How America Helped Build The Soviet Machine


Leon Trotsky, head of the Soviet war department and the leader best known after Lenin, also embraced Taylorism. He tried to introduce scientific management into the Red Army and the decimated armaments industry. In a magazine article he wrote, Trotsky recalled his reliance on “Kili,” an American engineer, perhaps named Kelly, who went to the Soviet Union in about 1918 to help Taylorize industry. Kili told Trotsky that soldiering—loafing on the job—absorbed about 50 percent of all productive time in Soviet industry. Trotsky, facing total industrial collapse during the period of War Communism, endorsed a “militarization” of labor that amounted to extreme Taylorism on a national scale.

Drawing up their First Five-Year Plan, in the mid-1920s, the Soviets raised Taylorism from mere factory organization to the grand scale of the national economy. The Communist party translated and published Taylor’s book The Principles of Scientific Management, and high authorities brought over Walter Polakov, an American follower of Henry L. Gantt, one of Taylor’s most fervent disciples, to provide a liaison with American scientific-management experts and to prepare production charts for the entire First Five-Year Plan.

Alexei Gastev, a Soviet union leader and poet, helped give Taylorism an exotic Soviet flavor. He saw industrial workers as extensions of the engines they tended, and he lauded the fusion of man and machine: “I grow iron arms and shoulders—I coalesce with the iron form.” Fascinated by Taylor’s and Gilbreth’s work, he became the bard of scientific management.

Lenin found Gastev’s ideas and enthusiasm appealing, so the poet received support for what he called his ultimate artistic creation, the Central Labor Institute. The institute became in the 1920s the fountainhead for Soviet Taylorism, and time-and-motion studies became Gastev’s idée fixe. His critics complained that the institute neglected the full complexities of scientific management, but Gastev was reaching beyond. He wrote: “Many find it repugnant that we want to deal with human beings as with a screw, a nut, a machine. But we must undertake this as fearlessly as we accept the growth of trees and the expansion of the railway network.” He predicted that Taylorism would usher in a new era in which society itself would be mechanized, run by social engineering. In the workplace and in society alike, the seats of authority would be the offices of managers and engineers. Writing that “Taylor was an inventor, Gilbreth was an inventor, Ford was an inventor,” Gastev spoke of Russia transformed into a “new, flowering America.” The Stalinist purge that decimated social scientists eliminated Gastev’s institute in 1940. In 1941 it was reported that he had been shot and killed.

The Soviet embrace of Taylorism created countless problems. A system of management developed in and for a highly industrialized and productive nation was being imposed on a backward nation. American engineers and management experts returned home with horror stories of frantic and harsh efforts to implement Taylorism. Many peasants-turned-industrial workers failed to arrive at their Taylorized jobs on time because they had no clocks in their homes. Party officials demanded speedups in one part of an integrated factory system while neglecting others, creating monumental bottlenecks and logjams. Pressed by unrealistic quotas, workers overworked newly imported machinery, cut corners, and turned out shoddy products. Engineers and managers found that honest mistakes might be labeled criminal sabotage by high-level functionaries protecting their own jobs. Irrational speedups and quota increases became a lasting characteristic of Soviet Taylorism and of Soviet technology in general.

Lenin decided early on that nationwide electrification would, like Taylorism, be necessary for building a modern Russia. He agreed with Marx that steam power and the factory system had helped create industrial capitalism, and he reasoned by analogy that electrification and the growth of large regional systems of production would promote the next great social change, the formation of socialist society. The engineer G. M. Krzhizhanovsky, an adviser to Lenin, persuaded him that electrification could never be fully developed where competition prevailed; only collective enterprise could bring about a nationwide system of energy production with a grid that would function like a single machine. The vision of American utility magnates paled by comparison.

The Soviet government hastened electrification by importing an entire production system like the one at Niagara Falls.

Lenin had been interested in electrification since the 1890s, when he had shared exile in Siberia with Krzhizhanovsky. Like many Western reformers of the time, Lenin saw electrification as a step toward an ideal society: it would “accelerate the transformation of dirty, repulsive workshops into clean bright laboratories worthy of human beings, and electric light and heating of every home would ease the life of millions of ‘domestic slaves.’” He often showed himself to be more enthusiastic than knowledgeable, as when he called for the installation of electric lights in every rural district within one year and the acquisition of copper for wiring by gathering scraps in rural areas. H. G. Wells, the British author and social reformer, visited him in 1920 and concluded that “Lenin, who like a good orthodox Marxist denounces all ‘Utopians,’ has succumbed at last to a Utopia, the Utopia of the electricians.”