Socjalistyczny zakład pracy. Porównanie fabrycznej codzienności w PRL i NRD u progu lat sześćdziesiątych

TitleSocjalistyczny zakład pracy. Porównanie fabrycznej codzienności w PRL i NRD u progu lat sześćdziesiątych
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsPobłocki, Kacper
Author(s) of reviewed materialMazurek, Małgorzata

Book. Title translated:
A socialist workplace. A comparison of shop-floor everyday reality in Poland and the GDR in the late 1950s. Bibliography. Series: W Krainie PRL, W Krainie KDL

PublisherWarsaw: Wydawnictwo Trio
ISSNISBN 83-7436-007-0
Review year


Full Text

It is quite a challenge to compare societies "organized around different clocks." This is definitely the case with PRL and GDR, where completely different events turned out to be the watershed moments. Małgorzata Mazurek’s Socialist workplace is a felicitous example of such a comparison. The author chose two factories producing electromechanical appliances and components: East German Elektro-Apparate-Werke “J.W. Stalin” Treptow (hereafter EAW) and Polish Zakłady Wytwórcze Lamp Elektrycznych im. Róży Luxemburg in Warsaw (hereafter ZWLE) and analysed their factory archives from around the year 1960, supplementing this with a review of literature on socialist industrial history and a handful of interviews with former employees. Choosing to scrutinise a “moment” in an industrial history might be indeed be a way to deal with the methodological difficulty of comparing what seems to be non-parallel social entities. On the other hand, such a solution produces too much of a standstill picture. In result, Mazurek’s book offers a meticulous account, at times quite compelling and inspiring in some of its details, but in general missing larger theoretical distance and innovation. Theoretical reflection might nonetheless still emerge from this research project, but so far its lack is a serious shortcoming.

The main thrust of the argument seems to be that the East German case was more path dependent than the Polish one. Both societies are treated by Mazurek as variations of “welfare dictatorship” – a notion coined in German by Konrad Jarausch and with a Polish equivalent by Stefan Nowak. Although, or rather because, GDR was closer to the “West” than Poland, it was more authoritarian as well as more welfarist. For GDR the Second World War, Mazurek argues, was in many ways more revolutionary than socialism. It was during the war mobilisation that the labour force became grossly feminised and well into the 1990s East Germany was still the economy with the highest percentage of employed females in Europe – nearly 90 percent. Mobilisation of the female workforce entailed a provision of welfare “perks” such as cafeterias, nurseries or even shops selling meatballs for the Sunday lunch that – at least in theory – were to relieve women of the household drudgery and free their labour for the socialist economy. In Poland, on the contrary, communist orthodoxy was given up after the “thaw” of 1956, and if not, then it remained little more than a façade. At the same time the intra-societal relations especially at the workplace evolved into “technocratic” rather than “welfarist” model. It entailed an establishment of the workplace as a hierarchical and authoritarian institution, where the workers were excluded from the decision-making process and conceptualised as a homo oeconomicuslabouring and thinking in terms of material stimuli. Fulfilment of the plan rather of the human needs became the top priority. Moreover, Polish women after 1956 were being driven back to households in an campaign to combat the hidden unemployment under the aegis of “rationalisation of employment”. Women were given the “second burden” and none of the paternalistic institutions so common in GDR took root in Poland. Just as in GDR equalitarianism was an important element of the social discourse, in PRL the social relations became less egalitarian and a visible rift between office/skilled workers and manual workers started to emerge. The only mean of workers’ social mobility lied in their wage increase – unlike in GDR, where it was quite common for workers to advance the social ladder. Last but not least, there was a weak long-term labour movement continuity in the Polish case, and this entailed that the pre-war labour aristocracy was, unlike in the East German case, weak and fragmented at the workplace. Consequently, the discourses of labour were rather different: at EAW, workers’ emphasis lied on skill and personal satisfaction derived from solidarity on the shop-floor; in the Polish one, on integrity, and labour as a family duty. This is hardly surprising, given the long-term path dependency Mazurek mentions: EAW is embedded in the long German labour movement history as well as “Bismarkian values” of a job well done. In Poland, the Second World War was revolutionary in the way it moralised shop floor production – introduced large-scale and approved pilfering or conceptualised the foremen as “oppressors”. At the same time the family was one of the very few institutions that remained in place during the turbulent XIX and XX centuries and hence became of prime significance.   

There are numerous extremely inspiring points scattered around the book, such as a discussion of a moral economy of pilfering, where Mazurek’s interviewees emphasize that the reason everybody stole from the factories was that they could not buy the products they themselves were making. Pilfering hence can be viewed as a strategy aimed at rejoining the domains of production and consumption divorced by the socialist planned economy. Given the fact that today socialist economy is often perceived as the one where production and consumption, unlike in contemporary capitalism, were united (socialist industries produced for the home markets), this is a valuable point. Such interesting observations abound, but they are not employed for a further theoretical reflection. Moreover, the entire set-up of the research seems highly problematic. Similar cases, where on one hand we have a factory with a long-standing labour tradition and skilled die-hards of the interwar period still prominent on the shop floor after 1945 (like EAW) and on the other a factory virtually ruined during the war with visibly younger newcomers filling in the shop floor after the end of the war (like ZWLE), can be found also within given nation-states. A notable example is provided by Padraic Kenney’s in Rebuilding Poland, where he compared the divergently different political economies of post-war Łódź and Wrocław. The crucial difference between the cases Mazurek took seems to be that they are located within different national (and industrial, political, cultural etc.) spaces. The underlying assumption behind this research is that taking cases that are similar in nature of production but located in different socialist nation-states must yield interesting results. This is not necessarily true. Mazurek does not give us any strong reasons why to compare these two factories. Her research questions are not comparative either. As a result, we do not have a comparative study, but rather two parallel monographs. And this is how the material is presented: the book comprises of two major chapters, each dealing with the given case, and divided into separate parts such as “labour relations”, “attitudes to work”, or “leisure time”. Although comparative comments spring up from time to time, Mazurek devotes a bit less than 20 of nearly 300 pages to the comparison. This makes Socialist workplaces a descriptive rather than an analytical book and this is its most serious shortcoming. 

Generally speaking, if not disrupted by major cataclysms such as wars, industries tend to be rather path-dependent, and industrial histories as compared for example to narratives of national politics which is volatile and highly dependent on changing international contexts, tend to put emphasis on continuity. In this way Mazurek does not tell us a new story, but only adds up to the echelon of labour historians who were one of the first ones to challenge the sociological models based on cold-war terminology. To be sure, this a fine company. One of the distinctive features of historiography inflicted with cold war propagandist terminology is the assumption that only “transition” and Stalinism are periods of rapid social change (albeit charged morally in a radically different way) – and the time in between was mere “stagnation”. Mazurek fills in this crucial gap in between and shows that a lot was going on during the era of Gomułka that is usually dismissed as stagnant. What is more, she shows that “technocratic” governance usually attributed to Gierek and his “reformers” started taking root in Poland already under Gomułka, although under a slightly different form. Like everything else already mentioned, these are all extremely valuable points. 

This is why it is even more surprising that the author decided to constrain herself from making points of a more general theoretical relevance. For example one of the most interesting, and rather undeveloped, strands of the book is the gender dynamic. Like in many other industries of this kind, the manual labour force was virtually completely feminised; the skilled labour and supervision was performed by males. Females employed at the factories were predominantly juvenile, unskilled and unmarried. Mazurek writes that during the interwar period, when ZWLE was still a Phillips light bulb factory, women were fired when married or got pregnant. After posing a series of interesting gender-related questions, Mazurek concludes that “these are all questions in the sociology of gender, where the constitution and the functioning of what is male and female inevitably leads to the issue of inequality. There is no way we can dwell upon it here” (p. 159). This is a gross pity. One can find numerous examples where answering such questions was actually most interesting than describing the “shop floor reality”. A volume that deals with an extremely similar case – Philips light bulb manufacturing in North Brabant – and successfully combines empirical description with theoretical discussion is Don Kalb’sExpanding Class. Kalb puts the gender dynamic at the core of his argument and describes how Phillips developed a system of “flexible familism”. It was a strategy aiming at employing at higher ranks those male family heads who could bring in to the company a large number of juvenile daughters and hence their cheap and well disciplined labour for the shop floor. Kalb describes how this was possible thanks to the family structures and class relations of North Brabant. It would be extremely interesting to see whether a similar phenomenon emerged in the Polish franchise of the multinational. If the outcome was different, then it would yield interesting comparative questions too. Unfortunately, gender is completely theoretically underdeveloped in Mazurek’s book, and does not stand at the core of her analysis, but rather is just one of the many “variables” of labour described in the book. In order to make statements of more theoretical relevance, though, Mazurek would have to change the entire set-up of or research – as methodology is never divorced from theory. It seems that most of the shortcomings of the book spring from the fact that Mazurek chose to focus on a short period of the enterprises’ history, and hence was forced into a descriptive rather than an analytical mode. Making her research more dynamic and oriented towards processes rather than phenomena would necessarily make it more theoretically interesting.