Is There Still a Case for Socialism?1
1. Is there still a case for socialism? The question arises because of two large challenges to the nineteenth century case for socialism thrown up by the history of the twentieth century. These challenges have cast the traditional case for socialism into disarray, and there is now a serious need for reconstruction.
'Socialism', the world 'socialism', is the name of an ideal, and it is also the name of a movement. Historical experience proves that the ideal needs to be rethought, and it is, of course, being rethought, very widely, and sometimes, as I shall explain, it is being rethought too much: in the wake of a massively disappointing historical experience, there is an understandable, but regrettable, inclination to abandon too much of the inherited ideal. And the lines of the movement for socialism, traditionally conceived as a movement centrally of the industrial working class, also need to be redrawn. Transformations in the class structure of Western capitalist society2 necessitate a new conception of the agency for socialist change.
In this essay I shall begin by reflecting on the inherited ideal, on how it stands now, and then I shall confront the challenge to the old conception of socialist agency. I shall close with a few remarks on the paradoxical import for both the socialist ideal and the socialist movement of the looming environmental or ecological crisis.
2. A strong commitment to socialism was fixed, for me, early in my life. My parents were communist Jewish factory workers, in Montreal, Canada, and they sent me to an elementary school which was run by a Jewish communist organization. There I was taught an orthodox socialism, of unambiguously Soviet orientation. Soviet socialism, both as a state structure, and as an aspiration, now lies in ruins. For people of my background that is a great loss, and I want to begin by discussing how those of us who have sustained this loss manage our bereavement. Tennyson's Ulysses says 'Though much is taken, much abides'. To see what abides, we must acknowledge what has been taken.
All Souls, Oxford University.
Social Scientist, Vol. 20, No. 12, December 1992