Socialism is (still) Impossible… Reflections on debating the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s Adam Buick – 20 years on

by Barry M-C on January 17, 2012

Twenty years ago at Chiswick Town Hall in West London, on the 17th January 1992, I debated Adam Buick of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the subject of the impossibility of socialism. (This debate is one of hundreds of SPGB debates listed on Wikipedia, here.)

With the (then recent and ongoing) collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire of slave states, it would seem blindingly obvious that socialism was (and is) impossible. So why debate the obvious?

Well, for starters, the Soviet Union – with its massive central planning apparatus and system of state terror and control – was not and never really had been an example of what the SPGB mean by a socialist society. The SPGB is not seeking to erect the the type of coercive structures that characterised the Soviet system; in fact, the Soviets had initially tried abandoning markets, private property and money with disastrous effects under the so-called “War Communism” period only to swiftly re-introduce aspects of the market in limited ways to maintain some semblance of economic activity through the “New Economic Policy”. For SPGBers, socialism is all about replacing the “anarchy of the market” with “conscious control”, partly to deal with the issue of “alienation” that Marx railed against and partly because it would be more productive and more just than any capitalist society could ever be.

Rather than the “State capitalism” of Soviet-style socialism (typically associated with the apologists in the Socialist Workers’ Party), the socialism advocated by SPGBers focuses on and rejects the very fundamentals of what makes the capitalist system capitalist: private property, money, profit, and voluntary exchange. As someone deeply interested in but relatively new to the study of the nature and functioning of the institutions of market societies, I found it valuable to debate Adam Buick; a thoughtful and cordial advocate of the abandonment of those very institutions that I have now spent much of my adult life studying and defending!

Our debate over whether “pure” socialism is a viable alternative to markets or is even theoretically feasible (or attractive) harked back to the academic debates of the 1920s and 1930s between proponents of markets (principally Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek) and various socialist writers.  Mises’ 1920 monograph, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, sets out his basic argument that, in the absence of market prices (that emerge from the exchange of property), it is impossible to determine what is the best use of scarce resources.  Despite its imperfections, the price mechanism enables individuals to compare different production processes or deployments of resources to ensure the best outcomes; the absence of prices leaves economic actors floundering with no rational way of calculating whether the value of inputs exceed the value of outputs (a loss) or whether the value of outputs exceed inputs (profit).

(The extent to which prices within our “hampered” or “mixed” economy are distorted by government subsidies, taxes or regulatory special protections, is the extent to which rational economic calculation is inhibited.  Similarly, subsidies, taxes and regulatory protections – the whole gamut of “crony capitalism” – produce incentives that cause unintended, perverse outcomes and general inhibit economic growth and reduce prosperity.)

As an aside, the SPGB approach is seemingly for capitalism to essentially “solve” the problem of economic calculation.  Society would then move on to a post-capitalist existence, a world free of scarcity and ushered in by the very capitalist system that socialism would eventually supplant.  The SPGB sees this only happening when all the world’s workers come together and take democratic control of taking control of the means of production; until then, until the workers are unified and properly understand their class interests, any revolutionary change in society’s leadership is simply a change of personnel running the state and, therefore, is merely another victory for the state.

Mises in his library

Ludwig von Mises in his library (courtesy of the Mises Institute) www.mises.org

The problem of economic calculation is a central part of the Austrian School of Economics’ understanding of how markets work.  The previous summer to my debate with Adam Buick, I’d graduated in Economics from the University of York.   Though York was (and still is) a top school for economics, my real education in economics began with three lectures by New York University’s Professor Mario Rizzo at a Liberty & Society summer seminar with the Institute for Humane Studies in 1989. Mario’s lectures were my first proper introduction to Austrian Economics; founded by Carl Menger, the Austrian School includes great thinkers like Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig Lachmann, and Murray Rothbard, along with more recent thinkers like Israel Kirzner, Richard Ebeling, Roger Garrison, Gerald O’Driscoll, Don Lavoie, Peter Boettke, Lawrence White, George Selgin, Pierre Garello, and Thomas Woods. Indeed, I’d missed my graduation ceremony in 1991 because I was at Stanford University attending the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s Mises University with my good friends Andrew Farrant and Nicola Tynan.

As a freshly-minted Austrian and classical liberal, debating Adam Buick and the SPGB was great fun.  I remember the willingness and courtesy of Adam and his comrades to hear me out, to debate seriously and with good humour a very earnest young man intent on kicking out the foundations of their most profound beliefs.  In the 20 years since that evening in Chiswick, I’ve continued to argue for free markets and freedom of exchange; for property rights and individual rights under the rule of law; for the coordination role played by money and market prices; for the importance of discovery and entrepreneurship in driving economic activity; and I’ve continued to study the role of the state, morality and the institutions of a market society.

Whilst we disagreed over so many things in Chiswick on 17th January 1992, I would like to say thank you to Adam and his comrades for a such a pleasant and lively debate and to wish them well, wherever they are.  Such debates and discussions have undoubtedly contributed to my intellectual development.  Indeed, whilst over these past 20 years, my understanding, defence and advocacy of the free society has certainly matured, my conviction that freedom works has never faltered.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

aaron January 19, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Barry,

Have you told the current government that their rejection of private property, for example in fisheries, shows that they are fellow travelers with the SPGB?

Aaron

Reply

Howard Moss July 15, 2012 at 8:49 pm

Dear Barry,

I just came upon your interesting and courteous piece. The SPGB is still in good health and going strong – as is Adam (see http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb). You’ve stuck to your guns too, despite the blows that reality has dealt to the idea that the market works – though you’d no doubt say it’s not the market that’s at fault but how the state intervenes to limit it.

All the best,

Howard

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