Issue 1 - Summer 1994

The Promise and Peril of the Third Wave: Socialism and Democracy for the 21st Century (page 3 of 7)
By Carl Davidson, Ivan Handler and Jerry Harris
The Chicago Third Wave Study Group / May 1, 1993

But what is worse than the dangers posed by the third wave is the attempt to ignore or stifle the information technologies fueling it. This was a deep flaw in the structure of the "command economies" of the Soviet bloc, which based their politics on the centralized control and restriction of information. The growth of the new technology requires open, accessible and decentralized sources and outlets for the flow of information. But this was hardly possible in societies that stationed soldiers to guard photocopy and fax machines. Far from creating political security, these measures were only effective in insuring the economic backwardness of the societies practicing them. Relative to information-rich production methods and products in the West, the socialist factories were thus inefficient, wasteful and, with few exceptions, produced outmoded or shabby goods.

To be fair, the feudal and capitalist worlds initiated these practices of attempting to control politics by controlling information. It was Hitler's propaganda machine that gave birth to the term "totalitarian." The use of the state to control and restrict the market in information, moreover, was simply an extension of state intervention in the traditional economy. Capitalist industries in the West have always tried to use the state to "protect" favored industries from competition with more productive, better-organized factories in other countries. Trade unions have also tried to "protect" obsolete jobs with featherbedding work rules. In the U.S. auto industry, for example, both management and labor believed that planned obsolescence was acceptable as a way to guarantee future demand, growth and job security. Instead they guaranteed stagnation and backwardness. The result was a huge opening for Japan to take a larger market share with a better product.

A left that fails to base itself fundamentally on an accurate assessment of the nature and direction of these developments in the productive forces does not deserve to be called Marxist. At best, its critique of capitalism and industrial society generally will be limited to moralisms and will become irrelevant to practical politics. At worst, it will propose bankrupt solutions to the crises that will evoke a reactionary nostalgia for the fetters of the old order.

It does no good, for instance, to call for a re-industrialization of the economy along the lines of the blue-collar industries of the past. While some industries can be retained and some jobs can be restored--mainly those that were lost due to the business cycle, mismanagement, or unrestricted runaways--most of those jobs or industries eliminated by advances in technology and industrial organization cannot be restored.

Marxists especially should not be calling for a retreat to less advanced, more inefficient, more wasteful, and less skilled forms of production that turn out poorer goods at higher prices. In fact, it has always been part of our strategic critique of the bourgeoisie that its interests and methods placed fetters on the productive forces of society and produced a moribund, wasteful and decadent system.

Taking A New Look at the Lessons of History

Seen from this perspective, the failure of industrial "second wave" socialism is part and parcel of the collapse and transformation of second wave industrialism worldwide. In particular, its earlier uncritical and dogmatic embrace of industrial patterns as “scientific” or “progressive” regardless of limitations or conditions hastened the socialist crisis.

Second wave industrialism concentrated huge productive forces of machinery, labor, and capital. Working class communities surrounded giant factories, where communist "concentrations" were to be built as part of the newly massified neighborhoods. Socialist political structure was to reflect the skeleton of industrial organization and life. The whole working class, for instance, was to be concentrated into one mass party with a single strategy. Advocacy of diversified, multi-party systems or strategies was frequently denounced as "liberal" or "bourgeois."

This industrial principle of concentration was carried forward into Soviet economic and social planning. Whole new cities were built around giant factories. As Lenin put it, maximization was the "highest level of development." Bureaucracy was the inevitable and natural organizational form when all production and planning was to be concentrated under the state. A diversified market was not only politically incorrect, but supposedly went against the industrial principal of efficiency through concentration.

The communist party was to be built along the same centralized lines as factory management; rank-and-file "Jimmy Higgins" workers, mid-management full-time cadre, and the elite board of trustees, or central committee. Just as industrial management reflected hierarchical relations of power, socialist political relations contained the same design.

The "democratic centralism" that developed within this pattern was one where democracy was always a secondary aspect to a centralized and hierarchical leadership responsible for decisions and control of information. This pattern of centralized power was as true for capitalist monopolies, as it was for socialist bureaucracies responsible for production. Within the ruling party itself, Stalinism took this principle to its zenith in its centralization of international political authority.

Specialization was also part of the second wave industrial code. The efficiency of a labor task was seen in its specialization, which also gave rise to the professionalization of work. For Lenin this meant the professionalization of the cadre into a full-time revolutionary, and later for Stalin as the "red expert". Eventually this resulted in the separation and domination of political and technical work from democratic input and oversight.

Lastly, mass production also produced standardization. Everything from time, weights, and products, to culture and ideas was standardized. For socialism, the impact was a dogmatic standardization of Marxism, the political line set by the one accepted center, the Soviet Communist Party. Differences were not only suppressed inside the USSR, but also even worldwide. Bolshevik organizational structure became the standard for acceptance into the Third International. And perhaps even more destructive, was the idea that there existed only one economic model on which socialism could be built.

A one-sided emphasis on all the above elements was the product of industrial society, and forms a fresh basis of criticism for a lack of socialist democracy. Socialism, understandably, could only function within the world to which it was born. When socialism embraced the proletariat as the primary agency of progressive change, it also tended to romanticize industrial society. Socialism thus consciously or unconsciously integrated second wave industrialism's intern designs and limitations into its own theory and practice. More >>

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