Why Socialism, Part 2: What’s in a Name?

A week ago, speaking at one of the most expensive colleges in the nation, Bernie Sanders clarified what he means by democratic socialism. The speech prompted a lot of people—including liberals who still eschew the S-word and socialists who don’t want to dilute it—to argue that Bernie is more of a social democrat than a democratic socialist. On one level, I must agree. Bernie spent a lot of time talking about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and FDR himself was not a socialist.

However! We can still thank honest-to-goodness socialists for the New Deal. Take a moment to picture what the world was like during the Great Depression. Here are some photos to help:

Communist and Socialist-led protests were familiar sights to FDR and the titans of industry of his day.  That’s why, when the President sought their support for the New Deal, he told his One Percenters to look out the window at the communists and socialists marching in the streets. Professor Richard Wolff explains the history in his blog, from which I quote:

Powerfully organized worker demands caused FDR’s conversion to trickle-up economics. Stunningly successful Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unionization campaigns in the 1930s coordinated with rising memberships, activities, and influences of socialist and communist parties. These forces demanded and obtained direct help for the mass of people, while some among them also advocated basic social change as the best crisis solution. […]

FDR leveraged and channeled organized worker pressures into a grand social compromise, his New Deal. It pleased majorities of the American public and of capitalists and the richest 5 percent. That won him repeated re-election. The New Deal got corporations and the wealthy to finance Washington’s provision of help to average Americans in exchange for the CIO, socialists and communists muting demands within their ranks for system change. By warning capitalists and the rich that his New Deal was their only alternative to revolution along Soviet lines, FDR split their ranks and won support from many. He likewise got most in the CIO, socialist and communist parties to marginalize their anti-capitalism in return for a real social safety net.

The New Deal was a compromise that many socialists supported, and was indeed decried as socialist by its detractors, but it wasn’t a socialist plan.  Nevertheless, the pressure of a Left that could successfully counterbalance the financial elites of its day was key to passing a plan that was intended to maintaining the current system by making it work for everyone, not to enact a new one.

Like FDR, Bernie speaks about protecting our current system and making it work for everyone.  That’s why the general consensus among socialists is that Bernie is more of a social democrat than a democratic socialist.  Social democrats—essentially synonymous with New Deal liberals—focus on trying to iron out the wrinkles in our current system, while democratic socialists see a need for more fundamental changes. (It’s worth noting that most democratic socialists would be fine with social democratic policies if they believed they would really address the problems that plague us. It’s also worth noting that we generally seek to achieve systemic change gradually through the electoral process, without any of the messy revolutions that have historically destroyed the democracy we prize so much, but I digress.)

This distinction matters in the long term because it speaks to a different endpoint that might at some point require us to support different policies. But right now, in the United States of 2016, the social democratic path and the democratic socialist path lead in the same direction. We have so much ground to make up as a society—trained for so long to fear anything to which the S-word might even appear to stick—that the main goal for everyone left of center is getting Leftist ideas out there for voters to start considering. That’s why I’m pumped about Bernie’s use of the label, even if I think his version misses key points.  Detoxifying the S-word opens up political possibilities.  That’s a huge step forward.

So if you’re considering jumping on the Lefty bandwagon (Join us! There’s plenty of room!), don’t worry right now about where you think the path should ultimately lead. I hope that before too long, we’ll be discussing actual plans and policies rather than the semantics of labels. In coming posts, I plan to step out of theoretical semantics and start writing about concrete ideas that anyone anywhere left of the political center should ponder. (For that matter, so should people who have aligned themselves with the Tea Party out of frustration, as I’d wager these ideas would better address some of their concerns.)

But for now, it happens to be a holiday, and I must be off. A Happy Thanksgiving to you all!


6 thoughts on “Why Socialism, Part 2: What’s in a Name?

  1. “Social democrats—essentially synonymous with New Deal liberals—focus on trying to iron out the wrinkles in our current system, while democratic socialists see a need for more fundamental changes.”

    I have to take issue with the assertion that social democracy is synonymous with New Deal liberalism. Social democrats might see the New Deal as a useful first step, but I think most (myself included) would support far more sweeping changes than the New Deal. As I understand it, social democracy in theory can encompass policies up to but not including eliminating private property. A world in which social democrats achieved all of their goals would be radically different from the world created by the New Deal.


    1. You consider yourself a social democrat, Dana? In that case, I’d ask you the same question you’ve asked: what policy positions do you support?

      Also, New Deal liberals wanted more than they got with the New Deal, like universal health care, as I recall. Most leftists would say that social democracy (a.) is about reforming rather than replacing capitalism, and (b.) doing so by means of a welfare state. It doesn’t necessarily mean they wanted to stop with just the policies included in the New Deal. (Now that you mention it, though, how far can one go along that path without eventually crossing into socialist territory? A question worth pondering.)

      The more important point, though, is that labels are valuable, but only up to a point, which is why I argued in this post that right now, it doesn’t really matter which of these terms might describe an individual at the moment.


      1. Social Democrats, especially at the time, wanted far more than a welfare state. Many were evolutionary socialists who wanted a universal wealth redistribution to subordinate private capital to public planning, which happened in Sweden, Norway. Germany, etc. This was not the goal of the New Deal at all.


        1. What you say here doesn’t seem to go against what I said above, though perhaps brings to mind the importance of stating a time frame and a location. The Bolsheviks, after all, also originally called themselves social democrats.

          Labels are useful up to a point, and then past that point it’s better to ask people precisely what they mean by any given abstract term.


    1. Perhaps, or perhaps not. Bernie’s 2016 platform wasn’t socialism, but it was a good platform for the 2016 presidential election that I know many self-identified socialists (who wanted much more than that platform delivered) still were thrilled to see. And it got people socialism-curious.


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