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Socialism. Socialism? Socialism?!?

At the end of the 1960s, the famous Czech phenomenologist Jan Patocka began a newspaper opinion piece in the following manner: "It is good to know what something is all about. But is this even possible with a word such as socialism? Unlikely. Even so, we need to have a clear understanding of the thinking [behind the term]."


The only possible path to understanding socialism is the path of philosophy. Let us put aside the taxonomy of events we have--here and there, then and now--described with the word socialism. Then we shall begin, like the eternal beginner Edmund Husserl, as if we had never heard the word before; let us direct our attention to the structural sense of reality through which the need for words arises.

Our starting point shall be the Enlightenment and its most pronounced political event: the French Revolution. Europe viewed the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions of the time mainly as a rebellion against the age-long domination of traditions and customs in all matters that are human. The Middle Ages really believed that "what has been believed by all, everywhere and always, must be true and the will of God." And what was more traditional than the social order of masters and servants?

But this idea of masters and servants is contrary to common sense as well as noble feelings--and the Enlightenment philosophers considered both sense and feeling fundamental in their questions of truth and goodness. For instance, the notion of equality originated from this time: it made sense; it felt right. And from this came the Great Revolution in the name of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. As the twentieth century political theorist Hannah Arendt points out, equality is the basis of freedom as well as brotherhood, i.e., the bright light of the Enlightenment.


Unfortunately, a bright light also casts a sharp shadow. The shadow of the democratic revolution was the atomization of society. While the traditional hierarchical order of society was unjust and cruel, it did guarantee everyone with a personal identity (as rich or poor) at birth. It provided basic social security. Traditionally, people who were better off were expected to care for the poor and sick. Though the reality was often ruthless and cruel, customs provided consolation. By rejecting tradition, the democratic revolution not only freed individuals, but also deprived them of their former sense of social security and personal identity. The democratic revolution generated social debt. It became democracy's responsibility to provide individuals with a sense of collective identity and social security since these things were no longer provided.

This is where the need for the social aspect of democracy arose, or in other words, where the agreement to provide common resolutions for shared problems has its roots. Prior to the Enlightenment, the individual could rely on one's family in poverty, sickness, and old age, and on one's master for personal security from physical harm. After the Enlightenment, however, democratic society as a whole needed to become the new source of individual security.

In a highly interconnected urban society which attempts to be democratic and individualist, the guarantee of physical security, health care (including hygienic waste management), social welfare, and education are all beyond any single individual's capacity to provide. Even though political democracy does not want to admit it, all of these human concerns are in fact a common social responsibility.

This was and is democracy's debt. This is what the legendary social question of the nineteenth century could not resolve. Most philosophers and politicians of the nineteenth century understood democracy purely as a question of political order and completely overlooked its social dimension. To solve the social question--i.e. how to care for common needs in a society free of masters--democracy needed to become social.


The social democratic movement strived to meet this goal. But it entirely overlooked democracy's other debt, which one may refer to as the national question (the term is rather misleading since it only partially relates to nationality). The most fundamental aspect of the national question was personal confidence and self-reliance, which are drawn from participation in a social network. But since the democratic revolution detached the individual and atomized society, it created a mass of lonely individuals left outside of any cohesive social structure.

The question of personal identity thus naturally became the national question as an individual's national (or ethnic) identity began to provide the individual with accessible compensation for the loss of personal identity. Basic cultural needs became political needs, and ethnic identity became the pillar of personal confidence: I am who I am because I am French ... German ... Czech. Since democracy did not pay the debt of personal identity, it created space for the rise of nationalism.

While no one aside from the Austrian Marxists noticed, a crisis began to form at this time in the Czech lands. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the character of the Czech lands was not defined in terms of ethnic identity, but by property ownership and loyalty to the Habsburg crown: Czech-speakers were mostly peasants and German-speakers, the nobility. Since questions of ethnic identity were cultural and not political questions, they did not lead to crises of the state. Ethnic belonging only becomes the source of state crises when ethnicity is used to define personal existence or nonexistence.


The success of European democracy in the second half of the nineteenth century was therefore derived from an emphasis on the social dimension of democracy. As European governments overcame their narrow-minded political conception of democracy and began to build social states, democratic society finally took responsibility for the social needs which transcend the responsibility of single individuals.

It was not an easy triumph: Fascism had abused the unresolved question of personal identity to dispute the ideals of freedom and equality; Nazism had abused unresolved personal and social questions to justify extremist nationalism; and Stalin and Roosevelt had presumably agreed on the postwar division of Europe at Yalta.

But the roots go deeper than these points; they lie in democracy's unresolved question regarding its social dimension. Yes, society does need to take responsibility for the dilemma of collective coexistence, but with which tool? Ferdinand Lasalle, a nineteenth century socialist and political activist, considered the state as the only possible tool. Lenin and Stalin agreed with him. Communism in the twentieth century thus represents the nationalization of social democracy.

The German unionists of Eisenach (the founding home of the German Social Democratic Party in 1869) recommended that democracy capitalize on social tools such as unions, or what we now refer to as non-profit businesses or public services. The German socialist Karl Liebknecht forecasted that the last battle for democracy would be fought with the battle cry "Hie, Sozialdemokratie! Hie, Staatsozialismus!" [Here, social democracy! Here state socialism!]

He was right. The superpower struggle of the Cold War became a battle for democracy in Europe, with a battle cry for the social scope of democracy and state socialism. The only difference was that Liebknecht's state socialism became Leonid Brezhnev's real socialism. Old cheese in new packaging.


It is a historical irony that the victim of the last victorious battle for social democracy was the word socialism. The idea behind socialism--social responsibility for common individual needs--celebrated its triumph with the emergence of socially responsible democracy during the Cold War. But the word itself became one of the victims of this struggle--the dead unknown soldier of the Cold War.

Perhaps this explains why we have again encountered signs of democracy's new crisis. While the European Union provides a solution to the social and national questions of democracy, it remains unfinished. In absence of a unified European tax system, the financial basis for the social state has begun to crumble. Again, we are confronted by questions of personal dignity as well as the national question. We cannot forego the possibility of a new crisis of democracy, one which is directly derived from the decaying social dimension of European democracy.

Socially irresponsible and purely political democracy, as promoted by American neo-liberals (or neo-conservatives) and their European pupils, cannot thrive in America or Europe. Will this transitory state and crisis give rise to neo-Nazism (or Neo-Fascism)? Democracy requires social responsibility. We do not have a name for it today--the word socialism died in the Cold War. But the ideal it once represented is still needed. Can we keep it alive even without the word?


Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Springer, 1997.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Meridan Books, 1951.

Moggach, Douglas and Paul Leduc Browne. The Social Question and the Democratic Revolution: Marx and the Legacy of 1848. University of Ottawa Press, 2000.

Erazim Kohak is a professor emeritus at the Institute of Philosophy and Religious Studies, the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University, Prague, as well as at Boston University, USA.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Martin Jan Stransky
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Author:Kohak, Erazim
Publication:The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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