How did Fordism and Bolshevism interact?
While Henry Ford’s disdain for Bolshevism and communism has been well document by Greg Grandin and other historians, I hope this post will initiate some comparisons between the industrialization and cultural paternalism undertaken by the very different systems. In Fordlandia, Grandin dubs Ford’s social and economic engineering project “Fordism,” best defined as a “kind of holism, where the extraction and processing of raw materials, integrated assembly lines, working class populations, and consumer markets created vibrant economies and robust middle classes.” Mixed into Ford’s practical goals was an odd mix of internationalism, anti-Semitism, nativism, passivism, progressive equality, and various personal vendettas against the Jazz Age and cows. While capitalist consumerism was certainly not a Bolshevik goal, the all-encompassing Fordist project in Brazil at times seems eerily similar to Stephen Kotkin’s study of Stalin’s attempt to create a new “Soviet Man” and a steel industry on the desolate Russian steppe in Magnetic Mountain. Interestingly enough, Lenin and Trotsky both admired Ford’s industrial progress because, as Marxists, a quick and efficient capitalist stage was a positive step towards reaching communism. In addition, Ford’s impressive manufacturing model would be replicated during Stalin’s time, as the dictator brought in Western specialists to help organize Soviet industry.
Furthermore, the ideological divide between Bolshevism and the capitalist West did not stop Ford Motor Company from doing business with the USSR and helping establish the Soviet automotive industry by building a factory in Nizhni-Novgorod as agreed upon in a 1929 contract. For Ford, his capitalist machine was a way to combat Bolshevism by displaying capitalist prowess and he even provided executives and engineers for the Soviet factory project. In fact, the extent to which Western corporations participated in providing technological assistance to the Stalinist regime is only now being thoroughly researched by historians. Also notable is the fact that, despite the apparent problems and Western help, the Soviets were keen on presenting their progress to the West. Much of that exposure came through a journal titled SSSR na sroike (USSR in Construction). As illuminated by Erika Wolf, this journal had a wide readership, from George Bernard Shaw to Henry Ford’s son Edsel. Not only did Edsel request a subscription to the journal, he was even kind enough to give it a positive review. By contrast, several other Western capitalists lambasted the journal’s ideological tinge. In sum, although the two “isms” certainly contained irreconcilable ideological differences, the emphasis both Bolshevism and Fordism placed on industrialization led to some fruitful and ironic interaction.
Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World (Penguin 2004).
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (New York, Picador 2009).
Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, University of California Press 1997).
Erika Wolf, “When Photographs Speak, To Whom Do They Talk? The Origins and Audience of SSSR na stroike (USSR in Construction), Left History, Vol 6, No 2 (1999) 53-82.