Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 2, 2006

David Schweickart versus Michael Albert

Filed under: Academia,economics — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Over the past week or so I have been watching “La Commune”, a 357 minute masterpiece of a movie by Peter Watkins about the Paris Commune. Rich in Brechtian efffects, it is both historically accurate and relevant to today’s struggles. Stepping out of character, the actors comment on media monopoly, etc. I plan to write a detailed review of this film, but am prompted to say a word or two about a debate now raging over the way to build socialism or a more just society. In my view, Marx had little to say about how future societies should be constructed and instead looked at the Paris Commune as a concrete example of workers taking power.


David Schweickart

David Schweickart is a well-known “market socialist”, an economic approach generally identified with the moribund Analytical Marxism school. It has also been supported by left economists without any particular theory, such as the late Alec Nove. I know that Schweickart has an obvious interest in the AM school as indicated by his enthusiasm for Roemer’s collection of AM essays but really have no idea whether he has both feet in that camp.

My most recent encounter with his work was prompted by the discovery that he was among the group identified by Paul Burkett and Marty Hart-Landsberg in their book-length MR article on China who still believed that the country was socialist. As is almost universally understood, a rapacious capitalism is being built in China under the rubric of “market socialism”. Only a year ago, Schweickart was swooning over China’s accomplishments: “I think it illuminating to view China as a grand attempt at constructing a viable, equitable society beyond capitalism.”

Considering the fact that even the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has been admitting that the country is growing ever more class-divided, it is difficult to understand how Schweickart draws such conclusions. It should also be mentioned that Schweickart recommends examining such societies under through the prism of “successor-system theory”:

Successor-system theory posits a form of socialism that can be shown to be, theoretically, as efficient as capitalism, more rational in its growth and far more in accord with the key human values that have developed along with capitalism, namely equality and democracy.

In a duel of rival economic system theories, Schweickart took on top-gun Michael Albert who has came up with something called Participatory Economics, or Parecon for short. He doesn’t like it very much:

Before reflecting further on the Parecon phenomenon, let me substantiate my claim that Parecon is a terrible book. It isn’t “morally pernicious,” (as are, say, the works of neo-con intellectuals and the print ravings of the Fox News and right-wing talk-radio crowd), but it can’t be taken seriously on its own terms, intellectually. The book is an elaboration and defense of an economic model that is hopelessly, irredeemably flawed.


Michael Albert

Schweickart objects to Parecon’s “balanced job complex” that equally distributes interesting, empowering tasks with unpleasant “disempowering” ones because it imposes a Byzantine administrative overhead.

We could ask everyone to perform x/2000 hours of X, y/2000 hours of Y and z/2000 hours of Z each year. Or we could construct bundles that have different proportions of the three tasks. Some tasks might involve more hours of X, in which case they would also have more hours of Z (to counterbalance the low empowerment of X with the high empowerment of Z), and, consequently, little or no Y. In playing around with numbers, we realize that there are, in fact, an infinite number of ways of constructing bundles having average empowerment. And if we have more than three tasks, we have even more options. An embarrassment of riches!

For those who are scratching their heads over such number-crunching trivia, it should be mentioned that Schweickart has a PhD in mathematics and taught it on a college level from 1970 to 1975.

Schweickart next takes up the problem of equal pay for different kinds of work in Parecon, a practice that would open doors for slackers, even if the work is evaluated by Parecon monitors. Schweickart has little use for “moral incentives”, which he describes as leading to disastrous results, such as China’s “Great Leap Forward.” Obviously, socialism can be efficient as capitalism and more rational in its growth if it dispenses with such notions and embraces free labor markets such as exist in China today. When you have a thousand dispossessed peasants competing for a job on a Nike assembly line paying pittance wages, you don’t have to worry about efficiency. The threat of starvation has a way of concentrating the mind, making the worst job seem attractive and inspiring superhuman efforts.

After solving the problem of how to motivate workers, Schweickart turns his attention to how to satisfy consumer expectations. Frankly, I could never figure out the obsession with this. People don’t make revolutions because they want to wear designer jeans rather than Levi’s. They are instead motivated by the need to stay alive, often expressed in the search for an exit strategy from seemingly endless wars, either in the trenches of Western Europe or current-day Iraq. The idea of a couple of Russian doughboys sitting in a foxhole in 1916 debating whether the Bolsheviks could make better neckties than the enemy class that was killing them is simply ludicrous.

Schweickart’s capacity for generating prose over such questions is truly impressive:

What would I like to consume this coming year? I’ve been thinking about giving up meat, so that gives me some options. I can compare what I spent on bacon with what I might spend on . . . what? Maybe soybeans. Let’s see–back to the computer to get their anticipated price per pound. Hmmm, I wonder how many pounds I’ll need. . . . I just remembered, there are some birthdays coming up. What did I spend on birthday gifts last year? What did I buy anyway? I’ll have to search back through the list. (Presumably I tagged as gifts when I bought them all the items purchased as gifts, so my computer’s search engine can locate them quickly.) How much did I spend? What do I want to buy this year–for birthdays, Christmas, wedding anniversary?

This is what happens when somebody with a shopkeeper’s mentality decides to take up the cause of socialism, I guess. Maybe we need a Marxist version of those Bridal Registries they keep at Bloomingdales.

Although I can barely keep up with Schweickart when he goes off on such tangents, it seems that Alpert eats it up and is determined to best him at his own game:

Applying all this to skirts, we should want the tastes and preferences of all workers and consumers and particularly of people who wear them and of those who produce skirts to interactively proportionately influence the length and color, as well as their number and composition, their method of production, and so on–instead of profit seeking determining the result.

Good grief. The planet Earth is facing ecocatastrophe, ceaseless imperialist war and epidemics of all sorts in the 21st century and these two geniuses are bogged down discussing birthday presents and the color of skirts.

In his conclusion, Schweickart asks, “Why have Chomsky, et al. endorsed such nonsense?” I think the answer is rather obvious, at least with respect to Chomsky. Chomsky is an anarchist. Anarchists have always concocted schemas that would compete against the messy, flawed but real examples of socialism in action. That is why Marx was so taken with Paris Commune:

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant. In the full consciousness of their historic mission, and with the heroic resolve to act up to it, the working class can afford to smile at the coarse invective of the gentlemen’s gentlemen with pen and inkhorn, and at the didactic patronage of well-wishing bourgeois-doctrinaires, pouring forth their ignorant platitudes and sectarian crotchets in the oracular tone of scientific infallibility.

Against Albert’s ready-made utopia, Schweickart competes with his own ideal of market socialism, a ready-made dystopia cobbled together from Nike sweatshops and Red Bridal Registries.


  1. Don’t repeat Schweickart’s rubbish about Chomsky. As you should know full well, he’s always refrained from “endorsing” ANY speculation about how a future society would look like or be run, believing far too little is known about human affairs to confidently create blueprints one way or another. And as he’s clearly said on numerous occassions, that includes Parecon. For him, the most people can do is take their general intuitions and principles and then experiment, in their own time and place, under the conditions peculiar to them, organically discovering what particular arrangement works best by trial and error.

    Comment by anon — November 3, 2006 @ 9:03 pm

  2. I frequently come up against the liberal imperative to define the alternate world or system that a Marxist critique of political economy and capitalism is assumed to imply. When I don’t, the tendency is to dismiss my arguments as whinging or whining, or something.

    Craig, at the Long Sunday weblog, recently described this as “the blackmail of the status quo.” This is a very useful phrase.

    I’d never seen Michael Albert before reading this post. I liked him better before.

    For those uninitiated to the Marxist vs. Albert debate, there is a somewhat useful mp3 of Albert pitted against Alex Callinicos to discuss Lenin here:

    [audio src="http://www.phys.uu.nl/~droop/sheepfoot/lenin-today-callinicos-and-albert.mp3" /]

    With Discussion:

    [audio src="http://www.phys.uu.nl/~droop/sheepfoot/001.mp3" /]

    (Main page: http://mp3.lpi.org.uk/resistancemp/m2004home.htm )

    Comment by North of American — November 3, 2006 @ 9:40 pm

  3. Whoops, wrong link for discussion. Here:

    [audio src="http://www.phys.uu.nl/~droop/sheepfoot/lenin-today-discuss-callinicos-and-albert.mp3" /]

    Comment by North of American — November 3, 2006 @ 9:41 pm

  4. “For him, the most people can do is take their general intuitions and principles and then experiment, in their own time and place, under the conditions peculiar to them, organically discovering what particular arrangement works best by trial and error.”

    There has already been a fair amount of experimentation: if we don’t learn from it, we are probably going to repeat the mistakes.

    Comment by Paul Lyon — November 4, 2006 @ 12:00 am

  5. Schweickart and Albert actually had a barney about this in February this year. Have a look at the ZMag website — it’s clearly signposted. Interesting that it’s only come to Louis’ attention at this point.

    In many ways, I agree with Mr S.s points, but only because I fear I am way too dumb to understand Mr A’s. Chomsky’s ideas, on the other hand, seem eminently simple. Most of us instinctively know what is right — i.e. “from each according to his means, to each according his (or her — thanks Eric Idle) needs” — the trick is ushering in a system which delivers that. Chomsky says unrelenting hard work, moral clarity, education, and an unswerving aversion to isms.

    But what the hell does he know? Even the definition of “dialectics” is beyond him.

    Comment by Victoria — November 5, 2006 @ 11:25 am

  6. “Anarchists have always concocted schemas that would compete against the messy, flawed but real examples of socialism in action. That is why Marx was so taken with Paris Commune”

    That would be the federalist, co-operative Paris Commune so obviously inspired by the ideas of Proudhon? Where the majority of socialists, as Marx and Engels pointed out, were “Proudhonists”? And what did Marx praise? Instant recall of mandated delegates, an idea Proudhon advocated back in 1848 (and echoed by Bakunin in the 1860s).

    I do love marxists, they are so ignorant of anarchism and “real examples of socialism in action” but never let that stop them going on about them (Louis Proyect being an obvious case in point).

    I would recommend “An Anarchist FAQ” (www.anarchistfaq.org) for some discussion of the real differences between anarchism and marxism, plus an account of the Paris Commune which shows its real intellectual bankground.

    And, btw, I think Parecon would never work. I do think it is wise to discuss the outlines of a free society in the here and now. As the FAQ I pointed to above notes, anarchists have tended to indicate that a free society would be created around the fighting organisations of the working class (unions, workers councils, that sort of thing). And it makes sense to have some idea what you are aiming for — that way you stop Leninist dictators imposing their own rule while, at the same time, going on about “socialism.”


    Comment by Anarcho — November 6, 2006 @ 8:56 am

  7. As most know, I’d a solid supporter of Schweickart’s views, and think his ‘After Capitalism’ is the main work anyone on the left needs to deal with today–for, against or in between. It has some weaknesses, but most are minor, which I point out in a review a while back.

    What’s most interesting about his work is that it reflects a lot of what’s happening positively, in actual practice, in finding a bridge to socialism and beyond–from Mondragon in Spain, Emilia-Romangna in Italy, factory ‘takings’ in Argentina, the coop factory takeovers and community driven new projects in Venezuela, as well as a support for certain developments and trends in China.

    Schweickart is not naive about China. Read his ‘What’s Wrong with China?’ at http://www.solidarityeconomy.net for an example. there are at least six major trend in China, ranging from their version of neoliberalism to the ‘new left,’ the latter of which, and others, who keep bringing him back.

    There’s a reason why his stuff is being translated by the Chinese, by Venezuela into Spanish, and others as well.

    Classes and class differences? the problem is at what price in terms of what comes with them, and what’s the overall trend of development. Unless you’re some version of Pol Pot, even the ‘Old Mole’ acknowledged that socialism was a transitional class society between capitalism and the classless society of communism, where in this future all classes, in including the working class, are outlawed, die out or otherwise wither away.

    Schweickart’s strength is offering a cogent analysis and practical but visionary plan for getting from here to there.

    I’d suggest that the proper critique is to offer a counter plan, rather than whether he’s a ‘revisionist’ of old ideas or not. These days, given how science has progressed, I’d hope we’re all revisionists of one sort or anther.

    That’s what amuses me about PARECON. Albert claims it has the core value of being ‘classless,’ when it’s not, because it has one huge class, the working class, not even to mention a myriad of petty producers. Moreover, he has no means, unless it’s moral suasion, to stop petty producers from growing, except to outlaw, fine or jail them. Which plunks the state right back in his lap, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Carl Davidson — November 15, 2006 @ 4:30 pm

  8. As an “unrepentant” Marxist myself, it troubles me that Proyect should be so careless in his reading of my article.

    I do not say that socialism “can be as efficient as capitalism and more rational in its growth if it dispenses with such notions and embraces free labor markets such as exist in China today.” Workplace democracy replaces the labor market in Economic Democracy. Labor is not a cost of production. Workers do not compete with one another to see who will work for less.

    I do think material incentives are necessary so long as the problem of scarcity persists—which may be quite a long time. To rely prematurely on moral incentives alone is a recipe for disaster. Does Proyect disagree with this?

    I also happen think that an economic system should be concerned with what people would like to consume. I don’t think “consumer satisfaction” should be equated with the desire for designer jeans. I think, even after the revolution, people will be concerned the “mundane” things of life—the kind of food they eat, the clothes they wear, the houses they live in and how they are furnished, etc, etc. Try telling workers that they should settle for what the Russian doughboys had in 1916, and that all these other things to which they have grown accustomed are bourgeois frivolities. (I’m not saying that consumption habits won’t have to change, but does Proyect really think that after the revolution, we’ll all be so concerned with impending ecological catastrophe that we won’t worry about birthday presents anymore? Do only “shopkeepers” worry about such things?) Proyect’s purity seems to me more that of a monk than a Marxist.

    My concern for consumer satisfaction does not translate into an endorsement of the process he quotes of length of trying to figure out in detail what I would like to consume in a year. He surely knows that I was describing what would have to take place under Michael Albert’s system, not under Economic Democracy. Throughout my critique, I try to imagine what it would be like, in practice, to live under Parecon. I try to show that a) the system is unworkable, and b) even if it were workable, no one would want to live in it.

    It’s well and good to quote Marx on utopian speculation. As I’ve often noted, Marx was a scientist. He had no data to support a case for a particular form of socialism Apart from the short-lived Paris Commune and various small scale communal ventures, there had been no real-world experiments. But we are not in Marx’s position. The twentieth century has been rife with large-scale economic experimentation, both with alternative forms of capitalism and with attempts to get beyond capitalism. It is irresponsible now to wave one’s hand and say that the workers themselves will figure it out when the time comes.

    As for Chomsky–I don’t know what “rubbish about Chomsky” the first commentator thinks I’ve stated. I did not say that Chomsky endorsed Albert because he is an anarchist. I speculated that he was motivated by friendship. I looked carefully at his statement and concluded that it was less than a ringing endorsement.

    Comment by David Schweickart — November 16, 2006 @ 6:59 am

  9. […] David Schweickart posted a comment on my blog entry. I will respond to the key passage: […]

    Pingback by David Schweickart follow-up « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 16, 2006 @ 3:26 pm

  10. I might be missing the point of quoting Schweickart on his coming year’s consumption. He’s lampooning Albert here, not giving his own view of “socialism.” If the quote exhibits a shopkeeper’s mentality, it isn’t his, right? Unless the point is that Albert’s view *is* a proper socialism, so Schweickart’s dim view of it becomes his own dim view of socialism. Also, his market socialism aside, Schweickart’s books “Against Capitalism” and “After Capitalism” offer some of the most inspiring anti-capitalist prose I’ve read. They are great polemics, way before he even begins to talk of redeeming markets.

    Comment by amerikanbeat — April 4, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

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