Democratic Socialism: an Oxymoron?

By Susan J. Fleck.  October, 2001.

Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people. –Abraham Lincoln.

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings, the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries. –Winston Churchill.

Democracy is the form of government that gives every man the right to be his own oppressor. –James Russell Lowell.

Capitalism and communism stand at opposite poles.  Their essential difference is this: The communist, seeing the rich man and his fine home, says: "No man should have so much."  The capitalist, seeing the same thing, says: "All men should have as much." –Phelps Adams.

Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. –Reinhold Niebuhr.

Socialism: A more moral society?

Since the demise of the former Soviet Union, one might think that the idea of a socialistic economic system is defunct.  However, the socialistic ideal is still very much alive in the hearts of many: it lives on in the form of inflated notions of man’s rights.  There is public sentiment in favor of granting more and more “rights” to a populace, without much thought about what and whose other fundamental rights may be trampled in the process of subverting capitalism in favor of socialism.  This paper is a response to Kai Nielsen’s essay, “A Moral Case for Socialism” (Burr and Goldinger 325-33).  Through a discussion of Nielsen’s essay, and contrasting his ideas with other thinkers from our textbook, I intend to demonstrate that Nielsen’s notion of democratic socialism is an oxymoron—at least the idea that a democratic government that protects individual liberty can thrive alongside economic socialism.

Nielsen gives us this working definition: “[. . .] capitalism requires the existence of private productive property [. . .] while socialism works toward its abolition.  What is essential for socialism is public ownership and control of the means of production [. . .]” (325).  Socialism, by its inherent weaknesses, as I will explain, brings about abolition, to be sure: the destruction of the very “productive” property that the “public” is so desirous to have and to control.  Of course, this is not what Nielsen has in mind: rather, he thinks that a transfer of ownership and control of productive property to the public will bring about a more moral society.  But he does not foresee—at least he does not discuss—that there would be any fundamental change in the nature of the actual productive property; just its ownership.  Nielsen goes on to explain how, under capitalism, only individuals who own property can determine what may be done with their property, while, under socialism, “citizens at large” can dispose of property as they see fit (325).  “Democracy” always rings “fair” and “moral” in comparison to any kind of a dictatorship.  This is how Nielsen sets up his argument: to cast socialism as a democratic and fair way to enable the most freedom for the most individuals, whereas capitalism entails slavery of the masses under the dictators of those who control the means of production.

Private vs. Productive Property

As if it makes a difference in the reasonableness and moral rightness of this approach, Nielsen makes the distinction between private and productive property:  “Socialism does not proscribe the ownership of private personal property, such as houses, cars, television sets and the like.  It only proscribes the private ownership of the means of production.”  Let me see if I understand this:  It would be all right if I worked hard and used my earnings to buy lavish houses, boats, cars, etc., and I could retain ownership of them—dispose of them as I like; but I would be forbidden to own, or have any say (other than, perhaps, one vote) in the disposition of, any land, buildings, machinery, or other capital improvements, that I might have previously purchased for my business.  Of course, it would not be “my” business any longer—under socialism; it would belong to the “citizens at large.” 

How to Get a Classless Society?

Another distinction Nielsen makes in favor of socialism, in the pure form, is that it is a classless society with only workers who jointly own and control the means of production.  With capitalism, since not everybody can be capitalists, or managers of capitalist enterprises, there is a class division of workers and owner-managers.  For now, let us suppose that a new socialist country has been established, of the “pure” democratic socialist form that Nielsen envisions, one with “genuine popular control over the state apparatus [. . .]” (326).  Now, just how do businesses and enterprises get started under this regime?  Let’s say that you and I have a great idea for inventing, manufacturing, and selling a gizmo.  What possible mechanisms are in place for us to obtain facilities (land, plants, utilities, machinery, etc.) for manufacturing when all we can own is our private property items?  If citizens at large have popular control over all non-personal items, then what kind of hoops must one jump through to get other citizens to agree to let us begin a new business and to obtain the necessary means for production?  What standards are in place to determine what is even necessary?  Then, there are the workers to be considered.  Since this is a classless society, what have been the incentives for people to obtain the necessary schooling and training and experience to be qualified to run and manage this new company, including scientists for engineering, research and development, and for computer operations?

True Autonomy

According to Nielsen, one of the main virtues of democratic socialism is that workers would have true autonomy, instead of having their lives controlled by capitalists and business owners’ managers.  So, continuing our scenario, somehow we have managed to draw workers from the pool of the classless society—however it was decided how many and what kinds of workers are needed.  By using “various democratic procedures” Nielsen tells us, without explaining what these procedures are or how they would work, our new company workers will retain an optimal status of individual autonomy and personal freedom—the valued goals of democratic socialism.  Therefore, the workers decide how they will work, the hours they will work, under what conditions they will work, and will decide what they will produce and what will be done with what they produce (328).  In our pursuit of success and happiness, you and I have a dream, a dream for a certain kind of company, with certain kinds of employees, to make a certain kind of gizmo.  But under socialism, we cannot pursue that dream because we, as individuals, would have no control over how the company would be run, what employees would work there, or even what they would produce.  It was an unjust dream anyway, since we wanted to control the direction of a company.  So much for our individual pursuit of happiness.

Without a free, capitalistic, market driving demand for goods, I am unable to fathom a reason why these workers will work at all, since working, per se, gets in the way of their cherished autonomy and freedom.  Of course, there are those who love to work: those who derive fulfillment from purposeful enterprise.  But I suspect that those kinds of people, under a free market economy, would choose a profession or line of work that brings commensurate material benefit, in addition to satisfying work.  That material benefit enables them to enjoy facets of their lives other than work.  Will these people be willing to obtain schooling and work hard, according to their abilities in a socialistic economy, if they will only earn the same wages as those in lower level jobs, say jobs as janitors or assembly line workers?  I can only assume, in this classless socialistic society, that all wages will be equal: otherwise, classes would be established—upper, middle, and lower socio-economic classes.

This is precisely what Nielsen is advocating: “There would be a commitment under democratic socialism to attaining or at least approximating, as far as it is feasible, equality of condition [. . .]” (331).  It seems that Nielsen, and socialist thinkers like him, believe that work is simply a necessary evil that gets in the way of freedom and autonomy of real living; that work is a necessary activity to produce (only) what is needed, and what is needed must be decided by popular, democratic procedures.  Nielsen discusses the existing relationship between a democratic political structure and an economic capitalistic structure, but he does not realize that this is a beneficial symbiotic relationship.  Let us examine his revealing statements: 

The fact that political democracy came into being and achieved stability within capitalist societies may prove something about conditions necessary for its coming into being, but it says nothing about capitalism being necessary for sustaining it (330). [. . .] Capitalism is indeed a marvelous engine for building up the productive forces [. . .].  But now that the productive forces in advanced capitalist societies are wondrously developed, we are in a position to direct them to far more humane and more equitable uses under a socio-economic system whose rationale for production is to meet human needs [. . .]. (332)

Without explanation, he admits that capitalism is necessary for political democracy to come into being.  He also admits that capitalism has wondrously developed productive forces.  If Nielsen would bother to understand the rationale behind why capitalism is necessary for political democracy and why capitalism is able to wondrously develop productive forces, then he would recognize his concluding premises are false—that socialism’s rationale for production is to meet human needs and that socialism could direct productive forces in a far more humane and equitable manner.  His premises beg the questions: how should “humane” and “equitable” be defined? –more humane and equitable for whom? 


Nielsen contends that equality is impossible to achieve within capitalism; but socialism, which by definition means equal status for all people, provides the basis for a just society because it brings about that cherished equality (332).  Sidney Hook agrees that the principle of equality is inherent within the principle of ethical democracy.  But hear what he says about the principle of equality:

It is not a prescription to treat men in identical ways who are unequal in their physical and intellectual natures. [. . .] It is not a mechanical policy of equal opportunity for everyone at any time and in all respects. [. . .] It is not a demand for absolute uniformity of living conditions [. . .] It is a policy of encouraging the freedom to be different, restricting only that exercise of freedom which converts talents or possessions into a monopoly that frustrates the emergence of other free personalities. (304)

Inflation of Rights

Nielsen claims that everyone should have equal rights to the means of life and everyone has a right to work.  Therefore, these rights can be ensured only through democratic socialism, where “the means of life are owned by everyone” (328).  Through Ayn Rand’s articulation, one can see how Nielsen is guilty of inflating the concept of “rights” to a point where the very meaning of the concept is reversed.  She explains:

There is only one fundamental right [. . .]: a man’s right to his own life. [. . .] The right of life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generating action [. . .].  The right to life is the source of all rights—the right to property is their only implementation.  Without property rights, no other rights are possible.  Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life.  The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave. 318-9.


In America, the Bill of Rights was intended to protect the individual’s fundamental right to life from interference by any government or social power.  Rand gives us a classic example about how those in power wish to inflate these rights, as outlined in the 1960 Democratic Party Platform. That platform contained provision for, among many such inflations, “The right to a useful and remunerative job [. . .]; The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; [. . .] The right of every family to a decent home; [. . .] The right to a good education” (321-1).  The questions Rand asks about these new rights puts this in perspective: “at whose expense?”  Who is to provide all of these man-made values?  Playing upon the generous ethos of the American populace, and playing upon the long history of an instilled belief in altruistic ethics, socialistic thinkers like Nielsen are able to persuade many people that their vision of an economic system is moral and just, and that capitalism, per se, is immoral because it favors only the selfish few capitalists and managers in control of the means of production.

Redistributive Taxation Solution

Thomas Nagel also thinks that our socioeconomic system is unfair and unjust since some people are at a significant disadvantage through no fault of their own: it makes no difference if this disadvantage is because they were not born into a wealthy family, or whether it is because they do not have enough talent and ability to compete with others who are better endowed.  He thinks that the moral solutions to rectify this unjust condition is through redistributive taxation and social welfare programs (85).  This brings into question the larger notion about the purposes of governments.  Taxation for “the welfare of others” is still pilfering what others have earned through their individual self-directed efforts.  This brings us back to the question—at whose expense?  Who decides what welfare programs will bring about a just equality?  Do we tax until everyone is “equal?”  This so-called corrective methodology, although it seems to not interfere with free, competitive enterprise, when it is taken to its logical conclusion, it brings about the same results, and it is just a different name for an abrogation of personal liberty and property rights.

Putting aside grand concepts such as political-economic-social forces, let us return to our individual example.  Instead of a new, startup company, let us say that you and I had wondrously developed a company: we had hired the best employees, we had implemented state of the art equipment and procedures, and we made the best gizmo in the world.  We were able to beat all of our competitors and produce our gizmos at the lowest possible price for an optimum return on our investment.  Our employees, who contributed to the success of our company, were rewarded for their efforts with higher compensation packages than our competitors could afford: this enabled us to retain our best employees.  Now Nielsen and his comrades (excuse the pun) have changed the ground rules. In order to promote equality and a just society, by their definition of such a society, our means of production—which includes everything from material means, such as buildings and equipment, to intellectual means, such as procedures and patents, must now be distributed and shared among the “less equal” population.  The identity of our former company no longer exists; you and I are just two individual cogs in the great socialistic society.  We might as well become assembly workers or trash collectors because we can no longer find autonomy and freedom in a stress filled occupation of trying to manage and direct a company that can have no unique identity; one in which we would have no control anyway because, somehow, decisions are made through democratic procedures.

Creativity Stiffled

Before the onset of socialism, our stress filled jobs brought joy because they were the product of our creative minds, and we shared in that creativity with other creative employees working for us.  Now, there can be no joy, because there is no effective outlet for our creativity, since we cannot control the output from our creative minds.  This is the main concept that Nielsen does not realize.  He thinks that a socialist “society” can take the existing means of production, like so many chess pieces on a board, and rearrange them so that all workers can now have equal share and equal say in the whole productive process going forward.  Then what?  It does not seem possible to end up with just one holistic giant enterprise such that, somehow, all the parts will work together to produce what is needed, when it is needed, and then the output will be equitably distributed.  Nor can I envision adjustments necessary to turn existing companies into democratic socialistic enterprises.  After being robbed of the products of their minds, why would the former owners and creative company leaders stick around to watch their creations disintegrate in the quagmire of a democracy that knows nothing about creating and sustaining the means of production?   

What will be the apparatus to create new companies or divisions to manufacture new things? Indeed, what will be the apparatus, or more problematic, the incentive, to enable invention of new things?  What if nobody wants to buy the product or service of a particular company?  Then how would the workers get paid?  What democratic procedure would enable these workers right to a job and the right to an equally free and autonomous life?  If profit can no longer be the motivating driving force for desirable, quality products and services, does democratic vote take its place as the motivation for companies to succeed and prosper?  If a brilliant individual has sacrificed years to obtain an engineering education, why would she proceed to invent a great product if she cannot own the patent, or otherwise be rewarded any more than a factory worker?  Why would a factory worker want to go to college at night to advance to a more fulfilling job, if there are no correlating economic incentives involved with the added responsibilities of more demanding jobs?  In spite of Nielsen’s denial that socialism, per se, engenders more bureaucracy than a capitalistic system (332), one can only imagine the bureaucracies proliferating under such a socialistic system—structures needed to address some of the concerns I have raised. 

False Dichotomy of Property Rights

Nielsen has set up a false dichotomy: private ownership of personal property, but collective ownership of the means of production.  Appropriating the means of production from those capitalists who have earned them is nothing short of government sponsored robbery; trying to sustain and create new means of production via so-called democratic socialism is nothing short of government sponsored slavery.  Nielsen has tried to assimilate democratic ideals from the political realm into the economic sphere of human endeavors.  In America, the democratic form of government is based on a constitution and Bill of Rights that is intended to limit the power of the state and to protect individual liberty and individual property rights—those rights include one’s right to the products and means of individual economic enterprises.  A collective democratic socialism can not come about without appropriating the democratic political structure necessary to support capitalism.  In other words, Nielsen and other socialist proponents can not have their cake and eat it too!

Works Cited

Burr, John R., and Milton Goldinger, eds. Philosophy and Contemporary Issues.  8th ed.  Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Hook, Sidney. “The Philosophical Presuppositions of Democracy.”  Burr and Goldinger.  303-311.

Nagel, Thomas. What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Rand, Ayn. “Man’s Rights.”  Burr and Goldinger.  317-324.

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