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What is socialism, anyway?

To say that socialism is dead is wishful thinking on the part of its enemies

Reviews

Detail of “Man at the Crossroads” (1933), a fresco by Mexican painter Diego Rivera, showing Leon Trotsky, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Have you got a friend who’s always complaining about “socialism” and doesn’t know what it is (but thinks she does)? Do you want to defend socialism but can never make any headway with His Excellency, Contrarian Edgelord Talkenpoint III, who equates everything socialist with everything evil, and everything evil with socialism?

Give him and her this book. Of course, they might not read it, but that won’t be your fault. They will no longer, at least, have an excuse for not taking socialism seriously. Furthermore, this book is by no means just for those hostile to the left. Those of us who are sympathetic to socialism or are actual socialists often need some clarification on left history and terminology which is relentlessly and almost effortlessly muddied by a brutalizing capitalist culture that has a vested interest in spreading confusion and misunderstanding. Michael Newman’s Socialism: A Very Short Introduction is very useful for us here.

The book gets down to work very quickly, as is appropriate for a work of some 180 small (17.4 cm by 11 cm) pages, including apparatus:

[T]he most fundamental characteristic of socialism is its commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society… A second, and closely related, common feature of socialism has been a belief in the possibility of constructing an alternative egalitarian system based on the values of solidarity and cooperation. But this in turn has depended on a third characteristic: a relatively optimistic view of human beings and their ability to cooperate with one another.


This simplifies but deepens matters and gives greater truth and clarity than do those anti-socialists who, for example, falsely see socialism as being by definition, “big government.” It needs also to be noted that, as Newman says, “socialism is not a single doctrine.” Indeed, how could it be? Unlike certain religions, such as Christianity, socialism does not have, and cannot have a central, sacred text, a Bible. Socialism is a work in progress (I would hasten to add that so is Christianity for that matter, as long as one does not treat the Bible in an ossifying way, as so many Christians do).

Much of the book is dedicated to giving examples of what became two trends in socialism: social democracy and communism. Chapter two, for example, is dedicated to tracing the histories of Cuban communism and Swedish social democracy.

There are five chapters and an introduction. Chapter one covers the early utopian socialists, anarchism, Marxism, and the break between communism and social democracy in the early twentieth century. Chapter three discusses the New Left (e.g., Marcuse, Gramsci) including feminism and green socialism. Chapter four deals with socialism in various countries in the post-Soviet era, and chapter five is called “Socialism Today and Tomorrow.” The aim is not to give a worldwide history of socialism, but Newman does give numerous examples of social democracy and communism in action.

This clear bifurcation of socialism into these two longstanding tendencies, going back at least as far as the early-twentieth century, is very instructive. However, I cannot help but recall Noam Chomsky’s words in his 1986 essay “The Soviet Union Versus Socialism”:

When the world’s two great propaganda systems [the Soviet Union and the capitalist West] agree on some doctrine, it requires some intellectual effort to escape its shackles. One such doctrine is that the society created by Lenin and Trotsky and moulded further by Stalin and his successors has some relation to socialism in some meaningful or historically accurate sense of this concept. In fact, if there is a relation, it is the relation of contradiction… One major ideological weapon employed… has been the claim that the State managers are leading their own society and the world towards the socialist ideal; an impossibility, as any socialist—surely any serious Marxist—should have understood at once (many did), and a lie of mammoth proportions as history has revealed since the earliest days of the Bolshevik regime. The taskmasters have attempted to gain legitimacy and support by exploiting the aura of socialist ideals and the respect that is rightly accorded them, to conceal their own ritual practice as they destroyed every vestige of socialism.


I think Newman might have said more himself along these lines, but his position does seem to be the same as Chomsky’s on this matter: “the Soviet system had always differed from many of the principles, values, and goals of socialism, as defined in this book.”

It should now be clear to all that communist dictatorships, whether in the past or present, wholly contradict political equality and can never provide adequate forms of cooperation and solidarity. Dictatorship must be rejected, with democracy viewed as a central element of socialism.


One might ask why, if communism is not socialism, the former is talked about so much in this book. I think the answer is that it is, historically, an offshoot of socialism and one possible reaction of socialism to the great political and economic pressures put upon it by its enemies. Talkenpoint III needs to understand that criticizing a “socialism” that has betrayed its ideals is not much of a criticism of those ideals themselves.

Of course, Talkenpoint’s next point is often that socialism is impossible anyway. But seeing as he and his cohorts do what they can to make this claim a reality, the integrity of the position is somewhat compromised to say the least. In any case, the scope of Newman’s book is such that it cannot take on all of Talkenpoint’s voluble objections in any thoroughgoing way, though chapter five does make significant points along these lines. The work does give a strong impression that socialism has always been up against tremendous odds that push it either into dictatorship on the one hand, or into greater and greater compromises with a triumphant capitalism which, since the 1960s or so, has steadily eroded its gains for the masses. The picture is a little depressing, but no less true on that account (it should also be added that “communism,” in the strictly Marxist sense of the word, is by definition the ultimate development of socialism, a definition which this text does not deal with, perhaps because that would muddy the waters somewhat).

I must say that the book needs a little more passion here and there. I don’t want to quibble too much. It is hard to do even what Newman has done in the small space of this work (it being part of the Oxford “Very Short Introductions” series) but part of chapter five, “Socialism Today and Tomorrow” is a kind of rhetorical teeter-totter reminiscent of a speech by Polonius: on the one hand, but on the other hand; A is true, but so is B… etc.

Newman is trying to be fair, to face up to the discouraging elements of socialist history in recent decades, but also to give honest grounds for hope. I respect this. There is inevitably a price to be paid for trying to cover a lot of turf in so small a volume, but I would have liked to see the book capture a bit more of the air, the flavour, the exuberance of socialism at its best. It needs a little more of the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg, the treatment of whom in this book is fair, but too brief. We need to hear more of radicals who fall neither into the Soviet error of dictatorship nor the tepidity of social democracy. What of Luxemburg, for example, who, though claiming the title of communist, certainly put first and foremost the will of the masses as opposed to that of a small party vanguard. In a figure like her, we see also a spiritual and psychological dimension that is all too missing in so many political discussions of whatever stripe. A marriage of heaven and earth is needed.

One thing that should be clear to anyone who has read this book thoughtfully is that socialism cannot be refuted by easy talking points about the Gulag, the “nanny state” or any other such rhetorical excuses for thoughtlessness. To say that socialism is dead is wishful thinking on the part of its enemies. To say that it ought to be dead is not a thing a thoughtful person can say, in my opinion, after reading Newman’s book.

J.W. Horton is a sessional instructor at the University of Manitoba in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media. He is also an essayist and fiction writer. Visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.

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