Towards a New Cybernetic Socialism

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Book: Towards a New Socialism: Introduction. W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, 1993


See also: P2P Theory and Marxism


This book by Scottish authors Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell combine a focus on cybernetic coordination, participatory democracy, and the labour theory of value, see

The complete book,

Main introduction,

Other introductions:

  2., 'Calculation, Complexity and Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Once Again' (Review of Political Economy, July 1993) in PDF format: calculation_debate.pdf. Our analysis and response to the historic 'socialist calculation debate' involving Mises, Hayek, Lange and others.
  3., 'Information and Economics: A Critique of Hayek' (Research in Political Economy, 1997) in PDF format: hayek_critique.pdf. Counter-argument to Hayek's influential critique of socialist planning in his article `The Use of Knowledge in Society'.

Renato Flores writes:

"Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell’s Towards a New Socialism has been circulating among the communists since 1993. It is a valuable book; it revitalised the planning debate by offering a series of simple solutions and algorithms. People could try the algorithms on their own computers. They showed through maths why a socialist society could mean less working hours for all. The core of TaNS’s proposal for a “new socialism” is to plan society using work hours as a basic accounting unit. In most instances, people would be remunerated in labour vouchers according to how much they work. With a series of restrictions on labour vouchers, they can avoid becoming a universal equivalent, i.e. just another type of money. The book’s political program is not limited to its proposals for managing resources: among other things, TaNS proposes the communalization of care work and the use of sortition as a substitute for political representation. The authors leave interesting threads which continue to inspire debate in the present."


Background and Context


Heinz Dieterich [1]:

"Apart from many individuals, two schools of thought have independently advanced the reasoning about the “socialism of the XXI century”: the so-called “Scottish School”, with the computational expert, Paul Cockshott and the economist Allin Cottrell; and that denominated the “School of Bremen”, in turn, of the universal genius, Arno Peters, the mathematician Carsten Stahmer, the Cuban physicist, Raimundo Franco, and myself.

The emphasis of analysis of both schools varies. To put it simply. The principal work of Cockshott/Allin, Towards a New Socialism, is a brilliant and profound discussion centered primarily on the technological and economic aspects of a new and viable non-capitalist project. On the other hand, the works of the Bremen School, for example, The end of Global Capitalism, The New Historic Project; Computer Socialism, (Arno Peters), and XXI Century Socialism and Participative Democracy, (Heinz Dieterich), prioritize a more evolutionary and institutional focus which discusses, in addition the problem of the phase of transition towards a new socialism in Latin America.

The amazing result, nevertheless, is that both theories, developed independently and from different angles, arrive at the same general inferences (conclusions) on the principal institutions which will substitute the bourgeois institutions in the new postbourgeois and postcapitalist civilization. These coincidences on the new socialist institutionalism of the XXI century, undoubtedly constitute a relevant methodological indicator of the validity of the results obtained, in an independent manner, by both groups." (

What is the theoretical basis for a new socialism?

"The principal bases for a post-Soviet socialism must be radical democracy and efficient planning. The democratic element, it is now clear, is not a luxury, or something that can be postponed until conditions are especially favourable. Without democracy, as we have argued above, the leaders of a socialist society will be driven to coercion in order to ensure the production of a surplus product, and if coercion slackens the system will tend to stagnate. At the same time, the development of an efficient planning system will most likely be impossible in the absence of an open competition of ideas. The failure of Soviet Communists to come up with viable socialist reform proposals over recent years is testimony to the malign effects of a system in which conformity and obedience were at a premium. Capitalist societies can achieve economic progress under conditions of political dictatorship, for even under such dictatorship the realm of private economic activity is relatively unregulated and the normal processes of competition remain operative, while the suppression of working-class organisation may permit a higher rate of exploitation. Under socialism, there can be no such separation of oppressive state from `free' economy; and if criteria of ideological `correctness' dominate in the promotion of managers and even in economic-theoretical debate, the long-run prospects for growth and efficiency are dim indeed.

On the counts of both democratic institutions and efficient planning mechanisms, we have to say that the problems which emerged in the Soviet case reflect certain weaknesses in classical Marxism. Marx, Engels and Lenin were much stronger in their critiques of capitalism than in their positive theorizing concerning socialist society. As regards democratic institutions, the Bolsheviks initially latched onto the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies as the favoured form. While this may have been tactically astute, we argue that the soviet form is inherently inadequate and indeed dangerous and that we must look elsewhere for the principles of a socialist democratic constitution. As regards planning mechanisms, Marx and Engels had some interesting suggestions, but these were never developed beyond the level of rather vague generalities. The Soviet planners improvised their own system, which worked for certain purposes in its time, but the development of their thinking about socialist economic mechanisms was limited by what they saw as the need to conform to the canons of Marxism -- to avoid and indeed denounce any theoretical methods, such as marginal analysis, that appeared tainted by `bourgeois' connotations. Western marxists have argued that this tendency was based on a misinterpretation of Marx. Quite likely so, but the fact that Marx did not attempt to spell out the principles of operation of a planned economy at any length made such a misreading possible. At any rate, socialism will never again have any credibility as an economic system unless we can spell out such principles in reasonable detail." (

Synopsis of the book

"In the remainder of this introduction we offer a synopsis of the main arguments to come, in the light of the problems and issues identified above. Chapters 1 and 2 tackle issues connected with inequality and inequity. The first gives an overview of the bases of inequality in capitalist society -- bases which, as we have suggested above, social democratic amelioration is unable to eradicate. The second shows how a consistent socialist system of payment could substantially eliminate inequality. The payment system outlined in chapter 2 depends on the idea that the total labour content of each product or service can be calculated. Chapter 3 justifies this claim, while developing the argument that economic calculation in terms of labour time is rational and technically progressive.

Chapters 4 to 9 then develop various aspects of an efficient system of economic planning, a system capable of ensuring that economic development is governed by the democratically constructed needs of the people. Chapter 4 establishes some basic concepts and priorities, and distinguishes a number of different `levels' of planning, namely strategic planning, detailed planning, and macroeconomic planning, which are then examined in detail in chapters 5, 6 and 7 respectively. Chapter 8 outlines a specific mechanism for ensuring that the detailed pattern of production remains in line with consumers' preferences, while avoiding excessive queues and shortages. Chapter 9 examines the information requirements for the type of planning system we envisage, and makes a link between the issue of accurate information and the incentives and sanctions faced by individuals. In the course of these chapters we draw a number of contrasts between the sort of system we are proposing, and the system commonly regarded as having failed in the Soviet Union.

While chapters 4 to 9 deal with the planning of a single economy in isolation, chapters 10 and 11 extend the argument to consider issues arising from trade with other economies, an important practical concern in a world of increasing interdependence.

Chapters 12 to 14 move beyond the economic to further social and political questions. Chapter 12 makes a connection between socialist objectives and the concerns brought to light by feminists. It investigates the possibilities for domestic communes as an alternative to the nuclear family `household', and shows how such communes could function within the broad structure of a planned economy. Chapter 13 considers the political sphere, and proposes a radical form of democratic constitution capable of giving ordinary people real control over their lives. As mentioned earlier, we are critical of the soviet model of democracy. We are equally critical of parliamentary systems, and our own proposals stem from a re-examination of the mechanisms of classical (Athenian) democracy in the modern context. Chapter 14 examines the question of property relations, and elaborates the specific forms of property required as a basis for the preceding economic and social forms.

In a final chapter we tackle some contrary arguments put forward by sceptical socialists in recent years. In this context we reply to arguments in favour of `market socialism' as an alternative to the sort of planning we advocate.

The overall theme which animates the book, through all its various detailed arguments, will, we hope, be clear. That is, we take as our ultimate aim the greatest possible fulfillment of the potential of each human being, as individual and as a member of society. This fulfillment requires dignity, security and substantive equality (though not, of course, uniformity), as well as productive efficiency. It also requires that humans find sustainable ways of living in balance with the overall environment of the planet. We argue that these aims can best be met through a cooperative, planned form of social economy under a radically democratic political constitution -- a post-Soviet socialism." (

Commentary by Bob Haugen

Bob Haugen:

"It starts with a pretty good analysis of what went wrong in the Soviet Union, which is worth reading.

The book presents a lot of proposals about planning on different levels:

* strategic planning * macroeconomic planning * detailed operational planning * marketing of consumer goods * and "the informational requirements for the planning process as a whole".

So far the proposals outlined here have dealt with detailed operational planning and the organization of work. This is the only proposal that deals with strategic or macroeconomic planning. I suspect this is because New Socialism assumes "a socialist government, with property rights over the means of production", while I am not sure the other proposals make such an assumption (although the General Catalog and Parecon do assume a socialist government).

* Strategic Planning

"This chapter examines a number of aspects of planning, mainly relating to the overall structure of the economy, which do not naturally fall under the headings of macroeconomic or detailed production planning (the latter are dealt with in separate chapters). The main topics to be covered here are

(1) The planning of the industrial structure

(2) Environmental considerations

(3) Investment planning and the time dimension of production

(4) Planning of the mode of distribution of goods and services

(5) Agricultural production planning"

* Market and non-market distribution

"One strategic decision, relating to the overall shape of the economy, concerns which goods should be allocated directly by the plan, and which should be ‘marketed’ in some sense. We envisage a fully planned allocation of producer goods, alongside a market in consumer goods."

* Rights of citizenship

"The first principle is that those goods and services which are basic prerequisites for full participation in the productive and communal life of the society should be provided as of right, and financed out of general taxation."

* Freedom of choice

"The second point is that, once the basic prerequisites of citizenship are provided, individuals (or families, or communes) should have maximum freedom to decide in what form they want to enjoy the fruits of their labour. State allocation or rationing is poorly adapted to this end; we need some form of ‘market’ on which people are able to spend their labour tokens.”

* Coping with scarcity

"...opposition to capitalism need not imply blanket opposition to ‘market solutions’ to problems of scarcity — there may even be good grounds for putting prices on some goods which happen to be supplied ‘free’..."

* Detailed planning and stock constraints

"...we have claimed that it is now quite feasible for a planning agency to work backwards from a list of final target outputs to the list of gross outputs which will balance the plan, even when the input–output table accounts for the relations between industries in minute detail. But this does not complete the calculations necessary for the detailed plan. It may not be possible to produce the quantities of all products that are called for by the gross output computations, because of ‘external’ constraints in the form of stocks of means of production and labour supply. "

(The book does not say so, but those external constraints might be environmental limits.)

"...the individual industry computers (which need not be super-fast machines) can then calculate their needs for means of production stocks and labour, exploiting their knowledge of the per-unit means of production and labour coefficients for their own sector. These industrial needs can then be fed back to the central computers, summed up, and compared to the central records of the stocks of means of production of different types, and to the central calculation of labour supply respectively."

(Which gives some ideas about how they see the organization of planning and production...which will not work for bootstrapping...)"



by Gavin Mendel-Gleason [3] :

"Cockshott & Cottrell’s new socialism attempts to use labour time as a basis for optimisation of the economy. The idea is to use sophisticated computers, which are now widely available, to determine the most rational allocation of productive capacity, given social spending power based itself on labour time. That is, the consumer gets to choose from amongst the various products with a purchasing power based on the amount of labour expended towards fulfilment of the plan.

The work is particularly notable in dealing with many issues known to be difficult in planned economies such as dealing with innovation. the proposal is both very thorough and concrete, giving little doubt to those who might want to begin its implementation how one should be guided. It is therefore one of the strongest planning proposals which we have, and seems a useful template. Further useful developments might look at a partial implementation which would be suitable for a cooperative, with a notion of a planned inside/capitalist outside as a transitional model.

Its great fault, however, is that it does not deal systematically with many of the fundamental quality control concerns that led to cascading failure in the USSR, and the rise of a parallel illegal but wholly necessary therefore tolerated bartering system. That is, because parts are sourced by the plan, and not by the individual producers, quality control has to be additionally imposed. Whereas in a market system, substandard parts would simply never sell, in a planned system the fulfilment of the plan is not deemed by the customer of the parts but either by the supplier or some third party.

Further there is no mention of the rushing effects caused by the periodicity of planning (shturmovshchina) or the need for flexibility in changing subsections of the plan or any other issues which are always difficult in global optimisation problems. The first problem of periodicity led to big fluctuations in output near the beginning and end of the planning periods. It is likely that computational power will reduce the size and therefore the damage done by these, but the problem needs to be addressed. Further, there is little discussion on overcoming the tautness of Soviet plans, which was a continual problem that we need to deal with seriously. We need to build in fault tolerance and looseness such that failures do not cascade.”


More information