Why I am a Socialist. #occupy

I originally publish this at By Common Consent on February 2, 2010 with the title “Socialism!”

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. [1] 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. [2] 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?” [3] 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 one

G. A. Cohen

another 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

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“Why Socialism?” by Albert Einstein

Why Socialism?
by Albert Einstein

Note: This abridged version of Einstein’s essay is what I assigned in American Heritage at BYU-Idaho. I assigned the entire thing at BYU. Einstein makes case that I find appealing and one which addresses the challenges of socialism.

This essay was originally published in the first issue of Monthly Review (May 1949).

Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult by the circumstance that observed economic phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history has—as is well known—been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature. For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called “the predatory phase” of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

Second, socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and—if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous—are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.[…]

[…]Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting, strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept “society” means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word “society.”

It is evident, therefore, that the dependence of the individual upon society is a fact of nature which cannot be abolished—just as in the case of ants and bees. However, while the whole life process of ants and bees is fixed down to the smallest detail by rigid, hereditary instincts, the social pattern and interrelationships of human beings are very variable and susceptible to change. Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human being which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organizations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.

Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution which we must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural urges which are characteristic of the human species. In addition, during his lifetime, he acquires a cultural constitution which he adopts from society through communication and through many other types of influences. It is this cultural constitution which, with the passage of time, is subject to change and which determines to a very large extent the relationship between the individual and society. Modern anthropology has taught us, through comparative investigation of so-called primitive cultures, that the social behavior of human beings may differ greatly, depending upon prevailing cultural patterns and the types of organization which predominate in society. It is on this that those who are striving to improve the lot of man may ground their hopes: human beings are not condemned, because of their biological constitution, to annihilate each other or to be at the mercy of a cruel, self-inflicted fate. […]

[…]I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.[…]

[…]Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of capital is thus characterized by two main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see fit; second, the labor contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the “free labor contract” for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present day economy does not differ much from “pure” capitalism.

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

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?

Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.

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Cornel West on Occupy Wall Street

Princeton Religion Professor and African-American Studies Professor Cornel West is not a particularly great philosopher. However, I consider him to be a great social prophet.

See the link below:

Cornel West on Occupy Wall Street: It’s the Makings of a U.S. Autumn Responding to the Arab Spring.

I am still trying to decide what I will do to support my brothers and sisters that are occupying Wall Street. Any ideas?

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Sleep Now in the Fire. Occupy!

An anthem for the occupation:

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Video: Cornel West on How Intellectuals Betrayed the Poor

Preach it, Brother West!


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Video: Sandel’s Intro to Rawls and Distributive Justice

Rawls is not easy to understand. This is largely because of how Rawls presents his ideas, though this difficulty creates opportunities for debate within political philosophy.

Below is a lecture by Harvard Government Professor Michael Sandel on Rawls and issues of wealth, inequality, and distributive justice. While I disagree with much of Sandel’s academic criticism of Rawls, I think that he does an excellent job in this lecture and in his recent books looking to present the concept of justice to a broader audience. In particular, I like how he presents a number of key points in Rawlsian thing, though this is still just and introduction.


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The Temple of Joseph and the Temple of Sam

Upon arrival in Billings, we decided to do initiatory work for some of Lyndee’s ancestors. She went in first while I waited in the waiting room with Todd (11), Shem (9), and Geneva (5). After the drive, I was looking forward to relaxing in the temple.

Todd had another plan.

He had been promised a cover for his iPod touch when I had purchased covers for iPhones earlier in the week. Due to the trip, the acquisition of a case had been postponed a number of times.

Todd was now frustrated.

He didn’t want to hang around the temple.

He wanted to go to…Wal-Mart.

This made me think of an Richard Bushman essay I had read in which Bushman compared the symbolic meaning of two early Illinois cities…Chicago and Nauvoo.

Chicago is the great city of American Industrial Revolution. It is also the back drop of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”

Nauvoo was established at the height of Joseph’s communalism. While the center of Chicago’s activity was commerce, the name Nauvoo replaced the city’s earlier name of Commerce. At the heart of Nauvoo was not money and trade, but the Temple.

As I listened to my tired 11 year-old beg to go to Wal-Mart, I realized that the focus of our family is not the temple of Joseph Smith, but the temple of Sam Walton.

Now, I am not a Wal-Mart hater. I am not interested is this post becoming about the store or the company. Instead, this is about personal realization that my family, both individually and collectively, is more Chicago than Nauvoo. We are more Commerce than Nauvoo…or Beautiful.

This is why the idea of the temple as a refuge from the world is important. Not only is it a refuge from the language and immorality of the world…it is a refuge from commercialism and greed.

I am still working through the symbolism of the temple rituals. However, I think I know what I want the temple to symbolize for me and my family.

A refuge.

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