A Commentary on Stalin's Opposition, Central Plans and Utopian
3 of 3)
By Louis Proyect
Even if one argues
that the Stalinist forced march was necessary for the survival
of the USSR, we still should not close our eyes to alternative
visions to Stalin's heavy-industry model. Newly industrializing
nations like China need alternative models since they are facing
the same issues that Soviet Russia faced when it undertook projects
like the Great Dneiper Dam. Ambitious schemes to develop hydroelectric
capacity in China are threatening the ecology of the region on
a mammoth scale. There must be other options besides "Second
Wave" pyramid-building schemes and "Third Wave"
Silicon Valley daydreams. Chinese hospitals and schools need electricity
before they have electronic networks, and the Palchinsky course
is the most rational way to get there.
There are other efforts
to reconcile computer technology and socialism that differ quite
strikingly from cy.Rev's "Third Wave" vision. W. Paul
Cockshott and Allin Cottrell co-authored "Towards a New Socialism:
a Post-Soviet Model" to promote such a vision. Cockshott
is a computer systems engineer and his expertise helps to give
the book a firm grounding in the technology it espouses. They
advocate centralized planning though the wide-scale use of networked
computers, rather than the decentralized version of market socialism
that cy.Rev embraces. Instead of rejecting a Soviet-type model
out-of-hand, they present a re-engineered version.
Cockshott and Cottrell
argue that the labor theory of value can provide the underpinning
for both wages and prices in a socialist society. If we can quantify
how long it costs to produce something, then we should not only
be able price it accurately but make sure that factories can do
it on time. This seems somewhat like the operating principle of
the former Soviet Union, so why didn't it work there?.
The answer is two-fold.
Besides the lack of democracy, there was also inadequate information
available to economic planners. Only sophisticated computer systems
can provide this information. They say, "If we want to get
a more objective source of cost data, we need a system of data
collection that is independent of the market. This is where computer
technology comes in. We need a computerized information system
that gives production engineers unbiased estimates of the labor
time costs of different technologies."
The recent infatuation
with market pricing in formerly socialist nations seems oddly
placed, given the generally irrational nature of the market itself.
Cockshott and Cottrell note that "market prices are used
as a cost indicator in capitalist countries, but they have a certain
arbitrary character. An artist dies in poverty. A few decades
later his pictures change hands for millions. A sudden panic hits
the stock markets. In a matter of hours hundreds of billions are
wiped of stock prices. Farmers destroy crops because the prices
are too low. Walk through the poor areas of a British or American
city and you will see the pinched faces and stunted figures of
people for whom food is too expensive."
If the proper computation
of labor values is necessary for economic planning, what is better,
according to Cockshott and Cottrell, to perform this function
than modern supercomputers. Scientists use them for weather forecasting,
atomic weapons design, oil prospecting and nuclear physics. Would
it not be reasonable to expect a national planning bureau to make
use of them as well?
They, like the publishers
of cy.Rev, are cyber-optimists but welcome the idea of state management
of the economy. They make the case succinctly for a mix of advanced
automation and old-fashioned "state socialism":
"If detailed plan-balancing
is way beyond the reach of the human brain, can the calculations
be performed successfully using computers? Our answer will be
`yes', but we wish to anticipate some criticisms. During the 1960s,
as mainframe computers began to become widely available, many
Soviet economic cyberneticians were very optimistic, but since
that time the overall impact of the computer on Soviet planning
has disappointed those early expectations. Of course it was not
just in the USSR that the benefits of computerization were greatly
oversold in the 60s. Computerization is no panacea. There are
many problems with the economic mechanism in the USSR which would
have to be tackled before the application of extra computer-power
can be expected to yield much of a dividend. (One example: the
irrational and semi-fossilised pricing system, with the prices
of many goods stuck at levels which guarantee shortages and queues.)
But having said that,
the computer and telecommunications technology of the late twentieth
century does present striking opportunities for the regulation
of the economy. We believe that the more real danger at present
is an over-reaction to the `failed promise of the computer'. One
should remember that the USSR is somewhat behind the West in computer
technology, and the types of computer system available to Soviet
planners in the 60s and even 70s were primitive by today's Western
standards. They were also very centralised (relatively few big
mainframes), while the system we will propose makes use of both
massive fast mainframes and widely-distributed PC-type equipment,
linked by the national telecommunications system. And a political
point is relevant here. Our planning proposals absolutely require
a free flow of information and universal access to computer systems,
and this was politically impossible in the USSR under Brezhnev.
Even access to photocopying equipment was strictly controlled
for fear of the dissemination of political dissent. While we are
critical of the direction of some of the economic reforms currently
underway in the Soviet Union, there is no doubt that the policy
of glasnost is a precondition for the type of system we envisage."
As opposed to cy.Rev,
the approach of Cockshott and Cottrell is much more consistent
with the original vision of Marx. Marx embraced the technological
advances that capitalism produced but sought to eliminate the
private ownership of capital. In the aftermath of the collapse
of the USSR, there has been a tendency to reject all aspects of
Soviet society. The failure of the market to produce a higher
standard of living in of the formerly socialist societies has
begun to raise questions about the promise of capitalism itself.
The problem, however,
with cy.Rev and Cockshott-Cottrell alike is that their vision
of feasible socialisms rest on utopian foundations. They view
computers as the key that can unlock the door to a more just and
humane society. What they both fail to take into account is the
historical agency that can abolish existing class relations in
order to prepare the way for a computer-based socialism.
Market socialism and
the dialectical opposite put forward by Cockshott-Cottrell view
the failure of the former Soviet Union as a product of a deficient
formula. It as if architects and engineers were doing a post-mortem
on a collapsed structure. An inadequate design could cause a bridge
to collapse, if for example wind stress factors were not taken
into account. This is a bad way to understand the former Soviet
do not come into existence through blueprints. In every single
case they are the products of explosive clashes provoked by war,
economic dislocation, repression, and other profound shocks to
the system. Furthermore, there is usually a huge gap between the
development goals of revolutionaries once they take power and
the technical and professional infrastructure required to implement
them. When you combine this with the economic blockade or outright
warfare imperialism tries to abort embryonic forms of socialism
with, it is a miracle that any socialist society can move forward.
Cuba remains the one society that seems dedicated to socialist
goals even though capitalist pressure continues to extract compromises.
There was one other
revolutionary society that for a brief period appeared to embody
the economic and social justice goals of Cuban society while observing
the need for democratic liberties. That society was Sandinista
Nicaragua. The general direction of the Sandinista revolution
was dictated by the exigencies of the class struggle nationally
and internationally, however, and not by any blueprint. If anything,
the difficulties faced by the Sandinistas dramatizes the futility
of trying to build socialism on the basis of any pre-existing
What inspired the Nicaraguan
people to make a revolution was not some utopian plan but a sheer
need for survival. Ravaged by the plagues of Somoza kleptocracy,
earthquake and economic backwardness of a biblical dimension,
they fought back for education, health care, jobs and end to repression.
The Russian people likewise mobilized for "Bread, Peace and
Land" without a clear idea of what would follow. So when
the Sandinistas marched into Managua in 1979, they faced a situation
similar to the one that Laurent Kabila faces today in the Congo.
The masses have high expectations but a new government lacks a
detailed plan how to fulfill them.
The forms of statehood
that the Sandinistas adopted could only be related to the existing
objective conditions. They nationalized all of Somoza's properties
while leaving most other large and medium sized ranches in private
hands. This "mixed economy" was a function not of an
ideological commitment to market socialism but rather the recognition
that the working class of Nicaragua was too weak to impose its
will on the rest of society.
Management of state
properties was a daunting task. The Nicaraguan state lacked experienced
economists, statisticians, managers and clerks to coordinate the
activities of state-owned banks, farms, mills and transportation.
They did, however, make a commitment to using computer technology
to make up for the short-fall of experienced professionals. For
example, in the Central Bank an American volunteer working with
an organization called Tecnica trained Nicaraguans to use Lotus
123 to convert foreign currency holdings into the Nicaraguan equivalent.
A department of six college-educated Nicaraguans laboring with
pencil and paper found that it could do the same work with just
one person and a computer. In another dramatic example of the
power of computer technology, an American volunteer from the same
organization created a spare-parts database on a personal computer
that major state owned and private manufacturing plants in Managua
both took advantage of. This meant that breakdowns on an assembly
line were repairable in a matter of hours rather than weeks.
exhausted the Nicaraguan revolution and American volunteers eventually
found themselves replaced by Somocista returnees from Miami eager
to make a quick buck in "free" Nicaragua. One of the
great tragedies of the defeat of the Nicaraguan revolution is
that removes a shining example of what a feasible socialism might
look like. This example was not created on the basis of a inspired
plan. Instead it issued out of the struggle of ordinary human
beings to make a better life for themselves against overwhelming
odds and with both the tools and society they inherited. This
will be true of any revolution in the future as well.
The home page of cy.Rev
The home page of LBO
"Towards a New
Socialism" (Nottingham, Spokesman, 1993) is available in
an electronic, text-only version on the Communications for a Sustainable
Future Gopher in Colorado under Economics-Authors.
Labor and Community
Conferences Held This Summer