Alec Nove, computers and socialism

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Wed Nov 30 13:56:00 MST 1994


In an effort to better understand "market socialism", I just concluded
Alec Nove's "The Economics of Feasible Socialism Revisited". I
recommend this book for anybody who wants a lucid and generally wise
presentation of all the arguments against planned socialism.

One of Nove's central premises is unacceptable to me, however.

For Nove, bureaucracy is a necessary consequence of trying to plan a
vast economy like the former Soviet Union's. Bureaucrats must keep
track of all of the intermediate steps involved in industrial production.
Nove rejects Lenin's claim that "Capitalism has simplified the work of
accounting and control, has reduced it to a comparatively simple system
of bookkeeping, that any literate person can do." Nove's replies to Lenin
as follows: "A large factory, for instance, making cars or chemical
machinery, is an assembly plant of parts and components which can be
made in literally thousands of different factories, each of which, in turn,
may depend on supplies of materials, fuel and machines, made by
hundreds or more other production units. Introduce the further
dimension of time (things need to be provided punctually and in
sequence), add the importance of provision for repair, maintenance,
replacement, investment in future productive capacity, the training and
deployment of the labor force, its needs for housing, amenities,
hairdressers, dry-cleaners, fuel, furniture...'Simple', indeed!"

I have worked as a systems analyst, database adminstrator and
computer programmer since 1968 and am astonished that Nove does
not recognize that these types of tasks have long since been relegated to
large-scale automation. I have worked on systems that automate these
tasks since the early 1970's and can attest to the fact that
bureaucrats are not necessary to keep track of anything in the
production process. For example, a system which can automate the
assembly and subassembly of parts and components is known in my
trade as a "bill of materials" database application. It allows managers to
keep track of what parts are required to put together an automobile, an
aircraft engine, a mainframe computer, etc. With respect to "the further
dimension of time", Nove doesn't seem to be aware that facilities
management systems have been around for the longest time. These
types of systems are responsible for the scheduled maintenance, upkeep
and expansion of all sorts of industrial and non-industrial plants. I have
been involved with a new facilities management system at Columbia
University and confess that while it does not keep track of hairdressers,
it does keep track of everything else on Nove's list.

Not only does my experience in the business world at odds with Nove's
theories, I also have witnessed the impact automation can make in a
revolutionary society. I was formerly the President of Tecnica, a
technical aid project for Nicaragua. One of our volunteers wrote a
database application that ran on a single PC which kept track of spare
parts for private and government enterprises in Nicaragua at the height
of the contra war. This modest little application had a MAJOR impact
on Nicaragua's ability to keep key industries going during the war.
Imagine what large-scale automation could have meant in a Nicaragua
at peace.

Nove has surprisingly few words to say about automation. I started off
reading the first edition of his work which dates from 1983 and
switched to the newer edition on Boris Kargalitsky's recommendation. I
expected the newer edition to cover computers in more detail, but was
disappointed to find that no new insights appeared in second edition,
dated 1991. This is after nearly 10 years worth of advances in personal
computing, telecommunications, networking and databases.

I was won over to socialism in the same year I first became a computer
programmer. I always used to stress to comrades that it seemed that
computers (in those days, IBM 360's) made socialism objectively
possible for the first time in history. If nothing else, this conviction has
only deepened even while bureaucratic socialism has entered into crisis
or disappeared.

I think that Lenin's claim is as true as ever if it is modified in the
following manner: "Capitalism has simplified the work of accounting
and control, has reduced it to a comparatively simple system of
bookkeeping, that any literate person can do with a computer."

Louis Proyect


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