A Debate on Socialism and the Market

Richard Abernethy,
Philip Walden

This exchange of emails followed a discussion at a public meeting of the Oxford Communist Corresponding Society on the subject of “A beginner’s guide to economic planning” on 30 May 2013. Both authors take part in these meetings but are not members of the OCCS. Richard Abernethy is a member of International Marxist-Humanist Organization and Phil Walden is a member of the Democratic Socialist Alliance  – Editors.

Fellow socialists,

We had a good discussion last night at the CCS meeting about economic planning.  One issue that came up was whether markets lead to socialism.  This has been a shibboleth among much of the left for a long time.  But I agree with the market socialism tradition that goes back at least to Alec Nove if not before, that markets are a major part of the transition to and within socialism.  Another prominent market socialist is David Miller and here I offer a quote from pp222-223 of his important book Market, State and Community: Theoretical Foundations of Market Socialism (Clarendon Paperbacks, 1990), a book that is well worth reading:

“Marx saw that markets were a liberating force, creating what I have termed developed individuals.  However, he excluded them from his ideal communist system on the grounds that they were inherently alienating.  My suggestion has been that the desirable properties of markets might be preserved under socialism, provided their alienating properties were countered.  For this to occur, the market must appear as an expression of collective will.  (my underlining).  People must both understand the reasons for having markets and act on those reasons when they legislate for their existence through a democratic assembly.  Moreover, this decision must always be open to reversal.  Under these circumstances, I have claimed, economic relations may take on a dual character, being at one level instrumental, competitive, and spontaneous, but at another level ‘human’, co-operative and planned.  Only in this way can we conceive of overcoming alienation without relapsing into the personal engulfment of pre-capitalist societies.”

So the argument is that democratic markets that are understood are actually part of the transition within socialism, and far from being alienating they in fact counter alienation.


Phil Walden



Dear Comrades,

Thanks to Phil for raising this important question, which opens up the wider question of what we mean by socialism and how that possible future would differ from capitalism. I have not read the authors cited by Phil, so they may have answers to some of the following problems regarding the market.

As Marx argued, a society is mainly shaped by its system of production, and the system of distribution, such as the market, follows on from that. If we accept that a market will continue under socialism, what does that imply about relations of production?

Regarding the insistence that the market must appear as an expression of collective will, does it not already do so in two senses, first that electorates vote for parties who support the market, and second that consumers are free to choose what they do and do not buy?

I understand “market” to mean a system in which things are bought and sold. This suggests that they appear as commodities (in the special sense that Marx used the term). As commodities they have a dual nature.  A pen is an instrument that you write with. That’s its use-value. Under certain social conditions it is also a bearer of value. Value enables and regulates the exchange of things that have entirely different use-values. One pair of shoes is worth so many pens are worth so many bananas and so on.

Value derives from the amount of labour it takes to produce something. Crucially, not the actual amount of labour that is spent on a particular thing, but the abstract, average socially-necessary labour time that is required to produce identical things.

As bearers of value, commodities relate to each other in ways that elude conscious human control. They appear to have “a life of their own”. Marx called this the fetishism of commodities.

If we accept the possibility of “market socialism”, this seems to suggest that a society may have commodity production, the determination of value by average socially necessary labour-time and commodity fetishism, and still qualify as socialism.

Marx invites us to imagine (in Capital, Volume 1, pp 171-172 in the Pelican edition) an association of free people working consciously together with the means of production held in common. (The principle of free association is vital here – a plan imposed by a state bureaucracy is an altogether different kettle of fish!)

In this society

  • there is a definite plan
  • the various needs of the community are assessed
  • decisions are made about how much and what kind of work needs to be done.

I am not suggesting that market relations should be banned – in fact, I would expect any attempt to do so to be a disaster. Rather, as the new mode of production comes into being, the market will no longer be necessary and will wither away. That is to say, it will no longer be the main form of distribution, though they may continue as a subsidiary form, for example for collectable antiques.


Richard Abernethy


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1 Comment

  1. Jara Handala

    Obviously Phil & Richard have chosen to discuss a particular point, but I suggest we need to broaden things.

    One way is to go a step further & say, nominally, socialism is this, communism is this, & perhaps to say transitional societies either to socialism or to communism have these particular necessary economic, political, & cultural qualities.

    But I think a more useful way, because it is materialist, is what Marx did, to identify the causal forces developing both the current (capitalist) society, & what it may qualitatively change into. One example has been the identification of the socialisation of the productive forces.

    In this approach the question then arises, what are, for example, the material conditions making necessary (1) money, (2) particular use values to be in the commodity form, (3) the distribution of productive forces, & the production & circulation of use values, to be coordinated by exchange (i.e. making markets necessary), (4) restrictions on the scope of conscious, i.e. planned, distribution of productive forces & the production & circulation of use values, & (5) institutions of varying degrees of alienation from the population (this question is wider than considering the fate of the state alienated from civil society)?

    Professed communists twice failed to apply this method to the matter of money, to disastrous effect: ‘war communism’ in Russia, & Year Zero in Kampuchea.

    The shorthand for what I have raised, of course, is economic regulation by either the law of value or the plan, with the pervasive view being that they exist together as a zero-sum, each having the effect of undermining the existence of the other.

    Recently in Slovenia, Andrew Kliman argued against an unnamed Ernest Mandel saying that a transitional society to socialism is both unnecessary & undesirable. Consideration of this can be part of the wider discussion here about the necessity & desirability of commodity production. (The institution we call the market pre-existed capitalist production.)

    (As this composing window is so small, apologies if some of what I say is incoherent.)