With Technology, Socialist Workers Still Did the Lifting


Would Trotsky Wear a Bluetooth, by Paul R. Josephson

By David Eaton

Yes, Trotsky would wear a Bluetooth, asserts Professor of History Paul Josephson, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

In this series of essays, Josephson examines the promise and the reality of technology in a variety of socialist settings and offers a comparison with the role of technology in the West. The goal of Josephson’s work is to evaluate the “human and environmental costs of the technological experience” under socialism, and the picture he paints is a grim one indeed.

Technological modernization in socialist societies carried the promise of serving the masses, but the reality of modernization under socialism was anything but utopian. Technology, which could have been used to improve worker safety or raise the standard of living, as it did in the West, was instead used as a blunt political tool—a means to build the economy and enforce the power of the state with little regard for the worker. This philosophy elevated the “machine above the citizen,” with grave consequences for the very citizens whose lives technology promised to improve.

As Josephson describes it, “The socialist citizen endured a lower quality of life or standard of living, less attention to worker health and safety, and inadequate concern about housing, the environment, and health care.”

That technology failed women in socialist societies is undeniable, and that failure is all the more tragic, Josephson argues, because of technology’s great promise. Technology promised to free women from the confines and drudgery of domestic responsibilities in a patriarchal society and to liberate them to pursue previously unavailable careers. The reality was far different.

Socialist leaders held that technology was the path to economic modernization, that it would bring together urban and rural populations, and, most importantly, that it would extend political control. In keeping with those beliefs, they placed a greater priority on building an enormous complex of worker-intensive heavy industries than on producing household appliances that might have eased women’s domestic responsibilities.

Socialist technology did produce at least one “gain” for women: the obligation to work outside the home. Employing the iconic image of a woman on a tractor to sum up how technology failed socialist women, Josephson writes, “She sat on a tractor in posters, but at home the burden of responsibilities fell on her to do double labor, and she did not have a tractor to help in the heavy lifting of daily life.”

As for the Bluetooth—Trotsky was among a group of Russian Marxists who embraced technology, particularly technologies of communication, as the foundation of Communism and a means to “overcome those problems of geography, climate, illiteracy, and backwardness that had plagued Russia.” So, yes, Trotsky would wear a Bluetooth.

In fact, according to Josephson, Trotsky used its contemporary equivalents—the railroad, radio, and printing press—efficiently and effectively to achieve the political goals of uniting and controlling the masses and building industry. Unfortunately for many millions living in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, and North Korea, technology’s effect on the socialist worker was an afterthought to Trotsky and those who followed in his political footsteps.
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