James D Young 1963

The Two Faces of Socialism

Source: Socialist Commentary, October 1963. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Modern socialism was born in the cradle of early nineteenth-century Europe, under the harsh and brutalising conditions of nascent industrialism, when ‘kings crept out again to feel the sun’. Socialist ideas and concepts of creating a ‘new society’ were therefore shaped and sometimes marred by the conditions that gave birth to them. Just as the rulers of a rapidly vanishing feudal Europe pushed the demands for universal suffrage and popular education into the background, so, in turn, did certain socialist thinkers and philosophers conceive of the idea of imposing socialism on society from above.

But side by side with the development of authoritarian socialism there grew up a conception and tradition of socialism which was democratic and humanistic. The quintessence of this latter conception of socialism was tersely expressed by the English socialist, William Morris, when he said that ‘fellowship is life, and the lack of fellowship is death’. To realise and do justice to the ideals of democratic socialism means that we have constantly to expose and repudiate the tyrannical, life-denying foibles of the heirs of the authoritarian and totalitarian strand of thought in the socialist tradition.

In times gone by and now beyond recall, when socialism was primarily a commitment to values and a firm determination to eradicate unnecessary social and economic problems, Eugene Victor Debs, the American socialist, wrote:

Years ago I recognised my kinship with all living things, and I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am of it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a free soul in prison, I am not free.

Meanwhile, in spite of the New Left’s babble about ‘commitment’ and ‘socialist humanism’, one could go through the literature, both imaginative and sociological, of the present-day authoritarian socialist movement and search in vain for such an eloquent or comparable statement of a socialist’s commitment to humanity.

To illustrate and illuminate the contempt and disrespect with which most authoritarian socialists regard the individual (as distinct from ‘the class’, ‘the Party’ and ‘the collective’) it ought to be sufficient to quote what a Trotskyist said at a national conference of rank-and-file industrial workers a few years ago: ‘I am sick and tired of all this talk about conscience. Conscience is not a matter of individual responsibility; it is a class question.’ However, if one were to approach the sacred texts with the reverence, diligence and incantation properly reserved for historical documents, one could no doubt justify and back up this nonsense of ‘conscience being a class question’ by quoting Marx’s famous dictum ‘it is not what the individual as an individual does that is important, but what he does as the member of a class’. But what happens to ‘the man of conscience’ who, whether of working or middle-class origin, has to struggle against his own class to become a socialist, anyhow?

The age we live in is an age of inhumanity, double-think, bureaucracy and conformity. This is now so transparent that even those thinkers on the extreme left of the dominant political movements, who are still capable of thinking, albeit in an often schematic and fragmentary way, of the problems of socialism in ‘the terrible hell of the twentieth century’, sometimes quite abruptly give away their sense of disquiet and uneasiness by letting slip the occasional ‘deviationist’ remark. Thus a Polish ‘revisionist’ (engaged in sociological excavations to rediscover the ‘early Marx’) can digress from a fierce polemic with Stalinist philosophers to confess that ‘it is not the dogma he dislikes, but rather the representatives of the dogma’. [1] A strange dichotomy indeed.

Yet to engage in argument with the totalitarian or state socialist (the adjectives are interchangeable) on purely theoretical grounds about the inadequacies of traditional social theories and their irrelevance to present-day problems is often a fruitless and futile business. At the worst one is reduced to producing textual or documentary evidence to prove that Engels or Kautsky did not mean this or that, but something quite different; or at best to force the totalitarian socialist to acquiesce in admitting a criticism of a particular aspect of doctrinaire socialism only to end up being denounced as an ‘impressionist’ – the cruellest thrust of all.

A Problem of Morality

The upshot of this is that authoritarian socialism has hardened and fossilised into an amalgam of bureaucratic manipulation and economic abstractions. The Conservatives have persistently attempted to confuse the authoritarian ‘image’ of socialism with the democratic one, and this may partly help to explain the resurgence of liberalism among white-collar workers. Consequently ‘impressionist’ criticism of ‘socialists’ and ‘socialism’ of the authoritarian and totalitarian variety is vitally necessary if socialism is to become once again widely recognised as a problem of morality, and not as a problem of pig iron production.

When the socialist movement was at its best, socialists were concerned with enlarging and developing the individuality and the potentiality of every human being. To capture political power in those times was not regarded as an end in itself, but rather as a means of freeing and emancipating human beings from the poverty, suffering and the oppressive circumstances dwarfing their lives. If any evidence is still required of the extent to which authoritarian and totalitarian socialism has risen above the mundane business of worrying over the needs of human beings, let me quote Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish communist poet:

As I have said in one of my poems, I on the other hand would sacrifice a million people any day for one immortal lyric. I am a scientific socialist: I have no use whatever for emotional humanism. [2]

So, in the fullness of time, the elements of the ‘political realism’ and the ‘necessity of history’ expounded by Hugh MacDiarmid coalesce in totalitarian philosophy with the Messianism of the Old Testament prophets, and this too, though I suspect unconsciously, was given away by Sean O'Casey, the communist dramatist, in an interview with WJ Weatherby of The Guardian on 15 August 1962: ‘Do you think Marilyn Monroe would have died if we had had socialism? Who killed Marilyn Monroe? – that’s a question.’

When one looks behind the facile propaganda implicit in Sean O'Casey’s remark about Marilyn Monroe a real political dilemma can be detected. At a time when there is a marked absence of dramatic and exciting hunger marches, clashes between police and strikers, and the rest of it, and when physical struggles between fascists and ‘democrats’ are manufactured in Trafalgar Square or in the plays of ‘committed’ dramatists, how can recruits be won for left-wing political movements? In the case of the totalitarian socialist movement recruits can only be attracted by creating and perpetuating the double-edged myth of the utterly demonic, inhuman, all-oppressive and ruthless Western civilisation, and the humane, tolerant, freedom-loving and life-giving ‘Socialist third of the world’.

The Totalitarian Myth

Of course this would not, apart from the not unimportant difficulties involved in striving to relate democratic socialist values and principles to the colossal and unforeseen growth of modern technology, rate very high except as communist propaganda. But this particular aspect of communist propaganda contains the kernel of the religious appeal of totalitarian socialist philosophy, namely, the myth that personal and social unhappiness and conflict will be unheard of in a real socialist society. And it is at this point that Sean O'Casey’s apparent humanism dovetails with and complements Hugh MacDiarmid’s obvious and murderous anti-humanism.

By the way, that collective personage, the Hugh MacDiarmid – Sean O'Casey type, was humorously put paid to by a Scottish socialist who once retorted: ‘The trouble with the previous speaker is that he takes his economics from Jesus Christ and his morality from Karl Marx.’ But that anecdote belongs to the relatively quiet and peaceful years before the First World War when totalitarianism was hardly conceived of.

Then how is democratic socialism to make any real headway in the present situation? Firstly, by recognising that totalitarian socialism has, both organisationally and ideologically, permeated the labour movement on an unprecedented scale. And, secondly, by rejecting the totalitarian organic vision of socialism according to which an harmonious and wholesome society will eradicate all unhappiness and conflict as well as the notion that all conflict and unhappiness springs from capitalist society.

We want [as Norman Mailer put it] a socialist world not because we have the conceit that men would therefore be happy... but because we feel the moral imperative in life itself to raise the human condition, even if this should ultimately mean no more than that man’s suffering has been lifted to a higher level.

But, in order to translate the basic democratic socialist values of freedom, equality and the brotherhood of man into terms of practical politics, we will require to break away from the practice of clinging to outmoded concepts and dogmas. This means, too, vigorously championing political demands that many socialists have hitherto regarded as marginal, for example, the campaigns against capital punishment, racial prejudice and discrimination, the exploitation by greedy landlords, and popularising the idea of associations for consumers’ and producers’ protection. Until fairly recently, in spite of the rise and ideological survival of Stalinism and Nazism, far too many socialists have underrated the importance of the right of habeas corpus, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and the brave and grand old liberals and socialists who went to jail and sometimes died for them. By defending their achievements we will be beginning to realise the dream of Bronterre O'Brien, the Chartist leader, who coined the phrase ‘social democracy’ by which he meant democratic participation as distinct from mere voting rights.


1. The Guardian, 23 June 1959 – Author.

2. Essay in the Little Reviews Anthology, 1947 – Author.