ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Socialism and the Second Industrial Revolution

An exercise in re-envisioning socialism needs to seek answers to questions on depoliticisation of workers in socialist societies and exhibit a comprehensive understanding of globalisation under the impact of the information technology revolution and the potential role of international organisations in global governance. Prabhat Patnaik in his article (November 3, 2007) does not consider these aspects.

DISCUSSIONaugust 16, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly74Socialism and the Second Industrial RevolutionK VijayachandranK Vijayachandran ( is with the Cochin Centre for Policy Initiatives.An exercise in re-envisioning socialism needs to seek answers to questions on depoliticisation of workers in socialist societies and exhibit a comprehensive understanding of globalisation under the impact of the information technology revolution and the potential role of international organisations in global governance. Prabhat Patnaik in his article (November 3, 2007) does not consider these aspects.Prabhat Patnaik endorses the overall vision of socialism (‘Re-Envisioning Socialism’, November 3, 2007). However he insists that discussion on the precise mode and problems of transition must await another day. He is inclined to endorse George Lukacs view that, transi-tion to socialism is likely to be long drawnout, because transition from feudal-ism to capitalism had taken nearly three centuries. A friend of mine, an informa-tion technology (IT) expert and an enthusiast in the application of Marxism, questions this hypothesis because it ignores the possible impact of the rapidly increas-ing speed of technological changes. Facts around the rapidly increasing speed or acceleration of technology were dealt with extensively by several non-Marxian sociologists like Alvin Toffler who wrote Future Shock. And, IT experts have come to believe in the so-called Moore’s Law, which had predicted dou-bling of the number of transistors on inte-grated circuits every two years. Socialisa-tion of material production on a large scale with the help of machines or modern technology, and the impact of techno-logical changes on the society, were at the core of Marx’s critique of capital. Modes and problems of transition, therefore, need to be discussed not in the abstract, but in their specific technological context. The brief commentary here is based on such a belief, and a few other points of disagreements with Patnaik’s assertions in the article. Technological EnvironmentThe use of steam engines and energy con-version machines for material processing and transportation of men and materials across the continents, had socialised the process of physical production to unprece-dented levels, and at the same time enhanced by several fold, the physical productivity of mankind. Riding on what may be called the firstindustrial revolu-tion, the bourgeoisie, all over the world, had created new nation states under their hegemony. However, they were incapable of developing a global political economy or an integrated and interdependant world thanks to the imperialist interregnum, as rightly theorised by Lenin. Even today, the first industrial revolution has not run its full course, but mankind is already experi-encing the impact of a second industrial revolution, better known as the informa-tion technology and communication revo-lution, which is socialising and globalising intellectual production to a hitherto un-precedented scale, and enhancing by sev-eral fold the intellectual productivity of mankind. As early as the late 1950s, even before the dawn of this second industrial revolution, J K Galbraith had theorised that mankind had developed enough technologies to feed and sustain several times the then estimated world popula-tion of four billion (Affluent Society, 1958). One may assume that those were good enough technological conditions for the practice of socialism, and now the first and second industrial revolutions to-gether have created a technological envi-ronment needed for the flowering of communism. Based on the experiences of the past couple of centuries, one may even theorise that subjective or ideological factors continue to hold back humanity from taking the plunge in pursuit of socialism and communism. Visions of an integrated and interde-pendent world of perestroika days had an objective technological basis, but they failed to recognise the harsh reality of im-perialism, working overtime to subvert socialism. With the downfall of the social-ist camp, capital which owns and control the means of production, material as well as intellectual, has come to occupy the central stage of global politics once again, taking imperialism to new heights of hegemony, exploitation and oppression. Socialism needs to be re-envisioned, not in the abstract, but in this given historical context, when social and political contra-dictions are sharpening by the day with increasing momentum, and global capital
DISCUSSIONaugust 16, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly76revolution (Lenin-Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky).After LeninPatnaik has discussed at length issues re-lated to democracy, organisational principles and democratic centralism, as practised under “old socialism”. The intention here is not to challenge the numerous facts he has presented but to supplement them, which incidentally could lead to an alto-gether different perception about “old so-cialism”. He is right in praising Lenin for suffering open dissent by Nicolai Bucharin and others when he says, “even during the most difficult post-revolutionary times....The question of silencing them through disciplinary action never arose. Such si-lencing of dissent was alaterandaltogeth-er unwholesome development”. This fact is of great relevance to the conduct of ideo-logical polemics within theIndianrevolu-tionary movement, which on occasions de-generate into Pol Potism of the worst kind. However, it needs to be noted that, the so-called silencing of dissent had only started several years after Lenin’sdeath.There was a prolonged ideological and political struggle led by Stalin against the so-called opposition within and outside the Bolshevik party, under a much more difficult internal situation. It is only fair to concede that Stalin had continued with the democratic traditions of Lenin under an even more hostile environment. True, there were trials and executions. They were part of the then existing global culture which was tolerant towards even war and mass kill-ings, universally abhorred today on simple moral grounds. However, inner party democracy and democratic centralism withintheBolshevik movement did not come to a dead-end, with the demise of Lenin. It has survived not only Stalin, but alsoseveralother general secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Without that type of inner-party democracy, itwould have been simply impossible for Soviet society to survive the hostile encir-clement of imperialism and to register the great achievements of the Soviet Union in war and peace. In support of the hypothesis that inner party democracy was alive and kicking within theCPSU even after Lenin, one may quote from Onikov (a central committee member of CPSU and staunch supporter of perestroika), regarding inner party democracy in the party organisation of Moscow region. Up to 1940 there was not a single case at dozensof its meetings [party of Moscow region] of a nominee for full or candidate membership of the regional or city party committee or the auditing commission being elected unanimously. It was a common practicethen, especially in the 1920s, that some of the candidates were not elected. The first case when all nominees for full or can-didate membership of the regional commit-tee and the auditing committee were elected unanimously was reported in 1974; not a single nominee in the voting list was voted down. In 1976, the same happened at the city conference (Onikov-Soviet Monthly, Socialism Principles Practice and Prospects – November 1989). It may be noted that Onikov had assem-bled this data in order to discredit Brushnev and company and not to support Stalin. The rise and fall of Nikita Khrushchev is sufficient proof of the healthy practice of democratic centralism within theCPSU. Future historians are sure to take a more balanced view of the degeneration of democracy and democratic centralism within theCPSU, and may trace its begin-nings to Khrushchev’s revisionist reforms of 1961 implemented slowly but steadily by the intellectual classes of the Soviet Union, despite resistance put up by the working people. These reforms were in-tended to take away the political supervi-sion of economic enterprises and to bring them under the bureaucratic care and control of the intelligentsia. This writer has attended the debates on Ota Sik re-forms in socialist Czechoslovakia during 1964-65; with engineers and other sections of intelligentsia on one side, supporting the reform and the workers and trade SAMEEKSHA TRUST BOOKS1857Essays from Economic and Political WeeklyA compilation of essays that were first published in the EPW in a special issue in May 2007. Held together with an introduction by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, the essays – that range in theme and subject from historiography and military engagements, to the dalit viranganas idealised in traditional songs and the “unconventional protagonists” in mutiny novels – converge on one common goal: to enrich the existing national debates on the 1857 Uprising.The volume has 18 essays by well known historians who include Biswamoy Pati, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Peter Robb and Michael Fisher.The articles are grouped under five sections:‘Then and Now’,‘Sepoys and Soldiers’,‘The Margins’,‘Fictional Representations’ and ‘The Arts and 1857’.Pp viii + 364 2008 Rs 295Available fromOrient Longman LtdMumbai Chennai New Delhi Kolkata Bangalore Bhubaneshwar Ernakulam Guwahati Jaipur LucknowPatna Chandigarh Hyderabad Contact:
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW august 16, 200877unionleadersopposing it at the grassroots level. The heat of this debate was felt as far off as Tiruchirappalli, within the tiny Czechoslovakian community that had come over to India, for setting up the Bharat Heavy Electrical Ltd (BHEL). This conflict within the Czechoslovakian society was real and part of a democratic process within, and not a creation of “soviet imperialism”, as alleged at that time by the bourgeois media. The Ota Sik reforms were later temporarily withdrawn and Alexander Dubcek, like Khrushchev, was forced to bow out under pressure from the working class.It is a fact that class contradictions and class perceptions do not disappear even after long years of building socialism. Overlooking these social realities while reforming or re-designing systems of governance or management of economic enterprises is sure to end up as a fatal mistake. The Bolshevik revolution had established a system of governance and management of public institutions based on grassroots level democracy, where the working people, their collectives and trade unions had played a key role, and not nec-essarily the intellectual classes and tradi-tional bureaucracy. Even special schools and evening classes were opened during Stalin’s time to train up ordinary workers and their children to take up key occupa-tions within a short time. Special universi-ties were opened to end, within a short time, the monopoly of the aristocracy over the intellectual occupations. This sort of built-in class bias in the management of street-level public institutions and human resources development had naturally attracted criticism and opposition from intellectual classes, reflections of which could be seen in the literary works of Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and several others. Reforms by Ota Sik, Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev had a common objective: end of grassroot level democracy and politics. Gorbachev even succeeded in banning politics from workplaces. By that time even party organisations at the higher levels were brought under the control of the intellec-tual classes, as indirectly conceded by Patnaik, “a person could become the general secretary of the CPSU without believing in socialism!” Legally enforceable guarantees on right to work and related fundamental rights had naturally reinforced the practice of grass-roots level democracy in socialist countries. Workers exercised their right to criticise not only their immediate supervisors, but even the managers of economic enterprises who were legally bound to discuss all as-pects of production planning, including questions of quality, productivity improve-ments and compensation packages, with the trade unions and in the shop floor level joint management committees. Industrial democracy, as practised today in western Europe, came into existence as an inevitable response to the shopfloor democracy practised extensively in east European countries next door. For example, joint stock companies of west Germany were brought under legal compulsion to consti-tute joint management boards with equal representation for the workers and the board of directors elected by the share-holders and these laws continue to be valid even today. Enterprises managers in west Europe are legally obliged to consult trade unions not only on policy issues but also to share with them complete informa-tion on business performance. As west Europe tried to copy the principles of participative management and industrial democracy that were widely practised in the socialist block, Japan was inspired by the massive voluntary movement of inno-vators and inventors, jointly organised by workers and technologists on the shop floor and then coordinated as part of the socialist initiative at the national level. During the post-war years, these volun-tary movements originating from the shop floors of the Soviet Union were widely adopted by east European countries. They were then re-christened as quality circles (QC) in Japan, under the guidance of W Deming of Harvard University. Questions that Need AnswersManagement theorists and market econo-mists on the payrolls of the bourgeoisie could be hardly expected to confess to the lessons they had learnt from the great socialist experiments in governance and enterprise management. Nevertheless, it is quite legitimate to conclude that unlike in theUS, monopoly capitalism in western Europe and Japan had adopted, in large measure, the enterprise management methods developed by the Soviet Union and other socialist countries and that they were based on grassroots level democracy. And,contrary to the false propaganda by imperialists and bourgeois intellectuals, science and technology in the Soviet Union and the socialist block had experienced quantum jumps, thanks to these demo-cratic methods of management that could draw heavily from the creativity of people, who were liberated from the yoke of capi-talist oppression. Debates on the relative roles of democracy and bureaucracy in enterprise management and economic management in socialist countries were grossly one-sided in the past, and continue to be ill-informed. Theories and percep-tions on convergence by Galbraith did not find supporters on either side of the ideo-logical divide, thanks to the ideological blinkers and rigidities of the cold war en-vironment. The article, ‘Re-envisioning Socialism’ cannot claim to be an exemp-tion from this general trend. Patnaik has said that old socialism, es-pecially in its later years, had appealed to the self-interests of the workers and not to their social commitments, “Old socialism depoliticised the workers. Our vision of the socialism of the future must entail a resurrection of politics, a perennial en-gagement with the politics on the part of the working class, which will also provide the answer to the problem of work motiva-tion in socialist societies”. He is right when he insists that this cannot be ensured by adopting a religious approach to Marxism. Nevertheless, the question needs to be asked and honestly answered. Who, at what point of time, and which forces withinor outside the socialist societies, had depoliticised the workers and how? Re-envisioning of socialism demands not only the right answers to these vital questions, but also a comprehensive understanding of the ongoing globalisa-tion under the impact of the second in-dustrial revolution, and of the interna-tional organisations that have already come into existence within and outside of the UN, as well as their potential role in a future system of global governance. Discourses that neglect these objective realities are not only un-Marxian but also counterproductive.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top