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Wednesday, June 10, 2015


A number of lengthy comments, by Tom Hickey and JR among others, raise more issues than I can possibly comment on.  It is clear that when we get past quoting passages from the writings of Marx and Engels, the question of what socialism would look like is enormously complicated, as of course it ought to be, since capitalism is enormously complicated as well.  I insist on continuing to talk concretely about the actual situations in which we find ourselves, rather than worrying about what Marx said a century and a half ago.  I am inspired by Marx, and profoundly enlightened by him, but I simply do not think we can answer the question I have posed by quoting from him.  What is more, I am morally certain he would agree.

Let me approach the question I have posed in a slightly different fashion, by talking for a bit about the vast changes that took place in America in my own lifetime, roughly from the end of the Second World War to the nineteen eighties – what Piketty calls, in France, Les trentes glorieuses, and what Krugman and others have taken to calling in America the Great Moderation.  This was a period during which real wages rose strongly, home ownership burgeoned, the share of each age cohort going to college quintupled, and there emerged economically, socially, culturally, and politically the great Middle Class that everyone talks about now.  Now look:  I am not praising this period, or acting nostalgic for it, or suggesting that had it continued a bit more socialism would have arrived.  Not a bit of it.  I just want you to think about the changes in America that were a part of this relatively minor variation in the evolution of capitalism.  If you can stop quoting Marx long enough actually to think about this period, it will help you to think intelligently about what would be required to make the vastly larger and more momentous transition to socialism.

The entire physical layout of America changed dramatically in the period I am talking about.  The continental network of interstate highways was constructed.  Huge numbers of people with rising household incomes moved to newly built towns and communities called suburbs.  Career and job patterns changed for large numbers of people – scores of millions of them.  Large numbers of families started taking vacations, and vacation resorts of all sorts sprang up to accommodate them.  Inner cities hollowed out, and housing segregation in the new suburbs forced large numbers of African-Americans to stay put.  Shopping malls multiplied, and big, famous department stores that had previously been located downtown moved to the suburbs, leaving inner city dwellers without accessible places to shop.  Television became the dominant form of family entertainment, displacing radio and forcing movie studios to change the kinds of films they made in an attempt to attract customers.  Class distinctions changed in complex ways, hardening some divisions and breaking down others.  Men stopped wearing hats and women started wearing slacks.  In the forties, if a character in a movie said he was an FBI agent, you knew he was a good guy.  In the seventies, if a character in a movie said he was an FBI agent, you knew he was a bad guy.

All of these changes produced huge changes in the physical housing stock and city layouts.  Lots of companies went out of business because of changes in buying patterns, and lots of other companies flourished for the same reason.  My first father-in-law made a brilliant career for himself as a Sears Roebuck executive.  Sears is now all but dead.

Why am I saying all this?  Because when I try to imagine what socialism would be like, I realize that a transition from capitalism to socialism would involve on-the-ground changes that dwarf the transformation I have just been sketching.  At a very minimum, anything I would recognize as socialism would involve a dramatic flattening of the income pyramid.  And this would have deep, far-reaching effects.  Just think about housing for a moment.  Rather more than one million new homes will be built in the United States in 2015.  A great many of these homes would be unaffordable by the families living in a socialist America, assuming that household income was significantly equalized.  If we stop allowing individuals to make a million dollars a year, then five million dollar homes are going to be a drag on the market.  What is more, all those folks carrying three million dollar mortgages are going to be unable to meet their payments.  What will happen to the housing stock?  Well, you can say, flippantly, we will hold a lottery and give it to the workers.  Which sounds daring and exciting until you start to think through the actual process of transition.  Those fancy restaurants where the rich and famous drop eight hundred dollars on a dinner for two are going to go belly up.  So are the luxury resorts, the jewelry stores, the antiques stores, and all the other businesses that now cater to the one percent.

In short, the transition to socialism is going to be complex, lengthy, and difficult, involving changes that it is very difficult now to anticipate.  And this is just a matter of changing people’s consumption opportunities and patterns; it says nothing about the deep changes in the experience of work or in the public and collective making of large scale investment decisions that are now made chaotically and behind the closed doors of corporate boardrooms.

I draw from these reflections the conclusion that a transition to socialism will be lengthy, complex, and in many ways unpredictable.  It will be a grand adventure, not a by-the-numbers tinker toy construction.  And although we may be inspired by Marx, his writings will provide precious little guidance. 


classtruggle said...

The term socialism has been a contested concept ever since it was coined. In the 1830s and 40s it was used to refer to anyone who was addressing social problems of the day, regardless of the kind of solutions they proposed. That is why Marx and Engels talk not only about 'critical-utopian socialism' in section iii of the CM but also 'reactionary socialism' and 'conservative or bourgeois socialism'. It was because of this that they started to refer to themselves as communists which was a term connected to the abolition of corporate private private property and because perhaps even more importantly, it was the name preferred by the most radical wings of the workers' movement.

On the one hand, Engels noted in 1840s that socialism was connected with “the most multifarious social quacks who, by all manner of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances,” and who had no connection with the workers' movement. On the other, workers' who had become "convinced of the insufficiency of mere political revolutions, and had proclaimed the necessity of total social change” referred to themselves as 'communists'.

And so when we look back, we see that in the mid 1800s, socialism was a middle class movement and communism a working class movement. The former was respected while the latter, although it was looked down upon by the mainstream, was from the very start a movement that held that “the emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself.”

In the second half of the 19th century, socialism came to refer to not only those concerned with social problems, but those who were opposed to capitalism and who supported some form of social ownership of the means of production. Marx and Engels never stop using the term communist to describe themselves, but they did not mind referring to themselves as socialists. But the kind of socialism they espoused was one that could only be created by the participation of workers themselves.

While utopian socialists came up with blueprints of a post capitalist future (a few, including Owen, actually tried to implement them on a micro level), Marx and Engels never speculated on the detailed organisation of a future socialist or communist society. The key point here is that for the communists, including Marx and Engels, it is all about building a workers' movement to overthrow capitalism. If by chance that movement succeeded, it would be up to the members of the new society (and not us speculating on the internet in the age of austerity when corporate counter measures are ongoing and the labour movement is badly beaten) to decide democratically how they want their new society to be organised, in the concrete historical circumstances in which they found themselves.

Marx was the working class's greatest theoretician, however, his practical work in building the First International (IWMA) was essential in laying the foundation for the rise of the workers’ movement from 1864 to 1876 and after it collapsed. Engels went on to describe the formation of the IWMA, and not CAPITAL, as Marx’s 'crowning achievement.'

Anonymous said...

Thanks for steering the discussion in the direction that you have.

I believe strongly that any progressive change will have to grow organically out of our current state—a market-based economy, with varying degrees of regulation, progressive taxation and various kinds of transfers to the poor, either in cash or in kind, and relatively low levels of corruption. Now, before anyone’s knee flies up and hits them in the chin, let me stress that what I just listed are, quite factually, all features or our social structure. We might want taxation to be far more progressive and regulations to be different or tighter. We might want the very idea of "the poor" to be abolished. But the fact remains that these basic, “progressive” levers really exist and are widely accepted. However much there may be calls for lower taxes, the “all tax is theft” constituency is about as small as the “all property is theft” constituency, maybe smaller. And the same goes for the other features our society that I mentioned. (By the “our” of “our current state” I mean the developed world—US, UK, Canada, Japan, Europe and so on. Yes, compared with each other, some places are much more progressive than others. But seen from the perspective of early capitalism, when it had hardly begun to fulfill its historic mission, or the Third World, the differences are minute.)

I believe that the tools for successful, progressive transformation, if they exist at all, must lie here, in the levers I just described. I also believe that when real change occurs, it won’t sound Marxist. No one will be singing the International or putting up red bunting. It will just seem like the rational thing to do, much like gay marriage, or the legalisation of marijuana. And for emotional support, it might even draw on, dare we say it, patriotism! I want to give this more thought. Let’s all give this some thought.

Professor Wolff, you have turned my mind to things that I haven’t considered in quite a while, and certainly not in these terms. But these are my intuitions--the "clues" that I feel are trying to tell me something--and I sense they may, in part at least, be yours as well. I’m not sure exactly where they lead, though.

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

By coincidence your ex-colleague Rick Wolff discusses socialism in his latest "Monthly Update."

Discussion starts on min 37:55 although before that he had spoken on Seattle and Bernie Sanders

Anonymous said...

Let me add one more intuition to those of my prior comment:I don't think that socialism will appear as a workers movement.

Yes, people will still be working, but they will not be effecting successful, progressive change in their capacity as employees in the arena of the workplace. Rather, I think that change will come through people demanding rights in their capacity as citizens of a community to which everyone contributes in various ways and everyone receives benefits. Socialism will mean an emancipation, not from work itself, but from work and career as the defining elements of one's sense of self. (Here it probably makes sense to distinguish between work as a vocation and work as a necessary "dis-utility" that one performs as part of one's duty to contribute to society. There may be people who have a vocation that they truly love and that their identity is completely bound up with, but that will probably not be typical.)

David Auerbach said...

Above is a link to a ameliorative view... Or maybe a stepping stone...

classtruggle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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