Whatever happened to socialism?
Axel Honneth tries to revive the socialist ideal in The Idea of Socialism.
Is it an idea whose time has come, gone, and maybe come again? Maybe.
“We can be together.”
Introduction: Whatever happened to socialism?
One of the more perplexing political developments of the last forty years or so has been the disappearance of the idea of socialism from public conversation. For the previous 150 years, socialism was an idea, ideal and political movement that had to be contended with, whatever one thought of it. It is no longer. What happened and what, if anything, can or should be done about it? And does the recent emergence of socialist Senator Bernie Sanders to prominence (I am writing this in October 2017) signal a revival of the idea of socialism in the United States?
Axel Honneth is a German philosopher and the author of The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal. He contends socialism is the last best hope for mankind, and the alternatives are grim. He is, thus, heavily committed to reviving socialism. Honneth thinks he knows why socialism has faded, and how to revive it. His book is only 120 pages long, but the arguments are dense and intense. Honneth’s exposition relies heavily on John Dewey, an American philosopher, educational reformer, and social activist who flourished during the first half of the twentieth century.
Dewey is considered one of the founders of pragmatism, along with C.S. Peirce and William James. Pragmatism is generally considered America’s major contribution to world philosophy, as well as America’s own philosophy, because its emphasis on practicality reflects American culture. Pragmatism holds that the meaning of a thing is how it works, and the value of a thing is the extent to which it works, that is, how well it fits in with the best available evidence. Pragmatism is a broad-based philosophy upon which Dewey based his progressive educational reforms and his socialist theories. Dewey’s idea of socialism is particularly American. For this reason, I think Honneth’s book has particular relevance for Americans.
The purpose of this essay is to explore the questions raised by Honneth, and his answers. As a self-styled socialist, I, too, think these are important questions. My conclusions about Honneth’s book are that his theoretical discussion of socialism, and his proposal that socialists go forward through building on grass roots organizations, are excellent. But I think his historical argument, that socialism faded because of foolish mistakes made by early socialists that were then foolishly perpetuated by socialists thereafter, is faulty. And I believe that the prevalence of this historical argument among socialists today is itself a part of the problem with socialism.
Questions: How can that be?
Socialism was an idea and an ideal that animated most American reform movements from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century. Ideas derived from socialism underlay the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society, reforms which became the foundation of America’s social welfare programs, health and safety regulations, economic controls, and environmental protections. How is it that in the United States today socialism is positively regarded by almost no one?
John Dewey was widely regarded as the most influential thinker in America from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century. He was “universally acknowledged as his country’s intellectual voice.” His opinions on almost every social and political issue were regularly reported in the mass media, such that “it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken.” How is it that in the United States today Dewey is known by almost no one?
Donald Trump exemplifies most of the worst in American society, and embodies the lowest forms of racism and misogyny, ethnic intolerance and religious bigotry, selfishness and self-centeredness, bullying and cowardice, and nothing of the humanitarian ideas and ideals of John Dewey or the socialists. How can it be that in the United States today he is the duly elected President?
Scenarios: Socialism in everyday life.
Six people are on a basketball court. They have not been previously acquainted. They split into two teams of three people each, and begin a half-court game of basketball. Within five minutes, the players on each team have bonded with each other. They are positioning themselves to play to their teammates’ strengths, passing to each other, blocking for each other, compensating for each other’s weaknesses, each finding a role that plays to his/her strengths while helping the team, and each subordinating his/her ego to promote the success of the team.
Six people in a family are sitting around a kitchen table, two parents and four children of various ages. The family has limited financial resources. They are discussing how to manage their finances so as to maximize the opportunities of each person and promote the success of the whole family. All see themselves in the same boat, and each is looking out for the other.
Six workers in a workshop are standing around a machine. They are discussing how to organize a project so as to complete it most efficiently and effectively. They dole out assignments based on the relative skills of each worker, so as to play to the strengths of each and promote the success of the group. The joint project is the center of everyone’s attention.
Six children are playing a game in a schoolyard, with each of them taking a turn, until one of them, the biggest, tries to bully the smallest out of a turn. The others band together in refusing to let the bully do that, defending the rights of the smallest child and, thereby, upholding the integrity of the game and promoting rapport within the group.
Each of these scenarios exemplifies the socialist maxim of Karl Marx that “the self-development of each is the basis for the development of all,” that is, in the words of The Three Musketeers, it is “one for all, and all for one.” They are the sorts of scenarios that play out millions of times every day in the United States. And they represent socialism in practice. That is, most people, including most Americans, are instinctively socialists. So, why is it that the idea of socialism is so little accepted here?
Definitions: Socialism, Capitalism, Individualism, Social Darwinism.
The word “socialism” was first used as a political term around 1830. Consistent with the usage of those first socialists and most socialists since that time, “socialism” will be defined herein as an ideology which holds that “the self-development of each is the basis for the self-development of all” (Karl Marx), that one should act according to the maxim of “all for one, and one for all” (The Three Musketeers), and that one should “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Jesus Christ). It is an ideology that promotes individuality through mutualism and cooperation. This is the idea of socialism that John Dewey promoted and that Honneth seeks to revive.
Socialism is a pro-social philosophy. When you add “ism” to a word, you identify an ideology or a cause that promotes what the word represents. Socialism asserts that individual freedom is a result of social interaction. Individuality means freely cultivating your talents within a social context, and finding a place in which you can make your unique contribution to society. Individuality is not merely freedom from the oppression of others, but also freedom to participate equally with others. It is the idea that my freedom depends on yours, and we are nothing without each other.
Socialism arose in opposition to individualism, a term that first emerged around 1810, and capitalism, a term that emerged in the 1850’s. Capitalism can be defined as an ideology of individual investment that promotes an economic system based on the presumption that businesses will be privately owned and operated without government interference, unless that presumption is overcome by evidence that government involvement is necessary to preserve the capitalist system. In a capitalist system, the goal of businesses is to make profits, based on the assumption that maximizing profits will result in maximum benefits to the public. Capitalism as an economic system is supported by individualism as a social theory.
Individualism is an ideology that promotes a cult of the individual, and that describes the individual as in constant opposition to society. Individualism asserts “me” and “mine” over “we” and “ours.” It promotes the individual over society, for fear that society will suppress the individual. It promotes competition among people rather than cooperation, based on the ideas that competition makes people stronger and more productive, and that competition keeps people isolated from each other so that they cannot form social coalitions that might suppress individuals. Society is to be mistrusted.
Individualism is, therefore, an ideology of liberation, but also of insecurity. It encourages people to be themselves, free from the constraints of others, and be all that they can individually be. But it bases that self-fulfillment on competing for supremacy against others. In an individualist world, a person can never be sure whether his/her position is strong enough to withstand the whims of lady luck or the winds of change.
Individualism, in turn, can function as an ideological rationalization for the selfish and self-centered bully, who climbs over others in a vain attempt to be king of the hill, vain because there is inevitably someone stronger or smarter coming up that hill. Individualism reinforces the free enterprise capitalist economic system that has predominated in the United States since the early nineteenth century. Individualism gradually became the dominant ideology in the country in the nineteenth century and, despite inroads from socialist ideas, has largely reigned as such since.
Unlike individualism, socialism asserts the compatibility and indivisibility of the individual and society. Socialism claims that individuals and individuality stem from interacting with others and with society. For socialists, “One for all and all for one” is a fact, not merely an aspiration. You are nothing without others, and you are what you do with others. Likewise, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, for socialists, a fact and not merely an aspiration. If you think well of yourself, you will likely treat others well. If you treat others poorly, competing to defeat and dominate them, you will likely think poorly of yourself. Socialism opposes individualism as self-defeating.
Socialism especially opposes the so-called Social Darwinian principle of “each against all, and the winners take all” that has animated most right-wing political and social thinking since the late nineteenth century, including right-wing self-styled Christians who abominate Darwinian evolutionary theories. I speak of “so-called” Social Darwinism because this principle is a perversion of Darwin’s ideas, and of “self-styled” Christians because Jesus’ defining Golden Rule seldom informs this group’s theories or practices. Social Darwinism is an ideology of selfish individualism and cutthroat competition. It promotes the zero-sum idea that if you get more, I will get less, and that the only way for me to get and keep mine is to keep you from getting yours. It is an ideology that promotes distrust and fear of others.
Although few right-wingers today acknowledge Social Darwinism as a source of their ideology, Social Darwinism is the principle that underscores most of the thinking of Donald Trump and the political right-wing in the United States today. Unlike conservatives who oppose dramatic social change and big government, but are generally willing to accept small reforms and government programs when necessary to avoid disaster, right-wingers are radicals who want to dramatically change society and virtually eliminate government and the public sector.
Unlike right-wing ideology, socialism is not a radical idea. By definition, radicals want to get to the roots of what they see as a wicked society, tear up those roots, and plant something entirely new. Socialism does not reject the foundations of American society. The idea of socialism builds on the social ideals that most Americans already hold, and on social instincts that most Americans already display. This was a key to John Dewey’s socialism. He claimed that socialism was basically democracy taken to the next level, and he did not think that socialists had to start from scratch. They could build on the democratic institutions and ideas that already exist in capitalist America, and thereby move toward a socialist political, economic, and social system.
A socialist political democracy could be described as a system of majority rule with minority rights, the most important of which is the right of the minority to possibly become the majority someday. That last clause is the most important in the definition. Implicit in the definition are freedoms of speech, assembly, and political organization; the rule of law along with due process and equal protection under the law; and all of the other political rights guaranteed by the Constitution. But the definition also requires social equality and economic equity so that individuals and minority groups can effectively exercise their political rights. That is where the socialism comes in. Political democracy can be effective only to the extent that social equality and economic equity prevail.
In economics, the idea of socialism is economic democracy. The economic goal of most socialists could be summarized as a system based on the presumption of public ownership or control of businesses, unless it is in the public interest for businesses to be privately owned and/or controlled, and with an assumption that small businesses would be privately owned and operated. A mixed economy of public and private business is the idea of socialism, with government involvement to ensure economic equity.
Implicit in that definition are such things as a public health system along with health and safety regulations, a public insurance system along with a social safety net, minimum and maximum wage regulations along with a progressive income tax, and other provisions to make for a cooperative, stable, and relatively egalitarian economy. Socialism promotes the public interest in economics, and opposes a capitalism in which everyone and everything is valued in monetary rather than human terms. It builds on American ideals of fairness and practices of generosity.
In social relations, the idea of socialism is social democracy. Socialism promotes the dignity of all people, and opposes discrimination against people based on invidious prejudices. A socialist conception of personal relations could be summarized as support for everyone who respects others, and opposition to anyone to the extent the person disrespects others. Implicit in that conception is opposition to racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and bigotry in all its forms, and support for diversity coupled with cooperation. That is the American ideal of E pluribus unum.
Distinctions: Socialism in the eyes of socialists and anti-socialists.
The idea of socialism held by socialists is very different than that held by opponents of socialism. As part of their political liturgy, conservatives and right-wingers have tried to make socialism a dirty word, and to represent socialism as the enemy of individuality and freedom. The success with which anti-socialists were able to tarnish the idea of socialism led John Dewey to sometimes consider abandoning the term. Dewey was not finicky about what things were called. He was willing to call his political proposals a “new liberalism” or even “a new individualism,” so long as these terms encompassed the idea of socialism. In his view, there was no future for liberalism or individuality in modern society without socialism.
The idea of socialism is often mischaracterized by its opponents, even by some self-styled socialists, mostly those who identify as Communists, as promoting government ownership or control over all businesses and, maybe, even over everything else. The idea of socialism is also misidentified with oppressive Communist regimes that have existed in some countries around the world. But, neither of these is consistent with the idea of socialism nor what most socialists have believed in.
This misconception has its roots in the claim that socialism reifies society as an entity over-and-above the individual, as an idol to which individuals can be sacrificed. Reifying society is a core idea of totalitarianism. Some self-styled socialists, mainly those who identify as Communists, hold to this view. It is anathema to individualists, and is a reason they see society as the enemy of the individual. But reifying and idolizing society is also contrary to the idea of socialism. Most socialists see society as an association of individuals which can and should be a vehicle for individuality, and oppose the totalitarianism implied in seeing society as a hegemonic entity.
Socialists are often portrayed as violent revolutionaries, but the overwhelming majority of socialists from the early nineteenth century to the present day have favored peaceful evolution toward socialism. They have generally tried to establish islands of socialism within the existing capitalist society that would one-by-one gradually move society toward the socialist goal.
Socialists have, for example, established communes, like those of the nineteenth century utopian socialists and the twentieth century hippies, some of which have been successful. Socialists have also encouraged the establishment of cooperatives, an idea which has been quite successful. Farming co-ops, housing co-ops, shopping co-ops, and co-ops of all sorts have flourished over the last one hundred years. The hope is that the cooperative idea will catch on with ever more people, so that communes and co-ops, islands of socialism, will gradually form a new mainland.
Socialists operating within the existing economic and political system have also developed ideas for social reforms and social programs that have been adopted over the years. Most of the social programs proposed in the 1912 platform of the Socialist Party have, in fact, become law in the United States. The hope is that by adopting regulations that promote the health and safety of the public, promote economic equity and efficiency, protect the environment, and care for those who need help, the country will gradually become more socialized and socialist.
Most people, liberals, conservatives and socialists alike, would describe these social reforms and programs positively in humanistic terms. There is, however, a disagreement as to their long-term effect on society. Many people see the reforms as a means of stabilizing the existing capitalist society, and making it more acceptable. This includes liberals and conservatives alike. Right-wingers, however, decry the reforms as “creeping socialism.” Socialists hope they are right.
John Dewey and the Evolution of Democratic Socialism.
In The Idea of Socialism, Axel Honneth relies substantially on ideas he has adopted from John Dewey, especially Dewey’s The Public and its Problems. Honneth seems to be coupling his effort to revive the idea of socialism with an effort to revive the social ideas of Dewey. I think he makes a good case. American social thinking in general, and socialist thinking in particular, have suffered from the absence of Dewey’s voice in recent years.
Although Dewey’s influence on American social thinking and educational policy during the first half of the twentieth century was unparalleled, right-wingers mounted a sustained attack on him and his ideas after his death in 1952. In the context of the Cold War Red Scare, during which socialism was equated with Communism and Communism was equated with treason, Dewey’s socialist ideas and progressive educational methods were labeled subversive. When the Soviet Union beat the United States into space with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, right-wingers widely and wackily blamed the American school system for putting the United States at peril from the Red Menace. Dewey and his progressive educational methods were targeted as the cause, thereby putting the cap on the decline and fall of Dewey’s influence.
Although Dewey is generally classified as a pragmatist philosopher, he usually called himself an experimentalist or transactional philosopher. As an experimentalist, he promoted what he described as the scientific method. He was not promoting an ideology, but was looking for solutions to problems or, rather, ways of solving problems. Dewey claimed that the scientific method was the way in which valid conclusions were reached in any field of inquiry and in everyday life, and is not confined merely to the physical sciences to which it is generally attributed. Dewey identified this method of decision-making with his idea of socialism. The scientific method, according to Dewey, consists of several steps that can be described as follows:
- A flaw in some generally held conclusion is found, which presents itself as a problem needing solution. The problem could be anything big or small, a matter of war and peace, a question about quantum mechanics, the best way to avoid a traffic jam, or anything else that disrupted people’s usual course of reacting.
- A hypothesis is formed as to what might be the solution to the problem. A hypothesis is a guess based on the best arguments and evidence that are immediately available.
- Consideration is given to the hypothesis, and evidence and arguments for and against it are sought. It is important that this be an objective search, albeit not impartial. It is not impartial because you are looking to solve a problem in which you have an interest, but it must objectively seek both to verify and falsify the hypothesis.
- A conclusion is reached based on the best available arguments and evidence, and the proposed solution is put to the test.
- The process and the results of the process are made public so that they can be examined and replicated by others. This publication of the proceedings and the results was crucial for Dewey, and was the key to his identifying socialism with the scientific method. Truth was, for Dewey, a collective process, and nothing could be considered valid unless it was open to verification by the whole of the interested community.
Socialism evolves, according to Dewey, through people collectively solving social problems with social solutions. A scientific community of scholars, working together to solve problems and get at the truth, was an example of socialism for Dewey. This was a model that any group of people could follow. The scientific method was also Dewey’s alternative to class conflict as a means of dealing with social injustice and moving toward socialism. Dewey acknowledged the existence of antagonistic social classes, but insisted that solving practical social problems was the way in which society would evolve toward socialism.
Solving social problems would entail the establishment of public agencies. Dewey envisioned the establishment of government agencies that guaranteed the public well-being at the national level, but operated with maximum public participation at the local level. In this way, democratic social experiments could be conducted, socialism would grow within capitalist society, and it would grow with grass-roots support. Honneth adopts Dewey’s method of socialist experimentalism, and I think this is a strength of his book.
Dewey’s description of himself as a transactional philosopher stemmed from his Darwinian belief that all things either were or could be interconnected, and that progress could be best attained through furthering the breadth and depth of transactions among things. Dewey’s philosophy was deeply imbued with Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Life, Dewey contended, consists of solving problems through adapting to and transforming one’s circumstances, and successful adaptations and transformations were the result of making connections among things. In this context, the connection between Darwinian evolution and socialism was, for Dewey, a self-evident conclusion. His reasoning could be summarized as follows:
- All things, whether they be animal, vegetable or mineral, survive because they fit in with their environments, including the creatures and things around them, and are not destroyed by them. This is the meaning of the phrase “survival of the fittest” that was misused by the so-called Social Darwinians to claim that the most powerful and richest people in human society, those who defeated their competitors in the battle for supremacy, were the fittest. In fact, the ability of beings to cooperate, rather than their strength, is a better indicator of fitness for survival.
- All things constantly strive either to transform their environments so that they better fit those environments or, when their environments change in ways that are disadvantageous to them, they try to adapt to the change. Transformation and adaptation are the keys to survival.
- Things are more likely to survive and thrive if they can peacefully acclimate, transform, and cooperate with their environments than if they are constantly battling with the things around them. Hostile and repressive relations are inherently unstable, and cooperative arrangements are eminently preferable. This is especially the case for humans, whose survival as a species has depended on their ability to cooperate. Core human instincts are inherently social, and even socialist. The real Social Darwinism is a Socialist Darwinism.
The case for socialism was obvious to Dewey, as it seems to be for Honneth. The means for achieving it was the problem for Dewey, and this is what he struggled with in The Public and its Problems. Published in 1929, the book was specifically a response by Dewey to two books by Walter Lippman, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925). Lippmann had been a democratic socialist in his youth, but had become a technocratic conservative as a result of what he saw as the way in which public opinion was being manufactured and manipulated in the age of modern mass media. Lippmann claimed that a democratic public was no longer possible. His attack on the idea of the public and the possibility of a socialist public is the problem that Dewey dealt with in his book. Dewey’s conclusions were positive, but not optimistic. A weakness of Honneth’s book is that it does not fully recognize the context of Dewey’s book or the conditional nature of Dewey’s proposals.
Throughout American history, even as the economy went from local to regional to national in orientation during the nineteenth century, the formation of public opinion had largely remained local. Small towns and big-city neighborhoods had predominated in the formation of public opinion and, in turn, in the nature of politics. But by the 1920’s, that had changed, largely because of the advent of radio and the invention of modern advertising campaigns.
Lippmann warned that public opinion could now be expertly formed to favor almost anything the powers that controlled the mass media might want. And the mass media invariably appealed to the lowest common denominator among people, to their prejudices, fears and hatreds. The media, thereby, reduced people to what Lippmann claimed was a “mass of absolutely illiterate, feeble-minded, grossly neurotic, undernourished and frustrated individuals,” primed for manipulation. There was no more genuine public, Lippmann lamented, only a manufactured public opinion. In addition, Lippmann claimed, the problems of modern society had become too complicated and arcane for ordinary people to understand. Ordinary people looked for simple and simple-minded solutions to complex problems.
Given the idiocy of public opinion and the complexity of modern-day social problems, Lippmann concluded that the public could not be trusted with the control of society. Society could be saved from pillaging by plutocrats and demagoguery from politicians only if the public were excluded from policymaking, and the country entrusted to technocratic experts. Democracy needed to be redefined as a system in which the public was limited merely to rejecting policies that had clearly failed. Lippmann essentially proposed a combination of a technocracy and a plebiscitary system, without any of the elements of participatory democracy that socialists like Dewey promoted.
In responding to Lippmann, Dewey conceded that public opinion at large was largely manufactured by the mass media, and that many of the problems of modern society were too complex to be solved by appeals to public opinion. But, Dewey argued, that did not warrant giving up on public participation in a democratic process. At the very least, within Lippmann’s own proposed system, there needed to be a public with sufficient expertise to understand the experts who would manage the more complex aspects of modern society and evaluate their policies. This meant an expanded and upgraded public educational system, something which Dewey promoted during his whole career.
But Dewey did not stop there. Although public opinion at large and in general was at the present time neither independent nor well-informed, and was largely manufactured and manipulated, that did not mean that public opinion writ small and on specific issues was untrustworthy. In addition, although specialized expertise was necessary to solve many social problems, that did not mean that the knowledge and experience of ordinary people was not necessary and useful.
Expertise was not something abstract and impartial for Dewey. Expertise was invariably specific, because it was developed out of the experience of solving specific problems. Expertise was also inherently biased, because it was developed to solve problems in which people had an interest. Experts could connect the solution of one problem to another — that is the way knowledge developed — but problems were always specific and always involved the disruption of things in which people were interested.
In turn, solving problems inevitably furthered some people’s interests, and slighted, ignored or abandoned other people’s interests. Problem-solving should, therefore, take into consideration the ideas and interests of all those who were affected by a problem and its solution. That was only fair, and was the most effective way to resolve a problem. As such, solving social problems and making social policy required grass roots communications and consultations, because they were key to both democracy and the scientific method. Honneth buys into this idea completely, and is very effective in conveying his arguments on its behalf. I think it is the biggest and best strength of his book.
Dewey also was not ready to write-off the role of small towns and urban neighborhoods, especially given their historical role in American life. “Democracy must begin at home,” he argued, “and its home is the neighborly community.” Dewey was an evolutionist who wanted to build on the past, not reject it and try to start all over from scratch. Dewey essentially applied his ideas about the evolutionary process of adaptation and transformation to the problem of the public. Honneth does not buy into this idea, and I think it is the weakest aspect of the book.
Just as Dewey had adapted the terms “individualism” and “liberalism” to the new reality of modern society, and transformed them into the idea of socialism, so he attempted to adapt the idea of the neighborly community to the changing conditions of modern society, and thereby to resurrect an idea of the public that Lippmann had buried. Dewey’s method was to define a public as those people who were significantly affected by something. He then argued that it was possible to form a large-scale public through connecting together many smaller-scale publics, and to democratically solve large-scale and complex social problems in this way.
The question was how to arrange this. Dewey was not very specific about this in The Public and its Problems. His answer was a combination of education, grass-roots organizing, and the scientific method. Dewey was himself involved with a number of grass-roots socialist political groups. He was also a founding member of the NAACP and the ACLU, organizations that fought for civil rights and civil liberties, predominantly at the local grass-roots level. Dewey was involved in teachers’ unions, and promoted labor unions for all workers. Schools were, however, Dewey’s favorite grass-roots organizations.
Much of Dewey’s career was spent developing and promoting progressive educational methods in which teaching and learning revolved around solving social, economic, political, and personal problems. Learning, according to Dewey, was a process of intellectual adaptation and transformation by students toward the goal of adapting to and transforming the world in which they lived. Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, progressive educational methods became “the conventional wisdom” among educators and schools of education. The methods involved a mixture of cooperative learning and social problem-solving. These methods were not always practiced in school classrooms, but studies from the 1920’s to the present day have shown that pedagogy of this sort makes for the best results with students, whether on standardized tests or real-life tasks. The methods also taught students the benefits of cooperation which, it was hoped, they would transfer to life outside of school.
For Dewey the school should be a cooperative community, a model of democracy in which the scientific method and collegial relations would appertain. Dewey particularly liked the seminar model of teaching, which he promoted for students of all ages. In this model, students and teachers interacted like master craftspeople and their apprentices, striving to learn the skill of whatever subjects and problems they were studying. This was Dewey’s response to Lippmann’s assertion that experts alone must rule the world. Experts were master-craftspeople in complex problems, but ordinary people could always be at least apprentices who had sufficient knowledge and experience of the problems to participate cooperatively in the solutions.
Dewey also promoted the school as a community center for adult education, community health and welfare services, and local political activities. Schools should, and in some localities, they did and still do, function as centers for social services, cultural and political activities, adult education programs, and, even, employment agencies. Schools would, thereby, function as agents of socialization. They would, in effect, be socialist colonies, reaching out to the future through the education of young people and to the present through working with parents and other adults in the school district.
Dewey did not consider his methods to be an improper politicization of the schools, or a devious means of propagandizing of students and their parents. Rather, he viewed schools as merely adapting to the best methods of teaching students and to the needs of the adults in their area. It just so happened that socialism was the best way. It was all a matter of fitting in with evolution, and surviving because you are fit. Evolution was about solving problems collectively, and social change was the same. The education that enabled students to do best in school and in their lives thereafter was serendipitously the education that prepared them to make cooperative social change. 
Dewey’s hope for the future stemmed from his underlying belief that most people are socialists most of the time, even if they don’t know it. It is that evolutionary fact that socialists needed to build upon. The method of progressive education was to start where students were and go from there, encouraging them to go further. Similarly, Dewey’s political strategy was to start with whatever collectivities and socialization people already had, and build on them. As part of this strategy, socialists should focus on people’s actions, not their professed ideologies, but should also invest their actions with ideal implications. That was Dewey’s idea of socialism.
Axel Honneth: Socialism as Social Freedom.
The presenting problem in Axel Honneth’s book is the fact that socialism has lost its place in the world and, along with that, its vision. Honneth claims that from the early nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century, it had been assumed by one and all, both socialists and their opponents, that “the intellectual challenge socialism represented would permanently accompany capitalism.” Much to Honneth’s chagrin, that is no longer the case.
The result, Honneth laments, is that most people in the world are bereft of any ideas about what might be an ideal society. They are adrift in a world of more, with only the scantiest idea of better and no idea of best. Without ideas of better and best, which used to be embodied in the idea and ideal of socialism, people have no basis on which to come together, and they fall easy prey to demagogues of fear, hate, and division.
Honneth’s goals in his book are twofold. First, he wants to recreate a socialist vision, to “extract its core idea,” and, thereby help provide a positive “sense of direction” for the discontent that he sees as permeating Western societies in the present day. Second, he wants to present a history of the development of socialism that would explain its demise. I think he substantially succeeds with his first goal, but not with the second goal, and that failure undermines the first.
The idea and ideal of socialism, says Honneth, is that people “not only act with each other; but also for each other.” People should not merely supplement each other, like workers on an assembly line, but act with each other, like players on a team. In a socialist society, people would not only be treated fairly and equally, but would cooperate with each other. In socialism, the individual does not get swallowed up by the collective, but is helped toward the “realization of individual freedom,” or what Honneth calls “social freedom.”
Following Dewey, Honneth claims that social freedom requires small communities in which people can know each other, but also can personally care for people they don’t know. He cites Non-Governmental Organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace as examples of the sorts of organizations that he has in mind. They are organizations that have national and international reach, but that operate largely at the local level.
Citing Dewey, Honneth calls for making connections among people, and removing the barriers to communication between groups of people. Like Dewey, he takes an evolutionary view of social development, and claims that socialism is not merely an ideal but an historical tendency. Evolution is a process of wider and deeper associations, and socialism is the next step that humans should logically and realistically take in that process.
Toward this end, Honneth says, socialists must build upon social changes, not on social movements. It is not who you are with, but what you are doing that counts. Citing Dewey, Honneth argues that socialists should look for paths of social change, not for agents of social change. Whoever is with you is with you, whether they be industrial workers or industrial capitalists. He rejects the idea that socialism is only for the so-called working class.
Honneth insists in this regard that socialists should envision economics, politics, and personal relations as separate, albeit often overlapping, spheres. The fact that you may oppose someone in the economic sphere does not mean you cannot work with that person for change within the spheres of politics and personal relations. A capitalist may oppose racism and sexism even though he/she opposes labor unions.
Working toward socialism, Honneth explains, means solving social problems and making changes where you can with whoever is with you. It means working to “uncover potentials for stronger cooperation concealed in the existing social order.” And, like Dewey, Honneth calls for an experimental method of trying different forms of socialistic organization and operation, seeing what works best and what does not.
In his historical analysis of why socialism has faded, Honneth focuses on what he calls the “three birth defects of the socialist project.” The first defect, he claims, was seeing all social problems as a function of capitalist economics, so that sexism, racism, civil rights and civil liberties did not have to be specifically addressed, and would simply disappear when capitalism was overthrown. The second was believing that industrial workers were naturally and inevitably opposed to capitalism and in favor of socialism, if only they could be shown the truth. And the third was believing that capitalism would inevitably self-destruct, and that the workers would then automatically take over and create socialism.
Honneth repeatedly berates socialists from the early nineteenth century to the present-day for ostensibly being unwilling or unable to overcome these defects. He is especially critical of what he claims was the indifference of early socialists to political organizing, and it “remains a theoretical mystery,” he says, that this was the case. “For reasons that are hard to understand,” he complains, “early socialists simply ignored the entire sphere of political deliberation,” and that has crippled socialists ever since.
Honneth claims that early socialists believed that politics was merely an extension of the economic system, and that capitalists would inevitably control the political system in a capitalist society for their own ends. In turn, they believed that if you gained control of the corporations, you thereby gained control of the government. So, socialists focused on organizing labor unions that would contest the power of the capitalists, and take over the management of society after capitalism inevitably collapsed.
Socialists, Honneth charges, have continuously demonstrated a “characteristic blindness to the importance of political rights,” and “failed to grasp” the importance of civil rights as differentiated from economic power. In the same vein, he complains, socialists were “blind” to family issues, and failed to pursue women’s rights even though, he asserts, “It would have been easy” to do so.
The bottom line for Honneth is that socialists will seemingly have to start almost from scratch if they are to renew socialism. History provides little to work from in his opinion. Pretty much all that socialists can seemingly learn from history is what not to do. And, apparently, the best that socialists can do with the theories and practices of their forbears is to throw them into the dust bin of history. I don’t agree and neither, I think, would Dewey.
Socialist History as People Making Choices.
The Idea of Socialism has received mixed reviews, with some reviewers concerned that it is too radical in its proposals, others that it is too conservative. As an example of the former, Martin Jay rejects Honneth’s call to restore the idea of socialism as the ideal of progressives. He thinks the idea of socialism is too off-putting to too many people. Seemingly spooked by the ascension of Donald Trump and the right-wing Republicans, Jay wants progressives to pull in their horns in an effort to save the welfare state and social programs in the United States.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Peter Schwarz, in an article entitled “A Socialism that is nothing of the sort,” which pretty much sums up Schwarz’s assessment of the book, decries Honneth’s rejection of class conflict, Marxist scientific socialism, and the proletariat as the agent of revolutionary change. He sees Honneth as effectively an agent of the capitalist enemy.
Taking a position in between, Tomas Stolen and Jacob Hanburger in their respective reviews of the book complain that Honneth’s proposals are vague and impractical. “His is a philosopher’s socialism,” Hanburger complains of Honneth, which seems like an unnecessary complaint since Honneth is admittedly a philosopher. Stolen complains that Honneth is a Frankfurt School advocate of “Critical Theory,” which is all theory and no practice. I think there is some merit to that complaint.
Honneth has, I think, outlined a vision of socialism as an idea and an ideal that is valuable for erstwhile socialists, even if they aren’t philosophers. He has, however, misunderstood the history of socialism in a way that contradicts his own evolutionary theory of social development and socialist change. In focusing almost solely on socialist theories and theoreticians, his critique of past socialism has something of an armchair and Ivory Tower perspective, and misses most of what ordinary socialists were doing. I don’t think Dewey would approve.
Historically, socialists of the next generation have always tended to completely reject the efforts of the last generation, and proclaimed the necessity of starting over. Their rationale has generally been that since the previous generation did not succeed in completely socializing society, they were failures and something completely new must be tried. This tendency has been as endemic in evolutionary socialists, such as Honneth, as in revolutionary socialists. It is a tendency and an intention that an evolutionist such as Honneth should be able to see as false. In fact, whatever their intentions, the new generation does not start de novo. No one can. People always build on the past, whether they like it or not. And the extent to which they repudiate the reforms and the efforts of the past, they almost invariably hinder their own efforts in the present.
Honneth’s history of socialism begins in the early nineteenth century when the word “socialism” was first used in its modern way. From that fact, he claims that “The idea of socialism is an intellectual product of capitalist industrialization.” This is where, I think, he first goes wrong. The roots of socialism go back at least to the first millennium BCE, and the roots of modern socialism derive from the urban guilds and rural peasant villages of the European Middle Ages.
Guilds were associations of master craftsmen and merchants that regulated the various trades in medieval cities. They were in the nature of a trade union for the masters who, in turn, took in apprentice workers that could learn the trade, and possibly aspire to full membership as a master. Medieval cities essentially existed as places in which the guilds could function. And the guilds essentially ran the government of the cities, choosing government officials from their members. The guilds also provided the social life of the cities, organizing religious and cultural events.
In sum, there was no separation in medieval cities of econo3mic organization and activities from political activities and personal relations. There were no separate spheres of politics and social relations of the sort that Honneth wants socialists to recognize. The idea of socialism that derived from the medieval cities was essentially an egalitarian guild without masters. This was the model that most socialists in the nineteenth century initially adopted as a form of guild socialism, and that persists to the present day in the form of syndicalism.
An alternative model for socialism was provided by peasant villages. Medieval peasant villages essentially operated like farming cooperatives run by the village elders, a clergyman, and/or a representative of the nobleman whose land the peasants farmed. Villages were essentially an economic organization to support the nobleman’s social and military functions. Land was generally allocated among the peasants each year on an equitable basis, with each peasant getting a chance at the best land. A portion of the peasants’ time and produce went to the noblemen.
There were no separate realms of politics and social relations in these villages. All of life, from birth to death to the hereafter, was dealt with within the economic organization of the village. The idea of socialism that derived from these villages was a farming cooperative without the nobleman. This was the model that was adopted in the early nineteenth century by most of the so-called utopian socialists, including the followers of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, and that has persisted to the present day in the form of the cooperative movement.
Contrary to Honneth’s repeated statements of surprise and chagrin that early nineteenth century socialists did not recognize and organize around separate economic, political, and social spheres, it would have been a surprise if they had. This is especially the case since politics as a separate sphere of activity arose during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries essentially as a movement of capitalists and the middle classes against the authority of the kings and noblemen. The goal was to carve out a political realm for themselves. Workers and peasants might have naturally seen this movement as alien and possibly even hostile to their interests. They might have reasonably preferred their guilds and villages, albeit shorn of the rulers who oppressed them.
Organizing society around socialist guilds and farming villages was not implausible in the early nineteenth century. In most of Europe and the United States, the population overwhelmingly lived and worked in small towns, even long after the industrial revolution began. Small-scale socialist farming and manufacturing communities were common in America from the early 1600’s through the early twentieth century, and still exist today. They were taken seriously in the early nineteenth century as an option for American development. When Robert Owen visited the country in 1824 and 1825 to promote his utopian socialist vision and establish a socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana, he was well-received personally by President John Quincy Adams and former Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, and he twice addressed Congress promoting his ideas.
Industrialization in America began in small New England towns, and could conceivably have continued on a small-town basis. There was no economic reason for industrialization to have spawned the massive cities that it did, other than for the advantage of the capitalist businessmen who promoted it. Industrialists repeatedly found during the nineteenth century that in a contest between workers and bosses, the populace of a small town was likely to back the workers. That was much less likely to happen in a big city, in which workers in any given factory would be spread around into different neighborhoods, and in which scab workers to replace striking workers would be more conveniently available. Smaller scale production in smaller towns was actually more cost efficient to society, but less convenient for business owners.
In sum, the commitment of early socialists to models of socialism based on guilds and villages, and their failure to envision politics and personal relations as separate spheres from economics, was neither surprising nor foolish as Honneth insists it was. Nor did early socialists ignore politics and personal relations in their guilds, communes, and labor unions, which were more than just economic units. They were also political and social organizations, providing social services, cultural events and educational opportunities for their members.
Honneth also is not accurate in claiming that early socialists did not pursue political and civil rights. Marx proclaimed winning “the battle of democracy” as the first priority of socialists in The Communist Manifesto, and he vehemently supported movements for civil liberties, freedoms of speech, and the rights to vote and politically organize. “Early socialism,” Michael Harrington noted, “was concerned with morality, community, and feminism.” Socialists in America and Europe were continuously engaged in battles for democratic suffrage, civil rights, and the rights of women. Socialist leaders also regularly worked in coalitions with people who were not members of the working classes.
The point of my argument with Honneth’s take on socialist history is to suggest that a revival of socialism does not have to begin from scratch, and that there is a historical record of struggle and success on which socialists can build. That is the evolutionary method that Dewey advocated. There are lots of reasons why socialism has faded. Among other reasons is the fact that the opposition has powerful social, economic and political positions. They also have powerful emotional weapons.
That the idea of socialism has faded from the public’s consciousness does not mean that socialists have somehow failed. One can do the right things and still get the wrong result. Sometimes the other guys are just too strong for you. Socialists deal mainly in hope. Right-wingers deal in fear. Unless the proponents of hope are very well organized and well positioned, fear will usually trump hope.
The fading of socialism from the public consciousness also does not mean that socialism has disappeared from public life, or that right-wingers will inevitably win. Dewey’s underlying point is that humans are essentially socialist beings, most of whom practice socialism even when they theoretically reject it. The goal of socialists is to appeal to the socialist underpinnings of human society, and advance the cause of socialism on that basis. This cannot be accomplished by merely holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but it is possible to successfully appeal to people’s better natures.
It has, for example, been the case over the last one hundred years, ever since the invention of public opinion polling, that when Americans are asked concrete and practical questions about whether specific individuals or groups of people should be afforded help from the government, or whether specific economic or environmental practices should be regulated, at least two-thirds of the public responds with a “Yes.”
But when Americans are asked abstract and ideological questions about the desirability of welfare programs, environmental regulations, or economic controls, some two-thirds say “No.” Americans seem, as such, instinctively to be a generous, cooperative, and socially conscious people, who have been called “socialists of the heart,” even though ideologically they have been taught opposite. The question is how to appeal to their socialist side with an idea of socialism.
A Socialist Appeal: Renewal and Revival.
Given that most Americans seem instinctively to practice socialism in their daily lives, and to opt for socialistic remedies when people are harmed, how can the idea of socialism be conveyed to people who ideologically reject it? Like Honneth, I believe that future of American society, and much of the world, depends on whether people come to see idea of socialism as their ideal. “Keep hope alive,” Jesse Jackson has intoned over the years.
But it is hard to ward off the fear-mongering and misanthropy of the Trumps and other right-wingers, and to keep hope alive, if you don’t have a vision of where hope might lead. Socialism could and should be that vision. But how to help people see that? Not by starting from scratch, as Honneth would have us do, but through building on our common history of cooperative theories and practices, as Dewey encouraged.
After working for many decades as a lawyer and a professor, I can testify that you can almost never change anyone’s mind by arguing with the person. That is especially the case when you are arguing about ideology. What you can do, however, is gain agreement with the person on specific, practical matters. If these practical agreements pragmatically work, you may be able to broaden your agreement to ideology and find a common vision. There are many possible bases for a socialist appeal.
For the religious, there are the socialist implications of the Golden Rule, which was the mantra of a significant Christian Socialist movement during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the scientific, there are the cooperative implications of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which is consistent with the Golden Rule and, notwithstanding the vocal and influential opposition from some religious fundamentalists, has been accepted by the Catholic Church and most other religions ever since Darwin first proposed it.
For the domestic, there are the socialist implications of the human family, which has historically been a pillar of most religions and a key to human evolution. For the practical, there is the cooperative nature of everyday work and life, which has been a key to human survival. For the philosophical, there is Dewey’s pragmatism, which combines the Golden Rule, evolutionary theory, domesticity, and the work-a-day world, and essentially demonstrates that no one is free unless everyone is free and equal. That is the idea of socialism.
Finally, for the patriotic, there is the Declaration of Independence, which effectively enshrines socialism as part and parcel of who we are as a nation. This is a claim that should (but won’t) especially appeal to right-wingers who insist on an “originalist” interpretation of the founding documents of the United States, that is, reading the Declaration and the Constitution as they were originally meant by their authors. The key to this claim is the Declaration’s proclamation that “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right of humankind.
That phrase was invented by the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson as a counterpoint to John Locke’s claim that “life, liberty, and property” were man’s natural rights. Locke claimed that the ownership of property is what enables men to fulfill themselves. Hutcheson disagreed. He held that people are most happy when they are helping others. It is in helping others that we pursue our own happiness. That is, as Marx later said, the self-development of each is the basis for the self-development of all.
Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, was an intellectual descendent of Hutcheson, having been educated by a student of Hutcheson. In using Hutcheson’s phrase in the Declaration, rather than Locke’s, Jefferson explicitly made a choice in favor of mutualism over individualism, and implicitly made socialism a founding principle of the United States.
Can socialism make a comeback? For most people, it never really went away, as they work, play and live together cooperatively, even if the idea of socialism has not been in their minds or part of the public conversation. For some people, of course, that may not be the case. Donald Trump, for example, apparently approaches every human relationship and personal encounter as a battle for supremacy and domination.
Trump’s world is a zero-sum game in which he is continually struggling to beat everyone around him. He represents individualism taken to its logically illogical extreme. He cannot stand being dependent or even co-dependent with others. He is so pathetically insecure that he even destroys his own supporters. His life must be a living hell, and I would feel sorry for him if he was not doing so much harm to others. So, we must not let the Trumps of the world get us down and out. There is no better argument for socialism than people like them. B.W. October 2017.
 Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017.
 Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.10.
 Alan Ryan. John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. p.19.
 Henry Steele Commager. Quoted in John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995. p.XV.
 Robert Westbrook. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991. p.542.
 Richard Hoftstadter. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
 For a discussion of the evolution of conservatism and right-wing Social Darwinism in America, I have an essay on this historyaschoice blog entitled “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump and the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama.”
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 Axel Honneth. The Idea of Socialism: A Renewal. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017. p.10.
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 Martin Jay. “Positive Freedom.” The Nation, 6/28/17.
 Peter Schwarz. “A Socialism that is nothing of the sort.” World Socialist Web Site, 7/11/16.
 Thomas Stolen. “Die Idee des Sozialismus.” Marx & Philosophy, 9/6/16. Jacob Hanburger. “Socialism and Power: Axel Honneth in Paris.” Journal of History of Ideas Blog.
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