4 thoughts on ““But that wasn’t REAL socialism!” (Part 1: the USSR)”

  1. Posted 24/07/2017 at 01:04 | Permalink

    My god, what a shitshow. Anarchists like Bakunin were denouncing statist methods decades before the revolution in Russia. Left communists like Bordiga were analysing the failure of revolution in the early 1920s. Marx wrote multiple times that state planning is not a sufficient condition for socialism. The Soviet Union preserved commodity exchange, systematic dispossession (i.e. private property, with the state as owner), profit, etc. and has been criticised on this basis by socialists throughout its existence. The idea that this is just some post-hoc rationalisation of Soviet-style state capitalism’s failures is ridiculous and demonstrates a poor understanding of socialist theory and its history. To claim that ‘In Stalin’s days, nobody would have made such a claim’ is absurd.

    But regardless, even ignoring these glaring omissions, the evidence presented is pretty weak. The article says: ‘A common theme among these pilgrims was that even though the Soviet Union may look like a dictatorship from the outside, behind the scenes, it was actually a grassroots democracy, run by the workers, for the workers’. So people were holding up the Soviet Union as an example of socialism because they thought it had these features. But they were mistaken. It didn’t have these features… so by their definition of socialism, it has not yet existed, right? Did you really think this one through before vomiting it onto the page, Mr Niemietz?

  2. Posted 25/07/2017 at 05:07 | Permalink

    The stringing together of pieces of information to form a historical narrative is not a good way to criticize philosophies or social systems. Articles like is are at least part of why the “that wasn’t real socialism” argument sticks around. You will inevitably find people reading these and then thinking this is the best critique of socialism their opponents can muster, because that’s the interpretation that is most ideologically convenient to them.

    This is particularly frustrating because both “capitalism” and “socialism,” and probably even “market economy,” “command economy,” and “mixed economy” have meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people over time. That is when they have a coherent idea of those terms to begin with.

    For example, I once met a guy that seriously told me the convenience store we were in selling food for profit was an example of socialism, and he went on to say that socialism was a good thing and that most people just aren’t ready for it.

    That the article is an ineffective critique of socialism is not to say that previous socialist systems aren’t necessarily representative of socialism in practice or that this narrative isn’t an important part of what happened. But if the past is an example of the only viable forms of socialism we have to define other forms of socialism, presumably the “real” ideologically pure socialism, and then point out what prevents those other forms of socialism from being feasible or efficient, or provide a generalizable theory on why they would inevitably be corrupted into the forms previously observed which ideally could be tested against the historical evidence we have.

    Obvious distinctions worth considering would be: socialism with a dictatorship, democratic socialism, and anarchist socialism. At least from the standpoint of true believers in socialism those specific difference in the type of government probably make a world of difference. A public economist or political scientist might also say that we need to consider democratic socialism differently depending on the voting rules or other institutional factors. Another may be “market socialism,” then of course you have quasi-socialist left-anarchist systems such as “mutualism” or “anarcho-syndicalism.” Others use different terms to imply different scales of operation such as “communitarianism” or “communalism” which people tend to say when they have a centrally planned system at the local level in mind, think a socialist city-state. Those distinctions would be important if say, the problems or benefits of a socialist system bore any consistent relationship with how large the society in question was. This could be, for example, through higher negotiating and coordination costs as the number of people to be included in the central plan increases. It may also be that smaller scale socialism is better because that still allows room for some of (but probably not all) the gains from trade present in a competitive market. Assuming of course that the benefits of trade between such quasi-socialist tribes exceed the expected costs of conflict between them.

    Given this wide variety of terms and concepts there should probably be some attempt to formulate the broad rules upon which a system in the egalitarian spirit of socialism operates, if there is a consistent set of rules to generalize, and then consider their implications in the face of real world constraints which theory and demagoguery so often assume away.

    One problem that may be present in all of them is the tragedy of the commons, where the action of rationally self-interested individuals over-use a common resource because they don’t internalize the total costs of their use of it. Similarly we have to consider problems of corruption and rent seeking that may arise when you have a central collectivized decision making process. There’s plenty of opportunity for those implementing and enforcing those decisions to turn the situation to their advantage or for others to try and influence things through backroom deals. But of course there’d have to be more detailed discussion regarding the scope and importance of expected corruption in different systems including a variety of market systems which are also susceptible to rent seeking. For my part I’d have to take Gary Becker’s position that having a greater control of resources in government, or whatever you’d want to call the collective decision making apparatus that allows for Marx’s concept of “social” ownership to exist, would lead to corruption being a bigger problem in socialist and quasi-socialist systems.

    We also have to look at the assumptions which underly socialist conclusions both about capitalism and socialism. A big one brought up in economic sociology is the problem of embededness, the idea that people may be too submersed in social norms to act autonomously, thus implying that standard conclusions from theories using homo economicus are wholly irrelevant. In my experience this tends to be used by socialists to suggest that capitalism’s existence is to blame for people’s selfishness, it has socialized them into that mode of behavior, and that there exist some other system in which selfishness could be done away with, which is in turn why someone’s particular flavor of “real” socialism is in their mind feasible. It is surprisingly rarely used to say that real people are something between homo economicus and someone just mindlessly doing what is normal all the time, like a boundedly rational person who forms habits to simplify everyday life. No the social system has to be an all encompassing mind control that determines everything you do whenever rational choice models are criticized. Generally to answer whether selfishness can be entirely socialized out of people and the extent to which humans are rational vs. socialized actors would require a deeper knowledge of human behavior than I have, probably drawing from neurology, behavioral genetics, and cognitive and social psychology, and other fields. Of course even if it were theoretically possible to create a society of perfectly socialist citizens which would allow for the operation of a socialist system we would need to consider the costs and benefits of doing it as a practical matter.

    The number of variables in play unfortunately for all these different concepts vague or clear, makes an a priori determination of what works and what doesn’t very difficult if we insist on talking about political philosophy exclusively at the level of “isms” like the above discussion. That’s probably why most political discussion and campaigning is done around specific policies. Talk of specific policies unfortunately can’t do much to sway discussion of isms because systemic differences in social systems and the constraints they face may alter their ability to a carry out “capitalist” or “socialist” policies.

    A term probably worth attacking the use of outright is “Scandinavian socialism” because people like to group those countries together, treat their policies as homogeneous when they aren’t, and then act as if their success is sufficient to say that “socialism” works anywhere despite the fact that different countries may face different constraints and have different preferences. A policy needs to have a certain “cultural fit” and as I’ve been told, they may only be able to afford high levels of government service because they have lots of oil and are very small. So then how can that be generalized to countries which are large and not endowed with the same resources?

    To me it seems that term is uniquely effective at dumbing down the debate and encouraging intellectual laziness on the part of egalitarians and socialism sympathizers.

    For the record I am a technocratic neoliberal utilitarian capitalist who makes an effort to moderate themselves towards the “center” usually as it is defined in US politics generally to counteract my own right-libertarian tendencies which make government intervention a bitter pill to swallow for me. I do believe there are welfare gains to be made by reducing income inequality, at least partially through direct redistribution through taxation and transfer payments, even though I reject the importance of class conflict relative to other forces in determining the impact the income distribution has on welfare. Hopefully that is enough description to give you an idea of which isms to apply and how angry you should be about the above passage.

  3. Posted 25/07/2017 at 11:12 | Permalink

    Oh Err!

    I look forward to Part 2 in the hope that it will provide a balancing view acknowledging that the cry

    ” . . . . has never been properly tried . . . ”

    is often heard from other parts of the political spectrum.

    I have often challenged my socialist friends with providing a set of examples where socialism has actually worked. Perhaps Innsurrexit can oblige, along the way he will clearly be able also to provide a list of the measures of success. (I, too, can be considered as someone who has a poor understanding of socialist theory ).

    It is my understanding that capitalism / neoliberalism / free markets etc. quite often makes mistakes but the mistakes are swiftly eradicated by the process known as “creative destruction” which also sometimes means that (Caution: mixed metaphor ahead!) babies are thrown out with the bathwater. Political systems based upon Utopian ideals tend to be quite resistant to change and therefore generally decline and rot along the way causing great misery.

    In essence the question is not “What is the best?” but rather “Which system has the least worst outcomes?”
    (Whilst, of course, struggling to “square the circle” that is avoiding the tyranny of democracy)

    Plymouth Sid

  4. Posted 04/08/2017 at 09:40 | Permalink

    I have been pondering on is if an expectation of altruistic behaviour (ie working towards a greater public good rather than individual benefit) the underlying assumption of Marxist economics?

    A discussion paper by Jonathan F. Schulz on The Churches’ Bans on Consanguineous Marriages, Kin-networks and Democracy notes:
    “The well-established and empirically supported biological theory of kin-selection or inclusive fitness (Hamilton, 1964) predicts that altruistic actions are more frequently directed towards genetically related individuals”.

    If so, is Marxist economics constructed on an unrealistic expectation of human behaviour? There will be exceptions but by by an large I believe human beings will only put society ahead of self within immediate family/social circles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.