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Wednesday, April 4, 2018


I am now awash in offprints, folders, clipped together sets of pages, and all the other detritus of a life of the mind.  Among this mass of paper, I have just stumbled on three hand-written fragments, ranging in length from two to eight pages in length, in which, purely for my own edification, I sought to think through questions raised by my work on Marx. 

While I await from Amazon the next box of file folders, I think I am going to undertake to transcribe them into my computer.  As I do, I shall post them on this blog.  They may provoke some interesting responses.  Here is the first, a two-page fragment.  It is a first and only draft, originally hand-written, some indication of the way my mind works.  It is undated, but I would guess is about thirty-five years old.

Some Random Thoughts
On Democratic Decision-making in a Socialist State

It is worth considering whether democratic decision-making is feasible in a capitalist state only because the matters of major social importance – viz, capital allocation, organization of production, etc. – are not objects of political decision at all.  The pattern of investment never becomes an object of anyone’s decision in a decentralized, private property economy, and even such large-scale decisions as are made – such as G.M.’s decision to retool, say – are not political decisions.  A major industrial union may be engaged in contract negotiations with a major industry during a political campaign, but there is no way that the outcome of those negotiations can become an object of political decision in the campaign, despite the fact that their outcome will probably have a wider-reaching and more profound on the lives of the voters than will the outcome of the issues being debated in the campaign.

In effect, the long run economic decision-making which sets the stage for public political choices takes place behind the backs of the public – not secretly, heaven knows, but exempted from inclusion in the political sphere.  This fact is, of course, structural, not accidental.  Since the corporation is privately owned, and the union is private association, the decisions of the first and contracts between the two cannot directly become the object of political decision.

I say “cannot.” But one thinks of the wealth of government laws and regulations shaping investment decisions, the bargaining process, even – as with wage and price controls – the outcome of the bargaining process.  Quite so.  But these exceptions demonstrate the truth of my claim, in two ways:  first, it is clear, I think, that although the capitalist state can seek to shape investment decisions (by its tax laws, principally_, it cannot make investment decisions – the result is a series [ed.  I wrote serious!] of distortions and inefficiencies which frustrate the aims of the state;  second, the pluralist character of the private sector defeats the state’s efforts to achieve coherent economy-wide planning.

In effect, I am suggesting that democratic decision-making (as distinguished from the operation and preservation of political liberties) flourishes only because what is decided is not structurally fundamental.  Consider:  it is feasible to make the size or existence of social welfare programs a matter of political decision, for [i.e., because  ed.] the dislocations caused by their expansion or constriction, institution and termination, are structurally insignificant, for all the personal dislocation thereby produced.  But it would be utterly impossible to make the social relationships of production objects of periodic democratic choice.  No industrial society could oscillate between collective and private ownership of the means of production.

How, then, could social decision-making in a socialist society embody what we ordinarily think of as democratic principles and procedures?  First of all, it is clear that freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, private and diversified ownership of at least some means of communication (publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, radio stations [ed.  This was written thirty years ago] would be perfectly possible.  Only the fears and self-interest of government bureaucrats stand in the way of those freedoms.  How can those freedoms be preserved?  A major and difficult question, but not in principle impossible to answer.

Secondly, the content, the direction, the broad purposes of the economic plan _can_ be the object of democratic political decision, with one party, say, favoring a lower rate of growth with a higher leisure and consumption trade-off, another party favoring the postponement of present consumption, etc. (this assumes a mature industrialized economy).  In large, heterogeneous societies there will certainly be regional interests, and even in a socialist society there will be quasi-class conflicts over the structure of job compensation, etc.  But what will not be an object of political decision, in a socialist any more than in a capitalist democracy, is the basic structure itself.  Private versus collective ownership of the means of production will not be a political issue.

This, Marx is correct in his claim that the transition from capitalism to socialism must be revolutionary, for all that the transition may be bloodless.  The transition is revolutionary just in the sense that it is a transformation of the underlying socio-economic structure within which the political process takes place.  We may choose to buy off the private owners of capital, but they money they receive will no longer be capital.  It will be spendable or savable, but not investable.  Thus, it will not be, as it were, a claim in perpetuity on the resources and output of the society.  It is not difficult to see that such wealth, however great initially, will have a rapidly diminishing impact on the new society.

Might a socialist society, by a counter-revolution, transform itself back into a capitalist society?  In theory that is possible.  But consider why it is so unlikely in practice.  In a socialist society, the means of production are collectively owned and labour-power is not a produced commodity.  [See Schweickart on this.  Ed.  David Schweickart, an extremely interesting socialist author.]  It is logically possible for a mass movement to seek to re-institute private ownership of the means of production, and thereby to re-impose on themselves wage-labour.  But why would they?  And whom would they choose as the new private owners?  There would, in a socialist society, be no way for private individuals to accumulate self-expanding capital, and thus to repeat, as it were, the history of the 16-19th centuries.

But though a counter-transformation to capitalism seems in practice impossible, there is clearly the possibility for revolutionary transformations, bringing into existence social forms beyond socialism.  What they would be, one need not attempt to guess.


s. wallerstein said...

From what you say above, it seems that you do not consider that the Soviet Union or China under Mao or Cuba before current pro-market reforms were "really" socialist.

How would you describe them?

Anonymous said...

Meh. Perhaps better to leave these private episodes in your life of the mind ... private!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Now, now, if you are going to make scornful comments, the least you can do is append your real name. I do not think in eighty-four years that I have ever hidden behind anonymity or a pseudonym.

Rupert Saul Foxx said...

Insightful and informative, plus admirably clear considering it’s a written first draft. More, please. Forget the haters!