Is Socialism Really Different from Capitalism or Simply a Theory about It?

One problem that we have as teachers of sociology and social theory is that we are so quick to assert our authority that we end up inhibiting the honest and probing questions from our supposedly ignorant students. Nevertheless, these questions sometimes do get asked. One that I have encountered over the years is epitomized in the title of this piece.

Normally this question arises after some detailed discussion of Marx and Marxism. To someone not steeped in the history of the last two centuries, it would be easy to think that Marxism was a theory about how to make capitalism work to maximum efficiency – namely, by not inhibiting the full range of productive forces in society. On this view, Marxism is about getting capitalism to live up to its own principles, which are ones that celebrate the indefinite productivity of people. In the end, machines that we invent will do all the heavy lifting for us, while we write poetry all day – since poetry is the sort of thing that humans can clearly do better than machines.

I exaggerate – but only slightly. To be sure, ‘real’ capitalists oppose immigration restrictions, protected inheritances, preferential trade arrangements, and all of the other historic inhibitors to the full use of the factors of production – including perhaps intellectual property itself. Here Liberals and Socialists sing from the same hymn sheet – especially when both are thinking globally and not locally. The differences between the two positions arise over the power invested in the state as an agent in this process.

Liberals have tended to be much more relaxed about any overarching sense of goal or utopia in which capitalism might eventuate, whereas Socialists believe that without explicit state intervention only dystopia will result. This difference in world-historic intuition leads Socialists to be more alert to issues like ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘inequality’ as indicative of a system that cannot run well if left to its own devices. Put bluntly: Income will not be redistributed and talent will not be cultivated at sufficient levels if the future of society is made hostage to the good will of rich people. In response, Liberals invoke the fullness of time either to resolve these problems or to reveal them to be figments of the impetuous Socialist imagination, which wants utopia on demand.

From a sociological standpoint, perhaps the most interesting difference between Capitalism and Socialism is that Capitalism offers the original modern flat ontology of society, a la actor-network theory. For the capitalist, the state is simply one among many agents in the market, to be sure one with its own distinctive knowledge – but it’s a knowledge that is subject to the same strengths and weaknesses of other forms of knowledge. It is not superior knowledge in the sense of enjoying a pre-emptive right to speak on behalf of others without explicit delegation. Now, this sounds nice until one records the downstream consequences. A tremendous amount of patience, good humour if not outright insensitivity is required.

Socialism, in contrast, is motivated by a sense that technocrats (or academics or some other vanguard) always already know what everyone would want if they had the opportunity to think through things for themselves. (And of course, a key Socialist ambition is to enable ordinary people to think Socialist things for themselves!) This is why ‘false consciousness’ is such a pivotal and controversial concept in Socialist thinking. Socialism is quite explicit about the temporary need for a paternalistic state to facilitate the relevant redistributions and investments that the potential beneficiaries are not in a position to decide for themselves. But ‘temporary’ means how long? In practice, Socialists are much better at speaking and doing on behalf of others than at allowing them to do so for themselves.


Categories: Alternative History of Sociology, Committing Sociology, Rethinking The World, Social Theory, Sociological Craft

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