Leonid Sabsovich, Urbanism, and the Socialist City [Соцгород] (1929-1931)

Sabsovich’s “The USSR in (literally ‘after’) 15 Years”

In July 1929, the economist Leonid Sabsovich sparked a debate regarding the future of Soviet urbanism with an article he wrote for Плановое Хозяйство (Planned Economy), entitled «Проблема города» (“The Problem of the City”).  Sabsovich was convinced that the major urban centers of the USSR were overcrowded and overpopulated; they needed to be reduced to a more manageable size, while preserving the industrial base they provided.  At the same time, he considered the countryside to be far too provincial and culturally isolated to remain in the state it was in at that point.  So Sabsovich proposed instead a uniform distribution of the population at regular intervals, of interconnected “socialist cities” — both industrial cities and “agro-cities.”  These would be evenly populated, with between thirty and fifty thousand inhabitants each.

Sabsovich’s position came to be called the “urbanist” vision of Soviet municipal reformation.  The widely-respected group of modernist architects — the brothers Leonid, Aleksandr, and Viktor Vesnin — endorsed his proposal.  They all saw Sabsovich’s proposal as a way to overcome what Marx, Engels, and Lenin had termed “the antithesis between town and country.”  Reduce the size of the filthy, noisy, and overcrowded mega-cities, Sabsovich argued, and disperse the population into new municipal units that could still maintain their industrial productivity.  Conversely, these measures would reorganize the largely peasant population of the various Soviet Republics and grant them access to the culture, education, and opportunity that larger towns would make available.  Quite ambitiously, Sabsovich thought that the entire population of the USSR could be redistributed accordingly within a period of ten years — or two five-year plans.  He thus wrote a wildly utopian book under the title of СССР через 10 лет (The USSR in 10 Years), elaborating his vision and stressing the practical feasibility of the plan.  Later, he would revise this figure to a more modest (but still outlandish) fifteen years, and stressed the central importance of this goal to the greater project of social transformation under communism.

Against Sabsovich’s notion of the middle-path between town and country, the sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich and the renowned Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg would oppose their idea of “disurbanism,” abandoning the notion of centralized resettlement altogether, advancing instead their notion of a “linear city.”  This would lead to the first major split in the editorship of the journal Современная архитектура (Modern Architecture), as Ginzburg and the Vesnins for the first time found themselves at odds with one another.  Luckily, by then, the position of main editor of the magazine had passed on to Roman Khiger, so the one side did not totally drown out the other.  Khiger clearly sided with Ginzburg and Okhitovich, however, and so Sabsovich was forced to promote his viewpoint from the pages of Плановое Хозяйство and the various books he managed to publish through Генплан (Genplan, the central planning agency of the Soviet Union at the time).  The Urbanist-Disurbanist dispute would continue through until 1931, when both sides were reigned in for utopian speculation.  At that point, a number of foreign architects — Le Corbusier and André Lurçat from France, and Bruno Taut, Hannes Meyer, and Ernst May from Germany — were called in to assist in the process of planning Soviet urbanism.  Their presence would in turn become unwelcome by 1937, at the height of the Stalinist terror, when the state would hand down the order that all foreign experts exit the country, under suspicion of “sabotaging” Soviet progress.

The following is the original journal article that sparked the whole controversy, reproduced in its entirety:

Леонид Сабсович – «Проблема города» – Плановое Хозяйство – (1929) – № 7

12 thoughts on “Leonid Sabsovich, Urbanism, and the Socialist City [Соцгород] (1929-1931)

  1. Worse than Stalin, was Mao and the Khmer Rouge’s moving urban dwellers, to learn from peasants. I hope this not a reductio ad absurdum comment, like at my blog.

    Tomorrow evening I’m going to post on Islamism. It’s a good topic, since today on Facebook, I was invited by Platypus to a forum on that subject. I’m sure our positions are similar.

    • I would imagine so. Platypus is an interesting political organization, despite being relatively young and small. It can benefit from interactions and engagements with some of the more established Marxist organizations like the IMT.

      And you’re right. Maoism and Cuban-style grassroots agrarian movements took a rotten political ideology, Stalinism, to an even more wretched point. The working-class component must be the vanguard of the mass movement in any country, just as a theoretically and practically coherent Marxist political presence must form the vanguard of the working class itself. Agrarian, feudal, and anti-intellectual elements of any mass movement must be held in check if not outright excised from the movement altogether.

  2. I was specifically talking about the Khmer Rouge’s anti-urban campaign and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They had it backwards, making urban people rural.

    The debate between architects is fascinating. You really are on to something in your research.

    • Thanks, man. These architectural and urbanistic debates are the major things I’m focusing on with my thesis. I just think it’s really valuable to recapture, concretely, the idea of planning for a radically transformed society. For the vast majority of the pseudo-Leftist groups today — environmentalists, depoliticized union workers, students, and proponents of identity politics — scarcely even try to imagine a society that’s fundamentally different from the one they live in. They just want the world as it is, only more inclusive, less damaging to the environment, and with higher wages, etc.

      And yeah, I agree that the idea that the urban proletariat should “learn from the peasants” was exactly the opposite of what Marx and Lenin would have prescribed. “Grassroots” populism tends to have the same deficiencies. So did you attend a Platypus forum on the subject, or have you been asked to write something for them?

  3. They just invited me to a forum in another city. I get notices from them on FB.

    The Maoists in the US, practice “mass line.” That is something as synthesize the ideas of workers into an action program. The problem is, who do want to have teach you about revolution, the mailman or Alan Woods?

    OT: In England at one time we had over 8,000 members, and 200 full time organizers. We controlled for a few years government in Liverpool. The point is when a small group, grows through quantitative change, new problems erupt.

    There is no book on the British Labor Party, that doesn’t mention us (Militant Labor Tendency).

    • That’s really interesting about the Militant Labor Tendency. What ever became of it? Is it still alive and kicking?

      And what city did they invite you to? Most of their fora are in Chicago, but they’ve gone all over the place.

  4. I was invited to a NY forum, by someone from Peru. I get updates on FB.

    The Militant Tendency took over for several years Liverpool in England in 1980s. It was solid labor and solid working class.

    The problem was internal. We could overcome the anti-communist attacks, and expulsion threats. We couldn’t combat the activists, the action, action, action people.

    The Militant Tendency refused to carry out government ordered cuts. The Labour bureaucrats and Thatcher united against us.

    The activist wing thought they didn’t need the Labour Party. They formed The Socialist Party and The Scottish Socialist Party. We argued masses of workers aren’t leaving Labour.

    Another thing is educating cadre. When you’re meeting in a small room, and suddenly you have thousands of members, you need political education as well as action.

    The anti-poll tax movement led by The Militant Tendency, is said to have brought down Thatcher.

    The activists expelled us, and became this. They don’t work in the Labour Party, PPP etc. To their detriment they go out of their way to differentiate themselves from us.

    In the US they seem friendly to Chomsky. They see themselves as the mass party. They are very youth and activist oriented.

    • Do you think you’ll be attending the event in New York? If so I’ll take you out for a beer or something.

      Activism can often be more of a detriment than a benefit to achieving a political goal. On the other hand, I’m not ready to follow the masses of workers wherever they decide to go. Sometimes the working masses need to be “steered” left. Anything else would be what Lenin called “tailism.”

  5. Major union activism like the SEIU does, is different than a few Code Pink activists, disrupting a speech.

    With the Campaign for a Labor Party, we have something to bring; the need for a labor party to counter Democrats.

    The Bolsheviks worked inside the Soviets. Not all soviets were radical, some were reactionary. The Bolsheviks sent people to police unions.

    As of now, unions are the place where advanced workers go.

    In May-June68 France, the membership of the Communist and Socialist Party soared. They didn’t join Bob Avakien, Sparts etc.

    I’m based in Minneapolis. We have a good New York chapter.

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