A Reply to David Duhalde from Professor Sheri Berman


I’d like to reply to David Duhalde’s thoughtful and insightful piece in The Activist.  I appreciate the time he took to engage with my arguments.  Since what we all need now is an activist and intellectually forceful left, such debates are particularly welcome.

I want to begin by noting what was perhaps not sufficiently stressed in my essay in Dissent, namely that democratic socialism and social democracy are of course siblings.  They spring from the same (intellectual and political) background, have historically often lived in the same parties, and share many of the same goals, both immediate and long-term.  With regard to immediate goals, both democratic socialists and social democrats support reforms that improve the lives of the poor and underprivileged.  In addition (and here I perhaps differ from David) both democratic socialist and social democrats prefer reforms that also shift the “power relations” in society, i.e. reforms that not only improve the lives of the poor and underprivileged but also provide them with a greater ability to shape the evolution of the political economy in the future.  Another key similarity between democratic socialists and social democrats, of course, is that they share the same long-term goal, i.e. the creation of a more just, equal and humane world through democratic means.

Despite these critical similarities, there are also, of course, important differences between democratic socialists and social democrats.   (By the way, I agree with David that especially in the U.S. most people are unable to put empirical “meat” on these terms.  This is yet another reason why having debates about the true nature of these movements is important.)  One key difference (and here again David and I seem to agree) between these movements is over views of capitalism.  Democratic socialists believe that their ultimate goals require the elimination of capitalism while social democrats believe that their ultimate goals can be reconciled with it.  I think this difference has critical practical and political consequences.

Practically, I think an emphasis—even abstractly and in the long term—on the elimination of capitalism has led democratic socialists astray.  Not in the sense of diverting them from all practical reform work, but rather in the sense of focusing their intellectual fire power and sense of idealism on an outcome that is not only unlikely to occur but also undesirable.  Yes, capitalism has many and serious flaws (as we can see today particularly clearly) but given the history of the 20th century, what is the alternative?  Until someone comes up with a substitute system that is attractive, democratic and capable of producing real economic progress, I think the burden of historical and empirical evidences suggests with working within capitalism rather than against it.  This brings us to the question of politics.  Given the poor history of alternatives, suggesting that there is some mythical, vague alternative way of organizing our political economy is unlikely to attract a mass following.  This is not to say that left political movements should always be swayed by immediate electoral concerns, but successful movements do, of course, need to be concerned by their actual ability to change the world.  And, given their commitment to democratic means, democratic socialists need to be concerned about an inability to attract mass support.  Given the successful track record of reshaping, limiting, and improving capitalism, it seems much more likely that the left will be more likely to build a successful political coalition and an inspiring and realistic political message on this foundation than any other.  After all the most prosperous era in the West’s history—the postwar era—was built on this foundation and some of the most humane, equal, and economic successfully societies of our era—the Scandinavian countries—have based their political economies on it. 

Today, more than ever, the left needs to think realistically and for the long-term.  I think the history and message of social democracy provides the best basis for doing that.  But I am glad there are others out there thinking about and debating these issues, even if they come to different conclusions.  Surely, this will only help make the left stronger.

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  1. If what prevents Prof. Berman from embracing an anti-capitalist perspective is her belief that there is no “substitute system that is attractive, democratic and capable of producing real economic progress,” I have to presume that she is unaware of the plethora of models of socialist economy that have proliferated since the 1980s. They range from “market socialist” visions to detailed blueprints of participatory economic planning. (For an overview of the debate and all the models offered, go here: http://rebellionsucks.googlepages.com/otetos )

    I think the most important participant in the debates over “feasible socialism” is the British economist Pat Devine. He does an excellent job of directly taking on Friedrich von Hayek and his “Austrian economics” school. Particularly notable is this essay:


    Briefer explanations of Devine’s outlook and vision can be found here:


  2. My understanding is that European socialists scored their biggest victories before the neo-liberal wave of the 1980s and 1990s when, not coincidentally, their parties removed most of the transformative rhetoric about nationalization and the like from their platforms.

    Liberals tend to understand politics as a discussion or a dialogue, an exchange of ideas offered in good faith by persons and institutions with differing points of view. They are wrong. Political outcomes are determined by bargains negotiated between inherently antagonistic interests, e.g., the health insurance lobby versus the millions of Americans who are excluded, impoverished and swindled by its client companies.

    I don’t think Sheri Berman appreciates the strategic value of defining a favorable bargaining range in this process. For example, if we demand a slice of pie, we might get a crumb, but if we stick to a hardline and demand the whole pie, or else we might get a more generous slice when the deal is sealed. Analogously, our demand to the health insurance companies should be this: “You must cease to exist, drop dead. We will replace you with a not-for-profit single payer system.” Whether the more radical demand is actually realistic is not relevant.

  3. I’m slightly confused by Bhaskar’s post. If he’s responding to me — well, I’ve never advocated Michael Albert’s “Parecon” model, or his particular brand of radical politics. There are many other writers and economists with much less problematic approaches to the question of markets and planning.

    The basic problem with “market socialism” is this: if market forces are allowed to operate even within the framework of workers’ self-management of individual firms, it is only a matter of time until workers give up self-management and elect or hire professional managers for the survival of their firms in the competitive struggle.

    I think the general approach that socialists should take is this: we are hostile to market forces and are in favor of as much democratic, participatory planning as is possible. We can’t be absolutely sure how much planning is feasible prior to its implementation. When in power, socialists will take a piecemeal approach to removing markets — a transition program — as a means of both challenging the existing social order and attempting to find a way to a new one. Part of that process is taking on the distinct markets that make up a capitalist economy. The labor market can be undermined with a minimum income guarantee, the markets for public services — like transport and utilities — can be undermined by making them free at the point of delivery, and so on. Where markets remain unavoidable, they should be “socialized” — made by public bodies and financed out of taxation of enterprises and households, rather than out of sales. This would overcome the barriers to interchange of information which exist when markets are made privately.

    Socialists should be defending democratic planning, not giving up on it. Take carbon dioxide emissions, responsible for global warming. Any serious attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would require global mechanisms capable of negotiating and enforcing decisions designed drastically to alter the prevailing allocation and use of resources over decades. What is that if not planning? How else, if not through planning, can all individuals expect to make informed decisions and society assess its priorities?

  4. I think that we’re being a little too sectarian in our replies to Prof. Berman. Yeah, we differ over a pretty fundamental issue – whether or not capitalism can or should be replaced by some form of socialism – but we’re so far removed from any possibility of transitioning from the former to the latter that I’m not even sure that this is an issue we should spend much time or energy disagreeing about when we would probably all agree on what should be done in the near to medium term. She’s also entirely right to claim that those of us who seek the replacement of capitalism by some form of socialism (I would include myself in this group) bear the burden of proof, and while many have proposed various models for a non-capitalist economy, that doesn’t necessarily amount to much. Keeping a vision of socialism as end state alive is useful in maintaining an inspiration for a movement beyond the day to day work of reforming and humanizing capitalism in the short term, but we barely even have a movement at this point in time. I think it’s time for a group hug.

  5. By the way, that’s a great SPD campaign poster.

  6. Jason, fair enough, but I’m not entirely sure the socialist, social democratic, and labor parties that have attained state power during the last century could have really behaved otherwise, even if they had wanted to. None of them ever received an electoral mandate to transcend capitalism and move toward socialism (conceived of as a qualitatively different society). Were they supposed to socialize the means of production when even a significant portion of their own electors (never mind the capitalists and their allies on the right) might have opposed such a move? Besides, neither social democrats nor democratic socialists ever really had an actual vision or plan for what this would actually look like in practice (and that had significant political support) beyond nationalization – the only exception being the Swedish wage earner funds, but that was defeated even though it had the support of the trade unions and the SAP. And until the 1990s, they all operated within the context of the Cold War and an international capitalist political economy led by the United States, which severely constrained their field of action. Some of the criticisms leveled against social democrats that have been made here are unfair when taking historical record and context into account.

  7. Where did Jason’s last post go?

  8. Responding to Chris, I think that some relatively mainstream European pinkos — for example, Mitterrand at one point in his career  — really were proposing  a radical “rupture with capitalism” and won elections on that platform. Ultimately they failed to realize their unrealistically transformative programs, not because they sold out (though that was usually also the case) but  because of limitations inherent to any parliamentary left operating in the real world (limitations correctly identified by more radical critics more than a century ago).

    I think it’s impossible to draw any clear line between social democrats and socialists because those terms are politically loaded and vague.  In many Western European countries, the most moderate welfarists and even some all-out neo-liberals might cheerfully describe themselves as socialists (the label is often written right into their party identification), whereas self-styled social democrats, in Austria for example, might retain a certain radical edge.

    Was Harold Laski a socialist, a social democrat or a democratic socialist? What about Olof Palme? I don’t think it’s very useful (or very interesting) to count the shades of red between Karl Marx, Willy Brandt and Gordon Brown and pick a favorite grade of pink.

  9. The Red Vienna period was indeed really important, but again even Otto Bauer and the other Austrian socialists who conceived of and pursued this strategy knew that there was no way it could transcend the limits of a capitalist economy, largely because it depended upon capitalist expansion and prosperity for its success. This is from One Hundred Years of Socialism by Donald Sassoon: “Reformist socialism, in Bauer’s analysis, had established a protective network (we would now say: the welfare state) around the class it ‘represented.’ This had a dual effect: it created an objective obstacle to the continuous reorganization of capitalism and was, consequently, objectively anti-capitalist. At the same time, it could not produce a strategy of advance beyond capitalism itself, since one of the conditions of the reformists’ popularity was capitalist growth and success.” (p.72). The point I’m trying to make is that Berman’s critique has more validity than some of us are willing to grant it and that we have a lot of political and intellectual work to do if we can ever hope to come up with a strategy to transcend capitalism.Also, I agree with Adrian’s point about the limits of parliamentarism. I suppose the question is whether or not there is any legitimate alternative. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if there is.

  10. Adrian: as far as I know, the French socialists under Mitterrand’s leadership never really proposed to undertake a rupture with capitalism, and their economic strategy once they gained power in 1981 was basically Keynesian, though a left-wing variant thereof: nationalizations of the commanding heights of the economy and a variety of fiscal policies intended to encroach on the power of big capital (see Mitterand’s 110 Proposals for France). Mitterand also might not have won if there wasn’t a big split on the right between supporters of Giscard and those of Chirac, and even so he won with only a bare 51% majority in the second round of voting. In the parliament the PS did have a huge majority coming out of the 1981 elections, but it was inflated by the rules of the French electoral system: in the first round of voting, PS candidates received something like 37% of the vote, which is substantial but doesn’t reflect the kind of democratic mandate for socialism that you’d need to pursue a really radical, transformative strategy.

  11. Chris M. is right about the numbers. However, rhetorically, Mitterand was very radical before the PS won the 1981 elections; he talked about “breaking with capitalism,” regardless of whether he actually ever meant it or not.


  1. An Exaggerated Dichotomy: A Reply to Sheri Berman | The Activist
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