Achieving Socialism by Definition

EDITORIAL, 31 Oct 2022

#769 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

Among all the conflicts that divide humanity –historically and now when humans should be working together racing against time to save the biosphere—including conflicts of Israelis vs. Palestinians, gays vs. homophobes, pro-life people vs. pro-choice people, Catholics vs. protestants, Muslims vs. Hindus, conflicts among nations seeking power in an “anarchic” world system, blacks vs. racists, Turks vs. Armenians, and others—surely some of the most divisive conflicts, in terms of lives lost, in terms of prisoners tortured, in terms of resources wasted and assets destroyed , in terms of terror, and in terms of truth itself disappearing in endless mazes of lies, have been and continue to be conflicts of socialism vs. capitalism.   Could this be a case where one of the major causes of pointless suffering has been and continues to be, conceptual confusion?  Yes, it could.

My title for this piece is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration.  By keeping it, I wager that what is gained in provoking thought will outweigh the risk that the reader will conclude that I am either mistaken or unintelligible or both.

The word “socialism” began its career as a player in human language-games, as charted by Alex Honneth in The Idea of Socialism, at the end of the 17th century.  “Socialist” was a pejorative term used to attack the likes of the German “positivist” jurist Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694).  The jurists then hard at work sowing the seeds of modernity were accused of claiming that the legal order of society should be founded on the human need for “sociality” rather than on divine revelation.   They were “socialists.”   A somewhat similar argument would be made three centuries later by Friedrich von Hayek: to presume that contemporary human reason could improve human institutions, doing better than the slow centuries-long accretion of innumerable lessons from experience that had created established common sense, was for von Hayek a “fatal conceit” named “socialism.”

The first thinkers to proudly call themselves socialists would plead guilty as charged.  For them –including the French utopians Charles Fourier and Henri Saint-Simon, a young German Louis Althusser would later identify as the pre-Marxist Marx, and the Welsh philanthropist Robert Owen—remaking human institutions to make them better serve human needs was good, not bad.  The first socialists anticipated what Amartya Sen would later call “public action” and what Paulo Freire would later call “cultural action.”    The critical thinking of the first self-declared socialists addressed how to keep the unkept promises of the French revolution: liberté, egalité, fraternité.   They worried about, and tried to solve, the problems posed by a bogus liberté that would smother fraternité, and by a bogus fraternité that would smother liberté.    They studied and practiced ways to create “free communities of solidarity.”  Human beings should care about other human beings, ease their pain, help them if they can, respect their dignity and their freedom, and share their joy.

“Socialism” was quickly redefined after September 14, 1867, when the first edition of Das Kapital saw print.  What the French today call “the values of the left” did not change.  What changed was that the values ceased to be “merely normative.”  Socialism became “practical.”  It became the ideology of an agent that would create a new society that would turn its values into realities; namely, the working class.  It became the name of a future that was destined to come into existence because of already existing unstoppable social forces.  Those unstoppable social forces were already determining, and explaining, the facts then (in 1867) observed.  They were the forces of industrialization driven by the accumulation of capital later carefully analysed by Rosa Luxemburg.   Moreover, Marx introduced a new player into the language games of human beings: the word “capitalism.”

Like “socialism,” “capitalism” began its career as a purely pejorative term.  Three approaches to defining “capitalism,” all of them damning indictments, can be found in the works of the man who coined the term:

  1. Capitalism is defined by an exploitative wage relation, where the wage is only a fraction of the value the worker creates for the capitalist.
  2. Where there is accumulation of capital there is capitalism, and where there is capitalism there is accumulation of capital.
  3. The wealth of those societies where the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as a vast collection (ungeheure Sammlung) of merchandise (Waren, things made to be sold).

Although today (2022) millions voluntarily identify themselves as capitalists and/or as advocates of one or another version of capitalism, nobody regards any of Marx´s approaches to defining what capitalism is as a description of the way the world should be.  Mr. Moneybags, in Marx´s narrative, can have no will of his own.  Even if he personally would prefer to live in free communities of solidarity, in business he plays the role history has assigned him.  He fights to keep wages down to keep costs down.  He hires workers because and only because it is profitable to do so, not because people need work.  He is driven by fear of being forced by rising costs to price his products so high that they cannot be sold.  He follows a script determined by social relations he did not choose and cannot control.

Honneth holds that now that it is crystal clear that the working class that is going to overthrow the existing world order does not exist, socialism needs another agent or agents to become practical again.  Otherwise, it will be “merely normative.”

I emphasize, on the contrary, that ethics is already practical.  Since Aristotle, and around the globe in non-western and western cultures, ethics (or its functional equivalent defined in some other vocabulary) is a practical science.    As Charles Darwin, C.H. Waddington, Christian Smith and many others have plausibly argued, humans are social and therefore moral creatures.

Achieving a global mosaic of cultures adapted to their physical functions, is, principally a matter of transforming social structures, and thus escaping from what Charles Lindblom called “the market as prison,” and in terms used by Karl Polanyi and John Ruggie. “embedding” the economy in functional social relations.

To appreciate the plausibility of treating the values that defined socialism prior to September 14, 1867, and other ethics of solidarity that humans at their best live by, around the globe, as active practical social forces that can be organized to transform social structures, consider Tony Lawson´s positioning theory of social structures.  And Doug Porpora´s definition of social structures as material relations constituted by cultural rules.  For Lawson, those relations can be spelled out as “positions” such as the positions of buyer and seller, or landlord and tenant, or debtor and creditor, of employer and employee, to name a few.

The positions, in turn, are defined by the rights and obligations of the persons who, at any given time and place, are occupying the positions.  Lawson´s social ontology puts rights and obligations, and consequently morals and ethics, at the heart of the causal powers of social structures.  I suggest that it supports regarding the ideals classically named by liberté, egalité and fraternité and by “free communities of solidarity” as already practical.  They are practical for the same reason that the rights and obligations defining material positions that assign to investors and employers the power to determine the level of employment give “… the capitalists a powerful indirect control over government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis.” (Mikhal Kalecki)

Today (2022), regardless of what was the case at other moments in history, there are many capitalists and advocates of capitalism who believe that remaking human institutions to make them better serve human needs is good, not bad.  It is hard to see how any sensible person could believe the contrary, now that there is no alternative to an energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels – to cite just one of humanity´s existential challenges that require thinking outside the box.  We could define socialism as a practical normative orientation that anticipated the necessity for ongoing social innovation that today for the educated public has become self-evident.

Three famous advocates of capitalism firmly committed to remaking human institutions to make them better serve human needs are Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1910) the founder of scientific management; Peter Drucker (1909-2005); and Klaus Schwab (1938-).

Young Frederick Taylor was an idealistic youth, who had been brought up by an idealistic mother.  Emily (née Winslow) Taylor was an ardent abolitionist.   In general, she was a campaigner for the worthy causes of her day.  When young Frederick was admitted to Harvard, he decided not to attend.  Instead, he wanted to learn about real life by experiencing real life as it was experienced by the majority of the people who were living it.  He became an apprentice on the shop floor of a factory owned by friends of his parents, far from the ivied halls.  Later he earned an engineering degree.  The key social problem of his times, as Taylor came to understand it, was:   the workers want higher wages; the owners want higher profits.  The solution was: scientific management.  Raise productivity so high that you can simultaneously fund higher wages and fund high profits.   From Taylor´s day to ours, advocates of capitalism have identified low productivity as the root cause of poverty, raising productivity as essential, and capitalism as the most practical route to that goal.

Peter Drucker brought us the mission statement. The purpose of profits is not accumulation.  It is funding the mission.  “What to do with profits after they are earned is the great political question of our times.”  A business that Drucker and his fans believe in contributes to the wider community. It is itself a work community.   It needs the support of the wider community to survive.  Drucker denounced hostile takeovers designed to enforce shareholder control; he denounced exorbitant executive salaries.  And Drucker famously wrote: “If the managers of our major institutions, especially business, do not take responsibility for the common good, no one else can or will.”

Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum have come a long way.  In its history since its founding in 1971, issues around forgiveness of debt can be seen as test cases where fundamental ethical principles were tested.  At the beginning of the 1980s, the WEF tended to line up with the hardliners.  The hardliners espoused a version of deontic ethics where the right trumped the good.  The right that did the trumping was typically property rights and the right to demand payment on loans “as agreed.”  The good that got trumped was typically human welfare.  For several decades the answer to the question, “Who holds the moral high ground here?” hung in the balance.  By 2000, a new consensus at the WEF and its allied organizations was teaching that some version of solidarity ethics, or an amalgam of several, held the high ground.   Massive third world debts were being forgiven. Forgiving them was being counted as the right thing to do.

Today the WEF defines itself as solidly on board with Peter Drucker, taking responsibility for the common good.   But volunteering to “take responsibility” is only helpful if the volunteer is part of the solution, not part of the problem.  A typical WEF agenda diagnoses global challenges as “peace, stability, sustainability, and the eradication of poverty.”  OK.   But how are these challenges to be addressed?  A typical WEF answer features, “by free trade of goods and services, free flow of capital, and freedom of investment.”  How are we to cope with such an implausible prescription following such a plausible diagnosis?

My advice on how to cope is to employ patient reasoning and unlimited good will.   Socialism can today be defined, if one chooses to do so, as a set of ideals, including ideals of mental flexibility and open-mindedness, which overlap with ideals of capitalist reformers.  Meaningful conversations that bridge the capitalist/socialist divide are now possible because some premises can plausibly be construed as shared.


Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival, is now available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 Oct 2022.

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One Response to “Achieving Socialism by Definition”

  1. Nicholas Marconi says:

    Dear Professor Richards,

    “Could this be a case where one of the major causes of pointless suffering has been and continues to be, conceptual confusion?” I couldn’t agree with you more. However, I would like to add what you say, at the risk, of adding to the “conceptual confusion”.

    I used to hold with what I believed to be well reasoned thinking that the “free” individual making their way in world was the best that human beings could achieve and that no matter how problematic many aspects of the capitalistic system there were, what mattered most was the fullest emancipation, empowerment and development of the individual. This was and still is a very sweet idea leading to the ever increasing rise of and advocacy of human rights and so forth. In fact, there is a whole ideology devoted to it: “individualism”. In the my teens and early twenties I strove to be an independent individualist. The only problem I couldn’t make it work; it’s an ideology when carried to some practical extremes and even in moderate ways doesn’t work for human beings. The only thing that the word “individual” points to in a sound way is that it refers to an integrated, whole “self” or person; it doesn’t seem to make sense to view that person in significant isolation from others. The “self” really needs the soil and nurture of relationship to unfold and grow.

    It turns out that human beings are social beings after all and that it would be very difficult except in the pages of science fiction to imagine, let alone, to force a perpetual Robinson Crusoe way of life on humans. In fact, that story depicted the plight of a man stranded and isolated from his fellow beings. I had to learn that I actually needed others and, not only that others needed me and that being-for the other was natural for us. I say “learn” because I first I had to unlearn what my culture( U.S.), the epicenter of capitalism, taught me: that I was supposed to be a competitive( and a “manly” one at that) communally disembedded individual and that if I wanted or needed others in-community I could always fall back on the various religious “communities” or other types of social clubs or rest from so-called character-building wounds of doing economic “battle” in the bosom of family and friends. But genuine community where people were consciously committed to the service of others in a web of relationships in real, practical economic and political ways I just couldn’t locate many viable examples. The Amish do come to mind as well as the short-lived and relatively naive 60’s Hippie “back to the land/commune movement” does too, but that got a sharp “reality” check at Kent State in 1970( or was it 1971)? And the Watergate fiasco! I’m old enough to still remember the aches in my joints after emerging from under my desk at age 6 year in first grade in a ludicrous attempt at practicing to save myself from an atomic attack. By the time I was 12 I realized I had been born in what appeared to be an insane asylum.

    But, you are right to point out that those who defend and believe in capitalism share values with those who defend and believe in socialism. And, one of the critical and significant stumbling blocks is to be inflexibly cognitively committed to the ideologies behind these words. Concepts help us to communicate and we can’t help communicating. But, if we want and desire to communicate in ways that address the “causes of pointless suffering” then we need to be open to questioning our cognitions and precious few seem willing to do this. Capitalists need to give up ideological, unworkable individualism and the socialists have to give up a “collectivist” mindset. But, that would mean real human to human engagement and reforming of genuine community.

    And, maybe in the end the best we can hope for is “to employ patient reasoning and unlimited good will.” Thank you for this advise.