Toward A New Socialism
— Ursula McTaggart
Toward a New Socialism
edited by Anatole Anton and Richard Schmitt
Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007,
520 pages, $39.95 paperback.
RICHARD SCHMITT AND Anatole Anton correctly insist in the introduction to their anthology Toward a New Socialism that we are in need of a new socialism for the 21st century. This claim has little currency in contemporary academic or even activist cultures. “To speak of ‘socialism’ in today’s academy in the U.S.,” says Anton, “is to betray a lack of academic breeding.” (23)
But instead of bowing to a “post-socialist” era that many academics and activists believe has come, Schmitt and Anton want to rejuvenate (not simply resurrect) the term socialism. They acknowledge that the Soviet and Chinese models were not simply imposters who ruined socialism’s bad name. Instead, these ventures were attempts at Marxist-inspired socialism whose failures need to be accounted for in our understandings of history. If groups of people who were interested in socialist justice and equality could watch their revolutions devolve into authoritarian, bureaucratic and environmentally disastrous states, then why should we assume that the next attempt at socialist politics will be any better?
A new socialism, according to Anton and Schmitt, must shed the encumbrances of the belief that capitalism would inevitably, with scientific certainty, lead to the socialist revolution. This socialism will not take Marx as its sole originator, making room for the utopian traditions of socialism that preceded Marxism, the religious sentiments suppressed by many socialisms, and the ideals of feminism and anti-racism that challenged 20th-century socialism.
The result will be a more open, more flexible socialism that will foster participatory democracy rather than authoritarianism, environmentalism rather than blind industrial development, and diverse, creative political theorizing rather than the party line. “Having surrendered any illusion that our political activity is guided by ‘correct theory,’” they argue, “we have no excuse to regard ourselves as a small but determined vanguard to effect the salvation of the masses.” (12)
The editors’ insistence on a radically different vision of socialist politics is the book’s most important contribution because it allows readers to see why socialism can and should be relevant in a post-Cold War age. It is the task of the contributing authors to bring this new vision of socialism to life. They do so with varying levels of success.
The editors categorize the essays into three conceptual frameworks: philosophical contributions to socialist principles, elaborations on how specific social institutions would function in a new socialist world, and analyses of positive social movements that are shaping the contemporary moment. Some of the authors seem to aim at persuading non-socialists to join the fold, whereas others appear to speak to the already committed about strategies for change.
The section on socialist philosophy is at its best when it takes on the basic ethical and philosophical questions of socialism. This is crucial for a new socialism because, as Charles W. Mills notes in Chapter 3, socialism should present itself as a system of more ethical economic and social structures.
Rather than an inevitable result of the social progression through capitalism, these authors correctly insist that socialism is not inevitable but desirable. In doing so, they investigate the ethical advantages of socialism and tackle some of the difficult moral questions that have arisen from socialist experiments.
Mills’s essay argues that socialist equality is more desirable than mere status equality — the right to compete freely in a meritocratic society. Although he provides evidence to support his position, he acknowledges that he cannot offer a foolproof argument to convince the skeptical. “Obviously,” he concedes, “status egalitarians will disagree with much of what I have said here.” (95) Nonetheless, he stresses the importance of addressing the ethics of economics, a topic frequently overlooked by free market enthusiasts and those Marxists stuck in the promise of socialism’s inevitability.
Socialist Morality and Freedom
While Mills struggles to convince readers of the ethical superiority of socialism, Milton Fisk argues that it is impossible to determine the ethical superiority of a cooperative or a competitive system if we base our decision on a morality that relies on universal principles. Instead, he favors the incorporation of feeling into a socialist system of morality. If we are moved toward socialism out of feelings of compassion and solidarity rather than rational beliefs that cooperation is better than competition, then we should develop our socialist morality based on these feelings.
Although this position ignores the problem of converting others who do not have strong feelings of compassion or solidarity that already lead them to socialism, it does provide a useful model of morality in a new socialist world. In place of an absolute, universal moral structure that requires society’s members to follow rules, Fisk proposes that we base our morality on feelings of benevolence, compassion and solidarity.
Under Fisk’s model, members of a socialist society may not feel or act benevolently toward others in many instances, but the culture will support a value system that nurtures benevolence. As a result, people will have a tendency to benevolence because such behavior is socially sanctioned and rewarded. Moreover, when benevolence furthers the goals of the society as a whole, behaving benevolently will benefit the individual as well as the group.
This social morality need not prevent individuals from seeking personal development — it will simply serve as an ethical guide that will limit the socially destructive aspects of competition and individualism.
By focusing on feelings and morality, Fisk insists, we might be able to avoid some of the pitfalls of communism as it has actually been implemented. Massive bureaucracies rife with corruption clash with feelings of solidarity and benevolence, and a focus on feeling rather than simply building bureaucratic institutions may be one way to prevent such problems.
Richard Schmitt’s chapter “Socialist Freedom” turns from the broader issue of morality in socialism to a specific philosophical question that has long haunted socialists: freedom. “The widespread suspicion that socialism is a threat to freedom . . . is sufficiently well supported that we need to take it very seriously,” Schmitt writes. “Not only have existing socialist regimes been half-hearted in their defense of freedom, but there exist serous philosophical arguments that claim to show that socialism, however defined, and freedom do not go well together.” (53)
Schmitt attempts to address such fears by examining the role of negative freedoms (the freedom to behave without hindrance, often embodied in civil liberties) in both socialism and capitalism. Although Schmitt cannot promise that socialism will offer as much negative freedom as Americans expect, he does highlight the ways that capitalism also restricts our negative freedoms.
Participants in a capitalist economy may have the right to choose lifestyle options, but our choices are limited by the ways commercialism influences our desires, molds our identities, and produces only the momentary trends in consumer goods. Socialism, he suggests, will allow more personal freedom because it will permit individuals to develop their identities more fully in the absence of corporate pressures.
This is a promising argument, but Schmitt spends much more time outlining the lack of negative freedoms in capitalism than he does describing the promise of greater individual freedom in socialism. If he is correct that socialism can nurture stronger personal freedoms, this is an important argument for socialists struggling against capitalist ideology. He does not, however, fully explain his thinking on this front, suggesting only that socialists should structure their future society while taking personal freedoms as well as economic equalities into account.
Schmitt is right to emphasize the importance of satisfying American desires for personal freedom as much as possible, and his critique of capitalist freedom is correct, but it doesn’t offer a fully satisfying response for socialists seeking to convince the skeptical. Most Americans do feel a sense of individual freedom and see no need to seek added freedoms in a socialist structure. In a post-Cold War world, articles like Schmitt’s are necessary — and they need to work even harder to outline the promises of individual liberties in a socialist society.
Crime, Education and Family
The section on philosophy, of which Schmitt, Mills, and Fisk represent only a sample, focuses on the broadest ideological issues of socialism. The second section attempts to bring such analyses to life by introducing writers concerned with the workings of particular institutions in a socialist society, a specificity that is crucial as we try to imagine what our lives might look like in a more just world.
As a whole, the section is extremely useful for a beginner to socialism. It offers a socialist perspective on an array of institutions, from the schools to the prisons, outlining the problems of our current systems and the promises of future ones. The authors provide disappointingly little, however, for a new socialism on these fronts.
Although it is difficult to disagree with their critiques of capitalist schools, prisons, and day care structures or to reject their visions of a better world, there are few new and creative solutions here. Many of the chapters offer broad-scale imaginings of future institutions without getting into some of the more detailed and difficult questions.
For instance, Mechthild Nagel’s “The Role of Prisons in a Socialist Future” intelligently critiques the problems of the prison system in capitalism and stresses the importance of non-punitive solutions. Her inspirations for alternative models include Sentencing Circles or Healing Lodges based on tribal practices in which the community takes responsibility for the individual, encouraging rehabilitation and restitution rather than punishment.
In one example, an offender in an industrial society is asked to atone for a stolen TV by returning the TV, speaking to the elderly victim about the impacts of the theft, and performing services for the woman as restitution. This is an inspiring example, as are the discussions of group responsibility for individual action in Mali’s clan-based societies, but Nagel doesn’t tackle the hardest questions that most prison advocates would immediately cite.
A new socialism needs a vision for safety and peace even as we continue to critiques the notion of punishment. How do we deal with the serial killers and child rapists of the world, who may be violent due to a combination of mental illness and social dysfunction? Although a socialist society may assuage some pathologies and would certainly de-criminalize many behaviors in favor of rehabilitation, it is unlikely that it will eliminate violent behavior altogether. As a committed socialist who supports critiques of the prison system, I remain puzzled by these hard questions.
Harry Brighouse and Johanna Brenner similarly tackle the questions of education and family care, respectively, in a socialist society. Both provide philosophically sound notions about socialist institutions but fail to bring their ideas to life with concrete visions of implementation.
Brenner makes some important contributions when she emphasizes flexibility and variety in socialist options for care-giving and insists that the right to give care is just as important as the right to receive care. “Perhaps because caregiving is so devalued or because it is simply assumed to be a natural expression of femininity, we don’t tend to talk about it as an essential human activity . . . that people engage in only at great cost to themselves.” (216)
This position also correctly acknowledges the important role of personal family ties and the desires of many parents to build special relationships with their own children. As a result, the perceived impersonality and institutional nature of socialist caregiving visions is tempered in Brenner’s analysis, though she does emphasize the ways that a variety of caregivers can be beneficial to children as they learn to become socially well-adapted adults.
Even so, it remains difficult to envision what a flexible socialist system of care would look like. A few examples of families living under such a structure would be illuminating and potentially inspiring.
Brighouse encounters a similar problem when he argues that socialist schooling should teach children to be cooperative and productive members of a democratic society while giving them the space to have autonomous voices in their education and life goals. He stops short, however, of describing an institution specifically, saying that structures might vary depending on the society. But this is a disappointing conclusion — socialists have often insisted that we can only learn what a socialist society will look and feel like by building it, and this failure to imagine has sometimes blinded us to the problems that might arise from our ideals.
Democracy, Environment, Peace
One exception is David Schweickart’s chapter “Democracy,” which is highly detailed and pragmatic in its description of what economic democracy would look like and how we might get there from here. Although his idea of democratized markets is not perfect, it is well fleshed out. “If we know where to look,” he insists, “we can discern, even in the present, economic experiments, political reforms, and intellectual shifts that point to an economic formation vastly more democratic than the one in which we live today.” (312)
In this vision, corporations would have their profits nationalized, but bureaucrats would not lead the firms. Instead, they would surrender to democratic worker control, while owners would be compensated. Federal property taxes on major businesses would be reinvested in local communities, and public banks would prioritize job creation in their lending practices. Tariffs that benefited the exploited in poor countries (supporting NGOs or unions, perhaps) would emphasize fair rather than free trade, and within the country nationalized corporations would have little reason to outsource work because workers would collaborate to make management decisions.
Schweickart’s proposal does not always provide adequate solutions, but it offers a clear road map of how we would transform our current economic structure into a new one by using tools that we already have.
Other useful additions in this section seem to stray from the editors’ vision of socialist institutions, though they provide excellent theoretical commentary. Serenella Iovino and Richard Smith both discuss the centrality of environmentalism to socialism. Democratic approaches, both authors insist, will allow communities to balance their economic and social desires against the dangers of environmental contamination.
Cheyney Ryan, on the other hand, presents an argument that might have fit better in the first section. His pacifist socialist perspective, grounded in Quaker values, raises the important question of how communist projects in this century have been linked to war and the loss of human life.
He argues that communism in the 20th century was shaped in negative ways by its relationship to war. A new socialist theory should recognize this violent history and seek to incorporate pacifist values into a broadly socialist framework.
Resonating with socialists who advocate change from the bottom up. he remarks that pacifist traditions, “in contrast to both the liberal and the state socialist perspective . . . have never regarded peace as a blessing that nation states would bestow upon the world. They have always assumed that it would be achieved from below, and through methods that rejected all the romantic glorifications of violence that pervade nationalist ideologies.” (411)
Ryan challenges us to reconsider the necessity of war as a tool of socialism. War, he argues, is not only a source of death and destruction but a means of obscuring rational political thought in favor of romantic notions of sacrifice — be those notions capitalist or socialist.
Looking to the Movements
The final section looks to real social movements that appear promising for the future of socialism. Michael Howard discusses the inspiring example of worker-controlled enterprises in Mondragon, Spain; Stephanie Luce highlights the modest successes of local Living Wage campaigns in U.S. cities; Barbara Epstein and Chris Dixon analyze the potential and problems of the growing number of anarchists in U.S. activism; and Fred Evans and Barbara McCloskey note the growth of labor rights networks that incorporate artistic and economic solidarity across the U.S.-Mexico border.
These essays are inspiring and hopeful, giving readers access to important developments in activist projects while encouraging them to look for the same kinds of developments in their local communities.
Epstein and Dixon’s engagement with anarchists is especially important because it acknowledges the ways that a new socialism will need to interact with, learn from, and support young activists with anarchist ideals. This new socialism, they suggest, will be able to recognize the most promising forms of activism and work with them rather than remaining mired in outdated traditions.
Much the same can be said of the anthology as a whole. It is an important contribution to socialist thought especially because the text makes a serious attempt to conquer some of the barriers to adapting socialism to the contemporary moment.
ATC 139, March-April 2009