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[John G. Wright]

A New Technics

(July 1934)

From New International, Vol.1 No.1, July 1934, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Technics and Civilization
By Lewis Mumford
Illustrated. 498 pp. New York. Harcourt, Brace and Co. $4.50.

The book is nicely written, well bound, printed on fine paper and illustrated with excellent photographs. But the material it surveys is ossified with age.

The process for turning out a stale interpretation of history is as follows: to each ten pounds of Sombart add ten ounces of Veblen. Obtain all the available volumes on the history of inventions and development of technology. Rip off the covers and draw out the contents. Next obtain an anthropologist (dead or alive) and extract from his gullet the terms eo, paleo, and neo. Add technics. Mash to a pulp using meat chopper or axe and feed into a barrel. Gently sprinkle with holy water to exorcise Marx. By now the barrel with its contents is ready to be set into violent motion. Do so by invoking the spirits to serve as prime movers. Revolve at the rate of 1001 revolutions per minute, and serve in a bound volume.

Those who have never heard tell of spirits spinning a barrel should refer to Mumford according to whom the spirits are the prime movers not only of society but of life itself. Mumford believes in “internal teleology”. In his own words, “even the most rigorous scientific description of the physical basis of life indicates it to be internally teleological”. If the spirits are able to move so much, why shouldn’t internal teleology be capable of spinning a mere barrel?

Mumford extracts the major precepts of Sombart and Veblen so haphazardly that he may very well have used an axe. Sombart attempted to amplify Marx by proclaiming that “all history of society revolves around two sorts of contradictions, like around two poles: I call them the social and national contradictions”. Mumford emerges from Sombart with right angle instead of two poles: “the national struggle cut at right angles to the class struggle”. After cutting the class struggle at right angles, Mumford proceeds to cleave at to pieces. “After 1850 nationalism became the drill master of the restless proletariat, and the latter worked out its sense of inferiority and defeat by identification with the all-powerful State.” One could not have done worse using a meat chopper.

Mumford’s acceptance and admiration of Veblen is incompatible with his own emphatic rejection of the “Victorian myth of a struggle of existence in a blind and meaningless universe”. If anyone ever subscribed to this myth, it was Veblen. He viewed social evolution from what he termed “the standpoint of modern science, essentially Darwinist”. He defined Darwinism as follows: “A scheme of thought, a scheme of blindly cumulative causation in which there is no trend, no final term, no consummation.” What is this if not Mumford’s “Victorian myth of a struggle of existence in a blind and meaningless universe”? Mumford muddles by rejecting the myth and accepting Veblen.

To add to the muddle, Mumford’s Victorian Myth is itself a myth. The Victorians did not at all subscribe to the viewpoint Mumford ascribes to them. If anyone is entitled to serve as a representative of Victorian thought it is Herbert Spencer, and he did not at all view the universe as being blind and meaningless. To him evolution was chockful of meaning and progress, and capitalism was an ideal of nature.

One more instance will suffice of the jumble that Mumford concocts out of his ingredients. Following Sombart and Veblen, Mumford announces that Marx’s description of “price and value remains as pre-scientific as Ricardo’s”. Marx was just another victim of the misleading verbalisms of paleotechnic ideology. Mumford does not venture to expose Marx’s fallacies, but he does clarify the paleotechnic notions on the subject: “This was the notion that economic value had a relation to the quantity of brute work done and the scarcity of the product.” Mumford is unaware that this notion has nothing in common with the Marxian theory of value. Instead he provides his own scientific description of value, his own neotechnic verbalisms: “Real values do not derive from either rarity or crude manpower ... Genuine value lies in the power to sustain or enrich life ... The value lies directly in life-function: not in its origin, its rarity, or in the work done by human agents.” To sustain these contentions, Mumford makes the following scientific discoveries: “a glass bead may be more valuable than a diamond, a deal table more valuable aesthetically [!] than the most tortuously carved one, and the juice of a lemon may be more valuable on a long ocean voyage than a hundred pounds of meat without it”. With one squirt of lemon juice Mumford overthrows the whole science of economics and the entire structure of Marxism. Small wonder that he is a basic Communist, which Communism he emphasizes (in italics) is necessarily post-Marxian. Mumfordian Communism is neotechnic. Its slogans: Increase Conversion! Economize Production! Normalize Consumption! Socialize Creation! Small wonder that Mumford’s work has been acclaimed so widely. Mumford’s ideas are basically those of the apologists for capitalism. To Mumford the life-giving “values” of lemon juice are the same thing as the exchange value of lemon juice. He makes mish-mash of both. He exclaims, “it is not rarity that gives air its power to sustain life”. How profoundly true! Air is not rare. Air sustains life. Therefore Marx was a victim of paleotechnic verbalisms; he knew that values in use did not underlie values in exchange. According to Mumford a whiff of air would be more valuable than a ton of lemons to a man coming up for the third time in mid-ocean.

Years ago Karl Marx pointed out that no comprehensive history of the development of technology had been compiled as yet. A book with real, genuine and so forth value on technology and civilization still remains to be written.


Last updated: 12.6.2005