Throwback Thursday: "Ten Reasons to Be a Democratic Socialist in the Twenty-First Century"


by David J. O’Brien

In the Spring 1999 issue of Religious Socialism, David J. O’Brien wrote “Ten Reasons to Be a Democratic Socialist.”  A lot has changed since 1999, but some bedrock principles remain. We asked O’Brien to revisit his essay for this “Throwback Thursday.” Herewith his slightly modified revision.—Eds.

I want to advocate democratic socialism. I cannot define exactly what democratic socialism means. But I insist on the need to underline the word “democratic.” Failure to do that has cost socialism dearly in the past.

I also understand that contemporary socialisms are drawn in at least three directions.

One direction still leads toward centralized power and the use of the state to reallocate resources. This still might mean selective nationalization and experiments in centralized planning. The point is to use the instrument of a democratic state, accountable to the people and under law, not just to compensate for the failures of markets, but to confront and control private concentrations of power and direct market forces toward socially beneficial ends.

A second direction of socialism has been and remains toward distributive justice. George Bernard Shaw told his intelligent woman reader that it was a matter of money: who gets how much?  This was the direction that led to the welfare state, sometimes compensating for the failures of the market, sometimes attempting more radically to shape the distribution of basic resources toward a higher level of equity.

The third direction, smaller, less indebted to Marx, often in tension with the other two, leads toward decentralization and popular participation. Whereas friends of the first two tend to think industrial capitalism has solved the problem of production, leaving only distribution to be resolved, advocates of the third position have reservations about industrialism as well as capitalism. Historically, this has expressed itself in cultural criticism of technology and industrialization, in the romantic radicalism of syndicalist, anarchist and agrarian movements, in cooperative movements, and in more moderate efforts at employee ownership and worker control.

All three of these threads must be woven into any serious socialist strategy. The first is essential because state power is the only available instrument to bring powerful private interests to account, and because the value of the common good must find institutional expression. The second is needed because essential human needs must be met now, not after some indefinite future; the privileged, not the poor, must bear the major burdens of social change. The third cannot be dispensed with because democratic and socialist values alike require that each person must have access to the decisions that affect the conditions of life, again, not after the elites have created a new order, but now, while the new order is being constructed.

Strategically, this means attempting to win state power by peaceful means, creating adequate political structures to achieve that end, and developing a broad-based movement of socialist research, education, and action to make that political victory possible, and worth working for. A coherent democratic socialism must develop cultural, as well as economic and political strategies, to empower people, to broaden participation, to share responsibility in both the private and public sectors, to build socialism from the bottom up, not only among poor people in the traditional forms of trade unions and community organizations, but in new organizations of white collar, managerial and technical workers, professionals, and intellectuals. The latter are particularly important, I believe, because today, now, the cultural struggle is primary. How we think, feel, imagine the world, whether a human future is indeed possible is what is at stake.

Of course, no blueprint for a socialist movement or party exists. There are very serious differences among socialist-inclined intellectuals over basic issues of meaning and morality, as well as over concrete questions of policy and strategy. It is foolhardy to repeat the nonsense about a great untapped socialist majority--workers, minorities, and women--whose only problem is false consciousness. But there are promising movements of cooperatives—see the work of Gar Alperovitz---and community organization. There are pockets of vision and energy among intellectuals, artists, and professionals, centers of alternative consciousness in churches and schools, soup kitchens and peace centers. And there are, most important, vague but potentially explosive yearnings for community, for solidarity, for purpose in life and direction in history, for social security, justice, and peace.

Nineteenth-century Catholic prophet Isaac Hecker thought the biggest problem with people was that they did not believe in the reality of their own highest aspirations. They doubted there was really an answer to the questions of their minds and the yearnings of their heart, so they settled for what they could get. That remains too true. The task of artists and intellectuals, especially today, in the midst of human-being- made tragedies and disappointments, is to affirm the possibilities of human history.  That is what democratic socialism is about, and why we should be about building it.

So, I offer ten reasons for supporting democratic socialism:

1. The United States needs a socialist movement to rally those who share a commitment to democratic participation; to construct institutions that nourish values of cooperation, community, historical continuity, and social responsibility; to compensate for the extreme individualism that informs U.S. economic, social and cultural life; to provide an intellectual foundation for community organization among poor, minority and immigrant populations; to challenge the cultural hegemony of neoliberalism and the belief systems of free enterprise; and to take up the challenge of defining the meaning of U.S. national symbols. 

2. The United States needs a socialist party to open our imaginations to better ways to resolve public problems, to broaden the political agenda, to combat the subordination of public welfare to private interests, to make the common good a counterweight to the excessive individualism of both right and left, to direct attention to those services needed for vital communities, to take on the politics of public finance and private debt, and to raise the banner of a political alternative that is clearly and deliberately internationalist.

3. We in the United States need to make our own the perspective of the poor and disenfranchised, to build on our national and family histories of liberations achieved and yet to come, to experience public debate from the margins, to reimagine the center of history, to restrain and discipline our use of power, and to develop a cultural vision and political movement strong enough to challenge the powers that must be overcome if justice to be achieved. The poor need a program for the whole society to move beyond social engineering and scraps from the table, to mobilize their talents and energies for the common good, to overcome the demoralization of poor and minority youth by authentic experiences of solidarity and shared responsibility in community organizations and local political action.

4. The middle class needs a sense of purpose to give meaning to freedom, to overcome cultural inertia, raise standards of public discourse, inspire students and young adults with the possibility of devoting their talents to building a peaceful and just society. Surely it is possible to rekindle a spirit of democracy among those who are actually free to choose what to do with their loves by inviting their participation in movements of liberation aimed at a richer common life for everybody.

5. We in the United States, and many others, need to take seriously the need for security, what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called freedom from fear, and understand that it can never be achieved by the unilateral use of superior force. In the 1930s Depression years, we learned the need for social security; in more recent recession years, almost everyone save the very rich lost that freedom from fear. Under the specter of nuclear arms we learned that security must be common or not at all, a lesson lost when dealing with the threat of terrorism. Peace, like justice, must first of all be a verb requiring daily action, be everyone. And that requires for everyone the power actually to share responsibility for the common life, now global. Internationalism and democracy, creatively imagined and realistically pursued, should set the direction for badly needed socialist international security policy.    

6. Concentrated economic power needs to be made accountable

to make basic elements of life less dependent upon the decisions of private and largely irresponsible private institutions, to make corporations creatures of the public rather than its masters, to revive government institutions as responsible for the public good, to modify the mobility of capital and to renew the vocation of public service and revive a sense that economic and professional careers should serve not private gain but public purpose.

7. Structures of cooperation are needed to make market forces serve socially beneficial purposes to overcome the gap between apparent political equality and radical economic inequality, to fix a broken economy by providing "c,"  to ensure an equitable sharing of burdens and benefits in economic reform, to build a sense of public responsibility by sharing and exercising responsibility, and to give those effected by economic decisions a share in making those decisions.

8. People need to participate in decisions that affect their lives to make democratic responsibility real, to redefine the distinction between the public and private sectors, to revive voluntary associations appropriate to these times, to develop a renewed understanding of citizenship which embraces economic, social and cultural as well as political cooperation, and to make so-called public institutions authentically public.

9. Teachers, scholars and students need an ethics and politics of social responsibility to make knowledge and its bureaucracies (like those in the learned professions) accountable to and for the public, to combat the commercialization of scholarship and teaching, to locate the horizon of meaning for education beyond the school, to escape from the patronizing elitism, and meaningless isolation bred by excessive specialization, to combat the subordination of knowledge to power and the retreat into self-serving ideologies, and to redeem the promise of modern culture.

10. Our country and our times need a democratic, and therefore socialist, faith to overcome the fatalism that informs much social consciousness, to motivate the commitment and sacrifice needed if the drift toward one or another form of self-destruction is to be overcome, to renew an understanding that democratic institutions require a democratic culture, which rests on confidence in the worth of ordinary women and men, and to shape a leaven of egalitarianism, upsetting all forms of power and domination and opening minds and hearts to communitarian futures rooted in truth, justice, freedom and love.


David J. O’Brien, professor emeritus, Holy Cross University, has written widely in the history and contemporary life of the Catholic Church in the United States. He has served as president of the American Catholic Historical Association. Among his books is From the Heart of the American Church: Catholic Higher Education and American Culture.