What a Socialist Society Could Actually Look Like
Karl Marx once wrote dismissively of “those that write recipes for the cookshops of the future.” He emphasized that we can’t come up with a premade plan for what our future socialist society will look like — it wouldn’t take into account the specific conditions that such a society would be created in.
But Sam Gindin argues that we can’t use that quote to excuse ourselves from providing credible answers about what a future socialism might look like. Mass numbers of people aren’t going to get on board with the socialist movement if we don’t.
Sam set out to provide some of these answers in “Socialism for Realists,” in Catalyst. Sam Gindin was for many years the research director and assistant to the president of the Canadian Auto Workers (now UNIFOR). He’s the author of several books, including The Making of Global Capitalism as well as The Socialist Challenge Today, both coauthored with Leo Panitch, and a regular contributor to Jacobin.
Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht interviewed Gindin for his podcast, The Vast Majority, which you can listen and subscribe to here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your article is called “Socialism for Realists,” and I assume you meant by that title as distinct from “socialism for utopians.” Why is it important to lay out a case for socialism for realists?
Socialist discourse has reemerged in the United States, but much of that discourse is still about social democracy, about restoring or extending the welfare state. And people can imagine that. But if you ask the question, “What about a society in which private property and the means of production didn’t really exist? What about a society in which there was planning but also democracy? What about a society in which ordinary working people ran the world?” then people look at you a little bit differently.
We’re at a point where you get that kind of question as soon as you’re successful. To get people to commit to building that better world, people are going to say, “Wait a second, I don’t know if that’s possible.” You have to answer them, first to yourself as a socialist so you have confidence in it, and second to people that you’re trying to win over to socialism.
You argue that we can’t pretend there aren’t barriers to the world that we want to create, and we need an honest presentation of those barriers. I’m thinking in particular about scarcity. Insofar as there has been some imagining of what a future socialist world could look like, there’s been a lot focused on “post-scarcity,” the “full luxury gay space communism” approach. You’re arguing that scarcity is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, and we need to plan accordingly.
When I write “scarcity,” what I mean is that choices will have to be made. When people assume that there won’t be scarcity, it’s like, “We don’t have to deal with any difficult choices, we can have as much of everything as we want.” What I’m trying to emphasize is that we will have to make choices as long as people don’t feel like going to work every day. Unless you assume that people are ready to work for free because they love the work, then you won’t have scarcity. But as long as there’s a choice, you have to have some incentives.
People have to say when I’m giving up leisure, I expect to be compensated. We could have all kinds of different things like collective goods and collective services. Don’t we want more education, more public spaces, more green spaces, don’t we all want more time to learn to play music?
You begin to see that there are all kinds of things we may want, and that demands some choices. People’s different preferences become very important. If we’re serious, we have to ask, “How do we solve this problem in the context in which choices have to be made about how our labor power is used, where it goes, and how intensive it is?”
You write that we will have to compel people to do things under socialism. We saw in societies like the Soviet Union that this was something that they dealt with, and obviously, we are not big fans of how they did it. We want to avoid those horrific mistakes. But compulsion will still be necessary to figure out in a socialist society.
This is really complicated. People want planning because you need to deal with the environment, to decide what you’re going to do — but as soon as you start talking about planning, you have to think about how we have checks on the planners. How do we make this democracy? When we talk about workers controlling a factory, the question is, “How does that fit into a larger plan? Why don’t people just get together and find out what they all need and just make it?” Well, the trouble is if you imagine making an electric vehicle, then you have to know how many the community wants, how much aluminum to use, and where else can it be used? And then, if it’s a dynamic society, whatever you’re doing will change immediately. As soon as you go through everything — how to make it, what suppliers think, what the demand is — somebody changes their mind. Then you have to get together and play with this again. And you don’t want to constantly be in meetings, so you have to have mechanisms for dealing with how choices are made, how people actually have autonomy, how as an individual you can choose different jobs, how planning can work without becoming bureaucratic. We can imagine a society that’s creative, that has freedom, that values people developing their capacities, in which people have room for making decisions, but we do have to figure out how this all comes together.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how to do that, your basic argument is that the state isn’t going to wither away, even under socialism.
The question of the state is fundamental because it developed historically to solve problems to make capitalism work. It has all kinds of capacities essential to making capitalism work, and it doesn’t have the capacities we need to expand democracy. We need a state with capacities that have never actually existed within it before.
We have to think about what workers in the state will be doing. Will they be saying, “As a strong union in the state, we’ll just take care of ourselves, and it’ll be easier because we have a sympathetic state,” or will you start saying, “No, we’ve got different responsibilities: how we can help with the housing situation, how to help anybody who’s got a problem. You have to transform unions, we have to transform ourselves, but we have to transform the state, because we need this mechanism for coordinating how to allocate investment, how you coordinate inputs and outputs, how you think about where you’re going as a society regionally, how to decide how quickly to get rid of private goods and move to free and public goods.”
These are questions that require administrative mechanisms, and if you wish them away you never start dealing with them, and then you’re confronted with this problem that you can’t cope with.
One of the things you have to recognize about the road to socialism is that it will be messy. You have to figure out checks and balances. If it’s democratic then people may say they don’t like it after a point. You have to keep winning people over, and you might lose for a while. We’re talking about a world-historic event, about creating something that’s never existed before, people actually saying we’re not just moving with history, we’re making history. And you’re constantly discovering, learning, inventing, and that’s what makes it exciting.
Your article lays out a lot of those complexities. In a way, it feels more daunting than ever. But on the other hand, it lets you breathe a sigh of relief. You’re like, “Ahh, I don’t have to pretend like this whole thing is going to be easy.” Here is somebody who is really wrestling with the messiness of what that transitional process would look like, who is a bone-deep socialist but is not pretending that this is going to be a simple process with an easy roadmap.
Let’s talk about some of the nuts and bolts. You say that socialism will need to have both planning and markets. Why markets? What kind of market do you envision? Why do we need it, and what would it look like?
I have trouble imagining a perfect model where you could plan everything and have everyone do what they want. It’s not because people aren’t perfectible or we can’t invent new ways of doing things — it’s because even if people are perfectly committed to socialism, they have to have a way to decide why to do it this way.
I’m talking about people, for example, making a product in a factory. I have to have a way of judging whether the material I’m using and how much of it is really the best way to use the material. You can’t just decide that on your own because you have a democratic workplace. So it can be decided through planning. The question is as soon as you have planning you’ve got this material base for bureaucracy and people actually controlling you, so you have to have a check on this. That’s critical.
So the question is how? You can have all kinds of democratic mechanisms, forums for debating the plan, the plan being transparent, people being informed, but you cannot deal with everything.
When you say you can’t deal with everything you mean — questions of democracy aside — it’s not possible for some central planning board to make a perfect plan, right? You need some kind of input from the people, and a market provides that. However, you make very clear that you do not mean a commodified labor market or capital market.
You can imagine walking down a street in your neighborhood with markets for buying fruit, having a coffee or buying a meal or even buying your clothes, and in a society which is equal, in which people have a basic income and basic social goods, those markets wouldn’t be a threat to the system.
But you can’t have a labor market, because the whole point of socialism is that you don’t want to sell your labor power to somebody else so they control how you develop your own capacities as a human being. You can have choices for people — if they want to move, to take another job. But you can’t say we’re just going to let you do what you’re doing even if the market says that you’re relatively hopeless.
You cannot have a labor market, and you can’t have a market for capital, because if those firms that are doing the best can invest their money for more equipment, then you’re institutionalizing inequalities. You can’t say that capital can be allocated according to who has the best opportunity to get it because of their profits.
When you say a market for capital, you mean things like privately owned investment banks, like the Goldman Sachses of the world, who are the ones who control what investments get made and then accrue profits based on those investments.
We’re getting rid of a market that’s not just financial, but that actually owns any assets. You have to have a mechanism for allocating capital that isn’t based on where should it go to get its highest return. You might want to allocate it so that firms that aren’t doing well get more capital so they can catch up to everybody else. You want workers visiting other plants to see how they do things.
How do you figure out a way of allocating capital so it deals with social issues, which region of the country you want it in — how do you do this in a way which strengthens equality rather than undermines it? Then it’s a similar point with labor.
One issue is this question of sectoral councils. In a sector — whether it’s a hospital, education, car manufacturing, or resource sector — you’d actually have an institution where, instead of firms competing like they do under capitalism, you have workers from the firms in that sector electing people to a sectoral council where they could make plans for that sector as a whole that fit into the larger social plan. Then they could distribute capital within that sector to meet the overall plans, but do it in a way that raises the productivity and the quality of every firm in that sector.
In addition to trying to establish equality across a sector and having centralized research and development so that everybody can access it — it means that you’ve got another layer of planning that’s separate from the central planning board. You can have planning centrally that does certain things, you can have layers sectorally that do certain things, you can have layers regionally that do certain things. A sector might be plugged into regional councils or urban councils, and then you have a lot of planning at the firm itself.
One of the arguments that Hayek made is that only capitalism can actually get latent information from people because it’s not obvious, for example, what people actually want to buy. They don’t sit down at the beginning of January and say, “I know what I want,” and give it to the central planners. His question is about how you find out what people want, and how you find out what skills people really have without private property and private incentives. He said that’s only something that capitalism can do through markets. It reveals capacities and information through competition.
It’s a serious argument, and my response is that first, markets — as they are under capitalism —actually systematically hide information because it benefits private property and competition. Socialism opens up the door to sharing information.
Hayek is right about the capacities of capitalism, but he’s thinking of the capacities of entrepreneurs. Workers are just commodities to him. The point of socialism is to see the potential capacities of ordinary people. If you gave workers factories right now, they wouldn’t know what to do with them. There’s nothing about capitalism that teaches you how to run things, never mind how to actually coordinate all this complexity. Socialism is actually concerned with not just the capacities of entrepreneurs, but the capacity of learners.
When you look at productivity growth in capitalism, it’s at 1 or 2 percent. The argument is that capitalism has incentives for higher productivity. Well, it’s not hard to imagine workers on a job coming up with ideas about how to do it better that could match this productivity. And even if they didn’t quite match it, there would be so many other benefits.
You mentioned the sectoral council, but what do workplace collectives and worker-owned co-ops look like? They’re one of the smallest levels of organization in the scheme that you’re laying out here.
In the sectoral councils you’d have representatives sitting on these sectoral councils elected by their workers. I was focusing on the productive sectors so you’re talking about firms making things, but also administering things in the community. You would imagine in a socialist society where production has less of an emphasis than other things that you do in your life; then how you administer the community is fundamental. That’s where real democracy has to start. That’s where you develop the confidence that you know and can do things.
A really crucial point here is that if you just had market socialism — in other words, you said workers own it but we’ll let markets and competition be the context — then what happens is that in the name of competition and being successful, you end up leaving it to the experts because “they know better.” You end up reproducing inequalities, because if it’s based on the market then people who do better have to keep more of the profits and invest them more.
Getting rid of competition is so fundamental to having a democratic structure in the firm where people can get parameters about what the plan generally wants, and they can look at markets so they see what the costs are as valued by society of these different materials. You put special costs on things around the environment, and people actually begin to work together to share and reorganize work.
One of the arguments that is very important in thinking about co-ops is that co-ops, under capitalism, can fall into the trap of just being businesses. And the question under capitalism is: how do you politicize co-ops so you’re not just saying “join our co-op so you can get something cheaper” but “join our co-op because you’re fitting into a social movement.” You can start thinking about co-ops as places where people can start developing the skills they need under socialism. It’s under socialism you can start fulfilling those needs and spreading them to all of society.
You mention some level of inequality still existing in this socialist society and there being incentives for things related to production and presumably anything else. Can you talk about what inequality and incentives look like in the plan you’ve sketched out?
You’re trying to create a society which is equal in all ways. You try to have a society where more and more goods are free, public goods. At the same time, you want people to show up to work and work hard. You may want people to move to another community because you have to balance growth, so you want to have incentives, which may be in the form of a decent house rather than higher pay.
The point is that there are so many choices to make, especially between leisure and work, and the kind of work, but also about regional development, urban development — all those things will require some kind of incentive. But you want to limit it so you don’t have anybody accumulating wealth, and you want the inequalities to be squeezed by the social goods in society. Once you do that, then, it might be a small incentive that makes somebody do something so that they can get that extra good.
What I’m trying to emphasize here is that I’m not trying to prove that socialism is possible, only that it’s credible. It isn’t useful to be utopian and say, “The best way for me to mobilize people is to promise them that they can have everything they want with no drawbacks.” That kind of illusion will sink you if you ever start coming close to power and therefore have to deal with reality.
What we need is people who are prepared for the fact that this is exciting, it’s incredible to be part of this, but who also realize it’s hard. Then we have to think about what do we have to do immediately? Are the sectoral committees important? Do we have to have massive planning first and let workers wait, do we have to start with workers’ control right away? Then you have to think about how we keep learning how to do this and not screw it up, because we can screw it up.
You spend much of the article trying to make socialism and the nuts and bolts of what a socialist society should look credible, but you also say at the end of the article that “the making of socialism must be understood as permanently in an uncertain state of becoming. Far from delivering nirvana, what socialism offers is that, having removed the capitalist barriers to actively making life qualitatively better and richer, humanity can then begin to more and more consciously make its own history.”
There is a lot of contingency here, and there will be an incredible amount of room for human creativity and flourishing in that sense, both in constructing this future society but also in achieving and building that future society.
Capitalism creates a sense that this is all there is. The point of socialism is to see that what we can make of ourselves is an open question. The excitement is about the fact that we can actually invent this.
And to the extent that I dealt with the nuts and bolts, I want to emphasize that what I was doing was saying, “Here are things we have to figure out.” And some of them are intimidating, so I take on some of those intimidating things and say we really think about this, we come up with a few solutions, and every solution we come up with actually raises another problem.
I’m trying to invite people to say, “Let’s all think about this. Let’s think about how the hospitals, the education system could be run. How would an international economy work?”
I don’t know if we can answer it, and I don’t think we should pretend we have to answer that before we move on. I started thinking about this in the ’60s when I was a student. I was going to do my thesis on what socialism would look like, and I concluded that was a stupid thing to do in the ’60s, when there was so much going on. I don’t think that was the wrong conclusion, but the Left has been defeated since then — and when I say that I include the really exciting Left that I see out there, which is rather thin in terms of really talking about socialism.
We talk about a Green New Deal, which is exciting, but it doesn’t get to workers because we don’t have the power. They know that this will require planning. You can’t promise them a just transition if corporations are going to make the decisions.
Workers hear this stuff, and it’s too abstract. It’s tremendously exciting that people are talking about this in an easy way and getting the socialist discourse on the agenda, and I don’t think we should see them as our enemies. You’re doing a good job, but we also have to engage them and say that as you get more serious, you’ve got to think about the state and the transformation of the state. You can’t just say these are policies, you have to talk about how we will exchange power relationships so we can do this.
And you can’t assume that people are spontaneously perfectly knowledgeable. They have to learn things. Part of the excitement should be — and it’s a hard thing to balance — that the socialist discourse is thrilling, and yet we have to sometimes pull it back to earth a little bit without overwhelming people.
About the Author
Sam Gindin was research director of the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974–2000 and is now an adjunct professor at York University in Toronto.
About the Interviewer
Micah Uetricht is the managing editor of Jacobin. He is the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity.
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