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).
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).
All versions of liberalism stress 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 those rights and pursues justice.
Original conservativism differs from liberalism because it stresses established or religious authority and tradition over rights. Socialism generally differs from liberalism because it downgrades the right to private property. But there is no historical case where personal and civil liberties have existed without extensive rights of private property.
Statist socialism further differs from liberalism also because it concentrates politico-economic power in the hands of the state, thus undermining countervailing power, which is necessary to sustain democracy and individual rights. Marxism differs from liberalism to an even greater degree, because it regards all liberal rights as bourgeois: it rejects the idea of universal individual rights in favour of the class rule of the proletariat.
Liberalism was broadly defined in its struggles against despotism. But once autocracy is removed, and freedom and legal equality are established, then liberalism as a whole lacks a further common purpose, other than the preservation or consolidation of those liberal gains. At this point, the wide liberal coalition divides into multiple zones, exploring different districts of their spacious common territory, and falling on different sides of key dilemmas.
Hence the Enlightenment triumph of liberalism gave way to rival liberalisms, each stressing different priorities or visions of the future. These differences range across multiple dimensions in conceptual hyperspace.
While exploring seven dimensions of this hyperspace, I accent a particular variety of liberalism that I call liberal solidarity.
The seven dimensions
Consider the following seven vital dilemmas:
1. Broad versus narrow conceptions of liberty.
The narrow definition of liberty, promoted by Freidrich Hayek and Milton Friedman among others, is the absence of coercion. Other liberals – including John Stuart Mill, Michael Polanyi, Isaiah Berlin and Amartya Sen – argued that this is insufficient. They asked us to consider the conditions enabling the individual to appraise his or circumstances and then to act freely, typically in cooperation with others. These conditions constitute positive or public liberty, in contrast to the negative or private liberty provided by the absence of coercion. As well as the capacities for choice and action, some writers argue that liberty is also about the opportunities for self-development and for human flourishing.
2. Degrees of commitment to representative political democracy.
Most liberals support representative political democracy, as long as it does not overturn basic human rights, including the rights of minorities. But some liberals, such as Ludwig Mises and Hayek, have regarded democracy as dispensable under specific conditions, believing that the preservation of private property and markets are more important. The counter argument is that democracy is strongly correlated with economic development, the protection of human rights, and the absence of war and famine. Hence democracy is vital for a healthy, tolerant and open society.
3. Degrees of emphasis on economic equality.
Thomas Paine was a liberal who stressed the interdependence of individuals in a free society. Hence, given our debt to others, we are obliged to pay taxes for the common good. Also John Stuart Mill argued there should be some redistribution of inherited wealth. Against libertarian individualists, many liberals defend responsible trade unions as a way of empowering working people and reducing inequality. These are cases of liberal solidarity rather than atomistic individualism.
4. Possible limits to choice and markets.
While liberals generally stress the importance of individual choice, in both trade and politics, some also stress the practical and moral boundaries to contracts and to markets. Today we condemn the holding and trading of slaves. For democracy to be uncorrupt, there should not be markets for the votes of ordinary people or politicians. Other market arrangements are challengeable, on moral or practical grounds, suggesting that contracts and markets are not the solution to every problem.
5. Grounds for state intervention and a welfare state.
Some liberals, including John A. Hobson and John Dewey, saw the provision of adequate healthcare and education as vital for individual self-determination and flourishing. Individuals should also be as free as possible from the anonymous coercions of ignorance, destitution and illness. Hence the liberals David Lloyd George and William Beveridge built the foundations of the welfare state in the UK. John Maynard Keynes pointed to the need for the state to intervene to prevent financial crashes and minimize unemployment. Many modern liberals also accept the legitimacy of judicious state action to mitigate climate change.
By the above five criteria, liberal solidarity recognizes liberty as more than the absence of coercion, defends political democracy, attempts to reduce extremes of economic inequality, and conceives of a larger role for the state than small-state versions of liberalism. It promotes a mixed economy including some public ownership and a variety of forms of private enterprise. The mixture would include worker cooperatives (which are the most viable positive legacy of small socialism).
Liberal solidarity counters the original liberal emphasis on minimal government. Some state intervention is necessitated by the limitations of markets and by growing complexity. Nevertheless, all liberals acknowledge the dangers of excessive bureaucracy and concentrations of state power, and they call for mechanisms of scrutiny and accountability, as well as for countervailing powers.
6. Self-interest versus cooperation and morality.
Several liberals have argued that social order emerges out of the interactions of self-interested, pleasure-maximizing individuals. But this is not a universal view among liberals. While recognizing the selfish aspects of human nature and the incentives they offer for trade and innovation, many liberals stress the importance of morality, justice or duty. They argue that adequate social cohesion cannot be achieved on the basis of selfishness alone. Adam Smith expressed this view: he was not an unalloyed advocate of individual selfishness. Charles Darwin – who politically was a liberal – explained how, alongside a measure of self-interest, morality and cooperation were products of human evolution, and thus part of our nature. Hobson took up this Darwinian view, also underlining the importance of moral motivation. Relatedly, Keynes saw the Benthamite utilitarian calculus of pleasure-seeking, as “the worm which has been gnawing the insides of modern civilisation and is responsible for the present moral decay.” The motivational bases of liberal solidarity are morality, sympathy and justice, and not simply personal satisfaction or self-interest.
7. Nationalism versus internationalism and openness.
Like socialism and conservativism, liberalism has been divided on questions of foreign policy. Socialists, conservatives and liberals have argued for and against specific wars, for or against imperialism or colonialism, for or against the idea of exporting favoured institutions by invading other countries with armed force. They have also been internally divided on immigration policy, advocating different degrees of restriction or free movement.
Addressing dimension six, liberal solidarity emphasises our potential for cooperation and moral judgment, rather than focusing on self-interest alone. In regard to dimension seven, liberal solidarity opposes imperialism and colonialism. It stresses the importance of social inclusion and the benefits of free movement.
Liberals, Conservatives and Republicans
From the beginning of the twentieth century, in the UK and the US, liberalism became more interventionist. Versions of liberalism prominent in the UK and US are closer to liberal solidarity than some variants in Continental Europe.
When unfettered-market, minimal-state versions of liberalism re-emerged in the UK and US, and became more prominent in the 1970s, they had to find different homes. They took over the Conservative Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the US. Hence Margaret Thatcher was elected as a Conservative Prime Minister in 1979 and Ronald Reagan as a Republican President in 1980. In some their ideas they sounded like nineteenth-century liberals: Whigs became Tories.
But their adoption of unfettered-market ideology was partial, and often compromised when traditional conservative values were threatened. Supported by Thatcher, Reagan ramped up military spending. Their nationalism was heightened when it came to foreign policy and international trade. They retained restrictions on recreational drugs or prostitution. They stressed ‘family values’ as much as rampant individualism.
Like others, these two parties are coalitions, involving unfettered-marketeers, nationalists and traditional conservatives. The election of Donald Trump as US President in 2016 shows the strength of the conservative and nationalist strain among Republicans. Trump is no liberal: he advocates torture, attacks minorities, threatens the press, imposes tariffs and pursues a version of economic nationalism.
Thatcher and Reagan overlooked the absence of democracy in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile and in Apartheid South Africa, and supported stronger military and executive powers. As Andrew Gamble put it, Thatcher and Reagan promoted a ‘free economy and a strong state’.
Thatcher and Reagan were inspired by leading intellectuals such as Hayek and Friedman, who had been working for decades to restore the influence of unfettered-market liberalism. But neither Hayek nor Friedman fits exactly into the Thatcher-Reagan mould. Friedman, for example, advocated the decriminalization of drugs and opposed compulsory military service. He also opposed the Gulf War of 1990-1991 and the Iraq Invasion of 2003.
Hayek voiced partial support for a welfare state. Although he did not support redistributive taxation to reduce inequality, he advocated legislation to limit working hours, state assistance for social and health insurance, state-financed education and research, a guaranteed basic income, and other welfare measures. At least once, Hayek also accepted Keynesian-style, counter-cyclic government strategy to deal with fluctuations in economic activity. Consequently there was some significant difference between Hayek and other libertarians.
Challenges for liberal solidarity
Having set out the large, seven-dimensional hyperspace and explored a few of the important positions within it, it is clear that the depiction of liberalism as broad church is an understatement. The potential variation within liberalism is huge. That is both an asset and a problem. Each variety of liberalism faces the difficulty of distinguishing itself from others. We need to subdivide liberalism’s massive territory if we are to navigate and explore different positions. Each important position within the large space needs to be differentiated from others.
A later blog will further explore the seven-dimensional hyperspace of liberalism and develop the case in favour of liberal solidarity. I shall also show a dramatic contrast with what is often described as neoliberalism.
1 August 2018
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Gamble, Andrew (1988) The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan).
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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Bowles, Samuel and Gintis, Herbert (2011) A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
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Darwin, Charles R. (1871) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols (London: Murray and New York: Hill).
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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.
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Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Although education is not a public good, there are good reasons why the state should support education services.
As leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has opined that “education is a public good” and drawn the conclusion that it should all be provided by government and funded by taxation.
All three leaders of the UK Green Party since 2012 – Nathalie Bennett, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley – have repeated the phrase “education is a public good”. They too implied that all education should be free of charge to the user and paid for out of taxation.
Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas
Similarly, Shakira Martin, who was elected President of the UK National Union of Students in 2017, remarked: “Education is a public good and should be paid for through taxation.” These influential organizations are led by people who have not learned the lessons of Econ 101.
In addition, this inaccurate rendition of the meaning of public good is common among journalists, who also have a moral responsibility to use terms accurately.
What is a public good?
The economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson established the concept of a public good in an academic paper in 1954, although some of the basic ideas involved had been formulated previously by others.
John Stuart Mill, for example, had argued in his Principles of Political Economy that lighthouses should be built and financed by governments, because their widespread benefits could not readily be financed by passing ships, and no individual had the pecuniary incentive to construct them.
The established technical definition of a public good is a good or service that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Non-rivalrous means that its use or consumption by any actor does not significantly reduce the amount available for others.
Non-excludable means that potential users cannot practically be excluded from the use of the good or service. This definition can be confirmed by reading any reputable economics textbook.
Consider the example of street lighting. If a town council uses local tax revenues to set up and maintain lighting on its streets, then there are widespread benefits for everyone. But it is not possible to charge people individually, according to whether they benefit from the illumination.
So when elections to the town council occur, self-interested citizens will vote for candidates proposing lower taxes, assuming that they will benefit anyway from any public good provision. Why pay more taxes when the lighting is free at the point of use? Self-interested consumers will try to hitch a free-ride. The outcome is that the street lighting will be underfunded, while everyone would prefer streets that are well-lit.
Samuelson’s argument was popularized by John Kenneth Galbraith in his 1958 book The Affluent Society. Therein Galbraith argued that vital public goods would be under-provided in a market system: there could be the coexistence of “private opulence and public squalor”. The combined efforts of a revered mainstream economic theoretician and of an astute and inventive populariser of economic wisdom helped to pave the way for a wave of interventionist policies in the US and other developed economies.
Do public goods necessitate public provision?
After this action came the reaction. In a 1974 article Ronald Coase (another Nobel Laureate) argued that many early lighthouses in England were privately constructed and financed by tolls at the ports. In fact, an emblematic example of a public good had often been financed privately. Hence “economists should not use the lighthouse as an example of a service which could only be provided by government”.
This and other interventions led to a widespread reaction against the Samuelson-Galbraith view that public goods necessarily require public provision or public financing.
It has been pointed out that radio and TV broadcasts and open-source computer software are also public goods. Yet both are often provided by private companies. Private radio and TV broadcasters finance their broadcasts by advertising.
Computer companies sometimes make software readily available to encourage use of their computers, for which the software was designed. The software is given away to help sell the hardware, or there is a charge for support services for software users.
Whether they are desirable or not, in principle there are many possibilities for private provision of public goods. In reality there are numerous cases where the state franchises out the provision of goods or services to private contractors. Such provision could include public goods. In these cases, public financing remains, but provision is private.
The claimed advantages of private franchising would include the introduction of an element of competition between potential franchisees, and the possibilities of efficiency gains through well-focused, relatively autonomous private providers. But here again the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Many public franchising operations have failed to deliver the promised gains. Others have been more successful.
Accordingly, we end up with a pragmatic rather than a doctrinaire conclusion. Economic systems are complex, with varied, interconnected components. Theory simplifies, and does not catch all the interactive effects. Theory has continuously to be appraised in the light of empirical experience. So far it is clear than the existence of a public good does not necessarily imply that it has to be provided by government, just as there is no compelling case that its private provision will also be superior.
Misunderstanding the meaning of a public good
Careful, rational discussion of the issues surrounding vital debates over public and private provision is not simply impeded by the prevalence of opposing ideological extremes. There is also a growing and prominent disrespect for the careful use of the terms that have been established by scholars in this area.
Combinations of sloppiness and ignorance threaten the utility of key terms. They engender ambiguity, degradation and ultimate uselessness. This has already happened with swear-words such as neoliberalism. It is hoped that it does not happen with cheer-words such as public good.
A prominent misunderstanding of “public good”, is that it means “a good that can only, or should only, be provided by government”. But this conflation of public good with public provision is mistaken.
Another, even cruder, misunderstanding is that “public good” means “good for the public”. While anyone who has taken Econ 101 should spot this error, it is nevertheless widespread. Speakers sometimes give their error away when they give relative stress the “good” in the phrase, as if “good” had the meaning of virtuous or worthwhile.
Yet in the correct definition of “public good” the second word takes another commonplace meaning, denoting a possession, or an item of commerce. This second meaning is found in the pledge “with all my worldly goods I thee endow” in the Book of Common Prayer or in “the goods train went through the station”. Bad things, like tobacco, heroin, cocaine, nuclear bombs and personnel mines, are also goods in this sense.
Is education a public good?
First assume that the claims of Corbyn, Lucas and others were true: education is “good for the public” and it should be funded out of taxation, and maybe even provided by a publicly-owned enterprise.
Many additional things are “good for the public”, including clothing, food and housing. By the same logic, these “goods” should all be funded out of general taxation as well, and distributed without further charge to their users. Influential politicians thus suggest that everything that serves basic needs should be financed, and possibly distributed, by the state. The market would simply be left for luxuries. Their logic implies a state-run economy of which Stalin and Mao would be envious.
Second, even if education were a public good (by the Econ 101 definition) then this would not imply that it should be paid for out of taxation. As noted above, free radio and TV broadcasting is generally a public good, but little of it is paid out of taxation, and it would be difficult to make the case that it should be (unless we fancy a totalitarian state that does all the broadcasting and curtails all private radio and TV stations).
Third, while observing the Econ 101 definition of a public good, note that education is generally a rivalrous rather than a non-rivalrous service. Education services require resources, including buildings, infrastructure, equipment and trained teachers. Additional students generally require additional resources. (Although in some cases the marginal cost is low, such as with mass-distributed online courses.) Consequently, education provision is generally rivalrous.
Fourth, again with an eye on the Econ 101 definition, note that education services are mostly (but not entirely) excludable. Schools and universities can readily prevent other people from attending, while it is much more difficult to prevent any passing mariner from observing the light from a lighthouse.
Technically, by the standard definition, most education services are private goods, because their provision is both excludable and rivalrous. But there is no necessary reason why all private goods should be privately provided. The Econ 101 distinction between public and private goods does not readily or directly correspond with public and private provision respectively.
The parts of an education system that are actually or virtually non-rivalrous, such as massive online courses, are technically club goods. Like radio and TV broadcasting they can be provided publicly or privately.
Positive externalities in education
When students receive their qualifications, they often have advantages over others on the jobs market. Hence they reap benefits. Nevertheless, with education there are strong positive spill-over effects.
Educated people help to raise the levels of public culture and discourse, and can pass on some of their skills to others. Educated people are also vital for a healthy democracy. But none of this undermines the general excludability of education services.
The spill-over effects are important, and relate to the question of public versus private provision. Another word for a spill-over is an externality: this is a cost or benefit that affects someone who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.
Externalities can be positive or negative. Examples of negative externalities are pollution or congestion caused by motor cars. Because a driver will suffer only a fraction of the overall pollution and congestion costs of making a car journey, negative externalities impose costs on others without penalty for the car user. By standard assumptions, unless compensatory measures are taken, car use will be excessive and suboptimal.
The theory of externalities was developed by Arthur Pigou, who argued that in the presence of negative externalities some public authority should intervene to impose taxes or subsidize superior alternatives. By such measures, motor car traffic could be reduced and pollution reduced. Inversely, services such as education with positive externalities should receive subsidies or be provided free, to encourage more extensive participation in these activities.
In a famous 1960 paper, Coase dramatically changed the terms of debate with his argument that if transaction costs were zero, then all the extra costs or benefits could be subject to contractual arrangements and the externalities would disappear. For example, if the owner of every dwelling near a road had property rights in the surrounding segment of the atmosphere, then the driver of a passing and polluting car could be sued for degradation of that property. The pollution externality would be internalized.
Coase’s intention was to underline the implications of transaction costs: the existence of externalities is dependent on positive transaction costs. Coase accepted that in many cases it would be impossible to avoid the transaction burden. For example, enforcing rights in the surrounding atmosphere to curb pollution may be too expensive.
Many pro-market zealots ignored or underestimated the transaction-cost aspect of Coase’s argument. Instead, their foremost claim was that Coase had undermined the case of public intervention based on externalities.
Consider the positive externalities of education. It would be impossible or socially destructive for every educated person to charge a fee to participants in an intellectual dinner conversation, or to invoice the government for making a well-informed choice when casting his or her vote in the ballot box. The internalization of these positive externalities by such means is impossible or undesirable.
The issue of missing markets is relevant here, as I discuss in my book Conceptualizing Capitalism. There are missing markets for future employment because to introduce such complete markets would be tantamount to slavery. The prohibition of slavery means that we cannot have complete futures markets for labour. This means not simply the existence of transaction costs but the enforced absence of transactions, which would be equivalent to making the transaction costs infinite.
Consequently, because of these missing markets, education and training will be undersupplied through markets under capitalism. There is a rationale for some kind of public intervention. Of course, government intervention has its problems too. We must experiment, and compare real-world cases, not idealized models.
Mixtures of public and private provision
There are mixtures of public and private provision of education in most countries. The majority of schools in most countries are run by local government. At the other extreme, most on-the-job training is done by private companies.
The US has a mixture of private and state universities, although both types receive substantial public funds. In the UK most universities receive public money for teaching and research, and in return they are obliged to conform to a myriad of government regulations. They also receive student fees and research grants from the private sector.
Technically all UK universities are private (corporate) entities: they have a legal status equivalent to charities (which are also not-for-profit private corporations). By contrast, in several major countries in Continental Europe and elsewhere, most universities are integrated into the state machinery and all their employees are civil servants. This is not the case in the US or the UK. This international diversity of models provides the opportunity to compare different systems and determine what works best, taking account of the different contexts in which they operate.
This growing disrespect for science and expertise is moving democracies toward an extremely dangerous place, where the general public have increasing difficulty segregating lies from truth. This danger could be called Trumpism.
I do not put Jeremy Corbyn or Caroline Lucas in the same box as Trump. Far from it. For example, they share none of his obnoxious racism and sexism. But Corbyn and Lucas are disrespecting experts and ignoring bits of science nevertheless.
We need a well-informed public conversation concerning the best arrangements for the (public or private) provision of basic needs and services, including education, health, housing and transport. Such a debate is much more difficult if leading public figures, including the leaders of major political parties, promote incorrect and misleading versions of highly relevant analytical terms.
Donc, je les accuse – of abetting the Trumpist degeneration of public discourse with their false claim that “education is a public good”. They should acknowledge the error and make a correction.
11 January 2018
Minor edits: 12-13 January 2018
Published January 2018
Note 1: As with many such definitions, there are few, if any, pure cases. So a public good refers to a good or service where consumption by one person does not significantly reduce the amount available for others, and where potential users cannot practically or generally be excluded from the use of the good or service.
Note 2: There is a widespread assumption that actors act wholly out of self-interest. But from evidence with humans in laboratory experiments and elsewhere, we know now that this is untrue. People will often agree to pay for public goods, even if they know that they have the alternative of free-riding on the contributions of others. One can conjecture, however, that numbers of people are important. We know from the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (1990) and others that cooperation is possible over the use of non-excludable resources, even when usage is rivalrous and it can degrade the resource. (Non-excludable resources that have rivalrous usage are defined as common-pool resources: they are not public goods.) But Ostrom’s examples highlight the role of face-to-face interaction and the building of trust. But it is doubtful that these mechanisms can be expanded to large-scale societies, at least without additional systems of control and enforcement.
Samuelson, Paul A. (1954) “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure”, Review of Economics and Statistics. 36(4), pp. 387-9.
Stretton, Hugh and Orchard, Lionel (1994) Public Goods, Public Enterprise, Public Choice: Theoretical Foundations of the Contemporary Attack on Government (London and New York: Macmillan and St Martin’s Press).
I was born in 1946. I lived in a council house until I was 16. My family were Labour. My privilege was not money, but that my parents and grandparents all valued education and culture. But none of them obtained a university degree, because they were less accessible at the time.
I became involved in the Labour Party in 1964 and then saw myself as a Tribune socialist following the steps of great radicals such as Michael Foot. After welcoming Harold Wilson’s election victory in 1964, I became critical of the new Prime Minister because of his nominal support for the US in the Vietnam War.
Vietnam and Marxism
For my baby-boom generation, the Vietnam War was a great generator of radicalism. Like many of my university friends, I became a Marxist in 1966. We were drawn into a turbulent and exciting world that combined activism with ideas and debate. I saw myself as a Marxist until about 1980.
I studied mathematics and philosophy from 1965 to 1968 and economics from 1972 to 1974. Both periods were at the University of Manchester. In the intervening years I taught myself Marxist economics. My knowledge of economics became enduringly significant in my political evolution.
I was at the LSE student occupation in 1967 and one of the Grosvenor Square demonstrations in 1968. In that year I copied Bertrand Russell and tore up my Labour Party membership card in protest against US aggression in Vietnam.
Marxists dominated the activists on the university campuses. The left was divided and fractious. There were Soviet Bloc loyalists in the Communist Party of Great Britain. There were lovers of Mao Zedong and several rival Trotskyist sects. I could not bring myself to support any totalitarian regime – East or West – so I joined the forerunner of what is now the Socialist Workers’ Party, which saw everything existing as “capitalist”.
My departure from the SWP came in 1971 when they expelled a dissident faction with which I sympathised. (That critical faction eventually became the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, of Momentum fame in the Corbyn Era.)
I flirted briefly with the International Marxist Group, which included glamorous figures such as Tariq Ali, and Robin Blackburn of the New Left Review. The IMG was stronger in its support for the women’s movement and for gay rights.
After a few years among the sects I could see that something was wrong. These groups were aiming to help create a much better society, but they were generally dogmatic and intolerant. Some were ruthless, pugnacious and fanatical. I did not want to see any social system facilitated or run by these people.
But on the other hand I then accepted the Marxist view that capitalism was exploitative and frequently led to oppression and war. The evidence of this was seemingly before our eyes.
Re-joining Labour and changing strategy
After Labour’s electoral defeat in 1970, there was a strong and growing left in the Labour Party and that seemed the best hope for socialists. Against the advice of Ralph Miliband (whom I knew personally) and others, I re-joined Labour in 1974.
In 1975 I published a pamphlet entitled Trotsky and Fatalistic Marxism. This tried to explain the fanaticism and intolerance of many Marxists in terms of their belief in the imminent decay and collapse of capitalist democracies. Trotskyists had failed to appreciate the enormous expansion and dynamism of capitalism after 1945. Their explanations of the survival of capitalism were weak.
Published in 1977, a longer work entitled Socialism and Parliamentary Democracy elaborated more of my thinking. Marxist-Leninists believed that parliament and the capitalist state should be “smashed”. Influenced by Max Weber and others, I argued that in modern democracies, government drew their perceived legitimacy from parliamentary elections. If socialism became a majority view, then socialists could and should gain a majority in parliament.
In the book I criticised the 1968 revolutionary movement in France for boycotting the elections called by President Charles de Gaulle in that year. Victory in the elections gave de Gaulle legitimacy. The huge movement of students and workers was crushed.
Paris – May 1968
As I had anticipated, my heresies were dismissed out of hand by the far left sects. But the book proved to be rather influential in the UK and internationally. It received a strongly sympathetic hearing on the Labour left. It was translated into Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Turkish. It persuaded a leading member of the violent Basque separatist group ETA to abandon terrorism.
I don’t know if he read my book, but Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the revolutionary movement in France in May 1968, later argued that it had been a mistake to boycott the French parliamentary elections.
Labour had been reconciled to the parliamentary road to socialism since its formation. The sects argued that it wouldn’t work. My response was that insurrection would not work either. In democracies we needed a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action.
Questioning ends as well as means
The killing fields in Cambodia affected me deeply. After seizing power in 1975 the Khmer Rouge forced everyone into the countryside and obliterated about two million people – a quarter of the Cambodian population – in the pursuit of their communist utopia.
I could not dismiss this as an aberration. After all, the Khmer Rouge aims, which included the abolition of money, private property and markets, were central to the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
Khmer Rouge Killing Fields
The far left were able to publish papers and debate ideas because they lived in a democracy that tolerated freedom of expression. But the ideas and actions of the sects, if they gained influence or power, would curtail these very liberties upon which they had depended.
Crucially, I was not naïve enough to believe that freedom and political pluralism could be guaranteed simply by the goodwill of a more enlightened Marxist leadership, who valued these things more than the Khmer Rouge. Good intentions were not enough.
I had retained a good lesson from Marxism. Effective ideas and practices draw their strength from agglomerations of power sustained by the structures of the politico-economic system. Hence a genuinely pluralist and tolerant political sphere depended on pluralism and decentralisation in the economic domain. A pluralist polity requires a pluralist economy.
Beatrice & Sidney Webb
Prominent Labour thinkers such as Beatrice Webb, Sidney Webb and G. D. H. Cole had all argued for a decentralised socialist system. But they still sought the abolition of private property and markets. The state would ultimately own everything. So what institutional, legal or other politico-economic forces could stop it retrieving all delegated powers to the centre, when deemed required, or when goodwill wore thin?
Any viable socialism always needs markets
I came to the view that genuine and lasting decentralisation would depend on the existence of organisations with some genuine autonomy and legal independence, providing powers to own property and trade with other organisations. Any viable socialism would always need markets – it was not simply a matter of tolerating or compromising with them.
This crucial transition of my thinking occurred between 1977 and 1980. I cannot recall the detailed influences. But I am sure that the initial impetus did not come from Ludwig von Mises or Friedrich Hayek. I did not delve deeply into their works until the early 1980s.
There had been several socialist proposals to nationalise the sector producing capital goods but retain competition and markets for consumer goods. I was more attracted by the Hungarian economist János Kornai’s more sophisticated proposal (originally published in 1965) to use a dynamic combination of markets and planning, where planning provided strategic impetus, and markets signalled information and gave scope for innovation and planning adjustment.
Over the new year of 1979-1980 I went on a short tourist group visit to the Soviet Union. Some of my companions were dewy-eyed admirers of the system, but I was prepared for its flaws, including the ubiquitous black markets and corruption.
I had been given the address in Moscow of an Englishman married to a Russian. As a former Communist, he explained in detail in his apartment how and why his views had quickly changed: “I challenge any supporter of the Soviet Union to live here just for six months.”
When Alec Nove published a classic article on feasible socialism in New Left Review in early 1980 I was ready for it. Nove also argued that markets were essential to any viable socialism. He realised that he was attacking deeply-ingrained orthodoxy on the left.
(Later I had the pleasure of meeting both Kornai and Nove several times. Nove died in 1994 but Kornai is still alive. I am delighted to be invited as a keynote speaker at a conference in his honour in Budapest in 2018.)
Labouring as a revisionist
Any acceptance of markets was an anathema to followers of both Karl Marx and Tony Benn. Benn distanced himself from those who supported the persistence of markets.
But I found common ground with Benn and others over what was called “the alternative economic strategy”. I outlined my positive views on this in a pamphlet entitled Socialist Economic Strategy in 1979. It was published by Independent Labour Publications.
Independent Labour Publications was the residue of the old Independent Labour Party, which had played a central role in Labour history from the 1890s to the 1940s. The Independent Labour Party split from the Labour Party in 1931. But in 1975 it formally dissolved as a party and rejoined Labour as Independent Labour Publications.
I was involved in this organisation briefly. Despite outward appearances they turned out to be another sect, lacking any vision of a workable socialism. They too were uneasy about my revisionism. Although my Socialist Economic Strategy was a bestseller by their standards, they refused to reprint it. We parted company in 1981.
Geoff Hodgson, Jean Shepherd & John Maguire in 1979
In 1979 I was the unsuccessful Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Manchester Withington. The seat became Labour in 1987.
I met Benn a few times and supported him in the 1981 deputy leadership election. This alignment was marked in my book Labour at the Crossroads, published in that year. Therein I again supported the alternative economic strategy. But against Benn himself, I argued in that book that in some sectors of the economy “there is no substitute for competition and a market” (p. 206).
(In his important book on The Labour Party’s Political Thought, Geoffrey Foote quotes me (pp. 320, 347) as a “Bennite”. But because of my explicit acceptance of markets, I was unrepresentative of the Bennite stream of thought.)
While Benn’s “alternative economic strategy” accepted markets and a private sector for the present, it seemed to me that he wanted to move eventually toward a socialist economy without any markets at all. It was no accident that Benn and his followers defended the Trotskyist sect Militant when they were pushed out of the party from 1985 to 1992.
In 1984 I published my book on The Democratic Economy, where I set out my view on the importance and complementarity of both markets and planning. My argument was framed in socialist language but therein I distanced myself from Marxism. The book received a critical response from many on both the soft and hard left.
The Labour Coordinating Committee
Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. One of Thatcher’s most popular policies was to promote the sale of council-owned housing to the tenants. Labour had opposed this policy. The disastrous 1983 defeat of Labour on a Bennite manifesto prompted a rethink, on this and several other issues.
For some of us, this rethink amounted to more than expedient doctrinal trimming. Encouraging home ownership was really a good idea: why should all property be owned by the rich? But while supporting home ownership, we argued that the government should also build more social housing and enlarge the stock available for rent by low-income families.
But these ideas met stiff resistance in the Labour Party ranks, and not simply from Trotskyist entryists such as Militant. The resistance from Benn and his supporters was substantial and even more enduring. It was clear that old-fashioned socialist ideas still had a tenacious appeal among Labour’s membership.
The Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC) became one of the primary modernising forces within Labour. Its leadership included Hilary Benn, Cherie Blair, Mike Gapes, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman, Kate Hoey (the Brexiteer) and others of enduring fame. I was elected to the LCC executive committee. We worked closely with the new leader Neil Kinnock, and with members of his shadow cabinet, including Robin Cook.
Although some Labour Party thinkers began to entertain the possibility of some private enterprise, many party members remained resolutely in support of widespread common ownership.
Against my efforts, the 1983 AGM of the Labour Coordinating Committee defeated the proposal that Clause Four should be rewritten. This was out of fear of antagonising the Benn wing. Instead, the LCC resolved that Clause Four should be “clarified”.
But a resolution on long-term aims, which I had helped to draft, was passed by a large majority. The resolution called for the Labour Party to draft a new statement of aims, upholding “that socialism involves extended democracy and real equality. Democracy under socialism is extended to industry and the community … and must involve a substantial decentralisation of power.”
There was a commitment to “political pluralism” and to “economic pluralism” involving “a variety of forms of common ownership … and the toleration of a small private sector including self-employed workers and other private firms.” The economy must be dominated by mechanisms of “democratic planning … but also accommodating a market mechanism in some areas.”
But there was strong hostility to these mildly revisionist ideas from within Labour’s ranks at the time, including from Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn.
Tony Benn & Jeremy Corbyn
The Guardian newspaper reported the LCC conference with the headline: “Labour breaks taboo on ownership”. For a while, the LCC tried to keep the conversation going on the need to revise Labour’s aims. The LCC held a conference in Liverpool in June 1984 on “The Socialist Vision”. But enthusiasm for this discussion fizzled out. By 1985 the LCC’s revisionist initiative had been kicked into the long grass. My efforts had failed.
But to their credit, Neil Kinnock and his deputy Roy Hattersley saw the need for Labour to modernise its aims. I advised them both for a while. But after 1987 I became less active in the Labour Party. My inactivity was born partly out of frustration that it was so difficult to shift Labour from its congenital hostility to markets and private enterprise.
But after a fourth election defeat in 1992 the party became more pliable. Tony Blair was elected as leader in 1994. Blair successfully changed the wording of Clause Four to endorse a strong private sector, but the dramatic rise of Corbyn in the party since 2015 shows that the old collectivist DNA has endured.
In many ways I have always been a liberal, especially in my support for freedom of expression, other human rights and democracy. By the late 1970s I also accepted the importance of markets and private property. But the emphasis in my thinking has shifted further in the last 30 years.
My academic works show a few markers of my political evolution. On page xvi of my 1999 book Economics and Utopia I wrote of my common ground with the US liberal John Dewey and with
“British social liberalism, which stretches from John Stuart Mill through Thomas H. Green to John A. Hobson, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge.”
These thinkers still inspire me. But I would now also stress the importance of Thomas Paine. Other heroes include George Orwell and Arthur Koestler.
So by 1999 I was a true liberal, of social-democratic stripe. I had already moved some distance from the ideas in my 1984 book, which had over-stressed the possibilities for large-scale planning and for extensive democratic decision-making in large, complex economies.
But I still believe in judicious state intervention and regulation, and I am still an enthusiast for experiments with worker cooperatives and other forms of worker and community participation. With their lower levels of economic inequality, I see the Nordic countries as good role models for in the rest of the capitalist world.
From leaving Labour to joining the Liberal Democrats
In 2001 I left the Labour Party because of Blair’s energetic support for faith schools, Labour’s inadequate proposal for House of Lords reform and its neglect of the problem of economic inequality. I would have left over the Iraq War. Previously I had sometimes voted tactically for the Liberal Party, when they were second behind the Tories in my constituency. But what was tactical was also in growing part a matter of conviction.
I voted Liberal Democrat in the 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010 general elections. But I did not approve of the coalition with the Tories. So the Liberal Democrats did not get my vote in 2015.
I re-entered political activity in 2016 after the Brexit referendum. My wife (Vinny Logan) had been a critical but close companion on my long journey since 1980. But unlike me she had always voted Labour. After the Brexit vote she joined the Liberal Democrats and I followed her after a few days. It will be a long hard slog to change British politics for the better, but it is vital that we try.
My wife and I were each brought up in a social culture where the Tories and the Establishment were the enemy, and the Liberals were seen as wishy-washy waverers in the class war. Labour was the only game in town.
It takes a long time to remove these ingrained preconceptions and learn that liberalism is the greatest legacy of the Enlightenment. It is the strongest guardian of both prosperity and freedom. Although Liberals have been in a minority, they are largely responsible for the foundation of the British welfare state. The NHS was originally a Liberal proposal. The Liberal Democrats constitute the most pro-EU party in the UK.
But some Liberal Democrats do not understand that it is the job of government in a recession to increase effective demand, particularly by increasing investment and raising disposable incomes for the poor. But the party is a broad church, and I will argue my corner in favour of Keynesian liberal economic policies.
I am a radical liberal. I believe in social solidarity with the less-privileged, as well as in individual rights. As Charles Kennedy showed when he was leader, the Liberal Democrats can succeed when they take principled, radical positions on justice, equality and war.
Today, both the Conservatives (now ruled by deceitful nationalists) and Labour (where the rising hard left dominate the timid moderates) are dangerous threats to the liberal and democratic rights and values that in the past we have taken too much for granted. We must now stand up to defend those rights and values, against dogma, ignorance, intolerance, petty nationalism and deceit.
20 September 2017
Minor edits – 25 September 2017, 22 October 2017, 10 April 2018.
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Foote, Geoffrey (1997) The Labour Party’s Political Thought: A History, 3rd edn. (London: Palgrave).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1975) Trotsky and Fatalistic Marxism (Nottingham: Spokesman).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1977) Socialism and Parliamentary Democracy (Nottingham: Spokesman).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1979) Socialist Economic Strategy (Leeds: Independent Labour Publications).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1981) Labour at the Crossroads: The Political and Economic Challenge to Labour Party in the 1980s (Oxford: Martin Robertson).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1984) The Democratic Economy: A New Look at Planning, Markets and Power (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1999) Economics and Utopia: Why the Learning Economy is not the End of History (London and New York: Routledge).
Kornai, János (1965) ‘Mathematical Programming as a Tool of Socialist Economic Planning’, reprinted in Nove, Alec and Nuti, D. M. (eds) (1972) Socialist Economics (Harmondsworth: Penguin), pp. 475-488.
Nove, Alec (1980) ‘The Soviet Economy: Problems and Prospects’, New Left Review, no. 119, January-February, pp. 3-19.
Nove, Alec (1983) The Economics of Feasible Socialism (London: George Allen and Unwin).
Nove, Alec and Nuti, D. M. (eds) (1972) Socialist Economics (Harmondsworth: Penguin).