Issue 1 - Summer 1994

The Promise and Peril of the Third Wave: Socialism and Democracy for the 21st Century (page 4 of 7)
By Carl Davidson, Ivan Handler and Jerry Harris
The Chicago Third Wave Study Group / May 1, 1993

Was there any alternative? Could socialism build a democratic, open and participatory society based on industrial principals? Although both the Soviets and Chinese experimented at different times with worker-controlled factory committees, worker congresses and collective management, the authoritarian patterns of managerial hierarchy always reasserted themselves; they were imbedded in the organization of work on the factory floor. Thus these relations could not be permanently transformed while trapped inside the second-wave industrial economic base. The very design of large scale production enforced its own organizational logic.

Second-wave industrialism not only engendered mass society, but also had encoded on its structure forms of mass domination. The centralization of information necessary to run huge firms was best done with a concentration of authority in the hands of a specialized hierarchy. In both East and West, this was touted as the most efficient and scientific form of production, although not necessarily the most democratic.

Within this context, it became extremely difficult to permanently build a democratic socialism, although the tension between democracy and centralization existed for a long time. Under Lenin, the Bolsheviks certainly had relatively open and free wheeling political debates, rather than a standardization of thought. And Lenin became more acutely aware of the dangers of bureaucracy as they emerged towards the end of his life. After Lenin's death, the theoretical and programmatic effort to launch an alternative to the abuses of industrial socialism was best defined by Bukharin, who, along with Lenin, was the main theoretician of the Third International on a world scale and of the New Economic Program (NEP) in the Soviet Union itself.

In fact, the most vital debate from the late 1920s through the 1930s was not between Stalin and Trotsky, but between Bukharin and Stalin.

For Bukharin the NEP was more than a temporary adjustment or retreat. Instead it was a strategic plan to build socialism through a balance between rural and urban economies. Bukharin defined this as "dynamic economic equilibrium" in which the growth of industry was geared to the growth of agriculture, instead of its one-sided exploitation. This view reserved an important role for the market, and saw class struggle mainly as managed, peaceful competition between larger state enterprises and the smaller private sector.

For the Stalinists, rapid concentration, centralization, and forced growth at gunpoint were the means that would win the class struggle for their variety of socialism. Class differences were to be forcibly eliminated, rather than peacefully managed. This path was certainly not inevitable, but the global and historic context of the industrial era was an important factor in developing, supporting, and rationalizing the Stalinist economic plan.

We believe revolutionaries who are genuinely progressive and democratic must reconstruct society with the people, tools and materials bequeathed to them by history. We oppose the forced march of armed utopias and their attendant gulags. But we also believe the old state and industrial patterns and methods of command cannot simply be taken over and put to good use by new elites.

The capitalists launched the industrial revolution and became the new global masters because they dominated and developed the new industrial economic base of manufacturing. They did not base their revolutions primarily on a seizure of the feudal manors and landed estates of the old agricultural societies. The socialists of the second wave, however, have been ambivalent. On one hand, they based themselves on the advanced, rising class, the proletariat. The working class was the most advanced, not because of what it thought at any given time, but because it was part of the most advanced productive forces and thus had the ability to remake society. On the other hand, they attempted to build a new world mainly by expanding the old unsustainable, second wave industrial base, rather than by nurturing a new historic economic order out of the most advanced achievements of the second wave.

In this way, Marxism spawned two visions of the future classless society. In one, all classes were to be abolished except the proletariat; all society was to be industrialized and proletarianized under the hegemony of the working class. The proletarian ideological line is dominant over all forms of science, art and politics. In the other, all classes, including the working class, were to wither away through the gradual but steady abolition of toil brought about by the revolutionary advance of the productive forces. All ideology and politics is subordinate to freedom of scientific inquiry, tolerance of diversity and the expansion of universal human rights.

We affirm the latter view. We also believe it is more in keeping with Marx's early conception of the proletariat as the class bound with radical chains, so that by freeing and abolishing itself, it also liberated all humanity from all forms of oppression. What is needed to accomplish this is political power in the hands of the masses plus the technology of the third wave. Third wave production is automated and cybernated, making it possible to revolutionize hierarchy and democratize access to information. It rests on a sustainable technology, which diversifies production and accelerates the generation of knowledge. In effect, it is a new economic base, which develops its own principles of society and culture making a sustainable and democratic socialism workable. In fact, post-industrial, third wave socialism may be the only socialism truly possible.

Our Vision

Our vision for making this transition is first of all centered on a vision of the renewal of democracy. We see democracy not only as a political and ethical value. It is deeply connected to the development of a progressive and scientific economics as well.

Any economic program worthy of being called popular and democratic, let alone socialist, must meet the standards of ecological sustainability. Any economic program that attempts to serve the present through the unrestricted looting of the resources of future generations can only be called reactionary and dooms us to strategic failure. It also opposes the basic principles espoused by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, where they insisted that communists distinguish themselves by taking care of the future within the movement of the present and by affirming the unity of the workers and democratic forces of all countries above any particular national or sectoral interest. In this sense, the founders of scientific socialism were the forerunners of the "Think Globally, Act Locally" slogan embraced by today's Greens.

But sustainable economics in today's world requires ongoing advances in science and technology. Science in turn both embodies and requires free and open inquiry, a democratic civil society affirming tolerance and respect for diversity. Under theocratic domination--whether of the medieval, fascist or secular Stalinist- Maoist varieties--scientific progress is stifled. More >>


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