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Parecon and the nature of reformism

category international | economy | review author Monday June 20, 2005 19:01author by Wayne Price - NEFAC Report this post to the editors

A review of Robin Hahnel (2005). Economic Justice and Democracy; From Competition to Cooperation. NY

Michael Alber and Robin Hahnel 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. 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?

Parecon and the nature of reformism

by Wayne Price

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 change-over will take place from capitalism to parecon.

Instead, what they do discuss is the first stage of the change-over (and it is very much thought of in stagist terms). Hahnel’s concern is: How shall democratic anticapitalists buiild 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, candidate.

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 panopoly 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, " 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 re-established 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 movements.

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 wouild 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, socialiist, 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 socfiety. 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 graduallist, 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 simutaneously 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 laws.

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 builiding a mass movment 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 failied 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 heirarchy, 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 t houghtful 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 Press..

Wetzel, Tom (2003, April). Participatory economics and the self-emancipation of the working class.

author by Oliver - Capital Terminuspublication date Tue Jun 21, 2005 02:24author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Wayne do you have any pieces that discuss how things that are part of a revolutionary strategy can be called 'reforms' or can you reccomend any places to look?

To me it feels really strange to call a victory which is part of a revolutionary strategy a 'reform'. To me it feels like a 'reform' is an accurate word for, say, the creation of the NLRB (national labor relations board, the dispute managers in USA), but the sit down strikes and the resulting victories which were wrested from the bosses do not feel like they can acurately be called reforms.

Similarly, the signing of the Voting Rights Act might be called a 'reform', but the autonomy, such as the fear the cops had of patrolling, etc. gained for afrikan communites in which the BPP (Black Panthers) was established should be called something else.

I feel like a reform is something which is hoisted onto the people in order to dismantle their struggle, whilst there should be a different word to describe something which is wrested from the rulers ought to be called something else. However, my thoughts on this are still murky, and i imagine if i did try to name it i would be duplicating and triplicating the efforts of our predecessors.

I don't know, do you have any thougts on what i'm saying wayne?

author by Wayne Price - NEFACpublication date Wed Jun 22, 2005 10:09author email drwdprice at aol dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

You are asking for more about reforms. Hahnel argues that all reforms are just that, reforms, and inherently reformist. He disagrees with his friend Michael Albert, co-creater of Parecon, who says that there are reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms (a concept Albert got from A. Gorz). You, on the other hand, are claiming that non-reformist reforms are not reforms at all, since they may be considered part of a revolutionary program. Personally, I see no point in quibbling over words. A revolution is one thing. Reforms are another, namely changes within a social system which improve the life of ordinary people but which do not make any fundamental, total, changes (do not make a revolution). Of course, we should be for reforms, for making life more bearable for working people and others under capitalism. But we should be for winning reforms through mass struggles, ways that increase popular self-confidence and independence and which lead forward, to more struggle. (Often reforms are won by both deals at the top and mass struggles at the bottom. We should be participating at the bottom.) Even the voting rights acts you mention were won through mass illegal demonstrations by masses of Black people, and led to further struggles, including a wave of worker militancy in the 70s. How shall we combine being for reforms (and struggles for things people want right now) and for revolution too (which we believe is necessary if real, permanent, gains are to be made)? How to integrate reforms into a revolutionary practice? Once I thought I knew the answer. It was the Transitional Program! Others thought it was the Mass Line! Now I no longer have a sure-fire method, I am afraid (although some of what Trotsky wrote about the Transitional Program is worth reading, provided you are very, very, critical). I think that we just have to work at it.

author by Oliver - Capital Terminuspublication date Wed Jun 22, 2005 13:14author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I think the problem with calling any situation where the system is changed but not completely revolutionized a 'reform' is that it is too general. I think it would be better to have a dichotomy of political action vs. direct action, which is how the polarization used to be.

By political action, i think of things such as the creation of the NLRB, the Voting Rights Act, and creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. By direct action, I mean things such as the sit-down strikes of the 1930's, the sit-ins to break apartheid hiring policies of the '60's, or the BPP or AIM organizing to throw the pigs out of the ghettoes and the reservations.

I think the functional difference is not one of the pragmatic, direct result (such as whether the 8 hour day is enforced), but of indirect results. Direct action results in popular empowerment - people are learning how to use skills they weren't able to, and they're learning that they can take control of their lives. Direct action can lead to a dual power situation and a potential revolution.

On the other hand, political action results not in popular empowerment, but in the empowerment of a select group of people recognized as 'representatives' of the masses - historically this has been trade union beaureacrats, some black clergy (SCLC for example), and federally appointed 'Tribal Councils', among others. In other words, political actions, even if the immediate result might seem good, result in the rise and dominance of comprador capitalists - the section of the ruling class who maintain their position by enforcing exploitation and subjugation of 'their' group for the larger ruling class as a whole (and who maintain power at the whim of the larger ruling class as a whole). This essentially results in the defeat (or attempted defeat) of the mass movements.

Hopefully that clarified my position somewhat, now that i've been able to think it through a little more.

author by Oliver - Capital Terminuspublication date Wed Jun 22, 2005 13:16author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I also want to say that i think its worth pointing out that this is what the original meaning of the term 'direct action' was - mass action which bypassed the state.

author by prole cat, personal capacity - captial terminus, atl, ga, usapublication date Tue Jun 28, 2005 20:47author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Wayne's comments seem to have arrived at the core of a fundamental problem. It is immoral to dismiss all reforms, in a purist fashion. And yet reforms can work counter to long term revolutionary goals.

Workers with families join unions, for one example. They struggle, among other things, so that these families will be safe and fed, rather than to be martyrs to my (sometimes seemingly ethereal) visions of revolution. They can hardly be criticized for such a stance. And yet history shows that reformist campaigns of all sorts, including (I think) campaigns around wages and conditions that employ direct action tactics, tend to be easily placated by the capitalists and their ally, the state. The NLRB that Oliver sites, is a good example of admirable direct action struggles, that prompted a reformist dissipation of the people's energies.

Parecon, to its credit, tries to solve this dilemma. But it fails, and (in my opinion, and contrary to Wayne's comments) it lands more on the capitalist side of the dividing line, than on the socialist. I think that we have ample experience with market-based "solutions" to humanity's ailments, to dismiss any further attempts out of hand. I try to be openminded. But, I am resolutely libertarian and communist.

Beyond that, I can only echo Wayne's comment, that "Often reforms are won by both deals at the top and mass struggles at the bottom. We should be participating at the bottom." And I would also echo Oliver's analysis of the importance of direct action. It is not a perfect formula, and leaves our struggles vulnerable to being co-opted by the ruling class, as has happened repeatedly in the past. But I know of no better strategic approach at the moment. To abandon all effort at reforms is to be unconscionably callous. To give ourselves wholly to reformism is to forsake revolutionary politics entirely. Each campaign we consider, must be reviewed in the light of the considerations of immediate benefit for actual human beings, and also of long term revolutionary building. It is a complicated world we inhabit. Dammit.

author by Oliver - capital terminuspublication date Tue Jun 28, 2005 23:58author address author phone Report this post to the editors

do you think it's worthwhile (or even technicaly correct) to dichotomize what we are calling 'reforms' into direct action vs. political action?

author by prole cat - capital terminus, per cappublication date Wed Jun 29, 2005 08:43author address author phone Report this post to the editors

In my opinion, it is helpful to first distinguish between tactics and goals. All goals that fall short of social revolution are in some degree "reformist". There are those anarchists who criticize any action that falls short of aiming for immediate social revolution for just that reason, because it is reformist. I consider this perspective to be overly purist, unrealistic, and even callous (as explained above). This leaves a two fold question: what reforms are most conducive to building towards revolution over the long haul, and what tactics should be employed to win these reforms?

To try to respond to your question, I find it helpful to separate direct action tactics from electoral tactics (avoiding confusion with propaganda, and even organizing as types of "political" activity). And even in the instance of electoralism, while I eschew voting and "anarchist" electoral campaigns, elections can provide a useful podium from which to mount propaganda.

By way of example, I thought Open City nefac did a brilliant job of bridging the gap between realistic reform-minded action and building for revolution, in the leaflet linked below. They agitated for a reform- a change in statutory law, in fact, gasp!- even as they called attention to the fact that only revolution offered a permanent solution to the problem at hand. It was reformist and revolutionary at once, in the best sense of both words, and I intend to shamelessly imitate the approached used in the future.

"We take or win all possible reforms with the same spirit that one tears occupied territory from the enemy's grasp, in order to go on advancing..." Errico Malatesta

author by Waynepublication date Thu Jun 30, 2005 00:44author email drwdprice at aol dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

I am for reforms, as part of a revolutionary strategy, but not for reformism: a strategy which is nothing but reforms. The key difference is how we fight for reforms (direct action, mass, democratic, mobilization, linking together struggles, etc.) and that we tell workers the truth: that reforms are limited at best, and can always be taken back, under capitalism, and will be. Only a socialist-anarchist revolution would consistently guarantee a better life for all. I am for winning reforms by threatening the rulers that if they do not grant them, then they will pay a price in increasing unrest and discontent, and increased revolutionary consciousness (as happened in the 60s). Also, I do not think that it will continue to be so easy for the ruling class to grant reforms in the future (as PC implies). On the contrary, it will be harder and harder. The social democratic gains of the post-war boom years are over. Since the mid 80s, there has been a world-wide one-sided class war waged against the working class. The rebirth of unions and union reforms will not be won without a radicalized mass movement in the US, bigger than the 30s and the 60s. In that context it will be easier to show the connection between struggles for reforms and the need for revolution. (BTW, the parecon theorists would deny vehemently that they believe in anykind of market. Not to argue the question here, but I think they have useful things to say.)

author by pc - ctc (personal cap)publication date Thu Jun 30, 2005 10:53author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Is it not true that parecon calls for the use of a currency to allocate goods?

author by Waynepublication date Sun Jul 03, 2005 06:22author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The Parecon system does not include currency. On the other hand workers are "remunerated" for how hard they work (number of hours and intensity, as judged by fellow workers). As I understand it, this is then taken into consideration when their neighborhood consumer council collects information about what goods people want for that period, which they put into the demand part of the first draft of the plan. So people do not just take what they want from the shelves of a storehouse, as under some hypothetical complete communism.

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