My favorite definition of socialism, because it so well captures the dreamy, circular, and largely contentless character of the way it is usually invoked, comes from Irving Howe, the New York intellectual, founder of Dissent magazine, and a life-long figure on the social-democratic left. Howe famously defined socialism as “the name of our desire,” with the “our” referring to highly literate, non-Stalinist leftists like himself. Socialism is what people like Howe desired. But what was that exactly? Something better than capitalism and communism. Something between them, presumably. Yet this desire apparently had no concrete object in the world. It remained a mere idea.
The definition fits what many on the left seem to be advocating now. It’s certainly not capitalism as it currently manifests itself in the United States. And don’t even think of suggesting that it resembles the hyperinflationary, blacked-out mess in Venezuela. But neither is it anything close to what we got from neoliberal shills like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
But then what is it that socialists want? To judge by the policy positions many of them favor, it’s something vaguely resembling … Canada. Or Denmark. Or maybe France.