Discussing Future Societies

So yesterday’s post somewhat bemoaned the widespread reluctance of socialists to talk positively about socialism, and explained part of why I thought it was a bad thing. But obviously it would be one-sided to not discuss some of the good reasons for this phenomenon.

1) It’s really hard. More moderate political positions can easily describe what they’re after because it’s so much closer to what exists – and even the extreme right have a slightly easier time in that they can happily declare an intention to force society into a certain mould. Bot socialists have to describe something which is both a very radical change, and also supposedly freedom-maximising, with hyper-democracy and so forth. So it’s quite likely that any substantive description will be very hard to give.

But that seems like a fairly weak reason to avoid the whole endeavour. “If something’s hard to do, it’s not worth doing” is a maxim of Homer Simpson, not of the world-historic vanguard of the proletariat. But a more developed version of this argument says

2) We’ll be wrong most of the time, and

3) It will lead to a lot of time wasted in pointless arguments – ten people will have ten visions, of which 9 will be wrong, and they will take so long debating which one is right that nothing will get done.

I think this argument rests on the assumption that talking positively about socialism means talking about what socialism will definitely be like, or even about what it must be like.

But recall that a big part of my concern yesterday was that without talking positively we won’t be able to persuade people that socialism is possible. But trying to show that something is possible in general doesn’t require showing a particular version to be definitely correct, let alone necessary. It just requires at least one particular version to be possible.

So what would be best would be for the 10 people with the ten visions to spend very little time arguing, but lay out different visions and bamboozle the non-socialist onlooker with the range of possibilities.

After all, though I may disagree with a market socialist, or someone who thinks people will always need to be paid wages by the collectives to motivate them to work, that disagreement is in practice quite different from either A) disagreement with non-socialists, or B) disagreement with socialists over substantial questions of methodology (such as on parliamentarism or the ‘workers’ state’). It’s a disagreement that has very little practical import so there’s no reason for it to produce AngryAngryArgument, only FriendlyThoughtfulArgument.

(And for what it’s worth, I’ve sometimes got the impression that it’s precisely those most determined to dismiss any ‘utopian’ speculations about socialism who are most keen to pronounce their chosen course “the only possible” one)

4) A final argument is the descendant of the ‘no moralism’ approach I talked about two days ago. Rather than saying ‘we should dispense entirely with all ideology, all talk of values, in favour of scientific truth, it says ‘perhaps ideology is inevitable, and perhaps our sociological analysis itself contains value-judgements. But there’s still some difference between sociological analysis and ideology per se – and we should keep the two separate. The ideology, and concrete details, of a socialist society will be provided by The Workers when called for – we should confine ourselves to sociology and political agitation’.

There’s a fair point here: that we should try to keep distinct things somewhat separate, and not blur them together. But I don’t buy the idea of offloading one of the tasks onto future socialist citizens. Obviously it’s a bad idea to set up a blueprint and then try to cram people into it against their will, but a lot of the time one of the best ways to let people make their own choice is to make sure there’s abundant information around on the issue.

To put it another way – this idea is sometimes expressed as ‘practice and theory should be united’: theory that’s unrelated to practice is pointless. Now I think there’s some truth in that, although it can certainly be taken too far, but the problem is that if it’s used to silence positive discussions, it ends up precisely separating theory and practice and saying that in the future pure practice will be able to sort itself out without any need for a tradition of theory to work with.

Anyway, that’s basically why I think more constructive discussions of socialism would be a good thing.

2 Responses to “Discussing Future Societies”

  1. links for 2009-08-29 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] Discussing Future Societies « Directionless Bones […]


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