“You . . . have been borrowing goblins from the
capitalist. . . . “

—John Ruskin

For numerous well-known Western intellectuals, capitalism versus socialism remains the great dilemma, the principal philosophical and institutional alternative of our times. It is far from self-evident why this should be the case. Why not political pluralism as opposed to regimentation? Or democracy versus dictatorship? Tradition as opposed to modernity? Or the secular against the religious? Why do so many in the West persist in framing the major political-economic or moral-ideological choices of our times in this arguably dated conceptual framework? And why, by contrast, are intellectuals in the East, or in countries which claim to be socialist, singularly unimpressed by this terminology and disinclined to perceive the major issues of our times through these concepts?

It is tempting to answer that if as Marxists believe, “existence determines consciousness,” “Eastern” intellectuals shun these concepts because they have learned that politics matter more than economics, and that political power does not derive from economics. Moreover intellectuals (as well as nonintellectuals) living under systems calling themselves “socialist” are generally unimpressed by the preoccupation (of their Western brethren) with the ills and evils of capitalism. They may not like advertising or mass culture any more than Western literati, yet they can keep such matters in perspective. They know that the invasions of privacy represented by advertising are easier to fend off than the attentions of the modern socialist state and its various agencies. They are familiar with the ravages of commercialization, or “commodification,” a term coined by Robert L. Heilbroner in The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, or (in the older terminology) the “cash nexus.” Yet they know that these efforts are readily duplicated by the brutalizing political processes endured by citizens in socialist societies. They include the corrosive effects of mistrust generated by the facade of political conformity which is not a luxury but necessity. Nor do personal relations under socialism benefit from official priorities which invariably place “social” or “public” needs ahead of the personal, private, or individual.

This is worth dwelling on, since the notion persists in the West (at any rate among social critics attracted to some socialist alternative) that capitalism is uniquely guilty of ravaging personal relationships, whereas under socialism—while civil liberties and material goods may be in short supply—personal relationships are more pure, less instrumental, more fulfilling. It may be argued that the surviving mystique of socialism gains much of its strength from such conceptions (and fantasies) of vibrant communities and social ties untainted by ulterior or instrumental motives which proliferate in capitalist societies.

Perceptive social critics and intellectuals, such as Irving Howe, know perfectly well that the ideals and theories of socialism have been tarnished and discredited by the practices of states which insist on being called socialist, and yet they cannot let go of the ideal. Their critique of capitalism and their longing for socialism rest on the assumption that there must be better ways to build a socialist society and there must be a society wholly unlike and superior to Western capitalist systems. Moreover, Howe also knows, and says so frequently, that “there is no undemocratic road to socialism; there are only undemocratic roads that can bring, and have brought, nations to barbaric mockeries of the socialist ideas.” Why, then, is relatively little thought given to the resistance of the socialist ideal to the numerous attempts to realize it? Why the determined insistence that the distortion of these ideals, in the process of their attempted realization, is no reflection on the validity, the substance of the ideals themselves?

I suppose the situation is somewhat similar to the position believers may take toward the ideals of Christianity. These ideals, too, remain noble aspirations even if unrealized, even if there were bloody crusades, inquisitions, corrupt popes and bishops. But perhaps there is a difference. At least in more recent times, the application of religious ideals to personal behavior has been a private matter, one of individual choice rather than organized compulsion. Hence the distortion, or failure of religious values to enrich personal and social existence had a less obvious impact. (Moreover, Christianity—unlike socialism—has inspired and created great works of art.) By contrast, attempts to translate socialist ideals into reality have ‘been highly organized and coercive, touching—indeed wrenching—the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Hence the issue of the discrepancy between socialist theory and practice is far more consequential in our times.

An interesting development prolonging, and explaining in large measure, the survival of socialist ideals and theories has been their gradual transformation from a public belief and a social-political program into a cherished code of personal morality. While not many people, including Howe and Heilbroner, anticipate the realization of socialist ideals in the foreseeable future in any existing society or identifiable historical setting, many derive comfort and a more positive self-conception from preserving socialist ideals.

To profess being a socialist today in the United States is not so much to make a commitment to a specific political party, movement, or program, but rather to bolster one’s self-image and self-esteem. It makes some people feel good to think of themselves as socialist, especially if such self-identification reaches back into their youth and is colored by association with youthful vitality and idealism. For many people, “socialist” has simply come to mean decent, generous, sharing, or humane, particularly when such values are critically contrasted with capitalist ones.

The surviving attachment of Western intellectuals to socialism has assumed an irrational, somewhat dutiful and increasingly emotional character. Howe’s recollections illustrate this point: “Even after many of us decided that running socialist candidates once there was barely a socialist movement had become a humiliating ritual . . . even then it was still emotionally hard to go to the polls and pull down an old-party lever. Hie first time I did that, voting in 1952 for Adlai Stevenson, I came out of the voting booth almost physically sick.”

Although Howe is well aware of the emotional roots of the attachment to these ideas, he still clings to them. “They became socialists because they were moved to fervor by the call to brotherhood and sisterhood; because the world seemed aglow with the vision of a time in which humanity might live in justice and peace.” This being said, it is necessary to point out that Howe has little in common with Marxist-Leninist True Believers; unlike them, he is well aware of the flawed assumptions which shaped many contemporary socialist systems: “A ‘complete’ transformation of humanity is a corrupt fantasy that can lead to a mixture of terror and apathy.” He is also keen on the separation of political and economic power and is well aware of the incompatibility between democratic politics and “the pathos and excitement of revolutionary movements.”

If there is one article of faith Howe continues to embrace, it is the abolition of private ownership over the means of production. He writes: “Socialism should be envisaged as a society in which the means of production, to an extent that need not be rigidly determined in advance, are collectively or socially owned—which means democratically controlled.” It is precisely the combination of such “collective ownership” with democratic control that has proved the most elusive in practice.

Heilbroner’s book represents the other side of the equation necessary for understanding the enduring appeals of socialism: a sophisticated analysis of the ills of capitalism, rooted in Marxian perspectives and categories. Although much of this book is descriptive-analytical rather than moralizing-evaluative, it is not hard to discern the judgmental elements. Heilbroner, like Marx (and more recently Marshall Berman), is preoccupied with the unique and not altogether wholesome dynamism of capitalism, “its historically unique search for generalized surplus,” or the “endless quest for aggrandizement.” A somewhat overdrawn and mystified portrait of capitalism emerges—I am almost tempted to call it “reified.”

Curiously enough, despite the attention paid to the origins, dynamics, and attitudes associated with capitalism, and despite some fleeting references to Weber, Heilbroner skips over the Weberian theories of capitalist motivation and acquisitiveness and their religious aspects. Notwithstanding the generally neutral language and the understated approach, Heilbroner clearly envisions capitalism as a rather malevolent system, which “characteristically” masks its functions. He also vigorously embraces the Marxist idea of the dehumanization wrought by the cash nexus, seen in the commercialization of sports in the U.S. and the conversion of ideas into commodities.

Despite his distaste for capitalism, he grudgingly admits that “political freedom in modern times . . . has only appeared in capitalist states” and that “nonstate employment” seems to be a requirement of political freedom “as we know it,” at any rate.

I suspect that the author’s deepest antipathy toward capitalism is rooted—as is often the case—in a perception of it as a relentlessly rational-secular, desacralizing force:

Capitalism would be impossible in a sacralized world to which men would relate with awe and veneration, just as such attitudes cannot arise in a society in which exchange value has reduced to a common denominator all use-values.

So perhaps this is the critical point where the rejection of capitalism and the affinity for socialism converge. Capitalism has certainly brought, in Weber’s world, disenchantment to the world and has demystified it to the point of acute discomfort to many of those exposed to the process. Socialism raised hopes about restoring or creating an equilibrium between a benevolent rationality and something close to, or approximating, the notion of the sacred. Both Heilbroner and Howe, and many of those on the same wavelength, know that socialism in its existing forms failed to make up for the ravages of capitalism. But since there is a shortage of redemptive ideologies respectable enough for these Western intellectuals, the attachment to socialism cannot vet be severed.


[The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, by Robert L. Heilbroner; New York: W.W. Norton]

[Socialism and America, by Irving Howe; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich]