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Paul O’Flinn

The Life of the Automobile

(May 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 98, May 1977, p. 27.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Life of the Automobile
by Ilya Ehrenburg
translated from the Russian by Joachim Neugroschel
Pluto Press, £4.50 hardback, £2.70 paperback

ILYA Ehrenburg, the Soviet novelist who died in 1967, was a man who survived through forty years of Stalinism on a combination of good fortune and deft manoeuvring that was both necessary and at the same time squalid.

But Pluto’s translation of his early ‘non-fiction novel’, The Life of The Automobile, first published in Berlin in 1929, takes us back before the compromising conservatism of that lifetime to one of his early works that is full of technical daring and radical questioning.

The Life of the Automobile is a bold attempt to make art out of a materialist analysis of society. The book sets out from the implied certainty that economic forces are, in the last instance, determinant and lets the imagination follow that notion through to the edges of individual experience.

Ehrenburg begins with the knowledge that, in particular, the car and its manufacture are central to twentieth-century industrial society and he spend 150 pages feeling and thinking his way into the implications of that fact.

So it is that the book jumps from brutal American intervention in Nicaragua aimed at securing rubber supplies for tire factories to wild gambling on the Paris stock exchange in Citroen shares; from the soul-rotting experience of a life serving a conveyor belt, where at the end of a day “a man leaves 300 cast screws and a bit of his body heat; he walks out with a fistful of coins” to the manic, random chases that are the daily routine of a Berlin taxi-driver.

The end product of this scramble is, for Ehrenburg, first the distortion and fragmentation of the individual:

Metals were etched with acids – the workers had eczema. Metals were cleaned with sand – the workers would be ambushed by consumption. Metals were painted with automatic sprayguns the workers were being poisoned by the vapors. In the foundries, the eyes of workers teared from the oil and sulphur. Little by little, they could no longer bear the sunlight. But there was no sun in the workshops ... Why have eyes, ears or life? They had hands, they stood at the belt.

Finally, the individual disappears altogether as the world is radically reduced to the forms and processes of industrial capitalism:

There are no people at the stock exchange ... There are only names and numbers, the lofty and tender names of three thousand securities. Royal Dutch, Rio Tinto, Malakka – oil, copper, rubber; names and numbers; numbers swarm, whirl, buzz, like locusts. Numbers decide everything here.

Hence the novel closes chillingly with a Dictaphone pumping out jargon about fluctuations in the French market, punctuated only by a single “desperate, bestial shriek” from a functionary at breaking point. Meanwhile the author catches a glimpse of Mussolini, emerging and thriving in this alienated shambles.

The Life of the Automobile isn’t an easy read. It’s written with a calculated monotony of tone to match the calculated monotony of the lives it tries to capture. Page after page is a kind of staccato snarl, with the repetitive insistences of the motorway and the production line, as language is pushed as close as possible to the numbing texture of the existences it seeks to convey.

Reviewers are supposed to say: ‘I couldn’t put it down’ On the contrary, I had to put it down every ten pages to avoid concussion – reading it was like being steadily slugged with wet knotted towels.

But that’s Ehrenburg point. Living and earning a living in a world ruled by Ford and Esso and British Leyland is like being steadily slugged. That’s why I kept coming back to the book, concussion or not, for its deep truth, and that’s why it’s worth your time and your money to get hold of it and read it.

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