By Gregory VanWagenen
Calling oneself a socialist has always been a challenge, and it seems especially challenging to adopt that description at this particular time and place. Advocating the empowerment of a working class which seems profoundly conservative puts the socialist in one of two positions. Either she is an inconsequential pretender, taking a place on a stage that is watched by only a few other fellow travelers, or she is forced to subsume the conservatism of the working class in an attempt to reach the subject of her concern.
Max Horkheimer is credited with the maxim: Truth takes refuge in small groups of admirable individuals. If the socialists of the 21st century are to achieve anything substantive, barring the sudden and tragic impoverishment of the average worker, it will surely begin with those same admirable individuals chipping away at the false consciousness of capital.
In order to effect meaningful social change, we must know what our own values are, and how they differ from the status quo. We must be able to communicate these values honestly to our peers, acknowledging the inevitable questions and proposing the means to answer them.
What is socialism? Most of us think we know, but find a concise definition difficult to draw. In spite of this deficiency, the word itself is incredibly popular, and the concept itself remains popularly unpopular. Talk show hosts and satirists daily label their ideological opponents as socialists, using the word as though it were self-evident and obviously insulting.
Socialism is a complex phenomenon that defies a simple definition. It encompasses science and philosophy, politics and economics. Sweden is a socialist country, and so is Vietnam. Marxist-Leninists are socialists, and so are many anarchists. Jack London was a socialist, and so was Leon Trotsky. Socialism is a broad movement with many competing theories. Some of these theories overlap and some conflict.
There is even disagreement about the disagreement, with some socialists seeing the broad range of socialist interests as a fractious and confusing hindrance, while others accept them as a rich diversity which enhances socialism as a whole.
The idea of socialism is rooted in a romantic egalitarianism, where every individual assumes an opportunity to shape the future of his or her society. Socialism seems handicapped by the very aspect which makes it so popular. Socialism must be many things, and not one, because socialists are many, and not one.
Social justice can be described as an extension of the common American tradition of legal justice to other facets of social life. Most Americans have an instinctive, if limited, view of justice. If it is proper to see individuals as equal before the law, the argument for social justice contends that it is also proper to see them as equals in other social relationships also.
Social justice entails a freedom to think the thoughts we want to think, a freedom to indulge in religion or to agitate against it, and a freedom to peacefully organize. These are all conservative American ideals. Social justice goes further, and also entails a freedom from hunger, a freedom from reasonable fear, and a freedom from oppression.
Social justice advocates a view of human beings as inherently equal despite their inequalities. Every individual is afforded an equal opportunity to partake in the process of shaping their society, and an equal share of the wealth which that society produces.
Ultimately then, socialists unite in the idea of an egalitarian society. There is much disagreement among socialists as to the extent to which a society can abolish domination or eradicate inequality, but this is the one unifying idea which every socialist shares.
Socialism, Science And History
Socialism can be seen as economic and political theories, supported by empirical research, dedicated to the creation and maintenance of an egalitarian society.
Socialism can also be defined by its approach to history. In contemporary terms, a socialist would describe history as interactive. Put simply: Socialists believe that human beings have the inherent capacity to shape their own fate, and thus they become the subject of history, rather than objects which are manipulated by forces like “luck” or “fortune”.
Cooperation And Central Planning
One of the topics that socialists argue about is whether a society could evolve without the need for any structural authority. Some socialists believe that a truly egalitarian society can only be established with the guidance of a central party, to oversee the maintenance of the society as a whole. Others believe that a party is not necessary and that people will achieve socialism simply by removing the authority structures inherent in a capitalist system.
We can deconstruct these arguments and conclude that this is actually a question about human nature. Are human beings inherently selfish, or is the universal narcissism we witness today the product of a lifetime of conditioning by the demands and pressures of capital?
Socialism And Democracy
The existence of Sweden as a contemporary example of democratic socialism at first suggests that socialist democracies can be formed and endure. At the same time, the idea of competing political parties suggests the possibility of a group taking power and instituting inequality within a socialist society. The United Kingdom is probably the best example of a social democracy which has increased political and economic inequality through democratic means in recent history, though there are others.
In some circumstances, it is theorized that establishing inequality may lead to a greater standard of living for people on the bottom tier of a society than could be reached in a more egalitarian society. Is it commensurate with socialism to call for the eradication of inequality if this lowers the standard of living for even the least fortunate? Is it appropriate to abandon egalitarianism if everyone benefits from inequality?
These are questions with no easy answers, but they represent the questions socialists are commonly asked by their intellectual opponents and they deserve to be pondered.
The Relevance Of Socialism
History illustrates many scenarios in which various parties and groups seized power in the name of socialism, only to function as a new incarnation of the ruling class in an even more repressive totalitarian state. Recent history has demonstrated a disturbing trend toward greater concentrations of wealth in the hands of the few, particularly in Europe and North America. It is common to find socialism impugned as the worn out utopia of yesteryear, rather than a vibrant idea which holds the promise of a more equitable distribution of wealth and responsibility in the here and now.
Religion And Socialism
Can any individual reconcile G-d with dialectical materialism?
We have already seen that socialism, in theory, is based upon the application of the scientific method. Both science and religion are vehicles which have great potential for the elevation of humankind, and yet they are so different as to defy any meaningful comparison.
Science is a method by which men and women have the potential to test their physical surroundings and approach an objective observation of how the natural world works. Science is also a body of knowledge compiled by people who have used this method and arrived at conclusions which can be tested and repeated. Science serves to apply this knowledge to manipulate the environment, ideally for the benefit of humankind.
Religion, in contrast, concerns itself with faith and purpose. This is neither the domain of socialism, nor of any other scientific pursuit. While science reveals how, religion tells us why.
In this respect, socialism and faith do not contradict one another, nor should they compete with one another. Both ought to act in symbiosis, as complimentary agents toward the achievement of a just and peaceful society. Those who see one as inherently threatening to the other do so from a shallow understanding of either or both, or as a reaction to specific historical circumstances in which one or both of these vehicles were cynically used to tyrannize or manipulate human beings.
It was in Provo Utah that I first encountered Karl Marx. My grandparents had a large and well-stocked library which included Capital. I found it to be pretty heady stuff as a 12-year old, which is why I kept coming back to it over the years. By 16 I was discussing commodity fetishism in that same library, with the same grandparents, who probably had some regrets that they had put such a book on the shelf.
One of the most beautiful gifts that Mormonism gave to me (aside from grandparents smart enough to argue such esoterica) was the knowledge of my own history and genealogy. Marx was certainly challenging from a literary standpoint, but viewed from a Mormon perspective, Uncle Karl didn’t seem as radical as my teachers made him out to be. I had been raised with stories of Orderville, of cotton cooperatives in St. George, and had read journal entries describing collective farms (probably built on Mennonite, rather than Marxist models) in Southern Alberta. All of these progressive endeavors were initiated by people with whom I shared immediate family bonds. Socialism, it seemed, was in the blood of my people and was the foundational theory behind the society I enjoyed.
While historical experiments give socialists (Mormon and otherwise) much to be proud of, they also reveal disturbing examples of brutality and excess. The implementation of a socialist model, inasmuch as it relies on the centralization of power, has at times ended in disaster. It is heartening to find Mormon socialists honestly acknowledging the failures of the past, while lending their unique perspectives toward the search for solutions.
In spite of the fact that the enlightenment remains unfinished, and despite the unanswered questions, I remain convinced that socialism is a necessary requirement for achieving a true and lasting measure of equality and justice between individuals, and I believe it stands as a prerequisite to any significant human progress. The realization of socialism entails the end of fratricidal wars for profit, the end of exploitation, and the beginning of a new era in human history. This is why I am a socialist, and why I’m proud to join in spirit with the readers of The Mormon Worker as we labor toward this common goal.