A Pitch for Socialism

Branko Horvat has written an impressive blueprint for socialism which raises more questions than it answers. “In a sense,” he writes on the first page,

this book represents a life’s work…. I have been thinking about its content throughout my life. Ever since my class left the secondary school of a small provincial town in Croatia to join the partisans in the Yugoslav Revolution, socialism has been my predominant concern. My generation undertook to accomplish what Marx called for in his famous thesis on Feuerbach: to change the world, not just to explain it….

It turned out that changing the world was not at all a simple or easy affair. Contrary to our original views, socialism proved to be rather elusive and far from obvious…. Many of our “scientific” explanations did not survive the test of societal praxis. They were exposed as naive and simpleminded, occasionally as obscurantist and just simply wrong. Very soon—hardly three years had passed since the end of the armed struggle—the need for a thorough rethinking of the received socialist theory became obvious. Since then, I have been thinking about this book.

Horvat is today an internationally known Yugoslav economist, familiar as a scholar with Western political and philosophic, as well as economic, thought, and experienced as a working planner in the gritty realities of socialism in his own problem-ridden and still repressive country. Hence he is well placed to write a book that touches our lives as well as his. For the collapse of the vision of socialism is one of the great intellectual traumas for the West, not just for youthful Yugoslav partisans. As inefficiencies and indecencies have become evident in the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, East Germany, Poland, not to mention Yugoslavia itself, the once hallowed word “socialism” has become emptied of content. Moreover as we look at the ideas of socialism apart from the forms it has taken in specific countries—ideas of central planning, nationalization, the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—we find the same sickening sense of vanishing ideals, empty slogans, terrible mistakes.

It is this inability any longer to describe what socialism is supposed to be, or to explain why a country that achieved a realistic socialist identity would be preferable to an advanced welfare-capitalist society such as Sweden or the Netherlands, that gives importance to Horvat’s political economy of socialism. A complex work, by turns analytic, programmatic, historical, and theoretical, and supported by 135 pages of data-laden footnotes and citations from literally hundreds of authorities, Horvat’s book is taxing and at times tedious. Nevertheless, a reader who perseveres will find it coherent and I think plausible. For all the reservations that I shall presently state, Horvat convinces me that if socialism is to revive as an idea and an ideal among thoughtful people in the West, it will be along the lines, and for the reasons, that he has set forth.

Socialism, for Horvat, is above all a society that encourages self-determination. Its enemy …

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