What is Socialism?

On September 8, 2018, I participated in a panel discussion organized by the nyu chapter of the Platypus Organization, on the topic of “What is Socialism.” Here’s the description of the proposed discussion that the organization posted beforehand: “The term ‘socialism’ appears to be enjoying a resurgence of public interest—both favorably where it is self-prescribed and pejoratively where it is meant to degrade the respectability of public figures. From early 2016 at the height of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic Party nomination to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley in June, the term ‘socialism’ appears to be gaining some level of purchase and a whole lot of press. In many instances, ‘socialism’ is commingled with terms as varied as ‘social democratic,’ ‘communist,’ ‘marxist,’ ‘anarchist,’ etc. As such, we view this is as an opportune moment to ask, ‘what is socialism after all?’ What do public figures mean when they identify as socialists or any one of its varied strains? What do their opponents think it means? What does it mean and what can it mean? And perhaps, most important of all, what did it mean in the past?”

There were two other panelists—Andy Gittlitz, a contributor to the New Inquiry and co-host of the Antifada podcast, and Richard Wolin, a professor at cuny’s Graduate Center. The discussion was moderated by Wentai Xiao of Platypus. I won’t presume to summarize what any of them said. I would note that I thought it was a lively discussion.

What follows is a revised and expanded version of my remarks—those I made in my introductory comments, those during the subsequent discussion and those I never got to make because of time limitations.


I hope to address five topics:

  1. The developing popular leftist understanding of socialism—as reflected in Corey Robin’s New York Times op-ed on “The New Socialists” published on August 24, 2018;
  2. My youthful daydreams about a socialist future and what they tell me now;
  3. The need to expand the range of possibilities to be considered in imagining socialism and a brief enumeration of what some of those expanded possibilities might be;
  4. Ridding ourselves of some dangerous notions associated with the theory and practice of Communist Parties;
  5. Marx and post-capitalist society.

Corey Robin on “The New Socialists”

Let me begin by acknowledging, along with the organizers of the event, that the reasonably widespread discussion of socialism in the mainstream media and elsewhere should be greeted as an opportunity to open up a long overdue public discussion on the topic.

Corey Robin took advantage of that opportunity and should be given credit for his willingness to put his own ideas out there to be responded to and contested by others. (Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College.) In his Times op-ed, he begins by suggesting that American socialists have not been so good at defining just what they meant to do. As an example of that, he cites a sentence written by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser in a 1954 issue of Dissent: “Socialism is the name of our desire!” My all but immediate reaction was quite different from Professor Robin’s. Socialism is the name of our desire? Not so bad! What is such a desire but a vision of a new society? Such a vision is best expressed in a language of inspiration. Over hundreds of years, the vision of a new society has been named: “Jerusalem” by the poet William Blake, “a free association” or a “union of free individuals” by Karl Marx, a “gemeinwesen” by Frederick Engels,1 a “universal republic” by the Paris Communards, a “beloved community” by the American Civil Rights activists, or a “good life” by clr James. In Modern Politics, James described what he meant by the phrase:

An American woman told me once that she forgot herself and told an audience of white women in the United States—she was a Negro woman—speaking to them she said, “When I look at you all, I am sorry for you because although whites are oppressing us and giving us trouble, I am actively on the move; every morning I am doing something, but you all are just sitting down there watching.” It is not the complete truth, but it is a great part of the truth. It is some idea of what I mean by what is the good life—the individual in relation to society. It is not, it never has been, merely a question of what the vulgarians call “raising the standard of living.” Men are not pigs to be fattened.2

For Robin, the limits of the new socialist imaginary are straightforward ones—a society measurably better and fairer than the one we have now. By way of possible next steps, he identifies “state ownership of certain industries, worker councils and economic cooperatives, sovereign wealth funds.”

Indeed, he favorably emphasizes the precedent set by Franklin Roosevelt when he challenged the “economic royalists.” He mentions no critical assessment of the New Deal—its similarities to fascist economic planning; its reconstruction of the white republic (on the basis of the exclusions of domestic workers and agricultural workers, overwhelmingly black workers, from Social Security eligibility and labor law protections, the development and implementation of “redlining” policies by the Federal Housing Administration, the parceling out of the implementation of the gi Bill to the states—thereby allowing the seventeen segregationist states to severely limit the participation of black veterans) all as part of its accommodations to the Southern segregationists in the Democratic Party.

A far cry from the vision that inspired the American abolitionists, black and white, before and during the Civil War; from the vision of the Parisian Communards in 1871; from the vision of the Spanish anarchists and other left-wing activists during the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s; and indeed, a far cry from the vision of the millions of participants in the various worldwide rebellions of the 1960s.

The loss of utopian yearning has happened before. In Eve and the New Jerusalem, Barbara Taylor wrote about English socialism in the second half of the nineteenth century:

In place of the programme for a transformed personal and cultural existence which had been so central to pre-1850 socialism there gradually emerged, in all too many organisations, what William Morris condemned as “utilitarian sham socialism” divested of any genuinely libertarian aims; of what his twentieth century disciple E.P. Thompson, has characterized as:

the whole problem of the subordination of the imaginative utopian faculties within the later Marxist tradition; its lack of a moral self-consciousness or even a vocabulary of desire, its inability to project any images of the future or even its tendency to fall back in lieu of these upon the utilitarian’s earthly paradise—the maximisation of economic growth.3

Youthful Daydreams

Many years ago, at the end of the 1960s when I was young and not so foolish, I remember walking around what was then the heart of Manhattan and imagining how we would re-use all of the luxury buildings for human purposes—after the revolution. My best recollection is that my understanding of the possibilities was fundamentally playful but also completely realistic.

It never occurred to me that what would happen, instead of my fanciful daydreams, is that the domination of wealth manifested in the buildings of Manhattan would only be multiplied across New York City. I now yearn for the Manhattan of 1969 and I certainly yearn for the Brooklyn of 1969. The Brooklyn of 1969 was not so different from the Brooklyn of 1955, when I was seven years old and probably first became aware, in some primitive sense, of where I lived. Almost fifty years of development and redevelopment, under all sorts of political regimes (Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, Bloomberg, de Blasio), have only given us more that we need to take down before we might move on.

My primitive notions of socialism those many years ago, in spite of having read some of the early Marx and a good deal of Herbert Marcuse, were grounded in a redistributionist logic—let’s take from the few who have way too much and imagine ways of making it beneficial for the many who have too little. It was the 1 percent and the 99 percent before its time.

What I think I now know is there is not much good use to be made of any of it—the imposing structures of a place like New York City need to be taken down, methodically and safely, and as much as technically possible, the materials (the bricks, the steel, the pipes, the toilet bowls, the cables, and so on) need to be used elsewhere for profoundly different purposes.

There is one other all but overwhelming change in the years since my travels around Manhattan—the challenge to the continued existence of a habitable planet by extended degradations of the natural environment and fossil fuel–induced climate change. Back then, I had little idea of what such a threat might be. The first Earth Day was celebrated in April 1970—it was organized as the result of a resolution by then Senator Gaylord Nelson who had been deeply troubled by what he had seen in the aftermath of a large oil spill near Santa Barbara, California. In any case, millions of people in the United States responded by participating in various celebrations of the earth.4 I was teaching eighth grade at the time and I self-assuredly told my students that they should not accept the underlying message that the health of the planet was up to what individuals did. Of course, I was right about the small point but terribly wrong about the big one—the earth did matter—a lot! I am not certain that the most dire warnings regarding the imminent dangers to the well being of the planet are accurate but I take completely for granted that some very obvious developments in countries across the globe that are staring in our faces, let alone the consensus findings of knowledgeable scientists, suggest that the dangers we face should not be underestimated.

Expanded Possibilities

It may well be that the first order of business for a socialist society in the United States will be the undertaking of immediate massive efforts to protect vulnerable locations (and their inhabitants) across the globe from the likely devastating impacts of extreme weather conditions and to initiate even more massive efforts to halt the further damaging of the planet and to begin repairing the damage already done. It is, I think, beyond doubt, that the continued rule of capital will only make the situation worse and provides no basis for thinking that whatever measures capitalist states introduce could be better enough. The possibility of a future requires a profound social revolution.

So, let’s talk about the revolution and what it could lead to. I take for granted the provision of essential goods and services to all; the abolition of private property in the means of production5; the elimination of the various manifestations of militarism (standing armies and navies, weapons of destruction, military bases); the dismantling of the organs of repression (the police, jails and prisons); an end to the routine violence enforced by bosses and bureaucrats; the end of mindless production and the destruction of the natural environment by the dumping of wastes in the ground, the air, the lakes, rivers and oceans and the burning of fossil fuels.6

But we need to imagine much more than that. As a small start towards the recovery of the utopian, I’d suggest a few fundamental socialist principles:

  • Not a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work; instead, the abolition of the wages system!7
  • Not state ownership and planning; no laying hold of the ready-made state machinery; instead, the direct democracy of the council and the Commune and the abolition of the state!8
  • Not better organized time; instead the maximization of free time for all through the greatest possible reduction of required work time for all.
  • The cultivation of “social individuals,” prepared for active participation in a wide range of intellectual, technical, athletic and artistic activities, by way of an advanced education that would be available to all throughout their lives.

I see socialism as the epoch of great healings, new relationships and transcendences between:

  • individuals and community
  • males and females
  • city and country9
  • agriculture and industry
  • craft and technical design
  • praxis and techne (tacit knowledge and scientific knowledge)
  • humans and nature
  • humans and animals
  • pleasure and reality
  • everyday life and beauty10
  • mental labor and manual labor
  • creativity and receptivity
  • work and free activity
  • necessity and freedom
  • production and consumption
  • imagination and reason
  • the misnamed “developed” and “underdeveloped” worlds
  • centralization and decentralization.

For the moment, I’ll leave it to my readers to imagine what the actual contents of the different pairings might be and what it might mean for us to re-work their interconnections. I do, however, want to make one comment about the last pairing of centralization and decentralization. It appears evident to me that it is simply out of the question for us to continue the current mode of globalized production and distribution if we have any real interest in preserving the planet and creating the circumstances for individuals to become able to shape their lives in fundamental ways. As much as humanly and technically possible, we need to imagine ways of bringing decisions regarding the complexities of modern social life as close as possible to where people live—in communities that are intentionally designed, especially with regard to size, to enable mutual understandings and real self-government.11 In that context, it would be especially valuable and important to recognize the need for an incorporation of traditional anarchist perspectives on decentralization into any socialist vision worthy of the name.12

Ridding Ourselves of Dangerous Notions

I do not have the time or energy to detail all the barbarities that came to be seen as either the price to pay for socialism or, worse still, as part of the socialist project itself in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution in Russia. But I do want to highlight two of them—one well known, the other not so much. The first, already hinted at, is the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a dictatorship of the party that led, all but inevitably to the dictatorship of a leadership clique over the party and the rest of society (including the establishment of a secret police, the suppression of opposition views, the imprisonment and assassination of those deemed to be enemies of the state). Let’s be clear—these were essential features of the pre-Stalin Bolshevik Party, not deformations that came later.

To the extent that Marx ever used the “dictatorship of the proletariat” phrase, he intended it to mean the class rule of the immense majority of the population during a transitional phase of the consolidation of a new political order. He specifically intended it to be a criticism of those who favored the rule of a small conspiratorial group that had managed to seize power. Very early on in his political life, Marx had warned against this danger:

… the political soul of revolution consists in the tendency of the classes with no political power to put an end to their isolation from the state and from power. Its point of view is that of the state, of an abstract totality which exists only through its separation from real life and which is unthinkable in the absence of an organized antithesis between the universal idea and the individual existence of man. In accordance with the limited and contradictory nature of the political soul a revolution inspired by it organizes a dominant group within society at the cost of society.13

The second was the notion that the goal of a socialist society revolved around the creation of new humans. Trotsky addressed this in the closing paragraphs of his Literature and Revolution:

Man at last will begin to harmonize himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training.14 This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique, and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the Socialist organization of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub-soil. Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction? The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the dark laws of heredity and a blind sexual selection! Emancipated man will want to attain a greater equilibrium in the work of his organs and a more proportional developing and wearing out of his tissues, in order to reduce the fear of death to a rational reaction of the organism towards danger. There can be no doubt that man’s extreme anatomical and physiological disharmony, that is, the extreme disproportion in the growth and wearing out of organs and tissues, give the life instinct the form of a pinched, morbid and hysterical fear of death, which darkens reason and which feeds the stupid and humiliating fantasies about life after death.

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman [emphases added].15

These convictions led Trotsky to be willing to do a great deal of harm to actual human beings in Russia. In 1919, N.G. Kuznetsov wrote to Trotsky to tell him that: “Moscow is literally dying of hunger.” Trotsky responded: “That’s not hunger. When Titus was taking Jerusalem, Jewish mothers ate their children. When I have your mothers eating their young, then you can tell me you’re starving.”16

Marx and post-capitalist society

Karl Marx has a great deal to offer us for consideration when we contemplate the possibilities of socialism. I follow the lead of Paresh Chattopadhyay in his estimate of the importance of Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme in understanding the distinctiveness of Marx’s ideas. Chattopadhyay begins by situating the text in its context. Marx wrote what he considered to be “marginal notes” to record and make explicit his criticisms of the program that had recently been adopted by the German Workers’ Party. He was especially concerned that the program not be seen as a representation of his own views. His comments were very narrowly shaped in response to the formulations in the program itself. Chattopadhyay argues:

Nevertheless, in spite of the narrowness of scope and the resulting selective character of the themes involved, this document contains, drawing on the author’s whole life work, a condensed discussion of the most essential elements of the capitalist mode of production, its revolutionary transformation into its opposite, and a rough portrayal, in a few bold strokes, of what Marx had called in Capital, the “union of free individuals” destined to succeed the existing social order.17

Marx thought that the post-capitalist epoch would unfold in two major chapters, with the second chapter divided into two phases. The first chapter would be the period of the revolutionary transformation of political rule after the displacement of capitalist rule. The second chapter would be the chapter of socialism (also referred to by Marx, interchangeably, as communism and the associated mode of production). During the first chapter, the new society would be able to introduce many measures designed to eliminate many of the worst features of current reality—poverty, hunger, unnecessary illness and death, homelessness—but it would not yet be socialist itself.

Marx approached thinking about socialism proper in a manner that I’d describe as “utopian practicality”:

… in his 1857–58 manuscripts, Marx had emphasized that “all economy is finally reduced to the economy of time” and spoken of the two aspects of the employment of society’s available labour time. First, society’s labour time must be economised—[the] less time society requires to produce the daily requirements, [the] more time it gains for other material and spiritual production. Secondly, society must distribute its labour time among different branches appropriately in order to obtain production corresponding to its needs.18

Once production has been completed across all the various branches, the matter of distribution arises. Marx argued that part of that total production needed to be set aside for the replacement (as they were worn out) and expansion of the means of production (to meet expanded needs) and as a kind of insurance against unanticipated events such as natural disasters. Once those set-asides were in place, the rest of the produced goods would be available for distribution for consumption.

In the lower phase, Marx suggested that access to goods should be made available according a direct accounting of labor time: “Here the labour time that each individual offers towards the creation of the social product corresponding to different needs of society, serves as the measure of the share of the labouring individual in the common labour as well as the portion of the total consumption which comes back to the labouring individual.”19

Marx insisted that because, from the very beginning of the lower phase, producers would be integrally involved in decisions regarding the forms and contents of total production, they would no longer be sellers of labor power and they would not be receiving wages. Instead,

… labourers receive from their own (free) Association not [a] wage but some kind of a token indicating the labour time contributed by them to the total social labour time—after [the] deduction for common funds. These tokens allow the labourers to draw from the social stock of means of consumption the amount costing the same amount of labour.20

Furthermore, “…in the absence of commodity production the tokens, that the producers receive from their association…are not money.”21

Marx was aware that this would not at all be ideal. Even without wages or money, the principle of “equal right” would govern. While the measurement of work time would be accomplished with an “equal standard,” different laborers would undoubtedly be making different contributions—as measured by standards other than time. He argued that there was no alternative:

Since the new society has just come out of the capitalist society and has not yet been able to “develop on its own foundations,” the new mode of distribution cannot be completely free from the old mode. The determining principle of distribution among individuals continues to be each one’s labour contribution, and not (yet) human needs, this equal-unequal right being thus still within the bourgeois horizon, it is a “bourgeois right.” The latter is fully overcome only in a “higher phase” of the Association with the overcoming of the enslaving division of labour, with labour becoming a “first need” of life and with the “spring of cooperative wealth” flowing more abundantly.22

In the higher phase, the association would be able to realize the foundational principle of a human society—“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

In no way are Marx’s thoughts examples of what he disparaged as “Comtist recipes for the cookshops of the future.” I don’t think that Marx’s opinions on these matters are in any way the last word but they can serve as very powerful starting points for thinking about socialism. An especially valuable recent text which readers might find helpful if they pursue the topic is Peter Hudis’s Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism. Hudis emphasizes the need to devote time and effort to exploring Marx’s actual writings because of all the terrible damage done to the idea of socialism by many who claimed to be acting in accordance with his views.23

In closing, I’d suggest that we can fruitfully think about the present and future of socialism if we think about it in terms of languages. There are extinct languages (no longer spoken by anyone), dead languages (not spoken by any community of native speakers, such as Latin) and living languages. Socialism has been faced with a number of challenges that has made the possibility of its extinction a real one. Nonetheless, it has managed to hold on as a kind of dead language—a language spoken by relative handfuls of people with various kinds of reasons for learning it. The challenge we face is to turn socialism once again into a living language—one that’s spoken fluently and with passion by many millions of people united by a vision of a new world. The socialism of the future will be created on the basis of that new unity.

Somewhat surprisingly, this might bring me back to the end of Corey Robin’s Times article: “Socialism is not journalists, intellectuals or politicians armed with a policy agenda. As Marx and Engels understood—this was one of their core insights, what distinguished them from other socialist thinkers, ever ready with their blueprints—it is workers who get us there, who decide what and where ‘there’ is.” Perhaps we have more to talk about than I thought.

  1. Engels wrote that gemeinwesen, a good old-fashioned German word for community, might capture what the communists wanted.

  2. clr James, Modern Politics (PM Press: 2013), p. 110.

  3. Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem (Harvard University Press 1993), p. xvi.

  4. Interestingly, that first Earth Day had been preceded by almost a decade by the publication of a book, titled Our Synthetic Environment, which detailed the ways in which the earth and its inhabitants were being threatened. The author was the anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin, writing under the pseudonym of Lewis Herber. His book pre-dated what was to become the much better known expose by Rachel Carson titled The Silent Spring.

  5. See Paresh Chattopadhyay, The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience (Praeger Publishers: 1994). Chattopadhyay argues that Marx had a class-based understanding of private property. For Marx, private property under capitalism was the ownership of the means of production and the control of the conditions of production by the capitalist class. The juridical form of that ownership could be either individual or collective; the juridical forms are derivative from the economic ones. In that context, there is no question but that the Soviet Union was a social system based on class property.

  6. I’d also note that I take for granted the abolition of commercial advertising; I’ll leave the tv question open.

  7. The central place of the abolition of wage labor for Marx can only be appreciated in light of what he had discovered the wage to be. Chattopadhyay summarized Marx’s view: “Marx underlines that wage is not what it appears to be, that is value or price of labour. It is, on the contrary, a masked form of the value or price of labour power. ‘Thereby,’ writes Marx, ‘the whole hitherto existing bourgeois conception of wage as well as the criticism directed against it (hitherto) was once and for all thrown overboard and it was clearly shown that the wage labourer is permitted to work for his living, that is to live in so far as he works gratis a certain time for the capitalist; that the whole capitalist system of production revolves around the prolongation of this unpaid labour (Gratisarbeit) through the extension of the working day or through the development of productivity, intensity of labour etc. and that the system of wage labour is a system of slavery and, indeed, a slavery which becomes more severe to the same extent as the social productive powers develop, whether the labourer receives a higher or a lower wage.” Paresh Chattopadhyay, Marx’s Associated Mode of Production: A Critique of Marxism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 203.

  8. Maximilien Rubel has argued that Marx can properly be interpreted as a “theoretician of anarchism.”

  9. In the late nineteenth century, thinkers like William Morris thought that cities like London were abominations; in his utopian News from Nowhere, he placed an apricot orchard in Trafalgar Square.

  10. See Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso: 2015).

  11. See clr James, Every Cook Can Govern (PM Press: 2010).

  12. See the previously mentioned Communal Luxury for wonderful accounts of the insights of the anarchist geographers, Elise Reclus and Peter Kropotkin, on these matters.

  13. See “Critical Notes on the Article: ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian.’
  14. This, I assume, provides an explanation for the origins of the well-documented systematic and organized use of doping to enhance athletic performance by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc nations.

  15. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Ann Arbor: 1960), pp. 254–6.

  16. Cited in documents released from the Soviet Union’s archives, according to Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Bolsheviks (Random House, 2017), p. 5.

  17. Chattopadhyay, Marx’s Associated Mode of Production, p. 197.

  18. Ibid., p. 204.

  19. Ibid., p. 205.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid., p. 206.

  22. Ibid., p. 206.

  23. Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Haymarket Books, 2013).


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