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Cooking the Books: Never Been Tried

The right-wing think-tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, published an article on its website on 17 February by Kristian Niemietz entitled 'Has “real” socialism never been tried?'.  It was aimed primarily at those who at the time claimed Russia was socialist but who now say it never was. We are specifically singled out as an exception:

'And yet there are exceptions to this, such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). They are not, and as far as I know, never were, apologists of Soviet-style socialism, which they describe as ‘state capitalism’. They are among the few socialists who have at least some idea of what they mean by ‘real’ socialism. They use that term to describe a hypothetical system in which working-class people own and control the economy’s productive resources directly, not via the state; a system in which public ownership is not mediated through a government bureaucracy.'

This is a passable, if not entirely adequate, definition of what we mean by 'socialism' but Niemietz went on:

'I have no idea how this should work in practice, but I suppose we could imagine some combination of public ownership with Swiss-style multi-level direct democracy. '

And then proceeded to criticise this:

'This would mean referenda on the production of razors, carpets, gloves, ink cartridges, curtains, hair straighteners, kettles, toasters, microwaves, baking trays, washing-up liquid, tiles, hand blenders, pizzas, and many, many other things. You would need literally thousands of referenda to organise an economy in this way. '

According to him, this wouldn't work and decisions would soon be left to experts who, he implies, would become a new ruling class.

We don't envisage the market being replaced by direct democracy. In socialism the means of production will be subject to overall democratic control and individual workplaces will be run democratically. There will also be an extension of democratic decision-making beyond the present boundary of local and national administration.

Referendums are not the only or, in most circumstances, the best way to decide matters democratically. They are appropriate only where there's a simple yes/no choice, whereas in most cases there is a whole range of compromise options and solutions. Such decisions don't have to be left to 'experts' but can be taken by democratically elected councils able to examine the matter in more detail before coming to a decision.

In any event, Niemietz has got it wrong in imagining that decisions as to how much of everything to produce would have to be decided by a vote. The amount of consumer goods, such as those he lists, to produce could be more or less self-regulating in accordance with the amounts people took from the distribution centres in conditions of free access. What they took over a given period would be a signal as to how much to reproduce, in the first instance to the bulk supplier and then down the line to the places where they are produced. In other words, much the same as the market is supposed to work and as stock control does today.

Only large-scale projects would need to be decided by some elected central council. So, no, there would not be a danger of voting fatigue in real 'real socialism'.