Response to Michael Albert

[ZNet Editor's note: 'New Politics: a journal of socialist thought' invited Michael Albert to answer the query "Is Socialism Still on the Agenda?" Albert answered, and two New Politics editors replied, and Albert responded. Below is Barry Finger’s reply to Michael Albert. The four pieces appeared in the bi-annual New Politics journal, linked from the ZNet debate pages for your immediate access.]



Albert touches on a significant problem by raising questions and doubts about retaining the term "socialism" by those of us who favor fundamental, democratic political and social transformation. Perhaps it would be best, as he suggests, to abandon the term, since its meaning is tainted in the public consciousness by, on the one hand, its broad identification with particular authoritarian and totalitarian societies, and, on the other hand, by its equally wide acceptance as the appropriate term for social democratic parties in western Europe that, while in power, have been in the forefront of slowly dismantling the very welfare states which they, themselves, had once pioneered. In brief "socialism" has been so drained of its early, democratic essence–so tainted in the popular mind–as to arguably render its continued use counterproductive.


Many of us, after all, abandoned "Communism"–actually surrendered it–for the sake of clarity, accepting, in effect, the (mis)application of the term to reactionary anti-communist Stalinist states.


But the question Albert raises in his discussion of "Socialism 1" is more than a terminological one. To engage his point requires us to put any proposed semantic change in historical and social context. Albert is obviously aware of this, but I must take issue with how his treatment of the problem is introduced. Here Albert reminds us that the term "socialism" is often applied to politically repressive societies with "a particular type of economy including state or collective property plus market or central planning allocation and (derivative) typical corporate divisions of labor in the workplace."


The point of departure for my disagreement with the views expressed or implied by Albert’s discussion of "Socialism 1" can be found in his opening paragraph. "Socialism 1," he asserts, "which existed (or exists) in the old Soviet Union, throughout eastern Europe, in China, and in Cuba, actually worked/works rather well by typical economic standards, though with its own array of costs and benefits. The distribution of income and wealth are both typically more just in Socialism 1 than in comparable capitalist economies and there is greater attention to the social conditions of those who are worst off."


Albert leaves the indelible impression that he prefers collectivism over private-property-centered societies which were praised as "economically progressive" by many apologists of Stalinism. But within the universe of conceivable "collectivisms," totalitarian forms, Albert concedes, are the least advantageous. The least advantageous, that is, because they cannot "optimally [!] advance desirable values and aims that we aspire to." Nevertheless, for all its moral and social liabilities, Albert writes that "Socialism 1 does eliminate one of the most egregious sources of unwarranted differentials in wealth and power–as in Bill Gates having more wealth than the whole country of Norway…."


What Albert labels "Socialism 1," has better been characterized as "Bureaucratic Collectivism." It is the antithesis of the revolutionary democracy of classical socialism which seeks to put into the hands of the working class a participatory machinery that fuses political democracy with economic democracy; that imbues the institutions of society with the spirit of solidarity and which consciously emancipates historical and material progress, at long last, from the lash of class oppression. But, where–as in "socialism 1"–economic power is centralized in the hands of an autonomous, self-perpetuating state bureaucracy, such "collectivism" acquires unprecedented powers of oppression, exploitation and enslavement. The privileges of this "managerial hierarchy"–in the spirit of Albert’s piece–are necessarily directed against the interests and aspirations of the masses of that society and could not last for an instant without the permanent withdrawal of all democratic rights and institutions from the society it totally dominates. Property under such circumstances can be collectivized, but it cannot be socialized; it can never be the property, in any sense, of the people.


To assess this bureaucratic collectivism as being either more efficient or more egalitarian than capitalism, as Albert does, is untenable. The crisis of economic efficiency in "bureaucratic collectivism," of Stalinism–that is of "Socialism 1"–is a chronic condition of society. Capitalism has as its economic feedback system the regulatory institutions of the market place, the "invisible hand"–more precisely, the laws of value, which episodically require the purgative of crises to eliminate overproduction. Classical socialism has as its corrective feedback the active democratic engagement and supervision of the masses in the economic metabolism of society. It depends on its initiative from below and is self-corrected from below.


There is no self-correcting mechanism to "Socialism 1." The Stalinist state has, it is true, an economic plan, but without an internally generated mechanism of self-regulation the plan is continuously plagued with bottlenecks, snags, disproportionalities, duplications and squalor. It forever vacillates between the application of totalitarian terror, the imposition of additional bureaucratic controls and the expedient of market forms to enforce its will. It is precisely Stalinism’s inherent economic inefficiency, its pervasive scarcities, that produces the mirage of relative material "equality" which confuses Albert. But behind this mirage of material equality lies a monstrous discrepancy in social and economic power between the Stalinist rulers and its semi-enslaved subjects, that indeed vastly overshadows the relative social power of even a Bill Gates under capitalism.


The Stalinist ruling class wields the entirety of the social resources and wealth of society–including its working classes–as its collective property to be disposed of in accordance with its unchecked appetites. It is limited only by the inherent unwieldiness of totalitarian "planning." But when the frenzied attempt at Stalinist industrialization meant the suppression of the living standards of its subjects, enforced famines in the Ukraine, the system of gulag labor–millions of people were effectively sentenced, with a stroke of the pen, to enslavement and death. This is a power that no one capitalist potentate can yield. For it is not the poshness of living standards that determines the relative degree of economic inequality between disparate social systems, but the discrepancy in social power. The social power derived by virtue of his immense wealth cannot protect even the mighty Gates from having his empire dismantled at the behest of the capitalist court system. He, in Stalinist terms, can be socially demoted despite a degree of personal wealth beyond the dreams of any individual Stalinist apparachnik. It is by this analog that the relative degree of socio-economic inequality must be measured. And it is by this standard that the Gateses of capitalism are dwarfed in their relative social positions by the Stalins and the Maos of bureaucratic collectivism and against which there is no comparable capitalist counterpart.


Finally I do not expect Albert to share my enthusiasm for the Bolsheviks or the October revolution. Still I was taken aback by his tangential and perhaps unintentional suggestion that revolutionary Russia of 1917 was of a piece with the Soviet Union of 1937 or 1987, and, by extension, with Eastern Europe, China and Cuba-all to be subsumed under the unhappy rubric of "Socialism 1." Revolutionary Russia, for all its weaknesses, frailties and faults, was supported by a majority of its workers and peasants. And of equal importance–it was characterized by a working class that played an autonomous historical role in refashioning society on a new basis reflecting its own interests and aspirations. How can this be equated with the fate that was to stand before it under Stalinism–to be reduced to a passive industrial serfdom, a pawn of other entrenched forces, mobilized for social purposes which were not its own and which were indeed inimical to its own emancipation?

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