The Origins of Democratic Socialism: Robert Owen and Worker Cooperatives


Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) – and its two predecessor organizations, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM) – emerged in the early 1970s, during a long-term rightist movement in the United States.

The DSA’s contribution to the American Left was its new founded identity as a radical organization born out of a merger between the DSOC and NAM. DSA also sought to become a democratic,socialist party, which fostered the inclusion members, similar to that of the Bernie Sander’s presidential campaigns (2016, 2020). Nevertheless, it was under the leadership of DSA Michael Harrington’s penetrating critique of American culture in The Other America (1963), that catalyzed the nascent civil rights movement, its leaders and the Kennedy Administrations to prioritize combating racism, poverty and inequality.This in turn set the stage for Martin Luther King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” and eventually King’s denunciation of American global hegemony. These events thus presaged the Johnson Administration’s Great Society War on Poverty.

The foundations of democratic socialism, and in root the DSA, have its origins in the eighteenth century during the breakdown of feudal Europe, specifically England, where the medieval guilds and the protection of workers’ rights was subsequently replaced as a “commodity” or as Marx describes as “commodity fetishism”. The emergence of capitalism during this period further reinforced the domination of capital over labor and the horror this unleashed on labor in the Industrial Revolution. Confronting this crisis were religious leaders Bishop Joseph Butler and Reverend John Wesley, philosophers and economic reformers, John Locke and Adam Smith, arguing that labor creates profit and value, not capital.Moreover, they argued that workers possess a property right to the profits and value they create.This implied that labor, rightfully, must direct the control of capital since this determines how and to whom surplus value will be distributed in a democratic manner.