Saturday, February 16, 2008

What is socialism?

Sorry if that title sounds a little presumptious. However, there is an interesting clash between DK's understanding of socialism and Chris Dillow's.

All serious political movements contain within them a great amount of variety. Almost everyone is, at some point, embarassed by others within their ideological camp. I wouldn't like to be associated with every position held by every conservative and I'm sure DK sometimes cringes at things said by fellow libertarians.

However, Dillow's position is more uncomfortable than ours. I can reasonably claim that the majority of conservatives, and libertarians, have positions on contemporary issues that I have a lot of sympathy for. That we are broadly on the same side in wanting a range of things: a small state, a strong nation, robust families and a host of other positions. Chris, despite his claim to possess a stronger connection to the early Left, seems to be on the wrong side of most of the movement on a range of issues. From the size of the state to the merits of a host of lifestyle paternalisms.

I think the problem can actually be traced back all the way to Marx. Even a rightwinger such as myself can acknowledge that Marx had a fierce, if misguided, account of what was wrong with the world - a problem he wanted to see ended. He also had a promise - that history was on the Left's side. He didn't really have a programme. That part was always fuzzy and I've never been convinced that either Stalinism or Dillow's liberal left programme can really claim to possess a greater grasp of true "Marxism".

By contrast, American conservatism has the vision of the Founders. British Conservatism Burke's steady defence of the robust British nation. Libertarians have Nozick, Rothbard, Hayek and innumerable other others. All of whom had a vision of the society they were defending or seeking to see put in place. By contrast, the Left started from Marx's rage. That left them very vulnerable to all manner of poorly thought through or outright evil philosophies that would claim to be the proper way to give their rage practical vent. Considered positions like Dillow's struggled within that discourse.


Meg said...

I think you make a really interesting point (god knows there are a whole lot of liberals I prefer not to be associated with, which I am reminded of every time you post about the LSESU) but I'm not sure I'd agree with you about the left tracing itself back to Marx. Certain parts of the left, sure; but most mainstream liberals (using the modern political rather than historical definition of the term) don't embrace Marxism anymore than mainstream libertarians embrace anarchy. When I think of the roots of American liberalism and socialism (or at least, my own beliefs about them), I tend to trace that back to Thomas More and Rousseau's decrying of inequality, and then back to the New Testament and some of Plato's writings. I don't think Marx is the father of or even inspiration for socialism: he's someone who took a much older idea and ran with it in a somewhat different direction to the extreme. Unfortunately, his work had such a global impact that his name has become shorthand for "the left and the founding thereof," whereas he OUGHT to be thought of only as the creator of one of the many incarnations of the left over the years. The problem isn't that the left traces itself back to Marx, it's that we're perceived as doing so.

Matthew Sinclair said...

I think you're probably right. I'm oversimplifying things to call this an analysis of the Left. It's an analysis of the Marxist old Left in all its many and varied forms, perhaps.

I think you're right that many on the modern left are genuinely post-Marx. Particularly the Tranzis. However, I do think you're overexaggerating to call him just the creator of a small, extremist section of the Left. You're underestimating the amount that the Left has relied upon the logic and emotion of class, in particular.

Good comment, glad you're keeping in touch with the blog.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Also, you're being Americocentric.

Meg said...

I'm sure you're right about my Americocentrism... I don't really feel I know enough about UK or continental European liberals (much less liberals in the rest of the world) to draw conclusions about their beliefs. Also, anything I could say would be a gross oversimplification given the huge cross-cultural differences.
As for exaggeration, I imagine you're right if you look at Europe. I gather Marx' influence is still a bit more prevalent there than here, although my experience is a bit colored by LSE lefties who I can't imagine are representative of British liberals at large. I think most American liberals have shrugged off Marx' proposed solutions at this point-- we do talk about class a lot, it's true, but I think that's due to a couple things: (a) a feeling, however subconscious, that Marx may have been right about some of the problems without being right about the solution, and (b) "class" is just one term for that same idea of inequality that the left had been talking about before Marx (and after... Rawls, etc). Conversations like this always remind me that I need to go read more philosophy, though.

And of COURSE I keep reading the blog... where else can I see the regular use of the word "Tranzi"? (I will never be able to stop visualizing them as the Seattle WTO protesters in drag.)

Matthew Sinclair said...

Well, a key difference would seem to be that the European 'liberals' are right-wing and the Left in Europe is 'socialist', 'social democrat' or 'Communist'.

Meg said...

Oh-- see, when you said I was being Americocentric, I assumed you meant the content of my post and not simply my use of the term "liberal." My bad. :-p