Don’t Blame the Socialists: A Response to Sheri Berman

Don’t Blame the Socialists: A Response to Sheri Berman

Sheri Berman has written an exhortation to the “present day” democratic socialist Left in the “Western world” to get over “the loss of its vision of a postcapitalist society,” to stop denigrating efforts to reform capitalism, and to begin agitating for social democratic policies, such as affordable health care, government-supported job retraining, and investment in education (“Unheralded Battle: The Left, Social Democracy, and Democratic Socialism,” Dissent, Winter 2009). For Berman, the Left will go on failing to respond to political challenges unless democratic socialists start to act like social democrats.

My jaw drops. Didn’t democratic socialists begin doing that decades ago? In the United States, haven’t they by now provided many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of troops and leaders to the labor movement, health care reform, and public education? When is the last time a democratic socialist said, “I won’t support public day care because it will delay the collapse of capitalism”? The question sounds absurd. Reform work and speculation about democratic socialism—Irving Howe called them “the near and the far”—have coexisted comfortably for more than a political generation. So who in the Western world is Berman writing about?

Berman’s lack of specificity is a major problem. She uses “the left” and “the West” as generics that never need to be broken into their constituent elements; she uses “social democrat” and “democratic socialist” as if they’ve referred to identical politics everywhere for the last 110 years. But a lack of specificity doesn’t account for this essay’s greatest shortcoming: Berman has the post-sixties history of the democratic Left in the United States (and probably in many Western European countries as well) completely wrong.

I’ll begin where she does.

Berman devotes the first 40 percent of her article to the “backstory” of the conflict between democratic socialists and social democrats from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s—a conflict, she argues, that has shaped the contemporary Left in the West. Her concise version of this early history is very good. Yet she would have done better to bill it as an account of the genesis and development of the conflict in Europe: it doesn’t apply to the Western world in general, as she proposes. For example, it doesn’t apply well to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, when the central intra-left struggle was between the Leninists and the democratic Left. In the abstract, I don’t object to Berman’s isolating the story of socialists vs. social democrats from the larger saga of the Left even though non-democratic groups (especially the communist parties of the Third International) played a pivotal role. Pulling out one strand of the Left’s tangled history can be useful, especially when the strand chosen by Berman is the more honorable. But to do this successfully w...