I refer to myself as a socialist for a number of reasons. In one sense, it is empirically accurate. In a discussion a few years back, I insisted that I was a liberal egalitarian and not a socialist. While this is technically the case, the difference is practically irrelevant. At least, that is what J. Nelson Seawright argued, and I have come to realize that he was correct. The philosopher Julius Sensat argues that socialism is an attitude and not so much a program.  It is an aversion against inequality. The political theorist Michael Walzer argues that socialism is essentially an argument for true democracy. Government, and economy, of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Another reason that I now proudly use the term socialist is because It has such a negative connotation. So, in a way, I have adopted the label socialist with pride, in the way that homosexuals have taken on the label queer, a term that was once a slur and now used with pride.
For many years, I only used the term in certain company. This started to change when my wife informed my stake president, a prominent conservative Republican in Utah, in a temple recommend interview that I was a socialist. She didn’t think anything of it, and I started to care less about what others thought as well.
Now, let me share with you a little of what socialism is, when I use it. It is not what David O. McKay was talking about when he talked about socialism. It is not what you were likely taught about socialism in K-12 or in American Heritage (unless you took it from me). The mention of this term brings back all sorts of Cold War thinking, much of which was creepy then, though somewhat understandable. Clark Goble has often told me that I do not really understand conservatives (while I used to be one, he may be right). I feel that same way about many who throw around the term socialist. They probably still won’t like it, but they should know what it is they do not like.
“The era of capitalist triumphalism is a difficult one for socialists…” says Stephen J. Fortunato, and this is true for all egalitarians.  What then are we (those sympathetic to the concerns of socialism) to do? Is socialism dead? Is market capitalism the only answer?
Fortunato, thinks that there is a place for socialism despite the apparently justified pessimism about its prospects. The dilemma is that while the need for socialism still exists, many have removed socialism from the table of ideas and classified it as a historical relic which is now outdated and broken. Yet, who decided this? The forces of capitalism have long associated socialism with Stalinism. By doing so they undermined the possibility of an open discussion about how socialism could be applied to the west. With the fall of Soviet Stalinism, came the fall of socialism. Right? Well, I do not think so. See U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ response to Stephen Colbert on this issue.
Gerald Cohen, the late British socialist and political philosopher, asked in a 1992 article the question: “Is there still a case for socialism?”  Cohen argues that the Soviet experiment promised, yet failed to achieve, “instead of class exploitation of capitalism, economic equality; instead of the illusory democracy of class-based bourgeois politics, a real and complete democracy; instead of alienation from oneanother of economic agents driven by fear and greed, an economy characterized by willing mutual service.”
The failure of the Soviet Union does not undermine the validity and value of these goals. Cohen, like me, thinks these ideals are still worth pursuing.
Cohen, himself well known for his defense of Marx’s theory of historical materialism, argues that socialists should move away from some of the positions traditionally held by Marxists. Particularly, Cohen is critical of the emphasis on economic and political central planning that he feels resulted in undemocratic institutions. This is rooted in Cohen’s contention that socialism is the real democratic alternative to the rather undemocratic Western “democracies.” Cohen adds, and I love this, that “to the extent that something is democratic, it is good, but it is false that, to the extent that something is planned or controlled, it is good.”
Albert Einstein, in his classic 1949 argument for socialism, also warned of dangers of the planned economy:
Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?
Democracy is the best answer to the ills of both capitalism and socialism.
One contemporary approach to socialism, is known as market socialism. This is the type of socialism that we see in much of Europe today. For Cohen, market socialism has a number of advantages or strengths. The most notable strength is that it is the most feasible in the contemporary political climate. The reason for this is that market socialism maintains much of what we might call the capitalist market system in place. Business, as one might say, would still be as usual. The difference would be that market socialism would seek to bring about economic equality through taxation and transfer payments. This would also take the form of robust public education and universal health care.
However, we would still have the market. If we still have the market, we still have the alienation and exploitation.
Marx recognized that the problem with capitalism was not just the unequal distribution of wealth, but also, and possibly most importantly, that capitalism strips individuals of their humanity. Does market socialism offer the cure for these ills as well? Cohen is skeptical.
Alienation is a product of modern society and not just capitalism. It cannot be completely avoided. Additionally, I think that the Hegelian/Marxist concern about alienation is overly wrapped up in the idea that there is a certain type of good life that best fits humanity. I think the members of humanity should be able to pick and choose the good life that they themselves want. A liberal form of socialism, possibly market socialism, is best suited for allowing this.
What is Cohen’s prescription for the socialism of the future? Well, he does not offer one in this article, at least not in the form of a political or economic plan. He has addressed this issue further in two recent books that I hope to tackle soon. But I think that is the point, socialism, like liberalism and conservativism, should not be a set of policy proposals, but a guiding perspective within the political struggle.
Mogget once described my role as being that of starting political fires and yelling “Socialism!” I do not think it was meant to be a compliment. But it is true.
Fire in the hole.
1. “Socialism as an Attitude.” In Equal Shares: Making Market Socialism Work, ed. Erik Olin Wright, pp. 250-262. London and New York: Verso, 1996.
2. Furtunato, Stephen J. “The Soul of Socialism: Connecting with the People’s Values” Monthly Review. Volume 57, Number 3. 2005
3. Cohen, G.A. “Is There Still a Case for Socialism?” Social Scientist, Vol. 20, No. 12. pp. 3-18. 1992