The presidential campaign of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has sparked debate and conversation about socialism in the 21st century. But what is socialism?
Many Americans today still equate socialism with “big government.” We imagine a one-party state, a massive bureaucratic dictatorship with no free elections, no freedom of speech or religion in which the government controls all aspects of life. We think of the tyranny of Stalin’s Russia or the nightmarish dystopia of George Orwell’s “1984.”
What many people forget is that George Orwell was a socialist. Like the mainstream of socialists today, he was committed to democracy and bitterly opposed to all forms of tyranny. “1984” should be read as a critique of dictatorship, not a critique of socialism.
The dictionary definition of socialism is social control over the means of production. In a capitalist economy like ours, the means of production — factories, plantations, mines, etc. — are controlled by individuals and corporations who pay wages to workers who produce the goods and services. Socialists argue this arrangement is irrational. Workers, not capitalist bureaucrats, are the real producers in a society; therefore, they should control production democratically. Furthermore, the for-profit model of capitalism means that money, rather than human needs, is the driving force of our economy. A socialist economy would be focused on solving problems and meeting human needs in a fair and rational way, instead of on making money for a small class of property owners.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to think clearly about these ideas because mainstream culture has monopolized words such as “freedom” and “democracy” so they are only used to describe a capitalist system, and “socialism” is still linked in many people’s minds with the Soviet Union.
Ironically, the bureaucratic dictatorship of so-called “communist” states more closely resembles the organization of an American corporation than that of a truly socialist society. Take, for instance, this statement from Socialist Alternative, a party that made headlines recently when one of their candidates, Kshama Sawant, won a seat on the Seattle City Council: “We believe the dictatorships that existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were perversions of what socialism is really about. We are for democratic socialism, where ordinary people will have control over our daily lives.”
Sawant and her friends in Socialist Alternative argue for the nationalization of major corporations, but this is just one possible manifestation of socialism. Other socialists argue for worker ownership or local community ownership instead of national public control of productive enterprises. A socialist economy may include a mix of those three possibilities but would always emphasize grass-roots democracy and economic justice.
“Democratic socialism” also is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Orwell argued for, and it is how Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders describes his policies. Sanders has been criticized for trying to reform instead of replace capitalism, but his proposed policies — strengthening unions, supporting worker co-ops, increasing democracy, reining in the worst excesses of the corporate system, providing universal health care and free higher education by taxing the rich — will weaken capitalism and allow grass-roots socialism to flourish. This is why Sanders’ call for a “political revolution” against the billionaire class has been endorsed by groups that include Socialist Alternative and Democratic Socialists of America.
A political revolution is indeed necessary. Capitalist economies concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, an arrangement inherently inimical to democracy. Economic power translates to political power via the domination by moneyed interests of the media and mass culture, as well as through lobbying, campaign contributions and other channels of informal influence. In America today, this inequality of wealth and power has reached alarming levels. Now is the time for a mass movement to transition our society away from capitalism and toward democratic socialism.
Credit unions, community gardens, libraries, worker co-ops and public schools are all examples of socialism in the real world. Contrary to the image of inhuman and oppressive “big government” fostered by right-wing propaganda, the ideals of democratic socialism reflect basic human values of community, freedom and democracy we all share.
Reuben Dendinger is a graduate student in English at the University of Maine.