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New Left Review 8, March-April 2001

Tony Wood on Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: the Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. USSR and USA as alternative models of mechanized happiness in the inter-war world—and their outcome at the end of the Cold War.



Behind the ideological differences that for so long seemed to divide them, did Sovietcommunism and Americancapitalism share some fundamental dream of modernity? Susan Buck-Morss’s large and splendidly illustrated book argues that each in their own fashion was possessed of an idea of massutopia. Author of two distinguished works on the Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin, The Origin of Negative Dialectics (1977) and Dialectics of Seeing (1989), Buck-Morss breaks quite new ground here, with an ambitious comparison of state legitimations, industrial technologies and popular culture in the USSR and USA, focused mainly—though not exclusively—on the 1920s and 1930s. She brings to this project a set of concerns and methods inspired by a deep immersion in Benjamin, whose Arcades Project was the subject of her second book, and whose traces are visible everywhere in this one. In the age of Ford and Stakhanov, dreams of another and happier world had unpredictable impulses and longings in common, best sounded with the instruments Benjamin used to plumb the oneiric layers and recesses of nineteenth-century Paris. These visions, she insists, are not to be condescended to. Flying in the face of globalizing triumphalism—and its despairing opposite, sectarian nationalisms—Buck-Morss seeks to reincorporate the experience of ‘socialism in one country’ into a wider historical narrative, which sees the end of the Cold War as a process of mutual defeat, the collapse of twinned, inseparable projects. Her book is a provocative elegy to what may have been lost in this outcome.

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Tony Wood, ‘Mellon in Magnitogorsk’, NLR 8: £3

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