Charlie Chaplin: hero of the Soviet avant-garde

Just as Marx praises capitalism in the most extravagant terms in The Communist Manifesto, the early Soviet avant-garde was entranced by the idea of America.

The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde by Owen Hatherley explores the Soviet intelligentia’s fascination with the America of the early 20th century, a mythic land of technological wonders, vast mechanised industries, spectacular cityscapes and the startling new medium of cinema.

The book moves in the same utopian thoughtworlds as Richard Stites’s Revolutionary Dreams and Susan Buck-Morss’s Dreamworld and Catastrophe, tracing the efforts of Soviet designers, writers, engineers, architects, theatre-directors and film-makers to imagine how the technological innovations generated by capitalist modernity might be appropriated for and transfigured by the new socialist society. As Hatherley puts it:

America [was] the locus for a gigantic act of collective dreaming on the part of both political activists and politicised aesthetes … a series of dream-images – fantasy projections conveyed in architectural projects, in poetry, in advertising and propaganda posters, attempts to will an Americanised communism into being via imagination and reverie.

The avant-garde was fascinated not just by the pragmatic possibilities emerging technologies and processes opened for the rapid modernisation of the Soviet economy, but by their sheer aesthetic appeal. The economies of scale made possible by new industrial machinery and the Principles of Scientific Management developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, and epitomised by the Ford Motor Company, held out the promise of a new rational economic order, a technologically advanced economy that would allow the new Soviet state to move beyond its dependence on heavy industry and agriculture. And the dramatic skylines of New York and Chicago inspired dreams of gleaming new steel and glass Constructivist cities fit for the citizens of the Communist society of the future.

The intoxication with order and rationality so prevalent in their political and architectural blueprints informs the popular image of the avant-garde as a cold technocratic elite impatient to impose their untested abstractions upon the docile Soviet masses, a pliant ‘human material’ ready for moulding by a cadre of overlords.

Hatherley references two particularly influential critiques in this tradition at either end of the Soviet experiment. The Constructivist ‘designer’s utopia’ was satirised as early as 1920 in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We, which imagined its logical outworking in the development of a spartan Platonic city-state in thrall to the cult of the machine. In this stark landscape of clean, sharp-edged glass towers Taylorism is elevated to the status of a religion dictating every moment of each day, subsuming individual identity into the synchronised life of the collective.

Much later, Boris Groys’s influential The Total Art of Stalinism, published as the Soviet Union was collapsing, suggested that the vector of the avant-garde’s preoccupation with rationality was essentially totalitarian, a logical precursor to Stalinist Socialist Realism. Though their aesthetics were different, both Constructivism and Socialist Realism were both inspired by the same absolutist impulses.

The Chaplin Machine attempts to recover the more playful side of the avant-garde. For all their undeniable fascination with the possibilities new technologies opened for economic modernisation, Soviet intellectuals also intrigued by American popular culture: with burlesque, jazz, advertising and cinema, particularly, strange as it might seem, with the slapstick comedies of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and – above all – Charlie Chaplin.

For Hatherley the preoccupations of the avant-garde were a complex interplay of obsessions, mixing technology, modernist aesthetics, utopian socialism and popular culture. They wanted to create ‘a better America’, a new society that would direct the innovations of modernity for socialist ends, thus ‘liberating’ them from the treadmill of the capitalist system. In Hatherley’s formulation, they sought an intoxicating blend of ‘Ford plus Chaplin plus Lenin’.

Chaplin and the machine

Chaplin was a particularly significant figure for many Soviet intellectuals, who saw him, notwithstanding his status as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, as something of a fellow traveller, and not just because his downtrodden proletarian characters made obvious reference to capitalism’s endemic inequalities. The avant-garde were intrigued by the deeper significance of the acting techniques he pioneered, his mechanised, staccato movements interpreted as a commentary on the strangeness and inherent comedy of life in an advanced industrial economy dominated by the rhythms of the machine.

Chaplin would openly mock the Taylorist production line in his celebrated 1936 film Modern Times, but for the avant-garde it was already clear from his early movies that the mechanical persona of ‘the little tramp’ intimated both the dual promise and dangers of new technology. Hatherley highlights the often unremarked fascination Chaplin held for leftist intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin and Viktor Shklovsky, the Bauhaus master Oskar Schlemmer, and the Constructivist designers Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, for all of whom he represented ‘a mechanised exemplar of the new forms and new spaces enabled by the new American technologies, and one who promised a liberation that was decidedly machinic in form.’

Indeed Chaplin was the principal inspiration for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s new theatre of ‘biomechanics’, an aesthetics of precise movement celebrating the body’s capacity to emulate and ‘make conscious’ the workings of the machine. In his essay Chaplin and Chaplinism Meyerhold presented mastery of precise movement as a form of play, a source of pleasure in the fields of both art and work:

[A] skilled worker at work invariably reminds one of a dancer; thus work borders on art. This spectacle of a man working efficiently affords positive pleasure. This applies equally to the work of the actor of the future.

The novel repertoire of movements Chaplin brought to the big screen seemed to indicate the potential mechanisation offered for a new kind of liberation, not just enslavement to the production line.

Revolutionary slapstick

Hatherley illuminates the extent of the avant-garde’s debt to American popular cinema through a fascinating exploration of 1920s Soviet film-making encompassing the work of many lesser-known directors, including such curiousities as the comedies of the Eccentrist school, a kind of ‘revolutionary slapstick’ in which Chaplinesque protagonists attempt to negotiate the pratfalls of everyday life in the brave new socialist world.

A primary example of the sheer strangeness of so much Soviet cinema of the time was Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), an exotic blend of sci-fi, Bolshevik politics and Chaplinesque farce, an improbable tale of a socialist uprising amongst the Martian proletariat set against the backdrop of abstract Suprematist film sets.

The early work of the best-known avant-garde directors, such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, exhibited a simple delight in the technology of film, overflowing with the latest techniques pioneered by American popular cinema: montage, double exposure, split screen, fast motion, elliptical perspective and tracking shots. Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), for example, pushed the possibilities of early cinema to the limit to convey something of the renewed dynamism of everyday life in Russia’s big cities as they emerged from the privations of the civil war.

All of these films demonstrated an acute awareness of the opportunities nascent cinematic technologies afforded for free-flowing play, revelling in the new worlds of invention they opened. For all their debt to American cinema, Soviet directors were keen to give their work a socialist edge, avoiding dependence on film idols or platitudinous happy endings: for them, cinema was more than a form of weekend escapism for exhausted workers but a means of imagining the possibilities open to a technologically advanced post-capitalist society.

The socialist skyscraper

Tatlin's Tower
Tatlin’s Tower

Soviet intellectuals were also enthralled by another potent image that appeared widely in American cinema, and across US popular culture: the thrilling outline of the skyscraper-lined cityscape. The dreamlike quality of the Manhattan skyline as presented in film, advertising and photography was a powerful symbol of the city of the future that socialist architects and designers attempted to re-imagine for revolutionary purposes: surely the new Communist society too, was worthy of an architecture of sheer spectacle.

Hatherley highlights a charming short story by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Bookmark (1927), imagining an visionary structure somewhat closer to home, the Eiffel Tower, coming to life when fitted with antennae, and, on hearing the call of Soviet ‘brethren’ such as Moscow’s Shukhov radio tower, uprooting itself and making for its natural habitat (before sadly coming to grief when attempting to navigate the Alps):

You and I know, of course, who was calling the lost tower, and from where. And now it knows where to go: due east. The revolutionary will join the revolutionaries. From capital to capital the wires hum with fright: ‘The tower has been Bolshevised!’

Hatherley suggests that the Soviet Union’s own answer to the Eiffel Tower, Vladimir Tatlin’s design for a Monument to the Third International (which famously remained unbuilt), is another example of the avant-garde’s adventurous attitude to technological innovation. Though often associated with earnest Communist notions of ‘God building’ the tower’s design manifests a certain levity, its winding frame recalling a fun-fair helter-skelter, and its whimsical abstractions a deliberate subversion of Petrograd’s stern neoclassicism.

Constructivist architects played obsessively with the idea of the skyscraper, drawing up innumerable blueprints for ‘expressionist communal towers’ that would puncture skylines even more dynamic than those of New York or Chicago, comprising forests of fantastic sci-fi high-rises tapering upwards to the clouds.

The Gosprom complex, Kharkov
The Gosprom complex, Kharkov

Like Tatlin’s tower, Constructivist designs for the ‘socialist skyscraper’ never made it beyond the architectural studio, apart from one remarkable outlier, the Gosprom complex in Kharkov, a sprawling network of interlocking towers that featured extensively in Soviet imagery and film – most famously Eisenstein’s The General Line (1929) – as a pledge of the longed-for socialist future.

Soviet ‘accelerationism’

The avant-garde took a darker turn with the advent of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan, which ran from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, a shift Hatherley examines with reference to the extraordinary series of films Soviet directors produced to chart its progress.

During these years the New Economic Policy of the 1920s, which had permitted a mixed economy in which American imports were readily available, was replaced with an uncompromising pursuit for economic autarchy, a forced-march process of rapid industrialisation. American influence on the Russian economy was still strong: engineers and architects from US companies, including Ford and Austin, desperate for income during the years of the Depression, accepted Soviet contracts to help build new car and tractor factories, steelworks and dams. But the time for dreaming now seemed to be over, with American know-how employed in straightforward service of Stalin’s violent dash for growth.

Soviet film-makers embraced the spirit of the Plan with alacrity, making raw and disturbing films that sought to capture the ‘shock and awe’ of the sudden transformation of Russia’s ancient rural landscapes. Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas (1931) – much admired by Chaplin – is a powerful rush of images documenting the savage metamorphosis of the Ukraine’s pastoral Donets Basin region from a patchwork of quiet villages dotted with Orthodox churches into an inferno of blazing mines and steelworks. And Joris Ivens’s Komsomol: Song of the Heroes (1932) is a graphic record of the construction of the Magnitogorsk steel complex on the once serene banks of the Ural River.

Watched today in the context of contemporary ecological concerns these films betray a shocking disregard for the natural world. Here there is no hand-wringing about Blakean ‘dark satanic mills’: nature is regarded as a hostile force to be forcibly re-shaped in the service of humankind, taking to the extreme Trotsky’s injunction in Literature and Revolution to re-make the environment through the force of human will, or the Suprematicist desire to claim ‘Victory over the Sun’.

For Hatherley the films might – at best – be interpreted as forerunners of today’s ‘accelerationist’ theories: grim acknowledgements of the necessity for filth, furnaces and dangerous labour for the sake of some future socialist utopia. But it is hard to overlook the straightforward relish with which they depict the brute spectacle of industrialisation: the smoke, the flames and the toiling workers seem to be celebrated for their own sake. Although Stalin’s Plan was supposed to present an opportunity to implement Taylorist organisational processes on a grand scale, the labour celebrated here is a shameless manifestation of traditional Russian machismo, anticipating the Stakhanovite cult of the later 1930s:

What happens in these films is that work, the struggle and alleged nobility of work, becomes an end in itself, and heroic efforts and prodigious feats replace the once-terrifying ratio … The Five Year Plan films, with their occasional moments of joyous automation, retain a memory of the earlier paradigm, but also conspire to replace it.

Forced jollity

By the mid–1930s, when Chaplin was making his great film, the freewheeling sense of intellectual adventure that had existed alongside the many hardships of the first post-revolutionary years had been extinguished, as just one vision, that of the Stalinist bureaucracy, was permitted to define the horizons of the Soviet experiment.

For Stalin the avant-garde’s perpetual experimentation was an ethereal indulgence, insufficiently robust for the grave task of conditioning the minds of the masses for the battle of building socialism through unrelenting dedication to the fulfilment of centrally imposed economic targets.

From now on the acceptable parameters of Soviet aesthetics were determined according to the doctrine of Socialist Realism. Constructivist speculations regarding the form of a new socialist architecture were answered by Stalin’s preference the Byzantine style exemplified by the (unrealised) design for the Palace of the Soviets, and Moscow’s imposing ‘Seven Sisters’. The Suprematicist influenced propaganda posters and advertising of the 1920s was replaced with uncomplicated images of proletarian heroes. And though American cinema still served as the primary model for Soviet film-making, there was to be no more riotous experimentation with established conventions. The Soviet cinema of the middle and latter 1930s was dominated by straightforward ‘hurrah-patriotic’ action films or lavish Busby Berkeley influenced musicals. Stalinist productions such as Jolly Fellows, Circus and Volga-Volga exemplified the nervous jollity Socialist Realism required – encapsulated in the famous slogan ‘Life has become more joyous’ – their straightforward visual gags and thrills making a curious counterpart to another kind of comedy, the surreal confessions conceived during the Moscow trials.

Technology and post-capitalism

The Chaplin Machine shines fresh light on the radical dreaming of the early 20th century, offering a new window the intellectual and aesthetic excitement of the age of revolution that illuminates something of the avant-garde’s lighter side.

It may no longer be possible, in light of all the troubled water that has passed under the bridge since those times, to inhabit the same utopian mental universe as the Soviet avant-garde, but the deep question they wrestled with is as relevant now as it ever was: can technology work for progressive ends, for a more profound liberation of human creative capacities than their entrenchment within an aggressive capitalist framework permits?

It’s a question being discussed with unusual urgency today regarding the hopes and fears generated by new digital technologies and artificial intelligence. Innovations such as the platform economy, 3D printing and ever more sophisticated automation hold the prospect of both liberation and enslavement: a future in which technology opens new opportunities for human expression and the mechanisation of routine labour, or one in which the mass of the population stuggles for survival in a winner-takes-all gig economy.

The possibility of a new digital ‘post-capitalism’ has been the subject of bestselling books by Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams and Martin Ford. These and other writers are asking essentially the same question as the Soviet avant-garde a century ago, when dumbstruck by the fantastic possibilities of modernity. In Hatherley’s words:

[D]oes any of it promise a world in which the machine can be reconciled with a pleasure in excitement, movement, and participation, or is such a reconciliation impossible?

The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde by Owen Hatherley is published by Pluto Press.

The featured image is a detail from a 1936 Soviet poster for Chaplin’s City Lights.