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Date Tue, 28 Jun 2005 09:02:44 +0300

A review of Robin Hahnel (2005). Economic Justice and Democracy; From
Competition to Cooperation. NY/ London: Routledge.
The second most important problem for anticapitalist radicals is
how to get from here to there; that is, how to get from a capitalist
society to a good society. The first problem is where do we want to
go -- what we mean by a good, noncapitalist, society. Working together
with Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel has spent years on this first problem,
developing a model of what a good society might be like, or at least how
its economy might work. In a series of books and essays (e.g., Albert
2000, 2005; Albert & Hahnel 1983, 1991), they have thought out how an
economy might function which is managed by its people rather than by
either private capitalists or bureaucrats--an economy managed through
bottom-up democratic cooperation, rather than by either the market or
centralized planning. They call this "participatory economics,"
or "parecon" for short. Their model involves coordination by
councils of workers and consumers to produce an economic plan. I will
not go into it now; it is further discussed in Hahnel's current book.
In my opinion, their model has enriched the discussion of what a
socialist anarchist society might look like.

However, they have written little on the second issue. Having
decided on a social goal, then what? Might it be possible to gradually,
peacefully, and incrementally evolve through small positive changes from
capitalism to antiauthoritarian socialism? Or must a mass movement,
eventually, overturn the capitalist class, smash its state--against the
will of its agents--dismantling its police, military, and other
institutions, and replace them with alternate structures? This is, of
course, the topic: Reform or Revolution? It leads to a certain focus on
the nature of the state.

Despite the subtitle of this book, neither here nor elsewhere does
Hahnel write about how to get from a competitive society to a
cooperative one. Unlike "reform," "revolution" does not appear
in the book's index. Asked about it at a New York City stop on his
book tour (May 25, 2005), Hahnel mixed it up with the issue of whether
an eventual change would require mass violence (which is a derivative
issue). He said, "I am agnostic on that." He went on to point out
that the radical movement is very weak now, decades away from being a
major force, perhaps not for 30 years. Whether a revolution is needed,
"I don't care; I won't be around." Which was an odd response
from someone who spent much of his political life working on a program
for after capitalism! Similarly I have heard Michael Albert, at the
Global Left Forum 2005 (New York City), describe parecon as a society to
come "after the bump"--the "bump" being his agnostic term for
whatever kind of changeover will take place from capitalism to parecon.
Instead, what they do discuss is the first stage of the changeover
(and it is very much thought of in stagist terms). Hahnel's concern
is: How shall democratic anticapitalists build a mass movement? (The
same topic is discussed by Albert 2002.) Hahnel writes, "I count
myself a libertarian socialist" (p. 137), by which he includes
anarchists as well as autonomist Marxists. He concludes, "...The
principal failure of libertarian socialists during the twentieth
century was their inability to understand the necessity and importance
of reform organizing....Their ineptness in reform campaigns doomed
libertarian socialists to more than a half century of decline after
their devastating defeat during the Spanish Civil War..." (p. 138). (I
will return to this truly bizarre statement.)

Hahnel calls on councilist socialists to participate in all sorts
of reform struggles, including economic reform movements. For example,
they might work in labor unions, either as rank-and-file activists or as
union officials, working their way up the union structure (he seems to
regard these approaches as equivalent, each having advantages and
drawbacks). Or they might join in "the anticorporate movement" of
Ralph Nader, "the environmental movement" (not "ecological
movement"), the "consumers movement," or "the poor people's
movement." Reform activism should include not only popular struggles
outside the establishment but also legislative goals. As an activist in
the Green Party, during the 2000 U.S. presidential elections he
supported Ralph Nader (who, whatever his virtues, is a clear supporter
of capitalism and the state). During the 2004 elections, he was instead
for the Greens' "safe-states" strategy, in which they did not run
a presidential candidate in any state where the vote was close. This
way their supporters could vote for Kerry, the pro-war, imperialist,

Hahnel notes that global capitalism is moving toward greater
attacks on the livelihood of large sections of the populations of both
the rich and the poor nations, setting off financial crises, causing
great suffering, and destroying the environmental and ecological
balance. But he believes that "...capitalism [could be] tamed by a
full panoply of social democratic reforms..." (p. 61). He urges
libertarian socialists to work together with social democrats
(out-and-out reformists). This would not result in a just society
which satisfied the deepest urges of humanity, but he thinks it would
hold off economic crisis. Capitalism would never become ecologically
sustainable, but at least "...reforms within capitalism can slow the
pace of environmental destruction..." (same). For such reasons,
"...it is crucial to win reforms that move us even closer to
‘full-employment capitalism' than the Scandinavians achieved during
the 1960s and 1970s" (p. 265).

Hahnel discusses the social democratic governments of Sweden in the
70s, of Mitterand's France, and of the present governments of Lula's
Workers Party in Brazil and the ANC in South Africa. In each of these
cases, the pressures of capitalism, inside the country and
internationally, forced the social democratic administration to move to
the right, abandoning its promises to the workers--and actually
attacking the workers. But Hahnel argues that a more militant and
radical version of social democratic politics was possible in these
situations. Left social democrats could have resisted capitalist
pressures, he claims, by such measures as halting capital outflows and
seizing capital assets. No doubt this is abstractly true. But if
social democrats acted in a militant and left fashion, they would not be
social democrats! And what if they had? Would the capitalists not have
counterattacked by doing what they did to the Popular Front government
of Spain in the 30s and to Allende's regime in Chile in the 70s? The
armed forces and police of the capitalist state, together with organized
fascists, rose up and overthrew bourgeois democracy. They murdered vast
numbers of workers and activists, establishing dictatorships, until the
eventual day when bourgeois democracy could be reestablished over the
bones of a dead left. Social democracy has no answer for this.
I agree that it is important for socialist anarchists to
participate in struggles for reforms. This includes wage demands of
unionized workers, anti-discrimination demands of women, affirmative
action for African-Americans, U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and so forth. I
also think that libertarian socialists have often been inflexible,
sectarian, and foolishly purist in their politics. But this is only the
beginning of the question. How shall we fight for reforms and in what
context? For example, when working inside unions, it is not enough to
advocate more democratic structures. Anarchists should fight against
the union bureaucracy as a social layer and political enemy, a barrier
between the workers and a full fight against the capitalists. As
another example, movements must make demands on the state (which has
power and money). But almost a century and a half of socialist
electoralism has demonstrated that participating in elections and
governments is invariably de-radicalizing and corrupting for popular
Hahnel does not claim to be a revolutionary, but he calls himself
a "non-reformist." He is perfectly aware that reforms under
capitalism are only temporary and can always be reversed; a totally new
society is needed. Yet if a movement were to follow his advice and focus
its efforts on struggling for reforms, without the goal of a revolution,
then how would it be different from a reformist movement? Regardless of
what its activists thought they were doing, wouldn't the movement in
fact be reformist?
Hahnel does not think so, for two reasons. First because, unlike
reformists, his goal is a noncapitalist, parecon, society, and second,
because he proposes to also build alternative, equitable, cooperative,
institutions. Both these arguments are weak.
There is a widespread illusion on the left that we could follow a
reformist strategy, but if we aim at a new and different society
(anarchist, parecon, communist, whatever) then we are still
revolutionary...or, in Hahnel's case, not reformist. This confuses all
reformism with liberalism, the program of improving capitalist society
without fundamental change. This is a historical error caused by the
recent (post-World War II) decay of the social democratic parties. They
finally abandoned any pretense of advocating a new, socialist, society.
But up until then, the social democrats had managed for
decades--generations--to carry out reformist programs while claiming to
be for socialism. Classically this was done under the banner of the
maximum and minimum programs: officially the maximum program was for
socialism, as was presented in manifestoes and May Day speeches; while
the minimum program listed reforms achievable under capitalism. That was
what the parties actually fought for.
The most right-wing socialist reformists also advocated socialism;
they claimed that reforms were the way to achieve a new society. An
example was the British trend of Fabian Socialism, led by George Bernard
Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. They took their name from a Roman general, Fabian, who won
with gradualist, guerrilla, tactics. Rejecting both anarchism and
Marxism, they developed a chemically-pure version of reformism. They
believed in infiltrating ("permeating") the capitalist parties,
while encouraging government intervention in the economy, including
national and municipal ownership of industries. But they believed this
would gradually lead to a new, socialist, society! The same was
believed by the French Possibilists and the German Revisionists. It is
true that Edward Bernstein said that "the movement is everything, the
final goal is nothing," which shocked even his Revisionist followers.
But even he saw the movement as a movement toward socialism. So it is
perfectly possible to say that you are for parecon, and to believe that
you are for parecon, but yet to be a reformist in practice, building a
movement which is incapable of going beyond capitalism.
Hahnel believes that the weaknesses of a reformist practice can be
offset by simultaneously building "experiments in equitable
cooperation." He refers to worker ownership of capitalist firms,
local currency systems, producer and consumer cooperatives, neighborhood
assemblies which negotiate with city governments, intentional
communities, and so on. What this amounts to is the old strategy of
overtaking capitalism by building alternate institutions--going back to
Fourier's communes or Proudhon's mutual banking scheme. This is not
an alternate to reformism; it is another version of reformism. It
proposes to gradually build up alternate institutions, behind the back,
so to speak, of the capitalist class, until it is possible to replace
the capitalist economy and state. (Sometimes this is miscalled a "dual
power strategy.") No direct confrontation with the state is
expected. Cooperatives and communes are perfectly fine things,
good in themselves, but as a strategy for replacing capitalism they are
will never work. They seek to compete with capitalism on its own
grounds, the marketplace. Mostly such attempts fail. But often they
succeed--and then they fail by success, as they become integrated into
the capitalist system. (I live in a housing cooperative, democratically
run by its tenants; it works well but is no threat to capitalism.)
Probably the most successful communes are the Zionist kibbutzim, which
are supported by the Israeli state for their use in occupying
Palestinian land. If the alternatives ever did threaten capitalism, if
there was a chance of their replacing U.S. Steel and General Motors,
then the state would no doubt shut them down by passing the appropriate
Hahnel is aware of the weaknesses of the alternate institution
strategy, and discusses them, as he is of the weaknesses of left-social
democratic-type reformism. Somehow he thinks that if both types of
reformism are done together, they will balance each other and result in
a non-reformist strategy. They will produce greater victories and
prevent demoralization and corruption among activists. Frankly it is not
clear to me how he thinks that one reformism plus another reformism will
produce anything but...reformism.
Hahnel's and Albert's strategy is stagist. First they are
for building a mass movement and then later, some day, they will deal
with the problems of the "bump." (I am not discussing the slight
differences between the two of them on this subject.) They do not see
the interconnectedness of tactics in reform struggles with the goal of
revolution for a new society.
Hahnel asserts that the anarchists failed to build a lasting mass
movement due to their lack of reform organizing. On the contrary, the
Leninist variety of Marxism replaced anarchism as the far left of the
workers' movement in the 20s and after, because the Leninists were
widely believed to have led a successful revolution. The reason why the
anarchist movement went into "a half century of decline after their
devastating defeat during the Spanish Civil War..." (p. 138) was not
their failure to do reform organizing but...their devastating defeat
during the Spanish civil war/revolution! Had the anarchists
successfully pulled off a revolution in Spain, they would have expanded
their influence greatly--while changing the world. (Hahnel does not
analyze the Spanish revolution. If he had, he would have had to say why
the anarchists did so badly when they followed his basic program of
allying with social democrats and bourgeois liberals, and pursuing a
reformist course.) In the 60s the student movement went from
anarchist-like "participatory democracy" to Maoism and Trotskyism,
due to the attraction of the Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese
revolutions. Had the anarchists led a successful revolution in France
in 1968, for example, this would certainly have increased their
influence! The recent revival of anarchism is directly due to the
collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite
states--involving semi-revolutionary events.
Even in reform struggles, the issue will be repeatedly raised:
shall the movement try to permeate centers of power, run in government
elections, work its way up through the union hierarchy, and so on, or
will it try to win gains by organizing outside of and against the
establishment, seeking to win improvements by threatening the status
quo. Albert (2002) says something to this effect, but does not
generalize it. This is the revolutionary approach to winning reforms.
Similarly, the way to give ordinary people experience in self-management
is not primarily through worker ownership of marginal enterprises but
through democratic, rank-and-file controlled, mass struggles (as a
parecon supporter,Tom Wetzel, 2003, points out).
The concept of participatory economics, as developed by Hahnel and
Albert, is worth exploring. They are inspired by the tradition of
libertarian, councilist, socialism. They share the values of
revolutionary class struggle anarchism. Even in disagreeing with them,
there is much to be learned from reading their work, since they are
thoughtful people who are dealing with important issues. Yet they
demonstrate, in spite of themselves, that it is not enough to attempt to
not be reformist. It is necessary to be revolutionary.

June 2005


Albert, Michael (2000). Moving forward; Program for a participatory
economy. San Francisco/ Edinburgh: AK Press.
Albert, Michael (2002). The trajectory of change; Activist strategies
for social transformation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Albert, Michael (2005). Parecon; Life after capitalism. London/ NY: Verso.
Albert, Michael, & Hahnel, Robin (1983). Participatory planning. In
Steve Rosskamm Shalom (ed.). Socialist visions. Pp. 247--274.
Boston: South End Press.
Albert, Michael, & Hahnel, Robin (1991). Looking forward; Participatory
economics for the twenty-first century. Boston: South End
Wetzel, Tom (2003, April). Participatory economics and the
self-emancipation of the working class.

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