Why I am a Socialist. #happymayday

I refer to myself as a socialist for a number of reasons. In one sense, it is empirically accurate. In a discussion a few years back, I insisted that I was a liberal egalitarian and not a socialist. While this is technically the case, the difference is practically irrelevant. At least, that is what J. Nelson Seawright argued, and I have come to realize that he was correct. The philosopher Julius Sensat argues that socialism is an attitude and not so much a program. [1] It is an aversion against inequality. The political theorist Michael Walzer argues that socialism is essentially an argument for true democracy. Government, and economy, of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Another reason that I now proudly use the term socialist is because It has such a negative connotation. So, in a way, I have adopted the label socialist with pride, in the way that homosexuals have taken on the label queer, a term that was once a slur and now used with pride.

For many years, I only used the term in certain company. This started to change when my wife informed my stake president, a prominent conservative Republican in Utah, in a temple recommend interview that I was a socialist. She didn’t think anything of it, and I started to care less about what others thought as well.

Now, let me share with you a little of what socialism is, when I use it. It is not what David O. McKay was talking about when he talked about socialism. It is not what you were likely taught about socialism in K-12 or in American Heritage (unless you took it from me). The mention of this term brings back all sorts of Cold War thinking, much of which was creepy then, though somewhat understandable. Clark Goble has often told me that I do not really understand conservatives (while I used to be one, he may be right). I feel that same way about many who throw around the term socialist. They probably still won’t like it, but they should know what it is they do not like.

“The era of capitalist triumphalism is a difficult one for socialists…” says Stephen J. Fortunato, and this is true for all egalitarians. [2] What then are we (those sympathetic to the concerns of socialism) to do? Is socialism dead? Is market capitalism the only answer?

Fortunato, thinks 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. See U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ response to Stephen Colbert on this issue.

Gerald Cohen, the late British socialist and political philosopher, asked in a 1992 article the question: “Is there still a case for socialism?” [3] 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

G. A. Cohen

another of economic agents driven by fear and greed, an economy characterized by willing mutual service.”

The failure of the Soviet Union does not undermine the validity and value of these goals. Cohen, like me, thinks these ideals are still worth pursuing.

Cohen, himself well known for his defense of Marx’s theory of historical materialism, argues 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.” Cohen adds, and I love this, 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.”

Albert Einstein, in his classic 1949 argument for socialism, also warned of dangers of the planned economy:

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Democracy is the best answer to the ills of both capitalism and socialism.

One contemporary approach to socialism, is known as market socialism. This is the type of socialism that we see in much of Europe today. For Cohen, market socialism has a number of advantages or strengths. The most notable strength is that it is the most feasible in the contemporary political climate. 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 socialism would seek to bring about economic equality through taxation and transfer payments. This would also take the form of robust public education and universal health care.

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.

Alienation is a product of modern society and not just capitalism. It cannot be completely avoided. Additionally, I think that the Hegelian/Marxist concern about alienation is overly wrapped up in the idea that there is a certain type of good life that best fits humanity. I think the members of humanity should be able to pick and choose the good life that they themselves want. A liberal form of socialism, possibly market socialism, is best suited for allowing this.

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. He has addressed this issue further in two recent books that I hope to tackle soon. But I think that is the point, socialism, like liberalism and conservativism, should not be a set of policy proposals, but a guiding perspective within the political struggle.

Mogget once described my role as being that of starting political fires and yelling “Socialism!” I do not think it was meant to be a compliment. But it is true.

Fire in the hole.

I originally published this at By Common Consent on February 2, 2010 with the title “Socialism!”

1. “Socialism as an Attitude.” In Equal Shares: Making Market Socialism Work, ed. Erik Olin Wright, pp. 250-262. London and New York: Verso, 1996.

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

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

14 replies »

  1. I don’t see how capitalism strips me of my humanity. I can buy what I want, do what I want, and refuse to participate in most of the nonsense that goes on in this world.

  2. Do you really need to flirt with Cohen’s Marxist claptrap to defend economic egalitarianism. Are you really committed to material determinism, class as the engine of history. Also, I have to confess that I really don’t understand what “democracy” means in this context. This is particularly important given that Cohen seems to think that hand waving about democracy saves socialism from the critique of central planning. It seems rather more like sloganeering than argument. It certainly is nothing close to a reply to the devastating critique of central planning offered by Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” For all your iconoclasm, it seems to me that you are advocating rather run of the mill European style social democracy. The question for that model has considerably less to do with “democracy” than the long term fiscal viability of a society where the state consumes 40 percent of GDP. That, in turn, probably turns on issues of demographics, and the extent to which the state can continue to use price mechanisms to overcome information problems. At the end of the day, Cohen, Marxism, and the rest of it strike me as so much windy and anachronistic nonsense.

  3. True socialism will never be achieved among mortal man. It will always be a mess. After all, the United States is a socialistic entity cloaked in the false trappings of capitalism.


  4. Hi Chris – thanks for the explanation. So are you reviving the old word? Here’s what Rothbard wrote in 1969:

    Note the fundamental attitude of Dr. McCracken toward the economy—remarkable only in that it is shared by almost all economists of the present day. The economy is treated as a potentially workable, but always troublesome and recalcitrant patient, with a continual tendency to hive off into greater inflation or unemployment. The function of the government is to be the wise old manager and physician, ever watchful, ever tinkering to keep the economic patient in good working order. In any case, here the economic patient is clearly supposed to be the subject, and the government as “physician” the master. It was not so long ago that this kind of attitude and policy was called “ socialism”; but we live in a world of euphemism, and now we call it by far less harsh labels, such as “moderation” or “enlightened free enterprise.” We live and learn. Economic Depressions: Their Cause and Cure, p. 12.

    Unless mistaken, market socialism has been discussed for a number of decades. It’s not really a new concept, right? The so-called “market” is long gone too and has been for years. That’s why Higgs and others refer to the modern U.S. economic engine as more akin to participatory fascism rather than to socialism or even “market socialism.”

    And since the state must administer market socialism, shouldn’t we be concerned? As Stephen Ricks perceptively wrote in the foreword to Hugh Nibley’s The Ancient State, “Statecraft, as it has generally been practiced, is merely priestcraft in another guise.”

    Additionally, as Nibley pointed out years ago in The Prophetic Book of Mormon, both political economic systems have caused a “‘crisis’ . . . by their being so much alike.”

    I’d argue that though there are many similarities in the desired outcomes of “new-age socialism” and the gospel of Jesus Christ, that the latter holds the final answer.

  5. Tom, I appreciate your comment (honored actually). I tend to agree with John Roemer and others that Marx put too much stock into worrying about the good human life…when there are a wide variety of possible good lifes. However, Marx would likely point out that life is good for you. You are a professor with great colleagues (just saying) and the leisure time to go mountain hiking and kayaking. You life is not what most face.

    That said, I would say that you live in a society that benefits not only from markets, but also from relatively good government. It is not so much capitalism (heck, we teach at a state institution) but good society that make your life a good one. Something like that.

  6. Oh, markets are one aspect of good society. I am not denying that. In this may, I appreciate Marx, but I am no way a Marxist. This is why, Nate, I appreciate Cohen, but I am still a Rawlsian. As foolish as this may make me, it does not make me a typical socialist, However, in the American political context, I might as well be one.

  7. Nate, you intimidate the crap out of me. However, I do appreciate being challenged.

    “Do you really need to flirt with Cohen’s Marxist claptrap to defend economic egalitarianism.”

    To be honest, this is from a seminar paper. I went with it. Most of my academic-ish posts use something that I previous wrote for school as a basis.

    “Are you really committed to material determinism, class as the engine of history.”

    No, and neither is Cohen anymore. He has abandoned historical materialism in his more recent works. That is the work that I am familiar with and the work which I was drawing upon here.

    “Also, I have to confess that I really don’t understand what “democracy” means in this context.”

    I should make this more clear (though I wrote this for By Common Consent and not Philosophy and Public Affairs). By democracy, I mean contested elections, healthy political parties, and a strong form of separation of powers. Again, nothing radical.

    More to come…

  8. Nate said:

    “For all your iconoclasm, it seems to me that you are advocating rather run of the mill European style social democracy.”

    My iconoclasm in a sense is a satire. I am not advocating for Marxism at all. I actually find the ideological nature of Marxism to be maddening. Yet, this does not mean that I am not a socialist. A point of the post, originally, was to say that instead of defending myself against the label of socialist by saying that I was a liberal egalitarian was to grasp the label of socialist as my own.

    Like George Bernard Shaw, I find myself rolling my eyes at others who use the label.

  9. Could you perhaps clarify what you mean by socialism Chris? For instance do you favor nationalizing business or just have a robust safety net? I’m of the opinion the term is used in so many ways that it’s almost unhelpful.

  10. To add I also think the problem of alienation is more complex than typically taken. For one I’m not sure it’s primarily due to economic forces but rather simply that there are different preferences by people for socialization. I also think sometimes it’s just natural to feel alienated and that when you’re just trying to survive you don’t always have time for the natural feelings.

    That’s not to say an assembly line might not be alienating to many. But some might prefer that to the type of jobs I’d prefer.

  11. “[Market socialism] is the type of socialism that we see in much of Europe today.” Nope. What exists in parts of Western/Northern Europe is a capitalism with some concessions that have been won by labor movements and labor-based parties. That’s all.

    As to what Marx meant by “alienation” — I think you misunderstand. We are alienated because our labor goes into the creation of institutions which we can’t control — like capitalism itself, like the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s market. The alienation which Marx is most concerned with is alienated (or estranged) LABOR. This isn’t a small matter.

    As for what Marxists like myself advocate — what we mean by “socialism” — I recommend going here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03017609708413415
    (if that doesn’t work, go here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03017609708413415#.UpA4IOKLVFI )

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