Mark Rupert "Fordism," forthcoming in Stephen Burwood, ed., The Cold War: An Encyclopedia. (New York: Garland Publishers)

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Communist imprisoned bythe fascists, was among the first to recognize the potential political and cultural significance of "an ultra-modern form of production and of working methods --- such as is offered by the most advanced American variety, the industry of Henry Ford" (1971: 280-81). Through intensified exploitation of labor, the system of Fordist mass production might counter capitalism's endemic tendency toward a falling rate of profit. The institutionalization of such a system of production required, Gramsci thought, a combination of force and persuasion: a political regime in which trade unions would be subdued, workers might be offered a higher real standard of living, and the ideological legitimation of this new kind of capitalism would be embodied in cultural practices and social relations extending far beyond the workplace. Gramsci called attention to the "long process" of socio-political change through which a Fordist capitalism might achieve some measure of institutional stability.

The social institutions of mass production --- collectively referred to as Fordism --- began to emerge in the US early in the twentieth century and were at the center of a decades-long process of social struggle which extended into the immediate post-World War II era. Cold War ideology played a crucial role in the political stabilization of Fordist institutions in the US, providing the common ground on which de-radicalized industrial labor unions could be incorporated as junior partners in a coalition of globally-oriented social forces which worked together to rebuild the "free world" along liberal capitalist lines and to resist the encroachment of a presumed Communist menace globally and at home. Institutionalized Fordism, in turn, enabled the US to contribute almost half of world industrial production in the immediate postwar years, and thus provided the economic dynamism necessary to spark reconstruction of the major capitalist countries after World War II, and to support the emergence of both the consumer society and the military-industrial complex in the postwar US.

Ford's Highland Park Plant Henry Ford (1863--1947) is conventionally credited with synthesizing the various elements constituting the modern model of mass production which bears his name, and which is often said to date from the development of the first moving assembly lines, put into operation at Ford's Highland Park, Michigan plant in 1913--1914.

Displacing predominantly craft-based production in which skilled laborers exercised substantial control over their conditions of work, Fordist production entailed an intensified industrial division of labor; increased mechanization and coordination of large scale manufacturing processes (e.g., sequential machining operations and converging assembly lines) to achieve a steady flow of production; a shift toward the use of less skilled labor performing, ad infinitum, tasks minutely specified by management; and the potential for heightened capitalist control over the pace and intensity of work.

In the mid-1920s, one production worker described as follows the relentless pace and intense effort which his job required, and the consequences of failing to meet that standard on a daily basis: "You've got to work like hell in Ford's. From the time you become a number in the morning until the bell rings for quitting time you have to keep at it. You can't let up. You've got to get out the production...and if you can't get it out, you get out" (quoted in Rupert, 1995: 111).

At the core of the Fordist reorganization of production, then, was the construction of new relations of power in the workplace; to the extent that these relations of power could become established parameters of the work process, capital would reap the gains of manifold increases in output per hour of waged labor. The promise of massive increases in productivity led to the widespread imitation and adaptation of Ford's basic model of production through the industrial core of the US economy, and in other industrial capitalist countries.

Yet, while the system of mass production generated the potential for capital and its managerial agents to exert greater control over the performance of work, it did not guarantee the realization of that potential. In the forty years following the first experiments in line assembly at Highland Park, industrial struggles focusing on issues of unionization and the politics of production waxed and waned throughout the industrial sector of the US economy. The relationship of industrial workers to the corporate giants which dominated the manufacturing heart of the US economy was not effectively stabilized until the militant industrial unions which arose in the 1930s were de-radicalized, incorporated into the social infrastructure of the American economy, and became junior partners in the coalition which established American global hegemony in the postwar world. The relationship of industrial labor and American global power was consummated during the early years of the Cold War when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) purged its leadership of radicals and expelled entire unions which were perceived to be under Communist leadership or influence, for example, because they criticized America's emerging global role.

In the context of rising Cold War fears, and access to an unprecedented affluence (rising real wages secured for unionized industrial workers through pattern bargaining, the linking of wages to productivity growth, COLAs, etc.), the challenge of industrial labor was contained within the bounds of a vision of liberal capitalism as the social system best able to secure --- on a global basis, and with the active collaboration of "free trade unions"---individual rights and liberties and a more generalized prosperity. Cold War anticommunism was the ideological cement which bound industrial labor together with internationally-oriented segments of corporate capital in the project of reconstructing the world economy along liberal capitalist lines.

By 1950, Walter Reuther, the president of one of the most militant and progressive industrial unions in America, and Ford Motor Company, formerly one of the most violently intransigent anti-labor firms in America, had constructed political common ground on the basis of an ideology of global anticommunism, individual freedom, and prosperity secured through a modified capitalism in which corporations and unions would cooperate to increase productivity and deliver rising real standards of living for American workers and other peoples who would follow the American model of Fordism.

In an ambitious plan for a liberal capitalist world order which Reuther delivered to President Truman, Reuther highlighted the importance of "free trade unions" for a successful Cold War strategy: "We must meet the challenge of Communism, not by pious slogans about democracy's virtues, but by a positive program of social action that can and does win a fuller measure of social justice for people everywhere. ...Instead of driving their bodies for the Soviet war machine, we propose to assist [those peoples putatively threatened by Communist domination] in achieving decent wages, hours, working conditions and the right to collective bargaining."

Similarly, Ford Motor Company presented to its workers a vision of the Cold War world in which the right to collective bargaining was integral to the American system of liberty and prosperity: "Right now the peoples of many nations are faced with a choice between Communism and Democracy...And they are looking to us for help and leadership. They are looking at the promise of individual reward that has stimulated American invention and business enterprise; at American technical progress which has performed miracles of mass production; at American workers free to organize, to bargain collectively with their employers...and constantly increasing real wages for shorter working hours" (both quotes from Rupert, 1995: 160--161).


Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. ed. Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. "Walter Reuther and the Rise of Labor-Liberalism." In Labor Leaders in America. ed. M. Dubofsky and W. Van Tine. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 280-302.

Rupert, Mark. Producing Hegemony: The Politics of Mass Production and American Global Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995

van der Pijl, Kees. The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class. London: Verso, 1984

Mark Rupert, Created: 6/13/96, Updated: 3/29/97.