Socialism, Democratic Socialism, and Social Democracy

by Fred Elbel


Norman Thomas, Socialist Party presidential candidate in 1940, 1944 and 1948, proclaimed that:

The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But under the name of Liberalism, they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program until one day America will be a socialist nation without knowing how it happened.”

Socialism is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a system of society or group living in which there is no private property... a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state."  

An additional definition is that Socialism is "a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done." The New Oxford American Dictionary similarly defines socialism as "(in Marxist theory) a transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of communism." There are many varieties of socialism. The dictionary notes that "The term 'socialism' has been used to describe positions as far apart as anarchism, Soviet state communism, and social democracy; however, it necessarily implies an opposition to the untrammeled workings of the economic market.The socialist parties that have arisen in most European countries from the late 19th century have generally tended toward social democracy." notes that "Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists." describes how capitalism and socialism are contrasted:

Capitalism and socialism are somewhat opposing schools of thought in economics. The central arguments in the socialism vs. capitalism debate are about economic equality and the role of government. Socialists believe economic inequality is bad for society, and the government is responsible for reducing it via programs that benefit the poor (e.g., free public education, free or subsidized healthcare, social security for the elderly, higher taxes on the rich). On the other hand, capitalists believe that the government does not use economic resources as efficiently as private enterprises do, and therefore society is better off with the free market determining economic winners and losers.

The U.S. is widely considered the bastion of capitalism, and large parts of Scandinavia and Western Europe are considered socialist democracies. However, the truth is every developed country has some programs that are socialist.

An extreme form of socialism is communism.

The article continues with a comparison chart listing key differences between capitalism and socialism.

Socialist political movement

Wikipedia has an excellent series on socialism, which differentiates between economic socialism as defined above and the socialist political movement, which is concerned with addressing social problems resulting from capitalism. Wikipedia observes that:

Social ownership may refer to forms of public, cooperative, or collective ownership; to citizen ownership of equity; or to any combination of these. Although there are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, social ownership is the common element shared by its various forms.

Socialism can be divided into both non-market and market forms. Non-market socialism involves the substitution of an economic mechanism based on engineering and technical criteria centered around calculation performed in-kind for factor markets, money and the accumulation of capital; therefore functioning according to different economic laws than those of capitalism. Non-market socialism aims to circumvent the inefficiencies and crises traditionally associated with the profit system. By contrast, market socialism retains the use of monetary prices and factor markets for the allocation of capital goods between socially-owned enterprises and, in some cases, the profit motive with respect to their operation...

The socialist political movement includes a diverse array of political philosophies that originated amid the revolutionary movements of the mid-to-late 1700s out of general concern for the social problems that were associated with capitalism. In addition to the debate over markets and planning, the varieties of socialism differ in their form of social ownership, how management is to be organized within productive institutions, and the role of the state in constructing socialism. Core dichotomies associated with these concerns include reformism versus revolutionary socialism, and state socialism versus libertarian socialism.

Democratic Socialism

Democratic socialism involves democratic control over the socialist means of economic production. In other words, economic socialism is implemented by politically democratic government control. Wikipedia notes that:

Democratic socialism is a political system wherein there is democratic control of a socialist economic system. It thus combines political democracy with social ownership of significant elements of the means of production. Sometimes used synonymously with "socialism", the adjective "democratic" is often added to distinguish itself from the Marxist-Leninist brand of socialism, which is widely viewed as being non-democratic.

Democratic socialism is distinguished from both the Soviet model of centralized socialism and from social democracy, where "social democracy" refers to support for political democracy, regulation of the capitalist economy, and a welfare state...

That is, whereas social democrats only seek to "humanize" capitalism through state intervention, democratic socialists see capitalism as inherently incompatible with the democratic values of liberty, 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.

Social Democracy

Social democracy focuses on socialist state intervention in order to further social justice, particularly in Europe. RationalWiki explains that:

Social democracy is the idea that the state needs to provide security and equality for its people and should actively reorder society in a way that is conducive to such developments, but that such changes should be brought about gradually, legitimated by a democratically-elected majority.

It is native to Europe, where social democrats regularly feature as one of the major parties and have led (or at least participated in) governments in most states at some point in time, most notably in Scandinavia (up to being nicknamed the "Nordic model"). Social democrats typically regard government intervention as a force for good, constraining markets and engaging in redistributive efforts for the benefit of the lower classes in order to establish a more equitable society.

Oxford Bibliographies notes that:

As a political theory, European social democracy has its origins in the development of the workers’ movement, inspired by Marxist and utopian socialist ideas, in the second half of the 19th century. This movement spawned political parties with the label “social democratic,” “socialist,” or “labor” in practically every European country...

Social democratic parties went on to establish themselves as mainstream political forces, participating in government or forming the main opposition, in almost every European country. Where social democrats were electorally successful, they were able to promote institutions such as the welfare state and corporatist bargaining in the workplace, and in some countries they brought parts of the private economy under government control.

Wikipedia describes social democracy:

Social democracy is a political ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy, and a policy regime involving collective bargaining arrangements, a commitment to representative democracy, measures for income redistribution, regulation of the economy in the general interest and welfare state provisions. Social democracy thus aims to create the conditions for capitalism to lead to greater democratic, egalitarian and solidaristic outcomes; and is often associated with the set of socioeconomic policies that became prominent in Northern and Western Europe—particularly the Nordic model in the Nordic countries—during the latter half of the 20th century.

Social democracy originated as a political ideology that advocated an evolutionary and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism using established political processes in contrast to the revolutionary approach to transition associated with orthodox Marxism...

Modern social democracy is characterized by a commitment to policies aimed at curbing inequality, oppression of underprivileged groups, and poverty; including support for universally accessible public services like care for the elderly, child care, education, health care and workers' compensation. The social democratic movement also has strong connections with the labour movement and trade unions, and is supportive of collective bargaining rights for workers...