Socialism: Political Vision

Anti-Capitalist Values

Implicit in the anti-globalization movement’s critique of neo-liberalism is, it seems to me, a commitment to four values – justice, efficiency, democracy, and sustainability.

  • Justice is best understood as incorporating three other values: liberty, equality, and solidarity: one version of an egalitarian principle of justice would accord to everyone equal access to the resources they require to live the life they have reason to value;
  • ‘Efficiency means not wasting assets even as we pursue desirable ends.’ (Michael Albert);
  • Democracy is the value central to the movement’s critique of the dictatorship of the financial markets: as embodied in the movement’s practice, it implies a commitment to radical forms of self-organization and self-management;
  • Sustainability: once again, we criticize capitalism for its destruction of the environment and reckless depletion of non-renewable resources. The implication is that we want a system in which each generation leaves the earth in at least as good a state as it found it.

Now any version of capitalism will systematically violate all four values. Capitalism is a system of competitive accumulation based on the exploitation of wage-labour.

  • It destroys solidarity, renders liberty a formality, and distributes wealth and income to favour the rich, the powerful, and the lucky;
  • It systematically misallocates human and material resources – wasting them by devoting them to useless or destructive activities such as ‘defence’ and destroying them on a large scale during economic recessions;
  • It concentrates economic and political power in the hands of corporations and states;
  • Its blind pursuit of profit – a consequence of the way in which the system is driven by competitive accumulation – has unleashed processes of environmental destruction that increasingly threaten much life on this planet.

The implication is that, when we say ‘Another World is Possible’, we have to be clear that this means a different kind of social system based on a different social logic from that of capitalism. Partial reforms – such as the regulation of financial markets or participatory budgets – may be worth fighting for in the here and now, but they have to be seen as part of a broader process of struggle directed towards a systemic transformation.

It is a weakness of the present movement that it has not sufficiently confronted this reality, preferring instead to focus on an entirely justified critique of neo-liberalism and on the assertion of specific demands. This focus has helped to bring together a growing, global movement. But, after the advances of the past few years, the movement is sufficiently mature to discuss alternatives to capitalism. Hence the ‘Life after Capitalism’ initiative is very timely.

One reason for the caution in confronting alternatives is the disillusioning effect of (no longer) ‘existing socialism’. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the very idea of a progressive, modern alternative to capitalism was discredited. But it would be a mistake to capitulate to this mood. The present movement came into existence by challenging the neo-liberal pensée unique. We have already violated the dominant ban on alternatives. So let’s start talking about them.


The Classical Marxist Conception of Socialism

I believe that the alternative we should be seeking is socialism. My basic conception of socialism is derived by the classical Marxist tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Gramsci. This conception has, for our purposes, four crucial features:

  1. Marx conceived socialism as a process of self-emancipation – in the words of the American Marxist Hal Draper, as ‘socialism from below’ as opposed to ‘socialism from above’ (Stalinism and social democracy);
  2. Marx accordingly conceived socialist transformation as a ‘revolution against the State’: for him the concept of state socialism was a contradiction in terms;
  3. The agent of socialist transformation was the working class: only the wage-labourers exploited by capital have both the interest and the collective capacity to transform society;
  4. Institutionally socialist transformation involved the dismantling of the existing bureaucratic state apparatuses and their replacement by workers’ self-government. There have been many historical glimpses of such a system of government – the Paris Commune of 1871, the Spanish Revolution of 1936-7, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the workers’ shoras during the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9, Solidarity in Poland 1980-1 – but the most important was provided by the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that took power in Russia in October 1917.

It is clear that this conception of socialism is radically at odds with what existed in the USSR and Eastern Europe and with what hangs onto existence in different forms in China, North Korea, and Cuba. Indeed, in the International Socialist tradition to which I belong, we have always seen these societies as instances of bureaucratic state capitalism, in which the Stalinist nomenklatura collectively exploited the working class of these countries in fundamentally the same way as Western capitalists exploit their workers. From this perspective, the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989-91 was not a capitalist counter-revolution, but (as Chris Harman put it) a ‘move sideways’, from one form of capitalism to another.

Marx famously refused, apart from a few pregnant observations, to say anything detailed about what socialism would be like. I don’t think that this refusal is sustainable now. After the collapse of Stalinism and in the face of the highly influential liberal critique of planning made by Friedrich von Hayek and others, we have to be prepared to provide at least to offer a rough outline of a socialist society.

At the same time, one of Marx’s reasons for refusing to be specific remains valid: intellectual anticipations of the future society will be corrected and indeed transformed through the practical experience of mass struggle. This should be kept in mind when considering all that follows.

What follows is an attempt to develop the conception of socialism found in the classical Marxist tradition:

  1. Socialism would, in the first instance, be the radical extension of democracy by the subjection of economic processes to the same democratic principles that are supposed to govern political life;
  2. It would, at the same time, be a deepening of democracy – the replacement of a passive electorate increasingly unwilling to choose between the more or less identical politicians groomed by big business and the corporate media with participatory democracy in which power is as far as possible decentralized and people help make the decisions that affect their lives;
  3. Institutionally, this would mean government by a self-managing federation of workers’, consumers’, and neighbourhood councils;
  4. For such a democracy to work, everyone would need free access to information and the ability to take part in public discussion: modern information technology makes this in principle very easy, but currently the public sphere is currently dominated by the corporate media;
  5. Economically this democracy requires the social ownership of most material productive resources, and (for the reason given in point 4 above) of the means of mass communication;
  6. It would also mean a system of democratic planning through which decisions about the allocation of resources were collectively taken;
  7. Finally, the distribution of income would, as far as possible, be based on the principle that Marx borrowed from Louis Blanc and argued would prevail in a fully communist society: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’


The Economics of Socialism

Though I am discussing socialism as a political vision, I want to say a few things about its economic dimensions. It is in fact impossible to separate the two: the main contemporary objection to socialism is that it is not feasible economically.

So first on point 5 above. Social ownership is something that the anti-globalization movement doesn’t sufficiently consider. Often we prefer simply to resist privatization of public services and utilities without saying anything about different systems of ownership.

The other side aren’t so meek: they aggressively assert the right of private property and seek to turn everything into an ‘asset’ that can be privately appropriated and used as an instrument of speculation and accumulation. We have to be similarly up-front, and say that it is impossible to have a genuinely self-governing economy as long as wealthy individuals and private corporations have the ability to exclude the rest of us from access to the most important material productive resources.

There are two important qualifications to point 5:

  • State ownership as a property form is perfectly consistent with capitalist exploitation, as we have seen in the Stalinist societies in the East, social-democratic welfare states in the West, and developmental dictatorships in the South: for it to be genuinely social ownership we need to have democratic self-management by workers’, consumers’, and neighbourhood councils;
  • Material productive resources should, in general, be socially owned but labour-power should not: the freedom of individuals to choose and change their occupations is something that capitalism promises but fails to realize but that would be basic to a socialist society.

Point 6 – democratic planning – is widely dismissed at Utopian. Alec Nove argued in The Economics of Feasible Socialism (1983) that planning necessarily involves the attempt to centralize information and decisions at the very top of society in the hands of a few bureaucratic planners, a process that systematically generates irrationalities. He posed the dilemma: economic coordination can only be vertical (bureaucratic planning) or horizontal (the market); and claimed that there is no third alternative. [1]

But it is clear that Nove is wrong. In this case, there is a third way (though not one that Tony Blair would like). The market means that resources are allocated on the basis of competition between capitals driven by the pressure to maximize profits. But there could be a different form of horizontal coordination in which decentralized networks of producers and consumers democratically decide how to allocate and use resources in order to meet their needs. Planning, in other words, need not be a top-down process.

There are even a couple of models of how such an economy could be organized – Pat Devine calls his version ‘negotiated coordination’ (Democracy and Economic Planning, 1988), while Michael Albert has developed a model of ‘participatory planning’ (for example, Parecon, 2003). There are important analogies but also differences between them. Further discussion is necessary of the respective strengths and weaknesses of these and other models of non-market coordination in order to refine our understanding of how democratic planning could work.

One great virtue of both Albert’s and Devine’s models is that they require economic decision-making to be undertaking by self-governing producers and consumers who relate to each other transversally through networks of coordination rather going through a planning ‘centre’. In this respect they realize the impulse towards participatory democracy that informs Marx’s conception of socialism from below.

Finally, in point 7, I have suggested that distribution should be based on the needs principle that Marx endorsed as the basis of communism in The Critique of the Gotha Programme. One way in which to specify this would be in terms of the principle of justice according to which everyone should have equal access to the resources they need in order to live the life they have reason to value.

This kind of principle is a normative justification of how society should distribute resources and income. There is then scope for discussion at another, more concrete level about how best institutionally to realize such a principle. For example, many egalitarians advocate an unconditional right to basic income independently of whether or not someone makes a productive contribution. Albert, by contrast, wants to tie income to work, proposing the distributive norm: ‘Remunerate according to each person’s effort or personal sacrifice.’ There may, in other words, be different strategies for implementing what amounts to the same principle of egalitarian justice.


Realizing Our Values

More generally, it seems to me that socialism, thus understood, fulfils the values to which the anti-globalization movement is committed:

  • Individuals, sharing control of productive resources, would no longer have their right to equal liberty violated by being compelled by their lack of property to submit to capitalist exploitation;
  • They would no longer be subject to the fundamental injustice of capitalism that ties a person’s life-chances to the accidents of birth or the ups-and-down of the market, and would have an equal claim on society’s resources;
  • Because economic life would be organized on the basis of cooperation and self-management, it would both presuppose and reinforce the value of solidarity;
  • Since democratic planning makes producers and consumers the participants in economic decision-making, resources would be allocated on the basis of information about people’s needs and the potentialities of production: this would avoid the waste and misuse of resources that makes capitalism (in reality) such an inefficient system;
  • Socialism as a political and economic system would involve an advanced form of participatory democracy, thus making a reality of the democracy liberal capitalist societies pay lip service to but in practice violate;
  • Democratic planning would put an end to the blind flight forward that the logic of competitive accumulation pushes capitalism onto: it would thus allow humankind collectively to take the drastic steps necessary to begin to reverse the process of climate change unleashed by capitalism; it would also give us the means (assuming we are wise enough to use them) to avoid or quickly to correct any anthropogenic environmental destruction in the future.


Differences with Other Conceptions

How does socialism as it has been presented here compare with other alternative conceptions?

  • Since it is a systemic alternative to capitalism, it necessarily differs from any partial alternatives – e.g. participatory budgets. Such measures may be desirable as democratic reforms that make the present system more habitable and subject to collective control (though every such measure needs to be examined critically on its merits and in the light of experience). But the entire history of anti-capitalist struggle shows that capitalism – particularly in periods of economic boom such as the 1950s and 1960s – can accommodate such reforms temporarily, only, in times of crisis, to seek to withdraw these concessions as unbearable burdens on competitiveness and profitability. Such indeed is the logic of the neo-liberal ‘Counter-Reformation’ of the past twenty five years. As the PT discovered ever before Lula’s election, today the financial markets will scarcely tolerate even the most modest reforms. This is one reason why we need systemic transformation.
  • Socialism is also incompatible with any attempt to replace capitalism but keep the market. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many left intellectuals have come to support market socialism, which seeks to combine some form of social ownership with a market economy (in which resources are allocated on the basis of competition among autonomous but interdependent producers). But such an alternative is fundamentally flawed. In the first place, it retains the fundamental injustices that derive from market allocation of resources and income: individuals’ life-chances remain dependent on the blind fluctuations of the market, and solidarity is undermined by the struggle for competitive advantage. Secondly, so long as control of the economy is dispersed among competing producers (even if these are workers’ cooperatives) powerful pressures will remain to restore minority domination of production and exploitive work organization. The ills of capitalism can only be removed by getting rid of the market economy completely.
  • To reiterate, socialism is fundamentally different from ‘state socialism’, whether of the Stalinist or social-democratic kind. It is a system of participatory democracy in which economic and political power is exercised by self-managing networks of producers’, consumers’, and neighbourhood councils.
  • Although this only an implicit feature of the conception of socialism outlined above, it is worth spelling out that the form of society sketched out here could only be realized on an international scale. This is partly for negative reasons: historical experience has amply confirmed Marx’s intuition that any individual society that broke with capitalism would come under enormous and ultimately unbearable economic and military pressure either openly to rejoin the capitalist world system or effectively to mimic the oppressive and exploitive features of that system. More positively, many of humankind’s problems can only be properly addressed on a global scale: climate change is only the most obvious example. The rule of self-managing councils would thus have as quickly as possible to extend onto an international scale. This differentiates socialism from some of the alternatives widely canvassed in the anti-globalization movement – for example, ‘deglobalization’ (Walden Bello) and ‘localization’ (Colin Hines). There is no reason why an emancipated humankind should foreswear access to resources available around the world, so long as that access is fairly distributed and democratically regulated (as, of course, it manifestly is not, and cannot be under capitalism).

Socialism thus understood is, perhaps surprisingly, rather similar to some versions of anarchism. Albert calls his ‘parecon’ (participatory economics) or participatory planning, which in my view offers one possible economic model of socialism, ‘basically an anarchistic economic vision’. But this shouldn’t be really surprising: after all, Marx conceived communism as a society without classes or the state. His big disagreement with Bakunin and other anarchists concerned how to achieve this society.



This is, of course, the $64,000 question. It is also a huge subject in its own right. A few points:

  • Socialism as I have outlined it here is clearly incompatible with reformism as a political strategy. Reforms that make life under capitalism more bearable are worth fighting for, but we need a different system.
  • More than that, any attempt to achieve socialism – or indeed any other alternative system – would have to confront the great concentrations of economic, military, and political power that constitute capitalism in its present form. The violence of the carabinieri at Genoa provided a new glimpse of an old truth – that any movement for systemic transformation would have to confront the violence resistance of the defenders of the existing order.
  • This poses for anyone seeking to achieve a society of self-managing council democracy the following dilemma: how to combine the dispersed democratic energies of self-organized social actors that is both essential to overcoming capitalist resistance and a prefiguration of the new society with the strategic focus and centralized coordination necessary to concentrate the forces for change where they will be most effective?
  • This dilemma is posed particularly sharply today because of the decentralized and libertarian forms of organization – the network of networks – that is constitutive of the present movement. There has been a perhaps natural tendency simply to celebrate dispersal and fragmentation and to treat these qualities of the movement as somehow self-sufficient. But the challenges that movement has faced since Genoa and 9/11 – when we have had to begin to confront both the domestic and the external faces of state violence – indicate that this is not enough, and that argument and effort has to be put into offering the movement a strategic direction.
  • The much-debated issue of the relations between political parties and social movements is closely related to this dilemma. There has been a negative reaction by people on both the more reformist and the more autonomist wings of the movement to the prominence of the parties of the radical left at the European Social Forum in Florence. But parties that are genuinely committed to the movement and that do not seek to substitute themselves for it can play a positive role precisely because of their generalizing character they are well equipped to address broad issues of programme and strategy (though of course they will do this alongside the many individual and collective actors who choose, for reasons of principle or practice, to operate outside parties).
  • However that may be, the necessary tension between decentralized and centralized forms of organizing will not go away. Nor will parties – in the sense of more or less organized currents embodying a distinctive ideology, programme, and strategy, whether or not they explicitly call themselves parties. What we will have to do is to continue to explore our differences – and also the often amazing extent to which we agree – in the hope of achieving the greatest possible consensus for an alternative that will realize the values that underlie this movement and finally rid the world of the barbarities and injustices of capitalism.

Many of the themes sketched out in this paper are much further developed in a book of mine called An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto that is due to be published by Polity in the UK and by Blackwell in the US in February 2003.

Alex Callinicos,

Globalise Resistance (Britain)