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Towards a New Socialism

Towards a New Socialism

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Published by: Joseph on Dec 11, 2008
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The crisis of Soviet socialism appears to stem from two sources. On the one
hand there is popular revulsion against the undemocratic and authoritarian
practices of old-style Soviet politics, and on the other hand there is a wide-
spread sense that the basic economic mechanisms in operation since the 1930s
have outlived their usefulness, and that to retain these mechanisms would con-
demn the peoples of the (erstwhile) USSR to stagnant standards of living and
chronic shortages of consumer goods. Compared with the evident continuing vi-



tality of the advanced capitalist economies, such conditions became increasingly
intolerable to the people.
To some extent these two issues are linked. As the USSR moved from the era
of Stalin to that of Brezhnev, the earlier system of terror and compulsion was
mitigated. At the same time, however, the pioneering spirit that had animated
broad layers of the Soviet population during the early years of socialist construc-
tion, and also during the resistance to fascism, eroded. In other words, both
pillars of the Soviet mode of extraction of a surplus product (in a planned yet
undemocratic system) were undermined. It should also be noted that Stalin was
not averse to using substantial wage differentials as a means of stimulating work
effort, while Brezhnev moved towards a more egalitarian policy. Socialists can
applaud egalitarianism, of course, but if individualistic monetary incentives are
undermined there is nonetheless a need to promote other kinds of incentives—for
instance those stemming from a sense of democratic participation in a common
endeavour. And if good work is not to be rewarded by much higher pay, it still
must be rewarded (and be seen to be rewarded) by opportunities for promotion
and advancement. Such alternative incentives were almost completely absent in
the corrupt and cynical political culture of the Brezhnev period. Apathy became
widespread. While an earlier generation had known socialism as a noble ideal—
imperfectly realised or perhaps even gravely distorted in the Soviet Union, but
still worth upholding—an entire generation grew up under Brezhnev for whom
the Soviet Union and socialism were simply equated, as in the system’s own
propaganda. If they hated the Soviet system, then they hated socialism.
The diagnosis so far leads to somewhat ambiguous conclusions. Our empha-
sis on the problems facing the USSR as an undemocratic planned system might
seem to suggest that deep-going democratic reforms might have been enough
to revitalise Soviet society and the Soviet economy. That is, if undemocratic
planning were replaced by democratic planning, then the enthusiasm of the pop-
ulation might be enlisted for the task of economic modernisation, still within
the broad framework of a planned and non-capitalist system. Of course, this
view is now very widely seen as falsified by the brute facts of recent Russian
history: reform did not stop at glasnost, nor even at perestroika, conceived as
a re-structuring of the socialist economy, but moved on, apparently inexorably,
to the destruction of the old planning system in its entirety and the project of
transition to a market economy.
Various interpretations of this history are possible. One view is the simple
anti-socialist one, that centralised planning and state ownership are inherently
inferior to the market system, and that given a free choice in the absence of po-
litical/ideological coercion people will automatically choose the market. Democ-
racy inevitably leads to the rejection of the socialist economic mechanism. This
book contains a set of arguments designed to show that this conclusion is un-
warranted, i.e. that an efficient and productive socialist economic mechanism is
both possible and preferable to capitalism (from the standpoint of the interests
of the working majority at any rate). But if that is true, how do we explain the
rejection of the socialist economy in the USSR and elsewhere? Two points are
particularly relevant. First, as we have already noted, there are now many Soviet

What is the theoretical basis for a new socialism?


citizens for whom socialism is nothing other than the Brezhnev system. This is
what they were told ad nauseam, and they had little reason to doubt it. The
notion that a very different kind of socialism is possible and desirable depends
upon the classic arguments, proposals and ideals of the founders of socialism;
and those whose only acquaintance with these ideas was in the form of turgid
official apologetics are unlikely to entertain such a notion. Secondly, there can
be little doubt that the economic stagnation that beset the Soviet Union in the
latter days of the old economic mechanism was not solely and simply the result
of a lack of democratic participation. There were serious technical/economic
problems with that mechanism; but we shall argue that such problems are not
inherent in socialist planning as such.
Our view is, then, that a thorough democratisation plus substantial reforms
in the planning mechanism might, in principle, have created the opportunity for
a revitalised Soviet socialism. Unfortunately, though, the historical experience
of the bleak decades of inefficient and dictatorial rule, buttressed ideologically by
an ossified official Marxism, seems to have ruled this out as a practical political
option for the present. Some of the Soviet people may find the idea attractive,
but too many of them are now ready to demand a complete break with the
Communist past.

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