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Rethinking Socialism in the Twenty-First Century

Photo by NezTez | CC BY 2.0

What do we want and where exactly are we?

We must first answer these two questions in full if we are truly to move forward with an attractive alternative for contemporary populations. We can neither sing the hymns of the past with so much confidence as before nor fruitlessly nitpick about the exact meanings of socialist founders. We must to a certain extent abandon the ballast of the past if humanity is to ever have a hope of reaching new, better shores.

Now, let us immediately bury our dead.

Revolution, dictatorship of the proletariat, the one party state, centralized state planning and much else is dead. It was tried. It didn’t work. It was an historical/practical shambles. Furthermore, the Marxist heresies of Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism were outrageous and ultimately deadly caricatures of Marxism. They did everything they could to earn themselves the name “Red Fascism”.

Quite simply, what does not serve to enhance humanity should, at any time, be unceremoniously jettisoned and that goes for much of past socialist doctrine too.

Now that we have buried some of our dead let us now strategically revive one of their number: Marx.

Marx’s motivating ideal was the liberation of man from all forms of alienation. Societal, political, economic. Man was to live in a society that allowed him to develop as he saw fit in harmony with others endeavoring to do the same. It would be no exaggeration to say that this thought was the motivating desire for Marx’s whole project and as I will argue should also be for us. What has changed is the path and the strategies to get there.

As regards Capitalism, Marx has left us with a dual legacy. On the one hand, Marx left a profound description/analysis of the revolutionary nature of Capitalism as well as its historical necessity. According to Marx, Capitalism must fully realize its inner potentialities before “passing over” into socialism.

However, another aspect of Marx’s analysis of Capitalism was not so historically accurate or helpful. Marx believed that the transformation of Capitalism would occur through revolution based on the increasing inner contradictions of Capitalism. He predicted ever greater crises, ever greater levels of working class misery and alienation, an impending apocalypse of class warfare. All this did not, almost needless to say, come to pass.

In a sense, Marx deeply underestimated the resilience of Capitalism as a world-system. Yet, it also could be argued that he was correct in foreseeing the initial stages of socialism being a hybrid of both Capitalism and Socialism. In the Twentieth Century, one could contend that just such a hybrid occurred: the Liberal welfare state. Arguably, the most successful state/societal structure in world history despite its many glaring faults.

In a sense, we want to extend this idea of Marxian “hybridization”; of the sense of existing within a long transitional period between the end of Capitalism and the beginning of true Socialism by offering a constructive notion of working inside the system on both the macro and micro level with the goal of the qualitative improvement of life for the common person.

I think once we give up premature fantasies of Capitalism’s imminent demise (after all it has survived for approximately six centuries!) we can fruitfully pick up the work of the reformist Social Democratic parties of the late Nineteenth, early Twentieth centuries but, now, within the context of Twenty-First century material possibilities and current social needs.

Firstly, we must admit that, at its core, and the ultimate reason for its continued successes despite serious historical crises; is that Capitalism, at its simplest, represents the application of the scientific method to the economic life of man. You may now immediately object and say “Why yes, that may apply to the means at its disposal but what about the goals of production?”

And in this you would be right. The goals of production is where the fight is. What to produce is always a question of the “eternal war of values” and in this sense is more explicable in Weberian terms rather than Marxist ones.

Yet, nevertheless, while we can most certainly imagine new goals the means to reach them will always be scientific. Luddism, in any form, not for Marx, nor for anyone is an unworkable option.

So what should a Twenty-First century Socialist be fighting for in the America of today?

Keeping in line with a pro-technologist, rationalist Marxian viewpoint:

We should work towards policies that encourage a return to manufacturing; particularly high-tech manufacturing.

We should endeavor to persuade industry, government, and educational institutions to build an educational infrastructure that would create, at a young age, a class of highly skilled workers thus forming the basis for a strong tradition of economic and industrial apprenticeship.

We should powerfully advocate for a “Manhattan project” like initiative for alternative energy. Incentives, bonuses, resources should be lavished on potential technologies that lower energy costs and, as an extra benefit, help to heal the environment.

We should agitate for the special needs of women to be not only taken into account in the workplace but necessarily encouraged. The special role/nature of motherhood should be supported and not frustrated by the exigencies of the market. After all, the working mother is adding extra/special value to society through her dual roles as both worker and mother.

We should advocate for a return to a high level and well funded industrial/scientific policy. Pure research and seed development has languished far too long in this country.

On a cultural level, we should begin to speak out about the abominable levels of cultural attainment in this country and seek to build a network of special institutions that would, at low cost, bring those who would normally be excluded from it: cultural works that contribute to societal and self criticism. Education as an answer to the perennial American question of how to achieve “well-being”. The idea that “knowledge is true freedom” should be the basis for the launch of a new, American “Bildung”.

And, finally, we should all work towards collectively answering in the affirmative that what we want is the full, constructive expression of every human being and that where we are is in the very midst of being able to achieve it.

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Dan Corjescu teaches Political Philosophy at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany.

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