Abstract: From Taylorism to Human Relations: American, German, and Soviet Trajectories in the Interwar Years

Stefan Link


This paper describes the post-World War I transformation of the scientific approach to the mobilization of labor in a transnational perspective. In the interwar years, a new academic industry developed that opposed the dominance of Taylorism. Attention shifted from questions of mechanical rationalization and the planning of production processes to the humans toiling at the bench and assembly lines. The physiology and psychology of fatigue, the dignity of the worker, her social relationships with fellow workers and supervisors, and her emotional attitude toward the work process came under scrutiny. What was at stake was now nothing less than "the soul of the worker." In parallel developments, the move away from Taylorism to a new humanism in industrial relations took place both in liberal and illiberal settings. In the United States the Hawthorne Experiments, administered by Harvard experts, gave rise to the "human relations" approach. Meanwhile, in Nazi Germany the Labor Front's Institute of Labor Sciences endorsed "true rationalization," which "put the human being at the center of the work process." In the Soviet Union, Leonid Gastev's Central Institute of Labor was an embattled outpost of Taylorism, giving way in the 1930s to a genuinely Soviet form of rationalization: Stakhanovism.