Putting Socialism Back on the Agenda

Andrew Levine writes at Counterpunch:

Not long ago, in what now seems a different universe, it was still possible to talk about “hope” and “change” without irony.  And only a couple of decades before that, those words meant more than just holding reaction at bay.

Back when there was a flourishing left, “hope” and “change” were about moving the world forward – making the actual approach a rationally defensible ideal.  For more than an entire century, Marxists were preeminent among the forces of forward-looking hope and change.

They disagreed about many things, sometimes bitterly.  But all Marxists believed that socialism was capitalism’s future.  Along with others, they agreed that private ownership of society’s principal means of production would somehow someday give way to social or collective ownership.

Along with Marxism itself, this conviction has fallen on hard times.  The reasons why range from the empirical to the ridiculous to the tragic.

On the empirical side, as capitalism demonstrated its resilience so often and in so many ways, it became impossible to deny that whatever its ultimate fate may be, predictions of its imminent demise were, to say the least, exaggerated.   They have not been refuted, but for all practical purposes they might as well have been.

On the ridiculous side, “post-modern” relativists, paragons of murky thinking and obscurantist writing, somehow managed to get across the idea that “master narratives” like the Marxist one, accounts of history’s structure and direction, are chimeras at best; that they cannot possibly be true because, to paraphrase Hamlet, there is neither true nor false “but seeming makes it so.”

This is self-refuting gibberish that can hardly withstand criticism, and there is reason to think that the post-modern moment is already on the wane.  Unfortunately, though, the harm is done.

In any case, the decisive factor was Communism’s tragic demise and the historic defeat of the revolutions undertaken in its name.

It is still an open question how “Marxist” Communists were, especially towards the end.   But the identification was so widely accepted for so long that the demise of Communism all but inevitably led to the near extinction of Marxism itself.

More importantly, the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, China and elsewhere, seemed to undo a conviction all Marxists, and many others, shared: that, leaving aside temporary setbacks and barring environmental catastrophes or victorious counter-revolutions, epochal transformations, like the one from capitalism to socialism, are irreversible.

All Marxists were sure that so long as its path is not disrupted by exogenous factors, history moves only one way – forward.

Yet, by the end of the 1980s, history seemed to have retrogressed definitively for reasons that were endogenous to the socialist economic system and the political superstructure that superintended it.

Because events confounded expectations, and because the widespread understanding was that Marxism itself, not just Communism, had failed, the Marxist purchase on hope and change came to seem patently untenable.  This perception took other socialist tendencies, even social democracy, down with it – diminishing, though not quite annihilating, all of them.

The idea that there is, as it were, no hope for hope is hardly incontrovertible, and it is also far from clear what Marxism’s future may be.  What is clear is that, despite today’s conventional wisdom, there is plainly something right-headed in Marx’s core idea: that as technological capacities grow, capitalist property relations become increasingly dysfunctional and, indeed, irrational.

At lower levels of development, private property and market arrangements are useful and perhaps necessary for developing productive capacities.  This is what nearly everyone who identified with the Marxist tradition has believed at least since the time of The Communist Manifesto (1848).  In the Marxist “master narrative,” developing productive capacities to a point where socialism becomes materially possible was capitalism’s historical mission.

Marxists also believed that, as this mission is progressively discharged, capitalist property relations increasingly “fetter” development, just as earlier forms of property relations fettered development in the past.

When this happens, if agents capable of transforming property relations develop in the interstices of the old economic structure, as will normally be the case, the fetters will be “revolutionized” away; replaced by property relations optimally suited for further development.

Even in today’s political universe, where the word “hope” sticks in the craw and where even cosmetic changes seem all but unattainable (except to gullible liberals at election time), it is hard to deny that something like this has to be right; property relations and levels of development must be broadly compatible.

The idea that capitalist property relations could survive in a world where productive capacities are massively developed is therefore, to say the least, wildly implausible.

For some time now, in “developed” countries, it has been at least arguable that everyone’s needs, along with most actual (as opposed to possible) wants, could be satisfied without imposing significant costs on others, if resources were distributed differently and/or if ownership rights — rights to benefit from and control productive resources — were socialized.

But even if this speculation is too optimistic, it is inconceivable that, as development proceeds, private ownership would remain indispensable.  It is very nearly as certain that its indefinite continuation would lead to disabling irrationalities that no political regime can indefinitely withstand.

Read more here.

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  • charlieprimero

    What a fool.

    This guy is clueless as to why the banking cartels created Marxism. He doesn’t know the difference between capitalism and our current national socialism. It’s like these people are immune to history books.

  • BuzzCoastin

    let’s stop working with isms
    they seem to lead to nowhere helpful

    • citizen_watch

      amen to that!

  • “Big” Richard Johnson

    As a Socialist, I can only wonder who the fuck this “Marx” character is?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=742104313 Adam Goodwin

    This is the silly shit I have to deal with in academia. Waste of fucking time. The social sciences should be condemned to the status of simple con artistry.

    • http://twitter.com/WarWithEastasia warwitheastasia

      Unsurprisingly this isn’t a popular observation on a site whose readership consists largely of English and sociology majors…

  • http://www.zoboprepublic.wordpress.com/ zobop republic

    Socialism or Marxism never seems to work because of ‘corruption’ and ‘freeloading’ people.
    Of course our USA democracy has this now but it’s better than a one party political system.
    Convince me if I’m wrong. *i know i’m asking for trouble, but…*

  • Roger Mexico

    Marxism is a religion. It has a lot in common with Objectivism, actually, but it’s basically Scientology without the aliens. It has moderate wings, but they’ve never been especially influential–it’s most famous for the fundamentalist nutjobs who thought it was a good idea to stage coups in unstable “developing” countries (Russia included) and then rule as dictators under the assumption that this would make the benefits of the system so obvious that someone would invent the fantastical (excuse me… “historically inevitable”) technologies necessary for it to work. Their solution to human misery and inequality is to have robots do all the dirty jobs, grow babies in vats, and have smart guys with supercomputers run the economy from the Bridge. I’m not even making that up–I can cite examples of Marxists actually proposing exactly those things.

    The closest thing to a real Marxist success story is the Social Democratic parties who have become powerful in several western European parliamentary democracies. But here’s the kicker–the only reason they’ve even survived as a political force is that they’ve ditched most of the zany “Marxian” doctrine that used to be in their platforms. They’re now moderate center-left parties who have no problem acknowledging the benefits of a private market economy as long as it’s backed up by effective regulations on labor standards and a social welfare safety net. They don’t even want to “socialize” the means of production anymore, probably because they had front-row seats to exactly how well that worked out right across the Iron Curtain. This is particularly true in Germany, which originally inspired Marx’s insane ramblings and now, ironically, has had the benefit of seeing what happens when half of a country goes full-retard Communist and the other half doesn’t.

    Moral of the story–give the working class actual political power, and you’ll quickly find that the last thing they want is a one-party autocracy where everything is controlled by a cabal of clueless douchebags constantly spouting off about the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

  • http://twitter.com/WarWithEastasia warwitheastasia

    This guy’s writing is just Marxist sociological jargon painstakingly assembled to say almost nothing, and there are paragraphs here that could be reworded into a single sentence of equal expressive power. An “economy” is just a giant machine that solves scarcity problems; how to provide the best stuff for the most people at the lowest cost (ie lowest opportunity cost). Marxists/Communists/Socialists take it on faith that a centralized group of bureaucrats can accurately predict the future behavior of countless individuals (ie central planning); free market advocates realize that no one can, so whatever system encourages the most experimentation will approach an equilibrium a lot faster, and its absolutely empirically clear that capitalism has provided vastly more material wealth than any other system in history. Do u know how many gallons of orange juice you’ll drink in the next 5 years? Imagine trying to guess the answer to that question for hundreds of millions of people, with the risk of causing widespread starvation if your answer is too high or low, and you’ll see .01% of the impossible calculations necessary to maintain a functioning socialist economy. Once you understand that, you’ll understand why the average Russian citizen spent >2 hours/day waiting in line right before the fall of the Soviet Union. Inequality is a distinctive feature of capitalism, but it grows enough new wealth to constantly raise the lower limit on standard of living; inefficiency (ie high opportunity costs) is a distinctive feature of socialism, and that’s where shortages, needless accidental surpluses & starvation come from.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=742104313 Adam Goodwin

      Capitalism, itself, does not grow a damned thing. Capitalism, like Marxism, is an ideology. ‘Free markets’ are never free as long as the exchange logic remains zero sum, as it must in capitalism, because of the ownership of the means of production. In that sense, the Marxist critique of capitalism was dead on. That critique, btw, was lifted from an anarchist–Proudhon. ‘Creating wealth’ in capitalism necessarily implies growth–i.e. expansion. That’s a troubling concept on a finite planet with argiculturally-based communities that tend not to move easily. They end up getting bulldozed over by police and armies.

      However, this expansionism is not a direct product of ideology. Ideology isn’t consistent from one individual to another, as values change across populations and individuals. The unifying factor to give ideology form is the one variable that pervades all of our lives in a silent, passive, objective way–the medium of exchange. Introducing a debt-based, interest-bearing currency is what introduces the pressure to all of our lives to expand, turn a profit, grow. To get rid of inequality, we must get rid of interest and debt.

      • http://twitter.com/WarWithEastasia warwitheastasia

        Free markets don’t deal in zero sum propositions; in fact, that characteristic is generally considered part of the definition of free market capitalism. It gets this feature from something called “comparative advantage”, and its pretty much the only thing in econ that is universally accepted as a valid and sound description of free exchange. You can look it up, but just think about it: under what conditions would you voluntarily (since coercion is illegal in free markets) exchange your capital for a seller’s goods? You’d undertake an exchange if you valued what the seller had (the good) more highly than you value your own possession/capital (since transaction costs [ie the cost of exchange] are considered part of the cost of the seller’s good, so a trade of 2 goods of equal value won’t be made). To put it in the same terms as countless intro econ textbooks, w/ free trade, you aren’t making individuals’ slices of the pie bigger or smaller, rather, you’re making the pie bigger. This isn’t really a controversial idea, either. Even modern socialist/liberal economics has subsumed & implemented this theory for its descriptive accuracy.

  • kowalityjesus

    have you ever considered the socialist nature of Christianity? It is why Ayn Rand said that Christians that liked her books “didn’t understand the point.”

    I think something a lot of historians are loathe to embrace is the soothing balm that the ‘charitability’ clause in Christianity rendered on the free-market evolution in Europe and the West. In the absence of charity, compassion, conscience, free markets can be an awful place for the less fortunate. In effect is charitability underrated in making free markets and laissez faire palatable to a society?

    • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

      I’ve heard socialism called “a Christian heresy” by more than one writer. Meaning, its a species of heterodox Christianity. Or maybe it was Marxism? Secular Humanism?

      Anyway, the idea was its the values of Christianity, without the theology.