Category: Lenin

July 17th, 2019 by geoffhodgson1946

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

The meaning of socialism

The word socialism first appeared in 1827. Robert Owen defined socialism as “the abolition of private property”. Karl Marx took a similar line, and extended the idea of common ownership to the national economy. At least at that time, socialism and communism were virtually synonymous, especially in terms of their shared vision of the final goal. They both meant the common ownership of the means of production, and the end of markets and competition.

Robert Owen

This view persisted throughout the twentieth century, including within the UK Labour Party. George Bernard Shaw wrote with approval: “Socialists are trying to have the land and machinery ‘socialised,’ or made the property of the whole people”. In 1908 the Labour Party Conference passed a resolution, adopting the aim of “the socialization of the means of production, distribution and exchange to be controlled by a democratic state”. In 1924 Sidney Webb summarized his view of socialism as involving “(1) Collective Ownership; (2) Collective Regulation; (3) Collective Taxation; and (4) Collective Provision”.

Similar views were found among Labour Prime Ministers. J. Ramsay MacDonald saw socialism as “a movement to supplant Capitalism altogether, by organising communally the services which Capitalism performs or ought to perform.” In 1937 Clement Attlee wrote of the “evils” of capitalism: their “cause is the private ownership of the means of life; the remedy is public ownership.” Attlee then approvingly quoted the words of Bertrand Russell: “Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital together with a democratic form of government.”

In my book Is Socialism Feasible? I show the persistence of this view of socialism. I also discuss several attempts to change its meaning, including by Douglas Jay, Anthony Crosland, Deng Xiaoping and Tony Blair. Blair tried to shift the meaning to social-ism, by replacing the goal of common ownership by vaguely-specified “ethical values” and a recognition that individuals are socially interdependent. This attempt to revise the meaning has not made much of a mark.

Deng Xiaoping faced the problem of persuading the Chinese Communist Party to support his enormously successful market reforms. Deng declared:

“The essence of socialism is liberation and development of the productive forces, elimination of exploitation and polarization, and the ultimate achievement of prosperity for all … common prosperity is the essence of socialism.”

Note the subtle shift from property to prosperity. If that is socialism, then few people are not socialists.

But the original meaning endures. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines socialism as “a system of society or group living in which there is no private property” or “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.” This is remarkably similar to the original definitions of Owen and Marx.

How moderates help Corbyn, and socialists help Trump

Among prominent living politicians today, including Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Socialism has retained its original meaning, of widespread common ownership, or at least they have not renounced that original definition.

Bernie Sanders

At the same time, leading Labour Party moderates who support a mixed economy continue to support “democratic socialism”. By doing so they give succour to the full-blooded socialist left, who are much closer to the enduring traditional view of socialism than the moderates themselves. We can pretend that the word socialism has shifted in meaning, but there is little evidence of a major and widely accepted change.

Moderate or otherwise, those using the “democratic socialism” label help to sustain the mistaken idea that socialism (in its enduring and prevalent sense) is compatible with democracy. History and theory both show that a totalitarian concentration of political power flows inevitably from the unmitigated concentration of economic power in the hands of the state that is associated with large-scale socialism.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

A similar problem exists in the US, particularly after the recent election of a young group of socialists to congress, including the impassioned and eloquent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Along with Sanders, they are members of the Democratic Socialist Alliance (DSA) within the US Democratic Party.

The DSA argues for “a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms”. They also argued that “widespread worker and public ownership will greatly lessen the corrosive effect of capitalists [sic] markets on people’s lives”. While, unlike many other socialists, the DSA notably accepts an enduring role for markets, its agoraphobic bias is revealed by the failure to mention the corrosive effects of bureaucracy on people’s lives.

In some statements, leading DSA politicians seem to favour Nordic-style, welfare state capitalism. But they have not made it clear that they support the large private sectors and financial markets that are prominent in all the Nordic countries. Instead, they go along with the abolition of capitalism. They distance themselves from the Communist regimes of the past. But while the experiment with socialism in Venezuela has led to a catastrophic human disaster, they fail to come out in full condemnation of that regime.

This helps Trump. Not only does he mobilise racist prejudices, he also uses their self-declared socialism to describe them as communist. Given that socialism and communism were (at least originally) virtual synonyms, this ammunition is handed to Trump by his most fervent opponents.

The changed meaning of social democracy

When Social Democratic parties were first formed in Europe in the nineteenth century, most were strongly influenced by Marxism. They were fully socialist in its original sense.

Some separation of meaning between socialism and social democracy occurred beforehand, but it was brought to a head by the onset of the Cold War in 1948. Europe as a whole, and Germany in particular, were divided between the Eastern and Western Blocs.

All socialist and communist parties had to choose –  the East, the West, or a plague on both? With Moscow ties in many cases, almost all Communist parties chose the East. Many moderate Socialist, Social-Democratic or Labour  parties chose the West.

SPD Congress in Bad Godesberg 1959

At its Bad Godesberg Congress in 1959, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) made fundamental changes to its aims. It dropped its opposition to capitalism, and it abandoned the Marxist analysis of class struggle. The SPD declared:

“The Social Democratic Party therefore favours a free market wherever free competition really exists. Where a market is dominated by individuals or groups, however, all manner of steps must be taken to protect freedom in the economic sphere. As much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary.”

The crucial point here is that the SPD moved from (temporary or permanent) toleration of markets and competition, to accepting markets and competition as desirable, alongside strong public enterprise and state regulation where necessary.

This explicit and fundamental change in aims in the world’s largest and most influential Social Democratic Party led to a separation of meanings of the terms social democracy and socialism. But it must be acknowledged that strong residues of old-style thinking persisted, in the SPD and in social-democratic parties in other countries.

The acid test

There is a simple test to distinguish a socialist from a social democrat, according to currently prevalent meanings of those words.

To be a social democrat it is not enough to accept markets and a mixed economy, as Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the Democratic Socialists of America have done. After all, a mixed economy could be accepted as a temporary staging post in the transition to full-blooded socialism, as Vladimir Lenin did with his New Economic Policy in 1921.

A modern social democrat must go further. He or she must make a clear and positive case why markets, competition and a private sector are more than a temporary expedient. It must be argued that these things are indispensable, both for economic efficiency and the preservation of freedom. This is the acid test. The SPD in 1959 understood this point and it passed the test.

As far as I am aware, neither Corbyn, McDonnell, Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez have made such a positive case for a permanent private sector. If I am right, then they are socialists, not social democrats. Despite their protestations, they are closer to traditional communism than to modern social democracy, as practiced in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. I would be delighted if they can prove me wrong.

Large-scale socialism is outdated, extreme and demonstrably incompatible with democracy. At least if these declared socialists want to win parliamentary majorities and form governments, then they have to change their terminology, and dispose with outdated and unfeasible ideas.

But while Nordic social democracy remains remarkably successful (as I show in my book Is Socialism Feasible?) the social-democratic brand throughout Europe has declined in electoral support. Although re-naming is necessary, much more than renaming is required. The abandonment of the socialist label is but a first step. But that is another story.

17 July 2019

References

Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).

Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).

Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).

Democratic Socialists of America (1995) ‘Where We Stand: Building the Next Left’, DSA: Democratic Socialists of America. https://www.dsausa.org/where_we_stand.

Griffiths, Dan (ed.) (1924) What is Socialism? A Symposium (London, Richards).

Jay, Douglas (1937) The Socialist Case, 1st edn. (London: Faber and Faber).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2019) Is Socialism Feasible? Towards an Alternative Future (Cheltenham UK and Northampton MA: Edward Elgar).

Owen, Robert (1991) A New View of Society and Other Writings, edited with an introduction by Gregory Claeys (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Shaw, George Bernard (1890) What Socialism Is, Fabian Tract No. 13 (London: Fabian Society).

Posted in Bernie Sanders, Common ownership, Democracy, Donald Trump, George Bernard Shaw, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Liberalism, Markets, Private enterprise, Property, Robert Owen, Socialism, Soviet Union, Tony Blair, Venezuela

April 20th, 2019 by geoffhodgson1946

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

In a recent New York Times interview, the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz declared that Bernie Sanders, “a self-described democratic socialist, wasn’t actually a socialist”. Unfortunately, Sanders shows no sign of dropping the s-word description or of making a clear case for an enduring private sector in a mixed economy. Then Stiglitz went on the say that “socialism … was never the same as communism”. But he failed to define either term.

Stiglitz is wrong. The persistent vagueness and misuse of such words sows confusion. In fact, socialism has an enduring meaning that is virtually identical to that of communism. In this blog I explain why.

The origins of the words socialism and communism

The word socialism appeared in November 1827 in the Co-operative Magazine, published by followers of Robert Owen, where a writer referred to “Communionists or Socialists”. It was used in the Poor Man’s Guardian in 1833 and moved into more frequent usage thereafter. As J. F. C. Harrison noted: “By 1840 socialism was virtually synonymous with Owenism”.

Robert Owen

For Owen and his followers, socialism meant the abolition of private property. It also acquired the broader ideological connotation of cooperation, in opposition to selfish or competitive individualism. Communal property was seen as its defining institutional foundation. As Owen argued in 1840, “virtue and happiness could never be attained’ in “any system in which private property was admitted”. He aimed to secure “an equality of wealth and rank, by merging all private into public property”.

In 1840 in Paris, the word communiste appeared in an article by Étienne Cabet and in a pamphlet by Théodore Dezamy and Jean-Jacques Pillot. Influenced by Owen, Cabet was a Christian advocate of utopian communist communities.

Carrying a letter of introduction from Owen, John Goodwyn Barmby went to Paris in 1840 to meet the advocates of le communisme. On his return, Barmby founded the London Communist Propaganda Society in 1841 and established the Communist Chronicle newspaper. Despite his close working links with the Owenites, Barmby criticised socialism because “it wants religious faith, it is too commercial, too full of the spirit of this world, and therefore is rightly damned”. Communism for him was less materialistic and more divine.

With the investment of these idiosyncratic spiritual connotations, Barmby imported the word communism into English. It spread in the UK and the US, where the term socialist was already prominent. The word Kommunist had appeared in German by 1842, when Marx noted its usage.

In 1843 Engels reported to the Owenite journal The New Moral World that there were “more than half a million Communists in France” and that “Communist associations” and individuals describing themselves as communists were plentiful in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere. Engels addressed his Owenite readers as “English socialists” and saw them as having very similar aims to the Continental communists.

In the second (1849) and later editions of his Principles of Political Economy, John Stuart Mill noted another early difference of meaning between socialism and communism. For followers of Saint-Simon or of Fourier in France, communism meant “the entire abolition of private property”, whereas socialism was “any system which requires that the land and the instruments of production should be property, not of individuals, but of communities or associations, or of the government.” Unlike communism, this meaning of socialism would allow for individual ownership of personal possessions. Hence Mill described Owenism as communism, because it upheld the abolition of all private property. But this particular distinction in meaning between the two words was forgotten after the Owenite and other utopian experiments faltered.

Perhaps more influentially, the 1848 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary defined socialism as a “social state in which there is a community of property among all the citizens”, and defined communism as “a new French word, nearly synonymous with … socialism”.

Hence both socialism and communism referred to the abolition of (most or all) private property and the establishment of common ownership of the means of production. Henceforth the two terms became entwined within Marxism, there to perform an entirely different dance of meaning.

Marxism, communism and socialism

Marx and Engels often treated the terms socialism and communism as interchangeable. But occasionally they gave them different nuances. In 1845 they adopted the new word communism as their label for their movement: “Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” When they henceforth started setting up political organizations they adopted and promoted the term communist rather than socialist. But their ultimate goals were the same as most socialists at the time.

Frederick Engels

In 1888 Engels explained why he and Marx had chosen the word Communist for theirfamous Manifesto of 1848. Engels claimed that the word socialism was then too ‘respectable’ and too ‘middle class’. He wrote:

“Yet, when it was written, we could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. By ‘socialists’, in 1847, were understood, on the one hand, the adherents of the various utopian systems: Owenites in England, Fourierists in France, both of them already reduced to the position of mere sects, and gradually dying out; on the other hand, the most multifarious social quacks … in both cases men outside the working-class movement … Whatever portion of the working class had … proclaimed the necessity of a total change, that portion then called itself communist. … Thus, socialism was, in 1847 a middle-class movement, communism a working-class movement.”

Engels omitted to note that the self-described communists in the 1840s also had more than their fair share of middle-class devotees, quacks, bizarre utopians and radical clerics.

It is possible that Marx and Engels adopted the term communist partly because it had become more popular in a Continental Europe on the eve of the 1848 revolutions. While socialism remained more widespread in Britain, the Owenite movement, with which it was largely associated, had already passed its peak by 1847. While the younger term communism had already attracted several oddballs in the seven years of its use, socialism had the additional negative legacy of numerous failed utopian experiments in the 1820s and 1830s, in the UK and the US.

Instead of small-scale utopian experiments, Marx and Engels favoured a global insurrectionary strategy. As Engels observed in 1843, the French communists understood the need for “meeting force by force … having at present no other means”. Marx and Engels chose the word communism in the 1840s, not because their goal was different from socialism, but partly because many self-described communists in Continental Europe promoted armed insurrection. The penultimate section of the Communist Manifesto attacks various strands of socialism, not for their collectivist goals, but for their impractical strategies and their failure to countenance the use of force. The final paragraph of the whole work drives the point home: “The Communists … openly declare that their ends can only be attained by the forceful overthrow of all existing conditions.”

But a few decades later, the word socialism was again in the ascendant. In 1880 Engels published Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifique in the French Revue socialiste: notably he put socialisme rather than communisme in the title. By 1890 a number of parties describing themselves as socialist or social-democratic had taken root in Germany, France and elsewhere. In 1895, Engels wrote approvingly of “the one great international army of Socialists, marching irresistibly on and growing daily in number”. The earlier emphasis on physical force was also reduced: the possibility of achieving their goal by democratic means, rather than by insurrection, seemed greater than before. One of the major reasons for using the term communism rather than socialism had disappeared.

William Morris was an artist, craftsman and writer, and one of the first English intellectuals to embrace Marxism. Writing in a 1903 Fabian Tract, he saw socialism and communism as virtual synonyms: “between complete Socialism and Communism there is no difference whatever in my mind”. They assert that the means of production and the resources of nature “should not be owned in severalty, but by the whole community”.

Whether they used the term socialism or capitalism, their fundamental aim was clear. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels echoed Owen and called for the “abolition of private property.” They proclaimed an economic order in which “capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society.” Engels repeated in 1847: “The abolition of private ownership is the most succinct and characteristic summary of the transformation of the entire social system … and … is rightly put forward by the Communists are their main demand.” In 1850 Marx and Engels again declared: “Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it”.

This meant the complete abolition of markets. They wanted an end to the “free selling and buying” of commodities. As Marx wrote in 1875: “Within the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products”. Engels argued in 1884 that “no society can permanently retain the mastery of its own production … unless it abolishes exchange between individuals.” The abolition of markets was seen as necessary for social control.

By emphasizing national ownership, Marx and Engels went much further than Owen and most other early socialists or communists. Marx and Engels welcomed efforts “to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and looked forward to a time when “all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation”. Described as either communism or socialism, this utopia of national ownership and “social” control persisted in their writings.

Phases of communism

In his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875, Marx used the term communism to describe his goal. He considered “the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” Eventually a new order would follow:

“In a more advanced phase of communist society, when the enslaving subjugation of individuals to the division of labour, … when the all-around development of individuals has also increased their productive powers and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can society … inscribe on its banner: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!”

Hence Marx considered a “first phase” and then a “more advanced phase” of communism. Writing in his State and Revolution in August 1917, Lenin referred to this passage from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme but introduced a different usage. He wanted to defend the planned Bolshevik seizure of power against the criticism that Russia was insufficiently developed economically for a radical Marxist revolution.

Lenin amended the Marxist dictionary and renamed Marx’s “first phase of communist society” as socialism. Under this socialism the means of production would be in public ownership but there would still be a struggle against bourgeois ideas and material shortages. When that struggle was completed, and after the subjugation of ‘capitalist habits’, full communism would be established. “The whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory with equality of labour and pay.”

In contrast, Marx and Engels never distinguished the terms socialism and communism in this way. For them, socialism and communism both meant the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production. They wrote of lower and higher “phases” but did not use different nouns to distinguish them.

The Socialist International (also known as the Second International) was a global association of socialist parties, formed in 1889. In 1919, Lenin and the Bolsheviks broke from the Socialist International and formed the Communist International (also known as the Third International). The difference between the Communist and Socialist Internationals was not stated in terms of ultimate objectives. Instead the Communist International was formed because several parties in the Socialist International had supported their national governments in the First World War. There was no declared amendment of final goals, although leaders of the Second International were accused of de facto abandoning socialism.

As I show in my book Is Socialism Feasible? the original meaning of socialism persisted even in the relatively moderate UK Labour Party. It was endorsed by leading members such as Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan.

The failure of revisionism

Especially since the Second World War, there have been a number of attempts to change the meaning of socialism, including by Tony Crosland and Tony Blair. But the resilience of the original meaning is testified by the endurance of the UK Labour Party’s original version of Clause Four from 1918 to 1995. This original version calls for complete “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” and offers no defence of markets or a private sector. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is among those that would like to return to the 1918 formulation.

Jeremy Corbyn

Some writers obfuscate the issues, but the undying commitment on the left to common ownership and the left’s widespread agoraphobia (fear of markets) testify that socialism has not changed much in meaning. Although some communists may differ from some socialists in terms of strategy, in general there is little if any difference in terms of goals.

By contrast, the term social democracy has successfully changed its meaning. It now contrasts with socialism, especially in terms of its advocacy of a mixed, market economy. In 1959 the (West) German Social Democratic Party committed itself to a “social market economy” involving “as much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary.”

This was very different from the enduring meanings of the words socialism and communism. Politicians like Sanders need to make clear where they stand.

20 April 2019

 

Bibliography

Bestor, Arthur E., Jr (1948) ‘The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 9(3), June, pp. 259-302.

Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).

Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).

Griffiths, Dan (ed.) (1924) What is Socialism? A Symposium (London, Richards).

Harrison, J. F. C. (1969) Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2019) Is Socialism Feasible? Towards an Alternative Future (Cheltenham UK and Northampton MA: Edward Elgar), forthcoming.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich (1967) Selected Works in Three Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Marx, Karl (1973) The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings – Volume 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Marx, Karl (1974) The First International and After: Political Writings – Volume 3 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Marx, Karl (1976) ‘Marginal Notes on Wagner’, in Albert Dragstedt (ed.) (1976) Value: Studies by Marx (London: New Park), pp. 195-229.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1962) Selected Works in Two Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1975) Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, Marx and Engels: 1843-1844 (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Mill, John Stuart (1909) Principles of Political Economy with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, 7th edn. (London: Longman, Green, Reader and Dyer).

Morris, William (1973) Political Writings of William Morris (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Owen, Robert (1991) A New View of Society and Other Writings, edited with an introduction by Gregory Claeys (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Posted in Bernie Sanders, Common ownership, George Bernard Shaw, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Markets, Marxism, Nationalization, Robert Owen, Socialism, Tony Blair

September 1st, 2018 by geoffhodgson1946

 Marxism, liberalism and the Euston Manifesto

 

“It is at times like these that voices like Geras are sorely needed.” @GraySergeant

“I wish we hard Norm’s intelligence, clarity and compassion to fall back on now.” @SP_Duckworth

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

In 1967, Norman Geras came to the University of Manchester and took up a position as a lecturer in politics. I was then an undergraduate student in Manchester and three years his junior. We were both involved in left politics and our paths soon crossed. Together we campaigned against the Vietnam War.

When I briefly flirted with the International Marxist Group in the early 1970s, Norm was a member too. (I’m unsure when he left – he may have stayed on until its dissolution in 1983.) Norm and I were both members of Marxist reading groups, where together we discussed economics and politics.

Disillusioned with the far left, I re-joined the Labour Party in 1974. (I was previously a member in 1966-1968.) Norm did not take that route. Yet we remained in contact until I left Manchester in 1980. I returned to the University of Manchester on a research fellowship in the 1984-1985 academic year. Norm and I met up again. I recollect another study group in that year in which we both took part.

Marx and Human Nature

Norm’s 1983 book on Marx and Human Nature had a big impact on me. In the 1970s he had argued forcefully that the natural foundations of human existence had to be taken into account. The book refuted the fashionable misconception that Marx had denied the existence of a universal human nature.

Against social constructionism, Norm argued that human beings cannot be reduced merely to their relations with others. He argued more generally that human nature had biological as well as socio-cultural foundations.

In 1983 I had already encountered the work of Thorstein Veblen. These influences drove me into biology and evolutionary anthropology. In retrospect, Norm’s input was crucial in the development of my thought. The result was a number of works of mine on evolutionary themes, particularly from 1993 onwards.

After I finally left Manchester in 1985 I did not meet Norm again. We moved in different political spheres and I lost personal contact, but his incisive intelligence had made a permanent mark on me. Despite the intense political disputes on the left, he was always respectful and never acrimonious.

The 2003 Invasion of Iraq

In 2003 Norm retired from his post of Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester. That was the year of the fateful invasion of Iraq. He started a blog, when this mode of communication was in its infancy. Unfortunately I was unaware of this initiative at the time.

Norm supported the US-led invasion in 2003. He argued that it was a humanitarian intervention to remove the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein.

I had supported the first Iraq War in 1990-91 on the grounds that it was important to restore Kuwait’s sovereignty after Saddam’s invasion.

But, like many others, I opposed the 2003 invasion because of its lack of UN backing, its illegality, and disbelief in the pretext that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I thought that it would have been better to put other pressure on the regime, along the lines proposed by the French government at the time.

The Euston Manifesto

In 2006 the Euston Manifesto was published. I did not become aware of its existence until a couple of years later. The Euston Manifesto is a bold plea for democracy and universal human rights and for a re-alignment on the left. Its signatories include supporters and opponents of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Euston Manifesto launch in 2006
Left to right: Alan Johnson, Eve Garrard, Nick Cohen, Shalom Lappin and Norman Geras

The Manifesto criticises that “anti-imperialist” left that ends up supporting totalitarian regimes and reactionary insurgent forces, on the grounds that that they are opposed to the West. The Manifesto unequivocally condemned terrorist and the deliberate use of force against civilians.

Principle number seven of the Manifesto reads:

“We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute.”

Crucially, the Manifesto recognizes the right of both Israel and Palestine to exist, against the “anti-Zionist” rhetoric of many on the left. This “anti-Zionist” left aligns with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah who declare explicitly for the destruction of Israel.

On reading the Euston Manifesto I found myself in complete agreement with it. I wrote to the organizers offering my support and my signature. But I received no response. It seemed that the group had quickly become moribund.

The Norman Geras Reader

Norm died of cancer in October 2013. I have recently read The Norman Geras Reader – a great collection of some of his writings, which was published in 2017. The Reader also contains the text of the Euston Manifesto.

Everyone on the left would benefit from the Reader, especially the majority in the Labour Party who have come under the sway of a leader who is anti-West, who has joined in with promotors of terrorism, who has shared platforms with anti-Semites, and who remains equivocal about the right of Israel to exist.

The “What’s there is there” subtitle of the Reader in part refers to instances of anti-Semitism in Marx’s writing, which some Marxists choose to deny. Today it might also apply to another over-adored leader of our time.

Long before others, Norm rang alarm bells about these reactionary tendencies on the left. This remains one of the most important and prescient features of Norm’s writing. This is one of several reasons why he deserves to be remembered.

Marxism and liberalism

But despite our strong convergence over the Euston Manifesto, I found that in other respects Norm and I had diverged since we last met in the 1985.

Karl Marx

Norm had moved politically in a liberal direction, but I had moved further. The Norman Geras Reader shows that Norm had remained a Marxist (of sorts) until his death. By contrast, I had departed from Marxism in about 1980 and set out on a decades-long journey from socialism to liberalism.

Despite his continuing adherence to Marxism, the Reader shows that Norm was strongly sympathetic to liberalism and he took its achievements very seriously.

For example, in a 1999 essay he argued that a “minimum utopia is to be conceived not only as socialist but also as liberal”. In 2012 he argued more forcefully:

“Unless … Marxists show themselves willing to engage fully with the intellectual resources of liberalism … unless a Marxist political theory comes to terms with the truths of liberal political theory, acknowledging the normative force of human rights, the idea of judicial independence and the separation of powers … insisting on free elections and an untrammelled freedom of speech and opinion, understanding the virtues of political pluralism … Marxism as a political movement might as well shut up shop.”

Bravo. But unlike Norm I agree with the closure of Marxist activity in the conclusion as well as with the preceding necessary conditions. Marxism cannot be liberal and it should shut up shop as a political movement. We can retain Marx’s more robust analytical insights, particularly on the nature and dynamics of capitalism.

But Marxist politics have been a disaster, and its dreadful and murderous consequences are not accidental. Marxism is incompatible with liberalism.

The politico-economic preconditions of liberalism

Norm rightly berated Stalin and other totalitarian Marxists. But are the disastrous consequences of Marxist regimes all down to bad people gaining positions of power? Surely it must be more than that? Why has every Marxist regime breached human rights, terminated free elections, curtailed freedom of speech and ended political pluralism?

To answer these questions we must look at the politico-economic conditions under which liberal-democratic states have been established and sustained. It is not just about the personalities of individuals.

There is a widespread opinion among non-Marxist social scientists that democracy requires countervailing political and economic power to have a chance of survival. In Marxist terms, if the economic “base” determines the “superstructure”, then a pluralist polity requires a pluralist (or mixed) economy, and not one that is encompassed by a massive state.

A complete concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the state, which Marx and Engels advocated with enthusiasm, always requires and enables a despotic political regime. There are no exceptions. The centralizing economic project within Marxism is incompatible with liberalism.

Accordingly, to prevent such a concentration of economic and hence political power in the hands of the state, there must be a private sector that is free to trade on markets.

Capitalism, socialism and greed

Norm disliked the greed and avarice that is often encouraged by capitalism. I do too. But I have learned that market economies come in many forms and are infused by different cultural precepts. A market economy does not necessarily mean a dog-eat-dog dystopia of greed and selfish individualism. As the Nordic examples illustrate, a better capitalism is possible. We need to build on their achievements and move still further in an egalitarian direction.

Furthermore, socialist bureaucracies can encourage selfishness, corruption and ruthless, power-seeking behaviour. Under real socialism these outcomes have typically been just as bad as those found within the worst of capitalisms.

A Worker Cooperative in New York City

Our understanding of human nature is relevant here, as Norm would have insisted. Over hundreds of thousands of years we have evolved to cooperate in small groups of no more than a hundred or so. This suggests that If socialism is to work, then it must be on a small scale.

Capitalism can also engender cooperation within autonomous firms, coordinated by markets. Some of these enterprises could be converted into worker cooperatives.

Class struggle and universal rights

There is a second reason why Marxism is incompatible with liberalism and with the principles in the Euston Manifesto. It concerns the issue of class struggle and proletarian dictatorship, about which Norm (at least in his Reader) had little to say.

Frederick Engels

In Marxism, class struggle is both an analytic and a normative doctrine. It is about the working class seizing power and ending the rule of the capitalists. This doctrine means that the rights of one social class are privileged over another. Universal individual rights are no more. As Engels put it, the legal and individual rights of the Enlightenment are “nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie.”

Any regime that denies rights to some, especially with malleable criteria concerning who is denied those rights, ends up denying rights to everyone. These are the consequences of Marx’s notion of class struggle and the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

In addition, Marx and Engels argued that the current aims and desires of the proletariat were less important than its historical destiny to abolish capitalism and become the ruling class. They wrote:

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.

This is a clear totalitarian impulse. Marxist revolutionaries are deemed to know better what is in the interests of the working class than the working class itself. Democracy becomes an impediment to the realization of those true interests, about which the masses are not fully aware.

Conclusion: wrong turnings

Alas, Norm was silent in his writings about these problems (as far as I am aware) and I never had the chance to discuss them with him. I would have welcomed that.

The Euston Manifesto was a noble attempt to re-orient the left. Especially in the light of the Corbynista takeover of the Labour Party and the rise of anti-Semitism on the left, it should be re-read today. But sadly the Manifesto initiative was stillborn.

I wonder if one of the reasons for the failure of the Manifesto to keep up the momentum it briefly gained at its launch was the incomplete diagnosis by its promoters of where the left has gone wrong?

The Norman Geras Reader shows that the one leading Eustonite was still under the gravitational pull of Marxism, and reluctant to break from its power. (But Eustonite Alan Johnson took a different view on this important issue.) For whatever reason, The Euston Manifesto became a terminus, rather than the starting point of another journey.

Norm and I were both strong opponents the “anything goes” cultural relativism that overtook the left after the Vietnam War. Nick Cohen shows in his book What’s Left? that cultural relativism was one major wrong turning made by the left in its long evolution from the eighteenth century.

But another was the abandonment of universal human rights, when the influence of Marxism over the left became pre-eminent in the late nineteenth century. That wrong turning must also be recognized and reversed. That necessitates a break from Marxist politics, rather than promoting the unrealizable fantasy of a Marxist-liberal marriage.

We live in increasingly worrying times. We need another Manifesto that builds on Norm’s achievement but takes us still further toward the goal of a more egalitarian and humane society.

1 September 2018

Published by University of Chicago Press

Bibliography

Camic, Charles and Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (eds) (2011) Essential Writings of Thorstein Veblen (London and New York: Routledge).

Cohen, Ben and Gerrard, Eve (eds) (2017) The Norman Geras Reader: ‘What’s There is There’ (Manchester: University of Manchester Press). See esp. pp. 56, 108.

Cohen, Nick (2007) What’s Left? How the Left Lost its Way (London and New York: Harper).

Geras, Norman (1983) Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (London: Verso).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1993) Economics and Evolution: Bringing Life Back Into Economics (Cambridge, UK and Ann Arbor, MI: Polity Press and University of Michigan Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2013) From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities: An Evolutionary Economics without Homo Economicus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. and Knudsen, Thorbjørn (2010) Darwin’s Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Rich, Dave (2016) The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (London: Biteback).

Posted in Democracy, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Leszek Kolakowski, Markets, Marxism, Socialism

August 25th, 2018 by geoffhodgson1946

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

 

When it was used by Robert Owen and his followers from the 1830s, the word socialism meant “the abolition of private property” and the adoption of widespread common ownership. That same meaning was accepted by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. It was used in the twentieth century to describe Marxist regimes in Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere. The goal of widespread common ownership was inscribed in the aims and values of the UK Labour Party from 1918 to 1995.

 

The socialist algorithm has eight steps, arranged in a loop:

Step 1: Critique. Point to all the dreadful things that have happened under capitalism, including war, famine, oppression, exploitation, economic inequality and environmental degradation.

Step 2: Dream. Propose a non-existent, imaginary socialism that is highly democratic, peaceful, egalitarian and non-discriminatory. Say that it includes widespread state ownership but avoid going into details on how a large-scale complex system would work, or about the institutional and administrative mechanisms involved, or how ultra-democracy would operate in practice.

Step 3: Ignore. Discount claims by leading economists, political scientists and historians that such a system could not work fairly and humanely, at least unless major roles were retained within the system for markets and private property. Press on regardless to the next step.

Step 4: Solidarise. Choose some regimes in the past that started on the socialist road, such as Russia, China or Cuba. If a new explicitly socialist regime – Venezuela for example – pops up and carries out some policies you like, such as reducing poverty and illiteracy, then give it your support for a while.

Step 5: Blame. When things go wrong with the nominated socialist regimes in Step 4 – including war, famine, oppression, exploitation, economic inequality or environmental degradation – blame foreign intervention, sanctions by capitalist countries or internal counter-revolutionaries. Don’t blame the issues ignored in Step 3.

Step 6: Deny. When it proves difficult to blame everything that goes wrong on foreign intervention, sanctions by capitalist countries or internal counter-revolutionaries, then deny the scale or even the existence of the problems.

Step 7: Rename. At the point where the socialist regimes nominated in Step 4 become so dreadful – with war, famine, oppression, exploitation, economic inequality or environmental degradation – to the point where blame or denial (Steps 5 and 6) are no longer plausible, then declare that these regimes were not, or are no longer, socialist.

Step 8: Return. Collect £200 and go back to Step 1.

 

This algorithm has variant criteria, particularly over those used to decide what regimes are described as socialist under Step 4. This leads to endless controversies among socialists over the criteria and outcomes of such choices.

The personal determination to deny facts in Step 6 may also waver among some less-hardened comrades.

Further controversy exists among socialists on the criteria deployed in step 7, which trigger the abandonment of the socialist label in particular cases.

The Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution instigated the socialist algorithm and led to countless runs of the program. It has also illustrated numerous variants.

Some say that it never was “proper socialism” in the first place, for some reason, such as the failure to establish worker control of the factories, or the dissolution of democratic government. These purists move rapidly to Step 7, collect their £200, and move back to Step 1.

Bertrand Russell quickly collected his £200. He visited Russia in 1920 in a Labour Party delegation, where among others he met Lenin. Russell wrote in 1924: “Socialism … means the common ownership of land and capital, together with a democratic form of government.”

Hence, for him, Bolshevik Russia was never socialist. But Russell did not consider the possibility that any concentration of ownership and economic power in the hands of the state would always undermine political democracy. (Step 3.)

Or you may say that the Bolshevik regime was socialist up to the restoration of some private ownership and markets with the New Economic Policy in 1921. Or you could say that socialism ended in Russia with Stalin’s consolidation of power in 1928. Die-hard forgivers of Stalinism would say that it ended in 1991.

To survive, the die-hards need a good dose of denial (Step 6). For example, in 1990 Corbyn’s future aide Seumas Milne suggested that estimates of deaths under Stalin by Robert Conquest and others were too high. This was quickly contradicted when more evidence became available in 1991 showing that earlier estimates, particularly by Conquest, were in the right ball park.

Socialist Scrabble

Imagine the consternation and debate caused in Marxist circles over these problems. The neatest solution is to avoid any proclamation of socialism and describe all Soviet-style regimes as “state capitalist”. This is the ingenious solution of Tony Cliff and others. Cliff was the founder of what eventually became the Socialist Workers Party.

The trouble with this solution is that the definition of capitalism becomes so flattened and widened that it bears less resemblance to Marx’s analysis in Capital. This disparity becomes more severe when the importance for capitalism of financial markets is taken into account, as highlighted by Joseph Schumpeter and others. Competitive financial markets played no more than a marginal role in Russia from 1917 to 1991.

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky was more subtle. He introduced the concept of “degenerated workers state”. This term signalled that the working class had gained power, but the system had become corrupted by an over-bearing bureaucracy. For Trotsky, Soviet Russia was neither capitalist nor socialist.

But true to his Marxist credentials, Trotsky had to argue that a system where a rising class was neither in nor out of power had to be unstable – it could only last a few years.

Trotsky was murdered in 1940, so he left that problem to his followers. This unstable “transitional” regime lasted for well over half a century, defying Trotsky’s analysis.

And so it goes on. There are numerous variants, and many moves on the socialist scrabble board – playing with labels or names.

Socialist Venezuela

The drama in Venezuela is playing out before us. Many – but not all – socialists hailed the election the radical socialist Hugo Chávez in 1998.

In 2004 a number of intellectuals and politicians signed a “manifesto” declaring that they would vote for Chávez if they were Venezuelans. The signatories included Tariq Ali, Perry Anderson, Tony Benn, George Galloway, Eric Hobsbawm, Ken Livingstone, Naomi Klein, Ken Loach, John Pilger and Harold Pinter.

Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez

Jeremy Corbyn’s loyalty to Venezuelan socialism endured and survived the death of Chávez in 2013. He attended a vigil following the death of Chávez, hailing him as an “inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neo-liberal economics in Europe”.

As late as 2015, when Venezuela was in ever-deepening crisis and human rights violations were abundant, Corbyn’s enthusiasm for the regime was undiminished. He remarked:

we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world … we recognise what they have achieved.

Similarly in 2014, John McDonnell (who is now Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer under the Labour opposition led by Corbyn) praised the Venezuelan regime: “Here you had the contrast between capitalism in crisis and socialism in action.

Blame then rename

As the problems with the regime of Chávez grew in intensity, Step 5 (Blame) came into force. There may have been involvement by the CIA, particularly in the brief coup that overthrew Chávez for a few days in 2002. But hostilities from outside were relatively mild, particularly compared with Civil War that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Venezuela continues to sell oil to the US and several other countries. Venezuela buys arms and military equipment from the UK, as well as from Russia and China.

Neither external nor internal opposition can adequately explain the unfolding catastrophe in Venezuela. In fact, the problems started the beginning. Chávez manipulated electoral mandates to undermine democratic checks and balances, to increase executive power, to neuter the Supreme Court, to make criticism of his government illegal and to increase censorship.

The outcome after 2013 was the disastrous regime of Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela saw famine, oppression, exploitation, economic inequality and environmental degradation.

By 2018 there was hyper-inflation of around a million per cent per annum, and about three million Venezuelans – about 10 per cent of the population – had emigrated.

Despite his 2014 declaration of support quoted above, John McDonnell has now moved to Step 7, helped by a little more denial on the way. On 20 May 2018 he declared “I don’t think it [Venezuela] was a socialist country”. McDonnell has collected his £200 and returned to Step 1.

Conclusion: back to the beginning

Obviously, it all starts with Step 1. Let us pause here for a while. There is a lot wrong with capitalism. But let us distinguish between capitalist democracies and autocracies.

Democracy is a key variable. The Biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are conflict, war, famine and death. As I have outlined in my book Wrong Turnings, from historical experience the antidote is clear: the chances of war, famine and premature death can be greatly diminished through a society with democratic institutions that defends +universal human rights.

Many of the horrors of capitalism occurred under undemocratic regimes. Wars between democracies are relatively rare. Famines are much less common under capitalist democracies. Consequently, the reduction of death and misery from famine and war is best pursued by opposition to all forms of despotism, whether capitalist or Communist.

This does not mean that capitalist democracies are always peaceful and unoppressive. Far from it. What it means is that there is plentiful evidence that democracy reduces the chances of famine, environmental degradation, premature death and war. And, for explicable reasons, no socialist country has lasted as a democracy.

Dreaming (Step 2) is fine. But we have to practical and realistic. Rather than ignoring in Step 3, we need to understand. One of the major problems with socialism – at least in its statist and non-market versions – is that a concentration of economic power in the hands of the state leads unavoidably to a dangerous and undemocratic concentration of political power.

“There’s no food”

In the Venezuelan case, the concentration of political power, which was designed to achieve statist control of the economy, had adverse effects well before wholesale public ownership was achieved.

Either way, attempts to move toward socialism weaken the economic sources of countervailing power and undermine the socio-economic foundations of democracy. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, the centralizing mission of statist socialism always leads to the destruction of necessary checks and balances.

In history there has been no exception to this outcome. We may dream of socialist democracy, but in the end we must learn from history and from analysts who show the dangers or impracticalities of socialist solutions to the problems in the world. In short, statist socialism cannot co-exist with democracy and with the protection of human rights.

 

25 August 2018

Minor edits – 26 August 2018.

 

Published by University of Chicago Press

 

Bibliography

Cliff, Tony (1955) Stalinist Russia: A Marxist Analysis (London: Michael Kidron).

Conquest, Robert (1968) The Great Terror (London: Macmillan).

Conquest, Robert (1986) The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Griffiths, Dan (ed.) (1924) What is Socialism? A Symposium (London, Richards).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1942) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (London: George Allen and Unwin).

Trotsky, Leon D. (1937) The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (London: Faber and Faber).

Posted in Bertrand Russell, Common ownership, Democracy, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Liberalism, Markets, Nationalization, Private enterprise, Property, Robert Owen, Socialism, Soviet Union

August 19th, 2018 by geoffhodgson1946

More on the Seven Dimensions of Liberalism

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

 

The common core of all varieties of liberalism is the stress on individual liberty and universal rights, including the rights to private property and to freedom of expression. These universal rights and liberties require equality under the law, under a competent legal system that protects rights and pursues justice.

In a previous blog I laid out Seven Dimensions of Liberalism. The present blog extends that analysis by considering different varieties of liberalism within this seven-dimensional space. I contrast what (in forensic mood) might be described as neoliberalism with what I call liberal solidarity.

Classical liberalism

There are several possible names come to mind as possible labels for the highly varied constituent territories of liberalism. Terms such as classical liberalism, new liberalism, social liberalism, neoliberalism and libertarianism should be considered. But all these labels have their problems.

Adam Smith

Consider classical liberalism. This is typically applied to foundational liberal thought from John Locke, through Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham to John Stuart Mill. But there are profound divisions within classical liberalism.

Thomas Paine’s pursuit of measures to reduce inequality is unmatched by his liberal contemporaries.

Adam Smith’s emphasis on the importance of “moral sentiments” and justice contrasts greatly with the reductionist-utilitarian approaches developed by Hume and Bentham and adopted (albeit with reservations) by Mill.

Apart from the emphasis on individual rights including private property, the classical liberals agreed on the need for a small state. But they lived in a period when the state and its tax levels were much smaller than they became in the twentieth century.

We cannot automatically assumed that they would have taken the same small-state view in the present context, especially if they were responsive to practical experiment and historical experience.

Consequently, classical liberalism does not denote one distinctive type or phase of liberalism. The original Liberalism from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century contained widely diverging variants.

New liberalism and other labels

A major turn in liberal thought was foreshadowed by Mill and developed in the later decades of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century by Thomas H. Green, Leonard T. Hobhouse and John A. Hobson in the UK, and in the US by Lester Frank Ward, John Dewey and others.

These “new liberals” saw individual liberty as something achievable only under favourable social and economic conditions. Poverty and ignorance were barren soils for individual freedom and fulfilment. They argued that individual flourishing required the development of an education system, a welfare state and other state action to reduce unemployment and poverty.

John A Hobson

Thinkers such as Green, Hobhouse, Hobson, Ward and Dewey have been described as new liberals. But their ideas are no longer new and the label is in little use today. It also risks confusion with the now-ubiquitous and over-stretched swear-word of neoliberalism.

Social liberalism is another term that has been to describe the strain of liberal thinking – from Green to Dewey – that pursued greater state intervention and a welfare state.

But a problem with this label lies in the multiple meanings of the word social. Many used social liberalism to signal an emphasis on the need for cooperation between individuals through social arrangements to further human fulfilment. The word social here is used in a broad and inclusive sense.

An alternative understanding of social is exclusive: social is regarded as an antithesis to economic. This commonplace but problematic dichotomy contrasts the economic sphere of business and profit-seeking with the social sphere of the family, non-market relations, reciprocity and so on.

This enabled an alternative interpretation of social liberalism as liberalism applied to the narrowly-conceived social sphere. It would involve, for example, the promotion of homosexual rights and the decriminalization of the use of recreational drugs. Worthy as those aims may be, this is a much narrower agenda than that promoted by social liberalism in the broader sense.

Another option is the word solidarism. Inspired by Émile Durkheim and Léon Bourgeois, ideas emerged in France that were similar to and at about the same time as the new liberalism of Hobhouse and Hobson in Britain.

The solidarists criticized extreme laissez-faire and argued that individuals had a debt to society as a whole, which should be repaid through taxation and social welfare schemes. But solidarism in France took a distinctive form, putting more limited emphasis on state intervention than the proposals of some of their British counterparts.

Ambiguities of social democracy

A final term to be considered here is social democracy. This has shifted more successfully in meaning than socialism, but originally they amounted to more or less the same thing. Many of the early social democratic parties were led by Marxists, including the important Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, founded in 1869. Although some social democrats favoured peaceful reform rather than violent revolution, at that time they mostly agreed on the goal of large-scale common ownership.

Harold Wilson

During the twentieth century the usage of the term social democracy shifted radically. After the Second World War it came to mean the promotion of greater economic equality and social justice within a capitalist economy. It also connoted a political strategy orientated toward the interests of the trade unions and the working class.

The term social democracy still carries this historical and strategic baggage. It has been eschewed by some because of its links with socialism. Others argue that its strategic, class-orientated vision has become obsolete. Another problem is that the word social does not make a clear addition to democracy, which few would oppose.

Post-war social-democratic policies are challenged by the fragmentation of their traditional base in the organized working class and by the heightened forces of globalization.

Consequently, while a reformed and reinvigorated social democracy may have some mileage, I suggest we consider the alternative term liberal solidarity to describe an important zone within liberalism. We should examine its principles and its agenda for reform. But first it is necessary to deal with the tricky label and substance of neoliberalism.

Original diversity within the Mont Pèlerin Society

The Mont Pèlerin Society changed in substance and direction. It began under a different name in the 1930s and was first convened under its current name in 1947. It was then an attempt to convene different kinds of liberals in defence of a liberal market economy, just after the defeat of fascist tyranny, during an expansion of Communist totalitarianism, and while witnessing the rise of statist socialist ideas in Western Europe and elsewhere. Liberalism broadly was on the rocks: it needed its defenders.

Michael Polanyi

Michael Polanyi (the brother of Karl Polanyi) advocated Keynesian macroeconomics in a market economy, alongside a radical redistribution of income and wealth. He rejected a universal reliance on market solutions, seeing it as a mirror image of the socialist panacea of planning and public ownership. He did not mince his words against this “crude Liberalism”:

“For a Liberalism which believes in preserving every evil consequence of free trading, and objects in principle to every sort of State enterprise, is contrary to the very principles of civilization. … The protection given to barbarous anarchy in the illusion of vindicating freedom, as demanded by the doctrine of laissez faire, has been most effective in bringing contempt on the name of freedom … .”

Although he attended the first meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Polanyi had drifted away by 1955, stressing its inadequate solutions to the problem of unemployment and its promotion of a narrow view of liberty as the absence of coercion, neglecting the need to prioritize human self-realization and development.

In its early years, the Mont Pèlerin Society hosted debates on the possible role of the state in promoting welfare, on financial stability, on economic justice, and on the moral limits to markets. Like Polanyi and other early members of the society, Wilhelm Röpke argued that the state was necessary to sustain the institutional infrastructure of a market economy. The state should serve as a rule-maker, enforcer of competition, and provider of basic social security. Röpke’s ideas were highly influential for those laying the foundations of the post war West German economy.

While they received a more sympathy from Hayek, Ludwig Mises regarded Röpke’s views as “outright interventionist”. Mises became so frustrated with these arguments in favour of a major role for the state that he stormed out of a Mont Pèlerin Society meeting shouting: “You’re all a bunch of socialists.”

The rise of modern neoliberalism

Angus Burgin’s history of the society shows how its early period of relative inclusivity was followed by schisms, departures, and a narrowing of opinion. People like Polanyi and Röpke became inactive. Eventually the primary locus of the Mont Pèlerin Society shifted to the US, with greatly increased corporate funding under the rising intellectual leadership of Milton Friedman.

Milton Friedman

Hence the Mont Pèlerin Society evolved from a broad liberal forum to one focused on promoting a narrow version of liberalism that is more redolent of Herbert Spencer than of Adam Smith, Thomas Paine or John Stuart Mill. This ultra-individualist liberalism entailed a narrow definition of liberty as the absence of coercion, it relegated the goal of democracy, it neglected economic inequality, it overlooked the limits to markets, it saw very limited grounds for state welfare provision and intervention in financial markets, and it stressed self-interest rather than moral motivation.

But in the seventh dimension it tolerated a multiplicity of positions, as exemplified by Friedman’s opposition to the Iraq War. In all of the seven dimensions of liberalism, the post-1970 position of the Friedman-led Mont Pèlerin Society was redolent of Spencer, but without some of the latter’s Victorian idiosyncrasies. In the first six dimensions, this post-1970 neoliberalism is very different from liberal solidarity.

It is only after the 1960s that the Mont Pèlerin Society acquired a narrower identity, which at a pinch might be described as neoliberalism. Here Mirowski is onto something: “Neoliberals seek to transcend the intolerable contradiction by treating politics as if it were a market and promoting an economic theory of democracy.” In other words this neoliberalism reduces, all of politics, law and civil society as markets, and are analysed using market categories.

Neoliberalism’s affinity with Marxism

This neoliberalism has an odd similarity with Marxism, despite other major differences in theory and policy. Marx and Engels also reduced civil society to economic matters of money and trade. Marx wrote in 1843: “Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society … The god of practical need and self-interest is money.”

Karl Marx

Civil society, for Marx, was the individualistic realm of money and greed. Hence Marx concluded that “the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy.” The analysis of the political, legal and social spheres was to be achieved with an economics based on the assumption of individual self-interest.

Furthermore, the state, law and politics under capitalism were made analytically subservient to this dismembered, economistic vision of civil society.

Accordingly, Frederick Engels wrote in 1886 that under capitalism “the State – the political order – is the subordinate, and civil society – the realm of economic relations – the decisive element.” Everything was deemed a matter of greed and commerce, to be understood through economic analysis.

Hence, in its theory of capitalism, classical Marxism was a harbinger of modern neoliberalism, reducing everything to market relations. There was no defence of civil society in its own right.

When attempts were made to build socialism on Marxist principles, not only markets were minimized but also civil society was virtually destroyed. Before 1989, the restoration of civil society was one of the foremost demands of the dissident movements in Eastern Europe.

Certainly there are more sophisticated and less reductionist treatments by Marxists of civil society and the state, not least by Antonio Gramsci. But Marx and Engels, alongside some neoliberals, embraced economic reductionism. Everything turns into the economics of trade, eclipsing the autonomy of politics and law, and neglecting the vital importance of non-commercial interaction and association within civil society.

Neoliberalism versus liberal solidarity

On these vital issues, liberal solidarity stresses its differences from both neoliberalism and classical Marxism. It does not treat the individual purely as a self-interested, market-oriented maximizer. It is committed to democracy as a distinctive source of legitimation for government, and a means of individual and social development (dimension 2), not as a marketplace for power.

Liberal solidarity stresses the feasible and moral limits to markets (dimension 4). It upholds a view of the individual that combines measures of self-interest with a moral concern for justice and fairness (dimension 6). On all these points it is distinct from these other doctrines.

Today, liberal solidarity must emphasise its radical differences from both post-1970 neoliberalism and from Marxism. This is made extremely difficult in a leftist intellectual context when any defence of markets or private enterprise, to any extent or degree, is pushed aside as neoliberal. Current cavalier uses of the term do much more harm than good.

Many so-called anti-neoliberals are also anti-liberals. They prioritize neither liberty nor freedom of expression. They offer no defence of private enterprise or markets, to any extent or in any form. They promote a state-dominated economy, which we know from history will always threaten freedom and human rights. They believe they are principled. They may have good intentions. To quote from their mentor Lenin: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” But as Marxists fail to understand, the only principled and effective defence of human rights is some form of liberalism.

Liberalism has to be fortified, but not in all of its forms. Liberal solidarity is the radical alternative to the illiberal or undemocratic populisms of the left or right. It can address the problems created by large corporate interests, by the power of undemocratic capitalist technocrats or by incipient dictatorships. It emphasises the importance of markets and private property, but without regarding them as universal panaceas. It retains uppermost the importance of human rights and human cooperation, with the goal of human flourishing and social development.

 

19 August 2018

Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018

 

References

Burgin, Angus (2012) The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). See pp. 16, 80-86, 121.

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Jacobs, Struan and Mullins, Phil (2016) ‘Friedrich Hayek and Michael Polanyi in Correspondence’, History of European Ideas, 42(1), pp. 107-30.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1962) Selected Works in Two Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart). See vol. 1, pp. 362, 394-5.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1975) Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, Marx and Engels: 1843-1844 (London: Lawrence and Wishart). See p. 172.

Mirowski, Philip (1998) ‘Economics, Science and Knowledge: Polanyi vs. Hayek’, Tradition and Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, 25(1), pp. 29-42.

Mirowski, Philip (2009) ‘Postface: Defining Neoliberalism’, Mirowski, Philip and Plehwe, Dieter (eds) (2009) The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press), pp. 417-55. See p. 456.

Mirowski, Philip (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London and New York: Verso). See p. 71.

Polanyi, Michael (1940) The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After (London: Watts). See pp. 35 ff., 57-58.

Polanyi, Michael (1945) Full Employment and Free Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). See pp. 142-6.

Polanyi, Michael (1951) The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Posted in Democracy, Karl Marx, Left politics, Lenin, Liberalism, Ludwig von Mises, Markets, Michael Polanyi, Neoliberalism, Philip Mirowski, Private enterprise, Property, Right politics, Socialism

June 1st, 2018 by geoffhodgson1946

 

 

Stretching the word “neoliberal” to cover people as different as Deng Xiaoping and Donald Trump has turned it into an absurdity.

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

 

Once upon a time, the word neoliberalism might have been confined to an extreme form of individualism that eschews state regulation, promotes economic austerity and a minimal state, opposes trade unions and vaunts unrestrained markets as the solution to all major politico-economic problems.

But today the usage of the word neoliberalism is no longer so restricted. I have been told more than once that anyone who is not a socialist is automatically a neoliberal. Any defence of the existence of markets now risks quick rejection with an angry neoliberal stamp upon it.

More frequently these days, a wide range of politicians, from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at one extreme, to Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Emmanuel Macron and Tony Blair at the other limit, are all described as neoliberals, despite, for example, hugely varied policies on taxation, government expenditure and the role of the state.

In their book on Neoliberalism, Damien Cahill and Martijn Konings describe the US President Donald Trump as a neoliberal. Yet he is a supporter of protectionism and he has imposed import tariffs: he does not believe in free trade. The word neoliberal is now stretched beyond credence and coherence.

Sneaky Deng Xiaoping was a neoliberal

Guardians of socialist purity have described some errant Marxist or socialists as neoliberals. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, Marxist academic David Harvey described revisionist-Marxist Deng Xiaoping as a neoliberal.

From 1978, Deng supported the reintroduction of markets into the Chinese economy. But he still proposed a strong guiding hand by the state, including centralized management of the macro-economy and the financial system.

Harvey admitted that Deng’s policies led to strong economic growth and “rising standards of living for a significant proportion of the population” but he passed quickly over this ellipsis.

In fact, Deng’s Marxist-revisionist “neoliberal” reforms lifted more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty, albeit unevenly and at the cost of greater inequality. That was about one-twelfth of the entire world population in 2000. With this development, China halved the global level of extreme poverty. The bulk of the poverty reduction in China came from rural areas.

This achievement is unprecedented in human experience. If China’s extension of markets is neoliberalism, then neoliberalism is the most beneficial economic policy in history.

Vladimir Lenin and Josip Tito as neoliberals

But earlier contenders for the title of “the first neoliberals” can be found. In her book on Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism, the sociologist Johanna Bockman found roots of neoliberalism in the experiments in so-called “market socialism” in Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia from the 1950s and in Hungary from the 1960s.

There is no stopping this neoliberal treachery – infiltrating socialism as well as capitalism!

Josip Tito

Adopting the methodology of Harvey and Bockman, I would like to nominate Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as the first neoliberal, for his betrayal of socialist central planning and his introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Soviet Russia in 1921. In this admitted “retreat” from socialism, Lenin re-introduced markets and profit-seeking private firms.

Crucially, in support of this nomination, there is evidence that Deng’s post-1978 reforms drew a strong inspiration from Lenin.

“A brainless synonym for modern capitalism”

Of course, I am being ironic. My point is that, thanks to Harvey and others, neoliberalism as a term has become virtually useless. As Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe put it, neoliberalism for some has become “a brainless synonym for modern capitalism.”

Mirowski also complained that opponents “often bandy about attributions of ‘neoliberalism’ as a portmanteau term of abuse”. But Mirowski did not drop the term.

Geoffrey Hodgson & Philip Mirowski

In his superb history of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Angus Burgin commented critically on the term neoliberalism:

“It is extremely difficult to treat in a sophisticated manner a concept that cannot be firmly identified or defined.”

The word is no longer sound currency. Bad usage has driven out the good. It has become a swear-word rather than a scientific term.

Neoliberalism as a ruling class strategy

Part of the impetus behind the excessive and ultimately destructive use of the word neoliberal is the Marxist belief, expressed by David Harvey among others, that neoliberalism is a strategy serving the interests of the capitalist class.

Following the post-war settlement of 1945-1970, which conceded greater power and shares of income to organized labour, rising neoliberalism allegedly rescued the capitalist class.

Their evidence is that in several major countries from the 1970s, trade unionism declined in strength and the shares of national incomes going to the top five per cent increased.

There is some truth in this. But first it overlooks the fact that levels of public welfare expenditure generally did not decrease after the 1970s.

Second, in several countries, including most dramatically in China, standards of living have increased, even for the lower income deciles. While for many people in the US, real wages have stagnated, this has not been the case in several other countries, particularly prior to the 2008 crash.

Third, the argument may exaggerate the degree to which the capitalist class is united, in terms of their real interests or of their perceptions of them.

Fourth, it is questionable that capitalist interests are best served by declines in real wages, given the powerful Keynesian argument that capitalist prosperity depends on effective demand in the economy as a whole. Higher real wages can increase prosperity across the board, and serve the interests of capitalists and capitalism.

Fifth, there are other, possibility more effective, strategies for countering the power of organized labour and reducing the incomes of many people in favour of the top five per cent. These alternatives include economic nationalism, which can take the extreme form of fascism. Generally these are not free-market, small-state approaches. If they are all labelled neoliberal, and regarded as the grand global strategy of the bourgeoisie, then the analysis becomes dangerously insensitive to the increasingly probable threats of economic nationalism and fascism.

Neoliberalism and the Mont Pèlerin Society

Perhaps the most well-informed and intelligent attempt to give neoliberalism a distinctive meaning is by Philip Mirowski, who associates it, more or less, with the Mont Pèlerin Society.

But the Mont Pèlerin Society changed to a degree, in substance and direction. It began under a different name in the 1930s and was first convened under its current name in 1947. It was then an attempt to convene different kinds of liberals in defence of a liberal market economy, just after the defeat of fascist tyranny, during an expansion of Communist totalitarianism, and while witnessing the rise of statist socialist ideas in Western Europe and elsewhere. Liberalism broadly was on the rocks: it needed its defenders.

As a measure of the relative inclusivity and internal diversity of the Mont Pèlerin Society, consider the testimony of the philosopher Karl Popper, who was a friend of Hayek and a prominent Mont Pèlerin member in the early years. Popper wrote to Hayek in 1947 that his aim was “always to try of a reconciliation of liberals and socialists”.

Michael Polanyi and Wilhelm Röpke

Michael Polanyi – the brother of Karl Polanyi – was a founder member of the Mont Pèlerin Society. He advocated Keynesian macroeconomics in a market economy, alongside a radical redistribution of income and wealth. He rejected a universal reliance on market solutions, seeing it as a mirror image of the socialist panacea of planning and public ownership. He did not mince his words against this “crude Liberalism”:

“For a Liberalism which believes in preserving every evil consequence of free trading, and objects in principle to every sort of State enterprise, is contrary to the very principles of civilization. … The protection given to barbarous anarchy in the illusion of vindicating freedom, as demanded by the doctrine of laissez faire, has been most effective in bringing contempt on the name of freedom …”

Polanyi had drifted away from the Mont Pèlerin Society by 1955, stressing its inadequate solutions to the problem of unemployment and its promotion of a narrow view of liberty as the absence of coercion, neglecting the need to prioritize human self-realization and development.

Michael Polanyi

In its early years, the Mont Pèlerin Society hosted debates on the possible role of the state in promoting welfare, on financial stability, on economic justice, and on the moral limits to markets. Like Polanyi and other early members of the society, Wilhelm Röpke argued that the state was necessary to sustain the institutional infrastructure of a market economy. The state should serve as a rule-maker, enforcer of competition, and provider of basic social security. Röpke’s ideas were highly influential for those laying the foundations of the post war West German economy.

While they received a more sympathy from Hayek, Ludwig Mises regarded Röpke’s views as “outright interventionist”. Mises once became so frustrated with these ongoing arguments in favour of a major role for the state that he stormed out of a Mont Pèlerin Society meeting shouting: “You’re all a bunch of socialists.”

The rise of Milton Friedman

Angus Burgin’s history of the society shows how its early period of relative inclusivity was followed by schisms, departures, and a narrowing of opinion. People like Polanyi and Röpke became inactive. Eventually the primary locus of the Mont Pèlerin Society shifted to the US, with greatly increased corporate funding under the rising intellectual leadership of Milton Friedman.

Milton Friedman

Hence the Mont Pèlerin Society evolved from a broad liberal forum to one focused on promoting a narrow version of liberalism that is more redolent of Herbert Spencer than of Adam Smith, Thomas Paine or John Stuart Mill.

This ultra-individualist liberalism entailed a narrow definition of liberty as the absence of coercion, it relegated the goal of democracy, it neglected economic inequality, it overlooked the limits to markets, it saw very limited grounds for state welfare provision and intervention in financial markets, and it stressed self-interest rather than moral motivation.

Perhaps Friedman was a neoliberal. Perhaps Hayek too. But if we add Lenin, Tito, Deng or Trump to the list, then we are in the realms of absurdity – the term becomes useless.

 

1 June 2018

This book elaborates on the issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018

 

Bibliography                                                     

Bockman, Johanna (2011) Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Burgin, Angus (2012) The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). See esp. pp. 57, 80-86, 116, 121.
Cahill, Damien and Konings, Martijn (2017) Neoliberalism (Cambridge UK and Medford MA: Polity Press). See esp. pp. 144-5.
Harvey, David (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press). See esp. pp. 1-3, 120-22.
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Jacobs, Struan and Mullins, Phil (2016) ‘Friedrich Hayek and Michael Polanyi in Correspondence’, History of European Ideas, 42(1), pp. 107-30.
Mirowski, Philip (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London and New York: Verso). See esp. pp. 29, 71.
Mirowski, Philip and Plehwe, Dieter (eds) (2009) The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). See esp. p. xvii.
Pantsov, Alexander and Levine, Steven I. (2015) Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press). See esp. p. 373.
Polanyi, Michael (1940) The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After (London: Watts). See esp. pp. 35 ff., 57-58.
Ravallion, Martin, and Shaohua Chen (2005) ‘China’s (Uneven) Progress against Poverty’, Journal of Development Economics, 82(1), pp. 1-42.

 

Posted in Donald Trump, Left politics, Lenin, Liberalism, Markets, Michael Polanyi, Neoliberalism, Philip Mirowski, Private enterprise, Right politics, Soviet Union, Tony Blair, Uncategorized

May 5th, 2018 by geoffhodgson1946

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

 

Karl Marx was born on 5 May 1818. He was one of the greatest social scientists in human history. The intellectual structure of his thought has affected our understanding of history, of economic development and of political power. All modern scholars of significance have to define their position in relation to Marx’s monumental achievement.

Many of Marx’s predictions were wrong. He was mistaken, for example, about the general deskilling of the working class. On the contrary, although many remain unskilled, average skill levels have increased. Furthermore, although many remain desperately poor, the average standard of living of the working class has vastly increased since his time.

On the other hand, some of Marx’s predictions have been vindicated. He characterized the nature of the capitalist system more acutely than any of his predecessors and he predicted its spread over the entire world. He saw capitalism a dynamic system that broke down archaic institutions and barriers to trade.

Marx also focused on the generation of inequality under capitalism, which has increased and is recognized as a serious problem.

Marx got some forecasts wrong and some right. Prediction is far from everything in social science. What towers above all is his contribution to our understanding of the inner dynamics of capitalism. With all its shortcomings and theoretical flaws, it remains a huge achievement.

Was Marx the author of the Marxist tragedy?

Let us turn from Marx the social scientist to Marx the politician. Remarkably, from 1917 to the present day, a number of regimes have been set up by revolutionary activists who have claimed to be Marxists. All of these turned sour: these totalitarian regimes led to millions of deaths. Estimates vary. 90 million is on the conservative side, with about 65 million in Mao’s China alone.

Marxism has various ideological immune systems to deal with these brutal facts. One gambit is to blame it on the hostile interventions of foreign powers. But it is implausible that these alone are responsible for the outcomes. No foreign intervention prompted Mao’s Great Leap Forward of his Cultural Revolution, for example, which together led to about 40 million deaths.

Leon Trotsky

Another argument – due to Leon Trotsky – is to blame it on the creation by tyrannical leaders such as Stalin of a bureaucratic caste that denied the working class any democratic power. But this implausibly assumes that a huge nationwide bureaucracy can somehow be run on the basis of meaningful votes on every important decision. No-one with any practical experience of a large organization would entertain such a fantasy.

A more colourful recent excuse is due to Yanis Varoufakis, the influential Greek academic and politician. He argued that the Marxist texts were too powerful. As a result they attracted devious opportunists who rode the Marxist rhetoric for “their own advantage.”

With it, they might abuse other comrades, build their own power base, gain positions of influence, bed impressionable students, take control of the politburo and imprison anyone who resists them.

The problem, it seems, was that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were too powerful with their prose. If only they had written more turgid texts – then millions would have been saved from the famines and the Gulags.

Seriously, though, the greater problem is not the power of the language, but what it says and what it empowers and enables. Marxism creates a sense of historical destiny, where the creation of socialism is a seemingly obvious solution to the ills of the world, which will defied only by the rich, whose resistance must be crushed.

Marx bears some responsibility for the murdered millions

At least two major aspects of Marx’s thought removed protections of human rights and paved the way for brutal totalitarianism.

The first was his doctrine of class struggle. Analytically, this may have some value and it is subject to academic debate. But it was also a normative doctrine, about the working class seizing power and ending the rule of the capitalists.

Marx and Engels argued that the current aims and desires of the proletariat were less important than its historical destiny to abolish capitalism and become the ruling class. They wrote:

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.

This is the first totalitarian impulse. Marxist revolutionaries are deemed to know better what is in the interests of the working class than the working class itself. Democracy becomes an impediment to the realization of those true interests, about which the masses are not fully aware.

The normative doctrine of class struggle has another outcome. It means that the rights of one social class are privileged over another. Universal individual rights are no more. As Engels put it, legal and individual rights are “nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie.”

Their normative arguments in favour of socialism are not based on any alleged rights. Instead, socialism is seen as historic destiny. Marx tried to show that crises within capitalism are recurrent and inevitable, and that capitalism digs its own grave by enlarging and empowering the working class.

The consequence of this class deprivation of human rights was enshrined in law under Marxist-socialist regimes. The 1918 Constitution of the young Soviet regime distinguished between the rights of the workers and the rights of others. The Soviet state also announced that it

deprives all individuals and groups of rights which could be utilized by them to the detriment of the socialist revolution.”

A major problem here was that the criteria used to decide what was detrimental were unspecified, opening the door to arbitrary repression by the authorities. This is exactly what happened.

A regime that denies rights to some, especially with malleable criteria concerning who is denied those rights, ends up denying rights to everyone. These are the consequences of Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

A full concentration of economic power leads to totalitarianism

A second aspect of Marx’s thought that promoted totalitarianism concerns the economy.

Marx and Engels advocated the abolition of private property and markets, and the concentration of all economic power in the hands of the state. They welcomed efforts “to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and looked forward to a time when “all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation”.

But as subsequent experiences from Russia to Venezuela illustrate, such a massive concentration of economic power requires for its enforcement, and sustains as an outcome, a massive concentration of political power that is intolerant of democracy. The good intentions or democratic inclinations of leaders are not enough. Those most hungry for power, and least affected by moral qualms in exercising it, will eventually rise to the top.

There is a widespread opinion among non-Marxist social scientists (including Barrington Moore, Douglass North and Francis Fukuyama) that democracy requires countervailing political and economic power to have a chance of survival. In Marxist terms, if the economic “base” determines the “superstructure”, then a pluralist polity requires a pluralist (or mixed) economy, not one that is overshadowed by a massive state.

A complete concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the state, which Marx and Engels advocated with enthusiasm as well as eloquence, always requires and enables a despotic political regime. There are no exceptions.

Leszek Kolakowski

Over forty years ago, Leszek Kolakowski was an Eastern European dissident and a perceptive critic of Marxism. He wrote:

“My suspicion is that this was both Marx’s anticipation of perfect unity of mankind and his mythology of the historically privileged proletarian consciousness which were responsible for his theory being eventually turned into an ideology of the totalitarian movement: not because he conceived of it in such terms, but because its basic values could hardly be materialized otherwise.”

Kolakowski was right. Many have still to learn the tragic lessons of Marxist failure in practice, as well as of its partial but flawed analytical success.

Critics will say that giving Marx some blame for the atrocities of the twentieth century is like trying to blame Jesus for the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition. They are wrong, Jesus never advocated class war or a concentration of economic power in the hands of the state, both of which create the conditions for tyranny.

5 May 2018

Minor edits – 6 May 2018

 

This book elaborates on the issues raised in this blog:

Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018

Bibliography

Courtois, Stéphane, Werth, Nicolas, Panné, Jean-Louis, Packowski, Andrzej, Bartošek, and Margolin, Jean-Louis (1999) The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).

Fukuyama, Francis (2011) The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (London and New York: Profile Books and Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2006) Economics in the Shadows of Darwin and Marx: Essays on Institutional and Evolutionary Themes (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Kolakowski, Leszek (1977) ‘Marxist Roots of Stalinism’, in Robert C. Tucker (ed.) (1977) Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation (New York: Norton), pp. 283-98.

Moore, Barrington, Jr (1966) Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (London: Allen Lane).

North, Douglass C., Wallis, John Joseph and Weingast, Barry R. (2009) Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press).

Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Leszek Kolakowski, Liberalism, Mao Zedong, Markets, Nationalization, Politics, Private enterprise, Property, Robert Owen, Socialism, Uncategorized

February 24th, 2018 by geoffhodgson1946

 

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

 

Bernie Sanders campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in the US in 2015-2016. In the primary elections he received over thirteen million votes. He won 23 primaries and caucuses and approximately 43 per cent of pledged delegates, compared to 55 per cent for Hillary Clinton.

Polls taken in 2017 have found Sanders to be the most popular politician in the US.

Sanders is a long-avowed “socialist”. What does he mean by this term? This is not an attack on the personality of Sanders, nor an attempt to smear him. Instead it is a search for the truth. What does he mean by “socialism” and what are his intellectual roots?

Does democracy imply socialism?

This is not a story about Russian spies. It is about Russian dolls. Sanders is the outer form of a Russian doll, with the slogan of Democracy across his chest. This slogan is used to promote socialism, typically with some vagueness about its meaning.

For Sanders, democracy implied socialism and substantial public ownership. In a 1987 interview he explained:

“Democracy means public ownership of the major means of production, it means decentralization, it means involving people in their work. Rather than having bosses and workers it means having democratic control over the factories and shops to as great a degree as you can.”

Nineteen years later, Sanders was still repeating this argument that extended democracy implied a greater role for government. But he then side-lined the question of public ownership. When asked in 2006 what democratic socialism meant, he responded:

“[The] government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have health care; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality child care, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly.”

Given his rising prominence in the US, among a population that has not normally been sympathetic to socialist ideas, it is understandable that Sanders played up democracy and played down public ownership. But there is no evidence that he has abandoned his support for widespread common ownership.

Sanders is not alone in sometimes hiding his socialism behind the word democracy. Michael Moore did it in his ironically-titled 2009 film Capitalism: A Love Story, where he argued that

“capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil. You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that is good for all people, and that something is democracy.”

But democracy is a system of government, and it is not in itself a type of economy.

Like Moore, Sanders in recent years has been economical with the truth. As we have entered the new millennium he has left the details of his socialism vague. He grants his audience the freedom to choose its meaning.

Socialism: A love story

They may impute its original radical meaning of widespread common ownership. Or they can infer that Sanders is promoting a version of social democracy, as found in Denmark, Norway or Sweden. Sanders said in 2015 that

“we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

Lars Løkke Rasmussen

We certainly should learn from these Nordic countries, but we should not dupe people into believing that they are socialist. A few days after Sanders’ comment, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen attacked the misconception that the Nordic model is a form of socialism:

“I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

The Nordic countries mentioned by Sanders have relatively high levels of taxation and relatively low levels of economic inequality. They have strong welfare states. But they have not achieved anything close to socialism in its original sense. The private sector is still dominant. But by giving little guidance about what he means by socialism, Sanders can please a wider audience.

In a country where even minimal government involvement in the economy is habitually described by its opponents as socialist, Sanders has been opportunist. As he has come closer to power he has accepted the socialist label without much further explanation, knowing that for millions of Americans this is taken to mean even the mildest level of government economic intervention.

Sanders has allowed this inaccuracy to prevail, thus establishing a wide following among liberals, social democrats and radical socialists. He may have told the truth, but not the whole truth.

A mixed economy?

Jeremy Corbyn

As he has got closer to the pinnacles of power, Sanders has accepted a place for small-scale private enterprise. Similarly, the UK Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn has acknowledged the reality of a mixed economy.

But crucially, neither Corbyn nor Sanders have elaborated a positive defence of the private sector.

Genuine advocacy of a mixture requires making the case for more than one type of ingredient. As well as their support for the public sector, they could have argued, for instance, that a substantial private sector is necessary for a viable civil society, to reap the benefits of competition, and to help sustain innovation and technological advance. Sanders and Corbyn have failed to make such arguments.

These arguments are rare among traditional socialists. The widespread absence of a defence of the private sector speaks as loudly as their calls for government intervention or common ownership. It suggests that a private sector is being reluctantly tolerated, and it would all be swept up into public territory if the opportunity arose. A mixed economy is to be accepted for now, as the system makes its transition toward full-blooded socialism and the abolition of all private enterprise.

Democratic socialism would take too many meetings

There is a further problem with the notion of democratic socialism that is adopted by Sanders and Corbyn. They promote a vague vision of extensive democratic control in the economy. Neither of them explain in detail how this extensive democratic decision-making is going to work. Would employees and consumers have a say on everything? How would they decide? How would the hierarchy of decision-making be structured?

The adjective democratic is kept as vague as the noun socialism. The details and feasibility of any such arrangement are simply ignored. If votes were held on every important question then the population would be overburdened with a myriad of decisions. Our lives would be taken up with meetings and voting.

It is impossible for anyone to gain expert knowledge on anything but a small number of technical and scientific issues. It would be counter-productive to put these technical issues to the vote. While many socialists have paid homage to some vague notion of “democratic control”, no-one has shown in theory or in practice how it would function in detail.

More Russian dolls inside

Let us go further into Sanders’ past. In the 1980s, when he was mayor of Burlington in Vermont, Sanders promoted a twinning programme with Yarolslavl in the USSR. He and his wife spent their honeymoon in the USSR in 1988.

This may be excused as an attempt to develop international understanding between varied communities, but this visit by an enduring, self-declared “socialist” to a “socialist” country under Communist Party rule would have been used to damage his presidential campaign in 2016, if he had won the nomination.

Going further back, as a young man in Chicago in the 1960s, Sanders was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, which was the youth wing of the Socialist Party of America.

Founded in 1901, this party went through several splits and ruptures, but it was generally clear what it meant by socialism.

The following words appeared in its constitution:

“[The] Socialist Party is to bring about the social ownership and democratic control of all the necessary means of production – to eliminate profit, rent, and interest, and make it impossible for any to share the product without sharing the burden of labor – to change our class society into a society of equals, in which the interest of one will be the interest of all.”

This formulation – involving widespread common ownership of the means of production – is in line with the original vision of socialism, as promoted by Robert Owen, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and numerous other socialists.

Finding Lenin and Trotsky

Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) was the most famous leader of the Socialist Party of America and four times its presidential candidate, peaking at 913,693 votes in his 1920 campaign. Adopting the Marxist language of militant class struggle, Debs supported the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He also praised the attempted 1919 armed insurrection led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg against the new-born German Republic.

In 1977 Sanders made a 30-minute documentary about Debs and his ideas. Sanders never recanted the version of socialism promoted by Debs and the Socialist Party of America.

In 1980 Sanders served as an elector for the Socialist Workers’ Party (USA), in an attempt to put this Trotskyist group on the presidential ballot, although Sanders was never a member of that organization.

Although Sanders was hugely popular during the 2015-16 primaries, if he had become the Democratic presidential candidate, then his Republican opponents would have milked this information about his Trotskyist links and his Russian honeymoon.

Leninism and democracy

Sanders is too vague about his socialism and his links with past radical socialists to draw too many definite conclusions. But the links are there, all the way back to Trotskyism and Leninism. It is ironic to compare how Sanders tries to champion democracy today, with the treatment of democracy by his Leninist antecedents.

In August 1917 Lenin explained in his State and Revolution that the forthcoming seizure of power would be highly democratic for the working class.

In November 1917 the Bolsheviks overthrew the liberal-socialist government of Alexander Kerensky. By the end of 1918, in the midst of a vicious civil war, all parties except the Bolsheviks were banned, and Russia had become a one-party state.

The “immense expansion of democracy” that Lenin had promised in his State and Revolution was not delivered. It would not have been feasible, even under the most conducive of circumstances.

As it turned out in Russia, there was no possibility of organizing a political force to counter, criticize or modify Bolshevik policy. Without organized alternatives to the ruling elite, democracy becomes a sham.

When the exiled Kerensky spoke at a London meeting in 1921, someone there claimed that the Bolsheviks were democrats. Kerensky responded:

“If it is democracy to banish your opponents, to suppress all meetings and newspapers, and to lock up people who disagree with you without trial, by what signs do you ask me to recognise tyranny?”

Let’s be honest about socialism

Sanders has tapped into legitimate discontent about inequality and poverty in the US, but has failed to explain how his version of socialism will work. He has kept the meaning of the s-word vague, thus providing himself with radical appeal with limited long-term practical substance, other than the adoption of some measures of reform within a capitalist economy.

From its inception in 1827 and for much of the twentieth century, socialism had the radical meaning of widespread common ownership that both Sanders and Corbyn originally promoted. Subsequently, some thinkers tried to shift its meaning, but no consensus emerged on its new substance.

Socialists should stop hiding their socialism behind the word democracy. Many socialists believe in democracy, but democracy and socialism are not the same thing.

Real-world socialism has failed to sustain democracy. This is a problem for socialism and it should not be ignored.

The connection between claimed “democratic socialism” and socialism in its totalitarian incarnations is avoided by Sanders and Corbyn by comparing the ills of real-world capitalism with an imaginary, idealized socialism that is unfeasible as it is invisible.

Sanders and Corbyn do not compare the ills of real-world capitalism with the ills of real-world socialism. If they did this honestly, then they might reach different conclusions. Instead of chasing socialist unicorns they might seek for the best within capitalism and then try to improve it further.

 

24 February 2018

Published January 2018

Buy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

Bibliography                                                     

Clarke, Peter (1978) Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). The quote by Kerensky is found on p. 220.

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Posted in Bernie Sanders, Common ownership, Democracy, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Liberalism, Markets, Nationalization, Politics, Private enterprise, Property, Robert Owen, Socialism, Soviet Union

September 13th, 2017 by geoffhodgson1946

 

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

 

Many people still call themselves socialists. But rarely is it made clear what they mean by the description. Few seem aware of its original definition, which persisted from the 1830s to the 1950s. Some will argue that the word has acquired a new meaning since then. Words do change their meanings. But there is no consensus on what that new meaning is.

Despite its idealistic connotations of purity and principle, the word socialism hangs around the neck of left parties. It serves as an invitation for infiltration by Marxists and others, who may enter any party proclaiming their “democratic socialism” or their “socialist principles”.

Having being invited by the s-word, they simply have to point to its original meaning to justify their maximalist stances on class struggle and public ownership. The retention of the s-word will always feed the hard left.

Owenites and Marxists

The term socialist emerged in English for the first time in 1827 in the Co-operative Magazine, which was published in London by followers of Robert Owen. It moved into wider usage in the 1830s. For Owen and his followers, socialism meant the abolition of private property. It also acquired the broader ideological connotation of cooperation, in opposition to selfish individualism.

Robert Owen

As Owen argued in 1840, “virtue and happiness could never be attained” in “any system in which private property was admitted”. He aimed to secure “an equality of wealth and rank, by merging all private into public property”.

Owen and his followers attempted to establish several socialist communities in the UK and USA. All failed within a few years. The young Frederick Engels attended an Owenite meeting in Manchester in 1843, and was inspired by Owen’s notion of socialism.

In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels echoed Owen and others and called for the “abolition of private property”. In 1850 Marx declared: “Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it”. Marx and Engels proclaimed an economic order in which “capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society”.

Marx and Engels wanted the complete abolition of the “free selling and buying” of commodities. They advocated common ownership of all means of production and the abolition of commodity exchange and markets.

Hence, from the 1830s until the 1950s, socialism was almost universally defined in terms of the abolition or minimisation of private property and some form of widespread common ownership.

Statist socialism

Marx and Engels insisted that markets should be abolished and all means of production should be placed in the hands of the state.

Karl Marx

By emphasizing national ownership, Marx and Engels went much further than Owen. They welcomed efforts “to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and looked forward to a time when “all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation”.

Marx and Engels often used the term communism instead of socialism. But this was primarily to distance themselves from the naïve ideas of contemporary socialists rather than to postulate a radically different objective. For them, communism was a label for their movement, rather than their goal. Thus in 1845 they wrote:

Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Sometimes, as in his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875, Marx referred to the “lower” and “higher phases” of communism, instead of socialism.

In 1917 Vladimir Ilych Lenin was writing his State and Revolution, on the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Some left critics had argued that Russia was insufficiently developed for socialist revolution.

So Lenin redefined socialism as a transitional stage (still involving extensive state ownership) between capitalism and communism.

By contrast, Marx and Engels did not use the term socialism to refer to a future stage between capitalism and communism. Their aim was described interchangeably as socialism or communism.

French lessons

Engels’ description of Charles Fourier and Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon as “utopian socialists” is inaccurate because – unlike Owen – they supported private ownership of the means of production. They imagined harmonious communities without poverty or strife. But some of Saint-Simon’s followers moved toward socialism.

Philippe Buchez was inspired by Saint-Simon. He promoted worker cooperatives as early as 1831, and his ideas became prominent during the French Revolution of 1848.

Contrary to most of his contemporary socialists and communists, Buchez and his followers eventually recognized the need for multiple, autonomous, worker co-operatives, each owning property and engaging in contracts and markets.

But this tolerance of markets was too much for Marx. In 1875 he described Buchez’s ideas as “reactionary”, “sectarian”, opposed to the workers’ “class movement”, and contrary to the true revolutionary aim of “cooperative production … on a national scale”.

Pierre Joseph Proudhon

In 1840 Pierre Joseph Proudhon published his What is Property? He used both socialism and anarchism to describe his proposed future society. But, like Buchez, Proudhon proposed a system of worker cooperatives linked by contracts and trade. This enraged Marx and Engels, who relentlessly attached Proudhon’s ideas.

Non-statist versions of socialism endured but were overshadowed by statist variants. From the 1870s to the 1950s the dominant view of socialism involved state ownership and control. To emphasise their dissent, Proudhon and other opponents of statist socialism often described themselves as anarchists.

Fabianism

The idea that private property and markets should be abolished was thematic to socialism and unconfined to Marxism. It pervaded the writings of socialists as diverse as Continental revolutionary communists and British Fabians. At least until the 1950s, hostility towards markets and private property were thematic for socialism as a whole. The founding influences of Owen and Marx were long-lasting.

Beatrice & Sidney Webb

Drafted by leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Clause Four, Part Four of the Labour Party Constitution encapsulated collectivist thinking when it was adopted in 1918:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

This provided for no exception: all production would be in common ownership and there would be no private sector. Although some Labour Party thinkers began to entertain the possibility of some private enterprise, many party members remained resolutely in support of widespread common ownership.

Some Fabian socialists tried to lay out more detail on how socialism would work. The Webbs laid out their ultimate vision of a fully planned and consciously controlled socialist economy where all markets and private ownership of the means of production had been marginalized to insignificance. They wanted private ownership of the means of production to be ended: it was a “perversion”.

They envisaged a massive, complex structure of national, regional and local committees, all involved in decision-making over details of production and distribution. How would these cope with the huge amounts of information and specialized knowledge in modern complex economies? It was simply assumed that this was relatively easy to sort out in some rational manner.

Guild socialism

G D H Cole

The British Fabian G. D. H. Cole is sometimes described as a “libertarian socialist” and as an advocate of “decentralized” or “guild” socialism. But he supported the wholesale nationalisation of industry and the abolition of private enterprise. To his great credit, and unlike most Marxists, Cole did actually try to explain how a future socialist society would work. But his explanation is a failure.

Cole did not show how devolved democracy could function and endure in a society where private property was abolished. His hyper-democratic account of socialism, where individuals make decisions throughout industry as well as the polity, failed to consider the problems of necessary skill in judgment, of obtaining relevant knowledge, and the overwhelming number of meetings and decisions involved.

Cole’s vision of socialism was of an integrated, national system where “a single authority is responsible both for the planning of the social production as a whole and for the distribution of the incomes which will be used in buying it.” Within this “single authority” he also sought devolved worker control. He wanted local autonomy of manufacturing, modelled on the medieval guild.

But Cole was tragically unclear about how the two were to be reconciled. How would the autonomous powers of the latter be protected from the control and centralizing ambitions of the “single authority”? There was no adequate answer. His whole system was unworkable.

Clement Attlee and Bertrand Russell

In 1937, eight years before he became UK Prime Minister, Clement Attlee wrote of the “evils” of capitalism: their “cause is the private ownership of the means of life; the remedy is public ownership.” Attlee then approvingly quoted the words of Bertrand Russell:

“Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital together with a democratic form of government. … It involves the abolition of all unearned wealth and of all private control over the means of livelihood of the workers”.

Bertrand Russell

Even within the moderate and non-Marxist Labour Party, the word socialism endured with these collectivist connotations, posed in opposition to private firms, competition and markets.

Russell represented an important strain of thinking within the British left. He wholeheartedly supported the notion of a publicly-owned and planned economy, but he rejected “Bolshevik methods”.

But is it possible to promote a state monopoly of economic power, while preventing a central-state monopoly and potential despotism of political power? In no historical case has the first happened and the second been prevented. Statist socialism, with viable democracy, political pluralism and effective decentralisation, exits only in the imagination of impractical idealists.

‘Market socialism’?

In the 1930s the economist Oskar Lange and others claimed that mainstream economic theory can show how socialism could work. Lange and his co-workers argued that managers of firms should be instructed to expand production until marginal costs were equal to the declared market price of the product.

Oskar Lange

But this assumed that marginal costs could be calculated and that the central planners could smoothly and readily assess whether there were surpluses or shortages, and adjust prices accordingly. Lange and others wrongly assumed that such information was readily available.

These proposals for “market socialism” attempted to simulate markets within a planning system, rather than to establish true markets with private ownership and commodity exchange. There was no private ownership and no capacity for firms to make contracts. The models developed by Lange and his collaborators involved a high degree of centralised co-ordination that excluded any real-world market.

Significantly, no attempt has ever been made to implement a Lange-type model in reality. Lange himself made no effort to persuade the post-1945 “socialist” government in his native Poland of the value of the idea.

Hence the use of the term “market socialism” in this context is highly misleading. Unlike the proposals of Buchez or Proudhon, and unlike the system of worker cooperatives established under Josip Tito in Yugoslavia after the Second World War, Lange’s proposal did not involve true markets.

Post-war revisionism

In 1956 C. Anthony Crosland published The Future of Socialism. This began Labour’s slow reconciliation with markets, private enterprise and a mixed economy. Signalling an attempted shift of meaning, Crosland argued that the central aim of socialism was not necessarily common ownership, but social justice and economic equality, and these could be achieved by different means. But although his argument was highly influential, it was widely attacked within the Labour Party and elsewhere.

Hugh Gaitskell

In 1959 the (West) German Social Democratic Party abandoned the goal of widespread common ownership. In the same year, Hugh Gaitskell tried to get the British Labour Party to follow this lead, but met stiff resistance. The party did not ditch its Clause Four commitment to the complete “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” until 1995.

Richard Toye noted that the Labour Party assumed widespread public ownership and failed to develop adequate policies concerning the private sector:

“Labour, until at least the 1950s, showed little interest in developing policies for the private sector. During the 1960s, the party demonstrated continuing ambiguity about whether or not competition was a good thing. This ambiguity continued at least until the 1980s.”

Tony Blair and New Labour

But in 1995, after 77 years, Labour’s Clause Four was changed. Tony Blair successfully ended the Labour Party’s longstanding constitutional commitment to far-reaching common ownership. But this was not without opposition. Tony Benn protested: “Labour’s heart is being cut out”.

Tony Blair

The new wording of “Clause IV: Aims and Values” declared that: “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.” But the clause ceased to promote unalloyed common ownership and the full text admitted a positive role for markets and a private sector.

By contrast, the 1918 formulation did not use the word socialism – it had undiluted common ownership instead.

Blair introduced the word socialism in 1995, but he attempted to change its meaning. He promoted “social-ism”, which now meant recognizing individuals as socially interdependent. It also signalled social justice, cohesion and equality of opportunity, within a mixed economy involving both private and public ownership.

Hence, instead of tackling the problem of Labour’s old collectivist DNA more directly, Blair tried to change the meaning of socialism and to airbrush Labour’s history. He failed to promote an adequate alternative vision or philosophy within Labour to replace old-fashioned common ownership. To the traditional left, it appeared as the substitution of purity and socialist principle by fudge and capitalist compromise.

But oddly Blair was responsible for the explicit insertion of socialism in its aims. This inadvertently played into the hands of the party’s enduring, backward-looking left.

Learning no lessons

Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the financial crash of 2008 helped to turn the Labour membership against Blair and his compromises with capitalism. As evidence of the Freudian defence mechanism of regression as a response to severe stress, Labour reverted to an earlier stage of its history, re-adopting its infant ideological comforts of collectivism and state control.

The ghost of Tony Benn emerged. His Campaign Group in parliament moved from the margins to the party mainstream.

Like Benn, the current leadership of the UK Labour Party shows little awareness of the chronic problems of managing a modern, complex, centrally-planned economy. They now accept a “mixed economy” as a transition stage, but fail to promote the virtues or enduring role of the private sector.

Jeremy Corbyn

To take one example, Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 address to the UK Co-operative Party is overwhelming in its blandness and naivety. Therein Corby shows no awareness that viable and meaningful decentralisation of economic power must involve (cooperative or other) firms with the right to own, set prices for, and trade their outputs. He rightly mentions the virtues of worker and consumer participation in decision-making, but shows no awareness of the practical limits of such participation.

Corbyn simply waved the magic wand of “democracy” without any apparent appreciation that it is impossible to involve everyone in more than a tiny fraction of all the complex decisions involved in any modern economy. Corbyn showed no awareness of the practical problems of complex decision-making in large organisations, which are dependent on multiple, localised, skills and expertise.

Withering socialism

Following Labour’s advances in the 2017 general election, the leadership of Corbyn and his allies seems entrenched. Recently they have gained control of the powerful National Executive Committee of the party. For future nominations for the Labour leadership or deputy leadership, it is probable that the 15 per cent threshold of support from Labour MPs will be lowered, making ongoing hard left prominence more likely.

In the 1980s and 1990s the hard left were pushed back with the help of large, moderate trade unions that were affiliated to Labour. Those countervailing forces have gone. The unions are smaller and some are more inclined to the hard left.

With the Brexit vote in 2016, Britain has entered its most dangerous political crisis since the Second World War. The country is governed by an inept Conservative Party that is tearing up the UK constitution and concentrating unprecedented power in the hands of its duplicitous ministers.

Labour’s 2017 electoral advances were partly due to Tory incompetence. In this volatile climate it is possible that Corbyn could soon become prime minister. Subsequently, an obvious danger would be that the concentration of executive power legislated by Tory opponents would prove too tempting for Labour in power to relinquish. After growing authoritarianism from the reactionary right, we might experience a new, collectivist authoritarianism from Labour.

A Labour government committed to dealing with the severe crises in the health, education and housing sectors can bring positive benefits. Substantial state intervention is needed to regulate markets, especially in the area of finance. But such a programme needs to be tempered by heavy measures of pragmatism, pluralism, cautious experimentation and ideological humility that are alien to the current leadership.

They show no sign that they have abandoned their old, statist socialism. There is no recognition that markets and substantial private enterprise are necessary to sustain autonomy and decentralisation. As has become apparent in Corbyn’s favourite socialist experiment in Venezuela, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Conclusion – More French lessons

However outdated, it is difficult to dislodge the core principles upon which any party is founded. France provides an important illustration. Michel Rocard was a leading member of the French Socialist Party and a prime minister under François Mitterand. He long argued that French socialists

Emmanuel Macron

had failed to modernise and to accept the enduring importance of private property and markets.

Emmanuel Macron was a protégée of Rocard. Macron gained presidential power after breaking from the fractured Socialist Party and building a powerful centre force. Perhaps there are some lessons for progressives in Britain. It would not be the first time that the French have shown us the way forward.

 

13 September 2017

Minor edits: 16, 21 September 2017

 

This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018

 

Bibliography

Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).

Bestor, Arthur E., Jr (1948) ‘The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 9(3), June, pp. 259-302.

Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).

Cole, George D. H. (1920) Guild Socialism Re-Stated (London: Parsons).

Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).

Harrison, J. F. C. (1969) Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2017) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

Owen, Robert (1991) A New View of Society and Other Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Landauer, Carl A. (1959) European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements from the Industrial Revolution to Hitler’s Seizure of Power, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Lange, Oskar R. and Taylor, Frederick M. (1938) On the Economic Theory of Socialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Proudhon, Pierre Joseph (1890) What is Property?: An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government, translated from the French edition of 1840 (New York: Humbold).

Russell, Bertrand (1920) The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (London: George Allen and Unwin).

Steele, David Ramsay (1992) From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court).

Toye, Richard (2004) ‘The Smallest Party in History’? New Labour in Historical Perspective’, Labour History Review, 69(1), April, pp. 83-104.

Webb, Sidney J. and Webb, Beatrice (1920) A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain (London: Longmans Green).

 

Posted in Bertrand Russell, Brexit, Common ownership, Democracy, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Markets, Nationalization, Private enterprise, Robert Owen, Socialism, Tony Benn, Tony Blair, Tony Blair, Venezuela

August 14th, 2017 by geoffhodgson1946

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

 

The world is full of injustice and poverty, while the rich protect their wealth by manipulating the system of power. Consequently, many of the informed and intelligent are lured like moths to the lights of socialist revolution, promising social justice for the many not the few.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a blazing light in Russia a century ago. Many intellectuals were attracted to his Soviet regime. Lenin is said to have coined the term “useful idiot” to describe the naïve among them (but no evidence has been found to support that attribution).

But in 1913 Lenin definitely did quote the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This was unwittingly self-referential and rather prophetic. Lenin’s post-1917 Bolshevik regime became a hell, in part of his own making. The good-intentioned (with sufficient means or influence) were invited from abroad to visit the young Soviet Republic.

Venezuela – “another world is possible”

But first let us consider the current case of Venezuela. Its experiment in radical socialism began in 1998 when Marxist Hugo Chávez was elected as President. Using the plentiful oil revenues during 1999-2007, his government expanded access to food, housing, healthcare, and education, especially for the poor and the indigenous minorities.

Hugo Chávez

Chávez nationalized key industries and created participatory Communal Councils. He whipped up popular support against the rich elite and their perceived allies in the United States. But constitutional checks and balances slowed down his radical reforms. Criticism from the private press and political opposition countered the populist movement.

So in 1999, the new Constitutional Assembly, filled with elected supporters of Chávez, drafted a new constitution that made censorship easier and granted the executive branch of government more power.

The Constitutional Assembly extended the presidential term. It abolished the two houses of Congress. It also granted Chávez the power to legislate on citizen rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters.

In 2002 Chávez was briefly deposed in a coup, which probably had support from the CIA. But Chávez was restored to power by the army and popular mobilisations.

Chávez then seized control of the courts and the electoral authority, and suppressed much of the opposition media. He removed political checks and balances, seeing them as obstacles to his socialist revolution.

Accordingly, the device of populist democracy was used to push the country in the direction of dictatorship. His supporters were persuaded to approve increases in presidential powers, to protect the “socialist revolution” against its enemies. Since 2004, “defamation” of the government, including “disrespect for the authorities”, has been a criminal offence.

Chávez failed to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. He antagonised private investors. The state-centred economy was not robust enough to withstand the post-2008 oil price collapse.

Venezuela’s descent into hell

In a state-run economy, business corruption is encouraged by bureaucratic failure. Political corruption is facilitated by the gathering of powers in the hands of the ruling party and the state machine. The Venezuelan government became one of the most corrupt in the world. Serious shortages of food and medicine emerged.

“There’s no food”

Chávez died of cancer in 2013 and was replaced as President by Nicolás Maduro.

In 2015 and 2016, blaming internal “fascists” and US intervention for the severe shortages, President Maduro declared two states of emergency. These gave him powers to intervene in the economy. Arbitrary detentions of dissidents became more common.

The regimes of Chávez and Maduro wasted and misspent much of the money made in the oil boom, while over-extending the powers of their corrupt governments. The private sector was hobbled. The ultimate outcome of Venezuela’s experiment with populist socialism has been authoritarianism, destitution and starvation.

Because of a populist mistrust of liberal, pluralist institutions, Venezuela is lurching toward dictatorship. Press freedom is limited and critical journalists and opposition leaders are jailed.

In Decemb2017 Venezuela took a major step toward a one-party state. Maduro announced that candidates from opposition parties would be banned from the next presidential election.

Supporters of Chávez and Maduro blame the hostility of the US for Venezuela’s distress, just as it was blamed for economic problems in Cuba after its 1959 revolution. US belligerence made things worse, and will probably continue to do so.

But the major cause of economic stagnation in Cuba and Venezuela is the unchecked concentration of excessive political, legal and economic power in the hands of the overbearing state.

Los idiotas útiles

Back in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn attended a 2013 vigil following the death of Chávez, hailing him as an “inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neo-liberal economics in Europe”. As late as 2015, when Venezuela was in ever-deepening crisis, Corbyn’s enthusiasm for the regime was undiminished. He remarked:

“we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world … we recognise what they have achieved.”

Corbyn has since been challenged to come out against the hellish Maduro regime. Maduro’s government has been accused of arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killings and torture.

Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez

Having managed to dupe many people with the mantra that he was a “peacemaker” in Northern Ireland (rather than a supporter of the IRA), Corbyn tried the same trick with Venezuela.

First he removed all mention of “Venezuela” from his website. Then, in an August 2017 interview, he condemned the “violence done by all sides”.

The Venezuelan opposition includes both rightist agitators and defenders of human rights. By simply condemning violence, Corbyn appeared as morally neutral between the regime and its diverse opponents. He ignored the politico-economic conditions that had given rise to the violence, and the previous actions of the Chavistas in creating them.

I wonder if Corbyn could be taken back in a time machine to the 1793-94 Terror of the French Revolution, or the Soviet Great Terror of the 1930s, or the occasion of Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, and be asked to condemn with detached neutrality the “violence done by all sides”.

In the same interview Corbyn called for respect for “the independence of the judiciary and … the human rights of all”. He failed to note that Chávez and Maduro were primarily responsible for undermining both.

Questioned about his support for Maduro, Corbyn fudged:

“I gave the support of many people around the world for the principle of a government that was dedicated towards reducing inequality and improving the life chances of the poorest people.”

He omitted to mention that that same socialist Venezuelan government was now responsible for widespread starvation, rampant corruption and mass emigration.

But Jeremy of Islington is in search of socialist sainthood. He does not want the blood of any regime on his hands. He wants to go down as a peacemaker. He left it to his Corbynista Praetorian Guard to make a more forceful case for the Chávez-Maduro regime.

Over to the Corbynistas

Labour MP Chris Williamson tweeted on 11 August 2017 that the violence in Venezuela is “for the purpose of overthrowing democracy, not saving it”. Unlike Corbyn, this blamed all the violence on the opposition. It also overlooked the fact that Chávez and Maduro had been more effective in undermining democracy in Venezuela than anyone else.

Chris Williamson MP & Jeremy Corbyn MP

On the following day, Williamson Tweeted: “The US and global corporations are indulging in economic sabotage in Venezuela to bring down the government”. To a degree this may be true. But the statement ignores the greater part played by Chavista populism and its power-grabbing statist socialism in bringing about the economic and political catastrophe.

Other pro-Chavista idiotas útiles include Alexis Tsipras the Greek Prime Minister, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon the leftist French presidential candidate, Pope Francis and the Five-Star Movement in Italy.

By diverting attention onto the role of the USA and large corporations, the supporters of the Chávez-Maduro regime have their excuses at the ready. This conveniently helps them avoid recognition of their own moral culpability in the Venezuelan disaster.

The erosion of civil liberties and human rights has its roots in the concentration of economic and political powers in the hands of the state, whatever the “good intentions” that originally motivated the leaders and their supporters.

Stalin the Fabian and the Stalinist Fabians

Sadly, this is an old pattern. The Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw visited the Soviet Union in 1931 and met Joseph Stalin. Shaw declared that Russia was becoming “a Fabian society”. This was at a time of mass famine and forced collectivisation.

George Bernard Shaw

In the preface to his 1933 play On the Rocks, Shaw defended the Russian secret police’s “liquidation” of detainees who could not give satisfactory answers to queries about “pulling your weight in the social boat” or “giving more trouble than you are worth” or had not “earned the privilege of living in a civilized community”.

In a letter published in the Manchester Guardian in 1933, Shaw and others dismissed reports of famine in the Soviet Union as “slander” resulting from a “lie campaign” against the “Workers Republic of Russia”. In fact, from 1932 to 1933, about six to eight million people died there from hunger.

Shaw subsequently attempted to justify the extermination of the Russian peasantry: “For a Communist Utopia we need a population of Utopians. Peasants will not do.” In 1936 Shaw defended Stalin’s purges and mass executions. In 1948 he declared that Stalin was “a first rate Fabian”.

Beatrice & Sidney Webb

Leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were highly influential intellectuals in the British Labour Party. In 1932 they made a three-week visit to the Soviet Union. Their generally favourable impressions were reported in 1935 in their massive two-volume study, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? In the 1937 edition the question mark was removed from the title.

Their assessments of the Soviet Union were more cautious than those of Shaw, but they also denied the existence of a famine in the Ukraine in 1932-1933 and they opined that the liquidation of rich peasants (kulaks) may have been necessary to collectivize agriculture and increase its productivity. Their book received favourable reviews from left writers and it played a role in nurturing sympathy in the Labour Party for the Soviet Union, at least until the onset of the Cold War in 1948.

“Humane” Mao and the “Korean miracle”

Communism achieved another victory when Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949. Professor Joan Robinson was a leading Cambridge economist, influenced by both Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. An enthusiastic supporter of Mao, she visited China several times.

Despite this first-hand experience, she failed to acknowledge that Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958-1961 had been an economic disaster: it had led to catastrophic famine and about 40 million deaths. In defiance she wrote: “the Great Leap [Forward] was not a failure after all, but the Rightists were reluctant to admit it.”

Joan Robinson

In the 1960s Robinson lauded the Cultural Revolution, approving of attempts by Mao and the Red Guards to root out “capitalist roaders” within Chinese society. She praised Mao’s “moderate and humane” intentions. In fact, the Cultural Revolution led to at least half a million and perhaps as many as two million deaths.

Violent struggles ensued across the country and paralyzed the economy for years. Many more millions of people were persecuted at whim by the Red Guards: they suffered public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture or execution. Countless more died when the army tried to re-establish order. In China’s totalitarian system they had no refuge or legal protection.

As late as 1973 Robinson opposed “market socialism” and advocated a centrally-planned economy. She wrote of the “success of the Chinese economy in reducing the appeal of the money motive”. After extolling the virtues of Mao’s system, she reported that “Chinese patriotism and socialist ideology are pulling together”.

But a few years later, shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country overturned the anti-market policies that Robinson had celebrated in her writings. After accepting markets, Chinese growth took off.

In 1964 Robinson visited Communist North Korea and extolled the “Korean miracle” in its economy. She attributed its claimed success to public ownership and central planning.

But, within fifteen years, capitalist South Korea was surging ahead of its Northern neighbour. By the 1990s North Korea was experiencing mass famines. By 2010, GDP per capita in the South was about 17 times greater than in the North.

The “human face” of Soviet Communism

E P Thompson

The historian Edward P. Thompson left the British Communist Party after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and subsequently played a major part in the formation of the New Left Review. But as late as 1973 he had sufficient residual sentimentalism for the Soviet Union to write of the

“times when [Soviet] communism has shown a most human face, between 1917 and the early 1920s, and again from the battle of Stalingrad to 1946.”

Leszek Kolakowski

Leszek Kolakowski’s response to these rose-tinted words was devastating. He asked what Thompson might have meant by the “human face” of the Soviet Union during these years. Did it mean the “attempt to rule the entire economy by police and army, resulting in mass hunger with uncountable victims, in several hundred peasants” revolts, all drowned in blood”?

“Or do you mean the armed invasion of seven non-Russian countries which had formed their independent governments …? Or do you mean the dispersion by soldiers of the only democratically elected Parliament in Russian history …? The suppression by violence of all political parties, including socialist ones, the abolition of the non-Bolshevik press and, above all, the replacement of law with the absolute power of the party and its police in killing, torturing and imprisoning anybody they wanted? … And what is the most human face in 1942-46? Do you mean the deportation of eight entire nationalities of the Soviet Union with hundreds of thousands of victims … ? Do you mean sending to concentration camps hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war handed over by the Allies?”

Kolakowski searched for an explanation of Thompson’s incredible description of these events as “a most human face” of Communism. Perhaps this phrase is being used “in a very Thompsonian sense which I do not grasp”? A commentator on Kolakowski’s response wrote: “no one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again.”

Another “distortion”: the killing fields of Cambodia

Robinson and Thompson were not the only top-rank academics to be deluded by ideology. Consider the most important linguist of the twentieth century. Noam Chomsky loathed the American war in Vietnam. For him, to hide its own acts of oppression and mass murder, the West had duped the masses with its slick corporate propaganda. The West was fascism, with a fake mask of democracy.

Noam Chomsky

But when reports emerged that the Communists were also capable of mass atrocities, he suspected an American conspiracy to exaggerate and to draw attention away from their own crimes. Then the evidence emerged of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979. Chomsky accused the publishers of the evidence of “extreme anti-Khmer Rouge distortions”.

Khmer Rouge Killing Fields

We now know that the Khmer Rouge obliterated about two million people – a quarter of the Cambodian population – in the pursuit of their Communist utopia. Chomsky’s reputation as a political thinker has never recovered.

Conclusion: what can we learn?

The first lesson is that thousands of highly intelligent people can be political idiots. We know that unintelligent people can be idiots (and even become presidents) but the task at hand is to explain intelligent idiocy. All it takes is a good dose of utopian idealism, combined with the view that the existing system is beyond reform.

Then when the likes of Lenin, or Mao, or Kim Il-sung, or Castro, or Pol Pot, or Chávez raise the red flag, the utopian intellectual flies to the light. A dose of reality may burn the wings. But the light of intellectual hope is so important that it must remained undimmed. Consequently, events as big as famines are based on the dark capitalist forces outside, or their devious agents within.

Many intellectuals are not practical people. They have lingered in their ivory towers. They know little of running organizations or state bureaucracies. Because of their well-motivated discontent and their search for hope, they can be attracted to Corbynism and other versions of leftist populism. But those lights are dangerous. They are ignited by opposition: without practical experience or feasible solutions.

There is now ample evidence to confirm that classical socialism – by definition involving widespread public ownership and control of the economy – is a dangerous formula. It cannot work effectively in a large-scale, complex economy and it concentrates too much power in the hands of the state machine.

Given such centralized powers, even well-motivated leaders will be tempted to curtail dissent and bully minority interests, in the name of the many against the few. Once on this slippery slope, human rights are eroded and the politico-economic system slides toward totalitarianism.

A lesson of the twentieth century is that classical socialism is a dead end. Viable democracies survive because there are countervailing, political and economic powers, which themselves depend upon mixed economies with large private sectors. Classical socialism unavoidably undermines the politico-economic foundations of democracy.

Instead we need to look to ways to making capitalism more egalitarian and inclusive, rather than chasing the dangerous dream of its abolition. Intelligent dreamers need to use their intelligence more wisely.

 

14 August 2017

Minor edits – 16, 20 August 2017, 27 September, 13 December 2017

 

 
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018

 

Bibliography

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Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, E P Thompson, George Bernard Shaw, Jeremy Corbyn, Joan Robinson, Karl Marx, Khmer Rouge, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Leszek Kolakowski, Mao Zedong, Markets, Nationalization, Noam Chomsky, Populism, Private enterprise, Socialism, Soviet Union, Venezuela