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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

SOCIALISM AND REVOLUTION

In the past few days, there has been a certain amount of talk on this blog about revolution and socialism, so perhaps it would be appropriate to say something on these topics.  Settle down.  This is going to take a while.  You might want to re-read the collected works of Marx in preparation.  It is only forty volumes or so.  At a bare minimum, I recommend that you read my essay, “The Future of Socialism,” archived on box.net and accessible via the link at the top of this page.

First of all, let us be clear about the meaning of the words.  By “socialism” I mean, at its simplest, “collective ownership of the means of production democratically controlled and administered.”  The phrase “collective ownership of the means of production” did not, so far as I know, pass Bernie’s lips during the last election cycle, for all his talk about being a socialist, but that is what I mean.  I am not talking about Social Democracy, which is to say private ownership of the means of production, a relatively low Gini Coefficient, and a generous safety net with all the trimmings -- what we here in America like to think of as the Scandinavian way.

By “revolution” I mean the violent, extra-legal seizure of the means of production.  I do not mean “a really really big change,” such as the digital revolution, or the feminist revolution, or the revolution of rising expectations, and I certainly do not mean a revolution at the ballot box.  If all this talk of socialist revolution is just a way of proposing the election of socialist candidates to State and Federal legislative bodies, I am all for that, but it does not need any extended analysis or discussion.  It just needs for people to get off their asses and vote.

If that is clear, let us begin.  How might the American economy make a transition from capitalism to socialism?  There are three plausible ways, so far as I can see.  The first is expropriation with compensation.  The State seizes the factories, farms, mines, retail establishments, digital corporations, etc., and pays the legal owners a fair market price.  Forget about it.  We are talking multi-trillions of dollars, not a few paltry hundreds of billions.  Wikipedia tells us that “The financial position of the United States includes assets of at least $269.6 trillion (1576% of GDP) and debts of $145.8 trillion (852% of GDP) to produce a net worth of at least $123.8 trillion (723% of GDP) as of Q1 2014.”  Buying out the capitalists is not an option.

The second way is to expropriate the expropriators, if I may borrow a phrase from Chapter 32 of Volume One of Capital.  One relatively peaceful mode of transition would be a one hundred percent estate tax on all estates above, let us say, one million dollars, which is equivalent to a generation of the median household income of an American family.  Over time, as huge accumulations of capital were taken over by the state, ownership of the means of production would become collective and social, not individual and private.  There would still be huge inequalities of income and wealth, but these could be diminished both by taxation and by changes in the wage structure.  What Thomas Piketty, reflecting the French usage, calls Patrimonial Capitalism, which is to say accumulations of inherited wealth, would disappear.

The third way is violent revolution, which is to say the extra-legal seizure, by force, of the means of production by the people.  It sounds quite exhilarating, and rather simple, although of course momentarily dangerous, but let us pause for a moment on our way to the barricades to ask exactly how we imagine this violent revolution to go down.  Those old enough to recall the Sixties, or romantic enough to wish they had been there, might suppose that what is called for is a sort of grand sit-in, with guns.  The People [it is always best to capitalize when talking about this subject] pick up their hunting rifles, their assault rifles, their shoulder operated grenade launchers, and their side arms [for close in work], and march to the nearest factory or office building.  Pushing their way past the terrified rental cops, whom they invite out of brotherly love to join them, they take possession of the executive office suite, shooting ruthlessly any Assistant Managers foolish enough to resist.  They put their feet up on the polished desks [I am drawing images here from the 1968 Columbia University seizure of the Admin Building by the SDS] and declare the corporation liberated in the name of the People.

What then?  Never mind the inevitable response by the State.  We will come to that in a moment.  Our intrepid revolutionaries, we may assume, have taken possession of the local production plant of PortaToilet Corporation [not everyone can be so fortunate as to be in the band that seizes the world headquarters of Apple.]   What next?  Well, first on the agenda is to gather the workers and inform them of the change in management.  Henceforward, they own the company.  After congratulations all around, the democratically elected leader of the corporate seizure [we are assuming that the man or woman who actually led the assault generously and selflessly submits to the will of all] tells everyone to get back to work, picks up the phone, calls the principal supplier of parts for PortaToilet’s production process, and orders another thousand dozen parts.  “Why isn’t my usual contact calling?” the executive at the other end asks.  “He has been deposed.  This is Comrade X, the new Commissar of the people-owned production facility previously called PortaToilet.”  The supply manager slams down the phone and places a call to the Governor.

Hmm.  It seems that “collective ownership of the means of production” does not mean “sitting in the Vice-President’s office with your feet on the desk.”  It means, at a minimum, being able to get everyone in the vast network of supply and distribution of which this one factory is a part to acknowledge one’s collective ownership, to honor one’s purchases, to accept one’s check, to get the local bank to cash the check, and so forth and so on.  That is a tiny part of what Marx meant when he talked about the progressive socialization of the processes of production coupled with the private ownership of the means of production under advanced capitalism.

Meanwhile, the Governor has been alerted to what is going down.  She activates the National Guard, which moves on the seized facilities across the state with tanks, assault rifles, light artillery, gas grenades, and as much of the Air National Guard as can be found.  The battle is fierce, and our revolutionaries fight nobly, but they are vastly out gunned, and pretty soon the mopping up begins.

“Ah,” you say, “you do not understand.  This will be a national uprising by scores of millions of working men and women.  They will bring over to their side the Army, the Marines, and even the Air Force.”  Never mind that these are by and large the folks who just voted Donald J. Trump into office.  We are taking a vacation today from that nightmare.  But just explain something to me.  If you can call on scores of millions of working men and women to lay down their lives for The Revolution, why don’t you save a lot of lives and just have them vote socialism into being?

And there’s the rub.  At least for the moment, this country is after all a democracy.  If the capitalist control of the media can be overcome, if the Republican efforts at voter suppression can be circumvented, if the Democratic betrayal of the Working Class can be successfully resisted, then why not just vote socialism in?  Why a violent revolution?  And if you cannot overcome the Capitalist control of the media and the Republican voter suppression and the Democratic betrayal, how exactly are you planning to mobilize scores of millions of men and women and bring the Armed Forces over to your side?  “But we are counting on young people, and we all know that young people do not vote.”  Oh fine.  You are counting on young people, who, as we all know, cannot be bothered to vote.  These same young people nevertheless are going to acquire weapons, learn to use them effectively [not as easy as it looks in the movies], and then stop texting long enough to march into battle from sea to shining sea.  That is your plan?

“But, but,” my imaginary interlocutor splutters, “what about Russia, China?”  What about them indeed.  Two of the greatest world-historical events of the twentieth century were the successful revolutions in Russia and China, among the world’s largest nations, and both in the name of Karl Marx.  These are no Scandinavian exceptions. 

Alas, a closer look cools one’s ardor.  Let us set aside China and look at the Russian Revolution, the quintessential proof, or disproof, of Marx’s theories, depending on whom you ask.  I am sorry to disappoint the enemies of socialism among you for whom Russia is proof positive of the inevitable defeat of Marx, but Russia is no proof of anything at all, save the capacity of the Russians to f**k up a free lunch.

The problem is that the Russian Revolution was the successful seizure, by a small but brilliantly led cadre, of a fatally war-weakened central government of a largely feudal society with a tiny nascent capitalist sector located in a few cities west of the Caucuses.  There was nothing even vaguely socialist about it, and it would have been impossible in any of the fully developed large nations of Western Europe.  Once in command of the organs of the state, and having successfully fought off the attempt by the American government to overthrow them, the Bolshevik leaders faced a problem both theoretical and practical.  [“Bolshevik,” by the way, means “majority.”  “Menshevik” means “minority”.]   Lenin and his comrades had read their Marx.  They knew that socialism, to which they were committed, could only grow out of advanced capitalism, and Russia was scarcely in the earliest stages of capitalist development.  Was it possible to “skip a stage” and go directly from feudalism to socialism?  The theoretical answer was clearly no, as some of the Bolsheviks argued.  But it is a little much to expect a group of revolutionaries who have just, at great personal risk, taken over a vast country to hunt up a handful of local capitalist wannabes, hand over the country to them, and say “Here, turn this into an advanced capitalist nation.  We will be back in a century or so to seize it from you.”  So the skip-a-stagers won, and the result, as could be predicted, was state capitalism, not socialism.

The Bolsheviks also faced a second problem which is equally pressing for any American socialists.  Marx had the wit to see that the further development of capitalism would necessarily involve its thoroughgoing internationalization.  He was convinced that the transition to socialism would be world-wide.  The reason is easy enough to see, and much more evident now than it was when Marx was writing.  The transnational ownership of productive capital and the world-wide flow of financial capital make it difficult to see how one country alone, even one as big and rich as America, could transition from capitalism to socialism in an otherwise capitalist world.  The Bolsheviks called this the problem of “socialism in one country,” and when Stalin’s henchman planted a hatchet in Trotsky’s head in Mexico, the advocates of socialism in one country won the argument in Russia.  But of course, they did not win the struggle, for, as Marx was fond of pointing out, “objective factors” rather than subjective desires are the determining forces in the economic sphere.

The conclusion is clear.  Our only hope for socialism in America is through the ballot box and the peaceful transition via expropriation of the expropriators.

Class dismissed.




27 comments:

Tom Cathcart said...

Well done!! Alas, our current hopelessness stems from the fact that "low information voters" can't even be persuaded to support a tax on wealth or a tax on super-high incomes, because they're easily bamboozled by idiotic statements like "No new taxes!!" or
"Keep government small" or, more recently, "It's the fault of the Mulims or Mexicans or Chinese." It's hard to see how they're going to vote for Swedish-style social democracy (barring an economic catastrophe, as in the '30s), let alone socialism. And you don't have to be an enemy of socialism (I'm not) to be skeptical that, even if a worldwide socialist miracle were to somehow occur, these same people would then freely and wisely and humanely administer the means of production. I'd be hopelessly depressed, but for the fact that I think huge numbers of people are going to oppose Trump for a wide variety of reasons. In today's Wash. Post, staunchly conservative pundit, Kathleen Parker, crushes him. Let's all DO something, as Bob says. I'm starting with donations to Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, et al., and marching in NYC on the 21st and calling my Senators. Pretty ineffective, for sure, but it's a baby step, and I have confidence that other opportunities are going to reveal themselves.

s. wallerstein said...

It would be great to expropriate the expropriaters and it would make for a much more just society. Still, the day after expropriating the expropriaters, a new struggle for power among those who expropriated the expropriaters will undoubtedly arise: some who expropriated the expropriaters will be corrupt, others will be overly ambitious, others political opportunists, others sexually abusive, etc. It will be in many ways Nietzsche's eternal return of the same with the difference that the expropriaters have been expropriated.

Still, a society without economic exploitation would be far superior to our current capitalist monstruosity.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite true. It would not be trouble free or paradise, just better. Sufficient unto the day

Jonathan Culp said...

So...we can't just stop believing in gravity and fly like a bird off the cliff? Darn.

On a more serious note, doesn't the "socialism in one country" problem apply to socialism at the ballot box just as much as to socialism by revolution?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yes, of course. Even in a nation with an economy as large as that of the US, it poses a very serious problem, one that may not be soluble.

Anonymous said...

And, as S. Wallerstein points out, some expropriators are more equal than others. ;)

Jonathan Culp said...

I would also add that international institutions such as the IMF and the WTO probably make the scenario even more difficult to imaging happening. In Marx's time, you had states and you had internationally-minded (and -invested) capitalists, but you really didn't have the kind of transnational capitalist institutionalization that you've got nowadays. But, in the US, today, this is like talking about how we are going to walk to the moon. I'd settle for affordable healthcare!

s. wallerstein said...

The fact that some expropriators will be more equal than others is one very good reason in favor of socialism through the ballot box, with a constitution (with some necessary amendments), balance of powers, liberty of expression (even for capitalists) etc., instead of socialism through revolution.

Jonathan Culp said...

While we're on this topic, I think it would be wonderful if Bob could give us some commentary on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's "The Logic of Political Survival" and/or "The Dictator's Handbook." Since Bob is well-versed in rat choice but not mystified by it, I think we could really learn a lot. BdM uses rat choice to build a theory of political incentives which could explain why Wallerstein is right about the need for constitutional limitations and why violent revolutions often end so badly.

TCP said...

>“Ah,” you say, “you do not understand. This will be a national uprising by scores >of millions of working men and women. They will bring over to their side the >Army, the Marines, and even the Air Force.” Never mind that these are by and >large the folks who just voted Donald J. Trump into office.

Haven't the Republicans been arming their people for years? Didn't Trump bring people to the ballot with slogans like "drain the swamp" and other promises that he won't live up to? Didn't Trump give the common people language like "the establishment" and therefore new terms for bourgeoisie and class conflict?

>If you can call on scores of millions of working men and women to lay down their >lives for The Revolution, why don’t you save a lot of lives and just have them >vote socialism into being?

>And there’s the rub. At least for the moment, this country is after all a >democracy. If the capitalist control of the media can be overcome, if the >Republican efforts at voter suppression can be circumvented, if the Democratic >betrayal of the Working Class can be successfully resisted, then why not just vote >socialism in? Why a violent revolution?

Because the best way to mobilize people is probably to encourage them to see the "establishment" as rotten and that it must be completely rebuilt so that those with money won't control it. You don't move people by praising mediocrity and holding up smaller changes. To bring in Sanders is merely to have a left-center position as most of the other first world countries know it. Again, it's more comfortable to live in Canada, but hardly heroic to advocate comfort.

>And if you cannot overcome the Capitalist control of the media and the Republican >voter suppression and the Democratic betrayal, how exactly are you planning to >mobilize scores of millions of men and women and bring the Armed Forces over to ?>your side? “But we are counting on young people, and we all know that young >people do not vote.” Oh fine. You are counting on young people, who, as we all >know, cannot be bothered to vote. These same young people nevertheless are going >to acquire weapons, learn to use them effectively [not as easy as it looks in the >movies], and then stop texting long enough to march into battle from sea to >shining sea. That is your plan?

This isn't 1960. There is the internet and ways that many people connect that isn't through ABC News. As mentioned above, it's precisely the people the Republicans have been arming that are being positioned to give up on their empty promises. Moreover, internet hackers will probably much more important in the future "fight."

I don't think you gave the knock down arguments you think you gave here.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Boy, I sure hope not. So if you are holding out for violent revolution by millions of angry disaffected voters, what do you imagine your next step is? or are you just a spectator?

TCP said...

I am no revolutionary, but I am trying to make sense of things.

As far as I see it, the left allows the Republicans to monopolize the working class's unhappiness, resentment, and sense of being scammed (i.e. being told they live in the greatest country on earth but finding themselves with nothing or living paycheck to paycheck), by directing it into scapegoating others (i.e. fascism).

The masses aren't intellectuals and you won't convince them by intellectual arguments. If they had this, then they wouldn't have voted for one of the most inarticulate and inconsistent slugs that has ever been in the public eye.

The political right often talks about the entitlement of the poor, or the taking- or mooching- classes, but what about the children of the wealthy who inherit their money? What of their entitlement? It’s one thing to talk, in their language, about a “job creator” being rewarded for his merit and risk-taking, but it’s another when laws are set up so their children can hand it over to wall street investors, do nothing themselves, and get more of the wealth that the lower classes produce in their work. Marx mentions the necessary overcoming of the family in many places throughout his work. While we all recognize the ridiculousness of the idea that a king’s son should inherit absolute political power, communism begins with the idea that it is not the parents’ right to decide who they will leave their money to. In a true meritocracy, a person’s social virtue, their talent, and hard-work determine whether she gets into positions of authority. The left can’t ask the right to be more altruistic, but they can appeal to their egoism to ask for a real meritocracy. In what we can call the self-conscious cunning or ‘Ruse of Reason,’ the redistribution of wealth for meritocracy would also be the same procedure for assisting the disabled and those who need it. To focus on redistributing the wealth for an equal starting point for people, would be the same mechanism that would be used to settle the question of how we help those who aren’t able to compete so well in the market. However, the left has to lead with talk of merit and not lead with “bleeding-heart” sentiments.

Anonymous said...

While this piece argues sensibly against socialists opting for violent revolution, it seems more pressing to discuss how the political right would react when faced with a situation where socialism was really being voted into being, and the possibility that it might be they who resort to force first. Of course, there are real life cases, the most obvious being Chile in 1973, or the Spanish civil war. At some point even socialists who have been democratically elected may be faced with armed opposition - how should they prepare for that possibility? Isn't it reasonable to use force to defend a democratically elected government? Since we're talking about what strategy is appropriate to an electoral democracy, this seems the more plausible case to me, especially while the main military and security apparatus of the state are in the hands of the right. Ralph Miliband discusses this in his essay on the coup in Chile.

Anonymous said...

Wolff wrote

The conclusion is clear. Our only hope for socialism in America is through the ballot box and the peaceful transition via expropriation of the expropriators.

To avoid misunderstandings: that's the only hope.

Well, let's test our only hope's feasibility.

Tom Cathcart wrote,

Well done!! Alas, our current hopelessness stems from the fact that "low information voters" can't even be persuaded to support a tax on wealth or a tax on super-high incomes, because they're easily bamboozled by idiotic statements like "No new taxes!!" or
"Keep government small" or, more recently, "It's the fault of the Mulims or Mexicans or Chinese." It's hard to see how they're going to vote for Swedish-style social democracy (barring an economic catastrophe, as in the '30s), let alone socialism.


Well done indeed!

-------------

The conclusion seems clear: It's every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Join Trump and the Republicans.

That's the objective, realistic, pragmatic, cautious, sensible decision.

There's no baloney of taking sides. Ah, but that's immoral.

Maybe, but

Marx was fond of pointing out, “objective factors” rather than subjective desires are the determining forces in the economic sphere.

Thanks for the class.

s. wallerstein said...

I live in Chile.

First of all, in the case of Chile the coup depended not only on the right and the military, but also on a foreign power, the United States.

Second, Allende won with a plurality of votes, 36% and was elected by the Congress according to Chilean tradition. He did not have a majority in either house of congress.

Third, Allende's government unleased a tremendous amount of pent-up social demands from the working class and the poor which pushed his government to the left and thus, turned the middle class (and the center parties) actively against him.

It's important for any democratic socialist government not to alienate the middle class.

The Chilean right and Nixon started plotting a coup against Allende from the day of his election in 1970, but it took them 3 years to make sure that they had the support of most of the Army, the other armed forces and the police.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Wouldn't a People's Ballot Box Revolution have a decent chance of materializing if the People could get some Nobel laureates in economics to endorse it? What are the chances of that ever happening?

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Pursuant to my previous comment: All it would take is for some economics Nobel winners (or economists of that caliber) to craft refutations of anti-socialism tracts by Mises and Hayek, make the refutations well-publicized, and it would be over for capitalism at the ballot box.

There's still the problem of amending the constitution to revoke the Takings clause so that the People wouldn't have to come up with the $100T or so to purchase the capital, which you acknowledge would be an insurmountable obstacle if compensation is the way to go.

Jerry Fresia said...

Perhaps the concept "revolutionary reform" is appropriate here. It's a concept that has been around for quite sometime but the suggesting seems to be that many small steps in the right direction will push us to a transformation of our situation.

Second, if electoral work is key, then so is election integrity. The manipulation of voter roles by the secretaries of state in 29 red states (and funded by the Kock brothers, called "crosschecking"), in the opinion of many, explains the Trump win in the key rustbelt states, but was ignored by the mass-marketing media (and the DNC) largely because genuinely fair and free elections in the US would be a rather revolutionary development, especially if reforms encouraged many of the non-voters to participate. Along these lines Francis Moore Lappe and others are directing a protect/enhance democracy campaign (go here for their PDF Doing Democracy: 10 Practical Arts,
http://bit.ly/2i4rzXh). It involves dozens of established groups that are, probably, quite "liberal." Yes, Virginia, it's true! But they are aiming their fire at concentrated wealth in politics, which is great for leftists everywhere. Successful electoral reforms (and there are a wide variety of progressive ways of voting, not to mention the National Popular Interstate Compact that would effectively undermine the Electoral College) might then evolve into a movement to push millions of people toward confronting concentrated wealth, period.

The subtext of the last several weeks, here at this blog, is that each of us MUST DO SOMETHING. I would love it if all of us could identify ongoing activities that we could plug into (as an ex-pat I'm in a quandary), so that we can begin to move the ball down the field, one reform at a time - in the right direction. I think the focus on elections is not a bad place to begin and for me, at least, that means achieving some modicum of election integrity.

Enzo Rossi said...

Rarely do extralegal socialist revolutions start with people turning up at the factory gates with guns, though. One would expect to see months of strikes that would cripple the capitalists, followed by armed repression and suspension of civil rights, followed by the People's outraged defiance, mutiny in the armed forces, and so on. Not that there's much chance of any of this happening anytime soon in the US of A, but still, the general thought is that given proper planning of the appropriate sequence of revolutionary actions one doesn't need to start with total armed mobilisation. Large scale industrial action is the royal way to revolution.

s. wallerstein said...

Since my comment written last night about Chile and armed struggle was incomplete, let's me expand upon it now.

During the Allende government, many on the left called upon him to arm the workers in order to defend the government against a possible coup.

First, arming the workers would have been unconstitutional, and Allende, who knew that he was skating on thin ice, realized that that would have been the perfect pretext for a coup and that the armed workers would have crushed, with even more bloodshed than would come with a coup (although almost everyone underestimated how bloody the coup would be).

Second, how was Allende supposed to arm the workers? With what arms? Shotguns are not very effective against airplanes and tanks. If there had been a left-right civil war in Chile, Nixon might even had sent the B-52's to "defend the free world".

On the day of the coup before friendly radio stations were bombed, Allende called upon his supporters in a moving series of radio addresses not to resist the coup. He knew that it would have been suicide.

However, some groups did resist the coup and the dictatorship with arms, notably the MIR (Left Revolutionary Movement). Their courage, commitment and
idealism were notable and almost saintly, but they were crushed, arrested, tortured and made to disappear.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Enzo Rossi, you are right I am sure, but when the industrial base has given way to post-industrial office work and the like, it is a little hard to see how it could happen. I take S. Wallerstein's observations very seriously, since he [?] is talking about the real world.

Matt said...

I am largely in agreement with this, especially the conclusion, but a few small points.

First, a bit of annoying pedantry: when you say "west of the caucuses", you probably mean "west of the Urals". It makes no difference to the argument, but I have some personal interest in Russian geography. (the Caucuses are located near the Black Sea, the Urals - which are pretty insubstantial, really - are the nominal dividing line between European and Asian Russia.)

Maybe more interesting, I'm not actually sure that _Marx himself_ took the line on the possibility and desirability of revolution in Russia that you present here. Maybe he should have, but it seems that he didn't, at least not always and clearly. See here: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol01/no04/marx.htm I can't say for sure I understood all of this, but it does seem that Marx is coming to at least a somewhat different conclusion than what the post suggests.

It's also worth noting that the Communist party did put in place a capitalist (of sorts) phase, the New Economic Program (NEP), which actually got the disasters effects of "war communism" turned around a bit, and was making serious improvements before it was abruptly ended (by Stalin) and the NEP-Men liquidated.

The revolution itself was only possible because so much of the army had deserted, and was willing to join first the Feb. and then the October revolution. If it had just been workers and peasants (let alone just intellectuals!) it would have been crushed just like the Decembrist and 1906 revolution. Could such a thing happen in a country like the US? It seems unlikely, but if it did, it would probably come after a series of general strikes or the like. There have been some of those, that were real threats to power, in the US, but not really since the late 1800's. Without a strong union system or the like, it seems very unlikely now.

But, I'm surprised to see so little discussion of the fact that, in the Russian revolution, as in the Chinese, many millions of people died. That's not such a trivial deal! It seems likely that an awful lot of people would die in a "real" revolution in the US, too. That alone seems like a pretty good reason to not be eager for one.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Matt, thanks for the corrections. I was writing fast, but I thought I made it clear that a great many people would be killed in any sort of so-called people's uprising. So long as the possibility exists, it is vastly easier and safer just to vote. I confess I get really, really angry when 40% of the eligible voters do not bother. I recall the endless lines, six and eight hours long, when for the first time in South Africa Black people [i.e., Africans, Coloureds, and Asians] could vote in a national election. And I recall vividly the struggle here in America by Black people for the vote.

Bob Hockett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Hockett said...

Characteristically clarifying and thought-provoking post, RPW - thanks. Three quick observations, proceeding from most to least trifling:

1) I believe that Mercader murdered Trotsky with a mountaineer's pickaxe rather than a hatchet, which perhaps accounts for the oft-encountered claim that Trotsky was killed with 'an ice pick.' I've long been struck by how successfully Trotsky managed to fight Mercader off, then retain enough composure to insist that his bodyguards not kill the man but interrogate him instead, then hang onto life for another day. The founder of the Red Army remained one tough and tenacious intellectual to the end.

2) It might be well either to add a bit more to your provisional definition of 'socialism' at the start of the post, to define 'state capitalism' as employed toward the end of the post, or both. For one can readily imagine Soviet or, especially, contemporary Chinese leaders arguing that their polity-economies meet your 'collective control of the means of production' condition as stated in defining the former. I presume that you would distinguish between socialism and state capitalism (a) partly by reference to the degree to which the 'collectivity' or 'state' in question is democratic, (b) partly by reference to the degree to which the state or collective in question extracts surplus value from labor, or (c) both. I imagine that were we able to elaborate option (a) adequately, we would effectively address (b) - and hence (c) - as well in so doing.

(3) On 'socialism in one country,' I can well see why this might not be possible for a small country lacking in market or military power and heavily dependent on hostile capitalist societies for essential resources of various sorts. It is not entirely clear to me that the same holds of vast, well-endowed societies with great real or potential market and military power, however. It seems to me that the US, for example, were it to go truly socialist, would still have by far the world's most sought-after market for both consumer and capital goods. (Indeed, under more equitable, socialist conditions, its 'internal' market would likely grow even larger, since those at the tops of skewed income and wealth distributions have much lower MPCs than do those below the tops). The US in consequence would be well situated to condition foreign firm access to its 'internal' market on the distribution of foreign firm equity shares to American citizens. And of course it would not need worry that capitalist societies resenting this form of 'conditionality' might invade or blockade (as of course we and our peer nations did to the nascent Soviet Union). Against that backdrop, one might well expect the US over time to prosper much more than it currently does, which might then in turn inspire other societies to go socialist as well.

The early Soviet Union of course didn't have quite the cards that the US has now, but it was not without vast human and other material resources; and the productive and military power that it had amassed by the early 1930s constituted a 'growth miracle' like few that have ever been seen. Against that backdrop, it is far from clear to me that the Soviet Union could not have sufficiently democratized over the course of the 1930s as to become truly socialist in your sense rather than state capitalist in your sense. Presumably the reason that this didn't happen is that the hostile environment into which the Soviet Union was born made the assumption of power by autocratically-minded and not altogether unjustifiably paranoid people - the kind who are least apt to relinquish power once internal and external threats objectively diminish - more likely. If I am right about that, then the US might well be the reason, not that Soviet socialism 'failed,' but that Soviet socialism never came to be.

Thanks again,

RH

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you for this. Tomorrow I will try to discuss the points you make, which are quite interesting.

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