When Senator Bernie Sanders announced his campaign for the presidency, the term “Democratic Socialism” has been heavily thrown around in political discourse. However, people who believe in Sanders’s “Democratic Socialism” are often liberal, while those who are actual Democratic Socialists, often criticize liberals. In part, the reason is that Democratic Socialism would nonetheless mean further democratization and public ownership of the economy than currently exists. On the other hand, public ownership of the main productive assets is limited in comparison to what it could be in Social Democracy.

I think [democratic socialism] means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest.

-- Bernie Sanders in Democracy Now!, "Vermont’s Bernie Sanders Becomes First Socialist Elected to U.S. Senate", Story, 8, November 2006 [link].

From the above statement, the questions remain as follows:

  1. What is the difference (if so) between Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy?

  2. Where do Social Democracies fit into the vision for Democratic Socialism?;

5 Answers 5


First of all, at risk of stating the obvious, I think it is important to be clear that terms like these, especially democratic socialism, have politically contested meanings. To understand what is meant by them, it is important to look closely at who is using the term and who their intended audience is. It is also helpful to keep in mind that the meanings of these terms have changed over time.

The concept of "social democracy" is the older of the two, by about a century. It was originally popularized by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which was formed in 1863. Their initial platform called for basic rights we associate with social democracy today. However at the same time, the platform was explicitly socialist and anti-capitalist. Karl Marx famously critiqued that original platform, but the party also continued to engage and identify with Marxism over time.

The term "democratic socialism" is newer and, at least until very recently, has never been quite as widely used. In the early 1970s, the declining Socialist Party of America took on the name Social Democrats, USA. A prominent defector from the party at that time, Michael Harrington led the formation a committee which later became the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The split was essentially about their stance towards capitalism, which the Social Democrats defended. The DSA supports similar social democratic reforms, but also seeks to replace capitalism. Although the DSA remained small for decades, it has grown dramatically in recent years and has been closely tied to the Sanders campaign.

As a result, I would say that in the United States today, social democracy refers to a familiar set of pro-welfare policies. Some supporters of those policies ("social democrats") see these policies as a way of reforming and strengthening capitalism. Other supporters of very similar policies ("democratic socialists") see them as a step toward replacing capitalism with socialism.

Is Bernie Sanders a social democrat then, or a democratic socialist? In my opinion, he is intentionally ambiguous about that because he wants and needs support from both groups. The DSA and other democratic socialists hope to further their goals through his campaign, even if many suspect he is more of a social democrat in his own views.

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    Strong answer. The only problem I have with it are the claims that the SPD became more "Marxist". Could you elaborate on that?
    – user11817
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 4:40
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    @Developred: Under the leadership of August Bebel and under pressure by Anti-Socialist Laws the SPD moved politically closer to Marxism than Lassalle's ADAV had been at its founding in 1863.
    – user23205
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 9:24
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    Not really. Social Democracy intends to use freemarket capitalism to create wealth, and high levels of tax and redistribution to lower the inequality that comes with growth. Democratic socialism aims for market intervention and nationalisation. Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 12:39
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    @Developred, Brian Z: Even if I have been able to contribute my 2 cents as German and alleged history buff, I'm no specialist in the history of political parties. If you want to know more, you should look for information about Orthodox Marxism in Germany, August Bebel (party leader), Klaus Kautsky (Marxist theoretician and publisher of a magazine) or the history of the SPD in the later 19th and early 20th century.
    – user23205
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 9:38
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    There was also the short-lived Social Democratic party in the UK, which broke away from Labour in 1981 and merged with the Liberals in 1988 to form the current Liberal Democratic Party. The SDP broke with a Labour party which it saw as being extreme left wing, but was still well to the left of the Conservatives of the time (i.e. Margaret Thatcher). There is still a rump SDP today of people who didn't go along with the Liberal merger: socially conservative with centre-left economics. Commented Sep 22, 2021 at 8:34

Social Democracy

Social democracy is a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist economy.

Democratic Socialism

Democratic socialism is a political philosophy that advocates political democracy alongside social ownership of the means of production,[1] with an emphasis on self-management and democratic management of economic institutions within a market or some form of decentralized planned socialist economy.

Both of these systems largely subscribe to the views of liberal democracy, which is...

characterised by elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, a market economy with private property, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for all people.

With the key distinguishing feature being that Social Democracy prescribes some social interventions within a largely Capitalist system, while Democratic Socialism prescribes a Socialist planned economy (which makes Democratic Socialism misaligned with liberal democracy on one trait).

I find it clear that Bernie Sanders is a Social Democrat on policy. His economic policies prescribe some social intervention to a Capitalist system (for example, he doesn't propose socialized ownership of the economy, but he does propose raising the top marginal tax rate and expanding some social programs), and they largely mirror the economics of mid-20th century America and present day Nordic Model countries, which can generally be classified as Social Democracies. I think that Bernie Sanders has mislabeled himself, and should be labeled as a Social Democrat. But being that distinctions between these two systems were uncommon knowledge in America year 2016 and prior, I find this an understandable mistake.

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    N.B.: you're correct on Sanders, I've added some quotes from him on this, as a separate answer, as they were too long for a comment. Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 9:05

I think John is correct; to elaborate on what Bernie says on this:

"So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this: I don't believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal."

The contents of this speech were very similar to other statements he has made about socialism across his entire political career. The entire speech could have been summed up neatly in a quote he gave to the Associated Press back in 1997:

"To me, socialism doesn't mean state ownership of everything, by any means, it means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living."" But that quote is alas fairly dated.

That would be social democracy to any European.

Social democracy is a theory of democracy that, in line with the social part of Human Rights, defines the welfare state as an essential component of any functional democratic state.[1] It applies a wide range of economic and social interventions to promote social justice as both prerequisite and target of a well-functioning liberal democratic polity and a capitalist economy which serve the general interest. Social democracy is committed to representative or participatory democracy, measures for income redistribution, legal regulation of the economy, and welfare state provisions.[2][3][4] Social democracy thus aims to create the conditions for capitalism to lead to greater democratic, egalitarian and solidaristic outcomes

And if the obvious fact needs more authoritative sources, here's The Economist's take on Bernie's (2016) platform:

BARACK OBAMA spent his first campaign for president explaining why he was no socialist. Bernie Sanders, the out-of-nowhere candidate who has constituted an unexpected challenge to Hillary Clinton, bravely embraces the label. Yet while Mr Sanders has built his campaign on a jeremiad against wealth inequality and corporate greed, he isn’t, properly speaking, a socialist—or even a democratic socialist. The better term encapsulating Mr Sanders’ positions is “social democrat”, a label that jibes with his rather mainstream embrace of “private companies that thrive and grow in America” and belief that “the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal”. To clarify matters, Mr Sanders flatly disavows the very heart of socialism as defined by Karl Marx: “I don’t believe government should own the means of production”, he says.

As for why he is receiving support of actual socialists like DSA, etc.

In the socialist milieu, the proponents of building a campaign for “Bernie 2020” put forward two main arguments: first, that Sanders’ campaign is the “best available means to raise workers’ class consciousness,” and second, that there is a battle inside the Democratic Party between a progressive and a corporate wing, and that we socialists need to take part in that fight.

And some US socialists don't actually agree with that strategy.

Sanders’ politics have often been described as “populist left,” and with good reason. His social-democratic policies are blended with nationalist rhetoric about “American values” and “keeping good jobs.” Peter Frase, writing for In These Times, makes the point that rallying behind Sanders’ popularity can “obscure the need to ground our struggles in mass organizing” and lead us to wed ourselves to his “New Deal liberalism” rather than debating what “socialism” really means.

Since the term "democratic socialism" has little traction outside of the US, it helps to just explain the DSA's initial vision:

When the DSA was founded in 1982 by Michael Harrington [...] Its organizers believed it could be more useful as what some have called basically a lobbying group to the Democratic Party, pushing the mainstream liberal party further left. Harrington described his group’s stance as “the left wing of the possible” and he knew from first-hand experience that such influence could be powerful: the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency were partly inspired by Harrington’s book The Other America: Poverty in the United States.

As for DSA's own platform, it is further to the left than Sanders', e.g.

As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people.

Sanders is not a member of DSA, by the way. So there is in this sense, a struggle over the meaning of "democratic socialism" in the US.

In a broad sense

The term democratic socialism is sometimes used synonymously with socialism, but the adjective democratic is sometimes used to distinguish democratic socialists from Marxist–Leninist-inspired socialism which to some is viewed as being non-democratic in practice.

But this leaves a wide area of ambiguity as to what it is actually about. Which is why the Wikipedia article on this topic is a kitchen-sink of every movement remotely socialist that endorses some form of democracy, ranging from the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Syriza, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, Mélenchon's La France Insoumise, Canada's NPD, etc.


Social Democracy is when workers use the power of government to place limits (or "checks and balances") on the power of capitalist bosses.

Democratic Socialism basically means workers electing their own bosses and sharing the profits.

That's the most rudimentary distinction between the two I can make.


Within Communism/Socialism there are many different currents, due to the fact it has been an international political movement and hence must take into account the myriadly various circumstances which each polity find itself in. The two main currents are revolutionary and reform. Communism is generally associated with the former and socialism with the latter. As a rough measure, we can say that Europe split on this question in the 20th C, with Western Europe taking the reformist option and Eastern Europe taking the revolutionary option.

However, it's worth noting that revolutionary communism explicitly states that capitalist regimes will not move to an economy where the peoples representative, the state, would own the means of production without violence. And this explains the campaigns of the Bolsheviks unser Lenin, and Mao's China.

Democratic socialism is an offspring of these two main currents where violence is explicitly renounced but not the socialist aspiration of the state controlling the means of production. In Britain, this would be Old Labour.

A social democrat, on the other hand, works within the capitalist regime for social and economic justice by interventions by the state. This is more New Labour. For example, the way the current pandemic was controlled is by a classic social intervention - but writ large - and writ globally. On the whole, we can say it is revolutionarily reformist.

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