Doug Henwood/Mark Jones exchange (from LBO-Talk)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon May 1 12:16:59 MDT 2000

>can someone clarify for me what the position of the scientists and
>engineers was during the time of the Russian Revolution, during the
>period Mark speaks of? I don't know enough history to understand the
>relationship sci/eng'ers had with the revolution.
>les schaffer

I recommend Loren Graham's "Ghost of the Executed Engineer," which is a
portrait of Peter Palchinsky, a civil engineer who joined the Communist
Party shortly after the 1917 revolution. Palchinsky was enthusiastic about
planning. He believed that the Soviet Union opened up possibilities for the
planning of industry that were impossible under Tsarism and thought that
engineers could play a major role in the growth of socialism.

Palchinsky argued against the type of gigantic enterprises that were
beginning to capture Stalin's 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 targeted sites. As a
consequence, there would be huge transmission costs and declines in

Also, the project didn't take into account the damage resulting floods
would cause to surrounding farms situated in lowlands. Some 10,000
villagers had to flee their homes. 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 allied themselves 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 and had Palchinsky imprisoned. The engineer
died behind bars 2 years later. His criticisms of Stalin 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 it is
possible. In any case, it is a mistake to draw an equation between Stalin's
5-year plans and the term "planned economy" without considering the
alternatives. The loss of Palchinsky and the political opposition he
identified with constitute a major defeat in the century-long struggle for

Louis Proyect

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