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The politics of consumption

Consumption as Ideological Competition: Cold War Materialism

Week 9: Professor Susan Carruthers

Seminar slides: click hereLink opens in a new window

Throughout the module, we have explored the many meanings of consumption-- for individual self-fashioning, for the establishment of power hierarchies, and for global trade. In the penultimate seminar of the module, we consider one particularly fraught chapter in the "geo-politicization" of consumption in the second half of the twentieth century. Focusing on the 1950s, this seminar examines the battle over consumption that lay at the heart of east-west competition during the cold war. Although our readings focus on the way in which the US and USSR put the material fruits of their respective "ways of life" of display in the 1950s, we will also consider the way in which historical accounts of this phenomenon were themselves often bound up with cold war triumphalism in the 1990s. The demise of the eastern bloc and the USSR gave rise to extravagant claims that the US had definitively won the cold war on the terrain of consumerist aspirations. But how much credence should we give to these assertions? And when historians deal with something as inchoate as human desire, how do we presume to know what meanings people attach to owning and using certain goods or merely aspiring to possess them?

Seminar questions: 

  1. 'Although the cold war is often characterized as a "war of ideas", it would be more apt to regard superpower competition as waged at the level of material "stuff"': a war of, and for, consumers.' Discuss.
  2. Why did international fairs become cold war battlegrounds? What kinds of spaces were these exhibits? What variety of audiences were they aimed at?
  3. How were international expositions shaped by particular constructions of race and gender?
  4. After the fall of communism in eastern Europe and the USSR, triumphalists in western Europe and the US lauded the superiority of western culture in breaking down the Iron Curtain. How does recent scholarship complicate the claim that 'the west won the cold war'?

Required readings:

David Riesman, 'The Nylon War' in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 8, No. 3 (SPRING 1951), pp. 163-170 [find via JSTOR]

Greg Castillo, 'Domesticating the Cold War: Household Consumption as Propaganda in Marshall Plan Germany', Journal of Contemporary History, 40, 2 (2005), pp.261-88

Lewis Siegelbaum, 'Sputnik Goes to Brussels: The Exhibition of a Soviet Technological Wonder', Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 47, no. 1 (Jan. 2012), Special Issue: Sites of Convergence — The USSR and Communist Eastern Europe at International Fairs Abroad and at Home, pp. 48-68

Susan E. Reid, 'Who Will Beat Whom?: Soviet Popular Reception of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959', Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 9, 4 (Fall 2008), pp. 855-904

Supplementary reading:

Paulina Bren & Mary Neuberger (eds), Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Vintage, 2004)

David F. Crew (ed), Consuming Germany and the Cold War (Berg, 2003)

David Crowley and Susan E. Reid (eds), Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc (Northwestern University Press, 2010)

Victoria DeGrazia, Irresistible Empire: America's Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe (Harvard University Press, 2006)

Martin Daunton & Matthew Hilton (eds), The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America (Berg, 2001)

Anne E. Gorsuch and Diane P. Koenker (eds), Socialist Sixties: Crossing Borders in the Second World (Indiana University Press, 2013)

Anne E. Gorsuch, '"There’s No Place Like Home": Soviet Tourism in Late Stalinism,' Slavic Review 62, iv (Winter 2003): 760-785 [JSTOR]

Walter Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945-1961 (St. Martin's, 1997)

Rana Mitter and Patrick Major (eds), Across the Blocs: Cold War Cultural and Social History (Frank Cass, 2004)

Gyorgy Peteri (ed.), Imagining the West in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)

Susan E. Reid, “Cold War in the Kitchen: Gender and De-Stalinization of Consumer Taste in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev,” Slavic Review 61, ii (Summer 2002), pp.211-52

Alexander Sedlmaier, Consumption and Violence: Radical Protest in Cold-War West Germany (University of Michigan Press, 2014)

Lewis Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Cornell University Press, 2008)

Gleb Tsipursky, Socialist Fun: Youth, Consumption, and State-Sponsored Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1945-1970 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)