I've been thinking a lot about a long phone conversation I had with a long time left-wing activist a few months ago. I found that while we both described ourselves as socialists, we disagreed on what we meant by socialism. Given the near two hundred year long running conversation about "the social problem", I truly believe that socialism is a contested term and that differing interpretations should be tolerated.
My friend thinks socialism requires the implementation of large-scale industrial and governmental institutions with an eye towards democracy, economic redistribution, bureaucratically-implemented egalitarianism, and the like. I believe that, for my friend, the purpose of this structurally prescriptive system is the guarantee of certain outcomes that can be said to be "socialist". There is to be the revolution, and then we are to achieve the "right kind" of governance - always counting on feedback from the people, of course, but institutionally programmed to perpetuate key values chosen from the outset. The project of socialism in his mind - and in the mind of most socialists - is to achieve a state from which certain outcomes can be guaranteed.
To me, this is absurd. First, supporters of state socialism have never been able to reconcile the real-world examples of prescriptive, interventionist, statist models with the ideals of socialism. Even if they were able to realize those ideals in the real world, they cannot possibly hold that the other important parts of the human experience are met by these models - such as individual choice, human freedoms of expression, and the crucial ability to decline undesired services (such as "governance"). Anything less than this is a cage; an egalitarian one, perhaps, but nevertheless an arbitrary barrier to the kinds of individual expression that validate the human life.
Secondly, there are no guarantees in life. State socialism has an inherent contradiction in it: it expects the working class to rise up of its own volition and articulate its own interests, but then it is to re-subordinate itself to being clients of yet another political class. Even my socialist friend believes that no stable socialism can be achieved through less than bureaucratic means. It is through institutional design and administration that the several values of socialism are then realized, where a managerial, monopoly organization runs the larger society to "guarantee" egalitarian distribution, power, and behaviors. Again, the history of socialist states doesn't bear out the likelihood that these guarantees can be delivered. Furthermore, there is an agent/principle problem inherent in the idea that guarantees are even possible.
The central failing of socialists throughout history, in my view, is their misunderstanding of the role of the individual in society. There is no society without individuals. It is through individuals interacting and relating that society take shape and has meaning - and due to its decentralized, distributed nature, any sort of guarantees are (1) inherently fraudulent, (2) encourage the kind of passive behavior that undermine the individual's role in executing "society" in the first place.
Society is the result of individuals finding the social (as opposed to the coercive) mode of interaction useful - in other words, society must meet individual needs if individuals are expected not to use force on one another. Society does not have separate interests of its own, apart from the people involved - it is merely an expression of a finite number of individuals interacting and relating. Socialism cannot give us society (nor can capitalism / fascism / feudalism / anarchism), and it certainly can't solve the social problem if it thinks the constituent elements of society are the problem.
What, then, is the alternative? If socialism per se cannot achieve a state from which it can guarantee outcomes, but can only facilitate individuals achieving these outcomes on their own particular terms, what is to be done politically? Perhaps it is the provision of guarantees, or the fraudulent claim that guarantees of any sort can be made, that is the problem. Socialism must be retooled, I believe, to constitute an approach - not "the" approach - towards understanding what makes society maximally useful to individuals. It must see itself as a competitor in the marketplace of values and ideas, not the monopoly provisioner of solutions. In that sense, the social problem is not something to be solved by ideologies or institutions per se, but as a guide towards these achieving these values in as-yet-unknown ways, a manner for judging the appropriateness of our means. If the social problem, at its root, is that society does not serve the people's interests, then it seems clear to me that the only way to solve this problem is to let the people shape society to their interests - anarchism, in other words - and not to force people into configurations they do not freely choose.
I don't know "the answer" to the social problem, but I believe we will only find the answer when we have genuine society, where free individuals freely interact. So my socialism arises from what I think the stable, fair, and maximally useful social configuration is. I can predict that configuration, but I may not prescribe it - because I am not "society", the networked, decentralized entity comprised of all individuals in a given territory. Empowering society means empowering individuals; without that, no society to speak of.
Now, I have opinions based on my experiences, beliefs, values, and suspicions about human nature. I predict free individuals will arrive at egalitarian systems of distribution - not by being centrally directed or managed or taxed or robbed, but because fair systems of distribution are the most stable forms of organization, and people will naturally gravitate towards them once they are freed to do so. I predict worker ownership / control of the means of production will come about in a free society - not necessarily through seizure or redistribution, but because absent state intervention that will be the most sustainable and dynamic mode of production. I predict bigotry of all sorts will wither away in a free society - not because of affirmative action by state institutions or hate laws, but because discriminating on the basis of traits that do not have merit is not a sustainable behavior. I predict that most people will choose peaceful modes of interacting with each other, because that is the most stable social configuration that meets the majority of their needs.
Socialism, to me, is about achieving egalitarian ends according to the belief that we all know the best of which humans are capable. It does not prescribe the means, however - it's simply a value-laden opinion on that towards which we're striving. This is why I believe stateless societies and genuinely free markets will be the means to get us there: these are the kinds of decentralized systems that allow societies to find the best solutions for its constituents. Socialism and libertarianism, to me, are not incongruous; socialism is (one aspect of) the ends, libertarianism is the means.