21st century socialism: What makes it different?

People’s World Series on Socialism

Everyone seems to be talking about socialism these days, but what does it mean? That was the question asked by Susan Webb in one of our most popular and widely-shared recent articles. Millions of Americans are considering alternatives to a system run by and for the 1 percent. They are taking an interest in socialism, a word that has meant a great many things to activists, trade unionists, politicians, and clergy around the world over the last century and a half. The article below is one of a series on socialism, what it can mean for Americans in the 21st century, and how we might get there. Other articles in the series can be found here

When I was a young philosophy student back in the 1960s, in one of my classes we discussed what was called an “essentially contested concept” and what we learned about it has always stuck with me. The idea was that there were certain concepts wherein, before you could use them in a paper or a debate, you first had to define them, and second, you had to define them in your way. My professor gave as an example, “a good Christian,” and challenged us to find a common “objective” definition. We couldn’t, and his point was made. Some ideas are simply “essentially contested.”

So it is with socialism, as I learned a few years later. My revolutionary group in the 1970s was writing a new program for a new communist party, and as one who had read most of the classics, I was assigned the task of ferreting out the one, true definition of socialism. After months, I gave up. Even the same heroic figures had said different things at different times. So personally, I just picked one I liked best – one of Lenin’s, asserting that socialism was “Soviet power plus electrification.” It was succinct and entirely appropriate for his time, place, and circumstances.

But time, places, and circumstances are always changing, and at times dramatically. By the late 1980s, nearly every socialist recognized that there was a crisis in socialism. What that meant, especially when the Soviet bloc collapsed, was that socialism was entering a new period of being “essentially contested,” and in a very big way for several decades to come. Every old model was breaking up, every old dogma, and every tried-and-tested truth was up in the air. Some people fell by the wayside, but a good many more were determined to “break on through to the other side” of the crisis by fully engaging it, and coming up with something new.

One of the first to break out was Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who first popularized the term “21st century socialism.” He stressed different things at different times, but the core idea he affirmed was bringing participatory democracy into socialism in dozens of new ways. Those of us with roots in the New Left of the 1960s grasped the importance of this immediately and held out high hopes that this would unfold. But many people picked up on “21st century socialism” and colored it anew with their own visions.

What I would like to do here, then, is offer my perspective on the key differences between the socialism of the 20th century, and the new 21st century socialisms emerging in our time. But I first want to note that I’m also in agreement with many of the views put out by others in this series of articles, especially those of Pat Fry and Bill Fletcher, Jr.

In my working hypothesis (and I use this term purposely to set aside old notions of “the correct line”), there are three key dimensions to a socialism of the 21st century: 1) ecological consciousness, (2) understanding the balance between plan and markets, and (3) an affirmation of human rights as they have evolved through history.


From the 1970s on, following the start of Earth Day and the shift in consciousness in all of us from seeing the Earth from space, the “big blue marble,” for the first time, another truth has grown on us: all economies, capitalist or socialist, are subsets of the ecosystem. And we ignore the ecosystem’s laws at our peril.

Whether it’s the Dust Bowl in the 1930s or Three-Mile Island and Love Canal in the U.S., or Chernobyl and Lake Baikal in the USSR, or the deadly pollution in Beijing and Shanghai, we’ve learned a new concept – ‘ecocide’ – and we’ve learned that there are no such things as the ‘externalities’ in the economics textbooks. If you ignore nature’s rules, you’ll pay dearly later on. (One does have to place things in context: I recall a trip to China, when I was standing on a hotel balcony, complaining about the soot-filled air. The Chinese official I was with agreed to a point, but he saw it as both a sacrifice and also positively a welcome tribute that modern industry was booming. Thankfully, in more recent times, China has shifted its priorities.)

In brief, 21st century socialism will be one with an embedded green industrial policy, one that aims for 90 percent or more of its energy to come from solar, wind, and other renewables by, say, the year 2050. Practically speaking today, it means making the Green New Deal and the Smart Grid the hearts of both our campaigns for full employment and action on climate change.

Markets and plans

What we have learned (or re-learned) is that markets have been around long before capitalism, and are likely to persist for a good while afterwards under a socialist order. Markets are a function of scarcity which, as we well know, doesn’t disappear right after the revolution. And whether they have admitted it or not, every socialist country has had markets, even if hidden as ‘black markets’ or ‘tiered markets’ for elites.

In short, ‘market socialism’ is not an oxymoron. Just the opposite. What matters under socialism is whether planning takes markets into account, regulates them, and harnesses their dynamism to advance the rational growth of productive forces. Markets will wither away at some point, but the requirements would be those of fully cybernated economies of abundance, where the amount of living labor in any given commodity shrinks toward zero and the length of the working day shrinks toward zero, i.e., when we are on the cusp of socialism turning into communism on a world scale.

We have learned the hard way that socialism is a period of mixed ownership – public, cooperative, and private – and it makes no sense to nationalize everything down to shoe shine stands and hairdressers, and then ‘plan’ their output. China has learned this lesson in a big way, and Cuba under Raul is absorbing it today. To go deeper into this topic, I’ll recommend a book by a CCDSer, David Schweickart’s After Capitalism, which is being studied by socialists and communists in and out of power around the world. (A study guide in the form of a chapter-by-chapter slide show is available at the Online University of the Left.)

Human Rights

Every socialism we know has claimed the mantle of democracy, but likewise, they have often fallen short of its fulfillment, some much more so than others. This is often explained by various contingencies – dealing with counter-revolution within and imperialist plots without – and all of them are points well taken. But we also know the problem is deeper, if for no other reason than the relative lack of resistance from below when many socialist countries imploded.

One puzzle that helped me work through this was pondering a statement made by Lenin (of whom I’m a fan), that Soviet power was the “unrestricted” power of the working class against its adversaries. Being a student of philosophy and the sciences, I stopped and thought: Hold on here. Nothing in the universe is unrestricted or unlimited. How can a workers’ government, or the dictatorship of the proletariat, be an exception? And if it does have limits, what are they?

After a long period of study and debate, I concluded that “natural human right,” or what Marx called our “species being,” was the proper answer. And part of it, I’ll admit, came through a study of John Locke and the history of the U.S. Constitution. Are our rights something given us by government, whether capitalist or socialist? Or are they something we possess simply because of who and what we are – human beings? (And obviously, the statement of those rights can evolve over time, and vary a bit in their phrasing in different places and circumstances.)

What cinched it for me was considering the case of Dred Scott. Did he and others of the enslaved have rights, regardless of government? Or was Judge Taney right in saying that he had “no rights a white man was bound to respect?” I sided with Dred Scott. He had natural human rights, no matter what Judge Taney or any other government had to say on the matter.

From another angle, it was a matter of siding with Locke over Rousseau on the matter of where ‘sovereignty’ resided – in the people themselves, or in the state as an expression of the general will?

A 21st century socialism will conclude, if it is wise, that rights and sovereignty reside in the people themselves, and that is the ‘limit’ or ‘restriction’ that any government, socialist or otherwise, would do well to observe. Once you suspend it, as, say, FDR did with the internment of Japanese-Americans, in time it will come back to haunt you.

In concluding, I’ll simply note that there is much more to be said on the new rising socialisms in our time. As a science fiction fan starting when I was a young boy and later in life as a computer geek, I’m particularly hopeful about the implications of new technologies that can free us and all humanity from the burdens of alienated toil.  But these three points, centered in the values of freedom and harmony in the universe in various ways, make for a decent point to begin.

Carl Davidson is a national co-chair of CCDS, an activist with Progressive Democrats of America, and a member of United Steel Workers Local 3657 in Western Pennsylvania.