Letters: Technology and Socialism

The writer of the article “Technology and the working class” (November Socialist Standard) says, “Progress is not a matter of finding new things which could transform existence. It is the development of society’s capacity to let them happen.” This of course is far from telling us what progress means. Modern society has developed the capacity to allow many technological inventions to happen and operate, but that does not necessarily mean progress, does it? If the hand mill gives us society with the feudal lord, and the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist, in what sense does the writer call this progress? A change from hand mills to steam mills does not necessarily constitute progress, no more than does a change from gunpowder to atomic bombs. No-one can of course dispute that there has been scientific progress, because this is verifiable. But has scientific progress made man any happier and kinder to his fellow man? One can hardly talk of any progress here at all. Man’s life on earth seems to be what it has always been, that is, quite short and very rarely sweet. Progress means a lot of different things to different people, and after 6,000 years of human history we do not have very much progress to boast about, do we? And in regards progress to Socialism, we can safely say there has been no progress there at all. Socialism has been a non-starter since the publication of the Communist Manifesto of 1848. It is true of course that Marx saw technology as a precondition of the change from capitalism to Socialism, but the progress in technology has had a rather sinister effect on the working class. In that it has turned the workers into robots. And how do you possibly expect robots to establish Socialism?
Ian Campbell

Surely there are ways in which scientific progress has made men happier. Take the development of medical knowledge, for instance—many diseases which were once rife are now things of the past. You refer to the human lifespan as “quite short”, but it is now about twice as long on average as it was in Marx’s day. Standards of medical care and hygiene are far higher today than in any earlier period of history.
Technological innovation throughout human history has created a situation where the productive forces of society can produce an abundance of goods. It is the existence of a profit-motivated society, capitalism, that prevents most of the benefits of technological progress form reaching the working class. The article made the point that products based on technological inventions are either too expensive for most workers, or else their quality is reduced to make them marketable. Other inventions are put to utterly anti-social ends under capitalism—atomic and nuclear bombs, for instance. In Socialism there will be no criterion on which to base the use made of technology other than that of benefit to society as a whole.
The workers have certainly not been turned into robots by technological progress: it has rather led to them acquiring sufficient skill, knowledge and critical awareness to take over the running of society when they have become convinced of the possibility and need for them to do so.