Scientific organization of labor and the Russian Revolution

17 April, 2021

Whole Russia Congress of Factory Committees, 1919
Whole Russia Congress of Factory Committees, 1919

At the height of the Russian Revolution, as the working class wielded political power for the first time and hundreds of thousands of workers were experimenting with new forms of collective labor, Taylorism and the scientific organization of labor raised debates that were only partly resolved historically: Are the techniques of scientific organization of labor necessarily alienating and do they necessarily increase exploitation? Is their scientific foundation correct? Is there anything rescuable in them?

In this article

The Marxist critique of Taylorism

The decade before World War I saw the boom of Taylorism. Conceptually it is the hypertrophy of the old bourgeois idea of the mechanical automaton. Factory processes are studied one by one in order to simplify them and save time, starting from the analysis of workers’ movements and thinking of production as a set of movement series. Then workers are trained in the use of new, more streamlined movements, workshop equipment is redesigned to avoid superfluous gestures and even the optimal height of each worker in each trade is measured…

After a few days, the mechanic was spending a quarter of the time he spent before on assembling the machine! What a realization of work productivity!

But the worker is not paid four times more but only one and a half times at most, and that only for the first few days. As soon as the workers are accustomed to the new system, their pay is lowered to the previous level. The capitalist receives enormous profits, and the worker works four times as hard, exhausting his nerves and muscles four times as fast. […] All these enormous improvements are made against the worker, in order to crush and oppress him still more, and are limited to the rational, sensible distribution of work within the factory.

Taylorism is the enslavement of man by the machine. Lenin, March 14, 1914

The Marxists’ criticism of the wonders touted by the prewar press about Taylorism and the scientific organization of labor had, as we see in the above quote, four axes

1 It developed in a radically alienating way the relation between worker and machine: the worker and his physical and intellectual capacities become increasingly unconscious and peripheral auxiliaries of the machine. As Lenin puts it, Taylorism is the enslavement of man by the machine.

2 Given the capitalist framework, the gain in physical productivity is subordinated to the increase in productivity in terms of profit: exploitation in relative terms increases. Moreover, under the conditions of a capitalism in which the capacity to expand markets (=imperialism) is being exhausted, it cannot but end in an increase of exploitation in absolute terms.

3 But… the increase in physical productivity exists and cannot be denied either. The systematic study of the organization of work allows to expand the productive capacities and is therefore a vector to be developed, under different social conditions, in order to lead our species towards abundance.

4 Because even if capitalism improves physical productivity within the factory by rationalizing processes, it is clearly not going to do the same on a social scale, because any true rationalization involves changing the aims and engines of social production, moving from capital accumulation to the direct satisfaction of universal human needs… that is to say, to bring the scientific logic from factory production to social production implies demolishing capitalism as a mode of production.

To sum up: the Marxist critique of the time had demolished the idea of the liberating and beneficial character of the scientific organization of production under capitalist conditions… but had just as forcefully repudiated the outright rejection of the scientific organization of labor.

Increasing the physical productivity of labor is precisely the way for Humanity to emancipate itself from the labor enslaved to necessity. But in a capitalism that was entering its historical decline the scientific organization of labor produced more and more contradictions, far from bringing us closer to abundance by fostering human development, it produced more exploitation, unemployment, alienation and subjugation.

The proletariat was thus called upon to implement the scientific organization of labor by itself and according to its own ends. It would not have to wait long. Only three years and eight months after the publication of Lenin’s article quoted above, the workers’ and peasants’ councils of the Russian Empire overthrew the remnants of the tsarist state and seized political power.

The scientific organization of labor re-enters into discussion after the seizure of power by the soviets…

When on March 3, 1918, the Soviet government signs the Brest-Litovsk peace with Germany, it knows that the civil war is only in its first phase. The prospect of further forced territorial concessions to imperialism and the White armies makes it possible to imagine a shrinking map of Soviet-controlled territory that would hamper basic production chains.

For instance, Lenin calls for a catalog of cheap local energy sources in order to electrify essential industries and for studies to create short-term hydroelectric and wind power plants to maintain production in the event of further military setbacks.

But the main emphasis is on control of production. Lenin urges the soviets to take into their own hands the day-to-day accounting and organization of the enterprises. What lies ahead requires of the workers an increase in productivity which has to begin by resuming work and regular shifts in quite a few factories paralyzed by the lack of raw materials and the desertion of engineers, foremen and accountants.

In this framework of emergency, Taylorism – the only form available at the time of scientific organization of labor – enters for the first time in the debates of the governing councils, the soviets.

5. Measures aimed at raising labor discipline and work productivity are particularly on the agenda. The steps already taken in this direction, especially by the trade unions, must be supported, backed and strengthened by all forces. These include, for example, the establishment of pay per unit of work performed, the application of that much that is scientific and progressive in the Taylor system, …

Six Theses on the Immediate Tasks of Soviet Power. Lenin, April 29, 1918

Lenin’s apparent optimism about the possibility of using Taylorist techniques by the workers themselves did not mislead him about their nature. He called Taylorism refined brutality on more than one occasion, but in the face of permanent emergency and growing shortages, he understood experimentation under the direction of the workers themselves to be one more tool in the struggle for the survival of the soviets as the worldwide spread of the Revolution substantially modified the Russian chessboard.

…and begins to be implemented at the end of the civil war

Gastev in one of his "cyclograms", basis of his methodology for the scientific organization of labor
Gastev in one of his “cyclograms”, basis of his methodology for the scientific organization of labor

The civil war ends with a Pyrrhic victory: the soviets dominate most of the former territory of the tsarist empire. But they are now practically lifeless as class organs. The proletariat which had carried out the revolution had been disbanded by famine and war. Factories were replenished, but the new workers were peasants driven out by scarcity and hunger without political traditions nor experience. Culturally bound to peasant backwardness, their productivity was as low as their class consciousness

The survivors of October had concentrated in the Bolshevik party or in the state appendages of the soviets such as the Red Army, the administrative bodies or the trade unions, trying to represent a working class that is barely recomposing itself.

The effect is the advent, parallel to the demobilization of Red Army commanders, of an increasingly powerful bureaucratic current in the soviets and the party. This current links its fate -which it identifies with the survival of the Revolution- to the reconstruction of the productive apparatus. If no longer under the leadership of an active class and bustling soviets, then under the command of those remaining from October, the old Bolsheviks.

Underneath the wings and tendencies of the Communist party then arising in relation to all sorts of issues, there were actually hidden the contradictions that this situation – a direct product of the stagnation of the World Revolution – were producing in the party of the revolution. And one of the first debates in which these contradictions appear within the revolutionary vanguard is the First All-Russian Conference of the Scientific Organization of Labor, called by Trotsky in 1920. The conference results in two opposing tendencies on the definition of the scientific organization of labor.

On the one hand, for Aleksei Gastev and the Tsentral’nyi Institut Truda (Central Institute of Labor, known as TsIT) the main issue was that given the setback of Russian industry during the war and the unskilling of new workers arriving from the countryside, the Taylor system was self-justified as the priority was to gain productivity and regain production.

On the other hand Platon Kerzhentsev and the League Vremya (League of Time) points again and again to the distinction between scientific organization of labor and Taylorism, which he accuses of burdening itself with unscientific aspects resulting from its class nature. In particular an excessive increase in work effort without regard to the balance of his energies of the worker.

The debate was also a methodological debate from the outset. Gastev, who had worked in France at Citroën, unambiguously adopted the Taylorist method as the ultimate way to arrive at a scientific organization of labor: focus on the parts, on the worker’s movements and reduce them to the minimum effort necessary in order, once optimized, to build series of these same movements. TsIT developed a whole series of studies based on cyclograms for this purpose in different industrial processes with which it provided consultancy services to dozens of state-owned companies.

Kerzhentsev criticized this method – rightly – for its empiricism and its mechanism, but above all for forgetting one of the fundamental principles of dialectics: it is not the parts that when aggregated make the whole, it is the whole that gives meaning and shapes the parts. Therefore, Kerzhentsev argued, a methodology cannot start from a micro analysis of the parts as if they existed by themselves and think that a better whole will emerge by redesigning them one by one. The scientific organization of labor had to start from a global perspective of the processes and of the productive units.

In a very typical paradox of the time, this argument had been a very important part of Lenin’s criticism of Bogdanov, a personal friend and comrade in Kerzhentsev’s Proletkult. Lenin however, personally supported TsIT and Gastev.

Both were old Bolsheviks and their trajectories would be paradoxical even during the counterrevolution: Gastev – whose studies would be fundamental to the organization of labor during stalinism – ended up assassinated by the stalinist regime, while Kerzhentsev whose positions in 1920 would have cost him his life ten years later, ended up as a high bureaucrat working in the 1930s directly under Stalin’s orders.

To understand these paradoxes we have to dive a little deeper into the context of 1920 and 1921.

The debate on the scientific organization of labor during the NEP

At the end of the civil war, the defeat of the first wave of revolutions of the period (Germany, Hungary, Spain, Bulgaria…) and the stagnation of the development of the revolutionary movement in France focalizes all the efforts of the government of the soviets and the Communist Party on the reconstruction of the productive apparatus and on the recovery of the conflictive alliance with the peasant revolution. On March 21, 1921, the Communist Party Congress approves the New Economic Policy (NEP).

The NEP was defined by Lenin as a state capitalism under conditions of dictatorship of the proletariat and as a necessary step backward. Its main arguments were the need to recover industrial production – and to accelerate in passing the recomposition of the Russian proletariat – and the fear of a revival of civil war in the form of a mass peasant insurrection.

It is no coincidence that on the same day, March 21, the congress, after approving the NEP and banning the fractions -two sacrifices of the first order- marches to fight hand to hand with the insurrectionist sailors of Kronstad.

The Kronstadt of 1921 bears as little resemblance to that of 1917… as most of the composition of the factory workforces of 1921 to those of 1917. They are mostly young peasants (= petty bourgeoisie) and newly proletarianized peasants, without any political experience or memory of the Revolution. Nor is it by chance that among their demands – a totum revolutum mixup of SR slogans, white hoaxes and good intentions – the demand that the threat of the introduction of extenuating Taylorist methods be eliminated stood out.

Once again, attitudes toward the scientific organization of labor expressed the contradictions of the moment.

On the one hand, it expressed the rejection of the proletarianization of the agrarian petty bourgeoisie who had fled to the city. On the other, the rejection of the regime of factory discipline promoted by the unions in whose rhetoric the goal of achieving a scientific organization of labor was increasingly present.

In addition, the soviets, increasingly bureaucratized and devoid of workers’ participation, not only subordinated the needs of the workers to those of reconstruction but intervened openly – and in an increasingly repressive manner – to abort strikes. All in the name of general class interests that the new workers did not understand and with invocations to a distant October 1917 when the majority of them still dreamed of expanding the family smallholding.

Kerzhentsev, like Bogdanov or Ermanski represented that petty bourgeoisie which had made the revolutionary cause its own without fully making the communist critique and program its own.

About that same topic, Osip Ermanski is perhaps the best example. A Menshevik, an internationalist during the war, he quit direct militancy after October to devote himself to theorizing and teaching business management techniques at the University. From there he became the most famous critic of Russian Taylorism. He claimed that the function of the Taylor system is not to incorporate the optimum amount of labor but to maximize its extraction. But, like Kerzhentsev, he proposed alternatives for the scientific organization of labor… which he never developed.

Gastev on the other hand, although methodologically at the opposite end of the spectrum from Marxism in his work, was a worker bent on converting factories into habitable and hygienic environments as much as on improving their productivity. It was only natural that Lenin – who did not follow his positions closely but shared both concerns in much of his speeches since 1918 – would support his efforts to make some minimal progress toward a theory of the scientific organization of labor.

It was also natural for Gastev not to be liked in the circles of the nascent bureaucracy. For him the scientific organization of labor should lighten the work of the worker and make his work more productive at the same time. But bureaucracy was already going a step further.

Fordism: the first ideology of the emerging bureaucracy

The fordzonitza in Einsenstein's The General Line. Fordism represented the shift from Taylorism as a technique for the scientific organization of labor to an ideology of social discipline.
The fordzonitza in Einsenstein’s The General Line. Fordism represented the shift from Taylorism as a technique for the scientific organization of labor to an ideology of social discipline.

An old pamphlet by Bogdanov of 1913 about Taylorism announced that it would necessarily generate a numerous bourgeois managerial layer, a corporate petty bourgeoisie embedded within large enterprises to ensure the management of the scientific organization of labor. He was right. Not only in the US and Europe, but also in Russia.

For that corporate petty bourgeoisie, which had its direct equivalent in the Russian managerial bureaucracy, Taylorism went beyond a mere technique. The scientific organization of labor as a whole was part of that ideal which in Russia was known as Americanism and which was associated with the great factories of Detroit and with mass industrialization. In Europe that industrial model, in which Taylorism was only one component of a broader discourse was called Fordism and, mixed with traces of the corporatist ideal of revolutionary syndicalism, was beginning to spread by the hand of Italian fascism.

Ford, unlike Taylor, saw himself as an industrial messiah, as the bearer of a project of social organization. Nor was he shy about acknowledging the bad environment of his plants, nor that one of his main goals was to contain and subject workers to the technical needs of production. For him, modern industrial production was a system too big to afford being humane. In the end he needed only two variables to vindicate himself and his system: social peace and profitability.

When Henry Ford’s book-manifesto, My Life, was published in Russia in 1924, the party bureaucracy welcomed it as an expression of its own organizational ideal and as a vindication of its own situation vis-à-vis the workers. Eight editions were produced with enthusiastic prologues in response to the demand of the party’s management cadres. It was an overwhelming success which makes even more sense in comparison with the fate of the other book of the time.

In 1921 Evgeni Zamyatin wrote his “We“, a work of dystopian science fiction that inspired both Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Zamyatin criticized in it the nascent totalitarianism under the new Fordist discourse of power. He did not hide his rejection of Taylorism and put in the mouths of his characters phrases and speeches instantly recognizable around the world from the theorists of the scientific organization of labor. It caused outrage in the bureaucracy and was one of the first novels banned in Russia after 1917.

Stalinist bureaucrats were obsessed with Ford. We can say that Fordism was the first ideological affirmation of the rising bureaucracy to power. From 1924 onwards, in the increasingly ritualized demonstrations organized by the factory leaderships, banners with images of Henry Ford began to appear alongside Marx, Engels, Zinoviev and later Stalin. It was in that same year that the theory of socialism in a single country was first enunciated… which Stalinism would not impose as obligatory until 1928.

By 1926 Ford had sold 24,000 Fordson tractors to Russia, the mythical fordtzonitzas featured in The General Line, Einsenstein’s Stalinist anthem. And when Stalinism presented its magnum opus, the first five-year plan, it could not fail to include the largest contract with a foreign company in Russian history: an agreement with Ford for auxiliary production on Russian soil that also imported dozens of technical trainers from Detroit.

Fordist exaltation and socialism in a single country went hand in hand throughout the development of the Stalinist counterrevolution. Quite a reason to reflect on the ambiguities and dangers of the allegedly technical discourses on the scientific organization of labor.