Letter to the Editor: Socialism Can Be Done Right

Reply to Perlustrating Asservations: “Socialism just hasn’t been done right yet” by Jamie Freestone & Mathew McGann, No. 11 Vol. 64, September 5.

In The Rebel, Albert Camus poses the question of whether murder, in the context of a socialist revolution or a rebellion more widely conceived, can ever be truly justified. It was this same question – of whether ends can justify means – which has troubled many socialists.

None, I think, felt this paradox more keenly than the Russian socialist, Alexander Herzen. In his memoirs, he recalled a conversation with Louis Blanc, a French socialist who argued that man must sacrifice himself for the greater good of society.

‘Why?’ I [Herzen] asked suddenly.

‘How do you mean “Why?” [said Louis Blanc] – but surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society?’

‘But it will never be attained if everyone makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself.’

‘You are playing with words.’

‘The muddle-headedness of a barbarian,’ I replied, laughing.

So, given Herzen’s reluctance to accept that anyone should be placed upon the altars of some universalistic ideology – Socialism, History, or Society – it may seem curious that he was, and still remains, one of Russia’s most celebrated socialists.

The reason is that he, like many socialists, thought that – as ‘Perlustrating Asseverations’ put it – to the extent that socialism “had been done”, it “just hasn’t been done right”. The socialist-capitalist divide – more unfashionable today than ever – does not have to be presented as an inexorable paradox; the choice between Sollen and Sein; value and fact. Leszek Kolakowski, for instance, outlined this dichotomy, as well as the need to overcome it:

“The same question recurs repeatedly in different versions: How can we prevent the alternatives of Sollen-Sein from becoming polarisations of Utopianism-opportunism, romanticism-conservatism, purposeless madness versus collaboration with crime masquerading as sobriety? How can we avoid the fatal choice between the Scylla of duty, crying its arbitrary slogans, and the Charybdis of compliance with the existing world, which transforms itself into voluntary approval of its most dreadful products?

To anyone who wishes to confront this paradox without necessarily abandoning the “asseverations” of socialism, may she or he look no further than the works of Alexander Herzen.