Political labels are, like most things, subject to the law of civilization and decay. Such notions as liberal and conservative once enjoyed reasonably precise meanings, but by now they have become huge supermarkets under whose roofs a hodgepodge of miscellaneous notions is sold. As such they are no longer analytically useful, though they still remain rallying cries for many. One could, of course, attempt an inventory of all the items available in each store, but perhaps it would be more sensible to steer clear of such places—acknowledging their mysterious power to attract but, finally, dismissing them as Pope dismissed women and fools by saying that “true no-meaning puzzles more than wit.”
But what of the labels socialist and socialism? I raise the question because socialism has been stirring up a certain amount of interest among intellectuals during the past five years. The fires of socialism, though reduced to a flicker in this country, are still burning. Yale University Press has recently reissued a collection of essays on socialism, edited by Irving Howe; and Michael Harrington, America’s leading socialist, has in the last four years published two lengthy works on the subject. The last five years have also seen—to name a prominent few—works by George Lichtheim (A Short History of Socialism) and by Leszek Kolakowski and Stuart Hampshire (The Socialist Idea: A Reappraisal), the latter a collection of essays by several hands. Finally there is Dissent, the quarterly magazine of opinion, edited by Irving Howe and Michael Walzer—a magazine whose masthead says that it is “a journal devoted to radical ideas and the values of socialism and democracy.”
By no means do all the authors of these works take the same line on socialism. Kolakowski is the most skeptical about the possibilities of a humane, democratic socialism, but even Harrington, who says that socialism “is simply our only hope,” avoids the theatrics of revolution and liberation that were pervasive in the rhetoric of the New Left. The writers I have mentioned are, in the main, cautious and tentative about both the possibilities of socialism and the shape that future socialist regimes may take—their predictions hedged with numerous qualifications. Moreover, none of these writers sees much point in lambasting the so-called bourgeois capitalist world as evil to the core. Yet Howe and Harrington, the two writers whom I propose to examine closely, most definitely believe in the possibility—indeed in the necessity—of a democratic socialism.1 What, we may wonder, is sold in this store?
The first problem is the brand-name itself: democratic socialism. Is it an oxymoron, a conjoining of contradictory and incongruous terms? Many people think so. When Andrei Sakharov, in an introduction to the new Soviet emigré journal, Kontinent, says that its contributors are persons “who have spent a significant part of their lives in socialist countries,” he is alluding to Russia and the regimes of Eastern Europe—regimes no one in his right mind would call representative democracies. Yet Howe, who is second to none in his scorn for such regimes, speaks of socialism in positive terms, believing that the values of socialism and democracy are not necessarily at odds with each other. “To remain a socialist,” he has said, “is to be convinced that the values and procedures of democracy must be spread through areas of our social life to which they have barely penetrated. . . .” The implication is that only socialism can create a climate in which democracy can truly flourish.
When Howe uses the term socialism, he is of course speaking about what might take place, whereas Sakharov is speaking of what has taken place. One wonders why Howe persists in using a term that has been so tarnished by historical realities, yet to give him (and also Harrington) his due, he is at pains to distinguish his vision of an “authentic” socialism from the so-called socialism of Russia and Eastern Europe. Moreover, both Howe and Harrington admit that the burden of proof lies upon themselves, since historical realities should weigh more heavily than the blueprints of intellectuals. Given the fact that the socialist dream has been, for most people, a nightmare, if Howe and Harrington are to convince us of the rightness of the socialist “way,” they must be very clear about the socialist values they remain committed to. And, even more important, they must carefully assess the chances of these values being attained in the liberal democracies of the West without the loss of the freedoms—admittedly imperfect but nevertheless quite real—that the citizens of these countries possess.
Howe especially is aware that the socialist mansion contains rooms that one would prefer not to enter. He is forever backing into socialism—more often than not saying what socialism is not rather than what it is. Steeped in the horrors of the century, Howe does not assume that the traditional goal of socialism—public ownership of the means of production—is one that, if achieved, would automatically create the conditions for a humane, democratic society. Nevertheless he is reluctant to let go of such a notion, for if he does so he might be accused of being a “bourgeois-democratic” reformer, not a socialist. “The problem,” he says in his introduction to the collection of essays, Essential Works of Socialism,2 is “how to reconcile the traditional socialist emphasis upon property forms, an emphasis necessary but not sufficient, with a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between social structure and humane values.” This reconciliation is a problem indeed, one that many find intractable, but Howe leaves it at that, giving no clues as to how we should go about arriving at such a “sophisticated understanding.”
Though, according to Howe, an emphasis upon property is “necessary but not sufficient,” it is not clear from his essays what form this emphasis should take. In one place he speaks of the need for a “collectivist economy” whereas in another he argues that a social-democratic society is one “in which a certain proportion of the central means of production would be socialized. . . .” If the latter proposal signifies the extent of Howe’s commitment to socialism, then even F. A. Hayek, who considers himself an “unrepentant Old Whig,” is—at least on this point—a socialist, for Hayek has argued that in a late-capitalist economy some industries that provide basic services should be socialized.
But it would not be fruitful to approach Howe’s socialism as if he were a political economist elaborating upon the details of a socialist “takeover,” for Howe is not especially interested in discussing the particular economic structures and mechanisms that would form the basis of a socialist society. As he says in a memoir of the 30’s, he is ill at ease in the realm of economics. In fact, he seems distinctly uncomfortable with Marxian analysis, preferring to look at socialism as a “mode of freedom” rather than as the “correct” economic structure of a society. Speaking of the non-Marxian English socialists—Shaw, Wilde, and William Morris—he says that “their writing retains the freshness and value of imaginative projections of socialism as a mode of freedom. In their work, the vision of socialism remains alive and attractive . . . and perhaps more significant for socialist reconstruction than the militaristic utopianism of the Bolsheviks or the drab utilitarianism of the Social Democrats.”
Howe, it appears, wants socialism with a soul, but it is hard to see how Wilde, Morris, and Shaw are useful as guides to a more humane society. Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism is, as Philip Rieff has noted, the ur-countercultural tract, full of blather about everyone doing his own thing, whereas Morris’s medievalist program has little to offer as a way out of the complex, highly-organized industrial societies of the West. And Shaw, finally, is better as an unmasker of capitalist humbug than as a hard thinker about the socialist future. In any case Shaw was not especially interested in a democratic socialism; his predilections made him rather an occasional apologist for Lenin and Mussolini.
With its emphasis upon “vision” and “imaginative projections,” Howe’s socialism might be called a literary socialism. As such it avoids the arid quibbling over doctrine that is often a feature of Marxian socialism. Yet, perhaps because Howe’s socialism is not grounded in any particular theory, it often teeters on the edge of banality. For example, in an essay written in the mid-60’s, Howe insists upon “a vision of society that has men acting for motives finer than accumulation, values better than manipulation, an ethic beyond the appetites of self.” We may assent to such a “vision,” but it is far from clear how any socio-political change would result in such a moral revolution. And this sermon, which seems as if it came out of late Tolstoy, ignores the fact that some of the worst crimes in history were committed for unselfish reasons—crimes based upon motives that certainly were not accumulative ones.
In recent essays Howe has, I think, moved away from such heady rhetoric, yet he still has the itch to conceive of socialism predominantly in moral terms. In a recent review in the New Republic he says: “Being a socialist comes, I think, to more than having the correct fundamental premises and analyses. . . . Something else is wanted: a passion, a sympathy, a capacity to respond warmly to the insurgency of oppressed groups even if their tactics are judged to be faulty and self-defeating.” Passion and sympathy are of course attractive personal qualities, but they have a rather insidious effect when made to serve as part of one’s political “argument.” How is one to answer such remarks? Who is to say who has more passion, sympathy, etc.? No matter how well intentioned, rhetoric like this introduces an element of self-righteousness into the discussion—the implication being that those who disagree with the substance of what the writer is saying are cruel and hard of heart.
And Howe’s moral appeal, I should add, skirts around some rather difficult political problems. How do we distinguish among the claims of different oppressed groups, especially when every week sees a new “oppressed” group being born? How do we distinguish, say, between the “oppressed” members of Fatah and the “oppressed” migrant workers in the United States? These claims are especially difficult to deal with when they are made by different groups in the same society—by, say, the “oppressed” Boston Irish, who resent having their children bused, and the “oppressed” Boston blacks, who resent having their children sent to second-rate schools. Finally, oppressed groups, it needs to be said, notoriously have had little sympathy for claims other than their own, and rarely have had much interest in the freedom of others.
If Howe’s literary approach to socialism lacks substance, it is in part because Howe—like any imaginative writer—has a hard time making the good believable as well as appealing. His writing is stronger when he deals with the betrayals of socialism than when he—wistfully, it seems—gives us visions of the future. In a recent essay, which serves as an introduction to his book, The Critical Point, Howe seems pessimistic about the possibility of a socialist society that would preserve freedom. In fact he stresses the importance of freedom much more than he stresses the importance of socialism. “The obligation to defend and extend freedom,” Howe says, “is the sacred task of the intellectual, the one task he must not compromise even when his posture seems intractable, or unreasonable, or hopeless, or even when it means standing alone against fashionable shibboleths like Revolution and the Third World.” Though the remainder of the essay focuses on the prospects for a democratic socialism, the heart of the essay is Howe’s anxiety about the fate of liberty in the modern world.
The sentence I have quoted could, I think, serve as an epigraph to Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. Is Howe, then, an “Old Whig” dressed up as a socialist? The question is misguided. We should take him at his word: if he prefers to call himself a socialist, so be it; there is no reason to assume that all roads in the socialist tradition lead back to Marx—lead back, that is, to a special concern with economic structures. The road Howe takes leads instead to a European socialist who was an enemy of Marx’s—Alexander Herzen. Herzen’s socialism was, like Howe’s, essentially a libertarian one. Like Howe, Herzen stressed the importance of pluralistic social institutions as the best means for attaining and preserving basic freedoms. And like Howe, Herzen was a populist, though Howe’s “populist” interest in the American labor movement is much less romantic than Herzen’s championing of the Russian peasant. Despite differences in style—Herzen was a much more flamboyant, emotionally-charged writer—the substance of their socialist visions is remarkably similar, so much so that a recent biographer’s concluding remarks about Herzen can serve as a gloss on Howe: “Herzen’s theory of socialism . . . was amorphous and ambiguous; it was less a political program than a vision designed to serve as an exhortation and a goad in order to stir enlightened society into some sort of action. . . .”
By taking such an approach to socialism, Herzen and Howe open themselves to the charge of being theoretically muddled and emotionally soft-headed. At their worst they are bemused wishful thinkers, but at their best they are humane and cautious radicals, committed to equality but at the same time skeptical of radical intellectuals and their penchant for intoxicating world-views. Howe, like Herzen, knows that when abstractions are bandied about individuals tend to get short shrift—served up as so much cannon fodder for the guns of the historical process.
One more point about Howe’s socialism needs to be made—if ever so speculatively. It strikes me that Howe’s socialism, though deeply felt, is peripheral to his intellectual interests. Unlike Hayek or Harrington, who are first and foremost political analysts (Hayek of course is also a distinguished economist), Howe is first and foremost a literary and cultural critic. The Howe who writes about the work of Thomas Hardy or the world of Yiddish culture reveals a stronger, more discriminating, more critical mind than the Howe who writes about the necessity for socialism. Though they differ as to their conclusions, both Harrington and Hayek, unlike Howe, have looked closely at the complex mechanisms of current socio-political structures, grappling with the difficult questions raised by the claims of distributive justice.
Harrington, unlike Howe, plunges into the troubled waters of socialist theory. Yet he is distinctly less critical than Howe of some aspects of the socialist tradition. Harrington is, in fact, a Marxian true believer: Marx’s collected works are his socialist Bible, and Marx himself is, if not God, at least “the foe of every dogma, champion of human freedom and democratic socialist. . . .” Lest these words make some blink in astonishment, Harrington hastens to add that the original Marxian message has been betrayed by Marxism: what goes under the name of Marxian socialism is not the real thing. And, like a radical Protestant ransacking the Bible to prove that all the accretions of Roman Catholicism have distorted the original meaning of the Gospel, Harrington burrows into Marx and comes up with text upon text to show that Marx not only “regarded democracy as the essence of socialism,” but that Marx is also “the oracle in the ruins of the bourgeois order, which . . . is heading inexorably toward a final collapse. . . .”
If this language seems fundamentalist, it is. Arguing that we look to Marx for an understanding of past, present, and future, Harrington sounds like a Baptist preacher. Marxian analysis, he says, provides us with “the secret history of our crisis.” And with the help of Marxian analysis, we might be able to “change human nature, making man more peaceful and cooperative.”
As a faithful Marxist, Harrington works hard to prove the eternal relevance of the Master. More than half the contents of his latest books—Socialism3 and The Twilight of Capitalism4—are devoted to an exegesis of Marx. Though Harrington, like any fundamentalist, modestly assures us that he has not discovered “this authentic Marx” on his own, his homework is impressive. He has obviously done a good deal of laboring in the Marxian vineyard; we are treated to voluminous footnotes that refer to the Masters texts and that also discriminate among the myriad Marxian heresies, with Harrington—more in sorrow than in anger—telling us how so-and-so misunderstood the sacred canon.
Harrington is impressive as a Marxist preacher, dazzling us with his fund of quotations from Marx’s massive oeuvre and the ease with which he makes Marx seem the way of viewing the disordered present and the way of insuring a humane future. Though at times he seems (to change my religious metaphor) Jesuitically clever in the way he makes Marx come out democratically clean in the wash, on many points of interpretation he is convincing. In any case, it would be foolish to risk battle with Harrington on the intricacies of the Marxian canon, for Marx—Harrington assures us—requires the labor of a lifetime.
Yet the very wizardry with which Harrington finesses the reader’s doubts is itself unsettling: the Marxian answers come so thick and fast that one eventually wants fresh air—wants to get out of this oppressive and confining room. Unfortunately, the few times Harrington moves away from Marx—or, rather, locates Marx within the broad stream of European intellectual history—he tends to sum up the complexities he is dealing with by packaging them in such glibly reductive phrases as “capitalist intellectual life” or “capitalist stream of consciousness.” Harrington’s learning is deep but narrow.
But more important than one’s doubts about the intellectual framework that supports Harrington’s interpretation of Marx is one’s puzzlement as to just what is proved by all these twistings and turnings in search of the “authentic” Marx. Let us say that Harrington is right about Marx’s being a democrat; this in itself is neither here nor there—an exciting point in the history of ideas perhaps, but not the foundation on which to build a new society. What Harrington must do is show how the Marxian paradigm makes sense both as an explanation of the present discontents and as a reliable guide to a more well-ordered and humane future. And in this endeavor he fails badly.
I have used the word paradigm advisedly, for Harrington argues that there are “some distinctively Marxist questions, and ways of answering them” that constitute a Marxian paradigm. The word paradigm is borrowed from Thomas Kuhn, who uses it in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to adumbrate a certain broad conceptual framework that defines the way in which the physicists of any given generation see their scientific problems. Physics, Kuhn argues, does not “progress” by gradual steps, with more light increasingly being shed upon the dark areas of nature. but by sudden leaps whereby radically new ways of looking upon the world—that is, paradigms—totally alter the way physicists look upon their work.
Though the notion of paradigms remains a controversial one in the history of science, Harrington jumps at the chance to appropriate it because it lends his polemics an aura of scientific respectability. Needless to say, though, it is difficult to see how the term applies to Marxism, since for Kuhn a paradigm is accepted by nearly all the physicists working at any given moment in history whereas the Marxian “paradigm” is considered irrelevant by most contemporary political theorists. Moreover, those who do assent to it—those who call themselves Marxists—tend to disagree intensely as to what the essential elements of Marxism are.
Though Harrington does acknowledge that his notion of paradigm differs from Kuhn’s, it is hard to know exactly what he means by the word. The Marxian paradigm, he argues, “makes no pretense at being ‘value-free’; yet it seeks to be rigorously scientific.” The Marxian paradigm is both objective and “in the subjective interest of the socialist struggle. . . .” The Marxian paradigm “suggests that one’s analytic view of society will vary according to one’s social perspective.” This collection of tenets surely does not constitute a paradigm. It is, rather, a potpourri of logically contradictory categories, one that betrays Harrington’s emotional commitment to Marxism and his desperate need to believe that Marxism is the objective truth. No doubt some Master of Dialectics can reconcile these contradictory qualities, sorting out all the elements of the muddle. But even he, I suspect. would throw up his hands in bewilderment when confronted with Harrington’s strange notion that the eventual movement away from the Marxian paradigm “can be accomplished in a Marxist spirit. . . .”
Harrington also believes that the Marxian paradigm is “critical about its own definitions. . . .” Nothing could be further from the truth. Such critical thinking is impossible, since the “paradigm” remains impervious to theorizing—that is, it reduces any non-Marxian explanation of its workings to Marxian categories. As a self-enclosed system that can “explain” everything, the paradigm is attractive to those seeking a “secret history” that makes sense of the well-nigh bewildering social and economic forces at play in the world. But as a way of reading current problems, which Harrington elsewhere blames on the “abomination” that is “our antisocial economic system,” the paradigm’s very ability to come up with answers for everything severely limits its analytical usefulness. (I say “limits,” for Marxist theory does have its uses, when applied cautiously and precisely.)
When Harrington descends from the giddy heights of his Marxian paradigm, he is often an able polemicist, especially about some aspects of recent American history. Specifically, when he deals with the American labor movement and the cold war he makes some telling criticisms of fashionable revisionist historians; and he is, as I have said, strongly anti-Communist. Nevertheless, to anyone devoted to preserving the basic freedoms that exist in the representative democracies of the West, Harrington’s arguments in favor of a socialist future are disturbing—disturbing in the way he glosses over the serious difficulties of implementing a radical redistribution of society’s resources, disturbing in the way he is cavalier about the political form such a radically new society would take. And, despite his obvious desire to appear reasonable, realistic, and cautious, Harrington is a utopian, and a somewhat fanatical one at that—a man so deeply committed to making the socialist dream a reality that he doesn’t especially seem to care about the kind of political reality this radically new future will bring. Reading Harrington one does not find the kind of commitment to liberty that one finds in Howe.
These are strong charges, so let me be more specific. No one except die-hard laissez-faire capitalists would argue nowadays that corporate interests should necessarily take precedence over all other considerations. The trouble is: how do we determine these other considerations? The common good is notoriously difficult to define; there are many “common goods,” so it behooves us to proceed cautiously in our concern for the welfare of others, recognizing that, as Hayek has said, “individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievement of our ends and welfare depends.”
Harrington, though, has no such doubts. According to him, the basic problem with so-called capitalist societies is that they are “suffused with commercial values.” Such societies are in effect ruled by the “antisocial” tyranny of “corporate interests” and “private rights,” to the detriment of the “common good” of the whole society. The common good, he implies, is self-evident. All we need do is get rid of commercialism, whatever that means, and charge ahead: “. . . education, health, and personal problems are obviously antagonistic to commercialism, for these are spheres in which one should never stint in order to cut costs and increase the return. The only humane criterion is that of need. . . .”
Again, one raises the obvious question: how is need determined? Need is an even hazier notion than the common good, for the latter implies that some group—no matter how small—has gotten together to clarify the extent of its claims upon the state, whereas the former is essentially a personal claim that—except for the obvious needs of food, clothing, and shelter—one would have an enormous difficulty in defining in any reasonable way. (Even minimal needs are difficult to assess: food, clothing, and shelter may require less outlay of funds in Arizona than in Alaska.) If, as Harrington hopes, the dread god Commercialism is slain and the benign god Planning is put on the throne, the result may be a kind of collectivist chaos, with millions of supplicants screaming “I need! I need!” What mechanism will serve as the Solomon who can deal with these conflicting claims in a fair and responsible way?
Democracy is Harrington’s all-purpose answer. The determination of the “socially necessary” would be by means of democratic planning. According to Harrington, such democratic planning will only work when society has reached a level of abundance, so that all needs (including, for Harrington, the personal problems of the citizenry) could theoretically be satisfied—so that there would not be, in theory at least, any conflicting claims. Thus Harrington invokes the god of democratic planning the way Adam Smith invoked the god of the invisible hand: out of all this democratic activity a benign and fair order will come.
Yet even given such abundance—surely a utopian hope for most nations of the world—it is not clear how the people composing this democratic structure would have the time, in addition to the wisdom, to handle the awesome amount of planning necessary to run this new society. Furthermore, even a society so organized that the power to plan would be dispersed among numerous communities would not necessarily be concerned with what Marxists call “formal” freedoms. A state that administered to the needs of a democratic majority might be one that ran roughshod over the freedoms and the needs of minorities—might, say, refuse to publish one of Harrington’s books, might even arrest Harrington for his “antisocial” behavior. It might be in the interest of such a well-planned and democratically-run state to do away with an “antisocial” minority that objected to the supposedly fair and benign way the state ordered its citizens around.
I have stressed the word “antisocial” because it is one of Harrington’s favorite phrases. It surely is either tactless or naive of him to use such a phrase, however, when the regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe have put an uncounted number of persons away in labor camps because they were guilty of “antisocial” behavior. Harrington is not opposed to the formal freedoms and rights that aid in protecting people from the depredations of the state, but he is remarkably casual about the relation between the collectivism he sees as inevitable and the political structure such a society would have—saying only that “whether the totalitarian or the authoritarian or the democratic-socialist variant of the collectivist future will prevail is a question that will be determined by political and social struggle.”
This answer does not take into account that when such “struggles” have as their aim a utopian transformation it is easy to forget about legalistic niceties like rights and freedoms. And Harrington’s aim is certainly a utopian one, for he dreams of a society without “invidious competition,” a society of cooperation, fraternity, and equality, a society where work and money will be abolished. Harrington is not certain that this society will come into existence; he is certain that capitalism will destroy itself and that “human life will be radically transformed in the medium range of the future. . . .” Whether this radical transformation will usher in a humane democratic-socialist society or another totalitarian nightmare depends, according to Harrington, on whether or not we pay heed to the democratic wisdom of Marx. If we do, then the dream will be fulfilled; if not, the nightmare.
From time to time we are obliged to listen to sages who warn us of radical transformations. More disturbing than the threat of future shock is the persistent hope in utopian change. The “correct” formula in these matters is, I suspect, the opposite of Harrington’s. On the relationship between utopian thinking and the realities of political life, the last word should be given to Leszek Kolakowski, who is very much aware of the dangers inherent in the overweening pretensions of Marxian thought. According to Kolakowski, the socialist dream “may come true only in the form of a caricature which denies its original intentions. . . .” In his urge to resurrect Marx, Harrington has not faced the possibility that even an “authentic” Marxism may contain the seeds of despotism—that Marxian thought, owing to its utopian belief that man can leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, inevitably is only “realized” through totalitarian regimes. To quote Kolakowski again: “And there is no reason to expect that this dream can ever become true except in the cruel form of despotism; and despotism is a desperate simulation of paradise.” In this sense, then, the Communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe may well be expressions of an “authentic” Marxism. Harrington’s belief in a democratic Marxism is, in Saint Anselm’s words, a faith in search of understanding. Unfortunately the understanding is not adequate to the faith.
Harrington is on the editorial board of Dissent and appeals regularly in its pages. Though devoted to the values of socialism, Dissent publishes articles subjecting the notion of socialism to scrutiny. Indeed, Harrington himself was criticized in a recent issue—the writer questioning Harrington’s rather protean notion of socialism and also arguing that “an expansion of the role of the state cannot of itself result in a more rational, or productive, or more socially acceptable use of resources.” Michael Walzer, who recently became Dissent‘s co-editor, has said that socialist writers have never had anything especially interesting to say about the state. And back in the 50’s the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, warned that socialists, in their preoccupation with a more equitable distribution of resources, were inclined to ignore the greater opportunities for political tyranny such “rational” planning invited—a warning, by the way, very much like Hayek’s in The Constitution of Liberty.
Many of Dissent‘s contributors would acknowledge the force of Ricoeur’s warning, but they nevertheless instinctively look to the state to make good the claims of social justice, hoping to limit the power of the people at the center of the political-bureaucratic wheel by decentralizing, as much as possible, the decision-making process. Thus Walzer argues in favor of “a politics of immediate self-government, a politics of (relatively) small groups.” In another essay, however, Walzer questions the massive commitment to political activity that such a participatory democracy would require. Socialism, he ruefully admits, would require too many evenings. Harrington also gets mired in similar inconsistencies—warning, in a recent article, of the “political and economic costs of a totally centralized economy,” yet six paragraphs later calling for a national transportation plan, a national bank, and federal chartering of all major corporations!
If the particular proposals socialists make are at times inconsistent, they are often also like the proposals so-called capitalists make—for example, the federal chartering of major corporations or worker participation in corporate management. The latter notion, called co-determination, has long been successfully in practice in supposedly capitalist West Germany. What remains of socialism if particular socialist proposals have been “co-opted,” as the New Left would have it, by clever capitalists intent on preserving the “system”? Can we argue that socialists, unlike “bourgeois-democratic” reformers, are committed to a radical egalitarian-ism? If so then we must throw Howe out of the socialist camp, for he has said that “a society which insists upon enforcing an absolute egalitarianism can do so only by destroying liberties.”
Is socialism, then, nothing more than a vague moral commitment to social justice? Stuart Hampshire has said as much, arguing that for him socialism “is not so much a theory as a set of moral injunctions. . . .” Yet we cannot dismiss socialism with a “nothing more than.” Socialists may be irritating in the way they advertise their moral superiority, as if they alone are concerned about the “oppressed”; and socialists may be disturbing in the way they—gleefully, it seems—interpret every economic recession as a sign of “Western capitalism . . . in crisis,” to quote Harrington again. Yet without socialists to remind us of the “other America” that does not participate in the general affluence, we might find it easier to ignore the very real problem of distributive justice. As Raymond Aron, who is not a socialist, has said: “In the struggle against a certain form of complacency on the part of privileged persons who tend to put up with the poverty of the majority provided their formal freedoms are respected, the Marxist protest has lost none of its relevance and force.”
But such moral energies are not in themselves equal to the task of social reconstruction. In fact, if they are tied to a theory that is intellectually threadbare they may be positively harmful—a debate about social justice conceived in terms that are of little use to all concerned, especially the oppressed. As a map for reading the contemporary landscape, the theory—or theories—of socialism is badly in need of revision. What needs emphasizing, while we search for theories that make better sense of the complex socio-political realities of the West (or for that matter the whole world), is that the debate as to how society can eliminate poverty and effect a more reasonable distribution of its resources can only take place if its citizens possess the so-called formal freedoms Marxists traditionally have been quick to disparage.
1 The names I have mentioned hardly exhaust the list of those laying claim to the label of democratic socialist in this country—there is, to take the most important example, Social Democrats U.S.A., an organization from which Harrington and Howe split several years ago over various issues which came to a head in the 1972 presidential elections.
2 Yale University Press, 864 pp., $8.95 (paper).
3 Saturday Review Press (1972).
4 Simon & Schuster, 446 pp., $10.95.