from Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No. 65, 2000.|
A Pollert, Transformation at Work in
the New Market Economies of Eastern Europe (Sage Publications Ltd. 1999) pp. xii + 260, ISBN 0-7619-5230-6
(hb), 0-7619-5231-4 (pb).
Anna Pollert's previous work will be well known to many readers of Labour
Focus on Eastern Europe. She has written, from a socialist and feminist viewpoint, on the position of
women workers in Britain, basing her account on a detailed ethnographic study of the industrial labour
process. She has also been prominent in criticising the exaggerated claims of `Post-Fordist' theorists
about flexibility at work. Her new book looks at the experience of workers in Central and Eastern Europe
since 1989, particularly in the Czech Republic. Pollert speaks Czech and has worked on a long-term project
on workplace change in that country which has already generated a number of articles, including one in
this journal. All these factors will make her book of great interest to those looking for an alternative
approach to the analysis of economic transformation from that conveyed by the dominant neo-classical
account of the IMF, World Bank and EBRD.
Pollert's book is extremely ambitious, and covers a great
deal of ground. It begins with a very interesting methodological introduction, which is refreshingly
honest about the difficulties which she faced when carrying out her research. She then moves on to a
broad comparative study of four Central European countries, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia,
looking both at their historical development since the mid-nineteenth century and at the theoretical
models which were used to characterise their nature under communist rule, particularly by Marxist observers.
The second section of the book provides a general critical account of the four countries since 1989,
highlighting the key role of privatisation and of foreign investment. The final third of the book looks
at the position of labour. Two comparative chapters cover developments in trade unions and changes in
industrial relations, while the final two chapters are devoted to case studies from the Czech Republic.
The most extensive of these looks at CKD Electrotechnika, a division of the engineering holding company
CKD Praha. There are also accounts of retailing, both the Czech store Kotva and the investment first
by Kmart and then by Tesco in the Czech Republic, and of light industry, looking at the involvement of
Nestle and BSN in biscuits and confectionary and of Bass in brewing.
As can be seen from this outline,
Pollert's detailed research in the Czech Republic is embedded in a more general argument about the transition
process in Central Europe, and is used to support a number of arguments about that process. Pollert is
critical of orthodox accounts of the transition both for their assumption of free-market capitalism as
a desirable goal for the region and for their specific policy recommendations; in particular she agrees
with Peter Gowan in stressing the concerted effort by Western interests to break up economic links within
the region and to impose a pattern of bilateral relations between Eastern countries and the West (pp.84-7).
More strikingly, though, Pollert is also critical of a number of those who have themselves raised
questions about the neo-classical approach. She raises three main issues here. Firstly, she argues that
critiques of orthodoxy fail to grasp the importance of the historical legacy of nineteenth and early
twentieth century developments for the particular national contexts in Central Europe. Secondly, she
claims that such critiques are too determinist in nature, neglecting the importance of agency and contingency
in affecting the outcomes of social processes. Analysing writers like David Stark, who theorise transition
through the use of concepts of `path dependence' and `networks', Pollert stresses that this approach
`can be arbitrary and unclear about how historical legacies are mediated, and over-deterministic in ignoring
contemporary processes of both structural constraints and strategic choice of actors which are guided
by global competition, rather than building on the past' (p.60). Thirdly, Pollert argues that even critics
of conventional analyses have tended to neglect the importance of class relations and working conditions.
In particular, such writers have failed to take account of the importance of gender in the shaping of
the labour process. Her main target here is the work of Alice Amsden and her collaborators, who she sees
as having framed their analysis around the recommendation of the East Asian model of development as an
alternative to the transition path followed by Eastern Europe after 1989. For Pollert such a recommendation
is unrealistic since it requires a level of state direction of the economy which is politically infeasible
in the Central European context and because the development path followed in East Asia was dependent
on drawing on supplies of cheap, rural, female labour which were not available in Eastern Europe. It
is also undesirable since it neglects both the question of democratising the state and that of class
relations at work.
Pollert thus attempts to provide an account of the last decade in Central Europe
which adequately encompasses these three issues. She argues that such an account should use the concept
of `transformation' rather than `transition' in order to stress the contingency of the final outcome
of the process. Her account of transformation stresses the historical causes of the differences between
Hungary and Poland on the one hand and the Czech Republic on the other. Two factors seem to have been
important here. Firstly, the relative lack of class polarisation and strength of liberal democracy in
Czechoslovakia in the inter-war period encouraged a more unified resistance to Nazi occupation in that
country than in Hungary or Poland. This resistance was largely under Communist control, without the deep-rooted
anti-communist elements which typified much of the resistance in the other two countries, thus strengthening
the position of the Communist Party in the post-war period. Secondly, the greater degree of industrial
development in Czechoslovakia enabled the post-war Communist regime to achieve a higher degree of legitimacy
as a result of material concessions; `Czechoslovakia differed: its industrial development provided the
command economy system with the means for making major material concessions so that real wages began
to recover in the late 1950s: prosperity was bargained for political conformity' (p.37).
considerations help to explain why Czechoslovakia did not experience the same kind of upheaval following
Stalin's death as did Poland and Hungary. Consequently, economic reform there did not progress nearly
as far as in the other two countries. The result of this was that market relationships in Czechoslovakia
were much less developed at the time of the fall of the Communist regime than elsewhere in Central Europe.
For Pollert, this decisively affected the approach to economic transformation adopted there. She sums
up her analysis by writing that `in Czechoslovakia, the legacy of advanced industrialization and social
democracy - themselves formed during the Habsburg years - had the paradoxical outcome of one of the least
reconstructed systems of Communist Party central control in Central Europe. In Poland and Hungary, totalitarian
inter-war years, themselves the historic consequences of competing power relations after different experiences
of imperial domination, ironically led to greater plurality of organized opposition to Communist Party
rule, especially large landed and peasant interests, and in Poland, the Catholic Church' (p.47).
lack of pluralist opposition to the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and of economic reform, led to
the relatively unchallenged dominance of the ODS government under Vaclav Klaus and to the rapid enactment
of mass voucher-based privatisation schemes. There were no immediate organised tendencies within the
opposition movement to sustain a variety of political parties, and the lack of previous reform had created
a particularly acute vacuum when it came to the task of `making capitalism without capital'. At the same
time, the favourable historical legacy of Czech industrialisation encouraged foreign investment, which
also speeded up the privatisation process. In this way Pollert argues that developments in the Czech
Republic since 1989 have been significantly shaped by past factors which predate the establishment of
Communism in the region, and that these factors can explain differences between the trajectory followed
there compared with that taken in Poland and Hungary. In turn she claims that the special circumstances
of the Czech transformation have given rise to particular structures of labour representation and industrial
Probably the most important difference here concerns the unity of the trade union movement.
While both Hungary and Poland had trade unions divided between different federations, and in Poland these
divisions took on an overtly political form, the Czech Republic maintained a single dominant union grouping.
Having traced the evolution of industrial relations in the Czech Republic through the 1990s Pollert is
cautiously optimistic; `whereas in Poland trade unions appear wedded to a management transformation agenda,
and in Hungary a divided trade union movement appears weak, there are signs that Czech union cohesion
and political non-alignment have helped the development of a labour movement in which independent class
interests are beginning to be expressed, at least in relation to the state as legislator and employer'
(p.170). This unity is related directly to the lack of political differentiation in the former Czechoslovakia
before 1989; `the evidence of post-Communist differentiation testifies to how the paths of command economy
experience shaped diverse labour representation transformation institutions, with division characterizing
those countries which had experimented with reform, and greater unification where there had been none'
Pollert provides an extremely good critical overview of debates around Central European transformation
and many of her criticisms of particular approaches such as those of Stark and Amsden are very penetrating.
While the contrast between the Czech experience and that of Poland and Hungary is not new, the relation
of the differences here to issues concerning labour is important and interesting. The underlying argument
of the book is powerful and provides a good basis for further investigation of the current difficulties
facing the Czech economy. However, a number of questions are raised by Pollert's analysis.
problem is that the very compressed historical account given by Pollert is not really detailed enough
to establish the main hypotheses of the book. Consequently, they remain suggestive rather than compelling
for the reader. For example, her account of nineteenth century development concentrates on the differences
between Hungary and Czechoslovakia, while Poland is treated very briefly. Yet as she acknowledges the
experience of Poland was very different from that of Hungary. This then raises the question of how Poland
and Hungary can have followed rather similar trajectories after 1945, given the varying historical legacies
in the two countries. Pollert's stress on the relatively greater legitimacy of the post-war Czechoslovak
regime, as compared with elsewhere in Central Europe, makes it difficult for her to explain the developments
of 1968, which she passes over rather quickly. Her emphasis on the inter-war strength of social democracy
in Czechoslovakia, which she sees as linked to the revival of Czech social democracy today, demands a
deeper analysis of why social democracy lost its hegemony in the anti-Nazi resistance so completely to
the Communists. None of these problems invalidate Pollert's account. However, they do indicate that more
detailed analysis is needed before her historical argument can be accepted in its entirety.
is also a certain tension between Pollert's stress on agency and her emphasis on history. If the historical
context is so important in shaping the opportunities open to contemporary actors then this tends to detract
from the emphasis on the role of active agents in shaping the transformation process, particularly in
the area of labour relations. It is of course quite possible to envisage an account which combines the
two, but Pollert tends to give more weight to history than to choice. This is especially marked in her
account of trade union disunity, where there is relatively little analysis of the particular decisions
which led to divisions between the various federations as compared to the emphasis on the influence of
More seriously though, there is a second underlying argument in the book which
is not always integrated with the first. This argument stresses not the internal differences within the
Central European region but the homogenising power of external forces, in particular Western capital
acting through foreign investment and the international financial institutions. As Pollert concludes
`internationally imposed policies have forced similar structural adjustment policies of stabilization
and deregulation and privatisation; each country has, in similar ways, been forced to suffer the consequences
of privatisation as making capitalism without capital, and when FDI has arrived, accepted this largely
on MNCs' conditions' (p.227). She shows how the IMF and other institutions have required privatisation
and orthodox economic policies based on budgetary restraint, while foreign investors have generally adopted
an aggressive position towards trade unions and have tried to lower wages wherever possible. These twin
pressures broke up, for example, the trend of the early 1990s towards `tripartism' (corporatist structures
of representation involving the state, employers and trade unions) in similar ways in Poland, Hungary
and the Czech Republic.
Pollert recognises the tension between these two arguments and concludes that
the transformation process has embodied both forces resulting from internal differentiation and from
external homogenisation; `one of the questions raised about the process of transformation has been the
degree to which globalization narrows the choice of individual nation states to intervene in the direction
of change, and whether or not it tends towards institutional convergence which minimizes the relevance
of political and industrial relations diversity. From the findings of this book, the answer must be:
yes and no' (p.227). Clearly, this is so; changes in Central Europe have resulted from both internal
and external factors. However, Pollert does not really bring the two modes of explanation together in
a sustained way. Consequently, certain phenomena (privatisation strategies, trade union disunity) are
analysed using concepts of national diversity arising from history, while others (recession after 1989,
patterns of foreign investment, the decline of tripartism) are examined through the prism of external
This issue is especially acute when judging the case studies which conclude the book. These
provide an opportunity for combining the two forms of explanation. In fact though, while the material
presented is fascinating, it is not clear to what extent it represents a distinctively Czech set of experiences
of transformation. The majority of the issues raised - the failure to pursue planned rather than reactive
restructuring, the damaging effects of privatisation, the influence of corruption, the aggressive policies
of foreign investors towards labour - seem potentially common across the region. Further, while the workers
in the enterprises studied were members of a unitary trade union federation in a way which would not
have been the case in Poland or Hungary, this does not seem to have greatly affected the outcomes in
each case. The dominant impression of the case studies is of a prevailing demoralisation of the workforce
and a generalised scepticism about collective action, with the unions losing membership and credibility.
Pollert's analysis of the reasons for this is extremely interesting, if depressing, but it is not necessarily
unique to the Czech Republic. The case studies tend to reinforce the second explanation of developments
at the expense of the first, highlighting general tendencies resulting from external agents as opposed
to specific legacies of Czech history.
The difficulty of integrating these two levels of analysis
is accentuated by Pollert's decision to move directly from comparative accounts of Central Europe as
a whole to her individual Czech case studies. It would have been interesting to know more about the structural
changes which have taken place in the Czech Republic since 1989, in terms of the sectoral distribution
of wages, profits and investment, for example, in order to set the workplace experiences in context.
Such an account, bridging the general and the particular, would provide a framework within which the
competing influences of national institutions and external pressures could be set.
However, such comments
should not in any way detract from what Pollert has achieved in this book. She synthesises a great deal
of material in the first half of her account to provide one of the best critical overviews of Central
Europe since 1989 to have been published so far, while her latter chapters provide a wealth of interesting
observations about the role of labour during this period. The book is likely to be of interest to a wide
readership and deserves to play a significant role in debates over East European transformation.