Engineers vs. workers in Allende’s Chile and Mao’s China

Radical leftists tend to create a distinction between “authoritarian” and “democratic” socialism, with the former typically referring to the Marxist-Leninst states of the 20th century (those of the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba, etc.), and the latter typically referring to movements that either seek to maintain liberal-democratic institutions after a revolutionary seizure of state power, or that seek power through existing liberal-democratic institutions, with the government of Salvador Allende and Popular Unity in Chile (1970-73) being a prime example.

But perhaps these distinctions aren’t as descriptive as one might think.  Consider that Allende, as discussed in Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011) (see my brief review here), had a strategy that explicitly sought to create a top-down socialist transformation of Chilean society, with the elite technocrats of the party playing a vanguard role.  On the flip side, as discussed in Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class (2009) (see my brief review here), Mao adhered to a strategy that saw the masses as the ultimate force in the socialist transformation of Chinese society, to the point of encouraging workers and peasants outside the official communist party to attack party cadres and party institutions during the initial phase of the Cultural Revolution (~1966-68); at the same time, Mao’s politics was opposed by the other major communist faction, which arguably echoed Allende’s strategy of centering a technocratic state, which took power after Mao’s death in 1976.  In other words, the distinction between “authoritarian” and “democratic” socialism seems to overlook the ways in which a top-down, technocratic attitude was always latent in 20th-century socialist movements.

This becomes especially clear when comparing conflicts between technical workers and manual workers in Allende’s Chile and Mao’s China, in situations where the ruling parties sought to leverage science and technology to socialist ends.  In both cases, efforts to democratize the workplace and reduce the division of labor between white-collar and blue-collar workers failed to produce any real or long-lasting changes, and had issues from the very beginning.

From Cybernetic Revolutionaries:

In theory, Cybersyn engineers also consulted with members of the rank-and-file.  Beer writes that the engineers were expected to create “quantified flowchart models with the help and agreement of the workers’ committees” and to determine the “recovery times for each index on the same terms: that is with help and agreement”.  The modelers did talk to committees of workers in some cases but not as a rule.  More often technocracy eclipsed ideology on the factory floor.  Despite the explicit instructions the engineers received to work with worker committees, often the converse occurred, and the engineer treated the workers with condescension or would ignore the workers altogether and deal directly with management.  Moreover, the engineers frequently hid or overlooked the political facets of the project in favor of emphasizing its technological benefits, thereby avoiding potential conflicts. (131)

And from Rise of the Red Engineers:

Hong Chengqian, Tsinghua grad and manager in one of the factories established on campus during the Cultural Revolution, said that there was good R&D that came from skilled/educated professionals working with workers, but that ultimately the goals of combining mental and manual labor and liquidating disparities in knowledge base was utopian and doomed to failure.  There remained “cultural” differences between scientists/engineers and workers and a divergence of interests. (177)

In both cases, it seems clear that technocracy was always latent, and trends pointed to a future where worker control over the means of production was superficial or non-existent; this is what ended up happening in China, and what would have likely have happened in Chile if the socialist government wasn’t overthrown by the military coup in 1973 and replaced with an explicitly neoliberal regime.  As the aforementioned books discuss throughout, the ruling parties saw engineers and other skilled and educated layers of workers become increasingly prominent in the party apparatus — replicating the hierarchies of the workplace.

Thus, radicals today ought to take account of these experiences, and think hard about what terms like “authoritarian” and “democratic” actually mean in practice.  Its clear that its not enough to simply adopt these terms as they are used by existing bourgeoisie/liberal institutions–it must be applied to all of society, and particularly to the division of labor and the gap between mental and manual work.  And it is clear that the problem of the mental-manual divide is particularly tricky, if parties as different as Popular Unity and the Communist Party of China both had deeply technocratic impulses.  It would be worthwhile to study the dynamics between skilled and unskilled workers in these countries (and other socialist countries of the 20th century), and figure out what specific strategies and tactics succeeded and failed, and how to avoid similar mistakes today.


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2 thoughts on “Engineers vs. workers in Allende’s Chile and Mao’s China

  1. Vincent November 1, 2016 at 4:38 pm Reply

    What is the nature of the divide between mental and manual workers? This is the first I have come across such a distinction. Is this something that worker run and owned cooperatives would help alleviate? I know that places I have worked that have both mental and manual workers (like most businesses, I assume) would have penalties, and not just hurdles, but brick walls for trying to bypass the unions or the bosses when implementing a program. I guess this seems more like an organizing issue rather than a fait accomplis. But then again, I am probably missing your point.


    • Arjun November 1, 2016 at 5:22 pm Reply

      It is really just another term for “division of labor”, but specifically referring to the knowledge gap between manual and unskilled workers (i.e. farmers, assembly line workers, blue-collar work in general) and technical and skilled workers (i.e. engineers, scientists, white-collar work in general).

      I think that worker-owned cooperatives would be a very useful tool to erase the gap. Workplace democracy certainly has inherent characteristics that would help alleviate any bad power dynamics that emerge between “educated” and “uneducated” workers, and democratize decision-making away from skilled technical workers having a monopoly of power. But I also think that cooperatives are ultimately just a tool; its up to the social/political movement that the cooperative is part of to actually push the issue of the division of labor and mental/manual divide, and put resources into creating equal opportunity for education, and having a general radical orientation toward class in the first place. See Mondragon, for example: its a massive workers cooperative, but it seems to have abandoned any radical leftist orientation a long time ago, and hence has the same kind of division of labor (and thus, power) as any other company.


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