Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 21, 2016

Michael Albert versus Karl Marx

Filed under: economics,utopian thought — louisproyect @ 5:01 pm


Michael Albert

After reading the interview Michael Albert gave to the Turkish journal Democratic Modernity and that was crossposted on ZNet today under the title “Beyond Marxism”, I had to carefully consider whether it was worth my time and effort to answer him. Quite frankly, Michael Albert’s left publishing kingdom is no longer what it once was. His South End Press had shut down in 2014 with Publishers Weekly citing Howard Zinn’s agent “we had a hassle with South End, getting back rights to 10 of Howard’s books. And we have not received payment from them for several years.”

My cyber-friend Charles Davis had recently circulated a petition with the heading “Give Charles His Money, Michael” that stated: “Charles Davis is owed $500 by Michael Albert of Znet, who administered teleSUR English’s OpEd page at the time Charles wrote two OpEds for said page. Mr. Albert was given money with which to compensate writers for that page. That money never made it to Charles Davis, a good boy who has politely and repeatedly requested that he receive it, to no avail.” Apparently the petition had the intended effect—Charles got his hard-earned money.

When ZNet was in its heyday, it was the go-to place for left analysis from Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and others outside of a strictly Marxist framework. Albert himself had invented an ideology in partnership with economist Robin Hahnel called Participatory Economics (Parecon) that was advertised as being beyond Marxism, just like the article mentioned above. I always thought that this was chutzpah of biblical proportions but that’s not unusual on a left where megalomania rules.

While hundreds, if not thousands, of websites are devoted to spreading Marxist ideas, somehow nobody has come forward to disseminate the Thoughts of Michael Albert. His influence is questionable at best. While I am not sure how much science there is to the Alexa ratings, Counterpunch has a ranking twelve times that of ZNet, namely 7,081 to 86,631 (a ranking of 1 is awarded to the most visited website, in this case google.com). My own obscure and openly cranky blog is ranked 105,634 and I do everything I can to alienate people.

I finally decided to write this article in the same spirit as the one I wrote on 9/11 Truthers. As absurd as Parecon and controlled demolitions are, something might be gained by defending facts and logic.

Albert begins:

Crisis engulfs. We react. Out comes Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and whoever else.

We quote, quote, quote icons. We shove our own words down the hopper of history so we can echo the Ultimate Angel. Elderly left scholars just keep muttering, Marx said it, Marx knew it, see Volume Three.

Marxologists seem to not care that normal people avoid regurgitated unexplained jargon that lacks clarity and timelyness [sic]. The listener’s anticipation of obscure, impersonal, irrelevance cripples communication.

Who is it exactly that invoked Volume Three of Capital like a radio preacher referring to biblical chapter and verse? Michael Roberts whose blog consists mainly of a review of statistics from government agencies? I know it couldn’t be me since I never read V. 3 of Capital except in dribs and drabs. Since Albert has crossposted articles I wrote for Counterpunch on several occasions, I suppose I pass muster. I am only glad that I never found myself in the position of being owed money. (Counterpunch always paid promptly.)

For Albert, there is a disjunction between word and deed within Marxism. The Marxists believe in a classless society but once in power they become a new ruling class. It always struck me that people who make this argument should not have bothered. The Who said it all, plus you could dance to their analysis:

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

The term that Albert coined for this new Marxist class formation is “coordinationism”. It is basically a function of operating an economy from the top down rather than the bottom up:

Put every Marxist text about economics in a pile. I bet that to the extent they provide a serious institutional explanation of preferred allocation mechanisms, incentives, distribution of income, and producer and consumer decision making, they advocate overwhelmingly and perhaps even exclusively, markets and or central planning, a corporate division of labor, remuneration for output, and authoritative decision making, all of which breed coordinator class rule.

Mercifully, Albert spared his readers the cure-all for all this hierarchical top-down control that he and his writing partner Robin Hahnel cooked up. Have any of you ever read their stuff on Participatory Democracy? It is not only mind-numbing; it is an exercise in what Karl Marx called writing recipes for the cookbook of the future. (Oh, my gosh! I quoted Marx. I am doomed.)

Self-managed worker councils have autonomy over how they go about rating their members. The only restriction placed on them is that the average effort rating that worker councils award their members is capped. This could be done by either giving the same cap to all workplaces or by basing it on the social benefit to social cost ratio of the workplace as explained in participatory planning on the next page. The reason for capping is to avoid the possibility of workers over-estimating each others effort ratings in return for the same favour, or what could lead to “effort rating inflation”.

Think about this. If in 1990 or so, Albert and Hahnel had gotten their hands on a time-machine like the DeLorean in “Back to the Future” and transported themselves back 70 years to the USSR and put their lofty thoughts into the hands of V.I. Lenin who then slapped his forehead and exclaimed “Why hadn’t I thought of this?”, would that have made any difference?

Unfortunately, the Parecon twins are obviously unschooled in historical materialism, which is the only methodology that would have explained how the USSR degenerated. The people who were committed to a classless society were largely killed off in the civil war. Young workers who fought with the Red Army sacrificed their lives in the hope that a new society could be built on the principles of the Paris Commune or the Soviets. For their efforts, they were bombed, shot and bayoneted by 21 invading armies. When the Soviet economy required people with the basic literacy and administrative skills to run a telephone company or a post office, the government was forced to put men and women in charge who had not joined the Red Army like factory workers and poor peasants had done. They relied on apparatchiks from the Czarist bureaucracy.

Maybe Albert would have recommended an alternative to the centralized phone company and post office that are hangovers from capitalist society. I can just see his recipe for avoiding such an essentially hierarchical mode of production—using tin cans connected by waxed string and carrier pigeons.

Around 20 years ago I wrote an article titled “Neo-Utopian Socialism”. It is worth repeating what I said about Albert and Hahnel back then:

Turning to their “Looking Forward”, we find a completely different set of politics and economic reasoning, but the utopian methodology is essentially the same. Their vision of how social transformation takes place is virtually identical to that of the 19th century utopians. In a reply to somebody’s question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

I look at history and see even one admirable person–someone’s aunt, Che Guevara, doesn’t matter–and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person’s social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society’s dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure.

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan “if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert’s [and Hahnel’s] enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgement on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated “one-man management”. Lenin was also guilty because he argued that “all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management.”

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called “participatory planning” described in “Looking Forward”:

Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as the schemas of the 19th century predated it. It will be besides the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared, “the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.”

Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like “Looking Forward” being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.

Another cause of utopian thought is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies. Except for North Korea and Cuba, there is not a country in the world that doesn’t seem to be galloping at full speed into the capitalist sphere. As this anti-capitalist reality becomes part of history, it is tempting to create an alternative reality where none of the contradictions of “existing socialism” existed.

This is fundamentally an ahistorical approach and will yield very little useful new political guidelines about how to achieve socialism in the future. These answers will not come out of utopian fantasies, but in further analysis of the historical reasons underlying the collapse of the USSR. In-depth analysis by serious scholars such as Moshe Lewin focus on the structural problems, not on statements made by Lenin and Trotsky made on management wrenched out of context.


  1. I am curious about sources for the claim, “the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before.” I don’t actually doubt it, but since various Marxists have contentious definitions about which parts of wage laborers are the “proletariat” I would like to know what population you are including.

    Comment by radicalprogress — September 21, 2016 @ 5:18 pm

  2. “Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface.”

    I see this a little differently. Utopian expectations, as opposed to detailed schemes, aren’t necessarily antithetical to revolutionary working-class action. They can motivate and inspire. But they must emerge from the lived experience of the participants. Many rebellions throughout history have had this feature.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 21, 2016 @ 5:18 pm

  3. These structural properties of the capitalist mode of production generate tendential dynamics of development that dominate societies under its sway. The most important of these ‘laws’ (as Marx called them) is the impulse of capitalism to expand and centralize and concentrate the collective worker on a hitherto unimagined scale at strategic points throughout the system (particularly in towns and cities). When Marx was writing, the ‘classical’ industrial proletariat was scarcely developed. Even in Britain, the most advanced capitalist country of the time, the majority of workers were employed in domestic service. Globally, the proletariat (as both service and industrial workforce was a negligible force compared to the peasantry at the close of the nineteenth century. But, in the 150 years or so since Marx’s death, the size of the proletariat has massively and rapidly expanded (absolutely and relative to other class groupings), in both the westernized ‘core’ and semi-industrialized ‘periphery’ of the world economy. A mere 100 years after Marx’s death, the ‘fraction of the active population composed of sellers of labour power’ in the advanced capitalist countries had risen to ’85-90 percent, topping 90 percent already in the USA, Britain and Sweden’. Today, international studies suggest that for the first time the proletariat is poised to become the majority of the global workforce.

    Deon Filmer’s magisterial survey, for example, estimates that the overall number of people who are employed throughout the world in services, industry and commercial agriculture is approximately 880 million (700 million of whom are undoubtedly proletarians on the Marxian definition). On the face of it, this is significantly less than the total number of mostly peasant workers (1,000 million) who still obtain a living from their own petty smallholdings. But appearances can be deceptive. At least half the world’s peasantry are located in China and South Asia, and large numbers of these peasants have now been forced into wage-labour to supplement their domestic agricultural productior. On one estimate, between 15-25 per cent of the workforce in China fall into this category’: Together, proletarians and their dependents now constitute some-where between 1.5 and two billion of the global population. If one adds to the total those semi-proletarians who engage in wage-work as well as in subsistence production, the proletariat today numbers somewhere in the region of 3.5-4 billion, or between 40-50 per cent of the world’s population.

    Sean Creaven, “Emergentist Marxism: Dialectical Philosophy and Social Theory”

    Comment by louisproyect — September 21, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

  4. Louis — why even respond to this guy? Nobody reads him anymore. He has no influence on the left. 20 years ago, maybe, but not now. As an economist and a sociologist and a historian, he’s sub-par. And nobody but nobody reads Z Magazine, which for some unknown reason still exists.

    As for writing blueprints for a socialist economy — they can be useful, up to a point. I like Pat Devine’s and David Laibman’s work because both point to historical, empirical examples and don’t just invent things like “iteration facilitation boards” out of their heads. But they’re basically suggestions. Albert & Hahnel have a “brand” (“ParEcon”) that they can never break with even if it were proven to be unfeasible (which it is), just like “market socialist” David Schweickart has his “brand” (“Economic Democracy”) which he can never break with even if it were proven to be unfeasible (which it also is).

    Comment by Jason Schulman (@Time4Socialism) — September 21, 2016 @ 9:34 pm

  5. Louis — why even respond to this guy?

    I thought I made that clear by referring to the WTC controlled demolition crapola.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 21, 2016 @ 10:12 pm

  6. Yeah but there are still lots of Truthers, sadly. Albert has no real influence on the left, not even the US left.

    Comment by jschulman — September 22, 2016 @ 1:31 am

  7. Please, Jason. I have posted about ZNet exactly once in the past 10 years or so.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 22, 2016 @ 1:45 am

  8. “blueprints for a socialist economy”

    Not creating these makes a good deal of sense, but I admit to a small reservation. The world of CIO bullshit, into which I’ve tumbled in a state of senile confusion at the end of my so-called career (i.e. while waiting for what my father used to call, with a shudder, the “grinding poverty” of enforced retirement) includes reams and reams of business hot gospel falling under the heading of “governance.”

    There’s no end of this–the notorious Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) being but one example and Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies (COBIT) notoriously yet another. Add to this the reams and reams of development methodologies, QA methodologies, etc., etc. on top of the engineering standards and protocols that do actual work and without which you have no IT, and you have a vast detailed, and in many ways intensely boring Body of Knowledge [BOK] (crap, there’s another one) that nevertheless has a great deal to it amid the horseflop in terms of actual work practices and results.

    All this–like standards and protocols in general–is the product of endless committees and bodies endlessly meeting and publishing things continually, and terminally bored people somehow remaining awake through all of it. All working business, manufacturing, farming, and engineering disciplines are shadowed by such committees and their webs of standards.

    All of this stuff is far more detailed than bromides like

    Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.

    which manages to be both oversimplified and verbose at once.

    Could the case be made that socialism either takes this over bodily from capitalist sources–bourgeois experts that know their bourgeois jobs as I think Lenin put it at one point–or at some point meets the challenge of developing alternatives for a socialist economy? (A daunting task that is certainly far above my head.)

    If so, blueprints for a lot of things may be as necessary in a socialist economy as in a capitalist one. Cases in point, perhaps: nuclear energy; factory farming and industrialized food distribution (which the “foodie” movement beloved of the pseudo-left just wants to abolish in the interests of farmers’ markets); medical research; etc., etc.

    At what points in the vast catalog of things that go on in a modern economy does one draw the line between “blueprints required” and “blueprints not needed.”? And how does one purge the required blueprints–if any–of dead ideological components or create new blueprints suitable for socialism? There would seem to be just a vast amount of work needed here–how will it get done?

    Hope this is not too distracted/distracting.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — September 22, 2016 @ 7:20 pm

  9. Hey bro, just wondering what fucking planet you are on.

    From Wikipedia:

    “The 2011 Wisconsin protests were a series of demonstrations in the state of Wisconsin in the United States beginning in February involving at its zenith as many as 100,000 protesters opposing the 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, also called the “Wisconsin Budget Repair bill.””

    “On 15 November 2014 workers at South Africa’s major platinum producers – Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum, and Lonmin – went on strike demanding that wages be immediately doubled. However, after five months of striking they settled for a more modest pay increase spread over three years. It was the longest and most expensive strike in South African history.”

    “As of March 3, 2015, about 6,550 workers were on strike at 15 plants, including 12 refineries with a fifth of U.S. capacity. It was the first time since 1982 that U.S. oil workers have walked off their jobs to protest working conditions.”

    From East Asia Forum, 10-4-2015:

    “in Dong Nai province, where the author completed her fieldwork, about 80 per cent of strikes in the past few years have resulted in a win, in part or in full, for the workers.”

    From Việt Nam News, 24-3-2016:

    “According to ministry statistics, there were almost 50 strikes and labour disputes in the first two months of the year. One of these strikes involved nearly 20,000 workers of Pouchen Việt Nam Company in the southern province of Đồng Nai last month.”

    From Financial Times, 14-7-2016:

    “Strikes and protests in China during the first half of 2016 rose almost 20 per cent compared to a year earlier as an early boom in construction-sector unrest gave way to sustained growth in collective action by workers in transportation…. 1,456 strikes and protests as of end-June, up 19 per cent from the first half of 2015.. In late June, for instance, Walmart staff across China launched a series of wildcat strikes using the mobile messaging service WeChat…. While strikes by retail workers have indeed risen this year, the biggest boost in absolute terms has come from construction workers, who in January helped push total incidents to a record monthly high of 503.”

    From Telegraph, 15-9-2016:

    “Today’s French air traffic control (ATC) strike is the 14th this year and the first since the summer break, so it would not be unreasonable to suggest that there might be more to come before the end of the year.”

    From BBC, 9-22-2016:

    “Southern Railway workers are to stage 14 days of strike action in five blocks in the long-running dispute over the role of conductors on trains.”

    You not gonna see any strikes from your penthouse in the Upper East Side bro, but we still out here fighting every day.

    Comment by Goober — September 23, 2016 @ 4:05 am

  10. Why the hell haven’t you read Volume 3!!!!?

    Comment by CB — September 24, 2016 @ 6:35 pm

  11. BTW, Louis — “Won’t Get Fooled Again” isn’t an anti-revolution song. Pete Townshend wrote it because the UK Labour Party leadership was talking like radical leftists again circa 1971 but Townshend didn’t believe that if they got elected there would be any fundamental change. (“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”) He was right, of course.

    Comment by jschulman — September 29, 2016 @ 12:33 am

  12. It would seem the primary motivation of the song was to promote Eastern mysticism.


    Comment by louisproyect — September 29, 2016 @ 12:37 am

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