Decision-making in Socialism: How to Meet Needs?

In January – February 2017 the journals of the American leftist organization Solidarity (Solidarity and Against the Current) published a stimulating article by Sam Friedman entitled ‘Creating a Socialism that Meets Needs’ ( The author considers how production decisions might be made in a socialist society.

First a few words on Friedman’s political affiliation. His conception of socialism is broadly consistent with that of the World Socialist Movement (WSM), though he may have a different understanding of the road leading to socialism. He makes positive references to several works of Raya Dunayevskaya, who was Trotsky’s secretary during his Mexican exile but broke with him in 1939 over his insistence that the Soviet Union remained a ‘workers’ state’ (she regarded it as state capitalist, as we do). She then created a new school of thought that she called “Marxist Humanism’. Thus the author appears to belong to a tendency that has its origins in the Trotskyist branch of Leninism (Bolshevism) but has moved some distance away from Leninism and toward genuine socialist positions.

Consistent conceptions of socialism

Returning to Friedman’s article, why can we say that his conception of socialism is broadly consistent with ours? Above all, because he contrasts his own conception with the ideas of most other recent left-wing writers on post-capitalist society, who advocate a ‘market socialism’ in which worker-owned firms still hire labour and compete with one another to sell commodities on the market. He argues (as do we) that even if such a system were initially to differ in some ways from current forms of private or state capitalism it would inevitably degenerate into them.

In the author’s conception of socialism production is guided not by blind market processes but by decisions consciously and democratically made in the interests of the community as a whole. ‘Exchange’ is replaced by distribution. Aggregate output is no longer measured and assessed in terms of ‘growth’. All this corresponds to how the WSM views socialism or communism.

In contrast to Leninist doctrine, moreover, Friedman does not relegate this non-market and needs-oriented system to the remote future of a ‘higher stage’ of the new society – ‘communism’ as opposed to ‘socialism’. It is to be established immediately upon the conquest of power by the working class.

How to determine needs?

Like the WSM, Friedman states that production in socialism will be ‘for use not for profit’ and that its purpose will be to ‘meet human needs’. This, however, leaves unanswered the question of how to determine what human needs are.

Our literature frequently gives a simple answer to this question. Individuals will decide for themselves what goods they need. They will have free access to distribution centres where all desired goods are available in abundance. The advance of automation and robotics has made it technically possible to generate such abundance with a minimum of human labour. Elimination of the waste inherent in the money system will also play its part. (‘Money – a waste of resources’, Socialist Standard, July 2011).

On the other hand, we have also suggested that socialist society may for various reasons make a democratic decision ‘not to produce certain things even if quite a few people want them’ (‘Free access to what? Some problems of consumption in socialism’, Socialist Standard, July 2007).  Another article made a specific suggestion that socialist society might decide not to produce cars (‘Cars and socialism’, Socialist Standard, March 2013).

The author makes a similar point when he argues that ‘needs’ for specific kinds of goods will be met only after they have been ‘socially validated’ – that is, after all the possible negative as well as positive consequences of their production and consumption for people and for the environment have been assessed through the democratic institutions and procedures of socialist society. The needs of the community are to be determined socially and not just by aggregating the expressed needs of individuals.

Friedman’s emphasis on the social validation of needs is connected with his view of socialism in its early stages as a system operating under great stress. He does not view it as a society of abundance. This is not to say that he denies the potential for abundance. Rather, he foresees that by the time that socialism is established the human race will be embroiled in severe climatic, environmental and social crises. Top priority will have to be given to the tasks of coping with and gradually overcoming these crises. Enormous efforts will be required to halt and reverse global heating, care for masses of environmental and other refugees, and improve the living conditions of the world’s slum dwellers.

For a considerable period, therefore, the potential for abundance will not be fully realized. The author speaks only of achieving a ‘decency living standard’ for everyone. For instance, the choice of crops to grow will have to depend not primarily on what people prefer to eat but on how susceptible their cultivation is to drought, floods, and other extreme weather events (this example is ours).

A dual structure of decision making

Friedman’s conception of decision- making in socialism, like that of the WSM, consists of two elements. The first is the proceedings of elected councils at various levels, supplemented by procedures of direct democracy such as referenda. The second is the ‘requests’ (Friedman’s term) or ‘orders’ – the term used in the article ‘Supply and needs in socialism’ (Socialist Standard, July 1984) – that circulate within the network of production and distribution for material inputs required to maintain stocks of consumer goods at levels sufficient to meet individual needs.

For this sort of dual structure to work well it is necessary for the division of tasks between the two elements and their mode of interaction to be clear and effective. For example, the councils could concentrate on major decisions concerning the overall pattern of production facilities and supporting infrastructure. In order to prevent overloading of their agendas, fraught with the risk of neglect of their proper function, they must avoid entanglement in detailed decision making – although they might issue guidelines to assist those responsible for making detailed decisions.

Routine operational issues are better handled by direct consultation between workgroups. Provided that requests are reliably fulfilled, their circulation should achieve the desired result automatically. However, Friedman seems to envisage the councils functioning as clearing houses that receive and coordinate requests, assess how ‘reasonable’ they are, and find workgroups able and willing to fulfil them.

Reliable fulfilment of requests?

Why does Friedman assign this burdensome task to the councils? The key point is that he does not assume that workgroups can be relied upon to fulfil requests that they receive. A workgroup may deny a request because it disagrees with the associated production decision – he thinks it should have the right to do this – or for less legitimate reasons, in which case it might be subjected to ‘gentle community and perhaps organizational social pressure’ (whatever that may mean).

But how can the true motive be discerned? Surely all denials of requests would be justified by reference to the sole legitimate rationale – principled disagreement. For example, a factory might refuse to fulfil a request to change its output mix to meet new consumer preferences on the grounds that it considers the request ‘frivolous’ when its real concern is to avoid the inconvenience of reorganizing its operations.

By definition socialism is a society of free people. They cannot be compelled to do what they do not want to do, either by brute force or (as in capitalism) by threats to their livelihood. We have to assume that they will be sufficiently responsible and self-disciplined voluntarily to do whatever may be required to implement a democratically made decision, even if they disagree with that decision – unless, arguably, they have good reason to regard the decision as dangerously incompetent (if, say, a council has approved an unsafe design for a nuclear reactor). Otherwise socialism will have to acquire effective means of compulsion, but then it will be socialism no longer. This is one reason why socialism has to be established by a majority of conscious socialists.


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