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Parecon & Marxism – 3


[This continues the draft chapter on parecon and marxism...]

Marxism Is For Coordinators?

When I argue that coordinatorism is celebrated as the goal of struggle in every Marxist text that offers a serious economic vision, many Marxists are likely to reply that “that is utterly false–for Marx and for every genuine Marxist who followed him. The `goal of struggle’ in every text that takes up this question is a society characterized by mass working-class participation, democracy, and freedom.”


Well, I think that what this Marxist says is true, at least about Marxist rhetoric, but that nonetheless what I claim is true about Marxist reality, at least regarding “serious economic vision.”

I don’t say, in other words, that Marxists never trumpet working class participation and control. Or that they never seriously desire it, as individuals. I say only that they don’t offer a vision that yields that result, or that is even consistent with that result. I say that every serious Marxist formulation of what an economy ought to have as its defining institutions, including of course, what Marxists have done in practice — is coordinatorist.

Now I have to admit, this is an exaggeration. There have been some Marxists, most particularly the “council communists” such as Rudolf Rocker and Anton Pannekoek among others, who tried to describe a truly socialist — in the positive sense — vision. I feel that while their intentions were very admirable and likewise for a great many insight s they offered, they just didn’t get very far into the institutions of a new vision, though others might feel that is too dismissive. But the main point is they are the exception that proves the rule, at least in my view. Thus, they ought to be extolled as the best Marxism has had to offer but instead, they are literally ignored, to my knowledge, by large Marxist parties the world round.

As to its serious economic vision — put every Marxist text written about economics in a pile. I am willing to bet that to the extent that they provide a serious vision which is to say an institutional explanation of allocation mechanisms, incentives, the distribution of income, producer decision making, and so on — they will advocate overwhelmingly and perhaps even exclusively, the institutions that I mentioned above as being those parecon rejects.

Not People At Fault, Institutions

Put another way, the problem isn’t bad people. Yes, Stalin was a bad guy, to put it mildly. But the real and lasting problem was the institutions that selected and elevated a thug like Stalin. The problem with Marxism Leninism isn’t that everybody in those parties wants to trample workers on the road to ruling them, which is of course utterly false. The problem is that those parties and their core concepts, however well meaning most adherents may be, lead to that outcome.

None of us is immune to the pressures of our circumstances. On average the Marxist concepts that organize our thoughts and the Leninist organizational structures and strategies we abide, together have a built-in logic elevating coordinators and are overwhelmingly likely to cause us, even against our best inclinations and aspirations, to do just that: elevate coordinators.

Become a police officer or prison guard in a capitalist society, even with the best motives, and the odds that are you aren’t going to serve the people with sympathy and respect. Moreover, some who take this route will become grotesque agents of repression.

Become a lawyer or surgeon in a capitalist society, even with the best motives, and the odds are that you aren’t going to be a paragon of justice but an elitist coordinatorist person, even against your best inclinations.

Become a Leninist, with the very best of motives — the very very best — and the odds are you aren’t going to make a revolution in our modern world, I think, for want of diverse focus and especially for want of true working class appeal, but if you do make a revolution, the odds are your achievement will, even against your hopes, elevate coordinators to economic rule, not workers.

Some Marxists find this claim personally insulting. I don’t think it should be. It isn’t a comment about particular people. It is a comment about concepts, methods, and institutional allegiances and their predictable impact on groups of people.

I am saying, in other words, that I think certain concepts and views, even in the hands of wonderful people, even as those people sincerely proclaim their contrary desires, lead to results that all people of good will, including themselves, would at the outset say they reject.

So do I think that parecon is contrary ultimately to many of Leninism’s and even of Marxism’s inclinations? Yes, of course I do. But that doesn’t mean I think every person who calls themselves Marxist will be blind to a good thing when it comes along. I expect lots and lots of Marxists to become advocates of parecon. It is already, in fact, happening. I’ll also be happy about it when a Marxist party decides to advocate participatory economics, something that may take longer, but will likely also happen, and perhaps repeatedly.

Concepts and Collective Behavior

Let me try getting at all this still one more way. When Richard Wright, the celebrated black American novelist and commentator, said his goodbyes to Communism he wrote:

“An hour’s listening disclosed the fanatical intolerance of minds sealed against new ideas, new facts, new feelings, new attitudes, new hints at ways to live. They denounced books they had never read, people they had never known, ideas they could never understand, and doctrines whose names they could not pronounce. Communism, instead of making them leap forward with fire in their hearts to become masters of ideas and life, had frozen them at an even lower level of ignorance than had been theirs before they met Communism.”

Talking about Marxism most broadly, I must admit that there is a sense in which Wright’s anguished comment encapsulates my views as well – not of every Marxist, of course, but of Marxism as it plays out on average for organized movements and particularly in Leninist parties. But in this chapter I focused on only two central issues where I think criticism may lead most constructively forward.

First, Marxism’s concepts tend to over emphasize the defining influences arising from economics, and to under emphasize the defining influences arising from gender/kinship, community/culture, and polity.

This doesn’t mean that all (or even any) Marxists will ignore everything other than economics, nor even that all (or even any) Marxists won’t care greatly about other matters.

It means, instead, that when Marxists address the sex life of teenagers, marriage, the nuclear family, religion, racial identity, religion, cultural commitments, sexual preferences, political organization, war and peace, and ecology, they will overwhelmingly tend to highlight causes arising from class struggle and implications for class struggle and to deemphasize concerns rooted in the specific features of race, gender, power, and nature.

This criticism predicts, that is, that Marxist movements may respect innovations coming from other viewpoints when movements force them to do so, but that Marxists will not generate many original and useful insights themselves regarding analysis and aims for polity, culture, and kinship.

It predicts, as well, that Marxism’s concepts will not sufficiently offset tendencies imposed by society, by circumstances of struggle, or by tactical choices that generate authoritarian, racist, or sexist trends — even against the best moral and social inclinations of most Marxists.

And it therefore also predicts that we will see some pretty horrible results regarding race, gender, culture, ecology, and political organization from Marxist movements in struggle and especially from Marxist movements in power, as we most certainly have.

In other words, my claims about Marxism’s “economism” do not predict monomania about economics or even a universal and inviolable pattern of over adherence to economics and under adherence to everything else, but, instead, they predict a harmful pattern of imbalance that arises and persists on average.

Second and less tractable to correction, Marxism’s concepts fail to highlight a (coordinator) class between labor and capital defined primarily by its relation in the division of labor and not by matters of ownership or political bureaucracy.

Marxism inadequately understands the post capitalist mode of production it positively calls “socialist” or critically calls “state capitalist,” and it fails to see that this type economy elevates neither capitalists nor workers to ruling economic status, but elevates instead what I call the coordinator class of planners, managers, and other empowered actors in the economy.

Likewise, Marxism typically favors markets or central planning for allocation, public or state ownership for control of assets, remuneration for output or for power (and sometimes, for need) to determine distribution of income, plus corporate divisions of labor to define workplace organization. And regardless of hopes or intents, these commitments all propel coordinator outcomes.

Notice, this doesn’t say that most (or arguably even any) individual Marxists are self-consciously trying to advance the interests of managers and other empowered actors over and above workers. It says, instead, that the concepts within Marxism do little to prevent this elevation of the coordinator class and even propel it in various ways, so that we can expect to see coordinator economic dominance emerging from successful Marxist movements regardless of the sentiments of the movement’s rank and file and the slogans of its leadership – as we have in fact seen historically every time.

Non Economistic Marxism?

What is an antidote for the two highlighted problems? Regarding economism, the problem is a conceptual framework that starts from economics and only then enters into other realms derivatively and with the primary intention of seeing economic implications. I proposed that we ought to instead begin with concepts that simultaneously highlight economics, polity, kinship, and culture. We ought to use concepts that first prioritize understanding each of these sphere’s own logic and dynamics, and that second prioritize seeing how each sphere influences and even limits and defines the others. In these two steps our new conceptual framework should posit no a priori hierarchy of importance to these spheres of life, but should instead see how they work out in practice. I have urged that this approach will more likely yield thorough insights about racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, homophobia, and authoritarianism (as well as economics), than will starting with economics only as our foundation.

In other words, I have argued a multi-focus approach will better push activists toward useful insights about all these spheres of social life and better ward off pressures to be narrow or even reactionary regarding any of them. The argument is structurally like one that says that starting from kinship and gender, or from polity, or from culture, and trying to understand society primarily based on that focus and in terms of affects on it, is unlikely to be as insightful regarding economics as is starting (as well) from economics — an argument that I think virtually all Marxists accept.

And I have noted as well a possible correction of this type economism even within the broad rubric of Marxism. A person could say, for example, “I am Marxist but I am also feminist, multi-culturalist, anarchist, and green, and I recognize that dynamics arising from spheres of life other than the economy are critically important and can even define economic possibilities, just as the reverse can occur. Yes, of course I still think class struggle is critical to social change, but I realize it is not alone critical. Gender, race, religious, ethnic, sexual, and anti-authoritarian struggles are also critical. I realize that just as we need to understand non-class phenomena in their relation to class struggle, we also have to understand economic phenomena in their relation to gender, race, and political conflicts.”

But, if this new Marxist, and there are many like this, renounces ideas of economic base and extra-economic superstructure, rejects historical materialism as typically understood to impact history overwhelmingly only from modes of production, and transcends seeing class struggle as the alone dominant conceptual framework for identifying strategic issues — will still calling him or herself a “Marxist” continue to mean what it meant in the past? Will the label “Marxist” connote what the multi-focus activist intends his or her self description to connote? I don’t think so, but I can imagine overcoming this communicative problem as well.

Working Class Marxism?

In contrast to the above, the class-definition difficulty of Marxism seems more deep going. The basic problem is straightforward. Capitalists are capitalist by virtue of their private ownership of the means of production. No longer having capitalists above workers requires, therefore that private ownership must be replaced. So far, so good. But there is, however, another class above workers, located between labor and capital, that I call coordinators.

Coordinators are made coordinator by virtue of market or centrally planned allocation and hierarchical divisions of labor that allot to them a virtual monopoly on empowering tasks as well as the levers and requisites of daily decision making. No longer having coordinators above workers requires, therefore, that those features too must be replaced. The problem is, Marxist visions don’t generally reject markets, central planning, and especially hierarchical divisions of labor, much less try to replace them. It is parecon that does all that.

Yes, Marxists sometimes talk about a class between labor and capital – but they do so primarily in political terms, asserting that its roots derive from Stalinism. They rarely see a third class between labor and capital deriving from the economic division of labor and from economic modes of allocation (not from ownership or politics). And they do not see, therefore, that markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor are a source of class division and of a ruling class other than capitalists above labor, even if private ownership is eliminated and the state remains or becomes democratic.

Marxists do not, in this regard, offer a clear institutional statement of truly classless institutional aims regarding economic decision-making, divisions of labor, workplace organization, remuneration, and allocation.

Yes, Marxists often offer descriptions of the justice, equity, and dignity that “socialism” should usher in. And these descriptions are often eloquent and worthy statements that any advocate of justice can support. But, if we look at texts by Marxists to see descriptions of institutions that will propel these proposed values, we find either vague rhetoric that lacks institutional substance, or, when there is real institutional description, we find advocacy of institutions that are properly labeled market coordinatorist and/or centrally planned coordinatorist. And when we look at Marxist practice, we find these same coordinatorist structures universally implemented, and likewise within Marxist movements, even those out of power.

But could a Marxist transcend this problem too, and yet continue to see him or herself as a Marxist?

I don’t know – but, if a Marxist does follow that path, I think signs that it has occurred would be obvious. For example, such new Marxists would disavow what has been called socialism in countries around the world, not by calling it capitalism or even state capitalism or by calling it deformed socialism, but by recognizing it as a third mode of production that enshrines a different class above workers.

More, such new Marxists would offer a new economic vision contrary to coordinatorism, and this new vision would very explicitly dispense with markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor since these provide more empowering work to some people and less empowering work to others, as well as dispense with modes of remuneration that reward property, power, or output.

Additionally, to transcend rhetoric and get beyond mere rejection to providing aims that can orient strategy, such new Marxists would not arrogantly present a full blueprint for the future, of course–but they would propose major defining institutions to seek in place of all rejected options. (The ones parecon offers are councils, remuneration for effort, balanced job complexes, self management decision norms, and participatory planning.)

And finally, such Marxists would also advocate internal movement organization, methods, and programs that would embody, propel, and actually arrive at these positive aims, rather than approaches that would obviously obstruct their attainment.

Not just vision, then, but also strategy is at stake. It is one thing–and correct–to say that we can only reach a better future by acting from where we are in the present. Our efforts must arise from the grounds we occupy. That’s a truism, of course, not just a Marxist advisory.

For getting from capitalism to a better economy as well as for getting from New York to Bangkok, say, you have to start from where you initially are. You can’t make a trip unless you leave from your initial position taking into account, of course, your options as they are defined in the present. To do otherwise is dissociated from realty or, in the political case, “utopian.”

But, having said this, it is also true that you won’t get from New York to Bangkok by bicycle, nor in a plane with insufficient fuel, nor via a hot air balloon, nor by going to the bus station, nor by going in the wrong direction by plane, and so on. Strategy has to be rooted in the starting context, for sure, but it also has to aim for the sought destination. If not, strategy is very likely to lead somewhere other than where one hopes to wind up.

In the context of this chapter, my related point has been that strategies for social change need to self-consciously seek to overcome coordinator class rule. If they instead embody organizational choices and methods that elevate coordinator class consciousness and attitudes to central authority…such as employing centralist parties and advocating markets, central planning, and corporate divisions of labor…they will not only not eliminate coordinator class rule, they will entrench it–and Marxism’s flaws lead to this result regardless of the desire of many Marxists to end up someplace much nicer than coordinatorism.

For Marxists to talk about workers liberating themselves is wonderful. However, Marxists proposing that workers should do this by methods which will subordinate workers to a domineering (coordinator) class in the seeking of a new economy and that will make that domineering (coordinator) class the ruling class once the new economy is attained, undoes the virtues of their rhetoric however heartfelt their aspirations may be

But what about the relation of Marxists who seek to correct the error of ignoring coordinatorism to the heritage that they previously celebrated?

Well, I doubt such new Marxists would call themselves Leninist or Trotskyist, but even if they did, they would certainly disavow huge swaths of associated thoughts and actions. Thus, instead of always quoting Lenin and Trotsky positively, for example, they would forthrightly and aggressively reject Lenin saying:

“It is absolutely essential that all authority in the factories should be concentrated in the hands of management.”

And reject him saying:

“Any direct intervention by the trade unions in the management of enterprises must be regarded as positively harmful and impermissible.”

And saying:

“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.”

And saying:

“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.”

And so on.

And they would reject Trotsky saying (about left communists):

“They turn democratic principles into a fetish. They put the right of the workers to elect their own representatives above the Party, thus challenging the Party’s right to affirm its own dictatorship, even when this dictatorship comes into conflict with the evanescent mood of the worker’s democracy. We must bear in mind the historical mission of our Party. The Party is forced to maintain its dictatorship, without stopping for these vacillations, nor even the momentary falterings of the working class. This realization is the mortar which cements our unity. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not always have to conform to formal principles of democracy.”

And reject him saying:

“It is a general rule that man will try to get out of work. Man is a lazy animal.”

And saying (with pride):

“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.”

And so on.

More positively, if the topic came up, such new Marxists would indicate how they would have done things differently than the Bolsheviks and than every Marxist party since the Bolsheviks.

For example, regarding the Bolsheviks, they might point out that the shop committee movement in Russia was moving in 1917-18 towards a National Congress to take over grassroots planning and coordination of the economy and note that unlike the Bolsheviks they would have seen such local agents as the best locus of planning rather than preferring the state. They might also note that Power to the Shop Committees was what the anarcho-syndicalists argued at the First All-Russian Trade Union Congress in January 1918, and indicate that they would have supported the anarchists in that, instead of opposing them, as the Bolsheviks did.

These new Marxists, noting that the Bolsheviks voted at that Trade Union Congress along with the Mensheviks and SRs to dissolve the shop committees into the trade unions and advocated “union management” of the economy, might say they would have at least stuck with that compromise instead of devolving by 1921 into advocating replacing union management with the still worse top-down “one-man management.”

Instead of a hierarchical army these new Marxists might indicate that they would have favored using a militia based on the mass organizations, like the Revolutionary Army of the Ukraine. They might note that arguing, as supporters of Bolshevism do, that this would have been ineffective against the whites would be unreasonable given that it was the revolutionary army of the Ukraine that saved the Bolsheviks during the winter of 1919, when they attacked the white army besieging Moscow from the rear, destroying it.

And instead of invading the Ukraine with the Red Army to crush the People’s Congress of the eastern Ukraine in 1921, as the Bolsheviks did, these new Marxists might indicate that they would have supported the Congress and helped it expand into the western Ukraine.

These new Marxists would note that instead of invading Kronstadt in 1921 and crushing the Soviet there, they would have agreed to the Kronstadter’s demands for new elections to the Soviets, even if this meant that the Bolsheviks would have to go into opposition.

More, these new Marxists would note more generally that hierarchical structures in political institutions risk ushering in coordinator rule (as well as creating an environment uncongenial, in the modern era, to widespread worker involvement) and also provoke political authoritarianism, and if they wanted to argue that in some difficult contexts such structures had to be employed, they would urge seeing them as a temporarily imposed expedient, and would make that clear, and in all other respects would try to pave the way for non-hierarchical relations, now and in the future.

And, finally, being attuned to the broader comprehension of class definition and working class liberation, these new Marxists would not say that everyone who sees vision and strategy differently than them but calls themselves a Marxist, is a Stalinist. They would instead recognize that Marxism is a very incomplete framework and leads most people who adopt it to unworthy positions, even against their personal inclinations.

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