The Trotskyite Line on Microsoft

One of the slickest sites on the web is the World Socialist Web Site, which is decidedly not among those the Clinton administration would like to protect you from looking at. Neither is it ranked among the "hate" sites that corrupt the young into joining dangerous political factions. Even after all these years, the term "socialism" still rings nicely in the ears of the power elite.

It’s hard to know which among the thousands of socialist factions this group belongs to. But it must be on the orthodox side since it is published by the Trostkyite "International Committee of the Fourth International" and displays lots of love toward Marx and early Lenin, albeit not toward Stalin (who represented "nationalist reaction against the greatest revolutionary movement in the history of the world").

What interests me is the WSWS position on the Microsoft trial. Their bulletins are issued frequently and linked around the web from websites devoted to providing full coverage of the trial. That’s the great thing about the web. You can choose news sites that interpret events from various political perspectives, whether your perspective is pro free-market (and thus pro-civilization) or pro-socialist (and hence exhibiting soft feelings toward a movement that led to 110 million deaths in one century).

Revealingly, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between what the Socialist International says about Microsoft and the position of the Clinton administration and Joe Klein.

Now, if you know anything about the government’s case against Microsoft, you know that Joel Klein thinks Microsoft has used the monopoly of its private source code to deny consumer choice, bully computer manufacturers, squelch competition, and hold back innovation (it’s hard to say that last phrase with a straight face). The government’s case seems to raise fundamental questions of Microsoft’s right of private property in its own products.

Okay, so where do the socialists stand? Of course, we are treated to some good old Marxist class analysis: "Monopolization is inherent to the capitalist system itself. The struggle against it requires a political struggle against very real class interests, which are represented by a system in which production as a whole is organized not for social need, but private profit." That’s another way of saying that they support what the government is doing, even if the government is doing it at the behest of other large corporations.

But the analysis doesn’t stop there. More surprisingly, the socialists seem to accept even the petty complaints about Microsoft’s supposedly buggy software. "Microsoft’s unrivaled dominance of the market leads to the release of software that is less than perfect. A recent example is the company’s new flagship product, Windows 2000. It is reported that the new operating system contains over 60,000 bugs. This averages out to 12 bugs for each of the 5,000 programmers who worked on the package."

So if we would just let the Socialist Workers create software, it would work perfectly! Of course that doesn’t explain why the Soviet Union had nothing to export for 70 years beside raw materials and vodka. Yugoslavia did produce a car for a time.

Then there’s the technical issue of the pace of innovation: the "case against Microsoft also reflects a growing recognition that the speed of technological change and the demand for new and better systems requires a technical leap that is being stifled by Microsoft’s continued dominance."

And from experience with self-proclaimed socialists, we know how much they love technological innovation. When the Soviet Union crashed, Western observers were astonished to find a society decades out date technologically. Today, Cuba looks like a run-down 1950s movie set, a place frozen in time from the period when capitalism was abandoned for socialism. Indeed, technological backwardness defines all socialist institutions: just look at the US Post Office, always trying out 5-year old gadgets and failing.

Then there’s the issue of Microsoft’s code, which for obvious reasons the company wants to keep to itself. This is a great benefit to consumers, so that software can advance at an amazing pace and still stay perfectly integrated with the computer platform. It is this demand for integrated systems — a consumer-driven demand — that has put Microsoft on top. And even so, it hasn’t prevented outsiders from writing programs that perform beautifully on Windows.

But Microsoft’s enemies are cock-sure that private code is the wrong way to go about it. All code should be open, not proprietary. The Windows operating system should work like a highway or a public park: it should be available to all at no charge. Thus, we hear hymns to the glories of Linux, an operating system developed in an open-code framework. Now, Linux may be great, and if it is better than Windows, from the viewpoint of the mass of consumers, it will prevail in the marketplace. Perhaps code should be open, but let the market, not the government, decide.

Have you noticed that a bias for Linux sometimes masks an ideological agenda? The socialists complain, for example, that "in much the same way as the capitalist market is worshiped as the only possible vehicle for the organization of economic life, so too the development of proprietary software was been presented as the only possible variant."

"The emergence of the Internet as a mass medium, which itself largely conforms to open standards, demands far more flexibility in the next generation of computer software. With new devices such as mobile phones and wireless applications emerging at a fantastic pace, manufacturers are demanding software that can be modified and extended, i.e., they demand access to the source code….

"Linux is arguably the most stable, widely supported, flexible, and powerful operating system available today. It runs on a variety of computer hardware including Intel clones and Apple Macintosh computers. Distributions come complete with the free Apache web server, which is used on over 55 percent of public web sites on the Internet. The success of Linux lies precisely in its openness. Users of the operating system are themselves developers."

This last sentence is strangely reminiscent of the writings of Marx and Lenin, who rejected specialization and the division of labor in favor of a system where the workers and peasants would all share equally in producing for society’s needs. The problem, of course, is that such fantasies don’t come to terms with the differences among people (some are great programmers and some are not) or the reality of scarcity (not everyone can do everything). The division of labor under a capitalist system is the only way to fully exploit people’s potential.

The biggest problem the open-source movement has confronted is that people are not usually interested in chipping in to write and debug software that they do not own. And without prices and markets, it’s hard to get a handle on where the priorities are. In contrast, the proprietary system of source code employs people who do nothing but work to innovate and improve software. No, it’s not always perfect, but the tendency is in the right direction.

How is that the orthodox Troskyite socialists and the Clinton administration agree on Microsoft? Because there’s a shared ideological assumption in both camps that the privatization and commercialization of the internet was a bad turn of events. They hate the company that has done more than any other to make this possible.

In their hearts, they dream of history moving in only one direction: toward a larger and larger state administered under socialist principles. The triumph of Microsoft represents the opposite trend of history. It illustrated that the greatest and most socially transforming innovations originate and are managed under capitalist means.

That is why the socialists hope to destroy Microsoft. They hope to set back the forces of private production itself, while the Clinton administration would just like to see the public sector get a leg up on free enterprise’s newest conquests.

At least the socialists admit this much: the real battle is ideological and not technical. The question of what should happen to Microsoft is really about what should happen to the capitalist system and civilization itself.

The trouble with the Clinton administration’s position is that its lackeys don’t want to admit that they are using the cover of antitrust law to attack free enterprise itself, and replace it with an administrative state — and not just in one country.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site,