Feb/Mar 2009

Material Matters

Katherine Pence


In the 1967 film The Graduate, a family friend memorably advises Benjamin on his future: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word . . . Plastics.” These lines encapsulate the zeitgeist of 1960s American materialism. Yet Eli Rubin’s Synthetic Socialism offers a brilliant analysis of how plastics are perhaps more essential to understanding East German Socialism, the nature of its dictatorship, and even Germany’s role in the cold war. He shows how the planned economy of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) created a standardized set of plastic objects that molded a unique East German culture.

Designed as an alternative to capitalist plastic kitsch, GDR plastics served as icons of the postwar Marxist faith in a “scientific-technological revolution,” in which humans would become masters of nature. “Purposefully” designed plastics were thought to confirm the material’s authenticity, its superior scientific and rational qualities. Eschewing “bourgeois” ornamentation as cosmopolitan decadence, GDR designers focused on serving the population’s daily needs with functionalist products, such as vases that were plain and cylindrical rather than decorative. Practical concerns underlay these utopian visions. For a small, resource-poor state like the GDR, using oil from the Soviet “Friendship Pipeline” to transform the traditionally strong German chemical industry into a plastics powerhouse was crucial. Through plastics, the GDR competed with West Germany’s consumerist “economic miracle”—the Trabant, with its plastic chassis, was the Socialist answer to the Volkswagen.

In 1958, the year Rubin identifies with a “consumer turn,” the GDR launched a Chemistry Program that pushed synthetics as a cornerstone of a new Seven-Year Plan. Economic planners pledged to fill shops with “1,000 small things,” such as the hen-shaped egg cups featured on Synthetic Socialism’s cover. The central Building Academy integrated plastics into its designs for P2-model high-rise apartments. Plastic-based walls enclosed modular Intecta-brand furniture coated with an easy-to-clean laminate called Sprelacart. The polyester Malimo curtains hanging in these rooms were not unlike the fabric worn by the inhabitants; the material’s simple care and durability were meant to free women from the burden of housework and the need to keep up with changing fashions. Plastics were even central to the East Germans’ ubiquitous pastime: camping. Plastic picnic and tenting supplies made the outdoors a home away from home without, Rubin says, “reducing the spirit of ‘roughing it.’” By the late ’60s, the state had created centralized agencies that winnowed down the assortment of goods to a common set of products, giving the country a distinctive look.

Popular culture mixed with propaganda to educate consumers about the ideological importance of plastics within this “socialist living culture.” But more than any official message, the experience of being surrounded by plastic transformed East German citizens. The book significantly shows how ordinary people filtered state and party ideology to give their own meaning to these objects. Making use of sources such as interviews, guestbook comments from a plastics exhibition, and petition letters to the government lodging quotidian complaints, Rubin argues for the existence of a mainstream culture that generally shared the values the regime associated with plastics. For example, he proposes that one petitioner had internalized the idea that plastics were “something desirable, as opposed to a cheap replacement,” since she suggested that GDR industry make bobbins from plastic even though traditional wooden ones were, in her words, a “folk art.” New residents of P2 housing projects were thrilled to have moved from crumbling buildings into these “machines for living,” although Rubin overdramatizes in comparing the radicality of this shift to the experience of urban destruction in World War II. Though some outsiders rejected this shiny world by hoarding antiques, plastic-hungry consumers pressured the regime to fill stores with promised synthetics.

Synthetic Socialism is an outstanding contribution to East German and consumer studies, particularly in its examination of GDR society. Against cold-war-era caricatures that portrayed “totalitarian” sovietized states crushing society, Rubin convincingly argues that the GDR was a “unique culture” in which diffuse state power was intertwined with everyday life. Power was exercised not through the extremes of Stasi surveillance but through the intimacy of materiality. With this model of GDR culture developing “centripetally” rather than from the state down, Rubin effectively counters the concept of GDR society as a “normal” space apart from or even resistant to state power—a view he associates with the students of British historian Mary Fulbrook. Yet he inconsistently overemphasizes these scholars’ reliance on state documents, while acknowledging their wide use of petition letters, a source he himself employs. His critique downplays the pioneering work of this wave of historians, who grappled in the ’90s with newly available archival sources and paved the way for Rubin and others to refine arguments against totalitarian theories of East German dictatorship.

This exceptional book presents a bold argument for understanding socialism and its legacy through material culture. GDR plastics have proved even more durable than expected. Post-1989 nostalgia for GDR plastic objects testifies to the acceptance of this element of East Germany’s alternative modernity. Seen through Rubin’s lens, socialism looks less gray than bright orange and sky blue.

Katherine Pence is associate professor of history at Baruch College in New York. Her book, Gender and Consumer Politics in Cold War Germany, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

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