Alec Nove’s Economics of Feasible Socialism is an important landmark in contemporary writing on socialism. footnote 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 thoughts on socialism in response to Nove’s welcome stimulus. Needless to say, the issues I shall try to examine here are closer to my own concerns, and hence cannot be expected to reflect fairly and evenly problems discussed in the book, let alone to provide a summary of them.

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 be identified with socialization. footnote2 Official ideology in the Communist countries does maintain that nationalization equals socialization, on the grounds that the means of production have been taken over by a socialist state representing the working population and, after some time, the ‘whole people’. footnote3 Very few people free to express themselves will support that claim, yet in my own experience few refrain from calling socialist the system (or systems) created in Communist countries in the name of the Marxist theory of socialism. To deny Communist countries the ‘title’ of socialist would be tantamount to an a priori investment of socialism with fundamentally immaculate features, to an elimination of the negative by definition. This looks unacceptable for a detached examination of reality, and hence—at least for our present purposes—the most suitable basis for discussion would seem to be Schumpeter’s institutional definition of socialism. ‘By socialist society we shall designate an institutional pattern in which the control over means of production and over production itself is vested with a central authority—or, as we may say, in which, as a matter of principle, the economic affairs of society belong to the public and not to the private sphere.’ This is able to accommodate what Schumpeter calls ‘the cultural indeterminateness of socialism’: ‘A society may be fully and truly socialist and yet be led by an absolute ruler or be organized in the most democratic of all possible ways; it may be aristocratic or proletarian; it may be a theocracy and hierarchic or atheist or indifferent as to religion; it may be much more strictly disciplined than men are in a modern army or it may be lacking in discipline; it may be ascetic or eudemonist in spirit; energetic or slack; thinking only of the future or of the day; warlike and nationalist or peaceful and internationalist; equalitarian or the opposite; it may have the ethics of lords or the ethics of slaves; its art may be subjective or objective; its forms of life individualistic or standardized; and—what for some of us would by itself suffice to command our allegiance or to arouse our contempt—it may breed from its supernormal or from its subnormal stock and produce supermen or submen accordingly.’ footnote4 In this sense ‘real socialism’ is socialism, and very feasible too.

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.’ footnote5 Practice of ‘real socialism’ leaves no doubt that much of what featured prominently in Marx’s vision (and in the more elaborate designs of his followers before and after the October Revolution) could never be implemented or had to be quickly abandoned. This was not only the case with such general expectations as the elimination of social and national conflicts after the victory of socialism, or the overcoming of scarcity (both Lenin and Khrushchev explicitly promised abundance in the lifetime of their contemporaries) and the ‘yoke of the division of labour’ (Marx). It was also true of seemingly more down-to-earth measures such as the abolition of money, the introduction of direct labour-units in economic calculation, a strictly egalitarian pattern of income distribution (with nobody earning above the level of a skilled worker), a continuous increase in the share of services distributed free of charge, the banning of the right to personal inheritance in order to assure an equal start in life for all, and so forth. The market could not be fully purged either, and here I am referring not to any recent reforms but to the very principles of the Stalinist command economy. Thus, in the consumer-goods and labour markets, the frequent restrictions were viewed as departures from principle, and much effort was directed towards phasing them out; while in agriculture the kolkhoz market, together with individual plots, proved indispensable to the very survival of the system.

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.

With regard to the role of Marxist theory (or ideology) in shaping ‘real socialism’, I have recently been involved in a debate launched by the leading social theorist of the Italian Socialist Party, Luciano Pellicani, who has attempted to draw a direct link between Marx’s perception of socialism as a marketless economy, and Stalinism with all its terrorist features. footnote7 This seems to me an oversimplification, because it disregards the mediation of the real historical process in the adoption of some ideas and the rejection of others. In the case of the command economy, any serious analysis must take into account not only the exigencies of a crash industrialization programme imposed on a backward country, but also the exigencies of the totalitarian polity whose preservation remains the supreme objective of the Communist rulers, enshrined in the sacrosanct principle of the ‘leading role of the party’. The interaction of the two created an ideological derivative in which Soviet patterns were Marxist by definition, regardless of their true relationship to Marxism. This was the banner under which the monopolistic economic position of the state and the command planning system were transplanted to Eastern Europe (as well as to China, Cuba and other countries) after the Second World War. It helped in no small way—and here I speak from direct experience—to achieve the Sovietization of the economies of the ‘people’s democracies’.

Thus, there is no disagreement with Nove when, after careful enumeration of the realities of life influencing systemic solutions in the Soviet Union, he concludes: ‘In any event, “pure ideology”, even if it could be defined, never is and never can be the sole factor in any decision in the real world, which has to do with practical exigencies of some kind.’ footnote8 Nevertheless—and this again is not in opposition to Nove, but a different interpretation—the fact that, on balance, Marx was a centralist and an anti-marketeer in his views on the future socialist economy, that this was how Marxist theory was (and still is) perceived, had an impact on the formation of the Soviet-type economic system. Hence, the case for the feasibility of Marxist socialism cannot be simply dismissed.