Democratic socialism is often used in contrast to movements, such as Leninism, which resort to authoritarian means to achieve a transition to socialism (i.e., "democratic centralism", "vanguardism", etc.) instead advocating for the immediate creation of economic democracy by and for the working class.
Democratic socialism is difficult to define, and groups of scholars have radically different definitions for the term. Some definitions simply refer to all forms of socialism that follow an electoral, reformist or evolutionary path to socialism, rather than a revolutionary one. Often, this definition is invoked to distinguish democratic socialism from communism, as in Donald Busky's Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey, Jim Tomlinson's Democratic Socialism and Economic Policy: The Attlee Years, 1945-1951, Norman Thomas Democratic Socialism: a new appraisal or Roy Hattersley's Choose Freedom: The Future of Democratic Socialism.
But for those who use the term in this way, the scope of the term "socialism" itself can be very vague, and include forms of socialism compatible with capitalism. For example, Robert M. Page, a Reader in Democratic Socialism and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham, writes about "transformative democratic socialism" to refer to the politics of the Clement Attlee government (a strong welfare state, fiscal redistribution, some nationalisation) and "revisionist democratic socialism", as developed by Anthony Crosland and Harold Wilson:
The most influential revisionist Labour thinker, Anthony Crosland..., contended that a more 'benevolent' form of capitalism had emerged since the [Second World War]... According to Crosland, it was now possible to achieve greater equality in society without the need for 'fundamental' economic transformation. For Crosland, a more meaningful form of equality could be achieved if the growth dividend derived from effective management of the economy was invested in 'pro-poor' public services rather than through fiscal redistribution.Indeed, some proponents of market socialism see the latter as a form of democratic socialism.
A variant of this set of definitions is Joseph Schumpeter’s argument, set out in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1941), that liberal democracies were evolving from "liberal capitalism" into democratic socialism, with the growth of workers' self-management, industrial democracy and regulatory institutions.
In contrast, other definitions of democratic socialism sharply distinguish it from social democracy. For example, Peter Hain classifies democratic socialism, along with libertarian socialism, as a form of anti-authoritarian "socialism from below" (using the term popularised by Hal Draper), in contrast to Stalinism and social democracy, variants of authoritarian state socialism. For Hain, this democratic/authoritarian divide is more important than the revolutionary/reformist divide. In this definition, it is the active participation of the population as a whole, and workers in particular, in the management of economy that characterises democratic socialism, while nationalisation and economic planning (whether controlled by an elected government or not) are characteristic of state socialism. A similar, but more complex, argument is made by Nicos Poulantzas.
Other definitions fall between the first and second set, seeing democratic socialism as a specific political tradition closely related to and overlapping with social democracy. For example, Bogdan Denitch, in Democratic Socialism, defines it as proposing a radical reorganization of the socio-economic order through public ownership, workers' control of the labor process and redistributive tax policies. Robert G. Picard similarly describes a democratic socialist tradition of thought including Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Evan Durbin and Michael Harrington.
The term democratic socialism can be used in a third way, to refer to a version of the Soviet model that was reformed in a democratic way. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev described perestroika as building a "new, humane and democratic socialism". Consequently, some former Communist parties have re branded themselves as democratic socialist, as with the Party of Democratic Socialism in Germany.
Hal Draper uses the term "revolutionary-democratic socialism" as a type of socialism from below in his The Two Souls of Socialism. He writes: 'the leading spokesman in the Second International of a revolutionary-democratic Socialism-from-Below [was] Rosa Luxemburg, who so emphatically put her faith and hope in the spontaneous struggle of a free working class that the myth-makers invented for her a "theory of spontaneity"'. Similarly, about Eugene Debs, he writes: '"Debsian socialism" evoked a tremendous response from the heart of the people, but Debs had no successor as a tribune of revolutionary-democratic socialism'.
Justification of democratic socialism can be found in the works of social philosophers like Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth, among others. Honneth has put forward the view that political and economic ideologies have a social basis, that is, they originate from intersubjective communication between members of a society. Honneth criticises the liberal state because it assumes that principles of individual liberty and private property are ahistorical and abstract, when, in fact, they evolved from a specific social discourse on human activity. Contra liberal individualism, Honneth has emphasised the inter-subjective dependence between humans; that is, our well-being depends on recognising others and being recognised by them. Democratic socialism, with its emphasis on social collectivism, could be seen as a way of safeguarding this dependency.
In recent years, some have suggested replacing "democratic" with "participatory" upon seeing the reduction of the former to parliamentarism.