Paul Kengor: Democratic socialism hits Western Pa.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is being hailed as the fresh new face of the Democratic Party. She also marks the party’s acceptance of “democratic socialism.” Ocasio-Cortez is just that: a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). And she’s not the only new face for the cause. We have two right here in Western Pennsylvania: Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato.
Lee and Innamorato defeated state Reps. Paul Costa (District 34) and Dom Costa (District 21), who held over 30 years of combined elected experience. Expected to hold their seats for life, they were defeated in the primary by Lee and Innamorato.
Lee and Innamorato were openly backed by the DSA and didn’t run from that endorsement. Why would they? Both are members of the Pittsburgh chapter of the DSA. That’s not exactly a huge group. It reportedly has only 600-some members. They couldn’t fill a quarter of Heinz Hall. Their entire membership couldn’t fill our Pew auditorium at Grove City College. And yet, two of their own are on their way to the state House.
“I hope this emboldens some secret progressives in elected office,” says Innamorato. She celebrates the fact that “you can be a DSA member.”
And what is the DSA?
The Democratic Socialists of America claims to be the nation’s largest socialist organization, boasting a membership surge under President Trump. It claims 40,000 to 50,000 members.
The DSA doesn’t dodge the socialist label. It embraces it.
Just like the World Socialist Party of the United States, which seeks the “establishment of a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth,” the DSA proclaims: “We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.”
The leaders of the USSR (the second “S” stood for “Socialist”) said the same. Of course, local “Democratic Socialists” will vehemently object to any comparisons to the USSR. What’s in a name, after all?
Well, a lot. The label “Democratic Socialist,” or “Social Democrat,” carries some serious historical-ideological baggage.
DSA members should know that Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin and the Bolsheviks considered themselves just that. The immediate predecessor to Lenin’s Communist Party was the Russian Social Democratic Party. The formal split into the “Bolsheviks” took place at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which met in Brussels and London from July to August in 1903.
And they weren’t the only pioneering “democratic socialists” or “social democrats” who were hardcore communists. Another was Herbert Marcuse, the godfather of cultural Marxism, which today is popular in our universities under the label “critical theory.”
Sadly, this history isn’t taught today and thus isn’t known, even by those proudly proclaiming themselves “democratic socialists.”
To be sure, no one thinks that Lee and Innamorato are Leninists or Trotskyists or Stalinists. They’re probably more along the lines of Marcuse and critical theory. They probably like the label “21st century socialism,” which Hugo Chavez championed, and which hasn’t been terrifically better.
Nonetheless, Lee and Innamorato owe it to their constituents to at least show that they have some sort of rudimentary understanding of the very broad and very destructive “democratic socialist” ideology and history that they now proudly place behind their name.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His column appears twice a month.