newbie on Participatory Economics

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jul 18 06:10:09 PDT 1998

Brett "Muskrat" Knowlton:
>Still, maybe there was more to your critique - why do you think ParEcon is
>naive and utopian? I'm very interested to hear about concerns anyone might
>have with it and problems you think might arise.

Marx and Engels defined utopian thought along the following lines:

1) Ahistoricism: The utopian socialists did not see the class struggle as the locomotive of history. While they saw socialism as being preferable to capitalism, they neither understood the historical contradictions that would undermine it in the long run, nor the historical agency that was capable of resolving these contradictions: the working-class.

2) Moralism What counts for the utopian socialists is the moral example of their program. If there is no historical agency such as the working-class to fulfill the role of abolishing class society, then it is up to the moral power of the utopian scheme to persuade humanity for the need for change.

3) Rationalism The utopian scheme must not only be morally uplifting, it must also make sense. The best utopian socialist projects would be those that stood up to relentless logical analysis.

As Engels said in "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific", "To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered."

I suppose if one was to be given a choice of utopian worlds to identify with, a much more palatable choice would be that of the neo-new-leftists, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel.

Turning to their "Looking Forward", we find a completely different set of politics and economic reasoning, but the utopian methodology is essentially the same. Their vision of how social transformation takes place is virtually identical to that of the 19th century utopians. In a reply to somebody's question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

"I look at history and see even one admirable person--someone's aunt, Che Guevara, doesn't matter--and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person's social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society's dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure."

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan "if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem." With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert's [and Hahnel's] enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgement on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated "one-man management". Lenin was also guilty because he argued that "all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management."

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called "participatory planning" described in "Looking Forward":

"Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via 'facilitation boards'. In light of each round's new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals."

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as ancestral schemas of the 19th century. It will be besides the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon's Geneva letters appeared, "the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed."

Isn't this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the word's population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like "Looking Forward" being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.

Another cause of utopian thought is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies. Except for North Korea and Cuba, there is not a country in the world that doesn't seem to be galloping at full speed into the capitalist sphere. As this anti-capitalist reality becomes part of history, it is tempting to create an alternative reality where none of the contradictions of "existing socialism" existed.

This is fundamentally an ahistorical approach and will yield very little useful new political guidelines about how to achieve socialism in the future. These answers will not come out of utopian fantasies, but in further analysis of the historical reasons underlying the collapse of the USSR. In-depth analysis by serious scholars such as Moshe Lewin focus on the structural problems, not on statements made by Lenin and Trotsky made on management wrenched out of context.

The biggest problem, of course, is the socialist project itself. What sense does it make to think in terms of scientific socialism when the working-class as we know it is not the same class that created the Paris Commune. If we had something like the Paris Commune in the last 50 years or so in one of the advanced capitalist countries, left economists would be thinking about ways that such an experience could be replicated. Since we lack such an example, we console ourselves with fantasies of a good society instead.

Louis Proyect (

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