On Reality Asserts Itself, Prof. Aleksandr Buzgalin says the conditions for socialism did not exist in the 1920s but now they do, but there will be many zigs and zags getting there – with host Paul Jay.
This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced July 29, 2018.
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, and this is Reality Asserts Itself. And we’re in New York, and you might notice that we’re in a different studio, we’re still in New York City. And joining us again to continue our discussion is Professor Alexander Buzgalin. Alexander Buzgalin is a professor of political economy and the director of the Center for Modern Marxist Studies at Moscow State University. Thanks for joining us again.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Thank you. I’m very glad to have this dialogue.
PAUL JAY: So, you are a professor of Marxist studies, and one of the core concepts of Marx, as I understand it, is socialism is born in the womb of capitalism, just as capitalism was born in the womb of feudalism, and so on. And the conditions for the development of socialism argued by Marx and Engels and others, Lenin and others, was that a fully developed modern industrial capitalism gives rise to big enterprises that are extremely well-planned internally, even though overall in the economy, in the politics, it’s still anarchy. It’s still very chaotic and there’s no planning. And that the- if those big enterprises could become public, publicly owned, then all that internal efficiency and organization could then extend towards the whole economy, and you could have a planned economy and avoid the periodic crises, the recessions and so on. When you look around the world now and you look at this thesis, how does one apply that to what you see?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: You made great provocation, and I am afraid that I will not propose now boring lecture, but provocation is for boring lecture, really, especially for a professor. If we can look on modern development of the material production, we really have material basis for the beginning of communist era, very beginning. I will use one historical parallel. For the beginning of capitalist era, capitalist mode of production, it was necessary to have division of labor and automized producers. Industrial system was not inevitably necessary for that beginning. For the stabilization, for the victory, yes, it was necessary to have industrial production. So, the period from relatively developed craft production with this division of labor, with roads and with relatively free of personality, it was basis for market for market and for very beginning of capitalist epoch.
PAUL JAY: Okay, hang on. Break that down for people who don’t know what you’re talking about. So, when you mean division of labor, what does that mean?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Division of labor is very simple thing. I am producing bread, you are producing milk, another guy is producing butter, somebody producing equipment, somebody is helping for horses to grow up, and so on. Everybody is doing his separate things.
PAUL JAY: Instead of one farmer doing everything for himself.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, because people were living, thousands years, when everybody was produced by family, all, and consumed by family. So, and capitalism was growing with zig zags, with victories and defeats, five hundred years. Even now in Russia in twenty-first century, we still don’t have final victory of capitalism, by the way. So, the same with genesis of communism.
PAUL JAY: Meaning there’s still some feudalism in the countryside.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, we have a lot of such. Forty percent of potato is produced in the dacha, pieces of land which people has to have food in poor regions of Russia. So, and this is Russia, this is not in central Africa. So, let’s move to the parallel. For genesis of communism, it’s also necessary to have minimal prerequisites and optimum basis. Minimum prerequisites is a strong, developed industrial production with big enterprises specialized in different spheres and interconnected by international corporation or at least national corporation.
We already have this in main countries of the world, even in newly developed, new industrial countries like Brazil or Russia, China and so on. So, this is minimum. And we can start moving to the new society with assistance of plan, with modern computers, with modern internet technologies. Even now, a huge corporation knows what everybody, what Buzgalin and you, another girl, boy, I don’t know, dog, what in the supermarket this minute, this second, because this is universal information. Through social networks, it is possible to receive information about every step of everybody in the world. And it’s not problem, technically it’s not problem to put all this information together and to use optimization models. The problem is social.
PAUL JAY: To plan an economy.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Planned economy. The problem is social.
PAUL JAY: Just an example of one of the most brilliantly internally planned economies is Amazon, which does exactly what you’re saying, and is able to not just know when you like a particular type of toothpaste to tell you here’s a greater tube of toothpaste, but to plan that supply chain globally.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, it’s true. So, and the problem is social. And main problem, main negative feature of market is not simply crisis of all production or disproportions in some spheres. Main negative feature of market is consumerization of society, commodity fetishism and fetishism now even of simulacra of commodities, signs, symbols. Simulacra means- okay, one example which I use everywhere, maybe it will be well-known after that. If you have jacket with Hugo Boss here, this jacket will cost one thousand dollars. If it is, I don’t know, “Red Moscow,” it will be fifty dollars. What is the difference? Brand. And this value is created by marketing, not by production of goods, by production of symbols. And this production of symbols is main negative result of market. And people who are spending, I don’t know, all weekends in the megamalls for shopping, they are worse than alcoholics. They are shopaholics. I don’t know if it’s possible to say in English.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, that is a term.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, so that’s why this is negative. And we can move this, but this is minimum prerequisite for movement towards new society. Why? Because communism is a society where people have as main need, interesting work. Second, in your working place, in your life, you have not competitors who must be killed, not physically but economically killed. You have people with whom, in solidarity, you are making, together, something interesting.
PAUL JAY: But this vision, the way you’re articulating it, more or less, was the same vision from the Soviet Union from the 1920s and all the way, and it didn’t work. It didn’t become the kind of society you’re talking about. What’s different about now?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: First of all, in 1920s, we had absolute minimum basis for the beginning. It’s like to build capitalism without machines, even without steam. And to build capitalism when you have not simply steam, but electricity and so on, it’s much easier. So, now we have big progress of productive forces, if I can use Marxist terminology. Second, we have experience of one hundred years of mistakes and victories. And this is also very important. And finally, even now, we have chances only to start this process. And then will be long zig zag. I use parallel of Mississippi, which is going from North to the South and is a lot of zig zags. So, we can start moving from the very beginning, a small, very, very small river. Communist huge river will be in the future if we will pass all the zig zags and barriers. So, this is the problem. And modern capitalism, financial capital, virtual, fictitious capital, creates enormous obstacles. Now, main efforts of technicians, software specialists, artists even, is used for what? For marketing, for management, for financial speculations, for increasing of derivatives, profit, profit, profit.
PAUL JAY: Most of the best mathematicians and even physicists are working on Wall Street, writing algorithms to game the stock market.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah. And what is technical progress? 1900, beginning of twentieth century, first airplane can fly two hundred meters with speed fifty kilometers per hour. Fifty years later, airplane, nine hundred kilometers through continents. What we have now, the same airplane.
PAUL JAY: So, you’ve got, if you call this the material conditions for socialism, you’re saying communism, is these enormously well-organized, efficient, massive corporations like Amazon’s one of the best examples, but there’s others. And artificial intelligence is going to raise that to a whole other scale. But they’re privately owned. And as long as the ownership remains private, there’s no reason any of what you’re saying should come about.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It’s absolutely true. And the choice is very simple. Either we have elite, a lot of semi-slaves and a lot of useless people- of course, people cannot be useless, but they are useless for capital. Or, we have communist society or socialism at the beginning of movement in this direction.
PAUL JAY: And why do you jump to the word communist? Because this ain’t gonna happen fast, there’s going to be a long transition. If it happens at all, it’s going to be long.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: For me it is important in order to be able to show the trend. I used word communism because you know, when you fix, socialism is transformation from capitalist or even feudal and capitalist society, slavery, feudalism and capital together, to the new society. And period of transformation is socialism. But if you lose trajectory, if you lose direction, it will be tragedy. I am asked in China very often, “We have the same economy as in Soviet Union during New Economic Policy, yes or no?” I say, in some aspects, no. Why? Because during new economic policy, 1920s, it was said, “We must move from mixed economy, semi-democratic political system with a lot of oppression of people because it’s class struggle in very intensive form, towards the real democracy, real humanism, real socialism.” And this is the vector, with zig zags, but in this direction. China doesn’t have this direction. They can say that more private property is better.
PAUL JAY: Just very quick, for people that don’t know, what is the NEP period in the Soviet Union? ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: New Economic Policies period is just after socialist revolution and civil war, which started in 1921, led by Lenin Bolsheviks but with a lot of bourgeoise intelligentsia together, and it was a period when we had market economy with plans, we had a lot of private property, especially in agriculture or in villages, in agriculture. We had the first state enterprises and we had very big enthusiasm from below. Millions of people in poor country, ordinary workers, participated in clubs where they were learning how to make poem, how to create poem, how to be sportsmen, how to be scientist and engineer, how to make radio- it was more than to make computer now- how to go to the space. Of course, not space, but to make airplane, something like that.
PAUL JAY: So, the idea is that you could have a certain amount of privately owned-
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, it was big amount of market privately owned.
PAUL JAY: As you head toward bigger the arc toward socialism, whereas in China they seem to be heading towards a bigger arc toward state capitalism and not much beyond that.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah. And when it is official rhetoric, they will say that they are moving in socialist direction. But to say that we will less and less private property, never. They don’t touch this question, so I don’t want to go to the problem of China, but just to mention it.
PAUL JAY: Well, let’s go back to the scale of internally well organization, the globalization of production that came with digitization and computers that enabled all of this, is about- you know, we’re on the precipice of a whole new, real qualitative leap in that kind of technology, called artificial intelligence. What do you make of the significance of that? In fact, one, in the short term, meaning in the next five, ten years or so, we could see millions of jobs lost. And then two, if you add to that the climate crisis and the deteriorating environment and the deteriorating ability of humans to live on this earth.
I really see the wealthy elites, and I’m told that literally they are talking about having their own escape plans, and imagining a life which is the wealthy, serviced by robots, artificial intelligence creates everything, and the rest of the population of the world can live like in the movie Hunger Games. You know, they can go screw off, and whatever happens to them, too bad. And there’s a very serious conversation going on amongst the elites that the real danger is that when that happens, the elites will be so dependent on robots and artificial intelligence that AI is actually going to take over from the humans. And very serious scientists are projecting that that will happen. And they’re concerned about that part, they’re not so concerned about what happens to the eighty, ninety percent of rest of the people of the world.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: First of all, you gave the answer. I agree with you. But I will give command on your command. First of all, about this artificial intelligence and elite and so on. They will create jobs for servants, for slaves, because even now, you can go to the restaurant where there is no waitress and it is more efficient, cheaper, and no problems. But if you are rich, you want to see it and to have ten persons around you. One will bring you bread, another will bring you water, third will make something else, one girl will come and put the napkin. So, that’s why for servants, for slaves, it will be space, but this is terrible. This is not salvation of the problem, this is creation of the terrible problem. Second, important remark. To have jobs is not as important in communism as it is important in capitalism. Because communist society means that you can work four hours a day, and it will be two times less jobs and it will be very good, very positive because people will have time to educate, to develop their cultural level, not to spend time in supermarkets and with drugs or computer games. The key problem of communism is not to create jobs, not to create consumption.
PAUL JAY: But then you get the question, who is going to control this artificial intelligence? Because the kind of world you’re talking about, it ends up a political problem. Who has power, and artificial intelligence for whom?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: That’s the key question. And the key is, the answer is very well-known. If we have grassroots democracy, basic democracy, so if life is controlled by people, to make it simple, we can move in the direction of a society where we have a short working day, where we have a lot of tasks to work in this field of culture, education, art, ecology. We have a lot of social problems. To put all these poor people who are starving and to move them to the cultural life, to create creators from degradated people, this is a task for everybody for a hundred years. So, we have a lot of work which must be done. Now, if we have no necessity to produce things, if we have robots, then we have enormous amount of work to make everybody poet, to make everybody healthy. To make everybody educated. And demand that everybody, billions of people who are in a terrible situation and who cannot do it themselves, it’s necessary to help them to do this together.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: I’m absolutely happy that we had these long dialogues and very important dialogues because Russia is very isolated from the world in many aspects. And when we can explain what is our life, how it is interconnected with international processes, when we can be together in these dialogues, it’s extremely important for us. So, I ask everybody who has interest, let’s be in touch. And this is not an abstract word, solidarity. This is real necessity to move to build international solidarity. And this is a task for intellectuals, for ordinary people, for the left, for everybody. And thank you very much, Paul, for this talk, it’s absolutely fantastic. Thank you for everybody who was watching us, listening to us.
PAUL JAY: Well, thank you so much. It’s a privilege to finally have you here and not just on webcam. And thank you for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.