Chapter 7. Democratic Socialism and Communism: Ideologies of the Left

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As the twenty-first century dawned, it appeared that liberal democracies had won the day. The fall of the Soviet Union indicated that the appeal of communism was waning. Many countries in Eastern Europe adopted some form of democracy and initiated market reforms that might lead to a capitalist system.

However, the story of politics is much more complicated. A number of countries, such as China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam, still maintain some form of communism. Indeed, the early twenty-first century saw a rise of a number of Latin American leaders who are quite vocal in their criticism of the capitalism embraced by many liberal democracies, most notably the United States. Even more numerous are the nations that hesitate to embrace all the ideals of liberal democracy, particularly that of a free market. Despite the current popularity of liberalism and democracy, there continues to be a vibrant leftist tradition that offers a powerful critique of liberalism and its own version of how to achieve the good life. Chapter 8 explores the ideologies of the left: namely, democratic socialism and communism.

Democratic socialism, as the term indicates, combines democracy and socialism. Politically, it involves a commitment to popular, constitutional rule and the protection of basic rights. Economically, it involves an equitable distribution of the community’s wealth. Democratic socialists maintain that key aspects of economic life must be publicly owned or socially controlled to ensure this equitable distribution. Socially, democratic socialism involves the belief that all human beings, in a cooperative community, should have the opportunity to fulfill their good and creative potential. There are many sources of democratic socialism, including the Judaic-Christian tradition’s concern for the poor, the nineteenth-century utopians, Marxist thought, revisionists of Marxist thought, the Fabian socialists in England, and the trade union movement.

Critics of democratic socialism argue that sooner or later the demand for equality will lead to a loss of liberty and that socialism is inherently inefficient. To its defenders, democratic socialism constitutes a brave attempt to advance social justice for those who have been least free in society. Pragmatically, its defenders argue that it offers a sane middle ground between capitalism and communism.

Although communism shares with democratic socialism a powerful critique of capitalism, it is a distinct political ideology, with its own diagnosis of what ails society. The call for equality, which lies at the heart of communism, is best captured in the motto: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The key ideals of communism include a vision of a better world, which pointedly appeals to the oppressed worker and the exploited, and a philosophy of history. Communism purports to explain the evolution and structure of all human society. It describes the historical development of society as a clash of material and economic forces. Finally, communism is a strategy of revolutionary action for overthrowing capitalism.

The key sources of communist thought are Karl Marx, who provided much of its economic theory, V. I. Lenin, who was a master revolutionary in Russia, Josef Stalin, who built up communism in the Soviet Union created by Lenin and others, and Mao Zedong, who took communism to China and into a very agricultural society.

To its critics, communism is too utopian, potentially totalitarian, and a failed theory of economics. To its defenders, communism remains a truly liberating philosophy that offers the only theory of politics and economics to truly appreciate the force of history and the power of economics.

Democratic socialism and communism remain important political forces. They will remain so as long as economic and social conditions create significant inequalities. The demand for some kind of egalitarian politics will not disappear, although it might appear under different names and in different guises. No matter what name it appears under, we can be sure that traditions of criticism developed by socialists and communists will contribute to any new ideology devoted to making people politically equal.

Chapter Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to...

  • define social democracy.
  • explain the sources of this ideology.
  • offer a criticism and defense of democratic socialism.
  • define communism.
  • explain the contributions that Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao made to communism.
  • offer a criticism and defense of communism.