Ethical Socialism vs Marxism

Maybe talking about theory isn’t the best way to address problems…

March 5, 2020

This is the first post of a series on my problems with Marxism and why I find ethical socialism to be the best approach to socialism. You can follow the entire series using the Ethical Socialism vs Marxism tag.

It’s been called the “theory blast.” It lays out someone’s opinions, expressed in a complicated way so it sounds like a fact. It might involve words no ordinary person would know, without bothering to define them. It often involves a tone of “I’m doing you such a favor right now.” It barely involves stopping to breathe, let alone stopping to listen. The theory blast often implies–and sometimes outright states–that you are not a real socialist.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a theory blast at a DSA event, then ESC is your home–especially if you suspected that the theory blaster was full of crap.

If you’re here, you are certainly familiar with this attitude among certain people who call themselves Marxists. Not all Marxists are like this. Here in Milwaukee, we work closely with DSA’s leading Marxist caucus, Bread & Roses. We work so closely that we run slates of candidates as coalition, and I trust the ability and judgment of our Bread & Roses comrades as much as I trust in our own ESC members. We are also friends. We enjoy each other’s company and celebrate each others’ milestones. We acknowledge our disagreements and respect those differences, but we focus on the many things we agree on. We get things done. We recognize that there are dozens of different schools of thought on the left, with fundamental disagreements over very basic questions, such as the role of free markets and freedom of speech (for me, markets are sometimes OK and free speech is an absolute right). Though not a DSA caucus, some members of Milwaukee Solidarity are also DSA members, and they are also extremely reliable allies. Unlike those tedious and unfriendly Marxists, our friends in Bread & Roses and Solidarity haven’t deluded themselves into believing their theory is perfect and can never err. Neither have we.

It’s impossible not to respect many Marxists. The original Marxists were brilliant in many ways. My favorite example is Friedrich Engels’ 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England, which highlighted a marked increase in child and adult mortality following the construction of a mills in Carlisle, a town in northern England. As far as I know, this was the first investigation into what we now call the social determinants of health. For a modern-day example of social determinants of health, US states that spend more on social services actually have less obesity, asthma, and death from lung cancer, diabetes, and heart attacks. It seems absurd that spending on housing, sidewalks, and parks would have a stronger effect of preventing deaths from lung cancer than more spending on healthcare, yet that is exactly the case. The Marxists understood the social determinants of health for more than a century before the field of public health finally caught up.

For contemporary Marxists, I’ve learned a lot from Marxist journalist Doug Henwood (eg, 1, 2, 3). Marxist historian Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts–about a period of history in the late 1800s where there was a worldwide surplus of food, yet 5% of the world’s population died of starvation–is truly genius and my second most recommended nonfiction book. Marxist sociologist Mike McCarthy has been written highly recommended articles on capital strikes (1, 2), which I believe is the most important overlooked issue on the left.

Indeed, one of the cofounders of ESC is also a member of Bread & Roses, a proud ethical socialist and Marxist.

I am ethical socialist but not a Marxist, for two reasons. Other ESC members have different criticisms of Marxism; these are mine:

1. Social welfare policy, not Marxism, convinced me of the need to end capitalism

Ethical socialism is a moral position: society’s resources should be used to ensure that each and every human has what they need to thrive. To me, this means that every person has access to a safe place to live, medical care, education, secure retirement, free time, friends, family, and the like. It means that everyone has access to disability care if they need it.

How can we actually meet these goals? Most of these goals can achieved through universal, government-run social welfare programs (like Medicare for All or Social Security). Here are some examples (1, 2, 3, 4) that demonstrate that a universal, government-run health care program is the only way to ensure that everyone is covered; these examples also demonstrate that a universal, government-run health care program is the most cost effective option. Until the government guarantees everyone’s right to health care, we will pay more for our health care and people will suffer and die needlessly for lack of coverage. Here are some more examples (1, 2) that demonstrate this same concept for long term care (nursing home level of care). With universal, government-run social welfare programs, you can have your cake and eat it too: not only do they cover everyone, but they are more fiscally responsible than systems that leave people behind. This information was put together from a social policy perspective: what social policies can we enact in order to achieve our goal of meeting everyone’s social welfare needs?

Universal social welfare programs programs ensure that nobody is left behind and that money is spent in the most cost effective way possible, and a study of social policy makes this clear. As a social worker, I became a socialist because I was concerned with how to meet everyone’s basic needs. I found the answers in social policy, and it quickly became obvious that capitalism will always stand in the way of what we need to accomplish. Marxist theory was never useful to me in reaching this conclusion. I’ve learned a lot from Marxists, but I still don’t see how Marxist theory is useful.

2. Marxism would recreate some of the evils of capitalism

Second, I believe that the Marxist vision for what should replace capitalism would recreate some of the evils of capitalism. Marx envisioned a society without any government; he believed that socialism would replace capitalism, and communism would replace socialism. Communism was to be a stateless society; Marxists believe that communism cannot be achieved without an intermediate “socialist” phase, whereas anarchists believe we can go directly to stateless communism without an intermediate phase. Marxists and anarchists don’t disagree about the destination; they disagree on how to get there.

In other words, Marxists believe in creating Medicare for All to bring about socialism, then dismantling Medicare for All to bring about communism. After all, Medicare for All would be administered by the government, and communism would abolish the government and all of its programs. If building up a robust, universal social welfare system in order to tear it down sounds unappealing to you, you’ll fit in with ESC.

I simply don’t believe that a stateless society could guarantee the rights and a minimum standard of well-being for everyone. It might work for a while, but it’s an unstable condition that could be upset by a severe natural disaster, a social conflict, charismatic and power-hungry leaders deceiving people, or slowly, by accident. I’ll explore this idea further in future posts.


If you ever wondered why your chapter’s tedious and unfriendly Marxists don’t believe you are a true socialist, it’s because they have defined socialism to mean Marx’s intermediate phase before we reach a stateless society. Ethical socialists and other types of socialists do not use “socialism” to indicate this intermediate phase to a destination we don’t want to go to. There is no reason anyone can claim the right to define what “socialism” is anymore than someone could make a hard and fast definition of “conservative” or “liberal.” There words change in meaning over time and mean different things to different people.

Nancy Pelosi is a liberal, despite a long history of taking positions that don’t seem very liberal. In a single day in 2019, she torpedoed a modest reform proposed by progressive Democrats to prescription drugs pricing, helped pass Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA, and helped pass a permission slip for Trump to continue a genocidal war in Yemen and use military force against Iran. She also opposes universal health insurance and fighting climate change, and helped win bipartisan support to pass Trump’s barbaric 2019 immigration bill. David Rubin, whose youtube show seems to exist merely to promote far right voices, calls himself a liberal. “Liberal” meant opposition to gay marriage until the late 2000s. Support for gay marriage was unheard of in liberal circles in the 1990s; now, opposition to gay marriage is unheard of in liberal circles. Labels can be useful, but attempting to rigidly police the borders between “socialist” and “not socialist” among DSA members is just as foolish as policing the borders between “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative.” In DSA, we want to bring people in so we can pull them farther left, not chase them away because our ideas aren’t good enough to convince them.

As above, there are dozens of schools of thought on the left, and they all have a different idea of what socialism is or should be. This can be confusing if you are new to DSA and the left, but don’t let people push you around and say you aren’t a real socialist or aren’t radical enough. When someone says you aren’t a socialist, they are wrong and aren’t respecting DSA’s “big tent” structure, where all ideologies of the left are welcome. Your views will evolve as you are exposed to ideas you have never heard before, and this is an exciting process. I have learned so much since I joined DSA, and it’s been a lot of fun. When someone says you aren’t radical enough, they probably mean they disagree with your strategy to change the world. That’s not how we do things in ESC.

In future posts, I will outline why I think a stateless society would recreate some of the evils of capitalism. But what’s important here is that ethical socialism is a moral imperative. If you feel a sense of outrage that people go hungry, homeless, and toil for too much of their lives, you are probably an ethical socialist. For ethical socialism, no amount of theory or knowledge is more important than the moral imperative that all people, everywhere, should be able to thrive.

Image: Dove in flight (flickr / Kyla)