Topic 9. Improving Labor Productivity: Scientific Management and Stakhanovism in the Soviet Union

Read: Bedeian, Arthur G., and Carl R. Phillips. “Scientific management and Stakhanovism in the Soviet Union: A historical perspective.” International Journal of Social Economics 17, no. 10 (1990): 28-35.

With the country suffering from industrial decline after the war and revolution, Soviet leaders in the 1920s were seeking the means to increase labor productivity. This paper presents two of the most popular approaches adopted in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. The first was scientific management, a theory of management that analyzes and synthesizes workflows. It was a top-down approach, required a high level of managerial control over employee work practices. The second, bottom-up approach, was Stakhanovism. Its essence was that individual rank-and-file workers led the drive for increased productivity in the Stakhanovite movement. The text explains the advantages and disadvantages of these two approaches in Soviet conditions. It is demonstrated how scientific management and Stakhanovism were promoted and applied in practice. The authors argue that, for the most part, scientific management in the Soviet Union existed only in theory—it was never really implemented. In contrast, Stakhanovism was fully enacted throughout the Soviet Union with immediate results. This story contributes to our understanding of the labor incentives system in the early Soviet Union and of Soviet ideas about work in general.

Questions for preparation:

1. Why did Lenin promote scientific management, “the last word of capitalism” in his words, even though this method was born in an ideologically hostile country?
2. What was the difference in the promotion and application of scientific management and Stakhanovism? What were their main disadvantages (especially applied to the Soviet conditions)?
3. What were the similarities and differences between scientific management and Stakhanovism?
4. Why did Stalin prefer Stakhanovism to scientific management?
5. If you were a General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which approach would you chose? Motivate your answer.