Over the course of the past few years, progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress’ “The Squad” have increasingly adopted the label of “democratic socialist” as a way to differentiate themselves from their more moderate counterparts. However, their policies have little to do with the actual political thought of socialism, and this misapplied label does nothing but hinder political discourse for everyone involved.
For the purposes of this article, I will be using the term “progressives” for those who label themselves as democratic socialists, though I understand that not all progressives identify that way.
Although there is a wide array of socialist thought regarding the precise definitions of socialism, the basics generally agreed upon include the abolition of capitalism, private property, the profit-motive and commodity production. Socialism is inherently anti-capitalist, and involves worker ownership of means of production — land, factories, stores, etc. The term also entails an overhaul of how and why we produce things; under socialism, workers produce for the common good of the community rather than to generate profit for capitalists.
At its core, socialism strives to turn control of the means of production over to the workers and society as a whole.
For Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives, democratic socialism is the implementation of the welfare programs and social safety nets common in Western European and Scandinavian countries. I have no qualm with these policies, and in fact support pretty much all of them, but labeling them as socialist is a detriment not only to these politicians but also to actual socialists.
While the policies of progressive so-called socialists are admirable, they are distinctly not anti-capitalist, instead aligning with an ideology called social democracy. At most, these policies can mitigate some of the structural harms of capitalism — such as perpetual poverty of a subset of the population, which is often disproportionately made up of already marginalized groups, rampant climate destruction and the abuse of human life in the name of profit — and make the system more bearable; however, they do not undermine the system itself.
Even if progressives were able to accomplish all of their policy objectives, and we had universal health care, free college and a higher minimum wage, capitalism would still reign supreme. Private property would still exist, as would commodity production in the name of profit generation.
Sure, the outcomes for many people would be far more positive than they are now, but the workers would still lack ownership of the means of production, and the fundamental capitalist-worker dynamic central to capitalism would remain unchanged.
There’s still work to be done on educating Americans on what socialism entails, but there’s fortunately a myriad of resources such as YouTube videos and podcasts actively dispelling the American misunderstanding.
Part of the reason for the adoption of the label of democratic socialist was because right-wing media and political opponents were going to call them socialist anyways, so by embracing it, progressives sought to disarm political opponents. However, as a result of the decades of McCarthyism and Red Scare propaganda in the United States, the term socialism is tremendously loaded in mainstream political discourse, evoking imagery of the USSR, Cuba and bread lines.
While much of this fear was and is manufactured by Western media and the U.S. State Department as an outcome of the Cold War, it nonetheless poses a challenge to progressives who now have to constantly clarify their ideological position, repudiate these associations and distance themselves from how much of the American public sees socialism.
Moreover, political opponents have an even easier time fear-mongering about how within the far left, radical socialists of the Democratic party are trying to take over America.
Furthermore, for those of us who embrace actual socialist politics, progressives are excluding socialist politics from the political conversation. Because these progressives are seen as the far left by many Americans, they impose a left-most limit on acceptable political positions, to the exclusion of anti-capitalist strands of thought like Marxism and anarchism.
By making socialism simply about giving people health care and expanding safety nets, socialism is stripped of its anti-capitalist message in popular perception, making the propagation of anti-capitalist ideas more difficult than it already is. Capitalist media and political parties — both of them — already ingrain the structures of capitalism within the fabric of our institutions and our collective thought, such that questioning capitalism is seen by many as inconceivable, and progressives co-opting revolutionary language and labels entrenches capital’s power even further.
To make our politics less confusing, and expand the horizons of political discourse beyond capitalism as a whole, progressives should identify as the social democrats they are. In doing so, they stop obfuscating the crux of real leftist politics and make room for more solutions to the issues facing our society.