Democratic Socialism From the Ground Up

Democratic Socialism From the Ground Up

Populism is extremely limited if it is not coupled with highly organized grassroots movements with the ability to shape politics from the ground up.

Indigenous miners protest mining reforms in La Paz, Bolivia, 2009 (Szymon Kochański / Flickr)

This article is part of a forum on the lessons of Latin America's "pink tide" for democratic socialists. To read the rest of the forum, click here.

What does democratic socialism mean today and how might it be achieved? This is an opportune moment for Patrick Iber to raise these important questions. A candidate calling for democratic socialism in the Democratic primaries garnered a significant amount of support from the electorate. A sitting U.S. president recently visited Cuba and praised the accomplishments of the revolution in education and healthcare. How might we use this moment as an opportunity to reflect further on the meanings of democratic socialism today and to build momentum towards that ideal?

In assessing socialist transformations in Latin America, Iber refers to the distinction often made between social democracies such as Brazil and Uruguay and democratic socialism in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Yet if we consider socialism to be based on ending private property ownership and replacing it with socialized forms of production and distribution, such as what occurred in Cuba after the 1959 revolution, then actually none of these countries represent it. The pink tide in Latin America needs to be placed in the context of neoliberal, free-market reforms that transformed the welfare states of many Latin American countries during the 1980s and 1990s. Radical leftist leaders in the region gained traction due to popular discontent with the wealth inequalities, privatizations, and cutbacks to social services brought about by neoliberal reforms. For the most part, leaders like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela sought to revert to the welfare states of earlier decades where key economic sectors were under state control. Chávez renationalized telephone services, the steel and oil industries, regional electricity companies, and foreign cement companies. His policies of land and resource distribution, social welfare intervention, and trade restructuring to promote fair multilateral agreements were a challenge to the neoliberal paradigm, but did not constitute a socialist revolution that put the economy into the hands of workers or the state.

Pink tide leaders instead chose electoral routes to radical transformation, which relied on elections, rewriting constitutions, and referendums as a path to change. They used a populist political style to appeal to the masses in order to win elections and advance their agenda. Iber poses the question of whether this populist style can draw on the popular majority to create change through confrontation, or whether populist mobilization endangers liberties essential to a democratic state. I agree with his conclusion that, despite the associated risks, significant changes to government and political economy will require some kind of populist moment, but I would go even further to argue that populism is extremely limited if it is not coupled with highly organized grassroots movements with the ability to shape politics from the ground up.

Populism has proved highly effective for pink tide leaders in appealing to disenfranchised and excluded marginal majorities to bolster their hold on electoral power: it was widespread popular pressure that defeated the opposition coup of 2002 in Venezuela and brought Chávez back into office. But this kind of populism focused on electoral politics is ultimately limiting for disenfranchised sectors, because they become beholden to charismatic leaders who are themselves constrained by global capital and the need to seek their own continual reelection in order to extend their social programs and policies.


Pursuing a more fundamental restructuring of the economy and society requires the development of independent grassroots organizations building alternative economic models like solidarity economies, modeling forms of democratic decision making through local assemblies and councils, and developing neighborhood networks through community media and cultural associations. These activities  can be the base of a democratic socialism envisioned from the ground up, with majority black and indigenous peoples in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia centrally involved. Iber observes that we have not seen any national-level examples of democratic socialism to aspire to. Maybe part of the reason for this is the top-down manner in which socialism has been applied and the Eurocentrism which underlies it.

In both Latin America and the United States today we can see examples of post-neoliberal and anticapitalist movements that talk about not just nationalization but community control, not just worker management of existing industries but alternative systems of production, and change led not by party militants or bureaucrats but by organic community leaders. It is these social movement groups that risk being demobilized under a populist strategy, and that is a great danger of populism. We saw how the grassroots coalition that sprang into action to elect Barack Obama dispersed once the goal of bringing him to power was achieved. The presence of Sanders as a contender for the Democratic nomination owes much to the ways that new movements on the ground like Black Lives Matter have shifted the parameters of political debate. But if these movements are absorbed into Sanderss electoral agenda rather than continuing to organize independently, they could also lose their ability to build power on the ground with a vision for deeper change. As long as populist leaders can provide a space for grassroots-led social movements to flourish, as long as the leader or the election campaign does not become the locus of political change, these movements could provide the seeds for decolonizing, Afro-indigenous, democratic socialisms to emerge.

Sujatha Fernandes is a Professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the University of Sydney.

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