On 15 October 1973, the young poet Miklós Haraszti stood arraigned before a People’s Court in Budapest for ‘grave incitement’. He had ‘written a book liable to provoke hatred of the State’. The charge carried a possible eight-year jail sentence. The basis of the charge: Piece Rates, a brief monograph in which Haraszti describes what it is like to work in a major Hungarian factory. The extracts which follow are from this book, now published in the West. footnote1 In it Haraszti joins descriptions of his personal experience, careful analysis of hierarchy and procedures in the factory, and documentary evidence of conditions there, to create a reportage of great originality. There are many accounts, fictional and biographical, of prison camps in the Soviet bloc. Now, for the first time, there is an equally revealing account of conditions inside a communist factory.

The passages which follow are the first of Haraszti’s writings to appear in English. He was born in 1945 into a family of Hungarian communists, who had fled to Jerusalem to escape the Nazis and returned to Budapest in the year of Haraszti’s birth. In 1966 he came of age by organizing a student Vietnam solidarity committee which collected money for the liberation forces and held demonstrations outside the us Embassy in Budapest. For opposing imperialism without permission he was promptly suspended from the university and put under police observation. The following year he edited and translated Verses, Songs, Revolution. Brecht, Mayakovsky and many writers from the Third World made the volume a unified introduction to communist poetry and radical protest songs from across the world. This brought him ‘house surveillance’. In Hungary the police have special powers which allow them to enforce virtual house arrest; they can confine individuals to their homes for up to twenty-two hours a day and in addition can restrict their movements during the period they are allowed out. In this instance Haraszti was forbidden to visit publishing houses and university buildings. After three months, reckoning he had been warned sufficiently sharply, the authorities lifted all restrictions.

Haraszti continued to publish his own poems and to speak out against the régimes enforced uniformity, calling for public debate in the arts. In late 1969 the review Uj Irás carried Che’s Errors, a satire in six stanzas of bureaucratic condemnations of leftism, written in the tradition of Brechtian irony. Haraszti was attacked for his poem in the official party organ, but also given the right of reply. He answered with a defiant bluntness, quite out of keeping with Brechtian guile. footnote2 Arrest soon followed. He was interrogated, finally expelled from the university and together with his friend Georgy Dallos placed under six-month house surveillance. Later, the police threatened to further renew their restrictions unless the two would agree to remain silent on political issues. They refused, were jailed and Haraszti went on hunger strike. Taken to the police hospital he was force-fed until, after twenty-five days, the Ministry of the Interior released him under pressure from a number of Hungarian intellectuals, Lukács most prominent among them.

In the meantime, as he explains, unpretentiously, at the beginning of these excerpts, Haraszti decided to report on factory conditions. He chose to work in the Red Star tractor factory at Csepel. Tractors, productive machines assembled by workers in the city for labourers on the land, are virtual symbols of socialist development uniting hammer and sickle. Csepel is the largest single concentration of engineering and metal works in Hungary. Founded by Baron Manfréd Weiss in 1884 on a Danube island in the south of Budapest, Csepel became a riverine complex of steel works, heavy and light engineering factories that made it the Krupps of Hungary between the wars, employing then, as now, tens of thousands. It was a vital centre during the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, and after the 1956 uprising it was weeks before the Russians dared to send in their patrols.

In spite of the stark details he discloses, Haraszti does not in fact mention either where he was working or what he was helping to manufacture. This slightly eery abstraction is in part a concession to the ‘sociographic’ form of the book. But it also rings true to fact. The separation of the workforce from the objects of their toil or any purpose whatsoever in production—the classic alienation of wage labour—makes that labour replaceable. One factory differs from the next, just as one task differs from the next: how much or how little will it bring in. While the plant where he carried out his investigation was exemplary, therefore, Haraszti’s silence as to its location emphasizes the similarity of conditions elsewhere.

Haraszti concentrates on the incentive system: on the way this is calibrated by the management; its physical and psychological effects on workers; the competition which it engenders; the privatization and isolation that follow; the way these are, in turn, deliberately encouraged by management; the endless chase after ‘loot’; and the black work done on the side to compensate for the almost demonic possession exercised by piece-rates. The piece-work system ‘strains the nerves without visible external compulsion’. Instead, internal compulsion drives on the worker trapped both by the lure of incentives and by the material necessity of earning them. The continuation of capitalist norms of distribution in the consumer sectors of societies where capitalist ownership has been abolished is familiar enough, and the money wage is part of this. Haraszti, however, highlights the additionally competitive form of payment in industry collectivized by the State. In court, speaking from the dock in his own defence, Haraszti said: ‘I certainly criticized piece-work, but this is not a basic institution of socialism, it is not even a socialist institution at all, it is a capitalist institution. The principal aim of socialist strategy in this area is to eliminate wages tied to performance.’ footnote3 Piece Rates shows the explosive torsion generated by a system which enforces private relations of earnings where there is no private ownership of capital.

One side of this torsion is the furious acquisitiveness that overtakes many workers as individuals. Deprived of the protection of independent trade unions and the minimal solidarity which comes with the right to strike, productive labourers can become more ‘capitalist’ in personal preoccupation than many of their counterparts under capitalism itself. In the factory this can be expressed by outright rivalry between worker and worker. In one short passage Haraszti recounts a daily scene, credible and appalling, where M, a fellow machine operator, coldly assesses the day’s jobs to make sure that none of the others have got the better of him. Such attitudes are reinforced by management and the State partly because bureaucrats of all varieties benefit directly—from bonuses, differentials and other privileges—but also because for them the other side of their contradictory societies is far more ominous. The 1971 Polish workers’ uprising demonstrated that when independent working-class activity does emerge, workers’ demands immediately threaten the power structure in ‘workers’ ’ factories, and can escalate rapidly into a crisis of the regime, toppling governments and menacing the State. footnote4 Once collectivized, working-class demands in Peoples’ Democracies cannot be contained by economism, as in the West. Any such autonomy in industrial societies without capitalist ownership threatens those who hold power in the name of the working class. Thus ‘the nerves’ which grip the workers—as Haraszti describes—are in a way an emblem for the Soviet bloc. Individually internalized they deepen petty-bourgeois commitments within the working class, furthering its submission to the blandishments of the regime. Once externalized, however, in any collective form, the accumulated tension breaks directly against a rigid, if not brittle, State.