Tuesday, August 7, 2018

American Efficiency in the Soviet Union

Perhaps you have some time idly wondered how the Soviet Union was able to industrialize so successfully despite civil wars, communist ideology, and a central planning apparatus that failed spectacularly in so many other areas. Obviously this is a complex question with a complex answer, but part of the explanation was Lenin and Stalin's embrace of American manufacturing methods. The Soviets were much enamored of the "scientific management" of Frederick Taylor, who used stopwatches and other tools to refine manufacturing processes and make them more efficient:
In the Soviet Union, Taylorism was advocated by Aleksei Gastev and nauchnaia organizatsia truda (the movement for the scientific organisation of labor). It found support in both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Gastev continued to promote this system of labor management until his arrest and execution in 1939. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union enthusiastically embraced Fordism and Taylorism, importing American experts in both fields as well as American engineering firms to build parts of its new industrial infrastructure. The concepts of the Five Year Plan and the centrally planned economy can be traced directly to the influence of Taylorism on Soviet thinking. As scientific management was believed to epitomize American efficiency, Joseph Stalin even claimed that "the combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism."
To build their new factories the Soviets also turned to Americans, specifically Albert Kahn, who had already designed the enormous River Rouge Complex for Henry Ford:
On May 8, 1929, through an agreement signed with Kahn by President of Amtorg Saul G. Bron, the Soviet government contracted the Albert Kahn firm to design the Stalingrad Tractor Plant. On January 9, 1930, a second contract with Kahn was signed for his firm to become consulting architects for all industrial construction in the Soviet Union.

Under these contracts, during 1929–1932, Kahn’s firm operated from its headquarters in Detroit and the newly established design bureau in Moscow to train and supervise Soviet architects and engineers. The bureau Gosproektstroi was headed by Albert Kahn’s younger brother, Moritz Kahn, and 25 Kahn Associatese staff were involved in Moscow in this project. They trained more than 4,000 Soviet architects and engineers; and designed 521 plants and factories under the first five-year plan.
I suppose I must have known about this, since I once read a whole book on the first five-year plan, but I had forgotten and I was deeply impressed a few minutes ago reading about Kahn's work in Russia. It is one of those unexpected connections that undermines all simple narratives and dichotomies. It reminds us that technology has its own imperatives, and that the building of cars and tanks was in practice much the same in Stalingrad and Detroit. It may also explain something about why it was the US and the Soviet Union that emerged as the dominant powers; in our world it is those who best master the key technologies of the age that rise to the top.


G. Verloren said...

"It may also explain something about why it was the US and the Soviet Union that emerged as the dominant powers; in our world it is those who best master the key technologies of the age that rise to the top."

It also didn't hurt that both nations controlled massive contiguous territories full of rich natural resources, had massive populations, and enjoyed general geographic isolation from rivals...

John said...

True, but the Russians still have that and have fallen behind in our age.

G. Verloren said...


The Russians also have a corrupt oligarchy that impoverishes the common citizen, and a belligerant foreign policy that isolates them on the world stage.

Both the US and the Russians became world powers because they 1) were leaders of science, industry, and raw production power, 2) because they had massive and state of the art militaries fueled by said power, and 3) because they maintained vast networks of alliances with other ideologically aligned nations.

Today, both countries have seen a large drop in production, and neither country has the technological edge over the rest of the world that they used to enjoy.

Their militaries are still large and modern, but that frequently means less and less in a more globalized world, where warfare is becoming both less acceptable and less powerful as a tool for influencing other countries. The investment of resources necessary to maintain such militaries is no longer producing the same returns.

And of course, more and more both countries are turning away from being global leaders of their respective causes, and are instead driving wedges between themselves and others. Russia is hated and opposed by most of the world, and certain elements of the United States seem to want to follow suit.

But quite simply, you can't be a world leader if you withdraw from the world - or if you cause the world to recoil from you.

Hence why the EU and China appear poised to replace Russia and the US as the leading world powers. They're more in tune with the modern globalist zeitgeist of creating stability and trade, rather than the old doctrine of rattling sabers and achieving goals through force and threats.