Paths of Renewal (1): Socialism as Historical Experimentalism
This chapter begins with a brief summary of the results of the previous chapters in order to assess the challenges facing the renewal of socialism today. If we were to summarize the constitutive features of this movement in a single sentence, we would be forced to resort to a paradoxical formulation: The theoretical framework within which socialism develops the fruitful and far-reaching idea of resolving the contradictory legacy of the French Revolution by institutionalizing social freedoms owes the entirety of its experiences to the Industrial Revolution. To express this paradox more clearly, we could borrow an idea from Marx and say that in socialism, the normative force of the idea of social freedom is prevented from unfolding its true potential by a theoretical framework stemming from the Industrial Revolution. The theorists of the original socialist movement were unable to unleash the potential of their practical and political intention to establish modern society as a community of cooperative subjects – an aim that extended far beyond their day – due to the fact that they had bound themselves to the conceptual premises of Manchester capitalism.
Similar diagnoses of socialism’s basic flaw were made by sympathetic critics after the end of World War II at the latest. Here I am referring primarily to the postwar French journal Socialisme ou barbarie
, whose most notable contributor was Cornelius Castoriadis.1
But we can also count Habermas’ attempt immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall to preserve the core of socialism as an effort to revive the original idea of the movement.2
Unlike so-called “analytical Marxism”, which attempted to rid itself of the above-mentioned problems by presenting socialism as a purely normative alternative to liberal theories of justice,3
the tradition exemplified by Castoriadis and Habermas retains the thought that socialism must reflect on its own conditions of possibility and aim to bring about an alternative life-form. Socialism wants to offer much more than an improved conception of social justice or a convincing justification of a moral imperative; by conceiving of itself as a movement directed toward the future, socialism necessarily aims to make modern society more “social” in the full sense of the term by unleashing forces or potentials already contained in the current society. Whoever fully understands the challenge facing the attempt to revive socialism today is also faced with a number of intractable problems deriving from the roots of the movement in early industrialism. A more universalizable substitute must be found for all of its misleading assumptions about history and social theory, for we cannot merely adopt the idea of establishing social freedoms, nor the notion of a movement already present in society, nor the assumption that a historical tendency supports our own
intentions. Instead, we need to find a complement for all three of these basic assumptions, thereby making socialism a theory aimed at bringing about practical change. We need complementary ideas that correspond to the more advanced consciousness of our time. Therefore, if socialism is to have a future, it must be revived in a post-Marxist form.
This roughly constitutes the task of the following chapters. The aim is to formulate the individual elements of the historical and social theories of classic socialism in a more abstract fashion, thus making them more relevant to the present. This will in turn make it appear more justified and historically possible to focus our unified powers on expanding social rather than individual freedoms. However, I can no longer proceed as I have in my account of the three building blocks of socialist social theory in chapter II
. In order to find solutions at a more abstract level, I will have to move back and forth between the various basic assumptions of socialism, because often I can only make corrections in one place by making corrections in another. In my attempt to create an image of society and history that would do service to socialism, therefore, everything is related to everything. None of the premises upon which its traditional background conceptions rely can be changed without also changing the others.
Nevertheless, when it comes to updating socialism theoretically, it makes sense to begin at the same point at which I began my reconstruction of its socio-theoretical premises. After all, finding the institutional location of social freedom within modern society represents the crucial point when it comes to the practice of the original socialist movement. As we have seen,
early socialist thinkers were all convinced that the social cause for a merely individualized understanding of freedom, and thus for the divide within the legitimacy of the new liberal order, lies in the behavioral constraints of an economic system which compels subjects to merely pursue their own interests and to view their partners in interaction solely as competitors. Although early socialists were not yet sure how to understand the early stages of the market economy – Marx’s analysis of capitalism would later clear things up to a certain extent4
– they all saw the need to overcome economic individualism if there was to be any chance of reconciling freedom and fraternity, and thus of realizing the “sociality” [Sozialwerden
] of society. This equating of fraternity with a transformed economic system, of social freedom with a cooperative economy is the reason that socialism would almost immediately be regarded – by socialists and non-socialists alike – as a purely economic project. Because the socialist movement was largely convinced that the forces of increasing desocialization and individualization were rooted completely in the new capitalist economic order, they felt they only needed to replace individual freedom with social freedom in this one place in order to fulfill all the necessary prerequisites for relations of solidarity among the members of society. This conclusion, characteristic of traditional socialism as a whole, must be revised in two different ways if the socialist cause is to be made fruitful for the present. The first revision concerns the thoughts of early socialists on the reconstruction of the economic system (1). The second revision concerns the manner in which they conceive of the freedoms of a future fraternal society solely in terms of social freedom within the economic
sphere (2). I will deal with the first of these revisions in the present chapter, leaving the question of the shape of freedom in a future, “socialist” society for the concluding chapter. In the course of my argumentation, we will see that corrections within the economic core of original socialism will also entail making changes to its other two theoretical premises, i.e. to its concept of history and its underlying model of society.
With a bit of hermeneutic goodwill, we could say that the very first socialists understood their conceptions of an alternative economic order as experimental explorations of the possibilities opened up by the new medium of the market when it came to expanding relationships of solidarity and cooperation. Owen’s cooperatives, as well as the – largely French – plans to ensure fair distribution of starting capital primarily to the benefit of the lower classes, were mainly intended to allow the working masses – by means of self-managed cooperatives – to become strong participants in a market restricted by price regulations and legal guidelines. We could call these efforts “market socialist”, to use a much later term; all of these measures were meant to satisfy the preconditions for social freedom in the economic sphere.5
This might seem somewhat naïve given the force and the brutality with which owners of capital were already pursuing their profit interests at the time; however, it not only displayed the charm of a bold beginning, but also had the advantage of representing a kind of “learning by doing”. Those involved were not entirely aware of the kind of economic system they were dealing with in their intellectual activities. Despite their boundless faith in the necessary march of history towards socialism, they were forced to explore the extent of the moral tolerance of the
market. Marx was the first to put an end to this “experimental” early socialist approach. This young exile was convinced that the market represented an entire ensemble of social relationships that could not be split up into individual segments on the basis of certain moral conceptions. Marx, by far the most talented economist among the early socialists, saw the essential elements of this new social formation as consisting – alongside the law of supply and demand, which governed exchange relations in the market – in private capitalist ownership of the means of production, on the one hand, and the fundamental propertylessness of the proletariat, whose labor created value, on the other. These three elements created in his eyes an indissoluble unity, a “totality” in the Hegelian sense, for which he had already begun to use the term “capitalism” even in his early writings. Only occasionally does Marx’s work seem to allow for the possibility that the capitalist market is not a fixed entity, but a constantly changing and changeable set of institutions whose reformability was to be tested through repeated experiments.6
For the most part, however, Marx’s conceptual approach – in the tradition of Hegelian thinking in terms of totality – identifies the various features of the market so strongly with capitalism that even long after his death, it was impossible for socialists to conceive of an alternative, socialist economic system that did not rid itself of all market elements. And because the only model for such an economy was the centrally planned economy, they were even forced to conceive of the new economic order as a vertical relationship with all actors on the one side and a superior authority on the other, even though according to the original socialist intuition the producers should relate to each other horizontally. As valuable as Marx’s analysis of capitalism was to the socialist movement, having provided it with a systematic economic theory which would henceforth compete with classical economics, the totalizing features of this theory represented a great disadvantage. His conception of capitalism as a unified social system, in which the imperatives of the market compel it to constantly expand, robbed socialists of any chance of conceiving of economic collectivization other than in the form of a centralized planned economy.
Today, the capitalist market certainly appears to correspond precisely to the developmental tendencies Marx had foreseen. The old industrial proletariat and the new service proletariat have lost any prospect of longterm employment in secure jobs, while profits appear higher than ever, leading to an enormous increase in income disparity between the wealthy few and the larger masses. Furthermore, ever more public sectors are being subjected to the principle of profitability, such that Marx’s prognosis of a “real subsumption” of all sectors of social life under capital seems gradually to be coming true.7
However, this was not always the case in the capitalist market society, nor must it always remain that way. The most important task when it comes to reviving the socialist tradition consists in revising Marx’s equating of the market economy with capitalism, thereby opening up space for alternative uses of the market. If we think back to the original intuition of socialism, according to which the promises of the French Revolution were to be realized by institutionalizing social freedom in the economic sphere, then there are three economic models for realizing such horizontal
cooperation and mutual supplementation. First of all, there is the market as Adam Smith conceived of it when he interpreted the law of supply and demand as operating according to the mechanism of an “invisible hand” through which the economic interests of equal and benevolent citizens complement each other.8
Then there is the noble vision of an “association of free producers”, in which the w...