Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

12: Planning for Human Need

Revolution is about more than just overthrowing the ruling class. It is also about setting in train a new way of cooperating to make our livelihoods. This is necessary if humanity is to banish the material hardship that means one billion of the world’s people go hungry each day, end the economic crises that periodically devastate the lives of millions more, end the colossal waste, environmental destruction and spending on weapons, and liberate the mass of the world’s population from the daily treadmill.

Taking control of the means of production is the precondition for doing this. After all, few of the handful of people who control the multinational corporations and determine what happens to a huge chunk of the world’s production have any particular skill when it comes to producing things. Their wealth enables them to pay other people to do what is required.

Complexity and Planning

Those who support the present system tell us it simply is not possible to run things in any other way. The economist Alec Nove in his influential book The Economics of Feasible Socialism (London 983) argued modern production is too complex to be operated in any other way than through the market mechanisms of capitalism. It involves the production of too many different products, involving vast quantities of components. Any attempt to implement democratic planning would result in a bureaucracy of the sort that arose in the Soviet Union and be extremely inefficient. He argued: ‘The complex modern economy is unnameable to centralised direction’ and ‘was bound to be overwhelmed by these tasks.’

But if the technical complexity of production would be a problem for a democratically planned economy, it must also be problem in a world economy under the control of a few hundred billionaires. If these global production empires are to function profitably, they cannot assume the blind play of the market will provide the hundreds of thousands of components and other inputs they will need in three months or two years time. They have to try to plan to ensure they have these things.

This was true even 40 years ago. To produce a light car range the UK firm Rootes then had:

to order, correctly schedule and marshal no less than 16,000 different parts ... to be fed through the production machine in such a way that thousands of variations can be made on a handful of basic models ... the company was forced to work on an approximately five-year pattern on any given model. [G. Turner, The Car Makers, Harmondsworth 1964]

The three supermarket chains that now dominate the sale of foodstuffs in Britain have to plan for a similar level of complexity. They want to guarantee the right mix of products in stores month after month, year after year. They are not prepared simply to hope that market forces will supply these. On the contrary, they have established a stranglehold over the food-processing industry, most of British agriculture and many farmers in countries such as Spain and Kenya to ensure the output the supermarkets predict they will need.

However, capitalist planning is directed towards competition with rival firms, not the needs of the mass of people. It involves planning at the behest of those whose wealth gives them control of production – who have the power to manipulate market relations with small firms and farmers, and to redirect all know-how to their own purposes.

At the most basic level, if those running a multinational corporation can plan to achieve their ends, there is no intrinsic reason why democratic organs of workers’ power could not do the same. Indeed, these would be better placed to do so, since the planning of each capitalist firm is continually undermined by attempts to damage the prospects of rivals. Plans are often abandoned half way through, creating chaos for other firms structured around supplying inputs. A workers’ government that subjected all food outlets, for example, to democratically decided targets would not suffer from this. It would allow co-ordination across an entire industry instead of competition within it.

This does not mean someone trying to calculate in advance the number of various components to produce – any more than the individual corporations do this today. But it does mean decisions about the general direction of the economy being subject to democratic control. What matters is ensuring investment is directed to satisfying human need. Such democratic control should be exercised by elected and recallable representatives of those whose labour produces the wealth of society as a whole. They would decide whether to prioritise production of vehicles or of kidney machines, whether to shorten working time or use extra capacity to raise living standards.

The key decisions would have to be made centrally otherwise the big production units would be competing with each other to sell products. But once the major decisions are made in any economy, there would be an enormous leeway about how parts of the economy fit in to fulfil these. There is no requirement for centralised state control over every production unit. All that is needed is a basic democratic willingness by those running each unit – the workers who would take control of them in a revolutionary confrontation – to accept the need to find ways of fitting what they do to what has been decided in a free discussion.

This is the opposite of what happened under the so-called planning implemented by Stalinist, social democratic and third world regimes in the past. None of these submitted their plans to any organ of genuine democratic control. Those whose labour created the wealth in such societies were the last to have any say over what they produced and for what purpose. The competition between rulers – for example, between those in the Eastern bloc and those in the West, reflected in the arms race between the US and USSR – completely distorted their ‘planning’, just as competition between one supermarket chain and another distorts the planning of both. It was not the complexity of the economies that created chaos, but the attempt to compete with the giants of world capitalism. The Soviet economy at its height was less than half the size of the US economy. The pressure of competition was correspondingly greater as a result, just as the corner shop has more difficulty competing with Tesco than does Sainsbury.

The revolution of the 21st century can open the way to genuine, democratic planning, by setting itself a very different goal to that of Stalin and his successors.

Internationalism versus Capitalist ‘Development’

The revolution of the 21st century can only achieve its goals if it spreads from initial victories in one country to others. The history of attempts at ‘socialism in one country’ shows this to be a blind alley. Capitalism, as an international system, has created an uneven distribution of resources globally and, along with that, an international division of labour. No one country contains the resources necessary to fully satisfy human needs.

This applies even more to individual third world countries. After centuries of pillaging by imperialism, many are too impoverished to find within their own borders the means to industrialise to the level of the existing advanced countries. Those third world countries that have developed have done so on the basis of vicious, dictatorial repression against the mass of workers and peasants: this was true not just in Russia and China, but also Taiwan and South Korea. Even in Cuba, which many people on the left see as a better example, the attempts at independent development in the 1960s collapsed after the failure to achieve the target of 10 million tonnes of sugar production in the 1970s, despite subordinating virtually the whole of economic life to this goal. This failure left Cuba as dependent on the Soviet Union as it had once been on the US and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left its people facing years of acute shortages and poverty.

What is needed in the 21st century is not development as it was seen by the middle classes of the third world and their multinational advisors in the 20th century – the attempt to squeeze out of the mass of workers and peasants the means to build up industry to a level comparable to that in the west. Rather, what is needed is a redirection of the huge resources that currently go to the local rich and the profiteers of the international system towards improving the lives of the mass of people. This would be a very different kind of development to that of the past. Ultimately, to achieve this depends upon gaining access to the resources not only of the poor parts of the world, but also to some at least of those controlled by capitalism in its heartlands.

But the mass of people in a single country do not simply have to sit back and wait for revolution elsewhere. They can make many immediate steps forward by taking power in their own hands. In conditions of acute economic crisis, the actual wealth produced in a country can be far below its potential level. In such circumstances a revolutionary transformation, involving the redistribution of wealth from the very rich to the mass of people can produce one-off improvements in living standards. It is absurd that in a country like Argentina, millions have gone hungry while vast amounts of food have been exported to pay interest on foreign debts and fatten the profits of the country’s agrarian capitalists. But to sustain these improvements requires the creation of a new international division of labour, involving more than one country, something only possible by the spreading of the revolution.

There can never be a guarantee that a revolutionary breakthrough in one country will spread elsewhere. The Russian revolution of 1917 was, as we have seen, left isolated despite the wave of near revolutions in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The Cuban revolution of 1959 created a tidal wave of hope elsewhere in Latin America, but this was not sufficient to wash away the local regimes which the US rushed to bolster up.

But such an outcome is not inevitable. Economic, social and political crises that open up the possibility of revolution are rarely confined to individual countries. The most important revolutionary upsurges in the last century all occurred on an international scale: 1917–20, 1934–36, 1943–45, 1956, 1968–75, 1989–91. In each of these, what happened in one country had a decisive effect elsewhere.

There are already signs of similar wave-like process at work in the first years of the 21st century. The anti-war protests on 15 February 2003 were not confined to individual countries but fed into each other drawing more of the planet’s people on to the streets than any single issue ever before in human history. One estimate put the numbers marching around the world at 20 million. The movements in Latin America have strengthened each other, so that the continent is again alive to the hopes of revolution after two decades of defeat and demoralisation. In Europe, attempts by governments to push through neoliberal counter-reforms have created resistance across national frontiers, providing the impetus for the birth of a new left across the continent.

In either continent a successful revolution would have a very real prospect of spreading to neighbours, drawing into one democratically planned economic process the resources needed to offer people better lives in the long term as well as the short term.

Last updated on 5 October 2016