Kley, Martin. Weimar and Work: Labor, Literature, and Industrial Modernity on the Weimar Left. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2013. 170 pp.

John Bailes


Based on Martin Kley’s doctoral dissertation, completed at the University of Texas in 2008, Weimar and Work: Labor, Literature, and Industrial Modernity on the Weimar Left was published in 2013 as part of the series Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature. This series offers scholarly works that examine cross-cultural and national literatures. While Kley’s book clearly belongs to this category of research, it also opens up the field of “literary studies” to an examination of “written documents of low literary stature” (1), that is, texts that do not appear to be works of literature. In his introduction, Kley clarifies that “such texts” are significant for him “not simply out of fascination with their very obscurity,” but also because they allow us “to understand better the complex responses to modernity and modernization on Weimar Germany’s far left,” and to discern how the far left’s “orthodox communism” became what Kley calls “anti-authoritarian socialism” (1). Kley makes a case for the emergence of this unique political view via an analysis of workers’ correspondence and other literature during the 1920s and early 1930s. The author contextualizes this literature within the “larger social processes” (2) and aesthetic meta-discourses of the era, examining how these texts reflect and transform both industrial production and utopian ideas. At the heart of this study is the question of “industrial modernity”—especially as it is articulated and debated in relationship to the Weimar socio-economic conditions from which two critical issues emerge, rationalization and unemployment (2).


In the “Introduction,” Kley focuses on the response of German workers to Fordism, Taylorism and the rationalization of work and the labor process, using a “conveyor belt” as a metaphor for modern industrialization (5). He begins with Hannah Arendt’s summary critique of Marx’s optimism about labor, a reading that Kley believes is helpful although inaccurate. Arendt argues that when labor (the animal laborans) is placed in the public sphere, one is “left with the rather distressing alternative between productive slavery and unproductive freedom” (105). For Kley, Arendt helps us understand the “fundamental tension within the Marxist tradition at large” (10). It is perhaps for this reason that Kley demonstrates that American capitalism and Soviet communism of the 1920s-30s shared the same desire for mechanization and quantification, even though this desire was oriented towards different aims. These divergent aims have much to do with the distinction between work and labor, a key concept the author defines by historicizing Engels’ definitions—“work” is generic while “labor” is specific to “work under capitalism” (11).


Kley’s analysis is divided into two parts with two chapters each. The two parts offer competing models for the assessing the meaning and significance of work and the aesthetics of literature. In Part One, Chapters 1 and 2 focus on writing and work, conceptualizing both in terms of communism. In Part Two, Chapters 3 and 4 consider such activities through the lens of anti-authoritarian socialism. Using “largely unknown, semi-fictional worker-correspondences about work,” (12) the first part shows how it was possible for similarities between capitalist and communist forms of industrial labor to exist. As workers’ texts reveal, although communism denies one aspect of Fordism—the way in which labor is structured—Soviet work ideology embraces a different characteristic of Fordism, that is, the power of mechanization and its promise for technological progress. What seems important here is that the question about how labor is seen by communism has been typically taken up in a critique of bourgeois literature. As stated before, Kley focuses not on bourgeois literature, but instead on the writing of industrial experience itself, adhering to Frederic Jameson’s assertion that “social life is in its fundamental reality one and indivisible, a seamless web” (40). Kley effectively utilizes Jameson’s transcoding for this study, identifying both “division of labor” and “rationalization” to think of cultural and economic life together (19). Kley suggests that the significant cultural impact of a very popular autobiography, Henry Ford’s Mein Leben, in the Weimar Republic demonstrated a shift in the “framework of historical materialism” (20) to include greater rationalization and productivity. As Detroit drew Weimar engineers and industrialists to embrace Fordism, different articles (such as Grünberg’s “Das Ford-System” and Erwin Kisch’s “Bei Ford in Detroit”) and books (such as Jakob Walcher’s Ford oder Marx) complicated the relationship between workers and technology by simultaneously analyzing the benefits of machinery and criticizing Fordism’s division of labor (23).


Out of the Left’s enthusiasm for industrial techniques, Kley suggests, came more debate. As it becomes quickly clear in Kley’s analysis, questions began to emerge in the Weimar Republic about how to accomplish communist industrialization when non-industrial types of labor still exist. The major view at that time advocated rooting out these other types of labor, including white-collar work, by enforcing a rationalization of production. However, this movement raised another question about what kind of rationalization was preferable—a “division of tasks and goods for the common good” or “an ever stricter division of labor” (24) with greater efficiency. The obvious problem with the latter solution for rationalization was that it could be associated with rising unemployment. At this point, Kley cites the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer’s Fehlrationalisierung (“misguided rationalization”) to counter the idea that any socialist society could correct the rationalization of labor (24). Amid this debate, Kley carefully represents various texts of Arbeiterkorrespondenten (“worker-authors”), whose main themes tended to focus on worker exploitation, such as in pieces published in Die rote Fahne, German for The Red Flag (27). But there were still complications between desire and practice, namely that it was harder for Weimar communists to critique industrialization when they had themselves adopted industrial markets and technology. For labor artels, attempts would be made to reject subjecting workers to a capitalist mode of production, without forsaking industrial techniques and technologies. Kley provides a Foucauldian analysis that shows that Bolshevism’s aim “at the people’s consent to industrialization and collectivization” eventually morphed into Stalinism’s “rule by force through the promise and practice of a new civilization” (51).


In the second part of Kley’s study, anti-authoritarian socialism is defined as responding to German communism’s ethos of “all work and no play” (70). In contrast to communism, the anti-authoritarian left radically challenged the significance of labor in communist and capitalist ideologies. Work for this far left movement meant “creative human activity,” not industrial production (72). As the author explains, his choice of the term “anti-authoritarian socialism” (73) integrates into a single collective the various factions that could be identified in a study of Weimar anarchism. Here, Kley follows Fähnders and Rector’s two-volume German study of Weimar anarchism and the literature of anarchism (Linsradikalismus und Literatur: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der sozialistischen Literatur in der Weimar Republik). Yet Kley rejects the term Linksradikalismus because it is too connotative and polemical, reminiscent of Lenin’s ridicule of anarchists. This choice pushes Kley towards Hans Manfred Bock’s phrase, “anti-authoritarian camp,” (72) which productively refers to all of the various anarchist groups. So why use the term “socialism” instead of “anarchism”? Kley prefers “socialism” because it is associated with utopian ideals and circumvents the misunderstood “anarchism” (73). Even with this term, the difficulty of definitions remains, as the author points out: “In many ways, the Weimar anti-authoritarian socialists are the ancestors of today’s ‘happy unemployed,’” who refuse to work in return for wages. The approach of forming a “community through withdrawal” (86) had folk aspects (gemeinschaftlich) that defined itself against “industrial modernity” by abolishing private property and money and by overcoming division of labor.


Although on the margins of Weimar society, the anti-authoritarian socialists generated literature and art that addressed many of the same concerns we have today—such as the problem of industrial pollution and dangerous workplaces. A plethora of mining accidents that occurred over the past year across the world come to mind as examples of issues that the anti-authoritarian socialists speak powerfully to. What the anti-authoritarian socialist movement seems to generate in its exodus from industrialism are various modes of generative art. At the center of the new art forms is an “unwillingness to make peace with industrial modernity” (100). By the end of this era, however, this movement became even more marginal in Europe. As a result, the movement found Latin America, especially Mexico, to be a welcome place for environmentalist and leftist socialism. Attracted by revolution in Mexico, the Die rote Fahne and Die Aktion (“The Action”) ran regular news pieces about the political battles there. Of the many publications, those that seemed less enthusiastically received by anti-authoritarian socialists were B. Traven’s numerous novels of socialist/anarchist adventures in Mexico. Although Traven’s Der Schatz der Sierra Madre (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) in 1927 was a large success and his other novels very popular for German readers, the novelist was often attacked for emphasizing self-reliance over providing a “rigorous dialectical materialism” (110). Kley’s sustained consideration of Traven’s oeuvre produces several reasons for the novels we have—Traven’s association with the Wobblies, the use of storytelling as social critique, and narratives “at odds with economic modernization and literary modernism” (112).


In assessing Kley’s goals for this study of the Weimar Republic’s politically far left—i.e. to differentiate communist and anti-authoritarian socialist theories and practices, to revive a hidden archive of texts responding to industrial modernity, to engage the epistemological circuitry between literary and economic texts as shared knowledge (what Joseph Vogl calls Wissenzusammenhang), and to account for trans-national characteristics—I find this slim volume fruitful and even (pardon the pun) productive for both modern German labor studies as well as critical studies of economic globalization. However, the work suffers a bit from a lack of organizational continuity, with the result that many of the chapters articulate their arguments weakly. Some friendly advice would be to thread the entire study more tightly, perhaps by developing the significant “conveyor belt” trope that appears at certain parts in the book as a central, organizing motif.


Works Cited

Arendt, Hanna. The Human Condition. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981. Print.


John Bailes is a graduate student working on his PhD in Rhetoric at the University of South Carolina. His areas of interests are political and social movements, public identities of gender, and prose style.


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