[This concludes the draft chapter on parecon and marxism…]
Parecon Insults Marxists?
Suppose we were to envision a humongous stadium filled with all the people in all past and current history who called (or who now call) themselves Marxists. (This is not your average size ball park, of course, as it contains millions of people.)
I have argued that this huge set of people overwhelmingly, though not universally, have shared a viewpoint that has negative attributes and implications, even against the people’s finest aspirations and values. I don’t see how saying this about a conceptual framework’s likely implications for the people who adopt Marxism is degrading to those people or dismissive of them.
Yes, I say that the problems with Marxism’s concepts lead in their large-scale implications toward coordinatorism, not to mention toward political authoritarianism, and often even toward defending these vile results despite having other stated aspirations. But this doesn’t say that vile motives or personality or values produced the bad outcomes. It says, instead, that flawed concepts, visions, and strategies were the culprit, and that in the process of past Marxist struggles, those participants willing to put up with or to celebrate coordinatorist and authoritarian methods and outcomes will eventually rise to top positions — as has in fact happened in history.
In contrast, to these claims about the concepts widely held by the large set of self-proclaimed Marxists that we are envisioning in our hypothetical immense stadium, ironically, those Marxists who come closest to agreeing with me on many of these issues tend to dismiss all but a tiny fraction of the stadium’s seat holders–the fraction that they don’t dismiss is usually their organization and some leaders from a hundred years ago, or in the stadium picture roughly those occupying a few selected box seats on the third base line, and maybe some little group out in the bleachers somewhere — as being Stalinist.
So am I missing something here? I characterize nearly everyone in the stadium as being victimized by the implications of a set of concepts often despite their best and profoundly worthy intentions and hopes. People inside the stadium, in contrast, tend to characterize almost everyone else in it as Stalinist or otherwise defective. Who is being dismissive? Who is denigrating whom?
The irony in this discussion, in other words, is that while I am taking a position highly critical of adopting Marxism and Leninism as a guiding conceptual framework, particularly to the exclusion of other concepts, nonetheless I suspect that I am far less dismissive and derogatory toward the full set of people who have called themselves Marxists and Leninists throughout the world than those in that set are about each other, since they tend to pejoratively damn as Stalinist (or Trotskyist, or whatever) Cuba and its supporters, huge swaths of the past participants in movements in China, Russia, Eastern Europe, and so on, as well as parties all over the world who support, in addition to their other views or acts, even a very few views that the (Marxist) critic of them rejects.
Put differently, why is my critiquing a set of concepts and institutions as a whole insulting, but for one Marxist to very pejoratively call every Marxist outside his or her circle of friends Stalinist or Trotskyist or even running dog lackey or whatever other dismissive label he or she deems appropriate, acceptable? And which approach is sectarian?
What’s in a Label
At any rate, all that aside, suppose a Marxist organization does come along and follows more or less the positive trajectory in their thinking and commitments regarding class definitions and allegiances, economic aims, strategic commitments, and views of the heritage, as described above. Would that group continue to name itself after Trotsky, Lenin, or even just Marx?
I doubt that it would. I think it would find, like I found when I tried to call myself an unorthodox Marxist after having traveled essentially the trajectory noted here but wanting to keep the linguistic link to the council communists like Rocker and Pannekoek, and to the Marxists like Gramsci, Rosa Luxembourg, and Che Guevara…that despite my desires, the accumulated weight of past and current beliefs of those who were the loudest and most visible claimants to the mantel “Marxist” far outweighed my rejection of their views, which rejection I had to endlessly repeat just to avoid being utterly misunderstood, and that calling such people “Stalinists” or even just “orthodox” to dismiss them as irrelevant to my own choice of the label was mere hand waving and special pleading, and in any event not understood by anyone outside a small circle of friends.
Thus I came to my choice to leave behind the label “Marxist,” and (for the most part) to avoid all the endless bickering and outright fighting over it, and to instead continue to expand my quite different views in new directions.
Of course this isn’t all just a matter of theory. Indeed, strategy offers more reasons for concern. Advocating parecon has important strategic implications different from those of Marxist movements, and obscured by adopting an in my view now not only moribund but also inaccurate label.
We should seek equitable remuneration in our organizations and in society. We should seek balanced job complexes, council self management, and participatory decision making in our organizations and in society. We should highlight the possibility of monopolization of information, skills, or positions that empower — and we shoud protect against our movements taking us where we do not wish to end up. None of this is conveyed by the old labels.
Summing Up The Substance
In summary, regarding Marxism Leninism, it seems to me that parecon implies that we should reject elevating economics to domineering conceptual or programmatic importance. We should realize that race/culture, gender/kinship, and political affiliation/polity can be and in modern societies generally are equally central not only to how we live but to prospects for change — and likewise for the conceptually somewhat different relationship to the natural environment and between societies internationally. It is not only necessary to say and feel that sexism, racism, and authoritarianism are centrally important — but to have concepts and visions regarding these that continually propel us into taking that stance even as conflict heightens and personal biases tend to push us in other directions.
We should reject understanding the economy with an emphasis that under-accounts for the human and social products of work. But mostly, we should not try to comprehend modern economies emphasizing only two classes and without reference to the comparably important coordinator class.
We should reject as well what is called market socialism and centrally planned socialism – and virtually every serious presentation of socialism that I am aware of, where by serious I mean including specification of actual institutions – as being, in fact, coordinator ruled economies.
We should reject democratic centralism for being a form of organization that tends to reproduce coordinator economic dominance as well as political authoritarianism. Indeed, while I think nearly all rank and file advocates of Marxist-conceived socialism have over the years actually wanted to achieve real justice and liberty, I think Marxism itself and even more so Marxism Leninism, are not “the ideology of the working class” but, instead, the ideology of the coordinator class.
Indeed, I think this final deduction stares us in the face. Marxism’s concepts obscure the existence of a third class. Leninist strategy employs organizational forms that play into elevating that coordinator class. The economic vision that Leninism proposes and has repeatedly arrived at is, in fact, one that inexorably elevates the coordinator class to ruling status.
Indeed, I think Marx himself would make precisely this argument about what is called Marxism and certainly about Marxism Leninism were he alive today given that it consistently follows the same logic and method he would take were he to assess modern political science or neoclassical economics, finding them to be ideologies of capital.
Thus while parecon learns from Marxism, of course, it is not Marxism, nor is it even a logical extension of Marxism, and especially not of Marxism Leninism, but it is instead in many respects something quite different and quite contrary to Marxism.
Getting Personal About It
Those I would label as good and admirable Leninists and good and admirable pareconists each oppose capitalism and seek just and equitable improvements against current oppressions. We each advocate workers and consumers councils. We each oppose markets and also hierarchical planning. We each believe that movements should prefigure alternative goals even in current work.
We also agree that beyond capitalism there exists not simply a desirable economy, but also economic systems that we disavow. A difference we have is that pareconists tend to think the rejected systems elevate an economic coordinator class to ruling status, whereas what we might call good Leninists tend to think of this same group as a political product having to do with Stalinism.
We both oppose, at least as an end, authoritarian political structures. We also oppose or feel we have to be very careful with economic structures that create and elevate the in-between group that I call the coordinator class and that the good Leninist views as a bureaucracy. This means we both should advocate not only replacing markets and/or central planning with a new allocation system, but also replacing the current division of labor with balanced job complexes.
We both think allocation should be consciously, cooperatively undertaken by workers and consumers in a horizontal manner. Parecon proposes participatory planning for this self management. Hopefully many Leninists, even all Leninists, will in time agree.
All the above is, or should be, congenial and mutual. Yet, the good Leninists – of which most and maybe virtually all Leninists are — are in a Trotskyist Party, or a Leninist party, or some tiny sect, etc., all in the Marxist Leninist tradition. In contrast, I and pareconists more generally tend to very strongly reject such parties and also that tradition, and are quite critical of Marxism as well.
A reader might reasonably wonder how this is possible. How can rank and file and even many leading Leninists and pareconists line up shoulder to shoulder in what they reject, differ almost indiscernibly in the economic values they espouse, agree up to what appear to be fine points regarding economic aims — and yet still have such contrary allegiances?
Put to me, the questioner might ask: “Albert, how can you think that Marxism Leninism yields outcomes you aggressively reject and yet you so often interact congenially with people who identify with that heritage?”
To conclude, this chapter I hope to explain why this seemingly self contradictory picture is accurate, possible, and not even unusual.
Imagine you were at a public talk by Karl Marx. It is a wondrous tour de force in which he rails at capitalists for gouging workers while they pile up wealth at the expense of humanity. He explains how ownership imposes on capitalists a self image, a view of their employees, and a set of interests that yield their heinous behavior even against their own better natures. He says it is a systemic phenomenon deriving from their position in the economy and manifesting as members of the class collectively and individually carry out their economic pursuits. He calls them all Moneybags, generically, for short, exhorting the need to eliminate them as a class.
The talk ends and Marx exits, stage left, of course. You go out for a bite and, lo and behold, there in the next booth at the local eatery is Karl Marx having his own snack while chatting with his close friend and life-long ally, Engels. Yes, that’s right, there with Marx is the Engels who owns a factory. How is that possible? Why is Marx not spitting in the face of this owner of capital? Put differently, doesn’t the fact that this instance of the collective species Moneybags disavows exploitation contradict Marx’s claims about the owning class?
The chummy session is possible without contradiction because Marx’s class analysis never says that every person who occupies a certain position will inexorably hold certain views. Class analysis says, instead, that the class position people occupy tends to impose certain broad behaviors and views on them, that this occurs over time and especially in demanding circumstances, and that in the clash and jangle of these and a host of other influences, on average the economic commonalities of a class will yield the predicted broad characteristics for the overall economic behavior of the class’s members. Engels himself diverges from his class average but in doing so he in no sense violates Marx’s claims about that class’s average properties.
Returning to my view of Marxism, I say Marxism is an array of concepts and of claims about their interrelations and how to comprehend attributes of society and history in specific cases. I say the concepts have many virtues — but that they also have two overriding faults which make me feel we must transcend this framework.
The first fault, potentially correctable even while one is a Marxist, is a relative conceptual over-attentiveness to class and its associated economic sphere of life and parallel/derivative conceptual under-attentiveness to race, gender, sexuality, and political position and the associated kinship, cultural, and political spheres of social life. The claim is that groups of users of Marxist concepts will collectively highlight how economy impacts the other spheres of life but largely overlook how those other spheres impact the economy. The users will highlight how classes can be central agents of oppression and liberation but will under perceive how genders, sexual groups, races, religious and ethnic and other cultural groups, and political formations can be central agents of oppression and liberation.
Importantly, any particular individual Marxist will do better or worse on these matters depending not only on how mechanically he or she holds to narrow economic and class concepts, but depending also on his or her familiarity with and use of other perspectives when thinking about relations and developing agendas. But, despite that variation, given that the societies we live in tend to make us not only classist but also racist, sexist, homophobic, and authoritarian, and given the exigencies of difficult daily practice and political struggle, and in particular given the pressures and benefits of collective unity, my claim is that on average groups of Marxists working together will be relatively weak in their comprehension of and commitment to addressing the non-economic dimensions of social life, especially when doing so seems to conflict with their shared insights about class and economy.
Please notice, I don’t say Marxists are racist, sexist, authoritarian people. I say, instead, that there is a built-in conceptual bias, powerfully exacerbated by conditions, that is conceptually quite likely — and by the historical evidence is in practice in fact overwhelmingly likely to lead to harmful results. In the clash and jangle of many factors at work, the shared economic concepts tend to swamp broader insights.
The solution, one might argue, is for Marxists to append insights from other perspectives (as I tried to do myself, many years back). And that’s fine, as long as Marxists are prepared to permit it. But here is the wrinkle. For many Marxists, particularly in groups that work hard to attain and maintain a collective identity, such innovation violates a major tenet about the priority of class and economy, and if it is ever undertaken at all, later, under pressure of events, it tends to be jettisoned.
I think a much better solution, therefore, is to adopt a new conceptual framework which keeps what continues to be valuable from Marxism but adds new gender, cultural, and political concepts at the same priority level as its economic concepts (and in other places I have tried to do this).
Okay, that’s broadly one issue of major disagreement, but as I have said in diverse ways throughout this chapter not the biggest issue of dispute because many Marxists and Marxist Leninists try to deal with it, and to a degree succeed – just as many feminists try to deal with not overemphasizing kinship and gender to the detriment of attending to other critical factors, and to a degree succeed.
The most intractable difference I have with Marxism Leninism is, instead, my rejection of Marxism’s conceptualization of the economy itself, and my rejection of Leninism’s practical strategy and vision.
I think Marxist consciousness on average in real struggle leads to insufficient attention to the agendas and possibilities of what I call the coordinator class, up to and including championing an economy that elevates the coordinator class to ruling status. And I think that Leninist strategy on average in real struggle generates collective allegiances to both authoritarian and coordinatorist results.
Now when some Marxist or Leninist says, hold on, that isn’t me, or says I can name a Marxist who doesn’t have the failing you mention, or says I can name a Leninist who doesn’t have those failings, it has virtually no impact on the argument I am making, just as when some sociologist says hold on, Engels owned capital, or hold on, Mr. Rich just wrote a very humane book, those facts have no impact on Marxist assertions about the average implications of ownership of private property.
Probably due to a failing in my presentation, Marxists and Leninists never quite hear my criticism the way I intend. They instead seem to hear an easily dismissible claim that every single person who calls him or herself a Marxist or a Leninist thinks in one particular way. They do not hear a more subtle claim that the commonalities among people who call themselves Marxists and particularly among people who operate in Marxist Leninist parties tend to overwhelm the myriad of other attributes present so that when the clash and jangle resolves itself into broad average attributes the result is overwhelmingly economism, authoritarianism, sectarianism, and, in particular, coordinator-serving strategy and vision.
What’s my evidence/argument for this claim?
Well, I describe the concepts of Marxism and the strategic commitments of Leninism in a way that yields the above prediction. The evidence is that the prediction is borne out by the practice of every single Marxist Leninist party that has ever attained power or even ever attained any significant size and scope, and by every single serious Marxist Leninist published model for a post capitalist economy, as well.
I don’t know how much more evidence one could possibly offer. Okay, some will dispute pieces of it. They will find no fault with East Germany circa 1980, or no fault with Russia whether under Stalin, or more likely only before that, or will find no fault only with the Bolsheviks before they took power…or with early Mao but not middle or late Mao, or with late Trotsky but not his early incarnation, or whatever other permutation. But really, even ignoring how weak the assertions are, is this anything other than special pleading?
And what would Marxists and Leninists need to do to rectify the situation? All that it would take to get well under way is to admit that the historical framework is insufficient and flawed, and shouldn’t that be a welcome thing to say, given the mess that the framework has so often bequeathed in practice and given its age and the probability that we know enough now to do better, and then to pursue improvement by agreeing that other spheres of social life are as key as economics is (and why does it hurt so much to say that, and to act on it?), and most of all to realize that, yes, class refers to groups defined by their economic relations including but not confined to property relations (and why is it so hard for most Marxists and Marxist Leninists to even hear, much less entertain, much less act, on such thoughts?).
And here is where I annoy even Leninists who are my friends. It seems to me that the difficulty of taking these steps has more to do with a religious cast of mind and with issues of personal identity and group commitment than it has to do with anything rational or moral.
I find no other convincing way to explain why when I and Marxist and also Leninist friends talk about politics and dissent without using concepts that put the Marxist framework in question, and without mentioning historical actors from the Leninist heritage, things often go swimmingly, but the minute something comes up that explicitly implies a gap in the Marxist Leninist identity, guards go up and what seems like obtuse denial and aggressive defensiveness sets in.
Contrary to how people often react to the above suggestion, putting it forth isn’t extreme or nasty. The truth is that we all behave this way sometimes. It is the essence of insecure self defense against loss of self image or denial of group allegiance…and everyone has some matters or behaviors or linkages or viewpoints that when challenged spur this type defensive reaction. The problem is that this reaction is particularly problematic when its presence defends beliefs that are not only wrong but also harmful to ourselves and to others, and especially when it occurs collectively, with each person not only abetting but enlarging the steadfastness of others and with the overall impact thereby made that much greater.
Anyhow, to all the wonderful Leninists who may hopefully read this and whose practice and commitment and courage I admire, what can I say? We agree on a lot. I feel that if we direct the conversation carefully, over dinner or in a congenial online debate, or even arm in arm in some struggle situations, we can have a delightful time together. Yet I also fear that if we vary just a few words, or make reference to certain historical epochs, all hell will break loose. And I suspect you have the same impression.
Is this a behavioral conundrum? Or are these dynamics at the heart of some of the left’s historic substantive difficulties? Or both?
Hopefully in the period to come we can comprehend and perhaps even overcome our remaining differences, and deal better with the social and also interpersonal dynamics as well.