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Why do we know so little about socialism?

John Rawls: Reticent Socialist, by William A. Edmundson. Cambridge University Press, 2017. 212 pages.

I am going to propose an answer to the question that I raise in the headline: The reason we know so little about socialism is that, for two generations, since the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the Overton window has been narrowed and pulled hard to the right. Socialism now lies outside the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse. Even Democrats are terrified of the word socialism, because it’s now a grenade word flung from the right to demonize and sabotage any idea that might reduce economic and political inequality or that might help the poor or hurt the rich. (Not that this is new. Decades ago, the right also saw the development of Social Security and Medicare as treacherous socialism.) The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 is believed to have been the last word on the viability of socialism.

Public discourse now holds that, on the matter of socialism, the case is closed. Yes, Bernie Sanders rudely brought up the subject. But few people really know what he might be talking about. If Sanders himself knows, he’s doing a very poor job of explaining it. The political problem for liberals seems to be, how can we make gains in justice and equality without being defeated at the outset by the s-word grenade?

But there is a very great irony here, though it is an irony that only the intelligentsia are aware of. That is that, while the idea of socialism was being driven out of public discourse, enormous progress in moral and political philosophy was being made behind the scenes, in academia. In 1971, John Rawls published A Theory of Justice. This book almost certainly will stand as the most important work of the 20th Century in moral and political philosophy. Rawls, in dialogue with other scholars, continued to develop his theory of justice throughout his life. He died in 2002. The year before his death, he published Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Those were his last words on the subject.

Rawls’ theory of justice is still very active terrain in academia, though it rarely spills over into public discourse. Why is that? I would suggest that there are two reasons. The first is that justice as fairness lies outside the Overton window, and it is far too liberal to be tolerated in today’s public discourse. The second is that what has been written on the theory is very difficult to read. It is written by philosophers, for philosophers. I recently complained to a friend that, in other difficult subjects such as physics, we have science journalists who work to make progress in science known to the intelligent public. Scientists themselves often write books for lay readers. In philosophy, there is a wall between public discourse and the ivory tower. If there are journalists of philosophy, at least in English, I don’t know who they are. If you are, like me, an ordinary non-academic but motivated person, and you want to know about justice as fairness, you’ve got to climb a wall.

Edmundson’s John Rawls: Reticent Socialist, though it is as dense and difficult to read as Rawls, wants to make only one simple point. That is that Rawls eventually concluded that liberal democratic socialism is the only form of government that satisfies the requirements of justice as fairness. Five types of government are candidates. Four types fail: property-owning democracy, laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, and state socialism. (The Soviet Union, by the way, was an example of state socialism.)

Before Rawls, Karl Marx would have been the go-to source on socialism. The hippies of the 1960s had only Marx. (In fact, the hippies of the 1960s almost destroyed the manuscript for A Theory of Justice. Rawls was at Stanford University at the time, and the manuscript was in his office. In April 1970, students firebombed the building in which Rawls’ office was located. The adjoining office was completely destroyed. Rawls’ office had smoke and water damage. Rawls and his wife salvaged the soaked but legible manuscript, dried the pages, and retyped it.) After Rawls, I think it would be safe to say that Marx is now mostly obsolete and mostly of historical interest.

It would be similarly safe to say that, after Rawls, the previous state-of-the-art in moral philosophy is obsolete and has been replaced by justice as fairness. That would be utilitarianism, which boils down to the greatest good for the greatest number, a moral philosophy under which some can be permitted to suffer if it makes others better off. Justice as fairness does not allow the suffering of the few for the benefit of the many.

Of course Rawls has critics. It has been a while since I attempted a brief survey of arguments against Rawls. My impression, as I recall, was that many of Rawls’ critics are people such as academic theologians who don’t want what they see as the authority of “revealed” sources made obsolete and superseded by human reason.

Because Rawls almost never comes up in public discourse, it occurred to me to wonder how I became aware of Rawls in the first place. I believe that the answer to that is that Thomas Piketty refers to Rawls in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. There are four references to Rawls in that book’s index (only one is in the text; the other three are in the notes). The title of Rawls’ first book, A Theory of Justice, certainly would have caught my eye, and that’s probably when I looked into it and ordered the book from Amazon.

Rawls’ ideas — whether on justice as fairness or on socialism — are just too much for me to try to go into there. I can only encourage people to do their own reading. One reason that Rawls (not to mention Edmundson) is difficult to read is that there is a long list of concepts that must be understood. The concepts have names that often aren’t very helpful. For example, it’s not enough just to know the meaning of the English word “reciprocity,” because the term stands for a much more complicated concept in Rawls’ writing. Other terms are “the difference principle,” “fair value,” “the special psychologies,” “distributive justice,” “envy,” “excusable envy,” “ideal theory,” “non-ideal theory,” “lexical priority,” “the motivation principle,” “nearly just society,” “non-comparing groups,” “peace by satisfaction,” “perfectly ordered society,” “principle of continuity,” “pure procedural justice,” “pure ownership,” “reasonable pluralism,” “reconciliation requirement,” “reflective equilibrium,” “relative stability,” “restricted utility principle,” “self-esteem,” “self-respect,” “social minimum,” “socially dangerous extent,” “testamentary freedom,” “unusual risk aversion,” “well-ordered society,” and so on.

All of the above terms are of course defined somewhere, but the trick is to grasp the concept when you first encounter it and attach that concept to its term. I would suggest that anyone who wishes to read up on justice as fairness make a list of these terms as they are encountered, with one’s own notes on what they mean. The terms are used over and over again, and if you’ve forgotten the concept, then the text will be opaque.

The memory of relatively recent experiments in socialism (at least in the English-speaking world) also are being lost. I was born in 1948, and thus I have no memory of Clement Attlee, who followed Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1945. Attlee did deliver on his promise of bringing socialism to the United Kingdom. That form of government stood until Margaret Thatcher dismantled it. I know very little about this period, so a biography of Attlee and a history of that period in the United Kingdom are now on my reading list.

Ironically, academic philosophers are aware of how other and better alternatives to our current form of government are unknown to most people (though they’re doing next to nothing about it). Edmundson quotes Michael Walzer:

For many years now, I have been worrying about what might be called the cultural reproduction of the left. [I]n comparison with the different religious communities, the secular left does not seem able to pass on to its next generations a rich intellectual culture or an engaging popular culture. The tradition is thin. I worried about this with regard to the American left and also, in greater anxiety, with the regard to the Zionist left.

Indeed, the problem is general…. [C]ompare three national liberation movements — in India, Israel, and Algeria. In each case, the movement was secular and leftist; in each case, it succeeded in establishing a secular state; and in each case, this secular state was challenged some 30 years later by religious zealots. Three different religions but three similar versions of zealotry: modernized, politicized, ideological. The leaders of the secular liberationists, people like Nehru, Ben-Gurion, and Ben Bella, were convinced that secularization was inevitable — the disenchantment of the social world. But they did not succeed in creating a rich cultural alternative to the old religion. They thought they didn’t have to do that; modern science was the alternative. Modern science, however, does not produce emotionally appealing life-cycle celebrations or moving accounts of the value and purpose of our lives. That’s what religion does, and secular leftism, though often described on analogy with religion, has not been similarly creative.

What this all boils down to, I think, is that those of us on the left have a great deal of intellectual work to do. And, having done some of that work, it must be shared with the rational public.

I’ll attempt an analogy to cooking. I have sometimes made fun of some provincial Chinese restaurants in these parts after discovering that Mexicans are doing the cooking. That cooking is bound to be terrible, because the cooks don’t even understand what they’re trying to achieve. So it is with alternatives to our endangered American democracy, with its appalling injustices and its extreme economic and political inequalities. Something must be done about it. But we’re not even sure what we’re trying to achieve, or how to talk about it.

How did that happen? Partly, as Walzer said, we on the left have been doing a poor job. And partly it’s that the sheer meanness and glibness of the opposition, with their simple, cunning, and deceitful stories — have gotten way out ahead of us.

The left needs a clear vision of what it wants to achieve. The left needs the necessary concepts and language for a public discourse in which we can work out our differences, and for what Walzer calls “cultural reproduction.” And somehow this must be explained to the many, many people who would benefit but who have very hard heads addled by fundamentalist religion and opposition propaganda.


  1. Chenda wrote:

    Very interesting post David.

    Do you think there needs to be some kind of spiritual/religious framework to provide the intellectual continuity which Walzer seeks ?

    Although overshadowed by Churchill, Atlee is still much admired here, even by Conservatives. His right hand man, Ernest Bevin, is also an interesting figure. He was born into an impoverished Exmoor family to an illiterate mother and had little formal education. When he become foreign secretary, some accounts say he lost his temper with Molotov, his Soviet opposite number, who made the mistake of lecturing him about proletarian rights.

    Saturday, May 11, 2019 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Chenda… I do think that re-enchantment in some form is absolutely critical. For a while, hippies in the 1960s and early 1970s achieved re-enchantment with LSD and mushrooms. As I’m sure you’re aware, the music of the Beatles, just as one example, was full of this re-enchantment. It was very powerful, and we have lost the enchantment, though we still have the music of the Beatles. I don’t know the answer.

    Thank you for what you say (I know that you are in Britain) about Attlee. This makes me even more interested in reading up on the history of that period.

    Saturday, May 11, 2019 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  3. Dan wrote:

    The problem of socialism is so complex and myriad there are no clear ways to explain it succinctly. It’s not Bernie’s fault either, but his campaigning on the promises of “free” social goods doesn’t help. So much of that is because it’s easy to reach the youth through social media with hysterical promises and who are extremely debt burdened and reluctantly embracing the fatalism of climate change and the potential end of the world.

    It’s easy to write-off socialism because of the perceived failures of the USSR, Venezuela, and the capitulation of China and Vietnam to modernize and embrace globalization. Moneyed interests in those countries are more to blame than the ideology, and the party itself is responsible for instilling fear in its people. The overreach of the USSR to envelope all ethnic peoples that are remotely Russian was a huge problem. Of course, Stalin laid a poor foundation for any real progress. Khrushchev and Brezhnev had to undo so much damage they could barely instill reforms. Mao was under pressure to modernize quickly which is why the Great Leap Forward is responsible for so many deaths. It wasn’t a lack of capitalism or freedom that hurt those countries but a failure of institutions and the state’s authoritarian mystic that pervaded all facets of citizens’ lives.

    It’s easy for the right to write-off socialism as a form of fascism because in a way several socialist countries have the perception of being fascist and pointing out Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy as authoritarian and totalitarian is basically child’s play. I think that the bad faith actors on both the left and right in America are responsible for the misconception of the idea of socialism and how it can be a product of a government system. It’s clearly an overthought concept. Applying layer upon layer of social goods in the form of legislative policies is what I think is considered socialism in practice. Without universal healthcare, there won’t be a solid foundation for the rights of transpeople and women’s reproductive rights. Without a guaranteed income floor, there will always be a real crime statistic that will be available for the right to point to and say lower classes (but really minorities because they don’t have the right skin color to get a leg up in the world) are responsible for most of the crimes of necessity (hunger, anger, actual economic anxiety, etc).

    Incrementalism is the way to do it but these steps are huge ones to make.

    Wednesday, May 29, 2019 at 9:43 am | Permalink

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