My latest Russian history reading is Richard Pipes’ Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, which features Pipes’ usual mixture of annoying generalizations and enlightening details, and I just ran into this passage on a figure I’d never heard of, who had influence in two very different directions:
One of the more eccentric members of Proletkult was Aleksei Gastev, a metalworker turned poet and theorist. An early follower of Bogdanov, in the first years of the Bolshevik regime he wrote verse and came to be known as the “singer of steel and machines.” After 1920 he concentrated on applying Frederick Taylor‘s “time-motion” methods of industrial productivity to improving efficiency of everyday life. Members of his “Time League,” which had branches in every major city, were required to carry watches and to keep “chronocards,” on which they recorded the exact use they made of every minute of the day. Ideally, he would have had everyone go to sleep and rise at the same hour. To economize on time he proposed to “mechanize speech” by replacing the long expressions customary in Russian with shorter ones, and by resorting to acronyms, for the widespread use of which in Soviet Russia he bore much responsibility.
In moments of visionary exaltation, Gastev proposed to mechanize man and his activities in accord with the time-motion experiments carried out at his Central Institute of Labor (Tsentralnyi Institut Truda). He had visions of a future in which people would be reduced to automatons known by ciphers instead of names, devoid of personal ideas and feelings, whose individuality would dissolve tracelessly in collective work:
The psychology of the proletariat is strikingly standardized by the mechanization not only of motions, but also of everyday thinking. . . . This quality lends the proletarian psychology its striking anonymity, which makes it possible to designate the separate proletarian entity as A, B, C, or as 325, 075, and 0, et cetera. . . . This signifies that in the proletarian psychology, from one end of the world to the other, there flow powerful psychological currents, for which, as it were, there exists no longer a million heads but a single global head. In the future this tendency will, imperceptibly, render impossible individual thinking.
This nightmare, in which one Western historian perceives a “vision of hope,” provided material for Evgenii Zamiatin’s anti-utopian novel, We, and Karel Capek’s R.U.R., a play that popularized the word “robot.” By a strange inversion, a flaw Communism attributed to capitalism, namely the dehumanization of the worker, became for some Communists an ideal.
Oh those awful abbreviations! Just a few pages earlier I’d run across a hideous one new to me, Uchraspred [Учраспред], which a helpful Glossary of Russian Abbreviations and Acronyms expands to Учетно-распределительный отдел ‘registration and distribution section’ (Pipes says they were “responsible for assigning party functionaries”). I don’t know whether to dislike Gastev for encouraging them or thank him for inspiring Zamyatin’s We (discussed here), with its Taylorized society and its protagonists D-503 and I-330. I guess I can do both.
Addendum. Dmitri Minaev, at his blog De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis, has added a post on Gastev, providing more information (Lenin had one of his reference cards pinned on the wall; Gorky said “I can see now why you have left literature”) and translations of two of his immortal poems; here’s one:
Prisms of buildings.
Pack of twenty blocks.
Put it under the press.
Flatten it to a parallelogram.
Squeeze it to 30 degrees.
Remake the block-tank
into a worm-gear.
Cut the streets without a shudder.
One thousand calories more for the workers.