Libertarian Socialism: Participatory Planning

Robin Hahnel

“[Capitalism] is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous — and it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short, we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.”
– John Maynard Keynes


In the 1970s, when Michael Albert and I were young New Left activists studying for our PhD in economics, we came to the conclusion that the vision of a self-managed economy shared by many anarchists, council communists, syndicalists, and utopian socialists was essentially sound, but, unfortunately, these economic visionaries had failed to provide a coherent model explaining precisely how their alternative to capitalism could work. Our libertarian socialist predecessors provided moving comparisons of the advantages of worker and community self-management over capitalism and authoritarian planning. But all too often they did not respond to difficult questions about precisely how necessary decisions would be made, how the democratic procedures they championed would yield a coherent plan, why there was any reason to believe the plan that emerged would be efficient, or how people would be motivated to work and innovate. These theoretical weaknesses were particularly debilitating because while real world experiments did prove that central planning and market socialist alternatives to capitalism were feasible, there were no real world examples libertarian socialists could point to and prove that our vision was also possible. Self-management by factory committees in the early days of the Russian Revolution, worker takeovers in Northern Italy in the aftermath of WWI, anarchist led communes and factories in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and the challenge to central planning by worker councils in Hungary in 1956 all demonstrated that a strong desire for economic self-management simmered bellow the surface and occasionally boiled over. But unfortunately none of these brief episodes of self-management lasted long enough to demonstrate that worker and consumer councils could not only competently manage their own affairs, but could also coordinate their inter-related activities efficiently on a long term basis through a system of democratic planning without relying on market forces or authoritarian directives. Michael Albert and I did not believe this meant economic self-management was impossible. It simply meant more work was required to flesh out the vision and demonstrate its feasibility and desirability theoretically until a coherent set of libertarian socialist procedures could be tested in practice.