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Cooking the Books: Answer on a Postcard (to Lord Finkelstein)

Lord Finkelstein, in your column in the Times (30 August) entitled ‘True socialism always ends with the Stasi’, you invited readers to send you a postcard correcting any misunderstandings on your part. Unfortunately, a postcard is not large enough.

You do correctly understand that in socialism ‘market exchange is replaced by friendly, voluntary co-operation and free provision’. Your misunderstandings begin when you say that, reading Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism, you wondered ‘how he might get someone, for instance, to clean station platforms or do any extra shift without being paid’.

You describe as ‘preposterous’ the idea that people would be prepared to work at such jobs, or any job, ‘for nothing’.

Misunderstanding No 1.People would not be working ‘for nothing’. In return, they would be getting free access to the things they need to live and enjoy life instead of a wage that only gives them limited access to these. That’s the meaning of the socialist principle of ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’.

Misunderstanding No 2.People are not naturally averse to working. People like, even need, to work in the sense of exercising their mental and physical energies. What people, quite rightly, don’t like is doing work that seems pointless or from which they don’t benefit, as is the case with the great majority of jobs today under capitalism. If, on the other hand, work is seen to be socially useful or brings them some satisfaction or benefit, then people are prepared to undertake it. Socialism, which (your words) will eliminate ‘the market competition that makes us ruthless and makes us jostle for position’ (actually, to avoid falling into poverty), will provide ample opportunities for such work, undertaken for more than mere ‘amity’ as there’ll be a large element of enlightened self-interest in it.

Misunderstanding No 3.People wouldn’t have to do the same job all day every day. Many routine jobs are ideal for automation (including cleaning platforms). Those that can’t be could be done by different people doing them for short periods on a rota basis.

When you introduce the Stasi you move beyond misunderstanding and enter the realm of lying propaganda. In this you are following in the footsteps of Churchill who, during the 1945 general election, notoriously declared that socialism would lead to the Gestapo.

You argue that if there was to be a sizeable minority of recalcitrants in socialism, ‘either these people make socialism impossible, or they have to be eliminated on the grounds of their counterrevolutionary position.’

You are right in one sense that, if there were to be such a sizeable recalcitrant minority, then socialism couldn’t work. But why would there be when a society of free provision in return for working freely would be so obviously better than capitalism to have led a majority to establish it? That doesn’t make sense. Even less does your alternative of suppressing them by force, for the simple reason that a socialist society will have abandoned the means for doing this. The coercive state needed in class-divided societies would have been replaced by purely administrative, unarmed and democratically-controlled, bodies.

In invoking the Stasi you are assuming that the regime in East Germany set out to establish socialism – with free provision and no market exchange – but failed and had to resort to coercion. In fact right from the start the regime there was the same sort of state-capitalist dictatorship as existed in Russia and was imposed by the bayonets of the Russian Army. The GDR was never socialist any more than it was democratic.