Workers East: Taylorism and Revolution

Introduction

In the first half of the 20th century, a number of countries in Eastern Europe were struggling to improve their workflow and cover for the losses experienced in the Great War. One of the driving forces of such improvement processes was Taylorism – the system of scientific management developed in the USA and named after its creator, Frederick Taylor. Many political leaders viewed Taylorism as a route to break off with prewar society and the most effective approach to social revitalization. However, while the method became highly popular and successful in the USA, it met certain challenges in the East, where political systems and labor management were quite different. The main actor on the political scene of the early 1920s was the Soviet Union. The attempt to endorse Taylorism by Soviet leaders was accompanied by the collectivization of agriculture, which did not find a favorable reaction among the working class. As a result, the endeavor of Eastern leaders to implement the premises of Taylorism led to unexpected outcomes the most dramatic of which were a series of revolutionary acts against governments.

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Main body

Taylorism appeared at the beginning of the 20th century and was aimed at increasing the efficiency of labor. When work slowdowns in the USA reached a disturbing level, Taylor decided to expand production through devising wage scales contingent on piecework.1 The purpose of the system was to maximize the correspondence of benefits to cost and output to input. Thus, Taylorism suggested a getaway from class divisions and ideological conflicts. European countries were hoping to improve social relations with the help of scientific management.2 The process of adopting Taylorism in the Soviet Union was accompanied by controversy and uncertainty.3 As Bailes remarks, the way one nation follows another as a model for economic and social transformation discloses the borrower nation’s most cherished ideas in the mentioned domains.4 Thus, the implementation of Taylorism in Russia lets historians and politicians make important conclusions about the country’s values.

The outcomes of the impact that the USA made on the Soviet Union in the 1920s-1940s still raise many disputes. Researchers argue that not only the understanding of the Soviet economy but also the international technology exchange became easier due to analyzing the USA’s effect on the Soviet Union in the interwar period.5 Hence, it is crucial to investigate the premises and consequences of Taylorism in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries.

The initiation of the interest in Western development of technology by the East was recorded in the 1890s when Russia experienced a rapid growth of industrialization, which led to the intensification of Russian-American trade. Still, it is crucial to emphasize the existence of certain obstacles to the spread of American trade in the Soviet Union that prevailed in the post-Great War period. While Russia was interested in the products and methods of American industry, the US producers did not express much enthusiasm for the Russian market. Americans were largely concerned about their domestic market and the parts of the world the collaboration with which could be gained more easily.6 Therefore, the Soviet Union faced the challenge of how to choose the most suitable attitude to embrace the capitalist economy.7 The administration of Lenin regarded Taylorism in a contradictory way. On the one hand, Lenin considered Taylorism as an exploitative measure. On the other hand, he understood the method’s potential to enhance productivity and engender efficiency.8 Hence, Lenin’s attitude toward Taylorism was dual from the start.

One of the problems of adopting Taylorism in the Soviet Union was that the situation in the country after the revolution, the war, and foreign intervention succeeding it, differed radically from that in the USA. In Russia, the most active part of the revolution belonged to the workers. Lenin, who associated Taylorism with the progress of capitalism, considered that the former could promote the development of socialism.9 Therefore, the most crucial question was who would have charge of Taylorism and who would exploit it to one’s profit.

Another difficulty in implementing the ideas of Taylorism on Russia was the potential of developing a gap between laborers. Such an argument was declared by Lenin’s ardent opponent, Bogdanov. The latter mentioned that Taylorism was tailored for “superior” workers rather than average laborers.10As a consequence, an estrangement between the two groups of workers would appear. The more privileged laborers were to be celebrated for their extraordinary efforts whereas the average ones would be treated as unproductive and ineffective. Furthermore, the repeated performance of the same task, as proposed by Taylor, was likely to dull laborers’ senses and be contrary to the expectations of advanced imperialism. Thirdly, there was a likelihood of considerable growth in the number of managerial personnel, which could eliminate labor productivity.11 As a result of such concerns, Lenin expressed the intention to adjust Taylorism to Russia’s own aims. However, accelerated industrial growth turned peasants into industrial workers, which led to the collectivization of agriculture. Since laborers were opposed to such a process, they initiated protests to protect their rights and gain equal pay for their hard work.

The revolutionary mood that prevailed in the Soviet Union was quickly accepted by other Eastern countries. The development of productivity in the East was much poorer than in the West. Laborers expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that their hard work could never allow them to buy the things they needed. In Hungary, which was under Soviet occupation in the 20th century, the discontent with the subordinate role of workers provoked a revolution in 1956.12 The uprising incorporated three phases, each of them spanning over about a week. The first stage involved a spontaneous mass revolt that quickly provoked the formation of revolutionary structures and their appropriation of power around Hungary. The second phase was known for several victorious days for the revolutionaries and the appearance of the new force arrangements. At that point, the danger of civil war did not seem real, and the threat of counterrevolutionary revival was low.13 However, very soon, the third phase was initiated, which entailed the armed struggle of the Soviet military force against Hungarian resistance.

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After the military involvement and subjugation, revolutionaries continued fighting for their cause by means of political approaches. However, those organizations were violently demobilized in the course of several months by Hungarian leaders supported by the Soviet Union who claimed that they were acting for the sake of laborers.14 Eventually, council leaders were arrested, and martial law was declared in the country. Those events marked the end of resistance which had been remaining so powerful that the government of Hungary was considered unstable. Upon finishing the revolution by military means, the Soviet Union accepted some of the economic amendments for which rebellious workers had been fighting. However, the suppression of people’s political aspirations led to the total destruction of Hungarians’ trust in the Soviet Union’s beneficial endeavors.

The events discussed in the paper may be viewed through the prism of theoretical concepts established by Silver. Particularly, it seems relevant to analyze the issue from the point of view that labor has the past but does not have any future. Silver argues that there are two major causes of such a premise. Firstly, technological progress has led to the transformation of industrial capitalist societies into post-industrial ones.15 Secondly, the lowered role of industrialization may be explained by the evolution of globalization.16 Under the premise of these approaches, the expansion of Taylorism was doomed to failure. Due to the automation of labor and increased productivity, more work could be done within a shorter time. As a result, individuals were able to buy the goods they wanted, and hiring options increased.

Conclusion

However, the long-term benefit of the scientific management approach also contained a hidden threat. There was no guarantee that laborers who were not needed at their previous places would easily find a new job. Also, Taylor suggested measuring only productivity whereas his successors started evaluating quality, too. Thus, the system had gradually lost its power both in the countries where it was initially successful, like the USA and in those where it found not much support, like in the Soviet Union and Hungary. Still, the analysis of the evolution of Taylorism in Eastern Europe allowed understanding the approaches of those countries to regulating their workers’ conditions and implementing the productive change or resisting it.

Bibliography

Bailes, Kendall E. “The American Connection: Ideology and the Transfer of American Technology to the Soviet Union, 1917-1941.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 3 (1981): 421-448.

Laszó, Ferenc. “Hungary, Revolution of 1956.” In The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present, edited by Immanuel Ness, 1625-1630. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

McLeod, Mary. ““Architecture or Revolution”: Taylorism, Technocracy, and Social Change.” Art Journal 43, no. 2 (1983): 132-147.

Silver, Beverly J. Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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Sochor, Zenovia A. “Soviet Taylorism Revisited.” Soviet Studies 33, no. 2 (1981): 246-264.

Footnotes

  1. Mary McLeod, “Architecture or Revolution”: Taylorism, Technocracy, and Social Change,” Art Journal 43, no. 2 (1983): 133.
  2. McLeod, “Architecture or Revolution,” 133.
  3. Zenovia A. Sochor, “Soviet Taylorism Revisited,” Soviet Studies 33, no. 2 (1981): 246.
  4. Kendall E. Bailes, “The American Connection: Ideology and the Transfer of American Technology to the Soviet Union, 1917-1941,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 3 (1981): 421.
  5. Bailes, “The American Connection,” 421.
  6. Bailes, “The American Connection,” 423.
  7. Sochor, “Soviet Taylorism Revisited,” 247.
  8. Sochor, 247.
  9. Sochor, 248.
  10. Sochor, 248.
  11. Sochor, 249.
  12. Ferenc Laszó, “Hungary, Revolution of 1956,” in The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present, ed. Immanuel Ness (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 1625.
  13. Laszó, “Hungary, Revolution of 1956,” 1625.
  14. Laszó, 1625.
  15. Beverly J. Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.
  16. Silver, Forces of Labor, 3.
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