Before 1917, various thinkers looked to innovative forms of social organization, or methods of regulating capitalism, to achieve change in prevailing structures.
They were often inspired by philosophical notions about the intolerability of the prevailing commercialization of everyday life – which, for instance, partly lay at the heart of the work of writers such as Thomas More (in his Utopia), or Jean-Jaques Rousseau (who deplored the ‘unnatural’ character of contemporary society).
There is no hard and fast link here, though, and it is better to think of socialist ideas in the immediate context of their time.
The situation seriously changed owing to the First World War, the October Revolution of 1917, the Depression of 1929 and the Second World War. The World Wars and the Depression undermined the economy of the European states so decisively that capitalism itself came into question.
Alternative means of economic organisation become popular. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (i.e. the seizure of power by the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in October 1917, and its success in the Civil War that followed) provided an example that attracted attention.
For Bolshevik socialism was not only critical of capitalism through means other than cooperativism and piecemeal state regulation. Among the Bolsheviks, a serious economist, Nikolai Bukharin, dismissed liberal notions of the ‘utility’ school as unworthy of the attention of those concerned with more than the activities of the rentier or leisured class.
More fundamentally, the Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin, argued, contrary to many socialists, that the state could provide a means for managing the economy for the benefit of society, once and for all overcoming exploitation and the conditions that led all society into a state of ‘alienation’ from the fruits of its labour.
The state could, Lenin contended, restore socially wholesome priorities to society on a large scale. Hitherto, this had not been a path socialists took, even if they supported state intervention in economic affairs.
For a dominant role for the state in such matters meant handing major powers over to great landowners and great capitalists (who exercised hegemony in governments in France, Germany and Britain until then).
Lenin took the line, in his ‘State and Revolution’ that previous critics of large scale state control had been thinking of such cases where the state was run by the ruling class. The situation changed when the proletariat and socialists took over the state.
Nationalisation and abolition of private property became the cornerstones of this perspective. ‘Planning’ also became crucial to it: the notion that it was possible, statistically, to evolve a plan of the economy and its potentials, and thereafter to ‘plan’ targets for it.
Such ideas were evolved by various Soviet economists, and become a major ingredient in the socialist critique of capitalism. S. Preobrazhensky, for instance, pointed out that with such enormous controls and powers, the state could achieve capital accumulation itself, in the way capitalist had done it in the early stages of the industrial revolution.
The rigour with which this could be followed up was stressed by the leading ‘Planner’ of the late 1920s and 1930s, S. Strumilin, and a great supporter of ‘targets’.
The ‘Planned Economy’ of the 1930s in the Soviet Union showed how this could work, achieving great increases in industrial production and revolutionizing the country’s economy. In all this, rigorous standards of welfare were preserved, and strict curbs enforced concerning the accumulation of wealth.
It has become customary, in recent times, following the collapse of socialist projects in the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe, to argue that socialism seldom established a powerful “critique of the efficaciousness of capitalism as a system of production.
Socialist thinkers, run the rhetorical assertion, are focused on distribution, not production. Standard histories such as Eric Roll’s A History of Economic Thought or W.W. Rostow’s Theorists of Economic Growth from David Hume to the Present reinforce the position through neglect of any socialist thought after Marx. Standard socialist accounts such as G.D.H. Cole’s History of Socialist Thought, moreover, do not seriously revise the perspective.
A respect for Marx and earlier socialists is evinced in non-socialist history in that they were the first to argue vigorously that distribution in capitalism would be so problem-ridded and capitalism so dissatisfying that society would want to overthrow it.
It is assumed that time and social policy solved this problem. If there is attention to the challenge of ‘planning’ (Soviet style) in Europe, it is quickly assimilated into the notion that whatever needed to be added to capitalism to set it right by this route was achieved by Keynesian policy in Europe. Soviet specialists may object, but this has seldom made an impact in European accounts of the socialist critique of capitalism.
Probably to an extent, since socialists rarely wrote about how to get richer unless it was through greater justice. But as standard respect for Marx indicates, distribution and production cannot wholly be declined.
A social path to prosperity is viable only as long as it is tolerable. This has meant that concerns with inequality have led to interventions in Europe about how to rework production patterns on many occasions in European history.
Again, application of Soviet planning was very much about growth-addressing the question of how to provide maximum prosperity for the majority of the population in as short a time as possible.
Just because there is no interest in the problems solved by the Planning mechanism in Europe today does not mean that his has always been the case. Especially in Eastern Europe (even before Soviet take-over), planning strategies attracted interest.
Soviet economists faced highly unusual conditions, and their ideas were innovative, and evoked some interest. Even non-socialist historians such as Alec Nove have pointed this out.
The current downturn in interest in socialist perspective hardly means that such perspectives on growth are foreclosed for the indefinite future in Europe. In fact, the persistence of the perspectives outside Europe in the context of a ‘globalised’ economy merely means that they will continue to draw attention.