The Promise and Peril of the Third
Wave: Socialism and Democracy for the 21st Century
(page 1 of 7)
By Carl Davidson, Ivan Handler and Jerry Harris
The Chicago Third Wave Study Group / May 1, 1993
The collapse of
Soviet socialism is being celebrated by the defenders of imperialism
throughout the capitalist world as the definitive victory
in a struggle that has been waged for some 150 years.
It doesn't matter
in these circles that the Soviet system was a deformed, or
distorted, or corrupted, or phony version of any socialism
that Marx or Lenin would have recognized as their own. Nor
does it matter that there are still a few pockets of resistance
holding out, whether on a small scale in Cuba or on a large
scale in China.
What does matter
to them is that the only socialism that claimed to be an existing
alternative for advanced industrial society is no longer a
The left now generally
acknowledges the crisis. Some stalwarts were in deep denial
until the very end. But despite this major defeat, the left,
for the most part, still hopes to keep the red flag flying.
For better or worse, most of the left groups and trends still
want to defend their own brand of socialism, or at least defend
a given set of socialist goals or ideals, if not socialism
As for the collapse
or stagnation of existing varieties of socialism that held
state power, the left generally tries to explain these failures
as stemming from a internal lack of democracy or a surplus
of bureaucracy, or as a byproduct of external imperialist
aggression or military competition, or some combination of
all these factors.
We want to argue
for a different approach. In our view, the crisis is deeper
than a fundamental flaw in the theory or practice of socialism.
We believe the causes of the failure of socialism lay in its
historical roots in an industrial society, which is itself
in crisis. We see the current chaotic situation around the
world as the advent of an all-sided and deep structural crisis
that is sweeping not only through the socialist countries,
but the capitalist countries as well. Rather than witnessing
simply the end of socialism, we believe we are witnessing
the start of a new radical upheaval in industrial society
generally, in both the capitalist West and the socialist East.
is not original with us. Much of the analysis that follows
is taken from the work of Alvin and Heidi Toffler, co-authors
of three widely read books: Future Shock, The Third Wave and
Powershift. We believe the socialist movement has a great
deal to learn from both the questions they pose and the answers
In its limited
analysis of the crisis so far, we believe the left has downplayed
what the existing capitalist and socialist economies of the
West have in common in real life. In industrialized society,
labor and machinery are organized along similar lines in both
capitalist and socialist countries--the primary means of generating
wealth is the mass production of the factory-based assembly
While each economy
has its own particularities, the main patterns of socialized
mass production are reflected and reproduced in all arenas
of human endeavor. Moreover, these systems of mass production
are linked together in country after country, as a dynamic
and expanding market develops national industrial societies
into a global system. For industrial mass production, the
main dominant patterns of social organization are the forms
of presumed rationality: concentration, centralization, standardization,
specialization, maximization and synchronization.
But despite its
claim of rationality, industrial society is not a sustainable
form of civilization, especially as it expands on a world
scale. Its energy sources, whether capitalist or socialist,
are primarily nonrenewable hydrocarbons--oil, natural gas
or coal--or toxic radioactive materials.
Not only are these
energy sources irrationally, unevenly and unfairly distributed;
their full and complete use is also irrational. The steady,
ongoing overuse of carbon-based systems would transform all
of the solid and liquid forms of the element now underground
and pump them into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.
The end result is the "greenhouse effect"--a complex
web of environmental disasters wreaking ecological havoc and
rendering the biosphere unfit for human habitation.
This feature of
industrial society is not a problem of the distant future.
It is the "dirty little secret" of today's world
standing behind the rising conflict between North and South.
The truth is that we cannot have economic equality among nations
based on today's levels and standards. If every country in
the world were organized on just the same level and just the
same types of production and consumption that are "enjoyed"
in either the U.S., or Europe, or Japan, or even the former
Soviet Union, the resulting polluted biosphere would render
the globe uninhabitable for humans.
mass production is expansionist. It strives for universality,
transforming industrial society into a mass society. It features
mass urban centers, mass markets, mass media, mass culture,
mass education, mass consumption, and mass political parties.
While advanced capitalism roots itself in the mass market
and mass consumption, Marxism too has reduced complex and
diverse populations to oversimplified conceptions of "the
revolution has pushed industrial mass production to new heights
in the capitalist world. New and upgraded factories continue
to produce an ever-wider variety of commodities of improved
quality at lower prices with less labor. Telecommunications
has integrated capital markets into a 24-hour, on-line global
system of exchange. The full consequences of these developments
are only beginning to take shape, although change takes place
at an increasingly rapid pace.
The main reason
for today's ongoing revolution in the productive forces was
the invention of the microchip. This revolution began in the
1950s with the merging of transistors, themselves the first
major practical application of quantum mechanics, with the
mass replication of miniaturized integrated circuits. The
result was a device that vastly expanded the ability of the
machinery of mass production to process information rapidly.
In fact, the speed of the microprocessor has enabled information
to be used within a time frame and on a scale of complexity
hitherto unimaginable. Information itself has become an increasingly
valuable commodity of a new type.
impact is changing everything about our world and the way
we live. Civilization is undergoing a quantum leap on the
order of the agricultural revolution launched 6000 years ago
and the industrial revolution launched 200 years ago. We have
now entered a third period of human history. We prefer to
call it the information era; others refer to the same phenomena
"post-industrial" or "postmodern" civilization
to differentiate the present from the agricultural or industrial
past. More >>