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The New International, November–December 1952

George Benda

The Bureaucratic Conflict

The Contradictory Stresses and Strains in Czech Regime


From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 6, November–December 1952, pp. 278–284.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The continuing high turnover among the Stalinist big-shots in Czechoslovakia would be of little interest if it were only a matter of personalities. But this merry-go-round of power-hungry mediocrities is more than some pure and meaningless “circulation of elites”; that Comrade Gottwald holds Comrade Zapotocky’s head under water, or that they conclude an alliance in order to decapitate Slansky – such facts become meaningful if one can discover how they fit into the picture of social forces.

The men behind and in the Prague trials, for example, are all members of the Stalinist bureaucracy. But bureaucracy is no more an indivisible entity than the bourgeoisie. If representatives of the bureaucracy are feuding among themselves, it means that some sections of the bureaucracy are in conflict with others. Each move of a leader in the highest spheres must be accompanied by a parallel move of the bureaucratic clan he represents and on which his position is based. This “move” may consist of innumerable molecular acts of one set of bureaucrats making life miserable for another, first of all in their inter-administrative daily routine, but preferably also with the help of the press and the judicial apparatus. A faction must be rooted in some social substratum in order to survive. Whether its representative will be successful in the long run will depend on its vitality which, in turn, depends on whether the given apparatus is indispensable for the system as a whole, or whether its autonomy is justified. Otherwise it will be either eliminated or swallowed up by another sector of the bureaucracy.

In this article we shall not trace the specific relationships between the Czechoslovak leaders and their respective species of bureaucrats, except in passing. Our purpose is to show some of the major areas of conflict among various sections of the Czechoslovak bureaucracy, to describe the field of tensions in which Stalinist politicians operate.

Bones of Contention

All the pulls and stresses we can detect in the allegedly monolithic bureaucracy, in the last analysis, concern the extraction and the division of surplus value. [1] The surplus value can be considered as divided roughly into three parts:

  1. Net exports toward Russia, domestic “socialist constructions,” armaments.
  2. Consumption of the domestic bureaucracy, including the general expenses of exploitation like the police, the army, etc.
  3. Net investments.

These three destinations of surplus value are in constant competition with each other, a competition which provides one of the chief clues to the conflicts we observe.

In the case of funds for investment, their size influences not only that of the other two sectors but determines the size of the total “cake” to be distributed at a future period. However, the pressure for current production [(1) + (2)] is so great that it drains off not only surplus value that might be used for accumulation but makes inroads on the depreciation allowances. The result is a dis-investment which reduces the productive capacity of the economy and therefore the amount of the surplus available for distribution at the next round.

There is an additional factor influencing the size of the “cake” which, at least, must be mentioned, and that is the decline in the rate of profit. It continues to operate after the change from monopoly capitalism to bureaucratic capitalism, and creates the same basic problems east of the Iron Curtain as west of it.

Since the question of investments is central to the whole economy, we should expect the Czechoslovak Stalinists to do everything they can to substitute for the relative lack of accumulation. Two possibilities are open to them. First, rationalization of production can take the place of net new investments, and even of replacements, at least to some extent. Secondly, increased exploitation of labor – apart from that accompanying rationalization-may make up for used up machinery and furnish more surplus value with a given fixed capital.

It is this last alternative which the Czechoslovak Stalinists seem to depend on chiefly. Increased exploitation, however, means a larger apparatus of repression and supervision. The number of Czechoslovak bureaucrats and “watchdogs” is increasing in proportion to the productive workers, again diverting funds that might have been used for accumulation. Logically it would entail further intensification and prolongation of work, would workers’ resistance not make this way largely inoperative. And as the squeeze between the pressures from Moscow and the resistance of the workers becomes tighter the internecine feuds among the Czechoslovak ruling class become increasingly frantic.

The antagonism which opposes various sections of the Czechoslovak bureaucracy is hidden behind a totalitarian front. [2] Besides, each particular struggle may be the result of a complex of motivations, of which the protagonists need not always be aware. But those conflicts which finally burst into the open can be understood only against the background of the economic dilemmas facing the Czechoslovak bureaucracy as a whole.

Plant Patriotism versus Central Planning

The pressure which the Kremlin exerts on the Czech economy makes life difficult for the Czechoslovak bureaucracy. On the other hand, it is highly doubtful whether it could maintain its position without Moscow’s oppressive protection, not to mention a possible military intervention in case the Czechoslovak Stalinists should declare themselves independent. There is thus a constant tug-of-war between the desire to administer the Czechoslovak economy for their own benefit and the fear of the consequences of independence. So far, the tension between the Czechoslovak bureaucracy and the Kremlin has not been expressed openly. It has been transposed into the relations of the plant managers to the central planning and governmental agencies, in so far as this central apparatus represents Russian wishes and interests. Lacking an independent tribune, the plant managers show their attitude in inter-administrative relations.

The animosity between the central planning organs and the factory executives is rather similar to the state of affairs denounced by Malenkov at the last Party Congress in October, 1952. Malenkov said:

Economic workingmen [sic!] with party organizations looking on, present intentionally exaggerated demands for raw materials; in case the plans of production are not fulfilled, they permit the falsification of production reports. Not a few economic workingmen forget that the enterprises entrusted to their care and direction are state enterprises. They try to make their own dominion out of them where such a – forgive me the word – manager does whatever “his left foot desires.”

The difference lies in the fact that in Czechoslovakia the feud between Factory and Central Agencies is not only “Factory Patriotism,” as the Central Agencies have been calling it since about March 1952, but also the patriotism of a colonial bureaucracy forced to run the economy for a foreign account.

To begin with, the plant administrations do not take the prescriptions of the plan too seriously. They try to fulfill the plan according to weight, but cheat on specific items. “Thus rare raw materials often were transformed into items for which no market was assured in advance, at the expense of important supplies for the constructions of socialism and for the Soviet Union ...” (Rude Pravo, July 29, 1952). Before the planned quotas filter through all the levels of planification, they are often adapted to the wishes of the producing units. “It has led to the saying: ‘The plan is elastic – put it down in pencil!’” (Ibid.)

More specifically, the conflict between managers and planners centers around Kuncice. The “constructions of socialism” mentioned above mean a huge iron and steel trust under construction on the Polish-Czechoslovak border in Kuncice near Moravska Ostrava, the main coal mining center. This future supply depot for a “Red” army on its western march pumps all productive resources, raw materials, building equipment and labor out of the rest of the economy, and is to be listed under the heading “exports toward Russia,” although it remains in Czechoslovakia. This, in any case, is the implicit opinion of the plant administrations throughout the country. The central organs complain relentlessly that the factories delay supplies of installations for Kuncice and fail to fulfill their quotas of “voluntary brigades” of labor which have to be sent to Kuncice. Or else they use this obligation in order to get rid of inefficient, elderly or refractory workers.

Envious of the preference given to Kuncice, the factory managers try to bring the deterioration of their own equipment to a halt by pressuring higher organs for more investment funds and materials. In this respect the factory managers have recourse to the most devious methods. They accumulate illegal buffer stocks of materials, with the idea of partly channelling them back into their own factories. They use their personal influence at the Central Bank in order to get extra, unplanned investment credits. Another example. The campaigns for a general “stiffening” of the efficiency norms resulted every year in the so-called “collective contracts” concluded between the management and the workers. In them, the workers pledged to work according to the revised, more severe norms, and the management promised, pro forma, certain technical and organizational improvements. Now the management took the initiative and presented these “contracts” to the ministry, using them as a legal basis for additional investment grants which were supposed to be made unnecessary precisely by the general “stiffening” of efficiency norms.

Managers versus Party

Leaving aside the opposition to the Plan and assuming it to be accepted “as a law we give to ourselves” (as Gottwald would hypocritically say), there remains a rivalry concerning the methods best suited to fulfill it.

The technical bureaucracy prefers the technical approach. Not merely by professional prejudice but because the labor market is “tight” and resistance against direct exploitation is strong. It is the factory management that must “live with” the workers, not the Central Agencies. If larger investments for meeting the growing requirements are being denied, the technical bureaucracy would try to solve the problem by a large-scale rationalization. This is the path the factory managements took during the last year to an increasing degree. They do not get new machines, so they reshuffle and reorganize the existing equipment into new quasi-assembly lines, adapt an old machine for one single operation it still is good for, try to redistribute orders among themselves in such a way that each factory makes what it is best suited for, etc. Whether this rationalization drive is able to tackle the problems successfully in the long run is another matter.

The factory managers were not able, however, to begin with large-scale rationalization so long as there was another bureaucratic body interfering with everything, following its own lines of action for which it did not have to account, making everybody nervous by its arbitrariness, that is to say, the party apparatus.

The period of uncertainty as to the powers of factory managers ended officially in the fall of 1951. Simultaneously with the fall of Slansky, the whole edifice of the top party apparatus crumbled. It did not disappear; it simply fused with the state apparatus. The high spheres of the secretariat were invaded by ministers and economic planners, who gave the green light to the factory managers. The Russian principle of “one-man management” (edinonatchalie) and “decentralization” were stressed with big-drum-beating. The arbitrariness of the party apparatus was denounced and the planning and administrative specialists confirmed in their powers. At the same time it seemed that the police apparatus would lose some of its autonomy, too, and that it would become mainly an auxiliary of the economic bureaucracy.

On this front the balance was unmistakably favorable to the State Planning authorities and factory managers, as opposed to the party.

Managers versus Trade Unions

There remained another apparatus which continued to claim its indispensability: the trade unions. Whereas the managers clung to technical solutions, the trade unions boasted about the importance of influencing the “human factor.”

In order to prove itself essential, the trade union apparatus tried to pile upon itself administrative functions which previously were performed by specialized institutions. This was the case of the social security management. Since the beginning of 1952 the trade unions proceed systematically to the transfer of social security supervision to their plant officers. The trade union plant officers have to watch whether workers get their social security payments illegally; they practice “comrade’s visits” at home to make sure that the worker is really sick, etc. In the fight against absenteeism the interests of the trade-union apparatus and the plant administration did not clash sharply, though the plant administrations probably were not enthusiastic about trade union interference. [3]

In other instances, however, their respective interests did clash, for example, in the case of “socialist competition.” There was a sort of moribund “movement of socialist competition” since the early days of the regime, but it resembled more a periodic collecting of autographs among the workers than anything else. Parallel to it limped the movement of spontaneous inventions, called the movement of “ameliorators.” Both of these “drives” were driving the technical plant personnel mad. An active “socialist competition” would mean constant disrupting of the organization of work and the supply of materials, bottlenecks, disharmony in the flow of operations. “Spontaneous ameliorations,” often impracticable, only undermine the authority of traditional worked-in methods and are thus another element of disorganization, not to mention the spontaneous reaction of the normal, non-ameliorating worker.

The plant management has always tried to dampen these outbursts of competition and amelioration. In order to keep “socialist competition” drives under control, special competition-commissioners were named among the staff of employees to do the paper work and protect intermediary technical cadres from the necessity of organizing competition in addition to their normal work load. As regards projects for ameliorations, the plant administrations learned to put them “into the long drawer,” as the Russians say, “for latter use ...”

There has been in general a constant attempt on the part of the managers to reduce the ties of local party and trade union organs with their respective central bodies and to group them around the plant. The plant directors proceeded to turn trade union and party officers into a sort of handymen for management. They were sent all over the country to look for raw materials or spare parts, or urged to make themselves useful in production as assistants to the foremen.

Some time during the first months of 1952 a reaction set in against this ancillary position of the trade-union organs in the plants, though not on the initiative of these plant organs which had enough trouble solving their attitude toward the workers, The initiative came from the highest spheres of the trade-union bureaucracy which probably wanted to avoid the sad fate of the party apparatus. The push for a revival of the trade union organs to an independent life centered around the organization of “socialist competition,” which had to be rehabilitated. Mr. Zapotocky, the unofficial boss of the trade unions, began last spring to scold “the formalistic and lukewarm attitude of our economic workingmen, technicians and foremen, toward the organization of competition” (Rude Pravo, May 1, 1952), and proclaimed the necessity for the “plant councils” to take the matter into their hands. This fall, directives were issued for “production commissions,” the new auxiliary organs of the trade union plant councils. Their purpose is to free the trade union officers from the hegemony of management, and to turn them into control agents tailing the management instead.

The plant bureaucracy did not watch these moves quietly. It maintained that there is no reason to withdraw the responsibility for competition from the management and its commissioners. This is on the defensive side. At the same time, the managers proceeded to a countermove trying to take the wind out of Mr. Zapotocky’s sails. They started a drive for a socialist competition “factory against factory,” which leaves their prerogatives undamaged and fundamentally alters the purpose of the individual “socialist competition” of the trade-union apparatus brand.

Managers against Managers

Given the total volume of the “wages of superintendance” accruing to the Czechoslovak bureaucrats, the fight centers on the distribution of this fund. The fight is intensified by the progressive bureaucratization of the economy which tends to reduce the individual shares. The Stalinists tried to unload some ballast by sacrificing state employees of lower echelons – this was the season for the transfer of 80,000 employees into production in 1951. But this transfer was unable to check what is a deep tendency toward bureaucratization at this stage of capitalism.

In the distribution of managerial income the Central Agencies discriminate in favor of those sections which are of key importance to the fulfillment of the plan. But in doing so they antagonize the other sections, which exert pressure upon the Central Bureaus in order to recover their “just” share.

By a decree issued in September 1951 the incomes of the managers and technicians in the Ostrava coal mining industry, and later those in heavy metallurgy, were substantially increased, particularly as compared to other sectors where sometimes ordinary workers get more pay than a director. This is the case in the building trade, according to Prace of October 19, 1952.

The discrimination in managers’ income provoked a wave of discontent. In the case of coal mining, where a regional discrimination worked against secondary coal basins, a movement of “egalitarianism” was noted among the coal technocracy. In other branches, technicians showed signs of a kind of passive resistance:

“First adjust our salaries as you did those of mining and metallurgical engineers and technicians, and we shall show you afterwards what we can do!” (Prace, December 5, 1951)


The samples of intra-mural conflict among the Czechoslovak bureaucracy described above are those which have left a trace in the press and which certainly comprise only a part of such rivalries and mutual sabotage occurring behind the scenes. But they are sufficient to show that the fissures are deep. They are also complex; for example, the Central Planning Agencies are in conflict with the local plant administrations, but at the same time support them in a common rivalry with the party and trade union apparatus.

The two chief pressures which influence the Czechoslovak bureaucracy’s stability – Moscow, on the one hand, the workers’ resistance, on the other – will to some extent drive the factions toward unity. But at the same time each of these pressures, reinforcing the influence of the other, tends to sharpen the economic dilemma facing the bureaucracy as a whole, and therefore t increase internecine warfare. Future developments will depend largely on the two basic pressures exerted on the Czechoslovak ruling class. So far, the trend has been toward an increase in both cases.

* * *


1. Comrade Benda obviously holds to the view that Russia and her European satellites are “state capitalist” systems. Thus, his use of such terms as “surplus value” and “bureaucratic capitalism” in this article. Although the editors disagree with these concepts there is no need to discuss them at this point as the state capitalist view is not discussed in the article. Elsewhere in this issue Comrade Shachtman has written a detailed polemic against the theory that the law of value continues to operate in Stalinist countries. – The editors

2. The mastery with which they succeeded in the Prague trials to divert world opinion from their conflicts to the issue of anti-Semitism is but an example.

3. In this connection it should be noted that the trade unions try to replace the check-off system of dues collection by an individual collecting of dues by trade union officers.

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