In early July 2002, I asked Harry Magdoff if he would be interviewed for the Statesman, a Kolkata, India newspaper for which I write political commentary. Our first interview was so satisfying that we continued for several sessions. What follows is a discussion of something Harry has considered, what we can learn from the experience of the Soviet Union. It is, characteristically, concerned with learning from history. Harry is methodologically committed to the actual world from which all theory springs, to which it must speak, and to meet whose specific particularities it must continually be reshaped.
It is a summer afternoon in Vermont. I am talking with Harry Magdoff, co-editor of Monthly Review for thirty-four years. Harry has come to this rural location in the town of Fletcher, to this house which overlooks not just a meadow but a majestic old peak in the sun-drenched distance, following the death of Beadie, his wife of sixty-nine years. His son, Fred, in whose home we are sitting, is moving around the edges of the room, cleaning up after the light lunch of tuna fish and salad he has prepared for us.
Harry is eighty-nine. Although his face, with its characteristic goatee, shows the marks of age, his voice is firm, his gaze focused, his smile warm. His thinking is, as it has always been, remarkably clear. We begin a discussion about what can be learned from the experience of the Soviet Union with my request that Harry tell the story of his meeting Che Guevara.—H.G.
Harry Magdoff: When Che Guevara came to New York for a meeting of the United Nations, he asked if he could meet me and my wife, Beadie. As I recall, I brought him three books. One was Howard Zinn’s history of SNCC, a second I can’t remember. And the third, the one that was important, was a technical book by Piero Sraffa called Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities .
I told Che the reason that I was presenting this book to him was that I thought it was wrong to get involved in all sorts of narrow theoretical discussions about aspects of planning based on formulas, or on Marx. I told him that I thought you had to look at economic decisions concretely, in terms of the conditions of the country and the times. I was indirectly criticizing the decision by the leaders of Cuba at the time, the decision to go after a ten million ton sugar production, without considering what the limitations to that goal were, such as the condition of the sugar mills. There was the question of processing and not just of cutting cane. I said to Che, “What’s important is that when plans are made, that the planners, the ones who come up with the directions and numbers, should be involved in thinking about the actual policy alternatives in light of practical conditions.”
Whereupon he laughed and he said that when he was in Moscow, his host Khrushchev, who was then the head of the party and the government, took him around to see places as a political tourist. Traveling through the city, Che told Khrushchev that he would like to meet with the planning commission. Whereupon Khrushchev said “Why do you want to do that? They’re just a bunch of accountants.” In other words, Che knew what I was talking about, about planning being not only technical, but in the main political. I think from a historical standpoint that it’s important to know what this anecdote reveals. There’s a deeper meaning here, for me, and that has to do with the very origins and manner of planning in the Soviet Union.
Many left-wing people as well as right-wing people, assume that the economic difficulties in the Soviet Union, prove that one cannot plan a country. Yet I think a historical view of how planning developed in the Soviet Union has something to do with understanding the failure afterwards. And also with understanding the way the political system developed. Planning was obviously essential at the beginning, after the revolution. There were three plans proposed.
Huck Gutman:Are we talking here about the first Five Year Plan then?
HM: This was at the very beginning. They started planning. They lived through a civil war, many civil wars, and their economy was shot to hell. There were no workers, the factories were empty, the best workers were either killed or busy with governmental affairs, so that the problem of getting production going was extremely important. Their temporary plan, what they called a new economic plan, opened up certain doors, but came up against meeting the needs of the people.
So the economists drew up three plans. One plan was based upon a very practical view of what the limits of their reserves were, and the resources for the economy. This plan took the most realistic view of what could be done. There was a second plan that thought you could make a more efficient use of the resources and you could do better. And then there was a third plan, drawn up—without regard to the resources—based upon the will of the people and the drive of the people to get things done. It promised to achieve much more. It was the least conservative plan, and assumed a great deal without regard to the limits that existed.
Now, the decision as to which plan to choose was made not by planners or economists, it was made by the political bureau of the party, who chose the third. It turned out that this plan, which depended a great deal upon the voluntarism of the people, was successful ahead of time in a few areas. Seeing that, the Politburo decided that the whole plan could now be accomplished in four and a half years, even though there was still a serious question of whether even five years was possible!
To accomplish it in less than five years, or in five years, required, in a sense, a militarization of the economy. Militarization may be a big word, but the economic mobilization took on the forms of a war economy. Strong directors, pushing people to the extreme, attacking individuals who didn’t produce because of various conditions, putting the blame on them as individuals: the effort took on the shape of both the war economy and of a political system where directives were given from the top. Those directives had to be carried out: there was no give and take, there was no question of trial and error. Everything just had to be done and it had to be done in a hurry and with an iron hand; this was going to be the great achievement. In the same way, farmers were forced into collectivization.
To achieve what they tried to accomplish required a special effort requiring the utmost in existing resources, most specifically using all the labor you could get, which in turn was dependent on the labor supply. It depended on the productivity of labor. It depended upon raw materials that were available that could be dug out of the earth. And it depended upon adding machinery without giving consideration to the repairs of existing machinery and to replacement costs. The pressure of speed in development became more urgent with the rise of fascism in Germany and the danger of war.
So, the development of the economy up to the Second World War and past the war, when there were opportunities for tremendous expansion, was dependent upon the input of resources. When those inputs reached a limit, the economy reached a limit. The labor resources flattened out with so many people killed in the war. Raw materials were harder to get at than expected. In order to grow, more factories were added without paying attention to fixing the older ones. In many cases, reserves that were set up to maintain existing machinery were removed from a factory and used to build another factory. These elements do not tell the whole story but they were, in my opinion, key elements that led to stagnation in the Soviet economy.
Let me emphasize the way the plan was developed and the politics that came with it. I think that the separation between the planners, technicians and economists, and the powerful political bureau of the Party, was an important element in the difficulties that developed. First of all, nonspecialists were making the economic decisions, basing them on political decisions about was best from the standpoint of show, though of course behind it was the feeling that it was the best for the people. But at the same time a political system resembling a war economy was already being established.
Significant differences grew up amongst the people, and a privileged category developed, though not similar to that of the capitalist world. In the Soviet Union, those who were in the intelligentsia, or those who were directors of factories, or those who were directors of large sections of the party, became privileged. There were better hospitals for them, they got better food, they got better apartments, they got summer places.
At the same time, the Soviet Union built schools, built hospitals—there were significant achievements made under this system. But despite an emphasis on protecting workers and farmers, the way the planning was designed led not just to a privileged class, but also to areas outside of the big cities, and outside of the privileged sections, being neglected in the midst of the drive to get ahead in terms of national development. Regions of the Soviet Union in the south, in central Asia, in the west towards China, were much less developed. There were hospitals in Uzbekistan that didn’t have water, towns that had no sewage.
In fact, even in the more advanced sections, there weren’t decent roads from the farm to the city and attention wasn’t paid to agriculture. So that the errors, or the evils if you want, came from the historical situation: the nature of the society developed from that.
But let me say that it was not a matter of bad planning, or the impossibility of planning. If you are going to adapt a society to meet the needs of the people you have to plan it. There’s no other way. [When he speaks, Harry is always rational. But there are moments when the political passion which has shaped his life pours forth through his words: his phrases become more emphatic and, not surprisingly, even more eloquent. Those moments of shining intensity are bodied forth, here, in italics.]
HG: Harry, you yourself were deeply involved with American wartime planning, and have a real insider’s knowledge of how that planning worked. The 1940s saw the greatest state involvement in production in American history, with the result that American industrial and economic development surged forward. Could you compare the planning in the Soviet Union to that which took place in the United States during the Second World War? Why, to be specific, did the planning process work so well in the United States?
HM: It worked so well, in large part, because America had a machinery industry that could produce machines. Also, it had adaptable infrastructure and raw material resources.
HG: So it had much more in place.
HM: It had more in place. Still, in order to have an army that could beat enemies on both continents, in order to have the ships, in order to have the airplanes, in order to have the artillery and everything that goes with it, you needed something other than the economy as it existed.
HM: Production had to change. For example, there were orders from the government that no cars for civilians would be built. Factories were used to build military equipment. They built jeeps and cars for the military. No homes for civilians were built.
These decisions were made by the War Production Board which, backed by government authority, shifted the allocation of resources, which meant providing resources for one area and not having enough resources for what you needed less.
HG: You worked for the War Production Board?
HM: Yes. Here is an example that seems to me to reveal the essence of planning. During the thirties there was a surplus of meat and milk and other products. One of the problems of those days was, “How do you get rid of the surplus?” If you didn’t, a crisis would intensify for the farmers.
Yet overnight, the surplus of meat became a shortage of meat. With the coming of the war people had jobs and they could afford to buy meat. People in the army were fed by the government. And so suddenly, to deal with the situation, you had to have rationing.
And the same thing happened with other products, like with cars and gasoline; there was a marked distinction between who had a right to get a car, or how much gasoline they could use. Before there was never any problem: the only question was one of money. With planning, in other words, money was not the issue; the issue was what was important for society.
You cannot develop a decent society that cares for the lowest, the poorest, the most discriminated against, without shifting resources to them. And you can’t do that through the ordinary monetary economy, you can’t do that through the market. It has to be a conscious decision. How you can do it democratically is an issue. There is no clear-cut or easy answer for that.
There is a value that has to be recognized, and that is that you’ll never have the perfect plan. There will be errors. But there has to be room for trial and error.
HG: And also to correct them.
HM: And also to correct them, with consideration of what the people need, what is best for the people.
HG: Harry, let me see if I understand what you are saying correctly, and I may not. First, that in the original Five Year Plan there were flaws that would then replicate themselves in the future, and that among the main flaws were that it did not take account of the resources which were available. That it was perhaps too utopian. These are my words, not yours.
HM: No, no, those are right.
HG: And that there developed, because the goals were set by the bureaucracy of politics, a top-down structure of decision making. That was the second really major flaw. And the third one you cited was that it led to a privileging of the political-managerial class, if I can call it that, and so instead of creating a more classless society, it created a new kind of class that then looked out for itself.
HM: The immediate effect of the revolution was tremendous social change. But the directed economy, under conditions where direction became more important than anything else, didn’t allow for a change in the involvement of the working class in making the decisions. It didn’t allow for trial and error, and democratic conditions, where you could point out the error without being afraid of going to jail.
HG: So, in the absence of democratic conditions and with a kind of entrenched, managerial, political class or caste or bureaucracy, when they came up with new plans after the first Five Year Plan, they kind of followed the first plan and there was no effort to redirect things.
HM: To a large extent it was planning without planning.
HG: How could they have done things differently? Hindsight is always very.
HM: You can’t really say how. The conditions were horrible. You would need a great deal of sacrifice on the part of the people in any event to remedy the conditions. First of all, a lot of the country was war-devastated. Civil war went on for two, three years. Farms were broken up, land was unusable, factories were deserted, a lot of the machinery had been stolen. Under conditions of that sort, there were real problems. There were also real problems in terms of food, and so on.
The question was, to decide what was more important and the question was who was to make the decision. The point I was making was not so much the three plans, but to illustrate the fact that the decision was made by a small group at the head of the government, that in order to carry it out, they had to become more and more dictatorial, more and more bureaucratic, in their ways. [To emphasize what he is saying, Harry lightly thumps the table as he speaks.]
But you could see the logical connection between that and the development of the differences among the people. Because the leaders had to have certain rights and had certain priorities. For example, members of the Academy of Science, physicists and chemists, were privileged. Because in terms of the nature of the society, that’s what they needed, scientists. Now, there’s nothing wrong with their being able to eat and having a place to live, but you couldn’t have too many getting so many privileges without it having an effect on the rest of the population. [Again his hand thumps the table.] So that while tremendous progress was made in supplying health facilities for the whole population, the hospitals for the ordinary citizen were very different from the hospitals for the privileged. Which meant that you could always get enough medicine in better, privileged hospitals while you couldn’t necessarily get enough medicine in the others. It wasn’t an equal distribution.
These are political decisions. It’s easy to talk about them on the outside but I think the principle—I’m not thinking of this now as a historical study of the Soviet Union—is an essential one that needs to be recognized to overcome the notion that planning cannot be done.
Planning for society may have many weaknesses and many difficulties, but it is the only way to work to meet the needs of the poor and combat the enormous spread of wealth, the enormous spread in ways of living.
HG: So the basic mistakes the Soviets made at the beginning, in a sense, go against what you need in any successful plan, an awareness of your resources and what’s there in the real world before you.
HM: There’s one other factor, priorities. That is the most important. What made the difference in the U.S. during the war was that the priorities were clear. Not everybody would agree with the priorities. Within industry someone would say “this is more important than the other,” and within the military some would say “airplanes are more important than ships,” and so agreements or compromise had to be made.
But you have to have priorities. You had to know that this came first [again a thumping]. You also have to shift to meet the situation. When the American army was surrounded, you had to have planes with bombsights and the bombsights needed certain bearings. In that case, the bearings were first priority. And the planes that would use them were first priority. Because you had to meet that situation.
HG: So, if you needed bearings for truck wheels, they took a lower priority?
HM: Exactly. They had to take a lower priority. The advantage of the United States was that it had built up an industrial structure, an infrastructure which could shift from one area to the other, where you could apply priorities. But you had to have priorities.
When you’re dealing with society where the resources aren’t there, and infrastructure isn’t there, then you have to have priorities of an even harsher nature, and there the question is what the priorities are, what the principles of the government are. And as I said, the principles of the government are to meet the basic needs of the wretched of the earth, the basic needs of the discriminated against and the oppressed. Not only do you have to think in terms of their empowerment but you also have to think in terms of how you set up priorities for that purpose. And compromises are always made. But it has to be a clear-cut decision. That’s where the important public policy comes in.
I just wrote a little piece, I don’t know whether I’m going to publish it. One of the big achievements of the Chinese Communist Revolution in the very first days was that a large number of communicable diseases were eliminated. They were eliminated by involving the masses of the people even to the extent of killing almost all the flies. But mostly by educating them and getting the vaccines and so on and so forth. Now that the priorities of the system have changed to developing industry, to developing an economy able to compete with the world market, there’s an epidemic of HIV and AIDS emergent in China. And today one of the things is that the people don’t even know what’s involved, or what the dangers are. That’s where you can see the change in priorities, because in the early days it would have been different. You wouldn’t have McDonalds, you wouldn’t have certain comforts, you wouldn’t have automobiles, but you would have your eyes set on an AIDS epidemic, and hospitals where they examine blood. And also people wouldn’t have to sell their blood in order to have five dollars in order to be able to eat.
HG: In planning during the Second World War, you had a clear priority, which was
HM: Well, there wasn’t always a clear priority. There was an extreme shortage of machine tools, essential for working with metal. Not only was there a shortage of machine tools, but there was a bad distribution of what was available. Essential factories could not operate because they didn’t have enough or the right combination of tools. For example, an airplane factory would have plenty of lathes but not enough drilling machines and therefore couldn’t make their quota of airplanes.
I was called in to solve the problem. I was the last person you would expect to fix up the priority system for the machinery industries. I was very young, I had no industrial experience, I was an intellectual. What I found was that the scarce machine tools were being allocated not in conformity with the most urgent needs of the war, but were distributed according to the programs or bureaucratic desires of the different sectors within the army, navy, or air force. The essential equipment was assumed to be fairly allocated but in reality was allocated to suit the bureaucratic programs or desires of the different divisions of the armed forces. (I wonder whether this is the way some of the Soviet planning worked.)
HG: Conflicting military programs are exactly what we have today. Each branch of the armed forces has its own bombers and its own fighter planes.
HM: Exactly. And their priorities conflicted. Because you needed so much: you didn’t have enough machine tools, you didn’t have enough ball bearings, you didn’t have enough emery wheels, grinding wheels. So what I did was to develop a new distribution program in very short order. But I don’t want to make it “I” so much because I obtained the cooperation and advice of specialists.
The big problem of making a more rational and productive allocation of scarce products was to coordinate their distribution in keeping with the priorities of the Chiefs of Staff and not those of the separate branches and sections within branches. To make the necessary changes we had to get the cooperation of the different military branches, the heads of the machine tools factories, and the clerical staffs of the tools firms.
We also needed to get information from the machine tool companies, making records of it using the Hollerith IBM machines, before the electronic machines, to match the list of priorities with machines being produced and for whom. The War Production Board would set the overall priority.
HG: So if you needed the bearings for the bombsights, they would take precedence over other bearings.
HM: Yeah. The bearings tell another story. I had originally thought that bearings were something you couldn’t really plan, because there was such a variety and such enormous need for them throughout industry. Everything that moved needed bearings of all sizes, ball bearings, other types of bearings. The idea of planning in that area seemed to be almost impossible.
But it became clear that problems were arising even though so many ball bearings were being produced so successfully. For instance, there was the problem with the ball bearings of the Norden bombsights on the planes sent to help the surrounded army in Europe.
A short time before, I had prepared a report for the Board showing that there was likely to be a problem with ball bearings. A member of the Board was a leading manufacturer of ball bearings, and said that was nonsensensical. There would be no problem.
Then came the problem with the bearings for the Norden bombsight, and I was called upon to troubleshoot. Which I thought was very funny because I’m not a factory man. But they said, “You know more about the problem.” What I did was to get a system installed so that the bearing producers would be able to use a priority system.
HG: Was that difficult?
HM: A lot had to do with the planning within the large corporations. For example, General Motors has two divisions, each producing ball bearings in different cities. Tapered ones and ball-shaped ones. When I went to these two divisions, these two companies, they said what I was asking them to do couldn’t be done. So I went to Detroit and I went to the Vice President in charge of the statistical material needed for the internal planning of GM. I told him what the problem was and what we needed. All he said was, “They said you couldn’t do it. I’ll tell them that’s what we want. It will happen.” [Harry laughs] Since each one of the companies reported to the planning center in Detroit, they just gave out orders to do things another way. It was just as simple as that.
HG: But the Soviet Union also had a top-down system.
HM: Well, the Soviet Union had another problem. A lot of these things that I’m talking about, I want to make clear, are based on bits and pieces of information that I have.
Let me start with the Ford Motor plant at River Rouge, which was Henry Ford’s dream. They had a foundry, they had a glass factory, everything; everything to produce complete automobiles right there. They also had a ball bearings factory.
Now, you don’t just produce a ball bearing of a given size that’s needed. Metal is snipped off a wire and the pieces are processed in a way that produces different sizes as needed by different industries. Ford produced a lot of bearing sizes that they didn’t need at the plant and so they melted the ones they didn’t need and made them again. The bearing factory didn’t work efficiently and the long and short of it is that they eventually just dropped producing ball bearings as well as other “self-sufficient” components.
I had to work with the Russian Purchasing Commission, because a certain percentage of our products were supposed to go to the Soviet Union, our allies in the war. When I began asking about ball bearings, I was kind of startled. In the Soviet Union each different syndicate (that’s what they called them) did its own ball bearing production. It was exactly the inefficiency that existed in the Ford plant with their kind of planning. Here I’m talking on the basis of very superficial knowledge, I wouldn’t even call it knowledge, but inferences I had made from talks to the individuals fifty years ago.
What I found significant was that they had built self-sufficient syndicates, like the Ford system, which were different from the General Motors system. The General Motors system is to have individual factories, specialized in their own field, competing with each other and competing with others. But the Soviets had a syndicate structure, which I think was tied up with their whole bureaucratic political structure. The power lodged in the head of the particular industry and each head had control over everything in the process. But the more efficient system, from my standpoint, is when you are able to connect horizontally and not just vertically.
Mistakes are inevitable, but you’ve got to also be able to correct the mistakes. If you’ve got a firm-grip bureaucracy with interests along personal and political lines, it isn’t so easy to make changes, especially without a democratic structure.
HG: So the model of horizontal and not vertical organization of production is more responsive.
HM: I think that it depends on the industry. There is no science; it’s practice that counts. You also have to pay more attention to regional differences. The regional is very important, in my way of thinking. If you look at the United States and you compare the average income per person and you compare Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York—the income per person is higher than anyplace else.
HM: Then you go to Missouri, to Louisiana, and Mississippi and you get a much lower income. There is an interesting coincidence. The New England states have a much stronger concentration of manufacturing even though they have a lot of agriculture.
Regional difference was an angle that needed to be attended to in the Soviet Union. Such differences were not properly considered. To put it very crudely, if you have only so much coal you must see to it that the coal is distributed more or less equally, or fairly, among the different regions. And not only in those which are the most industrial. That if you have metal, the metal also becomes available everywhere, so that all regions can plan and develop.
Now, these are ideals. But they’re ideals that you have to think about. If you don’t keep the priorities shaped by the social perspective in mind, but start thinking in terms of technical considerations and the self-interest of the bureaucrats, you don’t get the kind of distribution that you need.
This is happening in China now. Shanghai is a haven of industry and prosperity. And the areas next to Shanghai are, as well. But then you turn to the west, and you get the most extreme poverty. And there, as I said, you also find one of the big areas of the HIV epidemic, in that backward section of China.
Now, you can’t change all this overnight. But you can order your society in a way, or plan your society, politically as well as in terms of economic planning, to take regional differences into consideration. In practically every country that I know of, there are differences among the people living in different regions. You find that even in this country.
You’ve got it in England, for example: England, which has had the industrial revolution now for over two hundred years, has a “Celtic range.” So Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and northern England are relatively poor and southern England is rich! If you go to France, southern France is poor. If you go to Italy, there are enormous regional differences.
Differences. That’s what capitalism produces. If you’re going to have a decent society that can serve the people, it must be the other way around. You have to have equality. And you can have equality. Not just by dividing the income, but by developing industry, together with agriculture, where people in various regions become more self-reliant, where they can get certain benefits. This may also mean that, contrary to the principals or practices of capitalism and imperialism, more capital is taken from the rich to the poor, than the poor send to the rich. And what you need is a social relationship, which by the way happened in the beginning of the Russian Revolution, where more capital went from the center to the periphery, than came from the periphery. So they had opera houses and universities that you normally wouldn’t have—but the rest didn’t follow.
HG: Was it the economic plan and its priorities, or lack of them, that changed the original movement from the center to the periphery?
HM: I think it was economic planning plus politics. I think it was. Look, Huck, I don’t know! Everything I’m saying is “I think!”
I think that it was mainly political. First of all there are advantages that immediately develop when you get a center of industry, because everything feeds into it. And a bureaucracy that wants to make the “best” record for itself is not going to worry about peripheral areas. In a democracy, it can be just the opposite: government can insist that the people seventy-five or a thousand miles from Moscow should have the same availability of food, the same resources as in Moscow. But then the privileged people of Moscow are a little less privileged, they would have less.
There’s always an element of sacrifice involved when you make this choice. The history of automobiles is a beautiful case in point. If you’re going to use resources for good purposes—metal for construction in poor sections, conserving nonrenewable fuels—you wouldn’t have private automobiles. You’d have other arrangements for transportation, but that means changing society. In many ways. In practical terms, it involves a different allocation of resources and planning, which can’t be done overnight. It has to be done with the consent of the people. It has to be with the willingness of certain sections of the people to sacrifice. That’s the only way you can do it.
We’ve been promised ever since the industrial revolution that as the economy gets richer, everybody will benefit. In one of the sessions I had with the army during the war, I wanted to get the sense of the military people on the proposed new plan for distribution of machinery. Some of them were very smart, but some of them were really not smart. When I made a point, one guy said “I don’t understand you. Doesn’t the tide raise all the ships?”
HG: Well, we still hear that line all the time.
HM: I didn’t know what to say! He was a major! And that was the point. Their whole mentality and ways of thinking were tied to the market or to the bureaucratic structure in the military forces, without consideration of the other things.
In the war it was clear. We had to win the war. When it comes to changing social relations, human relations, there are much more difficult decisions. But it can be done with mistakes with errors. But you also have to have a democracy, a democracy of a sort where errors can be faced up to, and where decisions can be made to try to change errors. There is always a learning process. You can’t get real smart guys to figure out a plan and know all the answers. It just can’t be done. A university of smart guys couldn’t do it. It has to be done through the experience of the people, with their involvement. How? That’s another problem.
HG: Without an external threat as in wartime, isn’t it very difficult for democracies to set clear priorities, especially because, as you pointed out, they are going to cause pain for some people?
In the United States every time we might want to set a priority— health care for everybody, a more reasonable distribution of income —every special interest intervenes. I’m not talking just about the people with big money, but also doctors and senior citizens and middle-class homeowners. It seems like every constituency has its interest and says, “We can’t plan that way.” Just like some of those majors were saying “We can’t do this.”
HM: Well, you’re asking very tough questions.
HG: I’m supposed to ask some tough questions.
HM: No, this is exceptionally tough, at least for me, because I think about it a lot. And I write to remind people of that question. But I don’t know the answer.
Think about the black population, the Hispanic population, the poor; If you are going to make a decision that gives first priority to the poorest, that will mean both taking away, not only from the very rich, but the not so rich, and also not leaving room for many people to have advancement in their standard of living. They are not going to be able to get a new car or any car, or whatever the case may be. Yet they are the majority. The question then comes: How do you have a democracy that is not simply one person, one vote? And I don’t know the answer.
We use the term democracy as if we all agreed what it means. But there is no real democracy, no matter how many people vote, if the rich and their allies determine the way the rest of the population lives. There’s no democracy if the rich and powerful dictate to and exploit the weaker nations, where the vast majority of the world population lives.
I think that none of this is going to happen without social movements. Big social movements, tied in with the working class. With the people. We’ll never get it until the consciousness of the people changes. We have to develop a new kind of democracy, which takes this into account.
HM: But consciousness doesn’t change overnight. So this is a problem that people should be thinking about.
HG: I think about it myself. One of the things I admire about our friend Bernie Sanders [independent, socialist, member of Congress from Vermont] is I think he understands that there’s a basis for a kind of social consensus in America. A basis. The very wealthy own so much—the richest 1 percent today own more than the bottom 90 percent—that if people were to decide, “Let’s look out for those who are not wealthy,” the great majority of people would only stand to gain from a redistribution of resources. Even if that redistribution paid particular attention to those who were most disadvantaged.
HM: It would be so in your mind, and it would be so perhaps in the long run. But the long run can be very long. The person or family who owns a mansion that has twenty bedrooms and has a swimming pool and so on, who will be moved to one of the rooms, while the rest of the house is given over to homeless people, is not going to accept that so easily.
HG: I know, and if we think about the United States, and the large number of people who have sizeable houses, obviously people would be very unhappy. But it’s not just a matter of living in one room. If you were to take every house that has over 2500 square feet and divide anything over that into apartments, and convert every second home in America into a first home for someone, isn’t this country wealthy enough to provide housing for everybody?
HM: Well, it isn’t just that. First of all I don’t think it’s that easy. For the person for whom it happens, it’s a tragedy, for their whole way of living and family relations will be lost. It would require a change in the consciousness of the people in order to set this sort of agenda, and certainly to vote for it and say, “I’m giving this up.”
But there’s also another problem. It isn’t just a question of “Are there enough houses?” If you go to the ghettos and you are thinking of terms of space to live in, not just if there are rats or other vermin, but decent homes, not fancy homes but decent homes, without the big highrises, with plenty of air, with space for young people to have sports and for older people to walk, with space for education and art opportunities and so on, you’ll have to reorganize the whole section. And when you reorganize the whole section, you have to have steel, you have to have concrete, you will need construction machines, you need a lot of other things. And that means you are not going to be able to supply enough of things that the other people want. That’s in the “rich America!”
HG: So hard choices have to be made.
HM: None of these problems can be solved in advance. It’s good to think about them. But what needs to be done is to get started. And you get started with an understanding of what the problems are and how to get to the willingness of a very large section of the population to want to change. In that process they’ll have to face up to the problems and they’ll have to work out ways of resolving them
I’m aware that most people are decent. I assume that they don’t want misery to exist around them, they don’t want disease to exist around them. However, they will ask, “Why should it be us? What’s going to happen to me?” And that’s a fact. People will change, but maybe a hundred years for the change, maybe two hundred years. The “competitive spirit” is as basic as a “sense of humanity” or a vision, or whatever else you want. And to change from a competitive spirit to a collective spirit, to speaking in terms of a collective, is a major change in the mentality of human beings. The competitiveness we feel has been with us for many, many years. It is not just drilled in, it’s part of the your life. You’re competitive in school, you’re competitive in sports, you’re competitive in how you live, in what kind of nice house you have, or kind of car you drive. I’m being partly facetious
HG: I understand.
HM: It gets down to the very basic things. Democracy and justice and the future. These are things you have to think about and discuss and get people involved in discussing. At the first, the issues should be raised. They should become a subject for discussion. People should be involved in thinking about them.
HG: They are not discussed very much in America today.
HM: No. They are not discussed in America; even in the more advanced and progressive circles, they are not discussed much. There’s just general feeling that they want something better.
That’s why I like this stuff: it’s why we need to talk and talk about it, so a hundred people hear it. So a hundred people hear it. Unless it’s done and done and done and spreads, there will never be change. We need an army of missionaries who will go out and preach equality and justice.
HG: As you have said several times now, the people who have the least, whose lives are the most miserable, should have the same life and possibilities as everyone else.
HM: They won’t necessarily have the same as everybody else. That would take a long time. It is more than moving to a roughly equal division of wealth. What they need is equal opportunity, equal power.
HG: And their basic needs for food, housing, health care. For everybody.
HM: O.K. Exactly, you’re right. Basic needs for everybody. In one of Bertrand Russell’s books, Freedom and Organization , he says what you need is to have an equal distribution of basic foods and other necessities and after that you can compete and fight for things.
HG: I feel that way, very strongly. If everybody had enough to live a life of basic dignity, if everybody had opportunities in front of them, the world would be a pretty good place. And if some people had more, I wouldn’t care. I think that’s one of the ways that finally one can convince people to give up some of what they have. We don’t need most of what we have
HM: No, no, I don’t think so. You can’t conclude how they will think. You just have to have it on the agenda, that’s the important thing. It’s getting the word around. They’re not all going to accept it. There are people who’ll fight it. There are people with anger in their hearts. There are people who are ready to kill in respect to that anger. That exists in our society.
And it’s not only a question of poverty or betterment. There are a hell of a lot of social problems that you’re not going to overcome easily. Facing the issues, raising the issues, discussing them or learning more about them, that’s what’s important at this stage. It’s not going to happen without that.
Look at what’s going on in China. They had lots of trouble and an awful lot of things that happened during the Cultural Revolution, all kinds of evil as well as good. But in recent years they have changed. From a society that was working towards equality, to put it in Mao’s words, “overcoming the differences among the people,” working toward that end. Now you have a society that’s created differences among the people.
HG: In Mao’s China, everyone had an adequate diet
HM: There never was a question of adequate, for the people who were poor and in need, and people who had one pot. But now it’s worse!
HG: I meant that in China, and until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, everyone had food. There were still people in the Soviet Union who had to stand in lines at times to get bread, but everybody ate. That’s not the case anymore.
HM: Everybody had a job. Whatever the problems, tremendous progress was made in the Soviet Union. My aunt and uncle and five children when we visited them in Minsk, in the 1930s, they lived in a two-room house with a dirt floor and an outhouse not far back. That was their life! But children went to school, they had food, they didn’t have luxurious food but did have basic foods.
The point is, now in China you have to pay for education. And there are people who can’t pay. And you have to pay for medical care. And there are people who can’t pay. This is the country where Wassily Leontief, an outstanding American economist who was not a socialist, said after traveling there that the lowest 10 percent of the Chinese people lived better than the lowest tenth in any other country in the world.
HG: So to return to our original subject, what can we learn from the Soviet Union and China?
HM: I think what happened in both was that the interests of the more privileged, who wanted to maintain their privilege, merged with the mentality that remained from the old system. In other words, it was a class issue. Not in the Marxist sense of the class issue, capitalism or feudalism, but it was a class issue. And I think that what Mao said was right. That there were capitalists roaders in the central committee.
HG: Today they have been given a free rein that they didn’t even have then, when they didn’t call themselves capitalists.
HM: That’s right. Still, what they have in China is much better than what they have in Russia. Russia to me is a mess. China kept the Communist Party together.
China kept some of the more liberal and radical ones in the party, and there still may be the opportunity, in certain aspects, for them to get into the party. But basically they’re pushing them out. They don’t push them out and shoot them, the way Stalin did. But they make certain kinds of accommodations so they can do what they want to do anyway.
What happened in the Soviet Union was that they deposed the Communist Party as head of state. What you got really is a shift to—a quick shift to—capitalism. Or an attempt at capitalism. What you got is what happened in the early stages of capitalism here: robber barons
HG: Cowboy capitalism.
HM: A long time ago a book was published on the Cologne trials, with an introduction by Marx. And Marx says something like this: There are going to be victories of the proletarian revolution and then defeats. And more victories and defeats. Until the whole working class learns to be a ruling class.
HG: I understand.
HM: I have seen so many changes taking place within this period. It’s just going to be such a long history but it’s never going to get better unless you work towards what Marx foresaw. The question of the working class learning to be a ruling class is a very big issue. So you have to learn from mistakes and to understand better.