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Mapping the American Progressive Movement


I have a piece at Foreign Affairs that should be out soon. It’s an elaboration of what I see as the key principles of progressive foreign policy. I’ll post about those later. For now, I want to focus on  a throwaway claim that I expect will rankle some readers:

Although American progressives—who include left-liberals, social democrats, and democratic socialists—enjoy a rough consensus on many broad domestic policy aims, if not always the means by which to achieve them, recent months have seen an uptick in concern (usually focused on the left) about the lack of a progressive vision for foreign policy.

I expect that a good number of self-identified democratic socialists will reject the idea that they are part of a “rough consensus” that disagrees on means rather than on ends. After all, some members of the democratic-socialist movement explicitly position themselves as anti-capitalist. For them, modern social democrats are sellouts who embraced “third way” politics during the 1990s. And when it comes to their views of left-liberals? As traffic reporters said of the Gowanus Expressway when I lived in New York: “fuhgeddaboudit.”

Sheri Berman is another person who might disagree with this assessment. She wrote two of the most important books on the history of social-democratic practice and ideology. Her view of Democratic Socialists is much less inclusive. As she writes in the Washington Post:

The story of the non-communist left since the late 19th century is the story of the battle between these two groups: democratic socialists and social democrats. Debates between them tore apart many socialist parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and came to a head during the interwar years, when new European democracies formed at the end of World War I fell into crisis, forcing the left to confront its views of capitalism and democracy.

Despite socialist parties being the largest ones in most European countries after 1918, democratic socialists still rejected coalitions with “bourgeois” parties, making the formation of stable governments extremely difficult. Even when democracy began crumbling, democratic socialists did not shift course. In Italy, for example, the Italian Socialist Party refused to join governments despite being the largest party; it stood by while leftist radicals engaged in nonparliamentary (even violent) activities; and in June 1922, when the party’s parliamentarians voted to support nonsocialist forces committed to fighting fascism, the leadership expelled the “collaborationists.” Mussolini took power that October. In Germany, meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party accepted governing responsibility, but when the Great Depression hit, democratic socialist views convinced much of the party’s leadership and its most important economic theoretician, Rudolf Hilferding, that not much could be done to alter the “logic” of capitalism. The inaction helped bring the Nazis to power.

My reconstruction (“interpretation” is more accurate, because I add some content) of Berman’s position appears in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Ideologies of the American Left, First Take

Here, we can map relevant positions for the modern American left—your mileage may, and will vary in other countries—along two axes: general views toward political liberalism (understood as representative democracy and political rights rooted in the liberal tradition) and economic liberalism (essentially, capitalism and related individual, property-oriented economic rights). Left-liberals and social democrats are committed to political liberalism, but differ on capitalism. Thus:

    • Orthodox social democrats were basically socialists who embraced political liberalism—and the implication that might place constraints on the adoption of a socialist economy.
    • New, or contemporary, social democrats are largely indifferent to economic liberalism and capitalism. Their position is pragmatic: they will embrace varying degrees of economic liberalism if it forwards goals of social and economic justice.
    • Left-liberals, however, want to save capitalism from itself. They believe that economic rights are related, but subordinate, to political liberties. Left-liberals think that unfettered markets are dangerous to democracy and political rights, produce inequalities based on power rather than merit, create market failures and negative externalities, and can generally lead to unacceptable human suffering. So they want regulated markets and social insurance as a way of making capitalism ‘work’ for everyone and preventing oligarchic concentrations of wealth.
    • True socialists are highly skeptical of both liberal political systems and, obviously, want to socialize the economy

I say this with a great deal of trepidation, because Berman has forgotten more than I will ever know on the subject, but I don’t think this is quite right. There are two reasons why I’m not entirely convinced.

First, I can’t shake the feeling that, in the pre-war European context, the group she labels as “democratic socialists” are actually just plain socialists. For example, the Italian socialist party was, by the end of World War I, controlled by revolutionary socialists who aligned themselves with communists. My understanding is that the major group on the “left” to eschew an alliance with the Social Democrats was the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

Of course, some on the contemporary American left refused to vote for Clinton and articulated “heighten the contradictions” arguments reminiscent of revolutionary socialism or Marxism. But I don’t see a lot of major figures who call themselves “Democratic Socialists” calling for violent revolution. Indeed, the most prominent Democratic Socialists, Bernie Sanders, endorsed Clinton; when he spoke of “revolution” he clearly referred to a mass political movement of voters and political activists.

Moreover, Berman links back to her magnum opus on Social Democracy to support her claims. There are only a handful of mentions of “Democratic Socialism” and “Democratic Socialists” in the book. In each of them, she uses the terms as a synonym for social democracy and social democrats. She describes Filippo Turati—one of the leaders of the reformist wing of the Italian Socialist Party and a strong supporter of alliances with non-socialist anti-fascists—as leading “a group committed to democratic socialism.”

It’s possible that Berman’s new research has caused her to revise this position. I should probably ask her—she’s a very generous scholar. In her longer Dissent version of the Washington Post article, she discusses Michael Harrington as an example of democratic socialism’s problematic attitude toward democracy and political liberalism:

Like other democratic socialists, he placed a lot of faith in ‘democratic planning.’ Yet aside from the emphasis on democracy and public participation (to differentiate it from the heavy-handed state planning of the Eastern bloc), there was little description about what such planning would involve or how it would achieve its goals.

Harrington’s status as a luminary in the American Democratic Socialist movement is unimpeachable, but I’ll leave it to those much deeper into Cold-War era leftist politics to hash out his views.

This leads me to my second concern: just how relevant is all of this history to the contemporary democratic-socialist movement? This is a movement—including when it comes to formal organizations such as Democratic Socialists of America—that’s seeing a major uptick in participation, with all that entails for ideological coherence (or lack thereof). So for every misguided Jacobin essay, there’s a “Democratic Socialist” who sounds pretty much like a run-of-the-mill social democrats.

Figure 2: Ideologies of the American Left, Second Take (version 1.1)

So what if we translated these concerns into a different mapping? We might come up with Figure 2. In this framework, many American democratic socialists might dispute the necessity of deriving representative democracy and political rights from liberalism, but they favor representative democracy and political freedom. They seek change through the ballot box and other forms of political activism prescribed by more permissive forms of liberalism.In this rendering, to get to the point of ambivalence, or hostility, to the left-liberal conception of political rights and mechanisms for change we would move into the domain of socialists and revolutionary socialists.

The major advantage of this approach is twofold.

First, it recognizes that there’s no stable understanding of social democracy and democratic socialism that clearly distinguishes the two. While these labels sometimes emerge as distinctions in splits among left-wing movements, they largely come from the same intellectual place.

Second, it captures part of the reason why, as best I can tell, important members of the contemporary left have adopted the label  “democratic socialism”: to distinguish themselves from “third way” social democrats. Put simply, they want to reclaim the more orthodox social-democratic position where socialism comes before markets in the construction of mixed economies.

But even this has view has some problems. In particular, it doesn’t help us with the fact that, as noted above, prominent American democratic socialists advocate policies—and describe their reasoning—in ways indistinguishable from the way that contemporary non-American social democrats do. Moreover, there is no explicitly American “Social Democratic” movement of consequence, so what do we do with that label?

The reality of the present moment, I think, is best captured in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Ideologies of the American Left in Terms of Coalitional Politics

If we really want to, we can reserve the relevant terms for specific combinations of the two axes. But, in practice, labels like democratic socialism and left-liberalism describe somewhat amorphous and overlapping groups of people. Many of those in the broader American left do not even have fixed ideological positions; they certainly don’t care about intra-left debates from decades ago.

In addition to providing a more accurate map, I think this approach helps us to understand the various areas of tension among within the progressive coalition, as well as the possibilities for working coalitions. At the same time, it highlights that Berman is entirely correct to worry about some of the illiberal (in political terms) tendencies within modern Democratic Socialism, even if her broader narrative seems strained. Certainly, the American left needs to avoid both the divisions that enabled Trump to become president and the poisonous politics currently engulfing the Labour party. I’m cautiously optimistic about the anti-Trump coalition, and fairly optimistic that the Labour party does not represent the future of American left and center-left politics. But we’ll see.


(Note: Figure 2 updated in light of comments below; change is cosmetic)

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