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The Necessity of Planning: In Honor of Harry Magdoff

István Mészárosis author of Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads (Monthly Review Press, 2001) and Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition (Monthly Review Press, 1995).

I wrote some time ago that “Harry Magdoff is a great teacher and an indomitable combatant. His contributions to socialist theory—on imperialism and monopolistic developments, as well as on the vital role of planning for any viable society of the future—are of a truly lasting importance.”

Sadly, he is no longer with us. But he left to the present and the future a great legacy.

In his last conversation with Che Guevara, Harry Magdoff asked the question: “You know how I feel about Cuba. What should I do?” Che answered him with these words: “Keep educating me.”

In his writings and in his conversations Harry was a truly great teacher who could offer valuable and generously acknowledged strategic insights even to a giant of the socialist movement like Che Guevara. It will be now up to the younger generation to make good use of Harry Magdoff’s rich legacy, appropriating and expanding its great theoretical insights under the changing circumstances and fighting, in his spirit, as uncompromising combatants, for their realization in the critical decades ahead of us.

I know that the question of planning was always very close to Harry’s heart. The article that follows was not written for the sad occasion which we are now marking. It is part of a longer study. However, every line of it is written in his spirit, as an enduring concern of our time. This is why I offer it as my tribute on the occasion of his death.

We shall always remember Harry Magdoff with admiration and affection.

Planning: The Necessity to Overcome Capital’s Abuse of Time

Socialism, the name for the necessary alternative mode of reproducing our conditions of existence on this finite planet under the present historical circumstances, is inconceivable without adopting a rational and humanly rewarding form of social metabolic control, in place of capital’s antagonistic and ever more destructive way of managing the planetary household.

Planning, in the fullest sense of the term, is an essential feature of the socialist mode of social metabolic control. For the alternative mode of control must be viable not only as regards the immediate impact of productive activity on the conditions of individual and societal reproduction but also indefinitely, as far away in the future as one can and must envisage for the sake of instituting and keeping alive the appropriate safeguards.

In this respect in capital’s social metabolic order we encounter a striking contradiction. For, on the one hand, no previous mode of societal reproduction ever had an even remotely comparable impact on the vital conditions of existence—including the natural substratum of human life itself—not only in its immediacy but even in the longest run. At the same time, on the other hand, the long-term historical dimension is completely missing from the vision of capital’s mode of social metabolic control, turning it thereby into an irrational and utterly irresponsible form of husbandry. The requirement of rationality at the level of the most minute details is not only compatible with capital, on the time-scale of immediacy, but also required by it, as the elementary condition of its tenability at all, finding its suitable operational framework in the capitalist market. The trouble is, though, that the vitally important dimension of overall rationality is necessarily absent from this mode of social reproductive control. The increasing involvement of the capitalist state as a lopsided corrective is a very poor—and ultimately untenable—substitute for it.

This incorrigible structural defect of the system rules out the possibility of historical consciousness precisely in an age when the need for it would be the greatest: in our own historical period of globalization. For the unforeseen—and by the personifications of capital in principle unforeseeable—long-term impact of the system’s development has by now invaded the whole of the planet. Accordingly, if once upon a time it was relatively justified to characterize the capitalist order as a system of “productive destruction,” as depicted by some major liberal political economists like Schumpeter, it becomes a most dangerous delusion to continue to celebrate it in such terms today. That is, to misrepresent it in that way in an age when—under the impact of late-twentieth-century historical development, resulting in the stubbornly persisting structural crisis of the capital system in its entirety—it becomes absolutely unavoidable to confront the devastating impact and the fateful potentiality of destructive production: the diametrical opposite of the idealized “productive destruction.”

Only a rationally planned system of social metabolic reproduction could show a way out of the contradictions and dangers of this historically produced predicament which is now running out of control. To remedy it would require a form of genuine comprehensive planning which—in order to qualify for its now absolutely necessary but never in the past practically feasible role—must be able to deal in our own time with the manifold problems and all dimensions of a truly global socioeconomic, political, and cultural development, and not only with the difficulties of coordinating and positively enhancing the productive powers of particular countries.

Understandably, under the deeply embedded vested interests and self-mythologizing circumstances of the dominant capitalist “market economy,” the very idea of a successfully planned alternative form of economy is a priori ruled out of order. In their recently published powerful advocacy of socialism Harry and Fred Magdoff characterized this myopic approach opposed to planning in the following terms:

The skepticism that people feel about the efficacy or even possibility of central planning admits only the shortcomings while denying the achievements. There is nothing in central planning that requires commandism and confining all aspects of planning to the central authorities. That occurs because of the influence of special bureaucratic interests and the overarching power of the state. Planning for the people has to involve the people. Plans of regions, cities, and towns need the active involvement of local populations, factories, and stores in worker and community councils. The overall program—especially deciding the distribution of resources between consumption goods and investment—calls for people’s participation. And for that, the people must have the facts, a clear way to inform their thinking, and contribute to the basic decisions.1

In periods of great historical emergency, as for instance the Second World War, even the capitalist decision makers are willing to incorporate into their productive strategies some elements of a planned economy, even if only of a rather limited and on the whole profit-oriented kind. Once, however, the great emergency is over, all such practices are quickly wiped out of historical memory, and the mythology of the market—proclaimed to be ideally suited to the solution of all conceivable problems—is promoted more strongly than ever before.

It would be a monumental miracle if the normality of capital’s mode of social metabolic control, in contrast to its occasional emergency concessions, could be very different from that. For the idea of planning cannot be separated from the fundamental determination of time appropriate to the given social reproductive system. In this respect, the well-known prejudices against planning arise from capital’s necessary abuse of time. The only modality of time which is directly meaningful to capital is necessary labor time and its operational corollaries, as required for securing and safeguarding the conditions of profit-oriented time-accountancy and thereby the realization of capital on an extended scale.

As mentioned earlier, the myopic rationality of pursuing (and in a bastardized sense “planning”) minute details in the particular enterprises, necessarily devoid of an overall design in the economy as a whole—a practice finding its complementarity in the adversarially/conflictually combined market—is compatible only with decapitated and short-circuited time. When in a period of great historical emergency, like the Second World War, some elements of a more comprehensive rationality are introduced, in order to meet a major military challenge, this is done with a clear understanding that the conceded measures must be strictly temporary and will have to be removed at the earliest possible opportunity.

In complete contrast to the existing state of affairs, if we acknowledge the fact that the reproductive practices of a globally integrated world call for the introduction and retention of the effective guiding force of overall rationality, in order to counter the increasing dangers of uncontrollability and ensuing explosions, the perverse relationship of capital to time must be radically reexamined and altered. Truly participatory comprehensive planning of the conditions of humanity’s social metabolic reproduction—embracing all of its diverse constituents, including the moral and cultural ones, and not just the strictly economic dimension—is a self-evident requirement in this respect. However, to make such comprehensive planning possible at all, it is necessary to overcome the fatefully alienating and crippling condition whereby profit-oriented and myopically decapitated, “Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most time’s carcase.2

The main reason why the normality of capital is incompatible with comprehensive planning is because the vital requirement of sustainable socioeconomic orientation arises from the qualitative aspects of managing a humanly viable reproductive order. If it was simply a question of extending the time involved in capital’s economic operations, that would be in principle feasible from the ruling system’s standpoint. What intervenes in this regard as a prohibiting condition for resolving the apparently intractable problem is the total absence of a proper measure, a measure suitable to assessing adequately the qualitative human impact of the adopted productive practices even on a relatively short-term basis, and not only in the longer run. The highly irresponsible way in which even the minimal requirements of the Kyoto Protocol are handled by the dominant capitalist countries, above all by the United States, is a good illustration of this point.3

Capital has no difficulties with impressive quantification, and even with self-expansive multiplication, provided that its projected productive expansion can be defined without any appeal to qualitative considerations either on the plane of material and human resources or with regard to time. In this sense growth, as a particularly important concept both in the present and in the future, must be handled by capital within the crippling confines of fetishistic quantification, although in reality it cannot be sustained at all as a productive strategy without applying to it profoundly qualitative considerations, as we shall see in the next section. In the same way, comprehensive planning—in contrast to safely selective (as regards the particular productive targets which can be pursued) and temporally limited (short-term) interventions—is inadmissible because neither the scope nor the time-scale of humanly valid overall rationality are amenable to fetishistic quantification.

The key concept here is not rationality in and by itself but the necessary determination of the required sustainable rationality by the inherent humanness of the adopted overall measure. Readily quantifiable partial rationality can be fully in tune with capital’s operational imperatives within its productive microcosms, but not humanly valid overall rationality as the orienting framework and appropriate measure of the system as a whole. For the only thing that can define a viable and sustainable productive system with regard to its orienting overall rationality is human need itself: an inherently qualitative determination.

Such qualitative overall determination can only arise from the reality of irrepressible, even if now capitalistically frustrated, human need. This is what is necessarily missing from the capital system’s incorrigible self-definition and insurmountable overall determination. It is precisely for this reason that capital must subordinate use-value—which is totally meaningless without its qualitative relationship to clearly identifiable human need—to easily quantifiable exchange-value. The latter need not have anything at all to do with human need; only with the need of capital’s extended self-reproduction. Indeed, it is thoroughly compatible with the triumph of destructive counter-value, as the gruesome reality of the military-industrial complex and its lucrative “capital-realizing” involvement in the directly anti-human practices of genocidal wars clearly demonstrates it in our time.

Planning, in the deepest sense of the term, is absolutely vital for redressing these problems and contradictions. But the planning in question cannot be visualized without its corresponding dimension of historical time. In this respect the concept of time required for making sense of planning in its proper—in contrast to narrowly technical—meaning is not an abstract and generic cosmic time, but humanly meaningful time. For in the course of history, and especially through the unfolding of human history, the concept of time is significantly altered in the sense that with the development of human beings—and the concomitant “humanization of nature itself” (as Marx put it)—a radically new dimension of time enters the picture.

The fact that humanity, in contrast to the animal world, is made of historically created and, under changing conditions, historically developing individuals, cannot be divorced from the circumstance that human individuals, as opposed to their species, have a strictly limited lifetime. Accordingly, thanks to a long historical development the problem of time presents itself in the human context not simply as the need to survive from day one to the last hour of the particular individuals’ lifespan, but simultaneously also as the challenge directly confronting them for the creation of a meaningful life, to the highest possible degree, as real subjects of their own life activity. In other words, a challenge to make sense of their own life as real “authors” of their own acts, in close conjunction with the ever more enhanced collective potentialities of their society of which they themselves are an integral and actively contributing part. This is how individual and social consciousness can really come together in the interest of positive human advancement.

Naturally, under the rule of capital all this is impossible. The vital requirement of planning is nullified both at the comprehensive societal level and in the life of the particular individuals. At the broadest societal level comprehensive planning, in its positive orientation by human need, is disqualified in the interest of the most myopically oriented time-accountancy, carrying with it increasing dangers of destructive production at the present juncture of history. At the same time, at the level of individual consciousness the requirement of “making sense of one’s life” can enter only into the socially most ineffectual forms of religious discourse, interested in nothing but “the world of beyond.”

Capital’s necessary abuse of time must prevail at all cost and in all domains. Accordingly, in order to envisage a socialist reproductive order as the viable hegemonic alternative to the existent, the question of planning must remain in the forefront of our attention in the sense in which we have seen it discussed on the last few pages. For there can be no lasting success without combining the broad social dimension of reproductive rationality and the individuals’ quest for a meaningful life.

These two fundamental dimensions of what it means to be a real subject, in the proper sense of the term, stand or fall together. For how could the body of freely associated producers, as a consciously self-asserting collective force, be the sovereign “subject of power” in the social world, planning and autonomously managing its productive interchanges with nature and among the members of society, if the particular social individuals who constitute that collective force are unable to emancipate themselves to the point of becoming “conscious subjects of their own actions,” fully assuming responsibility for their meaningful life activity? And vice versa: how could the individuals have meaningful lives of their own if the overall conditions of social metabolic reproduction are dominated by an alien force that frustrates their designs and in a most authoritarian way overrules the self-realizing aims and values which the social individuals attempt to set themselves?

The bureaucratic violations of planning in Soviet-type postcapitalist societies were manifestations of the same contradiction. The paralyzing “influence of special bureaucratic interests and the overarching power of the state” in the economy—rightly deplored by the Magdoffs—had to fail. For the members of the Politburo arbitrarily assigned to themselves the exclusive role of all-powerful decision making subjects in running their decreed “planned economy,” dismissing at the same time with an undisguised sense of superiority even the top planning officials of the state as “just a bunch of accountants,” as was made abundantly clear by Khrushchev in his conversation with Che Guevara.4 Moreover, as far as the particular individuals of society as a whole were concerned, they had even less say in the overall planning process than the arrogantly characterized “bunch of accountants.” Their role, as individual subjects, was unceremoniously confined by the state authorities to carrying out the orders handed down to them from high above.

The consequences were quite devastating, and understandably so. For under the prevailing circumstances the conscious collective subject of the necessary comprehensive interchanges could not be constituted at all as a genuine collective subject, so as to exercise a truly sustainable control over the vital processes of societal reproduction. This was impossible because the two fundamental dimensions of what it means to be a real subject, mentioned above, were arbitrarily broken and opposed to one another. In this way—under the given modality of top-down decision making—the potential constitutive members of society’s valid collective subject, the particular individuals, were denied the autonomous control of their own meaningful life activity, and thereby also of controlling social metabolic reproduction as a whole. The rest of the sad story has become well-known through the implosion of the Soviet-type system.

Thus, for all of the reasons discussed in this section, radically overcoming capital’s necessary abuse of time—which degrades human beings to the condition of “time’s carcase,” denying them the power of self-determination as real subjects—is vital for the creation of an alternative social order. Decapitated and short-circuited time cannot be remedied at the general societal level alone. The conditions of individual and social emancipation cannot be separated from—let alone opposed to—one another. They prevail or fail together, on the temporal plane of simultaneity. For one is as fully required for the realization of the other as the other way round. One cannot wait for the emancipation of the individuals until even the elementary general objectives of social transformation are successfully accomplished. For who on earth could take even the first steps of a comprehensive social transformation if not the individuals who can—and do—identify themselves with their chosen society’s objectives and values?

But to do that, the particular social individuals must liberate themselves from the straitjacket of decapitated time narrowly imposed upon them. They can do that only by acquiring the power of autonomous, conscious, and responsible decision making, with its proper—non-adversarially enlarged—perspective of meaningful life activity. This is how it becomes possible to constitute an alternative social metabolic order on a historically sustainable time scale. And that is what confers its true meaning on planning as a vital principle of the socialist enterprise.


  1. Harry Magdoff & Fred Magdoff, “Approaching Socialism,” Monthly Review, July–August 2005, 53–54.
  2. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 47.
  3. The unhappy Kyoto saga is only the latest phase of these developments. I argued well over a decade ago that “Any attempt to deal with the reluctantly acknowledged problems must be conducted under the prohibitive weight of the fundamental laws and structural antagonisms of the system. Thus the ‘corrective measures’ envisaged within the framework of big international jamborees—like the 1992 gathering in Rio de Janeiro—amount to absolutely nothing, since they must be subordinated to the perpetuation of the established global power relations and vested interests. Causality and time must be treated as a plaything of the dominant capitalist interests, no matter how acute the dangers. Thus the future tense is callously and irresponsibly confined to the narrowest horizon of immediate profit expectations” (Beyond Capital, 148). “Characteristically, even the feeble resolutions of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Conference—watered down almost to the point of meaninglessness under the pressure of the dominant capitalist powers, primarily the United States whose delegation was headed by President Bush [the father of the current president]—are used only as an alibi for carrying on as before, doing nothing to meet the challenge while pretending to ‘fulfill the obligations undertaken’” (Beyond Capital, 270).
  4. A revealing interview reports a conversation Harry Magdoff had with Che Guevara: “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 the 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 are just a bunch of accountants.’” See Harry Magdoff, interviewed by Huck Gutman, “Creating a Just Society: Lessons from Planning in the U.S.S.R. & the U.S.,” Monthly Review, October 2002, 2.
2006, Volume 58, Issue 05 (October)
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