Monthly Archives: January 2019

A Worker In A Workers’ State

From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977.

A Worker in a Workers’ State
Miklos Haraszti

Pelican 85p

A Worker in a Workers’ State is written by a young Hungarian poet, Miklos Haraszti, who received a commission to write about factory conditions and took a job in a tractor factory, working as a skilled man on milling machines.

In spite of its title, and various references in the foreword by Heinrich Böll about Hungary as a Socialist country, the book screams aloud the absurdity of these descriptions. When reading it I often had to remind myself that it was not about 19th Century England, but Hungary in the early 1970s. The similarities with early British Capitalism appear throughout the book like daisies in a well neglected lawn. The low level of wages compels workers to accept absolutely inhuman conditions merely in order to earn enough to be able to eat. The absence, as yet, of any kind of independent trade union organisation leaves workers at the mercy of the piece work system designed to squeeze the utmost production from them. The description of official Union organisations tally with what we already know about some other E. European factories. Shop stewards are nominated by the head foreman. At best they are totally ineffective, at worst they are ‘our paid enemy’.

‘They would be the first to send for the police if there was a strike.’

In Hungarian the book was entitled Piece Rates and that is indeed its main theme. The writing is brilliant, simple yet penetrating, describing the relationship between workers and bosses, workers and machines in every detail. The socialist viewpoint of the writer is implicit, nowhere does he theorise very much, yet the details build up to a powerful socialist indictment of Hungarian factories.

Everything which characterises capitalist relations of production is there. The alienation of workers from the work they do – the diametric opposition of their interests and that of their bosses; the design of a system which compels workers not only to collaborate in their own exploitation, but to force the level of exploitation to ever increasing dizzy heights.

‘The idlest and most farfetched artist could never have imagined that he who creates all existing goods could work without complaint under a system of “incentive” pay which means that he has to surpass 100 per cent production in order to obtain, for himself and his family, just enough to live, so that he can start the next day all over again … But as soon as his productivity has reached a level which assures him acceptable living standards, his output is condemned as too high and he is sanctioned in the following way: the production which he has just achieved, although condemned, is nonetheless recorded. Henceforth he must reach the same output for less pay, which proves in turn to be insufficient for his daily needs.’

Each operative services two machines.

‘You can’t dominate two machines: they dominate you. They devour raw materials and vomit them out finished. Full of impatience, as if they are jealous of each other, each demands that I immediately complete the work on each of them. There is absolutely no question of even a shadow of relaxation, or a hint of satisfaction, as you dismantle one piece at lightning speed, insert another, unscrew the clamps, screw them up again, and immediately get going on the other machines to do the same thing, but with a different rhythm, and when you’ve done that, to recommence on the first one, all over again.’

‘I discover a change in myself. My interest in materials, techniques and ways of economising my strength is first coloured and then dominated by an obsession about making money. I surrender to an oppressive, unspoken, but all-powerful taboo – never approach work to make it more exact, easy, enjoyable, or safe.’

‘They, them, theirs: I don’t believe that anyone who has ever worked in a factory, or even had a relatively superficial discussion with workers, can be in any doubt about what these words mean … It is an astonishing enigma, worthy of the pen of a linguist or philosopher, that in contrast to this THEM through which the workers define themselves by exclusion, workers never use, either by chance or in jest, or by the slip of the tongue, or in error and probably not even in their dreams the ‘us’ which forms the counterbalance to it.

‘The factory journal, and the management from top to bottom, do it all the time. They are always using US, WE, OURS, and WITH US. Maybe this “us” is the first word which a newly promoted boss has to learn; and learn its full meaning too, because its sense is in no way identical to the spoken word of common language.’

So far we have had many pictures of East European workers in battle. The events in Poland throughout the seventies has shown us a working class erupting into violence on the streets of Szczecin, Gdansk or Radom; learning by a succession of such eruptions how to organise and fight in ever more sophisticated forms. Miklos Haraszti has allowed us an insight of the forces which determine the violence of these eruptions.

There is little in the book which analyses the ultimate reasons for the situation on the factory floor. The frictions arise out of workers relations with foreman, inspectors, rate fixers etc. Top management are too distant – like the king in feudal times – to be seen by workers as a possible variable of the system. Although Haraszti makes it clear that this is not his view, he does not take the question further.

Another depressing feature of Haraszti’s world is the lack of even a germ of common united action by workers to fight their condition. Each man is divided from his fellows by the piece work system which rules supreme. One Polish worker, describing his feelings as he marched out of the shipyards of Szczecin, told me:

‘Every time we have such a rumpus we think: perhaps this is it? Perhaps this is the spark that will light the conflagration to engulf the whole rotten system?’

The workers in Haraszti’s factory seem to have a long way to go before they reach that level of hope.

Yet in spite of this there is a visionary glimpse of what would be possible in a world of unalienated labour, when Haraszti discusses the production of ‘homers’ – objects made in the factory from scrap materials for the workers own use.

‘The tiny gaps which the factory allows us become natural islands where, like free men, we can mine hidden riches, gather fruits, and pick up treasures at out feet. We transform what we find with a disinterested pleasure, free from the compulsion to make a living. It brings us an intense joy … the joy of autonomous uncontrolled activity, the joy of labour without rate-fixers, inspectors, and foremen.’

Haraszti looks forward to the age of the ‘Great Homer’ when all work might be carried out on this basis.

‘Precisely what is senseless about homers from the point of view of the factory announces the tranquil insistent affirmative of work motivated by a single incentive stronger than all others: the conviction that our labour, our life and our consciousness can be governed by our own goals.’

Haraszti’s book is a must for all socialists. It might with some profit be recommended to non-socialist friends too. Many of its insights into working class attitudes extend way beyond the boundaries of Hungary and Eastern Europe and its sensitive approach might succeed where many an eloquent left-wing rhetoric has failed.

Blood And Guts

Kathy Acker reviewed live in the NME, 25 February, 1984.

Kathy Acker

London Riverside Studios

If writer Kathy Acker took the mike to an SRO house as a consequence of all the hype her ‘controversial’ persona, it would be no surprise.
But if this crowd bore its attentions down on the small figure in outsize shirt and baggy trousers because of the wilful misrepresentation her work has received in the past two weeks – during which nationals have transformed themselves into instant experts on the ‘New York New Wave art and music’ scene – it was no bad thing at all. For reading fluently and professionally from the fresh-published Blood And Guts In High School Plus Two, Ms Acker demonstrated where her commitments to writing lie.
The passage she chose was a selection of fictified letters passing between Emily and Charlotte Bronte – part of the third novel in Blood And Guts (‘A Journey To The End Of The Night’). With the voice of their author bringing these to us, all the bits fell in to perspective: the sexy stuff got sexier, the pulp mannerisms more blatantly self-mocking, and the serious investigations (what is love? what is language? what is real emotion and how is it best expressed through words) which underscore the text were shared with the audience rather than demonstrated.
Perhaps best-received, however, was the slapstick-through-irony humour which continuously leavens the curiosities, compassion and crudities with which Acker spins her tales. This audience was delighted to find the dreary porn’n’nihilism’n’no-hope stereotype of the recent press deluge completely contradicted.

Cynthia Rose

Lady Whirlwind

Lady Whirlwind is a nickname for kung fu star Angela Mao. This poem was first published in Yeast, issue 8, 1995.

Lady Whirlwind

Everyday
I wash
I brush
weave my hair into braids
Pigtails
were pulled at school
Learnt to keep
my slant eyes down
Satin and silk
clothes
are softer
than any part of me
Jasmine hands
blossom into fists
and don’t take
no shit

Yen Li

Bus Stop

The poem is from the 1968 It’s The World That Makes The Love Go Round anthology of poems from Breakthru poetry magazine.

Bus Stop

The lorries hum
Through Islington
And in the din
A man may sing
Something absurd
And not be heard
In Islington.

Arthur D. Clegg

This Are Two Tone

The kicking 2 Tone compilation reviewed in Sounds, 26 November, 1983.

VARIOUS ARTISTS
‘This Are Two-Tone’
(Chrysalis CHR TT5007) ***1/2

Two-Tone, just what did it give us?
It gave us the Specials, it gave us Rude Boys (a short-lived but very welcome youth cult, even if only because of its aptitude for confusing the gangs of this world to such an extent that nobody had a clue who they should be scrapping with) and it gave us the fabulous Madness.
Yet, on the whole, this strange phenomenon was little more than a quite pitiful, re-gurgitation of a feebl, rather unlovable music – ska – wrapped up nicely in black ‘n’ white chessboard packaging, ripe and ready for the pre-Adam/Duran generation to suckle up to.
Thankfully, Madness (curiously only represented here by their tiresome anthem, ‘Madness’) leapt from the runaway Two-Tone train in the nick of time, going on to become the most important pop group of the Eighties, consistently notching up classic after classic, and bringing a touch of real class to an otherwise stale hit-parade.
The Specials, while not deserting the label, also saved their skins by dumping those dull old ska rhythms and carving out their own, often mighty sound. ‘More Specials’ was a fine album, and from that particular turning-point, the band’s scathingly accurate portrayal of Friday night lowlife, ‘Stereotype’, is here, along with the sultry ‘Do Nothing’ plus ‘Ghost Town’.
But the Big Two besides (ignoring the Bodysnatchers and the mass of equally pappy embryonic drivel – out here in force), what else did we get from Two-Tone of any worth?
We got the Selecter’s diamond couplet, ‘On My Radio’ and ‘Missing Words’ (the former of which turns up here) and we got Rhoda Dakar’s ‘The Boiler’ – a tale of rape so horrific, so disturbing, that it makes uncomfortable listening on every play.
Come to think of it, that’s probably enough in itself.

Winston Smith

Crossing Clissold Park

Clissold Park is in Stoke Newington and this poem is from the 1979 collection Hackney Writers’ Workshop 3. Ken Worpole was the convenor of the workshop.

Crossing Clissold Park

Suddenly the sun,
Streaming golden through the trees,
Has detonated the frozen pond into a thousand fragments.

Such strange acoustics
In this ice-sharp silver air:
Children’s voices shatter like broken glass.

The railings stiffen,
The pathways harden into iron,
The grass, brittle as pebbles, resists impressions.

Our breaths transform themselves
Into milky-white precipitates, clouding the pure air
Of this bell-jar world, this waterless aquarium.

The sun slips from the frozen web:
Dusk, gentle as sand, enters the gates,
And unseen voices now softly ring and echo like muffled bells.

Ken Worpole

Librarian Julie Cheung-Inhin with several community booklets and pamphlets.

Skinhead Verse

The first issue of Cardiff’s sussed skinhead ‘zine Backs Against the Wall, from 1986, has this poem in it. Cardiff skinhead/punk pub the Pig and Whistle, also known as The Gill, gets a mention.

A single guy, against the crowd,
So you beat him up, do you feel proud,
He must think you’re insane,
If it happens to you, you soon complain.

You fight in a pub, you fight in the station,
Is it any suprise you’ve a bad reputation,
Is it a laugh, when no band plays this town,
Cause then who’s the dickhead, who’s the clown?

There’s no need of violence, no one’s gonna gain,
Do you really get pleasure, by giving someone pain?
Just be a mellow guy, and drink in the Gill,
Make sure you watch Auf Wiedersain,
And be sure to watch Grange Hill!!

Boner, the poet laureate of Cardiff

All Tomorrows’ Sundays

A Marcia Medici poem from Rob Noxious’ poetry ‘zine A New World Dawning, the Love Love Love issue, 1985.

All Tomorrows’ Sundays

Today is a preview of tomorrow
It is here, and it was here
But it hasn’t actually arrived;
But today made an exception
And hung around
Long enough to be appreciated by those
Who bothered to look.

You saw today in its entirety
Like you saw previous yesterdays
In their non-existence;
Today was the first day of the rest of your life,
A life of grey uncertainty
Shot through with flashes of gold.

I’d like to think that I was
A single flash of gold
That shed a little light on your Today;
I can shed no light
On any tomorrows,
But if you accept me and will take me
Together, we can see through some of our Todays.

Marcia Medici