Recent NPR coverage of the Democratic Party race for the presidential nomination noted that while Bernie Sanders was often referred to as a “socialist,” he was, actually, just a “democratic socialist.” The message was: “Move along. There’s nothing to see here.”
To borrow a thought from Dr. Cornel West, one of the United States’ premier democratic socialists, socialist thought moves through a sort of political spectrum. “Right-wing socialism,” such as practiced in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China, is an active, participatory process of revolution designed to hasten downfall of capitalism. Means of production – most private property, for that matter – is controlled by the state though, in reality, power is concentrated in the hands of a party oligarchy, if not an actual dictator.
Through the various gradations of socialism along this spectrum, one comes at last to its “left wing” – the democratic socialists and/or the liberationists (who operate within the context of religious institutions). Democratic socialists don’t see themselves as revolutionaries, in the sense of burning buildings and shooting “reactionaries,” but as “progressives” working for an end to capitalism via reforms “that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people.”[i]
Nevertheless, according to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), in common with socialists all along the socialist spectrum:
We are socialists because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.
We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships.[ii]
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont)
The distinction concerns which route we take to reach our destination; the destination itself is not under discussion.
Socialism’s critics, therefore, must be clear that they understand that distinction or they will find themselves being airily assured that democratic socialism isn’t anything like the scary creature of past socialist regimes.
When Bernie Sanders, in a November 19, 2015 speech[iii] said that his form of socialism doesn’t advocate government ownership of the means of production, does he mean right now or does he mean it will never seek that? When he says that her supports “private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping and jobs overseas,” the critic has to wonder how much government regulation is permissible before those “private” companies are no longer “private?”
When he insists that the wealthy billionaires, the “one-percenters,” pay their “fair share,” how long will it be until the new level of “one-percenters” are the millionaires who must now pay their “fair share,” followed by the next level of “one-percenters” who make hundreds of thousands…and so on until we have leveled income disparity altogether and no one is permitted to have anything more than any other person? These are good questions.
The most salient question, however, is whether such a system - a “democratic” socialist restructuring of the economy – accomplishes what it promises, namely, to eliminate poverty?
Presidente Nicolas Maduro de Venezuela
It isn’t as though the system hasn’t been tested. Democratic socialism, with its massive centralized planning, has become deeply entrenched in several countries and quickly expanded from “mere” regulation the largest corporations to every aspect of society: education, health care, housing, social welfare…and even religious belief. It is not a “freer” system or a more “just” system but one that is highly oppressive. Just three, very different examples:
· One can be sent to jail in Germany for homeschooling one’s own children.[iv]
· Quoting certain sections of the Bible is considered “hate speech” in Canada.[v]
· During the 1970s, before democratic socialist Hugo Chávez, Venezuela was the richest country in Latin America.[vi]
The Chávez government so successfully achieved its goals, however, that today the country is “on the brink of collapse” and is experiencing food riots, rationed electricity, health care scarcity, and one of the highest crime rates in the world.[vii]
So, seductive as it may be to dismiss democratic socialism as nothing more than increased benefits for the “average” citizen that somehow levels the economic playing field, it’s simply not that benign. Socialism, anywhere on the “spectrum,” is still…socialism.
[i] Democratic Socialists of America website: http://www.dsausa.org/about_dsa
[iii] Transcript of Bernie Sanders speech, “My Vision For Democratic Socialism in America,” Georgetown university, 11-19-15: http://inthesetimes.com/article/18623/bernie_sanders_democratic_socialism_georgetown_speech
[iv] Bob Unruh, “Parents sent to jail for homeschooling,” WorldNetDaily, 6-18-08.
[v] “Supremes Rule Bible as 'Hate Speech' in Canada,” Culture News, 3-18-13: “The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that citizens are NOT free to quote the Bible regarding the sin of homosexual behavior.”
[vi] See Ricardo Hausmann and Francisco R. Rodríguez, editors: Venezuela Before Chávez: Anatomy of an Economic Collapse, Penn State University Press (2014).
[vii] Kevin D. Williamson, “There is (Still) No Alternative: In Venezuela, the same lessons as Cuba, North Korea, USSR . . .,” National Review, 8-25-15; Phil Sylvester, “Venezuela - high crime, big risk: what you need to know,” World Nomads.