From the Left, A Debate on Capitalism, Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism

Sdoa_1932_poster First, Sheri Berman in Dissent (via bookforum):

Helping people adjust to capitalism, rather than engaging in a hopeless and ultimately counterproductive effort to hold it back, has been the historic accomplishment of the social democratic left, and it remains its primary goal today in those countries where the social democratic mindset is most deeply ensconced. Many analysts have remarked, for example, on the impressive success of countries like Denmark and Sweden in managing globalization—promoting economic growth and increased competitiveness even as they ensure high employment and social security. The Scandinavian cases demonstrate that social welfare and economic dynamism are not enemies but natural allies. Not surprisingly, it is precisely in these countries that optimism about globalization is highest. In the United States and other parts of Europe, on the other hand, fear of the future is pervasive and opinions of globalization astoundingly negative. American leftists must try to do what the Scandinavians have done: develop a program that promotes growth and social solidarity together, rather than forcing a choice between them. Concretely this means agitating for policies—like reliable, affordable, and portable health care; tax credits or other government support for labor-market retraining; investment in education; and unemployment programs that are both more generous and better incentivized—that will help workers adjust to change rather than make them fear it.

JUST AS important, however, is that the left regain its old optimism and historical vision. And here, interestingly, is where Harrington still has something to teach. In his writings, he insisted on the left’s need for some larger sense of where it wanted the world to be heading. Without this, he argued, the left would be directionless and uninspiring.

David Duhalde responds in The Activist:

I have generally assumed that most social democrats believe in working towards democratic socialism. I consider myself a social democrat, but do not consider the Scandinavian welfare states to be the highest potential form of human development. Thus, I take issue with the narrow view of what is possible in Sheri Berman’s article “Unheralded Battle: Capitalism, the Left, Social Democracy, and Democratic Socialism” in the winter 2009 issue of Dissent. We find Berman ready to bury the democratic socialist project in favor of capitalism –- albeit capitalism with a human face.

While flawed, Berman’s analysis is still spot on in many respects. She reminds us that the Left had predicted the problems of casino capitalism and neo-liberalism years ago. Now that our warnings have become reality, the openness to left alternatives exists again. She implores us to re-examine Marxism and its ideological children before we look forward.

Berman's rejoinder:

I want to begin by noting what was perhaps not sufficiently stressed in my essay in Dissent, namely that democratic socialism and social democracy are of course siblings. They spring from the same (intellectual and political) background, have historically often lived in the same parties, and share many of the same goals, both immediate and long-term. With regard to immediate goals, both democratic socialists and social democrats support reforms that improve the lives of the poor and underprivileged. In addition (and here I perhaps differ from David) both democratic socialist and social democrats prefer reforms that also shift the “power relations” in society, i.e. reforms that not only improve the lives of the poor and underprivileged but also provide them with a greater ability to shape the evolution of the political economy in the future. Another key similarity between democratic socialists and social democrats, of course, is that they share the same long-term goal, i.e. the creation of a more just, equal and humane world through democratic means.

Despite these critical similarities, there are also, of course, important differences between democratic socialists and social democrats.