If You Want to Understand Democratic Socialism, Look to Orwell, Not Sanders

There is a movement behind Senator Bernie Sanders – a powerful and devoted corps of activists who are clamoring in the streets and across social media for “Democratic socialism.”  This term they tie to the Nordic model – a system built upon the vast majority of production being in private hands – profit and control – but where a robust social safety net exists and certain industries, such as healthcare, energy, and transportation, are owned by the government.  However, this was not known as democratic socialism before Bernie came to the center stage – but rather the term he uses refers to a different movement that he left behind decades ago.

I have every intention of giving Bernie Sanders a critical endorsement, not only in the Democratic Party primary, but for President.  However, in order to do that, I must lay down the vital criticism of his candidacy prior.

Myself, I became a democratic socialist in early 1997 at the tender age of fourteen.  I was given a poor definition of socialism by a schoolmate not too different from what Bernie supporters often give now: the government intercedes in the economy to help things run better.  That is not any true definition of socialism, but it was enough to pique my interest and get me searching out more information online and in encyclopedias.

What is Democratic Socialism?

The term, democratic socialism, or as it was originally written: “democratic Socialism” rather than “Democratic socialism” as so many in Bernie’s camp have written it, was coined accidentally by George Orwell in an essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” in 1941.  Orwell is well known for criticizing Stalinist practice through books such as Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1948).  Perhaps he would be rather unknown today if the capitalist educational system didn’t find it useful to stress his criticism as being against socialism rather than Stalinism specifically.  However, Orwell was no anti-socialist, but rather an avowed and vocal socialist who saw Stalinism as a mockery of the socialism he held so dear.

In fact, in an essay entitled “Why I Write,” (1946) he wrote:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

However, Orwell did not use the term prior to 1941. In 1937, in “Spilling the Spanish Beans,” he wrote:

In any serious emergency the contradiction implied in the Popular Front is bound to make itself felt. For even when the worker and the bourgeois are both fighting against Fascism, they are not fighting for the same things; the bourgeois is fighting for bourgeois democracy, i.e., capitalism, the worker, in so far as he understands the issue, for Socialism.

In 1940, in “My Country Right or Left” he wrote:

If I had to defend my reasons for supporting the war, I believe I could do so. There is no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering to him, and from a Socialist point of view I should say that it is better to resist; in any case I can see no argument for surrender that does not make nonsense of the Republican resistance in Spain, the Chinese resistance to Japan, etc. etc.

In the same year, in “Inside the Whale“, he wrote:

The more vocal kind of Communist is in effect a Russian publicity agent posing as an international socialist. It is a pose that is easily kept up at normal times, but becomes difficult in moments of crisis, because of the fact that the U.S.S.R. is no more scrupulous in its foreign policy than the rest of the Great Powers. Alliances, changes of front etc., which only make sense as part of the game of power politics have to be explained and justified in terms of international socialism. Every time Stalin swaps partners, ‘Marxism’ has to be hammered into a new shape.

Indeed, in the very text in which he coined the term he uses the term “Socialism” many times, but only once is it bordered by the term democratic:

The British ruling class were not altogether wrong in thinking that Fascism was on their side. It is a fact that any rich man, unless he is a Jew, has less to fear from Fascism than from either Communism or democratic Socialism.

The adjective of “democratic” was simply used to differentiate from “Communism,” the capitalized word that he used to describe Stalinism, a totalitarian farce of socialism.  Orwell – or the editor – capitalized socialism, communism, and fascism throughout the piece.  Before using the term “democratic socialism” caught on, it’s supporters, including Orwell, simply used the word “socialist.”

The Soviet Union had been a thorn in the side of the socialist movement for a long time.  Marx had supposed that a revolution in Russia could be a signal to workers in the West to overthrow their chains through revolution.

Alongside a rapidly developing capitalist swindle and bourgeois landed property which is only just in the process of formation, in Russia we find the greater part of the land in the common ownership of the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian commune, this form of the original common ownership of land which is actually already in a state of severe disintegration, make the direct transition into a higher communist form of landed property — or must it first undergo the same process of dissolution that characterises the historical development of the West? The only possible answer to this question today is as follows: when the Russian revolution gives the signal for a workers’ revolution in the West, so that each complements the other, then Russian landed property might become the starting point for a communist development.

Engels had clarified, of course before the October Revolution he would not live to see, that socialism in Russia relied on a preexistent socialism in the more developed west.

Lenin and Trotsky were among the Russians who were enthusiastic about the prospect of Russia being this signal to the West that Marx describes – but were well aware that the revolution in the West was vital to socialism arising and succeeding in Russia.  Internationalism was the philosophy they employed, well aware that a peasantry could not simply skip capitalism on its own.  In fact, the initial reaction of socialists in the West was enthusiasm, ecstasy, and hope for the Russian Revolution.

However, Stalin – the villain of the story – consolidated power after Lenin’s death, purging internal critics and even having Trotsky infamously murdered with an ice pick in Mexico.  He was never really a Marxist – being both a nationalist and an irrationalist – and so he proclaimed a policy of Socialism in One Country – Russia would go it alone and cease agitating for revolution in the West.  The soviets, or worker communes, were nationalized and divested of power; internal dissent was banned; socialism was transformed into something completely different.  As a result, socialists in the West were split – some continuing to support Russia and others rejecting Stalin and Soviet “Communism” as a perversion, such as Orwell.

Orwell lays out his definition of socialism, or democratic socialism, in a passage that I will break up for the sake of brevity:

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption.

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class-system. Centralized ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government. “The State” may come to mean no more than a self-elected political party, and oligarchy and privilege can return, based on power rather than on money.

I do not agree with Orwell on every point he makes in the essay, but he gives a clear critique of Stalinism with its totalitarian nature and separates it from actual socialism here.  In the decades hence, socialists have adopted the accidental terminology to make the same differentiation between what they support and what was practiced in the Soviet Union, or China (where Mao declared victory in 1949).

The Socialist Party USA, for example, has described itself as democratic socialist since its founding – or refounding if you see it as the legitimate continuation of the Socialist Party of America – on May 30, 1973.  Until recently – October 2015 – it also used the term “Communist” to separate itself from Stalinist brands, in the tradition of Orwell; a change I voted against.  Instead, it now uses “authoritarian statist systems.”

Under both capitalist and authoritarian statist systems, people have  little control over fundamental areas of their lives. The capitalist  system forces workers to sell their abilities and skills to the few who  own the workplaces, profit from these workers’ labor, and use the  government to maintain their privileged position, while further  impelling the drain of society’s productive wealth and goods into  military purposes, the despoliation of the environment and natural  resources, and perpetual war in which workers are compelled to fight  other workers. Under authoritarian statist regimes, decisions are made by ruling party officials, the bureaucracy and the military. The  inevitable product of each system is a highly stratified society with gross inequality of resources, privileges, and substantive participation  in political life.

The paragraph before it makes clear what this democratic socialist organization means by socialism:

Socialism is not mere government ownership, a welfare state, or a repressive bureaucracy. Socialism is a new social and economic order in which workers and consumers control production and community residents control their neighborhoods, homes, and schools.  The production of society is used for the benefit of all humanity, not for the private profit of a few. Socialism produces a constantly renewed future by not plundering the resources of the earth.

Bernie Sanders today is no democratic socialist – but is he a social democrat?

What is Social Democracy?

Social Democracy stems from the work of Eduard Bernstein, August Bebel, and Wilhelm Liebnecht, of the German Social Democratic Party – the same party that was the largest on the “left” during the era before the rise of the Nazis – the same left that the right wing coalition that put Hitler in power was intended to stop – though Bernstein, himself, died in 1932.  Bernstein, like Orwell, was a Marxist – but Bernstein differed with Marx on the nature of how socialism was to come about.  Feeling the Bern would have meant something quite different back then.

In 1899, Bernstein published “The Preconditions of Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy.”  In it, he argued that socialism would not come about by a revolution – to which it should be noted that Marx agreed could be done through the ballot box in the United Kingdom and United States where that power existed – but rather would be done in increments.  What he created has been come to be known alternatively as evolutionary socialism, revisionism, or social democracy.

This kind of development cannot be in the interest of the working class, nor can it strike as desirable those enemies of Social Democracy who have realized that the current social order has not been created for all eternity, but is subject to the laws of change, and that a catastrophic development, with all its horrors and devastations, can be prevented only if legislation takes into account changes in the relationships of production and exchange and in the development of classes. And the number of those who understand this is growing steadily. Their influence would be much greater than it is today if Social Democracy could muster the courage to emancipate itself from a phraseology that is indeed obsolete and give the impression that it wants to be what it is in reality today: a democratic-socialist reform party.

While you may see in the text the use of the term “democratic-socialist,” it is not the same thing as democratic socialist – but rather another incidental pairing of the words.  However, unlike with Orwell, the turn of phrase did not take on a life of it’s own – probably due to the fact that no one equated socialism with undemocratic movements in those days.

From its success in Germany, social democracy was adopted by movements across Europe – including the Nordic countries of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.  However, critics stated that by making capitalism more livable, the workers would eventually lose sight of the end goal of socialism – a criticism that seems to have come true.  While social democracy had sprouted there – the only thing separating it from welfare capitalism is that it has an end goal of socialism.  That goal is certainly not prominent amongst the Nordic countries now, and Bernie Sanders does not have any known intent, today, of establishing collective ownership and control of industry.  Neither Bernie, nor the modern Nordic states, are social democratic.

Rather, Bernie and the Nordic states alike, are welfare liberals practicing welfare liberalism.  Bernie is a student of the Nordic model and he does indeed echo the work of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – but none of them are democratic socialists nor social democrats.

Why Would Bernie Call Himself a Democratic Socialist?

Bernie, while he is not currently a democratic socialist, was at one point in his life.  Yes, Bernie sold out – and ultimately in two phases: once in the 1980s and once in 2015.

The Daily Beast reported a quote from Bernie Sanders from the 1970s, which I ultimately read on Jacobin, which put the quote in context.

We believe ultimately that companies like Vermont Marble should be owned by the workers themselves and that workers — not a handful of owners — should be determining policy. If a worker at Vermont Marble has no say about who owns the company he works for and that major changes can take place without his knowledge and consent, how far have we really advanced from the days of slavery, when black people were sold to different owners without their consent?

The key to Sanders’ philosophy at that time is in the first sentence.  The Liberty Union Party believed that the workers should own and control the factory.  That is an argument for democratic socialism à la Orwell.

If you are bothered by the second part, you should read Jacobin‘s analysis as well as this Atlantic article dealing with how wage labor is not free labor as it was understood from the time of Lincoln through the Gilded Age.

CNN also covered when he had called for collective ownership and control of industry on several occasions in the 70s.  In fact, I had previously covered the evolution of some of Bernie’s statements about democratic socialism in an article about political ideology.

However, Peter Diamondstone – now deceased – explained how he and Bernie – once close friends – parted ways in 1984 over Bernie Sanders over Bernie’s support and campaigning for Walter Mondale in that year.  Diamondstone, whom I remember as the biannual objection to the seating of delegates at the Socialist Party USA National Convention on the basis of gender balance, purports that Bernie never supported the collective ownership and control of the means of production suggesting either that Bernie spoke things he didn’t truly believe or that Diamondstone has oversimplified Bernie’s transformation.  However, his first sellout was in deciding to support democrats.

You cannot find Bernie promoting socialism after this point, though he was elected the mayor of Burlington with a reputation as being a socialist mayor.  It would seem that Bernie Sanders ceased to be a democratic socialist at some point between the very late 70s and 1984.

His second sellout was in 2015 when he announced that he was running to be the Democratic Party nominee for President.  Prior to this announcement, while Bernie may have given critical endorsements (much like mine) of Democratic candidacies, he never ran as a Democrat.  He was Liberty Union or an independent.

However, while no longer a democratic socialist – nor even a social democrat – Bernie had a reputation.  He was first elected as a democratic socialist and so he continued to claim to be a democratic socialist.  Admitting otherwise would be admitting that he had sold out – and he sold out more than any other candidate in the primary ever did – more of a distance on the scale than had been the entire breadth of the Democratic Party from Clinton through Obama.

But, Bernie’s policies have been constant for decades, with only a strategy change in 2015.  While he wasn’t a democratic socialist through most of the 80s, he has been constant and there is nothing to suggest that he is an unauthentic candidate saying things merely to be elected – when he says he intends to pass a policy you can be sure that he means it when he said he intends to pass it and fight for it with vigor.  His rightward sellout on policy was long ago and still put him to the left of the Democratic Party.

An unfortunate result of Bernie’s sudden popularity is that lifelong democratic socialists are left being told by those new to politics, particularly never entering the politics of the left, that they are uninformed about what they have lived and bled for decades and are not of the label they lived by.

This work is unpaid because this is not a for-profit site.  If you want to help support this work and more like it in the future, please consider becoming a patron of mine on Patreon on my page.  Funds will not only help me transition to writing full-time but will allow me to purchase professional images for the articles.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s