LA Progressive

Socialist Planning Circles: Building Scaffolds Before the Wreckage

In my last article, Do You Socialists Have Any Plans? Why We Need Socialist Architects, I argued that the only way 21st century socialism is going to get any traction with working class people is to not only have a socialist vision, but also to have feasible plans which suggest transitions in between the current capitalist crisis and our ultimate vision.

In that article, I presented the following objections along with their rebuttal through a dialogue between two workers: an older worker, Andrew, and a young, anarchist worker, Sean. The objections of Sean, to socialist planning transitions were:

Let’s examine some small but hopeful moments that could benefit from and be deepened by socialists who have collective experience making socialist plans.

Disaster socialism as a precursor

In his book Introduction to Collective Behavior and Collective Action, David Miller cites convincing research demonstrating that natural disasters bring out the best rather than the worst in people. Contrary to centrist newspapers’ mantras about “looting”, most people respond to a crisis heroically. Instead of mainstream newspapers’ warmed-over version of a Lord of the Flies scenario, if we examine the mass behavior in the recent hurricanes to hit Florida, Texas, Mexico and Puerto Rico, we find stories of people acting altruistically, in socialist ways. From a socialist point of view, the problems with the crowd’s altruistic response to these disasters is that after the storm people have not built socialist institutions that can help them extend their altruism longer before the return to a rapidly collapsing capitalism. Yet the behavior of masses of people in natural disasters is very close to how people behave in revolutionary situations. How can we preserve and deepen the memory of such collective creativity?

Workers cooperatives

Workers’ self-management, workers’ control, and worker cooperatives currently exist and many are surviving with better production records than capitalist businesses or workers under state socialism.

Capitalists have done a good job of convincing people that there is “no alternative to capitalism because all socialism is Stalinism – and that has failed. This ignores the fact that workers’ self-management, workers’ control, and worker cooperatives currently exist and many are surviving with better production records than capitalist businesses or workers under state socialism. (Seymour Melman’s book After Capitalism provides a wonderful description of this). In the case of worker cooperatives, they are managed and run by workers themselves, most of whom have ownership in the company. Through regularly held general assemblies, workers decide together what will be produced, how much will be produced, how long and how hard they will work and what they will be paid. They also decide what tools and resources they will purchase and what they will do with the surplus. This is a radical departure from companies where workers have no say in any of these matters. John Curl’s book, For All the People documents the history of workers coops.We don’t expect miracles from any worker coop because they still have to exist within a decaying world capitalist system. However, worker coops and the flashes of “disaster socialism” are promising.

Rank-and-file union democracy

As many of you know, radical unions in the early 20th century in the United States like the Wobblies used to talk about workers running things on their own, having “One Big Union”. Now unions have given up any vision of workers running anything. Instead, they preside over the most myopic concerns at sparsely attended meetings. In fact, when my partner once asked her shop steward at the university where she worked, “why don’t all these separate unions unite under one union instead of having numerous small ones? Wouldn’t we be stronger united?”, the steward looked at her like she was from another planet. Despite this, one small bright spot in the United States is Labor Notes, a monthly publication which tracks union activity around the US from the point of view of the rank-and-file. These monthly reports are union workers’ experiences with the strategies and tactics they used to combat employers and were largely independent of union leadership.

What is missing from these scenes of “disaster socialism” workers’ coops and rank-and file union democracy is a unified political party which coordinates, synchronizes, deepens and expands all these activities and spreads them to wider sectors of society with some kind of transition program. We don’t have such a party, but if we did the party would need a coordinated plan to link these experiences together in time and space.

Limitations of Trotskyist transition programs

Unlike anarchists, Leninists have experience with state power and understand the importance of a socialist transition program which takes years and decades to implement. In the United States, the Socialist Workers Party used to lay out a transition program as part of their presidential runs. We think this was a very good idea. The problem here is that all the imaginary planning was done by the vanguard party. “The workers”, as Lenin said, “can attain only a trade union consciousness”. They need to be injected with the collective imagination of the vanguard. But the workers of Russia during the first four years of the revolution and the Spanish workers during the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939 showed more collective imagination than any vanguard party. They developed general assemblies, workers councils, and direct democracy by politically mandating delegates rather than representatives. Optimally, these delegates were rotated and were strictly recallable. These were the inventions of working class collective creativity that were not imposed on them by any socialist leadership. In the case of Russia, it was the Bolshevik party that reacted and supported these councils or “soviets”, for a time. But the origin of these political forms were workers, peasants and soldiers.

Filling in the Gaps

As I said in my previous article, socialists are very good at criticizing capitalism. You can get us to argue about what would and wouldn’t be allowed in our ideal socialist society: whether or not to abolish inheritance; how people should be compensated for their work or whether we use labor vouchers or dissolve all mediated exchange of products and services. But the moment you say “what about the messy transition from the current capitalist crisis to our ideal conditions?”, almost everyone disappears.

There are a few visionaries who propose scenarios about what socialist futures might look like and how to get there, including David Schweickart, John Romer, Michael Albert, and Erik Olin Wright. But do radical organizers use these plans? No. They either don’t know about them or they do know, and they dismiss them because the theorists are academics. But worse, they don’t even think plans are necessary. At best, radical organizers go from socialist principles directly to strategies, tactics and then to collective actions. My claim in this article is that between principles and actions there need to be socialist plans that inform strategies and tactics. Plans mediate between principles and strategies. They ground principles, making them more tangible while they give wings to strategies by keeping the long-view in mind.

Here is what I don’t understand. Socialists have no problem starting and sustaining book clubs in which they discuss and learn what the great theorists say. There are book clubs about politics, economics, history and anthropology. But there are no meeting groups where socialists are forced to write detailed plans to answer questions such as:

If I weren’t already a socialist these are the questions I would expect most socialists to be able to answer readily. If they couldn’t do this I’d never take them seriously. If fiction-writing groups get together and write stories, why don’t socialists get together and share their dreams as architects of socialism?

My personal experience with socialist planning circles

About three years ago, four of us got together for over a year and engaged in what we called a “socialist planning circle”. We met for three hours once every two weeks. We each developed our own plans for the most basic social institutions that would need to be reorganized as part of the revolution – food production, basic housing, energy harnessing, transportation systems, and workplace organization, to name a few.

The kind of controversies we addressed were:

Our procedure in socialist planning circles

  1. The current crisis of capitalism
  2. Transition one phase
  3. Justification for transition one
  4. Transition two phase
  5. Justification for transition two
  6. Ideal condition
  7. Justification for ideal condition

What was invigorating about this process was how often we already had ideas about these topics but we didn’t know we had them because we never asked ourselves, let alone anyone else. We also learned a great deal from the criticism from other members. Some of us were hesitant about our own plans but we could be critical of the plans of others. These criticisms in turn led us to look at our own hesitant plans in a new way. What was also interesting was the need to prioritize in what order we would restructure things in a socialist manner. It’s like a parody of the old show “Queen for a Day”. If the gods said you had a week to build a socialist system, what would you do first, second and third?

Justification for socialist planning circles

A socialist planning circle is a small group of 4 to 8 people formed with the intention of:

  1. Giving socialists confidence that we can plan the future now while living under capitalism. This involves learning and practicing our skills at planning transition programs for the infrastructure, structure and superstructure of socialist society among ourselves. We rehearse our scenarios in the hope that when capitalism collapses we have some semblance of a collective, structured understanding as to what is to be done because we have shaped, criticized and refined our plans through thought, discussion, writing, criticism and revision over weeks, month and years.
  2. Once we have experienced this process in a pilot group, we establish new groups to provide a supportive atmosphere to help working class people build confidence that they are smart enough to coordinate production across their workplaces.

There is a need for working class visionaries who learn to collectively imagine socialist futures, not by reading books, but by writing and sharing our imaginations now, before capitalism completely collapses. We need to rehearse, rehearse and rehearse our socialist plans with each other. We need to begin to cultivate our social imaginations now, rather than waiting for leaders or vanguard parties to do this for us. We have to have the nerve to say, “I can imagine transportation systems could be run this way, or food distribution should be run that way”. This project requires us to take seriously our socialist claim that we know how things could work in an ultimate sense, as we imagine how we navigate in the immediate future through the muddy, murky waters of getting from the crisis to our ideal conditions.

Objections

Why don’t you just start a reading group of socialist visionaries like you mentioned earlier rather than reinventing the wheel?

For the same reasons that you don’t begin scientific research with a literature review. You begin with your hypothesis and what the reasons are you think will support it. Then you do the literature review. Otherwise what you think is buried by the literature review. The same thing is true for art. You don’t begin drawing the figure by measuring it with a ruler. You begin with a gesture drawing, so you bring life into the drawing. You measure later. In the case of socialist planning, I’m convinced that people have an unconscious knowledge of how social organization could be. It is currently buried within them and needs to become conscious and worked on. The scenarios of scholars would only bury this unconscious knowledge. In the revolutionary situations that are coming, we are going to have to figure this out by ourselves anyway.

Socialist planning circles are too abstract and not connected to the working class. Getting together and spinning socialist plans pulls us away from the daily struggles of poor and working-class people. It will draw people who just want to talk and not act.

This is a danger in a discussion group in which there is no reading and where no preparation is required. It is less of a problem in a structured reading group because the individuals must make the effort to read the book in order to discuss it. A socialist planning group requires imagination and preparation, just the way a painting group would require people to bring two paintings to show for the next meeting or a songwriters group would expect people to come up with two songs for the next meeting. In some ways planning is more difficult that imagining ideal conditions. Ideal conditions ask you to imagine how things could be in an ultimate sense. Socialist planning groups ask, “How are you going to get there”. In my opinion, the second requires a far more active commitment. A socialist planning group would very quickly shed ‘dead weight” people who just wanted to talk.

These plans will dissolve once they face the realities of real social life

Any socialist who participated in these groups would know that when they return to their political practice much of the plans they learned to cultivate in the group would crumble and dissolve. However, the collective memory of some of these plans would remain and grow stronger by continuing in the socialist planning hot-houses over weeks, months and even years.

For example “participatory budgeting” is a way for people to become involved in local economics by having a say in the prioritization of the city’s budget. This exercise is designed to give residents practice in how to plan economically. But years ago, anarchist Murray Bookchin argued that the basic unit of city governance should not be city council, but neighborhood assemblies. City budget priorities were proposed at these local assemblies. Does that mean the city council in a capitalist city would accept that local neighborhood assemblies should exist at all? Of course not! Neither are they likely to agree if these assemblies decided that they wanted real estate “developers” kicked out along with a reduction of the police force. The important thing is to awaken in working class people a taste for planning and running things independently of the outcome.

The subtitle of this article was very carefully chosen. I am not advocating a static blueprint. I am advocating building scaffolds. In a technical sense a scaffold is defined as a temporary structure outside a building used by workers while constructing or repairing a building. Scaffolds are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for buildings. Scaffolds are not buildings. But without scaffolds there would be no buildings. The buildings themselves are like the socialist institutions of the future. The scaffolds are the means by which we build that future. There will be no socialist “buildings” without scaffolds.

As capitalism continues to decline, we will have more “disaster socialism” situations because the chickens are coming home to roost in capitalist ecological policies. Workers coops may spread because they will pay better entry level wages than capitalists and they are less likely to fire people in times of crisis. Rank-and-file democracy in unions will spread as workers because increasingly disgusted by a union leadership wedded to the Democratic Party. In all these circumstances the memory and enactment of socialist planning circles scaffolds could only deepen and organize what is already going on.

Optimally socialist planning circles would be an institutionalized, ongoing structure within a working-class party. It could certainly be implemented within the Green Party. But we can’t wait for these organizations to do this. Socialist planning circles should begin now. If organizations form later to house socialist planning circles, fine but we cannot afford to wait for them to see the light. We must be our own light. If they these political forms emerge later, they will be lucky to have us!

Bruce Lerro
Planning Beyond Capitalism