Review of the Book
Socialism and America
by Irving Howe
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
In Socialism and America* author Irving Howe, a socialist,
wonders why socialism has not been more appealing to Americans. In a
recent lecture, Dr. Robert Hessen of Stanford University, an
anti-socialist, wonders the opposite, and titled his talk, "The
Paradox of Socialism's Continued Popularity."
This often happens with polarized ideologies; each side thinks the
other is dominating (cf. religious fundamentalists and secular
humanists). In addition, in this case, each side is vague on what
Hessen admits that Americans dislike the word "socialism "but
that they want much of what socialism proposes. What he means is that
Americans want a good deal of the "welfare state", and for
purposes of discussion a distinction should be made.
The Scandinavian countries, loosely called "socialist", are
really welfare states, with most commerce and industry in private
hands. Americans, for the most part, also want industry in private
hands and not in government hands. They do, however, want the cushions
provided by the welfare state -- unemployment insurance, medical
assistance, social security, etc. As for Howe, he has written a whole
book about socialism without defining it.
The polarization may not be as extreme as it once was. Hessen's "new"
libertarianism rejects the Social Darwinism of the 19th century with
its law of the jungle. Howe wants more private initiative than
socialism formerly tolerated. But contrasting programs are still
Hessen wants "capitalism" and the market to take care of
everything, but with "rights" respected. Howe wants a
planned economy, but democratically managed, not from the top. Hessen
challenges the idealism of socialism, contending that its "brotherhood"
requires coercion. Howe challenges the ability of capitalism to create
the good society and says the "cooperative commonwealth" is
a true ideal.
The libertarians are strong when it comes to the advantages of a free
market over a planned economy, but weak when it comes to monopoly --
especially land monopoly -- and the victims of today's society: the
unemployed, the homeless, the poor. All they can say is that
government interference doesn't work. The socialists take cognizance
of the economically distressed and the continual struggle for a living
wage. But they are weak on incentives to produce and on enlarging the
"pie" to be distributed.
An example of the weakness of socialism was seen in France. President
Mitterand extended extra benefits to workers and reduced working hours
-- but had no plan to increase productivity. The weakness of the
libertarian argument is seen in the U.S. after more than four years of
conservative economic policies. Poverty has increased, unemployment is
up, the number of homeless people continues to grow.
Howe admits that a new socialist program must avoid the dangers and
inefficiencies of centralized control and instead advocates democratic
management of industry. Sounds nice, but in fact there are already
many examples in the U.S. where workers have taken over failing firms.
Some of these labour-owned enterprises work, some do not.
The point is missed in proposing "industrial democracy".
Many workers do not want the responsibility but just want to do the
job, get paid and go home. The important thing is free choice -- and
the more freedom there is, the more choice there is.
Hessen does not very well explain why Americans want the welfare
state. He follows the inadequate argument that some naughty professors
enamoured of socialism spread its teachings and make it popular. This
argument ignores the fact that, although governments pretty much
followed a policy of non-interference in the economy for well over a
century, there were periods of deep economic distress as well as
chronic poverty. Is this not a better explanation of why people today
demand the buffers of the welfare state?
. So socialists and anti-socialists make their points by ignoring
vast chunks of economic reality. Each side has a bit of the truth that
they pass off as the whole truth. Their paradoxes are illuminated as
soon as we study the question of economic opportunity. The
basic economic opportunity is access to land on which and from which
all people must live and which must be settled on equitable terms.
This is missed by both camps.
It is true that the free market offers results immensely better than
a planned economy -- but it must be a truly free market with
opportunities open to all.
The economic truths by-passed by both camps are the ones taught by
Henry George. To attain the truly good society and the truly free
society, we need to attend to the opening up of access to natural
opportunities, to freeing the land from monopoly by his "simple
and sovereign remedy" of fully taxing land values and allowing
the free market to function properly. Amazingly, socialism and
anti-socialism are almost reconciled in this way.
* Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985