Socialism, Ascetic and Epicurean

As political philosophies go, socialism has more than its share of historical baggage, competing incompatible versions, and popular misperceptions. So most socialists eventually give in to temptation, and tack on an adjective before “socialist”, to clarify what they mean by the word. Some might say that it’s a waste of time to argue over what we label ourselves, and that we should all just get along and focus our energy on fighting capitalism. But understanding all these labels can help us get some idea of what really divides all the people who call themselves “socialist”. Because while we agree on many things—in particular, that we hate capitalism—we disagree on an awful lot.

I’ll explain the weird title of this post in a moment. First, however, let’s take a brief excursion through the history of socialist sub-categorization.

Even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels felt they needed to brand their particular version of the socialist creed, with the term “scientific socialism”. They didn’t mean (usually) that socialism was a science like physics or biology. But they insisted that if you want to get rid of capitalism, you have to understand it through careful study and research. This was in contrast to the “utopian socialists” who were content to dream up visions of what socialism would be like, without asking how we would make the transition from capitalism to the utopian future, or who would bring about that transition. (You may have noticed that these kinds of people are still around.) Marx and Engels wrote a whole book attacking the utopians (whence comes the title of this little essay) and arguing for a scientific socialism.

In more recent years, it’s become popular to preface “socialist” with “democratic”. Here in YDS, we liked that one so much that we put it in the name of the organization. The point here, of course, is to emphasize that socialism must be a grassroots mass movement, built from the bottom up, and supported by a majority of the people. This is in contrast to the elitist, un-democratic socialisms that we learned about in school (or learned about firsthand, for those who grew up in Communist countries.)

That’s all well and good, as far as it goes. Democracy is certainly important, but it doesn’t capture all the things about authoritarian socialism that we want to avoid. There’s also the separate issue of civil liberties and individual rights.

All socialists agree that some things should be determined collectively, and that it’s OK to force people to obey these decisions as long as they are democratically decided. So, for example, it’s OK to make people pay taxes that go to providing education and health care for everybody. Just because you’re young and healthy, or don’t have kids, you don’t have the right to opt out. But at the same time, most socialists would agree that the government shouldn’t routinely listen in on your phone calls or tell you who you can marry, even if the government is socialist and the policies were voted on democratically. To capture that sentiment, some people (Noam Chomsky, for example) have started calling themselves “libertarian socialists”.

Again, this is OK as far as it goes, although the term can be a little bit confusing. For one thing, “libertarian” also refers to another, militantly pro-capitalist philosophy. For another, some people use “libertarian socialist” to mean the same thing as “anarchist”, while other libertarian socialists accept that the state can sometimes be useful to have around. Still, the sentiment behind calling oneself a libertarian socialist is an admirable one.

But there’s another distinction between socialists that I don’t think really has an accepted name. This one has to do with what we think of the individualism and hedonism that are so characteristic of our age.

I think most socialists are at least a bit disgusted with the excesses of the rich, but there are two different reasons to be disgusted. For some, it’s the fact that a life of individualism and materialism (in an everyday, not a philosophical sense) is only available to the rich, and that us regular folks will never have a chance of living like Paris Hilton or Dennis Koslowski. In other words, it’s the inequality that’s the issue, not the behavior itself. But other people think that there’s something inherently wrong with a life of self-centered consumption, and that we’d be better people (and a better society) if everyone stopped shopping, lived simply and acted for others rather than for themselves.

The renunciation of worldly pleasures in pursuit of some higher goal is generally referred to as “asceticism”, so I call the anti-hedonist tendency I’ve just described “ascetic socialism”. In contrast, I’ll use “epicurean socialism” to refer to a politics that thinks that the individual pursuit of sensual pleasure is one of the finest things there is; the problem with capitalism is that it restricts this pursuit to a privileged few, while imprisoning the working class in endless toil.

These days, the word “epicurean” refers to any philosophy that privileges the pursuit of pleasure. But the word originally comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who advocated that people pursue life’s small pleasures, because “It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.” The idea that we should voluntarily deprive ourselves of pleasant things (which many anti-consumerist activists seem to suggest) would have been anathema to him.

It turns out that there is already a link to Epicurus in the socialist tradition: he was the subject of Karl Marx’s little-known doctoral dissertation. Although Marx wrote about Epicurus’ philosophy of nature, he was evidently an epicure in other ways as well. As Francis Wheen recounts in his biography, Marx and Engels were not averse to a good night of drinking and carousing in the pubs of London.

But if there is a poster boy for epicurean socialism, surely it is Oscar Wilde. Although he is now remembered mostly as a gay icon and a flamboyant and witty socialite (follow that last link to get the idea), Wilde considered himself a socialist. He wrote an essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, which opens with the declaration that “the chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.” Wilde goes on to argue that abolishing private property would bring about, not collectivism, but the truest kind of individualism!

This claim isn’t as wacky as it looks at first. We have all been taught that capitalism is all about personal freedom and individualism. But how free are most people, when they are compelled to work at some demeaning job in order to pay the rent, or pay off their student loans, or keep their health insurance? If we used our great social wealth to free people from need, and to reduce the length of the work-week, people could dedicate themselves to the things that truly fulfill them. For some people, that might be socially useful things like working in a community garden or writing free software programs. For others, it might be drinking margaritas and watching television. A good epicure would say that it doesn’t matter, however—the point is to give people as much time as possible to pursue any or all of those things if they so choose.

By now it’s probably clear that I fall firmly on the epicurean side of this debate, so I won’t try to give a fair defense of the ascetic position. I should emphasize, however, that no honest epicurean socialist would deny that in practice,unlimited consumption and hedonism are impossible. Somebody has to do the dirty work, whether it’s changing diapers or mining coal. And environmental concerns make it necessary to place limits on consumption. The epicurean position accepts all this, but insists that in principle, there is nothing wrong with enjoying material things. Therefore, socialists should work to increase people’s access to leisure time and pleasurable things.

And of course, individualism isn’t incompatible with collectivism. Anyone with even a somewhat optimistic view of human nature would acknowledge that many people would freely choose to do things for others rather than simply gratify themselves. We are, after all, social animals.

I’m not sure if there is anyone who would actually answer to the label “ascetic socialist”. Maybe it’s a straw person. But at the very least, it’s out there in the public’s perception of socialists. I’m reminded of an episode of “Seinfeld”, where Elaine knows her new boyfriend is a communist because of his “drab, olive-colored clothing”. So consider this a small attempt to correct the record, and to insist that—for this socialist, at least—socialism doesn’t have to be drab or deprived, because, as the saying goes, “nothing’s too good for the working class”.

UPDATE: Inspired by Adrian in the comments, I added the image above to accompany the argument. Love the image, although it looks like an ascetic socialist snuck in there with that "work for all" banner...

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commented 2016-03-31 22:56:00 -0400 · Flag
While Epicurus was certainly in a continuation of the Hedonist schools of ancient Greece, his was a more aesectic reaction to the Cyrenaic school (founded by Aristippus of Cyrene), which could be described as a “worldly hedonism”. (Of course, other ancient writers felt that Eipcurus merely plagiarized the work of Theodoros, a surviving writer of the Cyrenaic school who was a disciple of Aristippus the Younger (grandson of the school’s founder), though Theodoros’ branch of the school clearly developed into its own distinct teachings.