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What Socialism Is

... And Is Not

Twelve Myths About Democratic Socialism

Democratic Socialists believe that the economy should be run democratically to meet the needs of the whole community, not to make profits for a few. In order to achieve a more just society, many of the basic structures of American society must be transformed by increased economic and social democracy so that "ordinary" Americans are making the decisions that affect their lives, and the lives of their families and country.

Democracy and socialism go hand in hand, and everywhere in the world where the idea of democracy has taken root, the idea of democratic socialism has taken root too -- everywhere but in America. Because of this, many false ideas about socialism have developed over the years:

A pamphlet by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) (Circa 1987 or 1988)

1. Socialism means that the government will own and run everything, with power being concentrated in just a few hands.

No one -- least of all democratic socialists -- wants a big government bureaucracy to run the country, but we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to run us either.

Power is already in a few hands. Basic economic decisions affecting millions of people are made by a handful of corporate executives who answer only to themselves and a few wealthy stockholders. Corporations socialize the costs (i.e., tax breaks, clean-up of pollution, possibilities of runaway shops) and privatize the decision-making and profits. Under capitalism, resources are utilized where there will be the greatest commercial return and without regard for social consequences. We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by the behavior of major economic enterprises should control them. Social ownership could take many forms -- worker-owned cooperatives or state-owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. But in all cases, economic decisions would be subjected to the control of the people affected by them. No longer would General Motors be able to move thousands of jobs out of the country without citizens having any say in the matter.

Democratic socialists favor as much economic decentralization as possible. While the large concentrations of capital involved in industries such as energy, basic steel, and petrochemicals necessitate some form of public ownership, many consumer-goods industries might best be run as worker cooperatives. And, of course, a vigorous private sector would remain for self-employed repairpeople, craftspeople, artists, and writers. Nor do most democratic socialists believe that small businesses, such as restaurants or shoe repair shops, need to be publicly owned.

Democratic socialists have long rejected the belief that every economic decision can be effectively planned by state bureaucrats. While democratic socialists believe that democratic planning should determine the major capital investments which determine the basic contours of the economy (i.e., mass transit, housing, energy, defense), we believe that the market is the most effective means for determining demand for basic consumer goods. No state planner can effectively determine how many people prefer red socks to blue!

2. Large corporations will be with us for a long time, so what is the point of working towards socialism?

In the short term we can't eliminate large corporations, but we can open up the system by bringing them under democratic control. That doesn't mean that the government has to take over the corporations. Instead, it could rewrite regulations and the tax code, use its purchasing power, or set up public financing programs, all to encourage corporate behavior in the public interest and to outlaw such antisocial activities as closing down a plant without providing notice to the workers employed there. Subsidies to corporations must be made conditional on their performing within a framework that will guarantee a social return .

Government does all these things already, but the basic goal at present is to keep profits as high as possible. Corporations must be required to help people -- by creating well-paying jobs, keeping the environment clean, rebuilding the cities, and making useful high-quality products -- instead of exploiting them.

3. Socialism will be impractical because people will lose their incentive to work.

We don't agree with the capitalist assumption that starvation or greed are the only motivations which drive people to work. There are other reasons people work; people work if the work is truly meaningful and enhances the worker's self-respect, and out of a sense of responsibility to other members of their community and the society-at-large.

Although a long term goal of socialism is to try to eliminate all but the most satisfying, meaningful kinds of labor, we do recognize that menial and unsatisfying jobs will remain. These tasks would be shared by many people. Clearly, they wouldn't be distributed on the basis of class, race, ethnicity, or gender, as they are under capitalism. Socialists are not opposed to the use of economic incentives if they are necessary, but we believe that a combination of individual incentives, along with social, economic, and moral ones, will motivate people.

4. Isn't Socialism what they have in the Soviet Union?

Socialism means democracy. And that means elections, free speech and press, free political parties and labor unions -- things the Soviet people don't have.

In the Soviet Union, power has been centralized in the hands of a bureaucratic elite. Not only doesn't the Soviet Union deliver democracy to the Soviet people, but a highly centralized bureaucratic economy cannot meet even many of their basic economic needs. Just because the Soviet elites call their system "socialist" doesn't make it so. After all, they call it "democratic" too. Also, we see glasnost and perestroika as significant but limited steps in the direction of a more open and democratic society.

As bad as the Soviet system currently is, we shouldn't allow it to blind us to our own injustices at home. Calling reformers communist has been an easy way to suppress debate and change in our own democratic system. We reject this perpetuation of anti-communism as a means of suppressing diversity, while at the same time we continue to strongly voice our opposition to Soviet communism.

5. Socialists are unpatriotic, unAmerican.

America has been blessed with abundant natural resources, and a skilled, innovative workforce. We recognize that we have significant political liberties and individual freedoms. Our standard of living is higher and social mobility greater than that of the Third World and even than that of many other industrialized nations.

We believe, however, that this country can do better. Only a massive struggle for civil rights eliminated the legal apartheid that existed in the U.S. until 1965, and one only need look at our inner cities to see that economic apartheid continues to plague America. Over the generations, socialists have played a key role in the fight for the reforms that our nation points to with pride. It is through the struggles of working people, women, blacks, and farmers in the West, that vital democratic reforms such as the forty hour week, increases in the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and Social Security have been won. Much, however, remains to be done before "ordinary" people can take control over their own destinies away from the heads of corporations and the government bureaucracy and before our wealth is used to ensure that everyone has access to such basic necessities as food, housing, education, and health care. A country as wealthy as ours should not be able to claim 37 million uninsured, 3 million homeless, and an infant mortality rate higher than most Third World nations.

[The U.S. ranks 20th in infant mortality; hence it's "infant] [mortality rate is higher than most" Western/Industrialized ] [countries, and also is "higher even than some/many Third ] [World nations" ; use the GET command (see top) with the file] [HEALTH INSURANC, for example. This is what they probly meant] 

Capitalism has been successful at creating wealth without concern for the social consequences, but other countries have moved on and learned that you can have prosperity and social justice. We can do better.

6. We can't afford socialism, particularly now with the enormous budget deficit.

A debt was amassed under President Reagan equal to 200 years of previous American history, without having significantly invested in our domestic resources -- education, the fight against drugs, or the public infrastructure.

[For a dramatic chart shedding some light on how abysmal the ] [record is, use GET with FED-BDGT.PRIORITY	]

The rich have never paid their fair share, and they are paying less now than ever before. Those who benefitted from the 1981 tax cuts should pay the tab. Truly progressive taxation would yield revenue, that could then be put towards restoring many of the social programs that have been recently slashed. A return to the moderately progressive tax levels prior to 1981 would restore close to $100 billion a year in tax revenue. Over the past several years, the military budget has doubled. Cutting the military budget would also enable us to pay for the services that every American deserves. Right now, 27 percent of your federal income tax dollars goes to the military, while health, education, transportation, and housing combined only get 15 percent. In addition, under Reagan, the percentage of the budget that goes to payment on the national debt doubled, from 7 to 14 percent.

And if the cost of maintaining comprehensive social programs is so prohibitive, why are countries such as Canada, Sweden, and West Germany able to afford them?

[ Use GET with WAR-TAX.ANALYS92 for more recent estimates of ] [percent of tax-dollars going to past-and-present military ] [spending; this is close to 50% for present and well over 50%] [for the combined figure. Use the GET command on the	]
[following files for some remarkable studies and statistics ] [on the regressive taxation and income redistribution during ] [the Reagan Bush decade, especially the first file...	]

ECONOMIC STATS Stats show regressive wealth redistrib 1980-1990 REGRESSV LOC-TAXS Study shows: state & local tax laws regressive POPULIST ECON-1 _New Patriot_: "Wealth & Poverty in Bush's U.S." POPULIST ECON-2 Stats show "smash-and-grab raid on the treasury" POLITICS RICHPOOR Republ. pundit's book,The Politics of Rich & Poor ====================================== To get a file named FILE NAME from the archiver (files are two words separa- ted by a space), send the 1-line message GET FILE NAME ACTIV-L to: LISTSERV@UMCVMB.BITNET ======================================

7. Socialism is a threat to the stability of the family.

Socialism isn't a threat to families, capitalism is. Under capitalism, the median family income is no longer enough to live on. And with more and more mothers entering the workforce to support their family, parents are forced to leave children alone or in expensive, unsafe care facilities.

Under socialism a priority would be placed on providing programs that help support the family; quality education for all youth, affordable, quality child care, and jobs that pay a wage you can live on. In addition, under socialism material goods would no longer be all-important; people, families, and communities would define themselves by what they are instead of by what they own.

8. Isn't DSA a Party that's in competition with the Democratic party for votes and support?

No, DSA is not a separate party: like our friends and allies in the trade unions, and feminist, civil rights, religious, youth, and community organizing movements, we are active in the Democratic party. We work with those movements to move the party in a progressive direction and to advance vital issues of justice, opportunity, and economic democracy. Our tradition includes the Socialist party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, and maybe sometime in the future, in coalition with our other allies, an alternative party will be initiated. The American party structure, however, mitigates against third party efforts. Winner-take-all elections, rigorous qualification requirements, single district legislatures, and the two-party monopoly on political power have all doomed third party attempts from the start. So for now, we will continue to work to turn the Democratic party into a fighting force with an ideology and mission for change because that is where we can be most effective. [Use the GET command on the file FAIRNESS NICA-USA for ] [Michael Parenti's article "Is Nicaragua More Democratic than] [the U.S.?" which involved some discussion of the tow-party ] [monopoly in the U.S., "winner-take-all" etc ]

9. Socialism is a lot of talk about the future: If I am going to devote time to politics, why shouldn't I focus on something concrete, like union organizing or protecting reproductive rights?

Although capitalism will be with us for a long time, socialism is an attainable goal worth struggling for. Socialism is a series of steps: the first steps -- like raising the minimum wage, securing a national health plan, preventing passage of contra aid, and demanding passage of plant closing notification legislation -- will all help make life better today. Many democratic socialists actively work in the single-issue organizations that advocate for these reforms. We are visible in the women's movement, the peace community, Central American organizations, anti-racist groups, and the labor movement.

[For a documented file about the "contras," that they were ] [exactly "terrorists;" their origins and practices, etc, use ] [the GET command with CONTRA TERROR	]

It is precisely our socialist vision that informs and inspires our day-to-day activism for social justice. And as socialists we bring a new framework -- a sense of the interdependence of all the progressive social movements. No one single issue organization will be able to challenge the capitalist system, so alone no single issue organization will ever be able to adequately secure its demands. In fact, unless you have a vision of the broader goal, each short-term step will be disconnected, maybe even self-defeating.

10. Socialism is Against Religion.

It is the system we live in right now that impoverishes us spiritually as well as materially -- a system that relies on greed rather than compassion and cooperation as motivating forces, a system that is based on economic incentives rather than moral ones. Democratic socialism is not a religion, but many democratic socialists see a moral dimension to our politics: the search for a society where people can be fulfilled as individuals and as a community.

[Another excellent archived file on Nicaragua is the entire ] [Oxfam America 1984 report on Nicaragua, where one learns for] [example about Clergy work with, and even involvement within ] [the Sandinista government; use GET on the file OXFAM84	]
[NICARAG ; GET the file ACTIV-L ARCHIVE for a listing of	]
[other files on Nicaragua. There is an article on Liberation ] [Theology in Latin American in Z magazine, May 1991	]

Deeply religious people of all faiths are part of our movement for equity and justice. We support efforts by religious activists working for social change in and out of religious institutions, whether they be efforts to organize sanctuary for Central American refugees in the United States, or attempts to fight for economic justice as was demonstrated by the visionary message of the pastoral letter on the economy.

Lastly, we strongly condemn other countries' efforts to deny and suppress religious beliefs and freedoms. Conversely, however, we recognize the need for churches to be independent of the government and the state to be separate from religions and religious institutions. We believe in the need for protections that ensure against having a religion or belief system imposed on people against their will.

11. Why are there no models of democratic socialism?

Although there are no other countries we as democratic socialists see worth imitating in their entirety, the democratic socialist, social democratic, and labor movements of other countries have been responsible for implementing many programs we can learn from. We can learn from the comprehensive welfare state maintained by the Swedes. Or from Canada's national health care system. Or France's nation-wide child care program. We however, live in America, not Sweden or France or Canada, and American socialism cannot be built solely on other countries experiences. We should be learning from efforts initiated right here in America, such as the community health centers created by the Federal government in the 60s. They provided high quality family care, while mandating community involvement in decision-making.

Capitalism developed over centuries, so it is reasonable to think that socialism will develop over an extended period of time.

[Another answer was given by Stephen Shalom in Z magazine. As far as the notion that "hisotry is a laboratory", Shalom notes for example the Soviet invation of Czechoslovakia in response to that "socialist" government's moving towards democracy democracy -- and, on the other side -- the U.S.'s CIA-backed coup overthrowing the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz -- a democratic capitalist government moving in the direction of land reform and other 'socialist' measures. Shalom notes that therefore, "if history is a laboratory, it is one in which the rats are running around, and, when they find a laboratory flask with a result they don't like, they smash it on the floor.." --HB]

12. If so many people misunderstand socialism, why continue to use the word?

First, we call ourselves socialists because that is what we are. We believe that people would be better off if key economic decisions were made democratically rather than by a few wealthy executives. We have a vision of a fundamentally different society, a society based on social, economic, and political equality and democracy.

Second, no matter what we call ourselves, conservatives will try to turn it into a dirty word. Anti-socialism has been repeatedly used to attack any mild reform that promises to shift power to the people and away from corporate capital. In the 1960s, national health insurance was attacked as "socialized medicine" and defeated. Liberals and progressives are routinely denounced as socialists in order to discredit reform. The right recently took that a step farther when it tried to discredit presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis by labeling him with the "L" word as if liberalism is an ideology of which to be ashamed.

We also call ourselves socialists because we are proud of the traditions upon which we are based, namely the Socialist party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, and the other struggles for social changes that have made America as democratic and just as it now is. Finally, we call ourselves socialist to remind everyone that we have a goal. If one pretends that one is not a socialist, or speaks in euphemisms, all that is lost is the basic clarity of analysis and program. Any discussion of reform in American society must encompass the understanding that it cannot be divorced from its roots in the corporate-capitalist system, that it will require fundamental, structural change.

[HTMLized by Harel Barzilai, co-moderator of UseNet's misc.activism.progressive (MAP) and the ACTIV-L mailing list]

This article first appeared in the February 24 - March 8, 1988 issue of In These Times.

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