To the Editor:
Stephen Miller’s criticism of modern socialist theory [“The Poverty of Socialist Thought,” August] represents less an ill-conceived analysis than a polemic in its own right. While American socialist thought has indeed displayed a rather basic “poverty” in precise and meaningful social critique, there is little gained from the kind of gloating ideology which Mr. Miller throws back at the likes of Irving Howe and Michael Harrington. One immediately doubts the sincerity of the analysis when first stumbling upon the insistent refusal to differentiate between “authentic socialism” and the “so-called socialism” of Russia and Eastern Europe (the cynical quotation marks reflect Mr. Miller’s apparent non-belief in any real difference between the socialism of Howe and Harrington, and that of Stalin and Lenin). Surely, without a more precise and discriminating typology, any analysis of American socialism is bound to be stained by the authoritarianism of Eastern European Communism. The American version is doomed to be judged either as utopian or as supporting Stalinism.
An adequate study of the present generation of American socialist theorists, who must be recognized as somewhat peripheral to the mainstream of American political thought, should of necessity take into account both current conditions of modern industrial society and the peculiar American history of radical socialist thought. In this respect, Harrington looks decidedly less irrelevant and Howe more firmly rooted in the American tradition of “literary socialism.” While there are far better scholarly attempts to “rescue” Marx than that found in Harrington, and Howe’s literary socialism puts him among far more distinguished company, still the useless and often trite criticism by Mr. Miller hardly points the reader toward greener pastures. In his article, Mr. Miller seems to stress all of the standard clichés employed by those so concerned with “liberty” and “freedom” (Hayek notwithstanding). There is the often-used “religious metaphor,” though anyone familiar with Harrington would realize the inappropriateness of the label “fundamentalist.” Mr. Miller uses the familiar and totally inaccurate description of modern economic planning as being composed of countless bureaucrats making all of those intensely personal decisions which are normally reserved for consumers. There is even the silly and tasteless cliché from the 60′s about how social critics would be the first to go in a “real” socialist society (a socialist state “might even arrest Harrington for his ‘anti-social’ behavior”). There are also some serious academic inaccuracies, such as a misconception of Kuhn’s “paradigm” and its already widespread usage among social scientists, and an unhealthy tendency to pay Harrington credit for his analysis of Marxism (“Harrington is impressive as a Marxist preacher, dazzling us with his fund of quotations from Marx’s massive oeuvre”). While respectable, the study would hardly “dazzle” anyone who has read the vast literature on Marx.
In the end, Mr. Miller offers little in the way of useful criticism of a subject very much in need of attention. His use of clichés and ideology is hardly rewarding, either as analysis or as an alternate theory in itself.
Sheldon D. Pollack
Ithaca, New York
To the Editor:
While Stephen Miller raises some fundamental questions, I find several of his arguments unconvincing. I shall confine myself to his views about the failure of socialism.
I have no quarrel with Mr. Miller’s point that the economic content of socialism is variously defined by different socialist organizations and individual “authorities.” What I find obfuscating and simplistic is his subsuming all . . . current “socialisms” under a single rubric, pursuant to contemporary fashion in circles that are either uninformed or malicious. . . .
Because Sakharov, as a result of his misguided upbringing, refers to Russia as a socialist state, does his statement make it so? When Hitler called his party National Socialist, did the name make his criminal gang socialists? When Bill Moyers, either out of ignorance or as a result of sloppy thinking, kept referring to this “socialist party” during a TV interview of a Socialist Workers’ party representative, did this change the SWP’s Communist colors?
To take another example, which Mr. Miller mentions casually but fails to develop logically: the woods are full of ignorant publicists who refer to “democracies” of the Eastern European type. Does this mean that democracy therefore has no definite meaning which can be distinguished from the fraudulent “democracies” of the various peoples’ republics?
No, Mr. Miller, when Sakharov and others use the term “socialism,” they are not “speaking of what has taken place”; they are speaking of a society which has been mislabeled socialist by its overlords in order to mislead and to let them sell their fraudulent bill of goods more readily. When Mr. Miller tells us that “the socialist dream has been, for most people, a nightmare,” he is referring, I assume, not to Sweden, Denmark, and Israel, but to Russia, China, and Poland. Socialist countries, indeed! It’s too bad that scholars like Mr. Miller—and unfortunately there are many like him—fall into the trap.
New York City
Stephen Miller writes:
No doubt my unhealthy tendencies will forever prevent me from making a reply that will satisfy Sheldon D. Pollack. Nevertheless, I should like to say that when I suggested that Michael Harrington might be arrested for his “antisocial” behavior I was not making the commonplace remark that the revolution devours its children. I was pointing to the evasive and insidious way in which Harrington uses such an open-ended word as anti-social. One further point: Mr. Pollack’s letter is indicative of a persistent strain in Marxian polemics—the use of the word ideology as a term of abuse. Mr. Pollack has ideas whereas I, alas, possess an ideology.
I did not imply, as Charles Cogen suggests, that we should gauge socialism solely by such states as the Soviet Union, China, etc. But surely it is misleading to claim, as he does, that these are not socialist states. When Sakharov says Russia is a socialist state he is of course referring to Marxian socialism, and we do know that all states that have based their legitimacy on some blend of Marxism-Leninism are states that do not allow their citizens “formal” freedoms. So much for Sakharov’s “misguided upbringing.”
There is, as Mr. Cogen no doubt knows, another socialist tradition, the non-Marxian one, but this tradition is so vague and contradictory about its program that it is hard to say what states in the world qualify as socialist. By the standards of this tradition Sweden, Denmark, and Israel could be called socialist, but so then could the United States; the differences are of degree rather than of kind. The key distinction in these matters is political, not economic: Sweden, Denmark, and Israel are, like the United States, constitutional democracies whose citizens possess the so-called formal freedoms. Moreover, the citizens of these countries may, if they so choose, vote down particular “socialist” measures.