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Erik Olin Wright: Taking the ‘Social’ in Socialism Seriously



Throughout most of the 20th century, socialism constituted the central ideological matrix for thinking about alternatives to capitalism. Even in settings where socialism as such was not an immediately feasible political goal, the idea of socialism helped to give political direction to struggles against capitalism.


Things have changed. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the socialist project no longer has much political credibility. This is not because people have universally come to view capitalism as a benign social order within which humanity would flourish. Rather, it is because the particular institutional arrangements that had come to be associated with socialism are seen as incapable of delivering on their promises. Triumphant Capitalism declares: “There is No Alternative”. Denouncing capitalism seems to many people a bit like criticizing the weather. Perhaps we can patch the roof to keep out the rain, but there is not much point in railing against the storm itself. Instead of being viewed as a threat to capitalism, talk of socialism now seems more like archaic utopian dreaming, or perhaps even worse: a distraction from the dealing with tractable problems in the real world. 


Yet, ironically, we also live in a period in which many of the traditional socialist criticisms of capitalism seem more appropriate than ever: inequality, economic polarization and job insecurity in many developed societies has been deepening; capital has become increasingly footloose, moving across the globe and deeply constraining the activities of states and communities; giant corporations dominate the media and cultural production; the market appears like a law of nature uncontrollable by human device; politics in many capitalist democracies are ever-more dominated by money and unresponsive to the concerns and worries of ordinary people. The need for a vibrant alternative to capitalism is as great as ever.


In this paper I want to propose a general way of thinking about socialism as an alternative to capitalism. It works off of the observation that both social democracy and socialism contain the word “social” [1]. Generally this term is invoked in a loose and ill-defined way. The suggestion is a political program committed to the broad welfare of society rather than the narrow interests of particular elites. Sometimes, especially in more radical versions of socialist discourse, “social ownership” is invoked as a contrast to “private ownership,” but in practice this has generally been collapsed into state ownership, and the term social itself ends up doing relatively little analytical work in the elaboration of the political program. What I will argue is that the social in social democracy and socialism can be used to identify a cluster of principles and visions of change that differentiate socialism and social democracy both from the capitalist project of institutional development and from what could be called a purely statist response to capitalism. These principles revolve around what I will call “social empowerment.” This, in turn, will suggest a way of thinking about a range of future possibilities for socialism that have generally not been given a central place within radical challenges.


We will begin in Part I by locating the problem of understanding socialism within a broader agenda of emancipatory social theory. Part II presents a synoptic critique of capitalism which identifies the problems for which socialism is a purported solution. Part III explores the general problem of elaborating credible institutional alternatives to existing structures of power and privilege. Here I will elaborate the idea of social empowerment and explain what a socialism based on social empowerment means. Part IV will then propose a map of pathways to social empowerment that embody the principles of a “social” socialism.


I. The tasks of emancipatory social science


Emancipatory social science, in its broadest terms, seeks to generate scientific knowledge relevant to the collective project of challenging various forms of human oppression and creating the conditions in which people can live flourishing lives. To call it a form of social science, rather than simply social criticism or social philosophy, implies that it recognizes the importance of systematic scientific knowledge about how the world works for this task [2].  To call it emancipatory is to identify a central moral purpose in the production of knowledge – the elimination of oppression and the creation of the conditions for human flourishing. And to call it social implies the belief that human emancipation depends upon the transformation of the social world, not just the inner self.

To fulfill this mission, any emancipatory social science faces three basic tasks: elaborating a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; envisioning viable alternatives; and, understanding the obstacles, possibilities, and dilemmas of transformation. In different historical moments one or another of these may be more pressing than others, but all are necessary for a comprehensive emancipatory theory.


1. Diagnosis and critique


The starting point for building an emancipatory social science is identifying the ways in which existing social institutions and social structures systematically impose harms on people. It is not enough to show that people suffer in the world in which we live or that there are enormous inequalities in the extent to which people live flourishing lives. A scientific emancipatory theory must show that the explanation for this suffering and inequality lies in specific properties of institutions and social structures. The first task of emancipatory social science, therefore, is the diagnosis and critique of the causal processes that generate these harms. 


Diagnosis and critique is the aspect of emancipatory social science that is often the most systematic and developed. Consider Feminism, for example. A great deal of feminist writing centers on the diagnosis of existing social relations and institutions in terms of the ways in which they generate various forms of oppression of women. The central point of such research is to show that gender inequality and forms of oppression are not the result of “nature”, but are generated by social processes. Studies of labor markets have emphasized such things as sex-segregation of jobs, job evaluation systems which denigrate job attributes associated with culturally-defined feminine traits, promotion discrimination, institutional arrangements which place mothers at a disadvantage in employment, and so on. Feminist studies of culture demonstrate the ways in which a wide range of cultural practices in the media, education, literature, and so on, have traditionally reinforced gender identities and stereotypes in ways that oppress women. Feminist studies of the state have examined the way in which state structures and policies have, at least until recently, systematically reinforced the subordination of women and various forms of gender inequality. A similar set of observations could be made about empirical research inspired by the Marxist tradition of emancipatory theory, by theories of racial oppression, and by radical environmentalism. In each of these traditions much of the research that is done consists in documenting the harms generated by existing social structures and institutions, and attempting to identify the causal processes which generate those harms.


Diagnosis and critique are closely connected to questions of social justice and normative theory. To describe a social arrangement as generating “harms” is to infuse the analysis with a moral judgment. Behind every emancipatory theory, therefore, there is an implicit theory of justice, some conception of what conditions would have to be met before the institutions of a society could be deemed just. It is beyond the scope of this paper to defend the normative theory that underlies the critique of capitalism, but it will clarify some of the motivation for the analysis which follows to make the central claims of this normative stance explicit. The analysis of this paper is animated by what can be called a radical democratic egalitarian understanding of justice. This rests on two broad normative claims, one concerning the conditions for social justice and the other for political justice.


1.     Social justice: In a just society, all people would have broadly equal access to the necessary material and social means to live flourishing lives. This is a fairly complex formulation, but the key idea is egalitarianism with respect to a fairly comprehensive understanding of the conditions which foster human flourishing. 


2. Political justice: In a politically just society, people should  be equally empowered to contribute to the collective control of the conditions and decisions which affect their common fate. This is a principle of both political equality and collective democratic empowerment.


     Taken together these two claims call for a society that deepens the quality of democracy and enlarges its scope of action under conditions of radical social and material equality. The problem, of course, is to show that another world is possible within which these principles could be significantly advanced relative to the world as we know it.

2. Alternatives

The second task of emancipatory social science is to develop a coherent, credible theory of alternatives to existing institutions and social structures that would eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, these harms. Social alternatives can be elaborated and evaluated by three different criteria: desirability, viability, and achievability. These are nested in a kind of hierarchy: not all desirable alternatives are viable, and not all viable alternatives are achievable.


The exploration of desirable alternatives, without the constraints of viability or achievability, is the domain of utopian social theory and much normative political philosophy. Typically such discussions are institutionally very thin, the emphasis being on the enunciation of abstract principles rather than actual institutional designs. Thus, for example, the Marxist aphorism to describe communism as a classless society governed by the principle “to each according to need, from each according to ability,” is almost silent on the actual institutional arrangements which would make this principle operative. Liberal theories of justice similarly elaborate and defend the principles that should be embodied in the institutions of a just society without systematically exploring the problem of whether sustainable, robust institutions could actually be designed to carry out those principles in the pure form in which they are formulated [3].  These kinds of discussions are important, for they contribute much to clarifying our values and strengthening our moral commitment to the arduous business of social change. But purely utopian thinking about alternatives may do little to inform the practical task of institution building or add credibility to challenge to existing institutions.


The study of viable alternatives asks of proposals for transforming existing social structures and institutions whether, if implemented, they would actually generate in a sustainable, robust manner, the emancipatory consequences that motivated proposal. A common objection to radical egalitarian proposals is “sounds good on paper, but it will never work.” Perhaps the best known example of this problem is central planning, the classic form which attempted to realize socialist principles. Socialists had sharp criticisms of the anarchy of the Market and its destructive effects on society and believed that a rationally planned economy would improve the lives of people. The institutional design that seemed to make this possible was centralized comprehensive planning. As it turned out, there are a range of “perverse” unintended consequences of comprehensive central planning which subvert its intended goals. As a result, few people today believe that comprehensive central planning of complex societies is a viable alternative to capitalism for realizing emancipatory objectives. 


The viability of a specific institutional design for realizing emancipatory goals, of course, may not be an all-or-nothing affair. Viability may crucially depend upon various kinds of side conditions. For example, a generous unconditional basic income may be viable in a country in which there is a strong culturally-rooted work ethic and sense of collective obligation, because in such a society there would be relatively few people who decide to consume the basic income without any reciprocal contribution, but not viable in a highly atomistic consumerist society. Or, a basic income could be viable in a society that already had developed over a long period a generous redistributive welfare state based on a patchwork of targeted programs, but not in a society with a miserly limited welfare state. Discussions of viability, therefore, also include discussions of the contextual conditions-of-possibility for particular designs to work well. 


The exploration of viable alternatives brackets the question of their practical achievability under existing social conditions. Some people might argue, what’s the point of talking about some theoretically viable alternative to the world in which we live if it is not strategically achievable? The response to the skeptic is this: there are so many uncertainties and contingencies about the future, that we cannot possibly know now what really are the limits of achievable alternatives in the future. Perhaps we can say something about what sorts of changes we can struggle for right now, what kinds of coalitions are formable and which are unformable, what sorts of political strategies are likely to be effective and ineffective in the present. But the further we look into the future, the less certain we can be about the limits on what is achievable.


Given this uncertainty about the future, there are two reasons why it is important to have clear-headed understandings of the range of viable alternatives to the world in which we live, alternatives which, if implemented, would stand a chance of being sustainable. First, developing such understandings now makes it more likely that if in the future historical conditions expand the limits of achievable possibility, social forces committed to emancipatory social change will be in a position to formulate practical strategies to implement the alternative. Viable alternatives are more likely to eventually become achievable alternatives if they are well thought out and understood. Second, the actual limits of what is achievable depend in part on the beliefs people hold about what sorts of alternatives are viable. This is a crucial point and fundamental to sociological understandings of the very idea of there being “limits of possibility” for social change: social limits of possibility are not independent of beliefs about limits. When a physicist argues that there is a limit to the maximum speed at which things can travel, this is meant as an objective constraint operating independently of our beliefs about speed. Similarly, when a biologist argues that in the absence of certain conditions, life is impossible, this is a claim about objective constraints. Of course both the physicist and the biologist could be wrong, but the claims themselves are about real, untransgressable limits of possibility. Claims about social limits of possibility are different from these claims about physical and biological limits, for in the social case the beliefs people hold about limits systematically affect what is possible. Developing systematic, compelling accounts of viable alternatives to existing social structures and institutions of power and privilege, therefore, is one component of the social process through which the social limits on achievable alternatives can themselves be changed.


It is no easy matter to make a credible argument that “another world is possible”. People are born into societies that are always already made. The rules of social life which they learn and internalize as they grow up seem natural. People are preoccupied with the tasks of daily life, with making a living, with coping with life’s pains and enjoying life’s pleasures. The idea that the social world could be deliberately changed in some fundamental way that would make life significantly better for most people seems pretty far-fetched, both because it is hard to imagine some dramatically better workable alternative and because it is hard to imagine how to successfully challenge existing institutions of power and privilege in order to create the alternative. Thus even if one accepts the diagnosis and critique of existing institutions, the most natural response for most people is probably a fatalistic sense that there is not much that could be done to really change things.


Such fatalism poses a serious problem for people committed to challenging the injustices and harms of the existing social world. One strategy, of course, is to just not worry too much about having a scientifically credible argument about the possibilities for radical social change, but instead try to create an inspiring vision of a desirable alternative, grounded in anger at the injustices of the world in which we live and infused with hope and passion about human possibilities. At times, such charismatic wishful thinking has been a powerful force, contributing to the mobilization of people for struggle and sacrifice. But charismatic wishful thinking is unlikely to form an adequate basis for transforming the world in ways that actually produce a sustainable emancipatory alternative. The history of the human struggles for radical social change is filled with heroic victories over existing structures of oppression followed by the tragic construction of new forms of domination and inequality. The second task of emancipatory social science, therefore, is to develop in as systematic a way as possible a scientifically grounded conception of viable alternative institutions. 


Developing coherent theories of achievable alternatives is the central task for the practical work of strategies for social change. This turns out to be a very difficult undertaking, both because views about achievability are also vulnerable to wishful thinking, and because of the high levels of contingency of conditions in the future which will affect the prospects of success of any long-term strategy.


As in the case of viability, achievability is not really a simple dichotomy: different projects of institutional transformation have different prospects for ever being implemented. The probability that any given viable alternative to existing social structures and institutions could be implemented some time in the future depends upon two kinds of processes: First, it depends upon the consciously pursued strategies and relative power of social actors who support and oppose the alternative in question. Strategy matters because emancipatory alternatives are very unlikely to just “happen”; they can only come about because people work to implement them, and are able to overcome various forms of opposition. Second, this probability depends upon the trajectory over time of a wide range of social structural conditions that affect the possibilities of success of these strategies [4].  This trajectory of conditions is itself partially the result of the cumulative unintended effects of human action, but it is also the result of the conscious strategies of actors to transform the conditions of their own actions. The achievability of an alternative, thus, depends upon the extent to which it is possible to formulate coherent, compelling strategies which both help create the conditions for implementing alternatives in the future and have the potential to mobilize the necessary social forces to support the alternative when those conditions occur. Developing an understanding of these issues is the objective of the third general task of emancipatory social science: the theory of transformation.

3. Transformation 

     We can think of emancipatory social science as an account of a journey from the present to a possible future: the critique of society tells us why we want to leave the world in which we live; the theory of alternatives tells us where we want to go; and the theory of transformation tells us how to get from here to there. This involves a number of difficult, interconnected problems: a theory of the mechanisms of social reproduction which sustain existing structures of power and privilege; a theory of the contradictions in such systems of reproduction, contradictions which open up a space of strategies of social transformation; a theory of the developmental dynamics of the system which change the conditions for such strategies over time; and, crucially, a theory of the formation of collective actors engaging in struggles over these conditions of transformation. 

     The central concern of this paper is the second of the three core tasks of emancipatory social science: the problem of elaborating viable emancipatory alternatives to capitalism. To set the stage for this discussion it will be helpful to first sketch the central elements on the critique of capitalism, laying out the central harms generated by capitalist processes that animate the search for an alternative.




1. In conventional political language “social democracy” refers to a reformist project inspired by socialist ideals which accepts the constraints of accommodating to capitalism, whereas “socialism” refers to an project social transformation beyond capitalism. In practice, the labels do not have such a clear demarcation: many socialist parties pursue strictly social democratic agendas, and some leftwing social democrats remain firmly committed to a more anticapitalist transformative vision. In the present context I will treat both social democracy and socialism as occupying a position within a broad-spectrum of democratic egalitarian challenges to capitalism. Social democracy embodies socialist principles, even if it attempted to deploy those principles in much more pragmatic ways than some parties that have called themselves socialist.


2. Many people who support emancipatory ideals are quite suspicious of the term “science,” seeing it as implying a privileged access to truth by experts who are willing to impose their truth on ordinary people. While it is true that sometimes claims to “science” are used in this way, I see science as a deeply democratic principle of knowledge-seeking since it rejects all claims to absolute certainty and insists on open, undominated dialogue as the basis for correcting errors and advancing knowledge.

3. Moral philosophers generally argue that ought implies can – that there is no moral imperative to do the impossible – and thus, at least implicitly, arguments about what would constitute a “just society” – a desirable alternative to the present world – require that viable institutions could in principle be constructed to actualize those principles. In practice, however, very little attention is given to these issues in political philosophy. John Rawls, for example, argues that his “liberty principle” is lexically prior to his “difference principle” without every asking if this is possible in real institutions.

4. To quote (out of context) Marx’s famous aphorism: “[people] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” Marx (1852 [1968]: 96), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The quote is usually taken to mean that social structures impose constraints on human agency, but the actual context of the quote is about the mental conditions of action. The full quote continues: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits from the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language” (p. 97).  



Excerpt form the paper summarizing the book manuscript-in-progress Envisioning Real Utopias, 2006. Retrieved from: <