What does it mean to be a Democratic Socialist?

Member Bruce Nissen Shares what being a Democratic Socialist means to him:

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is pretty unique among progressive groups in the United States. We have numerous organizations such as Move On, Indivisible, the Resistance, Progressive Democrats, etc., etc. who share many issues with the DSA and with whom the DSA can often make common cause. Yet, the DSA is different, and clearly one of the most important of those differences is that the DSA is composed of Democratic Socialists.

So what does it mean to be a Democratic Socialist? A good number of beliefs can fit within this label; believing in Democratic Socialism does not require one to adhere to a very strict and specific “political line” unlike some other far-left sects that define themselves as “socialist.” Yet, there is a general core of beliefs that Democratic Socialists share; here I’ll try to articulate what I believe that set of beliefs is comprised of. (Others may of course have a different “take.”)

First, being a Democratic Socialist means that one believes in democracy. In fact, because a capitalist economic system can never be fully and truly democratic (the wealthy and the capitalists who own the mass media and who can “buy” their preferred political outcomes inevitably have way more influence than ordinary working people), Democratic Socialists believe a different form of economy is necessary. This devotion to democracy also separates Democratic Socialists from other self-described “socialists” who condone or support authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes and political parties that substitute one form of oppression for another.

Democratic Socialists also believe that a truly free society requires some form of socialism. What constitutes “socialism?” Here there is room for a variety of answers within the “big tent” grouping of Democratic Socialism. But most agree on a few things.

In its simplest terms, we can say two things about Democratic Socialism.

  • Politically, it means political power transferred to the working class, away from the capitalist class which currently holds most political power;

So we can measure how socialist a society is by the degree to which it has transferred political and economic power from a small group of capitalists (the 1% and its surrounding milieu of highly paid functionaries working to keep its wealth and power) to the working class, a large majority of the population. The more a society has achieved that transfer, the more socialist it is.

These clear criteria are somewhat abstract. How to achieve that transfer is left unspecified. I believe that historical experience has proven many earlier ideas about socialism wrong. Some misconceptions are: Capitalism = markets while Socialism = a completely “planned” economy. Capitalism = decentralized economy while Socialism = a top down “command” economy. Capitalism = a democratic society while Socialism = a dictatorship or an unfree society. Capitalism = self- reliance while Socialism = a “nanny state” free of personal responsibility.

If these are misconceptions, what does socialism mean in practice? If it is Democratic Socialism it will be politically structured to combat all forms of discrimination against any segment of the working class (e.g., against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, religious bigotry, xenophobic nationalism, etc.). All these discriminatory prejudices undermine democracy.

But what would Democratic Socialism look like economically? I don’t think we have all the answers; much experimentation would be required. But some things should be clear: worker control of enterprises would be maximized; major necessities for a very basic healthy life would be taken out of the market and provided to all (healthcare, education, food, shelter, transportation); segments of the economy essential to all national economic activity would be owned by the federal government (national energy grid until local renewable energy is available, control of currency and much of the financial sector, national transportation modes, etc.) while as much as possible other economic sectors would be decentralized to either the state or local areas.

Large enterprises would all be controlled democratically: some public ownership, some worker coops or geographic coops with governmental limitations on private (coop) profit allowed. At the local level government and coop enterprises would probably predominate, but for smaller enterprises (e.g., local restaurants, Bed and Breakfasts, local bars, etc.) private ownership would be allowed with strict limitations on extent of private profit allowed from such ownership.

For all types of enterprises worker control would be the goal and (hopefully) an ever-growing reality as worker formations gain expertise in running enterprises. This would all require a lot of experimentation to see what is both efficient and democratic, but over time a good “mix” of the above types of economic enterprises should be attainable.

The above is just a sketchy outline of what I envision in a modern Democratic Socialist society. Other variations could be put forward, and discussion about which is preferable would be very beneficial in clarifying different visions.

I think a modern conception of Democratic Socialism must transcend the old view of socialism as strictly government ownership and a 100% “planned” economy. Modern socialism will have a use for markets as well as planning — but those markets must be shaped and controlled democratically and not “rigged” for the benefit of the capitalists and their henchmen. Modern socialism will be much more egalitarian than capitalism, but it needn’t be entirely free of wealth differences (they’ll be relatively small and can be taxed away upon one’s death).

Modern countries closest to my vision of Democratic Socialism are the Scandinavian social democracies. Of course, they are not yet socialist but they have come closer than any other countries in the world. They consistently rank among the world’s highest in being democratic, being egalitarian, being healthy, being prosperous, being environmentally responsible, being highly educated, having very low incarceration rates, etc. Are they wonderful utopias? No. But they are more socialist than other countries, and various metrics prove that their “socialist” policies deliver a better life than is available under a strictly capitalist society.

I welcome critical comments on my ideas, an would love to discuss these issues with my fellow members of the DSA!

Bruce Nissen

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Pinellas DSA

The Official Pinellas County FL chapter of Democratic Socialists of America