From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977.
A Worker in a Workers’ State
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.