Democratic socialism’s darkest secret: More democracy than socialism

January 26, 2016

Fans of irony will find interesting this depiction of the of the greatest achievements in history of democratic socialism: The U.S. National Defense Highway System, better known as the Interstate Highway System.  Irony is that it is a key driver of the U.S. economy and has made possible great economic expansion that enriches capitalists greatly.

Fans of irony will find interesting this depiction of one of the greatest achievements in history of democratic socialism: The U.S. National Defense Highway System, better known as the Interstate Highway System. Irony is that it is a key driver of the U.S. economy and has made possible great economic expansion that enriches capitalists greatly. From the Online Atlas.

Stunning how some people will say Bernie Sanders makes sense in one breath, then when hearing he calls himself a socialist, claim Bernie is nuts and a threat to America.

Sanders’s supporters fight back, some. The phenomenon I describe is strongest among self-proclaimed extreme conservatives, and so is not such a huge issue in the primaries as it would be in the general election, if it is an issue at all.  A wise political strategist would not wait to confront the issue. It’s not an argument that can be answered with a bumper sticker.

Right wing publications take great pains to link any use of the word “socialism” with the now-repulsive violence of the Bolshevik Revolution and the autocratic nightmares of bureaucracy under the old Soviet-style government system, that even the Soviets abandoned. Right wingers don’t even pause to avoid saying socialism cares for people over corporations, in their blind striking out to smear anyone brave enough to take on the name.

We shouldn’t be surprised if Democrats generally defend the philosophy of democratic socialism from such demonizing.

This Tweet from one of Bernie’s guys offers to define democratic socialism rather as mother’s milk, apple pie and saluting the flag.

Is it correct? Does it persuade you?

The poster says*:

Democratic Socialism

Of the People, By the People, For the People

A political ideology which balances a democratic political system alongside a socialist economic system, involving a combination of political democracy with social ownership fo the means of production, free-market capitalism in the form of business receiving reasonable profits for goods and services while at the same time providing fair compensation to labor with a shared responsibility for civil societal needs such, but not limited to, emergency services, military, publicly-owned utilities and services, and infrastructure in the form of maintenance and management of public roadways, providing water and waste-water treatment, public parks and recreation, resource management and wildlife conservation, public ports, airports, rail lines and interstates, and in providing programs within a publicly elected representatives state and federal government.

Were I advising the Sanders campaign, I’d advise that the language in that statement be made much more reader friendly, and formatted to aid reading. But in the main, it doesn’t differ much from the Wikipedia definition.  See if you can find any critical differences:

Democratic socialism is a political ideology advocating a democratic political system alongside a socialist economic system, involving a combination of political democracy with social ownership of the means of production. Although sometimes used synonymously with “socialism”, the adjective “democratic” is often added to distinguish itself from Leninist and Stalinist brand of socialism, which is widely viewed as being non-democratic. In all, democratic socialists don’t support single-party system and centralism.[1]

Democratic socialism is usually distinguished from both the Soviet model of centralized socialism and social democracy, where “social democracy” refers to support for political democracy, regulation of the capitalist economy, and a welfare state.[2] The distinction with the former is made on the basis of the authoritarian form of government and centralized economic system that emerged in the Soviet Union during the 20th century,[3] while the distinction with the latter is made in that democratic socialism is committed to systemic transformation of the economy while social democracy is not.[4] That is, whereas social democrats seek only to “humanize” capitalism through state intervention, democratic socialists see capitalism as being inherently incompatible with the democratic values of freedom, equality, and solidarity; and believe that the issues inherent to capitalism can only be solved by superseding private ownership with some form of social ownership. Ultimately democratic socialists believe that reforms aimed at addressing the economic contradictions of capitalism will only cause more problems to emerge elsewhere in the economy, so that capitalism can never be sufficiently “humanized” and must ultimately be replaced by socialism.[5][6]

Democratic socialism is not specifically revolutionary or reformist, as many types of democratic socialism can fall into either category, with some forms overlapping with social democracy.[7] Some forms of democratic socialism accept social democratic reformism to gradually convert the capitalist economy to a socialist one using the pre-existing political democracy, while other forms are revolutionary in their political orientation and advocate for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist economy.[8]

Few people want to debate what “democratic socialism” really means, chiefly because socialism is such a loaded word and concept. There are two camps, one which wants people to rationally look at cooperative activities of the world’s great democratic republics and smile at their virtues, and continue them, the Bernie Sanders camp. The other camp holds strictly to the philosophy expressed in Friedrich von Hayek’s cartoon of socialism in The Road To Serfdom**, which indicts authoritarianism, and makes an unevidenced claim that any move towards socialism inherently leads to dictatorship.

We should give Sanders and his supporters credit for trying to open discussion. But we should be ready with first aid kits when they discover it’s not an open door to discussion with conservatives, but a tempered glass window posing as a door — and administer to their contusions as they smash into it.

If you find a tempered discussion of modern democratic socialism anywhere, will you let us know?

In comments, let us know what you think even if you don’t find the perfect, tempered discussion.

Matt Wuerker's classic cartoon from the 2008 campaign, when Barack Obama was accused of socialism for proposing to increase health care coverage. Perhaps ironically, Obama's plan ended up with powerful capitalist institutions entrenched in it. Critics of socialism sill haven't noticed.

Matt Wuerker’s classic cartoon from the 2009 campaign for the Affordable Care Act, when Barack Obama was accused of socialism for proposing to increase health care coverage. Perhaps ironically, Obama’s plan ended up with powerful capitalist institutions entrenched in it. Critics of socialism sill haven’t noticed.



* I list the text here to aid in indexing for search sites.

** Link is to the version at the Mises Institute, which is generally a biased source; in this case, their biases help to make sure the cartoon version presented is faithful to Hayek’s original; otherwise, discussion there on “democratic socialism” is probably fruitless.

Obama a socialist? You’re kidding, of course . . . Milos Forman

July 24, 2012

Wrote movie director Milos Forman, for The New York Times:

Milos Forman, PBS image

Milos Forman, PBS image, American Masters

When I was asked to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, my friends warned me not to go anywhere near it. The story is so American, they argued, that I, an immigrant fresh off the boat, could not do it justice. They were surprised when I explained why I wanted to make the film. To me it was not just literature but real life, the life I lived in Czechoslovakia from my birth in 1932 until 1968. The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do; what I was or was not allowed to say; where I was and was not allowed to go; even who I was and was not.

Now, years later, I hear the word “socialist” being tossed around by the likes of Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others. President Obama, they warn, is a socialist. The critics cry, “Obamacare is socialism!” They falsely equate Western European-style socialism, and its government provision of social insurance and health care, with Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism. It offends me, and cheapens the experience of millions who lived, and continue to live, under brutal forms of socialism.

. . . Whatever his faults, I don’t see much of a socialist in Mr. Obama or, thankfully, signs of that system in this great nation.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Fred Clark writing at Slacktivist.

More information:

Do you know what socialism is? Really? Episode 1

June 24, 2011

Management consultants seize on all kinds of ideas in the drive to heal businesses from whatever it is that ails them.  This is not criticism delivered lightly, considering the many years I made a living as a management consultant.

At the site for Constitutional Business Consulting, I came across a history of socialism — I think the author’s idea is to convince business managers that they are really using socialism in their management practices, and so the businesses should pay Constitutional Business Consulting to inject some workplace democracy.  It doesn’t really matter — what I liked was the history of socialism claimed at the site, and the comparison to the modern, free-enterprise business model.

We could quibble on the history, but why bother:  The point is worth discussion:

The Origin Of Socialism

Socialism literally sprang from observing the success of capitalism, while believing that conditions for workers could be improved if the control of production were moved from capitalists to the state. A top-down control system, such as that used in large business, was the model for socialist society. Yet the true engine of capitalism, the free market, was overlooked and left out of the plan.

Social reformers, from the early Utopian Socialists to the Marxists, were literally awed by the tremendous success of capitalistic industrial production. In The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx stated:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor. [1]

The socialists did not want to disrupt this technological miracle, but merely to distribute the profits of it more fairly. They observed the workers earning profits for the wealthy business owners and maintained they were being unfairly exploited. Believing the strength of the system was in its structure, they didn’t want to eliminate businesses, but merely to replace the wealthy business owners with the state.

As early as 1791 Talleyrand, in France, compared the ideal society to a National Workshop. [2] In the 1820s Henri de Saint-Simon envisioned the ideal society as one large factory.[3] After his death, his followers, calling themselves the Saint-Simonians, devised a system in which all of society would be organized like a single factory and socialism was the word they chose to represent it. [4] This was the origin of socialism—the conception of a centrally-planned society run like a business.

Throughout socialist writings the theme is recurring. Thomas More, Etienne Cabet, Louis Blanc, Robert Owen, Wilhelm Weitling, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Sydney Webb, William Clarke, and Nikolai (V.I.) Lenin all relied on a top-down structure, like that used in businesses, as the model for socialist society.[5] While they didn’t all express their philosophies the same way, their line of reasoning was basically this: Capitalism, with its scientific approach, had developed the methods of production to such a degree that they became routine tasks. The wealthy capitalists, desiring to live by the labor of others, had divorced themselves from the day to day duties by training others to perform those tasks. The role of the capitalists had therefore become superfluous, and production could go on without them, thus eliminating the exploitation of the workers.

In his work The State and Revolution, Lenin states:

Capitalism simplifies the functions of ‘state’ administration; it makes it possible to have done with ‘bossing’ and to reduce the whole business to an organization of proletarians (as the ruling class) which will hire ‘workers, foremen and bookkeepers’ in the name of the whole of society. [6]

And The Communist Manifesto proclaims:

The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers…. [7]

And, these views were not just restricted to socialists. Even scholars who were avowedly against socialism, believed the success of businesses, with centralized and top-down controls, proved the viability of socialism. In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter—Chairman of the American Economic Board—saw in large business enterprise all the ear-markings of a socialistic structure, and from this he surmised that capitalism could readily be replaced by socialism. [8]

The passage of time has revealed a conclusion quite different from that of Schumpeter’s. Unfortunately, the naive belief that capitalistic efficiency is due to the top-down structure within businesses is simply grist for the mills of social reformers.

Within a few minutes of finding that site, I found a message at a Facebook site from a guy taking exception to John Kennedy’s famous statement about liberalism. I quoted part of the definition above, noting that socialism was organization “like a business,” and responded:

Perhaps some who claim to see socialism in a health care system where private physicians are chosen by patients to deliver medical care in privately-owned facilities, associating with privately-owned hospitals, using therapeutic devices manufactured by privately-owned businesses and pharmaceuticals developed by privately-owned drug companies, really do mean to rail against such free enterprise. But I’m willing to wager they just don’t know them meaning of the word “socialism” nor would they recognize socialism if it moved into their bedrooms and slept with them every night.

What do we mean when we say, “socialism?”

I wonder what sort of success Constitutional Business Consulting gets?

Footnotes, as listed by Constitutional Business Consulting [hotlinks in the quoted sections should take you back to CBC’s site]:

  1. Marx , Karl; and Engels, Friedrich, The Communist Manifesto, 1848, Penguin Books Ltd., Middlesex, England, 1986, p. 85.
  2. M. Talleyrand-Périgord, Charles Maurice, Rapport sur l’instruction publique fait au nom du comité de constitution de l’Assemblée Nationale, les 10,11, et 19 septembre 1791, Paris, 1791, p. 7-8.
  3. Manuel, Frank E., The New World of Henri Saint-Simon, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1956, p. 308-309, 367.
  4. Hayek, Friedrich A., Individualism and Economic Order, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill. 1948, p. 3.
  5. Laidler, Harry W., History of Socialism, 1968, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. Although Laidler’s socialist leanings clearly show through, as a single source of diverse socialist viewpoints this 900+ page book is superb. See particularly, p. 28, 48, 62, 95-96, 108, 109, 197-202, 416, 658, and 660.
  6. Lenin, Vladimir Ilich, The State and Revolution, 1917, Penguin Books, New York, 1992, p. 44 See also p. 40, 42-46, 56, 61, 86-87, 90-91, and 98-99.
  7. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (noted above), p. 94. Also, p. 85-86.
  8. Schumpeter repeatedly makes claims such as these in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. 1942. New York. Harper & Roe. 1950. See particularly p. 61, 132-134, 186, and 214-215. He also believed managers of American businesses were suitably trained for future roles as leaders in a socialist society, p. 186, 204-205, and 207.

Scaremongering against health legislation is nothing new . . .

March 19, 2010

You’ve read the health care reform bill, and you didn’t find any creeping socialism in it, nor did you find any little Joe Stalins hiding in Section 34, nor anywhere else.

How could people make such bizarre, outlandish claims?

It’s historic, really.

Flyer from 1955, Keep America Committee

Keep America Committee flyer, 1955 - courtesy of Alex Massie

That’s right!  Good mental health is anathema to conservative Republicans!

Public Lands insanity

November 16, 2008

Remember when Strange Maps “discovered” that so much of the 13 western states is owned by the Federal Government?  On the one hand, it was nice to see people paying attention to public lands in the west.

Public lands in a western state, with grazing cattle. Wild Earth Guardians image.

Public lands in a western state, with grazing cattle. Wild Earth Guardians image.

Public lands.  Photo from the Montana Wildlife Federation

Public lands. Photo from the Montana Wildlife Federation

At the Bathtub, we remarked on the history of the issue with a map that showed where the publicly-owned lands really are (the Strange Maps version only showed a dot in the middle of each state proportionate to the federal land held in the state.)  On the other hand, it was an open invitation for know-nothings and know-littles to jump in with silly ideas.  Remarkably, the post remained free of such folderol — until just recently.

None of these sites gives any serious thought to the idea.  None provides a scintilla of an iota of analysis to indicate it would be a good idea.

As one of the the principal spokesmen for the Sagebrush Rebellion in the early days, I want it known that I’ve thought these issues through, and argued them through, and followed the documentation for 30 years (Holy frijole!  I’m old!).  Issues with public lands revolve around stewardship.  Bad stewardship is not improved by a change in ownership.  Ownership change has all too often only led to worse stewardship.  Selling off the public lands is a generally stupid idea.

Certain local circumstances change the nature of a tiny handful of such deals — but not often, not in many places, and not enough to make a significant contribution to retiring any debt the federal government owns.

On the other hand, incomes from these lands typically runs a few multiples of the costs of managing them.  The Reagan administration discovered the lands were a great source of money to offset losses in other places, and for that reason (I suspect) never really got on the Sagebrush Rebellion band wagon — or, maybe Reagan’s higher officials just didn’t get it.

It’s troubling that such a flurry of stupidity strikes now, during a transition of presidents. This is how stupid ideas get traction, like kudzu on a cotton farm, while no one is paying deep attention.  Let’s put this idea back into its coffin with a sagebrush stake in its heart.

Bottom line:  Keep public lands in federal trust.  The Sagebrush Rebellion is over.  The sagebrush won.


Speaking of presidential transitions, who should be Secretary of Interior?  Stay tuned.


Update 2014: The original GSA map showing percentages of federal holdings in each state (including Indian Reservations as federal holdings), as published in Strange Maps when it was still active.

Update 2014: The original GSA map showing percentages of federal holdings in each state (including Indian Reservations as federal holdings), as published in Strange Maps when it was still active.

Censorship in the oddest of places

May 12, 2008

I think it was Euripides who said, “Whom the gods destroy, they first make mad.” Evidence of the madness sometimes is small compensation for bearing the burden of having to deal with the madness of others.

Iaian Murray’s book is getting accolades from some of the odd sources you’d expect to rave over the book without ever having seen it or giving it a moment’s analysis as to accuracy, relevancy, or morality. I stumbled into a bunch of such sites looking to see why Murray took after me, and what I had said that he quoted, to earn me a place in his index.

One would not expect to run into a censorship buzzsaw at a site that proclaims itself to be free enterprise. But Bloodhoundblog has frustrated all my attempts to correct their errors on DDT, in a post “Cleaned by Capitalism: Our professed love of nature is an artifact of our enormous prosperity.” Perhaps I shouldn’t complain — the offending language on DDT was removed eventually. The extolling of Murray’s book remains, however, in an odd screed against public roads and compact fluorescent lightbulbs (go read the site — can you tell what the guy thinks about CFLs?)

Can the irony get much deeper?

Humorously, there is an ill-informed discussion of fascism vs. socialism as communism in the thread — the discussants blithely unaware that totalitarian censorship is a sin under any fair government scheme.

Was it just that they don’t want to discuss the science of DDT? I’ve corrected a minor error in history, too, in a later comment; will that comment hold up? You might want to check out the comments. Do you think the existence of public lands encourages their abuse? It seemed to me the discussants didn’t understand at all that much of our environmental trouble has occurred on private land, often problems of toxic pollution created by the owners of the land.

Ardent and loud “capitalists” often are the first to sell out. They fall for censorship, they fall for hucksterism — just so long as they still get to wave their flag, insult the academy, and a promise they can make some money doing it. Businesses didn’t stand up to fascism in the early 20th century — nor much of any other time business was promised a license to continue operations.

The issues are not simple. If we insist FedEx not do business in China, do we miss a great opportunity to insinuate a capitalist enterprise as a wedge into a crumbling structure of oppressive politics? If we allow China to host Olympic games, do we strengthen their oppressive structure, or weaken it?

Should we stand idly by while the Chinese government censors the internet (and this blog) to its own people? Should I not kick a little when Bloodhoundblog censors my comments?

Nightmare at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave: Socialized medicine! (it works well)

August 16, 2007

Rep. Ron Paul, who wants to be president, made a speech recently on the floor of the House of Representatives where he suggested that Americans are mad at their government because the government tries to do stuff for them that they’d rather do themselves. Having recently spent two nights in the medical brig, I immediately thought that Paul is completely out of his mind — who in their right mind would want to do their own health care?

(Old joke: You know what they told the guy who wanted to do his own appendectomy? His doctor said, “Whatever! Suture self!”)

It seems to me people are upset because they can’t get health care at reasonable cost, and the government is doing absolutely nothing to fix most of those problems.

Then I read somewhere that Karl Rove urged his clients to bring up the bogey word “socialized” to describe programs their opponents advocate, since everybody hates anything that is socialized? Oh, yeah? You mean like people hate socialized roads, socialized water delivery systems, socialized sewer systems, and socialized airports?

So I was ready when Jim Wallis’s e-mail hit my in box this morning. His story about his experience with “socialized medicine” in London — a horror story that George Bush will use in his next State of the Union?

It’s a nightmare for sure — for the critics of “socialized medicine.” Read it for yourself, below the fold.

Here’s the usual, Republican view of “socialized medicine” (click on thumbnail for a larger view:

Government Optical

Pretty funny, eh? It’s totally groundless. Think about the government’s program of eye care for soldiers. Pilots and sharpshooters need great eye care. They get the best. They also get stylish glasses. And, though budgeted, you can get some style on Medicare and Medicaid, too — lots of styles, not just one. Our government operated eye care is socialized almost not at all in the classic, socialism definition of its being a planned output and planned outcomes system. Neither output nor outcomes are planned.

Socialized medicine really works. It’s a nightmare for the crowd that thinks bad health care or no health care is cheap, and the socialized medicine can’t work. Read Jim Wallis’s story, below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

Looking up to Finland

May 30, 2007

Commenter Bernarda sent a link to a Washington Post story by Robert Kaiser about Finland, a nation who redesigned its education system with rather dramatic, beneficial results. Among other things, the Finns treat teachers as valuable members of society, with high pay, great support, and heavy training.

Finland is a leading example of the northern European view that a successful, competitive society should provide basic social services to all its citizens at affordable prices or at no cost at all. This isn’t controversial in Finland; it is taken for granted. For a patriotic American like me, the Finns present a difficult challenge: If we Americans are so rich and so smart, why can’t we treat our citizens as well as the Finns do?

Why not? Why can’t we treat our citizens as well as the Finns? Their system boosts their economy and leads to great social progress — which part of that do we not want?

Quote of the Moment: Nikita Khruschev, whose side is history on?

March 15, 2007

About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations, and don’t invite us to come and see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.*

Nikita Sergeyevich Khruschev (1894-1971); reported statement at a reception for Wladyslaw Gomulka at the Polish Embassy, Moscow, November 18, 1956

Khruschev enjoys a hot dog in Iowa, 1959

Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev enjoying a hot dog in Des Moines, Iowa, during his 1959 tour of the U.S. (Photo from American Meat Institute, National Hot Dog & Sausage Council,

* The exact phrasing of the last line is debatable. As Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition has it, “Neither the original nor the translation of the last two sentences appeared in either Pravda or the New York Times, which carried the rest of the text. Another possible translation of the last sentence is: We shall be present at your funeral, i.e., we shall outlive you; but the above is the familiar version.”

Slowdown for study

January 25, 2007

Posting will be light this weekend — I’m off to Pasadena, California, for a Liberty Fund seminar on the “Hoover-Roosevelt Conversation,” regarding the debates between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt between 1928 and 1945.  Good fun, great company, hoped-for good stuff for future lesson plans.

But little time for blogging (and who knows how well the connections work).


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