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Democratic socialism is a description used by various socialist movements and organizations, to emphasize the democratic character of their political orientation. The term is sometimes used synonymously with 'social democracy', but many self-identified democratic socialists oppose social democracy, seeing it as capitalist.[1]



Democratic socialism is difficult to define, and groups of scholars have radically different definitions for the term. Some definitions simply refer to all forms of socialism that follow an electoral, reformist or evolutionary path to socialism, rather than a revolutionary one.[2] Often, this definition is invoked to distinguish democratic socialism from communism, as in Donald Busky's Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey[3], Jim Tomlinson's Democratic Socialism and Economic Policy: The Attlee Years, 1945-1951, Norman Thomas Democratic Socialism: a new appraisal or Roy Hattersley's Choose Freedom: The Future of Democratic Socialism.

But for those who use the term in this way, the scope of the term "socialism" itself can be very vague, and include forms of socialism compatible with capitalism. For example, Robert M. Page, a Reader in Democratic Socialism and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham, writes about "transformative democratic socialism" to refer to the politics of the Clement Attlee government (a strong welfare state, fiscal redistribution, some nationalisation) and "revisionist democratic socialism", as developed by Anthony Crosland and Harold Wilson:

The most influential revisionist Labour thinker, Anthony Crosland..., contended that a more 'benevolent' form of capitalism had emerged since the [Second World War]... According to Crosland, it was now possible to achieve greater equality in society without the need for 'fundamental' economic transformation. For Crosland, a more meaningful form of equality could be achieved if the growth dividend derived from effective management of the economy was invested in 'pro-poor' public services rather than through fiscal redistribution.[4]

Indeed, some proponents of market socialism see the latter as a form of democratic socialism.[5]

A variant of this set of definitions is Joseph Schumpeter’s argument, set out in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1941), that liberal democracies were evolving from "liberal capitalism" into democratic socialism, with the growth of workers' self-management, industrial democracy and regulatory institutions.[6]

In contrast, other definitions of democratic socialism sharply distinguish it from social democracy.[1] For example, Peter Hain classifies democratic socialism, along with libertarian socialism, as a form of anti-authoritarian "socialism from below" (using the term popularised by Hal Draper), in contrast to Stalinism and social democracy, variants of authoritarian state socialism. For Hain, this democratic/authoritarian divide is more important than the revolutionary/reformist divide.[7] In this definition, it is the active participation of the population as a whole, and workers in particular, in the management of economy that characterises democratic socialism, while nationalisation and economic planning (whether controlled by an elected government or not) are characteristic of state socialism. A similar, but more complex, argument is made by Nicos Poulantzas.[8]

Other definitions fall between the first and second set, seeing democratic socialism as a specific political tradition closely related to and overlapping with social democracy. For example, Bogdan Denitch, in Democratic Socialism, defines it as proposing a radical reorganization of the socio-economic order through public ownership, workers' control of the labour process and redistributive tax policies.[9] Robert G. Picard similarly describes a democratic socialist tradition of thought including Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Evan Durbin and Michael Harrington.[10]

The term democratic socialism can be used in a third way, to refer to a version of the Soviet model that was reformed in a democratic way. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev described perestroika as building a "new, humane and democratic socialism".[11] Consequently, some former Communist parties have rebranded themselves as democratic socialist, as with the Party of Democratic Socialism in Germany.

Hal Draper uses the term "revolutionary-democratic socialism" as a type of socialism from below in his The Two Souls of Socialism. He writes: 'the leading spokesman in the Second International of a revolutionary-democratic Socialism-from-Below [was] Rosa Luxemburg, who so emphatically put her faith and hope in the spontaneous struggle of a free working class that the myth-makers invented for her a "theory of spontaneity"'.[12] Similarly, about Eugene Debs, he writes: '"Debsian socialism" evoked a tremendous response from the heart of the people, but Debs had no successor as a tribune of revolutionary-democratic socialism'.[13]

Justification of democratic socialism can be found in the works of social philosophers like Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth, among others. Honneth has put forward the view that political and economic ideologies have a social basis, that is, they originate from intersubjective communication between members of a society.[14] Honneth criticises the liberal state because it assumes that principles of individual liberty and private property are ahistorical and abstract, when, in fact, they evolved from a specific social discourse on human activity. Contra liberal individualism, Honneth has emphasised the inter-subjective dependence between humans; that is, our well-being depends on recognising others and being recognised by them. Democratic socialism, with its emphasis on social collectivism, could be seen as a way of safeguarding this dependency.



Forerunners and formative influences

Fenner Brockway, a leading British democratic socialist of the Independent Labour Party, wrote in his book Britain's First Socialists:

The Levellers were pioneers of political democracy and the sovereignty of the people; the Agitators were the pioneers of participatory control by the ranks at their workplace; and the Diggers were pioneers of communal ownership, cooperation and egalitarianism. All three equate to democratic socialism.[15]

The tradition of the Diggers and the Levellers was continued in the period described by EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class by Jacobin groups like the London Corresponding Society and by polemicists such as Thomas Paine. Their concern for both democracy and social justice marks them out as key precursors of democratic socialism.[16]

The term "socialist" was first used in English in the British Cooperative Magazine in 1827[17] and came to be associated with the followers of Robert Owen, such as the Rochdale Pioneers who founded the co-operative movement. Owen's followers again stressed both participatory democracy and economic socialisation, in the form of consumer co-operatives, credit unions and mutual aid societies. The Chartists similarly combined a working class politics with a call for greater democracy. Many countries have this.

The British moral philosopher John Stuart Mill also came to advocate a form of economic socialism within a liberal context. In later editions of his Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill would argue that "as far as economic theory was concerned, there is nothing in principle in economic theory that precludes an economic order based on socialist policies".[18][19]

In North America, Henry George promoted the Single Tax Movement, which sought a form of democratic socialism via progressive taxation, with tax only on natural resources. George remained an advocate of the free market for the allocation of all other goods and services.[20]

Modern democratic socialism

James Keir Hardie was an early democratic socialist, who founded the Independent Labour Party in the United Kingdom

Democratic socialism became a prominent movement at the end of the 19th century. In the US, Eugene V. Debs, one of the most famous American socialists, led a movement centered around democratic socialism and made five bids for President, once in 1900 as candidate of the Social Democratic Party and then four more times on the ticket of the Socialist Party of America.[21] The socialist industrial unionism of Daniel DeLeon in the United States represented another strain of early democratic socialism in this period. It favored a form of government based on industrial unions, but which also sought to establish this government after winning at the ballot box.[22]

In Britain, the democratic socialist tradition was represented in particular by the William Morris' Socialist League in the 1880s and by the Independent Labour Party (ILP) founded by Keir Hardie in the 1890s, of which George Orwell would later be a prominent member.[23]

In other parts of Europe, many democratic socialist parties were united in the International Working Union of Socialist Parties (the "Two and a Half International") in the early 1920s and in the London Bureau (the "Three and a Half International") in the 1930s. These internationals sought to steer a course between the social democrats of the Second International, who were seen as insufficiently socialist (and had been compromised by their support for World War I), and the perceived anti-democratic Third International. The key movements within the Two and a Half International were the ILP and the Austromarxists, and the main forces in the Three and a Half International were the ILP and the POUM of Spain.[24][25]

In America, a similar tradition continued to flourish in Debs' Socialist Party of America, especially under the leadership of Norman Thomas.[26] Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont is a self-described democratic socialist, and is the only socialist to ever be elected to the United States Senate.[27]

In the early 1920s, the guild socialism of G. D. H. Cole attempted to envision a socialist alternative to Soviet-style authoritarianism, while council communism articulated democratic socialist positions in several respects, notably through renouncing the vanguard role of the revolutionary party and holding that the system of the Soviet Union was not authentically socialist.[28]

During India's freedom movement, many figures on the left of the Indian National Congress organized themselves as the Congress Socialist Party. Their politics, and those of the early and intermediate periods of JP Narayan's career, combined a commitment to the socialist transformation of society with a principled opposition to the one-party authoritarianism they perceived in the Stalinist revolutionary model. This political current continued in the Praja Socialist Party, the later Janata Party and the current Samajwadi Party.[29][30]

In the Middle East, the biggest democratic socialist party is the Organization of Iranian People's Fedaian (Majority).

The folkesocialisme or people's socialism that emerged as a vital current of the left in Scandinavia beginning in the 1950s could be characterized as a democratic socialism in the same vein. Former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme is an important proponent of democratic socialism.[31]

See also


  1. ^ a b Social Democracy Versus Revolutionary Democratic Socialism by J. David Edelstein.
  2. ^ This definition is captured in this statement: Anthony Crosland "argued that the socialisms of the pre-war world (not just that of the Marxists, but of the democratic socialists too) were now increasingly irrelevant." (Chris Pierson, "Lost property: What the Third Way lacks", Journal of Political Ideologies (June 2005), 10(2), 145–163 URL: Other texts which use the terms "democratic socialism" in this way include Malcolm Hamilton Democratic Socialism in Britain and Sweden (St Martin’s Press 1989).
  3. ^ See pp.7-8.
  4. ^ Robert M Page, "Without a Song in their Heart: New Labour, the Welfare State and the Retreat from Democratic Socialism", Jnl Soc. Pol., 36, 1, 19–37 2007.
  5. ^ For example, David Miller, Market, State, and Community: Theoretical Foundations of Market Socialism (Oxford University Press, 1990).
  6. ^ See John Medearis, "Schumpeter, the New Deal, and Democracy", The American Political Science Review, 1997.
  7. ^ Peter Hain Ayes to the Left Lawrence and Wishart.
  8. ^ "Towards a Democratic Socialism", New Left Review I/109, May-June 1978.
  9. ^ Bogdan Denitch, Democratic Socialism: The Mass Left in Advanced Industrial Societies (Allanheld, Osmun, 1981).
  10. ^ The Press and the Decline of Democracy: Democratic Socialist Response in Public Policy (1985 Praeger/Greenwood).
  11. ^ Paul T. Christensen “Perestroika and the Problem of Socialist Renewal” Social Text 1990.
  12. ^ Hal Draper, The Two Souls of Socialism, "Chapter 7: The Revisionist Facade".
  13. ^ Hal Draper, The Two Souls of Socialism, "Chapter 8: The 100% American Scene".
  14. ^ Honneth, Axel (1995), "The Limits of Liberalism: On the Political-Ethical Discussion Concerning Communitarianism", in Honneth, Axel, The Fragmented World of the Social, Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 231–247, ISBN 0-7914-2300-X  .
  15. ^ Quoted in Peter Hain Ayes to the Left Lawrence and Wishart, p.12.
  16. ^ Isabel Taylor “A Potted History of English Radicalism” Albion Magazine Summer 2007; M. Thrale (ed.) Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society 1792-1799 (Cambridge University Press, 1983); E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class. Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1963.
  17. ^ Hain, op cit, p.13.
  18. ^ Wilson, Fred. "Stuart Mill". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 10 July 2007, accessed 17 March 2008.
  19. ^ "Mill, in contrast, advances a form of liberal democratic socialism for the enlargement of freedom as well as to realize social and distributive justice. He offers a powerful account of economic injustice and justice that is centered on his understanding of freedom and its conditions." Bruce Baum, "J. S. Mill and Liberal Socialism", Nadia Urbanati and Alex Zacharas, eds., J. S. Mill’s Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  20. ^ "Taxes: What Are They Good For?" Henry George Institute. Accessed 17 March 2008.
  21. ^ Donald Busky, "Democratic Socialism in North America", Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey especially pp.153-177.
  22. ^ Donald Busky "Democratic Socialism in North America" ‘’Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey’’ especially pp.150-154.
  23. ^ Donald Busky, "Democratic Socialism in Great Britain and Ireland", Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey, pp.83-5 on Morris, pp.91-109 on Hardie and the ILP. On Morris as democratic socialist, see also volume 3 of David Reisman, ed., Democratic Socialism in Britain: Classic Texts in Economic and Political Thought, 1825–1952 and E P Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London: Merlin, 1977). On the ILP as democratic socialist, see also The ILP: A Very Brief History; James, David, Jowitt, Tony, and Laybourn, Keith, eds. The Centennial History of the Independent Labour Party. Halifax: Ryburn, 1992.
  24. ^ F. Peter Wagner, Rudolf Hilferding: Theory and Politics of Democratic Socialism (Atlantic Highlands 1996).
  25. ^ Janet Polasky, The Democratic Socialism of Emile Vandervelde: Between Reform and Revolution (Oxford 1995).
  26. ^ Robert John Fitrakis, "The idea of democratic socialism in America and the decline of the Socialist Party: Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington. (Volumes I and II)" (January 1, 1990). ETD Collection for Wayne State University. Paper AAI9029621. See also "What is Democratic Socialism? Questions and Answers from the Democratic Socialists of America".
  27. ^ "Exceedingly Social, But Doesn't Like Parties". The Washington Post. 2006-11-05. Retrieved 2009-03-17. "Vermont ...[is]... about to send the first avowed socialist to the Senate since ... well ... never."  
  28. ^ On Cole as democratic socialist, see also volume 7 of David Reisman, ed, Democratic Socialism in Britain: Classic Texts in Economic and Political Thought, 1825–1952.
  29. ^ "Vikas Kamat Democratic Socialism in India".
  30. ^ A. Appadorai, "Recent Socialist Thought in India", The Review of Politics Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jul., 1968), pp. 349-362.
  31. ^ "Därför är jag demokratisk socialist", speech by Olof Palme at the 1982 Social Democratic party congress


  • Donald F. Busky, Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey Greenwood Publishing, 2000 ISBN 0-275-96886-3
  • Roy Hattersley Choose Freedom: The Future of Democratic Socialism, Penguin, 1987 ISBN 0140104941
  • Ralph Miliband Socialism for a Sceptical Age Polity Press, London, 1994
  • David Reisman, ed, Democratic Socialism in Britain: Classic Texts in Economic and Political Thought, 1825–1952 Chatto and Pickering, 1996 ISBN 978 1 85196 285 3. (Includes texts by William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, GDH Cole, Richard Crossman and Aneurin Bevan.)
  • Norman Thomas Democratic Socialism: a new appraisal, League for Industrial Democracy, 1953
  • Jim Tomlinson Democratic Socialism and Economic Policy: The Attlee Years, 1945-1951 Cambridge University Press, 1997 ISBN 0521550955

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