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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
There is a simple test to distinguish a socialist from a social democrat, according to currently prevalent meanings of those
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
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
Jay, Douglas (1937) The
Socialist Case, 1st edn. (London: Faber and Faber).
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”.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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.
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
a few decades later, the word socialism was
again in the ascendant. In 1880 Engels published Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifiquein 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”.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
The failure of revisionism
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.
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
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
20 April 2019
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Vocabulary’, Journal of the History of
Ideas, 9(3), June, pp. 259-302.
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Socialism? A Symposium (London, Richards).
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Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (London: Routledge and Kegan
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
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).
“It is at times like these that voices like Geras are sorely needed.” @GraySergeant
“I wish we hard Norm’s intelligence, clarity and compassion to fall back on now.” @SP_Duckworth
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
In 1967, Norman Geras came to the University of Manchester and took up a position as a lecturer in politics. I was then an undergraduate student in Manchester and three years his junior. We were both involved in left politics and our paths soon crossed. Together we campaigned against the Vietnam War.
When I briefly flirted with the International Marxist Group in the early 1970s, Norm was a member too. (I’m unsure when he left – he may have stayed on until its dissolution in 1983.) Norm and I were both members of Marxist reading groups, where together we discussed economics and politics.
Disillusioned with the far left, I re-joined the Labour Party in 1974. (I was previously a member in 1966-1968.) Norm did not take that route. Yet we remained in contact until I left Manchester in 1980. I returned to the University of Manchester on a research fellowship in the 1984-1985 academic year. Norm and I met up again. I recollect another study group in that year in which we both took part.
Marx and Human Nature
Norm’s 1983 book on Marx and Human Nature had a big impact on me. In the 1970s he had argued forcefully that the natural foundations of human existence had to be taken into account. The book refuted the fashionable misconception that Marx had denied the existence of a universal human nature.
Against social constructionism, Norm argued that human beings cannot be reduced merely to their relations with others. He argued more generally that human nature had biological as well as socio-cultural foundations.
In 1983 I had already encountered the work of Thorstein Veblen. These influences drove me into biology and evolutionary anthropology. In retrospect, Norm’s input was crucial in the development of my thought. The result was a number of works of mine on evolutionary themes, particularly from 1993 onwards.
After I finally left Manchester in 1985 I did not meet Norm again. We moved in different political spheres and I lost personal contact, but his incisive intelligence had made a permanent mark on me. Despite the intense political disputes on the left, he was always respectful and never acrimonious.
The 2003 Invasion of Iraq
In 2003 Norm retired from his post of Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester. That was the year of the fateful invasion of Iraq. He started a blog, when this mode of communication was in its infancy. Unfortunately I was unaware of this initiative at the time.
Norm supported the US-led invasion in 2003. He argued that it was a humanitarian intervention to remove the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein.
I had supported the first Iraq War in 1990-91 on the grounds that it was important to restore Kuwait’s sovereignty after Saddam’s invasion.
But, like many others, I opposed the 2003 invasion because of its lack of UN backing, its illegality, and disbelief in the pretext that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I thought that it would have been better to put other pressure on the regime, along the lines proposed by the French government at the time.
The Euston Manifesto
In 2006 the Euston Manifesto was published. I did not become aware of its existence until a couple of years later. The Euston Manifesto is a bold plea for democracy and universal human rights and for a re-alignment on the left. Its signatories include supporters and opponents of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Euston Manifesto launch in 2006 Left to right: Alan Johnson, Eve Garrard, Nick Cohen, Shalom Lappin and Norman Geras
The Manifesto criticises that “anti-imperialist” left that ends up supporting totalitarian regimes and reactionary insurgent forces, on the grounds that that they are opposed to the West. The Manifesto unequivocally condemned terrorist and the deliberate use of force against civilians.
Principle number seven of the Manifesto reads:
“We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute.”
Crucially, the Manifesto recognizes the right of both Israel and Palestine to exist, against the “anti-Zionist” rhetoric of many on the left. This “anti-Zionist” left aligns with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah who declare explicitly for the destruction of Israel.
On reading the Euston Manifesto I found myself in complete agreement with it. I wrote to the organizers offering my support and my signature. But I received no response. It seemed that the group had quickly become moribund.
The Norman Geras Reader
Norm died of cancer in October 2013. I have recently read The Norman Geras Reader – a great collection of some of his writings, which was published in 2017. The Reader also contains the text of the Euston Manifesto.
Everyone on the left would benefit from the Reader, especially the majority in the Labour Party who have come under the sway of a leader who is anti-West, who has joined in with promotors of terrorism, who has shared platforms with anti-Semites, and who remains equivocal about the right of Israel to exist.
The “What’s there is there” subtitle of the Reader in part refers to instances of anti-Semitism in Marx’s writing, which some Marxists choose to deny. Today it might also apply to another over-adored leader of our time.
Long before others, Norm rang alarm bells about these reactionary tendencies on the left. This remains one of the most important and prescient features of Norm’s writing. This is one of several reasons why he deserves to be remembered.
Marxism and liberalism
But despite our strong convergence over the Euston Manifesto, I found that in other respects Norm and I had diverged since we last met in the 1985.
Norm had moved politically in a liberal direction, but I had moved further. The Norman Geras Reader shows that Norm had remained a Marxist (of sorts) until his death. By contrast, I had departed from Marxism in about 1980 and set out on a decades-long journey from socialism to liberalism.
Despite his continuing adherence to Marxism, the Reader shows that Norm was strongly sympathetic to liberalism and he took its achievements very seriously.
For example, in a 1999 essay he argued that a “minimum utopia is to be conceived not only as socialist but also as liberal”. In 2012 he argued more forcefully:
“Unless … Marxists show themselves willing to engage fully with the intellectual resources of liberalism … unless a Marxist political theory comes to terms with the truths of liberal political theory, acknowledging the normative force of human rights, the idea of judicial independence and the separation of powers … insisting on free elections and an untrammelled freedom of speech and opinion, understanding the virtues of political pluralism … Marxism as a political movement might as well shut up shop.”
Bravo. But unlike Norm I agree with the closure of Marxist activity in the conclusion as well as with the preceding necessary conditions. Marxism cannot be liberal and it should shut up shop as a political movement. We can retain Marx’s more robust analytical insights, particularly on the nature and dynamics of capitalism.
But Marxist politics have been a disaster, and its dreadful and murderous consequences are not accidental. Marxism is incompatible with liberalism.
The politico-economic preconditions of liberalism
Norm rightly berated Stalin and other totalitarian Marxists. But are the disastrous consequences of Marxist regimes all down to bad people gaining positions of power? Surely it must be more than that? Why has every Marxist regime breached human rights, terminated free elections, curtailed freedom of speech and ended political pluralism?
To answer these questions we must look at the politico-economic conditions under which liberal-democratic states have been established and sustained. It is not just about the personalities of individuals.
There is a widespread opinion among non-Marxist social scientists that democracy requires countervailing political and economic power to have a chance of survival. In Marxist terms, if the economic “base” determines the “superstructure”, then a pluralist polity requires a pluralist (or mixed) economy, and not one that is encompassed by a massive state.
A complete concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the state, which Marx and Engels advocated with enthusiasm, always requires and enables a despotic political regime. There are no exceptions. The centralizing economic project within Marxism is incompatible with liberalism.
Accordingly, to prevent such a concentration of economic and hence political power in the hands of the state, there must be a private sector that is free to trade on markets.
Capitalism, socialism and greed
Norm disliked the greed and avarice that is often encouraged by capitalism. I do too. But I have learned that market economies come in many forms and are infused by different cultural precepts. A market economy does not necessarily mean a dog-eat-dog dystopia of greed and selfish individualism. As the Nordic examples illustrate, a better capitalism is possible. We need to build on their achievements and move still further in an egalitarian direction.
Furthermore, socialist bureaucracies can encourage selfishness, corruption and ruthless, power-seeking behaviour. Under real socialism these outcomes have typically been just as bad as those found within the worst of capitalisms.
A Worker Cooperative in New York City
Our understanding of human nature is relevant here, as Norm would have insisted. Over hundreds of thousands of years we have evolved to cooperate in small groups of no more than a hundred or so. This suggests that If socialism is to work, then it must be on a small scale.
Capitalism can also engender cooperation within autonomous firms, coordinated by markets. Some of these enterprises could be converted into worker cooperatives.
Class struggle and universal rights
There is a second reason why Marxism is incompatible with liberalism and with the principles in the Euston Manifesto. It concerns the issue of class struggle and proletarian dictatorship, about which Norm (at least in his Reader) had little to say.
In Marxism, class struggle is both an analytic and a normative doctrine. It is about the working class seizing power and ending the rule of the capitalists. This doctrine means that the rights of one social class are privileged over another. Universal individual rights are no more. As Engels put it, the legal and individual rights of the Enlightenment are “nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie.”
Any regime that denies rights to some, especially with malleable criteria concerning who is denied those rights, ends up denying rights to everyone. These are the consequences of Marx’s notion of class struggle and the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
This is a clear totalitarian impulse. Marxist revolutionaries are deemed to know better what is in the interests of the working class than the working class itself. Democracy becomes an impediment to the realization of those true interests, about which the masses are not fully aware.
Conclusion: wrong turnings
Alas, Norm was silent in his writings about these problems (as far as I am aware) and I never had the chance to discuss them with him. I would have welcomed that.
The Euston Manifesto was a noble attempt to re-orient the left. Especially in the light of the Corbynista takeover of the Labour Party and the rise of anti-Semitism on the left, it should be re-read today. But sadly the Manifesto initiative was stillborn.
I wonder if one of the reasons for the failure of the Manifesto to keep up the momentum it briefly gained at its launch was the incomplete diagnosis by its promoters of where the left has gone wrong?
Norm and I were both strong opponents the “anything goes” cultural relativism that overtook the left after the Vietnam War. Nick Cohen shows in his book What’s Left? that cultural relativism was one major wrong turning made by the left in its long evolution from the eighteenth century.
But another was the abandonment of universal human rights, when the influence of Marxism over the left became pre-eminent in the late nineteenth century. That wrong turning must also be recognized and reversed. That necessitates a break from Marxist politics, rather than promoting the unrealizable fantasy of a Marxist-liberal marriage.
We live in increasingly worrying times. We need another Manifesto that builds on Norm’s achievement but takes us still further toward the goal of a more egalitarian and humane society.
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.
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 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.
The drama in Venezuela is playing out before us. Many – but not all – socialists hailed the election of 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.
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 at 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.
The common core of all varieties of liberalism is the stress on individual liberty and universal rights, including the rights to private property and to freedom of expression. These universal rights and liberties require equality under the law, under a competent legal system that protects rights and pursues justice.
In a previous blog I laid out Seven Dimensions of Liberalism. The present blog extends that analysis by considering different varieties of liberalism within this seven-dimensional space. I contrast what (in forensic mood) might be described as neoliberalism with what I call liberal solidarity.
There are several possible names come to mind as possible labels for the highly varied constituent territories of liberalism. Terms such as classical liberalism, new liberalism, social liberalism, neoliberalism and libertarianism should be considered. But all these labels have their problems.
Consider classical liberalism. This is typically applied to foundational liberal thought from John Locke, through Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham to John Stuart Mill. But there are profound divisions within classical liberalism.
Thomas Paine’s pursuit of measures to reduce inequality is unmatched by his liberal contemporaries.
Adam Smith’s emphasis on the importance of “moral sentiments” and justice contrasts greatly with the reductionist-utilitarian approaches developed by Hume and Bentham and adopted (albeit with reservations) by Mill.
Apart from the emphasis on individual rights including private property, the classical liberals agreed on the need for a small state. But they lived in a period when the state and its tax levels were much smaller than they became in the twentieth century.
We cannot automatically assumed that they would have taken the same small-state view in the present context, especially if they were responsive to practical experiment and historical experience.
Consequently, classical liberalism does not denote one distinctive type or phase of liberalism. The original Liberalism from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century contained widely diverging variants.
New liberalism and other labels
A major turn in liberal thought was foreshadowed by Mill and developed in the later decades of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century by Thomas H. Green, Leonard T. Hobhouse and John A. Hobson in the UK, and in the US by Lester Frank Ward, John Dewey and others.
These “new liberals” saw individual liberty as something achievable only under favourable social and economic conditions. Poverty and ignorance were barren soils for individual freedom and fulfilment. They argued that individual flourishing required the development of an education system, a welfare state and other state action to reduce unemployment and poverty.
John A Hobson
Thinkers such as Green, Hobhouse, Hobson, Ward and Dewey have been described as new liberals. But their ideas are no longer new and the label is in little use today. It also risks confusion with the now-ubiquitous and over-stretched swear-word of neoliberalism.
Social liberalism is another term that has been to describe the strain of liberal thinking – from Green to Dewey – that pursued greater state intervention and a welfare state.
But a problem with this label lies in the multiple meanings of the word social. Many used social liberalism to signal an emphasis on the need for cooperation between individuals through social arrangements to further human fulfilment. The word social here is used in a broad and inclusive sense.
An alternative understanding of social is exclusive: social is regarded as an antithesis to economic. This commonplace but problematic dichotomy contrasts the economic sphere of business and profit-seeking with the social sphere of the family, non-market relations, reciprocity and so on.
This enabled an alternative interpretation of social liberalism as liberalism applied to the narrowly-conceived social sphere. It would involve, for example, the promotion of homosexual rights and the decriminalization of the use of recreational drugs. Worthy as those aims may be, this is a much narrower agenda than that promoted by social liberalism in the broader sense.
Another option is the word solidarism. Inspired by Émile Durkheim and Léon Bourgeois, ideas emerged in France that were similar to and at about the same time as the new liberalism of Hobhouse and Hobson in Britain.
The solidarists criticized extreme laissez-faire and argued that individuals had a debt to society as a whole, which should be repaid through taxation and social welfare schemes. But solidarism in France took a distinctive form, putting more limited emphasis on state intervention than the proposals of some of their British counterparts.
Ambiguities of social democracy
A final term to be considered here is social democracy. This has shifted more successfully in meaning than socialism, but originally they amounted to more or less the same thing. Many of the early social democratic parties were led by Marxists, including the important Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, founded in 1869. Although some social democrats favoured peaceful reform rather than violent revolution, at that time they mostly agreed on the goal of large-scale common ownership.
During the twentieth century the usage of the term social democracy shifted radically. After the Second World War it came to mean the promotion of greater economic equality and social justice within a capitalist economy. It also connoted a political strategy orientated toward the interests of the trade unions and the working class.
The term social democracy still carries this historical and strategic baggage. It has been eschewed by some because of its links with socialism. Others argue that its strategic, class-orientated vision has become obsolete. Another problem is that the word social does not make a clear addition to democracy, which few would oppose.
Post-war social-democratic policies are challenged by the fragmentation of their traditional base in the organized working class and by the heightened forces of globalization.
Consequently, while a reformed and reinvigorated social democracy may have some mileage, I suggest we consider the alternative term liberal solidarity to describe an important zone within liberalism. We should examine its principles and its agenda for reform. But first it is necessary to deal with the tricky label and substance of neoliberalism.
Original diversity within the Mont Pèlerin Society
The Mont Pèlerin Society changed in substance and direction. It began under a different name in the 1930s and was first convened under its current name in 1947. It was then an attempt to convene different kinds of liberals in defence of a liberal market economy, just after the defeat of fascist tyranny, during an expansion of Communist totalitarianism, and while witnessing the rise of statist socialist ideas in Western Europe and elsewhere. Liberalism broadly was on the rocks: it needed its defenders.
Michael Polanyi (the brother of Karl Polanyi) advocated Keynesian macroeconomics in a market economy, alongside a radical redistribution of income and wealth. He rejected a universal reliance on market solutions, seeing it as a mirror image of the socialist panacea of planning and public ownership. He did not mince his words against this “crude Liberalism”:
“For a Liberalism which believes in preserving every evil consequence of free trading, and objects in principle to every sort of State enterprise, is contrary to the very principles of civilization. … The protection given to barbarous anarchy in the illusion of vindicating freedom, as demanded by the doctrine of laissez faire, has been most effective in bringing contempt on the name of freedom … .”
Although he attended the first meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Polanyi had drifted away by 1955, stressing its inadequate solutions to the problem of unemployment and its promotion of a narrow view of liberty as the absence of coercion, neglecting the need to prioritize human self-realization and development.
In its early years, the Mont Pèlerin Society hosted debates on the possible role of the state in promoting welfare, on financial stability, on economic justice, and on the moral limits to markets. Like Polanyi and other early members of the society, Wilhelm Röpke argued that the state was necessary to sustain the institutional infrastructure of a market economy. The state should serve as a rule-maker, enforcer of competition, and provider of basic social security. Röpke’s ideas were highly influential for those laying the foundations of the post war West German economy.
While they received a more sympathy from Hayek, Ludwig Mises regarded Röpke’s views as “outright interventionist”. Mises became so frustrated with these arguments in favour of a major role for the state that he stormed out of a Mont Pèlerin Society meeting shouting: “You’re all a bunch of socialists.”
The rise of modern neoliberalism
Angus Burgin’s history of the society shows how its early period of relative inclusivity was followed by schisms, departures, and a narrowing of opinion. People like Polanyi and Röpke became inactive. Eventually the primary locus of the Mont Pèlerin Society shifted to the US, with greatly increased corporate funding under the rising intellectual leadership of Milton Friedman.
Hence the Mont Pèlerin Society evolved from a broad liberal forum to one focused on promoting a narrow version of liberalism that is more redolent of Herbert Spencer than of Adam Smith, Thomas Paine or John Stuart Mill. This ultra-individualist liberalism entailed a narrow definition of liberty as the absence of coercion, it relegated the goal of democracy, it neglected economic inequality, it overlooked the limits to markets, it saw very limited grounds for state welfare provision and intervention in financial markets, and it stressed self-interest rather than moral motivation.
But in the seventh dimension it tolerated a multiplicity of positions, as exemplified by Friedman’s opposition to the Iraq War. In all of the seven dimensions of liberalism, the post-1970 position of the Friedman-led Mont Pèlerin Society was redolent of Spencer, but without some of the latter’s Victorian idiosyncrasies. In the first six dimensions, this post-1970 neoliberalism is very different from liberal solidarity.
It is only after the 1960s that the Mont Pèlerin Society acquired a narrower identity, which at a pinch might be described as neoliberalism. Here Mirowski is onto something: “Neoliberals seek to transcend the intolerable contradiction by treating politics as if it were a market and promoting an economic theory of democracy.” In other words this neoliberalism reduces, all of politics, law and civil society as markets, and are analysed using market categories.
Neoliberalism’s affinity with Marxism
This neoliberalism has an odd similarity with Marxism, despite other major differences in theory and policy. Marx and Engels also reduced civil society to economic matters of money and trade. Marx wrote in 1843: “Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society … The god of practical need and self-interest is money.”
Civil society, for Marx, was the individualistic realm of money and greed. Hence Marx concluded that “the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy.” The analysis of the political, legal and social spheres was to be achieved with an economics based on the assumption of individual self-interest.
Furthermore, the state, law and politics under capitalism were made analytically subservient to this dismembered, economistic vision of civil society.
Accordingly, Frederick Engels wrote in 1886 that under capitalism “the State – the political order – is the subordinate, and civil society – the realm of economic relations – the decisive element.” Everything was deemed a matter of greed and commerce, to be understood through economic analysis.
Hence, in its theory of capitalism, classical Marxism was a harbinger of modern neoliberalism, reducing everything to market relations. There was no defence of civil society in its own right.
When attempts were made to build socialism on Marxist principles, not only markets were minimized but also civil society was virtually destroyed. Before 1989, the restoration of civil society was one of the foremost demands of the dissident movements in Eastern Europe.
Certainly there are more sophisticated and less reductionist treatments by Marxists of civil society and the state, not least by Antonio Gramsci. But Marx and Engels, alongside some neoliberals, embraced economic reductionism. Everything turns into the economics of trade, eclipsing the autonomy of politics and law, and neglecting the vital importance of non-commercial interaction and association within civil society.
Neoliberalism versus liberal solidarity
On these vital issues, liberal solidarity stresses its differences from both neoliberalism and classical Marxism. It does not treat the individual purely as a self-interested, market-oriented maximizer. It is committed to democracy as a distinctive source of legitimation for government, and a means of individual and social development (dimension 2), not as a marketplace for power.
Liberal solidarity stresses the feasible and moral limits to markets (dimension 4). It upholds a view of the individual that combines measures of self-interest with a moral concern for justice and fairness (dimension 6). On all these points it is distinct from these other doctrines.
Today, liberal solidarity must emphasise its radical differences from both post-1970 neoliberalism and from Marxism. This is made extremely difficult in a leftist intellectual context when any defence of markets or private enterprise, to any extent or degree, is pushed aside as neoliberal. Current cavalier uses of the term do much more harm than good.
Many so-called anti-neoliberals are also anti-liberals. They prioritize neither liberty nor freedom of expression. They offer no defence of private enterprise or markets, to any extent or in any form. They promote a state-dominated economy, which we know from history will always threaten freedom and human rights. They believe they are principled. They may have good intentions. To quote from their mentor Lenin: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” But as Marxists fail to understand, the only principled and effective defence of human rights is some form of liberalism.
Liberalism has to be fortified, but not in all of its forms. Liberal solidarity is the radical alternative to the illiberal or undemocratic populisms of the left or right. It can address the problems created by large corporate interests, by the power of undemocratic capitalist technocrats or by incipient dictatorships. It emphasises the importance of markets and private property, but without regarding them as universal panaceas. It retains uppermost the importance of human rights and human cooperation, with the goal of human flourishing and social development.
19 August 2018
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Burgin, Angus (2012) The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). See pp. 16, 80-86, 121.
Jacobs, Struan and Mullins, Phil (2016) ‘Friedrich Hayek and Michael Polanyi in Correspondence’, History of European Ideas, 42(1), pp. 107-30.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1962) Selected Works in Two Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart). See vol. 1, pp. 362, 394-5.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1975) Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, Marx and Engels: 1843-1844 (London: Lawrence and Wishart). See p. 172.
Mirowski, Philip (1998) ‘Economics, Science and Knowledge: Polanyi vs. Hayek’, Tradition and Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, 25(1), pp. 29-42.
Mirowski, Philip (2009) ‘Postface: Defining Neoliberalism’, Mirowski, Philip and Plehwe, Dieter (eds) (2009) The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press), pp. 417-55. See p. 456.
Mirowski, Philip (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London and New York: Verso). See p. 71.
Polanyi, Michael (1940) The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After (London: Watts). See pp. 35 ff., 57-58.
Polanyi, Michael (1945) Full Employment and Free Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). See pp. 142-6.
Polanyi, Michael (1951) The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).
Despite their declared support for free trade, Tory libertarians like David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg are acting as if there were still a British Empire.
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
The Brexiteers in the Tory Party do not understand the mechanics of modern trade and have no viable blueprint for Brexit.
Substantial harmonization of standards and regulations is required when trade crosses international borders. The EU Single Market enables massive gains from trade within a harmonized system of regulation. EU member states have a say in the development of those regulations, within a common system.
Outside the EU, the UK would have to replace a huge apparatus of EU-wide regulation that has grown up since 1973 when it joined. This regulatory legislation would be an even more formidable burden than any increased tariff levels that would be adopted if the UK leaves the EU Customs Union and Single Market.
This problem creates a dilemma for libertarians who distrust all state machines – especially large ones outside their national comfort zone. Hence, alongside nationalists and hard left socialists, libertarians were in the intellectual forefront of the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK, chiming in with overblown complaints about Brussels bureaucracy, made more strident because this bureaucracy spans national boundaries and is staffed by foreigners.
Some of these libertarians are atomistic individualists, unable to accept that markets consist of more than individuals in isolation. These libertarians are seemingly unaware that all trade and markets must involve commonly accepted rules, as well as the wills and assets of individuals. Markets, in short, are social institutions.
Entering or leaving markets requires dealing with systems of rules. In practice, exit from the EU Single Market means either that regulations have to be developed independently, thus reducing trade possibilities, or that EU regulations have to be accepted for future trade, while having little say in their formation.
The libertarian dilemma
Minimal-state libertarians are thus caught in a dilemma. They have either to accept the adjudications of a foreign court, thus dramatically violating their characteristic anti-state position, by accepting not only state legal system but one outside their homeland, or they have to curtail their cherished ideological ambitions for free trade and markets across national boundaries.
More generally, any contract between sellers and buyers across international boundaries requires agreement on the means of adjudication, if a dispute arises over its terms or fulfilment. Typically it is agreed that disputes will be resolved in the courts of one nominated country. The European Court of Justice was set up to deal with contractual disputes within the EU, and between EU traders and contracting businesses located outside the EU.
Regulatory harmonization and trade dispute adjudication create problems for libertarians. Just as big socialists believe in a fantasy world where the state can do everything, some libertarians believe in the obverse fantasy of a minimal state, where trade somehow operates without an extensive state legal infrastructure. As Jamie Peck put it, these “neoliberals” espouse “a self-contradictory form of regulation-in-denial”.
Nevertheless, when faced with the real world of business and contract, these libertarians acquiesce with the state machine and its legal system within their own national boundaries. Their nationalism means that they can live with that outcome.
But when trade crosses international boundaries, the problems of regulatory harmonization and dispute adjudication compel these libertarians to accept – especially when trading with a larger economic bloc – that disputes may have to be resolved in courts outside their national boundaries.
For closet nationalists in libertarian clothing, accepting the judgments of a foreign court is a step too far. The lenience granted to their national courts is not granted to those of foreigners.
Bring back the British Empire – and other fantasies
British nationalists in libertarian clothing may then call up another fantasy from the past. They can imagine that Britain is still a great power, and that it has the capacity to compel that all trade disputes be resolved in British courts. In their imagination these libertarians bring back the British Empire. Imperial power makes everyone else a rule-taker. They may talk of that bygone world in the corridors of Eton, but it is far beyond the reality of global power today.
Across the Atlantic, American nationalists in libertarian clothing perform ideological gymnastics by allying themselves with politicians such as Donald Trump. He an economic nationalist rather than an advocate of international free trade. As long as these dubious libertarians can concentrate their gaze on the domestic US market and avoid the world beyond, then with some additional fantasising they might continue to believe in their myth of a minimal state.
Instead of the Empire, a US national fantasy is the Wild West. Historically, this was a short-lived zone, partly out of reach of the state and its system of law. Deals were done, aside the barrel of a gun. It is the US version of a mythological libertarian paradise. Global reality today, however, is very different.
A third fantasy is the idea of Jeremy Corbyn that Britain can leave the EU and build socialism. This is a mythical as the other fantasies. Corbyn does not understand markets and has no viable blueprint either – but that is the subject of other blogs. In the meantime, we note that all these efforts to leave the EU are based on fantasies that have little connection to the world in which we live today.
9 July 2018
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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).
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.
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.”
“[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.”
“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.
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] 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.
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.
Despite the disastrous record of self-described “socialist” regimes, socialism (whatever it means) is remarkably popular.
According to a 2017 survey of American adults, 37 per cent preferred (what they described as) socialism to capitalism. Among millennials (meaning those reaching adulthood in the early twenty-first century), 44 per cent preferred socialism over capitalism. This survey broadly confirmed previous American polls from about 2015, which showed a surge of support for socialism, especially among younger people.
Polling in the UK found that 39 per cent of adults have an unfavourable view of capitalism, while 33 per cent were favourable. Also in the UK, 36 per cent viewed socialism favourably, compared to 32 per cent negatively. Germans were reported as even more positive about socialism, with 45 per cent being favourable and 26 per cent unfavourable.
These polling figures are remarkable, especially when we take into account that regimes describing themselves as socialist led to over 90 million deaths in the twentieth century. Socialism has captured the ethical high ground, despite the poor record of socialist regimes in terms of human rights.
Somehow today’s socialists evade this legacy. They argue that these regimes were not really socialist. Or they were corrupted by bad leaders. Or they suffered largely because of antagonism from the capitalist West. All these arguments assume that a humane socialism is feasible and that there are not congenital flaws in socialism that lead it to dictatorship.
Mainstream Economists are tainted too: they often favour markets and assume individual self-interest as an axiom. Socialism will subdue markets, private profits and other spurs to greed, and through common ownership create a system that encourages people to cooperate together and act unselfishly.
So the argument goes. But the evidence tells a different story. The socialists, the “greed is good” defenders of capitalism, and believers in our total selfishness are all wrong.
Theory and evidence, from Darwin onwards, show that evolution has provided humans with a mixture of selfish, cooperative and moral capacities, which can be stunted or developed according to different cultural and institutional settings.
There is also strong evidence that market or trading relationships can enhance sentiments of fairness and reciprocity. The notion that markets always make people greedy, selfish and amoral has been refuted. The moral high ground claimed by socialism is challenged not simply by the misdeeds of socialist dictators, but also by extensive evidence about human nature and how it is affected by markets or other institutional circumstances.
Small-scale societies have relied on sentiments of cooperation and moral solidarity that have evolved within groups over millions of years. Solidarity within tribes or bands helped them survive in competition over resources with their rivals. But unfortunately evolution has not disposed us to be nice to outsiders.
The modern world has built up citizen loyalty to nation states, but the downsides have been hostility to foreigners and belligerent nationalism. In the modern world, institutions are needed to encourage mutual understanding and reciprocity on a global scale.
One of these institutions is the market. There is impressive evidence that, on balance, international free trade can reduce the risks of war between nations. In larger-scale systems, despite market competition, trade can build bonds and reduce conflict.
While the complete commercialisation of family and community life could undermine trust and altruism, wider trade on a larger scale increases mutual interdependence. As Thomas Paine, Richard Cobden, John Hobson and several others argued, markets can help to build solidarity within and between nations.
If socialism is “obvious”, then how do we explain the failure of other intelligent people to get on board? If they are not stupid, then they must be acting out of personal malice or greed. They must have sold out their principles in some way. Or they are just plain nasty.
When socialism is seen as “obvious”, its opponents are regarded as stupid or evil. Because the solution is “obvious” there can be no doubt. There is no need to look at evidence, to experiment, to seek wise counsel, or to listen to critics. Those that deny the obvious are deluded, corrupt, or in the pay of those that gain from the existing system.
Hence the claim that “socialism is obvious” encourages a remarkable intolerance of those that take a different view.
Modern economies are highly complex, and to pose any system or solution as “obvious” is a dangerous populist naivety. Precisely because something called socialism has now become popular, we are entitled to ask more precisely what it means.
Socialists compare an imaginary “obvious” world with the real world, with all its poverty, inequality and other problems. They simply assume that their imaginary world of love and cooperation will work. They assume that much can be decided democratically, ignoring the fact that it is impossible to make more than a small fraction of day-to-day decisions democratic. They ignore the problems of incentivizing work and innovation, and of ensuring functional autonomy without private property. All these problems became apparent in real-world socialist experiments in the past.
Socialism and dictatorship
A major problem with large-scale socialism is that a large concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the state undermines the economic foundations of countervailing power and empowers totalitarian forces and outcomes. These problems are illustrated by developments in Russia, China and Venezuela.
Such a centralization of economic power requires and promotes a strong executive, unburdened by checks and balances. When this concentration of economic power is achieved, it reinforces political centralization in the absence of countervailing interests and powers.
The argument that “good” leaders will avoid these pitfalls is spurious. Without checks and balances there are strong temptations to cut constitutional corners. Eventually a “good” leader will be succeeded by someone worse, who will have less scruples about abusing executive power.
The conclusion is that democracy and human rights require countervailing power and a market economy with a much smaller public sector. Countervailing interest groups, with their own access to resources and an ability to check or influence the state, are necessary to prevent democratic abuses and over-centralization.
Ignoring this powerful argument, in the face of extensive historical evidence in its support, is morally reprehensible. It betokens a moral irresponsibility in the light of ample evidence to the contrary. The socialist tenure of the moral high ground is illegitimate.
Instead, the moral high ground should be conceded to those who understand that:
– modern economic systems are highly complex and cannot be largely planned from the centre
– genuine autonomy requires rights to private ownership
– the existence of democracy and the protection of human rights require countervailing politico-economic power
– mixed economies have the best economic performance
– a welfare state is necessary to protect the poor and needy
– instead of chasing unicorns, we should follow the example of those capitalist countries that have the lowest levels of inequality.
18 February 2018
Published January 2018
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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).
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Henrich, Joseph, Jean Ensminger, Richard McElreath, Abigail Barr, Clark Barrett, Alexander Bolyanatz, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Michael Gurven, Edwins Gwako, Natalie Henrich, Carolyn Lesorogol, Frank Marlowe, David Tracer, and John Ziker, (2010) ‘Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment’, Science, 327 (5972), pp. 1480-84.
Hirschman, Albert O. (1982) ‘Rival Interpretations of Market Society: Civilizing, Destructive, or Feeble?’ Journal of Economic Literature, 20(4), December, pp. 1463-84.
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2013) From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities: An Evolutionary Economics without Homo Economicus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
If you wish to cultivate an image of being principled and politically pure, then avoidance of policy details, plus a good dose of historical ignorance, can be very useful. You may conjure up figures from past history and recruit them to the cause of your choice.
Perhaps unwittingly, Jeremy Corbyn acquired these methods from his mentor Tony Benn. Their shared cause, or course, is socialism. But its details must be kept vague and the statist pill must be sugared with ample use of the word “democratic”. Not too much thought must be applied to how the “democratic” bit works in practice.
Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn
Ignorance of history is an asset. You find some radical heroes who have opposed injustice, inequality, and the status quo. Don’t go into too many details. It might prove embarrassing. Simply suggest that because of their radical energy these radicals must have been, or they were on the way to becoming, “democratic socialists”.
After all, if they were true and principled radicals, then they must have been moving in that direction. Socialism is obvious. Isn’t it?
The English Civil War
The English Civil War of the 1640s is a good hunting ground for your heroes. In a book published in 1980, the veteran Labour Party MP Fenner Brockway declared the seventeenth-century Levellers and Diggers as Britain’s First Socialists. His friend Tony Benn had already located them there. Jeremy Corbyn followed their cue.
The English Civil War erupted in 1642, as a conflict of authority between the King and Parliament. King Charles I claimed to rule by divine right, deriving his sovereignty from religion. By contrast, Parliament professed to represent the will of the people. But only a small minority of males had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Women had no vote.
Parliamentarians and Royalists warred throughout Britain until the defeat and execution of Charles I in 1649 and the installation of a republic under Oliver Cromwell.
The Civil War stimulated seminal debates concerning power and authority. There was a growth of dissident Protestant groups, who saw the established Protestant Church of England as too hierarchical and conservative.
These widening schisms forced the question of the legitimation of government authority onto the immediate agenda.
Political ideas of the Levellers
Prompted by debates over what to do with the monarchy and the King after his defeat, a major political movement developed within the Parliamentarian army. They were called Levellers.
Participants in the earlier anti-enclosure uprising in the Midlands in 1607 had been called “levellers” because they levelled hedges and fences.
The Levellers of the 1640s were given this nickname by their enemies, and they repeatedly repudiated the description. They often protested that they were not promoting the “levelling” of landed estates or any general redistribution of property.
The Levellers emphasized popular sovereignty, an extended male franchise, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. They believed in natural and inalienable rights, bestowed by God.
The inalienability of these rights put limits on the powers of any majority in Parliament, because democracy cannot stifle inalienable rights. But otherwise they were strong supporters of democracy.
While they defended private property, they railed against undemocratic tyranny. Hence their position was different from some modern libertarians who, while generally supporting liberty, argued on occasions that if private property rights were threatened, then democracy might justifiably be replaced by temporary dictatorship.
From 1647 to 1649 the Levellers published a series of manifestos entitled The Agreement of the People. The Levellers were the first political movement in Europe to call for the separation of church and state and for a secular republic.
Authority would be vested in the House of Commons rather than in the King or the House of Lords. Specified “native rights” were declared sacrosanct for all Englishmen: freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, freedom from impressment into the armed forces, and equality before the law.
The Levellers argued for a constitution based upon an extended manhood suffrage and biennial Parliaments. But they did not advocate female suffrage. And as C. B. Macpherson noted:
“the Levellers consistently excluded from their franchise proposals two substantial categories of men, namely, servants or wage-earners, and those in receipt of alms or beggars.”
Oliver Cromwell and the Levellers
The Levellers were influential in Cromwell’s army. At a rendezvous near Ware in Hertfordshire on 15 November 1647, two regiments carried copies of the Agreement of the People and stuck pieces of paper in their hat-bands with the Leveller slogan “England’s Freedom, Soldiers’ Rights”.
With swords drawn, Cromwell and some of his officers rode into their ranks and ordered them to take the papers from their hats. One of the soldiers was swiftly executed for mutiny.
Putney Debates 1647
Siding with the Levellers in the Putney Debates of 1647, the parliamentarian Colonel Thomas Rainsborough argued that both the rich and poor had a right to a decent life, and that “every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government”.
Burford Churchyard Memorial
But in 1649, Rainsborough was killed, Leveller-led army mutinies in London and Oxfordshire were crushed, and Cromwell effectively destroyed the Levellers as a political force.
John Lilburne, the Leveller leader, came from County Durham. He was originally a Puritan and he later converted to Quakerism. Arrested in 1637 for circulating unlicensed pamphlets, he was fined £500, whipped, pilloried, and imprisoned.
During the Civil War, Lilburne served as an officer in the Parliamentarian army. For his agitation against the Cromwellian authorities he spent several more years in prison.
Lilburne coined the term “freeborn rights”, defining them as rights with which every human being is born, as opposed to rights bestowed by government or by its laws. He advocated an extended male suffrage, equality under the law and religious tolerance.
Lilburne explained in 1647 that the term “Leveller” applied to him and his party, only in the sense of equality under the law, namely their “desire that all alike may be levelled to, and bound by the Law”.
But much later their socialist admirers assumed that they wished to “level” all property as well. There is no basis for this supposition in Leveller writings.
The Levellers and common ownership
The Levellers declared that rights to liberty and property were innate to every person. Individuals had rights over their thoughts and bodies, without molestation or coercion, and everyone had the natural right to own private property. The Levellers did not promote common ownership, except when it resulted from the voluntary pooling of the property of everyone involved.
Generally the Leveller leaders did not campaign against the enclosure of common lands. Instead they upheld legally-acquired rights of property. The Marxist historian Christopher Hill pointed out that the Levellers “sharply differentiated themselves from the Diggers who advocated a communist programme”.
A defence of private property and a rebuttal of “levelling” appears in the final, May 1649 version of the Leveller Agreement of the People, in a passage addressed to Members of Parliament:
“We therefore agree and declare, That it shall not be in the power of any Representative … [to] level men’s Estates, destroy Propriety, or make all things Common.”
Even if representatives in the legislature were democratically elected, they did not have the right to overturn individual rights to property.
Lilburne’s arguments against common ownership
Likewise, Lilburne was repeatedly obliged to rebut the charge that the Levellers desired to “level” all property. He wrote in 1652:
“In my opinion and judgment, this Conceit of Levelling of property … is so ridiculous and foolish an opinion, as no man of brains, reason, or ingenuity, can be imagined such a sot as to maintain such a principle, because it would, if practised destroy not only any industry in the world, but raze the very foundation of generation, and of subsistence or being of one man by another.”
Lilburne then explained why this was so:
“For as industry and valour by which the societies of mankind are maintained and preserved, who will take the pains for that which when he hath gotten is not his own, but must be equally shared in, by every lazy, simple, dronish sot? Or who will fight for that, wherein he hath no interest, but such as must be subject to the will and pleasure of another, yea of every coward and base low-spirited fellow, that in his sitting still must share in common with a valiant man in all his brave noble achievement?”
“… those men in England, that are most branded with the name of Levellers, are of all in that Nation, most free from any design of Levelling, in the sense we have spoken of.”
As well as rebutting the charge of “levelling”, Lilburne here defended the institution of private property in terms of its incentives for “industry” and maintaining “subsistence”. If everything were “equally shared”, then the “lazy” would benefit as much as those “who will take the pains”, thus diminishing incentives for individual effort. Incentives to work hard would be lessened.
The 1/n problem
With the above words, Lilburne pointed to the crucial problem of scale in all communistic ventures.
It is a version of what economists call “the free-rider problem”. As the size of the community increases, the free-rider problem can be exacerbated. If the number of people in a working community that shares its income is n, then individual incentives to contribute to community output are very roughly in proportion to 1/n.
As n increases, the extra effort of any single individual is rewarded less, because the output from extra effort is shared between n people. We may call this the 1/n problem. As far as I am aware, Lilburne was the first person to identify it.
Crucially, at low values of n, such as in a family or in a small cooperative, incentives to work hard can be enhanced by face-to-face mechanisms involving reciprocity, trust, commendation, satisfaction, shame, scorn or punishment.
These social mechanisms are effective because they have evolved in human tribes over millions of years. Elinor Ostrom’s case studies of the community management of common pool resources show what is feasible in more recent settings.
Hence some form of socialism may work on a small scale. But at higher levels of n these interpersonal mechanisms become relatively less effective. Other incentives, involving money and property, are required.
The Levellers on free trade and (state) monopolies
The Levellers advocated free trade. For them, the basic division in society was not between workers and owners of property: it was between the rich and influential – who profited from (state and other) monopolies and government favours – and the rest of the people. A clause in the May 1649 version of The Agreement of the People tells Parliament:
“That it shall not be in their power to continue or make any Laws to abridge or hinder any person or persons, from trading or merchandizing into any place beyond the Seas, where any of this Nation are free to trade.”
Leveller leaders Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn attributed the existence of low wages to monopolies, restrictions on trade, and excise taxes.
In 1652 Walwyn presented to the Parliamentary Committee for Trade and Foreign Affairs a defence of free trade against the Levant Company, urging the abolition of monopolies and trade restrictions. Walwyn saw free trade as a common right, conducive to common good.
The Levellers and Diggers contrasted
Yet the myth that the Levellers promoted common ownership persists. Tony Benn often mentioned the Levellers favourably, but he ignored their strong commitment to private ownership, and instead suggested that their arguments pointed to “common ownership and a classless society”.
An entertaining four-part television series set during the English Civil War entitled The Devil’s Whore (released in North America as The Devil’s Mistress) has Rainsborough speaking in favour of common ownership, without any objection from Lilburne.
There is no historical evidence to sustain such depictions. They are fantasies promoted by Benn, Brockway, Corbyn and others.
By contrast, the Diggers opposed private property. From 1649-1650 groups of Diggers squatted on several stretches of common land in southern England. They set up communes whose members worked together on the soil and shared its produce. The Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley published a series of pamphlets advocating common ownership of land.
Winstanley regarded the institution of property as a limitation of the freedom of others. Land was bestowed to all by God. Unlike the Levellers, Winstanley criticized trade, because it led to cheating and discontent. He envisioned an agrarian society, in which all goods would be communally owned, and all commerce and wage labour would be outlawed.
Hence the Levellers and Diggers had very different ideological positions. The Levellers advocated individual autonomy, private ownership and free trade. Although they appealed to religion, they saw democratic legitimation as the source of government authority. By contrast, the Diggers proposed a rigid, small-scale, religiously-inspired, agrarian communism.
The Levellers were political theorists as well as activists. They helped to develop the intellectual foundations of Enlightenment liberalism.
Unlike later liberals such as Thomas Paine, they did not advocate a welfare state. Unlike John Stuart Mill they did not call for female suffrage. Unlike twentieth century liberals such as John A. Hobson, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge they did not advocate substantial state regulation in a mixed capitalist economy.
But the Levellers were liberals and democrats nevertheless. Their arguments against large-scale socialism remain pertinent today.
11 October 2017
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Benn, Tony (1976) ‘What would the Levellers do Today?’ 15 May. https://seagreensociety.wordpress.com/tag/levellers-day/.
Brailsford, H. N. (1961) The Levellers and the English Revolution (London: Cresset Press).
Brockway, Fenner (1980) Britain’s First Socialists: The Levellers, Agitators and Diggers of the English Revolution (London: Quartet).
Hampton, Christopher (ed.) (1984) A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England, 1381-1914 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
Hill, Christopher (1975) The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin).