Socialism and scientific advance

What has been called “the problem of production”— how to produce enough to satisfy the needs of every man, woman and child—was solved by about the turn of the century. From then on scientific knowledge and technological ability could have banished for ever all human misery resulting from a lack of material resources: starvation and malnutrition, unhealthy living conditions, disease and ill-health, ignorance and superstition.

This knowledge and this ability has not however been applied to benefit Mankind in this way. Instead, production has remained geared to profit-making and the accumulation of profits as capital. The result has been not only continuing material poverty and misery but two world wars— and many lesser ones—during which millions of human beings have been massacred and mutilated. As the problem of production had already been solved all this human suffering was unnecessary and could have been avoided. It is the price Mankind has paid for the maintenance of capitalism into the Twentieth Century.

Scientific advance did not, of course, stop in 1900 but has continued ever since, making the production of enough wealth to adequately feed, clothe and shelter the whole of the world’s people ever less of a problem. In 1900 electricity was only beginning to be applied to production and the internal combustion engine and aeroplanes were just about to be developed. Since then we have seen the coming of (and we make no apologies for this list, as we hope it will help to ram home the extent to which the problem of production has been solved): radio, plastics, TV, jets, radar, rockets, electronics computers. nuclear power, transistors, artificial satellites, men on the Moon.

Every scientific advance makes capitalism even more obsolete and socialism even more practicable. But there are more advances to come in the near future. The popular science and science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, in his book Profiles of the Future (reprinted by Pan books last year), mentions as the next two major technological advances: the application of nuclear fusion to produce electricity and the invention of an efficient system of electrical storage.

At the moment there are a number of ways of generating electricity but not of storing it efficiently. Today’s batteries are clumsy and so prevent the development of clean, electrically-powered vehicles. Existing petrol- and diesel-burning internal combustion engines continually pollute the atmosphere and would be phased out as rapidly as possible in a rationally-organised society. This lack of an efficient way of storing electricity is also holding back the development of solar and other clean sources of energy like wind-power, although the latter have the disadvantage of dependence on natural conditions. But this would not matter so much if an efficient system of storing electricity existed since the electricity generated on sunny, or windy, days could be stored for later use; the electricity generated in summer could be stored for use in winter.

Clarke gives the 1980s as the date for the invention of an efficient system of electrical storage. Fusion power he puts in the 1990s. Existing nuclear power stations are based on nuclear fission. On splitting atoms of heavy elements like uranium. In this process a radioactive “waste” is produced. Society may well eventually find a way of using the energy this radio-activity represents; it will then cease to be waste and become a “by-product”. At the moment, however, it is dangerous waste which no one knows what to do with. People are right to be concerned about this; the priority capitalism gives to making profits leads to the adoption of inadequate safety measures.

Nuclear power is an obvious future source of energy, helping replace the relatively wasteful burning of non-renewable fossil fuels. Arthur C. Clarke puts this well:

“Today, there can be little doubt that the long-term (and perhaps the short-term) answer to the fuel problem is nuclear energy. The weapons already now stockpiled by the major powers could run all the machines on earth for several years, if their energies could be used constructively. The warheads in the American arsenals alone are equivalent to thousands of millions of tons of oil or coal.
It is not likely that fission reactions (those involving such heavy elements as thorium, uranium and plutonium) will play more than a temporary role in terrestrial affairs: one hopes not, for fission is the dirtiest and most unpleasant method of releasing energy that man has ever discovered. Some of the radio-isotopes from today’s reactors will still be causing trouble and perhaps injuring unwary archaelogists, a thousand years from now.
But beyond fission lies fusion—the welding together of light atoms such as hydrogen and lithium. This is the reaction that drives the stars themselves; we have reproduced it on earth, but have not yet tamed it. When we have done so, our power problems will have been solved for ever—and there will be no poisonous by-products, but only the clean ash of helium. Controlled fusion is the supreme challenge of applied nuclear physics: some scientists believe it will be achieved in ten years, some in fifty. But almost all of them are sure that we will have some fusion power long before our oil and coal run out, and will be able to draw fuel in virtually unlimited quantities from the sea.”

Deuterium, the isotope of hydrogen which is a raw material for the fusion reaction, exists in the sea in the proportion of 1gm per 30 litres. So much, then, for the dire predictions of the scaremongers about running out of resources and the sick justification of poverty as the result of inevitable scarcity.

Society has not yet mastered the technology of nuclear fusion but is on the way to doing so. Its coming won’t lead to the breakdown of capitalism as the wages-prices-profits system becomes clogged up by an abundance of very cheap goods, as is sometimes suggested. But it might lead to people realising that capitalism is an utterly irrational way of organising the production and distribution of the world’s wealth. For, once nuclear fusion has been shown to be a practical and efficient way of generating electricity—once society has acquired the practical ability to apply it to the production of wealth—it will be more than ever obvious that poverty, misery and deprivation are quite unnecessary. We must move on to socialism.

With the means of production the common heritage of all the people of the world, the scientific knowledge and technological skill which society now possesses can be used for the one purpose of satisfying human needs in accordance with the long-standing socialist principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.


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