from the pages of ../


Dear Robert

Michael Albert


Robert Heilbroner is a respected professor from the New School of Social Research and the author of important studies on economic history and Marxism. In New Perspectives Quarterly (Fall 1989), he says, "Less than 75 years after the contest between capitalism and socialism officially began, it is over: capitalism has won." He adds, for the first time in his life, "the tumultuous changes taking place in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe have given us the clearest possible proof that capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism." And though Heilbroner hasn't proclaimed an "end to history," he does say "we are finally coming to grips with the end of the economic century. From now on, the main problems will not be economic, but cultural and political."

You say socialist aims are moral but impractical? Capitalist economy is the apogee of innovation? Exploitation is yesterday's concern? I beg to differ. From Seattle to Sarasota and from Dallas to Detroit "everything is broken."

Leipzig's East German economy can't enrich Leipzig's elites or its downtrodden. Is capitalism better because in Chicago the elites get richer and the downtrodden get nothing?

Budapest's bureaucrats fall like dominos. Is capitalism better because Washington's power brokers leave office only to go to jail, or become CEOs?

In Berlin and Prague citizens are demonstrating in the streets. Is capitalism better because residents of New York and Dallas prefer to watch TV?

How do any of the tumultuous events in Eastern Europe censure socialism?

Soviets, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans all call themselves "socialist." Henry Kissinger calls them "socialist." The New York Times calls them "socialist." Nearly all Western Marxists call them "socialist." Folks on the street, East and West, call them "socialist." So doesn't the recent chaos mean socialism is dying, as Heilbroner claims?

No, socialism has not yet been born, so how could it possibly be dying? People fleeing East Germany have never experienced socialism. They can't be rejecting it. Whatever we call them—I choose "coordinatorism"—the economies of the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe eliminate private ownership of the means of production and incorporate markets and/or central planning to organize allocation. A few people give orders. Many people carry them out. Coordinatorism's ruling class monopolizes decision-making, higher education, and material perks above the heads of traditional workers. This is the system about which a Soviet economist, Nikolai Shemelev, wrote recently,

Massive apathy, indifference, theft, and disrespect for honest labor together with aggressive envy toward those who earn more—even by honest methods—have led to the virtual physical degradation of a significant part of the people as a result of alcoholism and idleness. There is a lack of belief in the officially announced objectives and purposes, in the very possibility of a more rational organization of social and economic life...

Aside from the fact that this sounds like downtown Detroit, Shemelev's indictment tells us nothing about genuine socialism and about humanity in general. It tells us only "what all schoolchildren learn / That those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return." (W. H. Auden)

In real socialism—which doesn't yet exist—participatory self-management will organize economic allocation so socialist workplaces will employ equitable, democratic councils and working people will collectively administer their own productive lives, economic allocation, and social investment. No ruling class will dominate workers' days and expropriate their energies. Not having evil done to them, workers will not do evil to others, nor will they wallow in "alcohol or idleness."

If any of you believe that in Leningrad working people have until now socialistically controlled their machine-tool assembly lines, decided their Lada (car) designs, and determined who gets to eat the wheat they grow or be warmed by the coal they mine, then the current crises will leave you feeling that people are creatures of such decrepit design that an economy organized on the basis of institutional competition and control is the only antidote to intrinsic human sloth. But this conclusion does not follow from the facts. (1) The economies now failing have never had socialist organization. (2) Heilbroner aside, their failure neither condemns socialism nor elevates capitalism.

Following the fine and sober book by Hungarians George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich), we can transcend the U.S. government, the Soviet government, the New York Times, and most Western Marxists, to see that in the Eastern bloc, as in the West, intellectuals' earnings substantially exceed worker's earnings. White-collar people live in larger and more comfortable dwellings in more pleasant neighborhoods. They get quicker permission to settle in the cities, to live in subsidized housing with superior services, and to travel. They live relatively close to their places of work while a good part of the working class must commute from ill-serviced villages. Children of the intelligentsia attend better schools and attain university-level degrees in higher proportion. Only intellectuals and their dependents gain entry to special hospitals providing outstanding care for state and party officials. Even the cafeterias of institutions employing mostly intellectuals offer better and more varied meals than factory canteens. More important, Konrad and Szelenyi also tell us,

For all his [sic] alleged `leading role,' [the worker in these economies] has just as little say in the high- or low-level decisions of his enterprise as the worker in a capitalist plant. He has no voice in deciding whether operations will be expanded or cut back, what will be produced, what kind of equipment he will use and what direction (if any) technical development will take, whether he will work for piece rates or receive an hourly wage, how performance will be measured and production norms calculated, how workers' wages will evolve relative to the profitability of the enterprise, or how the authority structure of the plant, from managing director to shop foreman, will operate.

Workers get what they can the same way in the East as in the West, by demanding and sometimes winning it.

Capitalism and coordinatorism are different systems having different strengths and weaknesses. But in both capitalism and coordinatorism "labor is external to the worker. Workers do not affirm themselves in their work. They do not feel content but unhappy." Work does not "freely develop workers' physical and mental energies" but "mortifies their body and ruins their minds." Workers "only feel themselves outside their work, and in their work feel outside themselves." They are "at home when they are not working and when they are working they are not at home." "Workers' labor is therefore not voluntary but coerced; it is forced labor." Finally, it is "not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it." (Karl Marx)

Perhaps the biggest difference between East Germany and East New Jersey is that there coercion and fear induce cynicism to diminish class struggle, while here media manipulation induces cynicism to diminish class struggle. Choosing between TV and truncheons, Heilbroner tells us, is the human condition. Having malls with miles of aisles for those who can pay while the poor dine out of dumpsters decides Heilbroner for the "tube" over "truncheons."

So who benefits from work in coordinator economies if not the workers? Konrad and Szelenyi don't hedge: "The Communist parties, after coming to power, quickly dissolved or transformed every organization in which only workers participated, from workers' councils, factory committees, and trade unions, to workers' singing societies, theatrical groups, and sports clubs...." From this Konrad and Szelenyi deduce that Bolshevism "offered the intellectuals a program for freeing themselves of the duty of representing particular interests once power had been secured, and it used particular interests simply as a means of acquiring power." They conclude that:

With the expropriation of the expropriators—that is, with the transfer of the right to dispose over the surplus product from landlords and capitalists to intellectuals in power, or to worker cadres whose political positions and functions made intellectuals of them—and with the destruction of the immediate producers' organs of management and control, the Bolsheviks traced the outlines of a new rational-redistributive system [that I have been calling `coordinatorism'].

The myth of "Soviet socialism" and the power of its tanks have periodically crushed working people's aspirations to develop new economic visions. Now, with the seeming collapse of coordinatorism, sensible people like Heilbroner suggest taking socialism permanently off the human agenda. He wants to cement the cage of capitalism around us for all time. Is this political maturity?

You may hear me, but you don't agree. My words imply that even the Bolshevik revolution wasn't socialist, and this claim, you say, shows that I'm grasping at straws, unwilling to release my dreams of economic liberation when cornered by Heilbroner's deduction of capitalism's conquest.

My central argument is this: The choices for developed economic institutions are threefold, not twofold. The weakness of coordinatorism—now moving from a central planning to a market emphasis—doesn't imply capitalism is the only remaining choice. In coordinatorism central planning ensures that workers obey orders (as in the Soviet Union), or that markets elevate technocratic accounting while subordinating workers to coordinator intellectuals and managers (as in Hungary). Weighing its plusses and minuses coordinatorism stinks, yes. But socialism is still a desirable alternative. Here's why.

Coordinatorism distributes productive responsibilities so some people do primarily conceptual, administrative, and creative tasks (the coordinators), while others do primarily rote and delegated tasks (the workers), with the former ruling the latter. Socialism will distribute productive responsibilities so that everyone has a balanced mix of tasks and opportunities conveying a fair measure of intellectual and rote, conceptual and executionary labor, with all workers prepared to play a proportionate role in determining events.

Even if coordinatorism in Eastern Europe, China, and the Soviet Union entirely collapses, this would indicate nothing about socialism other than that we still ought to give it a try. Karl Marx said about desirable economic production:

In the individual expression of my own life I would have brought about the immediate expression of your life, and so in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realized my authentic nature, my human, communal nature. Our productions would be as many mirrors from which our natures would shine forth. This relation would be mutual: What applies to me would also apply to you. My labor would be the free expression and hence the enjoyment of life.

This sentiment is socialist. It rejects regimented central planning and competitive markets.

Leon Trotsky, a famous creator of the coordinator system said: "[One-man-management] may be correct or incorrect from the point of view of the technique of administration...." The social rule of workers over society "is expressed...not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered." That is, we can leave the usual factory hierarchy familiar to capitalism in place so long as central administrators rule "in the interests of workers." But, adds Trotsky, "It is a general rule that man will try to get out of work. Man is a lazy animal." So naturally the upper-echelon comrades must sometimes coerce workers for their own good—as in smashing workers' autonomous organizations. Finally Trotsky added:

I consider that if the Civil War had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man management much sooner and much less painfully."

In other words, Trotsky didn't gravitate toward coordinator structures out of Civil War-compelled necessity, as apologists maintain, but because he preferred it. Moreover, by "less pain" he can only mean that he thought there would have been a reduced need to kill working-class dissidents and smash autonomous workplace organizations if these had not had the chance to grow during the civil turmoil, as if that turmoil and not worker desires for liberty was the primary prod to the class-conscious opposition he crushed. These elitist sentiments defined Trotsky's agenda for society.

William Morris, who obviously had little effect on Trotsky, was an early socialist who urged:

What is it that makes people happy? Free and full life ... the pleasurable exercise of our energies.... I think that is happiness for all, and covers all the difference of capacity from the most energetic to the laziest. Now whatever interferes with that freedom and fullness of life, under whatever guise it may come, is an evil; is something to be got rid of as speedily as possible. It ought not to be endured by reasonable men [and women], who naturally wish to be happy.

Lenin, in contrast, evidenced a coordinator orientation when he said: "It is absolutely essential that all authority in the factories should be concentrated in the hands of management." He followed this coordinatorist logic to its tragic conclusion noting that "any direct intervention by the trade unions in the management of enterprises must be regarded as positively harmful and impermissible," and therefore deserving repression, overseen by him ..."Large-scale machine industry, which is the central productive source and foundation of socialism calls for absolute and strict unity of will... How can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one."

For Lenin, like Trotsky, the "will of one" could be just. In his response to dissident workers who wanted more influence of their own, Lenin said:

A producer's congress! What precisely does that mean? It is difficult to find words to describe this folly. I keep asking myself, can they be joking? Can one really take these people seriously? While production is always necessary, democracy is not. Democracy of production engenders a series of radically false ideas.

Perhaps one of the radically false ideas Lenin had in mind was that work should become "a free expression and hence the enjoyment of life." Rosa Luxemburg highlighted the essence of a truly socialist disposition in her criticism of the Bolsheviks:

Finally we saw the birth of a far more legitimate offspring of the historical process: The Russian workers' movement, which for the first time, gave expression to the real will of the popular masses. Then the leadership of the Russian revolution leapt up to balance on their shoulders, and once more appointed itself the all powerful director of history, this time in the person of his highness the Central Committee of the Social Democratic Workers Party. This skillful acrobat did not even realize that the only one capable of playing the part of director is the collective ego of the working class, which has sovereign right to make mistakes and to learn the dialectics of history by itself. Let us put it quite bluntly: The errors committed by a truly revolutionary workers' movement are historically far more fruitful than the correct decisions of the finest Central Committee.

Luxemburg also captured the difference between coordinatorist and socialist inclinations when she said:

The discipline which Lenin has in mind is driven home to the proletariat not only in the factory, but in the barracks, and by all sorts of bureaucracies, in short by the whole power machine of the centralized bourgeois state... It is an abuse of words to apply the same term `discipline' to such unrelated concepts as the mindless reflex motions of a body with a thousand hands and a thousand legs, and the spontaneous coordination of the conscious political acts of a group of men. What can the well- ordered docility of the former have in common with the aspirations of a class struggling for its emancipation?

More recently, Noam Chomsky tells us that since the Bolshevik Revolution, "Both of the major world propaganda systems have described this destruction of socialist elements as a victory of socialism. For Western capitalism, the purpose is to defame socialism by associating it with Moscow's tyranny; for the Bolsheviks, the purpose was to gain legitimacy by appeal to the goals of authentic socialism." Chomsky also notes that "this two-pronged ideological assault, combined with other devices available to those with real power, has dealt a severe blow to libertarian socialist currents that once had considerable vitality, though the popular commitments to such ideals constantly reveal themselves in many ways."

But to rebut the "two-pronged assault" Chomsky says,

My own hopes and intuitions are that self-fulfilling and creative work is a fundamental human need, and that the pleasures of a challenge met, a work well done, the exercise of skill and craft, are real and significant, and are an essential part of a full and meaningful life. The same is true of the opportunity to understand and enjoy the achievements of others, which often go beyond what we ourselves can do, and to work constructively in cooperation with others.... The task for a modern industrial society is to achieve what is now technically realizable, namely a society which is really based on free voluntary participation of people who produce and create, live their lives freely within institutions they control, and with limited hierarchical structures, possibly none at all.

And that is the socialist point. Not merely to understand the economy. Not to change it into a new but still class-divided system. But to make it classless via a reorganization of production, consumption, and allocation that elevates social solidarity, collective self-management, and productive diversity to the highest priority.

To consign true socialist sentiments and activist program to history's ash can on the grounds that coordinator economies have finally begun to crumble under the dead weight of their own hypocrisy is a convenient non-sequitur for champions of capitalism.

Clarifying the ills of capitalism and coordinatorism and determining what a real socialism can be like so that we can then act on the insights is harder, more dangerous, and less lucrative than currying media favor with triumphal pronouncements about "the end of history" or the "victory of capitalism." But it is also honest, dignified, and for anyone who seeks true liberty, pragmatic.

In the East people are trying to attain something better than they have had. Their efforts graphically demonstrate the power of people in struggle and thus the efficacy of opposition to injustice, there and here. We should hope that they are not side-tracked by Twinkies, TV, and Toyotas.