Alec Nove’s Economics of Feasible Socialism is an important landmark in contemporary writing on socialism.
Not only does it consistently, and on the whole successfully, combat a series of long-established myths; it also attempts to present, or at least to sketch, the essential features of ‘feasible socialism’. It is unlikely that everyone will be happy with the scale of this latter section, just one chapter out of five, particularly as the previous four are supposed to have a mainly preparatory function. Yet the constructive element is there to provide a focus for concrete debate. Nor are the contours of ‘feasible socialism’ the only component of the book which should encourage fruitful discussion of contemporary problems of socialism. Nove covers a very wide range of issues, and as he never fails to make his own position clear, the book will probably swell the numbers of both his admirers and his opponents, while hardly leaving many readers indifferent. I myself am in agreement with the main thrust of the book, and this review article has been engendered not by polemical zest, but by the desire to articulate some
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly after my opening declaration of support, I should like to start by challenging the book’s title. As a non-native English speaker, I have spent considerable time poring over dictionaries to ascertain the precise meaning of the term ‘feasible’, but whatever the linguistic niceties I have never found anything beyond ‘practicable’, ‘possible’, ‘what can be achieved’, and suchlike definitions. If these are correct, then it might legitimately be asked why the feasibility of socialism should present a problem at all, or why feasible socialism should require a new design. Socialism has proved its feasibility in the historical practice of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, the East European ‘people’s democracies’, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and perhaps even several African countries. Nove is rightly unwilling to stretch the meaning of words too far: it would not be proper, for example, ‘to speak of a Swedish socialist republic—and not only because it is a kingdom’. footnote1 We therefore have little choice but to accept the official Soviet concept of ‘real’ or ‘actually existing’ socialism, whose feasibility, unlike that of other socialisms, has already been proven. Of course, Brezhnev and his like (but not Rudolf Bahro, who also uses the term ‘real existierender Sozialismus’) have sought to imbue ‘real socialism’ with the sense of uniqueness and finality, such that there is not and cannot be another variant of socialism than the Communist one, because that is what socialism ‘actually’ amounts to and anything else is unfeasible. This is obviously a logical, though not necessarily pragmatic, fallacy, and there are perfectly good reasons for a Nove-type attempt to demonstrate the feasibility of one or several other variants of socialism. Nevertheless, the economics of feasible socialism (not in capital letters) may quite correctly be understood as applying to the Soviet, Chinese or Cuban economy.
Judging by his frequent use of inverted commas (‘socialism’), Alec Nove would probably reply that the Communist ‘real socialism’ is not socialism at all, hence his search for feasible socialism is unequivocal. But such a retort would seem too easy, too redolent of that ultra-left approach, so convincingly refuted by Nove himself, for which Soviet experience is irrelevant to any discussion of socialism because it is not socialist. Admittedly there is a problem here. The notion of socialism entails a particular concept of property rights—a system of ownership whereby society is genuinely in control of the means of production and benefits from their use. As I have tried to show elsewhere, if a substantive, and not formal, meaning is attached to this concept, the act of taking capital into public ownership (nationalization) should not eo ipso
There is one more dimension to this problem: namely, the feasibility of the Marxian vision of communism, which includes socialism as its first stage. This has some significance because the Marxian vision is often used in explaining certain concrete features of ‘real socialism’, or invoked as the model which, whether by adoption or neglect, accounts for the failures of actual socialist practice. Alec Nove pays a lot of attention to this issue (Part One, ‘The Legacy of Marx’, comprises almost one fourth of the book), exposing the utopian elements in what may or may not deserve the name of Marxian political economy of socialism, and thus rejecting as utopian the left-fundamentalist constructs of socialism. ‘I think,’ he concludes, ‘that it can be demonstrated that Marxist economics is either irrelevant or misleading, in respect of the problems that must be faced by any socialist economy which could exist.’
Practice of ‘real
The reader of Nove’s book will find a much more comprehensive discussion of the unfeasibility of many fundamental components of the Marxian vision of socialism. It must be said, however, that this is only one side of the story. After all, even if we exclude such extreme and rather short-lived instances as the Maoist and Castroist attempts to do away with material incentives, the Soviet and most of the other socialist economies are run predominantly without a market mechanism, along lines closely approximating to the ‘single-corporation’ if not the ‘single-factory’ vision. As a rule, money remains passive, and resources are primarily allocated in physical terms, through a highly centralized and hierarchical planning system which is supposed to satisfy the ‘general interest’ as expressed in the scale of preferences of the superior authority. There are other characteristics of a similar kind, but the commandist—or, as I like to say, centralist—principles of operation would appear especially pertinent to the feasibility of Marxian ideas about the economics of socialism. Command economy proved feasible, in my understanding of the term, and if its foundations are correctly traced back to Marx—at least as a dominant trait in a somewhat contradictory picture— footnote6 then simple logic demands recognition that it is possible to implement such ideas.