1990s >> 1998 >> no-1129-september-1998


Blaming Technology

Dear Editors,

I read with interest the article on technology in May’s Socialist Standard. The consequences of the industrial revolution have been a terrible disaster for the human race, in fact had it not been for this revolution the need for socialism perhaps would not have arisen. Technology has only provided more and better exploitation. It has destabilised society, making life unfulfilling and subjecting us to the indignities of wage slavery, psychological suffering and starvation in the “third world” and untold damage to the environment by its need for natural resources. For socialists to champion technology seems to me to be a contradiction. One only has to read William Morris’s News From Nowhere to see the need for people to be near to nature. Socialism is not just the redirection of yet more goods towards the working class by yet another set of bureaucrats, but people working hand in hand with nature and the earth, to produce goods for need not a greed which has been fostered by capitalism.

Reply: You seem to have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. We weren’t criticising technology as such but the abuse of technology under capitalism. Today, under capitalism where the means of wealth production are owned and controlled by a minority, technology is developed and applied in their interest with the aim of maximising profit. To blame technology, rather than capitalism, for our problems is a mistake which leads to wrong, indeed absurd, conclusions.

The industrial revolution, carried out as it was within the context of capitalism, certainly worsened conditions of many people at the time but it also created the material basis for a socialist society of common ownership and free access to wealth.

It is neither possible nor desirable to abolish industrial technology. Without it we would have to go back to a much harsher form of living. What is required is to change the basis of society so that technology can be developed and applied in the interests of the majority and not for profit.

We are all in favour of humans living in a balanced, sustainable relationship with the rest of nature but, even in the field of ecology and the environment, industrial technology is useful, indeed essential. Renewable energy sources such as solar power, wind power, tidal power and so on all involve the necessary use of quite sophisticated machinery and equipment which we would not be able to make and operate without the technological knowledge acquired since the industrial revolution.

William Morris, incidentally, wasn’t an advocate of abolishing technology. If it has no place in News From Nowhere this was because he wanted to bring out the changed social relationships that would obtain in a socialist society, and it is as an exploration of these relationships as compared with those that obtained under capitalism that his “utopian romance” is to be read. Even so, technology wasn’t entirely absent: there are the “force barges” and “banded workshops”, both powered by a non-identified source of energy (which was, in Morris’s mind, probably electricity which at the time was just beginning to be applied to production, so making it possible to move beyond the steam-from-burning-coal technology he certainly did hate).-Editors.

Reading Marx

Dear Editors,

In your reply to Prof Sakiranjan (Socialist Standard, July), I don’t think that your particular quotation from the Communist Manifesto supports the view that socialism must be brought about democratically.

“The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, which is the struggle of democracy”, is simply saying that the achievement of democracy (in the Greek sense that the people rule) is dependent on the working class first establishing control over the state, in the place of the capitalist class. This quotation says nothing about how this control is to be achieved.

Your reply implied that the Manifesto uses the word democracy to describe a particular organisational procedure or method, where in fact the word is properly used to describe the possession and exercise of state power. If you are the class holding power, you do see it as democracy in that you can exercise power to further your interests. If you are not the class holding power, you see it as dictatorship, in the sense another class has power and is using it to act against your interests.

If you fail to be clear that “the struggle of democracy” (“the battle of democracy”, depending on the particular version read), has a fundamental class basis which is to establish the power of the working class, “the struggle of democracy” can start to sound abstract, suggesting socialists should be fighting for democratic rights under capitalism as well as for socialism.

In my view, the struggle for rights under capitalism is a reformist diversion from the political task of winning a majority of workers for socialism. Another quotation you use, that the struggle for socialism “is the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority” describes much better the principle that socialism can only be established democratically and by workers ourselves.
ANDREW NORTHALL, Kettering, Northants

Reply: We are far from sure that the passage in question from the Communist Manifesto bears either the interpretation you say we implied in our reply or your interpretation that it means that the achievement of democracy is dependent on the working class first establishing control over the state.

Of course full, social democracy, in which everyone has an equal say not just on administrative matters but also with regard to the use of the means of production, can only be established by the working class consciously using their control of political power to bring this about. But the context shows that Marx was not talking here about such social democracy (i.e. socialism) but only about political democracy as a form of state with universal suffrage and a sovereign elected assembly. So, what he was saying was that the first step in the workers’ revolution was the establishment of political democracy.

This is confirmed by Engels’s draft of the Manifesto where he answers the question “what will be the course of this revolution?”:

“Above all, it will establish a democratic constitution and through this the direct or indirect dominance of the proletariat. Direct in England where the proletarians are already a majority of the people” (Principles of Communism, Engels’s emphasis).

This was the point of view of the Chartists which Marx and Engels shared. As Marx wrote a few years later, when in exile in England, in an article on the Chartists:

” . . . Universal Suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England . . . Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class” (New York Daily Tribune, 25 August 1852, Marx’s emphasis).

Marx’s assumption that political democracy would be the equivalent of working class power was clearly based on an overestimation of the degree of class consciousness amongst workers, but at least it showed that he thought that socialism would have to come about democratically-though, as you point out, this was already more than implied in his statement that “the proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority”.

You are right on another point too. Marx did not believe that political democracy could be achieved peacefully, not even in England (Marx and Engels identified themselves with the “physical force” wing of Chartism). In fact, the translation as “battle of democracy” or “struggle of democracy” of the original German “die Erkämpfung der Demokratie” is a bit weak. The German means literally something along the lines of “the winning, by battling, struggling, fighting, of democracy”, which would be better conveyed by some such phrase as “the conquest of democracy”. If the English translation had said this (as most other language translations do) then the ambiguity would have been removed, both as to what kind of democracy Marx was talking about and as to how he envisaged it being achieved.

When, later, political democracy of a sorts had been established in some countries, whether by violence or other means, and Marx had had a chance to see how it worked in practice, he was obliged to abandon his earlier naïve assumption that it amounted to placing political power into the hands of the working class. He still held that this was the case, but only potentially, and that it opened up the possibility of the working class winning control of state power peacefully. But he now realised that winning control of political power required a higher degree of class consciousness than he had originally assumed. Political democracy could be used to dupe workers as well as being a means they could use to win power for socialism. Hence his call in 1881-which we wholeheartedly endorse-to transform universal suffrage (i.e. political democracy) from “the instrument of fraud that it has been up to now” into “an instrument of emancipation”.-Editors.

Teaching history

Dear Editors,

As a “time serving” History teacher (I must be serving time as I seem to have so little of it for myself) I have to admit to a certain measure of pique over Paddy Shannon’s assertions (“History as Mystery”, July Socialist Standard). He may well be describing his own unfortunate experiences, but he does not reflect mine.

When I studied History for GCE in the 1960s I was certainly taught about the Chartists. I also knew of the Luddites, extensively studied the nature of late 18th and 19th Century capitalism and the workers’ response, and briefly considered the ideas of Marx along with Adam Smith and Malthus. I was also informed about the 1848 European revolutions as the context for the later Chartist actions.

Thirty years later as a teacher I have recently covered the economics of the feudal system and the early glimmerings of capitalism in medieval towns with Year 7. The second year became quite heated recently when I explained the motivation of Richard Arkwright in terms of profit and how profit is generated through labour. The imperialist manoeuvrings and blatant competition that led to the First World War and the subsequent economic problems leading to the Second have been an important part of Year 9’s work on the 20th Century.

These are a few examples of how the teaching of History, whilst not Marxist, is nothing like the process of mystification the article suggested.
DAVID ALTON, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reply: We are sorry that you got the impression that we think history teachers are time-servers. That was not our intention and in fact was not what the author actually wrote (he was only describing his own particular experience at school). Nevertheless, we take this opportunity to make it absolutely clear that this is not what we think.

We can also accept your point that a history teacher who is a socialist does have some leeway, in some schools at least, to introduce a class rather than a nationalist element into their teaching and that this does happen and it’s a good thing. However, given that we are at present living in a non-revolutionary situation where most people see no alternative to capitalism and think in nationalist terms, this is going to be the exception for the great majority of school students.

In a non-revolutionary period, the ruling ideas, as Marx put it, are going to be the ideas of the ruling class and the school system will inevitably reflect this. Also, given the division of labour within the workforce under capitalism, there are two types of schools for the working class: those turning out workers for routine factory and office work, and those turning out workers for jobs that require a certain amount of critical thinking (engineers, managers, doctors, teachers, etc). The minority who are admitted to the latter type of school will be able to get somewhat less crude history lessons than the majority.-Editors.

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