The ultra-Taylorist Soviet utopianism of Aleksei Gastev

Including Gastev’s landmark book
How to work/Как надо работать

Image: From the USSR to America,
the chronometric revolution (1925)


Futuristic drawing of Aleksei Gastev by Tolkachev (1924)

Download Алексей Гастев – Как надо работать (1923) [Aleksei Gastev – How to Work]

The following are excerpts from my thesis on the scientific management of labor and psychotechnics in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s.

Arsenij Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens

The Constructivists’ goal to rationalize artistic labor and thus enter life can be traced to the early Soviet intellectual fascination with the Taylorist industrial theory of scientific management. As was covered in the previous section, American Taylorism exerted an influence throughout the European world of modernist art and architecture. However, the especially central role it played through its reception and dissemination in the Soviet Union warrants further contextual reflection. For the Soviet architectural avant-garde did not simply absorb the influence of Taylorism through its mediation by the Constructivists in art, but also directly from a number of academic sources as well. Taylorism was enthusiastically embraced in the USSR by many in the revolutionary intelligentsia and even some leading Bolsheviks, including Trotskii and Lenin himself[562] (despite his 1914 article “Taylor’s System: The Enslavement of Man to the Machine”). It was mostly popularized by writers like Osip Ermanksii[563] and later advocates of the Scientific Organization of Labor (abbreviated NOT [for Nauchnaia organizatsiia truda]) like the poet and factory worker Aleksei Gastev. Gastev was the founder and, from 1920 to 1937, the director of TsIT (Central Institute of Labor). TsIT was dedicated to the improvement of industrial efficiency. Under Gastev, its official philosophy was that of Taylorism. He was doubtless the most passionate exegete of Soviet Taylorism. For Gastev, Taylor was modern industrialism’s greatest theoretician, and Henry Ford its greatest practitioner. Ford was a heroic figure for many in the Soviet Union during the 1920s for his contribution to assembly-line production and his rationalization of labor practices. Gastev, however, took this much further, going so far as to align Ford with Karl Marx as compatible (and indeed complementary) thinkers in his 1927 article “Marx and Ford.”[564] For reasons that will be discussed later, Taylorism and machine-worship was stronger in Russia than in Western Europe. As the Hungarian academic René Fülöp-Miller keenly observed, “[i]n contrast to the intoxicated enthusiasm with which Russians speak of the application of the mechanizing process to the whole of existence, Europeans describe the invasion of their life by technical elements in a completely skeptical fashion.”[565]

Motion tests, TsIT (1924)

Motion tests, TsIT (1924)

The choreography of labor: TsIT cyclograph testing motive efficiency

The Constructivists’ artistic and architectural appropriation of Taylorism in large part came by way of Gastev. Indeed, Gastev’s significance as an interlocutor can hardly be overstated, since it was his own distinctive interpretation of Taylor that so lent itself to modernist aesthetics. It was his fanatical promotion of its aspects of automation and mechanization, emerging out of a decidedly Futurist Weltanschauung, that made it a vital contribution to the early Soviet cult of the machine. He advocated “systematic planning,” the “chronometration [khronometrirovanie] of time” through the introduction of time cards, and an “automated uniformity of labor” through that standardization of the most efficient laboring motions.[566] Addressing the workers’ relation to industrial machinery, Gastev wrote:

The modern machine…possesses its own laws of pulsation, functioning, and relaxation — laws that do not stand in conformity with the rhythm of the human organism. The world of the machine, the world of mechanical equipment [oborudovaniia] and urbanized labor [trudnogo urbanizma], produces specially connected collectives, begets certain types of people. These are people who we must accept, just as we accept the machine, though we must not smash their heads on its gears. We must bring some kind of equalizing coefficient into the machine’s iron disciplinary pressure, though history insistently demands we pose these not as petty problems of the social protection of the individual personality [lichnosti], but rather the bold engineering [proektirovaniia] of human psychology according to such an historical factor as machinism.[567]

Motion tests, TsIT (1923)

Motion tests, TsIT (1923)

Cover page of Aleksei Gastev’s “Kultures” (Kharkhov 1923), along with a futuristic representation

In training workers, reasoned Gastev, “[w]e begin with the most primitive, the most elementary motions and carry out the mechanization of man himself. This mechanization we understand in the following manner: the less perfect the motion, the greater the element of deceleration and the less kinetic automatization. The perfect mastery of a given movement implies maximum automatization.” Furthermore, “[t]his principle of the mechanization or biological automatization [of man] must go very far, all the way to his so-called mental activity.”[568] Notice also, then, that here psychology is encompassed by biology (or physiology).

Nikolai Rubinshtein of TsIT administering an ergonomic test (1928)

Gastev extended this efficacious principle even to language. He sought to remove excessively ornate and florid language from Soviet speech, encouraging instead economy of word choice. He thereby hoped to reform the Russian language, in order to maximize its functionality. “To save time,” Fülöp-Miller explained, “efforts were also made to mechanize language and to introduce short and pregnant expressions instead of the ordinary rambling Russian circumlocutions. Gastev issued a series of appeals and orders for the purpose of stemming the prolix and long-winded methods of writing and speaking used by his comrades, and accustoming them to clear, brief, and easily understood sentences.”[569] As a practicing poet, Gastev actively adhered to this streamlined language of expression in his own work. One of his most popular Taylorist poems, “We are Built from Iron,” had particular architectural resonances:

Look! — I stood in their midst: among the shopfloor machines [stankov], hammers, flames, furnaces, and hundreds of [their] comrades.
Atop the wrought-iron expanse [prostor].
To the sides were beams and girders.
They went up ten lengths.
[They] bent to the left and to the right.
[They] connected to the rafters and cupolas [kupolakh] as the shoulders of a giant, sustaining the whole iron construction.
They were swift, they flourished, and were strong.
[But] they still required greater force.
I looked at them and straightened.
In my veins flowed the blood of a new railway.
I grew myself higher.
Began to sprout firm hands and immense steel shoulders.
I merged with the iron construction.
I arose.
[My] shoulders stuck out of the rafters, the headers and beams, and the roof.
My feet still stood on the ground, but my head soared above the building.
Still choking from this superhuman effort, I only cried:
“These words I ask of you, my friends, these words!”
Iron covered the echo of my words, the whole building looked shaken.
And so I went even higher, accompanied by trumpets.
And there is no story, no question — but only one cry, my iron shout:
“We will win!”[570]

Gastev’s radical Taylorist position was not monolithic within the organization NOT, however. He was opposed by another prominent figure in the field of ergonomics and industrial psychology, Platon Kerzhentsev. Kerzhentsev was more critical of Taylorism, but nevertheless defended its utility and acceptability in his 1924 book The Struggle Over Time, once it was fitted to socialism.[571] He helped form a splinter group, the League of Time, in 1924.[572] Though the League of Time and TsIT were opposed tendencies within the greater movement NOT, both sides supported some form of Soviet Taylorism.

TsIT biomechanics (1925)

Time-motion study of a man playing the cello [TsIT]

One tendency within TsIT both broke ranks with both the organization and Taylorism as a whole — the supporters of the “psychotechnician” Isaak Spilrein. The discipline of psychotechnics was officially founded by the German-American Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, who in turn was expanding upon the theories of both Taylor in labor and the greater study of psychophysiology in German philosophical discourse. As an independent field of study, psychophysiology had risen to prominence within the Western academy in the second half of the nineteenth century. It originated in the theories of the renowned German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, whose works on optics and the aesthetic physiology of perception inspired his equally famous student, Wilhelm Wundt.[573] Wundt, the father of experimental psychology, himself took up the question of the “psychophysiological parallelism” between the excitations of produced by sensation (aesthesis) and psychological states in his two-volume treatise on the subject, The Principles of Psychophysiology.[574] Münsterberg had been one of Wilhelm Wundt’s final doctoral students. In 1913, he published a book on Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, which he then followed with his 1914 Fundamentals of Psychotechnics [Grundzüge der Psychotechnik]. In these works he coined the term “psychotechnics” and effectively established it as a discipline. Psychotechnics for the followers of Münsterberg was a means by which one could control human behavior through psychological techniques. Or, as Vygotskii would later put it in his 1927 Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology, “psychotechnicsin a word…is the scientific theory which would lead to the seizure and subordination of the mind [psikhovoi], to the artificial control of behavior.”[575]


Nikolai Bernstein

At his Harvard laboratory, Münsterberg carried out a number of experiments related to the study of aesthetics. The results of these experiments, as he surmised, would have a considerable impact on artistic and architectural practice.[576] He wrote:

Among the psychological laboratories at Harvard, mine is the only one that has a number of aesthetic studies planned annually already in gear. I stress the following, mutually complementary work of my laboratory to give an idea of ​​the variety of problems, which can be examined by the experimental method: the balance of simple shapes (Pierce); symmetry (Puffer); unequal division (Angier); repetition of the spatial forms (Rowland); vertical separation (Davis); simple rhythmic forms (McDougall), rhythm and rhyme (Stetson); impression of the poetic language elements (Givler); psychophysics of melody (Bingham); resolution of dissonances (Moore); unmusical tone intervals (Emerson); the conditions of uniform appearance (Otis); interaction of objects (Keith); combination of feelings (Johnston); rhythmic alternation of feelings (Kellogg); and some others, wherever the aesthetic — but not the sensory — point of view was crucial, psychologically. More or less isolated work of other laboratories are based on color combinations to basic shapes, and combinations of notes to tunes on associative factors, physiological conditions, to elements of the comic and the like. But all these together today constitute only a beginning.[577]

Original cover to How to Work

So influential were these preliminary studies that the Soviet Rationalist architect Nikolai Ladovskii cited them explicitly in an article he wrote proposing the foundation of “A Psychotechnical Laboratory of Architecture (Posing the Problem).”[578] After this proposal was ratified and a laboratory installed into the VKhUTEMAS studios, Ladovskii carried out a number of psychotechnical tests with the help of his assistant, Georgii Krutikov. It is known that the science of psychophysiology was of some interest to Kandinsky, as well (especially in his 1920 “Program for the Institute of Artistic Culture [INKhUK],” about which more later); however, it is doubtful that nonobjectivists such as Malevich were directly influenced by developments in this field. Nevertheless, Aleksei Gan rightly noted the affinity between the work of the Suprematists and Ladovskii’s assimilation of Münsterbergian psychotechnics: “[W]hat Malevich does…has great psychological importance…This is where Suprematist studies could be very important. They could be very beneficially introduced into the Basic Course of the VKhUTEMAS, in parallel to those exercises currently conducted [by Ladovskii] under the influence of the psychologist Münsterberg’s Harvard Laboratory.”[579] Though a Constructivist, Teige was also quite impressed by the results of psychotechnical experimentation.[580]

The brothers Shpilrein: Iasha, Isaak, and Emil’

In the Soviet Union, psychotechnics made up an important part of the study of industrial psychology. Spilrein was its chief proponent in TsIT, which he joined in 1921. The brother of one of the first female psychoanalysts (and Jung’s lover), Sabina Spilrein, Spilrein himself was educated in Germany with Wilhelm Wundt and Wilhelm Stern before returning to Russia. He became acquainted with Münsterberg’s theory of psychotechnics and began to promote its use at TsIT, under the directorship of Gastev. After some frustration with the doctrinaire Taylorism he experienced in the Institute, Spilrein started to view Münsterbergian psychotechnics as a preferable alternative to the extreme biological “mechanization” championed by Gastev. As Spilrein’s ergonomic theories drifted further from Taylorism, he sided with Platon Kerzhentsev in opposition to Gastev[581] before leaving TsIT altogether in 1922. At the Moscow University’s Psychological Institute, Spilrein was joined by Solomon Gellerstein and a young Lev Vygotskii[582] in founding the first Russian psychotechnical facility in the Laboratory of Industrial Psychotechnics in 1923.[583] This group later started a journal in 1928 calling itself The Psychophysiology of Labor and Psychotechnics,[584] which was published under Spilrein’s editorship until 1932, when it changed its name to Soviet Psychotechnics.[585]

Time-motion study of a worker laboring (TsIT)

It should be noted with irony that, as was mentioned earlier, Münsterberg was a great admirer of Taylor’s system, and never saw his own discipline of psychotechnics as an alternative — but rather as a supplement — to the theory of scientific management. Only in the context of the Soviet Union did the two fields come to be opposed to one another. Both were modes of ergonomics and industrial psychology; the debate between Gastev, Spilrein, and their followers boiled down to the issue of which held primacy.

Cover of a book by Gastev

Further notes on Taylorism and socialism

Karel Teige, 1932

“Frederick Winslow Taylor attempted to increase efficiency and improve productivity by the scientific organization of work. Taylorism was supposed to increase productivity without increasing worker fatigue and was to be accompanied by a substantial increase in wages. All this was to be achieved by putting into practice Taylor’s theories for simplifying and rationalizing work: that is, the elimination of redundant movements, which in the past had slowed production and increased worker fatigue. At the same time, the scientific approach to work studied the influence of the work environment on productivity, stressed the importance of hygienic conditions in factories, made inquiries into the influence of illumination on productivity and fatigue, worked out new pedagogical methods to establish principles for training programs, studied the influence of rest, sports, and physical culture on the improvement of productivity, and so on. In short, it occupied itself with questions of work and time (for example, researchers found out that work productivity decreases after the fourth day, and the recognition of this discovery led to the introduction of the five-day workweek and its coordination with the tempo of machine time), aiming at determining productivity in terms of measuring energy in kilowatts. Unfortunately, the scientific organization of work, which in itself is a paean to modern creative, intensive, and liberated labor, has been used by capitalism as a method to facilitate the increase of productivity for its own business interests, while ignoring such matters as workers’ fatigue and higher wages. Seen this way, such hypocritical rationalizations and economization are in fact nothing more and nothing less than a new version of plantation slavery and piracy. The current application of these methods has, in effect, completed the destruction of the stamina, energy, muscles, nerves, eyesight, and lungs of the workers.” (Karel Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, pg. 29)

Caricature of Aleksei Gastev’s program for “the mechanization of man”

Karel Teige, 1926

“The great idea of a universal planned economy and a master production plan illuminate the horizon of constructivism; these are the same ideas on which the socialist, Marxist plan of social production and organization is based and that in the USSR is embodied in Gosplan, an all-union production and economic plan. Constructivism strives to refine and rationalize modern technology, to raise it to a higher level and, with its help, to organize the whole world efficiently. It yearns for an elementary transformation of life in the direction of clarity, order, and economy. If the new society locates production within the context of planning, we will find ourselves in a world of new order and character. A more rational, economical organization of work, of which American Taylorism is but a capitalist caricature, will liberate all spiritual activity and occasion a surplus of time and energy; the mechanization of material work will free energies for intellectual creation.” (Karel Teige, Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia, pg. 297)

Lenin (1912)

Capitalism cannot be at a standstill for a single moment. It must forever be moving forward. Competition, which is keenest in a period of crisis like the present, calls for the invention of an increasing number of new devices to reduce the cost of production. But the domination of capital converts all these devices into instruments for the further exploitation of the workers.

The Taylor system is one of these devices.

Advocates of this system recently used the following techniques in America.

An electric lamp was attached to a worker’s arm, the worker’s movements were photographed and the movements of the lamp studied. Certain movements were found to be to “superfluous” and the worker was made to avoid them, i.e., to work more intensively, without losing a second for rest.

The layout of new factory buildings is planned in such a way that not a moment will be lost in delivering materials to the factory, in conveying them from one shop to another, and in dispatching the finished products. The cinema is systematically employed for studying the work of the best operatives and increasing its intensity, i.e., “speeding up” the workers.

For example, a mechanic’s operations were filmed in the course of a whole day. After studying the mechanic’s movements the efficiency experts provided him with a bench high enough to enable him to avoid losing time in bending down. He was given a boy to assist him. This boy had to hand up each part of the machine in a definite and most efficient way. Within a few days the mechanic performed the work of assembling the given type of machine in one-fourth of the time it had taken before!

What an enormous gain in labour productivity!…But the worker’s pay is not increased fourfold, but only half as much again, at the very most, and only for a short period at that. As soon as the workers get used to the new system their pay is cut to the former level. The capitalist obtains an enormous profit, but the workers toil four times as hard as before and wear down their nerves and muscles four times as fast as before.

A newly engaged worker is taken to the factory cinema where he is shown a “model” performance of his job; the worker is made to “catch up” with that performance. A week later he is taken to the cinema again and shown pictures of his own performance, Which is then compared with the “model”.

All these vast improvements are introduced to the detriment of the workers, for they lead to their still greater oppression and exploitation. Moreover, this rational and efficient distribution of labour is confined to each factory.

The question naturally arises: What about the distribution of labour in society as a whole? What a vast amount of labour is wasted at present owing to the disorganised and chaotic character of capitalist production as a whole! How much time is wasted as the raw materials pass to the factory through the hands of hundreds of buyers and middlemen, while the requirements of the market are unknown! Not only time, but the actual products are wasted and damaged. And what about the waste of time and labour in delivering the finished goods to the consumers through a host of small middlemen who, too, cannot know the requirements of their customers and perform not only a host of superfluous movements, but also make a host of superfluous purchases, journeys, and so on and so forth!

Capital organises and rationalizes labour within the factory for the purpose of increasing the exploitation of the workers and increasing profit. In social production as a whole, however, chaos continues to reign and grow, leading to crises when the accumulated wealth cannot find purchasers, and millions of workers starve because they are unable to find employment.

The Taylor system — without its initiators knowing or wishing it — is preparing the time when the proletariat will take over all social production and appoint its own workers’ committees for the purpose of properly distributing and rationalizing all social labour. Large-scale production, machinery, railways, telephone—all provide thousands of opportunities to cut by three-fourths the working time of the organized workers and make them four times better off than they are today.

And these workers’ committees, assisted by the workers’ unions, will be able to apply these principles of rational distribution of social labour when the latter is freed from its enslavement by capital.

Vladimir Lenin (1918)

Big capitalism has created systems of work organization, which, under the prevailing conditions of exploitation of the masses, represent the harshest form of enslavement by which the minority, the propertied classes, wring out of the working people surplus amounts of labour, strength, blood and nerves. At the same time they are the last word in the scientific organization of production, and as such, have to be adopted by the Socialist Soviet Republic and readjusted to serve the interests of our accounting and control over production on the one hand, and raising the productivity of labour, on the other. For instance, the famous Taylor system, which is so widespread in America, is famous precisely because it is the last word in reckless capitalist exploitation. One can understand why this system met with such an intense hatred and protest on the part of the workers. At the same time, we must not for a moment forget that the Taylor system represents the tremendous progress of science, which systematically analyses the process of production and points the way towards an immense increase in the efficiency of human labour. The scientific researches which the introduction of the Taylor system started in America, notably that of motion study, as the Americans call it, yielded important data allowing the working population to be trained in incomparably higher methods of labour in general and of work organization in particular.

The negative aspect of Taylorism was that it was applied in conditions of capitalist slavery and served as a means of squeezing double and triple the amount of labour out of the workers at the old rates of pay regardless of whether the hired workers were capable of giving this double and triple amount of labour in the same number of working hours without detriment to the human organism. The Socialist Soviet Republic is faced with a task which can be briefly formulated thus: we must introduce the Taylor system and scientific American efficiency of labour throughout Russia by combining this system with a reduction in working time, with the application of new methods of production and work organization undetrimental to the labour power of the working population. On the contrary, the Taylor system, properly controlled and intelligently applied by the working people themselves, will serve as a reliable means of further greatly reducing the obligatory working day for the entire working population, will serve as an effective means of dealing, in a fairly short space of time, with a task that could roughly be expressed as follows: six hours of physical work daily for every adult citizen and four hours of work in running the state.

Antonio Gramsci (1920s)

The economic basis of collective man: big factories, Taylorization, rationalization, etc. But did collective man exist in the past? He existed, as Michels would say, under the form of charismatic leadership. In other words, a collective will was attained under the impetus and direct influence of a “hero,” of a paradigmatic individual, but this collective will was produced by extraneous factors and once formed would disintegrate, repeatedly. Today, by contrast, collective man is formed essentially from the bottom up, on the basis of the position that the collectivity occupies in the world of production. The paradigmatic individual still has a role in the formation of collective man, but it is a greatly diminished role, so much so that he could disappear without the collective cement disintegrating or the structure collapsing. (Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, Volume 3, pg. 165)

25 thoughts on “The ultra-Taylorist Soviet utopianism of Aleksei Gastev

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  2. I learned something!

    If you haven’t seen it, my own take on Gastev & Co., with a bit more emphasis on the literary side: “Flesh to Metal: Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution” (Cornell, 2003)

  3. Can you please give me the source of the quote you posted (567). I am writing my essay on Gastev for Performance Research + I created a piece (Academy of Work _ Gastev’s Workspace) for Alternativa in Gdansk so I am very much into this topic, however, I cannot find enough books, at least not in English so any kind of help would be very much appreciated!



  4. Pingback: The ultra-Taylorist early Soviet utopianism of Aleksei Gastev | Research Material

  5. Just a heads up, as far as I know the picture labeled “NOTist time-motion experiment with hammer, from the Central Institute of Labor [TsIT] (1925)” is actually a photograph of Arsenij Avraamov conducting his symphony of factory sirens. At least that is how I’ve seen it repeatedly cited.

  6. Dear Ross: I’m Bakhyt Kenjeev, an unhappy Russian poet based in New York who has to make a living translating whatever comes by. :-) My current project is a monograph about Gastev written by a professor from St.Petersburg. It also includes a large chunk of Gastev’s own work. The problem is that the guy – being a fellow poet – writes in extremely idiosyncratic Russian. Sometimes I don’t even understand what it’s all about. I would highly appreciate it if you send me an electronic copy of your thesis – this would help me better absorb the essence of his theories. Yours – Bakhyt

    • Язык Гастева несложен, разве что его стихи необычны своим сухим, лаконичным, рубленым слогом. А прозу приятно читать, его рассказы очень интересны.

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  9. Your blog is great, I found it during an informal research (while trying to figure out a topic for my future undergraduate dissertation) from an engineering POV about self-management, workers control and central planned productive units. I found something about Gastev, but now I understand a lot more about the context. Thank you, seriously

    PS: sorry for the broken English it’s 4 AM, hahaha.

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