Towards a New Socialism: Introduction

W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell


`Socialism has been tried. Seventy years after the Bolshevik revolution, history's verdict is that it has failed.' All those still inclined to call themselves socialists in the 1990s are obliged to offer some response to this widely held view. This book is our response. It may be useful first, however, to distinguish our view from some responses to be found among the Left in the West.

Presumably, most socialists will wish to say that the sort of social system they seek is substantially different from the Soviet model. But the grounds for this claim may be various. The first distinction to make is between social democrats and those we might call `idealist marxists'. The former might argue that the failure of Soviet socialism has little to say about the future of, say, Scandinavian-style social democracy. This may be true. It so happens that the period of crisis of Soviet socialism has coincided with an onslaught on social democratic ideas and institutions, particularly although not exclusively in Britain and the USA, but one might argue that this connection is, if not fortuitous then at any rate less than logically necessary: even if the crisis of the Soviet system is terminal, that is, one can imagine the political `pendulum' swinging back towards social democracy in the West. As we shall see, however, there are some grounds for doubt on this score. Idealist marxists, on the other hand, tend to claim that failure in the Eastern bloc should not count against Marxism, since the Soviet system represented the betrayal rather than the realisation of Marxian ideals. While the social democrats say that Soviet socialism was not the kind of socialism they wanted, these marxists say that the USSR (post-Lenin, perhaps) was not really socialist at all. Social democrats may accept that the Soviet system was indeed Marxist, and they reject Marxism; idealist marxists cling to their theory while claiming that it has not yet been put into practice.

Our position is distinct from both of these views. First of all, we argue that social democracy sells short the historic aspirations of socialism; it represents an insufficiently radical solution to the ills of modern capitalist societies. In contrast to the social democrats, we believe that there is much of value in the classical Marxian project of radical social transformation. On the other hand, we reject the idealist view which seeks to preserve the purity of socialist ideals at the cost of disconnecting them from historical reality. We recognise, that is, that the Soviet-type societies were in a significant sense socialist. Of course, they did not represent the materialisation of the ideals of Marx and Engels, or even of Lenin, but then what concrete historical society was ever the incarnation of an Idea? When we use the term `socialism' as a social-scientific concept, to differentiate a specific form of social organisation by virtue of its specific mode of production, we must recognise that socialism is not a Utopia. It is quite unscientific to claim that because the Soviet system was not democratic, therefore it cannot have been socialist, or more generally to build whatever features of society one considers most desirable into the very definition of socialism. Our view can be summed up as follows:

  1. Soviet society was indeed socialist.

  2. This society had many undesirable and problematic features.

  3. The problems of Soviet society were in part related to the extremely difficult historical circumstances in which the Bolsheviks set about trying to build socialism, but that is not all: important policy mistakes were made (just as possible in a socialist society as in capitalism), and furthermore the problems of Soviet socialism in part reflect serious weaknesses in classical Marxism itself.

  4. The failure of the Soviet system is therefore by no means irrelevant to Marxian socialism. We must reflect carefully on the lessons to be learned from this failure.

  5. Nonetheless, unlike those who delight in proclaiming the complete historic rout of Marxism, we believe that a different type of socialism -- still recognizably Marxian, yet substantially reformulated -- is possible. The Soviet Union was socialist, but other forms of Marxian socialism are possible.

  6. This claim can be sustained only by spelling out in much more detail than hitherto both the sorts of economic mechanisms and the forms of political constitution which socialists consider both desirable and feasible. This we try to do in the book.

In this introduction, we begin to offer some answers to certain questions arising from these statements: Why is social democracy inadequate? In what sense was the USSR socialist? Insofar as the shortcomings of Soviet society arose from policy mistakes and lacunae in Marxist theory, what were those mistakes and lacunae? What is the basis for the claim that a revival of socialism is both possible and desirable? We cannot answer these large questions in any detail here; our intention is to sketch the outlines of answers, and to point forwards to the chapters which will flesh out the sketches.

1.  Why is social democracy inadequate?

Social democracy has traditionally stood for a `mixed economy', for the mitigation of the inequalities of capitalism by means of a system of progressive taxation and social benefits, for parliamentary democracy and civil liberties. At their most successful, social democratic parties have certainly succeeded in improving the conditions of the working classes, compared to a situation of unregulated capitalism; in Britain the National Health Service remains the most enduring monument to this sort of amelioration. Nonetheless very substantial problems remain.

First, capitalist economic mechanisms tend to generate gross inequalities of income, wealth and `life-chances' (as discussed in chapter 1), and social democracy has had little real impact on these inequalities, which have indeed worsened over the last decade or so. Only a radical change in the mode of distribution of personal incomes, such as that advocated in chapter 2, offers a real prospect of eliminating gross inequality. Secondly, the `mixed economy' is problematic in two important ways. In the mixed economies that have existed to date, the socialist elements have remained subordinated to the capitalist elements. That is, the commodity and wage forms have remained the primary forms of organisation of production and payment of labour respectively. `Socialist' activities have had to be financed out of tax revenue extracted from the capitalist sector, which has meant that the opportunities for expansion of `welfare' measures and the `free' distribution of basic services have been dependent on the health of the capitalist sector and the strength of the tax base. Only when the capitalist sector has been growing strongly have social democratic governments been able to `deliver the goods'. In this way, the capacity of social democratic governments to reshape the class structure of society has been inherently self-limiting: attempts at radical redistribution always threaten to destroy the engine of capitalist wealth-creation on which those governments ultimately depend.

Linked to the foregoing, if the mixed economy is a mixture of capitalist and socialist elements, there has been little serious attempt to define the principles of operation of the socialist sector. This leaves the whole idea of a mixed economy vulnerable, in a world context where the planned economies are disintegrating. Advocates of the unfettered market can argue, in effect, that if planning is being rejected in its heartlands, why should it be tolerated in the West, even as a subordinate element of the system? Insofar as Western social democrats have no coherent idea of what planned and non-commodity forms of production are ultimately about, and how their efficiency can be assessed, they are ill-placed to defend their favoured `mixture', except in a rather vague and moralising manner.

From this point of view, our attempt to define the principles of a socialist economic mechanism might be seen as providing the socialist backbone which is conspicuously lacking in contemporary social democracy: even those who disagree with our advocacy of a fully planned economy might find some value in our arguments, insofar as they illuminate the undeveloped component in the mixed economy's `mix'.

2.  In what sense was the USSR socialist?

Here we base ourselves on the classical Marxist analysis of society. In Marx's view, the most basic distinguishing feature of different modes of social organisation is the manner in which they ensure the `extraction of a surplus product' from the direct producers. This requires a little explanation. The `necessary product', on this theory, is the product required to maintain and reproduce the workforce itself. This will take the form of consumer goods and services for the workers and their families, and the investment in plant, equipment and so on that is needed simply to maintain the society's means of production in working order. The `surplus product', on the other hand, is that portion of social output used to maintain the non-producing members of society (a heterogeneous lot, ranging from the idle rich, to politicians, to the armed forces, to retired working people), plus that portion devoted to net expansion of the stock of means of production. Any society capable of supporting non-producing members, and of generating an economically progressive programme of net investment, must have some mechanism for compelling or inducing the direct producers to produce more than is needed simply to maintain themselves. The precise nature of this mechanism is, according to Marxist theory, the key to understanding the society as a whole -- not just the `economy', but also the general form of the state and of politics. Our claim is that the Soviet system put into effect a mode of extraction of the surplus product quite different from that of capitalism. To put this point in context, some more general historical background may be useful.

Consider, first, the distinction between feudal and capitalist society. Under feudalism, the extraction of a surplus product was plainly `visible' to all. The specific forms were various, but one typical method involved the peasants working their own fields for so many days in the week, and the lord's land for the rest. Alternatively, the peasants might have to surrender a portion of the produce of their own fields to the lord. If such a society is to reproduce itself, the direct producers must be held in some form of direct subordination or servitude; political and legal equality is out of the question. A religious ideology that speaks of the distinct `places' allotted to individuals on this earth and of the virtues of knowing one's proper place, and that promises a heavenly reward for those who fulfill their role in God's earthly scheme, will also be very useful.

Under capitalism, on the other hand, the extraction of the surplus product becomes `invisible' in the form of the wage contract. The parties to the contract are legal equals, each bringing their property to the market and conducting a voluntary transaction. No bell rings in the factory to announce the end of the portion of the working day spent producing the equivalent of the workers' wages, and the beginning of the production of profits for the employer. Nonetheless, the workers' wages are substantially less than the total value of the product they generate: this is the basis of Marx's theory of exploitation. The degree of exploitation that is realised depends on the struggle between workers and capitalists, in its various forms: over the level of wages, over the pace of production and the length of the working day, and over the changes in technology that determine how much labour time is required to produce a given quantum of wage-goods.

Soviet socialism, particularly following the introduction of the first five-year plan under Stalin in the late 1920s, introduced a new and non-capitalist mode of extraction of a surplus. This is somewhat obscured by the fact that workers were still paid ruble wages, and that money continued in use as a unit of account in the planned industries, but the social content of these `monetary forms' changed drastically. Under Soviet planning, the division between the necessary and surplus portions of the social product was the result of political decisions. For the most part, goods and labour were physically allocated to enterprises by the planning authorities, who would always ensure that the enterprises had enough money to `pay for' the real goods allocated to them. If an enterprise made monetary `losses', and therefore had to have its money balances topped up with `subsidies', that was no matter. On the other hand, possession of money as such was no guarantee of being able to get hold of real goods. By the same token, the resources going into production of consumer goods were centrally allocated. Suppose the workers won higher ruble wages: by itself this would achieve nothing, since the flow of production of consumer goods was not responsive to the monetary amount of consumer spending. Higher wages would simply mean higher prices or shortages in the shops. The rate of production of a surplus was fixed when the planners allocated resources to investment in heavy industry and to the production of consumer goods respectively.

In very general terms this switch to a planned system, where the the division of necessary and surplus product is the result of deliberate social decision, is entirely in line with what Marx had hoped for. Only Marx had imagined this `social decision' as being radically democratic, so that the production of the surplus would have an intrinsic legitimacy. The people, having made the decision to devote so much of their combined labour to net investment and the support of non-producers, would then willingly implement their own decision. For reasons both external and internal, Soviet society at the time of the introduction of economic planning was far from democratic. How, then, could the workers be induced or compelled to implement the plan (which, although it was supposedly formulated in their interests, was certainly not of their making)?

We know that the plans were, by and large, implemented. The 1930s saw the development of a heavy industrial base at unprecedented speed, a base that would be severely tested in the successful resistance to the Nazi invasion. We are also well aware of the characteristic features of the Stalin era, with its peculiar mixture of terror and forced labour on the one hand, and genuine pioneering fervour on the other. Starting from the question of how the extraction of a surplus product was possible in a planned but undemocratic system, the cult of Stalin's personality appears not as a mere `aberration', but as an integral feature of the system. Stalin: at once the inspirational leader, making up in determination and grit for what he lacked in eloquence and capable of promoting a sense of participation in a great historic endeavour, and the stern and utterly ruthless liquidator of any who failed so to participate (and many others besides). The Stalin cult, with both its populist and its terrible aspects, was central to the Soviet mode of extraction of a surplus product.

3.  What can be learnt from the failure of Soviet socialism?

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 widespread sense that the basic economic mechanisms in operation since the 1930s have outlived their usefulness, and that to retain these mechanisms would condemn the peoples of the (erstwhile) USSR to stagnant standards of living and chronic shortages of consumer goods. Compared with the evident continuing vitality 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 construction, 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 emphasis 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 population 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 restructuring 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 political/ideological coercion people will automatically choose the market. Democracy inevitably leads to the rejection of the socialist economic mechanism. This book contains a set of arguments designed to show that this conclusion is unwarranted, 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 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.

4.  What is the theoretical basis for a new socialism?

The principal bases for a post-Soviet socialism must be radical democracy and efficient planning. The democratic element, it is now clear, is not a luxury, or something that can be postponed until conditions are especially favourable. Without democracy, as we have argued above, the leaders of a socialist society will be driven to coercion in order to ensure the production of a surplus product, and if coercion slackens the system will tend to stagnate. At the same time, the development of an efficient planning system will most likely be impossible in the absence of an open competition of ideas. The failure of Soviet Communists to come up with viable socialist reform proposals over recent years is testimony to the malign effects of a system in which conformity and obedience were at a premium. Capitalist societies can achieve economic progress under conditions of political dictatorship, for even under such dictatorship the realm of private economic activity is relatively unregulated and the normal processes of competition remain operative, while the suppression of working-class organisation may permit a higher rate of exploitation. Under socialism, there can be no such separation of oppressive state from `free' economy; and if criteria of ideological `correctness' dominate in the promotion of managers and even in economic-theoretical debate, the long-run prospects for growth and efficiency are dim indeed.

On the counts of both democratic institutions and efficient planning mechanisms, we have to say that the problems which emerged in the Soviet case reflect certain weaknesses in classical Marxism. Marx, Engels and Lenin were much stronger in their critiques of capitalism than in their positive theorizing concerning socialist society. As regards democratic institutions, the Bolsheviks initially latched onto the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies as the favoured form. While this may have been tactically astute, we argue that the soviet form is inherently inadequate and indeed dangerous and that we must look elsewhere for the principles of a socialist democratic constitution. As regards planning mechanisms, Marx and Engels had some interesting suggestions, but these were never developed beyond the level of rather vague generalities. The Soviet planners improvised their own system, which worked for certain purposes in its time, but the development of their thinking about socialist economic mechanisms was limited by what they saw as the need to conform to the canons of Marxism -- to avoid and indeed denounce any theoretical methods, such as marginal analysis, that appeared tainted by `bourgeois' connotations. Western marxists have argued that this tendency was based on a misinterpretation of Marx. Quite likely so, but the fact that Marx did not attempt to spell out the principles of operation of a planned economy at any length made such a misreading possible. At any rate, socialism will never again have any credibility as an economic system unless we can spell out such principles in reasonable detail.

5.  Synopsis of the book

In the remainder of this introduction we offer a synopsis of the main arguments to come, in the light of the problems and issues identified above. Chapters 1 and 2 tackle issues connected with inequality and inequity. The first gives an overview of the bases of inequality in capitalist society -- bases which, as we have suggested above, social democratic amelioration is unable to eradicate. The second shows how a consistent socialist system of payment could substantially eliminate inequality. The payment system outlined in chapter 2 depends on the idea that the total labour content of each product or service can be calculated. Chapter 3 justifies this claim, while developing the argument that economic calculation in terms of labour time is rational and technically progressive.

Chapters 4 to 9 then develop various aspects of an efficient system of economic planning, a system capable of ensuring that economic development is governed by the democratically constructed needs of the people. Chapter 4 establishes some basic concepts and priorities, and distinguishes a number of different `levels' of planning, namely strategic planning, detailed planning, and macroeconomic planning, which are then examined in detail in chapters 5, 6 and 7 respectively. Chapter 8 outlines a specific mechanism for ensuring that the detailed pattern of production remains in line with consumers' preferences, while avoiding excessive queues and shortages. Chapter 9 examines the information requirements for the type of planning system we envisage, and makes a link between the issue of accurate information and the incentives and sanctions faced by individuals. In the course of these chapters we draw a number of contrasts between the sort of system we are proposing, and the system commonly regarded as having failed in the Soviet Union.1

While chapters 4 to 9 deal with the planning of a single economy in isolation, chapters 10 and 11 extend the argument to consider issues arising from trade with other economies, an important practical concern in a world of increasing interdependence.

Chapters 12 to 14 move beyond the economic to further social and political questions. Chapter 12 makes a connection between socialist objectives and the concerns brought to light by feminists. It investigates the possibilities for domestic communes as an alternative to the nuclear family `household', and shows how such communes could function within the broad structure of a planned economy. Chapter 13 considers the political sphere, and proposes a radical form of democratic constitution capable of giving ordinary people real control over their lives. As mentioned earlier, we are critical of the soviet model of democracy. We are equally critical of parliamentary systems, and our own proposals stem from a re-examination of the mechanisms of classical (Athenian) democracy in the modern context. Chapter 14 examines the question of property relations, and elaborates the specific forms of property required as a basis for the preceding economic and social forms.

In a final chapter we tackle some contrary arguments put forward by sceptical socialists in recent years. In this context we reply to arguments in favour of `market socialism' as an alternative to the sort of planning we advocate.

The overall theme which animates the book, through all its various detailed arguments, will, we hope, be clear. That is, we take as our ultimate aim the greatest possible fulfillment of the potential of each human being, as individual and as a member of society. This fulfillment requires dignity, security and substantive equality (though not, of course, uniformity), as well as productive efficiency. It also requires that humans find sustainable ways of living in balance with the overall environment of the planet. We argue that these aims can best be met through a cooperative, planned form of social economy under a radically democratic political constitution -- a post-Soviet socialism.


1 In this book we develop our own proposals for socialist planning from first principles, without making a great deal of reference to the existing literature. For a detailed discussion and critique of the historic `socialist calculation debate' see Cottrell and Cockshott (1993a), and for a more detailed examination of the theory and practices of Soviet-type economic planning see Cottrell and Cockshott (1993b).

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