Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 13, 2010

American Chernobyl

Filed under: Ecology,economics,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:05 pm

On April 26th, 1986 a power surge in the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine led to explosions that spewed radioactive material throughout the USSR and neighboring countries. Some scientists blame this for an epidemic of thyroid cancers in the region, impacting my mother-in-law who lives in Istanbul.

This disaster was interpreted widely as precipitating the collapse of “existing socialism” in the USSR, including Mikhail Gorbachev who wrote 10 years afterwards:

THE nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl  20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was a historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.

(The Australian, Apr. 19, 2006)

Just two weeks after Chernobyl, the Soviet Union was implementing a “fight and talk” strategy in Afghanistan that does not sound much different than attempts being made today to reform the country, admittedly along a different ideological axis:

AFTER more than six years of inconclusive warfare in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union appears to have adopted a contradictory strategy: seeming to move toward a diplomatic solution while simultaneously deepening its involvement in the country.

On one hand, Soviet leaders have begun to talk publicly about a political settlement and a troop withdrawal, and they seem ready to have the subject discussed at a new round of indirect negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to begin in Geneva under United Nations mediation.

On the other, the Russians have indicated a commitment to longterm control of the impoverished, mountainous nation on their southern border. These include the education and indoctrination of Afghan children with methods similar to those Moscow used during other annexations -after World War II, when the Baltic states were taken over, and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when the new Government was able to ”Sovietize” portions of Central Asia that had been seized by the Tsarist Russian Empire.

(NY Times, May 4, 1986)

Just four years later the executive director of Tecnica, a leftist technical aid group I worked with, would visit Afghanistan to discuss joint projects with Soviet economists—his counterparts. As a sometimes entrepreneur, despite his 60s radical past, he made sure to buy some rugs when he was there at bargain basement prices. I remember the phone conversation I had with him after he arrived back in Berkeley. He told me that the Soviet officials could not stop talking about the “monster” they had created. With their own entrepreneurial appetites lurking beneath the surface, they would eagerly join Yeltsin and other repentant Stalinists in retooling the system along Milton Friedman lines.

Of course these efforts reflected personal ambition to lead the good life as well as a deeply entrenched conviction that the system was not working on its own terms. The Soviet economy, after a long post-WWII expansion, was in what appeared to be a permanent crisis.

Unlike our own crisis, which in superficial terms is all about an unregulated economy, pundits blamed too much planning for the Soviet morass:

The centralized pricing system is so askew that meat costing the state $4 a pound to produce sells for 80 cents a pound. Spare parts are all but impossible to find; pricing policy is that spare parts must cost the same as parts actually installed in manufactured equipment, making it entirely uneconomical to maintain stocks around the country.

Inefficiency is glaring, as are absenteeism, drunkenness and sloth. When contracting with Western suppliers to bring in heavy machinery, the Russians have taken to having Westerners build the housing, too, so the expensive imports would not rust in the open while Soviet workers got around to finishing enclosures.

An Austrian company that built a steel mill near Zhlobin in Byelorussia brought in Yugoslav and Austrian laborers, and built everything down to barracks for the workers.

(NY Times, March 15, 1985)

While people like Francis Fukuyama tended to blame the Soviet Union’s problems on “Communism”, a more informed analysis would associate it more with the modus operandi in the West, despite the obvious absence of a profit motive.

What our rulers and the Soviet-era Kremlin have in common is a tendency to regard working people as beasts of burden solely responsible for meeting quarterly earnings expectations and quotas respectively. Chernobyl blew up because inadequate safety measures were in place. This was a function of a bureaucratic mindset that made society’s interests secondary. A report by the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group sounds eerily like what we have heard about BP:

The developers of the reactor plant considered this combination of events to be impossible and therefore did not allow for the creation of emergency protection systems capable of preventing the combination of events that led to the crisis, namely the intentional disabling of emergency protection equipment plus the violation of operating procedures. Thus the primary cause of the accident was the extremely improbable combination of rule infringement plus the operational routine allowed by the power station staff.

In contrast to the United States, the elites in the USSR were all too eager to dismantle a planned economy in favor of what exists today. The reason for this should be obvious. Despite all the lip service paid to Karl Marx under Stalin and his successors, the system was run strictly on a self-serving basis. People climbed the apparatchik ladder in the same way they climb the corporate ladder in the USA. Someone like Tony Hayward was not all that different from a Soviet plant manager, who after all became just like him after Yeltsin took power.

Our misfortune is that association with the Soviet era taints our socialist beliefs despite our best efforts to return to the original meaning of Karl Marx. Any attempts on our part to not make that distinction clear will only make our efforts to reach working people more difficult.

In a very real sense, the fundamental crisis of our age is an ecological one in the broadest sense. Unlike the USSR, capitalism remains relatively dynamic.  But the costs have yet to be determined. The PBS news hour reported:

Some experts on the issue are striking a concerned tone. Monitoring will be crucial in the coming months and years said Edward Trapido, the Wendell Gauthier Chair of Cancer Epidemiology at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, because the long-term health effects of a spill like this remain an unknown.

No one has ever done a longitudinal study of health impacts on workers or residents after previous oil spills, he said…

Trapido, who testified Thursday for a House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on the spill, is heading a research group at LSU that will look at a range of health effects, including psychiatric and behavioral effects, chronic diseases and cancers.

“Oil contains benzene … arsenic and other heavy metals, all of which are classified as class one carcinogens to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer,” said Trapido.

With inherited susceptibility and under certain conditions, Trapido said “these exposures could hasten the onset of cancer,” but that further long-term research is needed. The dispersants being used do not contain known carcinogens, Trapido said.

While much is made about the American addiction to the automobile and cheap gas, one wonders if that addiction would be so easy to come by if the environmental and epidemiological costs were well known. Unfortunately, the oil companies, the government and the media have a vested interest in masking these connections, including the PBS news hour that has been the beneficiary of oil company handouts.

My first introduction to ecology was a talk by Joel Kovel at the Brecht Forum in NY where he likened uncontrolled capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. We have now reached the stage in the history of capitalism when this is no longer a metaphor but a reality.


  1. I would have thought that you, as the “unrepentant Marxist”, would have argued that the crisis of our epoch is a crisis of capitalist civilization?! One could also argue, that the crisis of our times is that there is too much general talk about crisis, without any clarity about what it really consists of, or for whom exactly it is a crisis. This may in turn only produce a vague sense that there is something terribly wrong with the world, and perhaps a subjective feeling of anxiety.

    But of itself, that is hardly conducive to taking positive action to create a better world, for which people need to be confident that they can solve their problems; it could be merely a reflection of the uncertainty of elites, and the desire of the political class to cowe citizens into submission with scare stories about what might happen, if people do not toe line.

    One thing I learnt as a youth from left-wing ecologists is that the problem is not primarily the despoilation of the environment, but the relationships between people, which led me to a consideration of the factors which determine those relationships. In the reification of “the environment”, the environment becomes a “thing” its own right, endowed with powers that it does not really have, conducive to the upward mobility of people who are concerned with “the environment” and propose new “values”, abstracted from the human relationships connected to it.

    The effect is often that attention is neatly deflected from what is really problematic in the social organization of society. Environmental concerns become a sort of bandwaggon for every man and his dog which fail to focus the real problems and their solution, in part because they rely on longterm extrapolations of risks which themselves are often hardly verifiable.

    In the process, people become trapped in a reformist problematic which often does not speak to their own concerns anymore. This is surely disorienting. People who are more concerned with the environment than with the people that have to live in it, cannot lead the way. My local council has recently resolved that citizens must from now on recycle plastics, with penalties for failing to do this. Maybe not such a bad idea, but in reality it is only the tiniest part of total pollution and therefore more a symbolic gesture than anything else. Yet you can be punished for not engaging in this ritual. Question then is, what this has to do with human progress?

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 13, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

  2. This disaster is about the profit motive and corporate power. You would think in any sensible, rational society safety would be the absolute priority, that this amount of oil spilling into the ocean just could not happen, that contingenices would be in place to counter any potential problems. That companies would not be granted drilling rights unless all these contingencies were in place.

    As a Brit, I hope the head of BP is strung up from the nearest lamppost, or whatever you call them in the USA.

    Comment by James — June 14, 2010 @ 8:16 am

  3. James, I agree that better precautions could have been taken, but what the profit motive has to do with it is unclear except that it might have got in the way of taking better precautions. In any kind of exploration there are risks, the question really is whether one can prove that in this case profit considerations negated a decent risk appraisal. Presumably it is never in the interests of the company to have its drilling installations destroyed by accidents.

    But what I find really quirky is that while Americans – with a few honorable exceptions – said almost nothing about the ecological devastation (not to say holocaust) in Iraq and surrounds (nearly one-fifth of AMERICAN troops deployed there were said to suffer disease as a result of the use of shells containing depleted uranium!), they get terribly worked up about the oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico! The ecological devastation of Vietnam during and in consequence of the Vietnam war is now largely forgotten (the Vietnamese nowadays refer to their wastelands as “Agent Orange Museums”).

    The average American household now has more cars parked outside than licensed drivers living inside, a third of all the cars on the planet. According to the BTS in 2003, when I looked at this, the average US household uses 1.9 personal vehicles and there are 1.75 drivers per household http://www.mail-archive.com/pen-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu/msg81416.html. Quite literally, people were burnt to death so that Americans can burn their gasoline.

    People in the Gulf region may therefore be forgiven for thinking – even if they don’t explicitly say it – that Americans at last get a dose of their own medicine. At last, now that the problem is close to home, they are forced to consider the consequences of their oil consumption seriously. That might be a positive outcome of this particular crisis. I don’t think that Tony Hayward should be hanged, I think he should be put in charge of preventing this sort of disaster in the future – after all, he has the experience.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 14, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

  4. According to the Dutch press, tomorrow the chairmen of ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron en ConocoPhillips are scheduled to distance themselves from BP in a press conference and confirm that the accident could have been prevented; also that by following best practice and guidelines, future disasters can be prevented.

    Mr Obama stated in an interview with Politico (13 June 2010):
    “Look, there are inherent risks in drilling into the earth a mile under the ocean,” he said. “I’m not an engineer, but the more I’ve learned about this process, the more it looks to me like some of the risks are there even if everything’s done perfectly. But I will also say that there’s no doubt that the risks — some of these risks could have been minimized.” http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0610/38458.html
    Mr Obama talked about America’s dependence on fossil fuels and how we could not “transition out of a fossil-fuel-based economy overnight. We can’t do it in five years. We can’t even do it in 10. So we’re going to continue to need to develop domestic oil consumption. We’re going to still need oil exports. And if it’s safe, then offshore drilling can be a part of that.”

    What conclusions will be drawn from the disaster will no doubt be carefully stagemanaged by PR outfits, but we ought to draw our own conclusions.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 14, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

  5. according to David Helvarg, you can’t drill in the North Sea unless the well is accompanied by a relief well in the event of an accident

    but, in the Gulf . . . ? no, that would have been an unnecessary burden on the oil industry

    and, no sign that anything is going to change

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 14, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

  6. I don’t think that Tony Hayward should be hanged, I think he should be put in charge of preventing this sort of disaster in the future – after all, he has the experience.

    Following which, G.W Bush should be made to chair a commission for preventing further war crimes — after all, he has a wealth of experience. And to properly convey to the world the resolution with which the said commission will pursue truth and justice, one J. Goebbels B. Obama should be appointed secretary and spokesperson.

    Comment by Lajany Otum — June 15, 2010 @ 7:09 am

  7. I think there is a very big moral difference between G.W. Bush and Tony Hayward, but if I have to explain that to Marxists I am wasting my time. I would be dealing with mindless, super fuckdumb people incapable of standing in the shoes of somebody else – bootboys for the New Marxist Exploiting Class.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 15, 2010 @ 9:00 am

  8. Hey Jurrian, don’t get me wrong, I thought your proposal that Hayward be put in charge of preventing similar actions in future was just a joke in bad taste excellent!! Rather like a suggestion that the CEO of General “Unsafe at Any Speed” Motors be placed in charge of preventing road accidents, and the reduction of carbon emissions. What about the upstanding CEOs of tobacco and asbestos giants? Surely they have the requisite experience and the demonstrated moral standing to be put in charge of programs to reduce deaths from lung cancer and mesothelioma respectively. No conflict of interest there, no sirree!!

    But come to think of it, and on a more serious note, given the incestuous relationship that exists today between corporations and the government institutions such as the MMS that supposedly exist to regulate them, Hayward may as well have been in charge of “preventing this sort of disaster.” In other words I can’t see how your proposal, made in jest or not, would if implemented produce anything terribly different from the disaster that actually exists today.

    All the above being said, as a mere simpleton and bootboy who is incapable of standing in anybody else’s shoes, least of all the exalted shoes of oil executives, I must humbly defer to your expert and ever so coherently argued position on morals — most especially the one regarding the “huge moral difference” between the piper and the persons who call his tune.

    Comment by Lajany Otum — June 15, 2010 @ 11:33 am

  9. Great article, Louis.

    Something not yet reflected in these comments is your terrific insight into the nature of state capitalism in its many forms, and the incessant call from the privileged parasites of state for better service from those lowly persons who deal with the essentials of material reality.

    Technical work performed can only be perceived as magic by the privileged that most benefit from it. Resistance to taking cost cutting short cuts by those who do the technical work can only be seen as insubordination to the magically empowered.

    A few years ago the O’Hare Airport radar system was shut down due to the use of a countdown device for system timing instead of a clock that would run continuously without a periodic reset.

    I could only laugh at the idea of the responsibility of pressing the counter reset being delegated further and further down the technical hierarchy to some obscure person capable of following a technical order such as, in extreme, a janitor.

    The actual resolution of the problem must have been seen as too difficult a task, that being the explanation of the serious nature of problem to the person who actually had the authority to order the expensive correction to the life sustaining hardware.

    Comment by Glenn — June 15, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  10. Read about the countdown timer here:


    Inside the control system unit is a countdown timer that ticks off time in milliseconds. The VCSU uses the timer as a pulse to send out periodic queries to the VSCS. It starts out at the highest possible number that the system’s server and its software can handle–232. It’s a number just over 4 billion milliseconds. When the counter reaches zero, the system runs out of ticks and can no longer time itself. So it shuts down.

    Counting down from 232 to zero in milliseconds takes just under 50 days. The FAA procedure of having a technician reboot the VSCS every 30 days resets the timer to 232 almost three weeks before it runs out of digits.

    Comment by Glenn — June 15, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

  11. Just one small correction. The Chernobyl plant wasn’t located in the city of Chernobyl, it located near the town Pripyat.

    Comment by Michael T — June 26, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

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