Russian Workers: The Anatomy of Patience / Transformation at Work in the New Market Economies of Central Eastern Europe

By Blazyca, George | Capital & Class, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Russian Workers: The Anatomy of Patience / Transformation at Work in the New Market Economies of Central Eastern Europe


Blazyca, George, Capital & Class


Srch Ashwin Russian Workers: The Anatomy of Patience Manchester University Press, 1999. pp. 213 ISBN 071905611-X (hbk) L40.00

Anna Pollert Transformation at Work in the Now Market Economies of Central Eastern Europe Sage, 1999 ISBN 0761952306 (hbk) L60.00

The study of workers' responses to post-communist transformation has been relatively neglected, the second cousin in a literature driven by economic processes such as (following the `Washington consensus') macro stabilisation, privatisation, and economic liberalisation. Since 'Washington' set the transition agenda it is no surprise that most Western support to post-communist transformation, whether bilateral or multilateral, was directed to a variety of supposedly `market-buil ding' initiatives. The market (exchange) was granted a privileged position with production relationships commanding less attention. The academic research effort has largely followed suit so it is refreshing to review two books where the focus is the workplace and which seek to probe the impact of transformation on workers and trade unions.

The two volumes reviewed here, Sarah Ashwin's Russian Workers and Anna Pollen's Transformation at Work, share a committed concern with postcommunist transition `at the sharp end', with its effect on real but 'ordinary' people. If there is a common thread running through each it is a general appeal that building democratic and accountable organisations able effectively to represent workers' interests demands far greater attention and effort. The authors are also very much concerned to explore the barriers that exist to such activity. Indeed Ashwin's fascinating and elegantly written case study of a single coal mining enterprise (referred to in the text as 'Taldym') in the Russian Kuzbass is almost entirely an ethnographic investigation of the those barriers. It is a model of careful investigation, written with verve and peppered with interview material where workers speak for themselves. Pollert meanwhile devotes more time to broad theoretical issues but uses some case study material drawn from the Czech engineering and retail sectors to illuminate transformation problems in the workplace.

Despite the different regional focus of each study, alongside the substantially different post-communist experience in Russia and in Central Europe, the two authors return, in their conclusions, to concerns for the future that are remarkably similar. Ashwin is fearful of developments in a Russia where democracy is far from firmly established and where workers' tendency to place almost all faith in paternal bosses and 'strong' political leaders is dangerous. Pollert notes in Central Europe a `mounting worker dissatisfaction' over transformation and the dangerous temptation to seek easy solutions in xenophobia and nationalism.

Transformation at Work has three parts: the first, `The Setting', reviews history and theory, the second considers `The State and Capital' and the final part examines 'Labour'. A steady refrain is the author's belief that post-communist transformation is not understood properly largely because of weaknesses in the way it is theorised. While the neo-liberal view based on the universality of markets has been widely discredited by experience, for Pollen the `new institutionalism' of the path-dependency school with its `networks obsession' is also misguided, mainly because of its excessively micro focus and neglect of `macro processes of political and economic power'. Meanwhile those who start from the macro level, drawing some inspiration from south-east Asian models of capitalism, seeking to distil and apply its lessons to post-communist transformation, also fail, says Pollen, to acknowledge crucial cultural and political differences between time and place. Pollert's criticisms of the chaotic Czech privatisation experience which focused more on restructuring property rights and much less on finding funds for new investment also appear entirely justified.

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