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New Left Review I/169, May-June 1988

Ernest Mandel

The Myth of Market Socialism

We must be grateful to Alec Nove for keeping the controversy to the essentials, avoiding red herrings and side issues. [1] All references to Nove are to Alec Nove, ‘Markets and Socialism’, NLR 161, January–February 1987, pp. 98–104. Our debate does not concern the most adequate strategy for assuring immediate rapid economic growth and increasing social equality in relatively less developed countries. Neither is its object the cause(s) of the growing malfunctioning of the bureaucratically managed economies of the ussr and Eastern Europe, and the next step forward for these countries; nor is it the determination of the way to break with capitalism in the West, or the discovery of some ‘general laws’ governing the transition between capitalism and socialism. Our controversy turns only around two questions: whether socialism as conceived by Marx—i.e. a society ruled by freely associated producers, in which commodity production (market economy), social classes, and the state have withered away—is feasible, and whether it is desirable—a necessary prerequisite for the maximum possible emancipation and self-realization of the maximum number of human beings. My answer is categorically ‘yes’ to both questions. Alec Nove’s answer is a categorical ‘no’ to the first question, and a rather hesitant ‘no’ to the second one. This does not mean that the other questions to which we have alluded are unimportant or irrelevant to the debate about the relative weight which should be given to market mechanisms hic et nunc, in the East and in the West. It is quite possible that resolute partisans of ‘Marxian socialism’ as a society without commodity production advocate an extension and not a restriction of market mechanisms in postcapitalist societies at a given stage, as did Trotsky in the early thirties. We shall come back to that question later. But it is a different question from the one whether a society without commodity production is both possible and desirable. If we don’t solve that problem first—i.e. the problem of the goal of socialists’ endeavours—we find ourselves in the unfortunate situation of Louis XVIII’s restorationist minister, the Duke of Richelieu, who didn’t know where he was going, but was absolutely adamant that he would arrive there.

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