Commentary Magazine


Socialism

To the Editor:

I suggest that Robert L. Heilbroner’s article, “Socialism and the Future” [December 1969], has two serious flaws. First is his failure to assert and stress the difference between socialism with political democracy and socialism under a dictatorship, which we ordinarily call Communism. To class both Norway and Soviet Russia as socialist, as Mr. Heilbroner does, without making any distinction between them, is both politically and economically absurd. Where political democracy exists, planning failures will be far more readily detected, criticized, and corrected than under a one-party Communist dictatorship. Consequently, many of the difficulties of socialist planning which Heilbroner stresses . . are easily corrected in a democratic socialist society. . . .

Secondly, Heilbroner asserts . . . that socialists favor equality of income and believe in the principle of “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” I was a dues-paying member of the Socialist party from 1919 to 1940 . . . but I never once heard any Socialist party member advocate strict income equality. They all recognized the need and desirability of different rates of remuneration for different kinds of work. They sometimes pointed out that higher pay might have to be given for those now doing unpleasant, low-paid, or lowly-regarded work (street cleaning for example) in order to get such jobs filled and that higher pay might have to go to those who worked longer or harder, or to those whose work required greater skill or a longer period of training (like doctors).

What socialists object to and want to end in a fully realized socialist society is effortless income for those able to work. . . . Such effortless income is derived from private ownership of the means of production in its broad sense. The owners of industry in effect own and control the jobs of others; this gives them great economic power, and they use that power to extract property income from ownership in the form of rent, interest, dividends, profits, and capital gains. . . . It is the private ownership of the means of production which results in large unearned incomes for a comparative few that socialists seek to end; they do not seek to establish rigid equality of income for those doing different kinds of work. . . .

Alfred Baker Lewis
Riverside, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

Now that he has explored the peculiar difficulties of corporate capitalism and socialism, I wonder if Robert Heilbroner would go on to assay the possibility of various mixed constitutions of capitalism and socialism, including built-in sectors of small private enterprises, self-managing cooperatives, rural reconstruction, and pure communism. I know he is interested in the possibility because he favorably reviewed my book People or Personnel, where I speak for it.

When I was young, such mixtures played a large part in liberal theory—they were called the “Scandinavian Way.” Now nobody talks about them. Can Professor Heilbroner explain why? I can’t.

Paul Goodman
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . In citing Russia, China, and Cuba as prime examples of socialism, even if only in the category of backward or underdeveloped countries, Robert Heilbroner places little or no value on the factor of democracy as a sine qua non of socialism. . . .

Let me also point out that socialism has shown itself to be not merely a system of government, but a part of government, or of political aspiration, in such capitalist countries as the United States, Japan, and in Western Europe. Whenever a government takes steps to help people who are disadvantaged by laissez-faire, it is employing socialist means for correcting imbalances created by capitalism: examples can be seen in social welfare, public housing, aids to home ownership, model-cities programs, and so on. . . . It is in this sense that socialism has penetrated much of the life of capitalist countries. In our own country, for example, even though a Republican administration may attempt to winnow down a socialistic gain made by a Democratic administration it is very careful not to abolish it. . . .

The socialist today, rather than ask for the overthrow of a government, presses his case for more social needs and opportunities. . . . But everything is becoming more and more complex. Capitalism cannot get along by itself, and, as Mr. Heilbroner reminds us, socialism too cannot avoid falling back upon capitalistic incentives and devices. Instead of talking about whether socialism, or the socialist impulse, has a future, we ought to talk about how to make it more fruitful for our future.

William Stern
The Workmen’s Circle
New York City

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Mr. Heilbroner writes:

I am interested in the kind of mixed system for which Paul Goodman is such an eloquent advocate. If have not made it the object of an extended essay, it is because I think such systems, in our day at least, are probably limited to those happy few nations that are small, reasonably affluent and sheltered from the international power struggle. Ten years ago, in The Future as History, I wrote that “With all its glaring and inexcusable failures, the United States is still probably the most favored and favorable place for a child to be born and grow up.” Clearly I was wrong then, and even more so today: the place to ask the stork to drop you is Scandinavia. If interest has waned in these humane nations it must be because they seem less and less likely to provide realistic destinations for the United States, to say nothing of the USSR, China, or Cuba.

As to whether democracy is a sine qua non of socialism, as Mr. Stern avers, the question is definitional. Of course, if we only call those countries “socialist” that have democratic systems, then most of the so-called socialisms must be given another label. In my article I was interested in exploring the kinds of structural problems that were apt to face nations in which a planned economy and an ideology of “human transformation” were paramount. I think it is as important to isolate these peculiarly “socialist” problems as it is to identify those problems that arise from the particular economic structure and business ideology of capitalism (democratic or not).

Whether the peculiar problems of socialism will be “easily corrected” under a democratic system is a matter on which I permit myself a degree more uncertainty than does Mr. Lewis. And I did not say that socialism entailed absolute income equality, but that there was a real contradiction between the general egalitarian aims of socialism and the income differentials required as incentives in a market-run economy.

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