Thursday, August 20, 2020

"Socialism is the Name of Our Desire"

Lewis Coser and Irving Howe started a magazine called Dissent back in 1954. They called themselves socialists, but they were also strongly opposed certain others who called themselves socialists, like the the leadership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Thus, in the second issue they co-authored an essay called "Images of Socialism," subtitled "At so late and unhappy a moment, can one still specify what the vision of socialism means or should mean? Is the idea of utopia itself still a tolerable one?" The essay rewards re-reading, but the opening paragraphs always strike me forcefully. Coser and Howe write:  
“God,” said Tolstoy, “is the name of my desire.” This remarkable sentence could haunt one a lifetime, it reverberates in so many directions. Tolstoy may have intended partial assent to the idea that, life being insupportable without some straining toward “transcendence,” a belief in God is a psychological necessity. But he must also have wanted to turn this rationalist criticism into a definition of his faith. He must have meant that precisely because his holiest desires met in the vision of God he was enabled to cope with the quite unholy realities of human existence. That God should be seen as the symbolic objectification of his desire thus became both a glorification of God and a strengthening of man, a stake in the future and a radical criticism of the present.

Without sanctioning the facile identification that is frequently made between religion and socialist politics, we should like to twist Tolstoy’s remark to our own ends: socialism is the name of our desire. And not merely in the sense that it is a vision which, for many people throughout the world, provides moral sustenance, but also in the sense that it is a vision which objectifies and gives urgency to their criticism of the human condition in our time. It is the name of our desire because the desire arises from a conflict with, and an extension from, the world that is; nor could the desire survive in any meaningful way were it not for this complex relationship to the world that is.
The goal for Coser and Howe is "to suggest some of the qualities that can make the image of socialism a serious and mature goal, as well as some of the difficulties in that goal. They want to address this question honestly, which means that parts of the answer may be uncomfortable for others who view themselves as socialists to read. 

Coser and Howe argue that socialism is a kind of utopian vision. A danger is that those who hold utopian visions will face a powerful temptation to come up with reasons why an elite group has a duty to humanity to impose that utopia on everyone. Another danger is that the vision of socialism becomes hazy: for example, socialism may be loosely defined by some believers as "a society in which tension, conflict and failure had largely disappeared." But such a definition is about what doesn't happen, not about how a house is built or a sick person receives health care, or even about what most people will plan on doing when they wake up on a Monday morning. Moreover, a lack of tension, conflict, and even failure seems to describe a static and unchanging society.  They argue: 
Socialism is not the end of human history, as the deeply-held identification of it with perfection must mean. There is no total fulfillment, nor is there an “end to time.” History is a process which throws up new problems, new conflicts, new questions; and socialism, being within history, cannot be expected to solve all these problems or, for that matter, to raise humanity at every point above the level of achievement of previous societies. As Engels remarked, there is no final synthesis, only continued clash. What socialists want is simply to do away with those sources of conflict which are the cause of material deprivation and which, in turn, help create psychological and moral suffering. Freedom may then mean that we can devote ourselves to the pursuit of more worthwhile causes of conflict. The hope for a conflictless society is reactionary, as is a reliance upon some abstract “historical force” that will conciliate all human strife.
Coser and Howe discuss big issues like how their version of socialism would view the necessary evil of  bureaucracy, how it would be focused on many small decentralized communities and producers rather than centrally controlled, and how a high-production socialist society would still have inevitably some work, along with (they hoped) a social problem of how average people would spend their greater leisure time. They wrote in 1954: "Today, in an age of curdled realism, it is necessary to assert the utopian image. But this can be done meaningfully only if it is an image of social striving, tension, conflict; an image of a problem-creating and problem-solving society."

There are a number of points that might be made in response to their essay, but here I'll limit myself to a couple of thoughts. 

Their formulation that "socialism is the name of our desire" helps for me in explaining why the juxtaposition of socialism vs. capitalism often seems like such a peculiar argument. If someone chooses to take all their hopes for a better and more just society and bundle it up in the name of "socialism," than any criticism of "socialism" will be viewed as an attack on their dreams and desires. Conversely, pretty much no one ever has said that "capitalism is the name of my desire." The arguments for capitalism are typically made in terms of machine-like functionality, emphasizing what works and doesn't work under capitalism. And of course, the arguments for capitalism emphasize how it has actually raised the standard of living for average people over recent decades and centuries, not how it summarizes one's dreams for the future. 

I would also add that that equating the practice of real-world socialism with virtue is as shaky as equating the practice of real-world capitalism with sin. For those who would like some back-and-forth discussion of the interrelationships between market-incentivized behavior and human virtue, one useful starting point is a two-paper "Symposium on Economics and Moral Virtues" in the Fall 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives:  
I also posted awhile back on "The Moral Significance of Economic Life: Aristotle vs. Locke" (January 2, 2014).