Does Socialism Have a Future?

By Heilbroner, Robert L. | The Nation, September 27, 1993 | Go to article overview

Does Socialism Have a Future?

Heilbroner, Robert L., The Nation

Since the early nineteenth century, progress has been perceived as the movement of Western society "leftward" along an imaginary line that began in the feudal past, ran through early, middle and late capitalism, and ended--or at least pointed toward--the dimly perceived social formation called socialism, and far beyond that, communism. By "leftward" I mean a direction of social change whose prime mover was the emerging economic dynamic within social life. In the opinion of almost every historian, this slow, often interrupted but persistent movement was intimately connected with the idea of progress. It is that view that now stands at bay.

The movement was deemed to be an expression of progress for several reasons. The first was that the changing configuration of society was clearly the product of impersonal forces, which is the aspect that human behavior takes on when it responds to stimuli in predictable fashion. The stimuli themselves also appeared to be impersonal insofar as they too were composed of predictable behavioral tendencies rather than the edicts of powerful personages, the outcomes of military adventures and the like. Thus the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave us the extraordinary spectacle of the separate nations of the West marching in parallel formation to a common drumbeat--a parade never visible in any previous period of extended social change, be it the fall of Rome, the rise of Christianity or the advent of the Enlightenment. That determinism bestowed on society's "leftward" movement the aspect of a natural process. In an age that worshiped science it was understandable that such an interpretation was already tantamount to viewing social history as not only inevitable but progressive.

A second reason for the progressive interpretation of history was that the institutional aspects of its dynamic embodied many specific characteristics by which the idea of progress was otherwise supposed to be manifested. The replacement of faith by rationality was one of these, insofar as capitalism was indisputably more rational than feudalism; and a central intellectual appeal of socialism was that it replaced the hidden irrationalities of capitalism with the presumed transparent rationality of a consciously planned society. Yet another widely accepted characteristic of progress was the extension of individual freedom, where again the leftward movement seemed entirely fitted to the aim. Capitalism had already discarded the narrow sociopolitical and economic constraints of vassalage and serfdom; socialism promised to end those of wage slavery, perhaps even of nationalism. And not least in this progressive interpretation of the economic transformation of society was its celebration of the central placement of human self-determination. Feudalism was generally agreed to be a society built on acceptance and resignation; capitalism was seen as a society of self-defining individuals; socialism as the first society consciously to take its very history into its own hands--the beginning of truly human history, as Engels put it.

The powerful hold of the idea of a progressive economic interpretation of history helps explain the feelings of dismay that are so much a part of our contemporary frame of mind. Certainly the axis that indicated progress in terms of a movement leftward has no relevance to the Russian shambles, where Left and Right seem to have changed places. What relevance does the concept have to the situation in Yugoslavia, Somalia, South Africa, Iran? Would not indexes appropriate to those parts of the world be better labeled Up and Down, or Forward and Back?

Of course, this raises the question of what those other indexes might measure. Morality? Politics? Whatever the answers, they are very unlikely to have the internal coherence and persuasiveness that are the peculiar attributes of economics as a mode of social observation and judgment. The economic views of history espoused by thinkers like Smith, Marx, Schumpeter and Keynes are not "wrong. …

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