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Endorsing and Critiquing Socialism: A Word of Caution

Written by: on April 26, 2021

In the opening pages of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, philosopher Stephen Hicks seeks to articulate his interpretation of what postmodernism is, what its philosophical roots are, and what, if anything, it seeks to achieve.

Modernist philosophy, which emerged within the Enlightenment Period (Descartes, Newton, etc.), argued that the objective world was discoverable and knowable to humanity through rationalism and empiricism. A natural outcome of modernity was individualism and the freedom that accompanied it. Hicks argues that individualism led to liberalism, a free-market society, developments in science and engineering, and the genesis of modern medicine.

In contrast to modernity, Hicks continues that postmodernity is:

  1. Anti-realist: It is impossible to speak meaningfully about independent reality.”[1]
  2. Epistemologically skeptical: Attainment of objective knowledge about the world through reason is unlikely.[2]
  3. Collectivist: Individual identity is defined by group affiliation.[3]
  4. Oriented toward the Oppressed: Ethics and politics are committed to protecting those whom postmodernists regard as victims.[4]

Summarizing Hicks’ four-feature definition of postmodernity, one commentator observes that “for postmodernists, there is no set of canonical texts, no objective laws or facts, but subjective interpretations that are enforced by groups through power.”[5] Postmodernity, according to Hicks, must be understood as a counter-Enlightenment philosophy with a deeply credible genealogy as it includes the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Nietzsche, Marx, and Kant. According to these forefathers of postmodernity, “reason does not explain the world, but bends it to its wishes.”[6]

My attention was particularly drawn to Hick’s chapter on socialism as the term has been assigned to progressive U.S. politicians and activists, seemingly by more conservative folks who seem to fear that the term is synonymous with equality and/or control.

In a 2018 survey conducted by Gallup on the meaning of socialism to Americans today, it was revealed that 23% of those surveyed understood ‘socialism’ as a form of equality while 17% say ‘socialism’ is a form of government control over business and economy.[7] According to Merriam-Webster, ‘socialism’ is defined as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”[8] Or, as Karl Marx put it in 1875, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”[9]

According to Hicks, while there are shortcomings to the theory of socialism, there was at least one way in which postmodernists understood socialism as superior to capitalism. He writes:

Socialism is driven more than anything else by an ethic of altruism, by a conviction that morality is about selflessness, being willing to put others’ needs before one’s own, and, when necessary, being willing to sacrifice oneself for others, especially those others who are weaker and needier. Thus, to a socialist, any socialist nation has to be morally superior to any capitalist nation—socialist leaders are by definition concerned primarily about the needs of the citizens and are sensitively responsive to their expressions of concern, their grievances, and, when there are troubles, to their plights.”[10]

In practicality, however, socialist regimes turned to mass atrocities in order to secure their authority and accumulate inordinate wealth. With revelations of mass genocide and other forms of brutality in the USSR and Mao’s China, socialism began to fall out of grace. In response, postmodern defenders of the socialist system turned their critique on capitalist systems. In their view, it was capitalist societies that had used wealth to create and sustain mass poverty among the poor. Within this train of thought, a PR approach aimed at rescuing the reputation of socialism emerged: wealth was seen as dangerous and socialism was reinterpreted as promoting equality. Of course, this was accompanied by a very significant deemphasis on the authority required to create and maintain the façade of equality.

As I considered Hicks’ interpretation of socialism within his larger explanation of postmodernity, I discovered a caution for all of us. In the postmodern milieu that we find ourselves within, I doubt the existence of a universally accepted definition of socialism. At its core, it is an altruistic theory. In practicality, it represents a form of governance that has led to atrocities. So let us be careful about leveraging the term as a weapon to delegitimize the political and economic impulses of a person who is bent toward redistributions of wealth. Let us also be cautious in over glamorizing a theory that, like every form of governance, sacrifices many for the sake of a few.

~~

[1] Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, 6.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid., 6-7.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] https://aroadtoindividuation.wordpress.com/2017/06/11/explaining-postmodernism-by-stephen-hicks-summary/

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/243362/meaning-socialism-americans-today.aspx

[8] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/socialism

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/03/05/what-is-socialism/

[10] Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, 146.

About the Author

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Jer Swigart

11 responses to “Endorsing and Critiquing Socialism: A Word of Caution”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    I think when we think of the altruistic theory behind socialism, there’s a reality that in practicality it hasn’t worked because of the sinful nature of humanity. But I think the rub comes from both sides of the economic and political spectrum where neither side wants to admit the atrocities that have been committed in the name of socialism or capitalism or whatever system you want to throw out there.

    But I guess that’s the point. We want our rhetoric to persuade others that our side is “right” but in doing so, we aren’t being fully honest about the implications. I wonder what it would look like to move beyond those implications, to own it, to say that it was wrong/bad/etc., commit to moving forward in a positive way, and actually following through with it.

  2. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Socialism, as defined above, sounds like the way of Jesus. But history has proven different.

    “Let us also be cautious in over glamorizing a theory that, like every form of governance, sacrifices many for the sake of a few.” And here’s the rub- as Dylan mentioned, capitalism is lifted as the hero of economic systems, while socialism is deemed the villain. Both have benefited few at the expense of many. Is there a way to rebrand and implement the way of Jesus so as to redeem these flawed systems? How do we, as a society, do the critical work necessary to move us out of an either/or mentality that gives broad brushed, vague definitions/understanding of complexed and nuanced issues? What leader have you encountered that are doing this well?

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    I would agree with Dylan in that we often forget that the sinful nature of humanity taints everything. Whether socialism or capitalism. I find it interesting that even in the purest of intentions and movements that the heart of humanity will find a way to corrupt it. Not only should we avoid glamorizing a theory we should dig deeper and look at its motives while exploring the character and integrity of those involved; including ourselves.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Rigorous self-interrogation needs to become a practice of every leader. We need to learn how to place our lives, motives, intentions, and actions under the blacklight so that the incongruencies can become exposed. Only then can we work them out.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Very nuanced approach here, Jer. An interesting topic of study would be the progression of the use of the word and understanding of “socialism.” How wors like “socialism” and “social justice warrior” become pejorative is beyond me.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      When the victor’s ongoing power demands control, we twist alternatives in order to disqualify them. Self-sacrifice has always threatened the powerful, for it exposes what little control they actually have.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    It’s just easier to use words as labels and paint those categories with broad strokes. I see that all the time- someone will comment or make a statement- and the first thing another person will ask is, “are you a progressive/conservative/democrat/republican/dallas cowboys fan/etc.” It’s like if we are able to link them with some demographic identity, then we will know everything about them and their argument and thus dismiss them accordingly. Plus, it’s just easier to raise money with the opponent is the boogie-man who is against EVERYTHING we’re for.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      That’s right. Much easier to fabricate fables about another person than to do the work to actually befriend them. As faith leaders, my sense is that we need to be careful to ensure that we don’t intentionally and/or unintentionally play the boogieman game. Our leadership needs to demonstrate a hopeful, restorative alternative that is committed to interdependence and fueled by neighbor & enemy love.

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Yes, Socialism is a place where one can get lost, especially in the curious history of it.

    There’s so much to learn with regards to the ‘truth’ of the history of Socialism. I think (perhaps, it’s a more like a ‘becoming more informed belief’) Capitalism was more involved in the expression of Communism in Russian and China than we know about.

    At the time, there was a ‘market’ to exploit in the way of change and the introduction of Communism in these countries, in particular, was a splendid project for Capitalists. I think ‘this Communism’ came about unnaturally, and with the space these kinds of leaders to rule with a ‘rare’ authority, the result was oppression and suffering on epic levels.

    Today, Capitalism can use these examples to confound any movements toward political adjustments that could call for a more equal equality (i.e., socialism). Under the guise of Socialist ethics, politicians gain votes and position in Canada; it’s fake.

    To be honest, here’s so much I don’t know about this. But, I’m curious (to find the light through the lost). Thanks for dialling into the topic. Appreciate your thoughts, Jer.

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