Article September 16, 2021

Roundtable Panel—Stefan Link’s Forging Global Fordism: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Contest over the Industrial Order

The Toynbee Prize Foundation Presents
A Roundtable Panel Discussion on:
Stefan J. Link, Forging Global Fordism: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Contest over the Industrial Order (Princeton University Press, 2020)


What was Fordism? The assembly line? The locus classicus of Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony?

A mid-twentieth-century regime of accumulation, mass consumption, demand management?

While engaging with classic arguments in social theory as well as business and economic history, Stefan Link develops an alternative conception of Fordism through its transnational history, training his focus on international political economy—at times with an engineers’-eye-view. Forging Global Fordism tells the story of Fordist production's appeal and transfer to ideologically opposed contexts, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. For Link, Fordism constituted a “dual use” technology amenable to mass consumption and military demand alike. A work of rich research in firm and state archives, FGF shifts gears between shop-floor dynamics and international negotiations, ideological debates and structural conditions.

Contrary to many U.S. social and labor histories, Link depicts Henry Ford as an iconoclastic inheritor of Midwestern producer populism, whose works achieved the first mass production of technically sophisticated machinery and doctrine espoused the production of objects and the fulfillment of needs over the interests of finance. Upon this reinterpretation, which suggests liaisons to the binaries explored variously in Jeffrey Herf’s “reactionary modernism” and Moishe Postone’s analysis of modern antisemitism, he examines how European “postliberals” found Ford’s worldview alluring as a solution to the problem of the collapsed nineteenth-century order during the interwar period.

Rather than considering the interwar as solely an era of de-globalization, Link demonstrates that it was a period of circulation of men and machines, skills and schematics, associated with Fordist production—within projects of “anti-global globality.” Far from crafting a narrative of seamless flows across borders, Link emphasizes the constraints in international political economy facing Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and the specific strategies that each state employed to challenge the global industrial order in a process of “antagonistic development.” The Soviet Union imported technologies wholesale with currency gained from squeezing consumption by its population; meanwhile, Nazi Germany pursued a strategy of incentivizing and coercing branches of U.S. firms operating within its borders to harmonize with the government’s initiatives, share technologies with German firms along the supply chain, and reinvest profits locally due to capital controls. Viewed from this vantage, Link suggests understanding efforts to import Fordism as moments in a lineage of (authoritarian) development strategies stretching back toward the ideas of Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich List, to Meiji Japan, and forward to the contemporary PRC. This claim will no doubt highly interest—and spark debate among—historians of developmental states and development politics.

We have invited three scholars with wide-ranging perspectives—Melissa Teixeira, Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, and Heidi Voskuhl—to offer responses to Forging Global Fordism. Stefan Link then replies to the roundtable contributions. We thank them all for their engagement and insight.

Liat Spiro, College of the Holy Cross


Participant Bios

Stefan Link is Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth College, where he specializes in economic history, business history, and the intellectual history of capitalism. He is author of Forging Global Fordism: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Contest over the Industrial Order (Princeton University Press, 2020) and, with Noam Maggor, “The United States as a Developing Nation: Revisiting the Peculiarities of American History,” Past and Present 246:1 (2020), 269-306.

Melissa Teixeira is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her current book project South Atlantic Economic Lives: Remaking Capitalism and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Brazil explores Brazil’s response to the political, economic, and social crises of capitalism following the Great Depression. It highlights the pivotal but understudied interwar experiment with corporatism, a model that promised a “third path” between capitalism and communism. The book argues that corporatism transformed the Brazilian state into an agent of economic development, and explains why it matters that this transformation was engineered under an authoritarian regime. The book adopts a novel approach to the history of economic life by incorporating wide-ranging legal, economic, and cultural sources to document the process of state-building from the perspective of government ministries and grocery markets alike. It further innovates with its comparative and transnational approach to state-led efforts to reorganize the national economy by drawing upon connections to the New Deal in the United States, Italian Fascism, and the Portuguese Estado Novo.

Oscar Sanchez-Sibony is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hong Kong. His work lies at the intersection between politics and economy, and in the space between socialist and capitalist geographies and their interactions with the postcolonial world. It seeks to understand the contemporary international political economy with special attention to how its different iterations layered one upon the other to produce present-day forms of global power. He is author of Red Globalization: The Political Economy of the Soviet Cold War from Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which won the Marshall Shulman Book Prize in International Relations from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

Heidi Voskuhl is Associate Professor of History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research field comprises the history of technology from the early modern to the modern period. Her broader interests include the philosophy of technology, the history of the Enlightenment, and modern European intellectual and cultural history. Her book, Androids in the Enlightenment: Mechanics, Artisans, and Cultures of the Self (University of Chicago Press, 2013), won the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History from the American Philosophical Society.


Reviewers’ Comments


Melissa Teixeira, Assistant Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania

How do ideas and institutions circulate during moments of heightened nationalism and protectionism? Stefan Link takes on this question to explain one of the major technical innovations of the twentieth century: the rise of mass production. There is much to praise in Forging Global Fordism. The writing is sharp and fluid. Link’s argument is ambitious, even counterintuitive: Fordism – often celebrated as a triumph for US-style liberal capitalist development based in free enterprise, technological innovation, democratic sensibilities, and consumer-driven economic growth – was easily adapted to illiberal contexts in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. While we might passively assume that the breakdown of the international economy led to inward-looking economic and political experiments, with Fordism, we see the opposite: the 1930s is a period of what Link calls “global anti-globality” in which nations across the ideological spectrum were united in experimenting with new solutions to a shared economic crisis. Link skillfully shifts between global, national, and local scales to explore these questions. Doing so, he offers unexpected insights into how the rise of Ford-style mass production under European dictatorships also helps us understand the rise of economic planning in the 1930s.

One of the many innovative contributions that Link’s book offers is his careful dissection of “postliberal” political and economic systems. He highlights how Fordism – often celebrated as a quintessential (American) example of how private capital and individual ingenuity drive innovation – was easily adaptable to state-directed economic systems. As Link shows, however, Fordism is not just another example of economic planning. Fordism worked so well in the USSR not because it was a “planned” economy, but because its “command” components empowered the state to ruthlessly mobilize people and goods. Similarly, in Nazi Germany, Fordism became an ideal vehicle for coercive – even violent – statist directives over the economy. Importantly, Link intervenes in debates over Nazi economic exceptionalism, arguing that Germany’s Fordist experiment shared much in common with other “authoritarian, activist, and development-oriented states of the twentieth century” (171). I agree. Still, could we reach similar conclusions from analyzing other aspects of the Nazi economy? For example, Tiago Saraiva, in Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism (2016), offers a comparative study of the drive for food independence in Fascist Italy, Estado Novo Portugal, and Nazi Germany to show how these three dictatorships turned to similar scientific and institutional methods to increase domestic food production. How does Fordism connect to other aspects of Nazi economic planning? Or – to take our comparative cue instead from Alexander Gerschenkron’s 1962 essay “Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective” – it might have been equally productive to consider how either Nazi or Soviet Fordist experiments mapped onto, redirected, or potentially dismantled previous formulas for state-directed economic development. What is distinct about Fordism?

Forging Global Fordism emphasizes how globalism persists despite the rise of extreme nationalism and economic independence. Iterations of Fordism made its way to Japan and Italy, with these examples discussed in passing. Still, much of this work is focused on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. What is “global” about this comparison? And what are its limits? Put differently, how might Fordism help us write global histories beyond those too often focused on the United States and Europe? Full disclosure, this reviewer is a historian of twentieth-century Brazil. I was surprised to see one important episode of “global” Fordism go without much discussion: Henry Ford’s Amazonian misadventure to secure rubber. With good reason, Link is primarily interested in Fordism for its innovations on the factory floor with mass production. But might it not also be worthwhile – in this global endeavor – to consider the circulation (and extractivist ambitions) of other elements of Fordism? Ford’s failed rubber plantation in Brazil, as Greg Grandin shows in Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (2009), offers a case study of what happens when a self-assured (but utterly unprepared) managerial class is convinced that it can seamlessly transfer ideas and practices from one part of the globe to another. Ford’s managers believed that – with US technology and lifestyle customs – they could harness the Amazon (and Brazilian workers) to meet the needs of River Rouge’s assembly lines. Instead, they had to reckon with financial failure, ecological realities, and labor resistance. Do these lessons from Fordlandia resonate with Fordist experiments in Europe, or even in the United States? Link deftly highlights the ideological tensions that shaped the diffusion of Fordist experiments, but what about the class-based conflicts, cultural clashes, or managerial misreadings? How did contemporaries reconcile the limits of Fordism, including its own failures? With Ford’s imperial ambitions in the Amazon, moreover, we also see that we need not look to totalitarian states to contend with the illiberal, brutalizing, and racist dynamics of Fordism. Beyond mass production, what are the global legacies left behind by Fordism?

One of the more novel interventions that Link offers in Forging Global Fordism is that of framing the comparison between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in terms of “antagonistic development.” Link argues that one cannot understand Fordism in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany without accounting for their mutual “self-diagnosis of underdevelopment vis-à-vis the United States” (12). As Link explains, “development” is a relational concept. But we should also add that “underdevelopment” is not merely a condition that precedes “development.” Rather, “underdevelopment” and “development” mutually constitute each other, produced by unequal systems of exchange in a global capitalist economy. Forging Global Fordism is clearly influenced by world-systems theory, as Link draws connections between the development aspirations of 1930s European dictatorships and the rise of developmentalist states in the post-1945 era. Yet this leap to draw comparisons might require more nuance. Was Germany “underdeveloped”? Is it relevant, for example, that Germany was a major exporter of manufactured goods and capital to Brazil prior to the First World War, remaining its primary source of coal, iron, cement, and certain industrial goods well into the 1930s? What might be the appropriate sets of questions to account for the USSR? I am no expert on either case. But the answers might depend on one’s geographic orientation. Certainly, Link is right to emphasize how Germany and the Soviet Union lagged behind Great Britain and the United States, as he offers important insights into how their shared anxieties over “backwardness” conditioned Fordist experiments. Still, rather than stress equivalencies, sometimes comparative history is most productive when it instead emphasizes – and interrogates – heterogeneous factors, uneven conditions, and mismatched analogies. With Fordism, what do we learn from the limits of comparison?

These questions are intended to underscore the valuable contributions offered in Forging Global Fordism. Link’s ambitious study of Fordism overturns many long-held assumptions about the interwar decades and, especially, the political economy of dictatorship. Link excels in blurring lines and categories, as he thinks across dichotomies like liberalism and illiberalism, free-market capitalism and its state-directed counterparts, or globalism and anti-globalism. Indeed, the challenges of studying Fordism in a global context – given its failures and uneven implementation – also allow us to see why it proved to be so resilient across so many political contexts, whether liberal, fascist, or communist. These tensions, as Link’s sweeping conclusion suggests, survive into the post-1945 era and beyond the national contexts featured in the book. The legacies – or lessons – of Fordism are thus about how competition and comparison shape the developmentalist aspirations of nations, as events on the factory floor help us to unpack the making of new global orders.


Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, Assistant Professor of History, The University of Hong Kong

Stefan Link’s Forging Global Fordism has what is likely some of the best short articulations explaining the rise of Stalinism anywhere.  And he does this not once, but twice.  First in short form (pp. 11-12), then in a slightly more sustained formulation (pp. 93-97).  I’ll let others speak to German history and historiography and focus on the work Forging Global Fordism does for Soviet historiography.  Link aligns with economist Vladimir Kontorovich in stressing the overriding militaristic purpose of the Stalin revolution, eschewing what Kontorovich has called the civilianization evident in sovietological analysis: i.e. rendering civilian what is clearly military, as in, for example, the purpose of Soviet economic development.[1]  But Link expands on this by appending the structuring economic context of global capitalism—and the position of the Soviet Union within it—and the Great Depression.  What’s more, he gives bounded areas of economic life, in this case Fordist production modes, a specific set of ideological valences that gave them a certain cultural “stickiness” when it came to their social meaning in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and 1930s global society more generally.  With this effort of analytical syncretism, Link overcomes the disciplinarily provincial approaches that have been so partial in weaving the national histories of the 1930s together—whether invocations are made to that empty signifier of historical progress “modernity,” or adjectivized into multiple and entangled modernities.

To be sure, this contextualization is not new, nothing Karl Polanyi hadn’t offered in the 1930s, and again in his famous Great Transformation of 1944.  The intellectual cudgel that was the Cold War obscured an analysis that had been fairly standard before the second half of the 1940s.  But I don’t know of any other text in our neck of the disciplinary woods that has recovered this narrative as lucidly as Link’s:  “The phrase around which the Bolshevik developmental ideology congealed was not ‘socialism in one country’ but ‘economic independence’—understood not as isolation or self-sufficiency but as control over strategic supply chains, as the potential to withstand a hostile blockade, and as the ability to turn Russia’s position of weakness vis-à-vis world markets into one of strength,” (p. 94) he clarifies for those still hung up on a slogan.  “Soviet power on global markets was constrained by the weak productivity of its agriculture and by its industrial underdevelopment….  Thus the link between the buildup of industry and the lethal logic of collectivization was forged on the ailing world markets of the Depression” (pp. 95-96), he explains further.  Deviating from narratives of ideological determinism, Link argues that the political goals the Bolsheviks set for themselves were not legible in what we usually associate with socialist discourse—equality, redistribution, the transformation of man, etc.  “What they envisioned was industrial’naia derzhava—a formidable power-state whose industrial prowess fortified its military strength and testified to its global preeminence” (p. 96).

This is all necessary preamble to what is the book’s main contribution, because Fordism’s cultural stickiness only works when in dialectic negotiation with the interwar institutional and material context Link portrays so well.  He begins by reclaiming Fordism from its present-day Marxist definition as a totalizing historical phase of capitalist accumulation.  He does this not to critique that literature, but because he wants to recover the postliberal, populist valences of its emergence in the interwar period.  This allows Link to show that the Bolsheviks and Nazis were not simply rational actors importing efficiency-enhancing technologies of mass production; they were pursuing Fordism’s postliberal promise in the midst of liberalism’s ruin.  Here Link productively separates Ford’s indictments of finance and the worker-centered approach in his factories, from GM’s more traditionally American managerial capitalism generating consolidated enterprises with the help of East Coast finance.  It was Ford’s contrarianism that resonated with Stalin and Hitler and the political economies they were pressed to innovate.  In other words, these leaders were not importing some monolithically American form, but rather a culturally contentious production mode that was only one (Midwestern) part of the US, and a self-consciously insurgent one at that.  The cultural excavation of political economy Link is insistently engaged in is one of the most enriching aspects of reading this book.

One of the most satisfying discoveries of the book for me is the distinction Link draws between the early 1930s haphazard adoption of Fordism in the Soviet Union, and the way it was perfected later that decade.  Fordism’s stress on flow production came into conflict with the quasi-Taylorist Stakhanovite movement, based as it was on uncoordinated, individual heroics of a commoditized labor.  Flow production did not really take off in Soviet factories until the late1930s, in tandem with even greater worker repression and discipline, and the elevation of the new technocratic elite that benefited from Stalin’s purges.  Perhaps the Soviet 1930s should be reassessed in the light of this insight.  This Fordist triumph of the late 1930s, with all its repressive consequences, was global, and associated to the approach of war.  In other words, the productivization and disciplining of labor promised by Fordism was achieved in the pressure cooker of war preparations, leaving the postwar to reap the bounty and despair of its rewards.  I can only hope others will take over this exciting new excavation Link has started, and keep digging.

I could continue with more praise of this excellent book.  But if I were to have a conversation with Stefan Link, I imagine this is not how it would go.  It would be embarrassing for him, and perhaps a little tedious.  Worse, we would be missing out on a potentially more edifying conversation arising from our petty differences.  Here goes one:  Link insists on the idea that the Bolshevik turn to the technology transfers that brought Fordism to the Soviet Union amounted to a switch in its approach to international political economy, as it turned away from the strategy of concessions that had presumably prevailed until then.  This seems to me to be less a strategic decision than a conjunctural possibility, and the two are anyway not ideologically exclusive.  In fact certain concessions, for example the Japanese timber mills, lasted until well into the 1930s.  Meanwhile, technology transfers were at least as old as the concessions policy; both were innovated simultaneously for the recovery of the oil industry in Baku, as Sara Brinegar has shown.[2]  What the Bolsheviks did not have before the mid-1920s was an infrastructure for exports, which they only developed with the monetary reform (i.e. attachment to the gold standard) and their reintroduction into credit markets, most notably with the large German credit of 1927.  Link is right in noting that the story of the concessions is woefully understudied, but from what I have seen from Bolshevik reports, their decline had little to do with a change of strategy and more to do with the fact that the foreign owners of those concessions had ceased to invest in them, victims also of the great slump in global prices for the primary commodities they were meant to produce and sell abroad.  Rather than being shut down, their foreign owners often walked away from them.[3]  I am not convinced that these were conceived as two alternating strategies.  This framing, and it is ultimately no more than that, allows Link to contrast it to a Nazi approach that tried to coopt the foreign direct investments already in German, rather than banish them.  In my opinion, none of this needs to be given some larger strategic coherence than it deserves, particularly when there is no documentary evidence for it.  Documents have only ever shown that coherence was never something the Bolsheviks could afford for very long.


Heidi Voskuhl, Associate Professor of History of Science, University of Pennsylvania

As the title already suggests, Stefan Link’s Forging Global Fordism takes us on a far-reaching and eventful journey. Myself a historian of science and technology of the Enlightenment as well as of the period “around 1900,” I eagerly take up his invitation to travel places, and meet people, ideas, and machinery, that were deeply involved in the global history of industrialization of the twentieth century.

Link’s selected quotes by Mussolini, Keynes, and Benjamin right at the outset prepare us well for his insights, directing our attention to well-known and clichéd narratives of industrialization, culture, and politico-economic principles supposedly distinctive to the “West.” They also direct our attention to the concomitant spaces in Western Europe and remind us of basic principles of nineteenth-century bourgeois liberalism and the fatal attacks on it in the twentieth century. Link’s main intervention is also a spatial one. He anticipates it early when he explains that, in contrast to the well-known sites of classical liberal modernity, “it was Detroit that drew all modernizers of postliberal persuasion, left and right, Soviets and Nazis, fascists and socialists” (2). Link whisks away his unsuspecting reader from both the tenets and the metropolises of elite bourgeois liberalism, and from North Atlantic industrial modernities in the early twentieth century, to the Midwest, and from there to Europe, Central Asia, and back. Doing so, he merges global history of capitalism, economic history of mass production, and the history of ideas and texts, in highly original, productive, and admirable ways. As he puts it, he uncovers a “political history of mass production” (Link’s emphasis) that goes beyond the “familiar analytic of capital and labor” (26).

Historians of technology have also struggled with boundary-crossing and integrating further into their field previously neglected analytics. They have recently been more involved with neighboring fields such as economic history, labor history, global history, and environmental history, but among the history of technology’s longest-lasting interlocutors has of course been the history of science. The common ground between the two disciplines is a keen interest in questions of knowledge production and formulating philosophical positions on the truth value of their actors’ claims about the world (such as the widely used analytic apparatus of social constructivism). Furthermore, historians of science and technology have always and immediately linked knowledge claims to social groups and institutions, and both disciplines have thus developed strong affinities to specific versions of historical sociology and historical anthropology as well as social history, and ultimately have devised their own distinct versions. This has been inspired also by microhistory and Alltagsgeschichte and the distinctly vernacular epistemologies of the people studied in such histories.

Regarding Link’s study, I am wondering if there is an element of the “social” (perhaps anthropologically inspired) that is worth thinking about further in regard to the material, places,

and people that he is bringing together so commendably. This category of the “social” would not quite coincide with categories such as labor, individual engineers, institutions and actors of authoritarian and technocratic regimes, hierarchies on shop floors, or traveling statesmen and their expert entourages, though it would certainly share common ground with all of them. Instead, the category could emphasize actors about whom we often know little more than their names, if that, but who were the makers and builders of the industrial world, and created and inhabited distinctly industrial lifeworlds. The category could also emphasize actors as members of social groups, and explore their relationships to nation states (such as Nazi Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union) as stratified societies – with (imagined and real) social orders, boundaries, hierarchies, and taboos – in which social groups struggle to find their places, including the desires, disappointments, narratives, and fantasies that come with such processes. Aspects of such histories are already part of Link’s study, of course, and I am wondering if he would be interested in exploring further what his study teaches us about a category of the “social” that is distinct from, and yet inextricably linked to, the economic, the political, and the global, in the ways that he is developing and forging them so insightfully and convincingly on the basis of his material.

The second matter that I find remarkable in Link’s study is the issue of liberalism, with its roots in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the dramatic challenges it experienced in the twentieth century. Link lays bare the specific connections between liberalism’s breakdowns and a new institution (the mass-producing corporation) as well as a specific mass-produced technology, the automobile.

The history of technology has taught us to distinguish between the “First” and “Second” Industrial Revolutions, though always with trepidation and an awareness of how problematic any periodization as well as any designation of “Revolution” is. At the same time, the distinction is a helpful reminder of the profound changes in technologies and cultures between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries – changes that are reflected, once again, in the thoughts by Mussolini, Keynes, and Benjamin, with which Link frames his study. Not only had the traditional, pre-industrial bourgeois liberalism from the eighteenth century transformed itself into a new industrial mass society, which seemed to be made up of social and political processes that could not be traced back to the interactions of rational, virtuous individuals among each other. it is also the case that the technologies that were in use on the eve of the First World War were completely different from those that had been in use around 1850. It was entirely new systems of technologies (as Tom Hughes says) and, as cultural historians have pointed out, an entirely new experience of industrialization.

The feeling of unease and anxiety that thus swept through the early twentieth century is well- known and well-studied. My favorite examples include Cathy Gere who, in 2009, took a stab at defining “modernism” as a “a distinctive and often self-conscious sense of generational crisis, beginning around 1870 and persisting until just before the Second World War”; Peter Gay, who famously described the death of the Weimar Republic as “part murder, part wasting sickness, part suicide”; Detlev Peukert who, in the title of his ground-breaking study, identified the Weimar Republic with “the crisis of classical modernity”; Mark Mazower, who prefaces his study of Europe’s twentieth century with a quote that describes Europe after World War One as “a laboratory atop a vast graveyard”; and Fritz Stern, whose book about the intellectual work of three men whose active lives spanned the years from the middle of the nineteenth century to the early 1930s and who all “loathe[d] liberalism,” is called “The Politics of Cultural Despair.”[4]

Given the gravity of the period that Link is studying, its tragedies and atrocities, I am wondering if there is an element of despondency that transcends not only historians’ comprehension (it certainly does) but also the vast impact of the assembly line and the automobile on the twentieth as well as the twenty-first centuries. Is there something about Fordism that we could try to use to make more explicit the escape from the modernity of the nineteenth century, the rise of authority, and the crumbling of the hope of salvation formerly perceived to be found in the bourgeois aesthetics of Paris glimpses, as they are all invoked on the first two pages of Link’s study?


Author Response by Stefan Link, Dartmouth College


Let me begin by thanking the Toynbee Foundation for hosting a roundtable on Forging Global Fordism, and the reviewers for taking the time to read and reflect on the book. Written from the perspective of three different historical subfields, the reviews cast intersecting – and, to me, revealing – searchlights on book. In the spirit of constructive exchange, let me respond by reflecting on the larger concerns that each of reviewers raises.

Melissa Teixeira asks how FGF fits into the global history of (under-) development. I am grateful for this question, because my hope was precisely that the book might expand the possibilities for historical scholarship in this field. The book traces how the Soviet and Nazi states organized technology imports from the USA in the pursuit of military-industrial development. What is global about this story, given that it treads familiar North-North territory? Can it apply to North-South encounters, enveloped as they are in histories of imperialism and unequal exchange? Does linking Nazi developmental anxieties to the predicament of bona-fide peripheral states produce, as Teixeira says, a “mismatched analogy”?

I would begin by pointing out that the very framing of the book seeks to invert Eurocentric preoccupations. FGF brings the literature on 20th-century developmental states, which has been built on empirical findings from Asia, Africa, and Latin America,[5] to bear on the presumably well-grazed pastures of interwar European history. The topic of the book is how Fordism spread; but an important underlying question is precisely how development-oriented regimes orchestrate catch-up efforts vis-à-vis development leaders. How are such efforts justified and framed through ideology? What are the mechanisms by which states engage foreign corporations, often from a position of relative weakness?

These questions, it seems to me, are entirely applicable to South-North encounters, and from them flow new narrative possibilities for the global history of development. Historians have been drawn to the history of an imperial and imperious North imposing “development” on the global South, often in self-aggrandizing fashion and with dubious results.[6] A preferred narrative mode in this scholarship stresses the hubristic traits of Western social engineering, alongside its brutal and oppressive consequences. Greg Grandin’s (beautiful and poignant) Fordlandia belongs here: Ford’s managers cannot compute the ecological, political, and social realities of the Amazon; the result is failure, waste, and suffering. 

What makes this narrative mode compelling is the fact that the global South has indeed suffered pervasively at the hand of Western conceits of civilizational superiority. But is this the only possible way to frame the history of development? The perspective adopted in FGF is different. To put it concretely, had I written about Fordlandia, I would have shifted the perspective from Ford’s managers to the Brazilian state. I would have asked: how did Brazilian political and economic elites approach the Ford Motor Company, and how did this approach fit into the shifting ideologies, development strategies, and world-market engagements of the Brazilian state?[7] This question highlights the contestations between states and foreign corporations – a topic difficult to research but central for understanding how development works in practice. The politics of technology transfers, states tangling with multinationals, the limitations of foreign exchange in capital-scarce developing countries, and elites whose worldview unites strong nationalism with admiration of the “developed” West – these seem to be themes that pervade the global South.

To further distinguish this approach, consider this á-propos factoid: during the 1930s and 1940s the engineering firm McKee (Cleveland) was retained both by Stalin’s industrializers (to help build Magnitogorsk) and by Getúlio Vargas’s advisors (to outfit Brazil’s National Steel Works in Volta Redonda). As global historians, we might be intrigued here by the connection between seemingly unexpected nodes. However, what stands out to me about this factoid – and, of course, similar examples abound – is not primarily the theme of connectivity. Neither is it that this collaboration seemingly cuts across (stylized and unhelpful) systemic opposites (liberalism versus illiberalism). A narrative of Western imperial hubris seems equally insufficient: McKee did not have the stature of a Ford Motor Company and could hardly dictate terms to the states seeking its expertise. What I find here is an invitation to reconstruct the political economy of catch-up development: McKee had the expertise and technology; the states had political determination and the capacity to marshal resources. It is a telling illustration of an ever-shifting global economic (dis)order rife with power differentials and hierarchies in access to resources and capital.

Oscar Sanchez-Sibony puts his finger on how the book seeks to embed the economic in ideology and politics. It does so, first of all, on the level of historical actors’ motivations and beliefs. I would cautiously object to calling the “excavation of political economy” executed in the book “cultural” – not because this is inaccurate, but because the term evokes the wrong connotations. What fundamentally interests me is how attention to ideology makes economic projects legible as attempts at world-building. This is why I took pains to reconstruct the ideology of Henry Ford’s own version of Fordism, which large swathes of the literature assume to be of a generic capitalist, profit-maximizing type (albeit one inflected by a mildly insipid conservative restorationism). I disagree; and in my approach I have tried to follow one of the more fruitful strands in the new history of American capitalism, which has allowed itself to interrogate economic and business elites as full-fledged social and ideological actors. Their projects, like those of all historical actors, are not a mere function of utility-maximizing strategies, nor can their ideologies and social locations be deduced from which “faction of capital” they supposedly belong to.

The second level is institutional. Much of the Anglophone literature on Soviet economic history instinctively operates with an a priori distinction between “markets” and “state planning,” infused with the assumption that the two form ontologically opposed, inherently irreconcilable principles of economic (and hence social and political) organization. The effect has been a pervasive tendency to orientalize the Soviet system: to stress – and marvel at – its fundamental otherness and irredeemable dysfunction.[8] One of the most effective ways to challenge this unhelpful tendency is to subject Soviet history to a world-systems perspective. How did the Soviet Union inhabit the global division of labor in the 1920s? It was a cash-strapped, de-industrialized raw material exporter with precarious access to credit – a predicament almost definitional of developing regions across the world. In this light, the Soviet Union looks not so “different” after all.[9] In contrast, what distinguished the Soviet regime in the camp of the underdeveloped was its ruthless willingness (and surprising ability) to use the state in service of military-industrial build-up. Thus the book asks, how might we slot the Soviet Union into a larger taxonomy of developmental states, one that is derived from the global experience of catch-up industrialization?

My hope was that this question might help dispel the interpretive diffidence that the market vs. planning dualism has instilled. Our understanding of Soviet economic history has been decisively shaped by a generation of scholars whose careers began during the last decades of the Cold War. These scholars have assembled detailed findings on all aspects of the Stalinist political economy, but they have not left us with an overarching, narrative history that connects the parts. A telling monument to their ethos is the seven-volume The Industrialization of Soviet Russia 1929-39, whose installments appeared between 1980 and 2018 – a collection driven more by encyclopedic considerations than interpretive aspirations.[10] The Stalinist economy still awaits the kind of treatment that Adam Tooze accomplished for the Nazi economy – a synthetic reconstruction that deduces the regime’s choices not from brute ideological determination and assumed systemic dysfunction but from the space where ideology meets real-world constraints.[11]

Sanchez-Sibony thinks I overstate the strategic importance of the demise after 1930 of concessions (contracts in which the Soviet Union granted foreign firms rights in mining, resource extraction, and sometimes manufacturing). I am happy to concede the point, since he also provides the formulation for a compromise. Like all shifts of the period, this one was “conjunctural” in that it emerged from the cumulative radicalization of Stalin’s Great Break. Nevertheless, distinguishing between concessions and the technical-assistance agreements that followed seems to me meaningful. The international context of the Great Depression is once again revealing; after 1929, other authoritarian regimes cancelled concessions and replaced them with forms of engaging Western firms that allowed for greater state control (one could cite examples from Japan, Turkey, and Brazil). This came at the end of several decades since the late 19th century during which peripheral regions marked by capital scarcity had tried to use concessions to harness Northern capital for developmental purposes.[12] On the one hand, the demise of concessions reflects the political need of authoritarian nationalism to reject a mechanism associated with undue deference to foreign capital. More broadly, however, it seems to me that these changes are a symptom of a profound, Depression-induced shift away from liberal-imperial principles of global development built on weak sovereignty on the periphery, towards emboldened states more determined to wrestle with foreign corporations over investment and technological capabilities. The significance of these shifts, then, is not as much strategic as, indeed, conjunctural, and telling of the “Great Transformation” that Polanyi identified in the 1930s.

Heidi Voskuhl asks about the social history of technology and the crisis of modernity. If I understand her correctly, she misses in FGF greater attention to the experiences of those who streamed into the new factories, worked the lines, and had to cope with the social engineering that characterized Fordist transformations. I admit that integrating more of this perspective would have been well possible, as I could have dipped into the rich Soviet labor history that explores the wrenching life-world transformations experienced by the women and men who moved from the villages to the construction sites and factories of the First Plan.[13] In the Nazi case, I could have spent more time with the workers at the Volkswagen plant – the Italian battalions who built the factory, or the workers from across Europe forced to work in its halls during the war.[14] Indeed good parts of my drafts over the years included such material. However, I found myself shedding these perspectives as the contribution I hoped to make sharpened in my mind: to connect the remarkable history of interwar Fordism to the global history of competitive development.

To give a concrete example: For a while I was quite excited about the daily log left behind by Fritz Kuntze, one of the German-Americans who joined Volkswagen in 1937. Written in a heavily abbreviated and difficult Sütterlin, the diary took me and a research assistant months to transcribe. The diary did eventually yield fascinating glimpses into the life-world of a Nazi engineer: his family, male bonding experiences, his love for driving a private car when few had the privilege to do so, and his easy affirmation of a Nazi regime that offered him social and professional upward mobility. But the source did not yield to the kind of research questions that the book set out to answer. In the end Kuntze’s diary got a mere paragraph.

Similarly, I too began with the literature on the crisis of liberalism that Voskuhl points to; I was fascinated by the cross-ideological facility of Fordism in the interwar conjuncture.[15] The materialist historian in me, however, never believed that attraction to modernity could be accounted for by ideology alone, nor that phenomenological similarities across regimes[16] could tell the full story. So I sought to explain illiberalism not in terms of the destabilizing experience of a generic modernity – mass society, industrialization, the stultification of assembly work, social engineering, etc. Instead I sought to relate it to political economy: that is, to clashes over development within the United States (Ford), and to the profound economic crisis of the 1920s and 1930s (Stalinism and Nazism).

Traditionally, Fordism has been understood in three main ways: as a strategy of (capitalist) social engineering, as a chapter in the social history of labor, and as a signifier for a generic conception of modernity. In a sense, Voskuhl asks me to connect my account of Fordism more explicitly to these themes. If I am hesitant, that is because these are precisely paradigms that the book labors hard to molt. In optimistic moments, I will take her admonition to indicate that FGF has indeed had the distancing effect I hoped to achieve.

In concluding, let me repeat my thanks to the reviewers for making time for the book. Their reactions helped me discover that a book may return, matured, after it is completed and sent out to the world.


[1] Most recently and thoroughly illustrated in Vladimir Kontorovich, Reluctant Cold Warriors: Economists and National Security (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[2] Sara G. Brinegar, “Baku at All Costs: The Politics of Oil in the New Soviet State” (PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2014).

[3] For an example, see Jon Lundesgaard and Victoria V. Tevlina, “Profit under the Soviets: Timber Concessions, Western Interests and the Monetary Reforms under NEP,” Revolutionary Russia (Forthcoming, 2021).  In fact in this instance, the timber concession the authors document was so unprofitable internationally, that the foreign owners turned to the Soviet domestic market to maintain profitability before letting go of the enterprise altogether.

[4] Cathy Gere, Knossos & the Prophets of Modernism (2009), 6. Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider As Insider (1968), xiii. Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity (1992). Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century (1999), ix-x. Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study In the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (1961), xii.

[5] See for example, Atul Kohli, State-Directed Development: Power and Industrialization on the Global Periphery (Princeton, 2004), which focuses on South Korea, Brazil, India, and Nigeria. Kohli explicitly analogizes the “cohesive-capitalist state” he diagnoses under Park Chung Hee to “the interwar states of Europe and Japan”: ibid., pp. 10-11.

[6] See, for a recent overview, Macekura/ Manela, The Development Century (2018).

[7] This, incidentally, is the question Helen Shapiro asked for the postwar period in her excellent Engines of Growth: The State and Transnational Auto Companies in Brazil (1994).

[8] My impression is that this ontology is only attenuated, but hardly overcome, by the “discovery” that markets and “market-like exchange” pervaded the Soviet economy. See for example the essays in Mark Harrison (ed.), Guns and Rubles: The Defense Industry in the Stalinist State (New Haven/ London: Yale University Press, 2008).

[9] Of course, Oscar Sanchez-Sibony’s own work has brilliantly pointed the way in this direction. See e.g. Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, “Depression Stalinism: The Great Break Reconsidered,” in Kritika 15, no. 1 (2014): 23-49.

[10] For the last installment, see R.W. Davies, Mark Harrison, Oleg Khlevniuk, and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia Volume 7: The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937-1939 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

[11] Adam Tooze, Wages of Destruction.

[12] See Cyrus Veeser, “A Forgotten Instrument of Global Capitalism? International Concessions, 1870-1930,” in International History Review 35, no. 5 (2013): 1136-55.

[13] See for example David L. Hoffmann, Peasant Metropolis: Social Identities in Moscow, 1929-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); Wendy Goldman, Women at the Gates: Gender and History in Stalin’s Russia (Cambridge: CUP, 2002).

[14] Wolfgang Mommsen and Manfred Grieger, Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter (ECON: 1994).

[15] Stephen Kotkin, “Modern Times: The Soviet Union in the Interwar Conjuncture,” in Kritika 2, no.1 (2001): 111-64.

[16] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939 (New York: Holt, 2006).

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