Volume > Issue > Reflections on the Past & Future of Democratic Socialism

Reflections on the Past & Future of Democratic Socialism


By Irving Howe | October 1990
Irving Howe is Editor of Dissent. Among his many books is World of Our Fathers, which won a National Book Award.

Our minds go back in time. At a meeting of workers in Berlin in the 1870s, a social democrat named August Bebel speaks. He advances a new vision of human action and possibility. He tells his audience that people who work with their hands need not be subordinate and mute, need not assume that the destinies of nations are always to be decided by superiors in power. He tells his listeners that they, too, count. They count in their numbers; they count in their capacities to come together; they count in their crucial role in the productive process; they count in their readiness to sacrifice. The mute will speak; the shapeless mass is now to act as a coherent class; the objects of history will become subjects prepared to transform it. This was the socialist message, the socialist vision as it began to be heard more than a century ago. It was heard in England in the night schools, in the labor colleges, sometimes on the edges of the dissident chapels. It was heard in France through the more revolutionary traditions of that country, in the Paris Commune where organs of plebeian autonomy were being improvised. And even here in America, it was heard among immigrants packed into slums or sweating over railroad beds and in sweatshops. It was heard among freewheeling sailors and lumbermen who preferred a syndicalist version of revolt. It was heard among Jewish immigrants on the East Side. It was heard among intellectuals and Christian pastors in New York who found that the promptings of thought and sympathy drove them to the socialist vision.

After more than a century, many hopes have been burned into ashes; generations have perished in despair; movements have been drowned in blood; and many people in those movements have lapsed into silence. The socialist idea is no longer young, no longer innocent, and now must compete in a world of sophistication.

We are living through a tremendously exciting and encouraging experience in Europe: the collapse of the Communist dictatorships with their disastrous “command” economies. Many of the criticisms that democratic socialists have been making these past four or five decades of Communist totalitarianism and authoritarian dictatorships — criticisms at once political, economic, and moral — have now been vindicated. People want freedom; life without the right to speak and organize freely is intolerable; one-party regimes are inherently reactionary. At the same time, we democratic socialists in America are skeptical about some of the proposed “solutions” for the East European countries — unqualified turnings to the “free market,” something that no one has yet defined clearly and which exists nowhere in the world. In any case, we hope that the democratic socialist movements in Europe will play a part in the reconstruction of East European countries.

We know the mistakes and the failures of this past century. Yet these failures and mistakes notwithstanding, there remains a living core of socialist belief, commitment, value. At one point that living core is very close to liberalism: a belief in the widest possible political freedoms, a belief that democracy remains the basis, the one indispensable foundation of all that we want. Without democracy, nothing is possible. But socialism introduces something new, historically and analytically. It introduces the idea that the plebes, the ordinary people, can rise to articulation, rise to rulership, to power. Formerly this meant the working class per se. More sophisticated socialists include a much wider range of the population, all the exploited and misused, the racial minorities, the women, the large mass of humanity.

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