What is Socialism?

by Robin Gallagher


The following is a summary of a series of texts discussed during our “What is Socialism?” Socialist Sunday School session. The discussed texts were published in Dissent Magazine in the Summer of 1978. They’re a conversation between four authors: Robert Heilbroner, Lewis Coser, Michael Walzer, Michael Harrington, and Bogdan Denitch. These authors were influential figures in the democratic socialist movement in the 1970s. Michael Harrington and Bogdan Denitch, for instance, were co-founders of the DSA. 

By virtue of their position in this movement and history, these authors provide unique answers to the titular question. 1978 was a unique time in history; two major powers, the USSR and China, claimed the mantle of socialism. At the same time, social democrats were in power in many European governments. Thus, these authors were not only able to reflect on the history of these movements but react to the choices they were making!

Heilbroner  – Original Text

The reading begins with Heilbroner’s “What is Socialism?” According to Heilbroner, socialists have historically failed to concretely define socialism due to a lack of nerve. If we concretely define socialism, we may introduce difficult questions and dilemmas we’re unprepared to address. However, in doing so, socialists have turned socialism into a vague ideal we’re striving for; a utopia that will deliver us from the ills of capitalism.

In light of this, Heilbroner seeks to define socialism and ground our conceptions of it. He wants to see: how society will be organized economically, how socialism will affect our culture and morality, and the consequences thereof. Most importantly, are freedom and democracy, as we conceive them, compatible with socialism? 

Heilbroner begins by stating that socialism is not the welfare state. Programs like Medicare for All, free college, universal rent control, and progressive taxation are beneficial. Nevertheless, they’re not to be confused with socialism. These programs are all implemented within a capitalist economy and never seek to replace capitalism.  

If the welfare state isn’t socialist, then the question remains: what will socialism look like? It will, in part, be a system for making economic decisions: What will be produced? How much of it? Where? How will it reach the end user? It is also a system that will prioritize the needs of society. Therefore, socialism will need to be organized in a way that is adaptable to a constantly changing world.

Additionally, it will need to be compatible with a society that strives to benefit everyone, not just a greedy few. In organizing society there are three options. The old way is through tradition but this isn’t very adaptable. Another option is self-regulating markets. That is the system of capitalism, relying on greed and producing what is most likely to benefit the investor, not society. The final option is economic planning, the option Heilbroner prefers. With a collectivist morality, economic planning provides an adaptable system that can benefit most of society.

However, this introduces some issues. If our decisions put the needs of society first, then our choices will be based on morality. Therefore, dissenting to the government’s decisions questions its morality and legitimacy! 

Heilbroner also believes that concepts like freedom and democracy, as we think of them, won’t be compatible with socialism. For instance, China implemented a one-child policy to curb overpopulation. This policy violates our notions of freedom. However, it may also benefit society. In this situation, a socialist society would prioritize the latter. 

After all, Heilbroner argues, these ideas are vestiges of capitalist society that socialism will replace. Just as capitalism largely rejects aristocratic ideals, socialism will reject individualism. This rejection won’t mean that socialism will be totalitarian, but it will mean that socialism won’t perfectly conform to our ideals.

Confronted with this dilemma, what can socialists do? Heilbroner argues that we have three options: first, we can turn socialism into a programme within welfare capitalism; second, we can say these concessions are worth it; third, we can accept that socialism will not be ideal. Heilbroner states we should do the third.

Lewis Coser – Response

The first response is that of Lewis Coser. According to Coser, Heilbroner’s analysis of capitalism is incomplete, and his analysis of socialism is overly pessimistic.

Capitalism, Coser argues, was built on cruelty and repression, not tolerance and individual freedom. It was built upon the theft and brutality of primitive accumulation, the strictness of the Protestant ethic, and the repression of individuality. Therefore, the hedonism and welfarism we see under capitalism are not inherent to it! The former developed when explicit repression was no longer necessary. The latter was born out of the labour’s struggles.

With this in mind, Coser argues that Heilbroner is mistaken in believing that socialism will abandon freedom and democracy as we know it. Instead, the pluralism created by capitalism and the incentives of socialism will make repression unnecessary. Furthermore, by insisting that it will be necessary, Coser believes that Heilbroner is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bogdan Denitch – Response

Bogdan Denitch’s piece begins by boiling down what Heilbroner is asking in his piece. Ultimately, he says, Heilbroner is asking: “Can socialism be democratic?”

To answer this question, Denitch looks at the former Yugoslavia, his home country. In Yugoslavia, the economy was coordinated in a decentralized manner, eventually using markets. It allowed workers to directly elect who manages sectors of the economy.

In doing so, Denitch argues, opportunities are opened for democratic deliberation. In the economy, workers are given constant opportunities and are pressured to flex their political will. Within these systems, Denitch believes that pockets of dissent can form where people can question the legitimacy of decisions. Denitch also believes this is true for decentralized systems. By decentralizing the economy, workers are given greater autonomy and therefore opportunities to make political and economic decisions.

With this in mind, Denitch states that by focusing on centralized systems, democratic socialists are drawing incorrect and harmful conclusions. He believes this focus is rooted in a fear that workers will make wrong decisions. Yet without providing them autonomy, we make the development of socialism, which is democratic, impossible.

Michael Harrington – Response

Michael Harrington’s response is much more concentrated. It focuses on the idea that we can’t have, as Heilbroner describes it, “a socialist cake with bourgeois icing.” In other words, we can’t have a socialist system with the perceived benefits of the capitalist system, those being freedom and democracy as we think of them.

His response to this is two-pronged: first, that the capitalist system isn’t democratic nor free; second, that socialism will allow true democracy to flourish.

Rather than directly restricting our freedom, capitalism uses indirect means to keep us unfree and our society undemocratic. Though we’re given the “freedom” to work where we wish, we are compelled to work at the risk of starvation. Through economic inequality, politics also becomes corrupted and undemocratic. Thus, while capitalism is outwardly free and democratic, it’s neither.

Conversely, by allowing workers to run the economy, all of society can decide its future. Rather than, for instance, allowing a few people to invest in fossil fuels at the expense of our planet, we can determine how society produces energy. In doing so, socialism allows true democracy to flourish.

This democracy is qualitatively different from the supposed democracy we see under capitalism. Yet, Harrington argues, Heilbroner conflates the two. In doing so, Heilbroner accepts an incorrect, antidemocratic view of socialism that deprives it of its very core!

Michael Walzer – Response

Michael Walzer’s response is in a similar vein to Harrington’s. It focuses heavily on the nature of dissent.

Under capitalism, dissent is trivialized and individualized. Any thought is treated as just an individual’s opinion, and arguing against it or struggling for your own opinion is inappropriate. This extreme toleration neuters dissent and makes it no longer meaningful. After all, if dissent can’t be acted upon — if it’s ignored before it can change minds and affect society — it effectively doesn’t exist!

However, under socialism, we’ll need to rely on each other. This requires us to communicate and debate, opening the possibility for radical democracy. Returning to Heilbroner, this means that our goals, even what we consider to be moral, will be collectively decided. As such, dissent will not attack the morality of our decisions nor the legitimacy of our system. Instead, we will collectively determine what our priorities and morals are. Furthermore, not all arguments will have a basis in morality as Heilbroner claims. For instance, one can argue for the reorganization of industries on the grounds of expediency.

However, Walzer acknowledges that the desire to help society can be exploited. The government could, for instance, cloak impoverishment in the language of solidarity. Therefore, it is vital to build democratic systems and combat this exploitation.

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