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Would Trotsky Wear a Bluetooth? Technological Utopianism under Socialism, 1917-1989 - Felician Velimirovici

Paul R. Josephson, Would Trotsky Wear a Bluetooth? Technological Utopianism under Socialism, 1917-1989, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2010, 342 p.  

Would Trotsky wear a Bluetooth if he would have had the chance to live up the moment it was invented? Unquestionably, he would, the author assures us. After all, the father of the ‘permanent revolution’ theory has been a great technophile and a science enthusiast who was convinced not only that technology was the highest form of modern culture, the guarantee of a radios future for the proletarian paradise, but also that “the embrace of advanced technology was the path to Communism” (p. 13). Unlike his Politburo rival Stalin, who would later promote severe autarky while exaggerating the innovativeness of Soviet technology, Trotsky was enamored from the very beginning of his career with Western, particularly American technology which, he thought, although developed in a capitalist system of production, would best suit a socialist society (p. 55). Indeed, during the `20s he saw technology as a universal panacea for the innumerable ailments of the recently-born Soviet society – hunger, poverty, scarcity, illiteracy, poor medical services, and so on –, a remedy capable of bringing the Soviet workers and peasants into the modern era (p. 62).
But Paul Josephson`s latest book is not, as one may think, concerned only with the answer to the rhetorical question he provocatively addresses in the title. The aim of his contribution is much more complex and wide. By assembling seven distinctive stories regarding the technological utopianism under real, existing socialism in societies as different as the Soviet, North Korean or the East-European ones, the author explores and evaluates the place and role of technological experience as both a cultural symbol of progress and a means through which political, economical and social change has been pursued by Communist political leaders. For them, technological progress undoubtedly represented the highest form of civilization (p. 19).
Simultaneously, professor Josephson offers fresh interpretations to a number of diverse aspects of this topic, such as the unique, grim phenomena developed inside the prewar Soviet society, which enabled, within a generation, an almost medieval economy inherited by the Bolsheviks from the Tsars to be catapulted into the modern, industrial world – a world into which political leaders managed to succeed in launching nuclear missiles and space shuttles, but at the same time failed to supply ordinary citizens with their very basic needs, such as housing, food, medical care or consumer goods. While being a symbol of progress and legitimacy meant to prove the socialist systems’ superiority over its capitalist rival, Soviet technology, in the end, failed to live up the rhetoric of its political leaders who demagogically claimed, as early as Lenin’s times, that ‘technology serves the masses’: “Technology became technology for Stalin and the state, not for the sake of the worker” the author concludes (p. 56).
However, the `20s were times of extraordinary great hopes and plans for all Bolshevik leaders. The future Communist paradise of plenty still seemed possible. In spite of their political and personal rivalries, Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev, Stalin, Zinoviev, Pyatakov, Kirov, and many other less famous revolutionaries agreed that technology had a central place in their ambitious, even utopian, development programs. Russia’s extraordinarily backward agrarian economy had to be drastically reformed and industrialized – in a public speech held in February 1931 Stalin himself stated that “we lag behind the leading countries by fifty to 100 years” (p. 60) –, the country electrified, the illiterate muzhik had to be transformed into a highly-skilled, educated and political aware Soviet citizen. The ways and means to achieve these ambitious visions engaged not only reversed engineering and technological theft, but also purchasing Western, particularly German and American technology. Starting from the times of Lenin and until the early ‘30s, the Soviets had been engaged in an intensive technological exchange with the main advanced capitalist states. Almost all early Soviet hero projects, like Magnitogorsk, Volkhovstroi, Dnieprostroi or the Belomor Canal have been designed using Western know-how. They hired American experts and bought American technology on a massive scale: for instance, the Stalingrad Tractor Factory has been designed by the Albert Kahn Co. from Detroit, the same American firm which provided the blueprints for the main Ford plant in the United States; the model of the ‘Soviet Detroit’ has been based upon its real American correspondent; also, between September 1921 and December 1924 the Soviet government has bought a number of 500 steam locomotives from the Swedish firm Nydqvist och Holm AB and paid for them in gold, fifty-six tons to be more precise – the gap between Soviet Russia and the United States, which, for instance, had six times more kilometers of railways, had to be filled-in. However, the promised future of the bright colors and plentiful consumption never arrived.
The second chapter, “Proletarian Aesthetics: Technology and Socialism in Eastern Europe” discusses the legacy of Stalinist technologies in postwar Eastern Europe and describes the history of the Soviet technological style`s influence in such diverse countries like Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland during the `50s. The author starts from the premise that, on technological grounds “something distinctly Soviet distinguished the countries of East Central Europe from their Western counterparts” (p. 68). Remarkably, he manages to avoid the trap to write a history of the “victors” – the Western capitalist nations – and to focus only upon the failings of the socialist “losers”. By highlighting the achievements of socialism in housing, transport, schooling and industrial development – “the socialist nations achieved remarkable success in meeting the goals of rebuilding war-torn societies in short order setting out to create egalitarian societies, and striving to provide inexpensive housing, energy, education, and medicine to all citizens” (p. 76) – professor Josephson ensures a nuanced discussion and avoids the temptation to judge socialist leaders according to Western criteria and terms of comparison. During the `70s and especially the `80s, after an initial burst of economic growth associated with the efforts to rebuild devastated societies, Eastern economies started to lag behind international standards in terms of productivity, competitiveness and safeness in environmentally terms. Then indeed, “life was gray, comrades!” (p. 79).
The third chapter offers fresh and valuable clues necessary in order to understand the main coordinates of technological development of such a unique society as the North Korean one is. From its very first days of existence, the Democratic People`s Republic of Korea followed strictly a Soviet-style – or, better-said, a pure Stalinist – pattern of evolution in terms of economic and technical progress: strict centralization and bureaucratization of almost every sphere of life, forced collectivization of agriculture driven regardless of social costs and consequences, gigantomania-stricken (in fact utopian) projects for industrial development, military and civilian Soviet-assisted nuclear programs, and so on. If, following his teacher Stalin, the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung initially declared “We should introduce all the technology superior to ours, regardless of the country it comes from” (p. 122), by the `60s the Korean Worker`s Party had already embarked on a severe policy of self-help merged with “socialism” and almost full autarky, known as the Jucheideology. An ideology which, in turn, led the country shortly to virtual isolation: this was a sharp break with the experience of the Soviet Union which, however Stalinist it may have been, “recognized the need to extract leading technology from the advanced capitalist nations for application in socialist productive relations” (p. 139). However, as in every Stalinist system, the North Korean periphery, and generally the countryside, served the center at immeasurable costs, especially in terms of human expense.
The fourth and fifth chapters, “Floating Reactors: Nuclear Hubris after the Fall of Communism” and “Industrial Deserts: Technology and Environmental Degradation” examine extensively the Soviet and post-Soviet (contradictory in essence) model of economic development and political control and its extensive social and environmental desastrous consequences. Linked by a common topic – the social and environmental costs of Soviet industrial and civil nuclear programs – their analysis is based upon massive empirical data which the author had the chance to gather during his years spent in the USSR and later Russia as a researcher. Not only the tradition in pushing forward nuclear technology generated the publicly recognized ecological nightmare of post-Soviet Russia, but also a commonly shared attitude appearently manifested by Soviet planners and engineers, an attitude which dates from the Stalin era and according to which a state of war against the elements (and nature) would ensure the future proletarian paradise of plenty (p. 225). A paradise which never came for the ordinary worker, as the next chapter, “No Hard Hats, No Steel-toed Shoes Required: Worker Safety in the Proletarian Paradise”, convincengly shows. In fact, by analyzing extensively his condition inside Soviet and post-Soviet society in a series of different settings and decades – in fact, during almost the entire twentieth century – professor Josephson manages to assemble an impressive chapter of social history. Of course, the same can be said about the last chapter, “The Gendered Tractor”, which offers some questions regarding issues of technology and gender in Stalinist Russia: the paradoxes of socialist liberation of Soviet woman and her dual role inside the classless society – to maintain the home and to be engaged in a second full-job.

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