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Democratic socialism is a description used by various socialist movements and organizations, to emphasize the democratic character of their political orientation. The term is sometimes used synonymously with 'social democracy', but many self-identified democratic socialists oppose social democracy, seeing it as capitalist.


Forerunners and formative influences

Fenner Brockway, a leading British democratic socialist of the Independent Labour Party, wrote in his book Britain's First Socialists:

The Levellers were pioneers of political democracy and the sovereignty of the people; the Agitators were the pioneers of participatory control by the ranks at their workplace; and the Diggers were pioneers of communal ownership, cooperation and egalitarianism.
All three equate to democratic socialism.

The tradition of the Diggers and the Levellers was continued in the period described by EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class by Jacobin groups like the London Corresponding Society and by polemicists such as Thomas Paine. Their concern for both democracy and social justice marks them out as key precursors of democratic socialism.

The term "socialist" was first used in English in the British Cooperative Magazine in 1827 and came to be associated with the followers of Robert Owen, such as the Rochdale Pioneers who founded the co-operative movement. Owen's followers again stressed both participatory democracy and economic socialisation, in the form of consumer co-operatives, credit unions and mutual aid societies. The Chartists similarly combined a working class politics with a call for greater democracy. Many countries have this.

The British moral philosopher John Stuart Mill also came to advocate a form of economic socialism within a liberal context. In later editions of his Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill would argue that "as far as economic theory was concerned, there is nothing in principle in economic theory that precludes an economic order based on socialist policies".

In North America, Henry George promoted the Single Tax Movement, which sought a form of democratic socialism via progressive taxation, with tax only on natural resources. George remained an advocate of the free market for the allocation of all other goods and services.

Modern democratic socialism

Democratic socialism became a prominent movement at the end of the 19th century. In the US, Eugene V. Debs, one of the most famous American socialists, led a movement centered around democratic socialism and made five bids for President, once in 1900 as candidate of the Social Democratic Party and then four more times on the ticket of the Socialist Party of America. The socialist industrial unionism of Daniel DeLeon in the United Statesmarker represented another strain of early democratic socialism in this period. It favored a form of government based on industrial unions, but which also sought to establish this government after winning at the ballot box.

In Britain, the democratic socialist tradition was represented in particular by the William Morris' Socialist League in the 1880s and by the Independent Labour Party (ILP) founded by Keir Hardie in the 1890s, of which George Orwell would later be a prominent member.

In other parts of Europe, many democratic socialist parties were united in the International Working Union of Socialist Parties (the "Two and a Half International") in the early 1920s and in the London Bureau (the "Three and a Half International") in the 1930s. These internationals sought to steer a course between the social democrats of the Second International, who were seen as insufficiently socialist (and had been compromised by their support for World War I), and the perceived anti-democratic Third International. The key movements within the Two and a Half International were the ILP and the Austromarxists, and the main forces in the Three and a Half International were the ILP and the POUM of Spain.

In America, a similar tradition continued to flourish in Debs' Socialist Party of America, especially under the leadership of Norman Thomas. Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont is a self-described democratic socialist, and is the only socialist to ever be elected to the United States Senate.

In the early 1920s, the guild socialism of G. D. H. Cole attempted to envision a socialist alternative to Sovietmarker-style authoritarianism, while council communism articulated democratic socialist positions in several respects, notably through renouncing the vanguard role of the revolutionary party and holding that the system of the Soviet Unionmarker was not authentically socialist.

During Indiamarker's freedom movement, many figures on the left of the Indian National Congress organized themselves as the Congress Socialist Party. Their politics, and those of the early and intermediate periods of JP Narayan's career, combined a commitment to the socialist transformation of society with a principled opposition to the one-party authoritarianism they perceived in the Stalinist revolutionary model. This political current continued in the Praja Socialist Party, the later Janata Party and the current Samajwadi Party.

In the Middle East, the biggest democratic socialist party is the Organization of Iranian People's Fedaian .

The folkesocialisme or people's socialism that emerged as a vital current of the left in Scandinavia beginning in the 1950s could be characterized as a democratic socialism in the same vein.

See also


  1. Social Democracy Versus Revolutionary Democratic Socialism by J. David Edelstein.
  2. Quoted in Peter Hain Ayes to the Left Lawrence and Wishart, p.12.
  3. Isabel Taylor “A Potted History of English Radicalism” Albion Magazine Summer 2007; M. Thrale (ed.) Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society 1792-1799 (Cambridge University Press, 1983); E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class. Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1963.
  4. Hain, op cit, p.13.
  5. Wilson, Fred. " Stuart Mill". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 10 July 2007, accessed 17 March 2008.
  6. "Mill, in contrast, advances a form of liberal democratic socialism for the enlargement of freedom as well as to realize social and distributive justice. He offers a powerful account of economic injustice and justice that is centered on his understanding of freedom and its conditions." Bruce Baum, " J. S. Mill and Liberal Socialism", Nadia Urbanati and Alex Zacharas, eds., J. S. Mill’s Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  7. " Taxes: What Are They Good For?" Henry George Institute. Accessed 17 March 2008.
  8. Donald Busky, "Democratic Socialism in North America", Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey especially pp.153-177.
  9. Donald Busky "Democratic Socialism in North America" ‘’Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey’’ especially pp.150-154.
  10. Donald Busky, "Democratic Socialism in Great Britain and Ireland", Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey, pp.83-5 on Morris, pp.91-109 on Hardie and the ILP. On Morris as democratic socialist, see also volume 3 of David Reisman, ed., Democratic Socialism in Britain: Classic Texts in Economic and Political Thought, 1825–1952 and E P Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London: Merlin, 1977). On the ILP as democratic socialist, see also The ILP: A Very Brief History; James, David, Jowitt, Tony, and Laybourn, Keith, eds. The Centennial History of the Independent Labour Party. Halifax: Ryburn, 1992.
  11. F. Peter Wagner, Rudolf Hilferding: Theory and Politics of Democratic Socialism (Atlantic Highlands 1996).
  12. Janet Polasky, The Democratic Socialism of Emile Vandervelde: Between Reform and Revolution (Oxford 1995).
  13. Robert John Fitrakis, " The idea of democratic socialism in America and the decline of the Socialist Party: Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington. (Volumes I and II)" (January 1, 1990). ETD Collection for Wayne State University. Paper AAI9029621. See also " What is Democratic Socialism? Questions and Answers from the Democratic Socialists of America".
  14. On Cole as democratic socialist, see also volume 7 of David Reisman, ed, Democratic Socialism in Britain: Classic Texts in Economic and Political Thought, 1825–1952.
  15. " Vikas Kamat Democratic Socialism in India".
  16. A. Appadorai, "Recent Socialist Thought in India", The Review of Politics Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jul., 1968), pp. 349-362.


  • Donald F. Busky, Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey Greenwood Publishing, 2000 ISBN 0-275-96886-3
  • Roy Hattersley Choose Freedom: The Future of Democratic Socialism, Penguin, 1987 ISBN 0140104941
  • Ralph Miliband Socialism for a Sceptical Age Polity Press, London, 1994
  • David Reisman, ed, Democratic Socialism in Britain: Classic Texts in Economic and Political Thought, 1825–1952 Chatto and Pickering, 1996 ISBN 978 1 85196 285 3. (Includes texts by William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, GDH Cole, Richard Crossman and Aneurin Bevan.)
  • Norman Thomas Democratic Socialism: a new appraisal, League for Industrial Democracy, 1953
  • Jim Tomlinson Democratic Socialism and Economic Policy: The Attlee Years, 1945-1951 Cambridge University Press, 1997 ISBN 0521550955

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