Socialism and Scarcity

Socialism and Scarcity

I Peter Clecak A Grim Vision of the Future Although it has received considerable attention, Robert Heilbroner’s most recent book may easlily be lost in the glut d social commentary-filed away as this year’s most stylish doomsday tract. This would be a shame if I am correct in regarding An Inquiry into the Human Prospect as the most important work of one of our leading social critics. It brings into focus a series of urgent questions concerning the theory and politics of the democratic Left.

For more than a deoade, Heilbroner has been preoccupied with the growing difficulty of imagining the future as other than a continuation of the misery of the past. Beginning with an interest in determining the capacity of people to organize social systems so as to insure both material advancement and freedom, he reached the somber conclusion during the 1960s that the main issue is no longer the achievement of happiness on a base of material progress, but survival. Heilbroner’s social thought in the ’60s emphasized the tragic dimensions of present and future, even under the best conditions imaginable. A slender hope for mankind was sustained by the possibility that people in very different circumstances might alter their social systems so as to alleviate internal crises and disintegration, advance humanist values (however circuitously), and reduce international tensions to manageable proportions. The best hope, he felt, was that forms of industrial socialism might become more democratic; advanced capitalist nations might be transformed into more just social orders, gradually becoming less dependent upon modes of neo-imperialism; underdeveloped nations might begin the long road to survival through authoritarian revolutionary governments that minimized the inevitably brutal ascent from economic chaos.

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