J.W. Mason – Did It Matter?

Did the revolutions of the 20th century make a difference if all economies ended up capitalist anyway?

J. W. Mason is Associate Professor of Economics at John Jay College, City University of New York and a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute

Cross-posted from J.W. Mason’s blog

Picture by iphonedigital

Classes finished up last week. One of the things I was teaching this semester was undergraduate economic history, which I hadn’t done in some years. (Perhaps I’ll have more to post on the class later.)

Our main books this time were Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, which I’ve used several times in this class; and Jonathan Levy’s Ages of American Capitalism and Joshua Freeman’s Behemoth, neither of which I had read before.

Behemoth is a history of the factory; the final chapter is on present-day factories in Vietnam and China, which are probably the largest factories that have ever existed. It’s a fascinating account, with a lot of details I hadn’t heard before. I was astonished to learn, for example, that all the iPads are made at a single facility in Chengdu.

A more interesting question is why these factories are so big. The answer, Freeman stresses, is not any sort of technical advantage. These giant factories in general are organized with small groups of workers doing the same tasks in parallel, independently of each other; there’s nothing like the division of labor that you have on an auto assembly line. Rather than economies of scale, he argues, the main reason production is concentrated in a few giant factories is to allow them to be more responsive to the changing demands of their clients, the Western companies whose subcontractors they are. As with giant factories through history, the impetus for concentrating workers in one facility is about centralizing authority and not just technical efficience, as people like Stephen Marglin and David Noble (or Levy in his chapter on River Rouge) have emphasized.

A question I posed to the class is: Is there any connection between China’s industrial success today and their earlier revolution? Is the fact that China had one of the 20th century’s greatest political revolutions connected to the fact that it is one of the 21st century’s greatest industrial-policy success stories? There was a bit of debate on this – some people pointed to the uniquely egalitarian organization of earlier Chinese factories, where workers discussed how to organize production, and even managers were required to spend time doing routine manual work. But others noted, correctly, that Foxconn isn’t anything like that – there are bosses who give orders just like everywhere else.

The picture you get from Behemoth and other careful accounts of modern Chinese factories is, in many ways, of a country that is following the same path that was blazed in Manchester andLowell and Detroit, albeit on a larger scale. This is, of course, a useful corrective to hysterical claims about industrialization based on slave labor and market manipulation, from people who ought to know better. But it’s a bit distressing if you would have hoped that the titanic struggles of the Chinese Revolution might have opened up a different road.

One way to think about whether, or how, the revolution mattered, I suggested, is to think about the counterfactual. We could look back at China 100 years ago – backward, riven by civil war, subjugated by Europe and Japan, desperately poor – and think that only some kind of radical political project could have rebuilt the country. Or in a longer view, we could say that for most of recorded history China has been one of the most advanced, prosperous and politically stable regions on Earth, so it’s hardly surprising that it would be returning to something like that position. Which of those seems more reasonable?

After they’d gone back and forth on that for a while, I asked them if they knew what major battle we’d just passed the 70th anniversary of. No one knew; I wouldn’t have expected them to. It’s Dien Bien Phu, I said. The decisive defeat of the French by the Viet Minh, the moment when Europeans were shocked to discover that they could be defeated by a backward, non-Western people in open battle. It was a major step in Vietnam’s road to full independence, and to the end of colonial empires all over the world – one of the most important battles of the 20th century. One of the biggest victories, one might say, for the liberation of humanity. And yet now Vietnam is manufacturing shoes for Nike just like everyone else.

So, did it matter? In the long run, do these titanic struggles between classes and nations make any difference? Do they really change how production is organized, and for what, and by whom?

I ended the class there. But one might add that how you feel about whether Dien Bien Phu is worth commemorating is probably as good a marker as any of the boundaries of radical politics. Does progress come through struggle — sometimes violent, always disruptive against the established order?  (And in these struggles, has America and “the West” been on the side of human liberation, or the other side?) Or does progress, if it happens, happen incrementally, on its own, regardless of who wins the battles?

ETA: I should have mentioned this essay by the Chilean socialist Manuel Riesco, which struggle with this same question. His answer is in the transition to capitalist modernity requires a popular revolutionary movement, especially in the periphery.

It may be useful to start from the hypothesis that the epoch of the twentieth century has been no different in character from that of the nineteenth century: that is, that right up to today we have been living through the period of transition from the old agrarian, aristocratic society to capitalist modernity. In this view of things, the revolutions of the twentieth century have not been anti-capitalist (despite the wishes or programmes of their protagonists and the fears of some of their enemies) but rather the same as the revolutions of the last century.

This hypothesis makes it possible … to claim that those revolutionary processes were progressive and ultimately successful, even though they culminated not as they said they would but, curiously enough, in the opposite way…

… the mass of people…, when called upon to act in each of these transitions to modernity, burst onto the stage and generally cut down what was rotten to its very roots. It was this which cleared the way for the new to be born. …

The leading role of the people does not define only one moment in the transition to modernity. … It may be that a much more complex analysis of the world-wide transition to capitalist modernity will regard that heroic moment as an irruption of the people necessary for the process to advance from one to another of its discrete phases. 

Perhaps we could say today that Jacobinism, in the broad sense given to it here, was a characteristic and appropriate political form in certain popular phases of the transition to capitalist modernity. In this sense, its progressive role has been gigantic. … It is to Salvador Allende, Jacobin president of Chile, more than to anyone else, that the modern nation it is coming to be owes its existence. The monument he deserves will be built sooner rather than later, ‘más temprano que tarde’, in the cities and hearts of his people.

It reminds me a bit, on rereading, of some of Rubashov’s musings towards the end of Darkness at Noon. But then Koestler, in that book, was more than a little “of the devil’s party without knowing it.”

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