Planning, socialism and the ghost of the executed engineer

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Fri Nov 11 06:51:59 MST 1994


Peter Palchinsky was a civil engineer who joined the Communist Party shortly
after the 1917 revolution. In the 1920's he developed an approach to
industrialization that differed radically from Stalin's.

Palchinsky was enthusiastic about planning. He believed that the Soviet Union
opened up possibilities for the planning of industry that were impossible under
Tsarism. He thought that engineers could play a major role in the growth of
socialism. He hoped that engineers could occupy as important a role as
financiers had under capitalism.

Palchinsky argued against the type of gigantic enterprises that were
beginning to capture Stalin's rather limited imagination. He noted that
middle-sized and small enterprises often have advantages over large ones.
For one thing, workers at smaller factories are usually able to grasp
the final goals more easily.

He believed that the single most important factor in engineering decisions was
human beings themselves. Successful industrialization and high productivity
were not possible without highly trained workers and adequate provision
for their social and economic needs.

His differences with Stalin's pyramid-building approach erupted over the Great
Dneiper Dam project, one of the most fabled 5-year plan projects. Palchinsky
made the following critiques. The project didn't take into account the
huge distances between the dam and the sites where the electricity was
being delivered. As a consequence, there would be huge transmission
costs and declines in efficiency.

Also, the project didn't  take into account the damage to farmland that
would occur when lowlands were being flooded. Some 10,000 villagers were
forced from their homes. Finally. as the project fell behind schedule
and overran costs, the workers' needs were more and more neglected. The
workers suffered under freezing conditions, living in cramped tents and
barracks without adequate sanitary facilities. TB, typhus, and smallpox
spread throughout the worker's quarters.

Palchinsky argued forcefully against projects such as these and offered a more
rational, humane and less ideologically-driven approach. In other words,
he stressed sound engineering and planning methods. He helped to organize
a study group dedicated to his principles. Palchinsky and other engineers
who opposed Stalin's bureaucratic system were allied to some extent with
Bukharin and Rykov who had often defended engineers and their approach
to industrial planning. Stalin cracked down on the Bukharin opposition
around the same time as he attacked dissident engineers. Palchinsky
was arrested in 1928 and died behind bars 2 years later.

His criticisms of Stalinism anticipated many of the failures of Soviet
industrialization. The Chernobyl disaster in particular could be
attributable to the same type of bureaucratic myopia that afflicted
the Dneiper dam project.

Could the Soviet Union have evolved and progressed with an industrialization
model more akin to Palchinsky's? I believe so. In any case, it is a
mistake to draw an equation between Stalin's 5-year plans and the
term "planned socialism". The loss of Palchinsky and the political
opposition he was aligned with constitute one of the great "what if's"
in history. We have no way of knowing what the Soviet Union would have
looked like without their suppression. In the meantime, I strongly urge
members of this list to take a second look at Soviet history and to
consider what impact an approach similar to Palchinsky's would have made.
For the whole story on Palchinksy, I recommend Loren Graham's "The Ghost of
the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union",
Harvard Press, 1993.

Louis Proyect


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