Nathan Russell analyses the ideas of Towards a New Socialism and discusses the realism and the merits of Cyber-Socialism.
Comrade Frank Rowley’s recent article on Cyber Socialism 1 is a welcome attempt to bring attention to the role digital technologies can play in organising a socialist society. All too often, technological discussions on the left have descended into the realms of science fiction, 2 so Rowley’s focus on actual efforts from socialist history, and our present conditions, is refreshing. However, in order to achieve “a more interactive and discursive platform for [Challenge’s] readership” 3 and, in particular, to attempt to initiate a more detailed and rigorous analysis of Towards a New Socialism (or TNS) itself, I feel compelled to publish a response.
The primary strength of the text is in economics. TNS provides clear criticisms of capitalist economic planning and the mechanism for the distribution of commodities, and also identifies a number of weaknesses in these areas of the USSR’s economy. Far more original is the definition, from ‘Marxian’ first principles, of a new nomenclature and model for socialist economies in general.
The algorithms proposed for determining the appropriate levels for production and the pricing of consumer products, the accounting system of labour time for use in economic planning, the labour token and market system for the distribution of solely consumer goods, etc. are all very strong.
The most obvious value of TNS, therefore, seems to be in providing this abstract vision to be questioned, tested, and revised in light of changing conditions.
At times, the eagerness to set out this system in an entirely new technical jargon, and also to resort to statistics and algebra, is perhaps unwarranted and certainly does it no favours. For this reason, it is perhaps easier to pick up and run with for those with a very basic education in economics and computer science; even so, I’m not embarrassed to admit that a number of passages went over my head.
With these first impressions out of the way, TNS lends itself to structuring the rest of this writing by separating criticisms with a practical basis from criticisms of its underlying ideology.
The issue of whether computers are capable of performing the necessary calculations for the level of economic planning described in TNS are far and away the most extensive consideration concerning feasibility; concrete technical limitations are given precedence over concrete economic or political ones. For this reason, given the scale of technological advance, I suspect TNS has not aged well.
The most impossible challenge posed by TNS, of using Gaussian elimination to solve the labour values of a million “distinct types of output” with a processor capable of “200 million arithmetic operations per second”, is estimated to have taken “16 thousand years” at the time. If you take today’s hardware to be capable of 2,356,230 million instructions per second, the same calculation will take approximately fifty days. In reality this represents the power of a high-end, commercial processor; if modern supercomputers were assumed (perfectly plausible, especially in China) then the speed would be even further accelerated, notwithstanding the possibilities for quantum computing.
I’d be the first to admit that this is a bit of a gimmick; TNS itself suggested many significantly more efficient ways to solve the calculation of labour values, but the fag packet maths above does at least go some way to putting our present abundance of computing power into context.
However, by failing to address the nature of the transition from any existing economy to the one proposed, TNS is revealed to be utopian in the extreme. No references are made to the conditions of contemporary socialist states, and the applicability to them of the economic measures set.
It is certainly worth examining case studies today; as an example, Cuba’s current approach, particularly the use of technology parks, offers a far more practicable solution to industrial restructuring and innovation.
Armando Rodríguez Batista, Deputy Minister of Science, Technology and Environment (Citma), explained to Granma that regulations governing the creation of Science and Technology Parks were the first of a much more comprehensive legal package to guide implementation of policies to perfect Cuba’s science, technology and innovation system, approved by the Council of Ministers in October of 2018:
“This package addresses, in a comprehensive way, the main problems faced in science, technology and innovation activity: human potential, infrastructure, planning and financing, connection with the economy and society, impact… in addition to outlining specific short-, medium- and long-term strategies.” 4
Unfortunately, the closest to this type of consideration made within TNS itself was not a suggestion of the authors, but instead was prompted by a critical response:
“The irony is that Elson’s socialised price-fixing agencies would have the computer networks and the information about production needed to make an effective transition towards planning. If she were advocating such agencies as a transitional measure leading up to a planned economy, they might be justifiable.” 5
This is in fact a very interesting point. Through the use of modern Machine Learning techniques, the types of planning algorithm proposed by TNS could be developed in a far less arbitrary way. This system would need to be fed sufficient training data pertaining to resource inputs, labour, time, etc.; this could be provided for within the transitional economic stage of market socialism described above, over the course of one or more early 5-year plans.
It is clear that our technological advance now presents us with a number of possibilities with respect to laying out the practical road from today to a socialist economy operating upon TNS principles. However, to the best of my knowledge, the form of Cyber Socialism described has not yet been practically implemented; it is in reality no closer now than when Project Cybersyn was implemented in the early 1970s.
This tendency towards the utopian is also reflected in the plan for foreign imports and exports. Here, the flow of value out of the domestic economy (capital flight) is identified as the primary argument against international trade; TNS seems quite logical in its criticism of this argument but fails to consider the protection of critical national infrastructure from reliance on foreign economies. The network of economic data collection devices itself, that inform the central planning systems, would become absolutely critical to the smooth running of the economy. With the growth in “offensive cyber” in recent years it has become clear that such a system would have to be either absolutely fail-safe or would pose one of the most severe national security weaknesses, open to exploitation by hostile nations. When you consider the concerns around Joe Biden’s Internet-connected exercise bike 6 , the scale of problem posed by an Internet-connect economy is obvious; the state could become entirely blind to fluctuations in supply or demand. Failure to address this represents reckless lack of contingency.
These faults in particular seem like a missed opportunity, given the effective use of Project Cybersyn in coordinating transport infrastructure in Chile to mitigate the economic sabotage of strikes led by Chile’s trucking company owners. This was no niche threat or technological gimmick; the severity of the incident was highlighted in the recent documentary film Nae Pasaran.
Whilst it is correct to highlight the ecological threat of Capitalism, and in many ways this issue is of greater relevance today than it was at the time of writing, by placing all of its eggs in the basket of an international institution with “Global trusteeship over natural resources” 7 , TNS offers only pie in the sky.
Whilst I don’t disagree with the sentiment that “it is in the interest of the socialist system as a whole for different socialist countries to subordinate their economies to an international planning system” 8 , focusing solely on this approach ignores the very real advances being made by Socialism in individual countries today. Indeed, a recent article in Challenge on sustainable alternative agriculture 9 details, in practical terms, the advances being made in Cuba.
It is clear that the fall of the USSR had prompted this knee-jerk search for a ‘New’ Socialism, without the baggage of the Soviet model. This is not to say that Soviet Socialism was beyond reproach – a critical, objective study of history was necessary – but TNS seems to opportunistically bend over backwards to accommodate for personal liberty and direct democracy.
This liberal tendency within TNS manifests itself in the freedom for individuals to receive unearned income as a reward for historic investment in State productive abilities, the freedom to own a private bricks-and-mortar house on public land, the freedom to purchase and drive a polluting car rather than use public transport, and so on.
Nothing is too good for the working class, but the freedom to stay inside gorging on luxury food and drink is at the expense of outdoor leisure and activities, and also of a worker’s health and fitness. The flippancy with which “caviar, wine, books, shirts or trips to the highlands” 10 are discussed cannot hide this truth.
The choice of how long or hard you work is, under the socialist economic conditions set out in TNS, either the freedom to slack off and make others take up your share of labour, or the freedom to work yourself to the bone in exchange for disposable income and live with the physical or psychological consequences of additional toil. The burdens of all of this personal indulgence are to be borne by the rest of society.
Ultimately, however, this tendency reaches its most extreme in the wholesale rejection of Democratic Centralism. TNS makes use of an entire chapter to label this system, integral to our organisation as a League, a “dead end”. 11 The sheer number of referendums proposed, whilst logistically possible, are by no means advisable; revolutionary discipline is replaced by transiency and instability.
The one notable exception to this trend, whose importance, separate from any idealist worship of choice, has some form of concrete basis, is the freedom of “scientific investigation and publication”; under Stalin, the biologist Trofim Lysenko’s genetic theories, based on a crude application of dialectical materialism, were endorsed by the Soviet leadership and dissent repressed. By linking a stand on scientific issues to basic political partisanship, it brought the whole repressive apparatus into genetics and had disastrous effects on Soviet biology as a whole. 12
The results were disastrous for agriculture, contributing to famines and food shortages. On the other hand, complete freedom of scientific investigation and publication would imply that science is neutral. The politics of the intellectual property of the COVID vaccines today demonstrate how this problem is not so simple:
“Lysenkoism is held up by bourgeois commentators as the supreme demonstration that conscious ideology cannot inform scientific practice and that “ideology has no place in science.” On the other hand, some writers are even now maintaining a Lysenkoist position because they believe that the principles of dialectical materialism contradict the claims of genetics. Both of these claims stem from a vulgarization of Marxist philosophy through deliberate hostility, in the first case, or ignorance, in the second. Nothing in Marx, Lenin, or Mao contradicts the particular physical facts and processes of a particular set of natural phenomena in the objective world, because what they wrote about nature was at a high level of abstraction.
The error of the Lysenkoist claim arises from attempting to apply a dialectical analysis of physical problems from the wrong end. Dialectical materialism is not, and has never been, a programmatic method for solving particular physical problems. Rather, dialectical analysis provides an overview and a set of warning signs against particular forms of dogmatism and narrowness of thought.” 13
Scientific investigation and publication are partisan, and ought to be directed by the State under Socialism. Lysenko’s problem was theoretical dogmatism, not ideology in general nor the exercise of State power.
Yet, in spite of all these failings, it is clear that TNS is coming from a sincerely socialist perspective, reserving its most blistering criticism for the likes of Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
Having now considered the detail of a number of aspects and characteristics of TNS, we are able to understand its essence more deeply.
If we are to have a true knowledge of an object we must look at and examine all its facets, its connections and “mediacies”. That is something we cannot ever hope to achieve completely, but the rule of comprehensiveness is a safeguard against mistakes and rigidity. 14
The mistakes contained within TNS, first published in 1993, must be seen within their historical context, through which both the practical and ideological criticisms can be seen as two sides of the same coin. The motive behind both its lack of a concrete basis in contemporary Socialism and its tendency towards liberal idealism is made explicit towards the end of the book:
“With socialism gone, what hope is there left for the dispossessed but fascism and nationalism? Nothing, unless it is a socialism that is more radical, more democratic and more egalitarian than any which went before…” 15
And yet Socialism is not gone. Its continued existence has not depended on its acquiescence to a ‘new’ idealism.
This assessment does not touch on the aspects of TNS concerned with computer-facilitated economics. The “new”, liberal aspects are not integral; they instead form a distinct layer of policies and implementation details, trivial to remove, on top of a sound, “Cyber-Socialist”, economic foundation. It is this sound aspect that Comrade Rowley quite correctly emphasises in his article for Challenge.
In a way, it is a shame that the authors of TNS did not limit themselves to that foundation. If they had, it may have been a far more readable book. It certainly would have been far shorter and more correct.
- Frank Rowley, ‘An Introduction to CyberSocialism’, Challenge, November 2020. https://is.gd/DnY8FP
- Marx Memorial Library, ‘Full Marx: What is ‘post-Capitalism’?’, Morning Star. https://is.gd/4Wxj1o
- Congress Organisational Resolution. Young Communist League.
- Orfilio Peláez, ‘New horizons for science and innovation’, Granma, November 2020. https://is.gd/6o94I7
- W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism, p. 196. https://is.gd/ccNgrS
- Martin Belam, ‘Joe Biden’s Peloton bike may pose cybersecurity risk, experts warn’, The Guardian, January 2021. https://is.gd/buF8pF
- Cockshott and Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism. https://is.gd/ccNgrS
- Ciaran Harris, ‘Cuba: socialism, science and agriculture’, Challenge, December 2020. https://is.gd/isbOGT
- Cockshott and Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism. https://is.gd/ccNgrS
- Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist, p. 195
- Ibid. p. 191.
- Vladimir Lenin, Once Again on the Trade Unions, The Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Buhkarin.
- Cockshott and Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism. https://is.gd/ccNgrS