“In Seasons Such as These,” A Word on Socialism


Not even the apparently enlightened principle of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ can excuse indifference to individual suffering.” — Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear


Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides…defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this!

King Lear


The most obvious and terrible tension of our current ordeal – the half-life limbo of the COVID-lockdown – is fear for friends, family and indeed ourselves, overlaid with concern for the Cape Breton, Canadian and global communities. Such acute anxiety, however, is for many progressives mixed with hope (or at least determination) that a turning-point may have arrived in world affairs, a desperately-needed ‘sea change’ in awareness and perspective.

Paul Rogers, professor emeritus at the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, UK — and a voice of anti-war reason familiar to many Canadians — recently reassured me that “the light at the end of the tunnel will not be a train coming the other way.” Certainly, in an age of double existential peril – from ‘the chimney’ (global warming) and ‘the cloud’ (nuclear weapons) – this awful disease will not prove ‘the end of the world,’ and is very far from a real ‘world war.’ In some startling ways, as is being carefully documented, the pandemic is granting the world a reprieve from the routine ravages of its most ‘invasive species.’

The virus is even, praise be, stopping or slowing actual wars, with a ‘Coronavirus Ceasefire’ taking fragile hold in Yemen; ‘only’ 100 deaths recorded in the Syrian civil war in March; and talk of silencing the guns in Libya, Cameroon, Ukraine and elsewhere. Over 70 states, including Canada – as well as Pope Francis and many other spiritual and civic leaders – have now backed the March 23 call of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to “put armed conflict on lockdown.” But as Gutteres cautioned on April 3, there is “still a distance between declarations and deeds in many countries.” And the New Cold War has reared its ugly head, with rival Russian and Western ceasefire resolutions at the UN.

As the pandemic abates, though, will we continue to ‘give peace (and the planet) a chance’? Or is it more likely that the ‘routine ravages’ of the B.C. (Before Coronavirus) Era will resume ASAP – that the industrialized rape of earth, sky and ocean will pick up where it left off, together with the drift to the ultimate violation of Mother Earth, nuclear war?

The growing rancor over COVID-crisis (mis)management –- between the US and China; the US and the EU; northern and southern EU states; the Global North and South more generally –- bodes ill. As do early signs that the agenda of economic recovery will yet again be set by vested corporate interest, the ‘too-big-to-fail’ rather than the ‘too-small-to-see.’ And it is surely rational to worry whether virus-weakened democracies (and citizens) will find the strength to resist either Big Business or Big Brother, to restore durable liberty to daily life and stem the tide of state surveillance and executive control. The ‘sea’ indeed seems set to change: but for better or worse?


The answer will depend in part on the words we use and the meanings we give them. Do we seek to place societies on a ‘war footing’ against disease, or rather a ‘peace footing,’ treating war as a sick waste not just of lives in combat but the resources required to build healthier, saner and freer societies: to finally tackle all the left-to-fester crises (homelessness, addiction, violence against women and children, etc.) we have ‘ta’en too little care of’?

Tony Benn shaking hand of Maurice Papon

Tony Benn shaking the hand of Maurice Papon during the official presentation of Concorde, 11 December 1967. André Cros / CC BY-SA

Which brings us to a word I hope will feature prominently in the months and years ahead: socialism. “Social-ism,” as the British Labour Party politician Tony Benn liked to say, is the civilizing of society to meet the collective and individual needs of its people. Capital-ism, by contrast, is anti-social, exploiting – capital-izing on – every opportunity to meet its own needs at the expense of others.

In his influential Arguments for Socialism – published in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power determined to prove “there is no such thing as society” – Benn set a goal of advancing “from a situation where capital hires labour to a situation where labour hires capital,” a shift “not only in the balance of power in industry, but the balance of power in society” with radical implications for all those institutions — law and justice, education, media, etc. — currently serving the interests of capital. “We are not,” he concluded, “talking about minor changes.”

In his 1952 masterpiece In Place of Fear, Aneurin Bevan – health secretary in the post-WW2 UK Labour government that created the National Health Service (NHS) – conceded that while true socialism was necessarily democratic, democracy was not necessarily socialist. “The issue,” instead, was whether a “capitalist democracy” was sustainable, for “either poverty will use democracy to win the struggle against property, or property, in fear of poverty, will destroy democracy.” Bevan did not advocate the abolition of all private property or business, but rather a shift to public ownership and services sufficient to create economic democracy: an economy run by and for the people. “Poverty, great wealth, and democracy,” Bevan declared, “are ultimately incompatible elements in any society.”


The first leader of the Labour Party, in the late 19th century, was Keir Hardie, his convictions shaped by brutal experience as a child-laborer in the coal mines of Lanarkshire, Scotland – a youth lost producing profit for a system withholding the resources all people need to “live the lives they feel stirring within.” That, he argued, was capitalism’s ‘capital crime’: denying millions “ownership of the means of existence.”

Hardie was a close friend of Sylvia Pankhurst, the pacifist-socialist who, in 1915, watched him die from heartbreak as World War I — the mass-murder of workers by workers –- raged on. In 1928 another anti-war feminist, Virginia Woolf, brilliantly argued for the right of all women to a ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ breathing space to be themselves: in the case of women artists – to turn Hardie’s phrase – ‘ownership of the means of creation.’

Bernie Sanders rally, San Francisco, 24 March 2019

Bernie Sanders rally, San Francisco, 24 March 2019 Victor Grigas / CC BY-SA 

A room of one’s own, a life of one’s own: the hallmark of a civilized society. One in which healthcare, education and housing would be rights, not commodities; child poverty and food banks would be shameful memories; mass-incarceration would be understood, and outlawed, as a form of modern slavery; not only would war crimes be ended but war banned as a crime; and patriarchy’s millennia-old ‘culture of violence’ would lose its evil grip on women, children –- and men.

Even in such societies, of course, pandemics like COVID-19 would claim many victims and cause immense disruption. But a society based on fairness and cooperation –one which had ‘ta’en good care’ of itself — would be far better placed to endure and recover. The fact, for example, that the virus can fell the rich and powerful, and that underlying good health offers no guarantee of survival, should not blind us to its disproportionate impact on the vulnerable, the poor and powerless –- a vast group itself disproportionately constituted by people of color. Likewise, while prolonged lockdown is hard on everyone, the greatest blows (mental and physical) fall on those at the bottom of the class-and-race ‘ladder.’

When the coronavirus struck, ‘democratic socialism’ was already enjoying a revival in many ‘capitalist democracies,’ spurred by the undeniable incompatibility of “poverty, great wealth, and democracy” following the Great Recession. The crushing 2019 election defeat of the British Labour Party – led by Jeremy Corbyn, a figure squarely in the Hardie-Bevan-Benn tradition – and the failed bid by self-declared democratic socialist Bernie Sanders to secure the US Democratic nomination seemingly showed the limits of the ‘red resurgence.’ Corbyn, however, lost seats not only to Boris Johnson’s Brexit Tories but the highly-progressive Scottish Nationalist Party. And while Joe Biden’s winning card had one word (of dubious meaning) written on it – ‘electability’ – his centrist capitalism was far to the right of the party base, even before the political landscape was transformed by COVID-19.

Because surely now, when we hear the word ‘socialism,’ we can sense what ‘social’ has to mean.

And what it can put in place of fear.

Featured image: Overview of Detroit Industry, North Wall, 1932-33, fresco by Diego Rivera. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.