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.
- An Exaggerated Dichotomy: A Reply to Sheri Berman | The Activist
- links for 2009-03-12 | Make a Ruckus!