Socialism

Jon Elster

  • The Politics of Socialism: An Essay in Political Theory by John Dunn
    Cambridge, 107 pp, £15.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 521 26736 6

Optimism and wishful thinking have been features of socialist thought from its inception. In Marx, for instance, two main premises appear to be that whatever is desirable is possible, and that whatever is desirable and possible is inevitable. John Dunn’s short book is much concerned with the disastrous consequences of this Utopian strand in socialism. He argues that socialists, if they want to be taken seriously, must show that the society they propose is economically viable, and that the process of getting there is politically feasible. He also comes close to saying, without ever actually doing so, that neither demonstration will succeed. The cumulative impact of the difficulties that he urges socialists to confront is such that one wonders why he doesn’t simply tell them to pack it in.

Plain talk, however, is not in Dunn’s repertoire. His circumlocutory style is as exasperating as ever. When discussing Macaulay’s prophecy that adult suffrage would destroy society through the use of its capital stock for current consumption, he remarks that ‘the present Conservative government in Britain might well be thought to have gone further in this direction than any of its Labour predecessors.’ Well, yes, but has it? Having noted that John Rawls’s Theory of Justice captures very well the cultural revulsion from capitalism, he adds that ‘this is not to say that his theory necessarily gives a very compelling account of how we should in fact conceive social justice.’ No doubt, but does it? (And if not, why not?) What substitutes for plain talk is trite pomposity. There is a whole paragraph that consists of the single sentence: ‘Human beings simply are what they are.’ And surely readers who are intelligent enough to follow Dunn at his most convoluted do not need to be told that ‘in politics what is likely to happen is more important than what just conceivably might happen.’

The ground covered is familiar. The economic and political developments of the last century give reasons for doubting most of the classical socialist propositions. After Bernstein it has increasingly been accepted that in advanced capitalist societies, characterised by a high degree of industrial development and a democratic political system, a revolutionary strategy for socialism is implausible, undesirable and superfluous. It is implausible, because capitalism simply isn’t so irrational that it can be counted on to create increasing poverty in the midst of plenty. It is undesirable, both for the intrinsic reason that one cannot ask one generation to sacrifice itself for the sake of its children or grandchildren and for the extrinsic reason that the end tends to become infested by the means. And the reformists have argued that revolution was superfluous because one could achieve the economic goals of socialism by a gradual process.

Recent developments provide grounds for being sceptical about these goals themselves. It has become clear that classical socialism massively underestimated the importance of economic incentives. The incentive structure of Soviet-type economies is an obstacle to efficiency, both in the individual unit of production and in the system of national planning. The idea that classes will disappear when the means of production are nationalised has not been confirmed, to say the least. One can always try to counter these objections by referring to the low initial level of development in the socialist countries and to the hostility of the capitalist environment, but it becomes increasingly difficult to produce this argument with any degree of confidence.

On the one hand, then, there are ‘the increasingly evident political and economic hazards of socialism’. On the other hand, there are ‘the proven cultural deformations of capitalism’. The central idea of The Politics of Socialism seems to be that while the pull from socialism has lost much of its force, the push from capitalism has not. Dunn argues that ‘the conjunction of huge aggregations of inherited personal wealth with the ugly and alarming conditions in which millions still have to live is far more important as a cultural affront than it is as an economic injury.’ Capitalism may deliver the goods, but it does so in a way that undermines the self-esteem and capacity for self-realisation of most people. The inherent ugliness of capitalism ensures that there is a perpetual impetus towards socialism, but contemplation of actually existing socialism perpetually tends to stop it in its course. ‘The modern democratic capitalist state,’ Dunn says in the last paragraph of the book, ‘is the natural political expression of a form of society irritably but rationally aware of its own internal contradictions, but also irritably but rationally unconvinced of the possibility of transforming itself into a less contradictory form.’

In the broad spectrum of forms of socialism, there are two main proposals for creating a society in which ‘culture rules economics.’ One postulates a transformation of man, who will become ‘noble, virtuous, disciplined, generous, dedicated, indefatigable, selfless, rational, patient, gentle, resolute, courageous, friendly, independent, co-operative, adaptable, discerning, cheerful’, as Dunn puts it in one of his more extravagant strawman constructions. The other takes for given man’s mean and envious nature, but tries to harness his activities into culturally beneficial channels. Rawls’s Theory of Justice is indeed the best statement of this social-democratic attitude. It suffers, however, from the internal tension of any system of political philosophy that assumes people to be guided by very different motivations from those underlying the theory itself. This ‘cultural contradiction of capitalism’, in Daniel Bell’s phrase, will inevitably lead to movements in the direction of (some less extravagant version of) the first proposal, with disillusionment and a return to social democracy setting in after a while. Capitalist societies are prone to cultural cycles of disenchantment.

This, I take it, is Dunn’s main argument. Flaws of exposition apart, The Politics of Socialism surely has a good deal of merit, but it seems to me quite seriously incomplete. To explain why it needs to be supplemented by other considerations, I must first comment on two general, related flaws of the book. First, it does not identify and name the socialists who are taken to task for holding the various, often absurd views which it discusses. Dunn never argues against actual assertions made by specific writers within the socialist tradition. Instead he constructs his own composite pictures or strawmen, to whom he then imputes various degrees of ineptitude, stupidity and dishonesty. I am not saying that actual representatives of these different views could not be found, but surely it is an important rule of intellectual debate to single out the best proponents of the theory one is discussing.

The second, more important flaw is that Dunn does not have a clear and consistent notion of socialism. His explicit definition is that ‘socialism is an analytical term indicating aversion to the private ownership of capital,’ but he also writes that ‘the main thrust away from capitalism comes from the anarchic character of capitalist production’ – which is not at all the same thing. The first statement suggests that the argument is about exploitation and justice, the second that it is mainly about (economy-wide) efficiency. Moreover, Dunn also argues that productivity (i.e. efficiency at the level of the firm) and the quality of work experience are part of the socialist aspiration. These are four different values, which for their implementation point in quite different directions. Socialists are not committed to the belief that it is just as possible to realise all of them simultaneously as it would be to realise each of them taken separately. Nor are they committed to the view that socialism must retain everything which is good in capitalism, it is pure caricature when Dunn asserts that socialists must show ‘socialist policies to be a necessary remedy for, or at least a beneficial alleviation of, some of the major existing demerits’ of society as it is ‘and to threaten none of its existing merits’. This statement mirrors the very utopianism he is criticising, by the implicit denial of trade-offs between values. Surely the goal of any serious form of socialism is to create a society which on balance is a marked improvement on capitalism, not one which is better in many respects and worse in none.

If the anarchy of the market is the main culprit of capitalist production, we are led towards Soviet-type economies as the remedy. There are, however, good reasons for thinking that this would be worse than the disease. If private ownership of the means of production is the most objectionable feature, we may but need not seek the same remedy. An alternative would be a system of worker-owned and worker-managed firms selling and buying in the market. It is an astonishing lacuna of the book that it mentions neither the extensive theoretical literature on market socialism, nor (except in passing) the Yugoslav experience. Nor does it refer to similar developments in capitalist countries, in the form of individual experiments (Mondragon) or in the form of legislated industrial democracy.

The book fails, then, because it has no real focus. It contains the reflections of a very intelligent person who has read too many stupid arguments about socialism, and who wants to tell us about his frustration. This is not what we need in our present circumstances, or in any other circumstances. The difficulties of inventing and implementing socialism are substantial, but world-weariness is not the right response to them.