The story of my alienation from the “democratic socialist” movement is similar to how the typical left-leaning person has become estranged from the Democratic Party establishment: I’ve found that despite the left-leaning rhetoric of this strain’s leaders, they don’t intend to make the changes that would actually give power to the poor and working classes. This isn’t to say these two categories are equivalent; the Sanders Democrats aren’t outright neoliberal like the old guard is, and they support many social programs that the party establishment doesn’t. But the Sanders strain has nonetheless failed to provide a revolutionary opposition to capitalism and imperialism, and has thus given me a sense of disaffection.
This unease started when I began to see how the main leader of the American “democratic socialist” movement has largely enabled the imperialist narratives of the Trump era. Sanders has failed to challenge the debunked “gas attack” narratives that have enabled Trump’s Syria strikes, while saying he supports an effort to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. He’s also claimed that Assad is the one responsible for the bloodshed from the Syrian war, effectively blaming the Syrian government and its people for defending themselves from an invasion by U.S.-backed terrorists. Sanders’ promotions of the cold war narratives about Russia have also helped enable America’s recent aggressions abroad, as well as Sanders’ failure to speak out against the lies that the Trump administration has been using to carry out violence against the people of Venezuela. These cases have reminded me of Sanders’ past examples of enabling war, like when he supported the horrific bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 or when he voted for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
As these recent events have developed, I’ve come to realize that Sanders’ embrace of imperialism isn’t just an unfortunate anomaly within the mainstream American progressive movement; it’s an integral part of the pro-capitalist worldview that this movement is mired within. In fact, the “democratic socialism” that figures like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez label themselves with is a rebranded version of social democracy, the very much pro-imperialist ideology that the modern Scandanavian countries operate under. In contrast to democratic socialism, and even more in contrast to Marxist-Leninist socialism, social democracy calls for expanding social services within a system that retains its capitalist structure. This has naturally led to social democracies historically enabling imperialism.
To sell their agenda to left-leaning people, social democrats portray it as a necessary alternative to both neoliberal capitalism and Soviet-style socialism. The vague but confident language that they use to do this makes their brand easily appealing to the average person who desires a change from our current economic paradigm; one meme which advertises for Sanders’ agenda reads: “Socialism without capitalism is communism. Capitalism without socialism is fascism. Democratic socialism is balance.”
The fact that statements like these completely gloss over the differences between democratic socialism and social democracy gives us a clue as to just how little social democrats want people to understand the economic terms they talk about. A basic overview of the objectives of socialism shows that socialism, as Marx articulated it, is an integral step towards communism, one where the workers seize control of the means of production so that society can transition towards communism’s goal for a classless, stateless society. But the rhetoric of the social democrats steers people away from becoming informed about this fact, or from studying the other aspects of Marxism.
It does this by framing the subject of socialism within the quintessentially American anti-communist worldview. This worldview, which claims that communism is an inherently bad thing that’s “killed 100 million people,” goes unchallenged by social democrats. And this lets them present a “socialist” vision that’s fundamentally anti-socialist.
It lets them claim that “socialism” is best represented by FDR’s New Deal and the Scandanavian welfare states, which Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez often point to as models for what they want. It makes it seem like significant social programs are the only criteria for a society to be “socialist,” and that the class inequality and imperialism which characterize both the Scandanavian countries and mid-century America aren’t worth taking note of. When one approaches politics and history from this perspective, capitalism and imperialism seem like crucial aspects of society, and actually opposing them is seen as a dangerous endorsement of the unquestionably evil ideology of communism.
As the Hampton Institute’s Zach Medeiros wrote this month, the social democrats’ agenda of expanding living standards for some in order to fortify the capitalist power structure shares ominous similarities with the logic behind fascism. In the following paragraph, Medeiros explains how the New Deal tradition that Sanders promotes can actually be described as “social fascism”:
Just as social imperialism is nothing but the same old imperialist gore and exploitation hiding behind socialist trappings, social fascism is essentially fascism wearing a socialist mask. The social fascist is the one whose heart bleeds for the struggling worker while sending the cops or the troops to break up an unauthorized strike, or the modern-day Gestapo to deport workers who dared to cross colonial borders without permission. The social fascist is the one who calls not for an end to the mass robbery of the Third World, but a fairer distribution of the stolen goods. The social fascist is the one who preaches revolution and revolt, just so long as it ends right before the power of the capitalist class begins.
This is the right-wing agenda that the left is being asked by the social democrats to operate under. We’re expected to support a continuation of the rule of the capitalist class and ignore the reality of global imperialism, while accepting expanded social benefits as a reward for our cooperation with the system. We’re also supposed to reject any version of a genuine anti-capitalist movement, while marginalizing those who embrace it.
Indeed, despite their claims to represent socialism, many in the social democrat camp are outright hostile towards those who are working towards a genuine working class revolution. In 2017 Bhaskar Sunkara, the publisher of the social democrat magazine Jacobin, tweeted: “What good people on the US left identify as ‘Marxist-Leninists’? I can’t think of literally one.” Sunkara’s petty character attack exemplifies the hubris that causes him and other social democrats to smugly dismiss over a century’s worth of Marxist theory-building and social development. A similar example of this hubris is one quote from Ocasio-Cortez’ Vogue interview last year, wherein she addressed her critics on the left with this statement:
There was a strong vocal contingent [in the Democratic Socialists of America] saying I wasn’t Socialist enough…I think it’s real bougie to grow up with a defined political ideology. You need to have college-educated parents for that, with a political lexicon. My mother doesn’t even have an English lexicon! When people say I’m not Socialist enough, I find that very classist. It’s like, ‘What — I didn’t read enough books for you, buddy?’
No one was asking her to have grown up with instilled socialist views. Few of the American socialists of today were raised with their ideology, and have instead adopted it through their independent studies throughout adulthood. It’s reasonable to expect a politician of her age who calls themselves a socialist to have gone through this process of recognizing that social democracy is a continuation of capitalism’s injustices, and committing oneself to putting power into the hands of the workers in the way that the existing socialist states have done. This learning process isn’t at all dependent on how many books one has read-it’s a simple ideological development. But it seems Ocasio-Cortez and other social democrats would rather ridicule these socialists than learn about their ideas.
As New Republic’s Conor Lynch wrote last week, the left is engaged in a “failure to envision a world without capitalism,” where “we continue to live in an age where it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (and with climate change and other ecological disasters threatening humanity, it doesn’t take H. G. Wells to imagine the end of the world these days).”
It’s predictable that the American anti-capitalist movement would face this kind of center-left opposition when our society began to react to its current inequality crisis. America and the Western world in general have been saturated in anti-communist propaganda for decades, and since the fall of the Soviet Union and the GDR, the socialist movement throughout the West has been existing completely on the margins. As popular discontent with the neoliberal order now boils over, the capitalist class is naturally trying to direct this anger towards a place that won’t result in the overthrow of capitalism. In this context, it looks inevitable that at some point, the social democrats would become the main leaders of the opposition to neoliberalism.
But we can change this. As our revolutionary period continues, an increased interest in socialism and an uptick in explicit anti-capitalist sentiment is also inevitable. If we keep critiquing social democracy while building institutions and movements which function outside of pro-capitalist dogma and the Democratic Party, this public support for socialism will be turned in a direction that can actually fulfill socialism’s goals.
If we don’t move forward with this radicalism, if we accept the social democrats as the “only viable option” while staying silent about the social democrats’ imperialism and embrace of capitalism, we’re not going to get a revolution.
The ruling class is counting on us to compromise in this way, as was shown last month in a series of statements from prominent Hillary Clinton backer and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. While talking with Bhaskar Sunkara, Goldberg remarked that “the great thing about the new wave of socialists is that they are so practical, they are so pragmatic…They understand how power works and are interested in amassing it through the channels that our system allows…[socialists like Sunkara are] finally doing what liberals like me have wanted people on the left to do for decades and decades…in building power for the Democratic Party.”
We can’t let liberals co-opt the name of socialism and turn it towards manufacturing consent for capitalism and empire. We need to break out of the pro-capitalist “progressive” mold that’s been created by the social democrats, and push forth an agenda for the true liberation of the world’s oppressed people.
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