The two works under review make important contributions to the reformulation of Left perspectives in the light of the failure of traditional models, whether communist or social-democratic. Elmar Altvater seeks to renew the critical force of the Marxist tradition in the face of the now universal dominance of capitalist economic systems; Hilary Wainwright attempts, on the basis of a balanced assessment of the neo-liberal doctrines of Friedrich Hayek, to reconstruct the Left’s strategies and objectives so as to encourage political pluralism and avoid the dangers of centralization. Although neither study completely achieves its goals, each develops constructive and original positions which will assist in the renewal of both theory and practice.footnote

Altvater and Wainwright react to the phenomenon of Soviet collapse with differing emphases which, however, represent well the range of Western responses to the system change in eastern and central Europe. The former reflects mainly on the limits, some contingent, some inherent, in the Soviet experiment which reveal a double failure: on the one hand, Soviet planning mechanisms were unable to provide effective control over economic life; on the other, civil society within ‘actually existing socialism’ was too weak to support the necessary (and perhaps, in abstract terms, even possible) movement for reorientation and reform. Wainwright’s starting point, by contrast, is not the collapse but what followed. After a brief flowering of active democracy and the values of civic republicanism at the moment of political transition, the re-emergent parliamentary democracies rushed towards the most negative version imaginable of their chosen Western models: in the economic sphere a chaotic process of marketization disfigured by huge inequalities and the immiserization of wide sections of the population; in politics the crudest forms of affairisme together with the propagation of values and theories borrowed directly and exclusively from the free-market conservatives of the West—the values of Reagan and Thatcher, the theories of Friedman and Hayek.

This development was the cause of acute concern for Wainwright because, in the context of the European peace movement of the eighties, she had helped to build links, sometimes personal ones, with oppositional groupings in the East, many of whom were now enthusiastic proponents of the neo-liberal order. It was a further disappointment when the shocked and disillusioned Eastern masses saw their best means of selfdefence against the degradation and dislocation of the ‘transitional’ process either in the parties which emerged from the displaced rulers of the old regimes or in quite sinister representatives of long dormant but (as now became obvious) never transcended national particularisms. Both emphases, that of Altvater and that of Wainwright, seem equally valid: in effect, they span the responses of the Western Left to the Soviet debacle.

In purely economic terms, the demise of central planning was surely old news long before the failure of Gorbachev’s last, pathetic, attempts at reform. In the West a thorough reassessment of public ownership was inevitable after the reverse suffered by the French Left in 1983. The French common programme held out the hope of social change in conditions much more favourable than ever existed in the Soviet camp itself: the Socialist–Communist coalition of 1981 enjoyed indisputable democratic legitimacy; its attempt at transformation took place, not from a position of backwardness but in the world’s fourth industrial power; the economic strategy was rigorous but measured—the financial sector and the most important industrial groups were rapidly nationalized, but without any ambition towards the absurdity of uniform, comprehensive central control. Although there will always be those who attribute any failure to weakness or betrayal, it is difficult to maintain that the government lacked either a coherent strategy or the resolution to implement it. Now, contrary to the views of some commentators, what failed in France was not the relatively superficial Keynesian element of the common programme but rather its Marxist core. In other words, the key problems were not macroeconomic but industrial: it would have been possible to modify the aggregate targets for growth if the newly state-owned enterprises had indeed proved to be effective instruments of modernization and reinforced international competitiveness. But this did not happen: by 1983 the contradiction between the commercial and technological imperatives facing the nationalized companies and their subordination to central objectives could be clearly read in the red ink on their balance sheets. Politically they were supposed to generate employment and widen French presence in leading sectors of the world economy; commercially they needed above all to shed labour and strengthen their international linkages. It was the appreciation of this necessity, rather than the turn to a more restrictive macroeconomic stance, which broke up the coalition and began the complete ideological virage of the Socialist party.

However, it is one thing to observe a strategic failure, much more difficult to give a Satisfactory explanation. Both the authors under review address this key issue of planning, although without explicit reference to the French experiment. In spite of very different analytical procedures, they converge, in their conclusions, on a revaluation of civil society. Altvater emphasizes two aspects of the Soviet experiment: the poverty of its goals and of its means. Firstly, a productivist view of social progress could only put forward, in a barely modified form, the same goals as in the West: rapid productivity growth, mass consumption and so on. But secondly, the Soviet system tried to replicate Western patterns of advance with an inferior system of socialization: the political monopoly of the ruling party excluded the complex and creative role of Western civil society in recurrently reforming and relaunching its own models of economic development.

Wainwright does not directly address the failure of Soviet planning—in her own political trajectory she had long since written off centralizing and totalizing visions of social progress. But she develops an argument which is absolutely pertinent to this discussion when she begins, in reaction to the neo-liberal positions of the Eastern oppositionists who have today established the agenda of ‘transition’, with a sustained examination of the doctrines of Friedrich Hayek.

Altvater himself conducts an occasional skirmish with Hayek. He points, for instance, to the immense gap in values between neo-liberalism and the views of socialists or social democrats which can be seen in the issue of demography. Hayek’s individualism excludes any perception of solidarity: for him (as for other thoroughgoing individualists such as Julien Benda) no one born into poverty has the least claim on society—if paupers are victims of injustice it is only on the part of those who procreated them. In this sense at least, socialists have much more in common with those who take a religious world-view; for Christians or Muslims humanity as such founds claims based on a common, divine, parenthood; for the most extreme neo-liberals such rights, and the corresponding obligations, simply do not exist.