by David Salzillo Jr. '24
Eugene Debs, George Orwell, Bernie Sanders: what do they all have in common? A commitment to democratic socialism. Once a dirty word in American politics, it has transformed into a rallying cry for economic and social justice. Youth membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has reached all-time highs, and likely will continue to do so. This raises the question: should I become an official DSA member? And should you?
In short, no. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. I was an enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016 and 2020. I support Senator Sanders’ vision for this country and for working people, and I agree with probably about 80-90 percent of his policy positions (if not more). Still, I would never consider joining the Democratic Socialists of America.
Why? For one, I am not a socialist. I am not a socialist because, honestly, I’m not sure what the word means anymore. The DSA supports “the abolition of capitalism.” Okay, what does that entail? Much of what Bernie Sanders advocated for on the campaign trail, strictly speaking, is not socialist under that definition. President Truman proposed a nationwide universal healthcare program almost 80 years ago, well before Bernie Sanders brought it back into the national conversation. Yet Truman never called for the abolition of capitalism. And FDR—one of Bernie Sanders’ biggest political influences—is known for saving capitalism from itself. He’s obviously not a socialist either. So what makes the Bernie Sanders of 2016 and 2020 a socialist?
Perhaps I am being a bit cheeky, and maybe I am more eager to save capitalism from itself than my fellow progressives are. Even if you are not so optimistic about capitalism, consider this: even unabashedly “we need to abolish capitalism” democratic socialists will not agree on its replacement. Will there be competition? To what degree will the state control the economy? To what degree will the workers control the economy? An organization devoted to abolishing capitalism ought to have a better idea of what exactly they are trying to abolish. Finally, let’s say democratic socialists did come to an agreement on how to abolish capitalism best. Well, no matter what agreement they came to, they could no longer consult the mixed economies of Europe for guidance. They would be on their own, much like the free-market absolutists searching for that perfect capitalist state.
Now, I agree with the DSA that an organization devoted to changing the lives of working people needs a broad vision. For too long, many of our non-socialist Democratic politicians have failed us in that respect. They have not challenged us to help create a world where justice truly “roll[s] down like waters.” They have failed to stand up for our rights to decent medical care, a living wage, and a good education. They have hollowed out FDR’s agenda, turning the Democratic Party into an upholder of the status quo. In doing so, they have trampled on our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To life, because they have forced those at the bottom to sacrifice their livelihoods—and sometimes their lives—for those at the top. To liberty, because they have restricted equality of opportunity to certain zip codes and life circumstances. And to the pursuit of happiness, because that right is a cruel joke without the others.
Yes, I agree with the DSA about all that. Too many of the non-socialist Democratic politicians of the recent past have failed to connect economic justice to social justice, with disastrous consequences for their and our posterity. Yet it does not have to be this way. To those that propose the abolition of capitalism, I propose the reinstatement of democratic capitalism. Free markets with fairness, ownership with responsibility, and government with the power to ensure these things. As former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich put it, “democratic capitalism is neither socialism nor ‘big government;’” it is the government “[organizing] the market for the greater good.”
So no, I am not a democratic socialist, and I will never join the DSA. Does that mean I refuse to cooperate or work with them? Absolutely not. All movements will have their disagreements; why should the movement for economic and social justice be any different? We must support each other in our common struggle despite such disputes. That said, while I respect the DSA’s work and I appreciate their good intentions, their vision for economic justice is simply not mine.