How America Helped Build The Soviet Machine


The Soviet economy passed through several phases between the world wars. From 1917 to 1921, the period of War Communism, the Bolsheviks attempted desperately and unsuccessfully to turn industry over to trade unions and committees of workers. The country overcame the foreign and civil wars of these years only after the authorities began to restore managers and engineers to their old jobs. Then, in 1921, with the country near exhaustion and industrial production stalled, Lenin called for a New Economic Policy. It involved a temporary retreat from centralized planning and control. The regime now tolerated substantial private and market enterprise while retaining control of the “commanding heights,” which included heavy industry, transportation, and electricity supply. During these years the government embarked on the national planning process that culminated in 1928 in the First Five-Year Plan. With it came a drive to eliminate private enterprise in both industry and agriculture.

During the period of War Communism, the importation of Western technology and experts was impossible, but under the New Economic Policy, Western manufacturers were allowed to establish and operate plants in the Soviet Union. During the First Five-Year Plan, the Soviets turned to the outright purchase and import of foreign production plants. Foreign experts, especially American, supervising Soviet workers and engineers, set these plants into operation and then turned them over to Soviet managers; always fearful of dependence on the capitalist world, the Soviet leadership was struggling to avoid the import of manufactured goods by pursuing instead the adoption of the means of producing them. The large-scale transfer of technology that followed was the most intense in history, and it should be recognized as a major chapter in the Soviet past. Before then Russia still resembled a preindustrial nation, with a lingering reliance on human and animal power and an agricultural economic base. Joseph Stalin later claimed that he had found Russians using wooden plows and left them with nuclear reactors. That, of course, was rhetoric; railroads, iron and steel production, textile manufacture, and foreign loans were rapidly industrializing many regions of Russia before the 1917 Revolution. But the speed of change was multiplied after 1921 by the forced adoption of foreign technology.

When in 1916 V. I. Lenin, the Russian political revolutionary, discovered Frederick W. Taylor, the American technological revolutionary, there was a paradoxical meeting of the minds. Taylor, born in Philadelphia in 1856, had introduced time-and-motion studies of workers when he was a foreman and manager at a steel plant in his twenties; these formed the basis for his widely influential theories of management science. He believed that with close observation of individual workers, any mechanical job could be divided into precisely prescribed individual movements, eliminating wasted time and energy. The activities of a factory as a whole could likewise be minutely organized. His system often provoked fierce opposition among workers, who lost virtually all freedom and control over their work, but it did often lead to great economies. It mechanized individual labor just as Ford’s assembly line mechanized factory organization. Taylor died in 1915, but the influence of his system of scientific management is still felt throughout industry.

Lenin was also impressed by the work of Frank Gilbreth, another American time-and-motion pioneer, who seemed less intent on speeding up—or exploiting—workers than on finding the one best, energy-saving way of doing work. Lenin wrote in the margin of one Gilbreth article that scientific management could provide a transition from capitalism to socialism.

Lenin insisted that in his socialist state Taylorism would no longer exploit the worker for the profit of greedy capitalists but would instead greatly increase the fruits of production for the benefit of workers and peasants and would make useful his country’s large pool of unskilled peasant labor. He also perceived that Taylor’s centralized control of the workplace, work process, and workers would allow politically reliable experts to monitor the system closely during the transition from capitalism to socialism and would help root out “bourgeois saboteurs.”

A top Soviet labor leader foresaw Russia becoming a “new, flowering America,” with a new workers’ culture to fit new technology.

In the spring of 1918, as his country lay disorganized and demoralized, Lenin said: “The task that the Soviet government must set the people in all its scope is—learn to work. . . . We must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our purposes.” He intended to recruit American engineers to help install the system. Soviet labor unions and some members of his own party opposed the plan, but Lenin preferred management by experts to chaotic worker control, even if the experts were, for a time, bourgeois holdovers or foreigners. He was also prepared to pay higher wages to experts and more productive workers. When American businessmen heard of his advocacy of Taylorism, they took it as proof that the American way was the one best way.