Lenin’s decision to reintroduce certain aspects of the free market into the Soviet Union after the ravages of War Communism was a form of what might be called ‘revolutionary pragmatism’. The industrial base of the country was devastated, the working class atomised, and peasant discontent widespread, and therefore, a modicum of modernity had to be restored immediately. Without this, Lenin surmised, the fledgling revolution could be split apart and lost by the failure of the new state to meet simple, everyday needs.

One of the immediate effects of the New Economic Policy (NEP) was, of course, the rise of a new bourgeoisie, with its speculation, parasitism, conspicuous consumption, and petit-bourgeois tastes; another was the return to various forms of speeding up and coercion within the factory, resulting in widespread workers’ resentment. For many Bolsheviks on the left, then, (and subsequently) this is where the revolution was actually ‘lost’ as the technical transformations put in place by the Party (within a largely antiquated factory system) were immediately subsumed under a new disciplinary productivist regime. For Lenin there was no way of getting around this if the infrastructure of the state was not to collapse; for Lenin’s critics (including many workers themselves) it was one thing to protect the revolution, another to be worse off, and suffer increased levels of control. The NEP then was profoundly transformative of the direction of the revolution, because it forced the Party to address the limits of workers’ emancipation in conditions of general need. It is no surprise therefore that the factory itself becomes a source of massive political and cultural struggle and self-definition for the revolution during this period, because it is the factory that bears the full weight of the New Economic Policy. Indeed, the operations, relations and dynamic of the factory becomes a key focus of the revolution’s ideal horizons, as right and left seek to adjust their positions to the new Policy. Thus at one end of the ideological spectrum Alexei Gastev [1] proposed various time and motion programmes in order to create increased worker efficiency, punctuality, and hygiene, (all this backed, initially, by the Central Committee and its fascination with American-style Taylorism) and, at the other end, the various cultural initiatives developed by the newly emergent avant-garde (Constructivism and Productivism), that wanted new work practices, new forms of production, and, essentially, a return to the early Bolshevik debate on worker self-management and the relations of production. [2]

That it is the cultural left that largely addresses the condition and form of the factory is indicative of how desperate the situation had become for the Central Committee. Under the continuing threat of Allied intervention, industrial production and efficiency levels had to improve without delay. In this respect the outcome of this struggle within the factory was pretty much preordained: debate on the relations of production and the ‘free worker’ would have to be postponed. Yet, despite these constraints, for a few years the cultural left not only debated at length the notion of the ‘emancipated factory’ and the possible place of art within its disciplinary regime but, were able to establish an actual presence in the factories themselves. This presence was very small, but it is larger than hitherto imagined.

The notion – much emphasized in most histories of the Soviet avant-garde – that Productivist theory never left the drawing board, has been undermined by the extensive archival research recently of Maria Gough. Gough’s writing on the programme of ‘consultative’ work undertaken by the Constructivist/Productivist Karl Ioganson in the Prokatchik rolling mill in Moscow between 1923 and 1926, goes some way to correcting this impression. [3] Ioganson’s work on various aspects of the labour process in Prokatchik reveals an artist engaged in collaboration with workers on improving various technical processes of metal finishing – and with some success. However we should be wary here. Such involvement is not the tip of an iceberg; direct involvement by artists in the factory system was indeed rare in this period. But what Gough does reveal is the extent to which initiatives like Ioganson’s represent one striking material manifestation of widespread debate about the labour process and the NEP in the factory itself. Factories in this period were places of open and clandestine discussion about the immediate impact of the NEP, conducted mainly under the auspices of factory discussion groups that, initially at least, were not controlled by officious ‘red’ managers. In this sense the place for Ioganson and others had already been prepared. On this basis, Productivism can be seen, contrary to most accounts, as a direct response to the rise of the NEP, and, as such, an opportunity for Productivism to develop its thinking and intervene in the labour process, rather than being, the point where Productivism goes into immediate decline. As Christina Kiaer, has also argued, far from the rise of the NEP jeopardising the emergence of Constructivism and Productivism – preparing both for their eventual Stalinist demise – for a few years the NEP galvanized Productivism to develop and act on the theoretical work it had done in INKhUK between 1920 and 1923.[4] So, following Gough and Kiaer, we might say, for our critical purposes here, that there are two interrelated dynamics in mid-twenties Productivism: the emancipatory Productivism of INKhUK best represented by Boris Arvatov – the great theorist of Productivism [5] – and the applied-Productivism of the shop-floor, exemplified by Iagonson and by many of the debates that took place in factories during this period. Now, even if the single and singular example of Iagonson, doesn’t quite test emancipatory-Productivism in action, it none the less provides an interesting and valuable insight into how the artist operates in the factory under the auspices of Productivist ideology, and the inherent contradictions of Productivism itself as it comes into conflict with the labour process.

Three Productivisms

By 1922 INKhUK had established a Productivist platform in contradistinction to Constructivism’s post-easel social interventionism, identifiable, in main, with Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky. In this, leading members of this platform, Osip Brik, Boris Kushner and Boris Arvatov, argued that the skills and aims of the artist needed to be repositioned with the technical purview and discipline of industrial production itself; and that Constructivism, for all its emphasis on the technical reskilling of the artist, made a fetish of the artist as engineer. Indeed, the status of the engineer in Constructivist-Productivist debate in INKhUK is exactly what needed to be challenged in the move from Constructivism to Productivism. For, the re-functioning of the artist wasn’t just a matter of raising the technical and scientific level of the artist, but of situating art within the relations of production, as a transformative technical and scientific force. In this respect there is a concerted shift of attention in Brik and Arvatov, in particular, to the notion that the site of art’s research-value lies in the factory, and not in the studio or artistic research-centre.As Arvatov argues, in 1923, it is the job of Productivism to instigate experimental laboratories in factories.[6] In fact, eventually the broader aim is to transform the factory into a research-centre and source of general creativity, and as such facilitate the factory as the form-giving site of future collective practice. This is because at the point of production within the factory, art is able to offer an actual foundational transformation of the relations of production and the social relations of art. Allied to, and transformative of, the labour process, art reconfigures what artists and workers do and what constitutes the meaning of production and the character and quality of industrially produced objects. But if Productivism asserts that the factory is the ideal horizon of art’s labour and its socially transformative potential, nonetheless it is unclear precisely what is expected of the artist once he or she is on the shop floor. Much of the remaining discussion between Constructivist and Productivist platforms in INKhUK is taken up with this problem.From what place and under what terms does the Productivist artist actually begin his or her work? What form should the collaboration between artist, designer, technician and worker take? What role should there be for experimentation? And, is experimentation actually generalisable? Are Arvatov’s ‘experimental laboratories’ viable in cheese factories, shoe factories and lamp shade factories, as much as car factories? These question boil down to three categories of Productivist praxis, and as such involve the dissolution or subsumption of the artist under three different headings that cross both applied-Productivism and emancipatory-Productivism.

Firstly, the notion of the artist as a facilitator of improved techniques and machine processes in the factory (the artist as engineer, who dissolves his or identity into that of technician); secondly, the artist who contributes to the improved design of products (the artist as designer who collaborates on raising the quality of goods); and thirdly, the artist who seeks to transform the consciousness of production itself in the technical and cognitive use of experiments within production in order to contribute to labour’s emancipation (the artist as inventor, who as such the artist who retains his independent identity as thinker and intellectual). These categories, at various points, overlap in the thinking of Arvatov, Kusher and Brik; in so far as, at no point do Productivists actually want to give up their status as artist-intellectuals completely (for to do so would transfer ‘cultural thinking’ to the engineer and technician as a whole), just as at no point do they want to return to the notion of the artist as independent producer or critic (for to do so is to lose what has been achieved by pushing art decisively into production).

This is why few of these problems are sorted out in practice in Productivist theory, because the respective problems and demands of these positions were never tested in depth across different kinds workplaces. And consequently, this is why Gough’s analysis of Ioganson’s tenure at the Prokatchik factory is highly instructive, because Ioganson’s work is one of the few instances where some of the ideals and conflicts of Productivism are demonstrated in practice. Ioganson began his career in INKhUK as a primary-structure Constructivist in which freestanding forms were built from geometric units. When he entered Prokatchik this position had changed to one close to that of the Productivist-inventor, in which the artist contributes to the labour process in order to raise the creative level of production of overall. In other words, he enters, Prokatchik, at some level armed with the ideals of emancipatory-Productivism: namely, that the artist’s technical skill in contributing to the transformation of patterns of production, contributes to the general re-functioning of the worker into artist as whole. It is not too clear, from Gough’s account, though, what Ioganson expected from his tenure at Prokatchik, but suffice it to say given the ferment of the times, he was certainly not there simply to make up the numbers. Yet, the strictures of the NEP soon undid any notion that his work was contributing either to the production of a ‘new worker’ or a new factory. Indeed, it is clear from the start what the managers of Prokatchik wanted: someone who could contribute to raising production, and improve or finesse the means of production. They certainly did not want someone to set up an ‘experimental laboratory’ inside the factory or lead discussions on workers’ alienation amongst workers themselves. Thus, soon into his tenure at the factory he is encouraged to contribute his technical skills in removing the ‘backward-looking’ craft processes and attitudes still prevalent in certain parts of the factory. In the finishing shop, for instance, he introduces an automatic dipping process that removes the slow application of finishes by hand – an actual, concrete technical advance. In other words he is fully encouraged to take on the NEP’s quasi-Taylorist ideology of rationalization and increased productivity. Thus – as if blind to the NEP pressures he is working under – in a work-in-progress paper that Iagonson writes for INKhUK in January 1924, [7] he extols the virtues and success of the rationalization process he is involved in, as if emancipatory-Productivism’s critique of the labour process was a luxury that inventor-Productivists, and any other applied-Productivists, couldn’t afford. He lists a number of outcomes he has achieved at Prokatchik, the first of which reads: “The first concrete work of a konstruktor, and his first concrete achievements – the raising of the productivity of labour by 150%”. [8]

No doubt some such automated dipping process needed to be introduced – at least to militate against injury and persistent poisoning of metal workers, as much as to increase efficiency. However, this is not what Arvatov and other Productivists – who in 1921-22 were stressing how better it was for artists to study at technical college than art school – would have wanted to hear: a Productivist artist contributing to Party-led rationalization shutting down factory debate on the labour process and workers’ alienation! The response to the paper is unrecorded, but there is good evidence to assume that it would have chastened many Productivists, and perhaps would have confirmed some of Arvatov’s reservations about the possibility of an emancipatory-Productivism operating under prevailing conditions in the factory system.

For, despite being identifiable with the artist’s shift to the factory, Arvatov’s writing in the 1920s on Productivism and Constructivism (collected in Iskusstvo i proizvodstvo. [Art and Production] in Moscow in 1926) is somewhat ambiguous about the factory as the foundational site of transformative practice. Like Alexsei Gan, Kushner and Brik, in the early 1920s he exhorts artists to move either into the factory or think of the factory as a potential locus for real transformative work on the relations between art and labour. But correspondingly he also sees the emancipatory effects of Productivism, broadly, as lying in artists and specialists taking collective control over technological and technical processes outside of the factory (as in new forms of architecture, urban development, transportation), as part of an expansion of artistic technique into environmental technique and design. Moreover, in Art and Production in the essay ‘Art in the System of Proletarian Culture’ (1926) he widens the notion of the Productivist as an organiser of material structures and intersubjective flow of social processes to cover all social and cultural activities. The new Productivism will “invest artistic activity in everything”. [9] Indeed the “proletarian artist must experience all material and want to organise it artistically, whether that be using noise in music, street jargon in poetry, iron and aluminium in arts and crafts, and circus tricks in the theatre”. [10] This is clearly closer to a conventional (Constructivist) avant-gardism, than it is to the inventor-Productivism of Ioganson; and perhaps Ioganson wouldn’t have recognised this position as Productivism at all, and maybe said as much to Arvatov, Brik and others. Consequently, it is revealing how fraught and intense the struggle over the relations of production had become for revolutionary artists who thought that the factory was the natural home, the only home, of art. Clearly as the NEP unfolded, and the NEP transformed into Stalinist collectivism the factory was a more intractable material problem than early Productivism had imagined. It is possible then that Ioganson’s intervention at Prokatchik – the guinea pig of Productivism, we might call it on current evidence – actually confirmed this for many Productivists, particularly as the forces of reaction were consolidating their hold after the death of Lenin, making it highly dangerous for artists to assume any role in production, beyond the most perfunctory and affirmative contribution. The factory, as the imaginary link between art, labour and communism after 1927, therefore is increasingly off the cultural agenda for artists. What once was the possible crucible of ‘free labour’ becomes the redoubt of hierarchy and instrumental thinking. Indeed, with the demise, or withdrawal, of Productivism, the factory loses its identity as a kind of cultural unit, or place of cultural relations – and its key transformative role in the communist imaginary – to be replaced by various forms of revolutionary symbolism centred mostly away from the centrality of the factory on the progressive functions of the revolutionary state. This, essentially, is what constitutes the majority turn in LEF thinking to representational practices after 1925.

Factory-free Productivism

Perhaps, then, factory Productivism is not the terminus of ‘failed’ revolutionary avant-gardism, at all. Rather, it is the site where art’s vulnerability as praxis within the labour process is exposed to the inexorable demands of production, and as such exposes, philosophically and politically, art’s relationship to productive labour to an important limit condition. Maybe Arvatov realised there could be no emancipatory-Productivism centred on the labour process distinct, that is, from art’s place in the destruction of the alienation of the labour process itself. The actual revolutionary destruction of the labour process, though, was not on the Productivist agenda. Firstly, because of the chronic under-industrialisation of the Soviet economy and falling levels of productivity, but secondly, for artists and theorists to focus on the labour process under the NEP was to expose Soviet labour to the realisation that it is no less subject to the law of value (increased speed of production, technical division, and inter-enterprise competition) than labour in the capitalist West. Debates on the value-form are thus, largely glossed over in Productivism, certainly until the late 1920s after Trotsky’s exile, when a state capitalist analysis of the Soviet Union gains a foothold within the Left Opposition, particularly in the labour camps. [11] As such, it is the absence of a discussion on the value-form that prevents Productivism asking the most obvious question of its revolutionary efforts: why intervene in the factory in the first place, given that what distinguishes the critical force of art is precisely its relative absence from the strictures of the value process. That is art, unlike productive labour, art is not subject overall to a process of socialised reproduction, even if it employs advanced technical means of reproducibility, such as photography. [12] This means that’s art’s ‘free’ labour – all the way down – is in a position to critique the determinate labour of the factory, as a reflection on the conditions of free labour itself, by demonstrating to determinate labour what is free labour. Why then subjugate the ‘free labour’ of art to the discipline of the value form? This is a crucial question, and is perhaps one of the reasons why emancipatory-Productivism, after the demise of historic avant-garde and the rise of the neo-avant-garde in the West, has tended to avoid work on and with the labour process: firstly it is too difficult (limited access; factory hierarchy; market constraints) and secondly the rewards are minimal, particularly in non-revolutionary situations. It is hard to think of any successful factory-based projects by artists indebted to emancipatory-Productivism after the 1920s. The nearest we get is the Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is Burning) collective in Argentina in the 1960s. However, their work was conducted largely in alliance with workers or ex-workers outside the factory. [13] Similarly, in the early 1970s the British Artists Placement Group managed to get inside a number of factories, but only to establish the most innocuous or ameliorative discussions between art and labour. Indeed what comes to shape and direct the memory of Productivism under the auspices of the neo-avant-garde after WW11 is a version of Arvatov’s secondary Productivism – the expansion of artistic technique into environmental technique. This has largely been mediated through the debate on the ‘everyday’ via Henri Lefebvre, a debate that Arvatov, of course, was a major contributor to in the 1920s. [14]

As a limit case of the avant-garde and of the potential transformative function of art within the labour process, the emancipatory-Productivism of Ioganson, then, is highly instructive on why the factory has mostly disappeared as an imaginary site of praxis in advanced art over the last 80 years. In this respect the Iagonson’s tenure in Prokatchik reveals the structural power of the law of value, and what Marx called the real subsumption of labour under its coercions. It reveals, therefore, what might and might not realistically taken into the factory and taken from the factory, and how artistic labour might and might not contribute to the critique of the value-form from inside the labour process.



1. For a discussion of Gastev, see Brandon Taylor, Art and Literature Under the Bolsheviks, Vol 1, The Crisis of Renewal 1917-1924, Pluto Press, London and Concord Mass., 1991

2. See Victor Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1946, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1997

3. Maria Gough, The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution, California University Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2005. In 1924 the factory rolled alloys and nonferrous metal and employed 196 workers.

4. Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. and London, 2005

5. Boris Arvatov, Kunst und Producktion [1926], Karl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 1972

6. See Gough, The Artist as Producer, p177

7-8 Gough, p168

9. Boris Arvatov, Kunst und Produktion, op cit, p13

10. Boris Arvatov, ibid, p14

11. See Ante Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, Ink-Links, London, 1979

12. For a brief discussion of art’s relative absence from the law of value, see Karl Marx, Capital, Vol 1, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970. For an extension of this analysis, see I.I. Rubin, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, Black and Red, Detroit, 1972

13. See Maria Teresa Cramuglio and Nicolás Rosa ‘Tucumán is Burning’ statement of the exhibition, in Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the Avant-Garde, edited by Inés Katzenstein, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004

14. For a defence of a quasi secondary-Productivist position, see Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Vol 11: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, translated by John Moore and Introduced by Michael Trebitsch, Verso, London and New York, 2002. And for a discussion of Aravtov and the earlier debate on the ‘everyday’ see John Roberts. Philosophizing the Everyday: Revolutionary Praxis and the Fate of Cultural Theory, Pluto Press, London 2006


John Roberts is author who is based at the University of Wolverhampton and has published works on Marxist critiques of art and everyday, lives in London