As the light of socialist hopes and expectations fades, and the need for clear vision and historical perspective grows imperative, we might look to the owl of Minerva, trusting she will neither be dazzled by the fires of capitalist celebration (or crisis?) nor succumb to the absolute darkness of despair.

What is needed at this time is a historical account able to provide sufficient definition for the purposes of historians and social scientists, and yet at once accessible enough for (ex-)militants to recognize their own roles and experiences. The reflections that follow obviously make no presumption to provide such an account; they represent, in fact, no more than a preliminary sketch of the field.

From the point of view of social science, socialism is best approached as a culture and as a set of institutional structures, both located in a particular historical epoch. A culture provides its members with three basic orientations: an identity, a world-view (a particular cognitive competence), and a set of values and norms. The structures people are located in provide resources and impose constraints, distribute power and powerlessness. The epoch, finally, constitutes a conjunction of cultures and structures, temporally bounded. Rather than enumerating and examining closely the socialist forms of these analytical components, I shall confine myself to illustrating them briefly, and then concentrate on certain aspects that are of special significance to a historical interpretation.

Socialism has existed as a culture of identity, primarily in terms of class—the working class. But it has also sustained itself in a number of other ways, such as through an identification with the people, the oppressed, the labour movement, the Revolution, and—at the centre of the socialist tradition—by reference to the pantheon of Marx, Engels, Kautsky/Bernstein/Lenin, and other national founders, in their corpus of canonical writings and concepts. In addition, the culture of socialism has depended on its membership cards, networks of common understanding, and its symbols and rituals—the red flag and other, less universal, standards, such as the red star, the hammer and sickle or the red rose, The Internationale and other songs, the clenched-fist salute.

Socialist theory in general and Marxism in particular provided three crucial elements of socialism’s intellectual culture: first, an explanation of injustice and inequality in terms of the operation of capitalism and imperialism, and more generally in terms of class rule and exploitation; secondly, a historical perspective that located the possibilities of change within the very development of capitalism; thirdly, a conception of social and historical agency that emphasized the capacity and collective strength of the exploited, the oppressed, the downtrodden. The core of socialist values might be said to consist of equality and solidarity, which may be given either an individualist or a collectivist inflection, as in the communist utopia of Marx and Engels and in most socialist-movement practice respectively. Both core values are conceived universalistically, referring, at least in principle, to all humankind.

As regards structures of power and other such material resources, socialism has produced at least two distinct types. One is the permanent, grass-roots mass organization: the labour movement of trade unions and parties—the agent of struggle. The other is a set of economic institutions—of socialist development, production and distribution. The latter comprise public planning and resource-allocation, mechanisms for monitoring socioeconomic developments and performance, public ownership and regulation, the welfare system and other forms of redistribution. (While certain of these mechanisms have also been adopted by avowedly non-socialist political forces, this type of institution initially developed from within socialist traditions, including those of ‘war socialism’, ‘Christian socialism’ and so on.) Even though there have been attempts at setting up a particular kind of socialist state, these have de facto derived from combinations of the socialist movement and specific national political traditions, whether in the form of the Leninist one-party state or that of social-democratic government in the liberal democracies.

Although socialist values may be found in various historical periods, socialist culture as such forms a major part of one particular epoch, that of modernity: the historical era inaugurated by the French and American Revolutions, an epoch perhaps most distinctively characterized by its discovery of the future, a conception open, novel, pregnant with possibility. Hitherto the future was conceived of as a repetition of, or alternatively as a decline from, the past, or as the preliminary to the Last Judgment of life on earth.footnote1 Socialism, that is, emerged in the modern epoch as a major variant of the future conceived as something different from the present and the past: a post-feudal, post-capitalist society. It developed in two distinct time-spaces: those of industrial/non-industrialized and colonial/colonized modernity.