Home > Uncategorized > Socialism, economics, and the Left

Socialism, economics, and the Left

from David Ruccio

Last month, Alexander Beunder, the editor of Socialist Economist, asked a handful of “expert economists from around the world”—including Johanna Bockman, Prabhat Patnaik, Andrew Kliman, and myself—two key questions concerning the problems and prospects for socialism, economics, and the Left in the world today. Beunder requested that we keep our answers to two hundred words.

Our answers are now posted on-line, which can be read by clicking on the links below. Here are mine:

What economic obstacles is the Left facing in the 21st Century? 

The spectacular failures of capitalism in the United States have provided fertile ground for a renewed interest in socialism. These include the punishments meted out by the Second Great Depression, the lopsided nature of the current recovery, and a decades-old trend of obscene and still-rising inequality. In addition, the increasing indebtedness associated with higher education, the high cost and limited access to healthcare, and the growing precariousness of the workplace have left working-class Americans, especially young workers, with gnawing financial insecurity — and growing support for socialism. However, the U.S. Left currently faces two main economic obstacles: the decline in labor unions and an attempt to regulate capitalism. During the postwar Golden Age, union representation peaked at almost 35%. Now, it is down to 11.1% — and only 6.6% in the private sector. At least in part as a result, the Left has shifted its focus more to regulating capitalism, often by invoking a nostalgia for manufacturing and using the theoretical lens of Keynesian economics, and moving away from criticizing capitalism, especially its class dimensions (particularly the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed, as Marxists and other socialists understand them).

How can the Left use economics as a tool in the 21st Century? 

Socialist economists can help identify the ways the current problems of American capitalism are not just a matter of economic “imperfections,” but deeply embedded in capitalism itself. Moreover, the Left has the opportunity to propose changes that benefit workers in the short term and empower the working-class to make additional changes over time. Socialist economists can play a key role in the ongoing debates within economic theory (regarding stagnant wages, growing inequality, the one-sided nature of the recovery, and so on) and national politics (concerning universal healthcare, student debt, precarious jobs, and the like)—and to engage the rehabilitation of socialism as a legitimate position within American politics. For example, socialist economists can change the debate about inequality and explain how it is a product not of a lack of skills, but of rising exploitation and the distribution of the growing surplus to the top 10 percent. Similarly, they can change the limits of the possible by showing how movement in the direction of universal healthcare can improve the lives of working-class Americans and, at the same time, create the space for other ways of organizing healthcare itself—by expanding worker cooperatives and other community-oriented ways of providing health services.

  1. culturalanalysis.net
    September 28, 2018 at 12:21 am

    Socialists just seem unable to shake off the baggage of Cultural Marxism. Corbyn, for example, apsires to stop the abuses of big finance, but the manifesto of DiEM25 reveals a pretty radical caltural Marxist agenda as well, identity politics, obsession with ‘diversity’, offence sensitivity, ecology, not the values of average worker. Socialism promotes ‘thought crime’ while posturing about the economy.

    • frank peters
      September 28, 2018 at 6:37 am

      The ‘values of the [the] average worker’ are not socialist. Therefore the argument that Marxists to adapt to that is to argue they abandon their socialism.

      By contrast, all the great Marxists, including Marx himself, were strong champions of the ending of all forms of oppression as well as ending exploitation. Socialists are for the liberation of humanity, not just higher wages.

  2. Frank Salter
    September 28, 2018 at 10:44 am

    Capitalism is good! Capitalists are bad! They deny the workers their fair share of the returns created by their efforts! Supported by erroneous neoclassical analysis!

    • Rob Reno
      September 30, 2018 at 5:54 am

      Well said.

  3. September 28, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    When there is no owner, nobody is interested in good work, in improvement. In the former USSR, I saw “kolkhoz” (agrarian collective) fields full of grain left to rot – nobody wanted to spend time on reaping it. All national parameters such as amount of raw materials or energy per unit of production went sharply up.

    In the 1960s, I was a Chief of Laboratory at the Central Economic Mathematical Institute (CEMI) of the Academy of Sciences of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Professor Mikhalevsky, the best USSR econometrician, headed another laboratory or Department. He collected national data, developed a long-term model of the USSR economy, and calculated the results. They were very bad.

    On his spring vacation, in the end of 1960s, he was swimming in a small river. He drowned. We were told that a tree fallen in the river killed him. I did not know about his model and its bad results and believed this explanation. When I came to the USA in 1974 and was debriefed by CIA, I was asked – could he be killed by KGB? I knew only that he was a friend of Boris Pasternak and said – “I do not think so.” (His work on the model was highly classified.)

    Couple of years ago I was told by a former worker of my CEMI Laboratory (now in Israel) about the model and about suspicion that the CEMI top administration informed KGB and asked to rermove the spoiler. Now I do not exclude the KGB version.

    That is the second, and the main sin of socialism. The bad economic results must be explained. The only possible explanation – external enemies plant their people in the country to harm it. OK, so they have to be arrested!

    So we come to Stalin and his “purges” etc. from the 1920s to 1950s.

    The USA and other socialists think that they would be safe under socialism. They are complete fools. In the USSR under Stalin, any anonymous accusation would lead to arrest. If somebody wanted your job, or your wife, or simply hated you, he would write an accusation, probably anonymous (no cell phones yet). So there would be a lot of Kavannough-type accusations – not about groping, but about you being a spy for another country. No open courts. Amen to you.

  4. Edward Ross
    September 29, 2018 at 12:00 am

    Thank you Vladimir Marsch

    I am not an academic, but an 81 year old New Zealand citizen resident in Australia.
    Throughout my life I have had many friends who escaped from Russian socalism and other forms of totalitarian dictatorships.

    I personally think the problem is not that capitalism is bad but that capitalism has been hijacked by those who see wealth as a source of power over others.

    What concerns me is the way some irrational idealistic academics are duping young students into accepting that political socialism is good without question. Then the political neoliberal right wing use this to push their slogan that socialism is dangerous to gain political support. From my real world experience and social conscious nobody seems to differentiate between the need for a social conscious for the sick and disadvantaged, which as you describe it is very different to the politic concept of socialism you describe it.Ted

  5. Pablo Martin Podhorzer
    September 30, 2018 at 4:16 am

    You both know that State Capitalism (URSS “communism”) has nothing to do with socialism. Capitalism will never be good. That´s like saying that a good feudal or slavery system can be maintained. “Free Market” Socialism is my kind of thing. And it includes democracy on it.

    Capitalism can at best be tolerable (Scandinavian countries) but it has an expiration date.

  6. Craig
    September 30, 2018 at 9:23 am

    The future evolution of capitalist and socialist economics lies with the thirdness greater oneness known as the profit making system of Direct and Reciprocal Monetary Distributism.

  7. September 30, 2018 at 11:37 am

    Socialism in America is as “American as apple pie and baseball,” perhaps even more so. The mission of the National Rural Electrification Association is “to power communities and empower members to improve the quality of their lives.” Electric cooperatives are “Neighbors Helping Neighbors.” Farmers and ranchers formed America’s electric cooperatives more than 75 years ago to secure electricity to better their lives. Today co-ops bring that same spirit of purpose and cooperation to the changing needs of a new generation of cooperative owners. America’s electric cooperatives provide electricity to over 42 million Americans, create over 7 million jobs for Americans, and support services like broadband, daycare, school lunches, etc. Neighbors helping neighbors is the very essence of socialism and of democracy. Or, as it was framed by the first farm coops., rancher coops., gas coops., etc. “Americans doing for themselves.” When I grew up in today’s dark red Texas in the 1950s and 1960s cooperatives were not just an accepted part of life, they were demanded. These were homegrown cooperatives, however. Which may explain some of the reluctance to accept or use ideas from such as Karl Marx. What’s amazing to me is that today’s American politicians and political pundits know virtually nothing of this history. Especially those who routinely attack socialism as unworkable or anti-American. And those who proclaim themselves supporters of socialism today. On this my bullshit detector is ringing constantly.

    Texas isn’t the only place cooperatives flourished in the US. In fact, there’s barely a state where cooperatives were not and are not now a major factor in politics and economics.

    • Craig
      September 30, 2018 at 9:48 pm

      My complaint against both capitalism and socialism is that they fail the thirdness greater oneness synthesis aspect of the Hegelian dialectic. As I have posted here before I will not dispute that certain social democracies accomplish a more democratic distribution of money and are more humane than capitalist economies, but as I have also posted before when an actual resolution of the deepest problems of both capitalism and socialism and the thirdness greater oneness of a genuine paradigm change are available the palliatives of socialism and capitalism, both of which are reside squarely within the old monetary and economic paradigm, are not justifiable.

      • October 1, 2018 at 7:40 am

        Craig, most of the homegrown American socialists I saw all around the nation in the 1950s and 1960s with whom I continue to work today would not understand your comment. Nor would they want to. For them socialism is about taking care of themselves and their neighbors. Sometimes in opposition to some unfriendly, or worse folks like banks, agribusiness, etc.

      • Craig
        October 1, 2018 at 9:50 am

        Yes, they’re “into” conflict theory instead of the thirdness greater oneness/synthesis of the dialectic they’ve glommed onto. And while I share most of their critiques of capitalism I see scant evidence that they are even progressing let alone winning the day. And the reason for that is, again, being unwilling/habitually unable to integrate truths etc. by merely and reactively fighting it. Discerning thirdness is the signature of wisdom which is more valuable and a deeper understanding than data-knowledge.

        Discerning actual thirdness enables us to see through the counterfeit thirdness of the populism of Trump that we see looming up before us in America and elsewhere around the world. I suggest we act with post haste to avoid its disintegrative character.

      • October 1, 2018 at 10:53 am

        Craig, again they would dismiss your statement immediately as irrelevant and of little use.

      • Craig
        October 1, 2018 at 6:12 pm

        Yes, I’m confident they would. And therein is their problem.

      • Craig
        October 1, 2018 at 11:48 pm

        Ken, is there only ever reform and incremental change and consequently no such thing as a permanently progressive paradigm change?

      • October 2, 2018 at 9:57 am

        Craig, I don’t see the problem with coop. staff and members dismissing your statements. They’re alien to their world. And they see them providing no guidance for them.

        The evolutionary and cultural history of humans suggests there is both reform and incremental change, as well as radical (sometimes violent) change. And, no permanently progressive change. Or, permanently regressive change.

      • Craig
        October 2, 2018 at 6:22 pm

        My point is that integration of truths/realities is wisdom and its process, and the Hegelian/Marxian dialectic is an integrative process….which they would not be practicing in rejecting my integration of the truths, workabilities, applicabilities and highest ethical considerations of capitalism and socialism. In essence they would be acting in a reactionary and ideological fashion. When in doubt integrate…and keep on integrating. The integrative process is the lesson.

  8. September 30, 2018 at 10:08 pm

    Socialism unavoidably leads to Nicaragua or the USSR communism. To Stalin. To Orwellian 1984 hounds. As sun coming up in the morning. We used to say, that under socialism there soon will be deficit of sand in the Sahara desert.

    Nobody will be safe. Even best friends of Stalin – and their families. As I understand, even Sicilian Mafia spares the families. Stalin did not.

    He ordered, for instance, arresting Molotov’s wife – saying, “Show me whom you love more, me or your family.”

    Not safe even Stalin himself, to be poisoned in 1953 by the Chief of his hounds. (Several previous Chiefs were shot – Stalin had to blame somebody else for “excesses” – millions of victims.) And then this poisoner Chief was shot by his ungrateful friends, who were afraid of him.

    Think about that, rather than how the mainstream economic models should be adapted to socialism.

    • October 1, 2018 at 7:46 am

      Vladimir, horse hockey. My own experiences and those of millions of current and past cooperative members all over the US demonstrate you’re incorrect. No argument that Stalin was a psychopath, or worse. That in my view had little to do with socialism.

  9. October 1, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    I have my own theory of “balanced capitalism,” which drastically differs from the current version. My decision-making “paradigm shift” is possible only under very substantial change of decision rules, which really are movement from the current capitalism. I have been living almost equally under both systems and know the sins of both of them.

    But socialism is not about small fish, such as cooperatives. Stalin was a psycho, but what about Khruschev, Bresznev etc.?

    Do not get distracted: full-fledged socialism leads to 1984 hounds. Period.

    • October 1, 2018 at 1:16 pm

      Vladimir, I believe you’re confusing what might happen to any government in terms of autocracy and oligarchy, particularly in some vs. other historical settings. In Russia, for example Stalin was a despot like the Czar was a despot. It’s less surprising to have despotic rule develop in Russia than in say Denmark or the UK, since the latter have no history of despotism. But, again this has little relationship to a socialist government or economy. The early socialist efforts in Russia were squashed by Stalin just as Stalin crushed the army and civil service. Khrushchev and Brezhnev were simply bureaucrats. They may have favored socialism for the nation but couldn’t find it under the tons of paperwork and reports that came to dominate government after Stalin.

    • Craig
      October 1, 2018 at 7:01 pm

      The problem with both finance capitalism and soviet style socialism is that economically, monetarily and politically, they are driven by the paradigms of dominating power and enforced control as opposed to a paradigm of freedom and free flowingness. An insightful and intelligently crafted program of policies based on the latter would enable an inversion of the former into the latter in rather short order….because economic, monetary and political freedom and free flowingness is in everyone’s self interest, and any laggards and/or recalcitrants would face the uphill battle of trying to re-implement mere power and control.

      • October 2, 2018 at 11:46 am

        Craig, looking at human history human cultures oscillate between searching for peace and good feeling, usually after the end of a war, and power/force when humans feel threatened by “outsiders.” No one suggests these are fully or even particularly explicitly controllable. If you mean by “everyone’s interest” species interest, then we’re on the same page. Otherwise we are decidedly not on the same page.

      • Craig
        October 2, 2018 at 7:47 pm

        What I am saying is that knowing grace as in graciousness, that is sensitivity to both self and others, grace as in a benevolent and abundant monetary system, graceful as in a free flowing economic system and being aware of and attuned to grace as in the continually flowing, interactive, integrative reality of the temporal universe on the planet we live on and of the entire cosmos….is in everyone’s interests….and, as we are self aware, the more we align our thinking and acting with that reality the more real will be the reality of ourselves, our systems and the cosmos.

        And finally, grace as in the complete integration of opposites includes….opposites and every reality in between….then grace the pinnacle concept of wisdom which is the best integration of the ideal and the practical….is not just airy-fairy philosophy-ing but the deeper integrative understanding.

        And that’s why Wisdomics-Gracenomics and its aligned policies and regulations makes sense as opposed to some lesser integrative concept.

      • October 3, 2018 at 7:24 am

        Craig, I don’t oppose graciousness or integration. They are among the more interesting of human inventions. But they are just human inventions.

      • Craig
        October 3, 2018 at 9:54 am

        “Craig, I don’t oppose graciousness or integration.”


        “They are among the more interesting of human inventions. But they are just human inventions.”

        They are a high, the highest human potentiality and the deepest and supreme mental process. I’m sorry, they are not “just human inventions”. You have to define and contemplate them. Wisdom is the process of self actualization and grace its pinnacle concept, experience and way of being. Grace is love in action. That’s a damned hard and intelligent thing to accomplish.

  10. October 1, 2018 at 6:20 pm

    Good debate everyone. To Vlad Masch: it is an ongoing historical and cultural dispute over the fate of the Soviet Union, whether it was socialism’s built in dynamics or the long historical baggage of “Russia,” which by centuries predated the Bolsheviks, and which Mr. Putin seems happy to continue despite having a very differently structured economy.

    As background reading, and as an update on arguments on the left today, I decided to read Orlando Figes long work, ” A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924.” (1996) I chose him deliberately because he also writes with great skill and command about the cultural history of Russia in “Natasha’s Dance” (2002) and it appeared to me that he was close to the center in the spectrum of views of Russian historians. In “A People’s Tragedy” he argues that there was a different path available during the early days of the Revolution, when the “grassroots” Soviets had more of what Ken Zimmerman advance as grass roots American socialism, by their very diversity, and debates, the democratic dialogue which soon was destroyed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Bullets to the head, to be blunt about it. Kronstadt.

    Our contemporary background about democracy, debate, economics and the re-vitalization of socialist thought (not very deep, I regret to say, compared to Michael Harrington’s hey days in the 1970’s), and indeed, the motivations for the founding of this organization, blog, and periodicals, was a strong reaction against the lack of forums for dissent in the economics profession, and what so many of have experienced, not just in academe, but the political discourses and “trenches” of politics in the West under Neoliberalism. And let us not forget the disasters that the by then rigid doctrines of Neoliberalism visited upon the future of Russia: the greatest GDP drop in 20th century economic history until Greece came along, setting the stage for Russia “to be great again” type politicians, and the new Cold War.

    And to Ken Zimmerman (hello again Ken): you sound like Gar Alperovitz in his “What Then Must we Do”…in trying to convince contemporary Americans that they are more “co-operative” than they realize. Yes the history is there, especially in the wake of Great Depression and the New Deal response – LBJ built his reputation, in good part, for having electrified the parts of rural Texas that the private sector would not touch and the great historian Robert Caro wrote passionately about what that meant to rural lives. But that honorable, pragmatic improvement in American lives did not signal a deep change in ideology, and the co-operatives I have met face-to-face in my own career – Ocean Spray, for example – have become in most part something very else other than Depression era protests against capitalism. I met them has hard lobbyists set to weaken environmental laws, federal and state, under Bill Clinton, and spending on that lobbying way over their relative size in the Fortume 500 ( I think they broke into the 500 if not the 100 by the mid-1990’s: they wanted more, wanted you to drink cranberry juice, not orange juice for breakfast…they were supply side driven: if they grew more, the public’s fruit juice habits would bend their way)…

    I felt that Professor Alperovitz had lost track of how much 30 years of Neoliberal dogma had eroded whatever intellectual and ideological foundations there was once to the New Deal inspired co-operative movement, a movement which had predated the 1930’s by many decades, going back to the Grange and agrarian led populist revolt in the late Gilded Age 19th century. I wrote in detail about the professors idealizations here, from the summer of 2013, at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/review/1603585044/R2TUIIU9IAGINQ

    I wrote quite self-consciously as a “social democrat,” not the young socialist backer of DSOC of my 20’s, in the 1970’s (the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, the parent in part of today’s growing Democratic Socialists of America, that Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is helping breath so much life into…with my blessings, but cautions as well…)

    I expressed these worries about the depths of contemporary American socialist thought openly as reservations about Bernie Sanders, whom I supported, but kept urging him to deepen the discussion, because he seemed to be, and I think was, evading all the ancient troubles and history behind the 19th and 20th history of socialism being broached here…it is becoming very relevant once again. Economic policy without historical depth and memory is a dangerous thing for all portions of the spectrum. How much of the current capital surplus and vast imbalances of wealth and income are the 1-20% willing to give up to fund alternative economic institutions, like state and co-operative banks, and more buying power from the bottom 60-80%? Most of the America I see Ken, has not squared their progressive policy wishes to the “kitchen table” economics of the Right, which says the domestic household model is also the state and national model. Makes L. Randall Wray and James Galbraith lose a lot of sleep.

    • October 1, 2018 at 11:14 pm

      Yes, good debate. From my point of view ‘socialism’ is a word; what it means, something else. It originally meant something like cooperatively caring for others in society; by the time Marx and the Fabians had done with it, what was being sold was State ownership governed by an elite – supposedly in the interests of everyone but in practice by people just as self-interested yet on a larger scale than the capitalists governing businesses.

      Gracchibros sees this through American eyes. “How much of the current capital surplus and vast imbalances of wealth and income are the 1-20% willing to give up to fund alternative economic institutions, like state and co-operative banks, and more buying power from the bottom 60-80%? Most of the America I see, Ken, has not squared their progressive policy wishes to the “kitchen table” economics of the Right, which says the domestic household model is also the state and national model”.

      So yes, but the lack of state and cooperative banks is why the state and national models are not the domestic household model. Logically, the credit the household needs is not created by a central bank but given cooperatively by traders and repaid by working cooperatively with others. We need banks only to remind us of what we have bought and how much we owe. I say again, the mechanism for that already exists in a credit card system not corrupted by lies selling money at face value rather than as a token of credit. Curiously, the banks persuaded Governments to prevent businesses paying in company tokens the wages they owed workers, these being only redeemable in company shops charging monopoly prices. Curious too how few people are now aware of the history of all this, so they hardly notice how national banks are now international and financing international corporations often bigger than nations, it seeming hardly worthy of their trouble to finance families and their businesses. Or if folk are aware of this, they see themselves losing because too puny to fight it, discounting Keynes’ conclusion that “soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil”. We won’t win a power battle, so it is crucial that we expose the Truth about the meaning of money as effectively as marine scientists are now exposing the meaning of global warming and the imperishability of plastics.

      • October 2, 2018 at 11:47 am

        Dave, see my comments to Gracchibros as a reply to some of your comments. Following along with these comments let me point out that the notion that the domestic household model ought to be also the state and national model for budgets was first put forward by American socialists like the Grange and the IWW. Family budgets, in their view included care for all family members along with a sensible expectation for work. A balance in their view. The rightwing obviously used the suggestion in very different ways.

        As for banks, I agree with your comments. Banks have taken for themselves many rights they were never intended to have. And they’ve convinced governments to help with the theft. This is not evil for banks, but it certainly is for the millions they swindle. As for a solution banks in my view are like motorcycle gangs. Once you get past the regalia and threats they’re vulnerable 24-hours a day, every day. Any soccer mom can take them out.

    • October 2, 2018 at 11:42 am

      Gracchibros, “grassroots” socialism goes back at least 200,000 years in human history. It was not an ideological choice but rather a necessary one. It was the only way humans could figure out how to survive, as a species. You can see that socialism in the history of peasants/serfs in Russia. Muzhik, or moujik (Russian: мужи́к) made the choice, to the extent they could choose for survival reasons. Russian peasants embody the contradiction that sometimes exists in socialist ways of life. In today’s culture socialists are “leftwing.” But the Muzhik were radically conservative. The Bolsheviks executed thousands of them because they often refused to give up the Czar. You clearly see that same contradiction in American homegrown socialists. For example, I work regularly with electric cooperatives and credit unions. Mangers and members defend strongly their right to organize together to protect their ways of life, including their economic independence and viability. But simultaneously many support “conservative” politicians they believe support them in these goals. I’ve argued with them that their conclusion is incorrect. Without some sign from moderate and “liberal” politicians that they strongly support these goals, I fear I can never win this argument. Many electric cooperatives are also today opposing the closing of coal generation plants, solely because half of cooperative energy comes from these plants and switching to other energy sources would increase prices for cooperative members. In my view a fatal combination of neighbors helping neighbors while promoting climate disaster. People are comical and sometimes self-destructive species. Some of this is clearly related to the dominance of neoliberal and neoconservative ideologies in colleges, universities, public schools, etc. and redefining of government (particularly local) in these same terms. But much of it also extends back to the “catch-as-catch-can” economy created for America through industrialization after the Civil War. Seems both current and former history have made the muddled mess called “the American economy” today. Of course, few citizens or cooperative members know or are concerned with this today. Some suggest we need a new progressivism to fix all this. I suggest these problems can be solved only when the money to solve them is pried from the cold, dead hands of the wealthiest Americans.

  11. October 3, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    Ken, Czar indeed was a despot, but a mild despot, because the economy was booming. To the contrary, all socialist governments had to deal with the Sahara situation.

    • October 5, 2018 at 11:44 am

      Vladimir, some Czars were “mild” in terms of despotism. Others, however were extremely cruel. That’s one of the big problems with any despotism.

  12. October 4, 2018 at 11:37 pm


    I agree with much of what you have written here. And with you clarification that the Right and Neoliberals have appropriated the “balanced budget” aspects of the family budget, “kitchen table” economics, and dropped the egalitarian notions, although modern instruments of credit – like credit cards and borrowing against mortgages distorted even those meanings.

    I’ve seen very much the same thing with power co-operatives in rural, Southern Maryland: opposed to big solar installations and defending the old fossil fuel generators.

    • October 5, 2018 at 12:01 pm

      Gracchibros, never let it be said that the right ever let’s any opportunity pass to expand the reach of its ideology.

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