Digital Planning in the Soviet Union

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Kees van der Pijl:

“The USSR tested out many social techniques that will again become vital for humanity’s survival. Although Soviet at- tempts to develop digital planning were ultimately unsuccessful, they should be care- fully studied again.

Soviet (state) socialism crystallised in the failed world revolution of 1917-’24, and in hindsight represents the moment when the internal challenge arising from the Industrial Revolution, labour socialism, lapsed back again to an external one, a contender state resisting Western imperialism. The command economy that was instituted under the Five-Year Plans in the late 1920 relied on (initially extreme) coercion as a result of Russia’s backwardness, and ultimately allowed the USSR to defeat the Nazi invaders. In the 1960s, when socialist accumulation began to slow down after the initial breakneck transformation, a digital transformation was considered as a way out. In hindsight, some of its achievements were far ahead of their time and herald our current epoch, even though they ultimately ran into a conservative response blocking their revolutionary potential.

Computer design began at the Academy of Sciences in Kiev in the 1940s under Sergei A. Lebedev. Some prototypes were developed ahead of Western equivalents, some following closely behind. However, the ideological barriers to the adoption of

particular theories necessary for the application of new electronic devices, such as

cybernetics, were formidable. After Stalin’s death, this changed and Anatoliy I. Kitov, a colonel engineer in the armed forces of the USSR, published the first Soviet book dealing with computers, Electronic Digital Machines, which fired the imagination of many mathematicians and economists.

In his speech at the XXth Party Congress in 1956, in which he denounced Stalinism, Nikita Khrushchev also advocated steps to introduce factory automation. The development of computers in the Soviet Union was under the control of the military and after they had learned of the computerised air-defence system developed in the United States, they wanted to respond by a comparable system of their own. Kitov then proposed making the envisaged network available also for civilian uses since in peacetime, the computers would be idle; but since he by-passed the military hierarchy by addressing Khrushchev directly, he was dismissed and expelled from the

party. Yet the digital planning idea had been launched and was given more attention,

although a school advocating profitability as the criterion for success was also forming around Evgenyi Liberman.

At the Twenty-Second Party Congress of 1961, Khrushchev again declared it imperative to accelerate the application of digital technologies to the planned economy. By then the hopes and enthusiasm about the USSR overtaking the West were at their height and cybernetic economic management was a key component of the fervour. A report for the Council of Foreign Relations in the United States noted that Soviet planners saw cybernetics as the most effective instrument for ‘the rationalisation of human activity in a complex industrial society’. The communist

press began popularising the idea of computers as the ‘machines of communism’,

causing US observers to express their worry that ‘if any country were to achieve a completely integrated and controlled economy in which “cybernetic” principles were applied to achieve various goals, the Soviet Union would be ahead of the United States in reaching such a state’. The CIA, too, published a series of reports in which the agency expanded on this theme, warning in particular that the USSR might be on the way to building a ‘unified information net’ that in the eyes of some of president Kennedy’s advisers would, if successful, ‘bury the United States’ as Khrushchev had promised.

One of the Soviet scholars interested in the digital version of the command economy was Viktor M. Glushkov, the director of the Computing Centre of the Academy of Sciences of Soviet Ukraine. It says something about the forward-looking dynamism of Soviet society at the time that Glushkov not only conceived his idea of a Nation-wide Automated Economics Control System (in Russian, OGAS ), but also, notwithstanding Kitov’s problems with the authorities, felt free to hire him as his assistant.

Alexei Kosygin, then deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, encouraged Glushkov to elaborate his ideas about digitalising the planning system, but in 1964, when a comprehensive plan was finally submitted, it fell victim to the more cautious policy of the new leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, who jointly with Kosygin had sidelined Khrushchev and instead embarked on a strategy introducing greater enterprise autonomy along the lines of Liberman.

The digital planning idea was not entirely shelved, but both inter-service rivalry and the resistance of regional bosses to having their data made available to the centre in full, combined to cripple it beyond repair. Only when the Soviet Union acquired information about the ARPANET (a forerunner of the Internet) being developed in the United States, Glushkov, who had been told by Ukrainian party leader Petro Shelest to forget about it, was allowed to make a modest restart. If one thinks of the great strides the automation process was making in the final stages of the USSR (according to Bodrunov, from 1980 to ’85, the number of industrial robots in the Soviet Union grew to 40,000, several times more than employed in the US and 40 per cent of the world total), one can understand the tremendous missed chance in this respect.

Manuel Castells explains the lapse of the once (briefly) leading Soviet high-tech sectors to the pre-eminence of the military, who around 1965 decided that they could not risk being outplayed in the arms race and expose themselves to a US surprise attack. By imposing their play-safe strategy, the military trumped the interests of the indigenous Soviet computer sector and made the country dependent on US developments. By spying, smuggling, and reverse-engineering this ensured that the USSR would always have the same computer power as the adversary, albeit with a delay. Thus the visionary departures in the direction of digital planning were buried.” (