What Should Socialists Propose?

This is a copy of an article written for Demand Nothing.

In the quest for a scientific socialism, I think it is fair to say the former element has received undue attention compared to the latter. For several generations now, Marxists (and for that matter other socialists) have focused on defining capitalism, discerning its laws of motion, explaining and theorizing what it is and what it does, and how it is historically differentiated. This is an important task, that is not to be denied. Yet a socialist (or communist) politics is not the same as a socialist theory, and it does not have the same requirements. Like all radical movements of whatever stripe, a socialist politics is confronted immediately with the fact that its achievements need to be threefold: first, it must convince people of its understanding of present society; secondly, it must convince them that change is desirable; finally, it must convince people that change is possible, and in what way – including what it would look like. There is not necessarily any order of priority to these, although theorized for practical purposes, they will tend to flow from each other in that sequence. However, ‘centrist’ or ‘moderate’ politics – i.e., the politics suitable to the ruling establishment – has an easier job of it. All they need to do is the first, and they can safely ignore the other two, as they do not serve their purposes anyway. Liberals and conservatives do not need to convince anyone of systemic change, and can rest lazily on the comfortable bed that is technocratic management of existing conditions.

Sadly, the history of Marxist theorizing so far has seen a vast accumulation, if one may make that joke, of books detailing the first element, at the expense of the others. And to some extent this has been successful – compared to the common attitudes of the late 19th century, even in the richer countries people are generally endlessly more skeptical of their governments, of the legitimacy of existing institutions, of the value of traditionalism for its own sake, and so forth. There is very much a general Enlightenment present in the public mind, all the more so with the rise of secularism. Moreover, practical experience aids with the first task. Therefore, it is in a way a relatively easy task to convince the public of the demerits and problems with capitalism. Most people will readily grant you this, even though their theoretical understanding of it and its historical role is likely to be vague and underdeveloped compared to Marxism, and there is always a role for education there. In our age of cynicism, encouraged by the loss of all socialist authority and legitimacy of whatever flawed kind by the fall of the USSR and by the liberal road in China, few people positively believe in the virtues of liberal or conservative political theory. Nor do most people think capitalism particularly works: the current crisis and its spontaneous cross-class response of sheer frustration across the rich countries makes that clear, and that’s not even mentioning the vast populations of the Third World. But the cynicism extends to socialism as well: many latently dislike capitalism, but few indeed are convinced a revolutionary change in circumstances would be beneficial to them from a cost-benefit perspective. Fewer still believe such a thing is possible practically, even if it may be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Yet for the project of a scientific socialism to succeed, these two are the battlefields where the war must now be won. I am not saying there is no room for yet more exposition of Marxist theory of capitalism, of the dialectic, for more Marxist history-writing, and so forth. But although this may be dismissed as anecdotal evidence, I think it is telling such a great many books of Marxist theory take their critique of existing and past society to the limits, yet fully shy away from speaking of the hows and whys of revolutionary transition. Time and again the refrain is that the author has established the need for a thoroughgoing new leftist critique, for a new workers’ movement, for a new revival of Marxism, for the overthrow of capitalist logic – but sadly there is no time, no space, no opportunity for telling anyone the costs and benefits of doing so, or a guide to what one would imagine a solution to these problems to look like. Countless examples of this could be mentioned. And this is much to be regretted. When confronted, socialists are often inclined to defend this by making statements along the lines of “people will have to decide themselves”, or make reference to Marx’s refusal to “write recipes for the cook-shops of the future”. But one cannot reasonably expect everyone to be satisfied with this in the long run. Most people, being in a vulnerable position and having little power are, as our theory tells us, in principle (latently) capable of being mobilized for revolutionary change. But because of their position, they are also keenly aware of the costs of confrontation and of the uncertainty and violence dramatic changes bring. They know the history of past defeats, the history of bloody successes as well. They will not move against the entire integrated system of social relations unless they are either given no other choice by sheer despair, in which case they often lose; or if convinced that changing them is plausible, will benefit them more than it costs, and will afford them more freedoms and well-being than any possible change in the old system could afford them.

So, we must convince them of these things. The failure to do so is not just a lacuna in theory, but it is in fact contrary to the project of a scientific socialism. It is not socialist, but reformist. This is because in the absence of such conviction, most people aware of the problems in the system and the way in which it alienates and exploits them, will seek to move against it – but no further than the boundaries of the system as they find them. This is what is meant by Lenin’s famous pronunciations about the limits of “trade union consciousness” and the like. Not only that because of the struggle of working people being based in their own immediate interests and experience, there is a serious chance of them failing to comprehend the social system as a whole; this could still be remedied by theory, by labor union researchers, self-education, and whatnot. But more importantly, absent knowing what socialism would look like and how to get there, the boundaries of the capitalist logic will appear to them as the boundaries of the reasonably possible, of the worth-trying. This is the reformism inherent in the problem, defining for example the failures of the politics of the ‘Labour left’ in the UK, or the left of the Democrats in the US. Like all reformism, they then fall into the trap: the logic of capitalism will slowly but inexorably assert itself again, the attempted reforms will fall foul of capital flight, loss of creditor confidence, unemployment, or their hypothetical government will be outright removed. As we have seen in Greece and Italy, it does not even take a particularly leftist government for the owners of capital to deem it incompatible with their interests, and simply by applying the fair and honest rules of the market, to destroy it.

The failure to establish the how, the why, and the what of socialism is also not scientific. This is because it leaves open an enormous intellectual and theoretical terrain and leaves untouched a great many resources which a scientific socialism can and should marshal in favor of establishing a socialist society. Attempts at describing what a socialist society could look like are easily ridiculed or dismissed as utopian, as Marx himself did. And indeed, in the 19th century, scientific knowledge (especially in the social sciences) was sufficiently inadequate that such designs often look silly to us today, in fact were silly even then. But this need no longer be the case. It is telling that only the so-called ‘analytical Marxists’ and ‘market socialists’, people like John Roemer, have attempted to make serious, concrete, plausible designs for what a socialist society would look like. They were inadequate because they took many capitalist and liberal assumptions as a given, including capitalist competition, markets, methodological individualism, and so forth. But precisely this liberalism, by departing from the existing to a considerable extent and by using existing theory, enabled them to at least write practical political theory at the level of concrete description of socio-economic phenomena.

Their attempts were greatly underdeveloped, and often only barely serious as socialist proposals. But there is no reason for us to wait around any longer – there is a plethora of science to be used from a well-defined socialist viewpoint. In all branches of science, from evolutionary biology to anthropology, from sociology to economic history, from mathematics to computer science, we can find empirical evidence and organizational and technical insights on whose foundation we can substantiate what has lately been called ‘the communist hypothesis’. Of course there will by variation by time and place, and much depends on how a revolution takes place, and who leads it. But we need not describe in detail, as Fourier did, exactly how many are to live in what communal building or the like. What we need to do is command scientific evidence to a socialist purpose, and derive principles for the future from it. By this I mean that one ought to be able to establish principles of what may work and what will not, what we know about human organization and how this may be used for our goals, what we can do with technology and what not, how we would envision production from a technical and a social-ethical viewpoint, and so forth. Precise details will soon become obsolete and are not necessary, but general principles are sensible to ask about. If we know all this much about capitalism’s logic, we ought also be able to establish the framework of a different logic, using all the latest science, unflinchingly.

The same is to be applied to the how of revolutionary change. In many ways this will be the same as above; but there is more Marxist and other socialist theory on this, as we have historical knowledge of attempts to do this in the past, and we must learn from this. There is a veritable ocean of works on the Russian and Chinese revolutions, the Spanish Civil War, labor history, and many such topics. But neither in the form of the works of the revolutionaries themselves nor in the form of the latest nuanced studies of the historical record are they sufficient. This is because they are virtually never integrated with the above requirement. Our theory of revolution must tell us how to get from A to B in the circumstances that currently prevail, not what should have been done in the past, and it must tell us how the principles of socialist society mentioned above can follow from the existing system and the existing institutions. Not in the sense of reformism, but – as Marx wanted to do – in the sense of using what we know about our society and what we are like in it to find the weak spots, the loci of transition, in the current society. The old idea of the vanguard party was precisely legitimated, and perhaps legitimate, by virtue of its ability to find such spots, and to use the power of the organized working class against it. Yet the question of political form is less interesting than, and largely subsumed under, the question of what the locus of transition can be. Once this is clear, and what we envision sufficiently meaningfully established, the way of achieving it becomes a technical question and will be resolved by practice.

It may be said there is a certain irony, perhaps even hypocrisy, in writing an article about the need for concrete research results in socialist theory without offering any myself. Yet I think the problem lies not so much in an inability to find any, but in an inability to see this lack as significant. In virtually all ofthe 20th century, and even up to today in otherwise excellent works on the crisis, we find the mainstay of the debates in Marxism and elsewhere are about the theories of capitalism itself, and of the political form of organizing against it. But almost nobody has sought to replicate Marx and Engels’ method of resolving these questions, one they never fully worked out themselves during their lifetime: the project of a scientific socialism, one that uses all scientific and historical knowledge to theorize not just the nature of the current society, but the principles of the future society, and the ways to make these principles the dominant logic of our life-world. So far, the systematic study of social institutions, human nature, cultural variation, economic change, and sources of cooperation and conflict have been left almost entirely to liberal, individualist scientists – from B.F. Skinner to Talcott Parsons, from Douglass North to Steven Pinker, from Elinor Ostrom to John Nash. I say then that socialists should use all their findings and understandings, apply to them the critiques of capitalist social relations so well-developed in our time, and derive the principles that can guide us in future action. Then indeed can socialists make proposals that will appear not just desirable, but plausible, well-substantiated, and effective. Contrary to Schumpeter’s sneer at Marxism, we shall then no longer just be “preaching in the garb of analysis”.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *