[Marxism] RE: USSR, Democracy, and the Environment

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat May 15 08:44:27 MDT 2004

Calvin Broadbent wrote:

> Dear all,
> I would really appreciate it if anyone could respond to me concerning 
> a problem I am thinking over. The question I am considering is 'was 
> the environmental degradation in the USSR (like chernobyl, sulphur 
> pollution, air pollution, environmentally costly  mining, etc.) the 
> result of undemocratic politics'? Was environmental devastation a 
> result of the dictates of the Soviet planned (or I think better) 
> command economy? I have been reading over Mark Jones' excellent 
> writings, some of which seem to suggest that the 'law of value' was 
> still fully in operation in the USSR, and that it was impossible thus, 
> without greater socialist democracy at any rate, to properly control 
> the rate of exploitation of natural resources.

The Soviet people had an alternative in the development approach 
represented by 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. He 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 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 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 so. In any 
case, it is a mistake to draw an equation between Stalin's 5-year plans 
and the term "planned economy". The loss of Palchinsky and the political 
opposition he identified with constitute a major defeat in the 
century-long struggle for socialism.

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/ecology/red_green.htm

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