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Thursday, July 12, 2012


In his oft-quoted poem, To a Louse, Robert Burns offers the importunate plea: “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us.”  I find it especially difficult to keep firmly fixed in my mind the obvious truth that others do not know my writings quite so intimately as I know them myself.  If somewhere in the torrent of words I have poured onto the page in the last fifty-five years I have said something, no matter how obscure the publication, I imagine that everyone with the slightest interest in my opinions must be completely familiar with it, making it unnecessary for me to repeat myself.  The truth, alas, is otherwise.

The failure of the world to attend to my maunderings, comical as it is, has a more serious social correlate.  There are many truths, at one time well and widely known, that have now almost passed out of the collective mind, so that it is well worth the effort to repeat them, even though in doing so one is simply rehearsing old understandings.

This thought, perhaps appropriate to one in his autumnal if not indeed in his wintry years, occurs to me often as I read with dismay the ignorant and foolish things about socialism that appear in America’s public discourse, said even by those who genuinely ought to know better.  Recently, our loss of collective wisdom about the nature and meaning of socialism was highlighted in an exchange on this blog, and just two days ago, it was brought home to me forcefully by a moving, heartfelt, but deeply misleading Op Ed essay in the pages of the NY TIMES written by the great Czech film director Milos Forman.

The purpose of Forman’s essay was to defend Barack Obama against the bizarre charge, endlessly repeated by Republicans of all stripes, that he is a socialist.  Drawing on his horrendous experiences of the Soviet-imposed tyranny in his native land that wrapped itself in the honorific “socialist,” Forman assured his readers that nothing Obama has done or sought to do bears the slightest resemblance to the “socialism” under which he and his friends and associates suffered in Czechoslovakia. 

Forman was of course quite correct on both counts.  Obama is no socialist, however you interpret that term, and what Obama seeks for America bears no relation to what was done during the Soviet era in any part of the Eastern bloc.  It is also completely understandable that Forman should be forever averse to any regime or movement announcing itself as socialist.  Each of us is more indelibly formed by the experiences of his or her life than by a theoretical understanding of terms drawn from Political Economy. 

I am reminded of an email exchange I had with a young man in Czechoslovakia thirty years ago.  Some things I had written in In Defense of Anarchism spoke to him, prompting him to contact me.  When I told him that I was then engaged in a deep study of the thought of Karl Marx, he was appalled by the information.  To him, “Karl Marx” was a hashtag for “oppression, exploitation, and corruption,” and he could not imagine how the author of In Defense of Anarchism could find anything of value by following that link.

Nevertheless, there is an important body of social knowledge and insight that is lost to us by this corrupted use of a once quite well understood term, and I believe that we will be better positioned to move beyond our present unsatisfactory stage of socio-economic development if we recapture that knowledge and insight and use it to form a critique of contemporary America.  What I will say in the next paragraphs is so far from originality as to deserve the epithet “banal,” save that even such intelligent and knowledgeable writers as Paul Krugman seem completely to have forgotten it.

Markets, like the poor, have always been with us, at least for the past five or six thousand years, and perhaps for much longer than that.  Quite ancient writings from the Middle East give evidence of a sophisticated system of exchange involving some form of money and accounting systems to keep track of it.  The existence of markets goes hand in hand with a division of labor, for as soon as systematic agriculture and the domestic of animals begins [roughly ten thousand years ago, judging from the archeological evidence], the need arises for some regular exchange between the growers of crops and the tenders of flocks or herds, not to speak of those whose specialized activity produces clothing, shelter, hunting implements, and the weapons of war.

The eighteenth and nineteenth century laisser-faire theorists, whose unacknowledged social role was to justify the devastating impact of the new economic order on English society, portrayed capitalism as simply rational economic activity cleansed of the stultifying superstitious constraints of feudalism.  Buying and selling in the market, the production of commodities for exchange rather than for use, and the startling accumulations of great wealth that resulted, were presented as nothing more than simple rationality manifesting itself in society.  Previous socio-economic forms – slavery, imperial appropriation, and feudalism – were characterized as different ways in which irrationality infected the economic activities of society.  Once these corruptions were cleared away, leaving human reason to express itself fully, the natural result was capitalism.  The resulting social dislocations – peasants displaced by the enclosure of lands, slums peopled by unemployed proletarians, cycles of economic boom and bust – were justified as inevitable and quite temporary blemishes that would disappear once the full rationality of laisser-faire capitalism conquered the last redoubts of feudal superstition and privilege.

The early critics of this voracious new social and economic order – the authors whom Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels dismissed disdainfully as “utopian socialists” – saw clearly the evil consequences of the new capitalism, and were endlessly creative in imaging alternative ways of organizing the economic activities of a society.  But they lacked any coherent theoretical response to the claim of the laisser-faire liberals that capitalism is simply human rationality writ large.

It was left to Karl Marx to develop just such a theoretical response.  Marx understood that capitalism is no more, and no less, than one stage in a series of developmental economic stages that are distinguished from one another not by their degree of rationality, but by the identity of the social class that controls the means of production and the socio-economic forms that result from that control.  The defining characteristic of capitalism is not rationality freed of the constraints of superstition, but rather a monopolization of the means of production by one class, which then forces the rest of society to convert its capacity for creative productive labor into a commodity sold to the owners of the means of production, for whom all economic activity is merely the production of commodities sold in the market for a profit.

Marx quite well understood the explosive force of this new way of organizing human productive activities.  He himself described capitalism as the most revolutionary force yet to appear on the historical scene, and he was right in that assessment.  Capitalism vastly expanded society’s ability to produce goods and services, while however immiserating those whose labor was the source of this cornucopia of commodities.

With profound insight, Marx argued that the transition to a new and more humane organization of society’s productive activities could take place only when capitalism had advanced so far in its rationalization of production that production for human use could effectively and efficiently replace production for the private profit of the owners or controllers of the means of production.   For this reason, Marx expected the push for socialism to come in the most advanced sectors of the most fully developed capitalist economies.  Instead, a regime claiming to take its inspiration from Marx and calling itself “socialist” appeared in feudal Russia, a backwater of the capitalist world in which scarcely any of the elements of even the first stages of capitalism had matured.  The result, not at all surprisingly [and fully anticipated by some of the early Bolsheviks], was a brutal, inefficient command economy that bore no discernible relation to what Marx conceived socialism to be.

However, as someone might have said but I think did not, the victorious get to write the dictionaries, and so “socialism” came to mean, in the twentieth century, whatever Stalin and his henchmen were up to.  The success of a peasant revolution in China which also wrapped itself in the mantle of Marx pretty much sealed the fate of the word.  The collapse of the Soviet empire then permitted the beneficiaries and celebrators of advanced post-industrial and financial capitalism to proclaim the world historical victory of capitalism over socialism.  Socialism, it was said, was dead, save for the effete and incomprehensible dithering of some European folks who, since they spoke foreign languages, could be conveniently ignored. 

The effect of this series of historical conjunctures was to take us all back to the period of the early nineteenth century, when capitalism was equated with rationality simpliciter.  And by a rather devious, not to say diabolical, maneuver, capitalism was equated with the rule of markets.  To criticize capitalism was thus to suggest that markets were unnecessary.

But all of this is arrant and ignorant nonsense.  Marx’s critique of capitalism had nothing whatsoever to do with the desirability of markets for final goods, which is to say for the goods and services consumed by the members of society.  His critique concerned the private ownership and control of social means of production – factories, farms, fisheries, forests, and their accumulated representations, financial capital.  The capital that gives Capitalism its name is the product of the collective productive efforts of the men and women who do the work in society, and it ought to be controlled by them and put to productive uses that serve their needs and desires.

Those who now control capital will resist to the dying breath of the hired thugs any attempt to deprive them of their control.  For a number of reasons that I have explored in my essay, “The Future of Socialism,” it is quite unclear whether that control can ever be wrested from the hands.  [There I go again, imagining that everyone is familiar with my writings. Oh well.]

But what happened in Eastern Europe or Mainland China in the twentieth century was not socialism.  And markets are not, and have never been, the differentia specifica of capitalism.


Chris said...

I've always found Chomsky's definition the easiest to remember, and the most historically consistent: socialism is the collective ownership of the means of production by those who operate said means of production. This was not the case in the USSR, ergo it wasn't socialism.

Funny how Marx filled 50 volumes of works, yet only maybe 3-5 pages on what socialism/communism would look like, and he's vilified as the man that intricately constructed the systems in China, USSR, etc.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is exactly right, Chris. Chomsky's definition is just fine, but then he was always pretty smart. :)

Don Schneier said...

These days, what passes for a 'principled argument' among reactionaries is Ayn Rand's slapping the rubric 'Objectivism' on her ideology of Selfishness. The next adequate and intellectually honest treatment of Socialism that I hear from them will be the first.

Unknown said...

Because I respect and admire many of his films, I was also disappointed by Forman's misleading use of the term "socialist," and the Times' even more troubling decision to run his editorial in its current form. Like you, I can understand Forman's discomfort with the term, but it was irresponsible of the Times to publicize his use of it as though it were correct and unbiased. Thanks for setting the record straight!

Chris said...

That's only a surprise if you think the Times serves as some kind of unbiased beacon of neutrality and Truth...

DANIEL said...

Thank you Robert. These posts are always helpful.