende’s commitment to Chilean “constitutionalism,” and a “peaceful road to socialism,” came at the expense of refusing to back the numerous working-class uprisings that had erupted in the wake of his presidency. Allende’s cabinet was eventually overthrown in a violent, U.S.-backed military coup on September 11, 1973 — known as the “other 9/11.”

“The whole process of seeking electoral victory at all costs,” writes D’Amato, “create[s] a trend among the socialists committed above all else to winning elections to broaden their mass appeal by toning down their politics. Instead of politics being guided by principles, reformism fell into opportunism…”

D’Amato continues:

“This has certainly been the experience of socialist parties that have been elected to office throughout history. Instead of challenging capitalism, they have ended up as its apologists, adapting to it rather than transforming it.”

“… We are capitalists. That’s just the way it is.” — Nancy Pelosi

Yet, despite all of this history, the DSA — the largest socialist organization in the country — remains almost exclusively focused on electoralism. The key difference, however, is that DSA runs “democratic socialists” for office not as independent candidates, but as members of the bourgeois, imperialist, Democratic Party. DSA leaders justify this approach by insisting they are merely “using” the Democratic Party’s “ballot line,” in an effort to eventually “take the party over.”

But this is not a new strategy. Leftists have been attempting to “takeover” the Democratic Party for decades. And every effort — from the failed campaigns of Jesse Jackson, to Dennis Kucinich, to Bernie Sanders’s two presidential runs — has ended with the “progressive” candidate ultimately dropping out of the race, and corralling all of his supporters to the “lesser evil” Democrat on Election Day.

Even DSA’s moderate success with congressional candidates like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) has demonstrated the limits of this “inside-outside” approach toward the Democratic Party. Members of the so-called “Squad” have largely failed in their minimal efforts to force a vote on Medicare for All or in opposing military-spending.

Furthermore, DSA’s narrow focus on electoralism comes at the cost of participation in genuine instances of class struggle. DSA was all but absent during the historic, multi-racial Black Lives Matter uprisings, following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020. (Many DSA members participated in these protests, to be certain. But they generally did so as individuals — not as a unified organization or local DSA chapter.)

DSA leaders were, instead, more interested in ensuring Joe “Shoot ’em in the leg!” Biden’s presidential victory of Donald Trump.

Opportunism Knocks

In every instance, democratic socialism has the effect of cutting off radical class-struggle movements and funneling them back into the “proper channels” of bourgeois electoral politics or the Democratic Party. This phenomenon is known, in Marxist vernacular, as “opportunism.”

Lenin wrote of the dangers of opportunism within the socialist movement — presented by supporters under the vague slogan of championing “freedom of criticism” of “dogmatic” Marxism — in his 1902 text, What is to Be Done?

“He who does not deliberately close his eyes cannot fail to see that the new ‘critical’ trend in socialism is nothing more … than a new variety of opportunism,” Lenin wrote. (Italics his.)

And if we judge people, not by the glittering uniforms they don or by the high-sounding appellations they give themselves, but by their actions and by what they actually advocate, it will be clear that “freedom of criticism” means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy [socialism], freedom to convert Social-Democracy into a democratic party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism.

“‘Freedom’ is a grand word,” Lenin continues, “but under the banner of freedom for industry the most predatory wars were waged, under the banner of freedom of labour, the working people were robbed. The modern use of the term ‘freedom of criticism’ contains the same inherent falsehood…. The cry heard today, ‘Long live freedom of criticism,’ is too strongly reminiscent of the fable of the empty barrel.”

While many democratic socialists no doubt come from a genuine place of radicalism or commitment to anti-capitalist politics (and some of them, indeed, eventually radicalize further to the left), democratic socialism nonetheless remains a potentially fatal cul-de-sac for the left.

But, isn’t democratic socialism better than nothing…?

Despite frequent claims that democratic socialism can serve as an “entry point” or introduction to socialism for young people, more often than not the bait-and-switch of democratic socialism has the opposite effect: Newly-radicalized young socialists are pulled away from genuine communism, towards liberalism. They ultimately end up pursuing policies or reforms that offer little more than capitalism with a happy face.

As such, we should remain skeptical of leftists’ calls to join the DSA with the intent of “pushing it to the left,” or “radicalizing it from within.” A more effective approach, in my opinion, is to agitate for the more radical socialists within DSA (of which there are, to be certain, many) to split from the organization in a manner not dissimilar to the Bolshevik-Menshevik split within the Russian Communist Party. To date, I have heard a fair amount of rhetoric supporting this latter strategy from comrades within DSA, but no tangible, organizational action to implement it.

Sadly, what I have seen — at least online, anyway — are comrades accusing anyone who refuses to join DSA of “ultra-leftism.” This is a gross distortion of Lenin’s argument in Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

It is true that Lenin, in that polemic, argued that socialists should not completely shun parliamentary elections as a “matter of principle.” But Lenin here is referring to the strategy of socialists running their own candidates for office. Lenin likely would have balked at the idea of Marxists joining an imperialist, unaccountable bourgeois party of Wall Street in an effort to spread socialism.

As Marx writes in his biting description of social democrats:

“When the ‘Red Spectre,’ continually conjured up and exercised by the counterrevolutionaries finally appears, it appears not with the Phrygian cap of anarchy on its head, but in the uniform of order with red breeches.”

Thus, the goal of socialists remains the same: We must continue to agitate within our offices, workplaces, stores, and schools for genuine class struggle and a complete break from the “proper channels” of protest. And we must do so with a clear understanding that democratic socialism can only get us so far towards working-class emancipation.

*D’Amato is a Trotskyist and former member of the defunct International Socialist Organization. Nonetheless, his 2014 book, The Meaning of Marxism — though rather dated in its examples of Barack Obama’s presidency — is an accessible, highly readable introduction to socialism and Marxist theory. Just skip over Chapter Nine (“Russia: The God that Failed?”), entirely.

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Adam Marletta

Writer, socialist, and coffee-fiend. I have written for the West End News, Socialist Worker, a bunch of decidedly less interesting publications.