With all the talk of “socialism” these days, the actual definitions of the related terms gets murky. What is “socialism?” What is “Communism?” How is “Social Democracy” different from “Democratic Socialism?” It seems that language evolves, just like political discourse itself.
It was Henri Saint-Simon who first used the term “socialisme.” What exactly he meant by it wasn’t so clear. Saint-Simon was frustrated by the aftermath of the French revolution. While a lot of aristocrats had been killed and democratic structures had been formed, injustice persisted. Some people got wealthy, while some were left to starve. Selfishness and greed seemed much less restrained.
Saint-Simon built cooperatives and provided charity to the poor. He also proposed a more scientific organization of society. The word “capitalism” is not found in Saint-Simon’s work. Instead, he criticized “individualism,” arguing in religious and moralist terms that selfish behavior was bad for the community. Socialism was defined simply as the rejection of the “individualism” that he saw as out of control in the early 1800s.
In 1817, Robert Owen began calling himself a socialist as well, and the term was picked up in the English speaking world. Owen was a wealthy factory owner who sought to build a “New Moral World” and established utopian communities in Scotland and the United States. Owen received a standing ovation from the US House of Representatives when he addressed them in 1825, explaining how he intended to build a kind of religious colony of friendship and collectivism in his settlement of New Harmony, Indiana.
By the mid-1800s, talk of “socialism” was everywhere in Europe and even widespread in the United States. But what did socialism mean? To some, it meant moving out to unsettled lands and starting model communities. To others, it meant adopting an 8 hour work day and getting rid of child labor. To others, it meant restoring the “natural order” of kings and nobles that capitalism had been torn down. To some, it meant establishing a theocratic religious government, while to others it meant abolishing religion and establishing a “new order of reason and science.”
A socialist Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy wrote the US Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. He based the words of it on the loyalty oath given to former Confederate soldiers after the US Civil War. The phrase “one nation, with liberty and justice for all”, was a tribute to the Nationalist Clubs across the country, led by his brother Edward Bellamy. The Nationalist Clubs were inspired by Edward Bellamy’s science fiction novel “Looking Backward” that laid out a vision of an egalitarian, religious future United States.
“Communism” and the Marxist Re-Branding
Other than being critical of greed, the term “socialism” had no clear definition in the 1800s. That’s why in 1848, a group of radicals participating in the German Revolution called themselves the “Communist League.” Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Joseph Weydemeyer, August Willich, and a number of young Germans who studied the writings of Hegel adopted the term “Communist” to describe their ideas as opposed to the many varieties of “socialism” that were popping up across Europe.
The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, presented the specific theories of Karl Marx and his comrades. Frederick Engels composed a text in 1880, defending Marx’s unique brand of socialist politics called “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.” He contrasted the ideas of Saint Simon and Robert Owen with Marx’s “scientific socialism.” Marxism argued that history was like a train speeding forward. First humans had been hunter-gatherers in tribes, then they adopted slavery, then feudalism and the new system that emerged from the overthrow of feudalism was called “Capitalism.”
Marx argued that just as the old systems had, capitalism had produced “its own gravediggers.” The workers would soon rise up and seize the means of production. The factories would be operated for social good, not for the profits of individual owners. This would be called “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and “the first stage of Communism.”
Eventually, Marx argued that this would give way to an even higher stage. With factory production, scientific progress, and technology no longer restrained by the irrational profit motive, so much material abundance would be created, that no government or coercion would be required. The state would wither away in the “highest stage of communism” in which people could just take what they need, and do what they feel like doing. As he put it, “from each according to his own ability, to each according to his needs.”
Karl Marx and his associates formed “The International Workingmen’s Association” also called “The First International” to spread these ideas across the world. Many Anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin joined the First International, adopting the name “Communist” to separate themselves from the widespread, vague “socialist” movements of the time.
Many of the members of the First International were Syndicalists, who did not believe in voting or building political parties, but simply advocated strikes and workplace “direct action.” Various Anarchists rejected Marx’s call to build unions and form working class political parties, but instead favored revolutionary acts of violence. Ultimately, the International Workingmen’s Association fell apart in the 1870s, as the various Anarchist, Syndicalist, and Marxist factions could not agree on how to proceed.
The Origins of “Social Democracy”
When socialists in Germany, including many Marxists, formed a new political party in Germany in 1863, they decided not to use the name “Communist.” In order to not be confused with violent anarchists and others who used the word “Communism,” they called themselves the “Social Democratic Workers Party.” This party remains in existence as one of the biggest parties in Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
In 1875, the German SPD officially adopted Marxism as its ideology, rejecting other strands of socialist thinking. Though Marx had written the “Communist” manifesto, Marxists began using the label of “social-democracy” because it seemed to fit their world view. The Marxists of this era fought for universal male suffrage, the right to form labor unions and fit themselves into an upsurge of “democratic” activism within society. As advocates of democracy, they paid special attention to economic justice, so their call for “democracy” had a strong “social” aspect. The Second International, also known as the “Socialist International” was created to unify the various “Social-Democratic” parties across the world.
The most outspoken writer and political figure within Social Democracy was Karl Kautsky, who headed the SPD, which was that the largest Marxist party in the world. As labor unions grew, the Social-Democratic Parties of Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and elsewhere all became massive organizations with millions of members.
However, by the 1890s, it seemed that Marxism and the “Social Democratic” movement it had created was in a crisis. Millions and millions of people had become Marxists, labor unions had been created, but the revolution was not happening. The workers were not rising up and seizing their factories. As capitalism expanded across the globe, the standard of living was rising in western countries. Marx’s prediction of greater and greater poverty, leading to an inevitable revolt was not coming true.
Prior to the First World War, all the various Social-Democratic parties across Europe pledged never to support any war declared by the capitalist governments. Workers would never be used as pawns to kill each other for the capitalists. Workers’ solidarity was to override nationalism and jingoism. But when war broke out in 1914, almost all of the major socialist parties flipped. The “Social-Democrats” in parliaments voted to support the First World War, and the Second International was dissolved.
The Soviet Union and a whole new vocabulary
Vladimir Lenin’s organization in Russia was never really accepted among the Social-Democrats of the Second International. Lenin’s “Party of a New Type,” which was commonly called the “Bolsheviks” (Majority Group) in Russia, was generally considered to be more like a monastic order, revolutionary conspiracy, or cult than a mass political movement based in communities. Lenin’s organization called itself a “vanguard” and allowed only those who would give “the whole of their lives” to join.
While the social-democrats and Marxist of the Second International had said that all nationalism was contrary to their principles, Lenin had said that nationalism among colonized and developing countries should be supported. Lenin argued that capitalism had entered its “highest stage” of imperialism, and western capitalists were making “super profits” by “super exploiting” people in the developing world.
While the Social-Democrats, like Marx, argued that western countries were helping countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, by bringing in the “more advanced” system of capitalism, Lenin argued the opposite. He said western capitalism was holding back development in impoverished countries while dividing the workers at home. Lenin argued that the reason the Social-Democratic Parties had not created a revolution was because they were dominated by high paid, skilled workers. They were “the labor aristocracy.” They were working class people, but their standard of living was high enough that they did not want a revolution and sympathized with their bosses. The spoils of imperialism were making their lives better. They had been bought off.
Lenin furiously denounced the Second International for supporting the First World War, declaring it was a “stinking corpse.” When Lenin returned to Russia in April of 1917, amid a revolutionary crisis, he urged the Bolsheviks to stop calling themselves “Social-Democrats” and label themselves as “Communists.” Lenin said that the social-democratic parties had betrayed the people by supporting the war, so it was best to not be associated with them.
After the Russian Revolution, the ideology of the Soviet Union was adopted by the Third International, or the Communist International. New “Communist” parties were formed around the world, as radical, pro-Soviet opposition to the Social-Democratic Parties that had supported the war.
The Social-Democratic Parties still existed, but strongly opposed the Soviet Union and its ideology. They argued that “the main enemy is on the left” and that it was necessary to support capitalist governments in crushing the Soviet Union.
Around the world, the terms “Socialism” and “Communism” suddenly took on new meanings, once again. Socialism referred to patriotic, anti-Soviet political organizations that sought to get elected, and gradually transition toward a more egalitarian society, one step at a time. Communism referred to the parties aligned with the Soviet Union that adopted Marxism-Leninism as their ideology and ultimately sought to seize power in a revolutionary situation. However, the Communist Parties were also always critical of “ultra-leftism” and calls for violence, and the Soviet Union urged them to not be parties of extremism, isolated from the masses of people.
In the 1930s, the Communist Parties ultimately adopted the tactic of building a “People’s Front” against fascism, in alliance with democratic and liberal forces. In Spain and France, the Communist Parties built coalition governments with other parties that were less hostile to the Soviet Union and opposed fascism. Communists in the USA became outspoken supporters of President Roosevelt.
As the Communists became more tactical and strategic, the Social-Democratic parties suddenly began to recruit various individuals and factions who did not fit in with the strict discipline of the Communist Parties. Followers of Leon Trotsky joined the Socialist Party of France and the Socialist Party of the United States. Anarchists and syndicalists also joined the various “social-democratic” parties.
While the Communist Parties were part of a global movement aligned with the Soviet Union, by the late 1930s, the Socialist Parties became loose associations of all kinds of different people who believed in socialism but rejected Marxist-Leninist ideology.
The Rise of Social-Democratic Welfare States
After the Second World War, the British Labour Party and many other social-democratic parties won the elections in a blowout. The British Labour Party’s Constitution contained the famous “Clause 4” section declaring that it sought:
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
In the 1950s, the British Labour Party nationalized mining and various industries in Britain. It also took huge measures to create jobs, and began providing free healthcare and university education for the population. The Social-Democratic Parties of France, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and many other countries took similar measures during the post-war period.
The end of the Second World War marked the birth of the “Keynesian Consensus.” John Maynard Keynes was a British economist who rejected Marxism, but argued that it was necessary for the government to spend money in order to curb “underconsumption.” Keynes blamed the rise of both Communism and Fascism on the failure of governments to adequately regulate the economy and stave off the Great Depression. Keynes believed in a more regulated capitalism, but it was Social-Democrats who largely put his theories into practice.
The various Social-Democratic Parties proceeded to raise taxes on the rich and provided an unprecedented amount of social-services to their populations.
Social-Democracy’s power in Europe during the Cold War was not only due to its ability to create a social safety net and secure the population’s living standards. A big factor strengthening social democracy was the power of the more radical Communist Parties. In 1968, France had a revolutionary crisis in which the Communist Party, along with various Trotskyist and Maoist groupings effectively shut the country down and nearly toppled the government. Italian Communist factions also exercised a huge amount of power throughout the Cold War. In Spain and Portugal, the authoritarian right wing governments were brought down in the mid-1970s to due to decades of Communist-led protests and strikes.
The Social-Democrats, who favored building socialism one step at a time through Keynesian welfare state reforms, were seen as a barrier to the threat of a Communist revolution, which was very real. Many wealthy capitalists supported the social-democrats, seeing them as stabilizing society and preventing the danger of unrest. While the Social-Democrats claimed, on paper, that they sought to create a society where the workers controlled the means of production, they tended to oversee the creation of big welfare states, and not much more. The Social-Democrats tended to support aligning with the United States in military actions against Communists across the world.
“Social-Democracy” Dumps Socialism
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Social-Democrats across Europe began to reject Marxism outright. They argued that the idea of class struggle, and striving to create a centrally planned, state-controlled economy, was “out of date.” Amid talk that “socialism is dead,” the rise of Neoliberalism, and the rolling back of the Keynesian consensus, the Social-Democratic Parties, one by one, announced that they no longer strove to create a socialist society.
Tony Blair led the charge within the UK Labor Party, and now its Constitution’s Clause 4 reads this way:
“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”
German SPD, the French Socialist Party, and the various Labour and Social-Democratic Parties of Europe now say that their vision of “Democratic Socialism” is not contrary to capitalism. According to them, Democratic Socialism simply means that the government works to provide economic opportunity and a level playing field. Social-Democratic Parties have been involved in cutting social spending, reducing the power of trade unions, and promoting economic theories of Neoliberalism. Some figures within the various Social Democratic Parties have been big supporters of the IMF and the World Bank. They argue that cuts are necessary for the new economy, and during the financial crisis of 2008, many social-democratic leaders oversaw austerity measures.
However, many within the Social-Democratic Parties have rejected this turn. Jeremy Corbyn, George Galloway, Arthur Scargill, and Tony Benn in the UK were very outspoken in rejecting the “New Labour” policies of Tony Blair. The Norwegian Social-Democrats have not adjusted their beliefs, and still, hold on to the ideals of the Second International, and other outliers certainly exist.
Democratic Socialism in 21st Century America
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was formed during the early 1980s by followers of Michael Harrington. The DSA rejected Marxism-Leninism but also voiced strong critiques of European Social Democracy, saying that it had failed to fully change society. The early DSA put forward visions of “participatory democracy” and seemed to continue the ideas of 1960s radicals in Students for a Democratic Society.
Even today, many of DSA’s members will often insist they are “Democratic Socialists” and not “Social Democrats” citing the fact that the European welfare states of the Cold War did not abolish capitalism. However, Bernie Sanders, a longtime ally of the DSA who refers to himself as a “Democratic Socialist” insists he is not opposed to capitalism at all. He has explained his views by saying:
“Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy. Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt…So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this: I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.” (https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/what-is-socialism-bernie-sanders?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1)
Bernie Sanders points to European welfare states as his ideal, so in essence, he is in line with New Labour and the various Social-Democratic Parties of Europe. However, this has not stopped Sanders opponents from attacking him and comparing him to Pol Pot, Nicolás Maduro, Adolf Hitler, and a score of other leaders whose economic and political visions are wildly different.
Bernie Sanders has made the concept of “socialism” more popular than it has been in the United States since the 1930s. However, his definition of it is unique to the time.
In an age when neoliberal economic thinking has the upper hand, and “greed is good” seems to be the mantra of those who set economic policy, Sanders upholds a different political vision. He now has the backing of Jeffrey Sachs, and various former adherents of Neoliberalism who now, like Dr. Frankenstein, feel they created a monster they cannot control.
“Socialism” or “Democratic Socialism” has a new meaning for millions of young Americans. It means that after decades of being told that any government action on behalf of the population is socialism, they have finally rid this term of stigma.
A generation is now proclaiming: “If wanting to see a doctor when I’m sick, or not be in debt for going to college is socialism… FINE! I’m a socialist! I love socialism!”
And like the little boy who cried wolf, the right-wing is jumping in terror. It seems that they’ve used and abused the specter of socialism and Marxism, so much, that it has completely lost its sting.
Originally published in "We Are The Media"