Socialism. Socialism? Socialism?!?

Article excerpt

At the end of the 1960s, the famous Czech phenomenologist Jan Patocka began a newspaper opinion piece in the following manner: "It is good to know what something is all about. But is this even possible with a word such as socialism? Unlikely. Even so, we need to have a clear understanding of the thinking [behind the term]."


The only possible path to understanding socialism is the path of philosophy. Let us put aside the taxonomy of events we have--here and there, then and now--described with the word socialism. Then we shall begin, like the eternal beginner Edmund Husserl, as if we had never heard the word before; let us direct our attention to the structural sense of reality through which the need for words arises.

Our starting point shall be the Enlightenment and its most pronounced political event: the French Revolution. Europe viewed the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions of the time mainly as a rebellion against the age-long domination of traditions and customs in all matters that are human. The Middle Ages really believed that "what has been believed by all, everywhere and always, must be true and the will of God." And what was more traditional than the social order of masters and servants?

But this idea of masters and servants is contrary to common sense as well as noble feelings--and the Enlightenment philosophers considered both sense and feeling fundamental in their questions of truth and goodness. For instance, the notion of equality originated from this time: it made sense; it felt right. And from this came the Great Revolution in the name of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. As the twentieth century political theorist Hannah Arendt points out, equality is the basis of freedom as well as brotherhood, i.e., the bright light of the Enlightenment.


Unfortunately, a bright light also casts a sharp shadow. The shadow of the democratic revolution was the atomization of society. While the traditional hierarchical order of society was unjust and cruel, it did guarantee everyone with a personal identity (as rich or poor) at birth. It provided basic social security. Traditionally, people who were better off were expected to care for the poor and sick. Though the reality was often ruthless and cruel, customs provided consolation. By rejecting tradition, the democratic revolution not only freed individuals, but also deprived them of their former sense of social security and personal identity. The democratic revolution generated social debt. It became democracy's responsibility to provide individuals with a sense of collective identity and social security since these things were no longer provided.

This is where the need for the social aspect of democracy arose, or in other words, where the agreement to provide common resolutions for shared problems has its roots. Prior to the Enlightenment, the individual could rely on one's family in poverty, sickness, and old age, and on one's master for personal security from physical harm. After the Enlightenment, however, democratic society as a whole needed to become the new source of individual security.

In a highly interconnected urban society which attempts to be democratic and individualist, the guarantee of physical security, health care (including hygienic waste management), social welfare, and education are all beyond any single individual's capacity to provide. Even though political democracy does not want to admit it, all of these human concerns are in fact a common social responsibility.

This was and is democracy's debt. This is what the legendary social question of the nineteenth century could not resolve. Most philosophers and politicians of the nineteenth century understood democracy purely as a question of political order and completely overlooked its social dimension. To solve the social question--i.e. how to care for common needs in a society free of masters--democracy needed to become social. …