Social Democracy As An American Ideal

Many people refer to social democracy as "socialism," so that is probably where I should start. It is, for the most part, inaccurate (or meaningless) to call social democracy "socialism." In the modern context, the term is either just a slur devoid of substance or virtue signaling. Social democrats that call themselves socialists do so because it makes them sound more radical than they really are, which makes them feel cool, whereas people on the right use the term because it is a term of derision in their estimation. In either case, the term is devoid of any substantial meaning. Back in the day, social democracy was regarded as "socialism," because socialism just meant any critique of, or alternative to, the status quo in industrialized society. When Eduard Bernstein—the father of modern social democracy—was writing, his ideas were considered socialistic. At the time, the term "socialism" was so broad that advocating laissez-faire was considered socialism. Libertarian socialists like Benjamin Tucker and Ricardian socialists like Thomas Hodgskin actually advocated free-markets as the alternative to capitalism. You see, "capitalism" just meant actually existing economic arrangements in industrial societies, while "socialism" just designated anything other than that. Referring to social democracy as socialism harks back to a time when laissez-faire was also considered socialistic. Historically, it was correct to say that social democracy is "democratic socialism," but it is basically inaccurate to refer to social democracy as "socialism" today, even though some social democrats like Bernie Sanders do so. To refer to modern social democracy as "socialism" is anachronistic. "Socialism" isn't quite an accurate description of social democracy in our modern age. Language evolves over time and the definitions of terms change with it.

The term "social democracy" comes from Europe and does bear some relation to socialism. Social democracy does, in fact, have its roots in Revisionist Marxism. Do not let that term fool you: Revisionist Marxism is not Marxism. The founder of modern social democracy was Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein accepted Marx's general critique of exploitation and accumulation under capitalism, but his "Revisionist Marxism" did depart from Marxism in a very fundamental way. Traditional Marxism, following the Communist Manifesto, held that the social revolution must come about by the spontaneous revolt of the working class or proletariat, in which the workers seize control of the State (dictatorship of the proletariat), and establish State-ownership of the means of production (socialism) with government controlling distribution of goods and services rather than markets (planned economy). Revisionist Marxism, while it did accept Marx's general analysis and critique of capitalism, primitive accumulation, exploitation, etc., rejected the main points of the Communist Manifesto. Eduard Bernstein, the "Revisionist Marxist" who founded modern social democracy, argued that the social revolution must come about through democratic means, by using electoral politics. By establishing universal suffrage in a democratic state, you would put the workers in control of government by default; for the working masses constitute the majority in every capitalistic society. Thus, social democracy rejects the ideas of violent revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, as conceived by Marx. In contrast to socialism (Marxism), which advocates violent revolution, social democracy advocates peaceful democratic reforms. Furthermore, Marx defined socialism as State-ownership of the means of production within a planned economy, yet the social democrats explicitly deny the need to abolish private-ownership of the means of production, instead insisting that private-ownership and markets can and should be preserved. In Marxist terms, then, social democracy is actually not a form of socialism at all. Social democracy entails private-ownership of industry within a market system, which means it is not socialist in the Marxist sense. In the early days of social democracy, its adherents continued to call it "democratic socialism," because socialism was a broad term that encompassed everything but the status quo.

Social democrats came to advocate using electoral politics and democratic means to ensure better working conditions, decent wages, environmental protections, universal access to education and healthcare, etc. When social democrats call themselves socialists, then, this can be seen as more of an analogy than a genuine identification with Marxism. Marxism (theoretically, at least) sought the economic liberation of mankind. It wished to free men from domination by bosses and owners of industry. Social democrats share those humanistic values, but reject socialism (State-ownership and a planned economy) in favor of capitalism (private-ownership and markets) with some regulations and protections against exploitation. And Marxist theory, while it was the point of departure for Bernstein, plays virtually no role in modern social democratic thought. Even in Bernstein, I am inclined to think that Marx's thought has no essential role, by which I mean that one could throw out Marx and replace him with G. K. Chesterton or Henry George without substantially altering the nature of social democracy as Bernstein espoused it.

When we speak of "socialism" today, we generally mean Marxism. "Socialism" to the American means something fundamentally unAmerican. Social democracy, on the other hand, is something fundamentally American, by which I mean it can be rooted in the ideas of the American Founding Fathers. Social democrats advocate things like Medicare, Social Security, Universal Healthcare, and progressive taxation. These are all fundamentally American ideals. Thomas Jefferson advocated progressive taxation because he thought it was necessary to redistribute wealth in order to guarantee equality. Social Security is actually based on Thomas Paine's proposal in Agrarian Justice. However, Paine's proposal was far more social democratic and actually more closely resembles universal basic income. In 1798, John Adams signed a law that established a mandate for universal health insurance among seaman and established government-run hospitals at all marine ports. This was a public healthcare system with something akin to the ObamaCare individual mandate. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton both supported the establishment of such a public healthcare system. This was an attempt at something approaching universal healthcare. True universal healthcare was not feasible at the time and limited public healthcare was the best they could expect to achieve. The writings of the Founding Fathers generally sound more like a Bernie Sanders' speech than anything you would hear coming from the Republican Party. In fact, the Founding Fathers generally despised conservatives, which they referred to as tories, a term which derives from the Irish and Scottish word(s) for criminal or thief.

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