I do not remember the exact moment at which I started identifying as a socialist. I do remember being turned off by my high school history teacher’s dismissive attitude toward socialism. We’re all familiar with such statements: “It looks good on paper, but it could never work.” If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that, I’d be a member of the capitalist class by now. This teacher was a veteran who grew up during the Red Scare. Like every good Baby Boomer, he was conditioned to fear socialism, though he seemed unable to define it.
I actually had a lot of respect for this teacher. We were in the Bible Belt, but he was an atheist, and he made no attempt to keep that a secret. But his biased comments on socialism only served to pique my interest in that mysterious political philosophy.
At first, I only knew that socialism was the antithesis of capitalism. I really didn’t understand what capitalism was either, just as a fish doesn’t understand what water is. I was conditioned in a hyper-capitalistic society, so I took capitalism for granted. Simply putting a name on it — “capitalism” — is in itself liberating. It allows you to think critically about the structure of the society in which you were indoctrinated, where before you simply accepted it. “That’s just the way things are.”
And the more I learned, the more I realized: I don’t like the way things are. Capitalism is far from ideal. If socialism was the alternative, then I was automatically attracted to it. I wanted to know more.
Years later, in my mid-twenties, I attended a rally in downtown Montgomery. If I remember correctly, it was hosted by the Montgomery Area Freethought Association, and the purpose was to protest the passing of some new law that violated the principle of separation of church and state. There were several speakers, including a member of the Mobile chapter of Socialist Alternative. I was so inspired by her speech that I approached her afterwards. Along with a couple of other Montgomerians, I agreed to visit Mobile to discuss the creation of a Montgomery chapter of Socialist Alternative.
The trip to Mobile was fun. I was accustomed to being the lone socialist, arguing with capitalists. But now I found myself in the company of like-minded individuals. We met at a bookstore and split into discussion groups. I learned a lot. But in retrospect, the most important thing I learned was that, in fact, these individuals were not as like-minded as I initially thought.
The common thread uniting us was a distaste for capitalism. But, when I began to speak about the alternatives, disagreement ensued. During the drive to Mobile, I was all but ridiculed for mentioning The Venus Project. I was labeled a “utopian” and an “idealist,” and those words were uttered as if they were necessarily insults.
The next day, after we had met the others at the bookstore and split into groups, we were discussing some aspect of post-revolutionary governance. I can’t remember the specifics, but I said, “I don’t think we should do X because [insert practical considerations here].” Someone looked at me and said, with a straight face, “But Marx said we should do X.” Full stop. No practical considerations, just a spineless appeal to authority.
I was so taken aback by this dogmatism that I was rendered speechless. If I was guilty of being too optimistic, my specific crime was not my utopianism, but that I expected a higher capacity for critical, original thought among those who had freed themselves from the mental prison of capitalism.
The priests of the Leftist cults [are] highly suspicious of any individualistic tendencies that might lead followers to think on their own… Book clubs are good, meetings are fine, but none of these things bring you any closer to freedom. There’s something strangely religious to it all, isn’t there? These people with their chosen book getting together to talk about how good everything will be when justice finally sweeps down and fixes everything. They flip pages, or gab endlessly, sure that if just enough people heard the “good news” of one theory or another everything would change. What’s a protest but an old school Protestant revival dressed up in red and black?¹
Just as many apostates simply replace Christianity by making a religion out of science, many socialists have simply abandoned one set of masters for another. They remain slaves. They remain followers. This is the primary reason that I no longer identify as a socialist. My distaste for capitalism is stronger than ever. But I am an individualist. I despise dogma in any form. I do not want to be part of any cult, any religion, any tribe, any party.
Political divisiveness has reached a fever pitch. Democrats and Republicans are more akin to football teams than political parties. Meaningful, productive conversation is off the table; the goal is to “win.” The bipartisan system reinforces dualistic thinking, which has become so hopelessly entrenched that it maintains its stranglehold even on those “revolutionaries” who eschew the established political structure in favor of sexier alternatives like socialism or libertarianism. They have left one tribe only to join another.
So, if I am not a socialist, then what am I? At this point in my life I am hesitant to adopt any label.
First, everyone will assume, on the basis of this label, that they know my stance on a host of complicated issues. After all, if you’re a leftist, then you must favor gun control. If you’re a right-winger, then you must deny human-caused climate change. This is tribalism at its finest. There is no room for nuance. There is no room for free thought. Toe the party line.
Second, to apply a label to one’s self is essentially to claim membership in a group, and every group has its own rigid ideology. The label “capitalist” or “socialist” becomes central to one’s identity, and a psychological event horizon is created, beyond which one’s thoughts cannot pass. I was foolish to think that socialists would somehow be free of these tribalistic tendencies. I was proven wrong, and after suffering such disenchantment, why would I now make the same mistake again?
Perhaps I could call myself an individualist anarchist. But even then, were I to associate with other individualist anarchists, I’m afraid that one of them might utter, “But Stirner said we shouldn’t do X!”
I think a common criticism of anarchists — individualist anarchists in particular — is that their proposals are doomed to fail because their individualism prevents them from cooperating. However, I don’t find this criticism to be valid. I believe that unity can exist without uniformity. In other words, not only can strong-willed individuals come together and cooperate without forming a tribe and succumbing to groupthink, but I believe such a collective of individuals would be capable of much more than your average tribe of loyal, dimwitted followers.
I will have to study individualist anarchism further before I decide whether I want to adopt this label. In the meantime, I will not shrink back from the dreaded u-word.
The reactions of the socialists who might read this are so predictable that they may as well be the robots who will perform all menial tasks in the ideal society. They will call me an “idealist” — and expect me to be insulted.
The problem is that they think idealism and practicality are mutually exclusive. They’re not. In fact, they can and should be complimentary. One can be guided by both ideals and practical considerations. Your ideals are the destination; practical considerations are how to get there.
Political ideologies have two dimensions:
- Goals: how society should work
- Methods: the most appropriate ways to achieve the ideal arrangement²
The Marxist tribesmen will fail to grasp this, for their dear leader took pleasure in criticizing the “utopian” socialists that preceded him, smugly differentiating his own brand by calling it “scientific” socialism. Despite this, Marx did in fact acknowledge his debt to Saint-Simon.
Just as it is dangerous to assume that we have entered a post-ideological age, as this “can enable the deepest, blindest form of ideology,”³ it is dangerous for Marxists to think that Marxism is free of idealism. Any political ideology is, by definition, an opinion on the ideal form that society should take. The Marxist ideal is a stateless, classless, moneyless society with collective ownership of the means of production.
When a Marxist says that Marxism is not idealistic because it is based on dialectical materialism, this simply means that he believes that class struggle is the most realistic method to achieve the ideal society. When a Marxist says that it is “regressive” to be a utopian, he assumes that anyone who calls himself a utopian rejects the notion that class struggle is necessary.
But this is a faulty assumption, for there is no Utopian Party with a well-defined list of principles. A Marxist defines the word “utopian” on the basis of Marx’s use of that word — as a pejorative to describe thinkers who either had no conception of class struggle or believed that the capitalist class would abdicate if presented with a convincing enough utopian proposal. The “utopian” socialists did not refer to themselves as such. Very few people self-identify as utopian, for in most people’s eyes, that word is a synonym for “impossible.”
What I am doing, in a sense, is reappropriating the u-word. I call myself a utopian because I have not been convinced that any ideology presented thus far got it completely right. I find it especially dubious that an armchair philosopher writing centuries ago had all the answers for this day and age. The Communist Manifesto was written in the 1840s. There is no way that Marx and Engels could have foreseen the bewildering technological advancements, historical events, and geopolitical trends that have occurred since.
That being said, technological utopianism is actually quite progressive, while orthodox Marxism is outdated and regressive. Marx said that our proposals must be based on the actual material conditions of society, and yet present-day Marxists are stuck on the actual material conditions of mid-19th-century European society.
Every organized religion was founded by someone who had a direct spiritual experience. Rather than seek such an experience themselves, the masses huddle around their savior, hanging onto his every word. Buddhists worship the Buddha, Christians worship Christ, and Marxists worship Marx.
I call myself a utopian because I am not a follower. Many people are followers, and for that reason I believe that Marxism has an important role to play. It is a good first step for those who have decided to free themselves from the capitalist colonization of their minds.
But as for me, rather than blindly accepting what a 19th-century European had to say about achieving the ideal society, I will approach the problem with a fresh mind. I will think for myself. I will explore all options, all avenues, all possibilities. I will approach political science as just that: a science. This would be impossible were I the slavish devotee of one particular ideology. I will pick and choose what works from various ideologies.
And perhaps I will create my own.