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Answering the Question: What is Socialism?

Gray reflections on a surprising turn in U.S. political culture.

Last year, I quite critically raised the question: What Do You Mean When You Use the Term Neo Liberalism? I was, and still am, concerned that the term too often explains too much with too little, and enervates progressive politics. I worry that all the problems of our times are too quickly seen as being a consequence of this ill conceived thing named neoliberalism, and it is too often an obstacle to necessary (especially given the global post truth authoritarian threats) coalitions between the center left and the left.

On this hot and humid Friday morning in New York, I consider a related question, much more sympathetically: identifying, as I do, with the ideals of socialism, and believing that these ideals can be enacted. Yet, I do think that the enactment requires a deliberate consideration of what it is we mean when we use the term. To be clear, I am seeking to contribute to a clarified discussion, not presenting a singular definition.

Socialism is an appropriate topic for a Gray Friday post, especially given recent developments in the United States. The right is worried that it might be happening here, trying to understand how this could be, but also confident that it is much ado about relatively little. The left is excited by the prospect, noting the possibilities and the limitations of the present moment, and also concerned about potential pitfalls, working to figure out ways to reach a broad public without compromising fundamental principles, of being true to principle and responsible as I examined a few weeks ago. While the right is trying to figure out what got us into this mess and who is responsible, the left is assessing the present prospects for radical change, and debating ways of achieving it. I am struck by how the observations, assessments and debates would be greatly improved with a touch of a gray sensibility, a sensibility that recognizes that socialism is not a clear black and white matter.

Here at Public Seminar, we have presented perspective on this latest turn in political culture. Our series on capitalism is critical, often pointing in the direction of socialist struggles, building on examinations of the relevance of the works and tradition of Marx and reporting on social, political and union mobilizations. Our series on imaginal politics includes critical alternatives to the ways things are, often suggesting imagined socialist alternatives, especially as these alternatives include sexual, gender and racial justice, a confrontation with ecological challenges, and a consideration of the promise and perils of cities, protests, finance, unity, and utopias. Indeed many of the contributions to our series on liberal democracy in question, on mediapowergender and sexuality, and race, suggest that some sort of democratic socialism or social democracy is a key to addressing the most fundamental problems of our times. I like to think that Public Seminar is open to all points of view, but I know there is a big soft spot for socialism among its contributors and readers, including me.

With this in mind, I wish to make clear how I understand socialism, hoping others will add their thoughts. I find myself torn between critical thoughts, concerning actually existing capitalism and previously existing socialism.

The injustices associated with capitalism are just too apparent to ignore: the inequalities, the persistence of deprivation, the environmental degradation, the social injustice. The logic of capitalism clearly has to be challenged. It may be the case that, as John Dewey asserted, “the answer to the ills of democracy is more democracy,” but I think it is pretty clear that the notion that the answer to the ills of capitalism is more capitalism is mistaken and deceptive. As an aside, I think this is what the critiques of neoliberalism should focus on, i.e. market fundamentalism. Unfettered market solutions to the problems of poverty, injustice, education and the environment, and much more, have been ineffective at best, and quite often little more than reactionary rationalizations for doing nothing: accepting that the poor and the uneducated will always be with us, that sexism and racism are somehow a consequence of human nature, and that climate change is not real.

On the other hand, I don’t believe there is an attractive systemic alternative to capitalism, and I am confused when my friends and colleagues assert otherwise. I don’t understand how an intelligent caring person wouldn’t be concerned by the historical fact that every attempt to create socialism as a systemic alternative has ended in failure. I know this as an eyewitness in the former Soviet bloc, but the evidence is also overwhelming that the socialist experiments, as radical and systemic alternatives to capitalism, of Asia, Africa and Latin America all have ended in failure. Economic failure, along with political repression has been the consistent pattern. I’ll add: nostalgia for Stalin and deep admiration for Lenin and yearning for the discipline for “the party” are, in my judgment, moral abominations.

It perpetually amazes me how people across the political spectrum can’t hold the two critical thoughts together and act accordingly. All too often, they choose to focus criticism on one side, while ignoring or apologizing for profound problems on the other.

I think, following this flawed logic, that the post-communist enthusiastic embrace of capitalism, pure and simple, in this fashion, contributed to the tragic rise of right wing authoritarianism throughout the former Soviet bloc. But I also think that the present sectarianism on the left in which my friends and colleagues fight over the radical potential and dangers of socialism is tragically absurd, and may undermine the resistance to the present danger of right wing post-truth authoritarianism, a danger that is clear and present in just about every actually existing democracy. Moderate establishment democrats, as a matter of principle and strategy flee from the socialist label, supporting a innovative reformed tamed capitalism. They focus on the fundamental problems both in the theory and the practice of socialism. To their left, there are Democrats who embrace or at least recognize the value of socialism as a critical ideal, and see in its new found popularity, especially among young voters, an opportunity to achieve fundamental changes concerning healthcare, education, economic inequality, racial and gender injustices, and much more. To their left, are socialists who are skeptical about the Democrats and social democracy. Their debate ranges from those who would tactically work with the Democrats holding their noses with their eyes wide open, committed to social movement mobilization combined with party politics simultaneously, and those who are deeply skeptical about the possibility of working with the Democratic Party.

I view all of this with a combination of amusement and frustration. It seems to me that the controversies involve much ado about very little, given that I don’t believe there is a stark contrast between capitalism and socialism. If you want to call the actually existing economy “capitalism,” then it is clear that it exists in multiple forms very differently shaping people’s lives. There is a modern economy, more or less humane, given political and social actions.

Commitments to democratic socialism would seem to the answer to the dilemma, where both the democratic and the socialism are pursued with an understanding that they cannot be fully achieved. Socialism, then, is a sustained project to minimize and overturn the pernicious consequences of the market and the logic of capital. In this sense I am a a self limiting, gray socialist, a student of Adam Michnik’s new evolutionism, equally concerned with those who believe that the only way to address the problems of capitalism is more radical capitalism, and those who imagine and would seek to enact a radical alternative to capitalism, which experience has revealed as the road to the gulag and serfdom.


Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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