Socialist Strategy Articles

Toward Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice

The Democratic Socialist Vision

by Joseph Schwartz and Jason Schulman

Democratic socialists believe that the individuality of each human being can only be developed in a society embodying the values of liberty, equality, and solidarity. These beliefs do not entail a crude conception of equality that conceives of human beings as equal in all respects. Rather, if human beings are to develop their distinct capacities they must be accorded equal respect and opportunities denied them by the inequalities of capitalist society, in which the life opportunities of a child born in the inner city are starkly less than that of a child born in an affluent suburb. A democratic community committed to the equal moral worth of each citizen will socially provide the cultural and economic necessities—food, housing, quality education, healthcare, childcare—for the development of human individuality.

Achieving this diversity and opportunity necessitates a fundamental restructuring of our socioeconomic order. While the freedoms that exist under democratic capitalism are gains of popular struggle to be cherished, democratic socialists argue that the values of liberal democracy can only be fulfilled when the economy as well as the government is democratically controlled.

We cannot accept capitalism’s conception of economic relations as “free and private,” because contracts are not made among economic equals and because they give rise to social structures which undemocratically confer power upon some over others. Such relationships are undemocratic in that the citizens involved have not freely deliberated upon the structure of those institutions and how social roles should be distributed within them (e.g., the relationship between capital and labor in the workplace or men and women in child rearing). We do not imagine that all institutional relations would wither away under socialism, but we do believe that the basic contours of society must be democratically constructed by the free deliberation of its members.

The democratic socialist vision does not rest upon one sole tradition; it draws upon Marxism, religious and ethical socialism, feminism, and other theories that critique human domination. Nor does it contend that any laws of history preordain the achievement of socialism. The choice for socialism is both moral and political, and the fullness of its vision will never be permanently secured. 

Marx’s Analysis of Capitalism: Social Production Versus Private Control

Karl Marx—whose work is particularly relevant in our era of “globalization”—recognized that capitalism represented an increase in human freedom and productive power. Under feudalism, political and economic life had been merged. Born a serf, one remained a serf, subject to the political and economic domination of one’s lord. Capitalism freed the economic sphere from the domination of the political. Under capitalism, the worker and capitalist contracted with one another free of the burdens of traditional religious or status relations.

Though the rise of capitalist economic relations in Europe predates political democracy by over two centuries, the rhetoric of freedom of contract and legal equality that arose during capitalism’s infancy in the 17th century contributed to the growth of movements for political democracy. In a capitalist democracy, one’s economic status, in theory, does not affect one’s political and legal status. All members of society are to be judged equally before the law and have the equal right to participate politically (one person, one vote). But Marx illustrated that the inequalities in “civil society” (or economic life) undercut the promise of political equality. In the political “free market” for votes, capital has more influence than labor, and this structural inequality erodes the promise of political democracy. But Marx argued against authoritarian socialists who dismissed political democracy as merely "bourgeois,” as it is the existence of political democracy that enables the working class to mobilize its numbers against concentrated economic power.

In retrospect, however, Marx did not make clear his commitment to political democracy. Marx often implied that under advanced socialism—communism—control of production by the “free association of producers” would end the need for politics. But even a society characterized by worker self-management of production and distribution would need political pluralism; there is no reason to think that there is one exact “right” answer as to how socialism should be constructed, or that there is no politics apart from economic issues. Democratic debates over policy are, therefore, inevitable.

Marx did not only argue that capitalism undermined democracy. He argued against the very essence of it as an economic system. In his analysis, capitalism was an exploitative mode of production in which the capitalist class extracted “surplus value” from the working class. For the first time in human history, labor power itself was sold as a free commodity on the market. No longer were people slaves or serfs to their masters. Workers were free to sell their labor power to whatever capitalist chose to employ them. But the asymmetry of power in this alleged “free exchange” is that while the capitalist class owns the means of production, the working class only has their labor power to sell. This asymmetry means that while capitalists pay labor a “living wage,” the value of this wage (the value of labor power) is always less than the value of the commodities produced by the workers’ labor—if capital could not make a profit it would not employ labor. Workers’ needs under capitalism are always subordinate to the bottom line.

Marx explained that capitalism required a high level of organization and direction, which the profit motive alone could not provide. Production was becoming a more “social” enterprise, touching all of society’s diverse interests. Yet these social forces of production are still controlled by private capitalists, and now also by top-level corporate managers who share an interest in long-run profitability.

Socialists therefore argue that private corporate property is not only wrong, but also nonsensical. Wealth is a social creation and should be controlled by society as a whole. Of course, socialists must take seriously objections that there would be a need for expertise (say, for surgeons and engineers) and job specialization under socialism. The division of labor might well be eroded by the rotation of menial tasks, frequent sabbaticals, job retraining, shortening the workweek, and increasing the creativity of “leisure” activity. But however we organize the division of labor—the structure of careers and life opportunities—it should be decided democratically and not by the accident of chance or of opportunities conferred or denied by one’s class position.

Class Structure and Political Agency: The Imperative of a Coalition Strategy

Marx did not believe that workers’ revolution would occur because of socialism’s moral desirability or the wisdom of socialists. Rather, he posited that the increasingly interdependent nature of capitalist production would come into conflict with the private ownership and control of economic resources. For Marx, only the working class had a common interest in revolution and the structural power within the mode of production to carry it out. But it would take political organization for the working class to fulfill its potential as the social agent of revolution.

It turned out that Marx was overly optimistic about the development of class-consciousness and revolutionary activity on the part of the working class. Though Marx recognized that the working class was divided by functional tasks, ethnicity, and race, he believed that trade union struggle and political activity would engender a universal identity on the part of the working class committed to socialism. But the paradox of mature capitalism is its coexistence with universal suffrage. In no country has there yet been mobilized a conscious majority for socialism. This is not to deny the significant popular support for social democratic and labor parties that favor a mixed economy and greater socioeconomic equality. But even in Sweden there has yet to develop a conscious electoral majority for a cooperatively-run economy.

Why is it that in the 20th century there never emerged a conscious majority for socialism under liberal democracy? It is partially due to socialism’s identification with authoritarian Communism. It may also be because prosperity after World War II enabled capitalist welfare states to satisfy the material needs of most of their populations. What’s more, the “capital strike” by business, which has confronted ambitious Socialist governments such as the Allende regime in Chile and the Mitterrand regime in France, makes clear the risks governments take when they try to limit the rights of capital.

Marxists have often underestimated the functional differentiation among working people and the growth of a “middle strata” made up of those who are neither professionals nor blue-collar manual laborers. Today the number of working people who exercise some control over their labor and over others but who are not top-level managers is large (e.g., legal, financial, and medical professions). Socialists must also address the changing nature of capitalist production, which has led to a proliferation of low-skilled workers in the clerical and service sectors. These workers have difficulty organizing into unions because of the decentralized nature of their workplaces. The trade union movement is only beginning to adjust to an increasingly female and minority workforce, with different needs than male blue-collar workers. Organizing this “new working class” is critical to the future of socialism.

One way of appealing both to the “middle strata” and the working class is to stress democratic control over consumption and social provision, in addition to Marxism’s traditional focus on democratic control over production. In the United States today, large sectors of the middle class cannot afford decent healthcare, housing, education, and childcare. The challenge for the left is to unite these sectors with the working class and poor in favor of universal, progressively financed, public provision. Providing these goods for the middle class through tax credits and private insurance will only insure the further impoverishment of social services for the bottom third of society. Thus, building a majority coalition between the middle strata and lower-income people becomes not only a moral imperative, but also a political necessity. The large number of workers in the helping professions and the public sector provides the structural basis for such a coalition, particularly if these sectors are increasingly unionized. But middle class opposition to an expanded public sector will decrease only if progressive taxation is restored and democracy and efficiency increasingly characterizes social welfare provision.

Some Marxists have also overestimated the centrality of work to identity. Community, ethnic, and regional identities have often competed with class loyalties. Racial divisions and the initial organization of immigrants into ethnic-based political machines rather than class-conscious parties have weakened class identity in the United States. Democratic socialists recognize the pre-capitalist origins of racism and sexism. While capitalism clearly structures these forms of oppression (for example, the use of racism and sexism to channel women and minorities into low-paying, service sector jobs), there is a relatively autonomous cultural and psychological dimension to these forms of domination. Socialist-feminists analyze how the sexual division of labor in child rearing produces different gendered attitudes towards nurturing and moral judgment. Socialist analyses of racism examine the psychological underpinnings of racism in cultural fears of “the other” and anxieties about group identity and status.

Democratic socialists, influenced by the Black Liberation, Women’s Liberation, and Gay and Lesbian Liberation movements, also recognize that “different” identities provide meaning for people. The orthodox Marxist desire to subsume all ethnic, racial, and cultural groups under the universal identity of “the working class” threatens the particular communities that provide sustenance to individuals. A democratic socialist society would facilitate the autonomy and enrichment of various cultural and ethnic traditions. But some “post-modern” theorists go too far in celebrating “particularity.” While particular identities and the autonomy of movements against oppression are central to a free, pluralist society, so is the development of a sense of common citizenship. Vibrant political life and a strong welfare society must be grounded in a strong sense of communal membership. Citizenship should not be viewed as a “homogenizing” category that reduces all to the pursuit of the same interests and needs. Rather, if human beings and the particular communities with which they identify are to be accorded equal respect they need to live in a society that guarantees that all members will be able to fulfill their unique potential.

Strategy: The Role of the Party and the State

While Marx never adequately described how socialism would be achieved by crossing the terrain of a democratic capitalist society, V. I. Lenin claimed there was no choice but insurrection. Socialists could not use the capitalist state to abolish capitalism; they would have to overthrow the state and then “smash” its machinery. What institutions of government would take its place Lenin never made fully clear, except for vague references to the self-governance of workers’ councils (soviets) in The State and Revolution. Obviously the Bolshevik party rapidly supplanted the councils as the main governing institution in Lenin’s Soviet Union.

In What Is To Be Done, Lenin claimed that trade union activity would produce only a reformist desire for “more” economic goods rather than revolutionary consciousness. Lenin may not have inaccurately predicted the nature of predominant working class consciousness during “normal” periods of capitalist development. Workers under capitalism have more to lose than just their chains. But Lenin’s belief in the privilege of the “vanguard” party—that it can do whatever it wants once it takes power because it represents the workers’ “true” interests—contradicts Marx’s belief in working-class self- emancipation. Though an effective strategy for clandestine organization in repressive societies, Leninism’s track record in democratic capitalist societies is dismal, perhaps because self-described Leninist parties are usually thoroughly authoritarian.

Any possible transition to socialism would necessitate mass mobilization and the democratic legitimacy garnered by having demonstrated majority support. Only a strong majority movement that affected the consciousness of the army rank-and-file could forestall an armed coup by the right. Even when a repressive regime necessitates a minority road to revolution, democratic socialists stand with Rosa Luxemburg—revolutionary Marxist leader in Germany a century ago—in her advocacy of the restoration of civil rights and liberties once the authoritarian regime has been overthrown. There has yet to be a “Communist” revolution in which the “vanguard” party then allows itself to be voted out of office. The end of Communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the inspiring struggles against “Communist capitalism” in China, will hopefully lead to movements for democratic socialism in these countries.

Leninists often argued the state under capitalism was nothing more than a tool of the capitalist class. What this “instrumentalist” view of the state cannot explain is why numerous reforms have been implemented under democratic capitalism against the fierce resistance of capitalists. Nor can it explain why some capitalist societies have stronger welfare states and greater democratic controls over capital than do others. Certainly structural dependence upon corporate investment to reproduce conditions of prosperity constrains democratic governments. The flight of capital has hindered liberal and social democratic reforms. But in times of depression, war, or mass political mobilization (e.g., the 1930s, World War II, the 1960s), the state has implemented reforms that have curtailed the rights of capital and increased popular power. To preserve the legitimacy of democratic government (and, in the long run, democratic capitalism itself), the state must respond to popular mobilization.

In part, this is possible because the capitalist class does not directly rule under capitalism. While the demands of corporate and defense industry lobbyists heavily influence politicians and state bureaucrats, the major goal of politicians is to guarantee reelection through steady economic growth. Capitalist interests are often divided among themselves (importers versus exporters, finance versus manufacturing, etc.), thus providing state officials with a certain degree of autonomy. In times of economic crisis and/or popular mobilization, state managers and political elites will sometimes advocate programs for economic recovery which are initially opposed by most capitalists. Politicians need to win elections and capitalists simply do not have enough votes to guarantee victory.

In the long run, however, if popular mobilization does not persist, reforms will often be restructured to shift the balance of power back towards capital (e.g., the reintroduction of regressive taxation; cutting of benefits; deregulation; weaker enforcement of labor laws, and so on). State officials are always constrained by the need for business confidence and continued private investment. State policy results from class and political conflict, but the asymmetry of the capital-labor relationship stacks the deck against popular movements. Only by building strong trade unions, community organizations, and socialist parties can the left redress this imbalance of forces.

Class Consciousness and Struggle in Civil Society

Marx believed that capitalist ideology would have a powerful sway over the working class (“The ruling ideas of the day are the ideas of the ruling class”). But Marx underestimated the predominance of ideas of individualism and competition in popular culture. In part, this is because such ideologies are not completely false. There is more political freedom and social mobility under Western capitalism than in all previous societies. The early 20th century Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci better understood how bourgeois ideology underpinned the “common sense” of capitalist culture. The capitalist class not only disproportionately influences the state, but ideas of “consumer sovereignty,” “freedom” and “choice” also dominate public opinion in the institutions of civil society, such as schools, religion, and the media.

Gramsci believed that the dominance of capitalist modes of thought could be countered by a conscious, “counter hegemonic,” leftist cultural presence throughout civil society. The left would have to organize not only in the formal political arena, but also in the workplace, the neighborhood, the church, and the PTA. Though those who hold electoral state power set the boundaries within which political struggle occurs, organizing in civil society (at the grassroots) is critical for the growth of the left. Cultural, educational, and ideological work is as “political” as are elections.

In order to affect state power and to change the balance of forces in civil society, democratic socialists believe it is necessary to work both in electoral politics and in community and trade union organizing. In light of the peculiar structure of the American political system (the absence of proportional representation; the absence of coalition governments because of an executive rather than parliamentary system; open party membership and open primaries; single district, winner-take-all electoral districts), most progressive forces, when doing electoral work, pragmatically choose to work in the left wing of the Democratic Party. Hence, electoral class conflict runs through the Democratic Party, not around it.

Given the structure of the US government, any third party in the United States rapidly has to become a second or first party to survive. The critical question facing socialists in the United States today is not whether to form a nation-wide third party. Rather, it is how best to build those progressive constituencies which alone can push politicians—whatever their party affiliation—to the left. Forming a party is pointless if few will join it. If and when the mass constituencies of the American democratic left decide to leave the Democratic Party, only then will a credible national third party be on the political agenda.

The Transition to Socialism

Hopes for a rapid democratic transition to socialism were shattered by the horrors of Stalinism and the failure of social democratic governments to discern a socialist road out of the Great Depression. After World War II, “democratic socialism” increasingly became identified with the “Keynesian” welfare state. Post-war growth and the concomitant expansion of welfare provision enabled governing working class parties to put socialization of ownership on the back burner. As British Labor Party leader Tony Crosland argued in 1956 in his book The Future of Socialism, a state-regulated capitalism could respond to the needs of the people if income was equitably distributed. But even if the stronger welfare states of Northern Europe did significantly redistribute income across classes, with the crisis of the welfare state due to the end of post-WWII growth in the 1970s, the mainstream left again faced a crisis of vision and program.

While expanded public provision and a strong infrastructure increases long-run productivity, it is impossible to achieve this when not only capital, but also significant populist movements (based both among the middle class and skilled unionized workers) demand that taxation and public provision be curtailed. Again, the left’s task is both moral and programmatic. It must reintroduce the values of equality and solidarity which support universal public provision through progressive taxation. And it must also advance a compelling vision of economic growth through greater democratic control over capital. A strategy of gradually encroaching upon the prerogatives of capital will involve creative experiments in workers’ buy-outs, democratic control over pension funds, and mandated worker and consumer representation on corporate boards. But these can only occur through the growth of trade union and socialist political power. Socialism will be the achievement of an epoch in which the power of labor vis-à-vis capital will be constantly contested. If the relative power of labor grows, this terrain will take on increasingly favorable contours.

Transitional Strategy: Strengthening Public Provision and Democratic Control over Production

The strategy outlined above is borne out by sociologist John Stephens’ historical argument that the stronger the “counter- hegemonic” strength of unions and left parties, the stronger the welfare state and the more egalitarian the distribution of economic and political power. There is a reason why health and safety regulations are much stricter in the Scandinavian countries than in the United States; why Sweden and West Germany, under social democratic governments, funneled almost half of their respective GNPs through the public sector while the United States only transfers 25 percent; why social democratic welfare states are financed through progressive taxation while others (the United States and Japan) are financed by regressive taxation. The structure of the welfare state is profoundly affected by relative trade union and political party strength. As the fight for reforms usually involves struggle “from below,” in liberal democratic capitalist societies there is no radical divergence between strategies for reforms or revolution. Welfare state reforms that redistribute income and radical structural reforms that increase workers’ control both necessitate stronger political and union organization.

Young radicals today often act as though street protest and direct-action tactics—even confrontation with the police—could bring about revolution. While direct action has its place in left politics, achieving serious social reform—let alone “full” socialism—requires movement-building and mass action. To refrain from struggles for reform (living wages, union organizing rights, police accountability, defense of reproductive rights and affirmative action) is to ensure marginality.

Socialists must take part in concrete struggles to improve peoples’ living conditions—and do so in ways that increase their self-organization, political consciousness and capacity for collective action.

Towards a Vision of Democratic Production and Social Provision

When socialists argue for “decommodifying”—taking out of private market provision—such basic human needs as healthcare, childcare, education, transport, and housing, we have in mind a decentralized and more fully accountable welfare state than exists in Western democracies. While state financing of such goods is necessary to insure equity, decentralized social provision through community-based institutions must make welfare provision more human-scale and accessible. Democratic control of consumption should be as central to the socialist vision as democratic control over production, particularly given popular mistrust that socialism would be a bureaucratic nightmare which treated people as clients rather than citizens.

While the exact details of a socialist economy are open to debate, it will most likely be a mixture of democratic planning of major investments (e.g., expenditure on infrastructure, investment in natural monopolies such as telecommunications, utilities, transport) and market exchange of consumer goods. Large, concentrated industries such as energy and steel would be publicly owned and managed by worker and consumer representatives. Many consumer-goods industries would be run as cooperatives. Workers would design the division of labor within their workplaces and thus overcome the authoritarianism of the traditional capitalist firm. Economic planning would set a guiding strategy by means of fiscal and monetary policy, with the daily coordination of supply and demand left to the market. But this market would be socialized by rendering it transparent. Enterprises would be obliged to divulge information about the design, production processes, price formation, wage conditions, and environmental consequences of the goods that they make. Publicly supported collectives—consumers’ unions—would analyze this data and propose norms to govern various aspects of these practices. Information about actual production processes and proposed norms would then be disseminated via universal, publicly supported communication networks such as the Internet. This would encourage dialogue between producers and consumers over what is socially needed.

Again, there is no final blueprint for socialism. But only under socialism will fully democratic debate over the use of society’s wealth be possible and the satisfaction of people’s basic needs assured. Productive activity will become not merely a way to acquire money, but a means to develop the whole creative potential of all working women and men.

Socialist Internationalism versus Capitalist Globalization

Marx may have underestimated the capitalist state’s ability to regulate the business cycle, but the stagnation and restructuring of capitalism since the 1970s demonstrates that the system is less stable than its apologists contend. The growing internationalization of capital (which Marx envisioned) erodes the ability of nation-states to control their economic destiny. Thus, if socialism is to be a viable movement in the twenty-first century it must become as international as is capital. How to maintain living standards in the First World while promoting equitable development in the (former) Third World poses a major challenge for democratic socialists.

Lenin’s theory of imperialism was dominant on the socialist left until the 1960s. His theory held that the advanced capitalist nations would export their surplus capital to the less developed world. While the developed capitalist nations would control this capital, Lenin envisioned rapid development in the colonized nations and the eventual rebellion of their emerging working classes. In fact, few Third World countries experienced vigorous industrial growth until the 1960s and most overseas capital investment went to other First World nations. In the post-war period, as radical economists acknowledged the relative stagnation of less developed economies and the overall flow of capital out of the developing countries to the First World, the theory of “the development of underdevelopment” (or “dependency theory”) emerged. Rather than industrializing the Third World, First World imperialism, according to dependency theory, relegated developing countries to producers of cheap raw materials and agricultural products. If industrialization occurred it was limited to “export platforms” producing relatively cheap goods for export to the imperial country.

While dependency theory partly explained the evolution of the poorest Third World nations (though it ascribed too much causal power to the world market and too little to internal class relations), it could not explain the emergence of significant industrial producers in East Asia and parts of Latin America. Nor could it explain how abject poverty could coexist with advanced industrial production. “Post-dependency” analysis explained how a strong state bureaucracy could ally with foreign and domestic capital to foster industrial growth. But such development rarely served the needs of the local economy for light industry and agricultural development. In addition, as it was heavily financed by foreign borrowing, this industrialization’s “success” was often based on low-wage production guaranteed by state repression of labor unions. In “newly industrializing countries” such as Brazil, Mexico, and South Korea, industrialization is no longer the question. The question is whether this industrialization can benefit domestic workers rather than domestic elites and foreign consumers.

Democratic socialists favor an industrialization that will not repeat the social and ecological horrors of recent industrial experiences. We want ecologically sound growth of “qualitative gross national product,” not simply quantitative product. Expending funds on environmentally sound technology is one way of increasing the qualitative product. Improvements in human services and growth in leisure time would also enhance the quality of life. There may well be ecological limits to strictly “quantitative” growth, but socialism will prove attractive to the world’s population only if it both quantitatively and qualitatively enhances the standard of living of people in the less developed world.

Over twenty-five years of a “deregulated” world economy, imposed by conservative and “Third Way” center-left governments in the developed world and by the International Monetary Fund throughout the rest of the planet, has severely increased global inequality. Masked in the rhetoric of “comparative advantage” and economic efficiency, “free market” policies impose the gutting of living standards and labor rights. By demanding that all nation-states remove regulatory constraints on corporations, cut social welfare programs, enact fiscal austerity, and declare war on unions, the World Trade Organization ensures that capital will be able to move labor-intensive forms of production to the “lowest cost producers” in the developing world. While more knowledge-intensive production remains in advanced industrial nations, such as software design and computerized tool production, the disproportionate share of the benefits of productivity increases goes to the top twenty percent of the population, the “symbolic manipulators” who organize production itself.

Contrary to mainstream propaganda, nation-states can still influence corporate behavior. To do so they must engage in regional and international cooperation aimed at instituting a new global social contract that would level up living standards, impose labor and environmental regulations upon transnational corporations, and regulate global financial actors in the interests of equitable and sustainable development. A rebuilt international socialist movement must work towards international cooperation among states to re-institute capital controls and reverse the unfavorable economic conditions of developing nations. If the social democratic welfare state can no longer be sustained strictly on a national level, it must be created on an international level. Absent a worldwide New Deal, even the “privileged” workers of the advanced industrial nations may join the global majority in poverty and hunger. If global social democratic capitalism proves impossible, there will be no chance for an international movement towards the full socialization of the world economy.

The Promise of Socialism

Socialism is no longer a pure, innocent ideal. Its appeal has been tarnished by the authoritarian, statist regimes that have ruled in its name. In the name of social equality (which they did not achieve), these regimes abolished formal political equality. To fulfill the promise of political democracy, which is eviscerated by economic inequality, democratic socialists work towards a society characterized by equality, solidarity, and participation. Participation will not be orchestrated from above by a paternalist state, but will occur from below in the workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools of civil society.

This democratic commitment to social pluralism does not negate the need for a democratic state that would ensure the rule of law, protect the environment, and insure a basic level of equity for each citizen. It is predominantly through cooperative, voluntary relationships that people will develop the social bonds that render life meaningful. In these institutions, there will be different roles conforming to the varied talents citizens bring to different pursuits. The subjugation of authoritarian collectivism has little to do with the liberty of democratic socialism.

Democratic socialism only promises the possibility of human fulfillment. It cannot guarantee human happiness. Human failure will exist under democratic socialism, but suffering will not be imposed by institutions over which we have no control. We will finally eliminate the gross inequalities engendered by a capitalist social order. No longer will the accident of a child’s class, race, or sex influence his or her life opportunities. 

The democratic revolutions of the 18th century envisioned a world characterized by “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The inequalities of power and wealth perpetuated by capitalism frustrated that vision. Democratic socialism proposes nothing less than to complete that long revolution.