In my ever-receding past life as a PhD student at the University of Wollongong, I was blessed with two fantastic supervisors. One, Associate Professor Diana “Di” Kelly, was the yin to my yang. As opposed to the headstrong, abstract and too-sure stylings of the student, Di continually stressed the messy and contested nature of real history. Of no issue was this truer than our disagreement over scientific management, so-called “Taylorism”. In describing the prevailing modes of labour process organisation in post-World War II Australia, I subscribed to the Harry Braverman thesis that Taylorism was in essence industrial fascism, ensuring the real subsumption of labour to capital through its ruthless intensification of work and rigid separation between job conception and execution. Di would often take me to task on this point, describing this dominant view as a caricature that obscured the very complex and varied motivations and allegiances of early scientific managers. She noted in this context a man she was researching, Walter Nicholas Polakov, whom she described as simultaneously Marxist and Taylorist.
The Red Taylorist: The Life and Times of Walter Nicholas Polakov is the culmination of years of archival research tracing the story of this Polakov, a Russian radical who immigrated to the United States in 1906. Throughout the course of the book, Kelly unfolds in wonderful detail the various chapters of his storied life. Born of a wealthy family and highly educated, Polakov was quickly taken under the wing of key early scientific managers such as Harrington Emerson, Henry Laurence Gantt and Morris Llewellyn Cooke. The young Russian seemed to impress his patrons with his knowledgeability and drive, and got a steady flow of projects revolving largely around the power-generation sector. An active member of the Taylor Society, then in its formative years, Polakov experienced considerable success as a management consultant in the 1920s, establishing his own business as well as publishing a number of significant books. In 1929, a watershed moment in Polakov’s life occurred – at the invitation of Vesenkha, the Supreme Economic Council of the Soviet Union, he was tasked with the introduction of scientific management techniques in Soviet factories. At the end of a generally disillusioning stay, Polakov returned to a very different America to the one he had left not two years before. Without his business and reliant upon the aid of some of his patrons, the early-to-mid 1930s was a difficult time for Polakov, who subsisted on short term stints working for several New Deal institutions, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration. Between 1937 and 1947, however, Polakov enjoyed perhaps the most rewarding work of his career as a research official for the United Mineworkers union, in which capacity he was a prominent advocate for improved safety and regulation in the mining sector. Sadly, the 1940s also brought increased surveillance from the FBI, with no less an authority than J. Edgar Hoover taking a special interest in the Russian (in one of those utterly unique twists of history, Kelly notes that it was actually Hoover who had signed Polakov’s naturalisation papers decades earlier). Harassed by the Bureau, Polakov fled to California, where the persecution continued. A month after marrying his third wife, Polakov died in December 1948, penniless and more-or-less unknown.
The book paints in wonderful detail the life of Polakov, not simply in its own essentials but in its location within the complex economic, political and ideological currents of 1900-1940s America. It is not by accident that Kelly opens the book with the famous statement of Marx from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that ‘[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past.’ To articulate this explicitly materialist perspective with an account of a single historical individual can be a tall order. The intrinsic danger when writing biography is to undersell the inherited circumstances and buy into the bourgeois cult of the individual who is the master and shaper of their world. Kelly avoids this pitfall throughout, and constantly seeks to present Polakov as an individual acting within the parameters of a structure. However, with the threat of Bolshevism and world revolution on the horizon, and economic, political and social disintegration at home as a result of the Great Depression, this was very much a structure in motion, within which real choices by individuals could be made. Polakov’s decision to flee Russia; his venture in the Soviet Union; his advocacy for worker safety before government inquiries: these were genuine exercises of agency that produced real effects. Kelly does an admirable job in walking the tightrope of structure and agency in a way that synergises both.
Perhaps the most important, and certainly the most interesting, conceptual element of the book is its contribution to the literature surrounding scientific management. Kelly strenuously disagrees with the likes of Antonio Gramsci, Harry Braverman and Howard Zinn in their construction of Taylorism as ‘rabidly anti-worker and unrelentingly pro-business’. Despite an attempted rehabilitation of scientific management by scholars such as Bruce, Nyland and Schachter, it remains the case that the former view probably remains hegemonic in disciplines such as management, organisational behaviour, labour history and sociology. Through Polakov, Kelly authoritatively weighs into the debates around scientific management in a way that stresses its open, contested nature and the possibility of a cogent left-wing embrace of it. As mentioned previously, Polakov was an early member of the Taylor Society, an intellectually influential group of Taylor’s followers who:
‘had strong ideas about the importance of planning and a scientific approach to, as well as aspirations for, cooperative and committed workers. They believed in the democracy that came with management through science, as against assumptions of inherent managerial prerogative with its assumptions of hierarchy and its seeming capriciousness’.
Kelly shows how the unifying idea of the Taylor Society was the belief that scientific methods could be used to increase the efficiency of the labour process, and indeed could be capable of broader social application. Within this broad horizon, there was considerable scope for divergent systems of thought, including the Marxism of Polakov. Kelly traces some of Polakov’s contributions to Taylor Society meetings, where he freely used concepts such as “mode of production”, “surplus value”, “proletariat” and “class struggle.” The fact that he felt comfortable speaking in these terms in a political context that was increasingly hostile to radicals (particularly radical “aliens”) is perhaps some indication of the generally progressive (indeed, “Progressive”, as Kelly traces the roots of Taylorism in the Progressivism of early-twentieth century America) nature of the founding generation of scientific managers.
In a series of publications, Polakov attempts to put this left-wing perspective on scientific management into practice, tracing how inefficiency in the labour process is usually attributable to managers and a rational approach to its organisation would benefit not only workers but the community at large. Importantly, he argued in his book Mastering Power Production that scientific management ‘must be finally accepted and adopted into Socialism, for only there can it find its complete expression’. This belief that socialism and scientific management were natural bedfellows must explain Polakov’s enthusiasm in accepting work in the Soviet Union at the behest of Vesenkha, tasked with introducing scientific management principles, including the Gantt Chart, into Soviet factories.
So, to return to the beginning of this review – has Di convinced me that scientific management is more than the dehumanising industrial fascism portrayed by Braverman? Yes and no. Through her incisive and intimate portrayal of Polakov and his peers, I am prepared to accept that the motivations of the founding generation of Taylorists was generally not to crush workers and greatly strengthen managerial prerogative. Indeed, the idea that the arbitrary exercise of this prerogative was one of the key problems facing the rational organisation of the labour process appears to be a common one amongst members of the Taylor Society. Combined with the promise of greater efficiency and output that could be put to the commonweal, it is perhaps not surprising that some on the left, including Bolsheviks like Lenin, were drawn to scientific management.
However, I continue to demur in one essential way. Kelly’s treatment of scientific management throughout the text is essentially as an ideology – the book does not, and cannot within its scope, study the actual material diffusion of Taylorist techniques in the labour process and their class effects. She is thus concerned with the possibilities of Taylorism as a system of thought. On this level, with the help of Althusser, I would raise one (to me) insurmountable obstacle to scientific management being compatible with a socialist mode of production. To situate ourselves, we must recall what ideology is. Althusser notes that ‘[i]deology represents individuals’ imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence’. The “job” of the dominant bourgeois ideology is to ensure the reproduction of capitalist relations of production, which it fulfils by broadly investing real class relationships with imaginary ones. These imaginary relationships have the effect of interpellating subjects at the same time as ensuring their inability to perceive these real relationships at the level of everyday consciousness.
Scientific management is perhaps one of the most archetypical examples of an ideology conceived in this sense. On the surface, nothing could seem more eminently neutral and sensible than the premises of Taylorism, premises Polakov fully accepted – of course we want to subject the labour process to scientific organisation to ensure efficiency! Whenever things seem so self-evidently true, however, Althusser warns us to be especially on our guard. With its language of technicity, scientific management constructs its object, the labour process, as a purely technical affair, capable of rational manipulation as a collection of inputs and outputs. Within its ideological system, there is no space for the class struggle that invests this labour process root and stem. It completely obscures the fact that there is no such thing as a purely technical division of labour – indeed, it was one of Althusser’s key contributions to detail how the technical division of labour is always determined by the social division of labour, which in its turn is basically determined by the class structure of a social formation. What is critical to remember is that ideologies are defined as much by what they cannot say as what they state explicitly. What the ideology of scientific management cannot by its nature admit is the existence of classes that fundamentally structure the labour process, and this produces the miscognition of the real relationships undergirding it. Even at the purely ideological level, therefore, it seems to me that the scientific management of the Taylor Society is intrinsically bourgeois.
I believe that the evidence of this reality is crystallised in the book in the account given of Polakov’s Marxism and the articulation it has with his Taylorism. His Marxism appears as amorphous and crude. Kelly explores in exacting detail the content of his key works (including such titles as Mastering Power Production, Man and his Affairs from an Engineering Point of View, and The Power Age), and identifies Marxist breadcrumbs Polakov would leave scattered throughout, but they do not seem to be articulated tightly with his conception of scientific management, which appears to always be his first concern. At no point does he ever truly allow legitimate class analysis to inform his analysis of the labour process, demonstrated most graphically by his claim in Mastering Power Production that a way of overcoming immediate problems in the production process is ‘to ameliorate the antagonisms of interest between employers and employees, not by bargaining and debating but by a thorough inquiry into the basic facts…to smash many fallacies and traditions that greatly harm both sides’. In this way, ‘the social stability may be improved considerably, even though perfect harmony of interests is still distant’ (p. 73). The idea of a harmony of interests, of a common understanding that can reconcile both sides, is something that non-Marxist Progressives and Tory paternalists would agree with wholeheartedly, and therein lies the rub – Polakov’s Marxism, which he believes can be melded to the ideology of scientific management, is instead submerged in it, purged of its class content and replaced by bourgeois technicism. This is not a case of Kelly needing to marshal more evidence of Polakov’s Marxism – her years of exhaustive archive research put paid to any suggestion the case needs to be made “stronger”. I think what Kelly has unconsciously registered here, through Polakov, is that one cannot simultaneously be a Marxist and a scientific manager without the former being essentially emptied of content, which is precisely the role of bourgeois ideology. For this reason, I think Di and I are always destined to be on opposite sides of the Taylorist fence.
Our disagreement on this score, however, does not obscure Kelly’s achievements in this book. It is a wonderful evocation of an economically, politically and culturally dynamic time, refracted through the life of Polakov. Kelly demonstrates the full value of biography as a legitimate mode of historical research, with the focus on Polakov bringing together and articulating such diverse topics as scientific management, the Red Scare, the Cold War, Soviet industrialisation and American political economy in a fashion that is inspiring. The Red Taylorist richly rewards the reader and should become a significant text, both in the literature around scientific management and as an exemplary model for biographical research.