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Would Trotsky Wear a Bluetooth?

Technological Utopianism under Socialism, 1917–1989

Paul R. Josephson

Publication Year: 2010

After visiting Russia in 1921, the journalist Lincoln Steffens famously declared, ”I have seen the future, and it works.” Steffens referred to the social experiment of technological utopianism he found in the Soviet Union, where subway cars and farm tractors would carry the worker and peasant—figuratively and literally—into the twentieth century. Believing that socialism and technology together created a brave new world, Boleslaw Bierut of Poland and Kim Il Sung of North Korea—and other leaders—joined Russia’s Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in embracing big technology with a verve and conviction that rivaled the western world's. Paul R. Josephson here explores these utopian visions of technology—and their unanticipated human and environmental costs. He examines the role of technology in communist plans and policies and the interplay between ideology and technological development. He shows that while technology was a symbol of regime legitimacy and an engine of progress, the changes it spurred were not unequivocally positive. Instead of achieving a worker’s paradise, socialist technologies exposed the proletariat to dangerous machinery and deadly pollution; rather than freeing women from exploitation in family and labor, they paradoxically created for them the dual—and exhausting—burdens of mother and worker. The future did not work. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the end of communism’s self-proclaimed glorious quest to "reach and surpass" the West. Josephson’s intriguing study of how technology both helped and hindered this effort asks new and important questions about the crucial issues inextricably linked with the development and diffusion of technology in any sociopolitical system.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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pp. vii-ix

On an unseasonably hot summer day in 2002, I visited a lumber mill in Arkhangelsk Province, Russia. It was lunch break, and the gang saws were silent. The mill owner wanted to show me the quality of his finished products, so he rousted the workers from their break. They appeared in sandals and shorts; most of ...

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Introduction: Tractors, Steel Mills, Concrete, and Other Joys of Socialism

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pp. 3-18

Magnificent, ornate subway stations; massive hydroelectric power stations producing copious quantities of electricity; collective farms with fields of grain stretching to the horizon; literacy, public health, and other campaigns that succeeded in a matter of years in increasing the well-being of all citizens; universal medical care and free higher education; and an end to unemployment—these achievements of the socialist nations of the twentieth century astounded many ...

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1 Would Trotsky Wear a Bluetooth? Technological Utopianism in the Soviet Union in the 1920s

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pp. 19-64

We are accustomed to reading about the central role of technology in the mindset of North Americans and Europeans. Technology serves both as a symbol of modernity and national achievement and as an engine of economic progress. Political leaders, engineers, writers, and journalists have consciously embraced the railroad, the automobile, magnificent hydroelectric power stations and other major public waterworks, sleek airplanes, the powerful nuclear reactor, and the ...

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2 Proletarian Aesthetics: Technology and Socialism in Eastern Europe

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pp. 65-120

A Czech poster from 1951 shows a studious young man momentarily abandoning his textbook to gaze in wonderment at a massive, new hydroelectric power station that is clearly of Soviet design. The poster reads, “Let us learn Russian. Let us learn from the Soviet Peoples. Work, think, live in a new way.”1 And learn they did, as did Bulgarians, Hungarians, East Germans, Poles, and Romanians. They learned to abandon outmoded forms of capitalist production for ...

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3 From Kimchi to Concrete: The North Korean Experiment

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pp. 121-162

Large-scale hydroelectric, earthmoving, concrete-pouring, and other projects that transform both nature and society; daring achievements of proletarian heroes against all odds, including internal and external enemies as identified by vanguard communists; mass, forced migrations of peasants together with other elements mistrusted because of outmoded worldview; extraction of investment capital from the countryside to build up heavy industry but inadequate support ...

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4 Floating Reactors: Nuclear Hubris after the Fall of Communism

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pp. 163-192

Through swamps and bog, over rivers and creeks, along disheveled farmlands and denuded forest, past sleepy, decrepit towns, the two-lane road from Arkhangelsk runs along the White Sea shoreline west toward the port city of Severodvinsk, where it ends amid massive shipbuilding factories that have employed the city’s residents since its founding at the height of Stalin’s great ...

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5 Industrial Deserts: Technology and Environmental Degradation under Socialism

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pp. 193-232

A few years ago I persuaded the MIT library to bring the leading journal of the Soviet State Committee for the Construction Industry, Beton i Zhelezobeton (Concrete and Reinforced Concrete), to my office for a semester. I told the repository librarians that I needed to peruse the last forty years but did not have a specific volume in mind. Since no one to their knowledge had taken out one volume, let alone forty years of them, they happily delivered it to me. ...

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6 No Hard Hats, No Steel-toed Shoes Required: Worker Safety in the Proletarian Paradise

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pp. 233-264

In 1989 I dropped into the Soviet “Toys ‘R’ Us,” Dom Igrushki, not far from October Square in Moscow, to buy my two-year-old son several toys. He had come down with chicken pox and was quarantined to our room in the Academy of Sciences hotel, and the repeated showings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Japanese cartoon Voltron on television, only weeks earlier permitted as a new sign of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, distracted him only so much. ...

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7 The Gendered Tractor

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pp. 265-299

Women would share the benefits of socialism. They would be freed from patriarchal relations of bourgeois marriages at home in which they were treated as property and of low-wage exploitation and discrimination at work. They would overcome higher illiteracy rates than males, gain admission to higher educational institutions, and find opportunities for employment in fields previously closed to them, including as specialists in medicine, science, and technology. ...


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pp. 301-330


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pp. 331-342

E-ISBN-13: 9780801898419
E-ISBN-10: 0801898412
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894107
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894107

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 8 halftones
Publication Year: 2010