the communist revolution and the necessity of workers’ self-management

by Chris Kane

If co-operative production is not to remain a sham and a snare; if it is to supersede the capitalist system; if united co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their own control, and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production – what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, “possible” communism?

Karl Marx, The Civil War in France

The communist revolution is fundamentally different from the process imagined by those who see the capturing of Parliament or a coup d’état by an elitist party as an end in itself.  Marx, as is now well known, emphasised the self-emancipation of the working class: in 1871, amongst the conclusions he drew from the experience of the Paris Commune, he said that:  1. we cannot lay hold of the existing state machinery, 2. the commune was the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of the working class.  Alongside the Paris Commune we now have extensive historical experience of similar forms of workers’ self organisation by which to address its relationship to the communist society latent already in the class struggles within capitalism, whose potential has almost been realised in past efforts to reach the first phase of communism.

The Communist revolution contains a duality, of destroying the old and constructing the new society. The process of  Communist revolution is a movement of conscious, creative self-organisation, pushing up from below, challenging the hegemony of capital and its state, uprooting it and replacing it with a new communal system of workers’ self-government.  In Britain it has been 350 years since the English Revolution and over 150 since the defeat of the first national workers’ movement, the Chartists: the belief in using revolutionary means to the secure political change has been long lost in the political consciousness of the working class.  We have a reformist labour movement which has helped imbue the working class with law abiding pacifism, parliamentary cretinism and myths of British exceptionalism.  The idea has been further discredited by the defenders of capitalism who seek to discredit communism by pointing to the experience of Stalinism, exacerbated by the antics of the middle-class sects in their own advocacy of ‘revolution’.   A Communist revolution in England will be inherently difficult, but it is nevertheless a viable alternative and a historical necessity.

There is no unilinear “supra-historical” blueprint: revolutions arise out of revolutionary situations. Such sharp social crisis can emerge in times of both economic boom and recession. No one at present can predict the manner in which the situation may arise, the decisive factor is not how profound a crisis is, the key precondition is the existence of the working class in a position by which it can consciously intervene as the agent of Communist transformation.

The strategy and tactics of will inevitably differ according to the particular form that the struggle takes.  It is entirely possible we cold see a splitting in the Parliamentary and government structures.   However, one thing that is essential for the Communist revolution, is not the “revolutionary party” but the determination of workers to create their own organs of workers’ self-management   Such organisations which united together are the bedrock of the ‘communal constitution’ of workers’ self-government are characterized by the fact that all its organs at all social levels are composed of delegates who are freely elected, responsible to their electorate, rotatable, recallable and devoid of any material privileges.  These workers;’ councils have emerged in various forms in history and we can see their embryos here during militant struggles in such bodies as rank and file strike committees, the miners support groups, the anti-poll tax struggles and the communities of resistance against racism and fascism.  The Clyde Workers’ Committee during WW1 and the Councils of Action in 1920’s were a snapshot of what could emerge.  These are the embryonic, cellular forms of post-capitalist society.

A key task of communist activity should be to stimulate forms of self-organisation of the working class, to achieve hegemony over capital in the war of position. Of particular importance is the development of forms of workers’ control in the world of work.  This has a particularly long, and much maligned tradition in the labour movement, opponents ranging from the CBI to the TUC and Stalinist ‘official Communism’.  There are limitations to workers’ control within capitalism, but the fact that capital will inevitably seek to impose limitations on the development and gains of workers’ struggles is no reason to cease the struggle. It is through the dialectical process of the fight for workers’ control that worker can begin to raise themselves to be in a position to not only struggle for self-management but take on the work of self-management.  The labour bureaucracy and certain socialist sects have long sought to eradicate the aspiration for workers control of industry, during the period of re-composition of the labour movement communists must defend and regenerate that idea.

There are two important reasons for the creation of organs of workers’ self-management.  The first is based on the Communist conception of social revolution as a popular struggle as opposed to a political revolution or coup d’état, the second is that these organs of workers self-management have the potential to become the core in the establishment of a republic of communal councils. As such if the organs of worker self-organisation are to realise their potential and become institutions of workers-self-government, then they are not compatible with hierarchically constituted parties, the function of which is to win and maintain political power over the workers.

Newly developed organisations of worker’s self-management would soon come into sharp conflict with the institutions of capital.   Communists seek to uproot every social institution and organ that reinforces capital.  The communist revolution is universal; it is not our aim to take over simply in the workplaces and enterprises.  In Italy in 1920 and Poland in 1981; workers took over industry but did not extend their workplace struggle to challenge the political functions of the capitalist state.  In this sense the syndicalists and Parliamentary-socialists are twins, only an onslaught on capitalism in every sphere where it exercises power can we succeed.

No government will allow any group within its territory to set up organs in opposition to its own which could potentially usurp political functions from it.  The reaction of the British state to the Irish nationalist insurgency which challenged its sovereignty and the attacks on the mining communities in 1984-85 is an insight into what could happen in the conflict between the old institutions of capitalism and the new organs of workers’ self-management.  The old Chartist slogan was ‘Peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must‘, even then radicals saw the former option was increasingly denied them.  As  a long-term strategy Communists policy has to involve preparatory actions to neutralise the forces of ‘law and order’, such as ending the snobbery of opposition to trade union organisation in the Police, who like the military are mainly drawn from the working class.  The experience of the Prison Officers Association is instructive in this regard.  To those who romanticise revolution as a past event these things don’t matter but in reaching for the future, fermenting agitation fraternisation and dissent is necessity if we do not want to invite defeat in the future battle to suppress the physical force of capitalism.  Revolution is after all, illegal!

In restating the necessity of communism for the 21st century, the current situation in which communism is seen a form of politics, as opposed to an emancipatory movement should be rejected.  Success in our endeavours depends on conscious intervention in current struggles and not only gathering enough strength to defeat the ruling class, but crucially we need a positive vision of the prospect of human liberation provided by Communist society.  Without such a vision of the future actions in the present will remain stuck within a loop, unable to move beyond capital.

In developing a vision of communism for the 21st century we must revive the idea of self-management as essential to the creation and further development of Communist society.  The affirmation of self-management meets criticism from both those who see the primacy of the party, and those who consider it irrelevant to immediate problems.  Workers self-management is the negation of one-party/state-socialism with its inherent tendency towards elitism and bureaucratisation.

Self-management is essential if Communist society is not to become something in a galaxy far far away.  The alternative is constantly seeking to ameliorate the effects of class society and controlling capital. Instead, Communists need to assert the need to look at what is involved in abolishing capital.

As stated above capital is not simply a thing; it is a social relation mediated through the instrumentality of things; it lives by obtaining ever more surplus value from the worker who produces it.  For this reason any effort to control capital without uprooting the basis of value production is ultimately self-defeating.  To uproot capital we need to break through the ideology of capitalist society – the fetishism of commodities – an ideology that holds workers captive, as Marx writes, “The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e., the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control.”  Through the process of communism pushing up from below, the working class can break free of the fetishism that which attaches itself to products of labour, consciously creating freely associated labour.

Workers’ self-management in production and distribution is fundamental in transcending the apparent division in capitalist society between political and economic spheres, as the Confederation of British Industry once declared “industry is not a democracy!”  The process of the Communist revolution involves transforming the very concept of what politics is, in class society politics is a sphere of alienation, a boring routine, with self-management with wider sections of people actively participating in the process of changing society, conditions exist for de-alienation of politics which becomes creative activity. It is also a safeguard against the re-composition of political bureaucracy, a potential new elite in post-capitalist society.

Simultaneously, what is particularly important is that the organs of workers self-management are also the means to transform the economy – to end value production and exchange.   Instead of a society based on production of commodities to exchange on market we can create the new social-relations of a co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products.”(Critique of the Gotha Programme)  It is possible then to create an economy based on needs of human beings, being expressed through their organs of self-management united together on a cooperative basis.

Today many of goals of what Marx called the first phase of communism are spoken about almost embarrassingly; for example Marx asserted that trade unions were important as “organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capitalist rule“. Not abolishing capitalist rule and keeping wage labour.  Trades Unions he said should not limit themselves to fighting the immediate effects of the system instead of simultaneously “using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” Anything on this subject is politely buried deep in socialist publications or has become the domain of outlandish sects.

If we are to restate Marx’s vision of communism we need to reintegrate what Marx actually proposed.  Our goal as Communists should be that on establishing worker self-government, that within the communal system, to immediately begin to uproot capitalist forms such as wage-labour (wage slavery), of money, debts, rents, interest and replace with new relations.  To fail to take these acts, as we have seen from historical experience, will retrogress.  If we do not, and allow the labour to remain a commodity, competition between workplaces to exist, to have the market as regulator of the economy, then self-management would degenerate into capitalist style cooperatives.  This was the charade of self-management in the ‘market-socialism’ of the former Yugoslavia.  Nobody would argue that the emancipation of serfs or former slaves should have been simply to continue the same system under a new system of control.

Instructive in this regard is the work of the Yugoslav dissident Communists or Marxist humanists of the Praxis group, who grappled with the problem of the contradiction between self-management and what to do with the commodity-financial relations taken over from capitalism.  The former Yugoslav Marxist Mihailo Markovic concluded that this contradiction would be solved gradually, in the future, by surpassing the motive to earn and acquire commodity possessions as society frees itself from the legacy of wants and shortages of capitalism.  A corresponding problem was how to find effective methods of measuring the value of work other than the price of products on the market and how to assess social needs.  These problems have been a constant theme in criticism of the viability of a Communist society, and by socialists unable to see beyond a commodity economy.   Social self-management itself provides the resolution; being the means by which society articulates its needs.  Furthermore the Communist revolution is also a process of radical cultural revolution, not only emancipating humanity from forms of sexual and national oppression but a transformation in our understanding of human needs no longer based on such things as ‘retail-therapy’.

Marx proposed a first phase of communism where socially necessary labour time continues but is transformed, necessary labour time being re-defined on the basis of human needs, the cooperative planning of work and distribution done directly on the basis of working hours.  Each person receives a certificate showing the hours they worked, which enables them to access good and services from the ‘communal store’.  Wider social needs would readily available such as education, healthcare, transport, and necessary resources.

In conceptualising a vision of communism for the 21st century, workers’ self-management is not something restricted to the level of the workplace and localities but is a concept which embraces whole new concept of society, as Markovic writes:

Self-management means that the functions of directing social processes are no longer performed by forces outside the mass of society: opposed to it, but in the hands of the very same people who produce, who create social life in all its forms.  Self-management means the supersession of the permanent fixed divisions in society into the subjects and the objects of history, into rulers and executors, into the cunning social mind and its physical instruments in human form.

In capitalist society the working class is estranged from the process of producing goods and services and the end products themselves, the development of capitalist society has encompassed the commodification of ever more aspects of human existence, the creation of forms of alienation and de-humanisation of our social relations.  The Communist revolution is a process of de-alienation, the abolition of those social relationships in which we are detached from the organisation of work, production, planning, and distribution and of the main concerns of society, abolishing wage – labour – the most alienating of relationships. Communism will only exist to extent that it transcends and eliminates alienated labour and herald thus the end of capital itself.

Karl Marx, ‘Instruction for delegates to the Geneva Congress’, The First International and After, Penguin, 1974. 91.

Marx, Value, Price and Profit

Mihailo Markovic, ‘Socialism and Self-Management’, Praxis, A Philosophical Journal, Zagreb, 2/3 1965,185.

One thought on “the communist revolution and the necessity of workers’ self-management

  1. Sean Matgamna has posted this short piece by TRotsky on the qustion of Workers Control, which is worth reading

    TRotsky on Workers Control .

    In particular, the following is worth reading.

    “Thus the regime of workers’ control, a provisional transitional regime by its very essence, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, the proletarian offensive, and the failing back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to the period of the proletarian revolution in the fullest sense of the word.”

    Now, if I am not mistaken this state of society does not correspond to the current state of society and the class struggle in Britain today. Which means that when the AWL put forward the slogan of “Nationalisation under Workers Control” of the Banks at the moment we can see how far both from reality and from TRotsky they now are.

    What would the demand for Workers Control amount to according to TRotsky in condiiotns like those which apply today?

    “If the participation of the workers in the management of production is to be lasting, stable, “normal,” it must rest upon class collaboration, and not upon class struggle. Such a class collaboration can be realized only through the upper strata of the trade unions and the capitalist associations. There have been not a few such experiments: in Germany (“economic democracy”), in Britain (“Mondism”), etc. Yet, in all these instances, it was not a case of workers’ control over capital, but of the subserviency of the labor bureaucracy to capital. Such subserviency, as experience shows, can last for a long time: depending on the patience of the proletariat.”

    In other words it is a demand for class collaboration at best. The reality is that it is a totally meaningless demand, because not only is there no militant class conscious working class at the moment capable of implementing such a demand or forcing it upon the Government, but not even those TRade Union leaders referred to by TRotsky have any intention of fulfilling that role of permanent class collaborators sitting on the Boards of the Banks.


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