What is socialism? Part 1: Denmark, imperialism and social democracy

For several years now, large polling companies have been asking younger people in the United States whether they preferred socialism or capitalism. Of those who expressed an opinion, the majority have replied “socialism.”

This is a welcome sea change from attitudes in the U.S. during the very reactionary period that began with McCarthyism and the Cold War and has continued for decades.

But the word “socialism” can mean different things to different people. In this series, we intend to give some historical perspective to the word “socialism” — where it comes from and how its meaning has evolved with the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V.I. Lenin and other theoretical (and practical!) leaders of the movement for profound, revolutionary social change.

And we’ll look at how “socialism” is often used today in a very different way, a way that promises change without revolution, by adding the word “democratic” to mean progressive reforms legislated under capitalism.

It was long required of bourgeois economists in this country — especially when there existed a bloc of countries in Eastern Europe, led by the Soviet Union, where the means of production belonged to the state, not individual capitalists — that they pooh-pooh the slightest hint of socialism and praise capitalism as the be-all and end-all of social development.

But that doesn’t work now, in the era of Trump rollbacks of all progressive social programs; the stoking of racism, misogyny, bigotry and xenophobia; and the incredible and growing wealth divide between billionaires and an increasingly pauperized working class.

So some of the writers in the big capitalist media are defending — not socialism, even “democratic socialism” is a bit too much for them — but “social democracy.” A case in point is an Aug. 16 column in the New York Times by Paul Krugman, who often writes for that paper on labor issues and calls himself a “progressive.”

Socialism versus ‘social democracy’

Entitled “Something Not Rotten in Denmark,” Krugman praises that country, saying that in recent decades it has been “veering (modestly) to the left where we’ve veered right. And it has done just fine.” He contrasts the large amount of government spending in Denmark to all the fear mongering by U.S. politicians against the “redistribution of wealth” through social programs. He points to things like longer vacations, a national health system, a much larger proportion of workers in unions, lower unemployment and a longer life expectancy to show that life is better for Danish workers than for U.S. workers.

“But is Denmark socialist?” he asks. And he answers himself: “It’s true that Denmark doesn’t at all fit the classic definition of socialism, which involves government ownership of the means of production. It is, instead, social-democratic: a market economy where the downsides of capitalism are mitigated by government action, including a very strong social safety net.”

All very true. Denmark is not socialist. But what Krugman leaves out is the fierce class struggle on a global scale that has led the rulers of this small imperialist country to accede to some of the workers’ demands in order to maintain their privileged class position. They have given a little in order to stay in power and continue to exploit the labor of the workers, both at home and around the world.

Gains of workers’ struggles being undermined

He also leaves out the current workers’ struggles in Denmark to hold on to what they’ve won as they face an onslaught of capitalist reaction that is deepening throughout Europe. Far-right political forces there, just as in the U.S., are seizing on immigration to drive a wedge between native-born and immigrant workers.

The “gig economy” exists in Denmark, too — temporary employment with little security and fewer rights. While large manufacturing and public sector workers are mostly organized, industries like food service and retail establishments are superexploiting im/migrant workers from the “global south” who have fled the horrible conditions in their home countries created by imperialist wars and neocolonialism.

Many of these immigrants are highly educated. To be eligible to work in Denmark under a points-based Green Card system, made even more difficult over the last two years, applicants likely to be accepted should have a master’s degree or higher and be able to speak Danish, a language used by less than 6 million people worldwide. Despite these stringent requirements to work in Denmark, many highly educated immigrants who do finally get a Green Card end up washing dishes or cleaning bathrooms with few legal protections — like so many immigrants in the U.S.

Most of the left in Denmark — both Danes and migrant workers — are resisting this erosion of their hard-won rights. They have no doubts about Denmark being capitalist, despite its “social-democratic” political establishment. And they understand that dividing the workers on ethnic, religious or citizenship lines is a dangerous tactic of the bosses meant to undermine the gains the workers have won in the class struggle.

Denmark and NATO

Denmark was a founding member of NATO, which was created in 1949 by global imperialism to militarily encircle and push back the USSR and the workers’ states of Eastern Europe and keep Western European countries in the hands of the capitalists. While the “Eastern bloc” countries emerged from World War II having suffered horrible destruction at the hands of the Nazi imperialists, they still offered many things workers didn’t have at that time in more prosperous Western Europe: free socialized medicine, free education, longer vacations, earlier retirement, guaranteed jobs and more. These were the fruits of a true workers’ revolution in Russia in 1917 and were generally applied also in the East European countries under Soviet occupation after World War II.

The Cold War demonized the Soviet bloc at a time when strong workers’ parties in Western Europe were fighting to win these same benefits. These were the conditions that led the capitalists in some Western European countries to accept social democracy as a “lesser evil” to outright workers’ revolution.

As long as the capitalist ruling class exists, whether it makes material concessions to the workers or not, it calls the shots. This is especially true in periods of economic crisis — which is deepening all over the globe at present and comes directly from the contradiction of capitalist “overproduction.” During this crisis, the capitalists will try to overturn the gains made by workers in order to enhance their profits in the fierce, dog-eat-dog competition that is a built-in feature of this decaying system.

NATO has morphed into an aggressive armed force used against any regime or movement that challenges U.S.-European imperialist domination worldwide. In this global imperialist war, Denmark has sent troops and/or war planes to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Estonia and Kyrgyzstan.

Trump complained during his election campaign, and still does, that the Europeans weren’t paying their “fair share” to NATO and demanded they raise their contribution to 2 percent of their gross domestic product. Bloomberg News predicted that would “break Denmark’s welfare state.” (Nov. 20, 2016)

In a capitalist country, even a social democratic one, being a partner of world imperialism has its price. The capitalists calling the shots will make sure this price is paid by the working class, not the bosses.

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