Category: Robert Owen

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

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

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

May 8th, 2017 by geoffhodgson1946

  

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

 

This is in part a personal memoir – concerning my role in a minor episode in political history. More importantly, it has lessons concerning Labour’s ideological inertia – the difficulty of modernising the party and bringing it from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century.

Socialism and Labour’s Clause Four

Both Robert Owen and Karl Marx defined socialism as “the abolition of private property”. This kind of collectivist thinking was encapsulated in Clause Four, Part Four of the Labour Party Constitution 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.

Clement Attlee

In 1937, eight years before he became Prime Minister, Clement Attlee 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.”

After 1945, the position of many leading Labour Party members began to shift. First the realities of gaining and holding on to power – as a majority party for the first time – dramatized the political and practical unfeasibility of abolishing all private enterprise. Some nationalization was achieved, but a large private sector remained.

In 1956 C. Anthony Crosland published The Future of Socialism. This sought a reconciliation with markets, private enterprise and a mixed economy. 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. Clause Four remained intact.

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.”

The Thatcher Revolution

There were Labour governments from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1979. But then Margaret Thatcher came to power.

After this defeat, Labour’s instinct was to turn to the left, in the belief that it could have held onto power if it had held to classical socialist principles. Michael Foot was elected as leader, and Dennis Healey narrowly defeated Tony Benn for the position of deputy leader.

Neil Kinnock

Despite a severe recession with millions unemployed, following the implementation of monetarist austerity policies, Labour suffered a massive defeat in the 1983 general election. Labour’s share of the vote fell below 28 per cent – the party’s lowest figure since 1918. Michael Foot resigned as leader and Neil Kinnock took his place.

Thatcher had boosted her popularity due the Falklands War. One of Thatcher’s most popular domestic policies was to promote the sale of council-owned housing to the tenants. Labour had opposed this policy. The 1983 defeat prompted a rethink, on this and other issues.

Tony Benn

For some of us, this rethink amounted to more than expedient doctrinal trimming. Encouraging home ownership was really a good idea: why should all property be owned by the rich? But while supporting home ownership, we argued that the government should also build more social housing and enlarge the stock available for rent by low-income families.

But these ideas met stiff resistance in the Labour Party ranks, and not simply from Trotskyist entryists such as Militant. The resistance from Tony Benn and his supporters was substantial and even more enduring. It was clear that old-fashioned socialist ideas still had a tenacious appeal for Labour’s membership.

The Labour Coordinating Committee

The Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC) became one of the primary modernising forces within Labour. Its leadership included Hilary Benn, Cherie Blair, Mike Gapes, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman and others of enduring fame. I was elected to its executive committee. We worked closely with Kinnock and members of his shadow cabinet, including Robin Cook.

I had written a book entitled The Democratic Economy where I argued that socialists should support a permanent private sector in the economy. The book was published by Penguin in 1984. Another influential work at the time was Alec Nove’s Economics of Feasible Socialism, which also argued for a substantial role for markets.

On 26 November 1983, at the Labour Coordinating Committee AGM in Birmingham, I proposed that Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution should be rewritten to include an acceptance of a private sector and a role for markets. But I was defeated over the idea that Clause Four should be rewritten. This was out of fear of antagonising the Benn wing. Instead, the LCC resolved that Clause Four should be “clarified”.

But a resolution on long-term aims, which I had helped to draft, was passed by a large majority. The resolution called for the Labour Party to draft a new statement of aims, upholding “that socialism involves extended democracy and real equality. Democracy under socialism is extended to industry and the community … and must involve a substantial decentralisation of power.”

Equality meant the “absence of discrimination on the basis of gender and race, universal freedom from poverty, and a widespread distribution of wealth and power, as well as formal equality under the law and universal suffrage.”

There was a commitment to “political pluralism” and to “economic pluralism” involving “a variety of forms of common ownership … and the toleration of a small private sector including self-employed workers and other private firms.” The economy must be dominated by mechanisms of “democratic planning … but also accommodating a market mechanism in some areas.”

There was also a “commitment to internationalism, disarmament and peace” and “a disengagement from the power blocs” of the West and East.

I think that today Jeremy Corbyn and his followers would accept much or all of this, at least as a temporary stopping-point on the road to full socialism. But in the 1980s there was strong hostility to these revisionist ideas from within Labour’s ranks at the time, including from Corbyn and Tony Benn.

Since then my own views have adjusted. See my Wrong Turnings book. But this blog is not primarily about me. It is about what has happened to the Labour Party and how difficult it is to change its DNA.

For a while, the LCC tried to keep the conversation going on the need to revise Labour’s aims. The Guardian newspaper reported the LCC conference with the headline: “Labour breaks taboo on ownership”.

The LCC held a conference in Liverpool in June 1984 on “The Socialist Vision”. But enthusiasm for this discussion fizzled out. Many leaders of the LCC wanted a political career, and they wished to widen their support on constituency selection committees.

By 1985 the LCC’s revisionist initiative had been kicked into the long grass. My efforts to change Clause Four had failed.

From Kinnock to Blair

But to their credit, Neil Kinnock and his deputy Roy Hattersley saw the need for Labour to modernise its aims. I advised them both for a while. Another election defeat in 1987 spurred a rethink. But by then I had become inactive in the Labour Party.

As Richard Toye has recorded, in 1988 Kinnock and Hattersley presented a new document on “Aims and Values” to Labour’s National Executive Committee. But “it was criticised by John Smith, Bryan Gould and Robin Cook as being too enthusiastic about the benefits of the market, and was watered down accordingly”.

Tony Blair

Clearly, even after a third election defeat there was still strong resistance, from both the “soft” and the “hard left”, to the idea of embracing markets and private property.

After the next election defeat in 1992, Kinnock stood down. He was replaced by John Smith, who died tragically from a heart attack. Then Tony Blair became leader, with a firm resolve to modernize the party. Four election defeats had made the majority of members more receptive to his ideas.

Blair’s Revision of Clause Four

In 1995, after 77 years, Clause Four was changed. Tony Blair successfully ended the Labour Party’s longstanding constitutional commitment to far-reaching common ownership. Tony Benn protested: “Labour’s heart is being cut out”. The new wording of “Clause IV: Aims and Values” began as follows:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

The 1918 formulation did not use the word socialism – it had common ownership instead. Ironically, Blair introduced the term 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.

The new Clause Four continued, to make a significant statement in support of competiive markets and a private sector. Labour now stood for:

“A DYNAMIC ECONOMY, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs and the opportunity for all to work and prosper with a thriving private sector and high-quality public services …”

The text went on to cover “a just society”, “an open democracy”, “a healthy environment” and “defence and security”.

John A Hobson

Labour’s new aims and values were indistinguishable from the earlier views of radical social liberals, such as T. H. Green, J. A. Hobson and David Lloyd George. And with its endorsement of “the rigour of competition” and “a thriving private sector” it was a hundred miles away from the collectivism of Robert Owen and other original socialists.

Instead of tackling the problem of its old collectivist DNA more directly, Blair tried to change the meaning of socialism and even rewrote parts of its own history. It is unsurprising that the old socialist DNA survived. It remained viable, partly because Labour still declared itself as socialist. Blair made radical changes but also gave succour to the traditional socialist wing of the party.

Blair’s popularity within the party had waned even before his decision in 2003 to support George W. Bush’s Iraq War. Much of this disenchantment was due to his abandonment of wholesale common ownership.

Blair had failed to develop a fully-fledged alternative vision within Labour to replace old-fashioned common ownership. He had made Labour implicitly embrace liberalism in doctrine. But this was unspoken, and masked by the explicit insertion of socialism in its aims. This inadvertently played into the hands of the party’s enduring, backward-looking left.

Labour’s Love Lost

Just as Labour had shifted to the left after losing power in 1979, after its 2010 defeat it shifted slightly leftwards under Ed Miliband. But the new leader had no clear alternative to the economics of austerity. So after another defeat in 2015. the party membership took a massive lunge to the left. It elected the Bennite, retro-Marxist, perennial protestor, Jeremy Corbyn.

But while old ideas within Labour had survived, the structure of the party and its electoral base had changed enormously in the period from 1983 to 2015. Kinnock had relied on the moderating force of the trade unions, to fight the hard left and move the party toward electability. But by 2015 the unions had been gravely weakened and several had moved toward the hard left.

In 1983, both the affiliated unions and the Labour MPs had a major role in the election of any new Labour leader. But by 2015 the power was almost entirely in the hands of the Labour Party membership, and the other moderating forces were much diminished.

Labour’s history shows how difficult it has been to change Labour’s old-fashioned socialist DNA. Those that put their faith in a revival of moderation within must take into account the near-collapse of those internal forces that brought the party back to sanity in 1951-1964 and in 1979-1997.

In 1983 there was still a strong, traditional, tribal, Labour vote, part of it based on surviving industries such as coal and steel. By 2015 the working class was much more fragmented, with skilled, aspirational cohorts at one extreme, and uneducated, demoralized, welfare dependents at the other.

The old tribalism was challenged by UKIP and by a revived working class Conservatism, playing the nationalist card. Labour’s potential electoral base has been transformed beyond recognition. The division of labour has become profoundly political, as well as enduringly economic.

Today, there seems little hope for a party that calls itself “Labour”, just as there is no future for a party that retains the word “socialism” or the goal of widespread public ownership. The socialist experiments of the twentieth century testify to their failure. Labour, in short, is an anachronism.

 

8 May 2017

This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018

References

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

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

Clarke, Peter (1978) Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1984) The Democratic Economy: A New Look at Planning, Markets and Power (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

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

Nove, Alexander (1983) The Economics of Feasible Socialism (London: George Allen and Unwin).

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

 

Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Liberalism, Markets, Nationalization, Politics, Private enterprise, Property, Robert Owen, Socialism, Tony Benn, Tony Blair, Tony Blair

August 16th, 2016 by geoffhodgson1946

Corbyn-Watson-May

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

“This, from the always measured g. m. hodgson, shows Labour’s existential crisis in horrifying detail” – Susan Wilde

“The revolutionary road: excellent sober distillation of Marxism/Leninism/Trotskyism/socialism; rights v insurrection” – Rich Greenhill

“A very good summary of Labour and Trotskyism” – Gerry Hassan

“Another fantastic article!” – Lily Jayne Summers

Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson has produced evidence that Trotskyist groups are joining the Labour Party, or are planning to do so.1 This has created a big internal row. Some Labour members welcome this influx, just as Jeremy Corbyn opposed the expulsion of the Trotskyist group Militant in 1982.

John McDonnell, the Labour Shadow Chancellor, is an admirer of Trotsky. Corbyn once called upon the USSR to rehabilitate the Russian revolutionary.2

Corbyn-Tariq-AliTrotskyists are socialists who believe in the common ownership of the means of production. This goal was stated in Labour’s Clause Four from 1918 to 1995, so why shouldn’t Trotskyists be allowed to join Labour?

Trotskyists differ from the devotees of Mao Zedong or Joseph Stalin. Trotskyists do not describe the murderous regimes of Mao’s China and the USSR as socialist. They promote themselves as anti-totalitarian, and they might seem much more democratic than other Marxists.

So why shouldn’t Trotskyists be allowed to join Labour?

The Parliamentary versus the Revolutionary Road

There is a prominent negative answer to this question. It raises profound differences of strategy. As Neil Kinnock (who did the party a great service by kicking out Militant in 1985) said in a speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party in July 2016:

‘In 1918 in the shadow of the Russian revolution [Labour members decided] … that they would not pursue the revolutionary road – it was a real choice in those days. They would pursue the parliamentary road to socialism.’

According to this view, Labour members and revolutionary Marxists share the same aim – socialism – but they differ on the method of getting there. Labour follows the parliamentary road; Marxists choose the revolutionary road.

Robert Owen

Robert Owen

There are big problems with a part of this argument. Socialism was defined by Robert Owen and Karl Marx in terms of common ownership of the means of production and ‘the abolition of private property’.

But at least in practice since 1945, Labour has been less and less devoted to this goal. Finally, the goal of ‘common ownership’ was removed from Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution in 1995.

Labour now says that it is a ‘democratic socialist’ party but defines this not in terms of common ownership. Instead there is a goal of social solidarity, believing ‘that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’, and in a society ‘in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few’.

Arguably, such a goal might be achievable in a reformed capitalism. But Trotskyists, like all Marxists, are emphatically against capitalism.

What Trotskyists and the post-1995 Labour Party Constitution mean by ‘socialism’ are very different. The divergences between Labour and Trotskyists concern different ends, as well as different means.

But Corbyn’s election as Leader by over 59 per cent of the membership in 2015 shows that the traditional definition and goal of socialism in the Labour Party is far from dead and buried. Under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour could return to its pre-1995 goals.

Tony Blair

Tony Blair

Ironically, by getting rid of the traditional ‘common ownership’ version of socialism in 1995, but retaining the word ‘socialism’ in an attempt to invest it with a different meaning, Tony Blair provided legitimacy for any later attempt by classical socialists – including currently by Trotskyists and Corbynistas – to restore Labour to its original colours.

Within Labour today, because of this legacy, everyone from Trotskyists and Corbynistas at one extreme, through Owen Smith, Neil Kinnock and then on to Tony Blair at the other extreme, is obliged to call themselves a ‘socialist’. But there are massive silences and huge disagreements on its meaning.

Labour becomes less capable of discussing fundamental differences of goal, but clings onto the illusion of the fundamental goodness of something called ‘socialism’. Labour’s problem of entryism will never go away while the s-word continues to cast its spell. The word itself is an invitation for those who propose the common ownership of anything to join.

The Totalitarian Politics of Class Struggle

There are other fundamental problems with Marxism in general, and Trotskyism in particular. First, Marxism rejects the supreme values of the Enlightenment.

For example, Frederick Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, saw these Enlightenment values as ‘nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie’ with its ‘bourgeois justice’, its ‘bourgeois equality before the law’ and ‘bourgeois property … proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man’.

Liberty-Equality-FraternityMarxists do not see the French Revolutionary principles of liberty, equality and fraternity as a potential achievement for all, but the rhetoric of the rising capitalist class in the class struggle against the old feudal order.

After playing their progressive historic role, Enlightenment ideas are seen as ‘bourgeois’ ideology, which now serves to repress the working class.

Marx saw socialism as the class destiny of the proletariat, which by overthrowing capitalism would emancipate humankind from inequality and exploitation. Socialism was not validated by an appeal to justice or rights. Instead it was grounded on ‘material’ and ‘economic’ developments within capitalism that were leading to growing internal crises and the rise of the proletariat.

Marx rejected all appeals to rights or justice. He bypassed the issues of morality and justice by focusing on the real social forces allegedly leading to socialism. But neither the driving forces of history nor the supposed destiny of a social class make this socialist future just, or morally right.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

By shelving the discourse on rights, in favour of the scientifically-clothed rhetoric of proletarian destiny, all versions of Marxism – including Trotskyism – are on the slippery slope toward totalitarianism.

When rights are no longer universal, and no-one has the protection of an independent legal system, the any action that is deemed ‘counter-revolutionary’ or ‘against the interests of the working class’ gives the accused no effective defence. The prosecutors monopolise the interpretation of guilt. Arbitrary punishment can follow.

The rights of critics and dissenters have to be protected, by their formal recognition and the autonomy of the judiciary. Unless this is done, any criticism can be crushed.

Trotsky was wrong: the roots of totalitarianism do not lie principally in the personalities of brutal, power-hungry individuals such as Stalin, but in Marxism itself. As Leszek Kolakowski suggested:

‘Marx’s anticipation of perfect unity of mankind and his mythology of the historically privileged proletarian consciousness … 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.’

Violence versus Parliament and Law

Laws get in the way of revolutionary struggle. Hence, along with their dilution of the notion of rights, Lenin proposed that all laws should be abolished.

20081115Mexico7BellasArtesWriting in 1918, Lenin described the desired ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as ‘rule based directly upon force and unrestricted by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.’ Trotsky supported Lenin in this and most other respects.

Consequently, a fundamental problem with Marxism is its failure to support the universality of human rights. Human rights apply to all, as in the majestic 1948 United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

Instead, Marxists see social advancement as a matter of ‘class struggle’ where one class must seize power and remove rights from another class. Lenin and Trotsky went one step further: they argued that this struggle for proletarian power must override the rule of law.

The Second Congress of the Communist International took place in Russia in 1920. Under the leadership of Lenin, one of its resolutions mentioned ‘bourgeois parliaments’ and declared:

‘The task of the proletariat consists in breaking up the bourgeois state machine, destroying it, and with it the parliamentary institutions, be they republican or constitutional monarchy.’

198102yMexCit4BellesArtesThroughout his life, Trotsky defended the decisions of the first four congresses of the Communist International, which took place when Lenin was alive and before Stalin seized power.

Trotsky added his own idea of ‘permanent revolution’, involving civil war, even in a parliamentary democracy:

‘Socialist construction is conceivable only on the foundation of the class struggle, on a national and international scale. This struggle … must inevitably lead to explosions, that is, internally to civil wars and externally to revolutionary wars. Therein lies the permanent character of the socialist revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country … or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.’

Conclusion: Hands Tied Behind their Backs

Those in Labour wanting to fight the battle against entryism have two hands tied behind their backs.

Socialism1First, by hanging on to the word ‘socialism’, after abandoning its original meaning, it is difficult to exclude those who are more genuinely socialist in the classical sense of common ownership. Labour’s obligatory (but now shallow) rhetoric of ‘socialism’ is a green light for socialist entryists of all kinds.

Second, Labour has long-ago ditched the politics of class struggle, but it retains a notion of class partisanship in its very name. It was formed historically to represent the interests of the working class. It was built upon the trade union movement. Labour itself is a class party.

Labour_PartyOf course, Labour in practice has put aside the notion that it is speaking for one section of society only. But its name remains a problem, both for broadening its appeal and for barring the more energetic and extreme exponents of working class representation and power.

Of course, to achieve its goals, Labour is pledged to working through parliament, rather than through revolution. This is a very important difference. Many Marxists are still devoted to insurrection. Labour clearly is not. With this one big foot it can kick back. But its two hands are tied.

Labour still has much outdated baggage to deal with. Even if it staves off Trotskyist entryism – which now seems unlikely, at least while Corbyn is Labour Leader – it still will have a number of big problems. It will need to find and package a new identity for itself, which is suitable for the twenty-first century.

Retaining an unconvincing redefinition of ‘socialism’ and calling itself ‘Labour’ will not do.

Labour needs to come to terms with the fact that both classical socialism and class politics are untenable. It has to put democratic and progressive Enlightenment values at its centre, and reconfigure itself for the challenges of the twenty-first century.

 

16 August 2016

Minor edits: 17-18 August 2016

 

Endnotes

 

  1. Note that I refrain in this article from estimating the scale or impact of Trotskyist entryism in the Labour Party. They are not central to my argument here. For evidence of both (and of Corbyn’s links with the IRA) see here. At least currently, entryists into Labour are probably few in number, but it is a well-established fact that a few determined people can influence many thousands.
  2. In 2010, McDonnell attended an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination and has praised the ‘importance’ of his ideas (Riley-Smith 2016a). In 1988 Corbyn demanded from Parliament that the USSR should ‘give complete rehabilitation to Leon Trotsky’ (Riley-Smith, 2016b). Nothing wrong with that, but its shows the way he leans and who he chooses as friends.
  3. Personal note: I was a critical and wobbly Trotskyist from 1968 to 1973. I re-joined the Labour Party in 1974 and left it in 2001. The photograph below shows me (not then a Trot) visiting Trotsky’s house in Mexico in 1981, where he was murdered in 1940. It is a moving and impressive place.

 

198102yMexCit6TrotskyHoGeoff

 

References

Crick, Michael (2016) Militant (London: Biteback Publishing), esp. pp. xvii–xviii.

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

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich (1967) Selected Works in Three Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart), esp. vol. 3, p. 49.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1962) Selected Works in Two Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart), esp. vol. 2, p. 117.

New Park Publications (1977) The Second Congress of the Communist International, 2 vols (London: New Park), esp. vol. 2, p. 52.

Riley-Smith, Ben (2016a) ‘Labour Entryism Row: John McDonnell Attended Celebration of Leon Trotsky and Praised ‘Importance’ of his Ideas’, The Telegraph, 14 August. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/14/labour-entryism-row-john-mcdonnell-attended-celebration-of-leon/.

Riley-Smith, Ben (2016b) ‘Jeremy Corbyn Called for a “Complete Rehabilitation” of Leon Trotsky in Parliament’, The Telegraph, 16 August. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/15/jeremy-corbyn-called-for-complete-rehabilitation-of-leon-trotsky/

Sparrow, Andrew and Jones, Harrison (2016) ‘Secret Recording of Kinnock’s anti-Corbyn Speech to MPs – In Full’, The Guardian, 6 July. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/08/secret-recording-neil-kinnock-jeremy-corbyn-step-down-speech-to-mps-in-full.

Trotsky, Leon D. (1962) The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London: New Park), esp. ch. 10.

Watson, Tom (2016) ‘Tom Watson Sends Corbyn “Proof of Trotskyist Labour Infiltration”’, The Guardian, 10 August. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/aug/10/tom-watson-sends-corbyn-proof-of-trotskyist-labour-infiltration

 

Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Left politics, Liberalism, Nationalization, Robert Owen, Socialism, Tony Benn, Tony Blair, Uncategorized

July 23rd, 2016 by geoffhodgson1946

A Worker Cooperative in New York City

A Worker Cooperative in New York City

 

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

‘The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works … Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.’

Barack Obama, 2009.

 

Politicians engage in slogans and sound-bites, but sometimes they reveal their true aims.

The Labour Party is now immersed in a battle for its leadership, and possibly for its survival as a viable political party. Jeremy Corbyn, overwhelmingly elected as leader in 2015 by about sixty per cent of the party membership, has lost the confidence of about eighty per cent of the party’s MPs.

Owen Smith

Owen Smith

Owen Smith, Corbyn’s challenger for the Labour leadership, once worked for the private, research-based, pharmaceutical company Pfizer. In response, Corbyn and his allies have been quick to condemn Smith’s association with private enterprise.

Corbyn has always been a supporter of the original version of Labour’s Clause Four, with its aim of ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. But since he became Labour Leader, he has kept this long-term aim mostly under wraps, highlighting his opposition to austerity economics instead.

However, on 21 July 2016, we had a brief peep under the tarpaulin, showing us Corbyn’s real aims.

Corbyn’s opposition to privately-funded pharmaceutical research

At his campaign launch on that day, in response to a question about Smith, Corbyn declared that ‘medical research shouldn’t be farmed out to big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and others but should be funded through the Medical Research Council as a way of developing those drugs’.1

Pharmacological ResearchThe Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) – the trade association for over 120 UK companies producing prescription medicines – quickly responded with a statement questioning Corbyn’s judgement in this area.

The ABPI pointed out that the pharmaceutical industry invests more than £88bn a year into research and development for new medicines and vaccines to help fight disease. In the UK this equates to £4.1bn per year of investment in R&D, with the Medical Research Council contributing £770m and research charities £1.3bn.

The pharmaceutical industry is global, and it is difficult to see how the taxpayer-funded UK Medical Research Council could take over the roles of the large private players in this sphere, unless this research was dramatically diminished. As the ABPI pointed out, research in this area has to be a collaboration between industry researchers, academics and clinicians, involving both public and private institutions.

Many successes in the development of drug treatments – including for breast cancer and HIV – have involved collaborations between research-oriented universities, risk-taking companies, concerned charities, government agencies, and so on. Typically these collaborations involve complex synergies and are international in scope.

Corbyn’s proposal that modern levels of pharmaceutical research should be publicly rather than privately funded – within one country – is feasible in neither budgetary nor practical terms.2

But further, in his zeal for the public takeover of research and development, Corbyn has failed to learn one of the crucial economic lessons of the twentieth century, concerning the limitations of largely publicly-owned R&D and need more broadly for a healthy, innovative, private sector.

This lesson is sketched out later below.  It concerns the vital role of different forms of private enterprise – from corporations to worker cooperatives, which all have legal autonomy and they sell their products on a market. But first we emphasise that the essential role of the state and the public sector.

The state and the public sector are vital

We should also understand the vital role of the public sector in modern capitalist economists, including in the sphere of research. Numerous authors, including Richard Nelson, Ha-Joon Chang, Erik Reinert, Mariana Mazzucato and myself, have argued that – for several reasons – the state plays an essential, supportive role within modern capitalism.

PrintIn practical terms, evidence shows that the most successful economies are those that involve a collaboration of public and private institutions, including for research, development and innovation.

For example, the modern patent system is backed up by legal and state powers that protect innovations from plagiarism and provide incentives for private research and creativity. It is an example of the way in which the state can maintain institutions that encourage private research.

There are areas where private enterprise works best, and there are areas where the public sector can be usefully involved. Determining these best areas in each case, is a practical question, involving detailed, complex, ongoing, empirical examination and experimentation.

Instead, Corbyn resorts to ideology, with this prescription: public ownership works best, and even when in doubt, nationalize. This is the mirror image of free-market ideologists, who stipulate: markets work best, and even when in doubt, privatize.

A simplistic ideological debate between private and public ownership dominated the twentieth century. The ‘common ownership’ version of Labour’s Clause Four, which lasted from 1918 to 1995, expressed one side in the debate. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, among many others, took the other side.

A key lesson of the twentieth century is that the dichotomy between public and private provision is misleading. The key question is how they can be usefully combined. Within any useful combination, both private and public enterprise have a crucial role to play. This essay explains why a private sector is vital.

My recent book entitled Conceptualizing Capitalism explains why the role of the state is also crucial, even to sustain the institutions that make private enterprise work. But here I concentrate on the case for private enterprise.

The failure of centrally-planned innovation

Any vision of a large-scale planned economy involves assembling information in local or national agencies, and then making decisions based on this information. Proposed innovations and other changes must be appraised, and decisions on their viability must be made.

In their schemes to bring all knowledge together into the hands of planners, advocates of comprehensive planning overlook the time and other difficulties involved in gathering and dealing with available information. Also they give inadequate consideration to how innovations are to be incentivized, tested and promoted.

Stalin-MaoInnovation depends on hunches about the future. Successful innovation takes into account local, tacit and other knowledge concerning circumstances and possibilities. Much of this knowledge involves complex details and contexts, and cannot all be brought together and utilized by a central committee or planning authority.

Because of diminished competitive pressures, nationalized industries in centrally planned economies, such as the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, have been unimpressive in terms of innovation and flexibility. Why should a committee back innovation or change, especially when it carries risks of failure? Why should they risk their jobs when they have no secure right of additional reward in the case of success?

The economist Peter Murrell showed empirically that the former Communist countries were apparently no less efficient in allocating resources than capitalist economies. Where they lagged was in terms of dynamic efficiency: the ability to innovate. This shortfall is endemic to any system that works on the basis of hierarchical planning, rather than independent enterprise with legal rights to reap and retain rewards.

Whatever the limitations of a market system, it has the advantage that it does not require majority agreement before a decision can be made to produce or distribute a good or service. Private property and contracts permit zones of autonomy within an interrelated system; agents may reach decisions through negotiated contracts with others. The costs and benefits are devolved to individuals or firms.

Through private enterprise it is possible for many technological or institutional innovations to be pioneered without the prior agreement of (democratic) committees or (undemocratic) bureaucrats. This analysis is borne out by experience. The former Soviet-type economies in Russia and China lacked devolved autonomy, secured by private ownership.

Eventually they learned that lesson. The change in China was most dramatic. After the Communist Revolution of 1949, agriculture in China was organized into large collective farms. Other than by threats and bureaucratic bullying, farmers had little incentive to improve productivity. Risky innovation was unwise. Productivity remained low and often there were shortages of food. But Mao Zedong died in 1976, opening up the possibility of reform.

20130331TigerLeapingGorge2In 1978 some Chinese peasant farmers decided to withdraw from collective farms and take responsibility for production at the household level, where the household (instead of the collective) received the revenue from its sold output. Individual households had much greater incentives to work harder and to innovate. After decades of slow growth under Mao, China’s explosive economic growth began with those changes in rural areas. As a result, unprecedented millions were lifted out of poverty.

China’s spectacular economic growth began when agriculture began to pass into the private control of the peasants after 1978. The Chinese Communist Party endorsed these changes in the rights to use and manage land (while keeping legal title to the land in the hands of the collectives), and also promoted private businesses in rural areas.

China also retained many state-owned enterprises. The state continued to play a major strategic role in economic development. China has demonstrated how viable public and private sectors are essential for growth and innovation in a modern large-scale economy.

The failure of classic socialism

Some version of socialism might work on a small scale. Cooperation can work in this context, based on close, inter-personal interactions. Humans have co-operated in this way, in families and tribal groups, for many thousands of years.

Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom

Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom studied the management of common-pool resources – such as medieval common land, fisheries or agricultural irrigation schemes – and showed how they can be effectively managed by relatively small local communities.

Their small size allows participants to monitor each other, to ensure that necessary tasks are carried out and that the interests of the community are served.

Enforcement mechanisms range from praise to punishment. Within these relatively small and cohesive groups, trust and targeted sanctions are mechanisms for encouraging cooperation, reciprocity and compliance with customary rules.

But socialism on a small scale would lack the economies of large-scale production and the technological dynamism of today’s competitive capitalism. Modern medicines and technologically-advanced treatments, requiring extensive funding, risk-taking and research collaboration, could not be developed. With inferior drugs and healthcare, human longevity would be lower than it is today.

In larger socialist societies, individual incentives for effort and innovation are diminished, and compensatory, face-to-face, trust-based mechanisms to sustain cooperation are relatively less effective. When we move from communities of a hundred or so, where it is possible for everyone to know everyone else, to communities of thousands or more, then interpersonal trust and reputation are much less effective at the overall level, and they have to be supplement both other incentives and constraints.

When thousands of people are brought together, and rewards are shared, then there is less incentive to make the extra effort, because the rewards from that additional work would be hugely diluted.

Large private corporations face this problem too. But competitive pressure on the private corporation obliges it to incentivise its workforce in some way, so that most employees pull their weight.

Market competition is absent or much diminished in a centrally planned economy. Instead, the pressure to perform comes from the state. Consequently, strong discipline is necessary to sustain production, and larger-scale socialism engenders authoritarianism and bureaucracy. Twentieth-century evidence strongly supports this analysis.

Those that propose ‘democratic socialism’ in large-scale societies fail to address some key practical questions. How is all the important information to be gathered and transmitted? How are resources to be produced and distributed? How is everyone to be incentivized to work well and to innovate? And if the system is to be ‘democratic’, how would it be possible for everyone involved to vote on every important decision?

Robert Owen

Robert Owen

Such practical considerations show that democratic socialism (at least in the classic sense of Robert Owen and Karl Marx, who proposed common ownership and the abolition of private enterprise) is unfeasible in any large-scale complex economy.

While interpersonal interactions can engender cooperation on a small scale, in large-scale societies other mechanisms and incentives are necessary. For dynamism and efficiency, there have to be competition, markets and a large private sector, as well as a state.

Private ownership is also important for political reasons, to create zones of politico-economic power that can countervail state autocracy.

Contrary to the twin, all-or-nothing, ideologies of classical socialism and free-market purism, this leaves open a huge area for economic reform and development. A private sector can be made up of many different kinds of enterprise, including worker cooperatives and social enterprises, as well as more conventional corporations. The state can intervene in a myriad of ways, including the adoption of redistributive taxation and the development of a strong welfare state.

Once all this is understood, then the game changes – irrevocably. Once it is realized that classical socialism cannot work (at least in a humane way) then you have to look for alternatives. Once it is acknowledged that private property and markets are indispensable in large-scale modern economies, then you have to accept them, warts and all. The best that can be done is to minimize their deleterious effects, and to explore viable avenues of institutional reform.

Much of the Labour Party learned this lesson in the era from 1945 to 2015. It adjusted to the mixed economy and began to understand the virtues and indispensability of private enterprise. That lesson seems to be forgotten by a large number of Labour Party members, who continue to support Corbyn and his naïve, outdated ideology. Unless that lesson is learned again, and quickly, then Labour has no future as an electable political party.

 

23 July 2016

Edited 24 July 2016

 

My forthcoming book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

To be published by University of Chicago Press in November 2017

  1. Corbyn added that he was in favour of a National Health Service that is ‘totally public’ with ‘publicly employed people running it’. Is he aware that GPs are not NHS employees but self-employed contractors? If so, is it his intention to make all GPs employees?

  2. In an interview on 24 July 2016, Corbyn’s ally John McDonnell backtracked on his leader’s statement, re-admitting a role for private sector pharmaceutical research under some vague notion of ‘democratic control’. He said that Corbyn’s statement had been ‘misinterpreted’. But this dishonest manoeuvring under pressure fails to mask their true aims.

 

Bibliography

Chang, Ha-Joon (2002) Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective (Anthem Press: London).

Hayek, Friedrich A. (1944) The Road to Serfdom (London: George Routledge).

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

Mazzucato, Mariana (2013) The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (London and New York: Anthem).

Murrell, Peter (1991) ‘Can Neoclassical Economics Underpin the Reform of Centrally Planned Economies?’ Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(4), Fall, pp. 59-76.

Nelson, Richard R. (1981) ‘Assessing Private Enterprise: An Exegesis of Tangled Doctrine’, Bell Journal of Economics, 12(1), pp. 93-111.

Nelson, Richard R. (2003) ‘On the Complexities and Limits of Market Organization’, Review of International Political Economy, 10(4), November, pp. 697-710.

Ostrom, Elinor (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Reinert, Erik S. (2007) How Rich Countries Got Rich … And Why Poor Countries Stay Poor (London: Constable).

Simons, Ned (2016) ‘Jeremy Corbyn tells Owen Smith to “Come On Board” And Support The NHS’, The Huffington Post UK, 21 July. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jeremy-corbyn-tells-owen-smith-to-come-on-board-and-support-the-nhs_uk_5790a576e4b05c99a7092b16

Zhou, Kate Xiao (1996) How the Farmers Changed China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press)

Posted in Common ownership, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Left politics, Liberalism, Markets, Nationalization, Politics, Private enterprise, Right politics, Robert Owen, Socialism, Uncategorized

May 22nd, 2016 by geoffhodgson1946

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

 

CorbynJeremy2016DNAIn September 2015 a rank outsider, with minimal support from inside the Parliamentary Party, became Labour Party Leader. But he was elected with the support of almost 60% of the party membership.

Jeremy Corbyn first became a Member of Parliament in 1983 and was frequently in opposition to the leadership of his own party. His elevation to Leader in 2015 was widely regarded as a radical break from Labour’s past, particularly from the era of Tony Blair’s leadership from 1994 to 2007.

In contrast to a widespread view, I argue here that Corbyn’s politics are – in most respects – more mainstream than reported. They are broadly in line with the original Labour Party, from its formation in 1900 (as the Labour Representation Committee) to at least 1945.

By contrast, from the election of the first majority Labour government in 1945 to the resignation of Ed Miliband from the leadership in 2015, Labour adjusted to the realities of gaining and retaining power, and became more moderate in much of its political rhetoric. A large section of the party abandoned its original socialist ideology, in substance if not in name, and these pragmatists dominated Labour during the post-war period. To retain credibility, they tried to alter the meaning of socialism to serve more moderate ends.

Corbyn’s election as leader should be understood – in part – as a rehabilitation of typical Labour doctrines of the 1900-1945 period, and of Labour’s aspiration for socialism as originally defined. Corbyn has Labour’s DNA. But he has recombined Labour’s original DNA with ‘anti-imperialist’ doctrines that became prominent, largely outside Labour, in the 1960s and 1970s.

I first summarise Labour Party ideology in the 1900-1945 period. I then show how Corbyn exhibits these earlier views, but in genetic recombination with an “anti-imperialist” politics of the 1960s and 1970s. I then briefly draw some tentative conclusions from this analysis.

Socialism and the Labour Party

The word socialism first appeared in English in 1827 in the Co-operative Magazine, published in London by followers of Robert Owen. It was used in the Poor Man’s Guardian in 1833, and moved into wider usage thereafter.

Robert Owen

Robert Owen

For Owen and his followers, socialism meant the abolition of private property. 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’.

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

In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Marx and 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’. In the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere, he and Engels proclaimed an economic order in which ‘capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society.’ They wanted the complete abolition of the ‘free selling and buying’ of commodities.

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’. Their version of socialism was particularly centralist, but they reflected the views of all socialists in looking for universal common ownership.

Marxism was never a major influence in the British Labour Party. But its founders took on board this same definition of socialism. Socialism was widely understood as the abolition of private ownership and its replacement by some form of common ownership.

Beatrice & Sidney Webb

Beatrice & Sidney Webb

Fabian socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb had an ultimate vision of a fully planned and consciously controlled socialist economy where all markets and private ownership of the means of production were gradually 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. But 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.

G D H Cole

G D H Cole

Some contemporary Labour Party intellectuals stressed workplace democracy. This was a central theme in the “guild socialism” of G. D. H. Cole and others. Cole – another Fabian – is sometimes described as a ‘libertarian socialist’ and as an advocate of ‘decentralized’ socialism. But he supported the wholesale nationalisation of industry and the abolition of private enterprise.

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 he was tragically unclear about how the two were to be reconciled.

These theorists ignored the problem of devolving genuine power within a national bureaucracy, without the creation of autonomous private enterprises. A major debate within the Labour Party concerned the desired structure and devolution of power within this national public framework.

Clause Four, Part Four of the Labour Party Constitution reflected a compromise between these different strands of thought. But all were united in their support of wholesale common ownership. Sidney Webb drafted these words and they were adopted by the Labour Party 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, resolute support for widespread common ownership prevailed.

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee

In 1937, eight years before he became 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 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’.

After 1945, the position of many leading Labour Party members began to shift. First the realities of gaining and holding on to power – as a majority party for the first time – dramatized the political and practical unfeasibility of abolishing all private enterprise. Some nationalization was achieved, but a large private sector remained.

Second, with the outbreak of the Cold War in 1948 it was more difficult to sustain the naïve, rose-tinted views of the Soviet Union, although as Bill Jones shows in his book The Russia Complex, they were remarkably persistent.

In 1956 C. Anthony Crosland published The Future of Socialism. This underlined Labour’s slow reconciliation with markets, private enterprise and a mixed economy. 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.

Because of Gaitskell’s failed attempt to change the wording of Clause Four, Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn switched his allegiance to Harold Wilson. Wilson had been a student of Cole at Oxford University. When he was Prime Minister, Wilson pragmatically retained the clause but tolerated a mixed economy.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn

In 1995, Tony Blair successfully ended the Labour Party’s longstanding constitutional commitment to far-reaching common ownership. But Benn still wished to retain the original wording and protested: ‘Labour’s heart is being cut out’.

In an interview in 2000, Benn favourably quoted Attlee: ‘If you look around the world, what are the problems? They’re all caused by the private ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.’

It should be clear that Labour’s commitment to widespread common ownership was uppermost from 1900 to 1945. Subsequently Labour adjusted to the realities of a large-scale complex economy, where it is impossible to gather all information together in some central planning office, or even in some massive computer.

Democratic deliberation over every key decision is even more unfeasible. As Oscar Wilde quipped: socialism is impossible because it would take too many meetings.

In practice, if not in declaration, every leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 2015 had abandoned the commitment to wholesale common ownership. But as Benn and Corbyn have illustrated so well, it has remained in Labour’s DNA.

A tricky gene transplant might have been possible, but only if Labour had developed a thoroughgoing alternative to its pre-1945 socialism. The closest it came to this was Crosland’s Future of Socialism, which commendably emphasized the goal of diminishing economic inequality, instead of common ownership.

Tony Blair

Tony Blair

But largely the party fudged the issue, trying to turn the original meaning of socialism (which had prevailed from 1830 to 1950) into something else. Even Blair retained the word socialism in his rhetoric and in his redraft of Clause Four.

Blair promoted ‘social-ism’, which now meant recognizing individuals as socially interdependent. It also signalled social justice, cohesion, and the equal worth of each citizen, with equal opportunities.

Such a doctrine was indistinguishable from the earlier views of radical social liberals, such as T. H. Green and J. A. Hobson. It was a hundred miles away from the collectivism of Owen, Cole or the Webbs. But (with or without the hyphen) the word socialism was retained.

Blair favoured the tradition of ‘ethical socialism’ naming proponents such as John Macmurray and R. H. Tawney. But he wrongly stated that these socialists had been opposed to common ownership. On the contrary, their original devotion to this goal was no less than that of Owenism or Marxism, although Tawney and others later adjusted their views.

Instead of tackling the problem of its collectivist DNA more explicitly and resolutely, Labour tried to change the meaning of socialism and even rewrote parts of its own history. It is unsurprising that the old DNA survived.

Genetic Recombination with ‘Anti-Imperialism’

The late 1960s and early 1970s were years of great political convulsion. At the centre was opposition to the War in Vietnam. Previously most hard-left groups – including the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party – were ‘entryists’ in the Labour Party. Before 1968 it was the only place to be. But the Vietnam War changed all that.

As British Prime Minister, Wilson declared government support for the military actions of the United States in Vietnam, but astutely avoided sending British troops. By 1968 the Labour Party conference had come out against the war. Wilson personally bore the brunt of the opposition. Thousands of activists left the Labour Party. Most of the hard-left sects followed them.

Hammer-sickle-rose-labourFrom 1920 to 1968 the main socialist party outside Labour was the Communist Party of Great Britain. After 1968 they were competing in this narrow space with several feuding and splintering Trotskyist groups.

It was Lenin, not Marx, who had made ‘anti-imperialism’ and national liberation a key motif of his Marxism. He was followed in this respect by Trotsky.

Hence Leninism once again became visible on the far left. But this time it did not necessarily mean loyalty to the Soviet Union: it mean ‘solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles’ in Cuba, Vietnam, Palestine and elsewhere.

Corbyn was 19 years old in 1968. Politically, these were his formative years. Unlike many others he remained in the Labour Party, partly attracted by the ideas and charisma of Benn, who narrowly lost the contest for deputy leadership against Dennis Healey in 1981. Corbyn’s unwavering views, his election as an MP in 1983 and his political survival until his triumphant bid for leadership in 2015, has spliced Leninist genes alongside those of the old Owenite collectivism.

Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the financial crash of 2008 had helped to turn the Labour membership against Blairism, in all its forms and dilutions. As evidence of the Freudian defence mechanism of regression as a response to severe stress, Labour reverted to an earlier stage of development, adopting its infant profile of collectivism and state control.

Labour’s ‘Russia complex’ also re-emerged. We can find sympathy with a post-Soviet Russia, in disputes over the Ukraine and the expansion of NATO.

Labour’s Future?

Labour’s enduring successes in 1945-51, 1964-1970, 1974-1979 and 1997-2010 were great liberal reforms and extensions of social justice, from the National Health Service to the minimum wage. They did not bring a mythical socialist future any closer. Labour advanced despite, not because of, its original socialism.

Recent developments within the Labour Party – including the resurgence of its collectivist past – make a parliamentary majority in 2020 impossible, unless some unforeseen catastrophe hits the Conservative Party. A recent report from within the Labour Party states that unless radical action is taken, Labour’s electoral prospects ‘remain very poor’.

Declining Graph1Any way we look, the outlook is bleak. The election of Corbyn to Labour Party Leader shows that organizations have something similar to the enduring DNA of biological organisms. As business practitioners know well, changing organizational DNA is notoriously difficult.

Later posts on this New Politics blog will address this problem and try to formulate some solutions. But we should not underestimate the scale of the task ahead. One of the first jobs for the Left is to reconsider where it has come from, and what kind of future it wishes to build. Nothing should be taken for granted.

But this ‘DNA’ analysis shows that the status of the Labour Party in Britain as the leader of a renewed and viable Left is now in doubt.

 

23 May 2016

 

Bibliography

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

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).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1999) Economics and Utopia: Why the Learning Economy is not the End of History (London and New York: Routledge).

Jones, Bill (1977) The Russia Complex: The British Labour Party and the Soviet Union (Manchester: University of Manchester Press).

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