Democratic Socialism: Revolution or Reform?
There is no room for reform. We have a broken system. We need to start over. The power of solidarity gets results right away. The next stage, the yearning to do better, that’s socialism. We’re for transforming the relations of people’s power in society. Puerto Ricans will get revenge. We seek to totally abolish the existing capitalist system so that we can have true democracy. Socialism. In the United States, people have been taught that it means deprivation, repression and terror. But in recent years, opinions have changed. We’re here in New York City to find out what people think about socialism. If the country has the money, I mean everybody should have, you know, should have healthcare and an education. That would be a nice idea. Social security is socialism, Medicare is socialism, it doesn’t bother me at all, but people hate the word. They associate it with Soviet Russia. The base word is social, so I feel like that has to do with connecting with others, you know? I do know that socialism has worked in Denmark, it has worked in Sweden overall. I’m very comfortable with the examples that they’ve set. I’m not totally opposed to it, but I think pure socialism, I think, probably doesn’t work. I thought France was socialist, no? Oh, yeah that’s what I’m saying, maybe France. I was just in Paris recently and I heard that and I was like, “Oh ok, so it works in other places. Dope.” A recent poll found that 43 per cent of Americans say that some form of socialism would be a ‘good thing’. In 2016, Bernie Sanders came close to being the Democratic Party’s nominee for President running a campaign where he openly called himself a democratic socialist. More recently, Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and Rashida Talib became the first two members of the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, to be elected to congress. For his part, President Donald Trump has made fear-mongering around socialism a focus of his presidency. America will never be a socialist country. I’m in Atlanta, Georgia where the DSA is holding its national convention just as the Democratic primaries are heating up. I want to talk to some of the activists here about why they became socialists, and what their politics are all about and what makes this organisation tick. Before the Sanders campaign of 2016, the DSA was an organization of barely a few thousand. Now, it’s grown to nearly 60,000 people. But what does democratic socialism actually mean? Socialism is the idea that democracy is brought immediately into your life to the point where it really matters, in the decisions as to whether you get to eat or not. It is increased democracy. Democracy in all parts of our lives. It is recognizing that we need to be… we owe each other everything, and what that means is that we need to build a society that provides for all of us. Profit should not overtake the needs of people, we need to have a world where everyone’s needs are met. Carlos Ramirez Rosa, an open member of the DSA, was elected to Chicago’s city council in 2019, a sign of the changing political climate. Well, you know we went from one socialist in the Chicago city council to six as a result of this past election, and I think it really shows that people are hungry for real politics that speaks to their needs. They’re hungry for democracy. One of the things that I’ve done during my first term is make sure that the unilateral power I control as a city council member, that that’s devolved to the people, so that we have participatory democracy. Socialism is democracy and democracy is socialism. But is there a clear definition of what democratic socialism actually is? And is it different from plain old socialism? Richard Wolff is considered one of the most prominent Marxist economists in the United States today. Human beings have always wanted to do better. There’s absolutely no reason to imagine that capitalism is the end of a process that has always changed. And the next stage, the yearning to do better, that’s socialism. In the 19th century, the beginning, it begins to spread. Across the 19th century, it becomes an important movement in Europe. In less than a century, it covers that enormous continent with people everywhere getting interested and so forth. In the 20th century, it goes from Europe to the rest of the world. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels laid the ideological foundation for today’s socialist movements. They looked at the economic system of the 19th century and what they saw was a system based on ruthless exploitation. On the one hand, they saw a tiny class of people who owned factories and property, the so called means of production. On the other hand, they saw the workers, the wealth creators who were exploited by a small class of capitalists. The sheer inequality of the system, meant that Marx and Engels viewed class struggle and a show down between workers and capitalists as inevitable. As revolutionary upheavals broke out in Europe in 1848, they felt validated and wrote the Communist Manifesto to encourage workers to unite and take control of the means of production and create an equal society, which they called communism. Their ideas inspired millions around the world to fight for socialism in one form or another. Socialism had spread, had grown, had become much more sophisticated, and was able, either by the ballot or by revolution, to take power. Starts in 1917 in Russia, and then percolates all over the world. That first successful workers’ revolution in the former Russian Empire is key to understanding the fear-mongering around socialism today. The U.S. government was terrified of its influence and for good reason. In 1920, Eugene Debs won almost a million votes running for president as a socialist. With the coming of the financial crash of the late 1920s and the Great Depression, pressure from an increasingly militant, working-class movement, forced the president at the time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to introduce reforms that provided social security, state jobs and unemployment benefits. It’s a program that Bernie Sanders seeks to emulate today. It means building on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. He’s associating himself with a very popular figure. Who did what? The New Deal. Well, what was that? The New Deal was taxing corporations and the rich, which is what he did, to pay for a program that helped average people: social security, unemployment compensation, we never had those things before. Minimum wage, we never had that before, and a federal jobs program that hired 15 million people in the midst of the greatest depression capitalism has ever seen. Ok, he’s saying, that’s it. That’s socialism. But was the New Deal really just a Band-Aid for a failing capitalist system? And what’s become of those reforms? In the 1930s, with the collapse of capitalism, there was a big debate within the Socialist and Communist Parties…there was. Between the reformers and the revolutionaries. The reformers won, hands down. That’s why we have a New Deal. We reformed. Okay. Here we are, 60 years later, and what have we seen? That those reforms are insecure, were vulnerable, and most of them have been undone. Therefore, that debate is over. The conclusion is, you have to take the further steps, otherwise the reforms themselves, don’t last. So what are these steps? We wanted to ask socialists who aren’t members of the DSA. Karina Garcia, is an activist in the Party for Socialism and Liberation. It’s the Bernie Sanders’ sort of new framing of what democratic socialism is, it’s really capitalism with a safety net, right? He’s talking about countries in western Europe who are given some degree of basic rights. They have education, they have health care. We’re for those things, too. But we’re for transforming the relations of who holds power in society. Carlito Rovira was a member of the Young Lords Party, which organised the U.S. Puerto Rican community in the late 1960s and early 70s. I have studied very closely the logic behind Bernie Sanders’ version of democratic socialism, as well as that of Congresswoman Alexandria Cortez. And the code word that they use most often is “our fair share.” What “our fair share” implies is that you can have socialism for the poor, as well as for the rich, you know. Second of all, to use the term “democratic socialism” is to overtly imply that socialism is not democratic. It’s not uncommon to hear those who call themselves democratic socialists talk about Scandinavia or Western Europe as examples of how socialism can work, and it’s also something that is repeated by Bernie Sanders. In Denmark, my guess is, please correct me if I’m wrong. Probably the per capita cost of health care is half what it is in the United States. Is that a good guess? The countries of Scandinavia have policies that protect people from the worst inequalities of capitalism, through high rates of taxation and regulation. They provide workers with the right to some level of health care, education, and other limited social benefits. But these countries are in no way anti-capitalist, and just like with the New Deal, their social reforms have proven to be insecure. In Europe, economic downturns and stagnation have brought on a politics of austerity, in even the most “progressive” social democracies, which has been catastrophic for working people and the most marginalised. So is today’s new democratic socialism really just good old social democracy, recycled? Social democracy brings a lot of great things into the social realm, right? There’s social democratic governments all throughout Europe where they have amazing health care systems, where they have amazing, you know, housing systems, that provide social housing. But as democratic socialists, we understand that democracy is the only guarantour of liberty. And as long as we have individuals who are able to accumulate wealth, as long as we have a capitalist class that is very small, right, and is able to determine how our economy is structured, that they will continuously seek to take control of our public education system, as we’ve seen with the privatisation movement in the United States. They will seek to take control of everything that they possibly can. So as democratic socialism, we seek to totally abolish the existing capitalist system so that we can have true democracy. Jacobin Magazine, has over the years become something of a collective organizer for the democratic socialist movement. We spoke to Bhaskar Sunkara the founder, and he, Like Carlos, differentiates between his vision and that of social democrats. Social democrats want a better situation for working people within capitalism, whereas socialists are fighting for some of those same things, but we also think that there’s a possibility beyond capitalism. So we don’t want to just, kind of, make conditions more bareable to people. We want to create an entirely new system, in which certain decisions that are held today by just a handful of CEOs, are held to democratic account. But back to the history of how we got here. After the Second World War, U.S. authorities moved to clamped down on the socialist movement, and Senator Joseph McCarthy began a campaign aimed to purge leftists from the trade unions, government, and even Hollywood – known as the red scare. The campaign crushed the dynamic movement for social change, whether it took an outlook of revolution or reform. In recognising a communist, physical appearance counts for nothing. If he openly declares himself to be a communist, we take his word for it. If a person consistently reads and advocates the views expressed in a communist publication, he may be a communist. Today, the red scare is ever-present. Nowhere is this clearer than in the discussion around Venezuela. The message is simple: if you want socialism, you’ll end up with a desperately poor and destitute society, short on food, consumer goods, and basically everything. Not long ago, Venezuela was one of the richest countries on Earth. Today, socialism has bankrupted the oil rich nation. And a lot of the democratic socialists, not all of them thankfully; but some of them sort of sacrifice that, won’t stand up to that kind of pressure, and we don’t care what CNN or Fox News, or the Trump administration… We’ve seen, we’ve gone to Venezuela. We’ve seen what they’re doing in their country. They’re trying to take back their country. They’re trying to take back their resources, and create the society that we have in common. We want our people to have jobs, education. The Venezuelan government has created missions that have created millions of units of housing, that have created healthcare and education for rural parts of the country. Those are things that we have in common. But our government is making it impossible, it does everything that it can to sabotage that. Venezuela is just one issue on which Bernie Sanders has received criticism from parts of the U.S. left. For Karina, several of his other positions also fail to express solidarity with those fighting against U.S. aggression. He has his own contradictions, as well. He said he was against the Iraq War, but he voted to fund it each time. He is a little bit more critical of the State of Israel, and at the same time he condemns BDS, and at the same time when Gaza is being bombed and civilians are being killed, he says that Israel had a right to defend itself and completely ignores the Palestinians who are being occupied. The last time there was a socialist upsurge in the United States, organisations like the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party were inspiring young people and oppressed communities with their message and actions. The socialism of the Young Lords was about direct action. Carlito took us to a building that holds particular significance for him. The church that you see behind me, we renamed it People’s Church. We took it over in 1969 because we were demanding free breakfast for children. Instead, they chose to bring in the police one day that we were there requesting it, and they… the police started beating us up. So on December 27th, we took it over in military fashion, and we set up free breakfast programs, legal clinics, drug addiction clinics, and free clothing drive for those that didn’t have it. By 1966, there was an abrupt quantum in the black liberation struggle, in the civil rights movement. And that’s when the Black Panther Party was born. Because the Black Panther Party was not advocating solely black liberation. They were also demanding socialism. They were fighting for socialism, and attributed the plight of black people to the capitalist system, and so too did the Young Lords. We saw the plight of the Puerto Rican people, the colonisation of Puerto Rico, being facilitated by the expansion of the capitalist system in the United States. Socialists and communists have a long history of organizing for racial justice in the United States. In the 1930s, the Communist Party took a leading role in the struggle for racial equality, fighting for equal rights in the work place, as well as desegregation in the South. Communists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Claudia Jones and Paul Robeson are just a few of the names associated with this struggle. We need to think about, reconceive the civil rights movement as a victory of the left. Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King – these are all people who identified in some form as democratic socialists. These are people who connected their sense of demands about racial equality with demands for jobs and justice. So King has his famous line where he said, you know, yes we want to, you know, desegregate the lunch counter. But we also want to make sure we can afford to buy a steak or a hamburger once we’re there. Today, the legacy of that black socialist tradition lives in often surprising places. This is Jackson, Mississippi. I’m surrounded by confederate flags and statues, including this one devoted to women of the confederacy. It’s really an unlikely place to be discussing socialist politics, but in this state – one of the poorest in the country – a group of black radicals have created Cooperation Jackson. They’re developing an alternative to capitalism that could show what a more democratic society could look like, the projects aim is to build a network of co-ops to build solidarity and people’s power. So this is ground zero for the Freedom Farm. Right now, we’re trying to work on permaculture, which basically means that they regenerate themselves, or they’ll grow back even after their harvest. Right now, we have okra growing over here, and a few greens, and then we have some canary melons and watermelons over in the back. If you don’t control your own food production, you’re fundamentally dependent upon others for your caloric intake, which means that they’re going to dictate the terms of your life. The vision from the start has been to create a federation of cooperatives, and cooperatives that are inter-dependent and really interconnected in a way that creates a eco-system. Co-ops should be seen as a form of working-class organisation, right. And if you don’t have that orientation, I think you’re building the wrong thing. So this is really building toward a form of working-class organization, and we’re putting the power in our hands. That’s a way of beginning to challenge capital on a local level. Jackson has had a radical history even before Cooperation Jackson was established in 2013. It’s among the cities where black nationalists, who also identified as socialists, created the Republic of New Afrika in the 1960s, a republic born out of deep inequality. So here in Jackson, this is a city which is over 80 per cent black. But in terms of actual economic access to what the black community owns, it’s minimal. Like probably in terms of real wealth, there’s some estimates like it’s less than five per cent. Since industry picked up and left, unemployment among the black community has steadily risen. But for Cooperation Jackson, it presents something of an opportunity. If the means of production don’t actually exist, they can create them, and run those enterprises democratically. We can start building housing, you know, for our folks. You know, furniture, aquaponics sort of systems, all the way down to like microchips, sort of thing, but for our folks to be able to be ahead of the curve, instead of like etched out. Chokwe Lumumba, was one of the founders of the Republic of New Afrika, and with the support of cooperation Jackson, he won the mayoral election in the city in 2013. Though he died the next year, his son Chokwe Antar is now Jackson’s mayor. Despite the success of the Lumumbas in winning political office in Jackson as Democratic candidates, the cooperative remain cautious about electoral politics as a vehicle for change. I don’t think that we can transition from out of capitalism through elections. One of the things that we’ve been very clear to kind of point out and to share to most people who are in the DSA world and the broader socialist world who are thinking about running for electoral politics is to be clear in your case what you think you can change, and what you know you can’t. And for those of us who think we’re going to get into office and better manage the contradictions of capitalism, you’re deluding yourself. So if the choice for the socialist movement going forward is whether or not we need a revolution or just to reform the system, do DSA members believe we can – or even should – have a revolution in the United States? Do you think a revolution is possible in the U.S.? No. Not at this point, no, I don’t think it’s possible. Probably, that’s what it looks like it’s coming down to, because the one per cent is not just going to give all of this up. Seeing how we can get to these points through democratic change. There is no room for reform. We have a broken system. We need to start over. We have things that work that we can build off of, but the vast majority of our structures are broken. Socialism was declared dead when the Soviet Union collapsed, but in an era of inequality and uncertainly, for more and more people, the idea is once again being put back on the agenda. And while democratic socialism is widely spoken of, it’s a term that doesn’t seem to have a simple definition, even for people in organisations like the DSA. And for some on the broader left, democratic socialism is simply social democracy, rebranded. As it was a century ago, the debate in the socialist movement continues to be whether you can change society by reforming the system or by changing the system altogether. There’s a saying in Spanish, “No intentes tapar el sol con un dedo”. You can’t cover the sun with one finger. That’s the reality of this political system. You can put in a few progressive people; it’s not going to change the system. That’s what a lot of people already know. They gave us a black president, they gave us voting rights, they gave us visibility, but the one thing they will not give you is power: political power.