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  • Modern Times:The Soviet Union and the Interwar Conjuncture
  • Stephen Kotkin (bio)

Eminent European scholars and statesmen had predicted from the early nineteenth century onward the rise of the mass man and the coming of the mass age.

Hannah Arendt

In Modern Times (1936), Charlie Chaplin plays a factory worker at the Electro-Steel Company, tightening nuts on a fast-moving conveyor belt. One scene shows a mechanical contraption designed to feed workers lunch while they remain on the assembly line, but it malfunctions, throwing soup in Charlie's face. Other scenes depict a capitalist owner who maintains closed-circuit surveillance over the plant and demands increases in the speed of the line. Unable to keep pace, Charlie falls into the giant gears. He has a nervous breakdown, and loses his job. On the street, he's mistaken for a communist leader and arrested. He accidentally prevents a jailbreak, is pardoned and released, but with his old steel plant idle, Charlie cannot find employment, and begins to long for the shabby security of incarceration. The political message of "Modern Times" would seem unmistakable. [End Page 111]

Although apparently intended to be pro-labor as well as anti-assembly line, much of "Modern Times" is dominated by the factory's automated technology. Against the machine-age backdrop, moreover, the film does not celebrate the heroic march of working-class consciousness but rather what might be called petit-bourgeois dreams. 1 The unemployed Charlie meets an orphaned "gamin[e]" (Paulette Godard), and the two begin fantasizing about having their own home. Charlie lucks into a job as the night watchman in a department store, where after hours his raggedy teenage girlfriend luxuriates in the store's clothing inventory. When, however, Charlie spontaneously assists unemployed steel plant workers whom he recognizes in a robbery of the store, he is fired. The final scene shows the couple walking down a deserted road, but arm in arm. The "little man" is beset, yet undaunted, even triumphant. 2

Rumored to have originally been entitled "The Masses," "Modern Times" spotlighted and juxtaposed two dominant symbols of the modern age: the mechanized factory and the equally capacious department store, selling mass-produced consumer products. At the same time, the very medium in which these images were delivered – cinema – was itself a symbol and force of modern times. When caught in the gears of the factory machines, Chaplin wended through like film through a projector. 3 His movie, like cinema, enjoyed fantastic popularity in Stalin's Soviet Union. From the communist standpoint, Chaplin could be said to have satirized the Depression-era capitalist world and championed the proletarian. 4 Beyond its purported ideological acceptability, the film's automated factory setting, including the speed-ups, and its hero's petty-bourgeois dreams, struck a deep chord in the Soviet Union. Chaplin depicted an interwar conjuncture that the Soviet Union could claim as its own. No less than the United States, though in different ways, the Soviet Union embraced mass production, mass culture, and [End Page 112] even mass consumption. But the USSR claimed that dictatorship, not parliamentarism, constituted the most effective form of mass politics.

In this essay, I attempt to restore the interwar Soviet experience to its comparative context or conjuncture. My point is a simple one: namely, that the Soviet Union was unavoidably involved in processes not specific to Russia, from the spread of mass production and mass culture to the advent of mass politics, and even of mass consumption, in the decades after 1890. 5 World War I – during which the Russian revolutions took place – vastly deepened and broadened these trends among all the combatants. In Russia, the autocracy and empire gave way to a far more vigorous dictatorship and to a quasi-federal Union committed to a vague, ambitious, war-conditioned vision of anti-liberal modernity. 6 Over the next two decades, that vision acquired institutional forms which had some important resemblances to, and many important differences from, both liberal projects, such as the United States, Great Britain, and France, and other forms of anti-liberal modernity, such as Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan.

The interwar period was shaped by the experience of World...


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