Socialism, Market Socialism

04 Jan 2024 11:15

Political control of economic life is not the consummation of world history, the fulfilment of destiny, or the imposition of righteousness; it is a painful necessity.
---Ernest Gellner, The Rest of History [archived copies] (1996)

Notoriously, of course, many millions of people (among them most of my mother's family, since the 1830s) have thought that the political control of economic life was the consummation of history, the fulfilment of destiny, the prelude to the rule of the saints. (In the early '90s, a Berkeley street-band played a rousing version of "When the Saints Come Marching In" which alternated the title line with "when the red revolution comes.") Incredible things were done in the name of this messianic, millenarian belief, some of them noble and heroic (like resistance to Fascism, and the creation of democratic welfare states), others scarcely matched for wickedness (like Stalin's purges and deliberate famines) and stupidity (like Mao's Great Leap Forward and apparently unintentional but highly foreseeable famines).

Attempts to define socialism are as futile as attempts to define democracy, justice, religion, or, indeed, almost anything else outside of formal deductive systems, like mathematics. Accordingly, I shan't even play at that game here. (Defining "true socialism" is even more pointless.) Generally, though, socialism includes some notion that the economy should not just be under political control, but that that control should be exercised for the common good, and in the direction of eliminating destitution and minimizing inequalities. In the abstract, I think this is an excellent thing; but God and the Devil both are in the details, to which we socialists have, typically, given far less thought than they deserve, to the point, sometimes, of criminal folly.

"Market socialism" is a current of ideas, starting (more or less) with the Polish economist Oskar Lange, for how to make extensive use of markets without thereby creating gross economic and political inequality. Making rational economic decisions about really big, unavoidably political issues, like, say, education or public health is hard enough; there's no reason to add to the burden any more than it has to be, and markets are very good at letting us live our economic lives without thinking too hard about them. (As Whitehead said someplace, it's a profound mistake to believe that we should think about what we are doing.) On the other hand, modern states are powerful enough as things stand; to turn the economy wholly over to them is a bad idea. To combine markets with socialism seems like an elegant and feasible solution, at least technically, and it's one which I support; I've discussed the details elsewhere. (I don't think it has a chance in hell of being realized anytime soon; but part of being a hereditary leftists is an irresistable attraction to lost causes.) It seems disrespectful to the defining political idea of the twentith century to reduce it to work-a-day and unheroic and reformist policy proposals; but better this disrespect from its friends than the crimes of its fanatics.

The history of socialist movements is complex and fascinating, bound up with the histories of organized labor, of economics and left-wing politics in general, and, less honorably, with that of revolutions and totalitarianism. Leftists, of course, tend to be historically-minded, so we're very good at writing our own histories, at remembering ancient incidents and finding precedents in them. Of course, like everyone else, we're also very good at convenient amnesia. Few of us care to remember just how much support the Soviets had, long after it had become clear to anybody with an eye cracked open that they were far, far worse than capitalist democracies, and in a league (after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, literally) with the Fascists. (That topic deserves a separate notebook, in lieu of which it'll get some jottings here.)

See also: Communism (the most important socialist movement of the 20th century); the Left; Karl Marx; Marxism(s); Otto Neurath; Planned Economies; Project Cybersyn; the Socialist Calculation Debate; USSR