The clearest and most concise statement of John Roemer’s project in A Future for Socialism occurs at the end of his book.footnote＊ In its concluding chapter he summarizes his argument as pivoting on two ‘crucial ideas’—the idea that ‘socialism is best thought of as a kind of egalitarianism, not the implementation of a particular property relation’, and the idea that ‘modern capitalism provides us with many fertile possibilities for designing the next wave of socialist experiments’ (pp. 124–5). Associated with these ideas are two other claims, that ‘the failure of the Soviet experiment is ascribable not to the egalitarian goals of communism but to the abrogation of markets’ and that ‘Modern capitalism does not. . .owe its success specifically to the embrace of the right to unlimited accumulation of private property’ (p. 125).
Roemer’s project appears to express two, mutually supportive interests: the political interest he has in developing a reformulation of the socialist project in a form that is feasible and defensible in the historical context arising from the Soviet collapse; and his intellectual interest in the ways in which the recent history of capitalism has shown the connections between market institutions and property relations to be far less determinate, and far more variable, than is allowed for in either standard economic theory or neo-liberal ideology. The upshot of both interests is a political and theoretical displacement and subordination of property relations. Within socialism, they are to be regarded in wholly instrumental fashion, their assessment and reform being governed by their contribution to the achievement of the egalitarian objectives in terms of which the socialist project is best understood. Within capitalism, property relations are recognized to be extremely complex and variable, embodied in diverse legal practices and cultures which create environments in which market competition can occur.
Roemer’s two-pronged argument is that, since market institutions are far more significant in generating the competitive efficiencies and productivity of capitalism than are private property relations, socialism should not be conceived as the project of
Roemer’s book is remarkable, and admirable, for its candour and rigour in argument; it is generous to a fault in its account of liberal critics of socialism, giving Hayek, in particular, all, indeed perhaps more than, the credit he is due; and it is further evidence, if any were needed, that the ephemeral political triumph of New Right ideology has in no sense resulted in a neo-liberal intellectual hegemony. Again, Roemer is undoubtedly right that successful market institutions come in many varieties, depend on a host of conditions not mentioned in the thin, neoclassical theory of market competition, and have no very determinate links with property institutions. In particular, contrary to neo-liberal
At the same time, A Future for Socialism is testimony to the fact that liberal thought enjoys a hegemony that is now almost wholly unchallenged, at least in the English-speaking world, where liberalism has conquered or marginalized all its political and intellectual rivals. There are now few socialist (or, for that matter, conservative) theorists willing, or able, to state their views in terms that do not derive from liberal discourse. Roemer follows intellectual fashion, and conforms with the conventional wisdom of the American liberal academy, in that his revisionist market socialism is indistinguishable from the egalitarian liberalism long advocated by John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel and (latterly) G.A. Cohen. Roemer himself acknowledges that traditional socialists and Marxists may object that he is offering ‘a liberal egalitarian creed’ and responds with the argument that the ethical foundation of the Marxist critique of exploitation in capitalism lies in a claim about unjust inequality in the distribution of ownership rights (p. 15). This hardly speaks to the objection that will be made by those who wish to preserve, and develop, a tradition of thought, and of practice, that is distinctively socialist. For, even if we accept Roemer’s interpretation of Marx’s ethical objection to capitalism, it shows only an overlap, or a point of convergence, between the Marxian critique of capitalism and liberal egalitarianism. It fails utterly to show the presence of anything in Roemer’s market socialism that is not also found in liberal theory.
The fact of the matter is that Roemer’s attempted restatement of the socialist project incorporates all the worst features of contemporary Anglo-American liberal moral and political philosophy—such as its individualist and legalist preoccupation with justice and rights and its formalist and unhistorical methodology of ‘concepts’ and ‘principles’—and eliminates the most valuable elements in socialist thought. The human subjects who figure in the model of a market-socialist economy given in Chapter 8 of his book are not bearers of specific histories, members of any particular culture or community; they are the ciphers of standard economic theory and of Rawlsian moral philosophy. The sense of human subjects as necessarily historical beings which is prominent in classical Marxism, and the view of individual well-being as indissolubly linked with the flourishing of historic communities and solidarities which figures in many traditions of ethical socialism, are absent from Roemer’s account of market socialism. Yet more decisively, Roemer says nothing which links the conception of socialism he advances to the needs, or struggles, of oppressed people throughout the world. Tellingly, he writes that ‘The most important work today concerning what the long-term proposal of socialists should be is that of political philosophers on
It would be unfair, and indeed mistaken, to suggest that Roemer makes no effect to supplement his theoretical model of market socialism with attempts at a historical interpretation of the fate of socialism in the twentieth century; but these attempts are, almost without exception, ill-informed, conventional, and naive to an extreme degree. Consider his account of the Soviet collapse. He tells us that ‘the world may be vastly better off for the fact that it [the Soviet Union] existed’ (p. 130), that its failure is ‘ascribable not to the egalitarian goals of Communism but to the abrogation of markets’ (p. 125) and, more specifically, that Soviet-style command economies failed because of ‘the conjunction of three of their characteristics: 1) the allocation of most goods by an administrative apparatus under which producers were not forced to compete with each other, 2) direct control of firms by political units, and 3) noncompetitive, nondemocratic politics’ (p. 37). This statement of Roemer’s, which could as well have been made by Francis Fukuyama, Jeffrey Sachs or any among a vast number of neo-liberal publicists, certainly expresses a conventional Western perspective; it amounts to the claim that the Soviet system failed because it was not a Western capitalist democracy. It enunciates certain general truths about Soviet-style institutions, but neglects the particular historical and cultural conditions which produced the collapse of Soviet institutions in Russia: the demoralization and loss of the will to rule of Soviet elites that was an unintended consequence of Gorbachev’s glasnost, the irresistible force of nationalist and secessionist movements within the Soviet Union, and the complete destruction within every Soviet institution of all allegiance to Marxist ideology.footnote1