Defining socialism is far from being easy. Countless writers and politicians had a go at it, and most of them only managed to increase our mental confusion. Winston Churchill, who had the gift of clarity, shied away from abstract definitions. He chose to hurl an indictment: “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery”. No matter how elegantly phrased, this sweeping statement smacks of propaganda. It is a disparaging counter-definition held together by a string of negative words (‘failure’, ‘ignorance’, ‘envy’, ‘misery’) which leaves no doubt as to where Churchill stood.
The late Italian socialist leader Pietro Nenni too had a way with words. In a debate, he would have left good old Winston gasping. Nenni gave what I consider to be one of the most powerful definitions of the ideal he devoted his life to:“Il socialismo è portare avanti tutti quelli che sono nati indietro” (literally: “socialism is pushing/bringing forward all those who were born behind”). This sounds a bit unnatural in Italian: collocations are bizarre: “portare avanti”, to push forward, is usually associated with objects or ideas, not people; and one cannot be born “indietro”, that is, behind. Because showing off abstract terms and empty rhetoric is the political disease of so many socialists, Nenni goes for a very simple, down-to-earth, definition. One which embodies, in a nutshell, the moral and political essence of socialism.
Nenni brings to the fore two key words, “avanti” (Avanti!, Forward!, is also the name of the oldest Italian socialist daily) and “indietro”. But there’s a deeper core of meaning: his definition revolves around the accident of birth. Nenni is saying: ‘we don’t want to live in a world where our lives depend on the luck of birth.’ If there’s a will, there’s a way – so the saying goes. There’s another one which is more to the point: beggars can’t be choosers. Most people are trapped by their destiny. We did not choose our family and social class. Some people are born into poverty and ignorance. At a very early age, long before we are able to make any informed choice about our future, our past has already decided what is likely to happen to us. Some children have access to first-rate medical care and excellent schools. Some do not. Guess who is going to make it to the top. Poverty and ignorance are facts of life. But they mustn’t remain so. Socialism aims to bring the unlucky ones into line with their more fortunate fellow human beings. Full stop. No need for elaborate ideologies. Nenni has taught us a great lesson: let’s scrap theories and highfalutin words. If we have doubts about socialism’s relevance in todays’ world, all we have to do is ask ourselves: ‘are there any people who were born behind the rest of us?’ If so, let’s do something about it.
Let me now play with Nenni’s definition. Here are some free translations – variations on the theme:
“Socialism is picking up those who have fallen.”
“Socialism is uplifting the downtrodden.”
“Socialism is taking care of those left behind.”
“Socialism is throwing a lifeline to people who are drowning.”
“Socialism is catching up on life, and never lagging behind.”
“Socialism if looking after those who are looked down upon.”
“Socialism is refusing to leave anybody behind.”