Swabeck Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Arne Swabeck

Who Is Ahead?

(Spring 1959)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.2, Spring 1959, pp.35-41.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ONE perplexing question has haunted the imperialists of Washington and Wall Street since Sputnik I was hurled into orbit around the earth. It appears generally in their own crude formulation: which side is ahead in the cold war, the “free world” or the Soviet?

In their search for an answer they have concentrated most immediate attention on the military implications of the question. These range all the way from fantastic notions of control of space to the much debated missiles gap between the two major powers. But the debate often extends to far broader ramifications, including the more fundamental question: what about the increasing disparity caused by the rapid rate of scientific, technological and production growth achieved by the Soviet Union?

For the American imperialists these are profoundly disturbing questions. They can neither be ignored nor explained away, for they arise in relation to conditions at home as well as to policies abroad. The impact of Soviet advance is reflected more and more in the minds and the consciousness of people everywhere. And it is all the more effective because it occurs in the face of capitalist decline and stagnation. This impact is felt no less within the tenuous imperialist alliances where Washington diplomats are kept busy easing strains and mending ruptures. But their ability to speak and act from a posture of strength is subject to doubts because the once predominant US world position is now challenged in every part of the globe by the rapidly rising might of the Soviet Union.

Far-reaching social and political consequences flow from the weakened imperialist position. Several setbacks have already occurred, a series of retreats have been made with more likely to follow.

It is said that whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. It is not too surprising, therefore, that in their dilemma the imperialists turn toward fantastic notions of control of space. Apparently they hope that this will provide the means to restore their former position of power and extend their conquests on terra firma.

Senator Lyndon Johnson is the most ardent among the hopeful. Fancying himself the “space conscience” for Congress, he stirred the never failing credulity of his senatorial colleagues early last year with this kind of awesome prospect.

“From space,” said Johnson, “the masters of infinity would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change tides and raise the level of the sea, to divert the Gulf Stream and change temperate climates to frigid.”

And who were to be the “masters of infinity”? Johnson left no doubt on this score. “If, out in space,” he added, “there is the ultimate position – from which total control of the earth may be exercised – then our national goal and the goal of all free men must be to win and hold that position.”

At the Pentagon the sights are set accordingly. Brig. Gen. H.A. Boushey, Director of Advanced Technology, US Air Force, lists these space goals, assuming “a vigorous program” in years ahead: 1959, unmanned space and moon probes; 1961, unmanned surveying, scouting and attack warning satellites; 1965, manned space vehicles, including repair and resupply types; 1967, manned defensive and offensive military space vehicles; 1969, manned base on moon, start of construction. The purposes are stated to be military, commercial and scientific.

Notions of military control of space originate in the hallucinations of madmen. Commercial interest in such a venture seems no less far fetched. And scientific exploration of the cosmos has no need of military space control. Without it, valuable scientific data have already been obtained by the instrumented satellites hurled into orbits by both East and West. But it should not be forgotten that the vehicles developed to send the instrumentation skyward have been constructed chiefly and primarily for military purposes. The scientific discoveries made have scarcely attained the status of useful by-products that are painfully overshadowed by the sinister implications of an arsenal of missiles.

In combination with the intense activities of the International Geophysical Year, instrumented earth satellites have served to extend our knowledge of the structure of the earth’s atmosphere. Some of the scientific data gathered concern the relation of solar activity to magnetic fields, cosmic rays, etc. Magnetic fields associated with sunspots were found to be much stronger than expected. A clearer picture was obtained of the relation between sunspot cycles and cosmic-ray cycles; when the former are at peak, the intensity of the latter is low. And, according to information so far processed, it appears that clouds of charged particles ejected from the sun give rise to strong magnetic fields in space which deflect cosmic rays that approach the earth.

But the scientific data point also to a new discovery. Apparently the earth is surrounded by an intense belt of energetic electrically charged particles spiralling around the magnetic lines of force. This has been named the Van Allen belt. A hypothesis suggested is that this heavy concentration of charged particles is due to break-up of nuclei of atmospheric atoms by cosmic rays, with the particles held captive by the terrestrial magnetic field. In turn, the discovery of this heavy radioactive concentration appears to have created new difficulties in the way of prevailing ideas for manned space flights.

Another aspect of rockets, artificial satellites, their instrumentation and their degree of development enters the area of social significance. It is directly pertinent to the crudely formulated question: which side is ahead in the cold war?

Commenting on the awesome triumph of the Soviet rocket, Mechta, the first to clear the earth’s gravitational field, a writer in the British magazine, The New Scientist thinks it was impressive. It was impressive not the least, he says, “for the clarity with which the Russians let the world know what was happening. Right from the start they gave its distance and position in the sky. At no time was there confusion about the rocket’s course.”

The writer hoped that this demonstration “will cause blushes where they are needed in Washington.” For, as he added: “things went quite differently at the launching of Pioneer.” As far as he could tell,

“No position in the sky was ever given ... and every hour or so some general or scientist would make a statement like ‘Pioneer has now escaped the earth’s gravity.’ (A few days later this nonsense was accorded the dignity of an official denial.) It all culminated in the wonderful myth that Pioneer took twenty-two hours to reach the apex of its trajectory and only twenty hours to return from there to earth. Nobody in charge appeared to know that if Pioneer had really behaved like this it would have been the instrument of a scientific discovery far more important than anything since the formulation of Newtonian mechanics.”

The writer states quite bluntly:

“... it is plain that too many people in senior positions in US space research projects do not know what they are doing.”

Strong as this indictment may seem, charges of no less serious consequences have been presented in hearings before congressional committees on the gap in missiles production.

None of the experts, real or fancied, outside of the lunatic fringe of bourgeois propagandists, will deny the existence of the missiles gap that is so unfavorable to the United States. In fact, a report released on January 10, by the House Select Committee on Aeronautics estimates that Russia may be more than one and one half years ahead of this country in rockets and space technology. “Even if the Soviet rate of progress is no greater than that of the United States,” the report avers, “the gap would never be closed, but would progressively widen.”

The US lag in rocket and space technology is confirmed by government space experts before the Senate committee inquiries. Dr. Wernher von Braun and others gave full credence to Khrushchev’s truculent claim that the USSR now has intercontinental ballistic missiles with pin-point accuracy “to any point on the globe.” The experts based their appraisal largely on the mathematical precision of the guidance technique displayed by the Soviet cosmic rocket launched January 2.

At the same time the insinuations of the British writer about bemused bewilderment in Washington appear to be well founded. McElroy, the Secretary of Defense, is in this respect typical of the perplexity in high places. His previous success as a soap manufacturer cannot be denied; but now he sees a rising new world which he does not understand, yet he is unable to hide his confusion. A few days after insisting that there was no missiles gap, he told the senators that the USSR would soon have a substantial margin of such weapons, perhaps three to one.

So far the relative military position of the two world powers has occupied the center of attention. But the construction and the launching of instrumented space rockets is an extremely complex undertaking. It requires deep-going theoretical study, diligent application, a high level of scientific development, labor skills and a technological structure of the greatest perfection and production capability. And this well known fact adds a fair quota of dismay to the uneasy apprehension in American capitalist circles whenever comparative production potentials between the two systems enter into the debate.

Efforts to paint an illusory picture by downgrading the Soviet potential and embellishing the American out of reasonable proportion do not ease the apprehension. The real contrast intrudes unceremoniously to shatter the illusions.

Among the efforts of such self-deception the February 1957 Fortune luxury magazine presents a striking example. In this issue Albert Burck and Sanford S. Parker made the usually distorted type of comparison. The authors granted that Soviet production might sustain an annual rate of growth of 6% compared to 4% for the United States. Still not satisfied with the latter claim, they quickly interpolated: US industrial production “is two-and-a-half times larger than Soviet industrial production ... The actual or absolute additions to annual US industrial output are thus running half again as large as the Soviet Union’s.”

Reading this, one is reminded of the mathematical riddle said to have been propounded by the Stoic philosopher, Zeno of Elea, concerning the race between Achilles and the tortoise. Even though Achilles runs ten times as fast as the tortoise, if the latter has a hundred yards start, Achilles is always getting nearer to the tortoise but can never quite catch up to him. When Achilles runs 100 yards the tortoise runs ten yards; the next lap is ten yards for Achilles and one yard for the tortoise; thereafter one yard and one-tenth of a yard respectively, and so on through the constant addition of ever smaller fractions. To be sure, Zeno could have no doubt that Achilles would overtake the tortoise; what troubled him was, where is the catch? The quantitative additions seemed difficult to question, only they failed to account for the qualitative relationship.

The importance of the qualitative difference between the two conflicting systems should be obvious. Without a thorough comprehension of this there can be no sound foundation for an objective appraisal of their relative economic potentials. We shall return to this aspect later; meanwhile, another look at the estimates presented by the Fortune analysis will prove instructive. It grants that Soviet production might sustain an annual rate of growth of 6% although Soviet figures relating to past performances are somewhat higher. But the claimed 4% annual growth for the United States does not at all correspond to reality. More recent comparisons with the new Soviet Seven Year Plan point clearly to a far greater differential.

At the Twenty-First Communist Party Congress, just held in Moscow, Khrushchev laid emphasis on the planned average annual economic expansion of about 8.6% for the next seven years. He said this compared with an annual rate of growth in the United States of 2%. Commenting on this latter figure Edwin L. Dale, in the January 29 New York Times suggests that Khrushchev “was being unnecessarily kind. Since the end of the Korean War, the annual economic growth of this country – after correcting for higher prices – has averaged less than 1.5%.”

Bourgeois economists are well aware of this situation. No matter how much they insist on the supreme virtues of capitalist free enterprise, arrayed against this are all the stubborn facts of life. For their edification we shall recite some of these facts.

From the end of the Civil War to about the turn of the century the American economy expanded at an average annual rate of 5%. From 1900 to 1929 the rate had slowed down to about 4%. There was a further drop between 1929 and 1950 to slightly less than 3%. And now, during the last six years, annual economic growth has been reduced to a rate of less than 1.5%.

This is the actual picture. The figures given speak far louder than words, whether coming from the bourgeois academic circles or from the innermost sanctums of Big Business. Moreover, it is the actual picture of the most exalted, the most powerful, the most efficient – the richest and the most highly developed among capitalist nations. This picture becomes so much more devastating when expressed in human terms, of the privation, penury and distress inflicted by the crises of the capitalist mode of production. Facing these facts, there can be no concealing, much less disputing, the reality of capitalist decline and stagnation.

By the same token, the incomparable superiority of the Soviet mode of production, with its nationalized property and state planning, over that of the capitalist free enterprise, stands out more sharply. This is the qualitative relationship; it arises out of the qualitatively different foundations of the two opposing world systems.

To be sure, the United States, still has a very large lead over the Soviet Union in total volume of production. An authority no less than Khrushchev himself verifies it. He informed the Twenty-First Communist Party Congress that Soviet industrial production was about half that of the United States, while agricultural output was 20% to 25% less. Considering the larger Soviet population Khrushchev conceded that its per-capita output in both categories was correspondingly lower.

These figures tell their own story about the standard of living of the Soviet people. Even though they enjoy far more universal health and welfare benefits than is the case in this country, the standard of living for the overwhelming majority who are not part of the privileged layers, still remains much below the US level. The reason for this is not to be sought, however, in the development of the Soviet economic forms; quite the contrary. It is entirely due to the incompleteness of this development.

And here we enter the area of immeasurable importance for the future, namely the respective economic potentials: a projected rate of Soviet production growth of 8.6% as against less than 1.5% for the United States. To attain this rate of growth the new Soviet plan calls for production on a scale far surpassing all previous records. For improvement of living standards it sets a target of 22,000,000 new homes while working hours are to be reduced and the purchasing power of workers and peasants is expected to rise by not less than 40% by 1965.

Comparing progress in education, science and technique there can be little doubt that the Soviet Union already now enjoys a distinct advantage. Most American experts concede as much, though few would be prepared to acknowledge the basic reason for this advantage. Explanations made fail generally to account for the social relations that have made it possible.

Educations, science and technique are social functions; they arise out of social practice. While these functions react to their own internal stimulus, their development is conditioned in the final analysis by social needs, or to be more exact, by the needs of the prevailing social order and the possibilities it affords. As a natural consequence, this development in the Soviet Union carries the distinctive mark of the material foundation on which it unfolds.

The tremendous need for advance of a once backward country, in combination with the immense possibilities inherent in the new social order established by the revolution, spurred education, science and technique on to new and greater heights. This attracted science and it generated science, alongside of working class skills and dexterity. Planned economy became committed unreservedly to the promotion of science and technique. The creative role of fundamental research merged in harmonious coordination with its technological application into the process of production and the building of a complex, modern industrial structure.

The reciprocal interaction between social and scientific development is equally evident in the capitalist world. But the objectives and the social consequences of this interaction are quite different from those of the USSR, due to the different requirements of the social order. In the United States these are determined, in the first instance, by the special interests of capitalist private enterprise.

A large segment of US scientific research is carried on in industrial laboratories set up by the dominant monopoly corporations. This imposes restrictions on the free flow of thought and initiative. The objective of such research is held within the general confines of the particular needs and the concern for profitability of these corporations. Another large segment of scientific research is linked to government projects, primarily for military purposes. In addition to these limitations, the application of science and the progress of industrial technique, outside of military considerations, tends to rise and decline with the economic cycles. At each downturn technological advance is stymied by the diminishing private capital investments.

The contrast between the Soviet and the American educational systems is no less pronounced. In the former all educational facilities through college and university, including living costs, are free, while the American similar institutions are now increasing already large tuition fees. This assures a far greater measure of mass education for the Soviet people. It is further accentuated by the combining of scientific instruction with the training of labor skills, for which the very popular polytechnical institutes, established by the revolution, function as the central medium. Moreover, compared to government support for veteran’s education in this country, a report made last year by Chancellor E.H. Litchfield of the University of Pittsburgh on the findings of a survey of higher education in the Soviet Union contains this illuminating point:

“Industry releases its employees at full pay for more than 250,000,000 man hours each year in order to permit the workers to do work in universities or in engineering and other university level institutions.”

We can add to this, that the French statesman, Edouard Herriot, was not far off the mark when he observed that “Soviet rule has bestowed upon science all the authority of which it deprived religion.”

But American scientists who have visited Russia seem most impressed with the huge scientific clearing house, set up in Moscow. The Academy of Science publishes forty-eight times a year a periodical of abstracts of major scientific papers from all over the world. The companion Institute of Scientific Information puts out 400,000 abstracts a year. US efforts in the abstracting field are puny in comparison, if not downright ridiculous.

Consider this example presented to the House Information Subcommittee on restriction on the flow of scientific information. Dr. Lloyd V. Berkner, president of Associated Universities, Inc., complained that while American translation of Soviet science writing generally lags, federal bureaus have been stamping secret some public Russian articles they do translate. Thus one Soviet paper wound up being translated seven times by different groups, he said. Small wonder then that a member of President Eisenhower’s committee of scientists and engineers, Dr. Eric A. Walker, cried out in anguish:

“Unless we awaken to the enormous implications of Russia’s formidable scientific achievements – and soon – we are inexorably headed downhill to the status of a second-rate world power.”

With the ambitious projections of the Soviet new Seven Year Plan the same question recurs that has been posed so often before: can the main objectives be attained? Considering the solid foundation of construction already completed, the Soviet capacity for exceptionally rapid advance is clearly demonstrated. By the past achievements its economic potential is immensely increased. Its free access to the world market, an essential prerequisite, can no longer be denied. Not hampered by private profit motives, Soviet industry is able to skip stages in mass production developments and leap directly, on a broad scale, into the new technology of nuclear energy, electronics and automation. In combination with the vast expanse of its territory containing enormous natural resources laid down in this heartland of the earth during past geological epochs – this enables economic planning in the boldest terms. American experts do not question seriously the Soviet capacity for more rapid economic growth than is the case in the West. Where their opinions divide is on how much more. Some of them assert that conditions of dictatorial command grants unlimited ability to mobilize available resources; others invoke the so-called law of diminishing returns. From this Malthusian doctrine they draw support for their scepticism; they point to the tendency of economic expansion to slow down as it matures and begins to crowd against the available outlets. In doing so, they transplant their own views of capitalist production to Soviet soil regardless of the fundamental difference in existing relations of production.

Marx explained the laws of the capitalist mode of production much better, and in a strictly scientific manner. Observing the development of machinery and modern industry, Marx noted the tendency of constant capital (equipment and materials) to increase at the expense of variable capital (labor, wages) with the result that the demand for labor falls relatively to the magnitude of the total capital. The workers, therefore, produce not only the accumulation of capital but also the means by which they are themselves made relatively superfluous. Excess capacity of production shows up alongside of an industrial reserve army of unemployed.

Simultaneously the capitalist mode of production sets in motion a restriction of the market by imposing limitations upon the purchasing power of the great mass of the workers. Their wages tend to fall relatively to output and to profits. Capitalism thus develops the forces of production more rapidly than it develops the conditions of consumption.

But Marx also insisted that general laws valid for all societies and for all social and economic structures do not exist. On the contrary:

“Every historical period has its own laws ... But as soon as life has gone through a given period of development and emerged from one stage to another, it begins already to be governed by different laws.”

And Marx viewed the capitalist mode of production as a transitory stage in the history of human evolution.

Soviet society is in a stage of transition from capitalism to socialism. It still partakes of certain laws of capitalist development while others disappear to be replaced by new laws. A full and complete assessment of the laws of production that came into force during the period of transition is not yet possible; that should have been the task of Soviet political economy. But so long as this pursuit remains subordinated to the stunting perversions of bureaucratic rule any serious and objective analysis cannot be expected. Nevertheless, a few basic elements of the new order of things are discernible and can be set down in outline form.

Most assuredly, the law of labor value is still the basic regulator of Soviet economy; its living labor power remains the basic determinator of all values produced. The process of accumulation takes the form of a proportionately greater expansion of constant capital than that of variable capital, as is the case in the capitalist world. The accruing higher organic composition of capital similarly reduces the demand for labor. Likewise, Soviet economy has so far developed the forces of production more rapidly than the conditions of consumption. But here the similarity ends.

The contradiction between social production and capitalist appropriation of the products that is typical of bourgeois society, has been removed. It disappeared together with the private ownership of the means of production. Planned economy has replaced the capitalist anarchy of production; and cyclic crises are unknown. Social appropriation in the Soviet Union parallels social production. True, an inordinate share of this appropriation is devoured by the privileged caste, leaving monstrous inequalities as the most distinguishing feature of the bureaucratic rule. But working class pressure for a more proportionate share of the national income has brought gradually improved living conditions. Targets set by the new Seven Year Plan indicate the possibility of a more rapid rise of Soviet living standards, approaching continually closer to those of the United States.

This points up another striking difference between Soviet and capitalist economic forms. From the general tendency of the development of the latter – the increase of constant capital at the expense of variable capital – Marx drew the conclusion:

“The greater the social wealth ... the greater is the industrial reserve army ... the greater the mass of the consolidated surplus population ... the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.”

This absolute general law is now painfully evident precisely in the United States – the wealthiest among capitalist nations. The reality of this law, the chronic unemployment, is demonstrated to the American workers with compelling bluntness. In the Soviet Union, however, this law is in the process of being turned into its opposite. In this the Soviet workers enjoy an enormous advantage. Unlike the Western workers, they need not fear radical labor-saving operations put into effect by application of nuclear energy, electronics and automation. Their educational system affords them the opportunity to learn new skills; they can thus ease the physical and mental crippling that befalls a mere appendage to a machine.

It is not the intention at this point to enter into a rounded discussion of social relations and social forces in motion and conflict either in the Soviet Union or the United States; but a couple of outstanding factors should be noted here.

The economic relations of nationalized property and state planning imparts a different status to workers in Soviet society and it impels a different direction to their aims and aspirations than is the case in the capitalist world, where in the latter instance the workers are subjected to exploitation by private enterprise, their wage standard tends to become the uppermost issue in the class struggle, while increased efficiency of production raises the terrifying spectre of over-production, unemployment and social disaster.

Soviet economic forms and relations, on the other hand, weld the workers most solidly and directly as an integral component into the whole productive system. The satisfaction of their material needs, their standard of living and their cultural elevation as well, depends entirely and unconditionally upon greater efficiency of production, better quality of products and a higher rate of labor productivity. These are essential prerequisites also for the continued advance toward the socialist society.

The reality of this relationship is deeply imbedded in the consciousness of the Soviet workers. Concretely it finds expression in more direct worker participation in the universal comparisons of fulfillment of plan quotas and in discussion of new plan targets, to which the trade unions are now also drawn in more directly. In increasing measure the workers’ voices are heard, on the one hand critical of bureaucratic waste, inefficiency and mismanagement, and on the other, by growing and insistent demands for more efficient technique.

But these objectives can be attained and the advance toward socialism assured only to the extent that the bureaucratic road blocks are removed. The workers must, therefore, of necessity strive also in increasing measure for control of production, of planning and distribution to be exercised through their own effective organs. Freedom of creative initiative, more equitable social relations and democracy become no less indispensable aims of their struggle.

“The improvement of the material situation of the workers,” said Trotsky, “does not reconcile them with the authorities; on the contrary, by increasing their self-respect and freeing their thoughts for general problems of politics it prepares the way for an open conflict with the bureaucracy.”

American workers face a different situation. Though their productivity has attained the highest levels, instead of being integrated more firmly into the economic structure as a component part thereof, they are alienated from it – the tragic victims of capitalist decline and decay. Economic expansion in the United States is not limited by lack of labor productivity nor by lack of physical capacity, or lack of capital, for all these prerequisites are available in superabundance. The roots of the capitalist dilemma lie far deeper. The decline of its system derives from the fact that the productive forces it created have long outgrown their private property relations.

Prior to the Great Depression, the ever growing internal market furnished the main base for capitalist expansion. This is no longer the case. From the emergence out of the depression, the United States has now about completed its cycle of artificial prosperity made possible by production for war and for the armaments race.

Even this vast market proved too narrow for the mighty productive forces that it called into being. The industrial boom that it generated has levelled off; and after its period of artificial revival, the home market is now beset by tendencies of contraction. The purchasing power of the great mass of the workers faces the limitations imposed by the capitalist mode of production for profits. Adequate outlets abroad are no less limited because the world market is now seriously curtailed by the advancing colonial revolution; and what is left of it is racked by cutthroat competition.

The theoretical analysis made by Marx here appears in full view as the irreproachable picture of things as they actually are, namely that “The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.” It is merely production for capital, and not vice versa, “the means of production, mere means for an ever expanding system of the life process for the benefit of the society of producers.”

As a consequence of their dilemma the American capitalists can be expected to turn with greater fury against the working class, in order to load the heavy toll of their declining system on the backs of those who toil. The Soviet challenge to their world dominance will tend to increase their sense of urgency. But the American workers do not face such a challenge from the East. The threat to their conditions and their standard of living originates at home. It must be met. And it can be met successfully only on the grounds of struggle to transform production for profit for the few to production for an ever expanding system of rich and wholesome life for the benefit of the society of producers.

Swabeck Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23.12.2005