A Crisis for the Socialist Idea: The First Step
(On re-reading my 1978 “Theory of Socialist Economic Administration”)
Henry Flynt (2009)
On re-reading my 1978 “Theory of Socialist Economic Administration” this year, I discovered that the least credible section concerns the first step toward socialism which a “revolutionary junta” would take. In 1978, I assumed that the problem of the first step was trivial. One would do what Cuba did, namely, copy the precedents of the East bloc. No matter that I was highly wary of the East bloc in 1978, I was not anticipating the world-historical humiliation and dissolution that would overtake the bloc. The actual arrangements of a Czechoslovakia, for example, turned out drab and dull and shabby—then slid “back” to capitalism. Socialist Czechoslovakia did not become a showcase: that is very bothersome. Was it entirely because it was created by conquest by a “modernizing socialism” with a regressive political culture?
We may be warned: historical socialism nowhere gained a foothold such that its advent was irreversible. The only revolutionary socialism we have seen is modernizing socialism, and that leaves people waiting until they can cast it off.
Assume that a revolutionary junta, for which “socialism” was a principle, had magically gained control of an industrialized nation, and thus had a canvas on which to paint socialism. Expropriation would be underway or would have been completed. The draconian schemes of industrialization which “underdeveloped Communism” became known for would not be necessary (I said in 1978).
I use the phrase “revolutionary junta” as a tribute to a Spanish anarchist who realized, in the course of the Spanish Civil War, that anarchism is simply a formula for failure. (Unfortunately, the Spanish anarchist did not see the further implications of his own insight.)
Anarchism, this anarchist realized, cannot even address the problem of the possessing class’ resistance to socialism. Well, that assumes a class antagonism. We know what one side is called: the bourgeoisie. But for whom does the junta act? What class does it represent? Somebody who wants collectivism. I will address that last.
There must be an organizational center able to exercise authority. There must be a society-wide perspective. There are vestiges of an idiotic anarchism in the “Marxist classics,” such as the notion that socialism would have no justice system. (When leaders are that foolish, they simply reverse themselves in practice. As soon as Lenin was in power, he established a terroristic “justice” system. Practice was the polar opposite of the promise.)
The spontaneous acts of “economic man” will never reach an egalitarian result, much less construct the unbelievably high-tech, artificial, integrated social configuration called Communism.
With respect to the first step, all the obstacles from twentieth-century history would appear again. If the junta controlled exactly one nation, what would it do if other nations, threatened by the abolition of capitalism, combined against it? The actual answer was tragic. In actuality, the Comintern was not able to spread socialism through independent national revolutions. The Chinese revolution, the Comintern’s one success, if you will, had to be catalyzed by a catastrophe beyond the socialists’ control—the Second World War. The “socialism” which wanted to persist had to put security and militarization first.
My best answer now? The bourgeois-democratic program of world federation has to precede socialism. That may put socialism way in the future. But that is not shocking, since the Left is not only bankrupt today, but relishes being bankrupt. It has become a subculture of bankruptcy.
Even if expropriation could be instantateous, Communist arrangements could not be. Actual Communism is not possible short of science fiction. To yield actual Communism, production and automation would have to be reconstituted from zero. The abstract behavioral rules of a Communist economy would contradict what college students learn now not only in economics, but in engineering (presently configured around profit maximization), and in physics as a metaphor for human behavior (the Action Principle).
A large question crops up here. Trotsky assumed that all that would have to happen would be for “a labor union to seize power” and society would proceed to socialism like a stone rolling downhill (give or take isolation in one country etc.). Trotsky had no idea of the roots capitalism has. An entire epoch of civilization would have to pass before escape velocity could be reached. In the early 1930s, Trotsky explicitly endorsed market socialism, not realizing that there can never be an equilibrium of market socialism.
It was realistic to imagine that socialism could not survive in an encirclement of advanced capitalist nations. But the notion cultivated by the East-bloc regimes that they were threatened from within by the ghosts of the dead bourgeoisie was ridiculous. What they pictured as the ghosts of the dead bourgeoisie were in fact capitalism’s behavioral roots in the “system” they improvised on a platform of backwardness.
Let us return to the problem of the first step. There would be a shorter or longer roll-over in which signs of the capitalist past would still be evident. Presumably, even after private owners were expropriated, circulation would be accomplished by market transactions on day 1, day 2, … . (The “requisition Communism” of the Soviet Union during the Civil War was a mere act of desperation.) The problem is that the only contribution I ever made to market socialism was to condemn it as a formula for capitalist restoration. Actually, in Chapter VII, I called for parallel market and non-market economic coordination, anticipating the abolition of the market. But non-market coordination cannot be in place on day 1, day 2, … .
What would the transitional steps look like? Former factory supervisors made factory managers on behalf of the junta? Economic sectors objectionable to the socialist perspective shut down? Subject to the qualifications, market transactions continue as before? Junta-mandated full employment? Isn’t that like the East bloc?
There would always be assembly-line education and professional docents. Professional qualification would only become more important as society advanced toward higher expectations (medicine) and dangerous technology (power generation, nuclear medicine).
The bourgeois economy today is financialized beyond belief. The most important zone of the economy is the one that the layperson does not see, basically. What does the junta do about the financial zone? OK, nationalize financial institutions. Contract the role of banking to production and investment lending. Declare various classes of securities worthless.
This is all I wish to say at this moment about day 1, day 2, … . Working backward from the conception of achieved Communism, we encounter the problem of day 1 as an open question. About all I have to offer consists of this.
—Parallel market and non-market economic coordination, anticipating the abolition of the market.
Unfortunately for me, my next two suggestions seem inconsistent.
—Attenuated hierarchical decentralization. This regime allows socialism to abolish markets and menial labor via piecemeal automation.
—But piecemeal automation is a foolish path. It would result in redundancy and an inordinate data-flow burden if the attempt were made to carry it forward to Communism. On the other hand, to reconstitute production and automation from zero would ensconce a vast economic project as the societal goal—even if the pace were not forced.
Now we may acknowledge issues the reader wants to hear about.
• Who is the revolutionary subject? Whom will the revolutionary junta act for? What is the constituency for a collectivist higher civilization? The cliché that the proletariat is the revolutionary subject was already abandoned in practice in the Bolshevik Revolution. Lenin dealt with the political inadequacy of the proletariat via terroristic authoritarianism. (Let us be clear that Marx and Engels had already reached that point by 1850.) The politics of the proletariat led to the great class-collaborationist economies of twentieth-century Western Europe. All we wish to say about the matter at this point is that the answer cannot be a failed cliché.
• Given the necessity of a revolutionary junta, how is despotic usurpation to be prevented? How is mismanagement to be corrected? I will not launch into a discussion here. For better or worse, the best example we have that authority can be used to safeguard republican arrangements is the military in Turkey.
• The most embarrassing point of all. Following the laws of capitalism, the U.S. has voluntarily exported its productive sector, seeking to escape union contracts. At present, then, the U.S. is not productively self-sufficient. Are we then to imagine an autarkic socialist U.S. rebuilding its productive capacity, reverting to “modernizing socialism”? What a debacle! It is perhaps more realistic to repeat my observation that world federation will have to precede socialism.
A final observation. I already said that the Left is now a subculture which glories in bankruptcy. The Left has long since seen fit to abandon theory, not even realizing the role theory plays, using a picture of Marx as a logo in place of theory. Without even realizing when it happened, the Left has become a cheering squad for ancient religious positions which are the polar opposite of what the Left originally promised.
The Left is long since unable to appraise ongoing social formations except in terms of dogmas that constitute psychotic denial.
—What was the Soviet Union? Why did it suddenly evaporate—and how does that fit into the “historically inevitable succession of formations”?
—What is China now?
—It was said above that a flying leap from capitalism to Communism would not be possible in any case. There would be a transition, and the start would necessarily look like capitalism. Day 1, day 2, … capitalist vestiges would still be visible.