Austin Democratic Socialists of America

What is Democratic Socialism?

“Democratic socialism” is a phrase that is, suddenly, unavoidable. Our organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, has now grown to over 50,000 members nationwide (with well over 1000 here in Austin). But the phrase is poorly understood, especially by those outside of our ranks. So what do we mean when we talk about “Democratic socialism?” How does it differ from other political traditions? What kind of history does democratic socialism have? And how can we talk about it to our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members?

Introductory Texts

The bulk of our discussion will focus on these three pieces, which lay out a basic vision of democratic socialism and talk about what democratic socialists actually do, in addition to what they think.

Megan Day – Democratic Socialism Explained (estimated reading time: 8 minutes) – This Vox article is written by a DSA member, and explains why socialists want to go beyond reforming and regulating capitalism.

Neal Meyer – What is Democratic Socialism (estimated reading time: 12 minutes) – This Jacobin article, also written by a DSA member spells out the basics of democratic socialism, especially how it differs from liberalism and social democracy. It also names many of the challenges democratic socialists face, and what we can do to get past them.

Resistance Rising (estimated reading time: 28 minutes) – This is a moderate-length document, dating from the summer of 2016, in which DSA lays out its analysis of the current political moment, its vision for democratic socialism, and its strategy for getting there.

Intermediate Text

We will also talk about this piece which provides some historical context about socialism, include some of its less-than-democratic varieties. The piece is long; if you’re pressed for time, just read the intro, section 3, and sections 9 and 10.

Hal Draper – The Two Souls of Socialism – (estimated reading time: 1 hour total, excerpts total about 30 minutes) This medium-length pamphlet from 1960 sets out a difference between “Socialism-from-Below,” (related to democratic socialism) and “Socialism-from-Above” (which the author links to both Stalinism and social democracy). Draper also puts forwards a basic history of the international socialist movement (with some big omissions) and describes how they relate to the categories of “Socialism-from-Below” or “Socialism-from-Above.” We won’t be talking about the entire pamphlet, so if you can only read part of it, focus on the Introduction, section 3 (“What Marx Did,”) and sections 9 and 10 (“Six Strains of Socialism-from-Above” and “Which Side Are You On?”)

Further Reading

We won’t talk much about this piece, but this fills in some gaps from the above readings and offers a somewhat different roadmap for building democratic socialism than the document put together by DSA.

Nicos Poulantzas – Towards a Democratic Socialism – (estimated reading time: 45 minutes) This essay, written in 1978, is a more challenging text about the various pitfalls of two insufficiently democratic roads to socialism: the social-democratic model of Western Europe and the insurrectionary model of the the Third International, the international organization headed by the Soviet Union before the Second World War. Poulantzas, like Day, Meyer, Draper, and most of the contemporary DSA, sees popular struggle as central to the project of building democratic socialism. He makes some concrete proposals to the sorts of institutions that socialists will have to build and actions they’ll have to take on the road to socialism.

Discussion Questions

  1. Before these readings, what did you think was meant by “democratic socialism? How did these readings line up with your understanding?
  2. According to the texts, what are the key features of socialism? What problems of existing society do socialists seek to solve, and how do they propose to solve them?
  3. What does DSA mean when we say “democratic?” How is this different than the currently existing democracy governing society?
  4. What is DSA’s strategy towards building socialism? What do you think of this strategy?
  5. The Resistance Rising document was written two years ago, before the election of Donald Trump. How has its analysis held up? How well does the strategy it lays out apply to the current political moment?
  6. What does Draper mean by “Socialism-from-Below?” In what ways, if any, does DSA’s strategy meet the criteria of “Socialism-from-Below?” Is there anything in DSA’s strategy that seems to fit more under the category of “Socialism-from-Above?”