Democratic Socialism in 5 Minutes or Less

From Rosa Luxemburg to Bernie Sanders, a beginner’s guide.

Dayton Martindale

(Terry LaBan)
dem·o·crat·ic so·cial·ism


The political philosophy of In These Times’ founders, who in their first editorial proclaimed: Our overriding commitment is to democracy, to socialism as the means to its attainment, and to the inseparability of the two.”

Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” —Martin Luther King, Jr. in a 1965 speech to the Negro American Labor Council

So What Does That Actually Entail?

Ask any two socialists and you’ll likely get different answers. Ask any two non-socialists and you may be even more befuddled — to some on the Right, there’s hardly a difference between Barack Obama and Chairman Mao. But while democratic socialism” can be a big tent, the ideology has a few key elements. Socialism generally means putting the economy under collective (rather than private) control — where wealth is equitably distributed, public good comes before profit and your boss can’t run the workplace like a private fiefdom. Democratic socialism, then, means both political and economic democracy, a socialism in which people actively participate in constructing and operating their government and workplaces.

But What About Stalin?

Over the last century, democratic socialism has developed in opposition to those more top-down visions of socialism that take dictatorship of the proletariat” a bit too literally. German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, critiquing Lenin and Trotsky after the Russian Revolution, insisted that democracy must be part of the socialist project from the beginning: Socialist democracy … does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators.”

Feeling the Bern

Bernie Sanders has made socialism cool again — but he’s also muddied the waters. On the campaign trail he associated democratic socialism with specific policies like free college and universal healthcare, and with abstractions like an economy that works for all” and Scandinavia.” But he mostly doesn’t call for the degree of collective ownership advocated by many democratic socialists. Instead, Sanders’ mix of robust corporate regulation and a generous welfare state is referred to as social democracy,” a step toward democratic socialism and a yuge improvement on what we’ve got.

Coming to a City Near You 

Since the 2016 election, there’s been a surge of interest in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), now the country’s largest socialist group. With more than 25,000 members and chapters in 46 states, the organization’s locals are fighting for Medicare for All, electing socialists to office and, in Los Angeles, taking on the city’s bid to host the 2028 Olympics.

This is the first in The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For a more thorough discussion of democratic socialism, see Bringing Socialism Back” by Joseph M. Schwartz.

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Dayton Martindale is a freelance writer and former associate editor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Journal, Harbinger and The Next System Project. Follow him on Twitter: @DaytonRMartind.

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