Revisionist Tendencies: Johanna Bockman and Mathieu Hikaru Desan Reflect on Socialism and Its Classification Struggles


Socialism is alive and well on the pages of CSSH, and its fortunes in the larger world have improved in recent years. As a political brand, socialism is a focus of opposition to global trends of economic inequality and right-wing authoritarianism, and its future prospects are nowadays attached to energetic electoral movements and activist agendas in Europe, North America, and across the global South. Even the “failed” socialisms of the past are attracting new attention. It would seem that much we thought was decided in the history of socialism is worth reconsidering.

In CSSH 61-3, two of our authors undertake fascinating re-assessments of the socialist past, creating alternative accounts of socialism’s complexity as a body of ideas and as a context in which new political forms develop and change.

Johanna Bockman’s essay, “Democratic Socialism in Chile and Peru: Revisiting ‘the Chicago Boys’ as the Origin of Neoliberalism” (61-3: 654-679), questions popular claims about U.S.-backed neoliberal reforms espoused by economists trained at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. These policies and policy makers, the story goes, played a central role in the demise of socialism in South America during and after the Cold War. What the story obscures, Bockman contends, is the substantial influence Yugoslavian models of worker-managed socialism had in Chile and Peru. Key features of economic organization now associated with neoliberalism were built into this “democratic socialism.” It promoted a decentralized, market-oriented economy, but was committed to workers’ rights and anti-authoritarian politics. This socialist tradition is more vital than triumphant, ex post facto accounts of capitalist progress admit. This was true in South America in the 1990s, where “democratic socialism” lost its initial struggles with Chicago-style neoliberalism, and Bockman argues that it remains so today, when “people worldwide ask, out of the mass protests and calls for true democracy and real socialism, who decided that we would instead get capitalism, and specifically neoliberal capitalism?”

Mathieu Hikaru Desan’s essay, “The Invention of Neo-Socialism: The Dynamics of Schism and Doctrinal Distinction in the French Socialist Party” (61-3: 680-711), examines the political in-fighting that led to “neo-socialism” in 1930s France, a process in which shifts in socialist ideology were as much the effect of political schism as its cause. Once again, dominant views of what proper socialism should look like are an impediment, historical and analytical, to more nuanced understandings of how struggles for power within the French Socialist Party created the motives and means of doctrinal reclassification that eventuated in full-blown schism. In his meticulous accounting of the break-up, which began as a tactical dispute over whether socialists could participate in non-socialist government ministries, Desan shows how “neo-socialism,” at first a term of abuse, became an ideological badge of distinction: “In adopting the label, the neo-socialists accepted a definition of themselves that had originally been imposed by their adversaries.” Neo-socialism was “not always-already a definite and coherent revisionist tendency,” Desan argues; rather, it “emerged out of the very schismatic process it is often presumed to have determined.”

With this complicated backdrop in mind, we’ve decided to ask Bockman and Desan what they make of their overlapping and divergent modes of analysis, with special attention to how they go about re-assessing patterns and events that already have widely agreed-upon interpretations.

CSSH: Your papers deal with aspects of the socialist past that have been forgotten, or mischaracterized, or which might benefit from re-analysis. Revisionism is always interesting, and CSSH authors are very good at it. What intrigues us about your papers is the special problem of writing history against a dominant narrative, a version of “what happened,” that has solidified after a conflict. It’s not just a matter of upending an official history written by the winners. It’s more a case of detecting an alternative account and making a strong case for understanding it. What we’d like to know more about, having sampled both your papers, is how you developed the potential of the alternative accounts you pursue. Clearly, focusing on problems of classification was important. You also had to find an initial point of traction, so you could begin to pull the narrative away from the well-worn explanatory tracks. But you also had to be sure that the effort would be worth it, analytically. How did you do that, and what do you make of each other’s approaches to this problem, which is partly one of method and partly one of identifying the significance of a story that has been distorted by other, more hegemonic stories?

Bockman: I come from East European Studies. In the 1990s, the popular and scholarly press presented Eastern Europe as a group of isolated, backward countries just emerging into the world and as a tabula rasa on which the United States could write a new system. The Chicago Boys story about Latin America is a very similar, earlier story of Americanization. From my research, I had found that during the twentieth century Eastern European countries created a variety of different socialisms and worked internationally in their own ways. How many people know that Peru and Yugoslavia implemented worker self-management and social property at the national level? It is a surprising story! My article is a case of what might be called inter-area studies or trans-regional studies (as opposed to comparative area studies), which reveals many interesting connections and relations.

Matt and I are both sociologists who share an interest in mechanisms of change and in the history of ideas. We both question static categories and fixed identities. We examine what Matt calls “’emergent properties’ of highly localized conflicts” in times of great social change. In other work, I have used the idea of “liminal spaces” to describe places in which new knowledge is produced across/outside dichotomies of power. Matt uses the term “axiological operators,” which symbolically bind together a variety of systems of classification and hierarchies. We both are especially interested in how socialist individuals, ideas, or systems might change so drastically as to become their opposite, for example, fascist or neoliberal. However, I focus on the content of ideas, while Matt emphasizes the mechanisms of change. My work suggests that there might also be some foundational or fixed ideas. I have found that socialists committed to hierarchy and authoritarianism more easily shifted to fascism or neoliberalism than socialists committed to workers’ power, radical democracy, and equality. Karl Polanyi wrote that democracy is the key distinction: “Either Democracy or Capitalism must go. Fascism is that solution of the deadlock which leaves Capitalism untouched. The other solution is Socialism. Capitalism goes, Democracy remains” (1934: 15).

I have had trouble with my own use of origin stories. Can we really speak about the origin or invention of ideas? How does “the invention of neo-socialism” in 1933 relate to the “neo-socialism” from thirty years earlier in France associated, as I understand, with Christian socialism and trade unionism? How does “neo-socialism” relate to “neo-liberalism” appearing in France around the same time? Might both of these neo-movements reject workers and ally with managers, experts, company leaders, and the state? One way to read Matt’s article is as a highly localized history within one particular globalization, the ongoing, shifting globalization of authoritarianisms. My article presents highly localized histories within another globalization, the ongoing, shifting globalization of democratic socialisms. Both of these globalizations, as well as other globalizations and transnationalisms, move through spaces and nodes, crossing, in furious conflict, in places like interwar Europe and twentieth-century Chile and Peru.

Desan: I think the question of origins Johanna raises is an important one. She’s right that I emphasize the mechanisms of change over the content of ideas. My intention was to push back against what I see as a pronounced bias toward continuity in historical research, particularly anything related to the history of ideas, which frequently takes the form of a search for origins, influences, and antecedents. These origins are always there—after all, nothing is created from nothing. Moreover, they certainly matter in that they shape the discursive and practical repertoires available to political actors. But I’m not convinced that identifying such origins actually provides us with much analytical leverage, at least not in the case of the neo-socialists. Neither the emergence of neo-socialism as an alternative to traditional socialism (the subject of my CSSH paper) nor the political evolution of some neo-socialists into fascists during World War II (the subject of my research more generally) can be reduced to these origins. In my paper, I’m less concerned with identifying the ideational sources of neo-socialism than with examining how they cohered into the foundations of a new political identity. What interests me is how differences are turned into distinctions, as Bourdieu put it, or how discontinuities are produced out of continuities. So when I write about the invention of neo-socialism, I’m not so much referring to the genesis of the set of heterodox ideas that made up neo-socialism, but rather to the creation of a new position within the political field. These ideas may always have been there in one form or another, but it was not a given that they would constitute a basis for political distinction.

My approach is thus not to identify the origins of neo-socialism in this or that revision of socialist doctrine, but instead to highlight the ways in which these origins were made to matter through the classification struggle within the French Socialist Party. One finds these kinds of classification struggles throughout the history of socialism. Anybody familiar with the history of socialist thought knows that the meaning of socialism has almost always been contested. As Johanna points out, we start from similar premises in that we both reject static categories and fixed identities. In her paper, she recovers a fascinating but oft-neglected tradition of what she calls “democratic socialism” and traces its transnational circulation from Yugoslavia to Chile and Peru. Among the many intriguing points she makes is that this tradition has been obscured, on the one hand, by the monopolization of the “socialist” label by statist forms of socialism, and, on the other, by the conflation of this more market-oriented and decentralized socialism with neoliberalism within the Latin American context. This conflation, moreover, is compounded by the fact that neo-liberals coopted the radical language of anti-authoritarian socialism. What I find intriguing is that perhaps we can understand these as outcomes of classification struggles, and indeed Johanna’s paper is itself a kind of intervention in the debate over the meaning of socialism. But what is especially intriguing to me is the second point about how this radically democratic socialism could be coopted by, and conflated with, neoliberalism. That this could even be done in the name of socialism is one of those fascinating ironies that Johanna’s work, as well as that of Stephanie Mudge and François Denord, so fruitfully explores.

This brings up a question that I struggle with: how should we as scholars relate to the classification struggles that we study? In my work, I try to avoid passing judgment as to whether neo-socialism really was a doctrinal heresy and focus instead on the process by which it came be considered such. But can we really avoid such analytical judgments in all cases? Should we even try? Is not our job in some ways precisely to draw such analytical distinctions? I was reminded of this issue by Johanna’s use of the term “democratic socialism.” There has of course been quite a lot of debate about what exactly this means ever since the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign helped to popularize the term. Suddenly it seems that many journalists are very invested in what socialism really means, and some liberal journalists have made the point that Sanders’s definition of it is more akin to “New Deal liberalism.” I tend to think this is wrongheaded and ignores the historical diversity of socialist thought (Durkheim’s lectures on socialism give a good sense of this). What’s more, it’s actually an intervention in a classification struggle masquerading as objective analysis. The intention behind these pieces seems to be to downplay the growing popularity of socialism and minimize its distance from mainstream Democratic politics. But Johanna’s use of the term to refer to Yugoslav socialism is interesting because it’s not one I’ve come across much recently. To take Chile as an example, I think (though I could be wrong about this) more people today would associate “democratic socialism” with Allende than with the socialist opposition to Allende. Perhaps this is also an outcome of a classification struggle, or maybe it’s a distinction that has been obscured with the passing of the Cold War context. In any case, I’d be really interested to know how Johanna would relate the history she writes about in her paper to the current interest in “democratic socialism.”

Bockman: The histories of experiments in alternative economic systems are, to my mind, always valuable as a resource for current discussions. Thus, I completely agree with Matt’s call for the recognition of “the historical diversity of socialist thought” and practice. This thought and practice is vast, including, for example, worker self-management socialism practiced in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, ujamaa socialism in Tanzania, Hungarian market socialism and experiments in entrepreneurial socialism, Guyana’s cooperative socialism, the New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union, Red Vienna’s municipal socialism, today’s Mondragon cooperative system, Employee Stock Ownership Programs and community wealth building programs expanding out of Ohio, current discussions of the commons and “commoning,” and the analyses provided by the International Association for the Economics of Participation (IAFEP) and related associations. The current interest in “democratic socialism” makes this vast reservoir of thought and experience not only fascinating but also powerfully relevant.

CSSH: We’ll take that as a challenge to future CSSH authors. Several of the socialist variants you list, Johanna, are already the subject of excellent CSSH essays. We just did a “socialism” word search on our Cambridge Core website, and the result was 646 hits distributed across all six decades of our journal’s age. We’d like to publish even more essays on socialism, for all the reasons you’ve both pointed to, but we will retain green as our journal’s official color.

Thank you, Matt and Johanna, for this enlightening exchange.


Polanyi, Karl. 1934. Marxism Re-Stated. New Britain 58 (27 June): 159.

About the Authors

Johanna Bockman is Associate Professor of Sociology and Global Affairs at George Mason University. She works in globalization studies, economic sociology, urban sociology, and East European Studies. Her book Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism was published by Stanford University Press. Bockman uses comparative and historical methods in her research, moving beyond studies of nation-states to explorations of transnational trends, such as neoliberalism and the non-aligned movement. She is currently writing a book on displacement in Washington, D.C., tentatively titled “Just One Block: Race, Radical Politics, and Revanchism in Washington, DC.” This project explores globalization, neoliberalism, and gentrification in southeast D.C. She reports on this project on her blog Sociology in My Neighborhood: DC Ward 6 and is a founding member of the Cities and Globalization Working Group.

Mathieu Desan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is a historical sociologist with interests in political sociology, cultural sociology, and social theory. His current work examines the constitution of political identities in and through political contention. He is working on a book manuscript that explores this by looking at the case of French neo-socialists who became Nazi collaborators during World War II. Desan has also written on the concept of capital in Bourdieu and Marx, the link between Durkheimian sociology and fascism, Polanyi’s theory of fascism, and narratives of Detroit’s urban crisis.