Re contradictions within "socialism"

Chris Burford cburford at
Sun Jun 25 07:25:51 MDT 1995

Contradictions within "socialism"

On Friday 23rd Lisa wrote to Justin

I like your suggestions for studying contradictions within various
attempts at worker control.  It could be useful to study what went
wrong with various attempts, why something didn't turn out very
socialist after all and such, as anyone else working toward a social
transformation may face similar issues.  I'm interested in
hypothetical or logical contradictions as well, as we consider
possibilities for the future, and try to imagine or anticipate the
contradictions that may remain, or may be generated by any particular
change that could occur.

I'm also thinking of Cuba.  I've been reading about Cuba (stuff by
Brundenius and others) in terms of "moral incentives" vs. "material
incentives", and the contradiction between them.  I'm interested in
questions of how and why or under what circumstances does each one


I feel a consensus is emerging in some quarters of this list that there
are conflicts and contradictions in all societies. I recall Lisa
emphasising that the sort of non-industrialised tribal societies that
are sometimes idealised, nevertheless contain conflict.
I would go further and say that the processes of conflict are *part*
of the dynamic that keeps a society together.

One of the things that used to make Eastern European socialism seem
creepy to me was the image that everything was solved - a society united
by a beneficent Communist Party, with energetic young people going off to
pioneer holiday camps, to give pleasant expression to their excess
energy. It is only with the fall of that model that I have found I can
get fascinated about how in some ways it really did work.

Lisa is calling for a focus on models of successful socialist production.
I am sure this must include clarification of how internal contradictions
was/are handled. One caveat however about the definition of successful:
The yardstick of success is efficiency in producing competitive
commodities for the world market.

In many ways say East Germany was successful and efficient, (eg in
Olympic gold medals and in solidarity with countries against
imperialism) but it was not as efficient as West Germany
in producing commodities that people wanted. And one day the wall
came down and millions streamed through to pick up their 30 DMarks to
experience the freedom of being consumers in the West.

If a cooperative cannot produce a competitive commodity it must collapse,
however it handles its internal contradictions.

But perhaps because of Lisa's reference to incentives I misread her
last line. I took it as an expression of interest in why anyone works.
This is an important question because of the allegation that many people
in socialist societies are/were "underemployed", ie sauntering about,
being inefficient, grumbling a bit about the nomenklatura, and wondering
how to pull off the next scam. This was the other side of the coin to
the benefits of full employment.

But why do people work at all? The reductionist neo-classicals say to
get money. I would say that earning wages is only a subset of the numerous
interactions that lead to specialisation and co-operation
between individuals to create a social process.  If there is one single
"incentive" that is all powerful, I would say that it is to be
_valued_ by our fellow men and women. I do not use this word accidentally.
I do think there is a psycho-social continuum that explains how the
labour based law of value grows out of and is nurtured and contained
within this wider, if you like, law. The cash nexus is an alienated
subset of the processes of reciprocal valuation that underlie
all human interactive processes.

Chris Burford, London.

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