Democratic or totalitarian socialism and social democracy

There is a famous quote which goes, "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism," a quote whose origin is somewhat mysterious. This quote highlights a common problem in our societies, found mostly among right-wingers: the fear and poor understanding of socialism and anything that is not capitalist. With this in mind, the following article will discuss democracy, totalitarianism, socialism, democratic socialism, and social democracy.

Let us define democratic socialism and social democracy. Conservatives believe (or mislead) that people who identify as democratic socialists or social democrats (although I am fairly certain they have never heard the second term) are totalitarian socialists or communists or even fascists. (I write "people who identify as..." to show the contrast between the labels and the actual beliefs, but more on that soon.) It is, of course, not true that democratic socialists support totalitarianism. Occupy Democrats posted a photo (which eventually led to my writing this article) which explains democratic socialism:

A democratic socialist is not a Marxist socialist or a communist. A democratic socialist is still a capitalist, just one who seeks to restrain the self-destructive excesses of capitalism and channel government's use of our tax money into creating opportunities for everyone. Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically to meet human needs, not simply to make profits for a greedy few. (Occupy Democrats Facebook Page, September 22, 2015)

This quote is a fairly accurate description of what self-described democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and myself believe: it is about regulating the capitalist economy. I shared this photo to my Facebook page and added some thoughts of my own:

This is a pretty accurate description. As I always say, democratic socialism (like in Scandinavia) is a mix of socialism and capitalism, and that is the way it already is in most, if not all, developed countries, including the United States of America. The difference is that the balance between socialism and capitalism is different in different nations, and America needs more socialism (like for example universal healthcare). (Patrick Hall's Facebook page, September 22, 2015)

So are we satisfied with the definition that has been provided for democratic socialism? Not completely. Paul Kasiński commented that the definition provided is actually for social democracy, not democratic socialism. I had no choice but to agree with him, because he is correct. However, I argued that the terms democratic socialism and social democracy have in their mainstream usage become synonymous, which is also correct, especially in the sense that languages evolve over time. I wrote that in the end, it is just semantics, and I also included a brief quote from Wikipedia explaining the point I was making:

However, "democratic socialism" is sometimes erroneously used as a synonym for social democracy, where "social democracy" refers to support for political democracy, regulation of the capitalist economy, and a welfare state. (Wikipedia, retrieved on September 25, 2015.)

Even so, Paul is absolutely correct when he says Occupy Democrats described social democracy (with its capitalist economy) and that democratic socialism is exactly what is sounds like: a democratic form of socialism. One brief addition I would like to make to the definition of social democracy is that it can mean either support for political democracy, regulation of the capitalist economy, and a welfare state or it can mean the support for a gradual transition from a capitalist economy to a socialist one; social democracy can, according to one definition, be but a milestone in the journey to democratic socialism. I am a social democrat primarily in the first sense, but I do believe that a fully socialist economy could work very well, eliminating the oppressive classes which in most cases are feudally forced upon us based on our circumstances of birth.

The correct terminology for what Occupy Democrats was defining and what most so-called "socialists" in the west actually believe is therefore social democracy, whereas democratic socialism is pure socialism, but with a democratic political system rather than the totalitarian version conservatives believe is inherent to socialism. However, in practice, the two terms are used synonymously. People identify as democratic socialists even though they should be called social democrats.

Paul argued that it is not a good thing that social democracy and democratic socialism have become synonymous, because it means we "abandon what democratic socialism refers to," meaning a socialist economic system and a democratic political system. He made the excellent point that essentially giving the term democratic socialism to capitalism means we "forget the idea of democracy without capitalism, conceding that socialism must always be combined with totalitarianism and giving up on alternate democratic forms of society that don't involve capitalism." It does not hurt to say once more that this is an excellent point, and one I will have to keep in mind in my future usage of the terms democratic socialism and social democracy.

This is when the quote I began this article with came to mind: "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism." The quote makes much sense, and that is very sad. The right-wing capitalists have managed to imbue such fear of socialism into the hearts of the brainwashed masses that even a more worker- and people-friendly variant of capitalism terrifies them, because it includes socialist ideas. The best way to help normalize socialism is not by co-opting any positive terminology which should refer to socialism in order to refer to the socialist tendencies of what is still a capitalist economic system; instead, we should speak of capitalism with socialist influences, to help make the transition from fear of socialism to curiosity as to how democratic socialism would work, in theory and in practice.

As a society, we should not let go of the idea that socialism can be democratic, just like capitalism. Nor should we forget that capitalism is prone to oligarchy, corruption, wealth gaps, poverty, and a poor standard of living. A regulated market may work, or it may just be the first step we must take toward a society which truly embraces democratic socialism.

Thank you, Paul Kasiński, for inspiring this article with an excellent comment.