Socialist Worldmaking: Urban Comparison in the Global Cold War

Blog post by Łukasz Stanek

13 Oct 2021, 4:08 p.m.
Łukasz Stanek



Comparative urbanism with an explicitly global ambition is not a recent phenomenon. Arguably, the first comparative urban studies straddling several continents were launched in support of colonial developmentalism, including the Town Planning Conference in London (1910) and the International Congress on Urbanism in the Colonies and Countries in the Intertropical Latitude in Paris (1931). Both conferences, and those that followed, reveal two coordinates of comparative urbanism that continue to be relevant today. First, comparative urbanism is closely intertwined with practices of economic and spatial planning. And, second, comparative urbanism depends on distinct regimes of worldmaking, or historically specific ways of practicing the world, among them colonialism, followed by Western-dominated globalization. 

Less well known is the urban comparative research that was practiced during the Cold War by scholars and planners in the framework of a different—socialist—worldmaking. By socialist worldmaking I mean the myriad exchanges between socialist countries under Soviet hegemony and newly independent countries in Africa and Asia. Motivated by a shifting set of ideological, geopolitical, and economic objectives from the 1950s to the 1980s, these exchanges included the production of a wide range of urban and regional studies focused on urbanization processes in African and Asian countries. Scholars and planners in charge of these studies drew upon urban concepts mobilised in state-socialist modernisation, and referred to longer research traditions from Eastern Europe. They either adapted these concepts to the conditions of newly-independent countries embarking on a socialist development path, or juxtaposed concepts from a wide variety of contexts—whether the ”West” or the “East”—selecting those most appropriate for their practical needs and concerns on the ground. Both  approaches entailed comparisons, whether explicit or implicit, between locations in Africa and Asia and those in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the paper I expand on these two comparative tactics, which I call “adaptive” and “appropriative”, and show how they resulted in juxtapositions of cities which had never been compared before, such as Frunze (Bishkek) and Accra, Tashkent and Kabul, Warsaw and Baghdad, Hungarian agrarian towns and cities in rural Nigeria. 


Photograph by Ahmad Mousa, 2018. Room with green sofas, wooden table, wooden walls and a large development plan map of Baghdad.
Master plan of Baghdad (1973) by Miastoprojekt-Kraków (Poland) in the offices of the Amanat al-Assima (Mayoralty of Baghdad), Baghdad, Iraq. This and the previous master plan by Miastoprojekt (1967) were prepared by a large number of spatial, economic, and sociological studies of Baghdad carried out by Polish and Iraqi teams during the 1960s and early 1970s. Photograph by Ahmad Mousa, 2018. First published in Łukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe West Africa and the Middle East in the Cold War (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020). 


This extension of candidates for comparison beyond western and northern cities reverberates with current postulates of the “new comparative urbanism” and its commitment, in the words of Jennifer Robinson, to a “more global urban studies”. As I show in my paper, parallels between these two moments of comparison also include the diversification of the terms of comparison, exemplified by the conceptualisation of postcolonial difference  by Soviet scholars and practitioners. Furthermore, this comparative research expanded the positionalities of scholars undertaking comparison beyond those available to Western European and North American researchers. These positionalities included the anticolonial stance declared by the Soviets and the claim that Central Europeans shared with the formerly colonised nations a history of foreign domination and exploitation. Asian and African scholars often contested these claims—and such contestations became opportunities for them to strategically reposition themselves with regard to dominant centres of urban knowledge production  on both sides of the Global Cold War. 

Exploring the work of these Asian and African scholars and their Eastern European counterparts advances current urban debates by pointing to the entanglement of comparative research with distinct worldmaking regimes. I argue that the concepts, methodologies, and institutions of comparative research which were developed in the framework of socialist worldmaking were informed by the geopolitics of the socialist countries and the newly independent countries, and their specific foreign trade relations and procedures. Socialist gift diplomacy, technical assistance, and preferential trade agreements shaped the conditions of labour in new research institutions established in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, the conditions of collaboration amongst scholars, the resources available to them, and thus the feasibility of some—rather than other—methodologies. At the same time, this political economy did not overdetermine the conceptual choices of the scholars involved. Not only did they have to navigate the often contradictory dynamics of socialist worldmaking, but also their research and practice in different contexts meant that they had to work across other worldmaking regimes, including colonial and globalist worldmaking. Even though their planning, legislative, and educational work impacted many cities and institutions across Africa and Asia, their research has been often forgotten since the end of the Cold War. Revisiting it offers an opportunity for a more historically specific understanding of the political economy of comparative urbanisms, both old and new.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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