“21st-Century Socialism”: a stream of consciousness

Yesterday I saw the phrase “Socialism for the 21st Century” on an advert for some conference or something. This phrase, or something like it, pops up a lot. “21st Century Socialism” is a recurrent label, but tbh I’ve not yet got a determinate sense of in what sense it differs from 20th Century Socialism or from 19th Century Socialism. I suspect it doesn’t have a determinate meaning at all, at least so far.

But the fact that I’ve seen it so many times, in different contexts, is interesting – it seems to fit with the zeitgeist. A fair number of people seem to feel that socialism needs re-inventing if it’s to appeal to people. They may well be right – there are certainly plenty of people whose response to words like ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ is ‘they’re nice in theory but they’ve been tried and didn’t work’, and others whose reaction is more vaguely dismissive out of an inarticulate sense of their oldness and ‘dinosaurianism’.

This raises the question of socialism’s relationship to the past. Some ideologies (e.g. nationalism?) can appeal to a long-gone glorious past – like the golden age when a) there were no blacks in Europe or b) there were no whites in Africa, as you prefer.

Others can relate to a past still present but in need of upholding and defense – or equivalently to a threat of ‘decline’ and ‘decadence’, bemoaning the plight of ‘Broken Britain’. Conversely, some can tell people that things are getting steadily better, and nobody needs to worry too much, just ensure that ‘progress’ continues.

Socialism’s not really set up for that. It’s meant to be all about the future, and maybe this affects how ‘socialism-now’ is perceived to relate to ‘socialism-then’. At some level it’s not rhetorically effective to say “revolution is just around the corner, just like it says in this book…from 100 years ago.”

(That’s not meant as a criticism of socialism, just a possible factor in why people feel like it needs reinventing)

I also sort of wanted to elaborate on what I posted a few days back – that even if one accepts the theoretical claims of class-struggle history, socialist revolution, etc. etc. one might question the socialist tradition’s most common self-understanding.

That is, it often seems to be felt that during the relative strength of socialist organisations, and relatively widespread acceptance of socialist ideas, that got sort of fucked up in the early 20th century (splitting into those who supported WWI and those who supported the USSR, neither very inspiring) – that during this period, what was happening was that we were getting closer to socialist revolution, and if things hadn’t gone wrong it would all have worked.

Here’s an alternative story: what was happening in the 19th-century, really, was that large numbers of people were revolutionary for reasons entirely unconnected to the prospects of a proletariat-run society. In particular, everything was new. A very different society was still within living memory (that prior to the French, American, and especially Industrial revolutions). Moreover, the experience of that revolutionary change was within living memory.

Obviously that different perspective in all the newly-urbanised, newly-proletarianised, people, would give their criticisms of capitalism bite: not only could they be pissed off about X, Y, or Z, but it actually seemed possible to do something about it. Unfortunately, there was never much success because there was no particular coherent basis to this rebellion – just an undirected restlessness.

I won’t be saying anything very original if I say that many of the most successful ‘socialist’ organisations, like the Bolsheviks, the UK Labour Party, the CCP, etc., were more concerned to stabilise, control, and mislead people than to really liberate them (whatever their subjective intentions).

So that position just needs to be tweaked a little to fit with the hypothesis being offered here. Rather than even having the honour of diverting and subverting what would otherwise have been a movement towards socialism, they actually functioned to divert and subvert precisely that undirected restlessness that accompanied the transition to capitalism. That is, they were (as I’ve suggested before) instrumental not just in ‘defending’ capitalism but in getting it properly established, consolidating the mass of the population from one way of life into another.

This may not be true, but it makes as much sense to me as the other theory.

And if this were true, then the past two centuries of socialism are not really a guide to the future at all. If there is a proletarian revolutionary movement and a proletarian revolutionary ideology, it may well bear little resemblance in its priorities, culture, language, etc. to the past.

Does that actually mean anything though – I mean, do any ideological traditions stay that constant over time? I don’t know. That’s why this post is called a stream of consciousness…

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