From Sweden to Socialism

From Sweden to Socialism

The term “scientific socialism” is an oxymoron.

Science pertains to the study of what is, whereas socialism is a vision of what can or should be. To deny scientific status to socialism is not to denigrate its central importance. It provides indispensable guiding images without which our lives would become appallingly drab, and hardly worth living.

Utopian visions are not merely frosting on the cake but a major part of its substance.

Socialism, its Marxian forebears notwithstanding, is one of a variety of utopian ideas.

Utopia is, of course, nowhere, but ever since Plato’s Republic, the counterimage of a perfect society has served to provide regulative ideas for a society more decent, more just, more fraternal than the present. Each society produces the utopia it deserves.

One of the least appealing aspects of contemporary society is its technocratic fixation and its lack of social vision. August Bebel once complained about what he called the damned wontlessness of the poor. In our days, it is not only the poor who lack transcending vision, but even intellectuals have largely deserted their mission to provide utopian images that transcend current habits of thought.

They are for the most part timid souls who are scared to stray too much from the well-trodden path. In America, the utopian image has been in retreat since the early days of the New Deal.

What has been initial retreat has now become a full-scale rout. It seems that, according to the major current thoughtways, anybody who strays from the common paths as theorized by Milton Friedman leads us straight to the gulag.

The greatest challenge to the idea of socialism at the moment does not just come from doctrinaire defenders of the alleged benefits of free markets. It comes from large sections of intellectuals who have of late emerged in Eastern Europe. These men and women have suffered for many years from totalitarian regimes that had the effrontery to call themselves socialist. It is hence not astonishing that many of these intellectuals have turned away from what they conceive socialism to be and have come to extol the free market. Free and unhampered market enterprise is, to be sure, found only in textbooks.

What these East European intellectuals perceive as the essence of a free-market society may well be a fatal distortion, but it still has the power to do untold harm to the idea of socialism and of a good society.

Some thirty-five years ago Irving Howe and I wrote an essay for Dissent that was meant to provide rough guidelines to what we believe to be the main components of a good society. We called this paper “Images of Socialism.”  

“God,” we quoted Tolstoy, “is the name of my desire,” I see no reason why we should surrender this pregnant hope to all the current Eastern and Western enemies of social promise. Socialism is a guiding and regulative idea. It cannot as such ever be realized fully, but it can serve as a measuring rod for comparing the present with what can be attained through a politics of democratic participation in a fraternal self-governing society. The image of socialism is a yardstick that keeps us honest when we attempt to assess the ailments and tragic consequences of the here and now. The Utopian image of the “good society” can serve as a stimulant for constructive moral change, even though it cannot be fully implemented. At every step on the road we will discover new tasks, which come into view when some of the old goals have been attained. The utopian socialist vision can spur us on even as it leads us to discover new challenges along the way.


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