Podcast Episode Review: From Alpha to Omega, The Calculation Problem (Part 1 of 2)

Tom O’Brien, friend of my blog and podcast, recently interviewed Dr. Paul Cockshott, reader at Glasglow University, mathematician, computer scientist, co-author of Towards a New Socialism, and a Marxist who has been in several Marxist-Leninist parties, including the old CPGB and the old Marxist-Leninist party, the CBOI. (The current CPGB is a different organ in that the pre-1991 party which Dr. Cockshott was involved, but both the GPGB.)   The critique of representative Democracy, particularly in its first-past-the-post form, is valid and interesting, but the framing it against Athenian Democracy and the Greek cantons is misleading.

Section 1: On Claims about Democracy: Direct, Athenian, Soviet, etc.

So let’s begin with the historical framing around the Greeks, Dr. Cockshott talks about how the representative where from drawn from the population at random in Athenian democracy, and that Aristotle would have called representative republicanism an aristocracy. There are several misleading things in these assertions: 1) Only the council of five hundred and some several positions were decided upon by lottery, but positions of tactical importance were elected by general assemblies.  Generals, for example, were not randomly given their post. The Greeks did not believe every cook could govern either, nor was there a classless society.  2) The 500 only partly set the tone and the agenda for the Assembly of 6000, The Boule, a council established by Salon, had representatives of the various ancient tribes and communities.  While the The Boule was selected by lot, being elgiable for the lot, severe limitations to the class and community composition of this group were maintained. 3) As Bob Black showed in his work in Anarchy After Leftism,  the records we have the assembly rarely if ever record evidence of votes consisting of more than 3000 participating.   This is despite in the early days coercion being used to fill the assembly, and then after reforms, pay was used as an incentive.   So even with socially enforced participation, the actual participation in governance seems to have been up to half its possible size 4) Even the 60,000 possibly citizens of Attica who could have been chosen for the Assembly of 6000, this number still excludes the vast majority of the population: convicts, slaves, children, women, foreign residents, public debtors, etc.  5)  The complication and time involved in the such a direct democracy was only possible through the citizens being relatively removed from the major of labor for accumulation.  The whole complicated system is way more than parliamentary drawn randomly by democracy:


6) Even before the imposition of autocracy on Athens, the courts served as a power check.  30 jurors could overturn or invalidate laws before proposal, and this effectively gave the court system the ability to override decisions of the assembly. While the relatively aristocratic citizens served in all these capacities and only in a few offices were citizens limited, they were limits.  7) As I mentioned before Generals and other positions of tactical importance were elected representatively, not by lot.   What needs to be further taken into account is that Generals could only come from the archons, and archons could only come from the formally aristocratic upper-classes.  In addition to being from the aristocratic class and being formally able to serve as Generals, archons could also effectively veto the Assembly in the role as advisor.  This sort of action seems closely related to the Roman role of consel or the US role of President. This ability was stripped increasingly from the archons over time, but their formal rule and class survived all the way into the Byzantine period.  (For more on these complications, I suggest reading John Rothchild’s Introduction to Athenian Democracy as well as Bob Black’s Debunking Democracy)

To draw that this Athens was a direct democracy decided on by assemblies chosen by lot is a over-simplification that obscures way more than it helps. Furthermore, this leads to Dr. Cockshott’s assertion about how Aristotle would have understood our representative democracy as an aristocracy.  This is not entirely the case, Aristotle would have seen our system as a olgiarchy, which is a rule by the few.  An aristocracy for Aristotle was a better way of ruling a medium-sized polity according to Aristotle’s politics as stated in both the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics.  Aristocracies, be that by class rule or by representative rule, would have a tendency to degenerate into olgiarchy.   Now, there is a tendency to see olgiarchy purely as rule of the rich, but this is an imposition: it is rule of the few so that wealth and/or power and this would degenerate overtime.   Aristotle does comment that the olgiarchy’s confuse the wealth with merit, but again this is not referring to some kind of merchant class. This distinction is important as, in Aristotle’s view, it was any for a polis as well as an aristocracy to degenerate into either a olgiarchy or a democracy.

This brings a view Dr. Cockshott implies but is only stated explicitly elsewhere.  In explaining elements of the manifesto to a group of Socialistiskt Forum, Dr. Cockshott’s Aristotlean assumptions show up again in explicating the following passage from the Communist Manifesto:

“The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat. […]

“We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.”

He argues the following,

Now, we have to ask what is meant by that, “winning the battle for democracy”, and I think there’s been a historical re-writing of what is meant by that, where people have forgotten a part of the original meaning.

The language in which Marx and Engels wrote is steeped in classical terminology. You cannot understand the way Marx wrote except by realising that he was a classical scholar. He knew his ancient Greek and Roman sources. The term proletariat is a Latin term, the term democracy is a Greek term, and the meaning that the word democracy has now, in common bourgeois usage, is quite different from the meaning that the word democracy had 160 years ago. 160 years ago the general view of what democracy meant was that it was mob rule. If you look at the sources on which this is based, if you look at the Greek sources, what does Aristotle define democracy as? He says democracy is not rule of the majority. Democracy is rule of the poor. Aristotle says it’s just a coincidence in one sense that because the poor are everywhere numerous and the rich are few, democracy is also rule of the majority. But the essence of democracy is that it is rule by the poor. And in the original sense of democracy, the sense that the ancient Greeks used, the sense that Marx was familiar with – it’s meaning is much closer to Lenin’s term, or the later Marxist term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Now, priorly, Dr. Cockshott argued that the proletariat was a political identity whereas the working class was an economic one. It is based on his reading of another passage in the Manifesto:

“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

Dr. Cockshott  argues the working class is constituted as a political identity transform the proletariat, which cannot exist as a class except in political activity. How does this tie into Dr. Cockshott’s particular reading of Aristotle?   There are a couple of issues here to disentagle both in terms of Aristotlean theory, in terms of classical categories, and in terms of communist theory.  Now, I have always thought overconcluding from the Manifesto, which uses terms that Marx does not use elsewhere, was theoretically programmatic.  When Dr. Cockshott asserts that democracy was “rule by the poor,” he is vastly simplifying the meaning.  It true that both the various semi-feudal and merchantilist regimes feared democracy 160 years in the past, but what Aristotle mean by “rule by the mob (demos)” is not simply rule by the poor.  He was not referring to peasants, slaves, or the proletariat.  These classes were excluded from the polity anyway. The poor for Aristotle were those who both lacked in property AND in virtue, and thus would damage themselves in persuites of liberty or equality against what Aristotle saw as the telos of the city state, which is a social harmony and productivity that would include all free born citizens.

So while Dr. Cockshott’s correct that Aristotle as well as most early, moderate liberals saw the democracy as mob rule, dangerous not only to the elites and/or the yeoman and merchant middle classes, it is not useful to see Aristotle’s definition and Marx’s definition as similar as if there was some kind of transhistorical polity to which Marx and Engels were appealing.  This, I think leads to a misreading of several elements of the manifesto.  Proletarian, itself, is not a position like working class.  Working class is a function within the larger economy, it overlaps with the proletariat in total.  However, the proletariat comes from a Latin context, proletarii meaning anyout without property of any kind as even plebians generally owned property.  What makes the working class the proletarii is not political will as Dr. Cockshott is arguing, but the fact the only interests they can have is political interests for being without property, the proleteriat has no economic interest. This is not a volunteeristic subsumption to some polity, but a practical statement:  “The poleteriat have nothing to lose but their chains.”  Furthermore, the working class as the proletariat had a particular power that other groups outside property prior do them did not have: the ability to stop production.

Now, I think we avoid the property relationship to proleteriat as well as the productive relationship to the working class for a reasons that should make dyed-in-wool Orthodox Marxists (of any stripe) uncomfortable: the working class in the developed world, where the majority of the world’s production is located (even if the raw materials for that production are not), has property and thus has economic interests, not just political ones. It should also make third-worldists more uncomfortable than it does as the peasants and surplus population of the third world do not really have the power to stop production in the world system and if they are developed enough to do so, they start replicating the conditions priorly in the developed parts of capital.  China’s economic development or less fits exactly along this lines. (There are reasons why many in the Left communist mileau called Mao a bourgoios  revolutionary despite the fact he did try to collectivize the surplus value generated).  Attempts to make this merely a volunteeristic political project ot which a class can embrace a political identity on their own will ignores these problems as implies classes can have agency as a whole, and are driven largely by practical concerns. Furthermore, attempt to redefine this purely in terms of consciousness and not material interest to attempt to psychologize an obvious practical problem.

Lastly, to say “… in the original sense of democracy, the sense that the ancient Greeks used, the sense that Marx was familiar with – it’s meaning is much closer to Lenin’s term, or the later Marxist term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’” is to be profoundingly misleading in this context, and again the classical definitions help make it clear.  Dictatorships were when the separations of the state were suspended and focused into one or two executives to transition the polity out of crisis. It was a suspension of any form of democracy.   The dictator of a class is not “mob rule,” it is subsumption of all various classes–including other surpressed and exploited classes like peasants, slaves, petit bourgeois, etc.   (Although one could argue that slaves mean the criterion for proleteriat, lacking economic interests, and working class, alienated from their labor and crucial to the production of commodities.  The difference between a slave and a worker being primarily a difference between oppressive coercion and expliotation. The slave is oppressed through violences and denied the ability to the sell their labor through direct violence, the worker is coerced by inability to produce the necessitates of their existence and thus in employment alienated from the full value of their labor.  The difference between slaves and workers politically may have been the due to the European focus of Marx.)  Marx states this clearly in a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer

Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [and] (3) that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society

Now, the dictatorship of the proletariat predates Marxist usage of the term. Joseph Weydemeyer coined the phrase referring specifically periods of the Roman Republic which civil power was suspended, modeling the prior call off of Cromwell’s dictatorship of the New Model army and the Committee of Public Safety’s dictatorship.  Marx started using the term a few months after.  In both Weydemeyer and Marx, this is intended to be temporary, however, as other classes are liquidated or subsumed into the proletariat, and the proletariat itself abolishes by removing the class distinctions in society and abandoning their prior identities as workers.  This is NOT mob rule.

In On Authority, Engels stated that,

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?

While Engels and Lenin limited the dictatorship of proletariat to the elimination of the bourgeoisie, but this binary view of class is misleading.  Particularly in the areas were their were communist Revolutions, it seems that world war and not the mobilization of capitalist production enabled the revolutions to actually take place.   Classes within the Tsarist Empire contained elements not even described in Marx and the same in China.  Jarius Banaji has criticized attempts to impose the framework of capitalist development to developments in Asia and North Africa prior to early modern imperialism. This is not without important because it implies that the aim of revolutions were not against the bourgeois or the bourgeois and the late Feudal classes, but the proletariat against the all of society.   In practice, both Stalin (and Trotsky had he had his way) spent a good bit of time eliminating peasant classes–sometimes by subsuming them through collectivization, sometimes by simple elimation.

Dr. Cockshott’s conceptions ignore this, and seems to tie Soviet Democracy as opposed by Marx more explicitly back to a romanticized version of direct democracy .  In the interview with O’Brien, none of this is seen as linked. This is not rule of the masses of poor as implied by Dr. Cockshott, an assumption that seems to show up with his interview with Tom O’Brien.  That conception is predominantly Maoist. Dr. Cockshott does not argue like a Maoist in his work anymore, but his assumption do not seem to have completely separated from the assumptions of the parties he belonged to in the 1970s.  Furthermore, this does lead to some strange omissions when Dr. Cockshott discusses the democracy of the Soviets.

Here Dr. Cockshott does make many interesting points, and very sound points as well as problematic ones.  Dr. Cockshott obvious expertise in maths and logistics do help here.  The layers of voting used in the Soviet Union, even more than in capitalist democracies, the various layers of confederated cabinets would concretize single party rule as each level of voting would compound a single party’s power.  However, Dr. Cockshott implies that the limiting of the various parties and even factions within the single party did not emerge into the 1930s.  This is misleading.  To understand exactly how this is misleading, one must turn from the mathematical model and to the details in the history.

The Soviets and the election of levels had begun in piecemeal form starting 1905, when the Bolsheviks had barely the support of a few hundred.    Lenin focused on the Soviets deliberately as the bolsheviks had majority control in the Soviets a year or two in World War 1.  However, prior to that time Lenin had been worried about the Narodnik elements in the Soviet system and their ability to log-roll in Soviet’s “Athenian-style” system.   Lenin had originally supported the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, saying in his Theses on the Assembly, “The demand for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly was a perfectly legitimate part of the programme of revolutionary Social-Democracy, because in a bourgeois republic the Constituent Assembly represents the highest form of democracy.” Now this contradicted his prior call for “All power to the Soviets”, but was more consistent with his fears of populist and trade unionist reformism. However, when the Bolsheviks could not hold the Assembly but lost it to other Socialist parties (explicitly . At that point, Lenin suspended his constitutional powers This compounded the voting scheme.  Dr. Cockshott says this may have been based on Marx’s description of the Proudhonist organization of the Paris commune, and it may have been justified this way.   However, the movement of forces that led to the focusing on layers of Soviet’s makes it seem much more intentional.

Particularly when you compare this to the Erfurt program, which Dr. Cockshott quotes himself in his talk to Socialistiskt Forum,

“The sovereignty of the people, i.e., the concentration of supreme state power entirely in the hands of a legislative assembly, consisting of the representatives of the people and constituting a single chamber.

“Universal, equal, and direct suffrage for all citizens, men and women, who have reached the age of twenty, in the elections to the legislative assembly and to the various bodies of local self-government; secret ballot; the right of every voter to be elected to any representative institution; biennial parliaments; salaries to be paid to the people’s representatives.”

This is not a confederated council organization, in which a party selects the only viable candidates as well as points separately most of the state apparatus. In addition, not only does Lenin dissolve the other parties, he dissolves tendencies and factions within the larger Bolshevik party “temporarily” during the Russian Civil War and this is maintained far beyond his death. Given the party’s control over much of the state apparatus, but 1921, the confederated Soviet structure can not be the sole or even primary blame for the total centralization of power despite the compounding.

While I actually do think most of the points Dr. Cockshott makes about contemporary democracy is valid, I think a romanticization of Athenian (and Swiss canton) democracy as well as very particular selectivity to what counts the history of centralization was.   Dr. Cockshott implies that when the party no longer appointed candidates after the liberalization of the 1950s, the same rules applied as in capitalist democracy favoring an increasing centralization of power.  This may be true, but Soviet machines prior to that in which the Bolsheviks ran had similar cliques and stacking as was seen in the US before the turn towards primaries–perhaps ironically just slightly after the Soviet shift in appointments.  Meaning charisma and connections mattered as much as competence, and in the Soviet case, often one liquidated one’s opposition.

(Part 2 on Calculation problem, the nature of Soviet socialism, and the limits to using capitalist methodologies in socialist contexts will come soon when I discuss the second half of Tom O’Brien and Dr. Paul Cockshott’s conversation as well some of the assertions of Dr. Cockshotts Towards a New Socialism). 


2 thoughts on “Podcast Episode Review: From Alpha to Omega, The Calculation Problem (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Hey, I really love your writings, especially concerning topics like council communism, which even though I’m a fan of it I really want to think critically about it.

    Is it not possible to deal with the problem of voter dilution by either:
    1. Having those in the bottom councils vote for the delegates in each higher council, in the same way we have local, regional, national, etc. elections today?
    2. Instead of just having delegates that represent the majority you also send ones that represent the minority? Each delegate’s votes might be “weighted” so that a delegate that receives 45% of the vote will have less voting power in the higher council than the one who received 55%.

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