What would socialism be like?

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • In the Tracks of Historical Materialism by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 112 pp, £4.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 86091 776 2
  • The Dialectics of Disaster by Ronald Aronson
    Verso, 329 pp, £5.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 86091 075 X
  • Rethinking Socialism by Gavin Kitching
    Methuen, 178 pp, £3.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 416 35840 3
  • The Economics of Feasible Socialism by Alec Nove
    Allen and Unwin, 244 pp, £12.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 04 335048 8
  • The Labour Party in Crisis by Paul Whiteley
    Methuen, 253 pp, £12.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 416 33860 7

Joseph Schumpeter had a refreshing sense of socialism. For him, it had almost no fixed sense at all. ‘A society may be fully and truly socialist and yet be led by an absolute ruler or be organised in the most democratic of all possible ways; it may be aristocratic or proletarian; it may be a theocracy and hierarchic or atheist and indifferent to religion; it may be much more strictly disciplined than men are in a modern army or completely lacking in discipline; it may be ascetic or eudemonist in spirit; energetic or slack; thinking only of the future or the day; warlike and nationalist or peaceful and internationalist; equalitarian or the opposite; it may have the ethics of lords or the ethics of slaves; its art may be subjective or objective; its forms of life individualistic or standardised.’ Of course, Schumpeter conceded, most who call themselves ‘socialist’ are in fact committed to one of these things rather than another, to peace rather than war, or to irreligion rather than religion. But if we wish to argue about which if any of these things are necessarily socialist, ‘we had better yield the floor to the only truly great performer in that field, Plato.’

This is not to say that Schumpeter did not himself have a conception of what socialism was, or see why socialists like him leant in one direction rather than another. Socialism was a reaction to capitalism, which ‘inevitably and by the very logic of its civilisation creates, educates and subsidises a vested interest in social unrest’. His own life had made that clear to him. It began in Austria-Hungary, where at Czernowitz he fought a duel with the university’s librarian over access to books. It continued in the new Austria, where in 1918 he was made Minister of Finance in the Social-Democratic Government. It ended in America, were he taught at Harvard, wrote Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, and died in 1950. Like others in his culture, he had seen how bourgeois society had affected the intellectuals. In the old order, they were in general expected to give support. They had a duty to honour Kultur and foster Bildung. In the new, they were expected to criticise, and to do so with the freedom the bourgeoisie purported to respect. But in so doing, they lost respect. As a result, the intellectual, ‘having no genuine authority and feeling always in danger of being unceremoniously told to mind his own business ... must flatter, promise and incite, nurse left wings and scowling minorities, sponsor doubtful or submarginal cases, appeal to fringe ends, profess himself ready to obey: in short, behave towards the masses as his predecessors behaved first towards their ecclesiastical superiors, later towards princes and other individual patrons, still later towards the collective master of bourgeois complexion’. Socialism, at least in the intellectuals, was a rage against displacement. And if some social historians are to be believed, socialism in its putative beneficiaries was a rage against displacement too, displacement of a more brutal kind.

What has always been less clear is what the replacement, socialism itself, would be. Schumpeter himself was an amoralist, and argued only for a centrally-directed economy to alleviate waste and disorder. But he did actually say. Few others have. In Perry Anderson’s view, Marxists have been ceasing to do so since the Bolshevik coup in 1917. Ever since the 1880s, they had understandably been more exercised about how to escape from capitalism than about what to do once they had. Lenin’s success and the subsequent failures to the west, especially in Germany, exercised them further, for their standard suppositions were turned upside down. Capitalism might not be a necessary condition of socialism at all. Indeed, it might impede it. Moreover, the new Soviet state had its own vertiginous difficulties and its Comintern recommended restraint, which was anyway evident, elsewhere. In the Twenties, the Western intellectuals turned away in despair from questions of economics and politics to ask whether there were not deeper reasons of a cultural or even psychological sort for the lack of revolutionary will. In the Considerations on Western Marxism which he published in 1976, Anderson thought he saw some sign of their at last turning back. France in the spring and early summer of 1968, Italy in the autumn of 1969, Portugal and even Britain in 1974, together with the onset of recession everywhere: these events, he believed, would concentrate their minds again on more practical possibilities. The intellectuals’ ‘long and tantalising’ diversion into theory might be coming to an end. In fact, it has taken ever more diverting turns.

In Paris, this might have been expected. There, the ‘irritated clowns’, in Christine Brooke-Rose’s happy phrase, the new ‘artists and philosophers of the meaningless’, have gone so far as to celebrate the arbitrariness of all reality and the reality of all arbitrariness. Former Marxists, like the anthropologist Godelier, now say that economies are no more fundamental than kinship or even myths. Infrastructural foundations can be found in any fact. Former structuralists, having already dismissed history as the epiphenomenal expression of eternal arrangements, now say that to talk of structures still supposes a subject to do so, and have dismissed this, too, in what Derrida calls ‘the seminal adventure of the trace’. They have deconstructed even subjective assent. Former Althusserians, like Glucksmann, say that Marxism is Stalinism is authoritarianism. Former Maoists, like Kristeva and Sollers, praise capitalism and Christianity and have renamed Tel Quel L’Infini in which to do so. In Italy, Colletti, previously one of the most persuasive of Marxists, now declares ‘il tramonto’ – the ‘twilight’ – ‘dell’ ideologia’. Even in Germany, always the most serious place, Habermas has abandoned his heroic effort to prove a real interest, an interest we have whatever we may in fact believe, in arriving at freedom and agreement, and retreated into a sweetly old-fashioned faith in a natural, and naturally very extended, evolution towards consensual altruism. ‘Western Marxism’ in these respects is ever more diverting, and dying.

Some Marxist history, it is true, and some Marxist economics do flourish again, and so too does a more analytical sort of Marxist philosophy, but they do so more in England and America than in Europe. Anderson predicted that this might happen and in his new essay is pleased to record that it has. Some of this work is extremely good. John Roemer’s formal reformulation of the idea of exploitation, for example; or Jon Elster’s assessment of the extent to which Marx’s models of rationality match his own; or G. A. Cohen’s schematic reconstruction of Karl Marx’s Theory of History, for many, as for Anderson, ‘the landmark of the decade’; or indeed Anderson’s own synoptic and more properly historical Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, which he is too modest to mention. But all this work is aseptically academic. None of it clearly connects to the worlds we actually inhabit. None of it, certainly, suggests any strategy for changing them. Anderson cannot come to terms with it. He still sees no reason for Marxism to abandon its ‘Archimedean vantage-point’, although he does not explain where this is. At the same time, he sees that Marxism has at some point to connect to popular will. And it does so less and less.

In France and Italy and Spain and Portugal, Communists have turned this way and that and at best made no ground. They were thrown into disarray by Hungary and Khrushchev’s speech against Stalin in 1956 and again by the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In Italy, their subsequent conversion to parliamentary democracy was put into doubt by Allende’s fall in Chile in 1973. In Portugal, they threw away what Anderson regards as their one real recent opportunity to make a revolution, although that was scarcely an opportunity, as he says it was, ‘in conditions of advanced capitalism’. In fact, he knows that ‘no working-class or popular bloc’ in a Western society now ‘will ever make a leap in the dark ... let alone into the grey on grey of an Eastern society of the type that exists today’. They will never embrace a ‘socialism that remains incognito’.

They do not even seem now to embrace the milder sort. In northern Europe, social democrats have been losing to conservatives. In Britain, as Paul Whiteley recalls, the Labour Party has been shedding an average of eleven thousand members a year since the early Fifties. Its share of the vote in 1983, a little more than a quarter, was the lowest at any general election since 1918. Surveys suggest that it is members of the working class who have been steadily less impressed with Labour’s governments. But Whiteley’s own evidence belies his view that this is because these governments have not been socialist enough. Only in France and in Spain, in the one case, perhaps, as a reaction to two decades of Gaullism, in the other as a move for political peace, have moderate socialists been put into power. Almost everywhere, the rage against capitalism, as capitalism, seems to be fading.

Meanwhile, socialism seems to have been seeding its own destruction in the East. The fate of the first Marxist state will always be disputed. Ronald Aronson does so in his essay on the hope to be rescued from the disasters of the 20th century, and he decides that what happened in Russia was not preordained. Lenin did not have to fall ill and die at just the point at which he, more than anyone, began to see the dangers in defending socialism in one country. Bukharin did not have at once to proceed to undermine his own base. Stalin did not have to panic at the thought of invasion from the West and override the economic caution of others. The party did not have to suspend democracy, put the production of pig-iron as the first priority, and wage war on the peasants. But sooner or later, if not quite so soon and quite so drastically, it did have to introduce central planning. There was no other alternative to the market. Tretevo ne dano, as Alec Nove says Russians still say: ‘there is no third way.’ And for all its extraordinary achievements, this planning has not been a success.

The difficulties are not now technical: the advent of computers and the techniques of linear programming make it possible at least to imagine the control of the Soviet Union’s twelve million or so products. The difficulties are not now even insurmountably practical: the extension of computers could make it possible to type much of the necessary information into the central programme. They are political. In the first place, Soviet central planning rests still on the Marxian theory of value. This offers no way of estimating the cost of anything other than labour. It tends to measure that, equitably but inadequately, in mere hours. It offers no way at all of assessing benefits: it tends to measure those in crude quantities, and cannot compare them. Money, of course, can. But money as a measure is rejected. The planners have faute de mieux to resort to arbitrary proxies. That ‘any cook could run the state,’ in Anderson’s dismissal of Lenin’s The State and Revolution, is false. The cook has to be unimaginably good. Further, and related to this, even if the planners were to use all the techniques now available, and even if they were to invent another way of measuring costs and benefits, they would still have to decide what the benefits were. Managers typing-in facts is one thing. Comrades typing-in views is quite another. These would always be changing and would play havoc with decisions already in train. In fact, in the Soviet Union, there is no suggestion that anything like this be tried, virtually no public debate, certainly none that carries authority, and the decisions that are made are made by ministries in intermittent and imperfect consultation with each other and with local authorities. Brezhnev’s attempts at reform in the early Seventies remain, it is said, a dead letter. But that is the Soviet Union. What changes, if any, are desirable here?

Whiteley’s is the most immediate answer. It is an answer, a nominally socialist answer, for Labour in the later Eighties. The next Labour government, he believes, should see that Britain has to be developed all over again. It should act on this by protecting the domestic market and promoting a largely export-led growth. This means ceasing to worry so much about the currency and short-term debt, directly investing in the ‘sunrise’ industries, restricting imports through bilateral agreements with specific countries on specific goods, and, as a quid pro quo for all this, so that demand and inflation may be checked and more public goods provided, imposing an incomes policy. Administratively, it means dethroning the Treasury in favour of a department of economic and industrial planning. Politically, it means abandoning the diversion into internal democracy which so distracted Labour and divided it after the collapse of its programme in 1976.

Whiteley has few illusions. In 1973, the Labour Party published Labour’s Programme for Britain, the most radical since 1918, in which it proposed a state holding company to acquire ‘a major public stake in manufacturing industry’, planning agreements with the largest one hundred companies, and a new Industry Act to give the government power to intervene in any company at all. In August 1974, the new Labour Government issued a White Paper on the regeneration of industry which reneged on all three projects. In 1982, the party published another programme. This, as Whiteley says, more closely resembles his own, but is weaker and more equivocal. Although it proposes a new Department of Trade and Industry together with a National Investment Bank to channel money from the pension funds and life insurance companies into industry, and although it endorses the point that Joel Barnett and Leo Pliatzky have made, that decisions on spending and decisions on the budget should not be as separate as they have been in the past, it proposes nothing specific for the future of the Treasury itself. That, at a moment when this department is more powerful than at any time since the war, is careless. Similarly, although it envisages statutory price controls, it says nothing about incomes. Meanwhile, the oil is running out and so, too, after the present Government’s thoughtless relaxations, is capital itself. Even if Labour is elected again, which is not certain, and even if it does what it says it will do, which is not certain at all, what it does will fall some way short of what it needs to do if it wants to achieve what it says it does. In 1945, the party came to power with a large majority, the Reconstruction Committee’s plans, and still active wartime controls. In the later Eighties, if it comes to power at all, it will do so with a small majority, bitter disagreement, inside and out, on what it should do, and no existing instruments with which to do very much at all. A feasible socialism in Whiteley’s sense, therefore, which would take a strong Labour government to begin it and perhaps half a dozen such governments to complete it, is not very feasible. A feasible socialism in Nove’s sense, which is the public ownership of all large productive assets and the ‘conscious planning ... of major investments of structural significance’, with, nevertheless, much more participation below, is scarcely feasible here at all. Indeed, Nove’s is only a socialism actually entertainable from here, as distinct from Moscow, Warsaw or Bucharest, if one supposes, as Stalin did at the end of the Twenties, and as the Labour Party did too, but, in 1973, with rather less reason, that national survival requires nationalisation. If that requirement is relaxed, and the polls Whiteley quotes indicate that only one-quarter of that one-hundredth of the electorate who are members of the Labour Party think it should not be, there is nothing to distinguish Nove’s programme from Whiteley’s.

Yet if the requirement of public ownership is relaxed, this sort of programme resembles nothing so much as the one that successive Japanese governments have been putting into practice since the Fifties, and, in respect of the direction of investment and foreign trade, since the establishment of their Ministry of International Trade and Industry in 1925. And Japanese governments have not been noted, or noted themselves, for their socialism. What Whiteley in fact proposes, and Nove too, shorn of his preference for public ownership of the larger assets, is in its consequence a corporatism planned in recognition of the discipline of the market. (In Japan, it even involves planning for decline.) This corporatism is cushioned by a shifting set of small enterprises employing the less skilled, women, immigrants and others without union power. The one part of the economy is directed and controlled at the centre by politicians, planners, and owners prepared to co-operate with unions who are prepared to co-operate with them. The other is not. The division is less a division by industry, let alone by sector, than a division within industries, between the plants with processes that need high investment and the plants with processes that do not. It is the division, in the instance which has caused yet more discontent around Fiat in Turin, between those who press car bodies and those who sew car seats. It is a division which has in fact marked all developing economies, whatever their name, which is increasingly clear in the more developed, and which intensifies everywhere in recession. In spreading risks to employers and employees who are too weak to resist, or who can easily be replaced if they do, and in exploiting the incipient hostilities everywhere between different classes of labour, it is a division which is extremely convenient. For all practical purposes, only the legality of private ownership distinguishes this state of affairs from socialism. But if a nominally non-socialist government can intervene, as the South Korean Government, for example, regularly does, to stop one firm producing a good so that another may prosper, let alone to determine differential rates of interest and to direct investment, the formalities of ownership seem of little importance.

To all but the amoralists like Schumpeter, however, socialism is not just a corporate Khan with a computer. It is also, for many, more democracy. Yet it is not at all easy to see what this might mean. There is no more a plausible Marxist political theory for socialism than there is a plausible Marxist economics for it. And there are few cheering theories to hand elsewhere. Rousseau poured scorn on the 18th-century English for allowing their oligarchy to let them choose between its factions every five years. But as he eventually conceded, and as Schumpeter, among others, agreed, little more is possible. Unanimity is unimaginable, direct participation is impractical, and a system that would involve weighting preferences would be unworkable. Nove, coming at the question from the Soviet experience rather than our own, adds the old point, which all earlier socialists rejected, that demand in a market is a species of democratic control. This, for the East, is the promise in Hungary.

Here, however, larger hopes remain. Rousseau, Schumpeter and the dead weight of democratic theory notwithstanding, Kitching refuses to accept that socialism is anything less than the realisation of the Ancient and Early Modern ideal of civic virtue. Socialism must consist in bringing the citizens to virtue, to Aristotle’s arete, the Romans’ manly virtus, Machiavelli’s virtu, and allowing them to participate in all decisions which concern them. Anything less, he believes, denies their right to dignity and control. In this respect, he thinks, there are the beginnings of hope in what he calls the ‘pre-emptive unionism’ of the kind that was attempted in the employees’ plan to revive Lucas Aerospace in 1976. This particular plan was rejected by an unimaginative management, in collusion with more orthodox unionists, one of whom said in shock, ‘It will change society’: but there was no reason why it was bound to be rejected, and no reason to think that if it had not been, it would have been bound to fail. Other attempts, which Kitching does not mention, have succeeded. Even in Japan, where the prevailing pattern is patriarchal, and where the two largest federations of labour declare themselves to be even more opposed to socialism than Frank Chapple, the members of the metalworkers’ union at Petri Camera in Tokyo asked the management to leave in 1977 and have run the company since. The union has gone on to take such action elsewhere. From what these workers and others say, those who have embarked upon such courses, even at the ill-fated Lucas plant, have enjoyed themselves enormously, and for the first time gained some satisfaction through control. That is not lightly to be dismissed. Such moves certainly seem to be one means, as Kitching insists they are, with which to begin to rescue what is, in Britain, one of the most defensively defeatist working classes of all from the war of attrition it has fought for so long and which is now, for all concerned, a way of life.

These courses of action, however, have all been attempted in small enterprises, and in each case, the employees have been attempting to pre-empt collapse. In larger and more successful firms, the hostility of directors, managers, and the more secure and prosperous unionists would at best pre-empt the pre-emption by what radical democrats deride as incorporation. Thus if the stronger sort of civic virtue is an option at all, it is so only for that part of the economy in which it has least general effect. It is limited virtue in limited conditions. The recurring dream, called ‘socialist’, of a more comprehensive weakening of corporate and state bureaucracies, of a more extensive devolution, is flatly incompatible with the kind of programme for economic recovery which Whiteley and Nove propose. That needs strong government.

Nevertheless, strong government and the economic recovery it might bring with it are not self-evidently ends in themselves. Schumpeter was no doubt right, he certainly cleared the air, in saying that ‘socialism’ is whatever works economically to the larger advantage. But he was disingenuous in also claiming that it was culturally indeterminate. One can certainly imagine a socialism which is either dictatorial or democratic, theocratic or secular, aristocratic or plebeian, inegalitarian or not. Actually existing socialisms, in the strong sense and even more in the weak, do vary enormously. One can also concede that many theorists, and especially those influenced by Marx, have badly underestimated the extent to which ways of life are under-determined by their economies. But a socialism in the strong sense, the social control of production, distribution and exchange, has standardly been suggested, as it was by Schumpeter himself, in the belief that it would also enhance community, or equality, or justice, or the general welfare seen in some other way. If socialism now, therefore, is a more firmly directed capitalism, as those like Whiteley suggest, and if nothing is said about one or other of these kinds of welfare, is one to suppose that they no longer matter?

One might be forgiven for doing so. Whiteley and Nove appear to care about prosperity, Anderson and Kitching about power, and Aronson about the rather different issue of what he calls ‘evil’. None so much as raises the question of the ultimate Good. In this they may be wise. In John Dunn’s words, in a forthcoming book on The Politics of Socialism, there is no distinctive and coherent socialist theory of the good. The wilder fantasies of the resolution of all contradictions, between man and man, man and nature, class and class, society and the state, are just that: almost literally unstatable visions predicated, at least in Marx, on an entirely implausible ontology. The more modest proposals, like Anthony Crosland’s, for instance, in The Future of Socialism in 1956, are more or less orderly bricolages of ideas from elsewhere: of the community of goods, or charity, or natural rights, or one or another kind of equality or substantive liberty. Crosland justified his own proposal, 17 years after the publication of his book, by appealing to the second principle in John Rawls’s A Liberal Theory of Justice. This is that ‘social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle’ – that is, with taking some care for the future – ‘and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.’ Whatever the difficulties in giving a clear sense to this principle, and they are many, the more general point is plain. Socialist conceptions of the good are either the same as liberal conceptions, although often complicated, as they are in Crosland, by pre-modern, in origin Christian, ambitions. Or they are distinctive, and incoherent.

A socialism, therefore, which like Crosland’s own is not an antithesis to capitalism but an improved version of it, working more efficiently, is not its own justification. To be more nearly so, it would have to work to the larger advantage, and also to work sufficiently well to pay for the public goods, health, education, and social securities of various kinds, which are still the mark of a civilised society. It is nicely ironic, it may yet prove tragic, that after all the Labour Party has done to destroy itself in the last ten years or so, the conclusion now for it should so closely resemble the conclusions of those who in despair have left it. There is just a grain of hope in the fact that the revival of a merely prudent political society lies in the same direction.