I’m a Socialist but I’m Not a Marxist

In the last few months, I’ve been told a dozen times that we DSA members are Marxists. This has come from a variety of sources. I’ve heard it said by old Trotskyists who hope to offer a unified vision of the left. It has been told to me by younger members who probably never read a word of Das Kapital. I’ve heard it in lectures given by the political education working group to new members and seen it on Chicago DSA’s baseball t-shirts.

However, in the light of these various announcements I have a confession to make: I’m not a Marxist, nor are a number of other DSA members whom I have spoken to.

As I was a philosophy major in college with left-wing sympathies, I have read a great deal of Marx and commentaries on him. I find his diagnoses for what is wrong with capitalism to be profound and generally accurate. He deserves praise for his ideas on the alienation of labor. He is, to my understanding, the first person to even suggest that demand-side failures were possible in a market system.

In other areas, I find his theories lacking. His theory of history is unscientific and impossible to use in a way that doesn’t demonstrate that he was correct, even when the data seems to suggest otherwise. I maintain that his visions of an all-consuming and unpreventable final revolution have more in common with a religious view of the apocalypse than a political philosophy based in reason. I am one of many who find his economic ideas to be flawed.

However, even without being a Marxist, I am still a democratic socialist and active member of the DSA. I just have other philosophical justifications for it.

My political philosophy is primarily influenced by the liberal philosopher John Rawls. His famous book A Theory of Justice brilliantly argues for social democracy using liberal principles of justice. These principals demand equal rights for all and a just distribution of wealth which benefits everyone and forbids inequalities that serve only the rich. Rawls also understood that a vastly unequal society would suffer harms to its liberal institutions, which further mandates the correction of massive inequalities.

While his theory is liberal, it doesn’t forbid public ownership of the means of production. Rawls’ primary concern isn’t who owns the means of production, but rather what becomes of the wealth that society generates overall.

He explicitly states that both socialist and capitalist societies could satisfy his principals. Such a socialist society would require a large measure of democratic control. Such a capitalist society would require significant protections for the worker, regulations of the market, and social benefits available to everyone.

Since I largely agree with Rawls, the question is if I should strive to help build a social democratic society in the vein of the Scandinavian model on steroids or a democratic socialist one.

Given the rollback of social democracy around the world over the last few decades even in countries where social democratic parties were the strongest, I am convinced that the only way to assure a just distribution of goods over the long run and assure the success of liberty and equality is to give control of the means of production to the workers.

In this way, I am a socialist for liberal reasons.

These philosophical considerations probably do make me a more moderate socialist than others, but this does not mean that I cannot find common ground with my comrades on the far-left. My 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy.

While I disagree with the end goals and analysis of my Marxist comrades, I agree with them on who should own the means of production. Politics often makes for strange bedfellows and the left has always had problems with this. If we want to avoid the mistakes of the 20th Century, we must not drive away those who largely agree with us over small ideological distinctions.

Marxists of the DSA unite and keep up the good work, but remember that some of us are on your side without sharing your ideology.