I’m asked the question often, and I’m never quite sure how to answer it. If you’re a socialist, you probably won’t be happy with my brand of socialism, whatever it is. If you’re politically conservative, I’m probably socialist enough to warrant a rant or two. To the extent that I’m a socialist, it’s more about a political ethos than any particular model, program, or ideological line. If you’re promoting socialism, I’m probably going to try to tear it down. If you’re attacking socialism, I’m probably going to defend it tooth and nail, especially when you really don’t know what you’re talking about, and most often you don’t. I would say that I still aspire to an ethos of egalitarianism and I see the bulk of our political problems as arising from not just the huge disparities in income and wealth, but more importantly the disparities in power and influence which arise from the former. I believe that democracy has the potential to mitigate the disparities, but collective choices are not always rational and can potentially aggravate them as well. Still, for any mitigation to take root, it has to be through democratic processes, and it has to be incremental and well thought. We have collective moments when we make such progress, and those small movements of progress have to survive the torrent of backlash from the more fearful and reactionary elements of the democracy. The health care reform may represent one such moment of incremental process. And we have to keep the discussion alive no matter what happens. I do believe in progress – I think it’s clearly evidenced. But I believe it’s excruciatingly slow. The shortcuts attempted have historically been disastrous, leading to consequences much worse than the evils they were intended to resolve.
I don’t believe in a perfect society. I believe we can address inequities of our time, and devise institutional reforms which bring us a little bit closer. But then human beings will always find ways to exploit each other. We are very creative that way. It will be up to those generations to address the new inequities. I believe we are called upon to address those in our time, and try to avoid repetition of the same mistakes.
The Western European model has achieved the highest standards of living the world has ever seen. It’s far from perfect. It has serious structural problems in whatever it is we are calling the “new international economy.” It will have to be reformed. It may require significant reconstruction to survive, which in the short run may look like regression (and which in the absence of political will may end up permanently regressive). The downside of democracy is that the collective has the right to make the wrong choices. I will continue to rant and whine about Citizens United, but ultimately each individual makes a choice in the voting booth – makes a choice to believe the advertising. Makes a choice whether to conform or break with “the dominant paradigm,” whatever that may be. My socialism is one which is focused on the autonomy of the individual, somewhat along the lines of Mills’ utilitarianism, and democracy for me isn’t merely the strategy or vehicle. If we collectively make the wrong choice, democracy has prevailed if socialism hasn’t, and democracy is more important than socialism. For me, while we can debate whether the Sandinistas were corrupt totalitarians or visionary socialists, but they’re choice to acquiesce to a democratic choice against their rule was the most positively radical move a Marxist regime ever made. They lost, but they also won, unlike the other regimes which collapsed or are waiting to collapse.
In short, I view socialism as something to aspire to, but cannot and should not ever be attained in perfection.
Finishing Arguing the World, the book emerging from the same project as the film, I came across some quotes which loosely resonate with my own thoughts on the question.
“We live in a time of diminished expectations – idealistic visions, utopian hopes, desires for social renovations are all out of fashion – indeed, are regarded as dangerous illusions that set off memories of totalitarian disasters. The current catchword is sobriety, which sometimes looks like a cover for depression. But Utopianism is a necessity of the moral imagination. It is a testimony to the resourcefulness that humanity now and then displays, together with other, far less attractive characteristics. It is a claim for the value of desire. So to friend and foe, at a moment when the embers of Utopianism seems very low, I’d say: “You want to call us Utopians? That’s fine with me.”
– Irving Howe, Two Cheers for Utopia
“You ask me if I’m a neo-conservative. What I find amusing is that the people who decry a one-dimensional view of society, a one-dimensional view of politics, apply a one-dimensional label to things.
I think I’ve been consistent all the way through It’s not that my politics haven’t changed. Politics is basically a response to particular situations. I think my fundamental values have remained, and my fundamental view of understanding society has remained.
I believe there are different realms in the society and there are different principles which underlie these realms. That’s why I’ve called myself a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture. I’m a socialist in economics because I believe that every society has an obligation to give people that degree of decency to allow them to feel that they are citizens in this society. In the realm of economics, the first lien on resources should be that of the community in a redistributive way.
I’m a conservative in culture because I believe in continuity, and I believe in judgment. I don’t believe that all opinions in culture are the same as everybody else’s opinion. I don’t believe that all art is the same. Some things are better than others, and you have to justify why it’s better than others, and you have to understand the grounds of justification (And the reader has to understand that Bell, like the other New York Intellectuals all come from roots of cultural criticism – think Partisan Review, NY Review of Books, etc. – EVK).
I’m a liberal in politics, but liberalism has no fixed dogmas. It has no fixed points that you can say, “This is the liberal position.” It changes because it’s an attitude. It’s a skepticism. It’s a pluralism. It’s agnostic.”
“All of us at Dissent- and Irving (Howe) has been one of the most persistent in this – hold on to socialism by continually redefining it, rethinking it. We have sponsored a long series of articles on market socialism which would once have been thought to be a contradiction in terms. Socialism was supposed to lead to a withering away of the state and the abolition of the market. We now talk of a socialism that makes its peace with decentralization rather than straight, top-down economic planning.
Why cling to socialism? I think the answer has to do with a sense of an historical tradition. The central vision of a society of equal men and women, who participate, who join together in shaping their own destiny, that is a socialist vision. It has been carried on by a succession of socialist parties and movements, and I think Irving’s view has been one that doesn’t want to be the end of that line. One doesn’t want to give up on the project.”
“We continue our criticism of the injustices and inadequacies of a society which allows thousands of people to be homeless in the streets, an affluent society in America where there is still a vast amount of poverty, social dislocation, social pathology.
The crucial lesson of the last fifty years, one crucial lesson is the absolute indissolubility, the absolute organic connection between democratic practice and socialist hope. The great tragedy of the last half-century has been the enormous waste of idealism and energy which the Communist movement represented and its malappropriation of the socialist vocabulary, the socialist idea. It will take a good deal of time before the consequences of this are undone.
But socialism means a greater social ethic, a concern for the needs of human beings, economically and culturally – a gradual transformation from the ethic of accumulation and me-ism to social sharing. All of this may sound vague at the moment, I guess it has to be.
To me, socialism is no longer a dogma or ideology, but it is a vision, a hope, an expectation for the world which there will be greater equality and a common ownership of major industries. Not nationalization, not government ownership, but shared ownership by the people who work in those industries.”
Just some thoughts arising from my vacation. Ironic that I’m inspired to write about socialism while sitting here in Indiana. Maybe not so ironic. Eugene Debs was born a hundred or so miles south of my current location.