M. Siefert: Labor in State-Socialist Europe

Labor in State-Socialist Europe, 1945-1989. Contributions to a History of Work

Siefert, Marsha
Work and Labor Transdisciplinary Studies for the 21st Century (1)
Budapest, New York 2020: Central European University Press
484 S.
€ 90.00
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Lucie Duskova, Leibniz-Institut für Geschichte und Kultur des östlichen Europa (GWZO) e.V.

This book can be included in the currently developing dynamic field of state socialist labour history, whose pioneering studies were published approximately 25 years ago.[1] It continues the exploration of the dictatorships from the perspective of workers’ experiences while insisting on “taking the promises and practices of state socialism seriously” (p. 16). Both approaches are more than appropriate in the context of the decades-long politicization of state socialist labour history by both communists and anti-communists.

The overall ambition of the authors is to follow “a long-term initiative to bring Central, South-eastern and Eastern Europe into Labor History for the 21st Century in Global Perspective” and even to focus attention on these regions (p. 1). Indeed, this part of Europe has served as a laboratory for diverse economic and social doctrines, including different versions of Marxism and neo-liberalism (pp. 12–13, 23–24), and in parallel, despite the Iron Curtain boundaries, it was firmly entangled with Western European as well as global economic, social, and political processes. Therefore, this aim is highly relevant to understand the former socialist states, which is achieved by focusing on the issues that face all political and economic regimes regardless of their ideological roots, such as housing, wages, work security, (im)migration, discipline, or social security.

Concerning the structure, the book is divided into five main sections, with an average of four texts each. The authors include well-established scholars and junior researchers. This mix is enriching; while the well-established scholars deepen and elaborate their often long-worked concepts, the young scholars introduce new topics. Nevertheless, it would have been useful to explain the internal structure of the book more thoroughly. Although it is pertinent that the book is organized thematically, “a set of five themes that express the expectations, contradictions and lived experiences of workers under state socialism” (p. 16) is a bit too general explication.

Concerning content, the first part addresses the efforts of state institutions and factory management to recruit workers and to inculcate the newcomers with the shop floor discipline. Two texts analyse more common topics: Stakhanovism and the building of the factory-city. The latter offers the term “agrarian industrialization” to grasp the construction of the factory-city at a place without any industrial or urban traditions (pp. 96–98). Using examples from Bulgaria and Albania, the term can be transmitted for analysing Global South transformations. The other two texts develop less common, but even more relevant, topics of unemployment and immigration. The cases of Poland and Czechoslovakia from the 1950s to 1970s serve as illustrations. Such thematization enables us to make parallels with the then identical concerns faced by Western European states.

The second section focuses on workers’ rights in relation to disciplining and appropriating the promoted values. Here it is interesting to look at the strategies of Polish saleswomen in department stores. They were at the frontline, so to say, of the everyday shortage of basic consumer goods and, in parallel, were made responsible for this scarcity. This led to tense relations between them and clients, which are still present in the post-socialist collective memory. Additionally, the text about the worker hostels in Hungary and German Democratic Republic refines the concept of “welfare dictatorship” to understand the regimes, which is “based on a recognition that the dictatorship of the proletariat could not change human needs or the ways of satisfying these needs” (pp. 167–168). This concept helps to distinguish between the common points and particularities of the liberal-democratic and the state socialist welfare states.

The third part presents different work accidents and reactions to them by public institutions. The text about the nuclear accident in the city of Vinča, Yugoslavia, in 1958 deserves particular attention. Following the accident, the factory and party elite reacted by promptly transporting the injured to a specialized hospital unit in Paris, saving the lives of most of the victims. The sudden, easy permeability of the Iron Curtain for life-saving (and scientific) purposes is among many instances revealing that European countries communicated and cooperated in multiple areas despite the Cold War boundaries.[2] The text also points to the pragmatic approach of the Yugoslav state towards the accident. While the injured – mostly students and lower-ranking technical staff – were eventually forgotten as well as struggled to have corresponding pensions, nothing happened to the decision-makers responsible for the accident. By contrast, the decision-makers later had brilliant professional careers thanks to their expert know-how (pp. 297–305). A similar experience of (social) injustice is addressed in the text about the work accidents in Romania. The victims depended on social assistance, facing insufficiency and disinterest at best, while the public declarations claimed the generous welfare of the state and work heroism. Indeed, these findings point to some, among the many, paradoxes of state socialism.
In the fourth part, the texts explore workers’ protests and revendication. All authors conclude that the workers did not contest state socialism as a system, but rather the regime’s partial (nevertheless substantial) deficiencies. These conclusions correct the still dominant narrative of the inherent desire for liberal capitalism in state socialist societies. Moreover, a text about women’s struggle for equal pay in Hungary shows that women did not contest “the foundational framings and mechanisms of state-socialist labor policies which were conducive to pursuing working women’s interests in a limited manner at best” (p. 372). This section shows the limits of internal criticism of the state socialist regimes.
The fifth and last section contains only one text, which looks at the everyday (work)life experiences in the Jiu Valley coal mines. The author emphasizes the transeconomic and transpolitical dimensions of this history. The text forms a sort of epilogue and invites further global labour history research. It would probably be more relevant if this section included the two previous texts about the Yugoslav industrial workers’ attitudes towards (neo-)liberal capitalism (here in section four). Or the last two parts could be merged, resulting in the entire structure probably changing as well.
Also, it is a pity that the book does not contain a general conclusion by the editor, which would enable the reader to grasp the most important arguments and the promise of “some generalizations, some surprises and some rethinking” announced in the introduction (p. 16). It could as well serve as a final synthesis and would make a clear statement related to the declared ambitions.
Despite these negligible doubts, the book is a relevant and useful contribution to global labour history. The authors provide accessible but also in-depth factually oriented texts. They introduce new ideas and use a great variety of sources. In sum, the book provides thorough and inspiring groundwork for further reflection.

[1] Padraic Kenney, Rebuilding Poland. Workers and Communists. 1945–1950, Ithaca 1996; Stephen Kotkin: Magnetic Mountain. Stalinism as a Civilization, Berkeley 1997.
[2] In this context see Sandrine Kott / Michel Christian / Ondřej Matějka (Hrsg.), Planning in Cold War Europe. Competition Cooperation Circulations (1950s–1970s), Berlin 2018.

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