On Wednesday, Michael Llenos made the following comment on my blog post about the Manifesto:
"Plato and Wallace Shawn may say they are socialists but is it practical to have a country based on socialism? I've heard one person say that when the 20th century Cold War ended, some middle class Russians declared that Marx knew everything about capitalism but almost nothing about communism. During the 1st century BCE Cicero, himself, mocked Cato the Younger because he lived in a socialist fantasy world in which he treated his fellow senators like they were living in Plato's Republic--meaning, Cicero did not find the book practical enough for real world use. The Republic (although I haven't read it all) is a masterpiece, I agree, but I believe some of those same socialist ideas can be better implemented in a democratic-republican style of government. Although, I realize I am just generalizing all of my points."
The comment, which ranges easily over two thousand years of European history, exhibits, I believe, a common and rather important misunderstanding of what Marx meant by "socialism." I think it is worth an extended blog post by way of clarification. First, a small but ultimately important point. Plato was not, indeed could not have been, a socialist, as Marx uses that term. [I pass over in silence Michael Llenos' elegant allusion to Wallace Shawn. I do believe an exhaustive Google search would reveal that this is the only time the phrase "Plato and Wallace Shawn" has appeared in the English language.] Plato did indeed propose that the Philosopher-kings in the ideal Republic should share their belongings in common [an echo of his admiration for Sparta, I believe], but the communal sharing of belongings has nothing to do with socialism. From this point forward, every time I use the term "socialism" I wish to be understood as meaning "socialism as Marx understood it." I trust that is clear. I absolve myself of all responsibility for the myriad other ways in which people have used the term.
Socialism as an organization of the social relations of production in which the means of production [what is, in a capitalist economy, referred to as "capital"] are collectively owned and managed, and in which major decisions about the allocation of those means of production and about the distribution of the goods and services produced are made collectively for such purposes as the members of the society choose. Such a system of the social relations of production requires first that the forces of production -- the technology and the social organization of production -- be sufficiently far developed that their collective ownership and management even becomes possible. It was for this reason that Marx wrote the statement to which I have so often alluded on this blog about the new order growing in the womb of the old.
Let me expand on this point for a bit, inasmuch as it is often misunderstood even by those who should know better. The Statistical Abstract of the United States is a big fat book published annually by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Its many hundreds of pages are crammed with charts and tables containing breathtakingly detailed information about virtually every aspect of the American economy and population that one could mention. A single page of a single volume of the BLS Statistical Abstract contains more concrete information about America than historians devoted to a study of medieval Europe have managed to recapture about that six hundred year period from all the documents and artifacts they have examined. Precisely how many acres were under cultivation in Burgundy in the eleventh century? No one knows now, and no one knew at the time. What was the population of thirteenth century York? At most, we have guesses extrapolated from parish ledgers and royal tax receipts. What proportion of the population of Castile was engaged in craft production? Who knows? What was the gross output of wheat in Europe in 1217? Simply to ask the question is to reveal the hopelessness of answering it. Without vast quantities of detailed information of this sort -- the information assembled annually by the BLS -- any notion of the collective ownership and management of the means of production of a society is mere fantasy.
In addition to information, socialism requires a rationalization of the organization of production that makes possible large-scale collective decisions about the allocation of productive resources and labor, about sustainable schedules of compensation for labor, or -- a matter of the very greatest collective social importance -- about the agreed upon rate of economic growth. [Once again, credit where credit is due. John Rawls is the only major political philosopher in the entire history of the subject who even discusses this question of the social rate of growth, in his principal work, A Theory of Justice.]
When Marx was writing, capitalism was still in its infancy. Nothing had yet evolved remotely resembling the vast, highly integrated assemblages of capital that we know today as major multi-national corporations. The rationalization of production achieved by modern capitalist corporations is the necessary precondition for the possibility of socialism. For technical reasons that I explored at length in my essay "The Future of Socialism," and will not recapitulate here, the major decisions taken by the masters of the modern multinationals are in their logical structure fundamentally political rather than purely economic. In effect, the elements of economic planning have evolved within capitalism, just as Marx foresaw that they would. The experiences of Russians in the old Soviet Union or of Chinese in the People's Republic of China are not apposite to the question of the feasibility of socialism, save negatively, because in neither of those nations had there taken place anything resembling the development of capitalist social relations of production let alone embryonic socialism "in the womb of the old."
Would socialism be democratic? Yes, necessarily, because the major means of production cannot be owned and managed collectively any other way. To be sure, a revolutionary cadre can seize control of the means of production and declare solemnly that they plan to manage those means "in the name of the people," but we may view all such declarations with the scepticism they deserve. Could the social relations of production necessary for the very possibility of socialism be developed by fiat "in the name of the people?" Marx clearly thought not, judging from everything he says in Capital, and I think he was right.
Chris refers us to an inspiring experiment being carried out in the Basque Country. Worker Cooperatives, of which there are now a great many both abroad and here in the United States, are conscious efforts to transform the social relations of production within the womb of capitalism from the ground up, rather than in the advanced sectors of capitalism, namely the huge multi-nationals. Can socialism in fact emerge from the expansion and replication of such experiments? I honestly do not know, and I think it would be unhelpful for me to offer opinions about a subject about which I really know very little.
As I explained in my essay referred to above, the principal obstacle to the sort of evolution toward socialism that Marx anticipated is the stratification of the labor market, a development exactly opposite to what Marx, basing himself on what he observed, believed was the direction of the transformation of labor. This stratification seems to have destroyed the basis for the worker solidarity on which Marx was counting.
One final point in response to Michael Llenos' comment. Socialism as Marx understood it is not a counsel of perfection, an alternative to worldly sinfulness, a utopian dream resting on the transformation of the human spirit. Socialism does not, for example, presuppose, or indeed have anything at all to do with, the elimination of various unpleasant individual personality traits. Contrary to the shallow and thoughtless views of many, capitalism is not in any way, shape, or form the embodiment of greed. Indeed, capitalism requires the disciplining and rationalization of such traits for its effective functioning. Greed has always been with us. Cain was greedy. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt were greedy. The Roman emperors were greedy [as were many of the Roman Senators]. Medieval lords were greedy. Viking raiders were greedy. Incan dynasts were greedy. Capitalists too are greedy. All of these folks were also cruel, selfish, dishonest, and self-indulgent. Indeed, it has even been rumored that Popes have exhibited some of these unfortunate characteristics. If, God willing, socialism one day should replace advanced capitalism [or as we somewhat optimistically used to say in the old days, "late capitalism,"] I have not the slightest doubt that there will be greedy, cruel, selfish, dishonest, self-indulgent men and women in that new world order, and some of them undoubtedly will rise to positions of great influence, where they will their positions to do quite scrimy things. That, I am afraid, is the human condition.
Well, so much for socialism on Black Friday. Consider this my alternative to a day at the big box stores grappling with my neighbors for discount items I do not need.