The basic condition of the American radical left, today, is a rising social democrat movement that, for complex (and predominantly social) reasons, insists on calling itself a socialist movement. Bernie Sanders, a jobs guarantee, DSA, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jacobin, Medicare for all – each worthy of praise, each fundamentally and existentially social democratic and thus not socialist.
Perhaps the order of the day is social democracy. A social democratic movement is a proud thing. I’d love to see it spread. But we must be able to call things by their right names. And while I understand the social conditions that make it hard for people to admit that they are not socialists, for the good of everyone – and especially for the good of their own movement – they should publicly accept their identity at social democrats. It is a necessary and inevitably step.
The term “socialism” refers to an economic system in which human goods are removed from the market mechanism and currency exchange and are instead distributed based on need. To socialize an industry means to remove its products (whether medicine, education, housing, etc) from the market model and instead establish some means through which need is assessed and filled without the expectation of reciprocity. Socialism does not change who pays for necessary social services but replaces the very system of exchanging currency for goods entirely. A socialist viewpoint recognizes the impossibility of moral reform from within capitalism.
The term “Marxist” refers to the teachings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their intellectual descendants. Marxism is commonly also called “dialectical materialism”; it is dialetical, in that it follows Hegel’s view of history as a series of opposing viewpoints combating (and eventually subsuming) each other, and materialist, in that it rejects the philosophical traditions of idealism, theology, and the supernatural. Marxist thought argues that history is marked by successive phases of economic systems, and that the social classes into which people are sorted in these systems are naturally antagonistic. In particular, Marxist doctrine holds that in a capitalist economy the worker class (the proletariat) generates the value that makes profit possible while the ownership class (the bourgeoisie) captures that value, which is exploitative. Marxism is atheistic; Trotsky said, “I am a Marxist and thus necessarily an atheist.” Marxism is rationalist; a basic pillar of Marxism lies in the emancipatory potential of reason. Marxism is empirical; Marxism is the science of history. Far from being an anti- Enlightenment philosophy, Marxism is the culmination of Enlightenment thought.
“Communism” is the political program of Marxists, and followers of Marxist philosophy are communists. Where Marxism is the why, communism is the how. Communism is a type of revolutionary socialism which calls for a worldwide workers revolution that destroys capitalism, kills God, and dismantles the state, in their place building a borderless world of semiautonomous collectives (communes) which operate without a permanent governmental class or state apparatus and work based on the principle of giving based on need and working based on ability. Under communism workers themselves take control of the productive apparatus of society, instituting radical workplace democracy as they direct their efforts towards bettering the condition of all people. A true communist state rescues humanity from both the authoritarianism inherent to the nation state and from the exploitation, immiseration, and alienation inevitable in a capitalist system. A communist system makes individual freedom possible because a communist system makes societal freedom possible.