Democratic socialism is a left-wing political philosophy that supports political democracy and some form of a socially owned economy, with a particular emphasis on economic democracy, workplace democracy, and workers' self-management within a market socialist economy or an alternative form of a decentralised planned socialist economy. Democratic socialists argue that capitalism is inherently incompatible with the values of freedom, equality, and solidarity and that these ideals can only be achieved through the realisation of a socialist society. Although most democratic socialists seek a gradual transition to socialism, democratic socialism can support revolutionary or reformist politics to establish socialism. Democratic socialism was popularised by socialists who opposed the backsliding towards a one-party state in the Soviet Union and other nations during the 20th century.
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The history of democratic socialism can be traced back to 19th-century socialist thinkers across Europe and the Chartist movement in Britain, which somewhat differed in their goals but shared a common demand for democratic decision-making and public ownership of the means of production and viewed these as fundamental characteristics of the society they advocated for. From the late 19th to the early 20th century, democratic socialism was heavily influenced by the gradualist form of socialism promoted by the British Fabian Society and Eduard Bernstein's evolutionary socialism in Germany. Democratic socialism is what most socialists understand by the concept of socialism; it may be broad (socialists who reject a one-party Marxist–Leninist state) or a more limited concept (post-war social democracy). As a broad movement, it includes forms of libertarian socialism, market socialism, reformist socialism, revolutionary socialism, ethical socialism, liberal socialism, social democracy, and some forms of state socialism and utopian socialism, all of which share a commitment to democracy.
Democratic socialism is contrasted with Marxism–Leninism, which opponents often perceive as being authoritarian, bureaucratic, and undemocratic in practice. Democratic socialists oppose the Stalinist political system and the Soviet-type economic planning system, rejecting as their form of governance the administrative-command system formed in the Soviet Union and other Marxist–Leninist states during the 20th century. Democratic socialism is also distinguished from Third Way social democracy[nb 1] because democratic socialists are committed to the systemic transformation of the economy from capitalism to socialism,[nb 2] while social democrats use capitalism to create a strong welfare state, leaving many businesses under private ownership. However, many democratic socialists also advocate for state regulations and welfare programs in order to reduce the perceived harms of capitalism and slowly transform the economic system.
While having socialism as a long-term goal, some moderate democratic socialists are more concerned about curbing capitalism's excesses and are supportive of progressive reforms to humanise it in the present day. In contrast, other democratic socialists believe that economic interventionism and similar policy reforms aimed at addressing social inequalities and suppressing capitalism's economic contradictions would only exacerbate them, causing them to emerge under a different guise. Those democratic socialists believe that the fundamental issues with capitalism are systemic and can only be resolved by replacing the capitalist mode of production with the socialist mode of production through the replacement of private ownership with collective ownership of the means of production and extending democracy to the economic sphere in the form of industrial democracy. The main criticism of democratic socialism is focused on the compatibility of democracy and socialism. Several academics and political commentators tend to distinguish between authoritarian socialism and democratic socialism as a political ideology, with the first representing the Soviet Bloc, and the latter representing the democratic socialist parties in the Western Bloc countries that have been democratically elected in countries such as Britain, France, and Sweden, among others. However, following the end of the Cold War, many of these countries have moved away from socialism as a neoliberal consensus replaced the social democratic consensus in the advanced capitalist world.