edited by O Society June 29, 2018
Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered. It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent or even hostile toward the group, small or large, to which they belong. In order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience:
I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked that only a supra-national organization would offer protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: “Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”
I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence.
Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.
Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society.
This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education).
It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.
People really start losing their minds. And there’s always this go back to, “Who is she?”
You know, people in the opposite camp have been saying, “She’s making this about race.” And, you know what? It is about race. And it is about education. And it is about our incomes. And it is about wealth inequality. Because this campaign is about our issues. And I think what is infuriating a lot of people in New York’s political establishment is I haven’t asked anyone for permission.
Further confusing matters is Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist” but supports a policy program that would essentially leave capitalism intact. His candidacy spurred a dramatic growth in DSA membership, and DSA backed him, but the Vermont senator has also referred to himself a “New Deal” Democrat who views Lyndon Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt — rather than Karl Marx or American socialist Norman Thomas — as his true ideological predecessors.
Many DSA members would go further than any of these New Deal Democrats. One useful distinction is while progressive Democrats and DSA both believe in welfare state programs as a way to improve capitalism, DSA sees them as just one step toward completely severing the link between human needs and market scarcity.
Examples may help clarify the difference. While both DSA and some left-wing Democrats agree that the government should provide universal health insurance, DSA ultimately wants to nationalize hospitals, providers, and the rest of the health care system as well. While both will work toward higher taxes on Wall Street, DSA ultimately wants to nationalize the entire financial sector. While left-wing Democrats believe in criminal justice reform, some DSA members are calling for the outright abolition of the police and prison systems. While both DSA and left-wing Democrats support reforms to get money out of politics, some in DSA see capitalism as fundamentally incompatible with genuinely free and fair elections. In practice, however, the two wind up ultimately taking the same positions.
Democratic socialists believe both the economy and society should be run democratically to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.
Democracy and socialism go hand in hand.
The rose is an important symbol with anti-authoritarian associations, and became popular among socialist and social democratic political parties in post-World War II Western Europe. The symbol of a rose in a fist is used by the Socialist International and many of its member parties, such as the French Socialist Party (PS). The British Labour Party has used a red rose as its symbol since the late 1980s; the rose replaced the party’s previous symbol, the red flag.
After 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset against Rep. Joe Crowley in the New York Democratic congressional primary on Tuesday, the word “socialist” was repeatedly used to describe her.
Ocasio-Cortez is a registered member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and is a self-described “socialist.”
The DSA is not fighting for socialism, but to strengthen the Democratic Party, one of the two main capitalist parties in the United States, which shares responsibility with the Republican Party for all the crimes committed by American imperialism around the world and against the working class at home.
AMY GOODMAN: And if people ask, “What do you mean, ‘socialist’?” what would you say?
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest.
I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money. And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.
The novelty of Bernie Sanders has long been his adoption of the term “democratic socialist” to describe his political beliefs. On the presidential campaign trail, by way of definition, he’s repeatedly pointed to European countries with relatively robust welfare states.
On Thursday, in a major campaign address, he turned back stateside. Sanders cast himself not as the heir of Eugene Debs — a portrait of whom hangs in his congressional office — but of Franklin Roosevelt. In short, for Sanders, democratic socialism means New Deal liberalism. This was the democratic socialism not even of Martin Luther King Jr or Michael Harrington, but of FDR and LBJ. Which is to say, not “socialism” in recognizable form.
What should socialists of a more radical bent make of such a definition?
Standing on a national stage and using that term implies there is a radically egalitarian force in opposition and even hostile to capitalism. Sanders still implies a conflict between the two — not a corporatist harmony.
It’s that definition that we can use. While Sanders thankfully raises the specter of class conflict, it’s up to actual socialist activists to define a possible world on the other side of that conflict — to get a little utopian.
If a not-very-politicized liberal was to ask me “what’s socialism?” I’d probably go with Richard Wolff’s definition and say that it means democratically deciding who makes what, how that’s organized, and what we do with the surplus. It knocks down the wall that liberalism erected hundreds of years ago between politics and the economy. And it means a world beyond class society.
We finally know what Bernie Sanders means by “democratic socialism.” Speaking on his political philosophy at Georgetown yesterday, the Vermont senator and Democratic Presidential candidate opened with a long invocation of Franklin Roosevelt and the social protections that the New Deal created: minimum wages, retirement benefits, banking regulation, the forty-hour workweek. Roosevelt’s opponents attacked all these good things as “socialism,” Sanders reminded his listeners.
Curiously, Sanders seemed to agree with them, taking his definition of “socialism” from its nineteen-thirties opponents, the people Roosevelt called “economic royalists.” “Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me,” Sanders said. “It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans.”
This isn’t the first time Sanders has defined his position from the right flank of history. Pressed in the most recent Democratic debate to say how high he would take the marginal income tax, Sanders answered that it would be less than the ninety (actually ninety-two) per-cent level under the Eisenhower Administration. He added, to cheers and laughter, “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.”
But, of course, both Roosevelt and Eisenhower distinguished themselves vigorously from “socialism,” which they understood to be a revolutionary program of extreme equality, committed to centralized control of the economy, and a cat’s paw of Soviet power.
Accusations of “socialism” trailed liberals for decades after Roosevelt parried his opponents, from Ronald Reagan’s attacks on Medicare to the Republicans’ refrain against Obamacare. Democrats, like Roosevelt, have furiously defended themselves against the charges. But now a candidate whose ideal American economy does in fact look a lot like Eisenhower’s—strong unions, secure employment, affordable college—is waving the red flag, and finding favor with large numbers of Democratic voters.
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, as everyone knows, calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The word “democratic” is fundamental here, because historically socialism has not, typically, come about as a result of free and fair elections. In most socialist countries, like the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic where your humble author was born, socialism was imposed at the point of a gun. Sanders, therefore, is wise to distance himself from the socialists of yesteryear and insist socialism in America should be chosen, freely and fairly, by the electorate.
As many of Sanders’ supporters have repeatedly and rightly pointed out, socialism is not communism. For most of the 20th century, socialism was understood to be a halfway house between capitalism and communism.
What then is socialism? Socialism is an economic system where the means of production (e.g., factories), capital (i.e., banks), and agricultural land (i.e., farms) are owned by the state. Strict limits on private enterprise limit accumulation of wealth and supposedly provide for a relatively high degree of income equality.
Sanders is not a typical socialist. Sure, he believes in a highly regulated and heavily taxed private enterprise, but he does not seem to want the state to own banks and make cars. Considering the negative connotations of “socialism” in America, it is a bit of a puzzle why Sanders insists on using that word.
It would be much less contentious and more correct if he gave his worldview its proper name: not “democratic socialism,” which implies socialism brought about through a vote, but “social democracy.”
In a social democracy, individuals and corporations continue to own the capital and the means of production. Much of the wealth, in other words, is produced privately. That said, taxation, government spending, and regulation of the private sector are much heavier under social democracy than would be the case under pure capitalism.
In his inaugural remarks in January 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked out at the nation and this is what he saw.
He saw tens of millions of its citizens denied the basic necessities of life.
He saw millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hung over them day by day.
He saw millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.
He saw millions lacking the means to buy the products they needed and by their poverty and lack of disposable income denying employment to many other millions.
He saw one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
And he acted. Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combatted cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country.
And that is what we have to do today.
And, by the way, almost everything he proposed was called “socialist.” Social Security, which transformed life for the elderly in this country was “socialist.” The concept of the “minimum wage” was seen as a radical intrusion into the marketplace and was described as “socialist.” Unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, the 40-hour work week, collective bargaining, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, and job programs that put millions of people to work were all described, in one way or another, as “socialist.” Yet, these programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.
Thirty years later, in the 1960s, President Johnson passed Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to millions of senior citizens and families with children, persons with disabilities and some of the most vulnerable people in this county. Once again these vitally important programs were derided by the right wing as socialist programs that were a threat to our American way of life.
That was then. Now is now.
Today, in 2015, despite the Wall Street crash of 2008, which drove this country into the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the American people are clearly better off economically than we were in 1937.
In 1944, in his State of the Union speech, President Roosevelt outlined what he called a second Bill of Rights. This is one of the most important speeches ever made by a president but, unfortunately, it has not gotten the attention it deserves.
In that remarkable speech this is what Roosevelt stated: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.”
In other words, real freedom must include economic security. That was Roosevelt’s vision 70 years ago. It is my vision today. It is a vision that we have not yet achieved. It is time that we did.
In that speech, Roosevelt described the economic rights that he believed every American was entitled to: The right to a decent job at decent pay, the right to adequate food, clothing, and time off from work, the right for every business, large and small, to function in an atmosphere free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies. The right of all Americans to have a decent home and decent health care.
What Roosevelt was stating in 1944, what Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in similar terms 20 years later, and what I believe today, is that true freedom does not occur without economic security.
People are not truly free when they are unable to feed their family. People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are unemployed or underpaid or when they are exhausted by working long hours. People are not truly free when they have no health care.
So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me:
It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that; “This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.”
It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor.
Democratic socialism means we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.
Democratic socialism means we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.
We were told not only were the banks too big to fail, the bankers were too big to jail. Kids who get caught possessing marijuana get police records. Wall Street CEOs who help destroy the economy get raises in their salaries. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant by “socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for everyone else.”
Democratic socialism, to me, does not just mean we must create a nation of economic and social justice. It also means that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote. It is extremely sad that the United States, one of the oldest democracies on earth, has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country, and that millions of young and working class people have given up on our political system entirely. Every American should be embarrassed.
So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this:
I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.
I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas.
When asked a direct question about healthcare or regulation and so on, Bernie Sanders often refers to Scandinavian models.
For example, Norway is a a social democracy. Again, we know this and democratic socialism are not the same.
The bottom line here is Bernie introduced these terms to most Americans, so why does Sanders insist on using the terminology backwards? This is confusing.
In the speech transcribed above, Sanders stated he is a “socialist” in the tradition of FDR. Yet we would properly call this position a “New Deal Democrat.”
This is a guesstimate: Sanders is the the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history Though he ran for president in the 2016 Democratic primary, Sanders was not accepted by the party because of his independent status; hence, the DNC rigged the primary against him.
Therefore, my guesstimate is Sanders identifies as a “socialist” to distinguish his own views from those of the Democratic party, which he is currently trying to reform from the inside.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not the Democratic party can be reformed, labeling himself a socialist separates Bernie from the Obama/ Clinton New Democrats tradition ruling the party since 1992.
Although typically the label “socialist” would be an albatross in America (e.g., USSR), it may be a lighter weight than comes with the Clinton baggage of being a New Democrat at this point.
Norway is the happiest place in the world so if we’re going to use a system as a model, why not use the Norwegians’?