Review of the major “radical” trends and their attitudes: Part 4 (final part) of ‘Outline on technology and progress’ – a Marxist view (Written by Albert Langer in October 1979)

“Quite politically conservative people like businessmen or revisionist party bureaucrats can contribute to social progress by developing the productive forces, but only revolutionaries can tackle the central issue of overturning the obsolete social relations”.

* * * *

17. Let us now review the major “radical” trends and their attitudes to these issues.

18. The ideology of the “soft technology” trend is well expressed in the journal Resurgence whose Editor Satish Kumar has summarised its aims thus: “The breaking down of our over-large and over-centralised political and economic structure into smaller autonomous units in order that institutions should become responsive to the needs and desires of everybody and that everyone should thus feel involvement with and responsibility for the conduct of affairs.” (“Time Running Out? Best of Resurgence”, Prism Press 1976)

The belief that smaller autonomous units guarantee responsiveness to the needs and desires of everybody is somewhat quaint in view of the history of feudalism. Nevertheless, in one form or another, this whole approach is still extremely popular in “left” circles. It seems that Marxism never did defeat anarchism after all.

Although many adherents of this trend are very nice, gentle people who would probably find themselves on the right side of the barricades if it came to that (even if only as stretcher bearers), the ideological content of this trend is undiluted reaction against modern society.

The best known exponent of this trend is E.F. (“Small is Beautiful”) Schumacher, whose social views are not radically different from B.A. Santamaria’s and are based on the same papal encyclicals (ibid p103). But Resurgence points out Schumacher should be paired with Professor Leopold Kohr in a “Kohrmacher”, like the “Chesterbelloc” of the last generation’ (an interesting comparison with another pair of religious medievalists)(ibid p1).

To show just how openly reactionary this trend can be, without the admiring disciples even noticing, we need not consider the promotion of Zionist kibbutzes as a model for the new society (p108). Let us just take an article by Professor Kohr on “The Economics of Progress” (p18).

Kohr starts with a conversation between two college professors discussing how to wash their shirts, and also “plumbing, floor polishing and cooking, glorying in the fact that progress had so simplified matters that all these things could now be done by themselves”.

But one of them sighs and declares:

…fifty years ago we would have had maids. Instead of having to wash, plumb, and cook like unspecialised pioneers, we might have been better engineers and economists. Moreover, our shirts would have looked pressed, and our meals have tasted better. And instead of discussing housework at a party of scholars, we might have discussed our subjects.

According to Kohr:

“The experience of the two professors is shared by an increasing number of people. On one hand, we witness the gigantic pace of progress and continuously rising output figures. But on the other hand, we have the strange feeling that, instead of getting ahead in life, we have to give up every year something we could afford when, according to living standard experts, we must have had less”.

To support this conclusion, Kohr notes that:

“When I was a student in the early 30’s, I drove a racy sports car”. (During the Great Depression). Now as a University Professor he rides a bus.

“And the income classes above me have fared still worse… Mr Dupont had to abandon his palatial residence.. Now it is a museum…Where are the people who have become richer as a result of Mr Dupont having become poorer? On the contrary, most seem to be carried along the same road: downhill… Those who previously drank wine with their meals now drank water, and those who had maids now have none.”

“As to maids, it is frequently said that their disappearance is precisely a sign not of decline but of rising standards. For maids of former days are now housewives or businesswomen. Quite. But why should maids have aspired to these higher levels except in the hope of having maids themselves?…

“And workers seem to have fared only outwardly better. True, they have record incomes and record quantities of goods to spend them on. But if all is taken into account, can they really be said to be better off than workers of earlier times? They can write and read. But what is their main literature? They can send their children to college. But what has college education become under the levelling impact of intellectual mass production made necessary by the unprecedented numbers of those now able to afford it?…With so many other workers going to school, higher education, already intellectually sterile, seems without added material benefit, having become the competitive minimum requirement for almost any job.”

(Exactly the same point is made by Braverman, but dressed up as “Marxism”)

“As a result, what has actually risen under the impact of the enormously increased production of our time is not so much the standard of living as the level of subsistence. We swim in more water, but we are still in it up to our necks, In addition, along with the rising water level, many who previously enjoyed the luxury of the dry shore, are now up to their necks in water too”.

(Braverman makes a similar point to this too).

“…the problem is…no longer how to foster growth, but how to stop it..”

The above is not a distortion of Professor Kohr’s views, but an accurate picture of the introduction to an article that goes on with the usual theme of the need for smaller, more decentralised communities.

It is perfectly clear what section of society this “aristocratic socialism” speaks for – that part of the financial aristocracy being ruined as the proletarianisation of society proceeds (just as the old feudal socialism spoke for the declining feudal aristocracy).

To his credit, Professor Kohr does not attempt to conceal this in the slightest. But why are his views, or those of “Kohrmacher” nevertheless perfectly respectable in “left” circles?

Since a critique of Braverman’s romanticism necessarily includes a critique of this even more reactionary opposition to modern society, I will leave the matter there.

19. A second major trend, which may be called “Luddite” has closer connections with genuinely working class and socialist movements, and is in part a theoretical reflection of the ideas naturally arising in the course of trade union struggles to safeguard the rights of workers affected by automation.

This trend is not opposed to modern technology in itself, and emphasises the benefits that could flow from it in a socialist society. But it has a negative attitude towards the introduction of new technology within capitalist society, seeing this as a means of doing workers out of jobs and strengthening capitalist control.

The question “For Whom?” is repeated continuously and with enormous self-satisfaction as though it throws some penetrating light on the issues at stake, although in fact it obscures the question “What are the social implications?”. Since the answer to “For Whom?” in capitalist society is naturally “For them” (the capitalists), it is rare to find people who ask this question actually in favour of any new technology being introduced now.

20. Typical of this genre is a pamphlet called “Computers vs Journalists who wins?” (40 cents from Box 175, P.O. 367 Collins St Melbourne 3000)

Under the subhead “Problems, Problems, Problems…” we read:

“Sub editors are particularly affected, as the new technology not only means removal of some existing skills, but makes it more difficult to perform many traditional ones. ‘Casting off’, or determining the length of a story, can be done automatically by computer, making redundant a skill acquired over a long period by subs…The skill in writing a headline, which “fits” will be greatly de-valued because the computer can reject those which “bounce” before they are set in type.

Some subs will welcome the job of casting off, or headline counts being made easier, but by transferring the skills involved from men and women to a computer the human component involved in the highly-skilled task of good sub-editing is weakened”.

The appeal here is unmistakably conservative. One can imagine similar warnings about moveable type being addressed to monks in defence of their highly skilled craft copying manuscripts (which was indeed completely destroyed by the new technology).

It has not even occurred to the writer that it might be an advance for a machine to do routine counting operations while the human sub-editor concentrates on the content of the material sub edited. Obviously one should fight for people whose skills have been made obsolete by new technology to be re-trained, re-employed and not to suffer in the slightest. But this preference for human labour when something can be done as well by machine is really quite different, and quite reactionary. It means using people like machines.

The conservatism involved is made quite explicit when the pamphlet quotes approvingly from an agreement between the Swedish Unions of Journalists and Graphic Workers, recommending similar agreements between Australian unions:

“GF and SJF agree that the introduction of the new technology shall not affect the traditional basic principles of a division of labour among the categories of employees concerned. Thus, mechanical production tasks fall to the lot of graphic workers, while journalistic tasks are the domain of the staff members. Special importance must be attached to the workload of the staff, which must not be increased in such a manner that creative journalistic work is made to suffer. Nor may the tasks of graphic workers be made to include functions embracing journalistic work of a creative or decision-making nature”.

This desire to preserve “the traditional principles of a division of labour” against a new technology that tends to break down those divisions can only be called reactionary. Why shouldn’t journalists set their own copy? Why shouldn’t printers’ jobs include work of a creative or decision making nature?

The other side of this coin is attempts to prove that a new technology is deepening the division of labour and therefore should be opposed, when in fact like most new technology the actual effect is to break down that division.

Word processing is a classic example. No serious person could argue that a typewriter with editing and correcting features is in itself worse for humanity than one without these features (although some people have tried). Yet from all the “left” literature on the subject, one would think that the main social impact of word processing under capitalism would be to reduce the status of typist/secretaries to the level of the typing pool, and reinforce the division between “executive” and “clerical” Labor.

Naturally some reactionaries will try to take advantage of any change in work methods to make things worse for the workers by introducing typing pools and what have you. Although it is easier to maintain word counts and so forth with a word processor, there is nothing inherent in the technology that would make it easier for bosses to impose typing pools and other worse conditions on the workers, and in fact they have not been successful in doing so.

While word processors are still new and expensive, there is some tendency to try and achieve maximum utilisation of the machine and so attempt tighter control over the Labor using it (especially since such intensification of labour is feasible in the present economic climate of increasing unemployment). But the inherent trend of the technology is in the opposite direction (as will become clear, when word processing keyboards and VDUs become cheaper than electric typewriters and replace them on a one for one basis – with a separate printer shared between several typists).

The actual impact of word processing has been and will be to reduce the total requirement for typing Labor, especially by eliminating the repetitive typing of similar documents with minor variations (“personalized” form letters with different addresses, revised drafts etc). These are precisely the applications where typing pools have been common, and they are being eliminated, so typing pools must be declining.

The jobs previously done by “secretaries” are now being done by smaller numbers of “administrative assistants” on the one hand, and word processors on the other. This elimination of the Executive’s personal secretary/body slave is a clear-cut upgrading in job status (except for the Executive’s some of whom are complaining) and a break down in the division of Labor. As has already happened with printers and journalists, the next logical step is for all “word originators”, whether “Executives” or not, to do their own typing, since no special manual dexterity is required with the new machines and the difference in wage levels does not “justify” specialisation. These trends will be accelerated, with similar impacts on the Labor presently required for fileing and other clerical work, as communication between word processors on different desks, and direct access to mass data storage is developed. Even for purely “typist” Labor in typing pools, the use of a machine with editing and correcting facilities is a clear upgrade in job function.

People who are afraid to confront bosses with the simple demand that there be no intensification of Labor under cover of the new technology will rationalise this fear by pretending that the new technology, rather than the bosses, are the source of the pressure for Labor intensification. But most workers know how to fight such pressures and have been successful in doing so (although the degree of Success or failure always ultimately depends on the state of the Labor market and the ease of transferring between jobs, hence on the overall economic climate, rather than on the militancy of struggle in individual workplaces).

This awareness that one’s fate is bound up with that of all other workers develops in the proletariat and helps develop its consciousness as a class for itself. It seems to be sadly lacking in many “left” writers about the “Labor process” who picture the class struggle as unfolding in particular workplaces rather than on a national scale, and seem to be under the illusion that workers are tied to their particular employers for life.

21. Leaving aside the overall struggle for a new society, even within capitalism, the natural reaction of socialist toward new Labor saving technology should be to demand its speedy introduction and a share of the benefits. Thus the earlier replacement of handicrafts by machine industry prompted agitation for a shorter working day in the factories, and so should the latest stage in automation promote agitation for a shorter working day.

Instead we have the modern Luddites repeating the mistake of the earlier Luddites who tried to prevent the new machinery replacing handicraft Labor in the.first place. An attempt as futile as it is reactionary.

22. This term “Luddite” is not used here simply as a form of abuse. It is admitted by representatives of this trend themselves, despite the whole history of scientific socialism since the Industrial Revolution. Here is Chris Harmon of the UK Socialist Workers Party in a pamphlet titled “Is a machine after your job? New Technology and the Struggle for Socialism”. (p21)

“… the Luddites were a group of workers suffering from miserably low wages and facing a destruction of their jobs by new working methods. Their attempts to fight back by destroying machines may not have been successful (although they did succeed in holding down a bigger army than the Duke of Wellington had in the same years to fight his war against the French in Spain).

“But the result of their failure was not something good. It was grinding desperate poverty for hundreds of thousands of people, enduring for a whole generation…

“…Our response has to start from the same suspicion of the way the new technology is being used that motivates those who simply say “No”. We are on the same side as the Luddites, not against them .”

The “microprocessor revolution” promises (not “threatens”) to have as big an impact on the labor process as the development of automatic machinery in the earlier industrial revolution. Just as the dexterity of human fingers was for most purposes replaced by machinery, so now some higher functions of control and supervision will also be replaced (although not yet much in the way of actually creative intellectual processes). It is truly amazing that instead of the further development of Marxism, which based itself on a theoretical comprehension of the social consequences of the age of machinery, we should see a revival of earlier and cruder varieties of socialism that have long been discredited in favour of Marxism, by the history of modern society.

Once again, since a critique of Braverman’s romanticism necessarily embraces a critique of modern Luddism, I will leave the matter there. But I should stress that this “theoretical” difference does put me on the opposite side to modern Luddites on strictly practical questions. When they are agitating against the introduction of word processors, I would be agitating for workers to demand their immediate introduction and refuse to operate obsolete typewriters that haven’t got all mod cons.

23. Before turning to Braverman and romanticism, it may be worth pointing out the important differences between the Liberal and Social Democratic defence of modern technology and economic growth on the one hand, and the Marxist view on the other, since so far we have been mainly talking about the similarities.

Both the similarities and differences are made clear in an article on “Technology and the Left” in the CPGB organ Marxism Today of May 1979. Here Ian Benson, a British Labor Party and trade union activist, makes much the same criticisms of “romanticism” and the CPGB’s line (similar to the CPA’s), as would be made by Liberals on the one hand and Marxists on the other.

24. After quoting Lenin’s analysis of the socialisation of Labor, Benson argues:

“From this perspective the simple classification of technology into exploitative and non-exploitative is seen to contribute little either to the raising of the cultural level of mankind or the solution of the political problems of establishing democratic control over the means of production.

The defence of particular skills amounts to an attempt to freeze the existing division of Labor, and defers the satisfaction of material and cultural needs by the rest of the population which would be met by automation. The principled opposition to centralisation on the grounds of the alleged greater democracy of decentralised production, is both contrary to the need for further integration of the world economy as a prerequisite for the breakdown of skill, class and national barriers, and offers nothing to solving the problem of establishing democratic control over the economy as a whole.

A socialist technology policy with these ends must be based on an analysis of the constraints on the development of science as a productive force, “preparing the ground for the dissolution of human alienation”.

This whole approach is so foreign to the romantic outlook that dominates most “left” thinking that people replying cannot even grasp what is being said. Consider this from a reply titled “What Type of Technology do we want” by Dave Elliott in the same issue of Marxism Today:

“…Benson believes that science and technology somehow develop independently from other forces in society. They are “neutral” resources of knowledge and techniques which can be applied either to the benefit of society generally (under socialism) or for the benefit of a few (under capitalism).”

Manifestly Benson does not believe that at all.

He quite clearly treats technology as a positive force which pushes society forward and helps transform it from capitalism to socialism. This is a view common to Social Democrats and Marxists. But it is so unthinkable to romantics that the worst accusation they can fling at the pro-technology camp is that we view technology as merely neutral, which we do not!

I have seen numerous articles loftily criticising the “old fashioned”, “economic determinist” and “simplistic” view that technology is neutral and that a socialist society could simply take over the previous technology and apply it to more humane ends. This “neutral” view is often attributed to Engels, Lenin and Stalin although Marx and Mao are often claimed to have been more sympathetic to the romantic school. But I have hardly seen any material directly confronting the “unthinkable” explicitly pro-technology view which was in fact articulated loud and clear by Marx as well as the rest.

What this “criticism” proves is simply that the critics are quite ignorant of the views of their opponents, let alone being in a position to advance on those views from a more comprehensive understanding.

It is rather like accusing atheists of the Protestant heresy because we will not pray to the virgin Mary, when in fact the problem is even more serious!

26. The differences between the Marxist and Social Democratic approaches to the social implications of modern technology are made clear when Ian Benson proceeds “Towards a Socialist Technology Policy”: “It should call for the removal of all barriers to the full development of science and technology in the interests of society, through a programme of radical institutional, scientific and political reforms.”

Benson then outlines a program of reforms to promote “re-skilling,”Democratic Control”, “Social Ownership”, “Development of Science” and “Socially Useful Production” – all with the aim of “liberation of science”.

What this omits is precisely the Marxist concept that the main “institutional” barrier to the full development of science and technology in the interest of society, is the capitalist mode of production based on commodities and wage labour itself. This has been obsolete since the age of electricity (never mind micro-electronics) and needs to be swept away by revolution (not reform).

Social Democrats share with Marxists the fundamental concept that the development of the productive forces, modern technology and economic growth, is the positive dynamic factor which pushes forward the transformation of social relationships. But they stand this conclusion on its head by calling for reforms to push forward new technology and economic growth (which are dynamic and pushing forward spontaneously anyway), instead of concentrating on the obsolete social relations which are the passive factor that has been left behind and is acting as a brake on further progress. In fact in an era such as this, where the social relations are obsolete, it is precisely by social revolution that the productive forces can be unleashed for further and more rapid development (and in the act of social revolution, the relations of production temporarily assume the role of the most active dynamic factor).

Although the terms “productive forces” and “relations of production” have been turned into an almost meaningless cliche, once grasped, the concept is almost tautologous in its simplicity.

27. Economic growth, and especially technical progress, is essentially cumulative. New developments, even if quite useless, or only capable of being used in a harmful way, always add to the range of possibilities open and never shut off possibilities that were open before. We still spend most of our waking hours “Making a living” and our social relationships are formed in the course of doing so. It is hardly surprising that the continous opening up of new ways of making a living should continuously leave behind and render obsolete the old social relationships founded on the basis of obsolete ways of making a living.

28. The whole point about the productive forces being the active dynamic factor, is that they have an in-built tendency to develop spontaneously, which the relations between people do not.

Whenever an enterprise improves its production technique, or an individual worker improves his or her lot (eg. by obtaining a more responsible position), there is a development of the productive forces. But it is not automatically accompanied by any corresponding change in social relations. Under capitalism such developments are proceeding spontaneously all the time, indeed they are a necessary condition for the expansion of markets and the possibility of re-investing surplus value in the expanded reproduction.

29. The social relations of production can get left behind as the productive forces develop, so that today for example, we still have essentially capitalist relations between people, based on commodity exchange and wage labour, which were appropriate to the petty production of the middle ages but are no longer compatible with large scale machine industry (let alone being compatible with the latest developments).

30. Just as the institutions of slavery and serfdom once held back the further development of the productive forces and had to give way against the slave and surf revolts, so the institution of wage labour is now holding things back and giving rise to revolts. Eg. apart from the obvious contradictions between capitalism and economic growth expressed in business crises, there is the day to day stifling of the enormous creative energies of the workers themselves, which could be unleashed in a system where they had an interest as masters of production, instead of a direct interest in sabotaging it and “conserving” their jobs. Then scientific and technical innovation would not only be unhindered by mass unemployment and crises, but would be the conscious activity of the majority instead of the province of “management control”.

31. It follows from this analysis that the critical task facing society is to smash the obsolete social relations as the only way to liberate the productive forces or “liberate science” as Benson puts it.

32. Quite politically conservative people like businessmen or revisionist party bureaucrats can contribute to social progress by developing the productive forces, but only revolutionaries can tackle the central issue of overturning the obsolete social relations.

33. Therefore in every society in transition from capitalism to communism, whether a capitalist society like Australia or post-Mao China, with the bourgeoisie in power, or a socialist society like Mao’s China, the central political issues are often expressed in terms of whether to focus on developing the productive forces or on transforming the relations of production

34. The representatives of the old capitalist relations, the bourgeoisie, the conservatives, whether they be “businessmen” or “party officials” share much the same rhetoric in calling for “hard work” to “make more cake” and in dismissing the workers struggle to transform social relations as an interference in that process. It is interesting to note how Ian Benson appeals to both the Czechoslovak Communist Party Program of Dubcek’s time, and the “four modernisations” stuff coming out of China today, in support of his views. The only difference between Social Democrats and Liberals in this regard is that Social Democrats place greater stress on making necessary concessions to the workers: “share the cake more equally and don’t waste it”.

35. In opposition to the Malcolm Fraser’s and Hua Kuo-feng’s, the representatives of the new communist relations of production the proletariat, the radicals, raise the question of “all power to the cooks”. This (after a certain amount of cake-mix spoiling due to confusion among the cooks), is the only way to really transform cake production.

36. Unfortunately the Marxist analysis of forces and relations of production can only be grasped by the majority in communist society where the majority of humanity are consciously engaged in changing themselves. If it was the dominant view, even among the “left”, and did not have to continuously fend off assaults from reaction, Luddism, romanticism and Social Democracy, then we would have already have had the revolution.

* * * *