Chris Harman

Free market mania

(May 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 109, May 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I RECENTLY read the novel, The Engineer of the Human Soul, by Josef Skvorecky. It left me quite depressed.

In the 1960s Skvorecky was one of a generation of Czech novelists who fought against Stalinism from the standpoint of establishing a more humane and equitable society. In 1968 itself they looked to the mass of students and workers to support democratisation and opposed the watering down of reform demands in the interests of “realism”.

Yet his present political opinions would not seem that far from Ronald Reagan’s. His novel pokes gentle fun not only at Stalinist police spies and Czech careerists, but at virtually anyone who believes there are major faults with Western society.

Unfortunately, Skvorecky’s is not an isolated case. In Hungary the best known dissidents might sometimes call themselves socialists, but do not look to the working class for change. Even Haraszty, who 15 years ago wrote the brilliant book Piecework (published in Britain under the misleading title A Worker in a Workers’ State) has, apparently, turned his back on Marxism.

In Poland the leadership of Solidarity now speaks of the need for an “economy following the normal principles of market forces” – a sharp contrast with the legal Solidarnosc conference of 1981 which called for a socialised economy based upon “self-management”.

But before anyone gets too depressed, it’s necessary to see the context in which such anti-socialist ideas are coming to the fore.

For half a century socialism was popularly identified with the bureaucratically centralised economy. This was true not merely for Stalinism, but also for Western social democracy.

There was a correspondence between it and the form of social organisation which best suited the needs of capitalist accumulation in much of the world – state capitalism.

East and West the centrally administered state capitalist economy was seen as being more efficient than the “free market” economy of a previous stage of capitalist development. Support for planning was part of the mainstream of bourgeois “common sense”.

In the last 20 years however, this has changed. The scale of capitalist production has grown until it can no longer be confined within the boundaries of giant economies like the American or Russian ones, let alone relatively small states like those of Eastern Europe.

Economies run by national bureaucracies became increasingly inefficient. So it was that the Keynesian dream of national planning in the West fell out of favour after its inability to cope with the crises of 1974–6 and 1980–2.

Meanwhile Stalinist-style state capitalist control has fallen out of favour even with some of those who operate it in countries like China, Hungary, Poland and now Russia.

This collapse has led to the revival of a quite irrational faith in the so-called “free market” – even though nowhere is there a genuinely free market (giving £800 million to an aerospace company to take over a car company is certainly not a “free market” operation). There is no evidence to suggest that the performance of so-called free market economies is intrinsically better than that of the more efficient state capitalisms.

It is this which has led to the retreat into the worship of markets by social democracy in the West. It is not surprising there has been a similar shift in the East – especially since the most conservative section of the bureaucracy in these countries uses fake socialist arguments in order to try to justify preservation of its own privileges.

Once the market is accepted, it is a seemingly logical step to move on to seeing the West as intrinsically superior to the East, and the battle between West and East as a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

Fortunately, this is not the end of the matter. There are individuals who are in one way or another trying to resist this trend in Eastern Europe. More important perhaps, every indication is that the whole Russian bloc could be on the eve of a new chain of explosions like those of 1953, 1956, 1968 and 1980–1. This may well start from groups of intellectuals, students or national minorities, but it will inevitably spill over into massive workers’ struggles.

Any workers’ struggle will throw up two issues. The first is that of collective control and collective action. And the second is the danger to jobs and working conditions of simply replacing the inefficiency and oppression created by bureaucratic centralisation, by the anarchic destruction of whole areas of the economy which would follow a simple resort to the market.

Those individuals who are swimming against the stream of the new common sense today – will suddenly find a wide audience for what they have to say.

The current drift to the right is, in fact, a reflection of a very material circumstance – the period of defeat the working class movement has been going through since the mid-1970s in the West and since the crushing of Solidarity in 1981 in the East. If workers are not struggling, the only “realistic” alternative will seem to many people to be to look to the market and to the Western powers.

The idea of workers power as a solution to the crisis is a complete abstraction in such circumstances, one only defended by small groups of individuals who can find it very hard to survive intellectually.

In such a situation, as the young Marx might have put it, before philosophers are going to look to the working class on any scale, the working class will have to look towards philosophy. In simple English, before many intellectual oppositionists turn their backs on the worship of the market, direct workers struggles will have to show the potential for going beyond both the Stalinist command economy and the so-called free market.

Last updated on 12.8.2013