The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Marxist Theory   ~   Dialectics   ~   Alienation   ~   Class Consciousness
Ideology   ~   Class Struggle   ~   Communism   ~   Political Science (sic)
Socialist Pedagogy   ~   Radical Humor
Home Books Articles Interviews Letters
to the Editor
Class Struggle
Board Game

Printable version of this page

Search articles and book chapters

Latest book
Latest book -
Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method

Reviews of Ollman's Books

Featured article -
America Beyond Capitalism: A Socialist Stew Prepared for Liberals and Conservatives

Featured speech -
McCoy Award Acceptance Speech

Video: Marxism and Progress

Marxism (the cartoon version)

From Theory to Practice

Radical Jokes


Recommended Web Sites

NYU Course Bibliographies


ETF Site


Not To Dare
Butcher Shop




Kiki & Bubu explain the neoliberal shift in labor relations

Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists - Chapter 8 - Criticism of Lawler < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists
Chapter 8

Criticism of Lawler

Defenders of the market fall into four main categories: on the side of capitalism, there are those who view the market as endowed with moral virtue, and those who don't but consider it a necessary part of economic life, perhaps even a natural one. While on the side of socialism, there are people who also believe the market is necessary, inevitable they are likely to say rather than natural, though much in need of humanizing reforms, and finally those who believe it is necessary but only as a transition, albeit a very long one, to communism. Jim Lawler belongs to this last group, which also means that he and I share a great many ideas on this subject. Specifying what the most important of these are should make our differences stand out in a sharper light.

Lawler and I agree that communism is not only a desirable goal but a possible one; that the roots of communism can be found in capitalism; that one way to understand socialism is as a period when elements already present in capitalism are "set free" to develop under the new conditions that emerge following the revolution; that right after the revolution, a lot of private enterprises, including coops, and a substantial market will continue to exist; that development toward full communism is a complex process with each succeeding phase made possible by what comes before; and that the political form in which the transition to communism will occur is the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat. What then are our main disagreements? These are—l) Lawler rejects extensive central planning as a feasible option at any point in his multi-staged evolution of society toward full communism; 2) he believes that the market can be tamed once the working class is in control of the state and the economy is dominated by workers' coops; 3) he considers that an economy dominated by workers' coops would provide an effective transition to full communism; 4) he presents market socialism as a necessary development by claiming that it follows a social logic; and 5) he argues that Marx agrees with him on each of these points, in short that Marx was a market socialist.

Could central planning work in socialism? Lawler is very adamant in saying "no". He does allow for a small amount of central planning to establish "new rules of the game", but those rules are market rules, albeit ones biased in favor of workers' coops. His chief reason for opposing more extensive planning is that it worked badly in the Soviet Union. This is such an important piece in his case for market socialism that he begins his essay with it. Soviet central planning serves Lawler—as indeed virtually all market socialists—as the house of horrors that awaits any socialist naive enough to reject the market socialist solution. In arguing for the feasibility of an economy based on workers' coops, however, Lawler devotes a lot of space to uncovering its preconditions in capitalism. Yet, in discussing the possibility of socialist central planning, the developments in capitalism that may have prepared the way for it are completely ignored. Instead, we get a tirade against an inefficient and undemocratic form of central planning that arose in quite different historical conditions. Leaving aside Lawler's gross exaggeration of their inefficiency (remember the Sputnik?), he cannot have it both ways. If workers' coops in socialism can only be understood and appreciated in light of their real history, then the same must apply to democratic central planning, whose preconditions are also found in capitalism, and the experience of the Soviet Union, where virtually none of these preconditions existed, is simply irrelevant. Viewing socialism from the vantage point of what went wrong in the Soviet Union is, as I argued in my essay, the preferred tactic of anti-socialists everywhere. In adopting their approach for his discussion of central planning, Lawler is lending legitimacy to a misuse of history that seeks to discredit all positive conceptions of socialism, including his own.

Another of Lawler's criticisms of central planning concerns the character of the planners. He refers to them as a "technological elite" and elsewhere as "economic technocrats", with the implication that they would be aloof from and unaccountable to the masses for whom they plan. Again, this was certainly the case in the Soviet Union, but would it be so in a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat, a society built on the foundations of capitalist democracy, and after a popular revolution that gave workers the desire to run their own affairs and helped develop in them the abilities to do so? I would expect that elections in such a society would revolve around the question of priorities for the plan and which groups of planners should carry them out. Also, given the spread of economic and technical education at this time, there would be a rapid increase in the number of people who could work as planners, making it even less likely that planners would become a small elite separated from the people.

My second main criticism of Lawler is that he is far too sanguine about the ability of a workers' state to tame the market short of abolishing it. According to him, once the socialist government eliminates the market in labor power by instituting a system of workers' coops, "what remains of the market no longer regulates production with the heartless brutality of a nature imposed necessity. The market that remains for workers who work for themselves is a market that is increasingly subject to human consciousness. It is a market that is consciously used for human welfare". (Lawler, p. ) This is a huge claim, and one would have expected more in the way of a defense. I am reminded of Mark Twain's response to someone who asked if there was any way to tame the submarine, the ultimate weapon of that day. If we heated all the water in the world's oceans to the boiling point, Twain replied, it would be impossible for submarines to operate. But how do we do that, his questioner persisted. Look, Twain answered, you asked me what to do; don't expect me to tell you how to do it. So, too, with Lawler—and I'm afraid with other market socialists as well—we are given the solution—"We will tame the market"—but never adequately shown what they will do and why it will work.

Lawler does not examine how a "social market", even with the elimination of labor power (and, one could add, even—as in Schweickart's model—without capital), would function under socialism. Workers' coops, after all, would continue to produce goods not in order to use them but to sell them and make a profit on them. Thus, they would treat competing enterprises and their consumers like firms out to maximize profits always have, and would retain all the qualities that make such behavior effective. As under capitalism, failure to move ahead in competition with others means falling behind with its inevitable result of making less, having to work harder, and possibly even going bust. Under such threats, what would happen to the "human consciousness" Lawler speaks about? Many other problems associated with the market are also likely to exist in Lawler's version of market socialism—periodic economic crisis, inequality between workers in different enterprises, the greed for money and its accompanying corruption, consumerism, and the lack of transparency of past, present and future that I emphasized in my essay. Lawler devotes no serious attention to any of these problems, and is in no position, therefore, to tell us that they would disappear or even be attenuated in a "social market".

My third main criticism of Lawler is that he is wrong to believe that the market socialism he is advocating, should it ever come about, would or could evolve into full communism. Obviously, this point is only of concern to those, like Lawler and I, who think that full communism, as a time when classes, the state, private property and alienation have all withered away, is a real possibility. Such extraordinary developments do not come easily or quickly. They have to be prepared for.The preconditions for it which do not already exist have to be created and carefully nurtured. The crucial question, then, is—does continuing market relations with their accompanying crisis, competition, inequality, greed, insecurity, and mystification up to the very portals of full communism constitute an adequate preparation? I think not. Rather, democratic central planning along with the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat are required to construct a scaffolding of rules with which the full communist edifice can be built. Then, after material conditions have sufficiently matured and the most important of these rules have been completely accepted and internalized by people, the various institutions that embody these rules can be gradually dispensed with. Only when the communist edifice can stand on its own, can the scaffolding that helped to build it be removed. For Lawler, on the other hand, the communist edifice appears to build itself against the grain of the very people who should be busy establishing its preconditions. His transition to communism is no transition at all, and cannot be until he specifies more clearly what would mediate between the competitive market economics and psychology of his workers' cooperative society and the self-consciously social arrangements of full communism.

My fourth main criticism of Lawler is that he misuses the idea of logic in Marxism to give the market socialist outcome that he favors a degree of necessity that it does not have. For Marx, "logic" refers to the patterns that emerge from the ongoing interaction of parts inside an organic whole. Put into words, it is the rules this whole seems to follow in reproducing itself. Such rules exercise considerable pressure on everything touched by the interaction to develop in ways that are compatible with it. From the point of view of its effects, therefore, "logic" in Marxism can also be grasped as the way in which a structured whole, a totality, brings about change in its parts.

To demonstrate some kind of necessary connection between the evolution of post-revolutionary society, as an organic whole, and the spread of workers' coops would be a strong argument indeed for Lawler's vision of socialism. But, though he claims such a connection, he doesn't show it. Lawler does show that the rise of coops is promoted by the logic of capitalism (chiefly through the mediation of technological change that eliminates the need for capitalist overseers and the onset of the credit system), but he doesn't examine how this same logic (expressed in the rule of profit maximization) severely restricts what coops can do of a socialist nature, both before and after the revolution. The fact that capitalism in its normal development gives rise to workers' coops doesn't relieve coops from taking on most of the traits of any enterprise engaged in the production of goods for the market; nor does it indicate that coops have a key role to play in the strategy to overturn capitalism; nor that coops offer the ideal economic form for the post-revolutionary society. In expressing his preference for the cooperative form in socialism in terms of the unfolding of a social logic—without clearly explaining what that logic is and where it comes from—Lawler is simply borrowing Marx's language to lend credence to his distinctly non-Marxist conception of the future.

Here as elsewhere, Lawler obviously considers it very important to present his views under Marx's banner. Indeed, the most distinctive characteristic of Lawler's entire essay, as indicated by the title, is his effort to win Marx for his cause. This is my fifth main disagreement with Lawler. If Marx was really a market socialist, then a lot of supposedly Marxist criticism of this position, including my own, would have to be re-thought. Lawler is not the first to make this surprising claim. Stanley Moore, who Lawler cites, said as much, at least for the "early" Marx, over a dozen years ago, though Lawler's argument is generally more convincing and, therefore, more in need of rebuttal. Having presented my views on this matter in my opening essay, I will restrict myself here to examining what new evidence Lawler introduces in support of his position.

First, Lawler quotes Engels who says that immediately after the revolution big family estates will be turned over to their workers who will organize them as coops, adding the qualification, "They are to be assigned to them for their use and benefit under the control of the community". (my emphasis) (Lawler, p. ) In commenting, Lawler transfers this control to "the workers in the enterprise". Ownership, apparently without control, is left to the community. With this alteration, Engels is made to appear as a supporter of a cooperative dominated economy and, by extension, of a social market. If the community were to exercise control, on the other hand, one would expect a community plan and—because communities interact—one coordinated with the plans of other communities in some kind of central plan.

Second, Lawler takes Marx's reference to cooperative factories in capitalism as the "first sprouts of the new" as a clear indication of the kind of economic forms he favored for socialism. This interpretation is supported, according to Lawler, by Marx's famous declaration that workers "have no ideals to realize, but to set free elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant". The question is, however, just what are these elements, and also what does it mean to set them free? Lawler does not hesitate to answer that it is workers' coops that Marx had in mind, and that setting them free means allowing the market dynamic already operating—with a little help from the workers' state—to spread coops over the entire economy. But capitalism is full of "elements" that indicate the possibility of socialism, either by resembling a socialist form (as in producer and consumer coops, nationalized industry, public education, and even political democracy) or by setting out an important precondition for the development of socialist relations (as in the advanced state of technology, complex economic and social organizations, and a literate, highly trained, and hard working population).

It is largely through his dialectical analysis of these and similar "elements" that Marx is able to catch a glimpse of the future in the present. "To set free elements of the new society", however, involves a radical transformation in what they are and in how they work that goes far beyond replacing a capitalist state with one run by workers, since these elements are all seriously distorted—as Lawler admits—by the capitalist context. In no instance is socialism simply or even mainly a matter of extending what is already in place. A qualitative break has to occur. "Sprouts", after all, are not trees, even young ones, and being "pregnant" is not the same as holding a baby in one's arms. Lawler has misunderstood Marx's metaphors as pointing to a later phase in communism's process of becoming than was Marx's intent. The result is a trivialization of the enormous transformation any "element" would have to undergo in becoming suitable for the "new society", which also makes it easy for Lawler to dismiss the need for a central plan to help bring these changes about.

Third, Lawler takes Marx's acclaim for the Paris Commune as evidence that he also accepted their full economic program. Marx declared the short lived Commune to be a model of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the Commune did not abolish the market. Instead, it introduced measures aimed at altering the balance of power between workers and their employers in capitalist enterprises and encouraged the creation of coops. Does this show that Marx discounted the role of central planning in socialism? Hardly. Marx's endorsement of the Commune had to do mainly with the political form that it took, with the way it combined democracy and working class rule, which is the aspect of the Commune to which he directed most of his remarks, and not with all the policies it adopted. He certainly disapproved of its military policies, for example, that left it so weak in face of the reactionary forces that eventually destroyed it. In any case, we have already seen that the steps Marx advised workers' governments to take immediately after the revolution left the market largely intact, and this is the situation—rendered even more difficult by the ongoing civil war—for which the Commune's program was intended. As a true dictatorship of the proletariat, the Commune, had it survived, would have moved relatively soon to put into effect the other main elements of the socialist stage, including extensive planning.

Fourth, Lawler misinterprets Marx's comment on "labor vouchers" in socialism to refer to a kind of money, which again allows Lawler to claim that Marx accepts the continued existence of a market. Marx spoke of workers in socialism receiving "labor vouchers", based on the amount of time they worked, which they can exchange for articles of personal consumption. Marx says these vouchers are "no more money than a ticket for a theater". Why isn't such a ticket money? Because it doesn't circulate. Hence, it plays no role in determining what gets produced. That is decided in this period by the plan. Like theater tickets, labor vouchers are also limited in what they can exchange for: unlike money, labor vouchers cannot buy means of production, social means of consumption, status, influence, friends. Because they are given to people in function of their work and no one can acquire them from the work of others, labor vouchers—as Lawler rightly notes—are "personalized". They allow one person, and he or she alone, to take from the common stock (after investment and welfare needs have been met) an amount that is proportional to what they put into it. Rather than, like money, a way of rationing power, labor vouchers are simply a means of rewarding work. With such restricted functions, it is inaccurate to refer to labor vouchers as money, and equally misleading, therefore, to view the exchanges in which they are used as a market. Lawler also seems to have overlooked the fact that if it is the number of hours people work that determine how many labor vouchers they get, this offers further evidence that workers' coops, where income is determined by the success (or failure) of one's enterprise, have ceased to exist by this time.

Fifth, and last, while Lawler admits that Marx sometimes speaks of planning under socialism, he never examines why Marx does so, why he may have believed extensive planning was necessary. Yet, Lawler, himself, quotes Marx's most important comment on this subject: "If cooperative production ... is to supersede the capitalist system", Marx says, it must "regulate national production upon a common plan". (My emphasis) (Lawler, p. ) Why? Because this is the only way to put "an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production". Lawler is only concerned with the reference to "cooperative production" and "cooperative societies" here, but no one is disputing that Marx believed there would be more cooperation in socialism (cooperation not being the same thing as workers' cooperatives). Still, for him, the more important economic decisions that are now left to the market would be made relatively soon after the revolution by the plan.

The "anarchy" and "convulsions" referred to above are the result of a lack of alignment between production and consumption. Because production follows the logic of profit maximization while consumption follows the logic of effective demand (individuals buying what they can afford of what they want), there is always too much or too little of everything, never just enough. Waste of some factors of production and some finished goods goes on continually, as do the unsatisfied demands of a major section of the population, and periodically the build-up of this contradiction produces an economic crisis with its widespread destruction and losses of all kinds. As Marx shows, these problems are the result of things being produced in order to be sold in the market, and not just of capitalist ownership of the means of production. Thus, this "anarchy" and these "convulsions", however attenuated (though even this is not certain) would continue under the new conditions favored by market socialists. It is largely "to put an end" to just such horrors, however, that Marx sought to "regulate national production upon a common plan". Such a plan would align production with consumption to insure that full use is made of the available forces of production to satisfy people's wants.

Even Lawler is forced to recognize that when occasionally too much or too little of something is produced, some adjustments are called for, and that this would require "new mechanisms of adjustment". (Lawler, p. ) But under market conditions, there is always too much or too little of something, and "mechanisms of adjustment" means planning. And where this is required, as it would be, on a national and eventually on a world scale, this means central planning, but this remains an idea that Lawler steadfastly rejects.

In conclusion, I want to express my surprise at Lawler's conclusion. He ends his essay by saying that the "final goal of communist development... is the maturation of an ongoing process of humanity struggling to free itself from its own self-alienation, and using that very alienation as a means of its liberation". With this conclusion, one would have expected more discussion of alienation earlier in the essay. How, for example, does self-alienation manifest itself? What forms does it take, and how do they participate in the process of liberation? Marxists have linked the market to various expressions of alienation such as competition, greed, consumerism, fetishism, mystification, etc. How much of this alienation would market socialism inherit from capitalism, and how would a "social market" do away with it? To justify a conclusion that points to the disappearance of alienation, Lawler would have to provide answers to such questions. He doesn't. And he doesn't, because he can't. Market socialism is awash in alienation, and anyone who, like Lawler, wishes to help build our communist future will have to discard all markets sooner or later. Sooner is better.