It’s Never Too Late To Move Beyond The Choices Of The Cold War

Dear Martin,

From Leeds to Oxford, our lives were like an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan: I as a “little liberal” and you as a “little communist”, your dad as a leader of the Communist party and mine of the Liberals. Both brought up in Yorkshire, we converged in the Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Society. Your Oxford Communist Club stood a little aloof from our enthusiasm at the May events in Paris. But nevertheless, you were, in 1968, part of a milieu which debated long into the night different visions and understandings of socialism. So I was taken aback to see you argue on these pages that socialism died 50 years ago under the Russian tanks in Budapest, and dismiss as fantasy any idea of a form of socialism radically different from Soviet-style command economy.

The dominant traditions in those debates were those of a radically democratic socialism developed as we opposed the US war on Vietnam on the one hand, and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia on the other. We were explicitly and self-consciously challenging the bipolar intellectual world by which being against US capitalism meant being for Soviet or Chinese-style socialism and vice versa. We drew on traditions from William Morris through GDH Cole, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Thompson and many others on the way, to develop the foundations of a socialism in which “the social” referred to many other forms of collectivity besides the state; in which no collectivity was treated as a thing, above the social relations between individuals that reproduced or transformed it; and in which participatory democracy was a challenge to capitalist and command economies alike. Now you imply in your recent column that in reality, we were simply another kind of “God squad”.

Your upbringing is getting the better of you, Martin. (Doubtless mine shows somewhere too.) You are applying exactly the bivalent thinking that you warn against, as well as assuming that only the Soviet Union had the line (albeit the wrong line). Your logic implies that the only historically realisable form of socialism is Soviet-style and once that failed then one must accept capitalism.

Behind this logic is the highly conservative assumption that what is possible is reducible to choices between what exists or has historically existed. This “actualism” rules out any thinking that what has happened isn’t the only thing that could have happened.

I won’t now go into the debate about what else could have happened in the Soviet Union. Since our common concern is with the relevance of socialism to present day injustices, I want to follow through one area of conceptual innovation that shapes my, nonreligious, belief in the possibilities of democratic socialism. I’m thinking here of innovations in our understandings of knowledge: in particular of what kinds of, and whose, knowledge and creativity should be relevant for public policy and the relation between new possibilities in the organisation of knowledge and more radical forms of democracy.

State socialism, whether the command economy or a command-style management of the public sector in a mixed economy, rested on the positivist orthodoxy of the first half of the 20th century. As you know, positivism views knowledge (of both the social and the physical world) as a matter of scientific laws and statistical generalisations. All else it dismisses as superstition or irrationality.

The key point here for my argument is that on this basis it was presumed that knowledge of social need and economic resources could be codified and centralised through the state (it was a view of knowledge that was common to Leninism, Fordism, the Webbs – all the social or corporate engineers of the time). Democracy was therefore a matter of parliamentary control over this all-knowing state.

As you’ll remember, when Hayek launched his famous attack on socialism and laid the resilient foundations for free-market ideology, he attacked the “all-knowing state”, stressing the importance of “knowledge of particular circumstances of time and place” and “things we know but cannot tell”. This led him to insist that all attempts at socially purposeful intervention in the economy were doomed to be damaging at best, dictatorship at worst. The only mechanism that could coordinate all the haphazard decisions taken on the basis of this individual knowledge was the price mechanism of the market. Now, I know you haven’t flipped over entirely from state to market, but I have noticed that many of those, now part of New Labour, who believed in the command economy plus parliamentary democracy model do not have very confident answers to the neoliberal case – indeed they often tend to be over-enamoured by the efficiency claims of the private corporations.

The point is that while we were occupying university buildings or taking coaches to Grosvenor Square, radical philosophers were refuting positivistic theories of knowledge and demonstrating the importance for social science of experiential and emotional sources of meaning. These insights echoed my experiences in the women’s and student movements and what I observed in radical shop stewards’ organisations.

These organisations were producing ideas for public policy out of sharing and debating their experiences. These collective efforts to change the world saw themselves as experimental, not all knowing. They provided an alternative to the socialism of the command economy but in the name of a participatory, plural socialism, not the individualism of neoliberal economics. Just as philosophers demonstrated in theory the social nature of knowledge, these movements showed in their horizontal, networked and cosmopolitan ways of organising how practical, tacit knowledge could, contrary to Hayek’s individualism, be a shared basis of purposeful action.

Clearly this view of the organisation of knowledge has radical implications for ways that society can organise its resources for the satisfaction of essential needs on principles other than the market, but without relying on a centralised state. It laid the methodological basis for both a democratisation of the state and a socialisation of the market.

This was a warm breeze from the left in the unfreezing of the cold war. It took time for many liberals to understand this shift away from the socialism of the tyrannical state.

I don’t want to be nostalgic. We overestimated the power of movements and underestimated the need for lasting new democratic institutions. Now many of us are working on such institutions: for a participatory democracy, for a socially owned economy, for ending international financial speculation and breaking up corporate power. And we are not working in a political vacuum: look at the laboratories of Latin America where a participatory socialism is being precariously reinvented in the barrios and in the institutions of state. Certainly these are ideas that challenge capitalism in a way that liberalism would not accept. That’s why I moved on from my radical liberal upbringing and became an equally radical socialist. It is not too late for you to move beyond the cold war choices of yours.

Yours, with optimism of the intellect!

· Hilary Wainwright is editor of Red Pepper and research director of the Transnational Institute’s New Politics Project
[email protected]

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