The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Am I a Democratic Socialist?


I can think of four things that term might mean; if someone knows of others, I’d like to hear them.
1. A supporter of the Social Democratic Parties, aka the Second International, whence came all of today’s Labor Parties. They were famous for achieving important reforms and sending the workers of “their” country off to slaughter workers from other countries in the name of increased profit for “their” capitalists.  Also famous for competing with Stalinism over who has done the most within the workers movement to preserve capitalism. They are rotten through and through. No, I’m not one.
2. Someone who believes the Scandinavian countries are socialist (hint: this requires not living there) and/or believes in a “mixed” economy, which essentially means a kindlier, gentler capitalism. The idea that now, when capitalism is utterly rotten and threatening global catastrophe, and must use every form of depravity and violence to preserve itself, to ask it to be more gentle is, in my opinion, suicidal. As overt white supremacists and fascists revive as defenders of capitalism, this kind of activity strikes me as nothing short of presenting our throats to the wolves.
3. Someone who is in favor of socialism, but either believes, or only supports socialism “insofar as,” it can be achieved electorally. History has taught us a hundred hundred times that ruling classes do not give up their power unless forced to do so, and will destroy democratic forms in a heartbeat if they see that as the only way to preserve their privileges. The state serves the ruling class—that is why it is a ruling class—and a capitalist society means capitalists are the ruling class. They will not go down willingly any more than the slave oligarchy in the US South was willing to. That the economic system they based themselves on was thoroughly rotten and unsustainable only made them more desperate. That’s how it works.
4. Someone who believes, first, that the fight to preserve what democratic rights we still have requires a fight for socialism, second, that socialism is, in fact, democracy consistently applied, and, third, in fighting for a society based on democratic workers control of the state, and of production. By this definition, and only by this definition, could I be called a democratic socialist.

Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. Wasn’t the German “opposition” party that sold out Roxa Luxemburg to her death literally called “Social Democrats?”

  2. A social democrat is not a democratic socialist. Norway and Venezuela are social democracies, not democratic socialist states. Yes, Sanders promoting a social democratic agenda for pragmatic reasons confuses this.

  3. Five quotes by Marx and Engels:

    “Above all, it will establish a democratic constitution, and through this, the direct or indirect dominance of the proletariat.” — Friedrich Engels, Principles of Communism, 1847

    “the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy” —The Communist Manifesto, 1848

    “there are countries – such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland – where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means.” —Karl Marx, 1872 speech in Amsterdam

    “Thinking men of all classes begin to see that a new line must be struck out, and that this line can only be in the direction of democracy. But in England, where the industrial and agricultural working class forms the immense majority of the people, democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less. Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it, — the ruling of this great empire; let them understand the responsibilities which inevitably will fall to their share. And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order. […] Moreover, in England a real democratic party is impossible unless it be a working men’s party.” —Frederick Engels, 1881 article in The Labour Standard

    “From Blanqui’s assumption, that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture. This is, of course, a dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organized under the dictatorship of one or several individuals.” —Frederick Engels

  4. I read this and the “Answers” post ( from 2013, and it’s really opened up my eyes as to how imprecise the terminology is on a lot of these issues.

    Like, point 13 on the “Answers” post is all about moving towards a more enlightened form of government, where workers control the mechanisms of the state and can take the steps necessary to reform society towards the “utopian” plan you outlined in there. To me, someone who would fall under category #3 in your post today seems like a person who believes in that goal, but doesn’t believe in the necessity of revolution in order to achieve it, or at least doesn’t believe that yet. Or, maybe, just someone who is willing to give the political process a shot before downing tools and upping weapons.

    I’d probably still consider myself falling under that #3 category at this point, but the events that have occurred since the “Answers” post was written and today are opening my eyes to the probability that our political process is fucked, and “peaceful revolution” is a downright dangerous oxymoron.

  5. skzb

    The first quote is from before they went through the experience of the 1848 revolutions, which is what convinced them at the ruling class will not surrender power peacefully.

    I have no disagreement with the second. That having been accomplished we must, through revolutionary means, fight to defend it.

    As for the third, yes, there are, in theory, circumstances and conditions where it could be accomplished peacefully–there was even a week before the October revolution where Lenin said, if things broke a certain way, insurrection would not be necessary, but the Provisional government went another way and the opportunity was lost. But such opportunities have to do with the power of the working class, with the balance of forces; nowhere does Marx say (after 1848) to abandon the preparation for armed insurrection. Nowhere.

    The 1881 quote speaks of battle using parliamentary means as a form of augmentation, to increase the power of the working class, for a better balance of forces; it does not conflict with Engels belief that the working class must prepare for armed struggle (although the social democrats used that quote, 20 years later, to justify forcing the working class of Germany to slaughter other workers in the name of keeping their parliamentary power. Engels would have been disgusted.

    The last quote I have no quarrel with at all–yes, it must be a rising by the masses, led by a revolutionary organizations, not a putsch carried out by a minority. No one has ever disputed that.

    “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. “ – The Communist Manifesto

    What else you got?

  6. The 1881 speaks of parliamentary means because he was speaking about a parliamentary system. I’d say the same principles apply to the US, and I don’t think Marx’s 1872 quote contradicts that.

    And, yes, I agree we should be prepared for the bourgeoisie to abandon democracy. If they do, they’ll only further infuriate the working class and increase the odds of a successful revolution.

  7. skzb

    When they do, we have to be prepared. If we have been working to convince them to rely on parliamentary means, they will not be prepared. “Yes, by all means,” we can tell them, “vote for the candidates of the revolutionary party, but never trust that the enemy will permit change this way, rely only on your own strength. If you put your trust in the parliamentary system, you are putting your trust in a state run by our enemies.”

  8. I completely agree we should not tell anyone to trust the system. But many people believe they can. The easiest solution is to win an election and see what happens. If you can’t win democratically in the US, you can’t hope to win by any other means. You need Engels’ “actual majority”.

  9. skzb

    By the time there is even a *danger* of winning a majority for socialism, democracy will be suppressed and the working class crushed. That is exactly what fascism is. If we waited to prepare until after they bourgeoisie refused to respect an election, the working class would be facing a massacre. Fortunately, as the Yellow Vests and the Metomoros workers and the Oakland teachers are showing us, the working class feels this lesson instinctively, and also, fortunately, we are able to learn from history and thus avoid those mistakes.

  10. skzb

    Oh, I missed Kragar’s question: Yes, that was the German Social Democracy, the 2nd International.

  11. So do you start the revolution now? Or when? And why don’t you try to ameliorate things in the meantime?

  12. skzb

    The revolution will begin when the contradictions reach an intolerable point.

    I do not believe things can be ameliorated, because I do not think capitalism, at this stage, has the flexibility–that is why however many well-intentioned liberals push for marginal improvements, things keep getting worse. Convincing the working class to support marginal improvements that, supposedly, will be magnanimously granted by alien class forces does nothing to advance their confidence in themselves, their unity, their fighting spirit; it only ties them further to their class enemies, ultimately placing their heads on the block.

    If I am wrong, and things *can* be ameliorated, then only the working class, independent of the capitalist parties, can do so. It is, in any case, the only thing that ever has.

  13. A $15 minimum wage, universal health care, and free higher public education are ameliorations that are possible under capitalism. That’s why I support Sanders, even though he’s only pushing a social democrat agenda.

  14. The ruling elites have long used tools of ignoring, then ridiculing, then marginalizing genuine reforms via their platforms of power in the corporate dominated mass media.

    But those tried-and-true techniques have lost much of their sting; the U.S. House of Representatives is now openly debating medicare-for-all proposals, unthinkable 10 or maybe even five years ago.

    So the elites’ power to control the conversation is slipping away. History shows that, rather than give up, the ruling class will swap out sophisticated propoganda for more hamfisted measures. We could be in for a bumpy ride.

  15. skzb

    Will, you asked above if the condition of workers shouldn’t be ameliorated “in the meantime.” Of course, if the condition of the workers are ameliorated, there will be no revolution, because conditions will not drive the working class to revolt. And, if capitalism is able to do that, so much the better: no one with any sense wants to go through the pain of a revolution, and particularly the period after a revolution, if it is not necessary.

    And this, of course, is the argument of those who insist we can reform capitalism, make it more human. They continue these arguments until capitalism in a given place at a given time finds itself unable to give reforms, and finds the working class unprepared because they’ve been assured capitalism will give them reforms to make their lives bearable, and then they are crushed under the heel of fascism and millions of lives are lost in the wars produced by such crises.

    This is why I utterly reject attempts to “ameliorate” the condition of workers from above, by electing this-or-that politician singing the empty song of reform. The working class must depend only on itself, rejecting all politicians and trade union bureaucrats who want to “help” them. These people are betrayers. If, in the course of the struggle, there *are* reforms to be won (I doubt it, but I’ve been wrong before), only fear of the power of the working class, not the supposed kindness of political operative, can win them. Either way, the way forward is to organize the working class, to build socialist consciousness within the working class, to show them they can trust no one but themselves.

    What amazes me is that today, with every tiny little reform once gained no being taken away, people are still telling us to trust politicians–and politicians in capitalist parties no less! It boggles the mind.

  16. I believe in democracy, but we don’t really have one.
    A modern economic system that works to the benefit of all possible people rather than the benefit of a very few is what I believe would be the best. As a shorthand, I would call such a system Socialism. We clearly don’t have such a system.

    There are some real big problems that are going to occur relatively soon that are a direct result of the current systems in place and which those systems are not suited to dealing with. Climate change and the complete disruption of the current labor system from automation replacement are just two. (Automation replacement leaving large segments of the workforce without a method of collecting income is a bug directly within the current labor system — having tedious jobs done by machines should really be a feature in a sane economic system).

    In a truly democratic or representative democratic system, by definition the people do control the system. So, I support changes to move us into that direction. To get there, we do need to successfully engage, awaken and educate the populace. Once the vast majority of the people are on board, then the desires and actions of autocrats become irrelevant although things like nuclear, chemical and biological weapons provide for some very nasty scenarios if anyone were insane enough to give autocrats unfettered access to such systems. Ahem.

    True democratic reform leads, inevitably, to true revolutionary economic change.

    So, I guess that’s my position in a nutshell.

  17. By “democratic reform” I mean changes to the underlying systems, not just electing a few new politicians.

  18. It looks to me like our problems are deeper than capitalism and socialism.

    There was a time when we had a coal-based economy. Coal brought us railroads. Railroad tracks go from point A to point B, and the trains have to be carefully regulated. Get an unscheduled train and you’re likely to have a trainwreck. Railroads gave us bigger cities than we could have without them. And people could ride trains from city to city, and to any stop along the way. They could hire horse carriages to take them other places. Our warships required coaling stations close to wherever we needed ships, so it was necessary to own Hawaii and the Philippines etc. All very centralized.

    Then we mostly switched to oil. Oil brought us highways. You can drive a truck anywhere there’s a road, and if you follow the rules of the road you can go anywhere without telling anyone where that is. The cities got bigger. Towns that were useful to cities got bigger. Gasoline or diesel tractors replaced sharecroppers; farms got bigger and more “productive”. Tremendous wealth compared to before.

    The wealth increased so fast it could be shared with the workers. If a factory worker bought a powerboat he could ride around on lakes, so what? An RV he could ride across the country on his vacation? Great. A 4WD he could use to get close to his deer stand in hunting season? Fine. Share the wealth, within reason.

    Of course we extracted the cheapest and easiest oil first. We kept looking for more, and finding it, and on average it keeps getting more expensive to find and more expensive to extract. We must use increasing amounts of oil to extract what’s left. Shale oil takes a lot of work to extract, and at some point we’re down to shale oil that we burn as much oil extracting as we get oil out. We’ll quit before then.

    The wealth increases a lot slower than before. Nobody’s as prosperous, though some of the new technology like the computer stuff kind of makes up for it. It’s no longer true that the rich can share the wealth, they’re feeling the pinch. And when they take a bigger share of a smaller pie, everybody else feels the pinch worse.

    To the extent that this is the problem, we won’t solve it by revolting. That’s a distraction from finding cheap plentiful energy. Not to say that the owners are good guys who deserve their stuff. But the revolt is a side issue, it won’t give us more oil. If they won’t organize new energy sources then we have to get them out of the way, but they aren’t the point.

    It’s the cold equations we have to solve, whether or not we dispose of any classes of people.

  19. Jonah:”The wealth increases a lot slower than before.” That does not appear to be true. Wealth is increasing hugely. What has occurred is that the sharing has simply stopped.
    Synopsis — Google increase in total wealth for many more references.

    At some point, the oligarchs viewed the cold equations and decided they wanted everything. Through self rationalizing dragon style logic they ignore that their path leads to total collapse. Or they don’t care as long as they can have a yacht a foot bigger than their rival.

  20. How do you measure wealth?

    Is it by GDP? If we spend $4 to extract $5 of oil, and the oil is sold for $5, so GDP has increased by $5?

    The workers spend the $4, so GDP has increased by $9?

    It looks to me like the money is being manipulated in ways that keep GDP from meaning what we’d want it to. Did almost 1/4 of the wealth in the USA disappear between 2007 and 2009? Or was it a trick?

    “Through self rationalizing dragon style logic they ignore that their path leads to total collapse.”

    Maybe it’s me, but total collapse doesn’t look like wealth increasing hugely. It just doesn’t.

    We have less oil than we used to. Fracking has given us a way to suck out the last dregs faster. This is not really wealth.

  21. It’s all about short-term v. long-term thinking. Corporations demand that their operations focus on turning a profit in the short-term. Nothing else matters. If the oceans start to boil and the very atmosphere becomes deadly a few hundred years from now? As long as there are profits next quarter and for the fiscal year.

    The population, however, is perfectly capable of long-term thinking. That’s why huge majorities in the U.S. favor radical action to combat climate change, profits-be-damned. And rightly so. But the government, currently in the pockets of the corporations, is unresponsive to these concerns.

    Same goes for health care, taxing the wealthy, peace, education, full employment, just wages, and the like. What the people need is power. Power to force the current government to move forward on these issues, or power to take the reins themselves. Probably more likely the latter.

  22. Steve Halter, yep, wealth is growing rapidly. It’s just not going to the people who do the work, or to the people who are excluded from doing the work.

  23. Steve Brust,

    “Will, you asked above if the condition of workers shouldn’t be ameliorated “in the meantime.” Of course, if the condition of the workers are ameliorated, there will be no revolution, because conditions will not drive the working class to revolt.”

    So your position is we should make the working class suffer as much as possible until they revolt? Gotta disagree.

    Yes, there will come a point where capitalists will not grant any more concessions. That’s why we should keep trying to make life better for the working class until we reach that point.

  24. Kragar:Exactly. Huge majorities favoring things that don’t then happen is precisely how to tell that we aren’t in anything resembling a democracy.
    Will: (Short post answering my post) Yes.

    Jonah:The various articles (or at least the useful ones) define what they mean by wealth. Dragons horde their wealth purely for their own idiosyncratic reasons. The removal of wealth from the system leads to the collapse. Also, oil will shortly not equate to wealth, it just happens that a lot of very rich people’s current wealth is in those terms.

  25. skzb

    Will: I assume that was not a deliberate misreading of what I said, so kindly reread it.

  26. Steve, this is the part I’m having trouble with, and I’m sorry if I’m misreading you:

    “This is why I utterly reject attempts to “ameliorate” the condition of workers from above, by electing this-or-that politician singing the empty song of reform. The working class must depend only on itself, rejecting all politicians and trade union bureaucrats who want to “help” them. These people are betrayers. If, in the course of the struggle, there *are* reforms to be won (I doubt it, but I’ve been wrong before), only fear of the power of the working class, not the supposed kindness of political operative, can win them. Either way, the way forward is to organize the working class, to build socialist consciousness within the working class, to show them they can trust no one but themselves.”

    A $15 minimum wage, universal health care, and free public higher education are viable ameliorations. We know this because other capitalist countries support them. Yet you seem to be rejecting the idea that we should do anything to support them until the working class wins them by doing something which you have not identified. What is that thing that you think the working class should do instead of voting for Sanders?

    And out of curiosity, are you suggesting that the working class does not support those three things? The polls suggest they do, and the capitalists are doing what they can to suppress them.

  27. skzb

    First of all, “We know this because other capitalist countries support them. ” is, with all due respect, shoddy reasoning. It goes, “they are capitalist, and we are capitalist, and they can do it, so we can do it.” It takes the abstraction, “capitalism” out of its historic context.

    Look at how and when and under what circumstances those other capitalist countries got them. They were not granted by a magnanimous politicians, but they were either won by direct working class struggle, or through the creation of labor parties (which also emerged from working class struggle). Also, and probably more significant, is they were won during the post-war boom, when capitalism had some flexibility—flexibility that is now, in my opinion, lacking. Under no conditions ever were they won by saying, “support this or that politician from a capitalist party.”

    And, by the way, I’m all for medicaire for all, and if the ruling class becomes so frightened of working class outrage that they manage to give that (I don’t think can for the reasons I stated, but, as I say, I could be wrong), then I think that’s great. However, $15 minimum wage??? Seriously? I cannot believe that there are those actually going out there, fighting for a minimum wage that no one can actually live on! “But it’s an improvement!” they cry. Why not $30? Well, because, of course, it is unreasonable to expect politicians to approve that. And that is why asking the working class to rely on politicians is betrayal.

  28. Not saying they will do it. Only saying they can. The only way to find out if they will is to get Sanders elected.

    And, yes, strikes are a good thing.

    As for $15 minimum wage, no one’s saying we should stop there. But first we have to get there.

  29. I thought Steve’s message was clear. I will try to repeat it in my own words. If I get it wrong then maybe he will say where I’m wrong and I”ll learn something.

    The argument is that the owners will not give up anything without a fight.

    Supporting Sanders is not giving them a fight at all. Sanders, a politician, talks about what he will give to citizens. Citizens give him money and time. Supporting Sanders is like going to the politicians with your bowl and asking “Please sir, may I have some more?”

    So then the Democratic Party answers you. “No, you may not have ‘more’. We have rules we have made up about how you have to ask, and you have not begged urgently enough. The rules we have for how the decision is made are sacrosanct and cannot be broken unless we decide to break them. Sorry. Next time beg harder.”

    And Sanders replies too. “So sorry, voters! Better luck next time! Now I want you to vote for Kamala Harris (Or Joe Biden, or whoever.) Support me again in 2 years or 4 years, and THIS time we’ll win together!”

    If you’re strong you can demand Sanders, and the party will give you Sanders. Then when he wins the election and he starts to back down on his promises, you demand that you get what was promised and he delivers.

    Or you demand a constitutional convention to replace the rules of the game with your rules, and they go along.

    When you’re strong and you agree among yourselves then you get what you want if it’s something the economy can provide.

    (Where the working class and automation fit in together I’m not clear, but that isn’t about what Steve is saying.)

  30. Yes, I’ve heard the sheepdog theory. I don’t buy it.

  31. It doesn’t matter what Bernie wants if this is the outcome.

    Asking Bernie to fight the Establishment and get good stuff for you, is not getting power yourself. If he has to play by the game with rules that can’t let him win, and he plays by those rules, it doesn’t get you any power.

    You only get them to recognize your power when you are in fact powerful.

  32. Jonah, you are now in the realm of “It doesn’t matter if you want to be a tool of Satan.” You believe this. I do not.

    I am talking about three specific things Sanders fights for. I think they are worth supporting, and more importantly, so does the working class.

  33. And since we’re now at the point where we’re arguing what we believe, I’ll only return if I spot an error of fact that seems worth correcting.

    Mind you, I completely agree it’s good to educate people about socialism. I would be more popular with liberals if I stopped doing that. But I don’t think the choice is between helping the working class within the system or educating people for the collapse of the system. I embrace “and”.

  34. “Jonah, you are now in the realm of “It doesn’t matter if you want to be a tool of Satan.”

    It doesn’t matter whether Bernie WANTS to be a tool of Satan, if he in fact IS a tool of Satan.

    Is it true? If he gets elected president and proceeds to get his programs put in place, that proves he isn’t.

    I don’t see any other way he can prove it. Do I think that will happen? Probably not. But I’d be happy if it does.

  35. Will–

    My understanding of the “sheep-dog” theory is that Bernie Sanders was supposed to go around talking a good game about a genuinely progressive program, which would get young people all riled up. Then, when push came to shove, he was to bow out of the race and deliver his army of young and enthused supporters over to the corporate democrats, who excite no one. Well, that’s pretty much exactly what happened, isn’t it? Except that the young people didn’t really go for it. What part of that is there to disagree with?


    The modern day Democrats in the United States are adept at coopting and then selling out genuine reformers, but it seems the Social Democrats of Germany in the interwar period went even further. Their targets ended up beaten to death with a rifle butt and dumped in a river as opposed to merely being discredited and defrocked. Now that’s a sell out!


  36. skzb

    Kragar: Yeah. The German Social Democrats still may hold the record for the greatest betrayal, maybe the greatest *two* betrayals, of the working class, rivaled only by the Stalinists refusing to unload the guns the Spanish workers were waiting for.

  37. Which commonly misused examples are closer to “socialist”? The Scandinavian countries, or Venezuela?

  38. Neither. Which of these ducks is closer to being a cat? The mallard or the wood duck?

  39. If you’re trying to figure out whether Norway or Venezuela is more socialist, the answer is Norway (though both are social democracies, not socialist states):

  40. Unlike in UK LeGuin’s EarthSea novels, there is no True Language that truly reflects reality and is the one true way to talk. People develop meanings by connotation, by a sort of consensus, and different communities talk different ways.

    I believe I understand some of the other meanings for “socialism” though I don’t advocate them.

    Here’s one — Some people make a distinction between “freedom from threats” and “freedom to do”. Some of the people who make that distinction, say that government should be about “freedom from” only, and not “freedom to”. So they think that government should concentrate on things like military and police. Things to protect us from external and internal threats. Anything that government does to help out poor people who cannot achieve without government aid, is socialism and therefore wrong.

    Here’s another — By exactly the same reasoning that some people use to say that natural ecosystems balance themselves and should be left alone by humans, some people argue that ;free markets regulate themselves the best possible way by themselves, and should be entirely left alone by governments. Any attempt by government to provide things for people that free markets don’t provide them naturally, is socialism and therefore wrong. Also any attempt to regulate the economy.

    Here’s a third — People should pay for what they get. Superior people deserve more, and they will get more by their own efforts. Adequate people will do OK. Inferior people must not thrive or the breed will be weakened. If they are coddled and given things they don’t deserve, that’s bad for society. It follows that people should benefit from government according to what they pay. The people who pay the most taxes should get the most benefit. The top 10% has 45% of the income and pays 53% of the taxes. So they ought to get 53% of the benefits. When the bottom 90% get more than their share of the benefits, that’s socialism and therefore wrong.


    These are all moral arguments. As a moral relativist I am not much impressed by any of them.

  41. Will:Yes, if asking which is more of a Social Democracy then Norway wins. Neither is a Socialist state.

  42. I wanted to make a note about a common misconception on Socialism I have seen in practice about the webs and which I think probably has lead some commenters here astray in the past.

    Recently, Trump yelled at GM to reopen a plant. There were then a number of people commenting (some at a humor attempt, others not) that he was just doing Socialism as “isn’t government control of industry Socialism.”

    The answer is that no, what Trump is doing is trying to be a dictator. Dictators like to dictate–that’s kind of what they do.

    Socialism is the workers control of the means of production. The government should naturally flow from this control–not the other way around. Who is in control makes all the difference. I see very few workers involved in the Trump administration.

  43. It’s kleptocrats, all the way down…

  44. After this new wave of progressive Democrat congresspeople have their energy absorbed and their reform attempts derailed by the corporate Dems who actually run the show, then can we finally give up on “reforming” the Democratic party from within?


    “What is Biden Waiting For?”

  45. The Democratic Party is no more the party of the workers than the Republican Party is the party of limited government.

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