The Path to Democratic Socialism: Lessons from Latin America

The Path to Democratic Socialism: Lessons from Latin America

Rafael Correa speaking to supporters, 2011 (Ministerio Coordinador de Producción, Ecuador / Flickr)

This is the lead article in a forum on the lessons of Latin America’s “pink tide” for democratic socialists. To read the rest of the forum, click here.


The basic idea of democratic socialism is straightforward: the only socialism worthy of its name is one that preserves individual liberty and democratic procedures, while simultaneously extending the values of democracy to the economic sphere. But the twentieth century has provided, on the one hand, examples of authoritarian socialism, and, on the other, welfare state capitalism, neither of which meets the standard. If it is clear what democratic socialism is not, the harder question of what it is remains contested. Regardless of the eventual outcome, Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly robust performance in the Democratic primary makes this an opportune moment to revisit that debate.

Sanders defines democratic socialism by pointing to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—societies with low income inequality, high-quality education, and the universal provision of social services, including healthcare. Nearly all American leftists would consider bringing the United States up to Scandinavian standards a major advance, and most would agree that no better model currently exists. But Sanders’s definition has the potential for terminological confusion. Historically, capitalism tempered by an extensive welfare state has been called “social democracy,” while “democratic socialism” has referred to a more decisive break with capitalism. For most democratic socialists, the goal is not just relative equality and generous social spending, but a radical, democratic, and participatory reorganization of economic control.

It is a lovely vision and a powerful standpoint from which to critique actually existing capitalisms and socialisms. But it remains an ideal: there are no national-level examples to point to with admiration. When political scientists Adam Przeworski and John Sprague published their classic Paper Stones in 1986, they pointed out that no political party had ever won an electoral majority promising a socialist transformation of society. “Given the minority status of workers,” they observed, “leaders of class-based parties must choose between a party homogeneous in its class appeal but sentenced to perpetual electoral defeats or a party that struggles for electoral success at the cost of diluting its class orientation.” Does this mean democratic socialism is impossible to obtain?

Over the last fifteen years, the most instructive evidence about socialist transformation has emerged not from Scandinavia but from Latin America, which, depending on one’s definition of socialism, may partially refute the thesis of Przeworski and Sprague. There, in what has been called the “pink tide,” many countries have been governed by parties of the left. Observers have frequently divided the region’s left-wing governments into “social democrats” (especially Brazil, Chile, Uruguay) and “democratic socialists” (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and sometimes Argentina), though some of them have been more democratic than others. While the left retains formal power across much of the region, the high-water mark of the “pink tide” certainly seemed to have been reached by 2015—when the left lost presidential elections in Argentina and parliamentary ones in Venezuela. Weak economic performance across the region makes the expansion of social programs all but impossible. In drawing up a balance sheet of the pink tide’s achievements, however, there is a particular puzzle with respect to the “socialists.” Most of the world’s democratic socialist intellectuals have been skeptical of Latin America’s examples, citing their authoritarian qualities and occasional cults of personality. To critics, the appropriate label for these governments is not socialism but populism.

For democratic socialists who dislike them, the challenge posed by these “populist” governments is that both groups claim to represent the same values. Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, for example, speaks of the need to construct societies “with markets, but not societies overruled by markets.” Like democratic socialism, the “twenty-first century socialism” of the Latin American left also promises to be radical, democratic, and participatory, seeking to change power relations by mobilizing popular support and building state-supported social missions. Their experiences need to be thought through carefully, in part because the record suggests that there are real and important tensions between the democratic socialist goals of “radicalism,” “democracy,” and “participation.” It is perhaps “radicalism” that has sown the most troubles. If radicalism means to grasp things by the root, then radical politics must surely involve the remaking of national institutions. This has been the fundamental promise of the more radical governments of the Latin American left. Constitutions have been repeatedly rewritten and power has been redistributed, generally into the hands of the state, and the executive in particular. This is a necessarily divisive process as it mobilizes the beneficiaries of the old system to fight their loss of privilege. The primary political weapon to combat this is populist mobilization: you construct a “people,” rhetorically, and define the interests of the old elite as falling outside of them. And then you use the majority, assuming that you have one, to change the rules. Any program of the left in the United States must take the appeal of this approach seriously, because major institutional reforms are necessary preconditions to any significant reform of our political economy.

There is no better guide to the logic of Latin American populist strategy than the late Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau. For Laclau, revolutionary social transformation could be driven by many different social groups—not just the proletariat of classical Marxism. This is an essential observation given that no society at any stage of development will have a majority consisting only of an industrial proletariat. However important the working class remains, it will always need allies. According to Laclau, the fundamental task of politics is to rhetorically construct a “people” out of the multitude of possible allies, to persuasively present particular group demands as the demands of all. Laclau did not believe that populism was inherently good or bad, but merely recognized its potential for political transformation. The key, Laclau wrote in On Populist Reason, is that

populism requires the dichotomic division of society into two camps—one presenting itself as a part which claims to be the whole; that this dichotomy involves the antagonistic division of the social field; and that the popular camp presupposes, as a condition of its constitution, the construction of a global identity out of the equivalence of a plurality of social demands.

Populist identification, according to Laclau, requires a symbol that can represent the populist cause. That symbol can take many forms—Laclau uses the example of Solidarność (Solidarity) in Poland in the 1980s, where the union stood for an idea that encompassed multiple social demands. But it is often a single person. In the case of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Chávez himself became the symbol that made populist identification possible. (His hapless and unhappy successor Nicolás Maduro worked even harder to make Chávez the symbol that bound together the popular movement. Shortly after Chávez’s death, for example, Maduro said he felt that he was visited by the spirit of Chávez in the form of a bird.)

Once a “people” is established, populist politics, through a combination of bottom-up and top-down mobilization, creates schisms that define what the people are for and against. The historical anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz once observed that if the capacity to pacify social conflict is a key function of liberal states, then the capacity to create social conflict is a key characteristic of populist ones. That may not always be a firm distinction, but it is sometimes a useful one. The great use of the “popular” majority is to create the possibility for major change—through confrontation.

In right-wing forms of populism, this logic is mobilized against vulnerable minorities. But even in left-wing versions, which call for mobilization against an elite that resembles a class enemy, there are significant risks to the strategy. In defining some segment of the population as “against the people,” there is the danger that all criticism will be treated as the illegitimate product of oligarchical scheming. In Venezuela, the names of political opponents appeared on lists that were used for job discrimination. And journalists who failed to see things the president’s way are criticized from the bully pulpit—a practice so common now in Ecuador as to be a genuine threat to the freedom of the press. For example, in late 2013 the Ecuadorean cartoonist known as Bonil published a cartoon depicting a government raid of the home of a journalist who had made allegations of governmental corruption. President Correa responded in a national televised address, calling Bonil a “hitman in ink” and threatening his newspaper with a significant fine. Of course, some of the complaining from the right-wing media is the result of oligarchical scheming. But since we know that there are no utopias, some of it will not be. Being responsive to legitimate criticism, and even to social movements not quite in alignment with the state, has been a serious problem in places like Cuba, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Of course, citizens can face indifferent politicians in non-radical states too, and protesters can face police violence in conventional democracies from Santiago, Chile to New York City. But populist leaders and movements run a higher risk of constructing and inhabiting alternative realities in which the problems created by their own actions are seen only as the responsibilities of others. These forms of popular mobilization can also endanger liberties essential to a democratic state, since those who do not belong to the people may be deemed unworthy of receiving the same rights as others. Short of disaster, populist polarization can simply become exhausting, and exhausted. This was a factor cited by many voters in Argentina when they elected a center-right president in 2015, replacing the husband-and-wife mini-dynasty of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who in three successive terms from 2003 to 2015 oversaw the expansion of social programs and deprivatization of certain industries in good times, but also faced protest, accusations of corruption, and a black market in dollars during bad ones.

Given the problems associated with the “populist” groups, then, might we scale back somewhat and place our hopes in democratic and participatory but non-radical social democracy? Perhaps. But here there are other sorts of limits. Brazil’s Workers’ Party (the Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) for example, was once a great inspiration to many on the left. But it has been mired in corruption scandals, which can themselves be seen as one of the consequences of choosing the “moderate” path. Seeking to maintain economic growth, PT politicians worked closely with existing elites, in both the state-owned and private sectors. Corruption, a common way of cementing business deals, is best seen not just as a matter of personal failings—though it is partially that—but also one of the consequences of having chosen “moderation.” (To be sure, there are different sorts of institutionalized corruption in the “populist” sector also, and of course also in right-wing parties and governments.)

Moreover, the economic problems Brazil faces are less of its own making but perhaps no less serious than those in Venezuela. The PT’s signature initiatives—food assistance programs and conditional cash grants to families in exchange for things like school attendance—have been successful in reducing poverty but not in changing the structure of ownership in the country. The moderate lefts in Brazil and Chile have not fundamentally changed the nature of politics or political economy in those countries; though they have reduced inequality somewhat, their countries’ ultrawealthy, following global trends, are wealthier than ever.

A reasonable analogy might be made here to Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which used the private health insurance industry to extend coverage to millions more Americans—a worthy goal. It could have been achieved much more successfully in a single-payer system, but that was impossible to achieve in a political system suffused with the legal corruption that we call lobbying. Both Obama and the PT have made incremental changes to our systems that have improved lives, but neither has been adequate to the scope of the problems they confront.

These dilemmas are nothing new. A commitment to radicalism is a threat to democratic norms and procedures; a commitment to democratic norms and procedures is a threat to radicalism. And there are still some places from which to draw inspiration, including from Latin America. The governments of the left, wherever they fell on the populist spectrum, made important advances in social inclusion and most oversaw expansions of shared prosperity. Participatory budgeting and planning, in which citizens make decisions through local councils about how to direct tax revenue, has spread from some cities in Brazil to locales around the world, and seems like an integral part of the democratic socialist agenda. We might also ease our worries by noting that Latin American countries, relatively poor and developing economically, are not in the same situation as the United States, with a more diversified economy that depends less on natural resource extraction carried out by state-owned companies. Social ownership of capital, subject to various forms of democratic control, seems more possible in developed economies than in ones where state ownership is the likely, and problematic, path to socialization. And there seems little chance in the U.S. context that a reinvigorated labor movement, or more powerful left social movements would be anything but beneficial to democratic liberties.

All this may be true. But even if it is agreed that limited markets may remain under democratic socialism, a market society in which nearly every aspect of life is subject to commodification is almost certainly incompatible with a meaningful democracy. Significant change to our political economy will require significant change to our structure of government. It is hard to see how to get there without some kind of “populist” moment, fraught with danger to other values we believe to be essential. Much can and should be done in the United States to level hierarchies of class, race, and gender, thus deepening the meaning of democracy. That alone is work enough. But it would seem that even achieving social democracy, much less democratic socialism, will require fundamental institutional changes.

Bernie Sanders recognizes this, calling his campaign the foundation of a “political revolution.” Perhaps sensing that Sanders has more successfully called forth a “people,” in the manner of Laclau, Hillary Clinton has adopted a technocratic and often explicitly anti-populist discourse, saying things like “I’ve never believed in dividing America between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We are all in this together.” But both the challenges of this proposed “political revolution” and the mixed legacies of Latin America’s recent experiences of left government make clear that the tradition of democratic socialism still lacks a map that can guide it to its desired destination with all of its values intact. If democratic socialism is the right goal of politics, those of us who identify with this tradition need to think carefully and empirically through what democratic socialism means today, and what evidence tells us about how it might be achieved. Otherwise we will be little more than a minor critical tradition within capitalism, and however noble that may be, we risk becoming what Irving Howe wrote of the nineteenth-century utopian socialists: “isolated critics without a social base.”


Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (Harvard University Press, 2015).

Read responses by:

Javier Buenrostro: Chavismo’s Crumbling Economic Foundations

Sujatha Fernandes: Democratic Socialism From the Ground Up

Bryan McCann: Brazil’s Democracy Back in the Streets

Thea Riofrancos: Populism and the People

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