We are pleased to publish this letter we received from Henri Simon, a French activist who has been involved in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, Informations et liaisons ouvrières/Informations et correspondances ouvrières and Échanges et mouvement. A long-time council communist favouring a self-managed society based on workers’ councils, Henri has written about the impossibility of maintaining self-managed units as islands of communism within capitalist society:
What follows is only a schematic look at my views on self management and not at all a complete and well documented article on the subject of self management. I was for a long time, and still now am interested by all kinds of experiments which could be connected to this idea of self management from the Israeli kibbutz up to the past and recent experience of cooperatives or communes, and have got some material about all that.
Even in the distant past, people involved in the collective production of goods either for themselves or for the market or both, attempted to manage their activity collectively without any hierarchical structures, trying to achieve a more egalitarian system in their work and in the distribution of goods. They didn’t call that self management (the use of this word is rather recent) but they considered their efforts as a way to escape the domination in the society where they were living… Most of the time, these efforts were set up and run according to some ideological concepts, but on other occasions it was mostly the result of some practical need in a situation which was imposed by the social system, for instance to go ahead with an activity doomed to destruction.
What was common to all these attempts was – even if they take different forms – to try to get collective decisions for the running of a given unit. What they have not got in common is that some of these attempts were only for the management of units producing for the market (industrial or agricultural) outside of any form of collective life except in work ( it is more in this case that we can talk of self-management), some others, at the other end of what we can describe like this, try to organise all life in a collective manner, producing only for their own consumption and having collective rules not only for production but also for almost all aspects of private life. Between these two extremes we could find a wide range of different forms of such units: most of the experiments in this type of collectively managed units have existed in the recent or distant past. Most of them have disappeared after differing periods of activity, some still exists and we can see, in some specific periods a kind of wave in the establishment of such units.
Practically, most of these attempts, notwithstanding their form, their characteristics, the good will of their actors, their ideology and/or their stubbornness to maintain them, failed. These failed attempts did not prevent people now and then to try again and again to establish new cells of a more egalitarian activity, either self-managed unit of production or some kind of community.
Somewhat independently of these practical attempts some theories took the problem of self management as a theme of discussion, praising or despising it, either as a way of transition toward a communist society and/or as the central principle for the running of such a society.; Before going on to these theoretical questions, I want to explain my view on the explanations of the failure of all attempts of any form of self management inside capitalist society (I can add: they will fail if they are established in this capitalist society)
Any structure developed in the capitalist society is sooner or later confronted with capitalist problems, materially and/or ideologically: it is not a matter of failure because of some “error” in the management, of bad rules or bad organisation, or of bad will but of an unavoidable “objective” consequence of the fact that capitalist society will impose its rules willy-nilly on any unit existing within it.
Materially because it is practically impossible to cut totally the connections with this society as long as it still exists, individually or collectively. No individual, no collective, no industrial or agricultural unit can pretend to escape such a situation even if it is totally conscious of this problem (and some are not even conscious of this problem). Fundamentally, this basic problem is the same for individual, for groups intending to live in total autarchy or any other collective attempt orientated more or less to produce for the capitalist market.
The case of a self managed unit (industry or agriculture) is particularly significant because it has often raised – and still does raise- theoretical questions about the coming-about and the organisation of a communist society. So, the questions and eventual answers have to be divided in two parts: more divided rather than in common. One of these parts has to answer the question – is it possible to maintain a self-managed unit in the present capitalist society? – with an eventual correlate: could such an attempt be a useful approach to a communist society? The second part has to deal with the development of a revolutionary situation: some agricultural/ industrial unit would have to provide essential survival goods; how would they be managed and so could we consider this management as the core of the new society?
In the past and even now, we could find examples of self managed units. Some were created from scratch either only for productive activity, leaving aside the problem of the individual lives of the participants (the cooperatives were the best example) or including all the aspects of life (the communities were the best example). The essential question about all these different forms of self management is “could they escape the capitalist rules and last for ever?” Inside a capitalist society, the answer is definitely – no.
Leaving aside the specific units aimed at providing goods for the survival of its members only, and not at all for the market, all other kinds of self managed unit have to produce goods for the market, for the capitalist market. It has to cope with competition with the producers of the same kind of goods, and could be exposed either to new/substitution products or to new techniques of production. So if they had at the beginning fixed certain rules, for instance equal pay, or limited working time, or a minimal rhythm of work, these basic rules fixed according to certain basic ideology have to be removed. Quite a lot of other problems could bring the same situation and ultimately have a perverse effect on the life of this self managed unit. I know quite a lot of examples showing that sooner or later, such self managed units either disappeared or became similar to any capitalist unit of production. So, no production unit can work without new investment, without credit and eventually without the collaboration of experts or specialists. Or diverting money to make some provisions to such a purpose. Then there is no socialist or communist practice because, as with any capitalist unit, part of the surplus value has to be extorted from labour in order to feed some capitalist greed.
If I came back to these survival units – communities – they are practically impossible to run without some relation, economic or social, with the capitalist world even if they try and succeed in doing so to comply with their ideology and needs. There is no example of such units having lasted before without being confronted to some such material or psychological problems. Different of course are such units as sects and their like – which can display a certain ideological face but behind it hide a strongly hierarchical organisation and some level of psychological pressure on their believers.
On the other hand, some other problems than the consequences of material ones and social relations could be raised independently, because everybody’s life can change, along with everybody’s thinking and interests. For instance self managed units had always had problems with the departure of members (disagreement, retirement, seduction of a better situation, and so on) and their replacement (young people could have very different view of self management than people having started the self managed unit).
Something very different to all these considerations is the theory about self management as a transition toward a communist society and as the core of such a society. The council communist theory (elaborated almost a century ago) explained that during a revolutionary process, the workers will take the factories and will decide everything in the production process: on this basis, all the structures of the communist society would be settled in a manner decided by the workers. So the new society would easily be built from the management and eventually of the transformation of the production units… This theory was not only about self management: it tried to define a unit to value all the production and distribution process. We can find this explained in detail in Pannekoek’s work and in “Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution” elaborated by people involved in the council communist movement in Germany in the 20s. Self management was in a certain light, albeit essential, less important than these principles for the running of the communist system. In a certain way, the French group “Socialisme ou Barbarie” and the English group “Solidarity” tried to outline the structures of a communist society based on workers’ councils, which means self management.
In a more recent period quite a lot of criticism has been raised of this view of self management as both a transition towards a communist society and as the basis of this communist society. One of these criticisms can seem relevant considering the present structure of world capitalism and the extreme division of labour. Council communist theory was elaborated in a society where production units were in general integrated for the production of specific goods being put directly on the market, so self management could deal with the production of these goods, give it its value and exchange it with other goods having value according to the same basic unit. The present situation of the capitalist production makes such approach extremely complex, but on the other hand, the present means of communication can help to answer such a situation (which raise another question different but also essential, that a communist revolution has to be at a world scale)
Another criticism of this council communist theory (self management) starts from the statement that all the revolutionary attempts to overthrow capitalism with revolution advocating workers’ councils or something similar (like the collectives in the Spanish revolution) failed because their aim (production in working units) was in fact reproducing the basis of capitalism – the creation of surplus value. Even if this point can be discussed, all these attempts of councils or collectives did not last not because their basis was wrong but because, limited to a certain scale (a nation or even part of it) they did not extend beyond some boundaries and so were doomed by repression or integration in the capitalist system. So if this argument could be true theoretically, it is not historically and nobody can tell what these attempts would have created because they were not given the time to bring the proof of the accurateness of their basic rules of functioning. In the more theoretical approach of these “failures”, we can mention the fact that these attempts had at first to fight repression, a fact which gave a specific character to self management, pushing aside more fundamental problems of production and social organisation.
It is evident that, supposing they would have lasted (or being allowed to last) and trying to set up a communist society in a limited space, except if in this space some autarchy would be possible (which is practically impossible in the modern world), the fact to have a self managed unit in a capitalist world will reproduce at a wider scale the problem we have explained for a self managed production unit in the present capitalist society.
Theoretically, some critics of self management and of workers’ councils develop the idea that “production” and “exchange” (raising the question of having some unit with which to replace money) will anyway reproduce a form of society not very different from the capitalist society. They also consider that a communist society would have to be built at once, without any “transition”. It is often difficult to follow their arguments because in opposition to the more or less precise concepts around workers’ councils or self management they don’t go beyond this theoretical criticism, refusing to go beyond this and to give some concrete view about a communist society.