So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms.
The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no social project that cannot be corrupted by human frailty and viciousness. Many people looked to Karl Marx as a sort of pope whose words might save them from disaster. Doesn't work like that. But on the other hand, one cannot dismiss socialism merely because some people calling themselves such were or are monsters. That's human beings for you and it applies to any political ideology.
So that said, my vision of socialism is fairly loose and freewheeling. I've read quite a bit of Marx and gotten a lot of out him, but I think it's a great error to treat anyone as a prophet. I like Polanyi's definition of socialism, but precisely because it is broad and not a highly detailed program:
Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society. It is the solution natural to the industrial workers who see no reason why production should not be regulated directly and why markets should be more than a useful but subordinate trait in a free society.For me, that is the animating instinct of socialism: conscious decisions and policies to adjust the institutions of society so that they serve the common interest, broadly defined as a rough and ready egalitarianism. (One can slot in some Rawls or Sen as a more sophisticated moral justification for this, but Jesus Christ might serve equally well.) Those least well-off get the greatest moral priority, and inequality is acceptable only insofar as it necessary to generate a sufficiently large economic product so that everyone can have a decent standard of living and pursue what they have reason to value.
By this view, capitalism is problematic because it only distributes income to the factors of labor and capital. Its engine is the coercion of labor from people who don't own anything, because they would otherwise starve. In its early days capitalism was insanely brutal about this, shredding the social fabric with its voracious demand for work. It is better today — though still terrible for many people, especially in the US — but insofar as it is has improved, the reason is precisely the basic instinct of socialism, which produced the welfare state.
The weak and vulnerable poor, which in a capitalist system means those who own nothing but find it impossible to work, must be protected. Capitalist institutions are only useful insofar as they serve broad human needs — they are not ends in themselves.
The polar opposite of socialism, then, is classical liberalism (or libertarianism today) — which says that capitalist institutions are ends in themselves. This view holds that property rights should be sacrosanct, and all social relations should operate through capitalist market mechanisms. Not many people are full libertarians these days, but the ideology was and is extraordinarily influential — just witness the titanic effort that went into badly simulating a market in the Obamacare exchanges.
Polanyni notes a deep irony — capitalism was developed along highly utopian, planned lines, to which elites clung so hard during the Great Depression that the entire thing almost came apart. A large part of the initial socialist impulse was a fundamentally conservative, then: a desire to preserve existing society as capitalism ripped up the social contract. But mature socialism — an approximation of which can be seen in the Nordic countries today — is more forward-looking than this. The damage of capitalism has already been done, and there is basically no going back. The key is to harness the machinery and technology built up under capitalism to create a better society that works for everyone, without exception.