Sozialismus über Alles? or, Against Democratic Socialism

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Even before the pandemic began, several of my left-wing friends had embraced Friedrich Engle’s old rallying cry (made famous by Rosa Luxembourg): “SOCIALISM OR BARBARISM!” As Luxembourg wrote in 1916, “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” Her words certainly appeared prophetic after the Great War, when German politics descended into a battle between extremists. To oppose the swelling tide of fascism (barbarism), it seemed, one would have to side with the communists (socialism). With a president more openly xenophobic and nationalist than any in recent memory, my left-wing friends argued that we inhabit a similar moment: either throw your support behind socialism or accept Trump’s barbarism. Any centrist position only offers tactic support to the latter.

Of course, much has been written about the human face of socialism in the twenty-first century. It goes by the name of “democratic socialism,” and that friendly adjective provides a firewall against horrors like those perpetrated by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. In a recent, politically neutral piece for The Point, Justin Evans discusses the compatibility of socialism and democracy. He writes:

But socialism’s appeal is as clear as its definition is hazy. Some of those who support Sanders think that he wants to turn the U.S. into social-democratic Denmark. Others believe in a true democratic socialist state. Still others imagine a socialist utopia. What unites all these notions of socialism is the conviction that contemporary socialism would not mean, as Chris Matthews seems to think, executions in Central Park. The reason is that, in contrast to the twentieth century’s authoritarian socialist regimes, the new socialism will be “democratic.” Indeed, for all serious socialist thinkers today, socialism goes hand in hand with democracy.

Evans reviews two recent books on socialism: Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto and Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson’s Why You Should Be a Socialist. Both books respond to the surge of interest in socialism within Western democracies since at least 2016, and perhaps since the beginning of the Occupy movement in 2011. Evans asks, “Why is socialism becoming so popular in democratic states?” He searches for answers in Sunkara and Robinson, and ultimately concludes that “neither book really grapples with the question of why, if socialism and democracy are so compatible, there are so few examples, in history or the present, of socialists being democratically elected, and then governing as socialists.”

As Evans suggests, left-wing supporters of American politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders or Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have been increasingly guilty of a category error. It is the same error that conservatives have been cynically committing for decades. If you credulously listen to Dennis Prager, Rush Limbaugh, or the president of the United States, you’d think anyone to the left of, say, Walter Mondale is a socialist. Conservatives have tinkered with the Overton window until three-quarters of the Democratic parties and nearly all of our former Cold War allies are “socialists.” What we once called “the free world” is apparently not free beyond the borders of the United States. (When they lambast the social safety nets of our allies, conservatives often fail to mention Israel, lest they be perceived as anti-Zionist; but if Denmark is socialist, then certainly the Jewish state is as well). It’s no surprise, then, that many on the left have appropriated “socialist” from an epithet to a commendation. Fine, they seem to say. If Denmark is socialist, then America should be socialist, too! If Canadian healthcare is socialist, then ours should be, too! Niall Ferguson gave the game away when he accused Ocasio-Cortez of mistakenly conflating socialism, the system of government we associate with the former Eastern bloc, with social democracy, the actual form of government to be found in present-day Scandinavia. (Ferguson made this accusation in Australia; it would be more disingenuous to make such an accusation in the U.S., where conservatives crow about European socialism incessantly.)

My political scientist friends are aware of this category error, and they debate about whether or not Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez are genuine socialists (the verdict is still forthcoming), or whether or not the Democratic Socialists of America is a genuinely socialist organization (a brief perusal of their website seems to confirm that they are, although their most immediate goals—decreasing the influence of money in politics, empowering workers, &c.—are not incompatible with capitalism). As for Sunkara and Robinson, there is little doubt about their socialist commitments. Evans writes:

[Sunkara and Robinson’s] claim is the very strong one that socialism, alone among social systems, is democracy. And they are not alone in arguing that case. As a simple theoretical statement, it makes sense: socialism means removing economic force from people’s lives, so we can make decisions for ourselves based on our interests and desires. It is democratic in the same way that liberalism was democratic, because liberalism removed state interference from people’s lives. Socialism could be called democracy carried to its logical conclusion: as liberals and republicans see, giving people power over the political system is good and democratic. Giving people power over the economic system, as well, is even better. That would be echt democratic.

This is the essence of the case for democratic socialism: socialism is democracy. Whenever Ocasio-Cortez is on television arguing for the empowerment of workers, she speaks of “democratizing” our workplaces. Sanders speaks of “democratizing” our economy. In a way, conservatives have been responding to this argument since the early Cold War; what else can explain the popularity of the (nonsensical) claim that the United States “is not a democracy—it’s a republic!” (One might as well claim that wheat is not a plant, it’s a grain.) Evans continues:

But Sunkara and Robinson’s claim that socialism is uniquely enabling of democracy is far more complicated than either author seems to realize. To see why, consider that exactly the same claim used to be made about capitalism. Hayek thought the free market was the only way to allow people to make decisions without coercion or the arbitrary exercise of authority by the state. Milton Friedman saw the market as “a system of proportional representation.” In both buying and voting, he argued, individuals register their desires in ways that lead others to alter their behavior (by producing more or less of a good, or by instituting this or that policy).

Of course, as Quinn Slobodian has recently shown, neoliberal thinkers (including Hayek) always knew it didn’t work that way. Democratic procedures would often lead to anti-capitalist demands. So, throughout the postwar period, global institutions were used to restrain the nationalist and protectionist voices of democracy. 

In other words, wherever neoliberal capitalists detected a conflict between capitalism and democracy, they chose capitalism. Evans suggests that “the problems that the ideological capitalists faced ought to also haunt those of us interested in democratic socialism…it is clear that democracy and socialism don’t necessarily go together.” And Evans is absolutely correct. After all, Stalin correctly understood the inherent link between democracy and socialism that Sunkara and Robinson find so attractive. He would frequently claim that his incursions into Eastern Europe would bring “democracy” to those nations. But Stalin was also a perceptive socialist thinker (as Stephen Kotkin’s recent biographies reveal), and he drew limits onto democracy that did not apply to socialism. Wherever socialism and democracy proved incompatible, Stalin (and so many other socialist leaders) invariably chose socialism. They did so not because they misunderstood or misapplied Marx and Lenin’s political philosophy, but rather, as Kotkin argues, because they understood that philosophy so well.

Socialism can exist separately from democracy. That fact that it did throughout much of the twentieth century is proof of this (and one of the reasons that Sunkara et al spend so much ink trying to discredit twentieth-century socialism). As Evans perceptively writes:

[D]emocracy is fundamentally about who is making decisions. It is a procedure, and the results of democratic procedure (in a parliament or in a workplace) cannot be predetermined. By contrast, socialism (like capitalism) is a statement about what decisions ought to be made. It is a substantive goal or principle. … Both Robinson and Sunkara seem to take it as a given that people would want socialist policies, given the choice, and they give no answer to the question: What does the socialist do, if the ordinary people turn out not to want socialism?

Evans’s distinction between procedure and prescription is very useful. So what will the democratic socialists do if (when) the polity turns against them?

I think the name itself, democratic socialism, is instructive. I remember listening to NPR’s nationally syndicated On Point back when the smug Tom Asbrook was the host. His topic was the rise of self-described socialists like Bernie Sanders. One of the listeners called in, quite distressed: why couldn’t Sanders just call himself a social democrat? Wouldn’t that play better than “socialist” in Peoria? Ashbrook dismissed the caller’s concern as a matter of semantics. But it’s not. In both the terms democratic socialist and social democratic, adjectives are applied to nouns. An adjective colors a noun, provides shading, reveals values. A noun, on the other hand, is an ontological claim. It tells us what a thing essentially is. To call yourself a social democrat is to say that you are fundamentally committed to democratic procedure over ideological prescription, but that you also deeply value the health and well-being of society and will choose socially healthy policies over, say, capitalist or liberal prescriptions. To call yourself a democratic socialist is to say that you are, in essence, a socialist, one that values democracy as the best procedure for achieving socialist aims.

I am a social democrat. I believe the United States would be happier, healthier, safer, and more just if its social and economic policies resembled those of, say, Germany (a nation many conservatives admire for its industry). But my first commitment is to democratic procedure. Do I, like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, want a more democratic economy and a more democratically organized private sector? Absolutely. And insofar as apparently socialist prescriptions can achieve this, I favor them. But I’ll also favor capitalist prescriptions when they offer greater access to democracy (as they frequently do). I’m no “capitalist to my bones,” as Elizabeth Warren claimed to be. Wherever free-market capitalism conflicts with social well-being (as it frequently does), I’ll favor those policies that are good for society. (Evans calls such policies “socializing policies.”) But no policy will I favor at the expense of democratic procedure.

Evans’s article is thoughtful and clarifying, and I recommend reading it in full. Orthodox perspectives against socialism are not hard to come by, given the faith’s long history of persecution under communist governments. For a Christian argument in favor of socialism, please read David Bentley Hart’s wonderful and amusing article in Commonweal, published earlier this year. I find little in Hart’s argument to disagree with except his use of the term socialist. What he is describing in the article not only seems achievable within the framework of social democracy, but seems more likely to occur under a social democratic regime. This may seem like so much semantic nit-picking to Hart and other proponents of democratic socialism. But as I hope I’ve demonstrated, grammar possesses a political philosophy of its own.

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