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The New International, July–August 1952

George Benda & Natalie Simmons

The Struggle in Czechoslovakia

What Stalinist Rule Has Meant


From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 4, July–August 1952, pp. 206–210.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Hypnotized by the terrible vision of 1984, many socialists have come to view the Stalinist empire as the reign of sheer power, as a domain in which history has stopped. They abdicate the responsibility for scientific analysis, out of a feeling of profound disappointment which has its source in the fact that the working class has let them down. Hadn’t they been promised that, at least in Europe, the workers’ struggle against capitalism would lead to a more just society soon? Instead the workers have submitted to fascism, and looked to Stalinism as their saviour.

This disappointment with history and with the working class has its counterpart in the course of the class struggle itself and in the confusion and passivity that characterize the present state of class consciousness. The aspect of this confusion which interests us here is the myth of Stalinism as socialist, or at least as progressive with respect to capitalism; and the first thing to be observed about this myth is that it exists only where Stalinism doesn’t. The Iron Curtain separates those who can be fooled by propaganda from those whom reality is teaching a less passive attitude and showing a new perspective.

In the Kremlin’s European empire, the Czech working class occupies a particular position, because it is the most experienced, belonging to a social structure more or less like that of Germany. This is why its acceptance of Stalinism was especially tragic and why its reactions to the regime are especially significant. The Stalinist coup of 1948 was a victory over the Czech workers, of course, but it was not a real defeat for them, because they had not fought their enemy. The fact that most workers had either a let’s-wait-and-see attitude or welcomed the coup as anti-capitalist makes a great deal of difference as far as their present morale is concerned. If one has fought and lost, the result is tiredness, disgust and demoralization; but having trusted the wrong people, one is apt to become fighting mad.

From the immediate political point of view, the extent to which the Czech workers can resist exploitation has a direct bearing on the stability of the Stalinist bloc. But it may well be that the Czech working class, through its experience of struggle against the new State-boss, will make a contribution to the fight for socialism on another level as well. It has already freed itself of the illusion of Stalinism as a progressive force, and of the vaguer but more widespread illusion concerning nationalization. It has learned not to rely on the state bureaucracy or the Party or government-controlled unions. It has said: “We do not want to go back to capitalism. We want socialism, but this isn’t the kind of socialism we want.” Taken together, these attitudes spell a renewal of working class consciousness and point toward a way out of the present crisis of the labor movement.


The state of “sheer immobilization of uncertainty and confusion” in which the Czech working class found itself at the time of the coup [1] disappeared gradually as the situation itself became less confused. To retard the process of clarification, a fairly generous Social Security Law was proclaimed in May 1948 and presented as a gift of the regime to the workers. It was to lull the workers into a careless passivity, since from now on, the providential State would take care of everyone’s well being.

But for a Stalinist regime it is of course impossible to maintain the fiction of the “providential State.” Its role as the hew caretaker of capital includes the extraction of surplus value from the workers, and its measures are logically centered around this main function. The traditional features of the State as arbiter among conflicting social forces disappears rather quickly, because the State itself becomes a party to the social conflict.

As the regime’s managerial face began to show from beneath the "providential” mask, the workers recognized an old enemy. Each measure of the regime, seeking a new intensification of work, resulted in a counter move on the part of the workers. As the pressure to work longer, more intensely and for less pay grew, and shifts of income distribution toward the bureaucracy became more and more systematic, the workers grasped the class nature of their position.

The first reaction after the process of disillusion had set in was the so-called passive resistance. We say so-called because it is a rather vague term, implying anything from an individual absenteeism to a mass slowdown, and because it is usually opposed to armed resistance or sabotage. From a non-military point of view, it is probably more adequate to follow the development of resistance from individual, spontaneous forms, to concerted, but still occasional activity, and finally to an organized struggle.

The results of two of the regime’s offensives against the working class will serve us as examples of the evolution.

Right after the coup in 1948 the regime issued appeals to the workers to accelerate their working pace in order to show allegiance to their “people’s republic.” Since at that time the first serious purge was undertaken among the rank and file of the party, a certain number of workers answered the appeal: the card of a shock-worker helped to survive the purge. This did not apply to the average non-Communist worker, however, who merely commented on the zeal of the shock- workers with a joke.

The next phase of the offensive was introduced gradually during the spring of 1949, with an appeal to less idealistic motives. The rise of prices at the official black-market devalued real wages and made the advantages accorded to shock-workers very attractive. “Those who surpass the norms have to be rewarded accordingly,” said Rudolf Slansky, the Secretary General of the Party, in May 1949 But this was only an introduction to a more subtle role the shock-workers were assigned during the first general revision of individual productivity norms in 1950. The shock-workers had to become members of committees supervising this revision. They were supposed to prove on the spot to reluctant workers that their particular operation norms could be “stiffened.” Thus they changed from more or less naive opportunists into agents of the regime. At that point, the workers ceased to be tolerant toward them. We know, for instance, that in some factories shock-workers demanded that their names not be published, for fear of the rank and file workers.

At the same time there was a run on the plant trade-union organizations that were charged with issuing the “shock-workers’ cards” which meant important material privileges.

“The shock-workers cards,” wrote the trade union paper Prace two years ago, “are being issued in a more elastic fashion than ever before. This can be ascribed to the fact that they are issued directly by the factory councils, which are in permanent contact with the workers.”

The plants were flooded with workers having shock-worker cards but offering no shock-workers’ performances.

The regime acknowledged its defeat in March 1951 when it discontinued the issuance of shock-worker cards and changed the entire set-up regarding shock-workers, from now on called “innovators” and “best workmen.”

There is another manifestation of the class struggle in Czechoslovakia, which we can follow relatively closely thanks to numerous pronouncements of the top bureaucrats and a few published numerical data.

Under the Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia, wage demands assumed the form of individual bargaining between the worker and the foreman. The wage policy of the regime is simplicity itself. The workers may get more money only to the extent that they increase their working performance. But who decides how a particular worker will be rewarded for a particular operation? It is his immediate supervisor, the front-line agent of the regime in the factory. Everything depends on the amount of pressure applied to the foreman and on the ingenuity with which the workers are able to fool him when he takes note of the work performed. If the balance of power and ingenuity tips in favor of the worker, a difference immediately arises between the amount he should get if the policy of “wages-according-to-productivity” were strictly adhered to, and the amount he actually gets. The pressure on the foreman is transmitted to higher spheres: to the management of the plant, which accounts for higher wages through higher cost per unit of output; and from the management to the Central bank which allocates cash for payrolls. The regime was unable from the beginning to contain the movement of money wages and was compelled to balance it by a continuous rise in prices – the classic procedure of inflation.

Last year it was decided to take drastic steps to keep wage increases in line with the rise (or fall) in productivity. Pressure was applied at the other end of the ladder: Beginning in April 1951, the Central bank allocated strictly limited amounts of cash for payroll purposes, calculated according to the planned production quota of each factory. Management was expected to keep its payroll down to the prescribed limit. The regime thus provided us with an excellent opportunity to verify its ability to contain workers’ demands through administrative measures and threats.

Judging by a recent declaration of Premier Zapotocky, the workers again defeated the “Bolshevik determination” of the regime:

“The plant managements and the managers were the first to circumvent what had to be done in wage-policy ... Numerous trade-unions and local trade-union organizations, as well as other trade- union organs, ran away from these obligations too, so that in the end the State Wage Commission with its president [i.e., Mr. Zapotocky himself] remained isolated in their role of defender of a correct wage policy” (Rude Pravo, June 7, 1952).

It is important, in spite of such spectacular results, to point out the limitations of the spontaneous forms of resistance. The workers are on the defensive against a vast apparatus of terror that is constantly threatening their standard of living and robbing them of hard-won gains in the conditions of work, and the present methods of resistance can affect directly only what is under the jurisdiction of the plant administrations. If the workers’ resistance is to go beyond the level of pressure inside the plants, an organization must channel their uncoordinated energies, rendering them more powerful and maneuverable.

As the quotation from Mr. Zapotocky’s speech reveals, even the present, spontaneous opposition to increased exploitation has found advocates among trade union officers and even officials. A glance at the previous development of the trade union and party organizations will show us how this became possible.

Originally the task assigned to the State trade unions in the bureaucratic division of labor was to execute the regime’s policy among the workers, or, as the Stalinist euphemism goes, to “persuade” them that the sweat-shop is for their well-being and that their “egalitarian tendencies” are anti-socialist. The function of party cells in plants was meant to be approximately the same. It is difficult to ascertain to what extent the local trade-union and party cells carried out their tasks during the first two years of the regime. But there is abundant proof that during 1950 activity decreased sharply among the officers of both organizations, who tried not to compromise themselves vis-à-vis the workers. Under pressure from above and facing discontent from below, trade unions and party cells fell into a permanent state of lethargy.

The top bureaucracy of the trade unions tried in different ways to pour new life into the veins of their chloroformed organization, but since they were not able to blow away the workers’ resistance their attempts brought adverse results at best. They tried for instance to replace the check-off system of dues paying by direct collection, which aroused a sort of interest for the collectors in the plants, but not the expected one.

The main attempt of revival came during last fall. The Central Trade Union Council announced new elections of plant and shop officers, with secret balloting. The underlying idea probably was that voting would provide trade union organizations with fresh officers, the secrecy of the vote assuring some degree of workers’ participation. It seems absurd that the Stalinists could have hoped to revive the plant and shop organizations in this manner. It was a confused attempt, and it brought quite unexpected results.

The secret elections came at a moment when the workers began to realize that even State-directed trade unions have two doors and can work not only as transmitters of governmental orders but also as transmitters of workers’ demands. This is how the Minister of Interior, Nosek, characterized the situation on the eve of the elections:

“Old, deep-rooted syndicalist tendencies ... sometimes press the trade union organs into the role of defenders of the working people against the ‘employer,’ i.e., today against the people’s democratic state” (Prace, October 30, 1951).

There is little material concerning the course of the elections. Sixty per cent of the officers were replaced, and among the new ones a certain number of former social democratic trade union officers probably were elected. In any case, Premier Zapotocky commented on these elections, addressing the Central Committee of the trade unions:

“I ask the question: why did you decide that elections of plant officers should be secret? What sense did it make, since you did not exploit it politically? The foreign broadcast turned the secret elections to greater profit than our own trade union organization” (Rude Pravo, November 9, 1951).

It remained to be seen how the workers themselves profited by it, a matter which the official press has mentioned only recently. The Stalinist press is desperate in face of a new trend: the lower-echelon officers of the trade unions, as well as those of the Party, are no longer lethargic but work as a mouthpiece for workers’ grievances. We have already quoted the declaration of Mr. Zapotocky concerning the pressure of trade union organizations on money wages. We can complete it by a more recent one in which Mr. Zapotocky points to a concrete example of an attempt to bargain collectively on the plant level:

“... For instance, the management of the nationalized factory Kovoplastik in Mikulovice quite unlawfully increased its basic wage rates by 50 per cent ... The officers of the trade union and party organization also exerted an inadmissible pressure upon the plant management. Instead of furnishing the timers [2] with political and moral help ... they forced them by their incorrect procedure to trespass crudely the regulations governing our wage policy.” (Rude Pravo, July 19, 1952)

It is not rare that the factory trade-union councils and Party cells work for a downward revision of the planned production quotas assigned to their factory or their shop (Rude Pravo, July 25, 1952). An example from the mines: When management tried to introduce an innovator’s working method, “the leaders of the Party cell quietly watched the innovator’s work being impeded by malevolent people and hidden ill-doers.

The active participation of trade union officers in the workers’ resistance is a completely new development. As a matter of fact, we are witnessing a fight of the workers for dominance in the official trade unions, at least on the plant level.

The trend toward organized resistance can of course be affected by unfavorable circumstances. It may be slowed down; but it is fairly safe to predict that its direction will not be changed.

* * *


1. See article by Hal Draper in New International, April 1948.

2. A “timer” has the special function of constantly re-adjusting a worker’s wage according to his amount produced.

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