What do socialists mean by socialism?

August 28, 2018

Conservatives are hopelessly confused by the revival of an old enemy: socialism. Not surprisingly, socialists are better at explaining what’s going on, writes Todd Chretien.

A SPECTER is haunting Newt Gingrich — the specter of socialism.

Gingrich was Trumpy before Trump when he was the Republican Speaker of the House in the late 1990s, and he’s never met a tax break for the rich he didn’t love.

With a new Gallup poll showing that 57 percent of Democrats view socialism favorably, against only 47 percent who put capitalism in the plus column, Gingrich was driven a little (more) bonkers by the shock of it.

He took to Fox News to warn that dangerous lefties like Jacobin writer Meagan Day are not only intent on ending capitalism, but plan to send Bernie himself to the guillotine. “Sanders and Democrats rushing to embrace Democratic Socialism should be a little more careful about the demons they are unleashing to win elections,” Gingrich fumed.

But Democratic Party leaders don’t need a washed-up salamander to sound the alarm.

Workers and solidarity activists hit the streets of Chicago for $15 an hour and a union
Workers and solidarity activists hit the streets of Chicago for $15 an hour and a union

After Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib won primaries in New York and Michigan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spat out “No!” when asked if socialism was ascendant in the party.

Meanwhile, progressive icon Sen. Elizabeth Warren is positioning herself to be the antidote to the red scare in the 2020 presidential race, releasing her Accountable Capitalism Act last week. Matt Yglesias hit the nail on the head in Vox: “As much as Warren’s proposal is about ending inequality, it’s also about saving capitalism.”

Leaving no room for misunderstanding, Warren stated in a speech to a regional business association in New England that she is “capitalist to her bones.”

It seems that bipartisanship is alive and well when it comes to confronting a growing threat to the status quo. But capitalism is the real menace for people and the planet, and millions of people are figuring that out for themselves.

What Is Socialism?

It’s best not to rely on either our mortal enemies or those who claim to be friends to define our terms. So if socialists really do disdain to conceal our views — as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto — what do we mean by socialism?

And the answer is...not that simple, as you might have guessed. The new socialist movement in the U.S. that so frightens Gingrich consists of various schools of thought, which is only natural.

As it happens, DSA member Neal Meyer recently wrote an excellent article in Jacobin offering a definition of democratic socialism as one such trend, in distinction to progressivism and social democracy. I’ll take his categories as a starting point and add revolutionary socialism into the mix, in order to compare and contrast.


If liberalism sits an inch to the left of center at the family table of American politics, progressivism is liberalism’s more militant cousin.

At times, progressive opposition to the worst excesses of injustice has generated significant reforms: outlawing child labor and mandating public education, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, providing welfare and unemployment insurance.

However, from the point of view of fighting for radical change, the Achilles’ heel of progressivism has always been an acceptance of capitalism as an economic model (and capitalists as the legitimate owners of such a model) and a faith in the structures of U.S. government (legislation, courts, regulatory agencies, etc.) as the means by which imperfections may be addressed.

In this view, citizens of good will, no matter their social class, all have a role to play in promoting social justice. Progressivism wants a better world, but it relies on flawed and self-limiting mechanisms to attain it. See Elizabeth Warren’s wishful Accountable Capitalism Act.

Social democracy

If progressivism is a uniquely American political strain, “social democracy” is a truly global brand, and has been for 150 years.

In the late 19th century, fire-breathing revolutionaries and timid reformists alike laid claim to the term. Rather than cover that history, I’ll use the term as it came to be understood in its heyday after the Second World War.

Unlike progressivism, social democracy understood that capitalists and workers are hostile classes whose interests can’t be harmonized. Their goal was, as Meyer puts it, “checking the worst of capitalism.”

If social democracy rejected working-class revolution, it at least responded to working-class pressure (and capitalist crisis) in order to nationalize large parts of the economy, establish national health care and free university education, and provide generous social welfare plans, such as paid maternity leave, humane vacations and livable pensions.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, social democratic governments in Scandinavia, the Labour Party in the UK and the Socialist Party in France even retained a commitment — in word, if not in deed — to “socialism” as a distant goal.

The last 40 years of neoliberalism have bludgeoned most social democratic parties into line — a fact demonstrated by the affinities between former President Barack Obama (liberal), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (conservative) and former French President François Hollande (social democrat).

Nonetheless, social democracy remains alive, if not necessarily well, across Europe and much of Latin America — most recently receiving a shot in the arm from left-winger Jeremy Corbyn when he won the leadership of the Labour Party in the UK.

Democratic socialism

This brings us to the U.S. today and the rise of democratic socialism. Meyer defines democratic socialism as follows:

Only by combining a committed socialist government and a powerful, self-organized working class can we take on the capitalist class from above and below...For now, democratic socialists’ tasks are clear. Link up with movements in the United States and around the world fighting against exploitation, domination and war. Build our forces. Win elections. Achieve all that we can under capitalism. And build a consensus that we need a real political revolution to go beyond it.

Bernie Sanders is the single greatest popularizer of the term democratic socialism, but it should be clear that Meyer’s vision goes far beyond that of Sanders himself — who, paradoxically, has far more in common with social democrats as defined above.

For instance, Sanders famously wants to “break up the big banks,” while Meyer calls for nationalizing the financial sector — a distinction not likely to be lost on the banksters.

With that aside, there’s a lot compressed into Meyers’ description, so let’s unpack it.

First, it’s clear that, in Meyer’s usage, democratic socialism is anti-capitalist. Unlike Warren, democratic socialists are not “capitalist to their bones,” nor do they simply hope to “check” the system like social democrats. They intend, as Gingrich’s nemesis Meagan Day proclaims, to “end capitalism.”

Second, recognizing that this is a tall order, democratic socialists look to two related forces to carry through a political revolution: a “committed socialist government” and a “powerful, self-organized working class.”

Rather than a faith in the powers of persuasion or the illusion that the bosses will tolerate democratic decisions, democratic socialists expect the capitalists will use their control of the economy to sabotage change at every step of the way — for instance, by going on a capital strike and pulling their money out of municipal, state and even national governments that try to institute radical reforms.

More ominously, faced with a genuine challenge to their power, “the ruling class has even stopped tolerating the norms of liberal democracy,” Meyer writes — as it did in Chile in 1973 in a coup against the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende.

Thus, not only are powerful social movements and rank-and-file-led unions necessary to hold any socialist government to its promises, but to the degree that socialist politicians do keep their promises, mass movements will be the only force capable of defending reforms from capitalist sabotage or outright assault.

In order to accomplish all this, Meyer writes that democratic socialists should organize unions, build social movements and run for office as open socialists, today mostly using Democratic Party ballot lines, though some day by forming their own political party.

One of the greatest difficulties for this trend of socialism is that those who share Meyer’s Marxist understanding of society are a distinct minority compared to the much larger numbers who identify with democratic socialism, but accept Sanders’ tamer interpretation.

As was the case back in the day with social democracy, democratic socialism is a contested term — so we shouldn’t assume that everyone who uses the term means the same thing.

Revolutionary socialism

Rounding off our list of categories is (big surprise) my point of view — which also informs the analysis found in Socialist Worker. A few months ago, I wrote an article that tried to lay out the essential ideas by describing “How Marx became a Marxist in five easy steps,” as its title put it.

At the risk of oversimplification, I would further condense that article this way: The experience of the workers’ movement taught Marx that: a) society was divided into hostile classes; b) the working class has the power to upend the system; c) socialism is a process of working-class self-emancipation, in which racial, sexual and national oppression must be directly challenged; d) capitalists will use their control of the state to prevent revolution; and e) therefore, workers have to abolish the capitalists’ ownership of the economy, and break up the state machine in order to create a cooperative economy and a revolutionary workers’ state.

In order to accomplish any of this, revolutionary socialists believe that the most radical workers, students and oppressed peoples must form their own political organization that fights for socialism.

During conservative times, this limits the appeal and reach that revolutionaries may have. During developing phases of social radicalization, revolutionary socialists must work alongside other left-wing political forces in united fronts to fight for common goals, all the while arguing for our particular views on how to defeat capitalism.

This means building unions, organizing social movements and, where possible, supporting or running candidates independent from the two-party system.

Our goal is not unity for unity’s sake, but to build up the largest possible force of workers who understand the high stakes of this struggle.

During revolutionary times, the ability to coordinate and act independently from more conservative forces can spell the difference between life and death.

For instance, there were tens of thousands of revolutionaries in Chile in 1973, but they remained subordinate to Allende’s reformist strategy of maneuvering within the state machine, which allowed the Chilean military and CIA to take them by surprise. Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his thugs destroyed the revolution, executing and torturing tens of thousands of workers and students as a consequence.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, revolutionary socialists look to the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the Bolshevik Party led a successful working-class revolution and, for a brief time, opened up a path toward socialism, before Russia’s isolation led to destruction of the workers’ state at the hands of a Stalinist bureaucracy.

In so far as Meyer accurately represents the thinking of democratic socialists, his charge that revolutionary socialists aim to merely “transplant” models from 1917 or 1959 — “as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn,” he writes — is an absurd caricature.

After all, the fact that elements of Meyer’s democratic socialist model appear to have been “transplanted” from German socialist Karl Kautsky’s book Our Road to Power (written in...1909) hardly constitutes cause for dismissing how he uses those ideas in very different circumstances today.

Leaving aside what I hope is a simple polemical excess, the question is this: If we don’t learn from the history of 1917, are we not weaker to prevent another 1973? Further, shouldn’t we expect that the American ruling class’ history of violence and illegality at home and abroad in the service of its own power will continue unabated?

How Do These Trends Fit Together?

Obviously, social democrats, democratic socialists and revolutionary socialists can all work together on many important fronts in the short term: fighting police brutality and the rising threat of the far right, organizing unions and building strike support, participating in common discussions, debates and conferences, and working together when we can all agree on political campaigns.

And we all share the task of propagating basic socialist ideas and education because, despite the movement’s growth, the vast bulk of the millions of people who are sympathetic to socialist ideas are not yet active socialists of any stripe.

Furthermore, as socialists, we should all reach out a hand to ordinary people who are under attack to offer our solidarity and support in whatever way we can, even if we do not trust progressive politicians as far as we can throw them.

We do not demand that people facing unemployment, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, deportation, dispossession, eviction or environmental devastation adopt our socialist ideals before we fight alongside them. We do not hold up our ideas and demand that people come to us. We use our ideas as a guide to participate in struggle.

Having said that, it should be obvious that I believe progressivism and social democracy are dead ends as far as effectively confronting capitalism goes. I think democratic socialism and revolutionary socialism share a great deal — and where we differ, we will debate our ideas and test them in practice in the coming years and decades, because that is the only possible road to victory.

As Meyer rightly concludes his essay: “Our ranks are open to all those who are ready to fight. Together, we have a democratic socialist world to win.”

Further Reading

From the archives