Democratic socialism

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A red carnation held in a closed fist is the international symbol of democratic socialism.

Democratic socialism is an broad political movement propagating the ideals of socialism within the context of a democratic system. In many cases, its adherents promote the ideal of socialism as an evolutionary process within the framework of a parliamentary democracy. Other democratic socialists favor a revolutionary approach that seeks to establish socialism within a non-parliamentary system, usually based on workers councils or similar organizations.

Thinkers, writers and activists such as Robert Owen, Karl Marx, George Orwell, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb can all be said to have contributed to "democratic socialist philosophy". However, popular movements such as the growth of trade unionism, the Chartists and the Labour Party (UK) (a "democratic socialist party" according to the first line of its constitution) or the SPD in Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) are equally critical to understanding Democratic Socialism.



An alternative and new definition to the one mentioned above involves the consensus of the members of Socialist International in the XX Congress in New York in 1996. Democratic Socialism was redefined and would become the ideological foundation of which Social democracy would be the application. Other goals like the welfare state and social justice are still held in equal regard in both. See SI (

It should be noted, however, that many of those who describe themselves as "socialists" often argue that socialism necessarily implies democracy, thus making "democratic socialism" a redundant term. The fact that one specific movement is called Democratic Socialism does not mean that other branches of socialism must be any less democratic.

The terms "Democratic Socialism" and "Social Democracy" have often been used interchangeably, and, indeed, many have considered them synonymous until recently. Today, however, they usually denote two different things: Social Democracy is more centrist and supports a broadly capitalist system, with just a few reforms intended to make it more equitable and humane. Meanwhile, Democratic Socialism is more left-wing and it supports a fully socialist system, seeking to establish that socialist system, either by gradually reforming capitalism from within, or via a revolutionary transformation. Thus, Democratic Socialism can be either an evolutionary socialist movement or a revolutionary movement. This tension between the revolutionary and evolutionary tendencies of democratic socialism can be seen in the Socialist Party USA, which has members who advocate both types of positions (although the party statement of principles does use the word "revolution" to describe its position). Revolutionary democratic socialists accuse those who favor evolution as of supporting a kind of "socialism from above" that is achieved via legislation and which does not abolish the capitalist system. Evolutionary democratic socialists accuse supporters of revolution of being impractical and of supporting pie-in-the-sky approaches.

Evolutionary democratic socialists and social democrats both typically advocate at least a welfare state, although some social democrats, being influenced by the Third Way, would be willing to consider other means of delivering a social safety net for the poorest in society. Revolutionary democratic socialists support a welfare state, not as a means toward achieving socialism, but as a way of providing relief until revolutionary change happens, and also as a means of mobilizing the populace towards revolutionary ideals. Evolutionary democratic socialists maintain a commitment to the re-distribution of wealth and the nationalisation of major industry, and some believe in a planned economy, while revolutionary democratic socialists support a decentralized system that is governed from below via popular organizations (such as workers councils); these are all concepts which social democrats have largely abandoned. In addition, many democratic socialists retain a Marxist analysis (though sometimes a reformist one), while social democrats reject Marxism.

Democratic socialist parties appeared before the First World War, when no single country could be described as democratic in the modern use of the term, because of electoral discrimination on the basis of gender, race or wealth. What frequently distinguished these democratic socialists from others was a willingness to work through a parliamentary democracy (even if people were still disenfranchised) to both improve the lives of working classes and win the vote, rather than resort to revolution (the overthrow of the state).


Many early varieties of socialism, particularly those stemming from the sans-culotte branch of French Revolutionary politics, took for granted democratic characteristics such as universal (manhood) suffrage and equality before the law. Notable among such currents are the egalitarian Jacobinism of Babeuf, the humanistic revolutionary spirit of Louis Blanc, Robert Owen's so-called utopianism, and Karl Marx. Such early socialisms might in retrospect be included as democratic socialist. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Socialist Industrial Unionism of Daniel DeLeon in the United States represented another strain of early democratic socialism, which favored a revolution to form a new government based on industrial unions, but which also favored achieving this revolution via the ballot box, thus combining both evolutionary and revolutionary aspects.

However, democratic socialism as such only becomes a movement in its own right as a current rejecting both Stalinism (with its distinctive visions of the vanguard party and the dictatorship of the proletariat) and, preferably, the reformism characteristic of yellow socialists and social democrats.

During the 1920s, Council communism anticipated democratic socialist positions in several respects, notably through renouncing the vanguard role of the revolutionary party and holding that the system of the USSR was not authentically socialist (describing it as defective or specious socialism). However, council communism has generally tended towards the "ultraleft" position of opposing any reforms of capitalism in the short term.

The guild socialism of G. D. H. Cole was a conscious attempt to envision a socialist alternative to Soviet-style authoritarianism.

During India's freedom movement, many figures on the Left of the Indian National Congress organized themselves as the Congress Socialist Party. Their politics, and those of the early and intermediate periods of JP Narayan's career, combined a commitment to the socialist transformation of society with a principled opposition to the one-party authoritarianism they perceived in the Stalinist revolutionary model.

The folkesocialisme or people's socialism that emerged as a vital current of the Left in Scandinavia beginning in the 1950s could also be characterized as a democratic socialism in the same vein.

In much of Europe and North America during the 1960s, there was a strong current of democratic socialism in the politics of the New Left. For example, the classic Port Huron Statement of the SDS combines a stringent critique of the Communist model with calls for a democratic socialist reconstruction of society. In western Europe, Dany Cohn-Bendit, the situationists, and various groups taking to the streets in May 1968 articulated similar positions. The New Left legacy of democratic socialism may be clearly seen in the post-Marxist positions of a wide range of intellectuals (often identified with post-modernism or post-structuralism), from Chantal Mouffe in Europe to Cornell West in the United States.

Simultaneously in Eastern Europe (particularly Czechoslovakia), there was a tendency towards socialism with a human face meant to endow a Marxist-Leninist political establishment with more authentically democratic credentials.

Since the end of the Cold War, many traditionally Marxist-Leninist groups and parties have evolved positions more closely resembling democratic socialism. The parties of the European United Left today often include both a "conservative" Marxist-Leninist wing and a "liberal" democratic socialist tendency.

The boundaries of what might be categorized as "democratic socialism" are thus necessarily fluid. On the right, democratic socialism shades seamlessly into social democracy; on the left, it passes into various hybrids and permutations of Leninism. Furthermore, it also shades off into a variety of radical progressive groups not specifically identifying with the history or symbolism of "socialism" as such. Since the 1990s much of the political activity of the democratic Left has fed into the international movement against capitalist globalization. Many anti-globalist groups describe themselves as anti-capitalist without self-identifying as socialist, despite sharing a great many positions and analyses with the New Left and democratic socialism.


Democratic socialists have normally defended the role of the public sector, particularly as regards the provision of key services such as health care, education, utilities, mass transit, and sometimes also banking, mining, and fuel extraction. For evolutionary democratic socialists, their economic vision has often included a mixed economy with a greater emphasis on worker and consumer co-operatives, credit unions, family farms and small businesses, as compared to authoritarian Marxist-Leninists. In India, democratic socialists have to varying degrees seen the traditional village-based peasant economy as a model to be supported and enhanced. Revolutionary democratic socialists usually favor the role of the public sector, not as a means of achieving socialism, but as a means of ameliorating the worst effects of capitalism until a revolution is accomplished.

Regarding tactics, democratic socialists include a spectrum of positions, from those advocating nonviolent resistance against capitalism, or the possibility of violent resistance under certain circumstances, to those committed exclusively to anti-capitalist reforms through parliamentary means (see evolutionary socialism and Fabianism). Democratic socialists advocating direct action may tend to similar positions with anarcho-syndicalism (with which democratic socialism shares the characteristics of being both anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian), although evolutionary democratic socialists and revolutionary democratic socialists differ on whether they regard the state itself as an evil to be abolished.

List of Democratic Socialist parties

The following political parties are either democratic socialist in themselves, social democratic parties with significant numbers of democratic socialist members, or other left-wing parties with democratic socialist members:

See also


  • Donald F. Busky, Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey


External links

de:Sozialistische Demokratie es:Socialismo democrtico eo:Demokrata Socialismo zh-cn:民主社会主义


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