Tom D has written this report of our ‘uncaptive minds‘ forum on ‘the debates on workers’ control’ held on Monday 29th September.
What does it mean for workers to control the institutions that determine the content of their lives? What does it mean for us to control organisations of struggle, factories, workplaces, production, consumption – and, ultimately, all society? This question matters, because it is posed ever more intensely, the higher the pitch of the class struggle, until it becomes the final question of politics. The answer is the difference between victory and defeat, communism and bureaucracy.
But those of us who attended the meeting – as one comrade pointed out – are not part of a labour movement which is currently laying siege to the fortress of private property. But this, I realised, is why the debate came as part of a series on the seventies: a series covering the content of the last intensive period of successful class struggle in Britain. The question of social power is posed concretely in the midst of social conflict.
So where did that leave us? We might have had a sharper debate had the meeting not been more libertarian left in its composition (a good thing in every other way), or had it related to a particular circumstance in which the question of workers’ control was posed – such as those highlighted by Solidarity, writing on Russia 1917, or factory occupations in the North of England during the seventies.
As it was, the axis of debate turned around two schools of thought, which each sought to emphasise what is (in my view) a particular and necessary aspect of the communist idea of workers control:
1 – Control (i.e. direct collective self-management) of the workplace.
2 – Control (in the same terms) of the total structure of society.*
Some comrades, though not all, emphasising the former took the undoubtedly wrong view that the ‘gang system’ which used to operate in many factories, was an expression of workers’ control. In this system, a ‘gang’, determined its own membership, and how it did the work within the context of the capitalist factory. Of course such a system could breed some sense of self-reliance. But it is plainly a pitiable form of self-management, little different from the ‘team concept’ or ‘team system’ which was successfully fought at Royal Mail. (It is also associated with ‘Toyotism’ – see Silver, Forces of Labor, p67, for some idea of the development of this within the 20th Century class struggle.) It amounts to making workers manage their own oppression. Now, managing your own oppression can sometimes be better than having someone else manage it (as in some well functioning cooperative enterprises), but in the competitive market economy, unless all workers are organised industrially, conditions will eventually be competed down. This is (at least one reason) why neither cooperatives, nor hiring halls, nor any other sub-capitalist institution will amount to workers having control over the conditions of their existence.
Most in the meeting, therefore, agreed that control on a micro level was meaningless, were it not to be accompanied by control over the whole of society. In my view, and I believe in the view of many others present, the inverse is perhaps as true: if the basic unit of workers’ democracy (and I do not at all hide from the use of the word ‘democracy‘, shorn of its bourgeois meaning here by communist context) is not the workplace, then society is again divided between the managers and the managed, order givers and order takers. Social power is not a lived fact, but an abstract potential. Under communism, will singing at work be banned by supervisors appointed from on high? No. This is not the point.
However, one speaker from the floor suggested that, at times of mass insurgency, workers had not been particularly concerned to establish management of individual workplaces: the management of all society had been on their mind. They referred to a book by Michael Seidman – Workers Against Work – which describes the attitudes of workers to the discipline imposed on them by the Popular Fronts in Paris and Barcelona, 1936-37. Some have wanted to describe the Catalan case at least as workers’ control – but Seidman, the speaker told us, describes the resistance of workers to the productive demands imposed on them in the context of the war against Franco. To me, this does show that control of the overarching structure of society is necessary, as we have said before. But it does not necessarily show that it is sufficient – and indeed, I am unclear if this is what the comrade was trying to say. For me, the story which Maurice Brinton tells in The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control is the story of that time in history with the more communist potential than any other, undermined through the undermining of workplace control – the destruction of the factory councils, or factory committees.
We face a vastly different structure of industry today, in Britain, than we did in the seventies. The council communist idea of the workers’ councils running society is more easy to imagine in a society based on ‘mass worker’ industries (workplaces of thousands), than in one based on small retail outlets. Because of this, and because of the fact that much of the current British economy would be completely obsolete under communism, we cannot rely as heavily on workplace control in the way that comrades from that decade might have done. This consideration, and that raised by the comrade referencing Seidman, are important considerations, reminding us to not rely too heavily on received ideas.
On the other hand, some comrades did stray, I would argue, into extremely abstract territory. To the idea of self-management of the workplace, they counterposed such slogans as “the abolition of value”. (For Marxists, this is equivalent to the abolition of capitalist society, since the particular sort of value in question, ‘exchange value’, is held by Marx to only arise when there is production for competitive exchange.) Even leaving aside the need to use more intelligible language in public meetings, if we want them to be engaging to new people: this doesn’t get us very far**. It simply causes the question to be raised again: in communist society, without ‘value’, planned collectively by its members, what is the relation between a) the need to be in control of one’s immediate environment and b) the fact that no workplace ‘belongs’, in the sense of capitalist ownership, to its workers – and that they do have social responsibilities which go with their work?*** What forms do abolish value? As far as I know, there is no easy answer to this. We can investigate such ingenious systems as PARECON (Albert and Hahnel), or seek to establish such general concepts as ‘federalism’, or ‘delegates mandated and recallable by assemblies’ – but these only hint at the categories which may be established in a future world. And we should not think that even those formal categories will be sufficient to describe the productive relations of communism. In concluding the meeting, one of the speakers recalled how the Zanon occupied factory in Argentina gives tiles it makes away to the local community more or less whenever they are needed. Such relations are emblematic of a revolution which is thoroughly social – that is, which revolutionises not only the formal structure of society, but the individualist assumptions of the present.
I’ve tried to characterise the meeting fairly. I’m sure that there will be plenty of corrections where I’ve failed. In any case, I’m looking forward to the next discussion!
* I have completely ignored the definition of workers’ control used by Leon Trotsky, at times, to mean more or less “dual power” – I’m just using the phrase here to mean what it sounds like.
** And that’s also leaving aside the fact that, even under strictest Marxist theory, communism is only one of many different types of society without ‘value‘, not all of which are desirable – e.g. early feudalism.
***Not, for instance, to use their industrial power to hold the rest of society to ransom for unfair gain.