A Socialist Vision for Today

The prospect of socialism is a dim one. The demise of Soviet style socialism/communism was followed by the decline of welfare-liberalism in the west (particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom). We even see the adaptation of market-authoritarianism in China, by this I mean a one-party state with a relatively market-driven economy. While I do not see a connection between the demise of the Soviet Union and the failure to achieve a “Great Society” in the United State (not to say that there is not one), it does seem that ideals of economic egalitarianisms are becoming distant dreams rather than prospects on the horizon.

“The era of capitalist triumphalism is a difficult one for socialists…” says Stephen J. Fortunato, and this is true for all egalitarians.[1] What then are we (those sympathetic to the concerns of socialism) to do? Is socialism dead? Is market capitalism the only answer? Clearly Fortunato, Ollman, and Blackman think that there is a place for socialism despite the apparently justified pessimism about its prospects. The dilemma is that while the need for socialism still exists, many have removed socialism from the table of ideas and classified it as a historical relic which is now outdated and broken. Yet, who decided this? The forces of capitalism have long associated socialism with Stalinism. By doing so they undermined the possibility of an open discussion about how socialism could be applied to the west. With the fall of Soviet Stalinism, came the fall of socialism. Right? Well, I do not think so, though it should be recognized that most Americans are deeply committed to ideological structures that support such views of the state of socialism. The need is for socialists, along with political theorists and political economist in general what is socialism in the 21st century. How is it different? How is it the same.

Gerald Cohen addressed this question in 1992, when his poised as the title of an article the question: “Is there still a case for socialism?”[2] In this article Cohen argues that the Soviet experiment promised, yet failed to achieve, “instead of class exploitation of capitalism, economic equality; instead of the illusory democracy of class-based bourgeois politics, a real and complete democracy; instead of alienation from one another of economic agents driven by fear and greed, an economy characterized by willing mutual service.”[3]

The failure of the Soviet Union does not necessarily undermine the validity and value of these goals. Some “sustain their commitment to pursuing it, with a fresh view about how and/or where and/or when it is to be achieved.”[4] Yet, others “acknowledge the authority of the original ideal, but they are convinced that it is impossible…, or anyways something they no longer summon the energy to fight for.”[5] Cohen favors pursuing the original ideal, or at least “something like the original ideal.”[6]

Cohen argues that there needs to be socialist engagement with normative political philosophy. Normative political philosophy has engaged in a robust discussion about justice (notably distributive justice), democracy, and equality that dates back to 1971. Yet, socialists were discussing these issues amongst themselves and not addressing the work of Rawls and Nozick. The notable exception would be Michael Walzer, though his strong form of social democratic socialism never seemed to have a strong connection to Marxist socialism. For the most part liberal egalitarians were debating libertarians and communitarians, not socialists. Cohen has taken steps to reverse this trend.

Cohen’s position is a voice of caution as socialists, according to Cohen’s own description, move away from Marxist socialism in favor of some form of market socialism. Cohen himself does concur that socialists should move away from some of the positions traditionally held by Marxists. Particularly, Cohen is critical of the emphasis on economic and political central planning that he feels resulted in undemocratic institutions. This is rooted in Cohen’s contention that socialism is the real democratic alternative to the rather undemocratic Western “democracies.”  Highlighting his turn towards normative political philosophy, Cohen comments that “to the extent that something is democratic, it is good, but it is false that, to the extent that something is planned or controlled, it is good.”[7]

Market socialism, for Cohen, has a number of advantages or strengths. The most notable strength is that it is political most feasible in the contemporary political climate.[8] The reason for this is that market socialism maintains much of what we might call the capitalist market system in place. Business, as one might say, would still be as usual. The difference would be that market social would seek to bring about economic equality through taxation and transfer payments. However, we would still have the market. If we still have the market, we still have the alienation and exploitation. Marx recognized that the problem with capitalism was not just the unequal distribution of wealth, but also, and possibly most importantly, that capitalism strips individuals of their humanity. Does market socialism offer the cure for these ills as well? Cohen is skeptical. He feels that it is the responsibility of philosophers to work out the best ideas. If market socialism is the best conceptions of socialism, then so be it. But would should not just settle for the path of least resistance.

What is Cohen’s prescription for the socialism of the future? Well, he does not offer one in this article, at least not in the form of a political or economic plan. While it would be a mistake for philosophers to give up on socialism because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would also be a mistake to claim that one already has the answer without adequate debate and discussion. The mission for Cohen, and me, is to find out what the best argument is for socialism in the 21st century. So we begin.

[1] Furtunato, Stephen J. “The Soul of Socialism: Connecting with the People’s Values” Monthly Review. Volume 57, Number 3. 2005

[2] Cohen, G.A.  “Is There Still a Case for Socialism?” Social Scientist, Vol. 20, No. 12.  pp. 3-18. 1992

[3] Ibid, 4

[4] Ibid. 4

[5] Ibid. 4

[6] Ibid.4

[7] Ibid. 10

[8] Ibid, 7

3 replies »

  1. enjoyed the post despite agreeing with very little.

    concerning vomit worthy, a friend and I tried learning how to vomit on cue just for such instances in discussion

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