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Friday, November 28, 2014

SOCIALISM -- A REPLY TO MICHAEL LLENOS


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.

 

 

 

 

22 comments:

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,
Although the Thanksgiving turkey always tastes wonderful, I am now eating crow and it tastes horrible. Thank you for clearing up what Marx meant by socialism. If I get this right, Marx was talking about future socialism and not anything that happened in his or even our past. There is only one problem I have with your post. When does socialism stop being democratic and start being socialism? For if you say on one hand socialism is kind of democratic in one way but not democratic in other ways, you can be heckled. Plus, Marx's idea of socialism could also fall under the category of mixed constitution, like the Roman Republic, Great Britain or the U.S.. So instead of being just socialism, according to Marx, it could be a sundry of different constitutions divorcing itself from Marx's true vision of socialism. Meaning, Marx's theory could always be socialism, but never so in reality. And, if as you say, Marx's socialism could rise out of capatilism, like out of the current U.S., what would have to be left on the wayside for that brand of socialism to encompass what Marx truly intended and for the U.S. current government to be left behind?

Michael Llenos said...

I wrote:
Marx's theory could always be socialism, but never so in reality.
I meant:
Marx's theory of socialism could only exist in the mind but never in reality.

Chris said...

I don't want to speak for professor Wolff, but my own reading of Marx is that for him socialism is the democratic ownership of the means of production as organized by a democratic affiliation by said workers. So there is no break between socialism and democracy, they were are necessary conditions for one another, mutually inclusive if you will. Thus, the USSR was not really socialist since it is not democratic (the workplace was ultimately organized and owned by state officials not the workers), and the US is not really democratic, since it has not socialized the workplace.

Real socialism extends democracy to the workplace, like Mondragon has.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris is correct, although there is a second reason why the Soviet Union was not socialist -- its economy had not developed to a point at which socialism was possible, not even after half a century and more.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,
You're saying that a thriving socialist state is not a utopia but yet it is most likely greedy people will ruin it in no time.

In the world of Star Trek, greedy people are still needed to get the Federation machine rolling, and yet that utopia could not sustain itself as a socialist society. The closest thing I can think of to Marx's socialism in Star Trek is a Borg Cube with no queen.

At the end of the Bible, plus in between, there is much mention about the Universe being eventually ruled by a divine monarchy. Because God is omniscient, I'm sure there is good reason why he doesn't want his people to end up in a socialist society.

Michael Llenos said...

By the way,
Thanks to Dr.Wolff and Chris for explaining to me what Marx meant by socialism.

Demonax said...

Professor Wolff,

Forgive me if this slight tangent isn't as fruitful as it seems to me at the time of writing, but this remark caught my eye:

"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."

Most of my understanding of Marx is second-hand by way of Habermas and (to a lesser extent) Marcuse, but this point encapsulates something that has concerned me about the possibility of any meaningful left-wing movements.

However, there is a movement (if movement is the right word) that I've had an eye on at a distance because they seem to have taken on board what sounds suspiciously like the goal of transformation from within. They self-label as Accelerationism, and while they're drawing on a lot of French post-structuralist theory, there's a healthy current of Marxist-inspired leanings, particularly as regards the working towards the overthrow of capitalism by working within it, adopting its means and methods, in order to accelerate the system's collapse. The seminal work is the Accelerationist Manifesto, wherein we find this

"We believe the most important division in today's left is between those that hold to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism, and those that outline what must become called an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology."

I've no idea if I'm even clear on what they're getting up to (it's a rather fractured set of views, and there are some undercurrents within it which I find unsavory), nor if that is actually in line with what Marx is getting at, but it seemed worthwhile enough a similarity to point it out. I've found that much of the confusion around socialism (including my own) has turned on a notion of such that is set against large-scale industry, high technology, commerce and what have you, but your post here clarified that this is not the case -- so there may be something of value in their writings.

T Gent said...

Listening to a talk by Donnie Maclurcan of the post-growth institute http://postgrowth.org/ here in London has been a strangely uplifting experience. He argues very convincingly (and reassuringly) that not-for-profit economy is in the process of quietly over-throwing capitalism. The bases of his argument are two, I believe. First, a majority of the world's economic transactions are already not-for-profit, when we count the informal economy led by women all over the world as heads of families and care-takers. Secondly, not-for-profit activity has - at every level (from the household to the large co-operative) - the advantage that it does not have to pay any bonuses or produce return to the owner. These basic facts, combined with the imminent stop to growth and cyclic economic crises, could give rise to a completely new economic system in the next few years. Sounds far-fetched, but Maclurcan's arguments are actually incredibly compelling. Maybe, just maybe, it's all going to be alright.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

From your mouth to God's ear. Wouldn't that be remarkable? And what happens to the many many trillions of dollars or euros of wealth being passed from generation to generation in the next twenty years?

T Gent said...

Not sure. I think the idea is the profit will be increasingly generated by not-for profit organisations, so that the wells that generate that wealth will dry up. Of course the current distribution of wealth would mean there would be tremendous resistance to change, but in this view it's the fact that this change is happening quietly and underground that will finally give the emerging economy the upper hand. To put it simply (which is the way I heard it), it will be too late for capitalists to do much.
Again, at least from my perspective, this is a hope. Whether the arguments can stand up to scrutiny I am not sure.

Chris said...

Michael, this is a non sequitur:

"You're saying that a thriving socialist state is not a utopia but yet it is most likely greedy people will ruin it in no time."

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Plato and Wallace Shawn, wow, I wish I'd made that up....

Michael Llenos said...

Chris,
What I meant to say (as you can already tell, I am not eloquent in any way) was that Dr. Wolff wrote that a socialist state is not a utopia: or perfect state, in his article for this comments page. So what I was hinting at was that any socialist state must be a utopia to survive and thrive if any small group of greedy people can inevitably destroy any true socialist state as Dr. Wolff wrote. Therefore, there existed an apparent contradiction in the logic of his article. So Dr. Wolff was saying that a socialist state was not a perfect country, and I was concluding a socialist state must be a perfect country to survive the inevitable destruction that willl necessarily be caused by greedy people. Sorry for the confusion, but I am slow witted.

Chris said...

I understood and the conclusion is invalid since a democratic state and economy would have the required checks in place to stop an undemonstrative minority based coup. That's democracy in practice not utopia.

Michael Llenos said...

That is not, however, what Dr.Wolff opined. I was basing his contradiction on his opinion and not yours. At the bottom of the article, Dr. Wolff writes that he tends to think that any true socialist state will eventually succumb to the power hungry, just like what happened to the Roman Republic in the 1st and 2nd triumvirates and finally with the first emperor Caesar Agustus; if I am not mistaken. And I also do realize that the Roman Republic was not a socialist state, but it had way too many checks and balances, according to Anthony Everitt, and this didn't stop Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, and Augustus from trying to turn their republic into a dictatorship, which is what Augustus finally did.

Chris said...

I wrote a response but it got lost during a quick internet outage.

In short, socialism can be possible, actual, and superior to capitalism, and still contain greedy people without being UTOPIAN. Just as feudalism, roman republics, capitalism, and slave societies can be possible, actual, and have greedy people in positions of authority. To say that greedy people with exist in socialism is not to deny its superiority, and/or possibility. It's only to say that greedy people will inhabit it. There's no utopian claim here, and nothing that renders socialism a fools errand.

Chris said...

Mondragon speaks to this point. No doubt there are greedy people that work there. No doubt it's better than an authoritarian capitalist workplace too. No doubt it's not utopian, but actual.

Magpie said...

@Michael Llenos

I am confused.

In your exchange with Chris, you wrote (November 29, 2014 at 1:37 PM):
"So what I was hinting at was that any socialist state must be a utopia to survive and thrive if any small group of greedy people can inevitably destroy any true socialist state as Dr. Wolff wrote."

A little later, you reiterate (November 29, 2014 at 3:24 PM):
"At the bottom of the article, Dr. Wolff writes that he tends to think that any true socialist state will eventually succumb to the power hungry, just like what happened to the Roman Republic in the 1st and 2nd triumvirates and finally with the first emperor Caesar Agustus"

You may be discussing another article, but in THIS article, the only reference Prof. Wolff makes to Rome reads:

"The Roman emperors were greedy [as were many of the Roman Senators]."

I don't recall him ever writing that socialism required people not to be "power hungry", or selfless, or anything really, or otherwise it would "succumb".

So, maybe it would be useful if you quoted verbatim the passage in Prof. Wolff's text where he says those things, or where you saw them implicit.

----------

Incidentally, I am afraid I'm not a big Star Trek fan. The reference to the Bjorg queen is rather obscure to me. Perhaps you could explain the relevance, please?

Michael Llenos said...

Chris,
Like I said Chris, I am slow witted, and I also believe you have way more knowledge about philosophy than I do. But I agree with Dr. Wolff in that a socialist society will not last because there will always be people like Stalin etc. who will want to control everything.

Magpie,
I was using the Roman Republic as an analogy to what Dr. Wolff wrote. You're right I should have quoted the passage, but my nook lacks the copy and paste function.

The Borg cube is a alien spaceship, larger than the Starship Enterprise, and is akin to a large cyborg beehive in space. All of its members communicate with one another through subspace frequencies. The only authority over such a collective is the Queen borg who lives on one of the many thousands of Borg cubes that make up that society which is also called a collective. Without the queen, and if things still ran normally, the Borg cube would be one of sci-fi's closest parallels to a socialist civilization in space.

Chris said...

"Dr. Wolff in that a socialist society will not last because there will always be people like Stalin etc. who will want to control everything."

Right but Professor Wolff didn't actually say that.

What he said was:
“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.”

As I already asked you, why is the existence of greedy people incompatible the continuation of a certain social makeup? All Wolff has said is that greedy people will exist, and get roles in powerful positions. He has not said that those same people will throw coups and overthrow the established order. Those are two starkly differently claims.

Moreover, Stalinist Russia was not a socialist society, because the state AND the workplace were not actually democratic but authoritarian. To view Stalinism as a case study in the impossibility of socialism is just as spurious as to view Stalinism as a case study of the impossibility of feudalism and capitalism. It's its own monster and should be treated as such.

What you need to show, to make your argument tenable instead of opinionated, is why an actual democratic state and economic system, would necessarily lack the proper checks and balances to prevent small greedy minorities from seizing power permanently (for a better case study, look at what happened when the US backed a small greedy coup of Chavez - it failed due to open democratic customs, virtues, and institutions).

Michael Llenos said...

Chris,
I know Professor Wolf didn' t actually say that. But I was using what is called an example when I mentioned Stalin.

"It's its own monster and should be treated as such." --said Chris.

But, Chris, human emotions and motives will never change, no matter what type of government holds them. So the analogy still works.

By the way, a socialist country with a power vacuum at its top will be ruined by bad politicians sooner or later. And, I believe, Dr. Wolff was insinuating that.

And what do you think greedy people are? They are hungry for more and more, including political power.

And although Dr. Wolff didn't use the words power hungry, he was suggesting it.

But I get where this is all going. You're a genius and I'm an idiot. Plus, you have to have the last word. For abrupt contradiction never creates peace but rather hostility.

Plus, a person who is determined to use abrupt contradiction on what you say, will never be satisfied until they have the last word. So type.

Michael Llenos said...

I apologize, Chris, for sounding so rude in my last post. That was not very ethical of me.