Planning for socialism

Regarding your commentary on Socialist Planning, (Socialist Standard, July and August) I found it difficult to follow your logic. For over a century the Socialist Labor Party has advocated a clear concept of socialist society based upon working-class organization in industry originally envisioned by Daniel De Leon, adopted by the original IWW in 1905: a two-fold program of economic and political action.

Economic action advocates the need for unified organization on the economic field – class conscious unionism. Political action requires organization within capitalism’s political domain by contesting and occupying the offices of the political state, for the primary purpose of disbanding them in coordination with the economic force of the working class in industry.

Socialism once established is based upon social production by industry – that is whatever industry workers are employed in planning production would be undertaken democratically in the shop, on a district-wide basis from the smallest unit to a regional and country-wide basis of democratically elected representatives. The SPGB knows this concept but has always ignored it to the best of my knowledge.

It strikes me that your organization is timidly tottering on the precipice of logical commitment. I understand why you have frequent occasion to argue with anarchists – your program, if it can be called that, offers only vague notions of an established socialist society. The SLPUSA’s concept of Socialist Industrial Unionism is a clear-cut answer to the promise of a socialist society. That there are issues that remain that can only be resolved by a functioning Socialist Industrial Union society is doubtlessly true, but to fonder endlessly with the vagaries that characterize your program of political action only is what De Leon characterized as walking with one leg. You can enlighten yourselves by reading De Leon’s As to Politics.

Bernard Bortnick, USA.


It is difficult to make out what concrete criticism our correspondent is actually presenting with regard to the two articles he refers to. These articles were concerned exclusively with the question of the nature of planning in a future socialist society. They were not concerned with any ‘programme of political action’ that would enable or assist the realisation of such a society. That is an entirely different subject (which we will happily discuss) but our correspondent seems keen to want to conflate the two.

To the extent that he keeps on topic he suggests that the SPGB’s programme ‘offers only vague notions of an established socialist society’. This is not exactly fair comment. True, we don’t offer a detailed blueprint – one could argue it would be unwise to even attempt this – but we do present a broad-brush picture of socialism that illuminates its fundamental operating principles in a way that we feel is quite clear, consistent and logical. See for example our pamphlet, ‘Socialism as a Practical Alternative’ https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/pamphlet/socialism-practical-alternative/.

In contrast to our supposedly ‘vague notions of an established socialist society’ our correspondent offers his own conception of such a society as one based upon ‘social production by industry – that is, whatever industry workers are employed in planning production would be undertaken democratically in the shop, on a district-wide basis from the smallest unit to a regional and country wide basis of democratically elected representatives’. While we hesitate to use the term ‘country-wide’ which could be interpreted as suggesting the continuation of the nation-state into socialism – something we would emphatically repudiate – the basic idea of a tiered structure of democratic decision-making was precisely what was mentioned in the first of the articles he refers to and which he himself seems to have ‘ignored’:

From our standpoint, it is entirely possible to envisage the world’s productive resources being owned in common by the global community yet subject to a complex system of polycentric democratic planning – with multiple plans being implemented at different spatial levels of organisation: global, regional and local – (depending on the nature of the ‘resource’ in question).’

Society wide central planning, by contrast, is predicated on a uni-centric model of decision-making involving just a single planning centre and a single plan for the whole of society. While you won’t find many people actually advancing this idea as a serious proposal it is important to understand that Von Mises’s entire economic calculation argument against socialism is predicated on the assumption that this is precisely how decision-making in a socialist society would be organised – from one single centre.

This is what the two articles set out to refute and in the process shed light on the workings of a socialist society itself. Society wide planning is not only completely impractical, it is also at odds with the very nature of socialism itself. The only alternative to a uni-centric model of planning is – obviously a polycentric model. But in acknowledging this we are also inescapably acknowledging that the overall pattern of production will be unplanned. Instead, this pattern will be the emergent outcome of a self-regulating system of stock control based on the principle of feedback. Understanding this is key to refuting the economic calculation argument itself.

So while our correspondent is right to emphasise the importance of democratic decision-making in socialism it is also important to acknowledge that a great deal of decision-making will not, and need not, be subjected to a democratic vote. It can simply be devolved to people on the ground. What point is there, for example, in organising a vote on whether to replenish a store’s supply of baked beans, for example? None that we can see. Such a decision can be taken ‘automatically’. It is only where genuine differences of opinion might arise over the allocation of resources that there will be a need to resort to democratic decision-making.

In short, we should not over-egg the democratic pudding but strive instead to strike a more reasonable balance which is what these articles have attempted to do. It does us no favours to caricaturise socialism as a society of endless debates and perpetual committee meetings, leaving nobody with much time to actually get anything done. – Editors.


While I am a fellow socialist and broadly agree with your views, I was very disappointed to see the attached image on page 10/11 of the August 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard. Does the artist not know of the existence of the Republic of Ireland? Is it implying that the UK will invade said Republic to put an end to the hard border?

Mick Kennedy