What’s in a name?

by John Quiggin on April 21, 2018

Daniel once quipped that political views among the Crooked Timber team span the gamut: from social democrat to democratic socialist. Having spent the past fifteen years wearing the “social democrat” label, I’ve now made the shift to “socialist and democrat”. I’ve talked a bit about my reasons at my blog, and there’s been an interesting discussion there. Readers are welcome to join in there or discuss here, as you please.



CDT 04.21.18 at 1:02 am

It’s a pity that the comments on your blog largely devolved into a discussion about whether adopting the dreaded “S” word is politically unwise, since your diagnosis is dead on: nominal social democrats by and large either accepted or actively adopted neoliberal economic framing, to the detriment of both their electoral fortunes and most industrialized Western economies. Even in America, I’d bet that ” socialists” are more popular than “neoliberal” and perhaps “evangelical conservatives.”


Peter K. 04.21.18 at 2:36 am

I agree wholeheartedly with the blog post.

The term Socialist provides a distinction with liberals, neoliberals or “progressives” whose goals and effort really haven’t measured up these past 40 years.

I prefer to see social democratic reforms as socialist in that they are leading and pointing the way towards a better society than neoliberalism has delivered. Socialism is not about means-testing or meritocracy. It’s about the eradication of poverty and the right to a job, health care and a home.

If you don’t have economic prosperity for all, “economic anxiety” and the dog-eat-dog mercenary mentality will cause a moral backsliding which leads to things like the election of Trump and of demagogues.

The Cold War is fading into the past and young people are seeing the problems with capitalism:

“Yes, I’m running as a socialist,” Mr. Bynum said. “I’m a far-left candidate. What I’m trying to do is be a Democrat who actually stands for something, and tells people, ‘Here’s how we are going to materially improve conditions in your life.'”

On the right and in the middle they say socialism doesn’t work when it’s been shown neoliberalism doesn’t work. On Twitter I’m getting push back from the far left who say the Nordic countries aren’t socialist for various reasons. But their reasoning doesn’t make sense to me. Socialism for them is like some imaginary idealized communism.

I’m also finding it interesting that there’s a resurgent interest in anti-trust enforcement especially regarding the tech giants whereas socialist economists point out that the idea of market competition is overrated.


Alan White 04.21.18 at 2:58 am

I always learn a lot when I read your stuff and comments–thanks.

Beyond that let me say that with respect to whatever Trump and followers are, my position is Marxist–as in Groucho singing, “I’m against it”.


Gareth Wilson 04.21.18 at 9:54 am

“They want single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, and greater protections for unions. But others advocate more extreme changes, such as abolishing the prison system. In the case of Mr. Bynum, he wants an end to a cash bail system…”

All well and good, but do they realise none of that is socialist?


Glen Tomkins 04.21.18 at 1:50 pm

I wonder at the defensiveness of the “and democrat” add-on. If you’re willing to embrace “socialist”, I take that as meaning you’re past worrying about the decades of propagandizing to the effect that Stalin or Pol Pot were the exact fulfillment of the socialist ideal of governance, while the excesses of any dictatorial regime that called itself free market were entirely an idiosyncratic aberration that doesn’t even begin to call in question the soundness of capitalism itself. “Capitalism cannot fail, it can only be failed.” Etc.

Sure, we have the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” that I understand is canonic, but does that, at all, mean that Marx and Engels favored what we think of today as dictatorship, so you have to add on “democrat” to advertise that you are a splitter from the original ideology? In the mid 1800s, were there particular instances of dictators more recent than Cincinnatus or Sulla that the phrase would be automatically understood as referring to? Were Marx and Engels ever specific about the mechanics of governance they envisioned for after the owners were booted from political power?


steven t johnson 04.21.18 at 3:36 pm

In my judgment not one country where capitalism has been overthrown has been improved. Every one of them has gone backwards socially, culturally, morally, politically and, most of all, if you concede that economic arrangements should be for the benefit of the people, rather than the other way round, economically. The democratic commitment that holds this to be a boon to humanity rather than a tragedy is therefore a stand against human solidarity.

Democracy is about equality in the polity devised in such fashion that inequality in economy is not threatened. The fundamental purpose of the democratic state is to foster unity against enemies. The democratic world is a world of nations at perpetual enmity, where diplomacy is war by other means.

Socialism and democracy is then a program of moral suasion to the owners to be generous and the rest to be satisfied. I’m not convinced this is a noble ideal.


Peter K. 04.21.18 at 3:54 pm

@4 single payer isn’t socialist? Really?

Like I said you get these far leftists who are “prolier than thou.” They aren’t really interested in making real change, just in posing on social media.

The point is that socialist is a distinction with “liberals” who aren’t for those things. Those things points towards a socialist economy and society. After all of those goals are reached socialist can go after new goals or pursue other socialist goals simultaneously.


bruce wilder 04.21.18 at 5:24 pm

The pragmatic sanction claimed by neoclassical economics for capitalism is the core of neoliberalism: “market” economies “work” and a socialism of central planning and antagonistic regulation stifle the dynamism of market capitalism. The fall of Communism in global politics and the dominance of the neoclassical framework in the economics textbooks means “there is no alternative”. As JQ says, the political parties of the previous “social democratic” alternative, stripped of their vision of how to make the economic system work, descended into “technocratic managerialism” and often total “capitulation to the demands of financial capital”.

An important part of the historical political dynamics that made this happen was that early neoliberalism targeted the institutional supports for left politics: the structures that created the possibility of careers for advocates, politicians, thinkers while incubating reform programs, ideology and political mobilisation. That these neoliberal efforts at undermining institutional foundations merely reinforced trends driven by the forces and dynamics of globalization, technology and cultural evolution is no reason to dismiss them: neoliberalism’s whole approach has always been to go with this flow and prepare its path and cheer its progress. Neoliberalism surfed a very big political and economic wave.

So now we need “socialism” as a statement of aspiration to a better society alongside a parallel affirmation of democracy, both apparently “without any concrete meaning or any serious prospect of realisation”?! Because of the evident failure of neoliberalism.

I guess I am with JQ as far as he goes.

I am pretty sure neoliberalism succeeded, though. A minor quibble there.

As a political movement, neoliberalism achieved dominance of mindspace and political institutions, which it has shown little indication that it will yield short of the collapse of civilization — not that collapse is now out of the question in part due to neoliberalism successfully surfing the wave.

Do we need a “positive response” to the failure of neoliberalism or a realistic response to neoliberalism’s success? It seems like something more is involved in that question that a merely rhetorical appreciation for the competing values of sunny optimism and grim determination, and glass half-full of half-empty dilemmas.

As I wait quietly for what passes for the American center-left to tire of its obsession with Trump and Russiagate and recover some small measure of sanity, I do take some satisfaction in observing the efforts of the nascent Democratic Socialists of America and others inspired by Bernie Sanders deft assembly of a modest policy program (now moving forward as $15, Medicare-for-All, free college, 100%, etc) A program of concrete material benefits makes for a neat end run around the immediate need for a full-blown ideology. It is a convenient opportunity born of the dawning realization of some part of a despairing population that the economy is not working for them even if they have no idea what neoliberalism might be or how neoliberalism has figured in destroying good jobs, increasing precarity, multiplying debt, undermining health care and public education, etc.

At some point though, we are going to need an elaborate and sophisticated theory of political economy, if we are to restructure effectively a system that seems on course to inaugurate a geological epoch with ecological collapse. And to explain the necessity of doing some things which will make things worse for some before they make things less bad for a great many others.

It is hard to imagine how we move thru an American stock market collapse, or an Australian house market collapse, but surely we need to?

The U.S. needs to shrink its financial sector, its health care sector and its military-industrial sector, close a lot of prisons and fire a lot of highly paid college administrators — fire a whole of bunch of brand managers and dial back on salesmanship and marketing generally, if it is to walk in the direction of a better society. Can we talk about likely sources of resistance? And, forms of resistance?

I am not saying it cannot be done. I think it should be done. But, I know myself as an old guy worried about the value of his investments. I know the enemy because he is me. I suppose I see the need for revolution without wanting my life disrupted. (I am not important enough to fear overthrow.)

The other side of my ambivalence about being offered empty shell socialism by a neoclassical economist is I am left to wonder, “where’s my revolution?”


Gareth Wilson 04.21.18 at 8:59 pm

Single payer means that you’ve accepted for-profit corporations are efficient at delivering health care to their customers. You just want the government to write them some cheques, so that everyone can be a customer. Actual socialists would want a National Health Service, with every health-care worker employed by the government.


John Quiggin 04.21.18 at 9:58 pm

@5 As I explain in the post at my blog, the point of the formulation is to avoid the defensiveness (of the kind you describe) associated with “democratic socialist”. Democracy is under threat from the right and it is important for socialists to defend democracy in alliance with liberals and decent conservatives (if any of the latter can be found), while arguing the case for a socialist transformation of the economy and society.


engels 04.21.18 at 10:05 pm

Socialism is not about means-testing or meritocracy. It’s about the eradication of poverty and the right to a job, health care and a home.

If socialism means anything definite it has to be public ownership or democratic control of the means of production. All of those rights are consistent with non-socialist economic organisation, ie health care, homes and jobs can all be provided by private capital with the government acting as funder, procurer or provider of last resort. It seems to me you’re describing a form of social democracy.


TM 04.21.18 at 10:10 pm

Socialism is the public ownership (not the same as state ownership btw) of the means of production. I’m not aware of any relevant political force, by whatever name, anywhere in the Anglosphere or Europe actually advocating socialism. So what is the point of appropriating that label? Annoying the right-wingers (who seriously consider Obama a socialist), ok why not. But really?


engels 04.21.18 at 10:13 pm

Any real ‘democratic’ politics has to start from the fact that oligarchies like US and UK are not and never have been ‘democracies’.


engels 04.22.18 at 12:27 am

I’m not aware of any relevant political force, by whatever name, anywhere in the Anglosphere or Europe actually advocating socialism.

Campaign to bring back Labour’s Clause Four stepped up ahead of centenary celebrations


ph 04.22.18 at 1:35 am

Democracy is under threat from the right? Ok. I suppose what one’s definition of the right is. Based on the evidence the ‘right’ now includes the DNC which is stepping in to push locally popular candidates from running in their, um, own districts.

“The Democrats’ message to Mai Khanh Tran was polite but unsparing. With half a dozen Democrats running for Congress in her Orange County district, they showed her a discouraging poll and argued that she could not win — and risked fracturing the party in the June primary election.

Ms. Tran pointedly replied that she was “the only qualified woman, the only immigrant and the only physician in the race.”

“I said to them, frankly, let the voters decide,” recalled Ms. Tran, a pediatrician.

The national Democratic Party was not chastened: On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took sides in that House race and backed Gil Cisneros, a Navy veteran and former Republican.”

As in the Asian, female physician, must step aside for the ex-GOP military man because, wait for it – Democrats stand for something different.



ph 04.22.18 at 2:02 am

The OP is ok, but I’d have framed it with William Wilborforce’s classic: “A Practical View of the Professed Christianity of the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country, contrasted with REAL CHRISTIANITY.”

One of the more instructive features of discussions of socialism and democracy is how little many professed ‘lefties’ know of Christianity and socialism and how quickly they are to dismiss the role faith plays in social change. It’s as though Gandhi’s pacifism emerged from a fine English education, imagined as a kind of agnostic/atheism rather than from the cultures/faiths of India. Ditto MLK, who stopped being the Reverand Martin Luther King Jr., pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and became in the minds(?) of some a kind of nascent ‘progressive.’ The metric by which we describe ourselves, argues WW, must be our actions. Retired rich folks hanging out on ‘left-leaning’ blogs mouthing DNC talking points is one form of socialism and democratic activism, but once we remove the ‘what I think others should do’ to what ‘I should do’ we all fall quite short of our imagined selves. The good news is that it’s never too late. That’s the real life message of faith and hope in Newman’s ‘Amazing Grace.’

If a slave-ship captain can follow a voice in his heart/head and inspire others to do the same, anyone can. Socialism of the faith variety accepts universal and permanent imperfection and the need for faith and prayer, preferably manifest in good works, not good words. I’ll be making sure my own students understand the role faith has played and can played in making the world better and fairer. I’m not sure how many others will do the same.


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.22.18 at 2:53 am

I wonder what “socialism” describes. Is it a right-left axis? I’m not sure. George Orwell as as socially conservative as could be, but called himself a socialist. A lot of this thread has sounded like Bentham, whom most self-styled socialists would rather disengage with.
I see three axes:
1. Economics/government. Maximize social welfare, or liberty?
2. The Enlightenment. Bastion of human dignity, or corrosive solvent of society?
3. The French Revolution. Hope for the future, tragic failure, or completely evil?
I’d say that the standard Timberite is 1: welfare; 2: dignity; 3: mostly tragic failure, with some hope for the future.


TM 04.22.18 at 7:26 am

BW: “The other side of my ambivalence about being offered empty shell socialism by a neoclassical economist is I am left to wonder, “where’s my revolution?””

Well go ahead and wonder. But complain to JQ about missing out on the revolution? Hardly the right address I would think.

Incidentally after posting the above comment I read an interesting account of the May 68 in Paris (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/04/19/1968-when-the-communist-party-stopped-a-french-revolution/). Wannabe revolutionaries have always accused the communist party PCF of betraying the revolutionary cause. Nowadays those of us so inclined don’t even have the luxury to complain about communist or even social-democratic betrayal (Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten!) any more as those forces barely exist any more. Now we have only some bloggers on academic web sites to accuse of betrayal.

Anway the thesis of that article was that the PCF simply had read the popular sentiment correctly: there was no appetite for actual revolution among the masses of the workers. They wanted higher wages, more conumption, the ability to travel, to own cars etc. The idea that there was a revolutionary situation was pure delusion on the part of the radical student leaders. I don’t know that much about France at the time but the story appears very plausible (and it’s certainly true for Germany, where the radical protesters really were a small minority). When I hear American friends talk about “revolution” and “socialism” in the context of Bernie Sanders’ movement (“if only he had won instead of Clinton” etc.), it appears utterly farcical.


Lee A. Arnold 04.22.18 at 12:13 pm

Democracy and freedom of speech are the most important things.

I’m not a believer in the reliance upon “-isms” and “socialism” is an example, since it must deal with a long history of being traduced, and also it is still defined as “government ownership of the means of production”, which is NOT required, and would soon be harmful.

Some of the people who get to the top of government are identical to some of the people who get to the top of private business: mentally limited, megalomaniacal, narcissistic.

If you need a name for what we need, call it “social-capitalism”, and don’t worry much about the older definitions of that. Redefine it anew:

1. Capitalism is so successful technologically that almost all necessary goods and services have moved into the potential of satiety. Necessities (of food, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare) need no longer be “scarce”.

2. Technological advance is possible, while: keeping the biosphere healthy, avoiding species extinction, and maintaining an agricultural climate.

3. Let’s create a government monopsony for necessities ONLY. This can buy the necessities for all people from the private producers. Preserve the private ownership of the PRODUCTION of those necessities, in order to foster further innovation and to allow any individual to choose self-advancement beyond those necessities by increasing private income. This is a half-government, half-private market.

4. For other goods and services which are not deemed by voters to be necessities, the production and distribution should be entirely in the private market economy, which allows for the private financial system to continue with private investments, etc.

5. The government monopsony can be funded by taxation, or by money-printing, or by both in combination. Before the invention of central banking, money had two separate originations into the economy: printing by the sovereign, and printing by the private banks. These were historically united under the idea of central banking, which curbed the sovereign’s profligacy in the era of scarcity and ALSO served the logic of markets in the era of scarcity. But now the era of scarcity of necessities is gone, due to the very success of industry. That goal is met. And now, inflation can be controlled by a host of mechanisms which have been developed in central banking.

6. The new system will put a renewed, clearer focus on the local and regional politics and ecology of the one necessity which continues to work upon the logic of scarcity: real estate. There will be a government monopsony buying baseline residential maintenance and repairs.

“Social-capitalism” (or whatever you want to call it, let’s give it a name without an “ism”) as redefined here would return us to the “Trente Glorieuses”-style of the era prior to neoliberalism/neoconservatism — while also taking the NEXT step, into the permanent, partial demotion of the total market economy. It makes “votes” as important as “prices” in our society. It can be done without increasing the cognitive load of individuals: “The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” (Oscar Wilde).

It is important that people can advance in a private economy if they want to, and to aggregate their status baubles if they want to. We don’t know where technological change will take us, next. Democracy and freedom of speech are the most important things.


Francis Spufford 04.22.18 at 1:16 pm

C’mon, George Orwell ‘as socially conservative as could be’? Only if you take your criteria for ‘conservative’ entirely from the 21st century. This is the man who never forgot the vision of utopia he got from the classlessness of anarchist Barcelona in 1936, who during WW2 looked forward to ‘the red militias being billeted in the Ritz’, who discovered the moral squalor of imperialism from the inside.


steven t johnson 04.22.18 at 1:35 pm

Engels@13 writes “Any real ‘democratic’ politics has to start from the fact that oligarchies like US and UK are not and never have been ‘democracies’.” This is to surreptitiously redefine “democracy” as socialism. The true statement is that the US and the UK have never been socialist. It does no good to pretend democracy is socialism, unless you wish to disallow the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. Playing hangman in historical judgments allows many moralizing speeches, to be sure.

ph@15 plays at being a Scott Lemieux-type swindler who simultaneously condemns and endorses serious politics. (That’s called being savvy and principled, when laughter is otherwise irrepressible.) Politics is policies and personnel, and in the US, presidents. So far as policies are concerned, this is a one-party system where there is more or less universal agreement on the strategic goals.Tactical disagreements are the only acceptable issues. This is most obvious in foreign policy. But foreign policy doesn’t stop at the coast: The fundamental unity continues inland. So far as personnel is concerned, the coalitions of Ins and Outs fight out their rivalries. But being coalitions they are primarily symbolically policy disputes. Only accidentally do Lastly, in the US, the system is rigged so that presidential elections are pretty much guaranteed to avoid a president with a majority. A plurality is not a majority. ph’s insinuations that a woman pediatrician is a left, instead of merely an out, is an unsupported assertion that may be dismissed. That there are any policy differences or how it plays into presidential symbolism isn’t even addressed. Snark, even political snark, is not a real thought.

ph@16 resorts to time-honored bigotry. I don’t quite understand how mold makes things better. The discovery that unbelieving people couldn’t feel common human sympathy until religious words branded their soul is merely malice. The pretense that any religion will do suffices until it comes time to pass the collection plate. The fact remains that if any religion will, allegedly, inspire good acts, then it is not the religion, but the inspiration. And you can’t make this case even if you lie by omission, forgetting all the other acts inspired by religion, from shaming a child for discovering masturbation to the glorious crusades. (Crusade=jihad, lest you forget.) I think ph’s real politics forbid solidarity with the oppressed. Conventional manners may be sociable, but that’s not socialism, no matter what CT thinks.

Ebenezer Scrooge@17 is thought provoking. Prodded, I would say the axes are:
1.Economics/government. Reject the false dichotomy between welfare and liberty. The distinction between positive and negative liberty is reactionary continental philosophy.
2. Accept there is a science of man, that the old Enlightenment (which was never Christendom/the West anyhow) has fractured, first in 1848. But the split has been confirmed time dissolve all the old things, and the bourgeois revolution can no longer achieve its tasks. The last bourgeois revolutions, in Mexico, China and Turkey have proven this.
3.Acknowledge that the Dutch Revolution, the Puritan Revolution, the Great French Revolution and the US Civil War were the revolutions that laid the foundations for the creation of a better world. Acknowledge that the Russian and Chinese socialist revolutions laid the foundations for a better world of a different kind, different because the future is always different from the past.


Chip Daniels 04.22.18 at 2:21 pm

I think it is much more helpful to use “socialize” as a verb rather than a noun, if only to illustrate how virtually all countries have a mix of socialized and privatized structures and further, that the socialized factors of production are working very well.

Everything from utilities to medicine to agriculture has some degree of socialized component.

The noun form of “socialism” invites hypotheticals and strained historical comparisons and in my experience devolves quickly into pedantry or abstractions.


Yan 04.22.18 at 2:39 pm

“Like I said you get these far leftists who are “prolier than thou.”

Ironically, they’re also often rabid linguistic anti-prescriptivists.

If you give a fuck about an Oxford comma you’re a cop, but god forbid you expand the referent of a 200 year old political category with a wildly variant and contingent history.

Anyone who whines “that’s not socialism” should be required to be a strict Saint-Simonian. “What’s that, Marx? According to need rather than merit? That’s not socialism!” “State ownership of means of production? What would the immortal Smith say? That’s not socialism!” “An officially atheist state rather than a New Christianity…?!”


Yan 04.22.18 at 3:02 pm


It’s a rather important feature of the socialist tradition that it often rejects such options as false. To take a recent example, Jerry Cohen was particularly bothered (as was Marx) by the claim that social welfare comes at the expense of freedom. A little less recently, Adorno and Horkheimer had a little something to say about the idea that the fruits of the enlightenment must be either entirely swell or total hell.

This is, after all, a tradition with strong dialectical roots in Hegel, so surely it’s misguided to try to situate it according to such either/or’s.

If socialism must mean one thing, surely the rejection of the false political dichotomies of the present is a decent candidate for a key feature, and that alone is a strong reason for expanding the label (not “appropriating”—though I do find the irony of applying notions of intellectual property to socialism amusing.)

It may also be a key reason the label is becoming so popular and effective at attracting people: they sense that it means not “either/or” but “neither/nor.”


Glen Tomkins 04.22.18 at 4:04 pm

@10, I don’t know. It still sounds pretty defensive to add “democrat”. Everyone claims to be a democrat these days. It’s expected. Anything else would be quite peculiar. “Socialist and anti-fascist”, would be actually offensive. But I doubt you want to define yourself by the nasty qualities of the other side, and, at least in Australia, that might not even be a fair characterization of the other side.

In Marx’s day, it was not at all accepted that everyone was of course a democrat, believed that of course the people should rule. Even in a country like the UK, while there was a parliamentary democracy, and even if we can see today looking back that real political power resided in the Commons, at the time people still told themselves the old fable of the Three Estates. If the govt had to raise money, sure, it should consult the Third Estate, go to the Commons to ask for funds, because the merchant class, for all its tawdry attention to mere material wealth, were the people who understood and possessed money. But the higher functions, deciding what the govt should be doing, as opposed to how to fund it, relied on the guidance of the First and Third Estates, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal. Of course it was all quite nuanced by the mid-1800s, with the British nobility extending in all sorts of gradations down from actual peerage to embrace and co-opt ambitious and talented commoners into a system that at least guided even the Commons and the City. The ruling class flattered themselves that they had the sort of mixed constitution that the Romans enjoyed in the best days of their republic, only Britain had a monarchy as well to serve as a sort of placeholder to prevent the Caesarism that eventually destroyed the Roman Republic.

No room for actual democracy in this picture, one-man-one-vote and everyone gets to vote, because even the Third Estate did not include most of us mere money-grubbers and belly-fillers. Only property owners need apply for the franchise. Rule by actual greasy mechanics, letting such people have any say in govt, would be mob rule, ochlocracy and anarchy.

Marx’s great contribution was the insistence that this was a fable, something the ruling class told itself in self-flattery, and had hitherto gotten even its victims to buy into. Religion had a big part in that buy-in, thus the militant atheism. The false consciousness that allowed people to continue in this fantasy would be dispelled as capitalism progressively made the reality of power clear. The owners, not some fantasy mixed constitution nobility that was above mere money-grubbing, would increasingly become the obvious actual decision-makers in a govt that ever more nakedly acted in their interests alone. The Third Estate would split into the tiny fraction of the owners, with everyone else reduced to prole status, people whose only role in society was to do all the work and drop enough babies to supply the next generation of labor. Untrammeled control of society and govt by the owners would eventually leave the proles with nothing to lose but their chains, true consciousness of these two classes would emerge, and capitalism would be ended because the owners would be hopelessly outnumbered.

This all sort of happened. It didn’t always happen under the banner of socialism, but eventually every place that had achieved a certain level of industrialization chucked the old fable of certain fantasy classes deserving a special say in govt, in favor of at least the democratic principle, everyone should have equal say. Even if this would have happened without Marx and Engels and socialism, that ideology was the only one that called for throwing out the fable of the Three Estates. The liberal tradition played catch up. Until the old fantasies were already hopelessly lost, it was perfectly content to coddle the fantasy of some or other hallucinated class of people more enlightened than the greasy mechanics running govts.

That we have had backsliding over the last few generations is owing to the fact that the proletariat doesn’t run a dictatorship as a very tight ship at all. It got rid of the forms and institutions of aristocratic and theocratic controls on govt, but has not, really cannot, destroy the ideals, which remain out there. This is the essence of democracy, as Plato tells us in the Republic, that in clearing the field of rule by any of the sources of order represented by the Estates, it leaves the field open to the claims that each holds in memory and fantasy on the minds and hearts of the people as they vote. The people swing, sometimes wildly, into nostalgic endorsement of military valor, or great wealth, or divine inspiration, as sources of order behind the latest fad politician or political movement that is going to set everything right, so needs to be put in power.

Lately, at least in the US, great wealth can do no wrong, though it does seek a fusion ticket with martial prowess and the will of God, just to secure its flanks. It needs an actual dementia sufferer as its standard bearer to maintain the pretense that it is also populist, but luckily it found Trump.

But whatever fad politician or movement is in power at the moment, or seeks power, they all agree that they are democrats, however much they also and inconsistently claim that God should really be in charge, or the technocrats and owners who understand how things really work, or the military that defends our freedoms.

That could be your claim, that you believe in no other ordering principle but democracy, that you deny all these dangerous and dark fantasy alternate sources of order. But I don’t see the class consciousness out there to make that a claim that people would understand. Call yourself a socialist, and I think that’s a stronger claim that people should wake up and stop pretending that we live in the classless society that we were perhaps close to a few generations back, but then let slip through our fingers. I can’t see adding “democrat” as anything but an invitation to go back to sleep. We’re all “democrats”, Trump even more ferociously than you or I.


MisterMr 04.22.18 at 5:27 pm

@ Ebenezer Scrooge 17

IMHO, the “socialist” answer to the three axes would be:

1) Maximizing social welfare or liberty are two names for the same thing, are you crazy?
2) Enlightenment very good but still incomplete;
3) French Revolution good but not enough (still a burgeoise revolution).

Now the main problem is in point 1: of course most people who disagree with “socialism” in its various forms (including social democracy) think that liberty and welfare (or economic equality) are polar opposite, but this is not the point of view of socialists.
So the problem is not just where do you put yourself on an axis, but mostly what axes you do see as pertinent.


Scott P. 04.22.18 at 7:06 pm

In your blog article you write: On the other side of the ledger, nominally social democratic parties nearly all failed the test of the crisis, accepting to a greater or lesser degree to the politics of austerity. Some, like PASOK in Greece, have paid the price in full.

And yest PASOK stands for “Panhellenic Socialist Movement”. So why shouldn’t we consider the failure of PASOK to be a failure of Socialism? Or is this a No True Scotsman situation?


bruce wilder 04.22.18 at 8:06 pm

ES @ 17 (04.22.18 at 2:53 am)

1. Maximize social welfare, or liberty?

Are they opposed? To insist there are trade-offs seems libertarian or neoliberal. Or is it better to imagine that social welfare and liberty reinforce one another? More economic autonomy protected by law, more protection and support for the individual from the community and from voluntary social association, more social insurance frees people to live their private lives in dignity and material comfort.

If you think of yourself as a wolf among sheep, “freedom” means something else not universally shared. Cries for liberty from slave drivers and their heirs is nothing new, but is there no room on your ideological spectrum to recognize them as the hypocrisy of those who seek not freedom for all but social dominance for themselves and a few select fellows?

2. The Enlightenment. Bastion of human dignity, or corrosive solvent of society?

An actual event: a tangible change in what for lack of a better term I will call, human consciousness, manifest in common assumptions about the nature of reality and acceptable norms, social expectations and values.

To me, a truly remarkable cultural event: one moment, the common society readily believed in miracles and witches and in the next, it didn’t. It happened in less than one generation in most places — not every where at once, but it moved across Western Europe like a forest fire — and not so much transforming the shared culture as changing the center of gravity regarding what could be considered serious and legitimate claims. It built on what came before — Protestant Reformation and Catholic Reform — and has had consequences unfolding ever since — but still, remarkably, an event, a tangible break.

3. The French Revolution. Hope for the future, tragic failure, or completely evil?

Three choices and none seem appropriate to me.

When Nixon asked Zhou Enlai what he thought of the French Revolution, Zhou famously commented, ‘too early to say’. Some think he misunderstood the question, but I prefer to think this was wit from the leader of a nation-state with a 2200+ year history. Still, I think we can safely say that it succeeded: the Kings are gone; feudalism is gone; the State is rid of the Church; France is thoroughly modern and secular in every sense, a rich country and a powerful state with a politically aware citizenry and a constitution mandating the form of representative democratic institutions and guarantees of individual rights.

The French Revolution contains within its many stories, some cautionary tales about the myriad difficulties of creating a republic with a functioning politics. The apparent inability to muster the political will to institute even the most obvious reforms — defining a relationship with the Catholic Church; creating a workable fiscal system for the state, a money and a central bank; establishing a rationalized system of law and state administration — created the opportunity for Napoleon to seize power and do what needed to be done. Napoleon became the model for the populist authoritarian hero, the man on horseback that so impressed the mind of the young Hegel and inspired Beethoven, and did the job better than most of those who have attempted to imitate his course, the ultimately quixotic megalomaniacal attempts at world-historical conquest notwithstanding.

I think someone of a leftish cast of mind — called socialist or not — can see that these political problems are not easy to solve. They were tackled in a different order by the British in the Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution with Cromwell in place of Napoleon, but resolved in an equally uneven and ragged way, in events that sometimes came decades even centuries later. Ditto for the Russian Revolution. The revolutions that overthrew the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs were not entirely happy affairs either though Germany and several Eastern European states eventually got to a pretty good place, though there was a spot of unpleasantness in the interim, transition period. The United States famously had a “good” Revolution, but has struggled with the follow on to the American Civil War with more than a few patriotic reactionaries sometimes unclear on who exactly the traitorous enemies of freedom were in that conflict.

One takeaway is that reactionaries fight, and they blame the violence on those who had to fight to escape the oppression the reactionaries imposed but took little responsibility for.

Another is that liberals can be self-righteous, purblind pricks. A major cause of instability during the early phases of the French Revolution was the ideological determination to impose free-market prices on grain and bread in the midst of recurrent famine conditions.


ph 04.23.18 at 4:09 am

@28 re: The French Revolution. This is uncharacteristically poor, I’m afraid.

Macron would be very happy to lead a ‘thoroughly modern and secular state in every sense.’ Regarding the period in question: you omit all mention of regional strife and the legitimate objections of a peasant class very much enamored with local church leaders and religious life that offered stability, tradition, and continuity. The struggle between Girondists and others, as I’m certain you’re aware, was very much based on responses to the English revolution in America and the devolution of authority to individual communities/states violently opposed by authoritarians such as Robespierre based in Paris. Setting up a central bank took England nearly a century and given the corruption of the Directorate it’s a small miracle the economy functioned even as it did. There were, of course, net positives. But let’s play counter-factual, would Britain, Holland, and France voluntarily divested themselves of Empire? France today is no less innocent of exploitation, corruption, and hegemony (where they can), and at least as bellicose as any nation on earth. Re: the OP, France is a textbook case of socialist corruption with the the party faithful in near-despair with their ‘leaders.’

The violence of the Terror was not a ‘response’ to anything but paranoia and, in many cases, drunken mobs being egged on by cynics. A great many reforms had been enacted by 1792, and the case for regicide was very weak alienated a great many supporters of revolutionary reforms both in France and abroad. The revolution unclogged the mechanisms of capitalism and elevated enterprising middle-class folks. Many of the very rich retained their wealth and together with the revolutionaries set about enslaving as many people in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere as they could. France remains riven by ethnic and linguistic divisions, and practically nobody would call the current relations between various religious groups anything close to ideal.


MFB 04.23.18 at 7:59 am

“Social democrat” is obviously not a suitable term for anyone holding socialist views, since it is a cloak for reactionary plutocracy (and has been since the 1970s).

“Socialist and democrat” is obviously much better. It begs the question as to what you mean by socialism and democracy, but at least it points in the right direction and could represent what it is that you believe in.


MisterMr 04.23.18 at 10:37 am

@Lee A. Arnold 19

“3. Let’s create a government monopsony for necessities ONLY. This can buy the necessities for all people from the private producers. Preserve the private ownership of the PRODUCTION of those necessities, in order to foster further innovation and to allow any individual to choose self-advancement beyond those necessities by increasing private income. This is a half-government, half-private market.”

If the government has the monopsony (i.e. it’s the only buyer) of necessities, it either can squeeze producers of necessities, so that in reality they are the same of a government employee, or the producers (or some of them) can squeeze the government (see the problems of various public-private partnerships).
Furthermore, as the government would likely buy commodities on the basis of some bureaucratic process, there would be no point on innovation for producers.

I think it would make more sense to have the government own many, but not all, the means of production, so that those who want to change can buy from privates: the same way people can co to government funded schools or, if they prefer, pay for private ones, or in countries with an NHS people can choose wether to rely on the NHS or go to private doctors.

This would be basically a social democratic solution, I suppose, but would still imply the ownership by the government of a large part of the means of productio, so in the current political climate it could be probably considered a socialist solution.


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.23.18 at 10:55 am

I stand corrected on the first of my three questions. It should have been “Maximize social welfare and/or liberty?” The median Timberite position is clearly “and.” The Marxist-Leninists (and many New Dealers, and folk like Macron) picked “or social welfare.” “Or liberty”, of course, is the refuge of those who think that maximized social welfare would be at their expense.


engels 04.23.18 at 11:19 am

Any real ‘democratic’ politics has to start from the fact that oligarchies like US and UK are not and never have been ‘democracies’.” This is to surreptitiously redefine “democracy” as socialism.

No it’s to define ‘democracy’ as δημοκρατία, political power held by the people as a whole rather than an elite. I don’t think the USSR was a democracy either fwiw.


nastywoman 04.23.18 at 11:59 am

– such lucky Anglo-Saxons with such a limited: ”from social democrat to democratic socialist” – while in Italy or Germany you have ”die Qual der Wahl” with so many different possibilities to be ”socialistic-democratic” – that it probably would took weeks on Crooked Timber just to figure out the defined differences between a ”Grüner” (Socialist) and a ”Realo Grüner”- and let’s not even start with Italy where some ”comunista” might surprise you by driving a Ferrari while called by some of their friends ”capitalista’? ‘


politicalfootball 04.23.18 at 12:52 pm


You needed to read further into that article. The Democrats, who by the very nature of democracy are entitled to have an opinion about things, believe with considerable justification that a non-democratic outcome (similar to the one in the presidential race) could take place in California and other places:

They are moving most aggressively in California, where the state’s nonpartisan primaries present a unique hazard: State law requires all candidates to compete in the same preliminary election, with the top two finishers advancing to November. In a crowded field, if Democrats spread their votes across too many candidates, two Republicans could come out on top and advance together to the general election.

A lot of people have the problem that you have: A basic misunderstanding of what the term “democracy” means. I blame the primary schools. To put it simply, at root, democracy is about rule by the majority. There are lots of arguments about how to best ensure democratic outcomes — and, indeed, whether democratic outcomes are best. But in pretty much all democracies, political parties have a role in organizing around candidates and issues.


Lee A. Arnold 04.23.18 at 1:12 pm

MisterMr #31: If the government has the monopsony … it either can squeeze producers of necessities … or the producers (or some of them) can squeeze the government … it would make more sense to have the government own many, but not all, the means of production, so that those who want to change can buy from privates …”

I should have added that my favored means to a government monopsony should be a stipend or transfer, like the universal basic income.

The government wouldn’t buy the food and deliver it to your door; it deposits money in each individual’s bank account to cover baseline necessities on a monthly basis. Then you can purchase what you want.

This isn’t strictly the definition of “monopsony” except as a matter of policy, because we would need to price the basket of necessities.

This keeps the producer side of the market wholly private and may spur innovation in that production. The government is not likely to manage the means of production (much less innovation) any better than any private corporate entity at the best, and likely it will be worse.

This is because the managerial decisions in production and innovation are better achieved by prices, which are simpler form of control mechanism for spot transactions and separate economic sectors. Voting is more time-consuming and requires greater cognitive load for individuals.

Prices and votes are two main forms of social decision-making, and they have separate cognitive requirements.

There is a possible alternative coming to this state of affairs in modern computation and AI, which has very recently been successful in predicting the extended results of a chaotic equation, without being fed that equation. So the “calculation problem” which exercised the early 20th-century economists could be solved.

And this gets into the question of whether people want to be told by computers what to do –however much they are already being told by computers what to do! But for the bare necessities of life, it may be the case that future generations simply won’t care that this decision is made for them.


Glen Tomkins 04.23.18 at 2:53 pm

“The violence of the Terror was not a ‘response’ to anything but paranoia and, in many cases, drunken mobs being egged on by cynics.”

You’ve never heard of the Brunswick Manifesto? Even before that open avowal of the war aims and purpose of the states opposed to France in the War of the First Coalition, it was paranoia to imagine that they intended to round up and execute at least the leaders of the govt of France who had in any way been in favor of diminishing the power of the monarchy? And making an example of some representative group of the common rabble who dared oppose the monarchy would presumably have been part of the deal as well. It does not seem to me that, in that situation, “La patrie en danger” was anything but a sober statement of clear fact.

It is true that in history we see many examples of some illusory, or at least highly exaggerated, foreign threat, leading to an unjustified security scare, and then a witch hunt. McCarthyism in the US is a good example. France in 1792 is not among such examples. The coalition had raised an army to invade France to change its government, to take away from its people the right to make their own government. That army was already on French soil, headed to the capitol, and it was far from clear that it could be stopped by French forces. Part of the concern that the coalition army could not be stopped were completely justified concerns that the leadership and highest command of the French army, the king, wanted the enemy to reach Paris and execute any member of the Assembly it cared to.

” …the case for regicide was very weak alienated a great many supporters of revolutionary reforms both in France and abroad.”

So, head of state is caught trying to desert to the enemy that has an army on the soil of his country, marching towards its capitol, in order to lend that enemy moral authority and sanction to make war on his own country — and that’s a weak case?

It is certainly true that “treason” has often been used in history as an illegitimate criminalization of politics, often motivated by paranoia. But treason actually is a crime, and a legitimate case for it can be made in some cases without resort to political enmity or paranoia. If Louis XVI was not guilty of treason, then nobody in the history of the planet has ever been guilty of treason.

Yes, it was traumatic to France to face the reality that its head of state, sanctioned as such by the one true and universal Church (literally had holy oil poured over him by some bishop), was a traitor, that all the painstaking arrangements and compromises the Constituent Assembly had made over many years to include a completely unnecessary monarch in the constitution were just a foolish nod to sentiment and tradition that the king himself responded to with treason. Here in the US we couldn’t even bring ourselves to the spectacle of Nixon be indicted, because it would have been too traumatic. And the US was not in any danger once Nixon had resigned, so it really would have served no obvious and immediate public policy need for him to go to jail, however much in the long run it was a bad example to malefactors of great power to let him off. France in 1792 had no such luxury. Louis XVI could not abdicate, not really, he had had that oil poured over him, and too many people in France and abroad believed that the oil meant he was king until he died. The monarchy was not an office the govt could depose him from and solve the problem, because he’s a nothing once removed from office. Allowed to live, he would always have been a magnet calling foreign armies and domestic insurgents to restore him to his imagined dignity.

This is all perhaps the long way around the barn back to the original point of this thread. Nobody, in 1792, would have added “and democrat” to a self-description of his political beliefs. Robespierre himself was not against the idea of monarchy n the constitution, or, before Varennes, against leaving the Bourbons as monarchs of France. Nobody anywhere near power in France or anywhere in Europe believed that peasants and urban proletariat should vote, much less hold office in a republic. Some wanted to extend the franchise to many (men only, of course), but none of the members of the Assembly envisioned these lower class voters filling any role beyond deferring to the superior wisdom of people such as themselves in actually holding elected office. Almost no one in the spectrum of this opinion was categorically anti-monarchy, or anti-Catholic, until events forced them to go there, because monarchy and Church declared categorical war on any dilution of divine right absolutism.

The middle way, in which you just let the ex-king and the ex-state religion live and let live after dethroning them, only became possible after we all became democrats.


steven t johnson 04.23.18 at 7:29 pm

engels@33 seems to forgot the the Greek “democracy” was a synonym for ochlocracy. And when it didn’t mean mob rule, the people as a whole were never actually the people as a whole, just the ones who counted as people. Also, the Greek “oligarchy” means something like the Thirty of Athens. Calling countries like the contemporary US an oligarchy is nicely inflammatory, but that’s all.

The real moral here: Etymology is never probative. I have no idea why people want to hark back to ancient Greece (rarely, the Roman Republic,) when they don’t actually seem to know much about it. Why, people seem to think Sparta wasn’t a democracy, ignoring the ephors, while Athens was, ignoring the cleruchies.

I submit that one characteristic of a democratic system is that the class structure of the state is such that the state acts overall the long run interests of the larger part of the citizens. So yes, the USSR and China have a claim to be democratic in a sense that the US and UK do not. Yet another characteristic of a democratic system is the legal and civil equality of all citizens who can participate in periodic elections of legislators and executive officials. By this standard, the US and UK and, oh, yes, Iran and Israel, can be argued to have a better claim to be democratic than the USSR and China.

But another characteristic, expressed by ph above, is that democracy is anti-revolutionary because revolution is the very antithesis of democracy. My opinion on that is simple enough: There is no antirevolutionary, there is only counterrevolutionary. Democracy is not socialism. ph speaks for the majority here in repudiating Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, all at the same time, as the unholy Jacobins’ chimera, an imaginary monster cobbled together from incompatible parts of other beasts.


bruce wilder 04.23.18 at 7:42 pm

ph @ 29

Sorry to disappoint.

I did skip over considering the bloody bits.

I think the violence is not just morally problematic: in the lurid extremities it reached, it is simply unfathomable. No one can attempt to “explain” it without running the hazards of either excusing it as somehow “necessary” in some functional sense or “justified” (I don’t know how) or — and this seems as bad to me which may surprise you — deeming it entirely superfluous to the process of political change, as you seem to do.

So, I skipped past the bloody bits about which I have little to say, to point out that — with a major assist from Napoleon — the Revolution did manage to institute the politically modern.

Instead, I loaded a lot onto the bloodless phrase, “a functional politics”, with the implication that there was a long period of failing to manage that. A functional politics in the modern sense requires tolerance for myriad differences of opinion combined with the institutional ability to arrive at rational policy for the state by means of deliberation and compromise, backed by power and loyalty. That’s not so easy to do. There was a long period of failing to do it during the 17th century in Britain. There was a long period of failing to do it in Weimar Germany. And, during those periods of failure, things fall apart and can get mighty ugly. Or, power falls into the hands of a Napoleon (or a Stalin!) It may be that at least some of the experience of trying and failing is as necessary to the learning and development of nations as it is for individuals, though my politics thinks we could and should try harder with less stupid and vicious.

I understand looking back on the French Revolution and wondering why they could not just move smoothly to a constitutional monarchy, fiscal and legal reform more or less on their understanding of the British model. Enlightened Opinion was anglophile and key figures like Mirabeau and Sieyès clearly had such a course for a bourgeois revolution in mind. People could not agree and trust that there was an agreement and things spun out of control with no good result. Paranoia, as you say, struck deep — and not without reason. The countryside was not exempt from the mentality of the mob. The Revolution at its start got its last key impetus, remember, from the Great Fear.

You say the English took a hundred years to create a central bank and there’s some truth in that. Revolutionary things do take time to stick. Enlightened Opinion was agreed that the corvée had to go. Louis XVI obligingly abolished it, and the French would keep on abolishing it for another fifty years, because it kept coming back. The Ferme générale was building its wall around Paris even as the Revolution got underway and the Revolution abolished its tax just as construction was finished, but the tax kept coming back; the wall and its tax, the octroi, would wait for Baron Haussmann to pave its final grave. Constitutional monarchists had a solid majority in their favor as late as the inauguration of the Third Republic, but the last Bourbon was as immune to sense as any in his line. Laïcité was finally enacted in 1905.


nastywoman 04.24.18 at 5:19 am

– and who doesn’t like it that so many in America -(or Australians – or Brits?) are so… so ”anti-social” -(if one could call it as simple as this?) but that’s hardly a good enough reason to come up with the silly idea that it means not being ”democratic” – as it is the current pretty ”democratic” love for F…faces which really scares one – and histerical… sorry ”historical” references to some ”French Revolution” or worst – some ”Romans” are not that… ”interesting” – in times where we could reference so many well working ”social-democratic societies” in Scandinavia…


engels 04.24.18 at 11:26 am

I have no idea why people want to hark back to ancient Greece (rarely, the Roman Republic,) when they don’t actually seem to know much about it.

Well we can’t all be as knowledgable as you are…

engels@33 seems to forgot the the Greek “democracy” was a synonym for ochlocracy. And when it didn’t mean mob rule, the people as a whole were never actually the people as a whole, just the ones who counted as people

Actually I haven’t forgotten either of those things; just pointing out that whether you like or loathe democracy, the US ain’t it.

…Researchers concluded that US government policies rarely align with the the preferences of the majority of Americans, but do favour special interests and lobbying organisations: “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.”


ph 04.24.18 at 1:21 pm

@35 I did read the article, actually.
@37 France and Austria fought many wars during the 18th century. Support for a constitutional monarchy was robust in many constituencies before and after August 10, 1792. The attack on Versailles by the Paris-based revolutionaries and the incarceration of the royal family in the Tuileries by a minority operating in a state of de facto insurrection. My own view is that Brunswick Manfesto was effectively meaningless in terms of outcomes. The king was doomed from the time he was removed from Versailles. I also choose to view ‘revolutionary justice’ through the prism of the trial of Marie Antionette, among others. Torturing her son to testify to incest at the hands of his mother pretty much sums up how trials worked. Massacres in Toulon and Lyon, especially, could not be defended, even by Robespierre. The September Massacres and Quiberon were carried out upon weaponless prisoners hacked to death, and that’s before we get to revolutionary justice via the lantern, or guillotine.
@39 Thanks! This is much more useful. I’ll quibble over the distinctions, however. Santerre, easily a violent radical, is the personification of the affluent business-owning, revolutionary. He and many of the Mountain had little use for the poor, except as shock troops. You’ll be familiar with the observation: if the revolution was not made by the middle-class, the revolution certainly made the middle-class. I’m more sympathetic to the Girondists point of view and see Corday as regional patriot, rather than a counter-revolutionary. I don’t know if you’ve come across any of Marat’s writings sucking up to the duc d’Orleans, but they’re instructive. My favorite famous figures of the period are Barras, who at least made no effort to disguise his motivations, and priorities, and Theresa Cabarrus. Cheers.


ph 04.24.18 at 1:29 pm

Sorry, ‘the attack on Versailles” was the act that determined the final outcome months later. Incarcerating the royal family in Paris allowed Mirabeau and Danton to bleed the captured royal family dry. There are credible accounts of Danton promising through intermediaries to prevent the attack of August 9th, if the royal family coughed up more – to which Marie Antoinette reportedly remarked – ‘they already taken everything.’ And so.


F. Foundling 04.24.18 at 10:03 pm


Just the fact that the self-identified ‘social democrats’ have failed to remain true to what is now usually understood as ‘social democracy’ (additions to capitalism including the welfare state and, in some interpretations, Keynesianism) is not a reason to renounce the label ‘social democrat’ for oneself, but a reason to deny *them* the right to use that label. For that matter, some of those involved have called themselves ‘socialists’, too.

‘Socialism’ originally, and until the late XXth century, referred to (seeking) a principal *alternative* to capitalism rather than just making additions to it, and between the October revolution and the late XXth century that used to be the point of the distinction between it and ‘social democracy’. ‘Social democracy’ meant just the additions to capitalism, while ‘socialism’ meant replacing capitalism. In that sense, a Keynesian could be a social democrat, but not a socialist. Before the October revolution, of course, ‘social democracy’ meant the same thing as socialism + democracy, or democracy expressed in and deepened through socialism, and the Marxist parties before 1917, including the Bolsheviks, called themselves ‘social democratic’.

The reason why I, adhering to the mid-20th century distinction, would call myself a socialist (and a democrat) and not just a ‘social democrat’ is that I do, in fact, believe that the very basic mechanisms of contemporary capitalist economy have to be changed. The ‘social democratic’ additions to capitalism are valuable but far from sufficient. They do not remove the fundamental power disparity in the workplace as well as in society and politics, and the latter fact is what also makes them difficult or impossible to sustain, as demonstrated by the failure of the ‘social democratic’ parties to remain true even to them. The power of the capitalist class influences politics profoundly, subverts democracy and prevents and/or eliminates the ‘social democratic’ additions, as well as producing other harmful outcomes – e.g. w.r.t the environment, health, foreign policy etc. I believe that the current mode of production does have to be changed in a principal way, involving public ownership and public accountability of at least the larger economic entities; at this point we have extremely powerful corporations that function as public institutions, but are unaccountable and driven above all by the hunt for profit, which leads them to act in ways incompatible with humanist values (most recently we are seeing this in the various giant Internet corporations, many of them de facto monopolies, which are abusing their positions in more and more egregious ways).

For the same reason, I think that an alternative to the market and to profit-seeking as a primary basis of the economy is, in fact, necessary for democracy to survive – to the extent that it is democracy – and to become itself – to the (great) extent that it isn’t; and this is also necessary for the humane and rational self-management of human society in general. This is admittedly vague, but, as the neoliberals used to say, TINA; either humanity will find a way to do this, or it will regress to a pre-modern condition of extreme inequality, mass misery and authoritarianism, and, quite likely, destroy itself. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I find the second alternative too unlikely at the moment.


F. Foundling 04.24.18 at 10:21 pm

To elaborate on the issue of the Internet monopolies, I’d suggest that the time is ripe to call for the nationalisation of Facebook and Youtube.* It seems clear that there is no way to make them behave decently and refrain from privacy violations and censorship while they remain private entities dedicated to profit and controllable only via the supposed ‘competition’ or the impracticable ‘voting with one’s feet’. The rest of Google is next, and then Microsoft. And there definitely must be a ‘public option’ for email providers – you know, one that doesn’t read the emails, at the very least. Smaller private competitors may be left as a safety valve, but these arrogant and unaccountable giants have made themselves too powerful and important for modern life to be allowed to exist as private entities; they should be treated as public services. If Gates, Zuckerberg & Co. are indeed such bloody geniuses and weren’t just lucky, then I’m sure they should be able to start all over again and build something else from scratch for the common good; they should enjoy the challenge, the alleviation of boredom and feeling young again.

* Given their international status, the new owner should probably be the UN.


F. Foundling 04.24.18 at 11:07 pm

Re the relationship between socialism, democracy and freedom:

I don’t think that real and consistent democracy and maximal individual freedom for as many people as possible can exist without socialism (for reasons that I have alluded to above). Hence, for me, being a socialist is a completely natural and necessary consequence of being a democrat and an adherent of freedom, both for smaller collectives of economic or other types and for society in general. Democracy, in turn, is implied by (collective and maximal individual) freedom. I also don’t think that socialism as it has been usually understood can exist without democracy. Socialism implies common control of the economy *for* the ‘socii’ (‘associates’, ‘companions’, ‘allies’, ‘Genossen’, ‘comrades’) and, consequently *by* the ‘socii’ (‘associates’, ‘companions’, ‘allies’, ‘Genossen’, ‘comrades’). If mere collective, non-market-based functioning, without the specification of democratic, non-authoritarian control, were enough for something to be called socialism, one would have been able to say that a slave plantation or the Incan empire and the various early Oriental systems as traditionally described are run, internally, along socialist principles. Some have, indeed, applied the word in that way, but I dare say that those people generally haven’t been socialists.


otpup 04.25.18 at 2:34 am

I think Mike Harrington’s take on this is germane. Communism and Marxism (and as a result, socialism too, perhaps to a lesser degree) are highly debased terms being affected by unsavory agendas both on the left and right.

Dictatorship of the Proletariat: first of all, this does not mean “dictatorship”, in the original context in german, it is really a synonym for “regime”. Marx actually spent most of his mature adult life with and around institutions and movements that became the basis of European democratic politics (trade unions, social democratic parties, the fight for universal suffrage).

By the same token Marx was not particularly “revolutionist”. Sure he participated in the aborted liberal(!) revolutionary surge of 1848 but Marx’s thought can clearly be seen as understanding “revolution” as a sociological, structural phenomenon rather than a voluntarist one. And more to the point, Marx was pretty clear that revolution in the context of economic backwards (e.g., barely post-serfdom Russia) would distribute poverty not wealth and inevitably lead to dictatorship, an idea which comes straight out of classical political economy (it is likely Lenin believed the same thing as an actually fairly orthodox Marxist, though leaning to the voluntarist interpretation of things – his big mistake was thinking the “just around the corner” European revolution was going to save Russia from its backwardness).

Since the rise of Stalin, most pronouncements on the nature of the Soviet Union and its achievements (and subsequent Communist revolutions) have been a con on multiple levels and the idea that Marx would have endorsed the terror or the vulgarization of his thought (actually too weak a word) is laughable.

As for the s-word, it has its origins in the rise of modern liberal democracy and defining it as democracy extended to economic and social life is a perfectly consistent (if not proven or actualized) formulation.


nastywoman 04.25.18 at 10:23 am

”either humanity will find a way to do this, or it will regress to a pre-modern condition of extreme inequality, mass misery and authoritarianism, and, quite likely, destroy itself. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I find the second alternative too unlikely at the moment.”

Currently residing in an area where so called ”Green” and very, ”social” thinking humans found pretty much a way to do this, ”humane and rational self-management of human society -thing” – one happily can say that the first alternative –
(the humane and rational self-management of human society -thing) –
IS ready to be emulated if y’all would like to add the ”G-word” to the S-words?


John McGowan 04.25.18 at 3:14 pm

I have posted a response to John’s post on my blog, Public Intelligence, for any one who might be interested. https://wordpress.com/post/jzmcgowan.com/1087


steven t johnson 04.25.18 at 5:27 pm

engels is defending democracy as No True Scotsman.

F. Foundling is re-affirming a commitment to democracy as it should be in opposition to actually existing socialism as it was, regardless, deeming counter-revolution as true progress. Again, every successor to socialist states finds the majority worse off. The final victory of counter-revolution in China and Korea will demand a horrific toll, gladly exacted by the democrats.

otpup is wrong. Marx on the Commune refutes this.


TM 04.25.18 at 7:45 pm

44: There’s a good case that Rosa was right: either socialism or barbarism.


LFC 04.25.18 at 9:16 pm

steven t johnson @50

every successor to socialist states finds the majority worse off

What s.t. johnson calls socialist states were authoritarian states masquerading as socialist. And the reference to “counter-revolution” in (North) Korea is rather hallucinatory, considering what Kim Jong Un’s “socialist” and “revolutionary” state is actually like.

n.b. This from the same commenter who, in a previous thread, called the late Gene Sharp, a leading theorist of non-violence, a tool of the ruling class (actually I think the phrase was more like “advisor to the technocratic managers” or something like that — same diff.).


engels 04.25.18 at 11:12 pm

engels is defending democracy as No True Scotsman

Not sure what part of real political power held by the people (however [ill-]defined), not elites, is hard to understand…


steven t johnson 04.25.18 at 11:14 pm

LFC joins engels in counterposing actually existing socialism to democracy as it should be, dismissing democracy as it is as No True Scotsman. And ups the ante by the mythical discovery that socialist states, unlike the blessed democracies, are authoritarian. The democracies weren’t authoritarian even when the map of the world was openly divided into a handful of world empires, showing how ridiculous this convention is.

Gene Sharp’s life work hasn’t done a damn thing for ordinary people. Color (counter)revolutions have done a lot of damage, though.


engels 04.26.18 at 1:39 am

LFC joins engels in counterposing actually existing socialism to democracy as it should be, dismissing democracy as it is as No True Scotsman

I’ve implied I think classical Athens was a democracy (despite being far from ideal in many respects, principly the identity of the demos), so I’m not referring to some unattainable ideal (nb. that wouldn’t be a No True Scotsman fallacy). I consider myself pretty sympathetic to Previously Existing Socialism in a lot of ways but wasn’t aware anyone in their right mind in 2018 thought Stalinist Russia was a democracy…


MisterMr 04.26.18 at 10:38 am

#Lee A. Arnold 36

This comment is a bit OT and would probably be more germane to the thread on the UBI, however:

There is a trend, in current leftish economic thinking, to solve the problem of the supposed unefficiency of socialist economies the way you do:

“Production” is supposed to stay in private hands, but the government then redistributes income in such a way that everyone is able to get a fair share of the total product. The concept of the UBI is similar to this, but also the idea of government grants for students (as opposed to government-run universities), various weird schemes for healthcare (instead of an NHS) etc.

The problem of this, that is obvious IMHO in the case of governments pumping money to pay student’s tuitions, is that the private producers can just jack up prices so that the money goes directly from the government to them without really helping students; on the other hand if the government directly owns and runs schools/universities that have reasonable (or good) teaching level, those privates who still can offer education products (it’s good if there are also privates because this way the government doesn’t get a monopoly on education that could be damaging for free thought) will be forced to ask comparatively lower prices, because of the competition with underpriced (since is basically paid by taxes) public education.

This is also really obvious in heathcare. Consider the difference between Italy, that has an NHS, and the USA, that has not:


Healthcare spending in Italy accounted for 9.2% of GDP in 2012 (about $3,200 per capita) of which about 77% is public,[1] slightly lower than the average of 9.3% in OECD countries.[2] In 2000 Italy’s healthcare system was regarded, by World Health Organization’s ranking, as the 2nd best in the world after France,[3] and according to the CIA World factbook, Italy has the world’s 14th highest life expectancy.[4] Thanks to its good healthcare system, the life expectancy at birth in Italy was 82.3 years in 2012, which is over two years above the OECD average.[2]

Total money spent by the government in healthcare as a percentage of GDP: 9.2% * 77% = 7.1%


Health care in the United States is provided by many distinct organizations.[1] Health care facilities are largely owned and operated by private sector businesses. 58% of US community hospitals are non-profit, 21% are government owned, and 21% are for-profit.[2] According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States spent more on health care per capita ($9,403), and more on health care as percentage of its GDP (17.1%), than any other nation in 2014.
In 2013, 64% of health spending was paid for by the government,[3][4] and funded via programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Veterans Health Administration.

Total money spent by the government in healthcare as a percentage of GDP: 17.1% * 64% = 11%

I think that it’s impressive that the USA government spends substantially more on healthcare than the Italian government, even though the Italian government runs a NHS and the USA government doesn’t.
I used Italy as an example in part because I’m italian, but also because “In 2000 Italy’s healthcare system was regarded, by World Health Organization’s ranking, as the 2nd best in the world”, so it’s obvious that I’m not speaking of a cheapo low quality system.

I think that this difference in bang for the buck comes directly from the fact that, if you keep production private and just hand out money to consumers, producers will jack up price (because they can) and this will keep inequality quite big; these schemes face less opposition because actually capitalists can make nice profits from them but on the long term the danger is that they will not lead to the desired redistribution (unless you really tax the hell out of said capitalists, perhaps), so I think that, in those areas where government production works, it’s a good idea to have the actual, old fashioned, government production.

Incidentially my understanding is that “necessities” such as agricultural products are already largely subsidized by governments in the rich world.


steven t johnson 04.26.18 at 12:16 pm

engels@53 thinks “classical Athens” was a democracy albeit one far from ideal. It is hard to be absolutely certain absent a scientific survey, but it is likely most people think of Periclean Athens as classical Athens. The Thirty and the Four Hundred were unfortunate aberrations, exceptions that proved the rule or some such. The thing is, Periclean Athens was rather oligarchical, with Pericles’ set running the show, despite elections. That’s why Thucydides approved Pericles so much. Technically one could argue that less oligarchical leaders like Cleon and (horribile dictu!) Hyperbolus were also “classical Athens.” But voting that doesn’t leave the polis under the guidance of the right people (the boni or optimates, as they liked to call themselves in the Roman Republic,) is not the true democracy.

As to the conclusion that the grave defect in the Athenian democracy was the identity of the demos? That was the same problem in Sparta, which is nigh universally denied to al so be a democracy. The real difference is the persistent attempts to enforce the equality of the Spartiates, who proudly called themselves Equals (or Peers if you insist on a misleading translation.) Institutions like the syssitia, the agoge and the ban on money are deemed incipient totalitarianism precisely because they were obstacles against oligarchy. (There were workarounds.) From the other side, the word “tyranny” is largely a pejorative aimed at those rulers who use popular majority support to suppress the oligarchy. As witness the universal disdain for Venezuela, this usage still prevails.

The point is not that engels deals in crude stereotypes about classical Athens. The point is that majority rule is not acknowledged to be a key principle of democracy. It does not single out CT to note that CT approves the principle of minority rule. That’s why they accept the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. Their only issue is whether to blame the filthy rabble or the evil Clinton for him. It is in fact deemed to be essential to democracy that the majority do not rule, that there is no tyranny of the majority. Again, compare the usage re Venezuela.

As for any alleged sympathy for the previously existing socialism? I think the commitment to democracy, where the state defends the property of the minority bourgeoisie and serves their interest, on the grounds that the majority has formal political rights and does elections, makes that null and void. I think that if you are so bold as to revise “democracy” to mean majority rule, you mean a democratic state is one that serves the majority interest. And it seems to me that you have to be out of your right mind to be so sure the US and the UK and France and the BRD and Japan and South Korea and the rest did and do. When you support the restored democracy at the expense of the majority, you are committing to the usual democratic principle, which expressly class supremacy with formal political and civil equality for the citizens, i.e., not majority rule.


Lee A. Arnold 04.26.18 at 12:36 pm

MisterMr #56: “the private producers can just jack up prices”

If there is no private competition, that is true. Lots of private competition on the producer side could mitigate most of this, and because a lot of people want to try to get ahead, they will oblige.

I don’t think that most voters can be convinced of letting governments take over production, outside of the obvious life-and-death cases such as healthcare or defense. It is so difficult to manage production, and to manage the integration of new innovations into production. Everyone would be stymied by a bureaucracy that is likely to become Orwellian.

Again, computers in the future might make the calculation problems more tractable for government.

Introducing the government as a market competitor also invites political problems including more profit extraction by lobbyists, etc.

The other reason that prices go up is due to scarcity of resources or outputs (supply-side inflation or stagflation). If there is no longer a true scarcity, then this reason is less powerful.

One thing that would remain scarce is desirable real estate (e.g. on mountains, at beaches). So producers who want to glorify their lifestyles would feel compelled to increase their prices in order to purchase inflating real estate. But this is no different than the way it is now. Mitigating factors include population size, etc.

U.S. healthcare spending is not high because of government monopsony to privates. The government monopsony (Medicare/Medicaid) in fact serves to control spending. Where the high prices come from is the private insurance system, the extended pharmaceutical patents, etc.

The US could save about a half-trillion dollars a year merely from getting rid of the administrative costs related to the multiple private insurer system. As it happens, I did not include Italy in the following animation, but it’s right in the middle of this OECD pack:


politicalfootball 04.26.18 at 1:25 pm

@35 I did read the article, actually.

Yeah, I’m not surprised. As I said, I think we really have to blame the primary schools for this sort of thing. People shouldn’t be allowed out of 8th grade without some kind of ability to read and apply critical thinking skills to a text.


otpup 04.26.18 at 5:55 pm

@50. Referring to the 18th Brumaire presumably. Though it is hard to know exactly what you think is refuted.


F. Foundling 04.26.18 at 11:29 pm

@ steven t johnson 04.25.18 at 5:27 pm

>F. Foundling is re-affirming a commitment to democracy as it should be in opposition to actually existing socialism as it was

Oh, I see, so I have to accept actually existing socialism precisely as it was, and not try to, you know, improve on it in any way whatsoever. Many thanks for that most kind suggestion, dear sir, but I’m afraid that I will have to ignore it. You see, you might be surprised, but many people don’t actually appreciate it very much when they fight, risk their lives, and see others sacrifice theirs, all in order to establish a new and better system and government, and then have to witness ‘their’ government do, partly immediately and partly at later points, almost every single sort of despicable and idiotic thing that they have always opposed with all their being – when it doesn’t just kill them personally, that is – and finally transform the system back into the previous one, rolling back most of the real positive achievements that it had previously brought. That is not a trivial experience, and many real people lived it. I’m very sorry to disappoint you, but we do, in fact, need some modification next time around.

>The final victory of counter-revolution in China and Korea will demand a horrific toll

Here is another prediction: the final victory of the counter-revolution will be the work of the non-democratic ‘communists’, just as its initial victories were.


LFC 04.27.18 at 1:32 am

s t johnson @57

Each commenter speaks only for himself or herself here. There is no CT “line,” contrary to what you continually suggest.

If you go the route of defining words in any way you want, it is possible to conclude, as you do, that “democracy” means majority “rule,” where “rule” means the minority (or minorities, plural) has no rights and no protected interests and no way of lawfully dissenting from or otherwise opposing government policy claimed to be in the interest of the majority. Ergo, a (hypothetical) regime that, say, confiscates all real property, nationalizes all industries and other businesses regardless of size, abolishes elections, abolishes an independent press, abolishes an independent judiciary, and institutes the rule of an autocratic familial or one-party dynasty, is, on this definition, a “democracy” because it is ruling in the “interest” of the putative “majority,” hence “majority rule.”

This is, to put it charitably, a bizarre definition of democracy. “Majority rule” is not (or should not be) a rhetorical vessel into which can be poured all the substantively dictatorial and quasi-totalitarian forms that have justified themselves as serving the allegedly “true” “interests” of a notional “majority.” The concern with the tyranny of the majority does not derive from some 18th-century philosophe’s deficient classical education and mistranslation of the Greek word “tyranny.” Rather, it derives from what was first-hand experience with regimes that actually displayed the flaws of a tyranny of the majority. (And also, perhaps, from experience of societies and polities that were at least formally democratic but in which holders of opinions that fell outside a fairly narrow range were sometimes made to feel they were outside the bounds of acceptability and hence faced, as Tocqueville put it, “all kinds of unpleasantness and everyday persecution.”)

Btw, I think engels is right about classical Athens and the composition/identity of the demos, and the point can perhaps be extended to certain other historical cases.


steven t johnson 04.27.18 at 2:49 am

otpup@60 professes confusion at what is refuted. otpup’s contention that Marx wasn’t a revolutionist is refuted. otpup is spiritually as one with the democrats who slaughtered the Communards. But Marx, so far from applauding the bloodshed, criticized the Communards for failing to press the struggle. So much for otpup.

F. Foundling pretends that there was no variety across nations in previously existing socialism. The implication is even that there was just one previously existing socialism throughout the socialist era. The nightmare of an immutable regime is of course simply copied from the the nightmare bogies of the totalitarianism propagandists. The haughty pretense changes were forbidden would be contemptible folly were it not so clearly a product of malice. Democracy is a different kind of state, not a socialist reform. The reform of democracies was a centuries long process (women didn’t get the vote til the twentieth century!) But at no moment was democracy reformed by counter-revolution. No one in their right mind ever thought socialism would be reformed by counter-revolution. The goal was to destroy it.

F. Foundling need not fret of course, for F. Foundling’s side won. No one need take seriously the profession that of course real democracy (in honest language, fictional/fantasy democracy) was what was meant. The successors states show every day exactly what F. Foundling’s ilk stood for then, and stands for today. F. Foundling got what F. Foundling wanted. Pretending embarrassment is pointless.

F. Foundling’s last sentence is incoherent gibberish. Democratic governments defend private property, not just a child’s toothbrush, but properties that give owners vast powers over economy, polity and society. Final restoration of capitalism in China will demand a government that restricts production to what is profitable….which will inevitably mean fantastic human suffering. That this will likely require vast bloodshed too merely mean that the F. Foundlings will blame the victims for resisting freedom. I gather mutters about genetic distortions from the attempt to make socialist man often explain such irrational behavior. As for suffering in Korea, F. Foundling’s endorsement of decades of economic warfare speaks for itself.


nastywoman 04.27.18 at 11:22 am

”Final restoration of capitalism in China will demand a government that restricts production to what is profitable….which will inevitably mean fantastic human suffering. That this will likely require vast bloodshed too merely mean that the F. Foundlings will blame the victims for resisting freedom.”

And as I sometimes have to enjoy comments about what type of performance art is my performance art – what type of performance art is the above?


Ogden Wernstrom 04.27.18 at 3:13 pm

steven t johnson exhibits a Dumptian mastery of words, pointing out how others arguments are flawed while also defining the One True Component of Democracy.


roger gathmann 04.28.18 at 5:58 am

Re-discovering socialist history is, I think, part of the program of instituting a socialist future. Myself, I think the domaine de lutte, so to speak, is in understanding the politics of limiting exploitation – for this is basically what motivates socialism. Given that capital rests on the extraction of surplus value – or, in other words, on the exploitation of the worker – the question is: how can we limit that exploitation without either destroying the system of production that we all rely on or creating a party structured government that simply translates one form of exploitation into another and worse form, i.e. authoritarianism? At the moment, the fear of the latter is grossly exaggerated by the liberal and neo-lib side. Although the neo-libs are going to shake the red flag forever to try to defend capital, I think this dodge has lost a lot of its influence. Look at Corbyn’s success, or Sanders in the U.S., or Melanchon’s. Which gets us to the real question, which is how to deal with the economic machinery of exploitation that is both necessary to the market system and productive of the great and cataclysmic social evils we face at the moment. From the past, I would pick the figure of Jaures as a good model, here, partly because he confronted things like anti-semitism and war and tried to forge a consistent socialist program that would encompass civil rights and pacifism. I’d say socialism today has to find a platform that could do the same thing – diminish exploitation, preserve and expand civil rights, and end the war machine, that rightwing form of socialism – the new “socialism of fools.”


F. Foundling 04.28.18 at 2:46 pm

@steven t johnson 04.27.18 at 2:49 am
>As for suffering in Korea, F. Foundling’s endorsement of decades of economic warfare speaks for itself.

Don’t forget to mention my unabashed support for the blood diamond smuggling of the notorious Jonas Savimbi, as well as my well-known financing of the Müsavatists.

Re ‘just one previously existing socialism’, there has been some regional and temporal variation, but in general the same power centre(s) stood behind it, the same model was followed and similar patterns were produced, so what I said applies to all of it, albeit in somewhat different ways and to somewhat different degrees. I do not speak with the experience of just one country in mind; my own heritage and background is rather international.

In general, capitalist ideologues and Stalinists are in perfect agreement on one thing: democracy and private property of the means of production entail each other, and socialism entails dictatorship. Whoever rejects capitalism, demands dictatorship, says the capitalist. Whoever rejects dictatorship, demands capitalism, says the Stalinist. Well, no. The reason to reject capitalism and the reason to reject dictatorship are one and the same: the rejection of power disparity, inequality, abuse of power and systems gone out of the control of the humans that they affect. Speaking of which – freedom, like rational thought, is defined primarily and essentially by its process and only secondarily and conjecturally by its outcome.

Yes, the communist systems did much of what they were supposed to do, too. The lives of many people were enormously improved, millions were lifted out of poverty and provided with free and decent services. I am not saying that the struggle for socialism was fruitless. I certainly would not agree with roger garthmann at 04.28.18 at 5:58 am that the form of exploitation under communism was, on balance, worse than it was and is under capitalism. However, that does not make the many unconscionable and moronic things that the regimes did good or acceptable.

You are accusing ‘me and my ilk’ of having overthrown socialism. In fact, ‘me and my ilk’ fought and died to establish socialism, and then you and your ilk hijacked it and turned it into a system of enormous disparity of power and privilege, which was bound to be abused in the various outrageous ways that have been observed and eventually to revert to capitalism under the leadership of a generation of privileged and cynical elite that you created.


F. Foundling 04.28.18 at 3:25 pm

OK, in retrospect, I got carried away in my irritation and my above comment (04.28.18 at 2:46 pm) sounded a bit silly and presumptious. I personally wasn’t alive at the time to ‘fight and die’ – and I am by no means sure that I would have had the personal courage to do so – nor did Mr Johnson above ‘hijack’ anything; both of us simply speak for competing ‘ilks’, i.e. tendencies and traditions – to a great extent familial ones in my case at least. Others did have the courage to fight and/or die and did live to see their ideals distorted and abused, and I find myself speaking for them, since there happens to be nobody else who can and will any more. I certainly cannot claim their courage for myself.

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