Excerpt from the introduction to Looking Forward (sep 1990)



Following the fine and sober book by the 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 workers do not and never have ruled their own economic lives. There, as in the West, intellectuals’ earnings are considerably higher than workers’ earnings. White – collar conceptual workers live in larger, more comfortable dwellings in better neighborhoods. They get quicker permission to settle in the cities and to inhabit subsidized housing with superior services. They live relatively close to their places of work, while a good part of the working class is obliged to commute from ill – serviced villages or suburban ghettos. Children of the intelligentsia go to better schools and attain university 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 meals than factory canteens.


More important, Konrad and Szelenyi also tell us that, "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, then, get what they can the same way in the East as in the West – by demanding and occasionally winning it – here from capitalists, there from coordinators.


In capitalism, capitalists own the means of production, use markets for allocation, define the purpose and character of work, and hire and fire workers (and managers). In coordinatorism, capitalists are gone. Managers, planners, engineers, and other intellectuals define work, using either central planning or markets for allocation. Workers continue to carry out tasks defined by others.


While their class structures and internal dynamics yield different allocations of wealth and income, in one respect these two systems closely resemble each other: "labor is external to the worker." Ironically, these words that Marx wrote to describe capitalism apply as well to coordinatorism. "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." It is "not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it." The contest between the U.S. and the Soviet economic systems has always been largely irrelevant for workers since neither system serves them and both oppress them.

So whose "needs external to it" do govern work in coordinator economies? 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 [i.e. coordinatorism]."


Coordinatorism distributes productive responsibilities so that some people (the coordinators) do primarily conceptual, administrative, and creative tasks, while others (the workers) do primarily rote tasks defined by others; that is, the former rule the latter. But the promise of economic liberation has always been to distribute productive responsibilities so that everyone has a fair share of opportunities for performing conceptual and executionary labor with all workers thereby entitled and prepared to play a proportionate role in determining events. This is a "third way."


So the choices for modem economic institutions are threefold capitalism, coordinatorism, and what we call "participatory economics." The failure of coordinatorism doesn’t imply that the only remaining option is capitalism.


For readers versed in the relevant history, it is instructive to remember what Karl Marx said about desirable economies in his Philosophic Manuscripts: "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…. My labor would be the free expression and hence the enjoyment of life." This sentiment was and is liberating. But it has nothing in common with regimented central planning, the competitive selfishness of markets, or the authoritarian sentiments of official Marxism itself. Therefore the failure of these systems says nothing about the efficacy of trying to make our labors "the free expression and hence the enjoyment of life."


The Origins of Coordinatorism


So where did coordinatorism begin? Few commentators today have anything nice to say about Stalin, but the problems of Eastern bloc coordinatorism and political authoritarianism began much earlier. In other writings, listed on page 6, we have traced contemporary difficulties back to weaknesses in the original Marxist theoretical framework. Here we illustrate the anti – egalitarian and antiparticipatory sentiments of the leaders of the Russian revolution.


Leon Trotsky, a famous creator of the first coordinator economic system, said that the social rule of workers over society "is expressed … not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered." That is, Trotsky felt it would be fine for the Bolsheviks to leave the usual factory hierarchy in place so long as central administrators like himself ruled "in the interests of workers." As to why Trotsky championed "one – man management" in the factory we need took no further than his cynical view of human nature: "It is a general rule that man will try to get out of work. Man is a lazy animal." Naturally comrades at the center of society must sometimes coerce "lazy animals" for their own good. 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 reluctantly accede to coordinator structures out of necessities compelled by the Civil War, as apologists maintain, but because he preferred them. These elitist sentiments defined Trotsky’s agenda for society, a coordinator and not socialist agenda in which central administrators would appoint "one – man managers" who would rule over "lazy workers," in the workers’ own interests, of course. If autonomous workers’ organizations must be smashed in the process, so be it. They only prevent those such as Trotsky from protecting workers from the consequences of their own laziness – from ruling the workers to free them, so to speak. It is clear this coordinator agenda had nothing to do with making labor a "free expression and hence the enjoyment of life."


Lenin evidenced his own coordinator orientation when he argued: "It is absolutely essential that all authority in the factories should be concentrated in the hands of management." He followed this logic to its conclusion, noting that "any direct intervention by the trade unions in the management of enterprises must be regarded as positively harmful and impermissible." Whereas Trotsky appealed to a cynical view of human nature to justify coordinatorism, Lenin appealed to another bulwark of antidemocratic economic ideology, modem technology. "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." Apparently for Lenin, like Trotsky, it was sufficient that the "will of one" be well motivated, an analysis Stalin no doubt appreciated.

In response to workers who didn’t accept his self – serving analysis and demanded more say over economic policy, Lenin thundered: "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 be "the free expression and hence the enjoy­ment of life."

In contrast to the coordinator sentiments of Lenin and Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg expressed a liberatory disposition when she crit­icized 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 captured the difference between coordinator and liberatory inclinations when she said: "Me 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?"

The answer, of course, is nothing. The question that remains is whether we can create an economic system that is efficient, equi­table, and ecologically sound based on the self – organization and collective self – management of workers and consumers.


The Big Lie


Explaining the Orwellian semantics of the Heilbronian under­standing of the twentieth century, Noam Chomsky tells us in Language and Politics (Black Rose Books) 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 appealing to the goals of authentic socialism." In line with our own analysis, Chomsky also notes that "particularly since 1917, Marxism – or more accurately, Marxism – Leninism has become, as Bakunin predicted, the ideology of a ‘new class’ of revolutionary intelligentsia who exploit popular revolutionary struggles to seize state power. They proceed to impose a harsh and authoritarian rule to destroy socialist institutions, as Lenin and Trotsky destroyed the factory councils and soviets. They will also do what they can to undermine and destroy moves toward authentic socialism elsewhere, if only because of the ideological threat." Moreover, he adds, "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," in the same volume Chomsky tells an interviewer that "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, work well done, the exercise of skill and craftsmanship, 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 our purpose in this book. Not merely to help people understand the U.S. economy. Not to change it to a different form of class rule. But to help make it classless by reorganizing production, consumption, and allocation to elevate social solidarity, collective self – management, and productive diversity to the highest priority, reducing hierarchical structures until there are "possibly none at all."

To consign egalitarian and participatory sentiments to the ashcan of history on the grounds that the coordinator economies of the East have crumbled under the dead weight of their own authoritianism, inequity, and hypocrisy is a convenient nonsequitor for champions of capitalism. In the East people are currently seeking liberty. We should hope they are not sidetracked by Twinkies, Toyotas, and the manipulations of their leaders, eager to enjoy the even greater advantages that capitalism offers them. While the economic vision put forward in this book is motivated by activism in the United States, we think it is equally relevant and perhaps more timely for dissidents to the East, and, for that matter, to the South.


- Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel

 December 1990


Leave a comment