Communist Corporate Cultures: Enterprise between Political Principle and Profit Pursuit

AHA Session 206
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Salon 6 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Philip Scranton, Rutgers University at Camden
Philip Scranton, Rutgers University at Camden

Session Abstract

Scholarship in economic and business history has traditionally focused on industries and markets in the Western hemisphere. Recent interest in the history of capitalism has perpetuated that trend. Shaped by scholars from capitalist democracies with Anglo-Saxon intellectual traditions, these fields are still only beginning to expand academic inquiry to subjects in other settings. In their recent “prospective historiography” Reimagining Business History, Philip Scranton and Patrick Fridenson cautioned practitioners against treating organizational standards germane to enterprise in the United States and Western Europe as “normal and normative.” This panel seeks to break new ground by discussing business models and managerial strategies in communist societies of Eastern Europe and Asia. Probing multifaceted interrelations between economic activity and political authority in the Eastern Bloc of the Cold War era, it aims to stimulate interest in enterprise as both a catalyst and a product of historical change in locales outside the capitalist West. Transcending traditional and recent limitations, its goal is to define characteristics of corporate culture in communist countries.

The panel’s papers investigate industrial endeavors in three nation states that faced particular challenges during the second half of the twentieth century. While the German Democratic Republic felt the West’s overwhelming economic power on the other side of the Wall and the People’s Republic of Poland struggled to contain resistance to its status as a Soviet satellite, Mao-era China pursued its ambitions outside the Warsaw Pact. Each country, however, stressed the benefits of centralized planning over the effects of regulatory market forces. Examining different industrial branches, the papers illuminate how managers balanced political expectations and economic aspirations to build successful companies and attractive workplaces. Zhaojin Zeng’s research traces the development of the Baojin Coal and Iron Company. His contribution illuminates in which ways directors of the Chinese heavy industry reconciled their prime responsibility of ensuring smooth production flow with revolutionary—and thus oftentimes disruptive—impulses from experts in the political echelons. Anna Pikos’s current project scrutinizes Poland’s Polfa combine, which united companies of the pharmaceutical and medical industries. Applying her professional expertise in organizational management to a historical case study, her paper reveals how political and economic actors utilized corporate narratives for public-relations purposes and to promote role models for the labor force. Sven Kube’s scholarship on cultural commerce across the Iron Curtain investigates East Germany’s music industry as a domestic agent of Westernization. His presentation explains how managers of the flagship enterprise advanced modernization by establishing unorthodox cooperation schemes and, concurrently, achieved profitability by implementing innovative business models.

In combination, these papers propose tools and templates to expand the canvas for historical research on industries and markets beyond the Western capitalist arena. The panel introduces methodological ideas to inspire future investigations on that trajectory. The panelists, all of whom are last-generation representatives of Cold War communist societies, believe that this expansion represents a natural and necessary process. They argue that analyzing entrepreneurial endeavors enhances the historical understanding of communist systems with insight that studies in political or social history are unlikely to produce.

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