On Monday, June 1, 1953, the machines fell silent in the industrial center of Prague. Instead of the noise of traffic with large production halls in Vysočany and Hloubětín, there was an excited conversation, outraged speeches, chanting, applause, but also whistling and a few painful cries. Twenty thousand workers went on strike against the consequences of monetary reform. The most radical strikers from ČKD Stalingrad and Aero Vysočany even took to the streets and prepared for a demonstration march to the Castle. Overflowing protests outside the factory would be a disaster for the communist government. Prague’s industrial enterprises had an iconic position. It was the workers from Kolbenka and the adjoining factories who staged the communist coup five years ago. If they took to the streets again, the pillars on which the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s power stood would collapse. But the striking workers eventually returned to the factory. The largest protest in Prague since 1948 has been averted, without the help of violence.
Jakub Šlouf’s book Prague in June 1953, entitled The Workers’ Revolt Against Monetary Reform, Factory Negotiations, and the Structural Transformation of the Working Class, deals with the forgotten drama. As the name suggests, the author places short-lived riots in the broad context of workers’ culture. It deals with both the immediate causes of the revolt and its long-term assumptions and consequences, including the persecution of some participants.
The usual notions of an intimidated and paralyzed society do not apply to workers. On the contrary, labor contains great ability and defiance.
The author follows a not very developed line of research of autonomous workers’ culture during the dictatorship of the Communist Party. As Peter Heumos showed, for example, common ideas for workers of an intimidated and paralyzed society. On the contrary, labor contains great ability and defiance. Strikes were common and often successful, even during the greatest Stalinist repression. At the same time, however, participating in the protest did not mean a programmatic rejection of the regime. The workers’ strike was a common tool for resolving labor disputes and defending one’s own material interests. It was a form of collective bargaining, not primarily a political protest. The working class belonged to a privileged social group and largely identified with the communist dictatorship.
Monetary reform has called this connection into question. The workers had good reason to be angry. In fact, the reform meant a reduction in savings and an increase in the cost of living. Some of them didn’t even have a tram or snack ticket. It was the jump in the canteens that was one of the immediate stimuli for the strike. However, the financial downturn was not the only reason for the revolt. The abolition of the ticket system also meant the abolition of increased workers’ rations. Monetary reform, which not only was not consulted with the workers, but which the officials kept secret from them until the last moment, was thus felt as a loss of workers’ privileges and a shake-up of the existing privileged symbolic position. Šlouf presents the strike against monetary reform as a specific communication situation in which both parties negotiate their position and the meanings of key ideological terms.
Protest within the regime
For the most part, the workers did not consider themselves opponents of the regime, but on the contrary as its supporters and beneficiaries, many of them were members of the Communist Party. They saw the protest as their legitimate claim and expressed it in the language of communist ideology. For example, the strike was framed as a “company-wide meeting” or a “trade union meeting”. One of the most important castle workers was direct negotiations with members of the government. In order to articulate their requirements, they chose official communication channels and experienced means of resolving conflicts in the races. It is important that this claim was recognized by their superiors and party leadership. The personal speech of the Minister of Heavy Engineering together with the elimination of the greatest injustice (payment of advances for May wages) thus significantly calmed the situation. The workers received symbolic recognition and fulfillment of part of their demands and returned to work.
The whole book is permeated by a comparison with the more well-known workers’ revolt in Pilsen, which Šlouf devoted himself to in his previous work. He explains what factors led to the fact that the Prague protests did not grow into societal riots. Unlike the Pilsen workers, the Prague workers did not embark on a path of violent confrontation, but rather opted for a consensual strategy. The protests were seen by workers and factory management as a regular labor dispute. Unlike the Pilsen revolt, there was no violent suppression of protests in Prague. The subsequent persecution of the strikers was also much more lenient.
95 employees were investigated for participating in the strike, 32 of whom were sentenced to court and 24 were sentenced to imprisonment for an average of 6.5 months. Despite the unrest, the extent of the repression (by dictatorship) was relatively small. The author states that the harshest punishments did not affect the most radical participants in the strike, which protected their workers’ origins. The charges were selected on the basis of political criteria. The repression targeted former communists and former members of non-communist left-wing parties that represented ideological competition. Stanislav Michl, a former member of the National Socialists and a popular ROH official who only passively supports the strike, was sentenced to the harshest sentence (three years in prison). However, ordinary prosecutions and extrajudicial sanctions did not escape ordinary communists either. The Prague revolt terrified the leadership of the Communist Party, which interpreted the spontaneous riots as a targeted provocation of its political opponents. The judicial punishment of the strikers became a forerunner of political trials with former members of the Social Democracy in 1954–1955. In addition, the government tried to get workers under and set limits on their construction and effectively outlawed the strike organization. However, the criminalization of strikes was ineffective. They remained a common way of enforcing workers’ claims in the years to come. The party leadership soon abandoned the hard course and focused on preventing strikes, with issues of improving living standards and cultivating and depoliticizing internal communications coming to the fore.
The changing workers of the 1950s
In order to understand the mushroom of the protests in 1953, it is necessary, according to Šlouf, to look at the transformation that the working class underwent in 1948–1953 as a result of the socialist transformation and the arrival of thousands of new employees in heavy industry. The author presents the factories of the 1950s as a melting pot, where the traditional working class mixed with members of the bourgeoisie and new, hybrid identities were created. As a result of this mixing among the workers, the prestige of education and criticism of party politics increased. A new layer of technocratic intelligence emerged, which then took the floor in the 1960s. However, this line of argument is rather only indicated in the book and would need to be supported by more archival research. The author’s interpretation of the collection of latrinals seized during the investigation is also somewhat light-footed and ignores the specifics of working with folklore texts. Overall, however, it is necessary to appreciate the effort to capture the transformation of the world of workers and to indicate long-term trends.
The Prague Workers’ Revolt represents one of the most significant social conflicts of the 1950s, which at the same time did not seem to have happened at all. Protests of eligibility temporarily shake the legitimacy of the political system without stepping out of its borders. Jakub Šlouf rediscovers the forgotten event and outlines the social unrest, as well as their assumptions in the long run. The advantages of his work include the ability to describe even such tense situations as the suppression of a strike or judicial persecution outside the experienced interpretive schemes of oppression and resistance. The author manages to present the various actors of the strike and the strategy they have chosen. This allows him to explain convincingly why the protests with enormous explosive potential eventually remained behind the factory gates. An argumentatively constrained and precisely formulated text combines a detailed analysis of the events of one day with a strong structural perspective. is an unusual and subtly nuanced view of the transformation of Czech society in the 1950s. The brief and at first sight inconspicuous book is thus one of the most interesting contributions of domestic historiography in recent years.
The author is a historian.