In the United States, and throughout the more advanced countries of the West, the numbers for youth unemployment are approaching “third world” levels. Public education is being slashed across the country, as state governments reckon with massive deficits, transferred from the private sector through immense bailouts of the banks. 1.5 million children in the U.S. are homeless. To put it bluntly, the future for young people in America is bleak. In these conditions, millions of youth are beginning to question whether capitalism has anything to offer.
But what is the alternative? Unlike the rest of the industrialized world, the U.S. has no mass labor party and no continuity in its “left tradition.” There is not and has never been a truly mass Socialist or Communist Party. Western expansion, the Palmer Raids, the New Deal, World War II, McCarthyism, the crimes of Stalinism, the extended postwar economic boom, and the collapse of the Soviet Union have all, in their turn, played a role in cutting across the development of a serious left in this country.
Given the absence of a traditional left party of any considerable size, even one that is reformist in nature, working class youth in the U.S. are drawn either into the “liberal wing” of the Democratic Party—one of the two bosses’ parties—or are further radicalized, often becoming anarchists by default.
Many American leftists begin their political lives as anarchists of some form or another. I know this was true for myself. Youthful anarchists vary widely in seriousness, often graduating from a simple rejection of the “status quo” to a more serious study and analysis of problems and solutions, of history and philosophy.
For those who are more serious and seeking a more thorough understanding of anarchist theory, a few names tend to dominate the field of anarchist intellectuals. Noam Chomsky is the name that everyone knows, even if they don’t know that he is an anarchist. But perhaps even more influential than Chomsky, in terms of constructing anarchist ideology, is Michael Albert, co-founder of Z-Magazine, the Z-Net website, and South End Press. Albert’s ideas, which he calls “Parecon” (Participatory Economics), have become a sort of theoretical basis for an entire school of “libertarian socialists,” or anarchists.
With the explosion of the Occupy movement onto the scene in late 2011, young people have once again taken to the streets. The Occupy phenomenon, which at this stage is still experimenting with different ideas, is to a large extent a youth movement. Many Occupiers claim to be “above” to politics. However, many understand that we cannot be indifferent to politics, that we must seek a political explanation and solution to the crisis. As a result, many young people are gravitating toward Marxist ideas, while others are attracted to various anarchist trends.
Albert’s Parecon represents perhaps the most serious and well-known attempt to offer a worked-out alternative to capitalism amongst the anarchist left. As Marxists, we take the discussion of what sort of society should replace capitalism very seriously, and thank Michael Albert for raising the idea of a society after capitalism amongst thousands of workers and students. However, does Michael Albert’s Parecon offer a viable way forward? From the Marxist perspective, Parecon leaves quite a bit to be desired, and is in large part a repackaging of old ideas in a shiny new package.
It is in some ways complex, in others rather simple; but we feel that it is certainly worth our time to study, because of the influence that it has garnered amongst a layer of some of the most forward-thinking and critical anarchist youth. Elements of Parecon may appear rather peculiar to someone unfamiliar with it. In fact, many of the peculiarities of Parecon flow from a desire to avoid the rise of a so-called “coordinator class,” which in turn is a fear that flows from Albert’s analysis of the events surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and its aftermath. This is a central, and often unstated undercurrent in all of Albert’s writings. Therefore, before we get into Parecon itself, we think it would useful to first to deal with the question of the Soviet Union, and with Albert’s “coordinator class.”
The Russian Revolution
For many people, when you bring up the question of socialism, the immediate question is: “Well, what about Russia?” The ability to answer the question “What happened in the Soviet Union?” is critical for revolutionaries. To not take the question seriously or to consider it an irrelevance that we can ignore would doom us. This is why it is essential for Marxists to study both the victory and the degeneration of the revolution. We must therefore study Stalinism, in order to explain this phenomenon to people with natural questions about the process that took place in Russia following the revolution, but also in order to work to prevent similar processes in the future.
For Marxists, the October Revolution of 1917 represented the most important event in human history. For the first time ever, with the exception of the brief but heroic episode of the Paris Commune, the working class laid hold of the reins of state power, threw aside capitalist property relations, and began the process of socialist transformation. The revolution represented a huge victory for the working class, as the factories passed into their hands; for the peasants, as the land passed into theirs; for women, who saw full legal equality for the first time in Russia; for national and ethnic minorities, particularly Jews, who had suffered greatly under the Great Russian chauvinism of the autocratic tsarist regime.
The revolutionary uprising itself, in the capital of Petrograd, was virtually bloodless. In fact, more people died in the filming of Sergei Eisenstein’s film about the Russian Revolution, October, than died in the insurrection itself. However, this relatively peaceful moment was to pass shortly, as history would teach us to expect. As Leon Trotsky explained: “…no ruling class has ever voluntarily and peacefully abdicated. In questions of life and death, arguments based on reason have never replaced the arguments of force. This may be sad, but it is so. It is not we that have made this world. We can do nothing but take it as it is." [Trotsky, Leon. “, In Defense of October,” 1932 speech in Copenhagen]
Twenty-one foreign armies including the United States invaded the fledgling Soviet state, as the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin and alongside Trotsky, struggled to establish the peace they had promised to the Russian masses. Because although the Bolsheviks pulled Russia out of the World War I, peace was not to be had in the near term, as the invading forces bolstered the homegrown forces of counterrevolution. Russia erupted into full-blown civil war, with revolutionary Reds clashing with counterrevolutionary Whites for control of Russia’s future.
Meanwhile, the revolutionary movement was spreading beyond Russia’s borders, beginning with uprisings in Germany in 1918–19, the brief soviet republic in Hungary in 1919, the revolutionary strike wave in Italy, also in 1919, and so on. This was precisely as the Bolsheviks had predicted. Russia was an underdeveloped, semi-feudal economy, incapable of building socialism alone, as to do so requires building upon the foundations of the most advanced capitalism. However, capitalism was to break at its “weakest link.” It was never Lenin and Trotsky’s idea that the Bolsheviks could somehow build socialism in Russia alone, but rather, that a revolution in Russia would subsequently spark off successful revolutions in European countries with more advanced capitalist economies, which could then in turn lift Russia out of backwardness and lay the basis for socialist development.
However, despite the initial optimism, all of these revolutions were defeated, not because of any failure in the theory of international revolution, but due to the failures and inadequacies of the revolutionary leadership in each country respectively. The Soviet Union, still suffering from civil war at home, and now from the failures of revolutionary movements abroad, was becoming more and more isolated. At the time of the revolution, Russia was a virtually illiterate, overwhelmingly peasant country despite having a strong working class in a few industrial centers. Under these conditions, “all the old filthy business,” to use Marx’s words, began to revive, as want became generalized and the struggle for even basic necessities was intensified. [Karl Marx, The German Ideology] Far from building upon the highest technology and productivity yet reached by world capitalism, the Soviet Union inherited a ruined and extremely backward economy. The material basis for building socialism is simple: having more than enough to go around for everyone. But where breadlines exist, police exist to police the breadlines.
Under these conditions of isolation and destitution, the rise of a bureaucratic caste was in effect inevitable. In the final analysis, that is exactly what Stalinism represents: a bureaucratic caste that rises out of and grafts itself onto the workers’ state, skimming the cream off the top of social production, reserving it for itself, and using force to defend its power and privileges.
The result is a deformed, or in the case of Russia, a degenerated workers’ state. The economic basis of society, i.e., the property forms, remain those of socialism: capitalist private property of the means of production is abolished, and is brought under centralized state control to be administered collectively. However, instead of a regime of workers’ democracy administering the economy and the state, political power is usurped by a bureaucratic caste.
This is not a phenomenon unique to postcapitalist societies, as this form of political usurpation, in which the state elevates itself above society and rules somewhat independently, balancing between the various classes, can be seen in different forms throughout history: Caesarism in ancient Rome; the absolute monarchs of the feudal age; the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte in France; and the fascist and military dictatorships of the twentieth century. In the case of Stalinism, Marxists refer to this phenomenon as “proletarian Bonapartism.” This is because the economic base of the regime is “proletarian,” while the political superstructure is “Bonapartist.”
The “coordinator class”
Despite the many problems it confronted, the early Soviet Union was the most democratic society humanity has yet seen. The system of workers’ democracy which existed under Lenin in the early 1920s had absolutely nothing in common with the monstrous totalitarian bureaucracy that coalesced around Stalin in the 1930s. In order to consolidate his power, Stalin was forced to liquidate the entire Bolshevik Central Committee as it had existed in 1917. Michael Albert, however, sees continuity between Lenin and Stalinism. Moreover, he believes that the legacy of Lenin and Trotsky is not the legacy of the working class, but rather of a new class, which he calls the “coordinator class.” Specifically, what is the “coordinator class,” according to Albert?
[The] “coordinator class” [is] composed of those who receive a wage for their labors but who, unlike workers, do jobs that have considerable influence over their own and other people’s economic situations and who retain their more empowering jobs largely due to monopolizing certain skills and knowledge. And we can note that the class of workers such as assemblers, waiters, truckers, and janitors, and the class of coordinators such as managers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers, regard one another with opposed interests. And that each also opposes capitalists, though in different ways. [Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2004), 26.]
Albert, in turn, views the victory of the October Revolution as the conspiratorial seizure of power by this class to rule in its own interests:
[U]nder certain historical conditions, if they manage to eliminate private ownership, they can run the economy without capitalists above them and with workers still below them.
The still skeptical Marxist might then ask, “Under what circumstances would they all unite against both workers below and capitalists above? Surely you can’t mean they would do that.”
My reply is that yes, to adopt such a stance publicly would be suicidal, of course. Rather, what this class’s foremost elements would do if they wanted to usher in a new economy in their own interests is wage a class war against capital by identifying capitalism’s many horrors to appeal to all those who suffer capitalism’s indignities and impoverishment. In the course of the ensuing anti-capitalist struggles, however, the coordinator class, seeking its own domination and not just an end to capital’s rule, would monopolize control over institutions into its own hands, elevate its own culture and values, and impose its rule on more grass roots movements and new institutions, all as a kind of reflex of its self image and its image of others. In this way the coordinator class would wind up dominating the new society, not only theoretically as I have just described, but, as has actually occurred in historical practice, in all countries where Leninists have taken power. [Michael Albert, Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism (New York: Zed Books, 2006), 152–53.]
That is, instead of having a capitalist ruling class, in centrally planned economies we see a coordinator class of planners and managers inexorably becoming the ruling class. [Albert, Parecon, 50.]
Albert insists of “coordinators” that:
They aren’t workers with a slight difference to most other workers. They aren’t capitalists with a slight difference from most other capitalists. Nor are they some kind of amalgam of the two, or the bottom stratum of capitalists merging into the top stratum of workers, thereby occupying what some might call a contradictory position. Instead this group has its own well defined position, its own clear definition, and, as a result, its own views and interests. [Albert, Realizing Hope, 151.]
We therefore need to ask ourselves two questions: 1) Do the “coordinators” Albert is referring to represent a unique “class” position in society? 2) Was the October Revolution in 1917 the seizure of power by this layer, whether or not they constitute a unique class?
Marxists do not use the word “class” in the loose way that it is used in standard, everyday American English. When most people talk about “class,” they are referring to income level or some other variable. Americans have, at least until very recently, viewed class not as a collective identity, but rather as a series of gradations.
This view is part and parcel of the “American Dream” mythology, which promotes the belief that anyone can make it in America, that we are all potential millionaires in waiting, and that “we are all ‘middle class.’” This outlook was bolstered by the prosperity afforded by the postwar economic boom. However, the material basis for this view has been under attack since the mid-1970s. The mass appeal of the “We are the 99%” and the “99% vs. the 1%” slogans and ideas put forward by the Occupy movement, testify to the beginning of the end of the belief in the “American Dream.”
The fact is that class is not a series of gradations, and we are not “all middle class.” For Marxists, class has a very precise, scientific meaning. It is not determined by income level, but by relations to the production process, and ultimately, by the question of ownership. I am a worker, not because I make x amount of money in wages, but because, as I do not own any private property in the form of capital, a large portfolio of stocks and bonds, or vast tracts of commercial, agricultural, and other rental properties, I am forced to sell what I do have—my ability to work—to a capitalist, in exchange for wages.
By the same token, Warren Buffet is a capitalist, not because he made x billion dollars last year, but because, through his ownership of capital and what we call the “means of production,” he employs wage labor, which he, through the labor process, exploits to make a profit.
The workers do not form a monolithic, homogeneous class. There is a wide range of incomes among those who must sell their labor power for a wage, and a correspondingly wide range of ideological world views. But whether they make minimum wage, or $100,000 per year, they remain part of the working class due to their relation to the means of production. It is above all ownership of those means, or the lack thereof, that determines whether an individual is part of the working class or the capitalist class.
Between these two great classes—the working class (the proletariat) and the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie)—there is also what Marxists call the “middle class,” or the petty bourgeoisie. This class bears no resemblance to the “middle class” envisioned in the “American Dream” ideology of the the two-car garage and the white picket fence in suburbia. The petty bourgeoisie stands between the working class and the capitalist class, both materially and ideologically. They are the small business owners, the doctors or lawyers with their own practice, the small farmers, etc. These are not big capitalists, in the sense that, while they may own some capital and exploit workers, they are forced to work themselves; i.e., they do not make enough simply by virtue of their ownership of the means of production to survive. More and more, capitalism tends to drive members of this class into the working class. As Marx put it in the Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers. [Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party]
The lower strata of the middle class—the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants—all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which modern industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population. [Ibid., 10.]
This class is extremely unstable, as they stand at the precipice, with a cliff on either side. Depending on which statistics are to be believed, 50–90% of small businesses fail within the first year. Less than 1% of Americans (just 2.2 million out of a population of 310 million) are farmers, and more small farmers are driven out of farming by big agribusiness and corporate farming every day. Descending into the ranks of the working class is far more likely for a member of the petty bourgeoisie than ascending into the ranks of the capitalist class.
While Albert insists that his “coordinator class” is not synonymous with the Marxist definition of the “petty bourgeoisie,” nonetheless, a large number of the professions that he associates with “coordinatorism” fit neatly into this class category, while those that do not, are simply higher-paid workers, with perhaps a college education or a specialized skillset. But they are hardly a well-defined layer with a unique relation to the means production, thereby representing the class interests and aspirations of a new and previously undiscovered class.
And yet, for Albert, “coordinators,” such as doctors, university professors, small businesspeople, and shop floor foremen, do indeed form a single, independent class, not bound by property ownership or lack thereof. Furthermore, Albert argues that this class can seize and wield political power. According to Albert, failure to recognize this is Marxism’s great weakness:
Marxism’s fatal weakness in this regard is that it ignores the possibility that factors other than ownership can produce classes, and that its overlooking additional possibilities compromises many core insights of the Marxist framework. [Albert, Realizing Hope, 151.]
Albert argues that Marxism “only asserts, and never really proves, or even argues, that we should see property relations as the only cause of class difference.” [Ibid.] This is simply not true; and is, ironically, merely asserted by Albert, rather than proven. In fact, Marx and Engels both wrote extensively on the subject, not simply “asserting,” but explaining in great detail why relations to production should be used as the defining feature of class identification. As Marx explains in Volume III of Capital:
The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labor is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves; thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers—a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labor and thereby its social productivity—which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short the corresponding specific form of the state. [Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III]
Further, class is merely a particular form of the social division of labor. As Marx described elsewhere:
Insofar as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that divide their mode of life, their interest and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile contrast to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no unity, no national union and no political organization, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. [Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte]
For Marxists, a social layer simply working in similar conditions, e.g., conditions of “empowering work,” does not alone constitute this social layer into a class. For example, Marx is above referring to the French peasants of 1851. He continues:
The small peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions, but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another, instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. [Ibid.]
This is the opposite of the position of the working class, which finds itself thrust into social conditions that not only encourage, but necessitate a collective mindset. In contradistinction to the position of the working class, both the middle class, as Marxists understand the term, and to an even greater extent Albert’s “coordinators,” are isolated one from another by their relationship to the means of production. This isolated, parochial view is what has, as Marx described above, condemned the peasantry and middle class to eternally follow one or another of the two great classes in society, as their own class position prevents them from playing any sort of independent role in social transformation. This is as true of the peasant revolts of the Middle Ages, as it was with the peasantry in Russia in 1917.
In the same way, the middle class in modern society wavers between supporting the working class and the capitalist class, tending to tilt in the direction of whichever class appears to have the upper hand at a given moment. In cases where the petty bourgeoisie movement has developed more broadly, they have invariably been manipulated cynically from above, resulting in the rise of fascism. Far from achieving any real degree of “independence”, they ultimately they became nothing more than a battering ram against the working class, for the preservation and continuation of capitalism.
Did Albert’s “coordinatorist” layer come to power in 1917? Absolutely not. Let’s begin with Lenin, who is often presented as an “elitist” by anarchist writers, including Albert. These writers quote by rote the same line from Lenin’s early work What is to be Done?:
We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc. [V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (hereafter LCW), Volume 5 (Moscow: Progress, Fifth Printing, 1977), 375.]
What those who use isolated quotations as a replacement for genuine argumentation fail to recognize, is that this quotation comes from a very specific debate against the “economist” trend within the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). This was a trend that rejected the political struggle, and preferred to focus exclusively on “economic” or trade union demands. In stating the above, Lenin was restating a position held by Karl Kautsky, at that time a key leader of the German Social-Democratic Party. In making his case against economism, Lenin later admitted that he had exaggerated in the heat of the debate:
We all now know that the “economists” have gone to one extreme. To straighten matters out somebody had to pull in the other direction—and that is what I have done. [Second Congress of the RSDLP]
Here is Lenin several years later, clarifying his position:
The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness. [V.I. Lenin, “The Reorganization of the Party,”]
Was Lenin’s goal the construction of a party of intellectuals or “coordinators” to seize power in their own interests? Replying once again to those who misunderstood his argument against the economists, Lenin seems to answer Michael Albert himself:
[Some say that I take] no account whatever of the fact that the workers, too, have a share in the formation of an ideology. Is that so? Have I not said time and again that the shortage of fully class-conscious workers, worker-leaders, and worker-revolutionaries is, in fact, the greatest deficiency in our movement? Have I not said there that the training of such worker-revolutionaries must be our immediate task? [Lenin, Second Congress of the RSDLP]
Further, Lenin on multiple occasions sought to reduce the ratio of intellectuals to workers in the RSDLP and later the Bolshevik Party:
At the Third Congress of the Party I suggested that there be about eight workers to every two intellectuals in the Party committees. How obsolete that suggestion seems today!
Now we must wish for the new Party organizations to have one Social-Democratic intellectual to several hundred Social-Democratic workers. [V.I. Lenin, “The Reorganization of the Party,”]
Only the broadening of the Party by enlisting proletarian elements can, in conjunction with open mass activity, eradicate all the residue of the circle spirit which has been inherited from the past and is unsuited to our present tasks. [V. I. Lenin, “Preface to the Collection Twelve Years”]
Wouldn’t a party of, by, and for the “coordinators” want to maintain strict control of the entry of “proletarian elements” into the party? We shall see below that Lenin and Trotsky were also in favor of the working class entering the sphere of management and administration, of both society and of the economy, despite Albert’s claims to the contrary. This also runs counter to the “coordinatorist” theory.
The degeneration of the revolution happened for a number of very specific historical reasons, which we discussed above, not least of which was the isolation of the revolution. The process was accelerated by the Civil War, as the best, most self-sacrificing and class-conscious workers often were the first to give their lives in the war to defend the revolution.
It is true that Stalin, particularly after his creation of the “Cult of Lenin,” used the anti-Marxist idea of an elite guard of intellectuals, separate from, and above the masses, as a useful ideological bulwark against challenges from the working class and the Old Bolsheviks to his leadership. However, this had absolutely nothing in common with the regime that existed during Lenin’s lifetime, and which Trotsky and hundreds of thousands of others died defending against Stalin’s gangsters.
Stalin based his rise in the party upon the isolationist aspirations of the war-weary, small-proprietor kulaks in the countryside, and the layer of careerist bureaucrats who had flooded the party once victory in the Civil War appeared assured, as well as the more backward elements of the working class, also beaten down and tired from years of civil war. The bureaucratic layer around Stalin, whose interests he personified, did not constitute a class in the scientific, Marxist sense of the word, as their power did not derive from direct ownership of any property. Rather, they formed a bureaucratic caste, encrusted on the top of Soviet society, ruling pragmatically in their own narrow interests, not the interests of the Soviet or world working class.
Even from the early days of the Soviet state, there were “bureaucratic deformations,” as Lenin was always clear to point out. But to argue that Lenin, on the one hand, and Stalin on the other, both ruled Russia as representatives of a “coordinator class” seems a monstrous distortion of reality.
We have dealt elsewhere in this volume with the issues raised in the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny, and the actions of the anarchist Makhno. We believe we have shown that Leninism bears no resemblance to Stalinism, and that Leninism is not a movement of, by, and for “coordinators,” and that these layers do not constitute a unique class in society, with unified interests and a unique relation to production.
On the (mis)use of quotations
Before we get to the ideas of Parecon itself, we have to deal one final time with Albert’s usage of quotations. On ancient maps, the phrases “hic sunt dracones” (“Here be dragons”) or “hic sunt leones” (“Here be lions”) denoted undiscovered or dangerous territory, not to be traversed by the unskilled or unwary traveler. Similarly, in nearly every one of his books, Michael Albert marks out Lenin and Trotsky’s work as “dangerous territory,” not to be seriously studied, by using a relatively small number of “scary” quotations that he claims “prove” their wickedness and utter contempt for democracy and workers’ control.
A similar method is employed by other anarchist writers, as well as right-wing enemies of Marxism. The quotations used usually vary little between texts, and the same short quotations, lacking context, and secondhand misquotations, appear in one book or article after another, so we need to deal with a few of them in detail.
First, we need to say a few words about the usage of quotations in political texts. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Ted Grant, and other great Marxist writers are not religious figures. The works they have written are not religious texts, and the things that they have said are not “red-lettered.” Finding a quotation from one of them that may be slightly off-putting, or even wholly incorrect, does not discredit the body of their work, any more than would finding a new, as-yet-unexplained fossil invalidate the entire theory of evolution, as some creationists believe.
There are those so-called Marxists, who refer to some of the above writers in an almost religious manner, with the expectation that finding the “right quote” from the “right writer” will “prove” an argument. Such a method is alien to Marxism and to serious social science. Quotations can certainly shed light on and supplement an argument, as often someone has previously said or written something that can clarify an argument in a far more eloquent or concise manner than the writer can manage on his or her own. It is also true that there is a certain political authority that comes with the arguments made by the leaders of a movement, both past and present, just as there are within scientific fields. But while this authority may or may not be earned, it cannot in and of itself decisively “prove” an argument, whether in the realm of revolutionary theory or in other scientific fields.
“Man is a lazy animal”
To begin with, let’s take a look at a few quotations that Albert lifts from Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky’s 1918 book in defense of the use of revolutionary terror against the counterrevolutionary White Armies during the Russian Civil War. One of Albert’s favorite quotations is the following, which he quotes as follows in his book What is to be Undone?:
It is a general rule that man will try to get out of work. Man is a lazy animal. [Michael Albert, What is to be Undone? (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1974), 110.]
Albert elaborates further his interpretation of this quotation in Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century:
As to why Trotsky championed “one-man management” in the factory we need look no further than his cynical view of human nature: “It is a general rule that man will try to get out of work. Man is a lazy animal.” Naturally comrades at the center of society must sometimes coerce “lazy animals” for their own good. [Michael Albert, Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (Cambridge: South End Press, 1991), 7.]
In the second book, Albert provides no citation, so it is impossible to know which edition of Terrorism and Communism he is using. However, in What is to be Undone?, Albert references a second-hand citation of “Trotsky in Cohn-Bendit” in his endnotes. This is, of course, a reference to Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism. Why Albert did not see fit to source the original text is hard to understand. The entire paragraph from which the quotation by Trotsky is extracted is as follows:
As a general rule, man strives to avoid labor. Love for work is not at all an inborn characteristic: it is created by economic pressure and social education. One may even say that man is a fairly lazy animal. It is on this quality, in reality, that is founded to a considerable extent all human progress; because if man did not strive to expend his energy economically, did not seek to receive the largest possible quantity of products in return for a small quantity of energy, there would have been no technical development or social culture. It would appear, then, from this point of view that human laziness is a progressive force. Old Antonio Labriola, the Italian Marxist, even used to picture the man of the future as a “happy and lazy genius.” We must not, however, draw the conclusion from this that the party and the trade unions must propagate this quality in their agitation as a moral duty. No, no. We have sufficient of it as it is. The problem before the social organization is just to bring “laziness” within a definite framework, to discipline it, and to pull mankind together with the help of methods and measures invented by mankind itself. [Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky]
He goes on to add:
The whole of human history is the history of the organization and education of collective man for labor, with the object of attaining a higher level of productivity. Man, as I have already permitted myself to point out, is lazy; that is, he instinctively strives to receive the largest possible quantity of products for the least possible expenditure of energy. Without such a striving, there would have been no economic development. The growth of civilization is measured by the productivity of human labor, and each new form of social relations must pass through a test on such lines. [Ibid., 155.]
Several things stand out when reading the full quotations, in their original context. It is hard to miss the dishonest way in which Trotsky is presented by Albert and others. First, one will notice that Albert, or if we are to be fair, Cohn-Bendit, has removed the middle of the quotation (“Love for work is not at all an inborn characteristic: it is created by economic pressure and social education.”) without the use of ellipses. This removes Trotsky’s own elabortion of what it is he means. Also, the more moderate, “One may even say that man is a fairly lazy animal,” in Trotsky has been replaced by Cohn-Bendit with the much more harshly worded “Man is a lazy animal.” These initial objections may appear at first glance to be mere questions of semantics, but they speak to the honesty of the method used by Trotsky’s detractors.
Taken as a whole, the quotations from Trotsky present an analysis which is hard to deny, i.e., that “laziness,” or put another way, our desire to do as little work as possible while still achieving as much as possible out of this work, forms the basis for our desire to increase the productivity of our labor, and thus, ultimately, all of human technological development. Does Albert deny this? Does he prefer that humanity do more labor and get less out of this labor? Of course, we are a tool-making, laboring animal, but our laboring nature exists in a dialectical interrelationship with our natural inclination toward “laziness,” which in turn plays an undeniably progressive historical role.
However, Trotsky’s further point, that it does not follow that laziness should therefore be encouraged, as it requires no encouragement, is equally valid. What was necessary, in order to win the Civil War against the armies of counterrevolution, and to develop the Russian economy out of absolute backwardness, was to bring laziness “within a definite framework.”
This brings us to the next quotation Albert attempts to use against Trotsky, concerning “one-man management.” It again comes from the period of the Civil War, which stressed the young Soviet state to its limits, as the Soviet workers and peasants fought off 21 invading armies, the vicious counterrevolutionary White Armies, and starvation in the cities across the country.
Corroborating our implication that militarization of political and economic life was no hated necessity, but a well thought-out, believed-in universal policy Trotsky said:
“I consider that if the Civil War had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man management much sooner and much less painfully.” [Albert, What is to be Undone?, 111.]
Once again, Albert quotes a second-hand source, this time Maurice Brenton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control. In another work, Albert uses the same quotation, with no citation, and draws this conclusion:
In other words, Trotsky didn’t reluctantly accede to coordinator structures out of necessities compelled by the Civil War, as apologists maintain, but because he preferred them. [Albert, Looking Forward, 7.]
Trotsky does indeed write this, in Terrorism and Communism, but he makes clear that this is not to be elevated to a principle for all time. Not more than a few paragraphs down from the above quote, Trotsky adds:
Variants and combinations are possible here. Where the worker can manage alone, let us put him in charge of the factory and give him an expert as an assistant. Where there is a good expert, let us put him in charge and give him as assistants two or three of the workers. Finally, where a “board” has in practice shown its capacity for work, let us preserve it. This is the sole serious attitude to take up, and only in such a way shall we reach the correct organization of production. [Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky]
So much for Albert’s “universal policy.” The above actually presents a very flexible approach to how labor should be more efficiently organized so as to defend the revolution against the counterrevolution, both domestic and foreign. What Trotsky is saying is that, in those scenarios where management by a board of workers has shown itself to work in practice, then this should be maintained (“let us preserve it”). The attentive reader will also note that Trotsky proposes that if a worker can run things, the expert acts as an assistant, but if an expert is needed to manage, then two or three workers should be there to assist (or rather, to keep the expert in line). If Trotsky “preferred” one-man management as some sort of “universal policy,” then why would he concede to preserving boards of workers where these were functioning well?
This, however, also misses Trotsky’s main point concerning “one-man management.” Given the conditions of backwardness and the isolation of the revolution in Russia, one-man management in effect became an inevitability. Were it not for the chaos caused by the Civil War, the transition would have occurred far more smoothly—and probably more quickly. Trotsky actually explains this quite clearly in the lines preceding the above quotation:
The necessity of making use of technical knowledge and methods accumulated in the past, the necessity of attracting experts and of making use of them on a wide scale, in such a way that our technique should go not backwards but forwards—all this was understood and recognized by us, not only from the very beginning of the revolution, but even long before October. [Ibid., 170–71.]
Nowhere does Trotsky elevate one-man management to an eternal principle, even less to a “preference.” In fact, while arguing against the idea that one-person management of this or that factory inherently represents an attack upon the “independence of the working class,” Trotsky states:
The independence of the workers is determined and measured not by whether three workers or one are placed at the head of a factory, but by factors and phenomena of a much more profound character—the construction of the economic organs with the active assistance of the trade unions; the building up of all Soviet organs by means of the Soviet congresses, representing tens of millions of workers; the attraction into the work of administration, or control of administration, of those who are administered. It is in such things that the independence of the working class can be expressed. (our emphasis) [Ibid., 169–70.]
Thus, the bringing of the working class into the field of the administration of their own affairs was, in fact, a task which Lenin and Trotsky had set for the fledgling Soviet state from the beginning. In point of fact, Trotsky considers it the means by which “the independence of the workers is determined and measured.”
Trotsky made this point even clearer in his Transitional Program:
Within the framework of this plan, the workers would demand resumption, as public utilities, of work in private businesses closed as a result of the crisis. Workers’ control in such case: would be replaced by direct workers’ management. (our emphasis)
The working out of even the most elementary economic plan—from the point of view of the exploited, not the exploiters— is impossible without workers’ control, that is, without the penetration of the workers’ eye into all open and concealed springs of capitalist economy. Committees representing individual business enterprises should meet at conference to choose corresponding committees of trusts, whole branches of industry, economic regions and finally, of national industry as a whole. Thus, workers’ control becomes a school for planned economy. On the basis of the experience of control, the proletariat will prepare itself for direct management of nationalized industry when the hour for that eventuality strikes. [Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program, in Four Marxist Classics, 185.]
And what happens after nationalization? Does Trotsky become an advocate of “one-man management” in the case of a workers’ or left-leaning party coming to power and nationalizing the key levers of industry?
…nationalization and workers’ control do not exclude each other at all. Even if the government were an extremely left one and full of the best intentions, we would stand for the control of workers over industry and circulation; we do not want a bureaucratic management of nationalized industry; we demand direct participation of the workers themselves in control and administration through shop committees, trade unions, etc. Only in this way can we lay the supporting bases for proletarian dictatorship in economy. (our emphasis) [Leon Trotsky, “Revisionism and Planning: The Revolutionary Struggle against Labor Fakers” in Writings of Leon Trotsky [1933–34]
This hardly sounds like someone committed to a “coordinator structure.” Lenin expressed similar ideas on the question of workers’ management:
[E]xpropriation alone, as a legal or political act, does not settle the matter by a long chalk, because it is necessary to depose the landowners and capitalists in actual fact, to replace their management of the factories and estates by a different management, workers’ management, in actual fact. There can be no equality between the exploiters—who for many generations have been better off because of their education, conditions of wealthy life, and habits—and the exploited, the majority of whom even in the most advanced and most democratic bourgeois republics are downtrodden, backward, ignorant, intimidated and disunited. For a long time after the revolution the exploiters inevitably continue to retain a number of great practical advantages: they still have money (since it is impossible to abolish money all at once); some movable property—often fairly considerable; they still have various connections, habits of organization and management; knowledge of all the “secrets” (customs, methods, means and possibilities) of management; superior education; close connections with the higher technical personnel (who live and think like the bourgeoisie); incomparably greater experience in the art of war (this is very important), and so on and so forth. [V.I. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky]
And again in The State and Revolution:
Given these economic preconditions, it is quite possible, after the overthrow of the capitalists and the bureaucrats, to proceed immediately, overnight, to replace them in the control over production and distribution, in the work of keeping account of labor and products, by the armed workers, by the whole of the armed population. [V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution]
These quotations could be reproduced ad nauseum, as there are far more statements from Lenin and Trotsky about the need for workers’ management and participation than there are small snippets, taken out of context, which “prove” their alleged diabolic plots to run roughshod over the workers. In fact, during a debate with a member of the British SWP, Albert essentially admitted his bias:
I will admit that perhaps I have a fetish or a bias with dumping on Lenin and Trotsky, maybe I do, that causes me to miss the complexity that gives them excuses or makes their behavior contextually reasonable.
Moments later, Albert in fact recanted this confessional, but were we to simply leave the above quotation without further comment, you would never know, which proves our point. In short, out-of-context quotations are not a serious means of argumentation.
Vision and utopianism
Albert makes a big deal out of the need for “vision” and accuses the Left in general of a great deficiency in this regard. His favorite way of phrasing this is to say that leftists usually put forward a list of grievances without formulating an alternative, so that the audience, at best, is left with the impression that things are horrible, but that there is no better alternative. Albert compares this to trying to create a “movement against aging,” which most people, despite its obviously negative consequences, view as an inevitability.
It is true that “the Left” often does end up “complaining” more than offering solutions, particularly if we include within this “left,” liberals and reformists, who genuinely believe that the only minimal improvements can be made, and are achievable only within the confines of the existing system. However, Albert goes further. He ascribes this failure to “Marxism’s general taboo against ‘utopian’ speculation.” [Albert, Realizing Hope, 154.] Albert’s solution? Nothing more, and nothing less that utopian speculation!
Is it true, as Albert claims, that Marxism offers no vision of what a future society may look like? Absolutely not! However, for Marxists, this discussion is based on analyzing historical experience and concrete possibilities. Marxists, for example, study the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the degeneration of the Revolution into Stalinist counterrevolution, the Spanish Civil War, the German Revolution, etc., not simply for historical interest, but because there are lessons to learn from the successes and failures of these revolutions. We have to learn from concrete historical experience. One of the things that history teaches us is that no detailed “blueprint” of what a future society is going to look like is needed for a revolution to be successful. More importantly, since the concrete conditions under which socialism will be built will depend on the actual course of and timing of the revolution, no such predetermined plan could ever be implemented as its designers intended.
Profound social transformations—revolutions—are the product of massive discontent against the status quo, brought about by objective conditions, by the contradictions built up within the very foundations of society; not something that springs ready-made from the minds of great thinkers. During normal periods this discontent lies dormant, but under certain conditions, explodes toward the surface, much like lava from a volcano. Even the social forms, such as workers’ councils (soviets, in Russian), which become instrumental in revolutionary events, are typically not produced first in the minds of theorists, but rather are thrown up during the course of struggle itself. Neither the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks, the anarchists, nor any other revolutionary grouping in Russia theorized about even the possibility of soviets before they became a reality during the 1905 Revolution, an eternal testament to the independent creativity of the working class in struggle.
While some “vision” is critical, an overly detailed vision of the future is bound to come into conflict with the realities and complexities of the living struggle between the classes. Often, despite the best intentions of the designers of overarching visions of the future, the end result looks nothing like they intended. For example, in France, Robespierre sought the “Rule of Reason”; In England, Cromwell sought the “Kingdom of Heaven”; in Cuba, Fidel Castro viewed Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. as a primary inspiration, and so on. The end result in each of these cases was dictated not solely by the “vision” of this or that individual, but by historical conditions and their limitations: the relative level of development of society, the world situation, the isolation of a revolution, etc. This is not to say that ideas and leadership do not matter (they obviously do!), but ideas are materially constrained. As Marx famously put it:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. [Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte]
The attempt to formulate, by way of abstract thought, the workings of a future socialist society, was one of the primary failings of the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century, who wrote detailed “visions” of what such a future society would look like (e.g., Edward Bellamy in the U.S.), or created experimental communities to put their vision into practice (e.g. the Owenites in Britain).
While Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward was wildly influential, inspiring the likes of Eugene Debs for example, his utopian vision of an evolution towards the end of private property through the goodwill of the capitalist class contained no resemblance to the reality of the world in which he lived—or to that of the world we live in today. Furthermore, on what are we to base either our criticism or agreement with these utopian schemes beyond engaging in mere abstract speculation, such as, “That wouldn’t work,” “That might work,” etc.?
To their credit, the utopian experiments of Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and the Bellamy Societies in the U.S. took things a step further. Not happy with simply speculating about the future, some decided to put their “vision” into practice with the formation of “ideal” communities. However, all of these experiments, even if some were successful in the short term, operated within the confines of a capitalist marketplace hostile to them, and were destined for failure in the end. Nonetheless, early utopian socialism, which Engels provides a brief history of in his pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, showed by heroic example the realistic potential of the goals of socialism.
However, while recognizing the historic contribution of utopian thought to the cause of socialism, is it therefore incumbent upon us to “look backward” to pre-Marxist socialism for our ideas? Not at all. As stated above, Marxism looks first to material conditions and to an analysis of history for answers to the questions of what a future society will look like.
Based on historical precedent, we can say, that when the working class enters struggle, it tends to throw up organs for its own rule, what we call soviets or workers’ councils. These form the basis for a new state, a more democratic and participatory workers’ state. Such an embryonic state stands in opposition to the existing capitalist state, bringing about a situation of “dual power.”
We can also say that the economy of a socialist society must be rationally planned, rather than operating according to the anarchy of the capitalist marketplace. This would allow for the maximum utilization of society’s resources. Further, drawing on the lessons of Stalinism, we can also say that the plan must also be democratic, implemented and controlled by the workers themselves. We will deal with planning in much more detail later, as it figures hugely in Albert’s system.
These and other lessons are not drawn from thin air, but are the product of a thorough study of past revolutionary experience. Similarly the points in the program of the Workers International League are not drawn from abstract desires or “vision,” but from the objective necessities of the movement of the working class. We base it on the direction of the movement and of society, ultimately raising the sights of the workers towards what must be our ultimate goal: the socialist transformation of society.
In the beginning were the values
How does Albert, by contrast, arrive at the ideas of participatory economics? Rather than beginning from an analysis of the real, material world, Albert begins from “first principles,” i.e. like a prophet, he begins with “vision”:
When examining and evaluating economic systems, there are four main questions about values we must address:
1 Equity: How much should people get and why?
2 Self-management: What kind of say over their conditions should people have?
3 Diversity: Should paths to fulfillment be diversified or narrowed?
4 Solidarity: Should people cooperate or compete?
Our first step in envisioning a new economy is to address these four areas of concern. [Albert, Parecon, 28.]
Albert adds, further on, a fifth value—efficiency:
Of course, in addition to solidarity, diversity, equity, and participatory self-management, there is one more evaluative norm we must keep in mind. It will not do, for example, to have economic institutions that promote all our economic values but do not get the economic job done. It will not do, that is, to have an economy that does not meet expressed needs, or that does so to a limited degree though delivering fewer or less desirable outputs than would have been possible with more efficient operations. [Ibid., 42.]
Albert has determined that these five are the best values for us to use to “envision” a new economy, or to stand in judgment of existing ones:
[H]aving these five values—solidarity, diversity, equity, and participatory self-management, plus meeting expressed needs without waste—gets us a long way toward being able to judge economies. If an economy obstructs one or more of these values, to that degree, we do not like it. On the other hand, if an economy furthers these preferred values, that’s very good, though we must still look further to see if there are any offsetting problems. [Ibid.]
Why these values? Because these are the values Albert himself has chosen, though he admits they may come into contradiction with others’ values:
[T]hough these values mean to be encompassing and critically important so that not furthering them is a damning criticism, there are many other values—such as privacy, personal freedom, artistic fulfillment, or even something specific like the right to employ others for personal gain—which might (or might not) also merit attention. And we can imagine that our favored values could come into conflict with one or more of these other values in certain contexts… in which case someone could argue that one of our values should be somewhat sacrificed to attain conflicting desirable ends. [Ibid.]
Having discovered the five ideal means of evaluating economies, Albert’s next step is to establish institutions, in ideal form, which further those values. For Albert and the followers of Parecon, these values are: workers’ and consumers’ councils; remuneration for effort and sacrifice; balanced job complexes; and participatory planning. These institutions form the foundations of Parecon.
Workers’ and consumers’ councils
The first institution, workers’ and consumers’ councils, requires little explanation, as these are intended to be democratic bodies for the rule of society by the working class. They also have the virtue, along with the planning component of Albert’s system, of being the only institutions within Parecon based on anything that has ever actually existed on a mass scale in the material world.
That being said, in a country like the United States, as well as in much of the industrialized world, most consumers are also workers and all workers are also consumers, so the division between the two is artificial. Allowing undue influence to “consumers” is not only confusing, but even dangerous from a class perspective, as “consumers” do not represent a definite class within society; for example, Bill Gates is also a consumer. What should interest us are councils that reflect the will of the majority of society (i.e., the workers).
Albert’s nested system of consumer councils would make an individual family unit the lowest level of a “consumers’ council”; which would in turn belong to a “neighborhood consumption council”; which would belong to “a federation of neighborhood councils the size of a city ward or a rural county,” and so on. [Ibid., 93.] Aside from the obvious complications flowing from participating in a small decision-making body with members of one’s immediate family, it is hypothetically possible that a future society could organize itself in this way.
But it is far more likely that production will be planned through workers’ councils (by those actually doing the producing), with input on consumption needs, priorities, and targets coming from the broader community (i.e., workers as consumers). By linking up workers’, neighborhood, and other councils that may be formed to ensure maximum participation of all those affected by decisions taken, and utilizing the latest technology, a genuinely democratic and participatory economy could organized. Albert’s artificial division of society into “workers” and “consumers” makes little theoretical or practical sense.
The critical component is not the particular form of organization of the workers’ councils, but their very existence. Even more important is that the rule of the working class is exercised through such councils. In other words, which class rules society is of more immediate importance than the specific means by which they rule. And to rule society, the workers must hold the reins of political power in their hands. More on that later.
Within Albert’s books on Parecon, he goes into considerable detail as to how he believes these councils need to work, i.e., how often they should meet, how they should take decisions, on what and whom their decisions should be binding, etc. But frankly, these are not questions of critical importance. While a certain amount of speculation is fine, it is very different to assert that a particular method, untested on a mass scale, is superior to other methods, both tested and untested. History itself will provide the definite answer to the question “how will the working class organize itself in a new society?”
After its conquest of power, the working class will undoubtedly try out various forms and methods of efficiently organizing itself: within the workplace, the family, the community, etc. Some will work, some will not, but as Marxists, we have absolute confidence, based on historical experience, in the creativity of the working class, and its ability to come up with appropriate and perhaps as-of-yet un-thought of solutions. Far more important at present is the question of how the workers will achieve political and economic power in the first place.
Remuneration and labor productivity
The next “institution” Albert deals with is “remuneration for effort and sacrifice.” According to Albert, Marxism gets the question of remuneration wrong by rewarding for output, rather than effort and sacrifice. But is this the final word Marxism has to say on remuneration, or payment for work? In contrast to Parecon, which Albert presents as a finished, fully-worked-out system, Marxism postulates a transitional evolution from the workers’ state of socialism into a classless, stateless communism.
Initially, we must deal with a new society “not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” [Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program] What does this mean? Marx explains:
Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society—after the deductions have been made—exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor… He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labor. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another. [Ibid., 529–30.]
For Marx, does this mean that those unable to work, for example, the injured or elderly, are left to fend for themselves? Clearly not! These are included in the “deductions” Marx refers to:
Before this is divided among the individuals, there has to be deducted again from it:
First, the general costs of administration not belonging to production.
This part will from the outset, be very considerably restricted in comparison with present-day society and it diminishes in proportion as the new society develops.
Secondly, that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc.
From the outset this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society and it grows in proportion as the new society develops.
Thirdly, funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, for what is included under so-called official poor relief today. [Ibid., 529.]
For Albert, however, this payment for productivity is completely unacceptable:
Luck in external circumstance and in the genetic lottery are no better basis for remuneration than luck in the property inheritance lottery… If a person has the fine fortune to have genes that give her an advantage for producing things of merit, or if she is lucky as regards her field of work, there is no reason on top of this good luck to provide her with an exorbitant income as well. [Albert, Parecon, 35.]
Marx, however, recognized this problem long before Albert. In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx observed:
In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.
But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges. It is therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. [Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program]
In other words, as long as we are in a transitional society from capitalism, through socialism, to communism, elements of the old inequality, of bourgeois right, will inevitably remain. For Albert, a means around this problem must be “envisioned”:
To achieve this goal we would have to assess each job’s characteristics for the effort or sacrifice per hour expended at an average level of exertion, plus have some means of oversight to keep track of which workers are expending effort at levels above or below average. [Albert, Parecon, 115.]
How would this be done in practice?
The precise methodology for doing this need not be the same from workplace to workplace… Here is a general approach, however, that many workplaces might opt for. Imagine each worker receives a kind of “evaluation report” from their workplace that determines their income to be used for consumption expenditures. This evaluation report would indicate hours worked at a balanced job complex [We’ll discuss these shortly. –JL] and intensity of work, yielding an “effort rating” in the form of a percentage multiplier… The system could be a highly precise numeric rating system where people are graded to two decimal places above or below average, for example. Or it might simply read “superior,” “average,” or “below average,” with the designation meaning average income, or a tenth above or a tenth below (that having been agreed in the workplace to be the only variation permitted). [Ibid., 115–16.]
This is an extremely complex arrangement, and the above, presented in his book, Parecon, intended for popular consumption, is his most “basic” explanation. This attempt to get around remuneration for productivity is complex precisely because it attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole, i.e., it attempts to overcome the inevitable defects of bourgeois right before the material capabilities to do so exist. “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” [Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program]
Emerging from the womb of capitalism, socialist society will not only be limited by the relative productive capacity of that society, but also by the ideology of capitalism, the moral and intellectual stamp Marx refers to, which will remain on the minds of millions for some time after the overthrow of capitalist property relations. With this will come certain expectations, among them, the expectation of payment for work done. Some adjustment may be made on the basis of “duration or intensity,” particularly relative to capitalist society where the most onerous jobs are often the worst paid. Nonetheless, labor time and the productivity of that labor will for a time, perhaps quite a long time, need to be the primary determinants of remuneration, even after the revolution.
In reality, this is the realization of the right to the fruits of one’s individual labor that capitalism has always claimed to provide. Capitalism, however, is incapable of genuinely implementing remuneration for productivity, because allocation of wealth under this system is based on ownership of private property, greatly stacking outcomes in favor of those owning productive property, rather than those involved in productive labor.
Is “bourgeois right,” however, Marx’s final word on the matter? No; he continues:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! [Ibid., 531.]
But for Albert, Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is:
…not only utopian in being unattainable; even if we could attain it, it would curtail needed information transfer and thereby obscure rather than reveal the relative preferences people have for different economic choices. [Albert, Realizing Hope, 154.]
Albert says elsewhere of remuneration based on needs that, “it expresses a value beyond equity or justice that we aspire to and implement when possible or desirable… such as in cases of illness, catastrophe, incapacity, and so on.” [Albert, Parecon, 37–38.]
Beyond being pessimistic about the future potential for an economy of super-abundance, and by extension, genuine communism, i.e., classlessness and statelessness, Albert gets Marx’s own prescription wrong. Not only do Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and their modern adherents not argue that allocating based on productivity, i.e., bourgeois right, is an end in itself, we also do not argue that one must achieve fully-developed communism in order to begin to see beyond the limitations of bourgeois right. As Marx said, bourgeois right is only overcome “in its entirety” by society’s ascension to the higher phase of communism.
A society’s ability to even begin the process of overcoming bourgeois right, i.e., its enslavement to the norms of bourgeois society in the realm of allocation of the means of consumption, is relative to its level of development. For example, in Russia, following the October Revolution, even beginning to overcome the limitations of bourgeois right was absolutely unthinkable in a country without even a developed capitalist economy. By contrast, the advanced capitalist economies of the twenty-first century offer tremendous potential, unimaginable to the Russians in 1917. This is not to say that bourgeois right will be overcome, even in the advanced countries, immediately following their successful revolutions. However, we would begin this process on a far higher level, on the basis of the tremendous productive capacity built up (and currently being squandered) by capitalism in these societies.
This being said, in the last analysis, the ability to overcome the limitations of bourgeois right is not dependent upon a complex system of weighting the onerousness of one’s work or the relative effort one does in the process of work, but rather upon the successful conquest of power by the working class in every country around the world, and the raising of the productivity of labor to the point where production for need becomes a reality for every human on earth.
“Balanced job complexes” and the division of labor
Parecon’s most complex institution is the “balanced job complex.” What is a balanced job complex?
Each job involves many tasks. Of course each job should be suited to the talents, capacities, and energies of the person doing it. But in a parecon each job must also contain a mix of tasks and responsibilities such that the overall quality of life and especially the overall empowerment effects of work are comparable for all. [Albert, Realizing Hope, 13.]
Albert is quick to point out:
Those who assemble cars today need not assemble computers tomorrow, much less every imaginable product. Nor should everyone who works in a hospital perform brain surgery as well as every other hospital function. The aim is not to eliminate divisions of labor, but to ensure that over some reasonable time frame people should have responsibility for some sensible sequence of tasks for which they are adequately trained and such that no one enjoys consistent advantages in terms of the empowerment effects of their work. [Albert, Parecon, 104.]
And how is this to be achieved?
[W]e can imagine someone listing all possible tasks to be done in a workplace. We can then imagine someone giving each task a rank of 1 to 20, with higher being more empowering and lower being more deadening and stultifying. So in this experiment we have hundreds or perhaps even thousands of stripped-down tasks from which we create actual jobs. No single task is enough to constitute a whole job. Some jobs may take only a few tasks, some many… Instead of combing a bunch of 6s into a 6 job, and a bunch of 18ths into an 18 job [as is done under what Albert calls a “corporate division of labor”—JL], every job is now a combination of tasks of varied levels such that each job in the workplace has the same average grade. [Ibid., 105–6.]
We can certainly “imagine” any number of things; but it is also easy to “imagine” this becoming a bureaucratic mess! Further, Albert envisions a scenario where:
…delegates of workers from different councils and industries develop a flexible rating process to balance across workplaces. As one plausible solution, there could be “job complex committees” both within each workplace and for the economy as a whole. The internal committees would be responsible for proposing ways to combine tasks and assign work times to achieve balanced work complexes within workplaces. The economy-wide committees arrange positions for workers in less desirable and less empowering primary workplaces some time in more desirable and more empowering environments, and vice versa. [Ibid., 109.]
This complex arrangement of balanced job complexes is obviously meant to overcome the division of labor and more specifically, the potential domination of society by Albert’s “coordinator class”:
If some workers have consistently greater information and responsibility on their jobs, they will dominate workplace decisions and in that sense become a ruling “coordinator class,” even though they operate in democratic councils and have no special ownership of the workplace. [Ibid, 103.]
We dealt earlier with the question of the so-called coordinators, i.e., whether they constitute a “class” and whether it is possible for them to become the rulers of a post-capitalist society, so we will not go into that question further here. Suffice it to say in connection with this question that the “coordinators” cannot become a ruling class simply by means of not cleaning bedpans or toilets. But are Marxists, who according to Albert, represent “coordinatorist” interests, unconcerned with the division of labor?
The division of labor moves from the sphere of kinship to encompass individuals performing different functions within the economy with the advent of class society. The division of labor then proceeds over time from its humble origins towards greater and greater complexity. Capitalism sees this division of labor reach new heights, both within national economies and between nations. However, more and more, the division of labor in society, particularly at its most extreme, between “thinkers” and “doers,” has become an absolute fetter to human development. As Alan Woods and Ted Grant describe in their book on Marxism and modern science, Reason in Revolt:
The total divorce between theory and practice in present day society has become harmful in the extreme… It is time to reexamine the whole system of education, and the class system of society upon which it rests. It is time to reconsider the validity of dividing humanity into the “thinkers” and “doers,” not from the standpoint of some abstract moral justice, but simply because it has now become a hindrance to the development of culture and society. The future development of humanity cannot be based on the old rigid divisions. New complex technology demands an educated workforce capable of a creative approach to work. That can never be achieved in a society split down the middle by class apartheid. [Alan Woods and Ted Grant, Reason in Revolt: Dialectical Philosophy and Modern Science, Volume II]
We have already seen that, for Marx, communism is only possible “after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor” becomes a thing of the past. But Lenin also famously remarked that one of the preconditions for healthy socialist development was a progressive rotation of tasks, so as to prevent the development of bureaucracy:
We are not utopians. We know that an unskilled laborer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration. In this we agree with the Cadets, with Breshkovskaya, and with Tsereteli. We differ, however, from these citizens in that we demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration. We demand that training in the work of state administration be conducted by class-conscious workers and soldiers and that this training be begun at once, i.e., that a beginning be made at once in training all the working people, all the poor, for this work. [Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?”]
Trotsky, in Terrorism and Communism, proposed as concrete measures to be applied in practice that:
The trade unions must organize scientific and technical educational work on the widest possible scale, so that every worker in his own branch of industry should find the impulses for theoretical work of the brain, while the latter should again return him to labor, perfecting it and making him more productive. [Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism]
This is the only serious approach to take towards the question of the division of labor. Trotsky explains how to concretely, not merely in abstract formulae, begin the process of throwing the division of labor into the dustbin of history. Only by means of a raising of the cultural level of the working class as a whole, is overcoming the division of labor possible.
In short, Marxists are in favor of a rotation of tasks, and we are also in favor of this being done in a rational and reasonable manner. How exactly this general principle is applied, we leave to the inventive minds of the working class. Michael Albert would be welcome to put forward his rather complex proposal. However, we would only caution Albert and his supporters that no complicated scheme, no matter how well-imagined in advance, can alone prevent the rise of a bureaucracy. Only an engaged, active, armed, and educated working class, basing itself on ever-increasing material wealth for all, can serve as a curb against the encrustation of a bureaucracy on the workers’ state.
For a democratically planned economy
Often, when we explain the need for a plan of production, very reasonable questions are raised about the Soviet Union, and the bureaucratic and authoritarian planning process which dominated that country and the rest of the “Eastern Bloc.” That the plan in the USSR had huge advantages over the anarchy of the capitalist market should not be overlooked. In terms of raw industrial output, a centralized plan of production allowed Russia to go from a backward, semi-feudal economy to a world economic power and the first in space within the span of two generations. However, this plan was horribly hampered by an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy, which sought to preserve itself and its power, rather than work in the interests of the working class as a whole. The inefficiencies of bureaucratic planning from above without the direct input of the producers and consumers ultimately acted as a brake upon development once the economy of the Soviet Union reached a certain level of complexity. In fact, democracy and participation are simply more efficient.
In a capitalist economy, the primary “check” on the economy, that is to say, what is and what is not produced, is the anarchy of the profit-driven market and supply and demand. This is an extremely imperfect check, as witnessed by capitalism’s colossal waste and regular crises of overproduction. But it is the only means by which some sort of quality control is maintained in a capitalist economy. For example, if a factory owner produces one hundred more left shoes than right shoes, they will be guaranteed to have one hundred left shoes that they cannot sell. Thus, under capitalism, there is an economic incentive to eliminate such inefficiencies, or go out of business.
However, in a planned economy, the “blind” laws of supply and demand are removed from the equation, or at any rate, are greatly reduced in inverse proportion to the growth of the planning principle. So while the Soviet plan showed its superiority in an absolute sense in the production of ever-greater quantities of iron, steel, miles of railroad, etc., inefficiencies nonetheless clearly expressed themselves once more complicated consumer goods, particularly technological items of increasing complexity, entered the market in the 1970s. The only real check on the quality of such items would have been the democratic participation of the working class in the planning and producing process. As Trotsky explained:
If a universal mind existed, of the kind that projected itself into the scientific fancy of Laplace—a mind that could register simultaneously all the processes of nature and society, that could measure the dynamics of their motion, that could forecast the results of their interreactions—such a mind, of course, could a priori draw up a faultless and exhaustive economic plan, beginning with the number of acres of wheat down to the last button for a vest. The bureaucracy often imagines that just such a mind is at its disposal; that is why it so easily frees itself from the control of the market and of Soviet democracy. [Trotsky, The Soviet Economy in Danger]
Democracy, therefore, is necessary, not simply desirable. Or, as Trotsky put it, “socialism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen.” In this spirit, all serious proposals for an alternative to the bureaucratic planning of Stalinism should be welcomed by revolutionaries. Michael Albert describes his ideal planning process in Parecon:
The participants in participatory planning are the workers’ councils and federations, the consumers’ councils and federations, and various Iteration Facilitation Boards (IFBs). Conceptually, the planning procedure is quite simple. An IFB announces what we call “indicative prices” for all goods, resources, categories of labor, and capital. Consumers’ councils and federations respond with consumption proposals taking the indicative prices of final goods and services as estimates of the social cost of providing them. Workers councils and federations respond with production proposals listing the outputs they would make available and the inputs they would need to produce them, again, taking the indicative prices as estimates of the social benefits of outputs and true opportunity costs of inputs. An IFB then calculates the excess demand or supply for each good and adjusts the indicative price for the good up, or down, in light of the excess demand or supply, and in accord with socially agreed algorithms. Using the new indicative prices, consumers and workers councils and federations revise and resubmit their proposals. [Albert, Parecon, 154.]
He goes into exhaustive detail into the ins and outs of the process, but the above sufficiently sums up the planning side of Participatory Economics. According to Albert, this setup allows for participation in the planning process, while eliminating the need for “central planners,” which are to be replaced by his “Iteration Facilitation Boards.” The “indicative prices” established by the IFBs at the various stages of the process encourage “consumers [to] reassess their requests in light of the new prices and most often ‘shift’ their requests for goods in excess towards goods whose indicative prices have fallen,” and place those workers’ councils whose input-output calculations were out of balance “under pressure to increase either their efficiency or effort, or to explain why the quantitative indicators are misleading in their particular case.” [Ibid., 131–32.] Thus, “indicative prices” are used as a directive category by the IFBs in order to encourage certain economic activities and discourage others, of course, all based on “socially agreed algorithms.” This, at least, is Albert’s “vision” for a future plan.
It should be noted that directive price setting was also used by Stalinist bureaucrats in order to manipulate the Soviet economy, as Trotsky explained in The Revolution Betrayed:
…the obedient professors managed to create an entire theory according to which the Soviet price, in contrast to the market price, has an exclusively planning or directive character. That is, it is not an economic, but an administrative category, and thus serves the better for the redistribution of the people’s income in the interests of socialism… Experience has managed to say its decisive word on this subject. “Directive” prices were less impressive in real life than in the books of scholars. On one and the same commodity, prices of different categories were established. In the broad cracks between these categories, all kinds of speculation, favoritism, parasitism, and other vices found room, and this rather as the rule than the exception. [Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed]
More importantly, what is left out of the Albert’s explanation above is just how such a unified plan is to be reached and agreed upon. This could be because the answer is slightly embarrassing to a plan that claims to have “no center or top.” [Albert, Parecon, 128.] In Albert’s scheme, while initially the IFBs are simply to act as pricing agencies, when one reaches the “fifth iteration of our hypothetical procedure… facilitation boards would extrapolate from the previous iterations to provide five different final plans that could be reached by the iterative process,” i.e. the IFBs would present proposals to be voted upon, albeit proposals that are the product of a thorough democratic discussion. [Ibid., 138.]
The fact that workplace and community councils have input into its development does not preclude the need for central coordination of the plan, if only in the form of working out unified proposals—as even Albert seems to recognize. But the need for coordination does not preclude the possibility, or rather the need, for democracy in the development of an efficient and optimized plan in a modern, complex, industrial economy. These two components, democracy, and centralization—i.e., democratic participation in the planning process by the workers, who themselves are also consumers, and central coordination of the plan nationally and ultimately internationally, in order to optimize its efficiency—are not in opposition to each other, but rather form a dialectical whole. A complex planned economy would need both.
When Albert counterposes in language “participatory planning” to “central planning” and defines the latter as undemocratic and authoritarian by nature, he clarifies nothing. Of course, we would agree that a socialist economic plan must be democratic and participatory. But it must also balance this with centralization, so as to have one unified plan of production across the whole economy, rather than many “plans” operating in opposition and competition with one another, as in a capitalist economy, where planning occurs within individual enterprises, but chaos reigns across the economy as a whole.
Albert, on the other hand, proposes “no center or top” to the process. This is fine if what he means is that there should be no unaccountable, bureaucratic layer exercising undue influence on the plan. But it is also critical that the planning process to produce a single plan of production, rather than multiple plans from various councils or federation planning boards in competition with one another. This implies some level of centralization. [Ibid., 128.]
Once again, the details of how we will organize a planned economy in the future, on an efficient and democratic basis, will be worked out in the course of the socialist transformation itself. As Trotsky put it:
The art of socialist planning does not drop from heaven nor is it presented full-blown into one’s hands with the conquest of power. This art may be mastered only by struggle, step by step, not by a few but by millions, as a component part of the new economy and culture. [Trotsky, The Soviet Economy in Danger]
One can envision any number of possible ways by which the plan could be coordinated at a central point from various inputs, e.g., elected representatives, accountable experts, Parecon’s iteration process, and at a certain stage, even artificial intelligence. But the critical component, vis-à-vis efficiency, is the democratic participation of “not a few but millions” in its construction, the potential for which is virtually boundless in a modern, high-tech economy.
To simply compare the potentials existing in Russia in 1921 with those of the United States in 2012, as Albert so often does, is a great mistake. As Trotsky explained, the difference between the relative levels of development of the two countries was vast, even in 1934:
Actually American soviets will be as different from the Russian soviets as the United States of President Roosevelt differs from the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II.…Your soviet government will simply abolish all trade secrets, will combine all the findings of these researches for individual profit and will transform them into a scientific system of economic planning. In this your government will be helped by the existence of a large class of cultured and critical consumers. By combining the nationalized key industries, your private businesses and democratic consumer cooperation, you will quickly develop a highly flexible system for serving the needs of your population. [Ibid., 133–34.]
Today this is true one thousand times over. Imagine the power of the Internet, smart phones, interactive television, etc., applied to developing a plan of production, not from above, but through the direct input of the working majority using the most modern technology. The potential for the development of a bureaucracy—or a caste of “coordinators,” to use Albert’s language—which would exercise power over the workers in a Soviet America, would be effectively nil.
Do we look forward or backward?
Questions are no doubt forming in the reader’s mind. For example: “So what exactly is ‘anarchistic’ about Parecon?” After all, we saw earlier that Albert’s views concerning “remuneration based on need” betray an implicit pessimism about the achievability of super-abundance, and by implication, write off the possibility of genuine communism and statelessness. It is clear that Albert sees Parecon, not as a temporary apparatus intended to wither away, but rather as a permanent fixture, i.e., the ideal society, or at least his current approximation of it. It is also surprising to find out that the anarchist “ideal society” of Parecon comes complete with a “police function,” and that Albert’s view on policing is that “like flying planes or doing surgery, [it] involves special skills and knowledge.”
What is the state if not armed bodies of men and women: the police, army, courts, prisons, etc.? In our opinion, despite claims by some of its adherents, Pareconism does not truly represent a form of “anarchist economics,” whatever that might mean, but rather, as is so often the case with ideas that claim to be entirely new and fresh, Parecon is simply a repackaging of old ideas. In this case, Albert has concocted a mix of academic, pseudo-Marxist lingo, with pre-Marxist, nineteenth -century utopianism and modern reformism.
We do not doubt that those who today support the ideas of Participatory Economics, or other forms of anarchist thought, genuinely want to change society for the better. However, we believe that they will eventually come, through the bitter test of experience, to Marxist ideas. Many honest radicalized youth, regardless of their current ideological proclivities, will fight alongside the revolutionary workers to the end. We welcome these comrades in struggle. But we also encourage them to not simply take what Michael Albert or Noam Chomsky say about Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Trotsky as the final word on Marxism, but to actually study the words and ideas of these revolutionaries for themselves. Many people are more than a bit surprised to find out that Marxism is not at all what it has been made out to be by the mainstream media and by the most popular anarchist authors. Many even find that they have been “unconscious Marxists” all along.
In the Workers International League, we believe that the working class needs to look forward to the living struggle, rather than backwards to abstract, sectarian schemas. If you would like to learn more about the WIL and these ideas, visit us at socialistappeal.org.