Technology and socialism. Do they fit together THAT easily?

This is the second of two linked articles on socialism and technology. The first, about Luddism and what we might learn from it for today, is here.  

Despite the experience of the Luddites, and despite the warnings by Karl Marx and other 19th century communists about how capitalism used machines to subjugate working people, 20th century labour and socialist movements have been strongly influenced – perhaps “dominated” is not too strong a word – by productivism, and by a sense that technology is on our side.

The Russian Bolsheviks, who found themselves trying to build a so-called “socialist” state in conditions of dreadful technical backwardness, saw science and technology as a means to increase human control over the labour process. Their enthusiasm influenced the socialist movement internationally.

The Bolshevik leaders emerged from the civil war of 1918-21 determined to modernise their state, most of whose citizens were peasants, mostly illiterate and mostly living by hard manual labour. (Most villages would not have access to tractors until the late 1930s, or afterwards.) Lenin said repeatedly that “soviet power plus electricification” would lead to socialism. In one key speech, to the 1921 Communist party congress, he went even further: “If we transmit electric power to every village, if we obtain a sufficient number of electric motors and other machinery, we shall not need, or shall hardly need, any transition stages or intermediary links between patriarchalism [i.e. old feudal class relations in the countryside] and socialism.”[1]

Obviously such thinking was shaped by circumstances. It could be argued that Lenin and his comrades were aiming for industrialisation and mis-labelling it “socialism”. But the identification of social and technical progress became very deeply ingrained in their outlook. Trotsky, in a speech to the Society of the Friends of Radio in 1926 – in which, incidentally, he far-sightedly forecast nuclear power – painted a picture of scientific and technical thought marching forward notwithstanding social relations. This thought “has matured to such an extent, has become sufficiently independent and stands so firmly on its feet, that it will go forward in a planned and steady way, along with the growth of the productive forces”, he argued. The Trotskyists who republished the speech in English in 1957 added that the “victories” of Soviet science – presumably a reference to the first unmanned space flight in that year – “flow directly from the victory of the working class in November 1917”.[2]

Socialism in the 21st century needs to question these conceptions, which – notwithstanding the participation by many socialists e.g. in movements against nuclear power, biotechnology, etc – remain widespread. I will argue this main point by discussing three questions: 1. Don’t machines increase human control over the labour process, and aren’t they therefore necessarily a good thing? 2. Haven’t the advances of the 20th century shown technology’s potential? 3. Hasn’t technology transformed reproductive labour (i.e. housework, child care, etc)?

1. Don’t machines increase human control over the labour process, and aren’t they therefore necessarily a good thing?

A good place to start in answering this question is with Harry Braverman’s book Labor and Monopoly Capital: the degradation of work in the twentieth century, written in 1974, which pioneered efforts among left-wing academics to consider the “labour process” and how it had changed since Marx wrote about it.

Braverman argued that the evolution from tools to machinery, i.e. from instruments of labour that are an extension of the workers’ own brain and hands to complex equipment that carries out larger and larger series of functions under its own control (“automatically”), may indeed be described as “an increase in robothuman control over the action of tools”. This development is itself made possible by humans’ increased understanding of the world around them in scientific terms. “But”, Braverman goes on, “the control of humans over the labour process, thus far understood, is nothing more than an abstraction. This abstraction must acquire concrete form in the social setting in which machinery is being developed.” And the social setting is sharply divided, nowhere more so than in the labour process itself.

The mass of humanity is subjected to the labour process for the purposes of those who control it rather than for any general purposes of “humanity” as such. In thus acquiring concrete form, the control of humans over the labour process turns into its opposite and becomes the control of the labour process over the mass of humans. Machinery comes into the world not as the servant of “humanity”, but as the instrument of those to whom the accumulation of capital gives the ownership of machines. The capacity of humans to control the labour process through machinery is seized upon by management from the beginning of capitalism as the prime means whereby production may be controlled not by the direct producer but by the owners and representatives of capital. Thus, in addition to its technical function of increasing the productivity of labour – which would be a mark of machinery under any social system – machinery also has in the capitalist system the function of divesting the mass of workers of their control over their own labour.[3]

Braverman was developing thoughts that Marx had already set out a century earlier in the section of Capital devoted to machinery and industry. Marx referred again and again to the way that the machine becomes a weapon in the capitalists’ hands against workers. The machine, to the extent that it dispenses with the need for adult muscle power in many jobs, enslaves not only the worker but his wife and family. “Machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms the principal object of capital’s exploiting power, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation.” If previously the worker sold his own labour power, now he “sells wife and child. He has become a slave-dealer.”

Marx also described how, whereas in a small workshop, “the workman makes use of a tool”, in a factory “the machine makes use of him”; the worker becomes “a mere living appendage” of a lifeless mechanism.

The lightening of labour [as a result of mechanisation], even, becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the labourer from work, but deprives the work of all interest. [Since every type of capitalist production involves not only a labour process, but also a process of creating surplus value,] it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman. But it is only in the factory system that this inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality.

The dead, Marx wrote, towers over the living:

By means of its conversion into an automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the labourer, during the labour process, in the shape of capital, of dead labour, that dominates, and pumps dry, living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual powers of production from the manual labour, and the conversion of those powers into the might of capital over labour, is [...] finally completed by modern industry erected on the foundation of machinery.[4]

This idea of the tyranny of dead labour, in the form of capital (including the machines that the capitalists owned), over living labour was central to Marx’s thinking. It appears in Capital again and again. He always considered machines in relation to the workers that worked with them, not as abstract feats of engineering.

Further on in the chapter I have quoted, Marx wrote about workers’ liberation as a means to acquiring “free scope” for their own powers.

Modern Industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of today, crippled by lifelong repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.

Marx here describes how machines “cripple” workers and “reduce them to mere fragments”. He is arguing that workers can become “fully developed individuals” only after a social transformation that has superceded capitalism and the tyranny of machines over workers that it employs.

Marx’s phrase about “modern industry [...] compel[ling] society” to make these changes is noteworthy. This idea, that social transformation is driven forward by an unsustainable tension between the development of the productive forces and the social relations of production, was central to his thinking, and is discussed at length in The German Ideology. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto about how “the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and of its rule”, and the central part it would play in bringing about social change.)

In the 20th century, so-called Marxists elevated this tension between productive forces and the social relations of production to the status of some sort of teleological driving-force, independent of the class struggle. They stretched Marx’s idea so far as to give it a completely different meaning, one that took no account of the way that technological development has been warped and distorted by capitalist ownership and control, and greeted every technological development as piling on the pressure towards social transformation. That is a theoretical approach that should be rejected.

2. Haven’t the advances of the 20th century shown technology’s potential?

During the 20th century, technological change hurtled along at an incredible pace that, by and large, socialist thought failed to keep up with. In the late 19th century, improvements in the steam engine delivered fossil-fuel power in a concentrated way that had hitherto been unthinkable, and the building of railways and the invention of the telephone and telegraph transformed transport and communication. In the early 20th century, all this was put in the shade by the development of the internal combustion engine and mass production of cars, the ultimate symbol of consumer culture.

The 20th century’s great wars forced forward the development of monstrously destructive technologies that were often then put to other uses in peacetime. The most obvious example is nuclear power. But before that, the chemical process perfected to produce poison gas during the first world war was then redeployed to make the first artificial fertilisers; there was a less direct crossover from armoured vehicles to tractors. So the technologies of destruction enhanced industrial agriculture. Towards the end of the 20th century came computers, which have had the most profound transformative effect on the labour process and on our lives.

The interpretive challenge, I think, is to understand how all these technologies were shaped by the society in which they emerged – all of them under the control of, and developed by, capitalist owners. This includes not only the obviously destructive technologies that would never have appeared in a sane or just society, such as nuclear bombs, or doubled-edged swords such as railways or the internet, but also technologies that to my mind are almost entirely positive, such as antibiotics.

In the 1970s, Braverman wrote that a characteristic of technological development was that “control over the machine need no longer be vested in its immediate operator. This possibility is seized upon the capitalist mode of production and utilised to the fullest extent”. Capitalists and their managers seek “the progressive elimination of the control functions of the worker, insofar as possible”. The human capacity to control machinery is “turned into its opposite”. Science, too, is brought completely under control. “Science is the last – and after labour the most important – social property to be turned into an adjunct of capital. [...] A formerly relatively free-floating social endeavour is integrated into production and the market.”[5]

Braverman studied the process of automation in American factories with the benefit of personal experience of working in both industrial and office jobs. He showed that the more complex large-scale manufacturing machinery became, the more fragmented, the more deskilled, the more controlled, the more mind-numbing, became the labour that capital required.

Another, very different, Marxist writer of the 1970s, Andre Gorz, argued that such processes were having a shattering effect on the working class as a social force. “In the immense majority of cases, whether in the factory or the office, work

The fire at the Fukushima nuclear power station

The fire at the Fukushima nuclear power station

is now a passive, pre-programmed activity which has been totally subordinated to the working of big machinery, leaving no room for personal initiative”, he wrote in Farewell to the Working Class. “It is no longer possible for workers to identify with ‘their’ work or ‘their’ function in the productive process. Everything now appears to take place outside themselves. ‘Work’ itself has become a quantum of reified activity awaiting and subjugating the ‘worker’.”[6]

Gorz’s provocative conclusions, with which I do not agree, were that the working class was in transition to “a non-class of post-industrial proletarians”, and that capitalist control over the productive forces not only rid those forces of any possibility of pushing forward social change, but also deprived the working class of the historical role that Marxists had assumed for it, that of the class that would by virtue of its social position be the motive force of revolutionary change. Gorz wrote:

The development of the productive forces is functional exclusively to the logic and needs of capital. Their development will not only fail to establish the material preconditions of socialism, but are an obstacle to its realisation. The productive forces called into being by capitalist development are so profoundly tainted by their origins that they are incapable of accommodation to a socialist rationality. Should a socialist society be established, they will have to be entirely remoulded. Thus any theory assuming the continued functioning of the existing productive forces will be automatically incapable of developing or even perceiving a socialist rationality.[7]

In my view, Gorz far too easily retreated from the idea that collective working-class action can change the world and challenge capitalist power. But his writings had a great strength: they envisaged socialism as a society in which work as we know it would be superceded by collective, creative activity. And in that context, his bold challenge to Marxists to rethink what they mean by productive forces – in his view “so profoundly tainted by their origins” that in a socialist society they would “have to be entirely remoulded” – deserves consideration.

If we 21st century socialists can satisfactorily answer that theoretical question, we will be closer to an understanding of 20th century technological change, how it shaped the world in which we live, and how social and labour movements might change their approach to technology.

3. Hasn’t technology transformed reproductive labour (i.e. housework, child care, etc)?

Just as dizzying leaps forward in technology – under capitalist control – have produced, in workplaces, almost no results in terms of shortening the working day, or enhancing the quality of workers’ lives, so they have left most women the effective prisoners of family structures and unpaid domestic work. We can see the one-sided way that technology confronts all workers as clearly in the home as in the workplace: not only despite technology but also because of technology, the oppression of women in families and in society persists and child care and housework remain a gigantic burden borne overwhelmingly by working class women.

Any analysis that focuses on productive (workplace) labour and ignores reproductive labour – as, for example, Braverman’s book does – will have big gaps. Here are three points to consider:

1. Technological changes under capitalism have played a big part in bringing women into paid wage labour. Marx and Engels saw this movement out of the home and into the workforce as a precondition for ending the oppression of women – but this potential has not been realised and that oppression has been reinforced in myriad ways.

Marx and Engels related the liberation of women from oppression within the family to their entry into paid wage labour, and to the advance of industry and technology. “The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale”, and domestic work becomes an “insignificant” burden, Engels wrote. “And only now has that become possible through modern large-scale industry”, which not only encourages but demands the entry of women into the workforce and changes domestic labour “more and more into a public industry”.[8] Alexandra Kollontai and other Bolshevik feminists also saw female participation in paid work as a key to liberation. For her, as for Marx and Engels, industrialisation and technological change would take women out of the home, minimise or socialise the tasks of domestic labour – and thereby overcome the oppression of women.

The socialist feminists of the 1970s showed (convincingly to my mind) that Marx had failed to integrate into his analysis of capital and labour a convincing explanation of reproductive labour – that is, the task of childbirth that is biologically woman’s, and the child care and domestic labour that for cultural reasons continue to go with it. Some of them argued that technology had the potential to help liberate women, but no more than that. Juliet Mitchell, for example, wrote: “Industrial labour and automated technology both promise the preconditions for women’s liberation alongside man’s – but no more than the preconditions.” The advent of industrialisation had not produced this liberation, she continued; “any reliance on this in itself accords an independent role to technique which history does not justify”.[9]

To my mind, the century and a half of capitalist development since Marx and Engels considered these issues has shown that, as long as technology remains under capitalist control, it brings women into the workforce but in no way lifts the burden of their oppression within the family. Here are two examples from industrialising societies: Russia and China.

In Russia, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, women had equal rights in law that were the envy of women in many other countries. From the 1950s to the 1970s, as Soviet urbanisation and industrialisation continued to draw families in to the cities, there was a comparatively high level of female participation in the paid workforce. Many of them worked in skilled jobs in industries that were often very technologically advanced by international standards. The state provided some basic child care in the form of kindergartens. But women’s “double burden” – waged work and domestic work – was one of the most notorious realities of late Soviet society. Culture, tradition and the myth of equality between the sexes condemned millions of women to a working day that began early in the morning in the factory, continued at tea-time in the ubiquitous shopping queues, and into the evening, when they performed the domestic chores.

In China, more recently, newspaper reports suggest that – in contrast to other countries where proletarianisation began with men moving to the cities and leaving their families in the countryside – millions of young women are migrating from rural areas to work in the “industrial workshop of the world” on the east coast. They make this journey to serve technology: they work long hours for low pay, using some of the world’s newest machinery to make some of its most advanced electronic gadgets. There may be some respects in which this forced separation from their families, often to live in barracks, may be personally liberating for some of them. But there is no sense in which this enslavement to technology can be described as liberating in any all-round or socialist sense.

2. The spread of birth control technology has been seen by radical feminists and others as having potential to subvert the oppression of women. But in the end this potential will only be realised by social change, not by technology alone.

The invention and spread of birth control technology has been recognised by socialists and feminists alike as a potentially powerful means for women to exercise more control over their lives. The current fall in birth rates not only in rich countries but in large parts of the Middle East and Asia appears to be related to the widespread availability of contraception.

Like all technology, this technology must be considered in its social context. In China, birth control technology is used by a dictatorial government to impose its one-child policy. The history of the twentieth century is full of more extreme examples of the use of technologies against women’s bodies – in particular, compulsory sterilisation often used by dictatorial regimes against those it deems deserving of it. In my view, nevertheless, birth control technology, in the hands of women themselves, may indeed prove to be a technology that will have a liberating effect. That depends on society.

3. The sphere of reproductive labour has been changed in some ways by technology, but as a rule the place of women in the family remains subordinate. In rich countries, technical change has been accompanied by commercialisation, with millions of women doing low-paid domestic work in others’ homes.

In rich countries, technological advance has transformed many aspects of domestic work. Some technologies – from gas cookers to washing machines and hoovers – have lifted terribly harsh burdens. But other technologies impose unwanted new dilemmas: industrial agriculture and the supermarket complex mean that, increasingly, mothers are effectively forced into buying food prepared a long way away, by other people, and supplied commercially. TV brings the pernicious influence of advertising right into the home.

Women in rich countries are pulled back into the workforce, perhaps to do office jobs, and their work at home is “marketised”, often to be done by migrant women. The socialist feminist Silvia Federici has argued that much of this domestic work can not be mechanised, since it requires a great degree of human interaction: instead it is “redistributed, mostly on the shoulders of immigrant women”.[10]

In the poor countries, as technological change pulls fathers and teenage children out of home to travel long distances, or migrate, to work, the women that are left behind bear an even heavier burden. At the very bottom rung of the ladder of global social hierarchy, millions of women in rural communities in Africa and south Asia still spend many hours each day walking to fetch water. No technology has been developed to help them, whereas the funds for drone warfare, genetic modification and capitalism’s other “needs” are pretty well infinite. GL.

This is the second of two articles. The first one, We’re All Luddites Now, is here. Both articles are based on a talk I gave today at the Communist University


[1] Lenin, “The Tax in Kind” (speech at the 10th Communist party congress), Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 350.

[2] Trotsky, Radio, Science, Technique and Society (New Park Publications, 1974) p. 1 and p. 6. (This is a reprint of a speech by Trotsky, first published in English in Labour Review, November-December 1957.)

[3] Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: the degradation of work in the twentieth century (Monthly Review Press, 1974), pp. 193-194

[4] Marx, Capital Volume 1 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1977), p. 373 and pp. 398-399

[5] Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, p. 156, p. 194 and p. 212.

[6] Andre Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class (Pluto Press, 1997), p. 67.

[7] Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class, pp. 14-15.

[8] Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1981, Lawrence and Wishart), p. 221.

[9] Juliet Mitchell, Women’s Estate (Penguin, 1981), p. 105. There are several articles that discuss domestic work and its place in capitalism in Radical America, vol. 7 nos. 4-5, July-October 1973, which is archived here.

[10] Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero (PM Press, 2012), p. 107

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3 Responses to Technology and socialism. Do they fit together THAT easily?

  1. […] linked article, about socialist ideas on technology, is here. Both articles are based on a talk I gave today at the Communist […]

  2. PhilW says:

    A minor correction, then a comment:

    The Haber process, used in the production of fertilisers, was not also used to manufacture chemical weapons, but for explosives in World War I. Perhaps the confusion is because Fritz Haber did also develop chemical weapons.

    I’m not sure it is useful to try to say that certain technologies developed by capitalism are “obviously destructive” while some are “double-edged swords” and yet more “almost entirely positive”. This seems to contradict the useful observation made just before that technologies are shaped by the (capitalist) society in which they are created.

    So it is how these technologies are controlled and used by the system that is decisive, as so lucidly outlined in these articles.

    You could even argue that nuclear weapons might have a “socially useful” application – destroying or diverting an incoming asteroid. However, I wouldn’t trust the capitalist system to carry out such a task, just I don’t trust it to use antibiotics in a socially useful – or even benign – manner (See http://socialistresistance.org/4993/germs-and-market-failure-apocalypse-soon)

    I don’t think this argument contradicts the useful quote from Gorz about development of the productive forces (now?) being an obstacle to socialism, as there is a difference between such forces and technology, which is – if you like – a potential productive force.

    A good example is fractional distillation, an extremely useful technology. But its main application is in the fossil fuel industry. As a socialist society will have to abandon that industry almost completely, its productive forces – which are absolutely massive – have to be viewed as so much (extremely destructive) waste as far as that society is concerned.

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