Teaching the West How to Plan: Soviet Economic Thinking at the UN

How did international economic thinking, including socialist international economic thinking, help make capitalism out of socialism in Eastern Europe and the USSR? This project seeks to answer this question by uncovering the continued participation of Soviet and state socialist economists in UN institutions from the 1940s to the 1990s. I begin in the UN regional economic commission for Europe (ECE), which was set up in in 1948 as part of an effort to rationalize postwar reconstruction and increased economic integration across Europe. The ECE was explicitly intended to bridge the growing East-West divide and the first director Gunnar Myrdal was adamant that his deputy be Soviet. Yet for all the emphasis on cross-regional cooperation, much less is known about how this was (or was not) achieved in practice. Indeed, biography and memoir from western perspective seem to suggest a lack of cooperation, referring to East Europeans only when they interrupted economic work with apparently political speeches. This criticism gets towards a key conceptual challenge: how can East and West integrate economically when their respective economic languages sound like ideology to the other? I address this question through memoir, digitized files from the UN in New York, and while possible, visits at Geneva and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization archives in Rome, examining technical committees where Soviets and westerners could talk about bricks, cows, and potatoes, where discussions of technical details reveal the assumptions each expert brought to economic planning. The project will continue through other sites, such as the UN regional commission for African (UN ECA), the Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the Center for Development Planning in New York, which give insight into the interplay between Soviet and international development and enrich our knowledge of Soviet actors who worked in the UN system more broadly. Finally, the project will return to the ECE in the 1980s and 1990s to examine how this institution and its staff, who had built up a wealth of collaborative regional knowledge over the past four decades, shaped and helped produce the post-socialist transitions. The goal of the project at its largest scale is to understand how the diverse socialist roots of post-socialist globalization were obscured, and to provide a framework that can integrate of global histories of communism with the global histories of capitalism. 

CONTACT

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ECOINT Postdoc Fellow

elizabeth.banks AT eui.eu

Dr Elizabeth Banks