Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What Does Socialism 'Mean'?

Oftentimes, people who are sympathetic to socialism (who may or may not be socialists themselves) argue that socialism's meaning is misunderstood. The basic sentiment of this argument is that if people only understood what it "really means," then, socialism would be accepted by all (or many).

In response to this, those who oppose socialism (who may or may not be capitalists) will often retort with a definition of socialism or a quote from a socialist, Marxist, or alike. Using whatever definition they provide as a foundation, they will provide arguments as to why they both understand what socialism is and have good reason to oppose it.

I find this dance very tiresome and circular -- not to mention boring. I think there is another -- perhaps better -- way to go about things that may offer a place we can begin to have a more fruitful and interesting discussion. Namely, we ought to ask, again in an entirely different sort of way: What does socialism mean?

What makes this question different is that when I ask what the 'meaning' of socialism is, I am not asking for a dictionary definition or a convenient quote from Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Mao. What I am asking are more direct questions that are usually excluded from these kinds of discussions altogether. These are questions like: What does it mean for the events we can call 'socialist' to happen? In other words, what does it mean for capitalism to be rejected by so many people at different times for so many different reasons? Where does that sentiment come from? Is it justified? Does it make sense? Can we empathize with it?

Answers to these questions will reveal a different sense of socialism. A weaker sense than the strong, pungent scents of theoretical or historical socialisms. This is what socialism is, I think, in its infancy, its intuitive beginnings. Those early intuitions are the sense that something is wrong with capitalism. Or, to put it more aptly, something is wrong with the human person objectified by the modern, capitalist reduction of persons into objects -- human resources.

I think that those who can agree with this weaker sense of what socialism is, can begin to talk about alternatives that may vary in ideology or political sentiment, but will not be reduced to what John Mayer calls, "slow dancing in a burning room."


Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

I have no problem with finding the meaning of socialism in the intuition that something is wrong with capitalism. But it raises an obvious question: what does capitalism mean?

samrocha said...


Its so nice to know that these things are being read by people. And yes, you raise a very good point, I think, from which there is much more to say. As you can tell, much of these postings are trying to set a foundation for some discussion that can begin to ask those questions too.

Right now, off the cuff, I don't have much of an answer. I largely see capitalism as a part of the modern turn that created the institutions and -- more controversially -- the "persons" of modernity, none more formidable, perhaps, then "the market".

As a matter of collegiality and humility, I should mention to anyone else reading this, that VOX NOVA (www.vox-nova.com) is a wonderful blog that has, in large part, inspired me to get on to the blogosphere too. Check them out, they are a daily read for me.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

If I'm understanding you correctly, the meaning of socialism which you present can only be understood with reference to capitalism. Is my understanding here accurate? Could we ever conceive of socialism without reference to capitalism?

samrocha said...

Yes that is correct. I find it hard to believe, or even imagine, that it could happen without being preceded by capitalism. Now, I think that we can find the same basic intuitions in many things that are not appropriately called socialist, but, those things (e.g. the suspicion of the divine right of kings in England) are not the same thing for the specific purposes of addressing the political dilemma we have confronted (in literal as well as theoretical [if they cannot be thought of as the same thing] ways) for the past hundred or so years.

But I would very interested to see if anyone has done work or could do something to prove this wrong.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

I'm looking forward to future installments.

John said...

Here's my two cents about capitalism and socialism(I posted this on the lower thread also):

The basic difference between socialism and capitalism is about who should control property: the community or individuals. Pure capitalism consists of an fettered right to use private property. Pure socialism consists of state ownership and distribution of

I think neither socialism nor a dogmatic support for free markets leads to desirable outcomes. Both the individualism of capitalism and the demands of the community on the individual in socialism need to be balanced. I think the Church has recognized this both in speaking about a right to private property (although it's not absolute), and about the dignity of labor and rights of workers.

Does that track with anyone else's understandings of socialism, capitalism, and CST?

samrocha said...

John, I can't help but point to that manner in which make that argument is related to the description I offered here. Now, I certainly don't have a monopoly on what socialism means, but, I think, what I offer here a more basic sense intuits reasonably given the present (and past) states of affairs. So, I guess I wonder, how does your definition offers something else?

John Henry said...

Heh. Well, I probably should have read your second post all the way through before posting the same comment. That way, I might have actually responded to the post ;-).

But to answer your question in response my non sequitur, I think conversation is best facilitated by the use of terms with clear definitions that make reference to as few outside concepts as possible. Socialism is a term in wide use, and has an acknowledged definition.

I think socialism, once defined, certainly contains important truths about the human condition, as does respect for individual property rights. And reflections socialism's appeal as an approach to resolving the problems of scarcity, responsibility and communal obligations towards others can be profitable. However, I don't generally favor more esoteric definitions which tend to serve as a barrier to conversation, so I would leave the definition of socialism found in dictionaries undisturbed. In any case, I will refrain from posting simple definitions in response to a call for less-simple definitions.

samrocha said...

John, if apologies are in style here, then, I need to post comments using intelligible grammar. Thanks for reading. I plan to address this esoteric accusation you pose soon...

John Henry said...

I look forward to it. Your next post neatly anticipated my point:

"Now, I should be held accountable to reducing socialism to nothing (in the critical view of some unforeseen objectors)..."

That's me.