This question is a copy from a similar one on Politics.SE, and was brought here per the suggestion of Kevin as a reference-request question.


Democratic Socialism is a form of Socialism that according to several definitions of the term, seem to imply a decentralized state where workers have some form of agency over both their government as well as their workplace. Here is the definition as given by Wikipedia:

Democratic socialism is a political philosophy supporting political democracy within a socially owned economy, with a particular emphasis on economic democracy, workplace democracy and workers' self-management within a market socialist economy or some form of a decentralised planned socialist economy.

It seems that, at least for this definition, it is no doubt on the "left" side of the political spectrum but the definition seems to allow for a lesser centralized authority - depending on what "socially owned" means in practice. Indeed, some prominent Democratic Socialists, like George Orwell, take an extreme view of the "Socially owned" part to the point where he completely and vehemently denounces any form of Totalitarianism as John Rodden states:

And Orwell says that the Spanish Civil War was his watershed political experience. “The Spanish War and other events in 1936-37, turned the scale. Thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since nineteen 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism as I understand it.” And the word “for” is italicized.

From Orwell's point of view, Democratic Socialism has no room for totalitarianism at all, and this includes the Authoritarian communist regimes of his time as he wrote in his wartime diary:

"One could not have a better example of the moral and emotional shallowness of our time, than the fact that we are now all more or less pro Stalin. This disgusting murderer is temporarily on our side, and so the purges, etc., are suddenly forgotten." — George Orwell, in his war-time diary, 3 July 1941

Few people consider Orwell to be unaware of what his understanding of politics is given his immersive experience in politics and prolific, well thought out writings such as Animal Farm and 1984. So it does not seem a foolish choice to take his word on what Democratic Socialism means.

Given this, I have read some pages on the Democratic Socialists of America, they seem to adhere closely to the Wikipedia definition of Democratic Socialism, but they also openly allow a Communist Caucus, and have done so since 2017. The presence of this caucus in a Democratic Socialist group is openly counter to George Orwell's idea of Democratic Socialism and is a discrepancy that has puzzled me. Given this stark difference in understanding Democratic Socialism, there has to be a crucial premise the DSA has that George Orwell does not, or vice versa. It is this missing premise that caused me to ask:


Why does the DSA have an understanding of Democratic Socialism that is not antipathic toward communism, while George Orwell, a prominent Democratic Socialist, saw not just a distinction between Democratic Socialism and Communism, but vehemently detested the latter?

  • 1
    There is a long history of contraposition between DS and Communism. The basic point IMO is about "democratic": Communism considered as a viable way the exercise of power through the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is clearly not democratic. Orwell rejection of URSS' communism and Stalin dictatorship was the key to 1984. Jan 28 at 14:56
  • They really didn't like this question in Politics SE huh..
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 28 at 15:16
  • Welcome to the site, isakbob. A minor point: 'Few people consider Orwell to be unaware of what his understanding of politics are given his immersive experience in politics and prolific, well thought out writings such as Animal Farm and 1984.' Doesn't 'understanding' require 'is', not 'are'?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 28 at 15:47
  • Democratic Socialists are idealists wrapped in cocoons that don't (can't??) realize that humans #1 unequal, and #2 deeply hierarchical.
    – RonJohn
    Jan 29 at 0:02
  • "decentralised planned socialist economy." I know what the words mean, but I can't wrap my brain around how that would actually work in a world where half the people are (not all at the same time, of course), stupid, ignorant, greedy, selfish, self-aggrandizing, power hungry, intelligent, competent, ambitious, and most of all apathetic and just want a rice bowl.
    – RonJohn
    Jan 29 at 0:09

For Orwell (and as a general definition), totalitarianism means a system of governance that is deeply invasive and controlling: usually a surveillance state that monitors its citizens for any indicator of disloyalty or subversion, and takes secretive actions against them.

A caucus is defined as a group within a larger deliberative group, one that meets more or less informally to discuss collective goals and strategies.

I'm beginning with these definitions to show that there is a spectacular — almost death-defying — leap from 'Communist Caucus' to a 'fully-formed Stalinesque totalitarian regime'. I mean, the US Congress has Democratic and Republican caucuses, a Progressive caucus, a Tea Party caucus, possibly a brand-spanking-new (emphasis on the middle word) Q caucus; do all of these also constitute totalitarian regimes? If not, then why would a Communist caucus do so?

Granted, Orwell leaned a bit towards philosophical anarchism (or maybe Left-Libertarianism is a better term, though that might inflame the culture war). But Democratic socialism is inherently democratic, which means it needs democratic systems, structures, and institutions for collective decision making. And in all cases those systems, structures, and institutions are necessarily going to be distributed hierarchically, regionally, and by topical focus. The entire nation is not going to get together to vote on (say) land management rules in some rural community, so most decisions are inevitably going to fall to — yes — caucuses of interested individuals.

Every modern industrialized nation — despite having sometimes drastically different overt forms of government — looks very much the same on a practical, functional level. Practical decisions are made by small groups of people who self-divide into loose caucuses based on interest, expertise, and worldview, working within a bureaucratized regulatory system that keeps things running relatively smoothly from one time and place to other times and places. A democratic socialist system would change the overt political environment, shifting power away from property owners and big-money capitalists, and instilling it in (take your pick) trade unions or syndicates, community administrators, regional authorities, citizens' committees, maybe eventually AI overseers... But people still have to talk to each other in order to make any decisions that can credibly be called 'democratic', and people who talk to each other will inevitably break up into caucuses. There's nothing 'totalitarian' about that at all.


Because the economics of communism are similar to socialism. Collective ownership, economic inclusion.

But as Orwell describes in Homage To Catalonia, he saw that in practice, the leadership couldn't be more different. I'd see it as another iteration of Marx ejecting Bakunin from the Internationale. Marx saw any means as justified, to get to his utopia, and the old system as irredeemable, unreformable. As did Lenin and Stalin. Socialism, like the coops of Lancashire mill towns, can build it's own system within something different. I see that as similar to anarchism's ideals, don't blame the bad, ignore it, make it obsolete.

I would draw a parallel, a mirror image, about historical analysis: Marx sees there as this one mechanism, one aspect of organising humans as responsible for everything; and authoritarians see history as great men, bullying sheep, and that as a complete explanation.

I'd follow Jonathan Haidt's research, on how tolerance of ambiguity requires a sense of security during key developmental years, and that humans seem to have 'circuits' that switch under constant threat and insecurity, to intolerance of ambiguity, and in-group vs out-group focus, when we feel under threat. Nazism & communism, came out of eras of threat, and insecurity, revolution, political and economic collapses. And, they required such crisees, to keep making sense, war, the end of other systems.

Modern communists are more authoritarian than socialists. But not as much as Stalin. I see it as like being willing to work with people on the right, but not the far right. Scrutinise, and check, what mechanisms are in place to resist authoritarianism, for given communist groups - ask them. And, ask Republicans, what they will support, in the face of a coup.

Practical mechanisms are more important, than what slogans motivate a person. Division of powers, mechanisms of scrutiny and oversight, separation of military & civil power, trial by jury, holding to account for lying.. These are what do most to keep us safe, and which we must not cooperate with any that would attack. I believe this is a view Orwell would sign off, and that he was a socialist in large part out of recognition that government must also hold back monopoly and oligarchy by the wealthy, as much as authoritarianism, with practical mechanisms.

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