There is an increasing recognition that we are now living in a “socialist moment,” a period where socialism has reemerged as a popular idea in American political life. There’s just one problem: Everyone seems to have a different definition of what it means. For liberals tired of being mislabelled socialists by the right, the term has come to mean any government policy aimed at providing public goods, from food stamps to the Air Force. For the progressives who have embraced the term, it means a social democratic program to aggressively confront inequality. For conservatives and libertarians, it represents anything from Soviet Marxism-Leninism to Venezuelan left-populism. And, as has always been the case, different factions of self-identified socialists argue vigorously among one another for the term’s one true meaning. As Nathan Robinson and Rob Larson noted in their recent article, “if you ask 10 socialists what [socialism] means you’ll get 12 or so different definitions.”
Even putting aside the numerous abuses of the term in mainstream American politics, socialism has always been a broad concept, adopted by hundreds of political movements all over the world to mean a wide variety of different things for almost two centuries. While this has allowed for a diverse body of thought to flourish, it has also had the effect of confusing millions of people as to what socialists actually believe.
The ascendant strain of socialism in America today is democratic socialism. Commonly confused with its more modest sibling of social democracy, democratic socialism is a strain of thought which traces its roots to late 19th-century movements in America and Europe which advocated for popular control over both government and business through democratic means. The U.S.’ largest socialist organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, define the idea as the belief “that both the economy and society should be run democratically-to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.”
Even for many skeptics, this sounds nice conceptually. But if these socialists explicitly reject the models of the USSR or communist China, then what is their alternative? If not a bureaucratic command economy, does democratic socialism exist as anything other than an abstract daydream in the minds of the young and the pages of a few magazines?
The recently-passed Erik Olin Wright, a staple of left-wing sociological thought, started what he called the “ Real Utopias” project in the early 1990s in order “to focus on specific proposals for the fundamental redesign of different arenas of social institutions rather than on either general, abstract formulations of grand designs, or on small immediately attainable reforms of existing practices.” Such a clarifying project is precisely what the left needs now more than ever. The good news is that the foundational models for a democratic socialist vision already exist around the world-indeed, many are popularly and successfully in place in the United States right now.
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Originally published at https://www.currentaffairs.org on November 30, 2019.