Pathfinders: Socialism – read instructions carefully

If you like podcasts you could do a lot worse than The Secret History of the Future, an engaging co-production between Slate magazine and The Economist ( , which looks at new horizon tech and explores how its historical antecedents often go back a surprisingly long way. Did you know, for example, that the first ‘AI’ chess machine appeared in the 1790s and that, like most of today’s AI, it was a hoax; that the first hackers to exploit a wireless communications system were arrested in the Napoleonic period; or that the first ‘online’ wedding took place in Boston in the 1840s?

What’s curious about new technology is how badly people sometimes react to it. You may recall, a few years ago, that Google launched Google Glass, the smart specs that were supposedly going to take the world by storm and instead incited an overwhelmingly hostile reaction from the public, who suspected wearers of creepily recording them. This reaction seems slightly less strange, say the podcast presenters, when one considers the public outrage that was caused by 17th century attempts to reduce injuries from sharp knives by introducing the fork (irascible aristos had a tendency to stab each other during spats over dinner).

Sometimes, as with the earliest electric car (1890) and the first hydrogen fuel cell (1842), the technology arrived long in advance of the social infrastructure capable of supporting it. Some, like Babbage’s 1837 Analytical Engine, the first general-purpose computer, simply couldn’t be built with the tools of the period. In other cases, such as the 1920s Flettner rotor, a clever low-energy wind propulsion system for shipping, the tech didn’t catch on because conventional fuels (in this case, fossil) were considered easier and cheaper (Flettner rotors are now being trialled on some Maersk container ships).

Sometimes a perfectly good technology could become the victim of its own hype. The podcast has yet to cover the story of how bacteriophage therapy, once the specialist preserve of one Georgian clinic, became so overblown in the free-market West as a miracle cure for everything from baldness to impotence that it was discredited as snake-oil quackery and forgotten for almost a century. It is only now being rehabilitated as a possible approach to addressing the global antibiotic crisis caused by capitalist big pharma finding it more profitable to research cures into, er, baldness and impotence.

Bearing all this in mind, it’s easy to see that innovations can fail for all sorts of reasons, and not because they’re intrinsically bad.

This is rather how we think of socialism. What started as a brilliant, innovative and far-reaching idea when first proposed was then misapplied and distorted in practice with such disastrous consequences that the theory was utterly discredited, and its name almost spat as a term of abuse.

But not forever. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, people decide to revisit the original proposition. It might happen out of sheer academic curiosity. It might happen because things change and the ‘conventional fuels’ turn out not to be cheaper and easier after all. It might be because people realise that old ideas can still be good, or that society just wasn’t ready for them the last time round, or that what was delivered in the packaging wasn’t what was described in the advertising blurb.

So they investigate what socialism originally meant, which is what we still mean by it. And at this point they start to see some glaring discrepancies between the idea, properly described, and the popular interpretations and applications that were later implemented.

They discover that, contrary to popular wisdom, socialism did not mean big states nationalising corporations and controlling everything, and perhaps turning everyone into brainwashed uniformed zombies. It meant a ‘free association of producers’, in Marx’s phrase, cooperating democratically without bosses to live full and rich lives, with no need for coercive states, markets, corporations or indeed nations. They learn that, contrary to common left-wing parlance, socialism and communism meant the same thing and that the one was in no sense a ‘transitional period’ towards the other, with an elite crew of Party bureaucrats helpfully in charge and giving the orders. They learn that, far from socialism being an economy of high taxes and state welfare for the poor, it is in fact a society with no taxes (or states), no rich, no poor, no ‘economy’ as such and no money. They learn that, instead of the Trotskyist formula ‘those who don’t work, don’t eat’, socialism is based on the principle ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’, the two being decoupled not linked, and self-defined, not imposed by diktat. And of course they learn that the state capitalist regimes of the USSR, China, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Cambodia, etc, were one-party dictatorships which had nothing to do with socialism, for all that they hoisted banners of Marx and Engels to give themselves a bit of spurious legitimacy.

A slew of popular polls in the last few years have shown a reversal in political trends, with young people increasingly seeing ‘socialism’ as a positive term and ‘capitalism’ as negative. This is encouraging and needs to happen, given how obvious it is that capitalism is wrecking the planet for the sake of profit and perpetual market growth. But it’s no good if people still think socialism means some insipid state-interventionist placebo touted by centre-left careerists in sharp suits, or else sloganeering Stalinist wannabes exhorting you, comrade worker, to throw yourself against the guns to win them the dictatorship of the proletariat.

New technology is often preceded by failed misdirected attempts. It succeeds when people finally understand what it is, why they need it, and how to apply it. Socialism is like this, the smart app that will be the world’s biggest upgrade since the plough, and which one day people won’t believe they ever did without. But before that, get yourself a user manual.


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