The struggle for self-management: an open letter to IS comrades

This was printed in the libertarian socialist paper Solidarity in September 1968

Dear comrades,

It is remarkable how few socialists seem to recognize the connection between the structure of their own organization and the type of ‘socialist’ society it might help bring about.

If the revolutionary organization is seen as the means and socialist society as the end, one might expect people with an elementary understanding of dialectics to recognize the relation between the two. Means and ends are mutually dependent. They constantly influence each other. The means are, in fact, a partial implementation of the end, whereas the end becomes modified by the means adopted.

One could almost say ‘tell me your views concerning the structure and function of the revolutionary organization and I’ll tell you what the society you will help create will be like’. Or conversely ‘give me your definition of socialism and I’ll tell you what your views on the revolutionary organization are likely to be’.

We see socialism as a society based on self-management in every branch of social life. Its basis would be workers’ management of production exercised through Workers’ Councils. Accordingly we conceive of the revolutionary organisation as one which incorporates self-management in its structure and abolishes within its own ranks the separation between the functions of decision-making and execution. The revolutionary organisation should propagate these principles in every area of social life.

Others may have different conceptions of socialism. They may have different views on the aims and structure of the revolutionary organisation. They must state what these are clearly, openly and unambiguously. They owe it not only to the workers and students but to themselves.

An example of haziness in the definition of socialism (and of its repercussions concerning revolutionary organisation) is to be found in the material published by the central bodies of International Socialism (IS) in preparation for the bi-annual conference of September 1968.

In the duplicated ‘Statement of basic principles’ (IS constitution) we find that IS struggles for ‘workers’ control’. But we also find that “planning, under workers’ control, demands nationalisation”. These are the only references, in the document, to the structure of the socialist society towards whose creation all of IS’s activity is directed.

How, precisely, does IS conceive of working class ‘control’? What does ‘nationalisation’ mean? How does IS relate to ‘workers’ control’? Does the working class implement its ‘control’ through the mediation of a political party? Or of trade union officials? Or of a technocracy? Or through workers’ councils?

Are those who formulated the IS constitution aware that ‘nationalisation’ means precisely relegating authority of decision-making on industrial policy to a group of state officials? Don’t they realise that the struggle of the French students and workers for ‘autogestion’ (self-management) renders ‘nationalisation’ irrelevant? Apparently they do not. In the analysis of the French events (The Struggle Continues) written by T. Cliff and I. Birchall (and produced as an official IS publication) the relation between self-management and nationalisation is not discussed at all.

Why should a national federation of Workers’ Councils (composed of elected and revocable delegates of regional Councils) allow any other group in society to wield ultimate authority in relation to all aspects of production?

In political terms the question could be posed thus: does IS stand for the policy of ‘All Power to the Workers’ Councils’? Or does it stand for the policy of ‘All Power to the Revolutionary Party’? It is no use evading the issue by saying that in France no workers’ councils existed. When this is the case, it is the duty of revolutionaries to conduct propaganda for their creation.

In Russia, in 1917, Workers’ Councils (soviets) did exist. On July 4, 1917, Lenin raised the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’. He ended his article with the words ‘things are moving by fits and starts towards a point where power will be transferred to the soviets, which is what our Party called for long ago’. Yet two months later, on September 12, he wrote: “The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies of both capitals can and must take state power into their own hands”.

However one analyses Lenin’s transition, in the context of Russia in 1917, from a policy of ‘All Power to the Soviets’ to a policy of ‘All Power to the Bolshevik Party’, one must recognise that his choice was a fundamental one, whose implications for Britain in 1968 cannot be evaded.

The leading (i.e. decision-making) bodies in IS are very careful not to state explicitly that, like Lenin, they believe that the Party must take power on behalf of the class. This principle however runs through the entire Cliff-Birchall analysis of the French events. Their analysis is, in fact, tailored to fit this principle.

We say to these comrades: if you believe that the working class itself cannot ‘seize power’ (but that the Revolutionary Party must do it on behalf of the class), please say so openly and defend your views.

Let us put to you our own views on the subject. Political ‘power’ is fundamentally little more than the right to take and impose decisions in matters of social production, administration, etc. This authority is not to be confused with expertise. The experts give advice, they do not make the decisions. Today, during the development of the self-management revolution, it is precisely the authority of decision-making in relation to the management of production (whether the means of production be formally in the hands of private bosses or of the state) that is being challenged. The challenge is being repeated in all branches of social life.

Those who think in terms of ‘seizing power’ unwittingly accept that a political bureaucracy, separate from the producers themselves, and concentrating in its hands the authority of decision-making on fundamental issues of social production must be a permanent social institution. They believe its form (the bourgeois ‘state apparatus’) has to be changed. But they refuse to question the need for such a social institution. They want to capture political power and use it for allegedly different purposes. They do not consider its abolition to be on the agenda.

As for us, we believe that once self-management in production has been achieved, ‘political power’ as a social institution will lose both its social function and justification. To speak of ‘workers’ control’ and of ‘seizing political power’ is to confuse a new structure of society (the rule of the Workers’ Councils) with one of the by-products of the previous form of class society, which was based on withholding from the workers the right to manage.

Comrades Cliff and Birchall fail to recognise the specific, new features of the May events in France. They fail to explain why the students succeeded in inspiring 10 million workers. ‘The student demonstrations created an environment in which people were free to coin their own slogans’ (The Struggle Continues p.17) What slogans? The two most important were ‘Contestation’ and ‘Autogestion’ (self-management). What was being contested? What does self-management mean? How are the two slogans related to each other? Not a word on all this. What we do find however is the important statement – p.18 – that “when a worker went to the Sorbonne he was recognised as a hero. Within Renault he was only a thing. In the University he became a man”.

Comrades, you should seek to clarify this assessment (with which we agree). Please tell us what was the mysterious element in the ‘environment’ which transformed a man into a thing and vice-versa. Are we wrong in assuming that a man feels like a ‘thing’ when he has to live as an executant of social decisions which he cannot influence, whereas he feels like a ‘man’ when he lives under social circumstances which he has shaped by his own decisions (or in whose creation he was an equal partner)?

If this is really your opinion, why not say it in so many words?

But if this is really what you believe how could your Political Committee suggest an organisational regulation saying that:
“Branches must accept directives from the Centre, unless they fundamentally disagree with them, in which case they should try to accord with them while demanding an open debate on the matter.” – Perspectives for IS, September 12 1968

Isn’t the Political Committee attempting to transform IS members from ‘men’ into ‘things’? Isn’t the attempt to limit the right of rank-and-file IS members to initiate political decisions – while democratically permitting them to debate (not overrule!) the directives of the Centre, after having carried them out – an indication of an ideological disease more serious than being out of touch with the spirit of the young workers and students? If IS is to play a significant role in the revolution this regulation must be defeated, not only organisationally but also ideologically.

In the last chapter of their analysis of the French events, comrades Cliff and Birchall quote Trotsky to the effect that “unity in action of all sections of the proletariat, and simultaneity of demonstration under a single common slogan [Are these really essential? Did they ever exist in history?] can only be achieved if there is a genuine concentration of leadership in the hands of responsible [to whom?] central and local bodies, stable in their composition [!] and in their attitude to their political line”. (The Struggle Continues p.77)

This is to confuse the technical and political aspects of a real problem. Coordination is essential and may require centralisation. But the function of an administrative centre should not include the imposition of political decisions.

Trotsky’s argument (and Cliff’s) sound almost Stalinist. A centre “stable in its composition” concentrates in its hands the authority of political decision-making. “The branches must accept directives from the Centre”. The Party ‘leads’ the working class and ‘seizes power’ on its behalf. Workers are ‘summoned’ – p.78 – to an “open revolutionary assault on capitalism.” From this it is but a short leap to Trotsky’s statement that “the statutes should express the leadership’s organised distrust of the members, a distrust manifesting itself in vigilant control from above over the Party”.

This approach reveals a very definite view concerning the role of the Centre in relation to the Party and of the Party in relation to the class. But it is wrong to identify this view with Stalinism. It preceded Stalin, Lenin and Marx. As a matter of fact, it has been part of ruling class ideology for centuries.

Cliff and Birchall mobilise every possible argument to support the doctrine of ‘Centre leads the Party, Party leads class’. They write: “Facing the strictly centralised and disciplined power of the capitalists, there must be no less centralised and disciplined a combat organisation of the proletariat” (p.77). Yet two pages earlier they had admitted that “the 14th July 1789 revolution was a spontaneous act of the masses. The same was true of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the February 1917 Revolution (p.74). In other words they admit that two of the most centralised regimes in history were overthrown by masses that were not led by any party, let alone a centralised one. How do they reconcile these facts with their assertion that “only a centralised party can overthrow centralised power”?

The conscious factor in changing history, embodied in revolutionary organisations, can play a significant role in shaping the new social structure. However after the Russian experience it is clear that this ‘conscious factor’ must develop its own self-consciousness. It must recognise the connection between its own structure and practice – and the type of socialism it will help achieve.

Writing in 1904 Lenin took sides unequivocally for ‘bureaucracy’ (as against democracy) and for ‘centralism’ (as against autonomy). He wrote: “Bureaucracy versus democracy is the same thing as centralism versus autonomism. It is the organisational principle of revolutionary political democracy as opposed to the organisational principle of the opportunists of Social Democracy. The latter want to proceed from the bottom upwards and, consequently, wherever possible and to the extent that it is possible, it supports autonomism and “democracy” which may (by the over-zealous) be carried as far as anarchism. The former proceeds from the top, and advocates an extension of the rights and power of the Centre in respect of the parts”.

With all due allowance to the objective factors which contributed to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, these ideas (the conscious, subjective factor) must also be stressed, certainly in 1968.

We can only add here what Rosa Luxemburg, answering Lenin, said in 1904: “Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary working class movement are infinitely more fruitful and valuable than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee”.

Are these words less relevant in 1968 than they were in 1904?

Today in Britain the danger is not that future society will be shaped in the image of a bureaucratic revolutionary organisation based on “genuine concentration of leadership in the hands of responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition”, organisation in which “branches must accept directives from the Centre”, etc. The danger is rather to such organisations themselves. They will cease to be relevant to the social self-management revolution now developing. Before long they will be identified as just other ‘centre-managed’ political bureaucracies, to be swept aside. This is the fate now threatening IS, should the Political Committee’s recommendations be accepted.

We wish all IS members a useful Conference and a serious discussion that will help them clarify their ideas about socialism, workers’ management and the structure and function of the revolutionary organisation.

8 thoughts on “The struggle for self-management: an open letter to IS comrades

  1. The Tony Cliff/Ian Birchall pamphlet referenced is very good and worth reading:

    “As one middle-aged Renault worker said:

    In the first few days of May every evening I took five or six workers – quite often members of the Communist Party – in my car to the Sorbonne. When they returned to work next day they were completely changed people. Through the students and the “groupuscules” they got the political education they did not get from the CP. There was a completely libertarian atmosphere at the university, so different from the totalitarian atmosphere at the factory. The student demonstration created an environment in which people were free to coin their own slogans. In the official trade union demonstrations only certain, centrally determined, slogans were permitted. When Renault was occupied, the workers experienced a change from control by the management, which uses modern manipulative techniques, to control by the CP bureaucracy, which is completely totalitarian. In Renault their freedom was alienated. In the Sorbonne they felt free. When a worker went to the Sorbonne he was recognised as a hero. Within Renault he was only a thing. In the university he became a man. This atmosphere of freedom in the sense of being considered human gave great combativity to the young workers. Returning from the Sorbonne the young workers in Renault organised self-defence with Molotov cocktails. The CP officials forbade the use of Molotov cocktails against the police. When the students came to Billancourt the CP officials distributed truncheons to the workers to fight the “Trotskyists”; at the same time we were told by the officials that if the CRS were to come we should avoid violence – we should come out of the factory holding our heads high. In the student demonstrations we were free to throw paving stones at the police. On the official trade union demonstration the main slogan was “Beware of provocateurs”. On the student demonstration, anyone ready to pick up a paving stone was considered a comrade.

    The same Renault worker also pointed out the following:

    The students communicate to the workers an image of a combative working class, an image very different to the one seen on the surface. Many young workers rediscovered there in the Sorbonne the historic idea of the revolutionary traditions of the working class, and started to talk the language of revolution.”

    Equally interesting is a review by a more libertarian member of the IS of the Cliff/Birchall pamphlet, Peter Sedgwick:

    ‘The formation of a democratic workers’ party can proceed in step only with the formation of democratic workers; and when it comes it is most unlikely to imitate the centralism-and-democracy mix prescribed by Trotsky. The ‘responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition’ (i.e., the same people get elected) ‘and in their attitude to their political line’ (i.e., they pretend not to change their minds) belong to the traditions of a religious order (the Comintern) breathing the stench of an era of defeat and recession within the international proletariat. That era is not ours. ‘


  2. Hi guys, who scanned this up?

    I am looking though back issued of ‘Solidarity’ at the moment and I can’t find this in the September 1968 issue. Could someone provide Volume and Issue numbers please?



  3. In 1968 Cliff invited a number of organisations and individuals — including Solidarity –to join IS with factional rights There were at least five factions including a libertarian one, and the open invitation from Cliff gathered a large membership. So the question for me is — why did Solidarity not join IS with factional rights? They could have argued for their ideas within IS and gained recruits to their faction. The ideas expressed in their article were widely held inside IS. In the same way Big Flame’s “base group” idea was practised in IS.

    I remember at the founding meeting of Coventry IS in 1968, comrades from various groups turned up — including Solidarity. Several issues were raised and everybody voted — including Solidarity. One issue raised by those of us from the Labour Party and LPYS was that a comrade of ours Dave Edwards was a possible candidate for the Labour Party in a marginal ward. Should he go for it? I argued against on the grounds that Dave was joining IS and if he got in as a Labour councillor, this would be an embarrassment to us and a real problem for Dave. The vote went in favour of Dave standing bv one vote with the Solidarity comrades in favour and the LP comrades against! We went with the majority decision and Dave bacame the candidate. At the next IS meeting we were told that Solidarity had decided not to join IS. Great. they decide to impose an action on comrades who had recommended against and then piss off leaving us to leaflet and canvass on behalf of Dave. They decided a new IS member should become an LP councillor when they were not LP members themselves. Libertarianism??!! I don’t think will ever forgive Solidarity’s actions on that occasions — though I do agree basically with their criticisms of the IS’s bureaucratic centralism.

    Dave S


  4. Many thanks for that Dave, I am currently looking at copies of Socialist Worker and Solidarity during the time of this unity initiative and trying to figure out what was going on!


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