Replying to Mandell and Finger

[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 Albert’s final rejoinder to Mandell and Finger. The four pieces appeared in the bi-annual New Politics journal, linked from the ZNet debate pages for your immediate access.]




Am I somehow soft on Centrally Planned Socialism? Let me reassure Mandell: I am not. I abhor it. On the other hand, there is no point decrying this economic structure because it can exist intertwined with and supporting a grotesque political dictatorship, nor to pin the problems of the latter on the former. Yes, we can reasonably claim that economic aspects of Centrally Planned Socialism militate toward political authoritarianism, but that is different from saying that Centrally Planned Socialism requires political dictatorship.


Mandell also wonders about my comparisons — Russia/Brazil and Cuba/Guatemala. I agree they aren’t perfect — but I think they made the point intended, which was that the usual comparisons, Russia/U.S. or Cuba/U.S., are ridiculous.


Mandell’s more substantive issue with me is that he disputes my statement that the distribution of income and wealth are both "typically more just in Socialism I (economies) than in comparable capitalist economies." But Mandell’s effort to rebut my statement not only errs in taking the best from the capitalist side and the worst from the Socialist 1 side for his comparison — Sweden at its most egalitarian against Stalinist Russia, rather than say capitalist France against Socialist 1 Czechoslovakia — but it also ignores the contribution of private ownership to income and wealth in the form of profits.


Mandell’s comparisons of the wages of a charwoman and of a deputy to the Supreme Soviet or of unskilled laborers and physicists do not prove his claim. First, the widest disparities in an economy are not a particularly relevant measure when discussing overall distribution of income, and, even if they were, comparing low-end laborers with high-end CEOs and athletes, much less with capitalists earning profits on property, would more than equal the grotesque disparities Mandell rightly decries. But the key point, which I hope Mandell and I agree on, is that Centrally Planned Socialism, with or without political dictatorship, will engender a class division between planners and other Coordinator class members on the one hand, and the working class on the other, and that the former will accrue to itself a disproportionate share of the social product.


Likewise, Mandell quotes Nicolas Spulber that there is "an even broader wage dispersion in the U.S.S.R. than in the West." I am dubious about Spulber’s claim, but in any event a claim about wages alone cannot refute my claim about income based on profits plus wages.


Mandell ends, "Of course, Michael Albert is not promoting what he calls Socialism I. But he is doing a grave disservice by claiming that the distribution of wealth was something that it clearly was not." Disservice to whom and to what, I wonder? Socialism 1, by virtue of having eliminated private ownership of the means of production, tends to reduce wealth and income differentials. At the same time, by virtue of its class division, it tends to maintain differentials as wide as it is able. With this, I suspect Mandell would agree. Mandell then seems to feel, or worry, that by indicating that the first effect is large and even outweighs, typically, the ability of the Socialism 1 ruling class to enlarge wage advantages via the second effect, I am somehow saying Socialism 1 is an egalitarian system. But no, I am just saying it isn’t intrinsically as inegalitarian as capitalism, typically.


Moving on to the second critique, Finger says "what Albert labels `Socialism 1,’ has better been characterized as `Bureaucratic Collectivism’." But why is that better? I actually call the economy in question "coordinatorism," which I think highlights the class that rules. And I think Finger’s phrase is about the polity as much as about the economy, which was not my topic. That is, what I am referring to by the phrase Socialism 1 (or centrally planned coordinatorism) is not the Stalinist polity, or the Stalinist polity plus centrally planned socialism, but instead just the economic system which utilizes central planning for allocation, eliminates private ownership of the means of production, and derivatively and inexorably employs typical corporate organizational structure in workplaces.


Finger says, "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." But Socialism 1 makes no reference at all to a specifically state bureaucracy. It does not have as a defining feature centralizing economic power in a political, state, institution. This is Finger, re-naming the object of my discussion, and then talking about features that his label connotes but which are not a part of what I was talking about.


When economic power and political power are in the same central authoritarian political hands, which has happened, of course, I agree with Finger, it is abhorrent. But what Finger’s comment does is to find the ills of the economic model largely in a political apparatus — a state bureaucracy — which has often but need not, in fact, accompany that economic model. There are two problems that this causes: ills from the polity are wrongly claimed to be due to the economic model, and, even worse, the actual ills of the economic model are obscured from view.


This matters because a society could have a parliamentary state with free elections along with a centrally planned socialist economy. That would not be Finger’s "Bureaucratic Collectivism" and his criticisms of "Bureaucratic Collectivism" would not apply to it. But it would include as its economy Socialism 1, and my criticisms of Socialism 1 would apply to it.


Put another way, the sector of planners and administrators that rises to dominance over the economy in Centrally Planned Socialism needn’t be a political elite and needn’t carry out its functions through a political state apparatus. That can occur, yes, but it can instead also be an economically defined class working through planning boards, workplace hierarchies, etc. Yes, in backward economies that lacked a mature coordinator class, the control of the emerging planning apparatus and economy wound up in the hands of a political Leninist elite doing double duty — political and economic — and becoming, in the process, Stalinist. But this isn’t intrinsic to the specifically economic system. Suppose a political movement came to power in the U.S. that rejected private ownership and markets and favored central planning while maintaining corporate structures. Is there any reason why such a coordinator-inspired and -led economic revolution could not throw out private owners and institute planning but preserve free elections? Does the Bill or Rights have to disappear and a dictatorial party have to seize the state and impose itself on the economy for the economy to arrive at such features? I don’t think so.


Finger says the privileges of the bureaucracy "could not last for an instant without the permanent withdrawal of all democratic rights and institutions from the society it totally dominates." Well, if this indicates that Finger thinks a coordinator class can’t dominate without elimination of all democratic political forms, I think he’s wrong. After all, we live in the United States and it has a ruling economic class whose actions are directed against the interests and aspirations of the rest of society, too. But the U.S. polity grants substantial freedoms and rights, and the system doesn’t fall apart at the seams for doing so. I say Centrally Planned Socialism is vile in its own right, economically. Finger doesn’t refer to its explicitly economic features but says the system would collapse with anything but political dictatorship, so that it can only come bundled with political dictatorship. Even if so, which I doubt, that would just be another horrible mark against Socialism 1, but no reason to overlook the specifically economic dynamics, which was my topic.


Finger says, "To assess this bureaucratic collectivism as being either more efficient or more egalitarian than capitalism, as Albert does, is untenable." First, I don’t think I called anything more efficient than anything else. Second I never talked about bureaucratic collectivism at all. Third, what is untenable, is for Finger to say that I am talking about "bureaucratic collectivism" when I say I am talking about only the intrinsic tendencies of the abstract economic system called Socialism 1. Finger believes Centrally Planned Socialism imposes and requires political dictatorship, but I don’t. And if it were so, it certainly wouldn’t change my rejection of the model. It would only make it more intense. Finger thinks Socialism 1 is intrinsically worse than capitalism vis-a-vis distribution of the social product. I disagree, though if this too were true, again, it would only make my absolute rejection of the system into a more absolute rejection of it.


Finger says "There is no self-correcting mechanism to Socialism 1," by which I think he means that in Centrally Planned Socialism there is no dynamic creating a match between what people produce and what they expect or hope to consume (including for workplaces and intermediate goods) other than the elite planners saying what they think is good for society. But this is simply false. One can have, in a centrally planned economy, many methods for bringing the will and opinion of the public to the attention of planners.


Yes, we could have Castro sit down in a room and simply decree a plan. Or we could have a thousand accountants do it, each with no contact with anything beyond their own thoughts. This is Finger’s image, more or less, and he is right that it would be a ridiculous choice, but it is also a horribly unlikely one.  The economic ruling class in Centrally Planned Socialism in a developed economy — the coordinator class — is a substantial group, unlikely to subordinate itself to a very small sector of detached planners, or, even more, to a tiny and detached political elite, or one master ruler. These phenomena, to the extent they have existed, I would suggest, owe more to the history and initial conditions of the societies that have incorporated Socialism 1, than to the logic of the economic model itself. What is, however, built?in to the economic model regardless of prior history and the accompanying polity is that the ruling coordinator class will use its grasp on the economy to benefit itself relative to those below. But the new ruling class can also choose to use limited markets in the form of outlets watched for when shelves clear, or to use polls, or to use dialog of various sorts, and so on, to inform the construction of a central plan. Indeed, even in Stalinist variants this occurs, though not as well as it could without the political domination.


Now Finger might want to claim that the intrinsic authoritarianism of central planning will militate against all reforms that would impede the coordinator class manifesting its own preferences, so that it becomes an uphill struggle to win and maintain desirable reforms — just as, say, in capitalism it is an uphill struggle to win and maintain desirable labor laws or serious watchdog agencies, or redistributive taxes, and so on. I agree. My point is, however, that you can give Centrally Planned Socialism every benefit of every doubt, and it still fails as an economic vision — just as you can give capitalism every benefit of every doubt, and it still fails.


Finger says, "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." Stupid central planning will be a mess. I agree.


So it is necessary in a sensibly Centrally Planned Socialist economy to have various techniques for amassing accurate information about tastes, preferences, and productive possibilities. Quite so, and arguing that this is impossible, which is false, or even that efforts to do this will be made difficult by certain features intrinsic to the system, which I agree with, is not near as instructive, it seems to me, as understanding why the system is decrepit even if sensible information is attained.


Finger rejects Stalinist repression, and combining political and economic functions in one authoritarian state apparatus. I do too, and that is in no way contrary to my additional rejection of the purely economic system that I label Socialism 1, and of all authoritarianism in any institutions, for that matter.


Finally, Finger says he is "taken aback" by my "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." I don’t know what words of mine Finger has in mind as saying that, but in any event, I don’t equate the workers’ Soviets in their initial revolutionary phase with what followed in later years. On the contrary, I think the early workers’ Soviets were an honest and worthy and even historically exemplary expression of truly socialist aspirations, which were, however, repressed, suppressed, and otherwise brought to naught later. The difference I have with Finger on this score is that while I agree with him that Stalinism was despicable, I think it was the Bolsheviks whom Finger seems to celebrate — or, much more accurately, the Bolshevik leadership, and, at the top, Lenin and Trotsky, who crushed the true revolutionary and socialist aspirations of the workers’ and peasants’ councils. But none of this was my topic, of course.

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