The political Left is not always averse to forced labour

Labour was central to the Sovjet system.
Labour was central to the Sovjet system.
It is striking that Dutch socialist organisations show relatively little interest in the emerging battle of the unemployed against forced labour. Although the more established social-democrat parties and unions are now sparingly showing some solidarity, none of them is taking a principled stand against forced labour let alone more in general against forcing people into wage slavery. “Everyone to the workplace” has been the slogan of the Left, because that is where the power is supposed to be. The power to take off the sharp edges of capitalism according to the social democrats; the power to take over the means of production and to start the revolution according to the revolutionary Left. Throughout history, however, the people at the bottom of society have shown little interest in this praise of wagework by organisations that claim to defend their cause and speak on their behalf.

The original text in Dutch
(july 31st, 2013)

Translated into English by Jet

Capitalism has always depended on force in order to get people to accept wagework and continue to do so. This pressure to work started at the moment when people were forcibly separated from their means of production and their land. Already in the sixteenth century the authorities tried to drill ‘vagrants’ and ‘unemployed’ into disciplined workers, among other things through workhouses. The people of course rejected this both individually and collectively, and it was the start of the fight around paid labour that will continue until we have abolished capitalism.

For a long time the labourers only worked three or four days a week, until they had enough money for the rest of the week. The bosses therefore sometimes lowered the wages to force them to work longer. In return the labourers for example slowed down their work, and so the cycle continued. To have more control over their labour the bosses started putting their ‘employees’ together in factories, and to better regulate the pace of their work they built bigger and bigger machines and shackled the workers to these. This is how the resistance of the workers caused the industrial revolution to happen.

At the start of the twentieth century the American engineer Frederick Taylor introduced his ‘scientific management’ that he hoped would settle the continuous power struggle once and for all to the advantage of the employers. The central focus of his programme was to investigate the production processes in great detail in order to ‘rationalise’ these and transfer them to machines such as assembly belts. This meant that each worker was left to do a very limited and specific task and by this was reduced to a cog in the machine. A cog without knowledge about the production process as a whole, which left him almost without any power to influence this process. This power was transferred to a small class of privileged technicians. The workers were split up, they were not allowed to talk and if someone did not work hard enough or accurately enough this was noticed immediately. In this way taylorism tried to prevent any form of workers’ power and some companies such as Ford even went as far as checking their labourers’ private life for a healthy lifestyle, to make sure they would function optimally. This aspect of Fordism was in fact the beginning of the industrial society in which everyone and everything is dominated by production. Other values were more and more regarded as irrelevant.

Productivism of the Left

From the beginning of compulsory labour there have been progressive and left-wing intellectuals and militants who were in favour of the workhouses and later on the factories, going against the workers’ experience of daily struggle. After all, production was increased considerably in the factories and it seemed that in this way the dream of enough prosperity for all would become reality. Some of the progressive and left-wing people just did not want to recognise the daily misery of the workers in the factories. Others were very aware of it, but considered the factory to simply be a necessary phase of sacrifice towards building a new world. George Danton, who was one of the leaders of the French revolution, already envisaged Paris as one big factory. Through these factories capitalism would contribute to the development of a new worker, living and working in a disciplined way, and this worker would eventually take over society according to Karl Marx.

Russia, 1917. After decades of struggle the Russian labourers had finally taken over their factories. The work rate was lowered considerably, wages were equalised, and many workers left their factories during the revolutionary turbulence, looking for a better life elsewhere. According to the new rulers, the Bolshevics, this lack of discipline and work ethics was the result of the failure of Russian capitalism. According to them, their communist revolution needed a disciplined, hard-working labour class: a ‘revolutionary subject’ that would drive reforms and would produce prosperity and ‘progress’. But this class was in danger of crumbling rapidly and soon it was decided to reintroduce capitalism and compulsory labour. Already in 1918 party leader Lenin pleaded for the introduction of taylorian methods “to teach the people to work”. An ‘iron discipline’ was needed in the factories, according to his right-hand man Leon Trotski, who spoke of “the militarisation of labour”. Those who worked harder whould earn more, and highly trained technicians regained their power in the factories. Longer working days were introduced, many leave days were abolished and the workers received a special pass that stipulated in detail what their tasks were. In addition special shock troops were established: groups of militant labourers that were sent to various factories to stir up the labourers to work harder. Then also the ’socialist competition’ between factories and between individual workers was introduced, praising the workers who produced the most such as for example the famous ‘model worker’ Aleksej Stachanov. In essence the Bolshevics behaved like an employers’ party wanting to discipline the labourers of the first workers’ state as quickly as possible, to turn them into extensions of ‘their’ machines.

The measures were hardly effective. The more repression was exercised, the lower production became and the more sick leave went up, for example. The individual and collective battle against the repressive factory regime just continued after the revolution, among other things through sabotage and slowing of the work rate. In 1920 the production still was no more than 13% of the production before the First World War. Most of the workers did not care anythting for Stachanov, and the hard-working colleagues who were distinguished as “heroes of labour” no longer received a handshake. Some of them were even beaten up or murdered. The Bolshevics called the recalcitrant workers ‘backward’ and undertook attempts to taylorise the entire society in order to ‘educate’ them permanently.


When from 1936 to 1938 the elected Front Populaire (consisting mainly of communists and social democrats) was in power in France, productivism was still the main goal. The left-wing government introduced all sorts of novelties that we in Europe now consider to be normal, such as paid holidays, unemployment benefits, adequate wages, and a free weekend as a result of a 40 hours working week. But the factory regimes remained unchanged. In fact, in exchange for these innovations the workers were asked to work even harder. With a war with fascist Germany coming closer fast, many tanks and planes had to be built quickly. However, many labourers considered their own factory regimes to be fascist too, with foremen they described as ‘guards’ and who in reality actually often were fascists. According to the workers, democracy ended at the factory gate. For them it did not matter who ultimately owned the factories: the capitalists, the State or even the Left.

Whatever the State attempted, the workers did not increase their efforts. On the contrary, the production plummeted. The number of production hours per plane for example rose from 18 to 40 thousand. A construction project for which 78 thousand hours had been budgeted suddenly took 264 thousand hours to be finalised. A real guerilla broke out against wagework. Workers repeatedly reported sick, made clever use of the new benefits, and reported for work late or not at all. There was mass sabotage, theft, strikes, and work was slowed down and carried out without discipline and against the regulations. The workers hated the dirty, noisy, stinking and dictatorial factories with their meaningless labour and as soon as they got the chance they started to work less. By not doing all their work they also forced the employers to take on their unemployed colleagues. In that way they obtained a decent income as well. Since these were the crisis years the workers were not so much interested in the work, as in having a job and a steady income. This is why workers who continued to report to work on time and to work hard, often encountered physical violence from their colleagues.

There were many strikes: for longer lunch hours, higher wages, to retain leave days, for better clothing and changing rooms, and against overtime and the speeding up of work processes. Companies were often occupied and workers indicated they had never been happier: no longer shackled to their machine they were able to walk around, talk to each other, to laugh, sing and start relationships with each other.

Contrary to what is often assumed these were not the labourers coming straight from the rural areas and unable to get used to the strict factory regime: these were seasoned workers whose families had been living in the city for generations, and who now seized the opportunity. The most militant workers were in fact usually not members of any union and not interested in politics. The party and union militants were enraged by the fact that the workers did not meet their ideal of loyal and dedicated labourers. They could however do very little against the workers whose support they needed in the unions and at the elections. That is why they put all their energy into training and education during ‘free time’ – to no avail. Only when a small employers party that participated in the Front pulled out and after a new right-wing government came in place it became possible to force back the workers’ protests and restore ‘order’ in the factories to some degree. It became clear that without an effective State that could force labourers into wagework, it was impossible to have a functioning capitalism.


The Left came to power in Spain, at least in large parts of the country, at the same time as the Front Populaire in France. Many anarchists today have a rather romantic image of that period. However, the anarcho-syndicalists that played a major role in Free Spain had very productivist ideas. The historiography of the Left, just like the official right-wing history, usually focuses on what important people and organisations believed and achieved. But the ideas of the unions and workers’ parties were not always those of the people they claimed to represent, on the contrary.

Take Barcelona, for example. Long before 1936 there was already a history of workers’ struggle and violent factory revolts. At the same time many prominent anarcho-syndicalists as well as trotskists and other communists openly expressed their admiration for the achievements of taylorism in other countries, especially in communist Russia. They were outraged by the fact that the Spanish capitalists did not move their industries ‘forward’ and when the opportunity arose in 1936 the anarchists immediately started the ‘rationalisation’ according to Taylor’s ideas.

Many factories that had been occupied by workers collectives were quickly forced to merge into huge conglomerates. From the start large differences in pay were reintroduced and the power was handed over to all kinds of managers and technocrats who immediately started speeding up the work processes. Strict regulations and inspections were imposed, the hated piece-wages were reintroduced, talking and singing was prohibited, leave was abolished and in some cases labourers who were considered redundant were fired and sent to the front. Following Russian example shock brigades were created, to push their comrades on towards higher production. The anarcho-syndicalists even established ‘concentration camps’ and ‘re-education facilities’, again following the Russian example, to discipline the workers who did not perform well: the ‘parasites’ and ‘saboteurs’. In addition they also introduced worker’s cards in Spain that contained information about a person’s behaviour.

In addition to repression the workers were exposed to intensive labour propaganda. Everywhere posters appeared in line with the well-known Russian humorless neo-realistic style, with pictures of happy, proud and healthy labourers, farmers and soldiers in beautiful, clean surroundings: entirely unrealistic and impersonal. The anarchist propaganda could also become threatening: labourers who were considered not (or not sufficiently) working hard enough, were labelled as ‘lazy’ and ‘immoral’ and sometimes called ‘non-revolutionary’ and even ‘fascist’. And fascists could be executed because of the civil war. The workers had to dedicate everything to the revolution, and they were strongly discouraged even to have sex or children.

Company doctors

The workers however wanted to take off the pressure once they had taken over the companies. After all, that is what they had been fighting for all those years. They rejected this return to discipline and control. En masse the workers came to work late, or not at all; they slowed down their work, refused to work overtime or on Saturdays, and refused the special ‘volunteer work’ that was done because of the civil war. There was a lot of theft, sabotage and many strikes against the taking away of leave days, among other things. In some factories the production went down by one third although wages went up 250% and one third extra personnel was hired, mostly militant former colleagues who had been made redundant.

Because large numbers of workers reported sick (in order to receive sickness benefits) the company doctors became very important in the daily life of the workers. Frequently the labourers were found to be at home, working in their gardens. They were not against work in principle, but against wage labour and the regime that went with it: the loss of autonomy and dignity. The groups of workers regularly played off the anarchists, the trotskists and the communists against each other. The labourers were not interested in ideology but in the best circumstances that were offered by the various unions in the factories they controlled. Most workers did not want to participate in propaganda meetings, and the colourful posters announcing these were usually torn off the walls. The resistance against wage labour was not formally organised, and did not offer alternatives but sent out an important message: down with the factory and down with compulsory labour.

New phases

Everywhere and at all times workers have resisted both individually and collectively, although this struggle has not always been visible to outsiders. The autonomous movement in Italy in the sixties and seventies was visible however: the resistance against turning all of society into a factory. Also in May 1968 Paris with its slogans ‘no more work’, ‘workers of all nations, enjoy’ and ‘commute, work, commute, sleep …’. Every resistance phase was followed by a reaction from the bosses, their technicians and the social engineers who would try to get and keep people working more intensively, and after that again resistance followed. After the ‘scientific management’ with its assembly belts the capital has in recent decades focused more and more on individualism and self-direction for labourers. The most recent developments seem to indicate that capitalism is increasingly trying to enter our soul and wants to mould our will from childhood on to become self-employed people who only think in terms of work, efficiency and making money. But the soul protests, if only out of stress that makes working impossible.

Through organizing projects and militant research Doorbraak tries to link up closely with the experiences of the workers, the people at the bottom of society, the class that we ourselves belong to. Our basis lies with their and our experiences, and not with abstract analyses of labour and capital. Many left-wing theorists and critics have en masse followed, and are still following, the progressive thinking where ‘progress’ is central, instead of looking closely at and listening to the practical criticism of workers who individually and collectively protest against all forms of force that capitalism continues to use. We can also scrutinise the endless stream of regulations that are obviously considered necessary by the state and the capital in order to further discipline both the workers and the unemployed. Each new regulation is evidence of their view that the existing force is insufficient, and that apparently there continues to be protests. We must criticise and oppose these regulations, just like all other coercion that is applied through machines, factories, the organisation of work, and the hierarchical business structures that increasingly pervade society. Down with those top-down progressives who would like to sit next to the director to think along and advise them on efficiency, ‘humanising the work’ and about how much more force would still be acceptable.

Eric Krebbers

To my knowledge there’s very little published in the Dutch language about this type of analyses of anti-capitalist struggle. For this short and schematic article I’ve made use of these sources and others:
– “Arbeidsethos en arbeidersethos”, Gerard Snels, 1975-1976.
– “Lieben die ArbeiterInnen die Arbeit?”, Gilles Dauvé en Karl Nesic, 2002.
– “Taylor in Russland”, Angelika Ebbinghaus, 1975.
– “Workers against work”, Michael Seidman, 1990.