Reassessing Political Ideologies: The Durability of Dissent

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

4

Socialism in the twentieth century

An historical reflection

Donald Sassoon


Introduction

Those who venture to discuss the meaning of socialism confront two distinct but not incompatible strategies: the essentialist and the historical. The essentialist strategy proceeds in conventional Weberian fashion. Socialism is an ideal type, empirically deduced from the activities or ideas of those commonly regarded as socialists. Once the concept is constructed, it can be used historically to assess concrete political organizations, their activists and thinkers, and measure the extent to which they fit the ideal type, why and when they diverge from each other, and account for exceptional behaviour. This procedure, of great heuristic value, is still broadly accepted and widely used, even though its theoretical rigour is highly dubious as the analysis rests on a somewhat arbitrary selection of the 'socialist' organizations and individuals used to produce the ideal-type concept of socialism.

This procedure has the added disadvantage that, if strictly adhered to, it does not allow for historical change. Once the ideal-type is defined, novel elements cannot easily be integrated into it. However, life must go on, even in sociology. So when something new turns up, such as a revisionist interpretation, all that is required is to hoist the ideal-type onto the operating table, remove - if necessary - the bits which no longer fit, and insert the new ones. Thus rejuvenated, the concept of socialism can march on, rich with new meanings; social scientists, armed with a neatly repackaged ideal-type, acquire a new lease on life, produce more books on the new socialism, and make academic publishers happy. Alternatively, sociologists may defend the old ideal-type, pronounce the new revisions incompatible with it, and declare socialism dead. They can then write more books on the death of socialism and make academic publishers happier still.

Activists, unconsciously Weberian, proceed in the same essentialist fashion, either exalting the new revisionism and its intelligent adaptation to the realities of an ever-changing world, or bitterly recriminating the changes which have occurred, evidence of yet another dastardly betrayal of the old faith. In so doing they keep 'socialism' (i.e., their idea of socialism) alive, its body on a life-support machine, waiting for better times. Such a clash between modernizers and fundamentalists is a regular fixture of political movements, especially where ideologies

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