Rudolf Kučera. Život na příděl: Válečná každodennost a politiky dělnické třídy v českých zemích 1914–1918 [Rationed Life: War, Everyday Life and Labour Politics in the Bohemian Lands 1914-1918]. Prag: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 2013. 213 S. ISBN 978-80-7422-232-0.
Reviewed by Jiří Štaif
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (April, 2014)
R. Kučera: Život na příděl [Rationed Life]
Rudolf Kučera‘s book is an important event in contemporary Czech historiography for several reasons. First of all, the author considers the concept of the working class, inspired by the classic book by Edward Palmer Thompson, “The Making of the English Working Class” (1963), and by contemporary, especially Anglo-American, approaches in writing history on the working classes. Moreover, Kučera’s book introduces expert discourse on labor, scarcity, and gender to reveal the values and “new” order of things at the time of the Great War. He identifies the importance of expertise in assigning social prestige to various social groups and in fixing a specific normative order. Among scientific concepts important before 1914, Kučera stresses the physiological concept of work, both manual and intellectual, as (if possible) the most rational transfer of energy from the human body and brain to the purposes that gain economical or other relevance in the social sphere located “outside” the individual.
In four chapters, the book proceeds with a lively dialogue with the empirical literature about working class politics, focusing on food, “sytost na příděl” (rationed satiety); labor, “únava na příděl” (rationed fatigue); gender, “mužnost na příděl” (rationed manhood); and protest, “hněv na příděl” (rationed wrath). Rationing is the key term here. In the first three cases it shows that the state begins authoritatively and, at the same time selectively, to define the action radius of the citizens even in the sphere of basic human needs; therefore, from the social aspect, it deprives them not only of the possibility to choose, but also, specifically, to manage their own affairs. The title of the fourth chapter could easily have been formulated in the plural, “hněv na příděly” (rationed wraths), to show the new class identity of the workers. In my opinion, the concept of “rationed wrath” semantically defocuses the phenomenon of class consciousness because it also allows, namely in Czech language, an interpretation of wrath as being intentionally imposed on the working classes by the establishment. Moreover, the wrathful, hungry crowd and its effort to symbolically control the power centers, above all to loot the grocery shops and stockpiles, was nothing new in history. Its actions have almost always relied on the instinctive solidarity, the proximity of the bodies, and on the performative practices that strengthened spirit of the unity of action, based on the sharing of the analogical values and efforts of exculpation from individual responsibility. The psychology of the wrathful, or otherwise resolute crowd, usually vacillated not only around the idea of “injustice” but also around “lack of recognition” (humiliation, despair), “liberation”, or “just punishment”. It was also, from medieval times, the confrontational women’s attitudes that broadened this feature to a specific dynamic. But this feature opens up the problem of how much an emotional, as well as destructive, protest from a crowd can lead towards the redefinition of class identity in the participants in the situation when an organized protest strike transforms into a spontaneous riot.
Kučera admits that the success of the workers’ protest in Prague and Pilsen in the summer of 1917 was directly proportional with the level of their organization (p. 153). However, this fact could also be explained by the workers already recognizing through their organized effort the bourgeois legal order, while the unorganized spontaneity of the street riots legitimizes, on the same basis, the tough repressive measures of the bourgeois state against the demonstrating workers and their allies. Certainly, the problem of creating class consciousness through mass protests is that the situation can become more complicated than lucid. Although the workers protest above all against the employers, but they struggle nolens volens with the state power, which they have to, directly or at least indirectly, take into an account. This interpretational problem would be even more significant, if Kučera had not concluded his text de facto in 1917. In my opinion, he overemphasizes the revolutionary aspect in the formation of the Czech working class. Furthermore, he focuses on the reform aspect only very little. Besides, the revolutionary spirit and the reform dynamically interconnected during the demonstrations of the workers and the other discontents against the political, actually, the state power in the general strikes in January 1918, on 14 October 1918, and in December 1921, when not only the workers, but also the other political parties, participated. Cp. Zdeněk Kárník, Habsburk, Masaryk či Šmeral. Socialisté na rozcestí [The Habsburg, Masaryk or Šmeral: The Socialists at the Crossroads], 2nd edition, Praha 1998, p. 257ff., 265ff., 480ff.
The relations between the “authentic” politics of the discontent workers and the “unauthentic” politics of the leaders of the workers’ parties would, in this case, appear perhaps somewhat different from those in 1917. This confusion could also be the result of Kučera’s lack of focus on the Czech national society, a focus that he otherwise maintains. The concepts of the professional, income (see the tariff sections), and the cultural homogenization of the workers, connected with the long collective experience that stems from the unequal relationship between the hired manual workforce and its management could become the intermediation. However, the homogenization here could not be described as an unilateral growth of the workers’ compatibility, but rather as a dynamic fluctuation between the analogical experiences of the workers and those experiences that are different. Not only the state’s responsiveness towards the workers, but also the opportunities for their integration into civic society and the economic stability of capitalism in itself undoubtedly played their roles there. In addition, the nationalization of the workers’ cultures and politics, which opened up the possibility for alliances with the “other classes” (for example with the left-wing intelligentsia and the petty bourgeoisie) from the “same” nation, was typical of the Habsburg monarchy. Kučera tries, as we already know, to exclude the state power from his explanation by emphasizing the most important topic in his research, the direct struggle of the workers with the employers (pp. 87, 90). However, he leaves aside the fact that the direct conflict with the state would, with regard to the state’s repressions, discharge the still existing “remains” of the workers’ organizations, which were mainly represented by the labor unions, as the residue of the pre-war workers’ culture.
He writes particularly successfully about the radical changes of women’s roles in a society, where the absence of the men was followed by the growing self-confidence of members of the “weak” gender, accompanied by the sorrows of maintaining a household in a time when war bought on a lack of the basic essentials, not only of food, but also of fuel and hygiene and healthcare products (p. 111ff.).
Austria-Hungary was no exception in this respect. The contrast between pre-war consumption and wartime deprivation can be seen not only among the workers, but also among the middle classes and in neighboring Germany, where it was even more apparent. Furthermore, the efforts of the power establishment to manipulate the class interests of the particular parts of society, which we could describe with the words “who works less should eat less”, were much more intense there. Cp. Belinda Davis, Konsumgesellschaft und Politik im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Heinz–Gerhard Haupt / Claudius Torp (eds.), Die Konsumgesellschaft 1890–1990 in Deutschland, Frankfurt am Main 2009, pp. 232–249. The author relies, among others, on her book ‘Home Fires Burning. Food, Politics and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin’ (Chapel Hill 2000). The collective experience that the woman often took the traditional role of the man deeply influenced the construction of post-war society not just in Central Europe. The amendment of the Healthcare Insurance Law on 9 January 1917, which, contrary to the pre-war situation, granted male and female workers equal status, was a noticeable demonstration of this trend in Cisleithania (p. 114ff.). However, we cannot ignore the fact that the integration of the frontline soldiers into post-war society did not happen without many gender conflicts, including an increase in violence in the household. Maureen Healy, Civilizing the Soldier in Postwar Austria, in: Nancy M. Wingfield / Maria Bucur (eds.), Gender & War in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe, Bloomington 2006, pp. 47–69.
The social position of the city children from the poor parts of society could have been, in such a view of history, treated more thoroughly. The problems of starvation and work exploitation influenced society in very emotional ways because it was not compatible with the basic ethical principles in wartime, let alone in peacetime. Additionally, I suppose that this incompatibility was the theme that created broader alliances rather than only those that were based on the exhausting worker’s labor. Thus, it could have been possible to incorporate, for example, the activity of the self-help humanitarian organization “České srdce“ [The Czech Heart], active in Czech society since 24th October 1917 as the “National Helping Committee”, into Kučera’s explanation. Its function was mainly to provide nutrition and healthcare aid from agricultural areas to the starving children in industrial towns. Its ideological base was formed among members of the Czech humanist intelligentsia, represented above all by the chief municipal doctor in Prague, Ladislav Prokop Procházka, and the female writer Růžena Svobodová. It was supported by important representatives of the Czech Agrarian Party, including its leading personality, Antonín Švehla, also the initiator of the voluntary Economic Councils in Bohemia, whose aim was to limit the export of food abroad. The representatives of the self-government also tried to limit wartime hunger quite often.
An alternative approach to Kučera’s explanation could be the more sophisticated concepts of an ambiguous modernization of the society. Kučera describes the working class as a group that arises and changes through the collective experience, the following articulation of the collective interests, and then an organized collective action (p. 8). However, Thompson’s concept of the working class supposes that it also has some relation to the other classes; let us say other people, whose interests are different or contradictory. Logically, this interaction begins its relation to other cultures, i.e., cultural experiences, and the challenges they present. The mass culture of the emerging modern society interacts with the workers’ culture, which is the process that began in the Bohemian (Czech) Lands before World War I. In addition to this process, we find that the interests of different classes cause a mutual radicalization in situations where the “common” culture is not able to neutralize them and the contemporary elites are not ready for a „curable” action that will provide a place for alternative elites.
I conclude that the reviewed book is an important achievement in Czech historiography not only because of its content, but also because of its potential to inspire both the culturally oriented social history of a class and the whole field of study. The overall quality of the book undoubtedly exceeds others on the working class, which is still rare in Czech historiography. To compare with, for example: Stanislav Knob / Tomáš Rucki (eds.), Problematika dělnictva v 19. a 20. století. Bilance a výhledy [The Problems of the Workers in 19th and 20th Century. Review of Research and Prospects.], Ostrava 2011. Furthermore, this kind of research often still struggles not only with the range of “white spots”, but also with the many conceptual deficiencies, which, among other factors, arise from Czech historians’ focus on other themes, themes they have found “more attractive” during the last quarter of the century. Therefore, it is gratifying to see that the desire to depart from fashionable trends popular among the younger generation of Czech historians, where Rudolf Kučera belongs, grows.
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Jiří Štaif. Review of Kučera, Rudolf, Život na příděl: Válečná každodennost a politiky dělnické třídy v českých zemích 1914–1918 [Rationed Life: War, Everyday Life and Labour Politics in the Bohemian Lands 1914-1918].
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