There are a great multitude of misconceptions surrounding democratic socialism and the people associated with that school of thought. The term came into wider prominence amongst the general public during the 2016 US Presidential primaries, where the term was used by senator Bernie Sanders to describe his own ideology, distancing himself from the supposedly more authoritarian forms of socialism. While the Bernie Sanders phenomenon may be appreciated by us anti-capitalist leftists for providing non-radicalized Americans with a gateway to the socialist movement, it must be said that Bernie Sanders’ description of his own thought is a glaring, if not painful, misnomer. In this article therefore, we will try to examine what democratic socialism exactly is, what it is not, and whether democratic socialists ought to be revolutionists or reformists to establish a post-capitalist society on the basis of two case-studies: the Allende government of Chile, and the Bolivarian government of Venezuela. It is my hope that we will uncover a greater understanding of what the goal of socialist movements should be, and that those new to socialism (which includes yours truly) will find this article informative and helpful.
In order to define democratic socialism clearly, we will try to put the term in two different contexts: the wider context of socialism, and in opposition to another school of thought, that is, social democracy. It is very important to understand that socialism is a movement. More specifically, it is the movement by the working class to get humanity to move away from the capitalist mode of production to a non-exploitative, equitable, and unoppressive mode of production through the collective ownership of the means of production. In order to guarantee political equality, according to democratic socialists, such a post-capitalist society must include a democratic form of governance (not necessarily government). This can be done through all sorts of different means, such as elections, but also councils. Having defined socialism, it is clear that democratic socialism is a subset of socialist thought. It can be said that whereas socialism is an economic and political movement towards collective ownership of the means of production, democratic socialism is a part of that movement, specifically concerned with democratic governance and ownership of those means of production. However, in public discourse the term has been used lately in a more rhetorical, instead of a theoretical, fashion. It is often used by western progressives in order to rehabilitate the socialist movement, so maligned by the middle class in the west. When westerners (especially Americans) think of socialism, often they think of the Soviet Union, striking a negative connotation. As we recognized earlier, this rhetorical use of the term can be very beneficial, but there is one instance where the term has been blatantly misused.
Bernie Sanders, a contender for the position of Democratic candidate for the US presidency, during the 2016 primaries, used the term ‘democratic socialism’ frequently to describe his own beliefs. We can assume he did this to rehabilitate the term, in good faith, as well. After all, Sanders was a member of the youth wing of the Socialist Party of America while in college. But democratic socialism is not at all how any decently-read socialist would describe the platform Sanders’ ran on during the previous two years. He did not advocate for the abolishment of capitalism, he did not advocate the common ownership of workers over their means of production, nor did he advocate for solidarity with workers across the world. His platform could best be described as social democratic. This brings us to the second context I wish to place democratic socialism in: in opposition to social democracy.
Social democracy is the political ideology of the social democratic, and many so-called socialist, parties across the western world. It arose from marxist socialism when some people felt that abolishing capitalism was unattainable, and that it would serve the working class better to simply soften the hardships of their lives. Throughout the 20th century, through massive nationalization, taxing, and government welfare programs, the social democrats managed to carefully sculpt the face of capitalism to be more bearable, and less nasty, for those who toiled under it. This system came at a price, though. It was, and still is, financed through exploitation of many third world countries. This is why socialists accuse social democrats for not being real socialists: they do not want to abolish capitalism, nor do they show any sign of real solidarity with the workers of the world. In short, social democracy created a labor aristocracy in the West (a topic for another time). It is clear that social democracy will not lead to a post-capitalist society. Bernie Sanders is wrong to call himself a democratic socialist, and instead should be referring to himself as a social democrat.
Now that we have detailed what democratic socialism is, what it is not, by putting it in two different contexts, we have a sufficient understanding of what democratic socialism is. We will now look at a question that is important to the democratic socialist tendency. That question is whether a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism (i.e. reform) is possible, or whether a revolution by the working class is necessary to overthrow capitalism. This question of reformism versus revolutionism is very relevant to the story of Salvador Allende, as well as the current political crisis threatening the Bolivarian government in Venezuela.
Salvador Allende was democratically elected president of Chile in 1970 on a platform of nationalization. Specifically, his coalition, Popular Unity (an alliance of different left wing parties) advocated for a peaceful path to socialism. As soon as Allende was elected, he seemed to be enacting this peaceful road well enough. His government undertook actions to make the economy more equitable for the vast majority of working people, a big part of whom of indigenous ancestry, and provide the people of Chile with basic necessities such as jobs and new housing. He set up a scholarship program for Mapuche indigenous children as a way to close the education gap between ethnicities. By the end of 1972 the size of big farms was dramatically reduced, effectively ending the power the landed gentry held over agricultural workers.
There was a catch to all of this success. The legislative and judicial branches of government were still held by opposition parties, limiting Allende in every step he took. The Chilean Armed Forces were increasingly anxious with Allende’s policies, as was Washington DC. So in 1973 a US backed military coup of the democratic Allende government occurred. Allende was forced to commit suicide, and he was succeeded by the newly appointed (by Allende himself!) chief of the Chilean Armed Forces: Augusto Pinochet. The rest is history.
Let us now examine the curious case of Venezuela. Something to note about the Venezuelan economy is its intense dependence on petroleum, with 95% of all export from the country being crude oil. In 1998 Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela on a socialist platform. His intention, similarly to Allende’s, was to reform the capitalist economy and turn it socialist through peaceful means. In 1999 a new constitution was adopted, founding the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, as part of Chavez’s Bolivarian “revolution”, which was of course not at all an actual revolution in any meaningful sense, but merely a political-institutional overhaul of the Venezuelan government. During this entire process of the Bolivarian revolution, continuing after Chavez’s death in 2013, into Nicolás Maduro’s presidency, the power of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie was not at all ended, or even seriously limited. It was merely limited enough to make the bourgeoisie mad at the socialist government. Note here that I make a distinction between a socialist government, that is, a government merely run by socialists, and a socialist society, that is, a society wherein the capitalist mode of production has been abolished.
Let us now go forward in time to the current political crisis in Venezuela. Maduro’s government, beside being corrupt, is trying to continue the Chavista policies of nationalization, and wage and price controls, all the while global oil prices have tanked. It is clear that the government’s erratic actions are part to blame for the shortages that now plague the country. It is struggling hard with a serious uprising, backed by the US government and US firms, and most likely will not survive the current turmoil. Once again, reformism by a socialist government has put that government into an impossible and inescapable position. Maduro’s government has to either do or die, but there is very little do: Maduro squandered that opportunity in the first few years of his presidency.
It is clear from these examples that any kind of politically reformist socialism is doomed to fail, since most current democracies are bourgeois. There are simply too much institutions which wish a socialist society not to happen, and who want the status quo to remain. Fighting them, the bourgeoisie, with laws, decrees, debate, is not sufficient, and is often harmful to the socialist movement, as was made clear in the case of Allende and Venezuela. In order for a socialist society to be realized, revolution must occur. The people must, by force, with arms, with violence, expel the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, from their position of power, and quickly and efficiently restructure the government and the economy to serve only the people’s need. Only in a revolution are the capacities of its proponents, the revolutionaries, maximally utilized. That is, only in a revolution are people willing to do anything necessary to get to the desired end goal, and such a revolution provides the revolutionaries with an opportune moment to seize power from the capitalist class. Revolution is inevitable, and difficult to reverse. This is not at all an anathema to the principles of democratic socialism. The term ‘democratic’ might trick one into believing that democratic socialists must inherently be reformist, but as was explained above, the ‘democratic’ part refers to how a socialist society would politically be structured after a revolution.
It is for this reason that we can conclude that the future of not just democratic socialism, but socialism in general, lies with revolution, and thus that any tendency of socialism, including democratic socialism, must be revolutionary in order to be fully realizable. We, as socialists, must reject the constraints of bourgeois “democracy”, and once again embrace the revolutionary spirit that seems to be so absent as of late in the socialist movement. Together we can build a better tomorrow, but it requires more effort than voting, debating, and legislating.
It requires you.