Intellectual history

Miklós Haraszti’s A Worker in a Worker’s State: A Dissident Contribution to the Neue Marx Lektüre?

By Niklas Lämmel

By Niklas Lämmel

In January 1974, a court in Budapest sentenced Miklós Haraszti to eight months of probation for writing and illegally distributing a report about the working conditions in a Hungarian factory. Haraszti’s work, titled Darabbér (Hun. “Piece-Rates”), was a bold attack on the Soviet satellite state’s self-image. The report offered a Marxist critique of socialist Hungary that highlighted its shortcomings in abolishing capitalist labor. Building a non-capitalist society, Haraszti’s account implied, required more than the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production and the replacement of the market by the state. According to the Hungarian dissident, labor itself had to change.

Haraszti based his report on personal experiences from his work in the tractor factory Vörös Csillag (“Red Star”) in Budapest. Born in Jerusalem in 1945 to Jewish-Hungarian parents, the Marxist dissident arrived in the factory via a circuitous path. After his family returned to Hungary in the 1960s, Haraszti began studying philosophy and literature at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. As a student, Haraszti was active in Maoist circles, and his essays and poetry had an unapologetic polemical character. This brought him on the radar of the Hungarian state for the first time. In 1967, he was expelled from the university and placed under police surveillance. After 25 days in prison in 1970, Haraszti found himself working at Red Star.

Aptly translated into English as A Worker in a Worker’s State, Haraszti’s report provided a detailed account of his experiences at Vörös Csillag: such as the layout of the tractor plant, the mood among the workers, the different stages of the production process, and the technical intricacies of the machine tools he used. Yet, illustrating his theoretical ambitions, Haraszti neither named the factory nor its specific product. Instead, he chose to write on a level of theoretical abstraction and modeled his description of the labor process in Red Star after Karl Marx’s concept of alienation, as developed in the Paris Manuscripts (1844).

To the dismay of the Hungarian authorities, his description implied that workers remained alienated from their product, the act of production, the other workers, and the Gattungswesen (Ger. “species-being”). Yet Haraszti’s references to Marx remained implicit. He neither referenced the German philosopher nor did he use his terms. But the message was clear: despite Hungary’s claims to the contrary, for Haraszti, capitalist labor remained at the heart of the socialist republic’s economy.

By putting the system of piece-rate pay at the center of his analysis, Haraszti demonstrated how wages at Red Star were coupled with productivity. At the beginning of the book, he quoted a Hungarian expert on “management science” who argued that “payment by results was the ideal form for socialist wages.” The expert claimed this method was the realization of the principle “from each according to his capacity, to each according to his work” (21). It is hard to miss the irony of Harazti’s opening. In the first volume of Capital (1867), Marx wrote an entire chapter about piecework – and came to a remarkably different conclusion. Instead of realizing communism, Marx saw “piece-wage [as] the form of wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production.” From the beginning, the informed reader saw that Haraszti was threading a theoretical needle: criticizing a state that had made Marxism its official ideology by measuring it against its own concepts.

For Haraszti, the central aspect of piece-wage work was the labor norm: the number of goods a worker had to produce to earn the average wage. Those who fell short had too little to live on, while those who exceeded the norms could earn extra money. The labor norm was, according to Haraszti, the epitome of the remarkable inversion inherent in the capitalist labor process: that labor appeared “in the guise of a man.” (40) It made the workers its “slaves and enemies” (130) and even had its own dreams and desires: “The norm […] dreams of me as a perfect being made up of a few regulations, who works on immaterial matter, and is interchangeable with any other perfect being.“ (99) As such, the labor norm ensured that individual workers had to suppress their human qualities as much as possible. Following Marx stylistically, Haraszti rephrased a central motif of Capital: the capitalist society as an “enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world.” (599)

The Marxist foundation of Haraszti’s argument comes into full view when he discusses the reproduction of piece-rate work. According to Haraszti, the workers themselves involuntarily reproduced the system when their productivity determined the expectations that later set the production norm. As they constantly tried to increase their productivity to receive a satisfying living wage (called “looting” by Haraszti), achieving the labor norm was becoming ever more challenging. Over time, higher productivity did not mean higher wages, but more work for same pay: “everything begins and nothing finishes.” (62) Haraszti described the labor norm as “chains we have bound around our own bodies.” (63) Workers were suppressed by their own work. In Haraszti’s view, it was undeniable that “all servitude begins” in the factory “and that there can be no liberation unless it reaches here.” (152)

Haraszti’s analysis of the labor norm implied that labor in socialist Hungary remained alienated in all four dimensions that Marx listed in the Paris Manuscript—even though Haraszti did not name the German philosopher directly. First, Haraszti described how the individual worker was alienated from the product of his labor. Haraszti expressed this alienation with his desire to know more about the products he made: “It would be good to follow a few of my pieces right through, to where they are fitted finally, and even further to the point at which they were used” (147). Second, the factory workers were alienated from the act of laboring itself. Their every move was motivated by beating the labor norm and earning extra pay, with safety precautions being disregarded in the process. Haraszti wrote: “all knowledge, skill and application, everything needed for a good job, are put to the service of looting and so turned inside out” (49). Noting the inversion at the heart of the capitalist labor process, Haraszti described how the individual was transformed into “a senseless, mindless machine” (111) while machine tools acquired human characteristics. “Full of impatience as if they are jealous on each other, each demands that I immediately complete the work on each of them.” (111) Third, piecework did not allow the workers to cooperate or act in solidarity. There was no “us,” Haraszti wrote (72), “everyone is on his own.” (66) Lastly, he described the alienation from the Gattungswesen: the enormous potential that the capitalist organization of labor created but which it used against the worker. Human qualities such as “inventiveness, knowledge, imagination, initiative, and courage” (51) were exploited for one aim alone: to produce faster than actually planned. Caught in this process, Haraszti argued, workers could hardly imagine a different social organization of labor. “The system of norms is far more effective at shackling the imagination than at stimulating production […] If a utopia of productive relations where they could determine their goals together threatens to break to the surface, they immediately force it back.” (132)

Haraszti’s report, however, ended on an optimistic note. If the workers fulfilled the labor norm – before it became tighter again – they had time for so-called “homers” (Hung. fusizni). They could use the machines to produce small objects for domestic use: “key-holders, bases for flowerpots” or “ashtrays.” (141) In these moments, Haraszti observed, the alienation was suspended. The workers determined which products they wanted to produce, and they did so in “autonomous, uncontrolled activity” (142). They kept helping each other and achieved a peak of creative, productive potential. Using a Marxist term for the only time, Haraszti called “homers” a “negation” of factory work (144). These rare moments offered a glimpse of what it meant to establish a human form of production. Of course, the playful form of the “homers” does not yet represent an unfolded alternative form of labor. Haraszti referred to this vision as “the Great Homer.” The “united homer-workers” (145) mirrored Marx’s vision of the “community of freed individuals.” Haraszti concluded: “To take the world into account, to combine our strength, to replace rivalry with cooperation, to make what we want, to plan and execute the plans together, to originate what in itself would be our enjoyment simply because it existed; to be freed from the duress of production and its inspectors – all these are announced by the message of the homer.” (145)

Although Haraszti had already signed a contract to publish a sociological report on his experiences, he knew “already while working on the machines that the system would react with a criminal trial” (80). He was right: In 1973, after the publisher rejected the manuscript and Haraszti had distributed nine copies of the report among his friends, the Hungarian authorities arrested him for illegally distributing a “libelous pamphlet.” A few months later, he was convicted of “arousing hatred of the civil order” (168). Fortunately, the manuscript was smuggled out of Hungary by the German author and editor Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In 1975, Haraszti’s report was published under the title Stücklohn by Rotbuch Verlag in West-Berlin with a foreword by Heinrich Böll. And in 1977, it appeared in English translation.

In West Germany, Harastzi’s Marxist critique of capitalist labor met the Zeitgeist. Probably unbeknownst to Haraszti, his discussion of capitalist labor paralleled the theoretical debates of the Neue Marx Lektüre that emerged in the mid-1960s: especially Moishe Postone’s rereading of the Marxian categories. Like Haraszti, the Canadian philosopher argued that the foundation of capitalism was a certain form of labor that remained independent of the market (cf. 11). And similar to the Hungarian dissident’s analysis of the labor norm, Postone considered the value form a “self-generated structural domination” (31). Thus, on a very concrete and personal level, Haraszti’s account of his time at Red Star achieved what Postone set out to do on the theoretical level. Haraszti’s report formulated “a critical theory [that] could also serve as the point of departure for an analysis of ‘actually existing socialism’ as an alternative (and failed) form of capital accumulation – rather than as a form of society that represented, however imperfectly, the historical negation of capitalism.” (7)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Haraszti became one of the most influential Hungarian dissidents but distanced himself from Marxist theory. From 1990 to 1994, he was a member of the Hungarian Parliament for the liberal Union of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), and later became OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus. A Worker in a Worker’s State found a limited reception in the anti-Soviet Western left of the 1970s. Today, it remains largely forgotten.

Haraszti’s work shows that it can be stimulating to rediscover the dissident traditions of Central and East European societies. In particular, the left-wing critiques of real socialism offer unique and valuable insights into the chances and pitfalls of progressive social change. For this reason, they hold immense potential for inspiring contemporary debates and theoretical excursions. Especially against the backdrop of discussions about the future of human labor, one of Haraszti’s basic ideas remains topical: technological progress should not drive the eternal “treadmill” but should be used to make work as bearable and humane as possible. “Otherwise, if everything remains as it does today, we face a terrible destiny: that of never knowing what we have lost.” (146)

Niklas Lämmel studied Political Science, Interdisciplinary Research on Antisemitism and Holocaust Studies in Berlin, Prague and Victoria (Canada). He wrote his Bachelor thesis on Miklós Haraszti’s A Worker in a Worker’s State. He works on Critical Theory, theories of Antisemitism and the history of dissident thought. Currently, he is writing a dissertation about the relationship between Theodor W. Adorno’s reflections on epistemology and his theory of antisemitism.

Edited by Jonas Knatz

Featured Image: Gear shapers working on transmission parts, Harley-Davidson factory in 1917-18. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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