Renzo Llorente engages with contemporary advocates of Democratic Socialism and argues that they ultimately fail to demarcate between liberal and socialist visions of democracy, resulting in capitulation to the liberal status quo. 

‘Either death to capitalism, or death under the heel of capitalism’ (1919 Soviet poster)

It is sheer insanity to believe that capitalists would good-humoredly obey the socialist verdict of a parliament or of a national assembly, that they would calmly renounce property, profit, the right to exploit. All ruling classes fought to the end, with tenacious energy, to preserve their privileges. – Rosa Luxemburg1


By Renzo Llorente

December 19, 2021  Cosmonaut



The renewed interest in socialism in the United States has generated a lively theoretical debate in many articles and books addressed to the general reader, as a broad array of activists, intellectuals and academics have sought to rethink the contours of what we might call, to borrow a phrase associated with the work of Alec Nove,2 a feasible socialism. The contributors to this burgeoning literature have all considered, to one degree or another, at least some of the basic programmatic questions, ranging from political strategy to institutional design, that need to be addressed if some form of socialism is to be a realistic possibility in the United States (and elsewhere) in a not-too-distant future. Unfortunately, many of the articles and books making up this literature do not really advocate socialism at all, but offer instead a defense of social democracy, or else revitalized and refurbished versions of left-liberalism. As for those works that do defend distinctively socialist models for the future, one invariably finds the same basic flaw: these writings’ arguments for socialism rest on an equivocal notion of democracy, as they appeal both to a distinctively socialist, post-liberal notion of democracy and to a standard liberal-democratic notion of democracy. As a result of this equivocal use of the concept of democracy, as well as the failure to come to terms with the likelihood of violent resistance to a socialist political program (itself due partly to the lack of clarity concerning democracy), much of the new advocacy for socialism—and nearly all of the socialist advocacy coming from the self-styled “democratic socialists”—proves contradictory, and ultimately self-defeating.

To avoid this outcome, socialists must bear in mind that true socialism will be “democratic” in ways that constitute major departures from the liberal democracy of contemporary liberal-democratic capitalist societies. In other words, socialists’ rejection of liberal democracy should be much more far-reaching than what we find in most of the recent articles and books in defense of socialism, and they can reject it precisely by appealing to democracy, albeit a notion of democracy quite unlike the one routinely celebrated in capitalist societies. This is, in any event, what I will argue in the following pages. I should perhaps underscore at the outset that this essay examines popular—that is to say, non-scholarly, non-academic—expositions and defenses of “democratic socialism” and, in keeping with the kind of content under consideration, my critical remarks are not meant to take the form of an academic or scholarly critique. There is a wealth of valuable work by political theorists, philosophers, economists and others on the topics discussed in this essay—the work of such figures as Ellen Meiksins Wood, Ted Honderich, Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, C.B. Macpherson, Frank Cunningham, Andrew Levine and Henry Shue will immediately come to mind—but my aim in the present essay is to consider the popular literature on democratic socialism on, so to speak, its own terms.

Socialism as a Misnomer

Socialists and communists should, without question, welcome the recent rehabilitation of socialism in the United States, and they should do so for at least two reasons, both of which I have already evoked above. First, many of the (positive) definitions and defenses of socialism are addressed not to academic audiences or the converted, but to the general public; and secondly, they specifically consider the prospect of socialism in the United States, a country which has historically been, for the most part, uncongenial to socialist ideas. Yet, however important and commendable the recent efforts to rehabilitate socialism in the US, it is not unreasonable to reject the use of the concept and term “socialism” for many of the proposals, models, policies and so on that have been posited in recent years as examples of socialism. In fact, many who profess to be making a case for socialism, and practically all of the self-styled “democratic socialists,” are actually offering us, as we shall see, little more than up-to-date versions of left-liberalism or social democracy.

Let us begin with the essays collected in We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style, a book edited by Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreir and Michael Kazin and published in 2020. This volume includes, in addition to the chapters written by the editors, contributions from Naomi Klein, Robert Kuttner, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Harold Meyerson, among many others, and it undoubtedly contains many excellent ideas for social reform and regeneration. However, a rudimentary analysis of these ideas reveals that most of them hardly qualify as “socialist” and that “democratic socialism—American style” turns out to refer to left-liberalism or social democracy—which is particularly surprising, considering that the editors themselves acknowledge that “there is plenty of daylight between democratic socialism and social democracy and left-liberalism”.3

Consider, for instance, Aronoff, Dreir and Kazin’s enumeration of things that everyone ought to enjoy: quality, universal health care; guaranteed food; a guaranteed job for all who wish to work; a society free of racial discrimination; an education whose quality is not determined by where one lives; control of global warming; paid vacations; public beaches and parks; a first-rate public transportation system and high-speed intercity trains.4 Attaining all of these goods—or even just a majority of them—would, of course, represent an immense improvement in the quality of life of people in the United States; but is that what we should understand by socialism? Are these not goods that social democracy also promises to deliver? Indeed, are there not ideological opponents of socialism who claim that each and every one of these things is attainable under capitalism?

Unfortunately, the tendency to identify socialism with policies and arrangements that in no way go beyond social democratic and left-liberal political aspirations is not confined to We Own the Future’s Introduction; on the contrary, many of the book’s contributors likewise conflate socialism with social democracy and left-liberalism. As it turns out, both the language favored by the book’s authors and the examples of putatively socialistic social arrangements which they offer tend to promote this very misidentification of socialism with social democracy and left-liberalism.

As to the question of language, consider, for example, Aronoff, Dreir and Kazin’s characterization of the essays comprising We Own the Future, a book whose subject—let us not forget—is (as indicated in the subtitle)“democratic socialism—American style”: “The chapters that follow propose ways to build a kinder, more humane, and altogether freer society…”.5 For older readers, this statement will surely conjure up George H. W. Bush’s appeal for “a kinder, gentler nation” in the speech in which he accepted the Republican presidential nomination,6 and this rhetorical similarity is hardly insignificant: Aronoff, Dreir and Kazin’s words suggest a project that an adherent of welfare-state capitalism could readily embrace. For another example of the same predilection for language that renders socialism indistinguishable from other political theories and orientations, we can turn to the chapter “How Socialists Changed America,” written by Dreir and Kazin. In this essay, Dreir and Kazin tell us that the “idea” of socialism “is about advancing human progress by creating laws and institutions that give people the chance to reach their full potential and to tame the forces of greed, racism, inequality, and exploitation inherent in capitalism”7 This formulation is not only vague and tepid but also states several goals largely achievable within welfare-state capitalism—aspiring to “tame” the forces mentioned is not the same thing as aspiring to eliminate them—and social-democratic capitalist regimes. Of course, the fact that Dreir and Kazin also neglect to identify the “idea” of socialism with the abolition of capitalism speaks volumes about the nature of their “socialist” program.

As for the examples of putatively socialist social arrangements, the problem is that the contributors to We Own the Future typically adduce past and present social democracies, or at least some of their policies, as illustrations of a democratic socialist society; such a practice inevitably leads to a certain conflation of social democracy and socialism, notwithstanding the editors’ caveat concerning “existing social democracies,” which “offer many lessons, but…are by no means a blueprint for building a sustainable and multiracial democracy in today’s United States.”8 (Notice that the editors refer not to socialism, but to “a sustainable and multiracial democracy,” a goal that differs from, and is attainable without, socialism.9) So it is, for instance, that Naomi Klein can refer, in one and the same paragraph, to “countries with a strong democratic socialist tradition—like Denmark, Sweden” and “Scandinavian-style social democracy”.10 In a similar vein, Darrick Hamilton begins a sentence, “In a social democratic or democratic socialist America…”,11 while David Zirin, for his part, contributes a chapter that includes “socialism” in its title (“Reclaiming Competition: Sports and Socialism”) but prefers to identify his proposals with “any movement for social democracy”.12

In short, when the contributors to We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style discuss socialism at all—and several of the essayists seem to mention it as an afterthought, or merely because some reference to socialism is de rigueur, given the book’s subtitle—they either conflate it with social democracy, or identify it with a set of policies, institutions, practices, etc that do not amount to either socialism or social democracy. In one sense, such theoretical imprecision and political confusion were inevitable, considering the editors’ decision, explicitly acknowledged in the Introduction, to include essays from both democratic socialists and social democrats —as well as the fact that the democratic socialists among the book’s contributors do not actually propose socialist agendas. In the end, therefore, We Own the Future will only satisfy readers who can content themselves with policy proposals and principles for social renewal along left-liberal or social-democratic—or what used to be called “progressive”—lines; anyone in search of a genuinely socialist program, on the other hand, will find this collection deeply disappointing.

Unfortunately, the theoretical imprecision and ambiguity that we find in We Own the Future is also characteristic of other recent popular defenses of socialism. A case in point is The ABCs of Socialism, a volume of short essays edited by Bhaskar Sunkara and published jointly by Jacobin Books and Verso. However, whereas the main problem with We Own the Future’s case for democratic socialism derives from a systematic misrepresentation (or misidentification) of socialism, the main problem with The ABCs of Socialism derives from an incoherent conceptualization of democracy. As most recent popular defenses of socialism, including many that claim to be advocating “democratic socialism,”13 exhibit this shortcoming and the nature of socialist democracy is a fundamental topic in socialist theory, it will be worthwhile to consider the sources of this shortcoming at some length. I do so in the following section.

Which Democracy?

In an article titled “How Should the Contemporary Socialist Left Relate to the History of ‘Actually Existing Socialism’?” an avowed democratic socialist writes, “When I’ve met people at DSA meetings who call themselves ‘Marxists-Leninists’ and who defend what ‘tankies’ used to call ‘actually existing socialism’…, I’ve wanted to scream at them. ‘Don’t you know what the D stands for? Why do you think we call ourselves this?’”.14 I would suggest that the most appropriate response to the author’s rhetorical question is itself a question, and one that is, admittedly, no less rhetorical: Do the democratic socialists themselves know what the D. stands for? After reading a fair amount of popular “democratic socialist” literature published in the United States over the last few years (including the article that I have just quoted and the texts cited in the previous section of this essay), I have no doubt that most of them do not. In defending their position, democratic socialists (as well as many contemporary socialists who do not explicitly identify themselves as such) equivocate with respect to the meaning of “democracy”. Their writings sometimes assume a distinctively socialist, post-liberal notion of democracy, as when they insist on the importance of “economic democracy” (however much they may disagree about the nature of this democracy and the methods for attaining it)15 or champion “workers’ rule”; at other times, however, these writings assume a standard liberal notion of democracy; and sometimes they tend to conflate the two types of democracy.16 The notion of socialism that results from such equivocation is internally contradictory and, accordingly, proves to be an obstacle to the development of a coherent socialist program.

Consider, in this connection, the Democratic Socialists of America’s statement of its credo. On the page of its website titled “What is Democratic Socialism?” the DSA—the American democratic socialist organization par excellence—tells us that it fights for a “democracy that creates space for us all to flourish, not just survive, and answers the fundamental questions of our lives with the input of all,” and that it “want[s] a democracy powered by everyday people.” These statements are, needless to say, of little help in grasping the meaning of “democracy” in the DSA’s democratic socialism. Far more illuminating is the succinct statement of the DSA’s basic outlook that appears on the bottom of the same page, in the form of ribbon that accompanies, as far as one can tell, every page of the organization’s website: “We believe that working people should run both the economy and society democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few”. Unlike the first two statements, this one unequivocally expresses a classical socialist conviction. But notice that in asserting that “working people should run both the economy and society democratically,” the word “democratically” cannot mean what it means for liberal-democratic theory, which rejects the view that a particular class, stratum, sector, etc. of society is uniquely entitled to run the economy and society. This incompatibility would not pose a problem for the DSA, were it not the case that this organization also embraces a standard liberal conception of democracy, as is evident in “Where We Stand: Building the Next Left,” a programmatic statement which, while written in the 1990s, “still reflects DSA’s basic political analysis and values.”17 In this text, the DSA states that “democratic socialism is committed both to…freedom of speech…and to the freedom to organize independent trade unions, women’s groups, political parties, and other social movements.  … Control of economic, social, and cultural life by either government or corporate elites is hostile to the vision of democratic pluralism embraced by democratic socialism”. DSA thereby appeals to two different conceptions of democracy; the problems that arise from doing so become apparent once we consider questions such as the following: Is the conviction that “working people should run…the economy and society” compatible with a commitment “democratic pluralism” (unlike “control of economic…[and] social…life by…government or corporate elites”)? If the workers must not “control” the economy through government, what are the mechanisms whereby they “run…the economy”?  And, not least important: What is the likelihood that workers will succeed in running “both the economy and society democratically to meet human needs” if capitalists and all those who do their bidding enjoy “freedom of speech…and…the freedom to organize…political parties, and other social movements”?18 Or does the DSA have in mind a—mildly? severely?—restricted form of the rights and protections that the US populace normally associates with freedom of speech and freedom of association? (This passage also implies other problems for democratic socialism, which I discuss below).

Lest the reader think that the equivocation regarding democracy that one finds in DSA literature is peculiar to this organization, let us consider another text that exemplifies the same problem: “Democratic Socialists Want to Fight for Minority Rights, Not Suppress Them,” written by Shawn Gude and Michael A. McCarthy and published in Jacobin in 2018. “Democratic socialism,” observes Gude and McCarthy, “requires protected rights. … Without freedom of assembly, freedom to communicate and express one’s own opinions, freedom to form associations and groups, we would not have a democracy.” They add: “Democratic socialism would not curtail the political rights of the rich as individuals. But it would democratize their private control over the allocation of resources and end their ‘right’ to eat caviar and champagne at every meal”.19 Notice that these passages reject a key component of mainstream liberal-democratic theory, which upholds extensive property rights, while at the same time endorsing, without qualification, liberal-democratic principles that would constitute an enormous hindrance to the establishment of socialist social arrangements, including efforts to “democratize…private control over the allocation of resources.” In other words, Gude and McCarthy propose a socialist policy on rights that involves both the abrogation of one set of (mainstream) liberal-democratic rights and the full protection of the very liberal-democratic rights that would make that abrogation practically impossible.20 (Gude and McCarthy’s argument also presupposes, incidentally, an uncritical acceptance of the distinction between “political” and “economic” rights, which is more than a little puzzling, considering that at least one of the authors appears to situate himself within the Marxist tradition.)

While democratic socialists’ equivocation in connection with “democracy” typically occurs in their programmatic statements regarding a socialist future, we also encounter this problem in these socialists’ criticisms of avowedly socialist or communist projects which they reject as undemocratic or anti-democratic. So it is, for example, that when the prominent democratic socialist Joseph M. Schwartz condemns the “anti-democratic nature of capitalism”,21 he is implicitly employing a socialist conception of democracy, which centrally rests on the economic democracy that he defends only a few pages earlier.2223 Yet when the same author asserts that “democratic socialists consistently opposed authoritarian governments that claim to be socialist”24 he invokes, among other things, liberal-democratic values—at least some of which will prove, at some point, incompatible with the pursuit of economic democracy. This last consideration reflects a problem—the certainty of violent resistance to socialism—that “democratic socialists” seldom address directly, let alone resolve, but so far I have only mentioned it in passing. In the following section, I address this difficulty in more detail.

Resistance and Rights

A transition to socialism in the United States will, without question, face extreme opposition from capitalists and the most privileged strata of society, as well as from many who would benefit from socialism but who nonetheless uphold the capitalist status quo (because of indoctrination, or “false consciousness,” or fear of the untried and unknown). Moreover, some of this opposition will almost certainly involve violent resistance, of one form or another: after all, if “the socialist vision” involves, as Bhaskar Sunkara rightly observes in The ABCs of Socialism, both “democratic control over our workplaces and the other institutions that shape our communities” and “abolishing private ownership of the things we all need and use—factories, banks, offices, natural resources, utilities, communication and transportation infrastructure—and replacing it with social ownership”,25 capitalists have good reason to combat efforts to abolish capitalism and introduce socialism. Given the importance of this topic, one would think that it would have received adequate consideration in some of the recent writings aimed at popularizing democratic socialism. In fact, there is very little discussion of opposition to the building of socialism, violent or otherwise, in this body of literature, and the inadequacy of the analyses of those writers who do address this topic often derives from a failure to wholeheartedly embrace a socialist conception of democracy.

I should mention at the outset two problems that arise in assessing democratic socialists’ treatment of the problem of opposition and resistance to socialism. First of all, it is often unclear which stage of socialism democratic socialists have in mind when discussing this topic: Is it a transitional stage leading from capitalism to socialism, or a fully consolidated, functioning socialist society (or both)? Secondly, most of the literature on democratic socialism plainly seems to envision—and endorse—an electoral, parliamentary-reformist route to socialism, ignoring, if not rejecting outright, a revolutionary strategy for achieving socialism,26 even though democratic socialism is not, strictly speaking, synonymous with the former. In the end, however, it does not really matter whether these writers are referring to the stages of building socialism or to a full-fledged socialist social order, as their views prove untenable whichever of the two phases we consider. Nor does it matter whether democratic socialists envision the advent of socialism as the ultimate result of electoral victories or as the consequence of a successful revolution: the measures implemented by democratically elected socialists will face ferocious, sometimes violent, opposition, just as surely as would socialist revolutionaries during, and in the immediate aftermath of, a revolution. So, then, how do democratic socialists propose to deal with this opposition and resistance?

One obvious approach to dealing with and neutralizing the resistance of the capitalist class is to curtail some of the capitalists’ rights. As we have seen, democratic socialists readily acknowledge that they would severely diminish, if not abolish altogether, some of the capitalists’ property, or “economic,” rights; yet, and as we have also seen, democratic socialists appear to regard capitalists’ political rights as inviolable (“Democratic socialism would not curtail the political rights of the rich as individuals”). This is, in fact, a position even held by some who, while occasionally using “democratic socialist” phraseology, bring to their conceptualization of the socialist struggle a measure of political realism that is typically wanting in the literature of democratic socialism. Julio Huato, for example, maintains, in his “Theses on the Path to Socialism,” that “the rights of capitalists are [to be] respected within the confines of existing law…, and their rights as individuals and as citizens (including here their political freedoms, human rights, etc.) should be inviolable”. Unlike many a democratic socialist, however, Huato also explicitly acknowledges and emphasizes that “the ruling class will seek to sabotage, disrupt, disunite, throw a monkey wrench in economic and social conditions overall, and then blame socialism for the mess” and “will resort to terror with 100% certainty”.2728

In assessing the democratic socialist position that upholds capitalists’ political rights while rejecting their property/economic rights, it is worth noting, first of all, that a political arrangement that severely curtailed currently existing property rights in the United States would not necessarily represent a repudiation of political liberalism. As a matter of fact, John Rawls, widely regarded as both the most important contemporary theorist of political liberalism and the twentieth century’s premier political philosopher, denies the existence of a basic right to private property in either natural resources or the means of production.29. Indeed, this is one reason that Rawls reckons a “liberal socialist regime” compatible with the fundamental principles of his theory of justice.30 One democratic socialist31 actually cites Rawls by way of arguing for liberal socialism. In the end, however, Rawls, or his version of liberalism, proves less helpful than one might think in grounding a democratic socialism. For one thing, the socially dominant conceptions of political liberalism hold that there do exist basic rights to ownership of the means of production and that such rights are, if anything, political rights; these are, accordingly, the ideas that those who fight for “a truly socialist society,” with its “combination of political and economic equality”32 will have to challenge and successfully discredit (as opposed to the views of one particular giant, however influential, of twentieth-century political philosophy). Secondly, Rawls rejects what he calls “the equal right to participate in the control of the means of production and of natural resources, both of which are to be socially, not privately, owned”,33 and it is difficult to see how any consistent socialist—as opposed to a left-liberal or social democrat—could accept a social arrangement that fails to recognize the right to equality of participation in the control of the major means of production.34

But let us return to the view according to which democratic socialists ought to uphold the political rights of capitalists (and “the rich”) while abrogating many of their (present) economic/property rights. Is this position, which naturally is of relevance only to the process of socialist construction (the social category of “capitalists” and “the rich” will presumably have become obsolete in a socialist society), a realistic position for socialists?

In my opinion, it is exceedingly unlikely that the United States could attain socialism without at least temporarily infringing some liberal-democratic norms, whether the initial impetus for socialism originates in a series of electoral and legislative victories or in a successful socialist revolution; these infringements would include curtailing some of the political rights of capitalists and their allies.35 As for the electoral road to socialism—which is all that I will discuss here, since nearly all avowed “democratic socialists” appear to reject a revolutionary strategy for the US (and, in any event, the latter strategy infringes, by definition, liberal-democratic norms)—it is certainly conceivable that a socialist coalition or movement could win enough representation, perhaps following a lengthy succession of electoral victories, at the federal and state levels to constitute a political majority in favor of socialism. Yet the fact that socialists have achieved a majority democratically (in the familiar, liberal-democratic sense) hardly implies that opposition and resistance to socialist proposals will be mild or insignificant, either in the stages preceding the implementation of socialist policies and legislation (i.e., the drafting of proposals and public—including congressional—debate) or in the stages that issue from said policies and legislation (i.e., the phases of actually building socialism).

Nor will it be particularly difficult for capitalists and their agents to exercise their resistance within the framework of liberal-democratic capitalism. As Kit Wainer and Mel Bienenfeld36 have shown in their sober and illuminating analysis of the structural obstacles to a socialist transformation of the United States, the American political system is such that “capital can continue to exercise authority and constitutionally wield instruments of repression against working-class movements, even if it has lost control of the highest elected offices.” If this is so, it will almost certainly be necessary to curtail or restrict some of the capitalists’ liberal-democratic political rights—e.g., the scope of their freedom of expression—in order to ensure successful approval of laws that would abrogate their property rights. In other words, effectively and successfully eliminating the economic power of the capitalist class may require antecedent measures to minimize its political power, which is to say, may require restrictions on its liberal-democratic political rights.37 Of course, faced with a serious threat to its wealth, privileges and power, the capitalist class will surely not limit itself to the instruments of lawful resistance to socialist transformation, but will also avail itself of extra-legal expedients—the very forms of violence evoked by Huato in the passage cited from his provocative “Theses on the Path to Socialism.”38

In any event, it is important to underscore that the question as to whether or not a liberal-democratic path to socialism is possible in a liberal-democratic capitalist society will be of only relative importance for a consistent socialist.39 This is so for two reasons, both of which follow from considerations that I have already discussed. The first reason has to do with the social order to which socialists aspire, which represents something beyond liberal democracy. Is it not rather peculiar, then, for socialists (as opposed to left-liberals and social democrats) to worry about due respect for, and adherence to, liberal-democratic norms, values and procedures when these things define an institutional arrangement that socialism aims to leave behind? For even if we grant that liberal democracy need not include the extensive property rights characteristic of contemporary liberal-democratic capitalism (recall, for example, Rawls’s position, mentioned above), insofar as socialists maintain that “working people should run…the economy and society” or espouse “economic democracy,” they are in fact advocating a socio-economic arrangement that will necessarily diverge from liberal democracy. I have already noted above the incompatibility between these commitments and liberal democracy. Here I will only add that we should not overlook the ways in which socialism requires a reconceptualization of rights. We will not achieve “economic democracy,” for example, by simply adding some new economic right(s) to an existing set of political rights, but only by instituting such practices as, to cite Sunkara again, “democratic control over our workplaces and the other institutions that shape our communities” and “social ownership,” thereby combining “political” and “economic” rights in a manner quite foreign to the postulates of liberal-democratic capitalism. Likewise, when Sam Gindin identifies the socialist goal with “a society based on public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and communication”,40 he is not only offering a reasonable (general) characterization of socialism but also evoking a social arrangement in which individuals’ economic and political rights no longer correspond to the rights so designated in contemporary liberal-democratic capitalist societies.

The second reason why the prospects for a liberal-democratic path to socialism will be of only relative importance for a consistent socialist is that a departure from liberal-democratic procedures, norms, and constraints can be defended on the grounds that these things may undermine or hinder democracy, assuming the democracy in question is socialist democracy. As we have already seen, democratic socialists defend their condemnation of—and, accordingly, readiness to transcend—capitalism by appealing to a notion of socialist democracy, as in Schwartz’s condemnation of capitalism on the basis of its “anti-democratic nature”; they could likewise make the case for abandoning some features of the liberal-democratic component of liberal-democratic capitalism by appealing to the very same notion. Since the “features” in question are certain rights (e.g., rights to certain forms of expression and association), it may be helpful to point out that we may also describe the tension between liberal democracy and socialist democracy in this regard in terms of a conflict between different rights. If, as it seems fair to assume, democratic socialists hold that economic democracy involves a determinate set of rights, then liberal-democratic capitalism violates rights. As this is the case, a socialist course of action that seeks to end the violation of these rights by curtailing some rights that capitalists enjoy under a liberal-democratic regime is merely limiting some rights to advance others, a perfectly normal practice.After all, we often accept limitations on rights to freedom of movement and expression, for example, in order to advance our rights to safety and security.41 In short, socialists who condone restrictions on some of capitalists’ rights for the purpose of initiating a socialist democratization of the economy and society do not ignore the value of these rights, but simply pursue a policy that prioritizes socialist-democratic rights over liberal-democratic rights in at least some of the conflicts that emerge between these sets of rights (which is what must occur if the socialist rights are to achieve de jure status). One can, in other words, reject various liberal-democratic practices, at least in certain conjunctures or stages of socio-economic development, in the name of democracy.42 A social system can be democratic without being liberal-democratic, and socialism can be, contrary to what Aronoff, Dreir and Kazin appear to maintain, “fiercely democratic” even when it does not accept the full array of liberal-democratic rights for some people, such as members of the capitalist class, “who oppose socialism itself.”43

Before concluding this section, I should perhaps reiterate that my remarks in the preceding paragraphs apply to pre-socialist phases of socialist construction. If, in advocating the utmost respect for political rights, proponents of “democratic socialism” have in mind the political rights of the members of a socialist society,44 then their position is certainly the correct one; although one must bear in mind that, as noted above, socialist political rights differ from liberal-democratic political rights. It is interesting to consider in this connection Joseph M. Schwartz’s reference to the “democratic socialists” who “led the brief, but extraordinary experiment of ‘socialism with a human face’ under the Dubček government in Czechoslovakia in 1968”.45 The “Prague Spring” did indeed involve political liberalization and democratic reform, but the measures comprising this experiment were implemented in a country that had been non-capitalist for two decades. This example is of scant value, therefore, in thinking about the framework for a socialist government’s policies concerning the rights and freedoms of the members of a capitalist class that has not only not been expropriated but also retains the ability to mount formidable resistance to every possible advance in the direction of socialism.

The Cold War Mindset of Democratic Socialists 

Before concluding this essay, it is important to mention one additional contradiction or, from the perspective of socialist theory and strategy. The popular statements of the democratic socialist outlook often appear to further confirm democratic socialists’ allegiance to the liberal democracy of liberal-democratic capitalist regimes, with the near-exclusive use of examples from capitalist countries by way of illustrating the kinds of practices, policies and institutions that democratic socialists might emulate.

Consider the following democratic socialist response to the question, “Why are there no models of democratic socialism?”:

Although no country has fully instituted democratic socialism, the socialist parties and labor movements of other countries have won many victories for their people. We can learn from the comprehensive welfare state maintained by the Swedes, from Canada’s national health care system, France’s nationwide childcare program, and Nicaragua’s literacy programs. Lastly, we can learn from efforts initiated right here in the US, such as the community health centers created by the government in the 1960s. They provided high quality family care, with community involvement in decision-making.46

Notice that all—or, if we grant that Nicaragua was at least socialistically oriented, so to speak, at the beginning of the 1980s, nearly all— examples cited are policies enacted in capitalist societies, whether of a liberal-democratic or social-democratic variety. One would think that democratic socialists would eschew the use of examples such as these to promote their doctrine: after all, if all of these things—which are, to be sure, quite commendable—can be achieved within capitalism, who needs socialism, “democratic” or otherwise? In any event, the point I wish to emphasize here is a rather different one: the fact that democratic socialists typically cite only the progressive achievements of capitalist countries with liberal-democratic (including social-democratic) regimes. We Own the Future’s editors likewise tell us that “existing social democracies offer many lessons,” mentioning, for example, some of the achievements of “Scandinavia’s social democracies”47 and studiously avoid any reference to the achievements of the former or current (avowedly) socialist nations. This reflects democratic socialism’s unshakeable allegiance to, or rather ideological investment in, liberal democracy. How else are we to explain the fact that democratic socialists readily cite progressive social programs from capitalist societies in spite of these societies’ grievous shortcomings (social inequality and exclusion, corporate welfare, the disenfranchisement of immigrants, regressive fiscal policy, exploitative trade relations, structural racism, imperialism, systematic mistreatment of prisoners, the arming of oppressive regimes, neo-colonialism, etc.) and the “anti-democratic nature of capitalism” itself (Schwartz), but never mention any of the positive accomplishments (as regards, for example, education, job security, women’s rights, access to culture, child care, international solidarity, or healthcare), of the avowedly socialist countries, past and present, despite their grievous shortcomings? In other words, if one can, and ought to, both praise and condemn when it comes to liberal-democratic capitalist countries’ policies, why should we not adopt the same approach to—which is to say, why can we not likewise “learn from”—some of the socialist countries’ policies?

The answer, I believe, is that democratic socialists’ commitment to liberal democracy is, despite the latter’s incompatibility with socialist democracy, such that a society whose political arrangements do not conform to the principles, practices and institutions of contemporary liberal democracies does not merit any consideration; it disqualifies itself, so to speak, altogether, and there can be nothing to commend and value in any of its principles, practices or institutions. This would certainly explain, for instance, Aronoff, Dreir and Kazin’s brief, sweeping dismissal of the whole of the avowedly socialist states, past and present: “We hold no brief for the one-party dictatorships that still exist in North Korea, China, and Cuba—or for the failed states of the old USSR and its allies in Eastern Europe, which gave socialism a bad name”.48 It would also explain the fact that we find only one reference to Revolutionary Cuba, a country which holds many positive lessons for democratic socialists, in the pages of The ABCs of Socialism, and that this reference is likewise of a dismissive nature.4950  It is in the chapter just cited, incidentally, that Joseph Schwartz refers to the “rich history of experiments in democratic socialism in the developing world,” among which he includes not only Allende’s Chile but also “the early years of Michael Manley’s government in Jamaica that same decade [i.e., the 1970s]”.51 Schwartz’s identification of Manley’s early social democratic reform program with “democratic socialism” is certainly significant.52 But even more significant for our purposes is something that Schwartz neglects to mention, namely that both Allende and Manley had excellent relations with Fidel Castro and Revolutionary Cuba. Perhaps this was because these two men believed, in contrast to Schwartz and so many other “democratic socialists,” that the Cuban experiment, whatever its shortcomings and flaws, offers many positive examples for socialists and leftwing social democrats, particularly in the developing world.53 And surely most countries that have defined themselves as “socialist” have at least some achievements worthy of socialists’ attention…unless, of course, the existence of a political framework that includes all of the basic elements of contemporary liberal democracies is a sine qua non for a positive evaluation of any of a country’s policies or institutions.


As I have sought to show in the preceding sections of this article, popular presentations of “democratic socialism” involve many contradictions and considerable confusion with regard to the meaning of socialism and central elements of socialist theory. One consequence of these problems is that some democratic socialists advocate, in the name of “socialism,” political positions that are in fact not discernibly socialist—and are hardly incompatible with capitalism—but rather range from left-liberalism to centrist social democracy. Another consequence is that those democratic socialists who do advocate distinctively socialist social arrangements include inconsistent conceptions of democracy in their theorizing, with predictably unfortunate results. Both groups of democratic socialists remain—and this is perhaps the principal cause of the confusions and contradictions that I have considered—much too wedded to the practices and norms of liberal democracy: Jesse Jackson was indeed correct when he declared, “Here’s the reality. The important word in ‘democratic socialism’ isn’t socialism, it’s democratic” (2020). One could hardly improve on Jackson’s pronouncement, except to add that the “democratic” means, as should now be clear, “liberal-democratic.” But socialists should not forget that liberal democracy is, at bottom, an ideology in the distinctively Marxist sense of the term, namely “thought which serves class interests”5455; this is, indeed, the justification for the other conventional term, especially on the Left, for this political system—bourgeois democracy. And just as socialism will enable us to go beyond capitalism, socialist democracy will enable us to go beyond liberal democracy.


  1. Luxemburg, Rosa. 2004 (1918). “What does the Spartacus League Want?” Pp. 352 in Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (eds.), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  2. Nove, Alec. 1991. The Economics of Feasible Socialism Revisited, 2nd ed. London: Harper Collins Academic.
  3. ADK. 2020. “Introduction.” Pp. 10 in Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreir and Michael Kazin (eds.), We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. New York and London: The New Press.
  4. ADK, 7.
  5. ADK, 11.
  6. Bush, George H.W. 1988. [Speech] August 18, 1988:
  7. DK. 2020. Peter Dreir and Michael Kazin. “How Socialists Changed America.” Pp. 16 in Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreir and Michael Kazin (eds.), We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. New York and London: The New Press.
  8. ADK, 10.
  9. I am assuming here, as perhaps goes without saying, that Aronoff, Dreir and Kazin are not using “democracy” as shorthand for socialist democracy.
  10. Klein, Naomi. 2020. “Democratic Socialism for a Climate-Changed Century.” Pp. 84 in Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreir and Michael Kazin (eds.), We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. New York and London: The New Press.
  11. Hamilton, Darrick. 2020. “A Three-Legged Stool for Racial and Economic Justice.” Pp. 65 in Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreir and Michael Kazin (eds.), We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. New York and London: The New Press.
  12. Zirin, David. 2020. “Reclaiming Competition: Sports and Socialism.” Pp. 277 in Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreir and Michael Kazin (eds.), We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. New York and London: The New Press.
  13. One cannot say with certainty whether all of the contributors to The ABCs of Socialism would embrace the label “democratic socialist,” but I suspect that nearly all of them, if not all, would. To be sure, the phrase “democratic socialism” appears only a few times in the text, yet there are several dozen mentions of the word “democratic.”
  14. Burgis, Ben. 2020. “How Should the Contemporary Socialist Left Relate to the History of ‘Actually Existing Socialism’?” The Barricade, 29 December 2020:
  15. It is worth noting that the DSA’s treatment of the concept of economic democracy is something of a muddle: see “Where We Stand: Building the Next Left”. The discussion of economic democracy appears in Section 4 of this document.
  16. The focus of my article is popular literature on democratic socialism in the United States, but an imprecise, equivocal use of “democracy” among people on the left is hardly peculiar to this country. When, for instance, a left-wing Spanish journalist writes, “there can be democracy without socialism, but no socialism without democracy” (“puede haber democracia sin socialismo pero no socialismo sin democracia” (Martín Medem, José Manuel. (2014). El secreto mejor guardado de Fidel: los fusilamientos del narcotráfico. Madrid: Los Libros de la Catarata, 144.), he is also plainly using “democracy” in two distinct senses: the democracy that exists without socialism is liberal democracy, whereas the democracy which must accompany socialism is socialist democracy. If both times that this dictum mentions “democracy” the referent were socialist democracy, it would have to read, “there can be no democracy without socialism….”
  17. It appears in a section of the DSA website titled “Socialist Strategy Articles.” Incidentally, this section offers a more elaborate treatment of democracy than we find in “What is Democratic Socialism?” yet it is not of much help: the principles and propositions that it contains are, for the most part, exasperatingly vague; moreover, they seldom represent distinctively socialist commitments.
  18. It is possible that the DSA’s statement refers to a phase of socialism in which the capitalists have long since been expropriated and the risk of a return to capitalism is non-existent, in which case the passage would have very different implications. But there is nothing to indicate that this is in fact the case.
  19. Shawn Gude, and Michael A. McCarthy. “Democratic Socialists Want to Fight for Minority Rights, Not Suppress Them.” Jacobin, August 25, 2018:
  20. When, for their part, Aronoff, Dreir and Kazin discuss the democracy of democratic socialism, they neglect to mention any principles that distinguish socialist democracy from its liberal rival: “any socialist society worth struggling for should be fiercely democratic, ensure that human rights will flourish, and hold free elections open to all kinds of candidates and parties—including those who oppose socialism itself” (ADK, 9).
  21. Schwartz, Joseph M. 2016.  “Doesn’t socialism always end up in dictatorship?” in Bhaskar Sunkara (ed.), The ABCs of Socialism. London and Brooklyn: Verso, 60.
  22. Ibid., 56.
  23. In this connection, Schwartz also cites Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms of “early Soviet rule” for, among other things, “failing to embrace political pluralism and civil liberties” (Schwartz, 55). As with some other democratic socialists (e.g., Burgis, 2020), Schwartz’s use of Luxemburg appears curiously selective: she is, after all, the same theorist who once declared, “where the million-headed proletarian mass seizes the entire power of the state in its calloused fist, like the god Thor his hammer, using it to smash the head of the ruling classes—that alone is democracy, that alone is not a betrayal of the people” (Luxemburg, 353). One would be hard-pressed to reconcile the aim of smashing the head of the ruling classes with the political values of most “democratic socialists.”
  24. Ibid., 55.
  25. Sunkara, Bhaskar. 2016. “Will socialists take my Kenny Loggins records?” Pp. 50 in Bhaskar Sunkara (ed.), The ABCs of Socialism. London and Brooklyn: Verso.
  26. Sam Gindin would seem to be one exception. In his article “Socialism for Realists,” Gindin, who uses the phrase “democratic socialism” for the model that he proposes, observes that “the specific problems socialist societies will face are inseparable from the kind of revolution that gave birth to them” (2018; emphasis added). For their part, Schwartz and Schulman (2018. Joseph Schwartz, and Jason Schulman. “Towards Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice”: note that it may be the case that “a repressive regime necessitates a minority road to revolution,” but they seem to exclude this option in liberal-democratic capitalist societies, despite the fact that at least one of these authors also characterizes the latter regimes as being repressive in one important sense (“the reality [is] that capitalism is an undemocratic system in which most people spend much of their life being ‘bossed’” (Schwartz, 2016, 56-7])
  27. Huato, Julio. 2019. “Theses on the Path to Socialism”:
  28. While Huato uses the terms “democratic socialist” or “democratic socialism” on four occasions in his “Theses,” his perspective has little in common with what we might call “mainstream” democratic socialism in the US, not least of all because, in addition to the contrast cited in the text, Huato presents a strategy suitable for a socialist revolution.
  29. Rawls, John. 2001. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Ed. Erin Kelley. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 114.
  30. Ibid., 138
  31. McManus, Matt. 2020. “Socialists Don’t Want to Destroy Liberalism. We Want to Go Beyond It.” Jacobin, October 2, 2020:
  32. McCarthy, 44.
  33. Rawls, 114
  34. Incidentally, any socialist who advocates some version of “workers’ rule” would also seem to run afoul of an important component of Rawls’s second principle of justice, which holds that “social and economic inequalities…are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (Rawls, 42; emphasis added).
  35. The need for such measures has always been obvious to adherents of another democratic tradition in socialist thought, namely revolutionary Marxism: “Above all, it will be necessary to remove all political power from the dominant classes and to prevent them from getting it back. The general arming of the workers, replacing the permanent armies, and then the progressive destruction of all arms, making it impossible for any partisans of a reestablishment of minority rule to produce these arms, should allow us to achieve this aim” (Mandel, Ernest. 1977. From Class Society to Communism: An Introduction to Marxism. Trans. Louisa Sadler. London: Ink Links, 147).
  36. 2020. Kit Wainer, and Mel Bienenfeld. “Problems with an Electoral Road to Socialism in the United States.” New Politics 68, 17:4 (Winter):
  37. Apart from the long-range consequentialist justification for such measures, one might think of this policy as a form of “levelling the playing field”: “A political system which guarantees constitutional rights for groups to organise in defence of their interests,” the sociologist Frank Parkin once observed, “is almost bound to favour the privileged at the expense of the dispriveleged. The former will always have greater organizing capacities and facilities than the latter….” The “dominant class,” added Parkin (who was no ally of socialists), “has access to the all-important means of social control, both coercive and normative. Given this fundamental class inequality in the social and economic order, a pluralist or democratic [i.e., liberal-democratic] political structure works to the advantage of the dominant class” (Class, Inequality and Political Order, 181-82, cited in Lukes, Steven. 1974. “Socialism and Equality.” Pp. 94. in Leszek Kolakowski and Stuart Hampshire (eds.), The Socialist Idea. New York: Basic Books.).
  38. It is worth noting here that, as far as the contributors to We Own the Future are concerned, Fletcher appears to be the only one to acknowledge, however briefly, the problem of capitalists’ inevitable opposition to socialist policies: “We should assume that the forces on the political right will use legal and extralegal means in order to retain power, disrupt efforts at social transformation, or both” (ADK, 105).
  39. One influential socialist philosopher who disagreed was G.A. Cohen. In a 1997 interview, Cohen remarked, “Socialists should not abandon liberal-democratic norms as an integral part of their socialist project” (Cohen, G.A. 1997. “The Moral Case for Marxism” (interview with Mario Scannella). The Philosopher’s Magazine, 1 (Winter), 41.). Indeed, Cohen said that he was “100% certain that if it [socialism] can be achieved [in a liberal democracy] then it can be achieved through a liberal democratic path.” But Cohen, who in this interview defines socialism as “the collective ownership of the resources by the people as a whole,” also acknowledged that acceptance of the liberal-democratic path “does not mean that there cannot and will not be violence on the road to that socialism.  You see, you have to distinguish between constitutionality and peacefulness. For example, you could envisage a socialist government being elected which has to take very severe measure [sic] against private ownership. … If the legitimate socialist government successfully used violence to defeat [the beneficiaries of private ownership], that would be a case of violent [sic] without (on the part of socialists) extraconstitutional behaviour” (Cohen, 40-1). Cohen is right to caution us against equating constitutionality with peacefulness. But nor should we equate constitutionality with liberal-democratic proceduralism and reduce liberal democracy to its procedural aspects, as Cohen seems to do. Political liberalism is standardly thought to also involve substantive political rights. Accordingly, a “legitimate socialist government” might act constitutionally, but in contravention of liberal-democratic norms, in abrogating certain rights, starting with those which protect “private ownership.” (As one might also put the point: If the “very severe measures” occur before the liberal-democratic constitution has been changed, they will not be constitutional; if the constitution has already been changed so as to allow such measures, it will surely have ceased to be liberal-democratic.)
  40. Gindin, Sam. 2018. “Socialism for Realists.” Catalyst, 2:3 (Fall):
  41. Of course, one might hold that a violation of, say, a right to freedom of expression is more reprehensible than a violation of any of the rights constitutive of, or advanced by, economic democracy, but I see no reason why a socialist should necessarily espouse this view (just as a socialist need not regard freedom of expression as a more “fundamental” right than the right to food, which is included in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
  42. And, more generally, human flourishing. In the last analysis, the reason that revolution may be justified under liberal-democratic as well as repressive (non-liberal-democratic) regimes is that capitalism hampers or precludes altogether the flourishing of the majority of the population. The sooner the oppression of capitalism is brought to an end, the sooner the great majority of society will have the opportunity, at long last, to fully flourish and thrive as human beings.
  43. It is important to bear in mind that even liberal democracies sometimes curtail their citizens’ standard rights (e.g., for reasons of public safety or state security, in emergencies, etc.). One of the ultimate justifications for doing so is the safeguarding of (one form) of democracy. For a more comprehensive treatment of topics discussed in this paragraph, as well as a discussion of Marxism and democracy, see Llorente, Renzo. 2018. “Marxism, Socialism and Democracy.” Dialogue and Universalism, 28: 3, 141-154.
  44. This may be what Gindin, for example, has in mind. Incidentally, Ginden asserts that “democratic socialism and party monopoly are not compatible”. This is, needless to say, an eminently anti-democratic stipulation—What if party monopoly is the strong preference of the overwhelming majority of the populace?—for one who advocates democratic socialism.
  45. Schwartz, 55-6.
  46. This question and paragraph seem to have appeared on the DSA’s national website in the past. In any case, the text can now be found on the websites of local chapters of the DSA in the US, such as that of the Kansas City chapter, cited in the text, or that of the Northern Illinois chapter (NIDSA); a modified version of it can also be found on the Democratic Socialists of Canada’s website (DSC) and it was also used by the DSA’s Youth Section in the past (YDS). The Northern Illinois chapter expands on this paragraph with further examples, including “the strong economic democracy cultures of Spain’s Basque region and Italy’s Emilia Romagna region.”
  47. ADK, 2020, 10; cf. 7-8.
  48. ADK, 9-10.
  49. Schwartz, 59.
  50. Schwartz also dismisses China and Vietnam, along with Cuba, in the passage cited.
  51. Ibid., 60.
  52. Whether or not we should characterize the early years of Manley’s government as “socialist” is highly debatable, as is clear from a 2017 Jacobin article on Manley’s government. Echoing Schwartz, the article refers to Manley’s “radical democratic socialist positions” (Meeks, Brian. 2017. “Michael Manley’s Vision.” Jacobin, May 17, 2017:, but the policies and initiatives discussed by the author actually reflect social democratic positions.
  53. The belief that Cuba’s rejection of certain liberal-democratic norms and principles somehow invalidates the Cuban Revolution and Cuban socialism in toto explains the widespread condemnation of Bernie Sanders after he praised Cuba’s literacy program in February 2020. (The Vermont senator was then the leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.) The prevalence of this belief also helps us to make sense of one liberal commentator’s oddly indignant response (Hayes, Chris. 2007. “Michael Moore’s Sicko.” The Nation, June 27, 2007: to Michael Moore’s film Sicko, which acknowledges the value and quality of Cuba’s healthcare system.
  54. McCarney, Joe. 1980. The Real World of Ideology. Brighton, England and Atlantic Highlands,New Jersey: Harvester Press and Humanities Press.
  55. See the text cited in note 37 for a couple of ways in which political liberalism embodies thought that serves class interests. Property rights are, of course, another element of mainstream liberal political thought that serves class interests

    This article first appeared in Cosmonaut, Dec. 19, 2021