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Saturday, April 13, 2019


I should like to take just a few moments to clear up a confusion regarding socialism that I think lies at the heart of the lengthy comment posted by LFC.  In the nineteenth century, the term “socialism” was used by a number of authors to describe one or another form of ideal community that contrasted with what they all understood as capitalism.  These authors wrote about imaginary ideal, and idyllic, small communities, and some of them actually brought experimental communities into existence, at least for a time.  Engels referred to these authors as Utopian Socialists with barely concealed scorn.  I think he was right to do so.

That was not at all what Marx had in mind when he used the term.  By socialism Marx meant a form of society and economy, of what he called social relations of production, that was based on collective ownership of the means of production rather than on the private ownership of the means of production that defined capitalism.  Marx had no illusions at all that socialism would bring about a transformation in the character and motivation of individuals, a transformation by which pettiness, greed, and self-dealing would be replaced by altruism, generosity, and magnanimity.  [Trotsky did, but that is entirely another matter.]

In a socialist society and economy, Marx explained, the capital produced by workers would be collectively owned and put to uses democratically decided upon.  Part of the social product of each cycle would be set aside for investment in the next cycle.  Part would be needed to replace depreciated capital goods.  Part would be devoted to expanded production – to growth – if the workers so decided, and of course the principal portion of the annual product would be consumed by those who had produced it.  There would be no large and endlessly growing accumulations of privately owned capital whose social use required the permission of its private owners.  Would the workers make wise decisons?  Who knows?  Do capitalists?

Would people be different in a socialist society?  No doubt.  Would they be nicer people, more generous, more public spirited, more caring for the needy and suffering?  Again, who knows?  That was not the focus of Marx’s concern, and he devoted virtually no time to writing about it.

Are people good enough for socialism?  The question is absurd on its face.  Are people good enough for slavery, for feudalism, for capitalism?  Would socialism work?  Does capitalism work?  Did feudalism work?  Did slavery work?  What does the question even mean?

Remember, Marx quite rightly rejected the view that socialism, unlike any other system of social relations of production, would or could be brought into existence by someone’s plan.  He said, presciently, that each new social order grows in the womb of the old.  What does that mean for capitalism?  Marx wrote Das Kapital as his answer.  What would it mean for socialism?  He does not say.  I tried to suggest the very beginnings of an answer in my essay “The Future of Socialism.”  Do Bernie, AOC, and America’s other “socialists” have an answer?  I doubt that they even understand the question.


LFC said...

Prof Wolff,
I did not post the long comment about socialism. Glancing at the thread, it seems to have been posted by an anonymous commenter.

Tom Hickey said...

I am wondering whether "collective ownership of the means of production" is the best way to characterize the thought of Marx on this today. "Collective" has a very strong negative connotation now as a result of failed experiments based on Marxism-Leninism, notably the collapse of the USSR, which is now attributed to "socialism" — uncritically, of course. It should be noted that so far no capitalist country has yet "gone socialist" in the way that Marx foresaw social change emerging from industrial capitalism. Tthe countries that have adopted socialism have been pre-capitalist, either under-developed or developing.

The failure of "socialism" as "collectivism" was due at least in part from the opposition these countries faced from the developed world, which was dominated by capitalism and viewed them as an existential threat. This is still the case. Many countries that are now viewed as "failures" actually improved greatly under the socialist experiment and one could argue that socialism was defeated from without as much as it failed from within. Similarly, the "success" of capitalist countries neglects to include the huge costs and associated failure in the conventional narrative promoted by the establishment.

Be that as it may, now the choice is framed in the dominant narrative as being between the binary choice between individualism and collectivism, capitalism and socialism. So I wonder whether characterizing Mark's concept of socialism as collectivism isn't just conceding the debate to the other side through the framing.

Wouldn't it be more strategic to say either "social ownership" or "public ownership" of the means of production, that is, if this is accurate. I have assumed that Marx and Engels would be OK with abandoning "collective" for something that more closely reflects their concept of socialism by using a term that is neutral today.

Moreover, it should be noted that so far no capitalist country has yet "gone socialist" that way that Marx foresaw social change coming. All the countries that have adopted socialism have been pre-capitalist under-developed or developing countries. So there is really no concrete precedent to draw on.

It seems to me that Marx and Engels viewed capitalism as bourgeois liberalism rather than genuine liberalism of the people. In their day, the "beacon of liberty" was America, where slavery was still legitimate in the law of the land and the vast majority of the capital of the South was "human capital." Marx was acutely aware of this as his writings of America show.

It doesn't seem that a genuine liberalism would be incompatible with socialism as Marx and Engels conceive of it. IN fact, it seems that they advocated consensus governance as expression of the will of the people. They said little about what this would look like, since they realized that it was emergent and would be determined on the basis of the dominant mode of production as capitalism crested. This forecast has yet to be fulfilled, but there is no reason to think that it is incorrect. We may be seeing a harbinger of this shift in the emergence of "the sharing economy."

I prefer "public ownership of the means of production" since the opposition of pubic-private is already familiar and relatively neutral. I would say that for socialism to be dominant, the public — as in governance of, by and for the people — must have control of the commanding heights.

Unknown said...

I was hoping that there was a quick link to your essay, "The Future of Socialism," but there was not. Wheere shou.d I look?

Anonymous said...

Nobody owns a world like "socialism". Language isn't "owned".

I live in a country where the 3rd largest party is a "democratic socialist" party. They have been in power provincially but never federally. As far as I know, they don't talk about "seizing the instruments of production". The only place that this was attempted was the UK after WWII and while they (like most hard line "socilists") delivered better education and better health care, but ultimately they failed and were voted out as the economy sputtered and struggled post-WWII.

I'm all for analysis and using big terms and making careful distinctions, but words, especially in politics, are slippery indeed. The "progressives" in the US see themselves as socialists and proudly so. To sneer at them is of no use to anybody. To educate them would be useful. A review of history would help. Some discussions of political theory and even some philosophizing about the "good life" and the role of "the state" would be useful.

In my mind Marx is the epitome of the "armchair socialist". He was a mooch all his life. He did earn a bit writing articles for the New York Daily Tribune. His conspiring to destroy the International Workingman's Association (by moving it to New York to keep it out of the hands of his rivals) leaves me cold.

I have a real problem with people "telling" me how I should live my life. For me, a real community is organic, it comes from the ground up. I never bought into Rousseau's "The General Will" as the infallible guide for running a society. As for elections... well, the US is lucky to get 60% of the electorate out. How are you going to "vote in socialism" when you can't get people to sign up for it?

I find the new "progressives" in the US too harsh for my taste. They sound like they are "dictating" solutions. Even worse, I don't think they realize that now solution ever fits perfectly or lasts forever. The only person running for president in the US that has my respect is Elizabeth Warren because she focuses on issues and (as far as I know) has avoided the grand standing. (But I may be wrong because I don't live in the US and I don't follow it all that closely.)

I have no respect for Marx, the man, but I do respect his ideas. I don't have as much respect at Robert Paul Wolff, but I listen carefully and enjoy what he says. There is much to learn. But I'm afraid I'm not a candidate for "conversion". I won't buy any political system or political theory. I look at history and I see failure after failure. To declare "next time it will be different" is the height of folly. Instead of trying to build the "perfect society", I suggest we work daily and locally on the here and now and improve what we've got.

Anonymous said...

I got a chuckle out of this from Robert Reich in this post:

"In his annual letter to shareholders, distributed last week, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon took aim at socialism, warning it would be “a disaster for our country,” because it produces “stagnation, corruption and often worse.”

Dimon should know. He was at the helm when JPMorgan received a $25bn socialist-like bailout in 2008, after it and other Wall Street banks almost tanked because of their reckless loans."

Call in the language police! Jamie Dimon is "misusing" the word!

I find it especially funny that while there is no "socialism" for the bottom 90+% in the US (they suffer the raw cruelties of dog-eat-dog capitalism), there is a kind of "socialism" for the ultra-rich with the taxpayer footing the bill to save the banks and to idly stand by as these great men of great power got paid their "bonuses" for wrecking the global economy!