Reflections on the future of Socialism
by Robert L. Heilbroner,
from "Between Capitalism and Socialism" 1970, Random House
Some years ago, writing on the prospects for American capitalism, I began by asserting that the capitalist system, whatever the strains and stresses to which it would be subject, bade fair to remain the dominant system in America and Western Europe during our lifetimes, and that any serious attempt to project large-scale social trends should begin from that premise. Now I should like to undertake a similar speculative examination of the prospects for socialism, for I also take it as a datum that some form of socialism will be the predominant economic system in most of the rest of the world during our lifetimes, and that even in Europe and America it will constitute the image of a society against which capitalism will be measured by its critics.
But no sooner do we raise the question of the prospect for socialism than we encounter a difficult problem. It is the problem of deciding what we mean by socialism. How is one to speak of the prospects of a "system" that presumably embraces Norway as well as Soviet Russia, or that is expressed by the ideas of Bernard Shaw as well as of Mao Tse-tung? If there is a single identificatory mark of socialism, it is certainly not immediately visible on the surface.
Yet, at second look, perhaps we can find a way of penetrating the surface variety of socialist institutions and thought to reach a common core. For it is not socialism alone that presents us with a confusing heterogeneity of systems, but capitalism as well; and yet we feel perfectly assured in applying the common term "capitalist" to worlds as far apart as those depicted by Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann, or Faulkner and Proust. And there is a very good reason for our generalizing approach to the societies of capitalism. This is the presence within all of them of a common set of institutions and ideas—the institution of the basically uncontrolled market system and the ideas of the legitimacy of the private ownership of the means of production. In a word, we find a business system at the core of all capitalist societies, no matter how diverse their other characteristics. Whatever their incompatibilities in culture or lifestyles, Buddenbrooks and Babbitt were both businessmen, and as such they understood and shared important common activities and values and goals.
Hence the obvious question is whether there is not, within the variety of socialist nations, a similar core of institutions and ideas that might play the same identificatory role as does business within the many forms of capitalism. The question has an obvious answer: one element of the socialist system must certainly be the structural element that we find in all socialist societies, corresponding to the market system in capitalism. This is the predominance of some form of planning.
But this structural element is by no means enough in itself to provide an infallible identification for socialism— after all, one can find some degree of planning in all capitalist nations and some evidences of the market in all socialist societies. Hence we must add a critical second attribute by which socialism can be identified. This is the common presence of a guiding socialist ideology, corresponding to the business ideology in capitalism.
What is the content of this socialist ideology? It will help if we begin by differentiating it from that of capitalism. I think it is fair to say that the beliefs of the business system mainly concern themselves with the justification of the prevailing economic order, especially the institution of private property and of the relatively free market. To put it differently, no capitalist nation or philosopher or economist has any grand designs for the fundamental reshaping of society through capitalism. Certainly capitalism aims at the material well-being of its constituents, but equally certainly it entertains no thought that the pursuit of well-being will alter the basic class character of the system or modify the competitive or acquisitive drives from which the system derives its momentum. That is what it means to say that capitalist thought is essentially conservative.
By way of contrast, socialist thought is primarily concerned with bringing into existence a social order very different from that which it finds in the world. Thus its use of planning—or, for that matter, of the market mechanism —is guided by purposes wholly at variance with those of capitalism. Capitalism uses the market or planning to service and support a social system in which the prosperity of the capital-owning class is a central aim of economic policy. Socialism not only denies the legitimacy of this underlying conception, but it intends the instrumentalities of plan and market to create an egalitarian society in which no class may gain the strategic position conferred by the ownership of society's productive assets. Further, far from ignoring the effects of economic progress on classes and motives, as does capitalism, socialism intends progress to lead to the creation of a wholly new kind of society, free of invidious striving and built on motives of cooperation and confraternity.
It need hardly be said that there is a long step between socialist declaration and socialist reality. In addition, let us reiterate the point with which we began—that the variation among socialist nations is very great. Clearly, the mere presence of similar institutions and ideologies no more produces a common existential quality under socialism than it does under capitalism—indeed, life in "socialist" Yugoslavia may well resemble life in "capitalist" Italy more than it does that in "socialist" China.
What, then, is the usefulness of emphasizing the common features of planning and ideology? The answer is that these features make it possible to talk about the future of socialism. For the central presence of planning and its ideology has as important a consequence for socialism as the presence of the business system for capitalism. It is that within each type of society these common elements give rise to common kinds of problems.
Thus in reflecting on the prospects for, say, capitalism in Japan and America, it is necessary to bear in mind that for all the dissimilarity of their social and cultural environments, both are societies that must contend with the peculiar problems of a business structure and a business ideology. And in the same way, when we attempt to reason prospectively with regard to the outlook for the socialist nations, we must recognize that underlying their varied internal and external challenges, all of them must cope with problems characteristic of the institution of planning and endemic to the ideological goal in whose service the activity of planning is carried on.
Our aim, in the following pages, will be mainly to explore the nature of these problems of socialism. But we must begin by bringing to the fore an aspect of the problem of socialism that complicates any discussion of its future trajectory. It is that socialism in our day must be considered with reference to two very different kinds of societies in two very different settings. On the one hand, socialism appears as a powerful force for change in the most backward and underdeveloped countries in the world; on the other hand, as an agency or as an ideal for social change in the most advanced and wealthy nations.
It is hardly surprising that the problems associated with planning or with the realization of the socialist vision are not at all alike in these two radically contrasting environments; the analogy is with the striking contrast between the problems of primitive capitalism, with its grim struggle between the classes, and those of advanced capitalism, with its vast middle class obedient to an advertising culture. The difference, however, is that whereas the problems associated with nascent capitalism are now largely relegated to the history books, those of "early" socialism exist side by side with those of "late" socialism. Thus we cannot discuss the problems of socialism without distinguishing between the form these problems take in each of its two contemporary manifestations.
Of the two, it is easier to describe the problems of socialism in the underdeveloped nations. I have written previously on this, so here I shall be very brief. The situation in most of the backward nations today can only be described as desperate. Present standards of living exceed subsistence requirements by so little that the least misfortune threatens catastrophe on a giant scale. Strongholds of foreign capital inhibit the redirection of the energies of the people. Incompetent or indifferent regimes seem unable or unwilling to galvanize their stagnant societies. And above this nightmarish landscape in which everything moves in slow motion towers an oncoming tidal wave of population advancing with horrendous speed: within the next ten years the number of women in the most fertile age brackets will double.
In these circumstances, the task of those socialist governments that have come to power, or of those that will, is clearly marked. It is to place their nations on a war footing against existing conditions, to mobilize whole populations for production, to attack the psychological as well as the physical handicaps of the backward areas with all the zeal and ardor of a military campaign.
Moreover, there is little doubt that revolutionary socialism, utilizing all-out planning, can accomplish these objectives. The prodigies of the Russian advance, the extraordinary achievements in the modernization of China, the remarkable arousal of the Cuban people, all testify beyond possibility of doubt that "war planning" can realize its giant, but essentially simple, aims. That this kind of massive planning is likely to be accompanied by enormously costly errors, or that it may, from time to time, imperil the success of the whole development effort through an excess of mindless zeal, is also to be expected. Yet the most serious and deeply rooted problems of planning in the backward world are not likely to be these perhaps inevitable mistakes of planning. Rather, as the examples of Russia and China and Cuba all show, the endemic problem of planning in the underdeveloped nations resides in the noneconomic measures required to bring about the economic changes that revolutionary socialism so imperatively seeks.
For the objectives of economic development do not lie, like a military citadel, exposed to the thrust of a single daring campaign. On the contrary, the development assault is better likened to a long grueling march through a hostile hinterland. The real resistance to development comes not from the old regimes, which can be quickly overcome, but from the masses of the population who must be wrenched from their established ways, pushed, prodded, cajoled, or threatened into heroic efforts, and then systematically denied an increase in well-being so that capital can be amassed for future growth. This painful reorientation of a whole culture, judging by past experience, will be difficult or impossible to attain without measures of severity; and when we add the need to maintain a fervor of participation long beyond the first flush of spontaneous enthusiasm, the necessity for stringent limitations on political opposition and for forcible means of assuring economic cooperation seems virtually unavoidable.
To be sure, one must not overgeneralize as to this grim prospect. As with the not unrelated distortions of life imposed under the aegis of early capitalism, the extent of the deforming pressures of early socialism will vary from one milieu or regime to another. Some nations, unfortunate in their resource endowments or in their political connections with the industrialized nations, may be forced to undergo a more or less thoroughgoing totalitarian transition. Others, better endowed or better connected, may pass through the thirty or fifty years of the modernizing transformation with a minimum of repression.
In general, however, when we seek to project the problems of socialism in the underdeveloped areas, we cannot sidestep the probability that intellectual stiflement, political ~ repression, and enforced social conformity will figure prominently among them. Let me be quite explicit that when the alternatives of such a disciplined existence are degradation, misery, and premature death, the exercise of sternness and indoctrination appears in a very different light from that of an arbitrary and capricious tyranny. Nonetheless, the exercise of these measures, however necessary to assure the success of the development effort, is likely to affect the future of the nations who must suffer them no less severely than the hated influence of imperialism affected their past. When we look to that future and inquire as to the outlook for socialism in the backward lands, it is necessary to recognize that it is likely to emerge both as the salvation of its otherwise doomed people, and also as the source of a moral and intellectual infection from which it may take generations to recover.
However uncertain its outcome, it is at least clear what the general objectives of revolutionary socialist planning must be in the underdeveloped areas. But the matter gets much more complicated when we now begin to look into the problems of socialist planning at the other end of the spectrum—in the advanced nations where the modernization process is already complete.
Here it may help if we quickly review the history of the problem before examining its present-day characteristics. It is interesting to note that the very identification of planning as an intrinsic aspect of socialism is a relatively modern development. Before the Russian Revolution, the main concern of the leaders and theoreticians of socialism was largely historical—namely, how a new social order would emerge from the conflicts within an old one. Not until an actual socialist society had come into existence did the question of-planning, only glancingly referred to by Marx and airily dismissed by Lenin, assume the central position of importance that it occupies today. And not surprisingly, shortly thereafter came an attack on planning as the Achilles's heel of a socialist system. Indeed, the most intellectually respectable criticism of socialism in the mid-1930's was the effort of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek to destroy the credibility of socialism as a desirable social order, not by inveighing against its ideals or its excesses, but by demonstrating that the economic system on which it was based would not work.
In brief, their criticism was based on the contention that socialism was intrinsically unable to achieve a rational economic order - that is, a system in which all the factors of production were employed as efficiently as possible - because it lacked one critical mechanism: a market in which capital could be valued by free offers of owners of capital and by the free bids of would-be hirers of capital. Since by definition there could be no private ownership of capital, no free market price for it could be ascertained. As a result, the only way of deciding which enterprises were to have capital, and which were not, was perforce the essentially arbitrary decision of some Central Planning Board. Such a system, it was presumed, could not long endure.
This line of attack against socialism did not fare very well. In the mid-1930's it was effectively demolished by Oscar Lange, the brilliant Polish economist then at Harvard. Lange demonstrated in two incisive articles that Mises had failed to see that a Central Planning Board could indeed plan rationally for the simple reason that it would receive exactly the same information from a socialized economy as did entrepreneurs under a market system. The only difference was that the Board would not learn about the condition of relative scarcity or plenty of capital goods or other commodities by price changes, as under capitalism, but by the building-up or running-down of inventories. That is, when a good was underpriced, instead of its price going up, as in a free market, the planners would discover that supplies of the good were being depleted faster than they were being replaced. All the Board would then have to do was to raise the price until the level of inventories was again constant. As a result, it could allocate its resources quite as efficiently as any capitalist system. In fact, the allocation of capital (or other factors) arrived at in this way by a socialist state would not only be rational, but would be in many ways the same as that of a market system. The main differences would lie in the ability of the Board to supply articles of public consumption (such as education or parks or welfare services) on a more generous scale than in a laissez-faire system, and in its ability to set a higher rate of saving-and-investment than might be forthcoming under an uncontrolled system. But since a major criticism against laissez faire was precisely its failure to provide adequate public services or to generate a sufficiently high rate of growth, these departures from the market idea seemed certain to enhance rather than to diminish social well-being.
Indeed, Lange quickly shifted from the defensive to the offensive. Not only would a planned economy meet the criteria for rationality, but its superior performance would soon reveal the outmoded inadequacy of a free enterprise economy. "The real issue," Lange wrote in italics, "is whether the further maintenance of the capitalist system is compatible with economic progress." Or as Benjamin Lippincott wrote in 1938 in the introduction to the little book in which Lange's articles appeared, "Where many under a capitalist economy must choose between a coat and a pair of shoes, under a socialist, many could choose between a radio and a telephone."
More than a generation has now elapsed since the Lange articles appeared, and it should be possible to pass some sort of judgment on the debate. And the first judgment seems to be the irrelevance of the problem itself. It is true, of course, that the absence of a market for capital can distort planning efforts—the Soviet predilection for huge and uneconomical dams and factories during their first Five Year Plans reflected their failure for many years to include a charge for capital in their projected industrial enterprises. But the obvious irrationality of this neglect of capital was eventually recognized, and a charge for capital was thereafter instituted.
But the whole question has an air of unreality. For what is the value of "rationality" as a criterion of economic performance? Are we to judge the Russian planning effort irrational because it has sacrificed present consumption for future growth to a far greater degree than the sacrificing generation might have voted for, had it been given the opportunity, but not, in all likelihood, to a greater degree than future generations would have voted for, if they could have? Per contra, are we to deem the American economy rational because it obediently provides its consumer markets with often trivial goods while it starves its housing market, or its central cities?
Clearly the trouble with rationality is that it has two meanings. On the one hand, it implies "reasonableness"—an attribute that is often glaringly absent under the market disposition of things as well as under a planned disposition. On the other hand, rationality also means that we will conserve the scarce resources of society by applying them where the need is greatest. That might seem to be a definition identical with "reasonableness," except for one thing: in a market society, "need" is determined by the existing distribution of income and wealth. An economy that produces lavishly for the rich and meanly for the poor is therefore "rational" in the sense that it is devoting its resources to those uses for which the greatest market demand exists, but it is hardly rational in the sense of being reasonable or just.
Lange himself sensed that the basic problem was not really that of rationality at all. "The real danger of socialism," he wrote (again in italics), "is that of a bureaucratization of economic life." It is true that he raised the problem almost to dismiss it—bureaucratization would happen in any event, he thought, and there would actually be a better chance of controlling it under socialism because "officials subject to democratic control seem preferable to private corporation executives who are practically responsible to nobody'' - but at least he saw that the test of socialist planning would be provided by criteria very different from those of a textbook on microeconomic perfection.
It need hardly be said that the experience of socialist planning, especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, has amply confirmed Lange's fears. For decades Lange's plan for a market-based socialism was ignored or dismissed as heresy, while socialist bureaucracies proved themselves increasingly incapable of handling their enormous ministries. Retrospectively, it is now far from clear whether corporation executives "who are practically responsible to nobody" do not find themselves under greater necessity to combat the stagnation of bureaucracy than socialist factory managers who find themselves personally responsible to a bureaucrat. The lesson of the postwar socialist experience is that the mechanism of planning is much more effective in laying in the foundations for an industrial society than in administering such a society after it has been brought into being. The more tightly linked the industrial activities of an economy, the more numerous its nodes of interdependence, the more problems does the planning apparatus encounter—not necessarily in the strictly economic form of irrational allocations of goods, but in the guise of low morale and productivity, frequent bottlenecks and partial breakdowns, faulty delivery schedules, poor quality of output, etc. As Paul Sweezy has commented with regard to the Soviet sphere in 1968, "Mass apathy, faltering productivity, economic stagnation—these and other symptoms of impending crisis were visible throughout the region."
Thus the debate on socialist planning has come to a curious conclusion. If the theoretical dispute has been settled in favor of socialism, the practical question seems to have gone the other way. On balance, the giant corporations of capitalism seem to have outperformed the lumbering ministries of production. This does not mean, however, that socialism has met an impassable barrier in the form of an inherent limit imposed by its planning capabilities. On the contrary, it has only brought about a belated move in every advanced socialist nation in the direction urged by Lange— away from centralized toward decentralized planning, and in particular away from the directives of a monolithic Central Planning Board toward the autonomy and flexibility of a market-based system. In the Soviet Union we have the much-publicized reforms of Liberman, in Czechoslovakia those of Ota Sik (at least until the Russian invasion), in Yugoslavia the adoption of a virtual "laissez-faire" market system in which the individual firm is run as a profit-making enterprise that vanishes via bankruptcy if it fails to meet the test of market viability, and in which the reach of central planning has been steadily reduced in scope.
Thus, ironically enough, socialist planning has been able to survive the difficulties inherent in the supervision of a complex industrial state only by reverting to the very market system whose shortcomings it was originally intended to redress. And yet, socialism has passed one test only to face another. The use of the market mechanism has unquestionably rescued socialism from a severe functional crisis. The question must now be faced as to whether it has done so by ceasing to be socialist.
Why should the market mechanism constitute a threat to socialism?The answer takes us back to the purposes for which planning exists under socialism. And among those purposes, it will be remembered, was the goal of equality, the ideal of a society in which men were no longer unfairly dealt their chances in life by virtue of their unequal access to the prerogatives of property.
Is the market intrinsically tied to this condition of inequality? The question is not an easy one to answer. On the one hand, there seems no more reason why the market cannot be used for socialist ends under a socialist state than why planning cannot be used for capitalist ends under a capitalist state. On the other hand, just as the mere presence of planning poses a sharp change, both structurally and ideologically, to capitalism, so the introduction of the market poses its inescapable problems for socialism.
Essentially the difficulty lies in the fact that in a market run society, as we have seen, it is the distribution of purchasing power that sets the effective demands to which social effort will cater. But this raises a deep-seated problem for a socialist order. For if dollar votes are to shape the purposes for which social activity is carried on, it is important that these votes be distributed in accord with some principle of socialist equity. Nor is it difficult to discern what that principle should be By every tenet of socialist be inherent equality of men as human beings, there is a strong inherent bias toward a distribution of dollar voting power that will minimize the difference between one man's power to influence the outcome of the economic process and another's. To put it differently, there is a deep socialist belief in the propriety of income equality, perhaps tempered by social allowances for age, family size, etc.
But the trouble with this solution is that incomes serve another purpose, even in a socialist society, beside that of constituting the source of the demand for goods and services. Incomes also constitute the rewards for labor; and insofar as labor has different degrees of difficulty, danger or unpleasantness, skill and so on, it must be expected to command different rewards. Were this not the case, it would be exceedingly difficult for any economy that depended on the market to organize its production effectively. If skilled labor were paid no more than common labor, there would neither be any incentive for factory managers to economize on the former, nor much incentive for workers to undertake training that would ordinarily lead to a higher income.
Hence there are powerful reasons why a market society, socialist or other, must use a hierarchy of remunerations. But whereas this solves the problem of efficiency, it raises awkward questions of ideology. Is a society that permits or deliberately encourages differentials in income truly "socialist"? Is not the moral basis of socialism impaired when one man, who happens to be more adept or intelligent, is allowed to enjoy a higher standard of living than one who is not, although the latter may be more loving, or loyal, or more dedicated to the ideals of socialism?
If these questions should be brushed aside as smacking of impractical idealism, there is another reason to fear the inequality of rewards—to wit, that in allowing income differences to exist, a socialist society will be reintroducing, wittingly or otherwise, the very institution of class privilege against which it presumably struggles. At least in the eyes of some socialist critics, the emergence of a genuinely autonomous market sector (as in Yugoslavia) signals nothing less than a "peaceful transition from socialism to capitalism." The fear of these theoreticians is that the recrudescence of the profit motive as the driving force of society will lead inexorably to the reconstitution of the factory manager as capitalist and to the reenslavement of the worker to the wage system. And beyond these particular institutional threats lurks the still more profound fear that the very existence of market relationships constitutes in itself a source of "corruption" for a socialist society. "[M]arket relationships," writes Paul Sweezy, a leading socialist critic of market socialism, "are inevitable under socialism for a long time, but they constitute a standing danger to the system and unless strictly hedged in and controlled will lead to degeneration and retrogression."
To these charges not all socialists would agree. The Yugoslavs, for example, point out that in their system the factory manager is legally subservient to Workers' Councils elected from the factory floor and empowered with full directors' rights over the manager, including the right to fix his salary or to fire him. Other socialists would argue that a certain amount of economic inequality is compatible with socialism, provided that it does not bring with it political or social inequality. As for the matter of corruption, that is a question we shall look into ourselves later on.
Thus it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to decide the merits of this controversy now. On the one hand it is clear that socialism is being steadily forced to retreat from the centralized planning that was its original ideal: "It is plain at the present day," writes the English sociologist and socialist T. B. Bottomore, "that the public ownership of industry is not by itself sufficient to establish a socialist society, and that it may in fact produce conditions which are directly inimical to the creation or functioning of such a society."
At the same time there seems as well to be a rise of a "capitalist" spirit in Yugoslavia, and the probable consequences of Russian decentralization in giving new power to the class of Soviet industrial managers have been frequently commented on.
All this suggests that socialism has yet to make its peace either with the market system or with centralized control. Perhaps one had better use the Marxian terminology and point out that there are "contradictions" as deeply rooted in the institutions and ideology of socialist planning as those lodged in the operations of a capitalist market system—contradictions that will not be resolved as long as socialism must be concerned both with the workaday problems of production and distribution in a world of scarcity on the one hand, and with its pursuit of the ideals of human equality and fraternity on the other.
But will not this contradiction be resolved by the "abolition" of scarcity? It has become only a commonplace to point out that science and technology constitute the truly revolutionary force of our day. Is not the social aspect of that revolution the impending end of the age of scarcity through the immense abundance that a completely technologized society will enjoy?
That scientific technology has the capability of vastly raising the level of productivity and thereby ushering in an era of material abundance is beyond doubt. But just as this very abundance, with its scientific and technological preconditions, poses deep-seated challenges for the maintenance of the traditional structure of capitalism, so I also believe that it holds equally profound difficulties for the prevailing realities or conceptions of socialism.
The challenges to socialism as well as to capitalism are of two kinds: psychological and organizational. With capitalism, the psychological problem lies in the likelihood that affluence will weaken the condition of economic dependency on which the market system is tacitly based, opening the prospect that normal differentials of income payments will no longer suffice to attract men where they are needed, and thereby requiring that capitalism resort more and more to planning and coercion. Much the same motivational problem is likely also to affect the operation of a socialist market economy, pushing it, however unwillingly, in the direction of coercive planning, with all the difficulties of efficiency and morale that such measures must bring.
These psychological problems are apt to be less important, however, than the organizational necessities imposed on socialism by the domination of science and technology. There is a romantic tendency on the part of some socialists to picture the age of science as inherently favorable to the egalitarian aims of the socialist ideology. But this is not in fact what the hegemony of science promises. For both the production and the maintenance of the scientific mastery of the New Society will require the presence of a highly trained research elite supported by a large technical service staff. This necessary organizational core, with its collective expertise so essential for the maintenance of the general society, has all the attributes of a potential ruling class. "There is nothing to be gained," writes Radovan Richta, head of a Czech interdisciplinary team for research into the social implications of the scientific revolution, "by shutting our eyes to the fact that an acute problem of our age will be to close the profound cleavage in industrial society which, as Einstein realized with such alarm, places the fate of the defenseless mass in the hands of an educated elite, who wield the power of science and technology. Possibly this will be among the most complex undertakings facing socialism."
Is elitism inherent in a society dominated by scientific technology? Certainly the underlying conditions for a highly stratified social system are implicit in the pyramidal educational requirements and the vastly differing social powers of the technologized society in which many will tend automated machines and a few will carry on the critical activity of discovery. "Ultimately," writes Richta, "the only solution will be to make professionals of us all"—a solution that reminds us of pious suggestions in our society that everyone should become a capitalist.
But even if the tendency toward elitism is successfully curbed, there remains one final challenge for socialism posed by technology. It is that the hastening race of technical change has begun to pose a wholly new problem for all mankind—the problem of maintaining the ecological balance, the very viability, of the earth itself.
For the other side of the coin of affluence has been a steady deterioration in the quality of the environment—a deterioration brought about by enormously enhanced demands for resources, by gigantic scales of physical and chemical transformation of materials, and by the need to dispose of gargantuan quantities of end products, including the peculiarly lethal ones of radioactive wastes. Meanwhile, as the proliferation of production spoils the environment, it also makes possible the support of larger and larger concentrations of humanity, which in turn exacerbates the pollution process.
This spectacle of a steadily worsening environment coupled with an unsustainable rate of population increase gives rise to the uncomfortable feeling that the technological process is "running wild." And so it is. For at bottom, the ecological disequilibrium only reflects a still more profound unbalance between the technological and scientific capabilities of society and its social and self-governing capacities. The problem is that the first are cumulative and the second are not: each generation of scientists and technicians stands on the shoulders of preceding generations, bringing to the control over nature successively larger powers, whereas each generation of statesmen or administrators begins, for all intents and purposes, from scratch, in no way enhanced by the activities of its predecessors in understanding or controlling social processes. In its paradigm, of course, we have the spectacle of the unbelievable magnification of the capabilities of mass weaponry which is placed in the charge of men who are in no way whatsoever enlarged in their capability to govern, or even to understand, the world.
In this unequal race, which is visible in the socialist nations quite as much as in the capitalist ones, inevitably the technical capacities of a society come to exceed by an enormous margin its capabilities for exercising effective social control. The result is a technology that continuously escapes confinement, that develops in unforeseen directions, and that disturbs social systems by exerting its influences in unanticipated and unwelcome ways, such as the poisoning of the environment. It is quite probable that socialism will cope with this looming problem more effectively than capitalism, for assuredly planning lies at the very center of an effort to reestablish a workable balance between man and nature. The point is, however, that the technological imperative will present socialist planning with a range of problems requiring extensive and penetrative social intervention, rather than with a condition of general affluence in which a "liberated" community will spontaneously establish itself.
It is difficult at this juncture to foresee exactly what programs of control will be required to bring about a balanced ecology. All that can be said is that stringent limitations will have to be imposed, not alone on the productive apparatus of society, but very possibly on its consumptive patterns and certainly on its reproductive freedom. This will pose enormous problems for all social systems, but in the case of socialism the problem takes on a moral as well as a technical significance. For the fact is that the known techniques of social planning do not today enable us to assert a mastery over the behavior of large communities—at least not if this mastery is to be made compatible with a high degree of civil liberty. Nor, for that matter, can we as yet even design a reliable program for the limitation of the side effects of technological advance. The upshot is that socialism has not been able to formulate a blueprint for the guidance of the advanced countries that carries the compelling logic of its program for the underdeveloped countries. The sobering conclusion is that socialism will find its task made not easier but more difficult by the demands and consequences of the technological revolution on which it pins so many of its hopes.
We have dealt at some length with the particular problems that seem likely to trouble the future of socialism by virtue of the inherent "contradictions" of socialist planning. Now we must examine a second group of problems more closely associated with the content and limitations of the socialist ideology.
Here it will be useful if we once again begin with a comparison of socialism and capitalism. We have already noted at the very beginning of this essay the essentially conservative purpose of the ideology of capitalism. By defining and articulating a consensus of business beliefs, a capitalist ideology serves to mark out the boundaries of "what can be done" within a system whose fundamental commitment is to leaving things alone. The result is twofold. On the one hand, the business ideology acts to limit the interventory reach of the state as an agency for social change. On the other, by buttressing the nature of things as they are, it leaves society without any strong feeling of forward motion, of collective purpose, of high destination. The capitalist ideology is a practical, not an inspirational, one.
A totally different quality strikes us when we examine the ideology of the socialist world. Here the commitment to equality and to fraternal solidarity serves not to inhibit but to encourage the exercise of social intervention. And beyond that, the socialist vision of a transcendent society has shown itself to be second only to religion (if indeed second it be) as a source of inspiration, solace, and conviction.
Moreover, the nature of that extraordinary power of socialist ideas is not difficult to discover. Again in sharp contrast with the indifference of capitalist thought with regard to the matter, socialism has always affirmed its unshakable faith in the perfectibility of man. That is, socialism has always maintained that man is the product of his environment, so that the ugliness of society today or yesterday becomes an indictment, not of mankind, but of its past or prevailing institutions. Furthermore—and this is the crux of the charismatic power of socialist thought—it follows that in a society in which the deforming institutions of the past and present had been removed, man would be "shaped" or "released" to discover his long-delayed fulfillment.
Thus, whereas capitalist thought has little to say with respect to the future, other than to promise a general affluence, socialist thought envisages the transformation, indeed, the liberation, of man:
By abolishing commodity production and opening the age of plenty, socialist society will give the signal for an extraordinary flowering of the human personality. Among hundreds of millions of individuals who today are indistinguishable in one grey mass, this personality will awaken, develop and flower in a thousand different directions, as yet unknown and unsuspected. Released from the wretched servitude of having to struggle for daily bread, human energy will be concentrated in art and science, in education and in physical and mental well-being. The place of competition between individuals for material existence will be taken by emulation in the pursuit of aims of research, of beauty and truth. Aggressiveness will be sublimated into creative purposes.
That such a vision should have the power to motivate mankind is understandable enough. Yet, however moving —indeed, however plausible, for the very long run—we can see at the same time the problems inherent in such a view. One of them, which we have already examined, is a failure to confront with unflinching honesty the social constraints and organizational requirements of the society of abundance. The second, to which we now turn, is the failure to examine with equal fearlessness how men would actually behave in their "liberated" state, at least for the foreseeable future.
There is no doubt as to how socialists would like him to behave. "What exactly is to be considered by liberated man?" asks one socialist writer. She describes him as follows:
One might say that the liberated man is the generous and disinterested man; he is also a creative man, who can express his personality and talents in a creative action without constraint, whether in manual, intellectual, or artistic work, or in his relations and friendship with other men. The free man is one who feels himself at the same time fully himself and in accord with other men. He is an individual without idols, dogmas, prejudices or a priori ideas. He is tolerant, inspired by a profound sense of justice and equality, and aware of himself as being at the same time an individual and a universal man.
The difficulty with such a description is obvious enough. As the critics of socialism have maintained since the days of the Utopian Socialists, this vision of man, however appealing, lacks a sense of toughness, of realism. In the language of the nineteenth century it was faulted because it was based on an inadequate appreciation of "human nature," and whereas we are more chary of such phrases nowadays, we also sense a certain wishfulness in this delineation of what man could be. The point, let me emphasize, is not to counter the socialist vision with mutterings that man is vile. It is rather to insist that the deepest weakness of that vision has been its failure to formulate a conception of human behavior in all its historical, sociological, sexual, and ideational complexity, a conception that would present "man" as being at once biologic as well as social, tragic as well as heroic, limited as well as plastic.
To this criticism, socialism has always returned two rejoinders. The first is that it is unfair to expect it to rest its philosophy on such a "theory" of human behavior without requiring at least as much of other social systems of belief. But this answer misses the point. In the first place, capitalism actually has such a theory, for it believes implicitly in the ubiquitous acquisitive and competitive nature of man. Second, capitalism does not require such a theory, for as with all social systems that rest content with the status quo, it takes "human nature" as it is—which is to say, it accepts the manifestations of the culture in which it finds itself, adapting its institutions to the prevailing character traits and behavioral characteristics of men rather than attempting to design a set of institutions that will nurture the essence of Man out of his imperfect prevailing self. And finally, in encouraging or acquiescing in these existing traits, capitalism does not claim that it is being more than expedient. "While minds are coarse they require coarse stimuli and let them have them," wrote Mill in his Principles of Political Economy. Only socialism, by virtue of its belief in the possibility of creating a liberating environment, requires an understanding of the ultimate nature of the human being whose innate capabilities must now be allowed to unfold.
To this critique, the socialist will offer his second rejoinder. It is that socialism does not try to discover or to nurture a "given," although heretofore stunted, germ of human character. Rather, it is a prime belief of socialism that man makes himself. Thus socialism can dispense with the need to formulate a conception of "human nature" by concentrating instead on the institutions by which that nature will be formed. In a word, human nature will be in the end what we want it to be.
But this rejoinder too misses the mark. For it ignores the very thing we wish to find out—that is, the extent to which man can make himself. So far as I know, only Herbert Marcuse has squarely faced the question of the ultimate limits of adaptability of man's psychobiologic makeup. In Eros and Civilization he has boldly argued that man's instinctual nature is capable of dramatic change in an environment of genuine abundance. In such a setting, Marcuse claims, where the historic pressures of material scarcity were finally lifted, the social need for the repression of man's narcissistic and erotic nature would no longer prevail, and Eros and the Nirvana Principle could at long last take their places as the organizing elements of both the individual and the society.
Such a statement is indeed a theory of human nature, and if verified would place socialist ideology on a wholly new and much firmer footing. But I do not believe that there is any evidence, either theoretical or empirical, to support Marcuse's view of the instincts as creatures of the environment. As Sidney Axelrad has commented in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association: "[I]nstincts are for Marcuse forces capable of being influenced by consciousness, rather than borderline somapsyche phenomena which are always unconscious and which can never lose their homeostatic functions and tendencies. [Marcuse's] prescription for a utopia of the future is not within the confines of psychoanalytic theory. It is a hope, an illusion."
The absence of a satisfactory foundation of knowledge beneath the socialist conception of human nature is important, not only because it blurs the long-term goals of socialism, but also because it carries short-term practical consequences of considerable importance.
The first of these is the failure of socialism to frame a coherent and cogent attitude toward the problem of motivation. Inherent in the distinction between "socialism" and "communism," for example—that is to say, between the society that a socialist government might inherit and one that it might make—is the deep-seated Marxist belief that man at a low level of culture and well-being will still require the motivation of invidious striving for monetary rewards, whereas once the high plateaus of a truly affluent society have been reached, it will be possible to discard these "bourgeois" traits and to move people by the famous principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
Yet in actuality we perceive exactly the opposite state of affairs. In the poorest and lowliest of societies—China, Cuba, Russia in the first years after the Revolution—we find the power of nonmaterial, noninvidious incentives to be greatest, whereas in the richer and more advanced socialist societies—Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the present-day Soviet Union—we discover an increasing need to rely on incentives of monetary inequality, managerial preferment, and competitive vying.
Much of this inability to form a reliable theory of motivation hearkens back to an ancient ambivalence toward wealth and its effect on the human personality that socialism has inherited from Western religious and philosophic thought. Socialism continually talks of affluence for society, but it recoils at the contagions that affluence will bring to the individual. An instance in point is the justification of the expropriation of 55,000 small businesses in Cuba in March, 1968. As the Havana newspaper Granma explained, this action was needed to remove "nests of parasites, hotbeds of corruption, illegal trading and counterrevolutionary conspiracy":
To get a good idea of the degree of corruption spawned by these activities, we need only cite the results of the investigation made by the Party of private businesses in Metropolitan Havana. According to this report, twenty-seven percent of the proprietors were workers before setting themselves up in business (and the great majority of these sprang up after the triumph of the Revolution).... It is intolerable that a worker, whose labor may benefit the whole people, should become a potential bourgeois, a self-centered moneygrubber and exploiter of his countrymen.
Such sentiments speak volumes as to the consequences of the psychological views which socialism expounds. If the rise of a worker to the precarious status of a small shopkeeper is enough to endanger the sentiments and institutions on which socialism is based, then socialism must constantly live in fear of betrayal from the secret corruptibility of the people. The parallel with the paranoid purity of extreme religious sects is all too apparent, and in one case as in the other, the vehemence with which evidences of corruption are denounced leads to the suspicion that both movements fear these "corruptions" are deeply embedded in the human psyche.
No less important as a consequence of the uncertain socialist conception of human behavior is its failure to examine the nature and consequences of alternative motivations to those of material incentives. If socialism seeks to perfect man in an environment in which the cash nexus will no longer provide the cohesive force for social organization, it must offer other motivations that will secure the necessary cooperation of the population in the administration and operation of a complex society. Such nonmaterial incentives certainly exist—monastic orders, for instance, maintain their internal discipline by relying on wholly different motives of personal enlistment from those of a money-oriented society, as do military establishments or some kinds of professional groups.
What remains unasked, however, is whether a society knit together by such ties—a society in which a strict internalization of discipline has supplanted the external sanctions of the marketplace—would constitute a favorable environment for the perfection of man. In this regard, the famous quotation of John Stuart Mill bears repetition:
The question is whether there would be any asylum left for individuality of character; whether public opinion would not be a tyrannical yoke; whether the absolute dependence of each on all, and the surveillance of each by all, would not grind all down into a tame uniformity of thoughts, feeling, and actions.
In a word, socialist thought, in its avoidance of a study of human behavior, has not directly faced the problem of how the individual is to be integrated into the community, or the degree to which individual behavior must be governed by social norms, or the appropriate boundaries between social and private spheres of existence. A fervent commitment to "participatory democracy" is today much voiced among Western socialist writers, but little or no consideration has been given to the means by which this participation can avoid what one commentator has called "the merciless masochism of community-minded and self-regulating men and women." (Oscar Wilde once remarked that socialism would take too many evenings, and the quip deserves to be taken seriously. )
Finally, the inadequacy of the socialist grasp of behavior reveals itself in the ferocious impatience with which socialism demands that "human nature" must change. The relinquishment of market incentives, for example, is not regarded as a goal to be achieved over several generations but one that must be sought within a single decade or two; motives of socialist cooperation are not viewed as behavioral patterns to be patiently inculcated over the long run, but attitudes that must be evidenced almost overnight. What lacks so fatally in this view is any appreciation of the depth of behavioral characteristics formed by social experience and of the power of family cultures to transmit these learned patterns of attitude and behavior despite the counterinfluences of organized social pressure. Hence the repeatedly demonstrated unpreparedness of socialist thought before such behavioral realities as the persistence of "Russian" traits of government or "Chinese" xenophobia.
Here the dangers are twofold. On the one hand, the forces of nationalism—surely the single most powerful molding influence on social behavior in our time—are ignored, or worse, incorporated into socialist thought: as Paul Henri Spaak observed, "The thing that socialists have learned to nationalize best is socialism." On the other, there is the grave risk that the innocent inertia of ordinary behavior will be interpreted as a deliberate betrayal of socialist ideals. The Cuban incident above is a case in point.
These reflections must now be placed in some final perspective. That socialism faces inherent problems springing from the difficulties of planning and from both the reach and the limitations of its ideology is, I think, undeniable. What is necessary is to confront these problems without a sense of either defeat or satisfaction. To examine the future of socialism, in the underdeveloped areas or in the advanced nations, without taking into account these, or perhaps other, challenges it must face is simply not to take socialism seriously—that is, as a political movement which must struggle with the intransigent realities of history and which, like all such movements, is likely to be bested by some of them.
In this struggle, two main resistances can be discerned. One of these is the rampant force of technology, with its new networks of interdependence, its new frontiers of physical and chemical potentiality, its new dangers. In our day, at least, technology will not make its peace with socialism; socialism will have to make its peace with technology. The other is the stubborn inertia of the social personality, no doubt capable of great change, but only slowly and painfully, exerting meanwhile a continuous counter pressure against the radical alterations in actions and attitudes that socialism seeks to bring.
As we have suggested, it is likely that these resistances will establish the "limits" of socialism over the foreseeable future, much as similar forces set the boundaries of possible capitalist adaptation. But it would be wrong to end this essay on such a note. For unlike capitalism, which exists largely for its own sake in the present, socialism exists largely for the sake of the future. Inherent in the indistinct but bright vision of perfectible man is the source of an evolutionary momentum that carries a precious freight of human aspiration. Thus, unlike capitalism, socialism contains a core of belief that should be capable of maintaining its power to move human beings despite the obstacles that will hamper its performance.
Socialism is, at its root, the effort to find a remedy in social terms for the affront to reason and morality in the status quo. As such it is not limited to any particular place or time in history, but adapts its programs and its objectives to the indignities against which it fights. If socialism today in the United States derives its impetus from the spectacle of concentrated wealth, the commercial manipulation of human beings, or the indifference of the established power structure to the plight of the poor or the Negro, in the Soviet Union a genuinely socialist movement would (and some day will) take its organizing impulse from the concentration of political power and from the imprisonment of mind and spirit by communist authorities and doctrines alike. In each and every nation the presence of power and privilege thus establishes the fortresses against which socialism presses its attack.
It may well be that each attack succeeds only to fail; that new walls of power and privilege are built as rapidly as old ones are torn down; that the ultimate goal of a transformed —indeed, transfigured—man is only a chimera. Yet the vitality of socialism seems unlikely to be daunted by that possibility. For taking socialism seriously means more than acknowledging its difficulties as a political movement. It means understanding as well that socialism is the expression of a collective hope for mankind, its idealization of what it conceives itself to be capable of. When the fires of socialism no longer burn, it will mean that mankind has extinguished that hope and abandoned that ideal.