Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Keynes versus Engels on “Socialism”

Matias Vernengo draws attention to an interesting comment on socialism by John Maynard Keynes here.

The context is as follows: in an interview with the leftist British journalist Kingsley Martin (1897–1969) in the New Statesman of January 1939, Keynes – commenting on the need for a new interventionist economic system and at the same time the need to avoid the authoritarianism of the Fascist and communist states – said this:
“The question is whether we are prepared to move out of the nineteenth-century laissez faire state into an era of liberal socialism, by which I mean a system where we can act as an organized community for common purposes and to promote social and economic justice, whilst respecting and protecting the individual—his freedom of choice, his faith, his mind and its expression, his enterprise and his property.” (Moggridge 1982: 500 = Keynes and Martin 1939: 123).
What Keynes calls “socialism” here is not Marxism of course, but what we would now call a social democratic state: a capitalist economy but with strong government interventions for macroeconomic stability and full employment, effective regulation and government interventions to address social and other problems. Above all, it is a system where all the best values of Classical liberalism – such as democracy, constitutional government, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of (and from!) religion, civil liberties, and reasonable property rights – are preserved.

Contrast Keynes’ ideas with Engels’ vision of the transitional socialist/communist state:
“A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?
Friedrich Engels, “On Authority,” 1874
Engels was fairly frank, and the historical attempts to implement Marxism fully confirm that this is how Communism works out – not only in theory but also in practice.

A rational and humane person should prefer Keynes’ liberal vision of the just society – and not the cult of Marxism and Communism, which has been a blot on the Left in much the same way that Fascism has been a blot on the Right.

Engels, Friedrich. “On Authority,” 1874

Keynes, John Maynard and Kingsley Martin. 1939. “Democracy and Efficiency,” New Statesman and Nation 17.414 (January 28): 121–123.

Moggridge, D. E. (ed.). 1982. The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes. Volume 21. Macmillan, London.


  1. Very dishonest of you to continue to conflate a revolution with the society it yields, after I've pointed this out to you at least twice. I suppose the USA should have remained a colony, too?

    (Also, the manner of democracy "preserved" in a liberal state is still a form of class rule, according to this VERY Marxist source [Marx warning: Extreme Marx].)

    1. "Very dishonest of you to continue to conflate a revolution with the society it yields,"

      So you don't even dispute Engels' vision of the violent and authoritarian nature of the transitional communist state? Very interesting.

      Also, the classless and stateless communist society imagined by Marx is as unrealistic and ridiculous as any Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist system, and I am not conflating this idiotic fantasy with the transitional communist state at all.

      The point is that the repressive and violent "transitional communist state" is really the only one we have ever seen in history, and anyone who isn't an bloody idiot should know this perfectly well.

    2. Please stop prevaricating. I don't dispute that revolutions are violent, authoritarian undertakings (do you?), but there are only so many ways to say "revolution != state."

      Classless and stateless society? We're not there yet. I agree that it's unrealistic at this moment in history, but we can develop our technology and our society in a direction that can make it more feasible, if we ditch competition for coordination.

      I'm of the school of thought that sees communism more as a process than a particular end state; we know what we're working towards insofar as we recognize injustices that need to be fought, but we can't say for certain what the "end product" will look like because there's no reason to suppose an end to history. Today's just society will no doubt be unconscionable to the just society of 200 years from now, just as the just society of 200 years ago is frequently grotesque to our eyes. It's idealistic and ahistorical to suppose otherwise.

      And yes, humanity has never gotten further than socialism. But nothing about it demands a repressive or violent society. We live in one of those already, in case you hadn't noticed, and it's time we found something better.

    3. "we know what we're working towards insofar as we recognize injustices that need to be fought, but we can't say for certain what the "end product" will look like because there's no reason to suppose an end to history. "

      lol.. you accuse me of conflating "a revolution with the society it yields", but then tell me that you have no idea what society would be yielded by your Marxist religion?

      If the future is open, then how the hell would you know the communist revolution wouldn't yield a tyranny as bad as any Stalinist nightmare?

    4. "If the future is open, how the hell would you know the future?" Not even sure how to answer that one. But if the future scares you, then I guess we shouldn't chase it, right?

      Anyway, one need only look at all the socialist states that were not "Stalinist nightmares." Would you side with Pinochet over Allende? Compaore over Sankara? Nicholas II over Lenin? Duvalier over Aristide? Are you aware of what an unmitigated disaster the restoration of capitalism was in the eastern bloc?

      Any excess one can attribute to socialism one can find also under capitalism. For someone railing on about "historical determinism," you sure are attributing a lot to the economic system, to the exclusion of politics et al.

    5. "Are you aware of what an unmitigated disaster the restoration of capitalism was in the eastern bloc?"

      The end of the soviet block was the replacement of state capitalism with private capitalism -- the notion that there was a "restoration" of capitalism shows how weak Marxism is in terms of understanding capitalism and in terms of its positive vision of a better society.

      The soviet block simply replaced private bosses by the bureaucracy. That so many people -- including so-called socialists -- cannot understand that shows how Marxism has distorted the socialist project.

      An Anarchist FAQ

    6. Iain, I am aware of the gradual restoration of capitalist elements in the Soviet Union, even prior to the Kosygin reforms. The USSR's missteps are every bit as instructive as its successes, and a student of history ought to be sensitive to both. Please don't make assumptions about me. Thanks.

      If you want to discuss anarchist v marxist analyses of the state, invite me somewhere else; this is not the best venue to be punching left. We're certainly getting enough of that from our host.

  2. I agree completely with this post. Thanks, I didn't know keynes' words to Amis, very illustrative of his political position. Sadly, in Spain there are more and more people that think as Hedlund, that all type of violence is justified in the name of a religion. "Haven can only be conquered by violence" says Pablo Iglesias, the emergent leader of the left. Good luck

    1. A propos of this ... As a small l libertarian type I am lumbered with the Ron Paul/Bob Murphy "praise the lord and pass the isolationism" types. LK describes himself as "of the Left." Well, I wonder when he repudiates most of what constitues the modern Left (post modernism, pc, vulgar marxism) but he is lumbered with Hedlund. My useful idiots want to build theme parks where humans have dinosaur pets and privatize sidewalks. His useful idiots want re-education camps.
      I have the lighter burden LK! Even with Major Freedom.

    2. "Don't know how to debate someone? Attribute preposterous positions to them!"

      Seriously, if you're going to mock me in the same breath as admitting to being a libertarian, then godspeed.

  3. Engels was simply showing his liberal politics in "On Authority". It's main thrust is that making agreements -- co-operating with others -- is "authoritarian. What rubbish -- it is an expression of liberty to associate with others.

    The question is how you associate as you can work together in authoritarian ways (e.g., wage-labour under capitalism) or in libertarian ways (e.g., workers self-management in associations in the various forms of libertarian socialism -- mutualism, libertarian communism, collectivism, etc.)

    Then there is the awkward conclusions for Marxism in Engels' "On Authority". If a workplace is "authoritarian" and despotism then what happens is you turn the whole economy into one big workplace? Surely despotism on a society-wide level? As was the case under Lenin and Stalin. So as well as the difficulties of central planning actually working we have the obvious problems of bureaucracy, abuse of power, etc.

    In terms of revolution, what Engels forgets -- in true liberal fashion -- is that in class society one part of it dictates to the other everyday. Workers are bossed about due to wage-labour, the so-called "sovereign" people are ruled by a few elected politicians and a state bureaucracy (not to mention the pressures from big money and big business on politics).

    Ending that hierarchy is an act of liberation and not remotely "authoritarian" -- unless you think that stopping someone hitting you on the head with a stick is "authoritarian" to the person hitting you.

    As regards the Marxist "transitional" state, yes, that is the key issue. Concentrating power into the hands of a few party leaders and arming them with state power is hardly likely to result in freedom. Power needs to be decentralised, federated, etc. in order for the promises of socialism to be achieved -- in other words, we need libertarian socialism, self-managed socialism, anarchism, etc.

    Marxist socialism is ultimately utopian both in goals and strategy. Its most appealing work, Marx's "The Civil War in France", is just reporting on a revolution influenced by the ideas of Proudhon -- hence its federalism, associationism, etc.

    An Anarchist FAQ

  4. There will always be a big man. It always arises in ape society and pretending that you can avoid that is naive.

    So the question is whether you want a big man under general control, or a big man under specific control.

    The form of distribution that may work is actually smaller states fire walled by their own monetary system. But you will need to have a big man whether you like it or not.

  5. Hi LK,

    The social liberalism of Keynes is far preferable to any communist system that occurred in practice, because there is a greater dispersion of political and economic power under capitalism. and the State can sometimes act in the interests of the working people.

    In Communism (as we have generally known it in practice),the means of production were 'owned' by the people but controlled by an authoritarian state.

    I don't have much regards for utopian schemes like democratic socialist Marxism or peoples ownership and control of the means of production, without seeing how safeguards would apply to prevent it from going totalitarian. Nor do I have much confidence in the Anarcho-Capitalism of people like Rothbard.

    Thanks for this post. I quite like your website

    John Arthur

  6. Yes, good point anonymous. That is an opposite form of fundamentalism so pernicious as communism.