The Left

Socialism in an Age of Waiting – Part Three

This is part Three of a series of posts begun after I picked up an old copy of the Communist Manifesto and tried to figure out what relevance it had for those on the left a hundred and fifty years after its publication. Parts One and Two were posted last month.

In Part Two of Socialism in an Age of Waiting I explained why I thought Marx’s ideas on the family and marriage were the least convincing ingredient in that potted version of the collected works the Communist Manifesto should be read as. I also thought Historical Materialism had stood the test of time. But the question is – what use is Historical Materialism without a plan of action ? Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it. The inscription on a certain North London grave in a desirable bourgeois suburb reminds us of that.

What about tracing an outline path beyond the present historical period ? Marx said he could do that but his crystal ball was partially obscured. He famously refused to “write the cookbooks of the future“, which I take to mean he wasn’t interested in describing every single detail of the post-Capitalist future before it actually arrived. That’s very wise. It’s also – at the same time – a bit of a cop-out, and socialists who followed Marx were forced to do some of the colouring in themselves. This extract from the Communist Manifesto can, however, be taken as the best snapshot analysis of what Marx envisaged happening after the revolution and deals with the post -Capitalist economy:

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
5. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
6. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
7. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
8. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
9. Free education for all children in public schools.
10.Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

The first thing that strikes me about this shopping list is how “statist” it now seems. Look at demand number Four . Does anyone really want a national bank with an exclusive monopoly ? In my travels around the world I’ve come to the conclusion that access to capital has historically been a hugely important route out of poverty for millions. Those countries with a developed banking system in which lending is relatively easy invariably do better economically than those which don’t. Thailand and North Korea are two extreme examples from Asia – and I know which I’d rather be born in. Banishing poverty requires economic activity as a necessary precondition. It’s not sufficient, of course, but it’s a non negotiable starting point. Getting hold of capital to kick-start economic activity is much simpler when banks are in competition with each other. Anyone who has had any dealings at all with state-run banks, particularly in developing countries, will confirm that – and this is an understatement – they don’t always manage to assist the creation of jobs and the exchange of money. I’ve also personally seen too many cases of greedy politicians dipping their fingers in the till to be convinced that centralising the means of lending is a progressive demand. It’s bad enough that the President for Life decides that people’s savings would attract a better rate of interest in a private account in Zurich and decides to shift them there without telling anyone if he’s caught with his fingers in the till of one bank among many, but disastrous when it happens to the only – or main – bank in the country. Then it’s a matter of life and death.

How about demand number Five ? All means of communication and transport to be run by the state. Again who would seriously argue for a societal set-up in which civil servants draft the opinion columns in a single national newspaper ? You might spit tacks at the very mention of Michael Gove (as I see some do when we link to a piece by him), but at least – prior to nationalisation of communication – you have a choice of defecting to Michael Meacher if you trust his “distinctive” analysis of how the world really works. Those of you who live in London will have had a foretaste of how utterly tedious a taxpayer funded newspaper which acts as a mouthpiece for the authorities can be. Even Pravda had dropped the Cult of the Personality by the 1950’s.

I suspect Marx’s love affair with centralising and nationalising everything that couldn’t be nailed down was a reaction to the horrors of the – extremely unregulated – early Capitalism of the Nineteenth Century which gave us – amongst other delights – the adulteration of the workers’ bread with ingredients cheaper than flour and the decanting of orphans into cotton mills for twelve hour shifts. You can see why he reacted that way, particularly after reading Engels‘ atrocity exhibition from contemporary Manchester. The behaviour of many Nineteenth Century Capitalists prior to the advent of a labour movement (particularly with access to the legislature) was morally questionable to say the very least. That powerful interests in society act unscrupulously without checks and balances on their power is a lesson that we would do well to remember when considering the direction one wing of the Socialist movement took in 1917.

The rule of the Bolsheviks in Russia for much of the Twentieth Century was the first long lasting test of Marx’s prescriptions. Banks, newspapers and transport – and much else beside – were nationalised according to the exact instructions in the Communist Manifesto.

Even allowing for the – in many cases valid – excuses that observers made for the comparative performance of the Soviet economy over that period; economic blockade by the capitalist powers, devastating war, and initial backwardness just the more obvious ones – the Soviet Union just wasn’t able to deliver the economic goods people wanted. I suspect that’s the main reason the country didn’t last. Why spend five years on the waiting list for a poorly performing 1960’s Fiat derived car with a dodgy clutch you’ll have to get into another queue to have fixed before you can take it home ? Particularly when your Trades Union comrades visiting from West Germany are driving around in Audis and Volkswagens they can buy any time they prove to the salesman they have a regular income. When it came to the crunch people want quality goods, efficiently distributed, and easily affordable to the man in the street. The Five Year Plan – which had been very effective at plonking metallurgy works on unsuspecting peasants in its time – failed the more sophisticated demands of the Soviet citizen in the 1980’s.

Other countries which also had to recover from the dislocation of wars and revolutions – and which didn’t have the benefit of the huge mineral and oil resources the Soviet Union – managed to feed and clothe their people more efficiently and without the tremendous wastage built into the Soviet system. Spain was an economic basket case for most of the Twentieth Century but by 1989 it was clear that it was doing better that equivalently endowed nations in Eastern Europe which claimed to have superseded capitalism.

Twentieth Century critics of the Soviet Union – particularly, but not exclusively from the Trotskyist tradition have argued that the failings of the Soviet Union were due to the fact that the centralised and state run institutions had become bureaucratised and sclerotic. They argue that if only these institutions had been subject to more democratic accountability all would have been well. There is a grain of truth in that analysis but I remain unconvinced that more democracy would necessarily have solved the inherent problems of the Soviet economy which were more pressing than a lack of democracy. Does it really matter how many people make economic decisions in society ? No, if it’s a choice between one apparatchik and a whole factory of democratically minded workers when there isn‘t actually any ultimate choice for the consumer; yes, if that number includes everyone likely to buy the product and given real choice over whether or not they actually purchase the end product. More democracy doesn’t go far enough, it just extends the number of people making decisions that only a consumer has the right to make.

Any competition between two economic systems in which one economy fails to allow market mechanisms to operate is likely to be beaten by one which does. I can’t think of any examples of roughly comparable countries where state planning has proved more economically efficient than one in which production for the market is allowed or encouraged , though I might qualify that for certain short term periods in which rapid industrialisation was the goal.

The economy of a society is more important than points of dogma – it’s a question of feeding people or allowing them to starve. I never visited the Soviet Union for long enough to check out the statistics which appeared to show that most of the vegetables people ate had been sold on the free – as opposed to state – markets but I did compare the free and state markets in Beijing and other Chinese cities in the mid to late 1980’s. The free markets were more expensive but there was always food there. Somehow the meat, vegetables and rice there never seemed to get lost, delayed, or spoiled. By contrast the state markets were unreliable with regard to delivery times, quality, and choice. Some days there were deliveries, some days there weren’t. Sometimes there was a lot of rice, sometimes an overabundance of noodles but no rice for a fortnight. Sometimes the apples were wormy and inedible. Not ideal when you’re trying to feed your family and very wasteful of scarce resources.

Western Leftists might not have liked it since it seemed to disprove Marx’s worldview but those in charge of feeding people in China were forced to draw the necessary lessons. “What does the colour of the cat matter as long as it catches mice ?” observed Deng Zhao Peng in response to those in the Chinese Communist Party who wanted to stick to Marx‘s economic nostrums. It’s not even as if the state and the market were competing on an equal basis. Privately sold food was very much a minority phenomenon, even if it was keeping millions from starvation.

Those countries which “abolished” the free market – like North Korea and Albania – condemned, and still do in the latter case, their citizens to malnutrition and misery. Ask yourself which is the more “socialist” end result for people. Sticking to the dogma from another centuries’ holy book or keeping the population from starvation ?

The idea that markets are an inherently evil phenomenon associated exclusively with Capitalism is surprisingly prevalent amongst people who should know better. There are millions of “anti-capitalists” today amongst those who have never gone without food or been forced to pay over the odds for shoddy goods. There must be an alternative to the tyranny of the market they cry. Unfortunately they get confused between specific instances of abuses of power and inequalities which a democratic society is able to address and the efficient production, distribution, and exchange of goods that only markets can facilitate.

Any cursory analysis of pre-Capitalist economic formations will demonstrate that the market is merely a means of exchanging commodities. It has always existed, will always exist, and cannot be “abolished” even in North Korea where it has been made illegal unless the state can profit from it. A particularly egregious result which benefits no-one. All that can be achieved is to pretend to abolish it but secretly rely on it to feed the people which is what happened in the Soviet Union for much of its history.

In relation to the economic sphere I’ve got to conclude that Marx was a powerful critic of capitalism and not without extremely useful insights but that his prescriptions for a post-Capitalist future are – as the young folk of today so charmingly put it – well dodgy.

So, I’ve got to Part Three of this series and I still haven’t got round to answering the question I said I would – namely what can we salvage from socialism which still makes sense over a hundred and fifty tears on from it’s first written expression. I apologise. I did promise to answer the question and I’ve been sidetracked again by what hasn‘t stood the test of time rather than what has. The two activities – chucking out of unworkable dogma and preserving genuinely useful insights and analyses – are interlinked though. Now that most of the chaff has been winnowed I hope to be able to concentrate on the wheat. Let’s hope Socialism in an Age of Waiting Part Four will be where I finally get round to doing that.