Socialism: Mission Accomplished or Mission Impossible?

By Sassoon, Donald | Dissent, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Socialism: Mission Accomplished or Mission Impossible?


Sassoon, Donald, Dissent


THOSE WHO discuss socialism confront two distinct but not incompatible strategies: the essentialist and the historical. The former, Weber-like, presents socialism as an ideal-type, deduced from the activities or ideas of those identified as socialists. Once the concept is constructed, it can be used to assess, to evaluate, and to compare different socialist organizations. Essentialism does not allow for historical change. When something new turns up-say, a revisionist interpretation-essentialists hoist the ideal-type onto the operating table, remove-if necessary-the bits that no longer fit, and insert the new ones. The concept of socialism can march on, rich with new meanings; social scientists, armed with a neatly repackaged ideal-type, produce books on the new socialism, and make academic publishers happy.

In the meantime, others insist on the old ideal-type, pronounce the revisions incompatible with true socialism, and then declare socialism dead. They write more books on the death of socialism and make academic publishers happy. Activists, unconsciously Weberian, often proceed in a parallel fashion. Either the new revisionism and its intelligent adaptation to the realities of an ever-changing world are exalted or there is bitter denunciation of yet another dastardly betrayal of the old faith.

The historical strategy has the same opening move-selecting organizations and thinkers that identify as socialist. Similarities and differences among them are then highlighted. However, no definition of socialism is required. Socialism becomes what socialists do. And no predictions can be made. The death of socialism, like that of feudalism, can only be proclaimed when it is no longer a matter of dispute, that is, when there are no socialists left except for the usual cranks, who, along with flat-earthers, may still inspire some anthropological interest.

While the essentialist strategy is overwhelmingly concerned with definition, the historical one is obsessed with change and causality-why do socialists behave as they do? Ideology is regarded as an integral part of the history of socialism. How theory and practice have been modified over time is the central preoccupation of the historical approach. It is thus much less judgmental than essentialism. But it risks a determinist version of events-- whatever happened had to happen-and it is useful to remember that within any set of circumstances things can develop differently.

Two Socialisms

At the beginning of the twentieth century socialists knew that their movement was contingent on capitalist society. Many Marxists thought of socialism as the state of affairs that would succeed capitalism, but they also noticed that the fastest growing capitalist society in the world, the United States, did not have a socialist movement. They were also aware that there was only an embryonic socialist party in Britain, the most developed capitalist state in Europe. In the meantime, some of Europe's more agrarian societies, such as Italy and Finland, had fairly strong and electorally successful socialist parties.

In Russia the movement was divided-like the whole of the Russian intelligentsia-between westernizing and Slavophile tendencies. The westernizers assumed that the duty of socialists was to accelerate the development of capitalism. Only capitalism, they thought, could provide the material preconditions for a further advance toward socialism. The slavophiles imagined that Russia would be able to skip Western-style capitalism. There was, however, a notable point of consensus: everyone believed that Russia's real problem was modernization; the dispute was over whether this should be left to the capitalists themselves or to the state. Much of Russia's subsequent history-from war communism to the New Economic Policy, from Stalin's five-year plans to the limited and inadequate economic reforms of the 1960s and 1970s-can be seen as a dispute over the appropriate mix of state and market. …

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