One of the many things we can learn from the recent elections in the United States is that the socialist revival which began there a few years ago, spearheaded first by Bernie Sanders in the Senate and then by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) in the House, has by no means run out of steam. The small but energetic Democratic Socialists of America contingent within the House Democrats, and in roles within the states and communities, has not gone away. Sanders and AOC continue to be very vocal and visible in political debate and action from their socialist perspectives. The widely anticipated Republican wave not only failed to sweep away mainstream Democrats; it also failed to dislodge the socialists.
If a socialist revival can happen in the United States—with its political culture of hostility to the left—then this must be encouraging for socialists around the world who seek to make their countries better places. The question for those who study politics, though, is: what is socialism all about? When we sit down and begin to understand socialism, it sometimes seems there is a lack of clarity or the absence of a graspable core.
What, indeed, is frustrating for people who set out to grasp what socialism is all about is that it covers such a vast field. Within this field, socialist politicians differ in very many ways. They can be separated into considerably different categories from mild social democrats to authoritarians. Socialist politicians think and operate in different ways and to varying degrees among themselves. Even if we categorize socialist politicians, we find many differences within each division. The same goes for socialist theorists. In the history of socialist theory Flora Tristan, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Harold Laski, G. D. H. Cole, Ernst Wigforss, Jules Nyerere, Tom Mboya, Eugene Debs, Mao ZeDong, Antonio Gramsci, Tony Crosland and V.I. Lenin to take just a few examples, are each very distinctive. These and many other thinkers have also engaged in various forms of political activity. While many socialist theorists do engage in politics on the ground, some as activists rather than conventional politicians, others make their contributions by formulating and developing ideas, leaving the activism and formal politics to others in the movement.
How then, can such a diverse range of politicians and theorists be grouped into this one ideology? When we do identify this ideology, why can we not simply draw a line on the spectrum to say this is the exact point were socialism ends? My little book Socialism seeks to provide the basis that will enable answers to such questions to be offered confidently.
The book is primarily one of political ideas. The ones it examines and analyses attract theorists, politicians and activists to one or another of the sections of the socialist movement. Some align with the social democratic section, others with the communists, while others do not fit at all comfortably into either of these wings. Whichever path they take within the movement, socialists contribute to the ideology by way of their ideas or actions.
I argue in the book that at the core of socialism are ideas regarding three concepts: equality, freedom and community. Of course, each of these concepts features in other ideologies too, albeit interpreted rather differently. It is the particular ways in which the ideas are interpreted and combined that make socialism distinctive.
Nobody invented socialism. The socialist movement and ideology developed in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries as people around the world found that in campaigning against the inequities of capitalism they shared the combination of equality, freedom and community that characterised what came to be recognised as socialism, even though they often disagreed with and opposed one another’s interpretation of the core ideas and concepts. The development of socialism over 200 years is examined in the book, as are the various directions in which socialists take their combinations of the three core concepts. This combination arises again and again in theory and practice. Why is this so? Perhaps it is because people reason that this combination encapsulates what can be achieved by human beings if they cooperate rather than accept as natural the possessive individualism which leaves so many to endure exploitation by others.
On the basis of the study of socialist ideas, the book examines different ways in which they have been put into practice. The book presents socialism as an ideology and movement with the potential to unlock the capability of human beings to prosper in cooperation with one another. There have been cases in which great strides have been made in this respect. Nevertheless, socialist projects often go wrong. Examples are also offered in my book of what can happen when socialists interpret and act ostensibly in the cause of equality, community and freedom in ways which lead to misery. In some cases, people are even persuaded that their misery is worthwhile in pursuit of the socialist future or at least to avoid a return to the evils of capitalism. In such cases the authoritarian present has sometimes been deemed necessary for the socialist goal to be reached. In these cases the socialist torch has, many of its bearers would stress, fallen into the wrong hands, and the very idea of socialism has been stolen and transgressed.
The conclusion of my book very briefly examines the present condition of socialism and the prospects for the future. One thing seems certain: as the world faces climate change and as natural resources are exhausted, socialists need to rethink their strategies and goals. They also need to keep up with their capitalist rivals in the fields of information technology, artificial intelligence and robotics. These can be used for far better purposes than when, as is usually the case today, they are in the hands of capitalism. If socialists do not move with the times, they will be fighting yesterday’s battles during the period in which, due to the climate crisis, the last chances of reaching their goal of a better life for humanity slowly, or rapidly, diminish.
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Author: Peter Lamb
Peter Lamb is now retired. He was Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Staffordshire University, UK. His book, Socialism, was published in 2019 by Polity, and will soon be available in Korean (Myung In publishers) and Turkish (Liberus publishers) translations. He has published extensively on socialism and its theorists, and is presently writing Harold Laski, the Reluctant Marxist: Socialist Democracy for a World in Turmoil (Palgrave Macmillan) and the fourth edition of Historical Dictionary of Socialism (Rowman and Littlefield).