In this long-read, Casian Siminicianu offers an exploration and his own conception of socialist theory.
I wish to start this essay by saying that this is a very broad, introductory and by no means exhaustive outlook on the various strands of Socialist thought that have emerged over the last 300 years. In it, I wish to provide an alternative theoretical framework to the most common forms of Socialist thought: Marxist, Liberal and Ethical. This is not an attack on the many Liberal and Marxist influenced members of the broad-church Labour Party so much as a challenge to the established norms in Socialist and Social Democratic thinking. I remain firmly committed to the Labour Party and the labour movement; I believe that compromise and fellowship of all Socialists and trade unionists is of utmost importance and desirability as we all seek the end of a better world for working people.
The first category of Socialism that I will discuss, the one that has come to the fore in most of the world during the late 19th and early 20th century before slowly losing its influence (especially in Britain) during the post-WWII era, is Marxian Socialism. The philosophical basis of the works of Marx and Engels lie in a Materialist outlook on history, society and every personal value that a given individual holds. Marxism looks at the history of humanity from the outset of agriculture and complex societies as one of class struggle, with the place of any individual within this grand meta-historic struggle lying in their role in production. The presumption is that the mode of production of a society (be it Feudalist, Capitalist or Socialist) is at the basis of that society's outlook, its values, its beliefs and its treatment of human beings. Its role, in the eyes of its founders, has always been to replace 'Utopian', Liberal forms of Socialism that came before it with a 'Scientific' method.
Given that the last 200 (arguably 500) years of human history have been dominated by the Capitalist mode of production, in the eye of the Marxist, every religious, political, ethical or social value you or I hold outside of the scope of the great Hegelian-esque progression of history is rendered irrelevant and ought to be replaced - this is because the material 'Base' of a society is the primary shaper of the cultural 'Superstructure'. And so, Marxian Socialism in its purest form actively rejects any moral, judicial and political system outside the scope of a society under a Socialist mode of production - that requires revolution. Although there is a great intellectual tradition of Marxian Reformists in the Continental Social Democratic movements, 'Reform' does not mean the reform of the cultural-moral outlooks of society towards a positive alternative but their destruction through Gradualist means - otherwise known as 'Revolution through Reform'. This is incredibly destructive to any country's long-established identity, its people's history and the greater purpose of society towards any positive ethically-assertive end. The alternative, the violent and illegitimate revolutionary overthrows of Bolshevism, have proven not only culturally but physically destructive. The reason for my rejection of Marxism is its incompatibility with positive, meta-moral ends which inspire the vast majority of people (including most Marxists themselves) to become Socialists: Justice, Love and Duty.
A much less bleak alternative to those who still renounce belief in the authority of any established power on Earth but cannot bring themselves to give up their ethical foundations is Liberal Socialism. Liberal Socialism is a very broad school of thought with many commonalities with the Radical Liberal movement in 19th century Britain. For the sake of simplicity and maximal relevance to the British Labour movement, I will look at the form of Liberal Socialism which gained prominence in the Labour Party, slowly but surely replacing Marxism since the 1950s/60s: Croslandism.
Anthony Crosland, a very much British 'bourgeois' fellow Fabian and theorist, is most well-known today for his theory outlined in 'The Future of Socialism' (1956) which separates Socialist ends ("Liberté, égalité, fraternité") from Socialist means (Clause IV: "Common ownership of the means of production..."). What is most overlooked in the fiery debate over Clause IV is the philosophical origins of the Socialist 'ends and means' - the ends of Crosland were basically revolutionary Liberal ends. The Liberal, like the Marxist, believes in no absolute authority in any established political institution; unlike the Marxist, he seeks to transform them to the end of absolute Liberty. Liberty is upheld as an ethical good because it serves the end of maximal human progress. There is no other absolute good or end of society than individual liberty. Any authority that opposes that end must be removed. At the same time, it encourages Egalitarianism to the end of the universal attainment of liberty, an idea which may fundamentally seem unfair, unjust and essentially anti-Socialist. If working people are the producers of all goods and services, why should we strive for a society where there is equity of wealth? Shouldn't the section of society that produces wealth also receive the wealth that it is due?
On the surface, such a theory may prove satisfactory to many who don't have a natural inclination towards an absolutist goal of society. Perhaps to those that primarily believe in a political system that will satisfy their own personal desires. One has to question, however, is this truly at the heart of what Socialism is? Is Socialism purely a means to an end of Utilitarian individual pleasure? Or is it perhaps about growing altruism, about transforming the human heart and mind to a higher form of existence: a collective love and duty to each other in human societies, regardless of whether or not it affects our individual freedom.
The Ethical and Christian Socialist tradition of the British Labour movement would resoundingly say "Yes!". It is a common saying among many Labour historians that the origins of the Labour Party owe "more to Methodism than to Marxism" and I entirely agree with this account, especially if one is to compare it to its continental Social Democratic counterparts. The Ethical Socialist movement was primarily inspired by the primary drive of Agape Christian love: love for the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry and many others at the peripheries of Victorian society, of whom many of its adherents were part of. Whilst the ethical drive of such a Socialism is entirely satisfactory and provides a positive meta-narrative and purpose to its followers, it lacks structure and direction. Furthermore, it has many Liberal elements and may be hard to follow for many who do not belong to the Christian religion.
Thus, my alternative of Ethereal Socialism.
Ethereal Socialism is grounded in similar ethical sensibilities which can be boiled down to 3 ends: Justice, Duty and Love. These ends can never be genuinely attained under a system of private ownership of the means of production and must therefore be the product of common ownership and always intertwined with it. That is because the socialisation of profits (often achieved through radical fiscal policy such as progressive taxation) can never entirely and fairly distribute the resources produced by labour to the labourers themselves - it falls short of the end of Justice (Social Justice).
The second feature of Ethereal Socialism is its deontological approach: duties in society are primary and rights are secondary - rights exist as means to the end of duties. This turns the legal rights fundamentalism of Liberal thinkers on its head as it is based on a common human desire to serve society. I believe that this is best articulated by Kant's first formulation of the Categorical Imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law". In political terms, this translates to a society which universally functions under the principle of the Common Good of all its members. No economic or social activity of individuals should be part-taken in that will negatively affect the health of other members of society - our responsibility (duty) for the rest of society supersedes any individual freedom.
The third principle is that of love; it's the same Agapeistic love that inspired the Christian Socialist, Ethical Socialist and other Romantic movements of the 19th century. Under this principle, no form of selfishness is acceptable in the order of society - this should be reflected in lawmaking.
Finally, I wish to put the philosophical outlook of these 3 values in perspective. They are to be thought of as immaterial Forms like those in Plato's Theory of the Forms. As opposed to the lower Forms, things like material objects and their direction (things that Marxian thinkers are highly concerned with), society must be oriented towards the higher Forms. At the top of all Forms is the Form of the Good - all of the higher Forms and, within the political context, all instruments economy and society must be shaped in its light. What makes the ordering of society in this fashion possible is also the delegation of authority from the Form of the Good to a legitimate government. A legitimate government is that which seeks to attain Goodness - I personally believe that this authority is best vested in a Monarch and delegated to instruments of government below it but such a belief is not essential to Ethereal Socialism.
Casian Siminicianu is a young, independent minded, romantic and sensibly radical thinker with a passion for exploring that which affects us all but is overlooked by most. He tweets @Cassian_Sav.