Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 31, 2020

Considerations of 21st Century Socialism

Filed under: Counterpunch,socialism — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

“A person begins to become free from thinking of the annoying fact that one needs to work to satisfy one’s animal needs.”


Fifty years ago, Peter Camejo ran for Senator from Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy. He didn’t win but did manage to recruit many young people to socialism through a stump speech filled with jokes. One of them had to do with life under socialism. There would be such an abundance of goods that money would no longer be necessary. He’d say something like this: “You go to a grocery store and there is filet mignon. Nothing would prevent you from sticking a dozen under your jacket and sneaking out. But instead of being arrested for shoplifting, you’d be referred to a psychotherapist for doing something so crazy. All you can eat is one, right?”

Today, it would be difficult to make such a speech since we are far too aware of the costs to the planet from cattle ranching. Most socialists are speaking about the need to prevent the Amazon rainforest from being leveled to the ground. Do we accelerate global warming to supply beef to fast-food restaurants? If Peter were alive today, he’d be among the loudest voices against Bolsonaro.

In his 1970 campaign, Peter was trying to popularize the ideas found in Leon Trotsky’s 1934 article “If American Goes Communist.”  Trotsky’s words sound somewhat crass as if he were making a sales pitch to men in the admittedly backward but wealthy country: “The average man doesn’t like systems or generalities either. It is the task of your communist statesmen to make the system deliver the concrete goods that the average man desires: his food, cigars, amusements, his freedom to choose his own neckties, his own house and his own automobile. It will be easy to give him these comforts in Soviet America.”

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  1. Well said. We need more such articles/perspectives from the American Left. Indeed, I’ve done some thinking about “orthodoxy” myself. It was one thing in 1848 to talk about splitting the armed forces into pro-and anti-Revolutionary camps. Cannon, muskets and wooden sailing ships were a level of technology that could damage civilian infrastructure but not obliterate it. Indeed, professionals fought other professionals and generally left civilians out of the violence. That changed with the American Civil War and the concept of “total war” that developed later. Today we revolutionists should be focused on how we DISARM the armed forces and turn “swords into plowshares.” Even if we were to “split the armed forces” what would we achieve? The destruction of the civilian infrastructure, the obliteration of the working class, the creation of conditions of scarcity and bureaucracy as was done in the Soviet Union? Thanks, but no thanks. If the Revolution does not make things BETTER for people, why bother..? Planting the Red Flag (or Black Flag) on the rubble does not mean we have “won” anything…

    Comment by Kurt Hill — January 31, 2020 @ 6:41 pm

  2. I’m somehow minded that war has never truly spared civilians–what about the Thirty Years’ War for example? Those combatants certainly did not “leave civilians out of the violence.” Rape, pillage, fire, rapine, famine, and disease have always beset civilians in wartime.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 31, 2020 @ 8:41 pm

  3. The idea that every cup of coffee or sandwich eaten outside the family home must be prepared in a state-owned facility makes no sense. It’s a formula for petty theft and corruption, if the state, on its own, cannot afford these things, and where scarcity exists. Unless I’m mistaken, this is the situation in every country on earth today.

    Markets are necessary precisely because the state, on its own, simply CANNOT do these things. That’s what the Cubans have learned since the implosion of the Soviet Union. They have to use what they have, from tobacco to tourism to medical collaboration and education (ELAM) in the world to generate hard currency with which to pay the bills in our globalized world

    Of course, market forces have their own logic, and the immense power into which we are all indoctrinated by the Hollywood Dream Machine. What’s necessary, I think, is to utilize market forces to solve the smaller social needs (prepared food, clothing, repair services, transportation, etc.), while striving to prevent these market forces from dominating the economy, and with it the society and its culture and politics.

    There’s no simple formula to achieve these things.

    Comment by walterlx — January 31, 2020 @ 9:20 pm

  4. Yes, and the Thirty Years’ War was one of the factors that led to the more “gentlemanly” norms later on, particularly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But, you are quite right, of course, civilians have always been negatively impacted. Today, however, the military technology can obliterate all life on the planet. One of our aims, I think, must be disarmament, not “equal firepower.” At least that’s the conclusion I’ve reached.

    Comment by Kurt Hill — January 31, 2020 @ 9:37 pm

  5. Walter, always the Cuban diplomat without portfolio. And always clueless about a Marxist analysis like this, which was not about small proprietors but about the commanding heights of the economy.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 31, 2020 @ 10:45 pm

  6. The Cubans went way too far nationalizing everything in 1968. They could afford to do that because the USSR was there to help out. That situation doesn’t apply anymore. Changing conditions require changing tactics. The Cubans retain control of the commanding heights of the economy.

    Comment by walterlx — February 1, 2020 @ 12:10 am

  7. “In debates over whether socialism was feasible or not, Trotskyism had little to offer except formulaic assurances that workers democracy would set things right. The big debates happened elsewhere and were over whether a planned economy, democratic or undemocratic, could work as efficiently as the capitalist marketplace.”

    Which is why many of the most sophisticated discussions of these issues came from within the Stalinist camp. It was the Polish economist, Oskar Lange, who debated Friedrich Hayek over the socialist calculation problem back in the 1930’s and 1940’s and who sought to develop methods for making socialist economic planning work, including proposals, towards the end of his life, for using computers to expedite economic planning. And even today, the leading go-to guy on using computers to do socialist economic planning, Paul Cockshott, is a Stalinist.

    Trotsky himself did have some useful things to say about these issues, such as his articles on the “Soviet Economy in Trouble,” and later on Ernest Mandel addressed some of these issues too in his writings, but a lot of the useful work on these issues comes from Stalinists.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — February 1, 2020 @ 5:35 pm

  8. About the first paragraph, I found a very interesting article by Jason Hickel on scarcity being the basis of capitalism: “Degrowth: A Theory of Radical Abundance” which you can download from

    Comment by Squirel — February 1, 2020 @ 8:02 pm

  9. #7 What about Stafford Beer?

    No, not a Midlands Brewery, but a British cybernetic expert who became an adviser to Salvador Allende’s government.

    He was asked to help set up project Cybersyn, which was an attempt to use computers and telex machines to maximise production, while preserving the autonomy of workers.

    Although the technology was primitive by modern standards, its proponents argue that Cybersyn was an “an alternative to the two paradigms which have dominated political thinking for the last 100 years: free-markets and centralised state socialism”.

    Beer was particularly concerned with the importance of having an efficient signalling system in resolving bottlenecks in the economy.

    The uncompleted project was aborted by the Chilean coup in 1973.
    However it’s claimed that , during strike by right wing truckers that preceded the coup, Cybersyn proved its worth, by enabling the socialist government to locate trucks under its control , maintain supplies to factories, food deliveries and keep the hospitals running.

    Having had a quick look at Cockshott’s site, it strikes that he believes that a top-down Stalinist planned economy could have worked, if only it had possessed the requisite computer hardware.
    This has worrying 1984’ish implications.

    Mandel also argued that its lack of progress in computing technology hamstrung the Soviet economy, but he did mention workers control!

    How can a planned economy possibly work, unless there’s constant feed back on consumer demand? Workers response to stress? Sickness rates? Strikes etc….

    None of the above foresaw the internet, which has provided the technology, but is dangerously imperfect.

    Comment by prianikoff — February 5, 2020 @ 11:41 am

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