In my last post on workers’ control I noted that it inevitably arose as a result of crisis, and crises are by their nature temporary, occasioned by society-wide political upheavals or by threatened closure of a particular workplace that is perhaps producing unnecessary products, is working in an obsolete manner or is otherwise failing to compete successfully in the capitalist market.
In Britain in the 1970s there were more than 260 occupations of workplaces by their work forces including, perhaps most famously, at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow, usually sparked off by closures, layoffs, redundancies, dismissals or threats of closure. Such occupations were spontaneous, often acts of desperation and with no real planning. If successful, the numbers occupying would be offered jobs by a new employer although this number would usually be less than when the occupation would have begun. When no new owners would appear the occupations might attempt to become workers’ cooperatives but the motivation was normally a pragmatic search for a solution rather than something drawn from political commitment and ideology.
The occupations were often built by shop stewards and sometimes at odds with the official trade union movement, a situation we see again and again and a result of factors far from accidental.
The theme of ‘industrial democracy’ was very much alive and in 1974 the Conservative Government called a general election on the issue of “who governs Britain”, in direct reference to the miners who had engaged in successful strike action. The Tories lost and the new Labour Party Government included Tony Benn, who wanted greater involvement of workers in their workplaces. He also came into conflict with trade union leaders who opposed his dealings with rank and file groups of workers. “The whole machine is against you” Benn told one supporter of an occupation at Imperial Typewriters.
Workers’ cooperatives received the support of Benn, who was in a position to do something as Minister at the Department of Industry, but his financial help was relatively small and most industrial aid continued to go towards private industry. That which did go to the cooperatives was mainly for compensation to previous owners who were paid for obsolete plant. This left the new cooperatives under-capitalised and without the necessary resources to carry out research and development. They generally lasted only a short space of time but still sometimes produced radical, innovative and still exemplary struggles. One such was as at Lucas Aerospace, where workers pioneered conversion plans to socially useful production, again opposed by the union leadership.
By the end of the decade however these types of struggles had declined dramatically. Few of the experiments in workers’ ownership survived and as history is usually written by the winner the victory of Thatcher, built on the attacks on workers commenced by Labour, left a legacy of disappointment and nostalgia in some old enough to remember. This has affected the Left up to today in so far as it is suspicious, if not actually hostile, to workers’ cooperatives. This is a profound mistake as the willingness of workers to fight for ownership and control of their own workplaces is an instinctive impulse to go beyond capitalism.
The history of American workers organisation in the 1930s is perhaps more celebrated than this experience but in some ways was more limited. Workers and trade union power grew during the decade not just because of the struggle of workers to organise, most famously in Minneapolis, but because of the strong growth of US manufacturing industry. Between 1936 and 1939 workers occupied 583plants in sit-down strikes in defence of their terms and conditions, protection of wages, achievement of union recognition, or prevention of sell-outs where recognition already existed. These were often successful.
Unfortunately there followed 70 years of union-management collaboration – no strike agreements during the second world war; the witch hunt and expulsion of socialist activists in the McCarthy period; mob penetration of the union movement and the turning of the union bureaucracy into a world-wide vehicle of the US state in its cold war with the Soviet Union. The US union movement has now declined so much that in most of the private sector it is irrelevant, with unionisation accounting for only 7.5 per cent in the private sector in 2008. In some workplaces where unions do ‘organise’ workers are not even aware there is a union!
The history of American workers’ militancy drives home a lesson to be learnt from the British experience of the 1970s and 1980s – that politics are not only determined by workers militancy and their experiments with workers control but that politics can influence decisively the short and long-term success of these experiments.
In the end the question of politics is crucial, which is why Marxists believe that working class conquest of state power – revolution – is decisive. It is important however not to telescope the path to this destination. Revolution is decisive only if the material basis for working class rule is present. This is not simply a question of the level of economic development but of the social and political development of the working class. Without both of these the question of revolution is not posed practically i.e. in reality, no matter what more general ‘crisis of capitalism’ is evident.
The analysis of workers’ control in these posts is based on the belief that working class conquest of state power is necessary but that the immediate question is how to make that a widely shared goal given the low level of class consciousness and struggle than now pertains.
It is therefore important to attempt to draw lessons from the impact of political developments on workers attempts at independent organisation in the workplace. In turn we can then look at the role of workers’ organisation in the workplace for its impact on wider political struggle. This will reveal the limits as well as the strengths of a workplace-based strategy and what political demands should be raised as a result. Such lessons informs the opposition to calls for nationalisation that have been argued in many earlier posts.
For example in the Spanish revolution in the 1930s it was the Republican state that strangled the workers’ and peasants’ collectives rather than the fascist counterrevolution. Clearly in this case a call for this government to nationalise such collectives would not have made much sense. Anarchists believed these collectives were a means of controlling the Republican authorities but clearly what was needed was an alternative Government and state – perhaps built on these bodies.
In Yugoslavia self-management was a means of mobilising the population against economic blockade and potential invasion, boosting production, minimising the power of the trade unions during a labour shortage and hoping that the workers would discipline themselves. Unfortunately self-management as then practised led to accusations of workers’ neo-capitalism in which the enterprises were seen as the workers property, narrowly conceived, so that they competed with each other in a capitalist-like manner. Self-management became not a means of workers self-realisation but a trade union-like bargaining system of clientelism and patronage. Increased enterprise autonomy acted to dissolve wider working class solidarity leaving enterprise loyalty and territorial state loyalty as the alternative, one which ultimately descended into bitter and bloody nationalist war. On the way to this dénouement it has been argued that enterprise autonomy became a mechanism to insert the Yugoslav economy directly into the capitalist world market. Increased autonomy became the means of strengthening management power not workers’ autonomy.
Both Spain and Yugoslavia are testament to the fact that without real working class political and state power workers’ control can be subverted and/or crushed. I have argued that it is the lack of workers’ economic power and experience before revolutionary crises that has weakened the struggle for their class rule thus making revolutionary success less likely in such crises. But it is also true that such episodic economic power is doomed without a political project. In Poland workers councils existed in 1945, 1956, 1970 and 1980-81 but revolution there became a restoration of capitalism.
In nationalist revolutions, such as in Indonesia, the most radical actions of workers are betrayed by a backward political consciousness; as when workers control is achieved and defended not as an extension of workers’ power as a class but as the property and achievement of the new independent (still capitalist) state. This state can indulge in the wildest revolutionary rhetoric but as long as its power is not an extension of that of the workers it is just rhetoric, to be retracted when the new state feels itself more in control. It succeeds in this as long as workers power is mistakenly seen by its holders as the gift of the newly independent state. The examples of nationalism trumping the radical actions of workers are legion and proof again that revolutionary action does not automatically generate revolutionary socialist politics and consciousness.
What is clearly decisive is workers’ own consciousness and workers control, self-management or councils are not in themselves decisive in determining it. This however is not the question and not the argument being put. There is no ‘magic’ strategy guaranteeing a workers’ victory but there are more or less adequate roads and strategic conceptions.
The argument here is that workers’ control, and in the longer term, workers’ ownership can provide a more solid, permanent and robust material basis for the development of the necessary socialist consciousness than simple trade unionism, no matter how militant. More realistic than reliance on spontaneous political revolutions to do all the work of consciousness raising in the necessarily short space of time in which they take place and certainly more than demands for nationalisation, which for example were obviously meaningless in both Yugoslavia and Poland.
What workers ownership should do is provide a basis and foundation for a political programme that seeks to extend and deepen this form of ownership and give it a political dimension, to make easier removal of the division between the political and the economic that characterises capitalism. Workers’ collective control and ownership of the state can be more easily argued for on the basis of their wider ownership in the economy.
The argument is more easily advanced if there exists a successful worker owned and controlled sector of the economy that can be presented as an alternative to the capitalist owned sector or the illusion that a benevolent state can take ownership of the latter in order to benefit workers. On this basis the socialist project can become a political one for which the ideal form to advance it is a mass workers’ party. Such a project can begin to win the battle for hegemony within societies which are currently dominated by capitalist ideas despite the objective failures of that system. A real material basis for an alternative is provided that can focus generalised discontent that now expresses itself in free-floating ethical concerns for justice and can find no more specific or concrete alternative than vague calls that ‘another world is possible.’ Instead through development of workers’ cooperatives and the wider labour movement another world is built in front of our eyes.
The absence of such hegemony of ideas, and its corollary – that no alternative to the capitalist system seems possible – results in the upheavals that returned societies to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This wider and deeper lack of legitimacy of the socialist project weighs heavily on the spontaneous activity of workers even when they have engaged in the most radical activity.
In the Portuguese revolution in 1974 a movement within the army overthrew the dictatorship and between May and October of that year 4,000 workers’ commissions were established following mass meetings. Not only factories but empty houses and apartments were occupied.
Within these commissions political competition developed between the Portuguese Communist Party and smaller revolutionary currents. A failed right wing coup shifted events further to the Left. Workers councils became not just organs of control in the workplace but organisations of struggle that could potentially threaten the power of the capitalist state.
In the end however they proved too weak and were unable to pose a political alternative to the quickly developing normal organisations of capitalist democracy – trade unions, political parties, parliament and the state. In the end the Portuguese Socialist Party became the mechanism for a stabilisation of capitalist rule and bourgeois democracy.
Short-lived experiments in workers control and ownership were not in themselves capable of establishing hegemony for the project of workers’ state power. A deeper and wider radicalisation was required.
The point is that this can take time and can only come about through the development of socialist consciousness in the working class over a more or less extended period and this must rest on a material base. This can only be the development of the power of the workers in existing capitalist society, expressed in democratic trade unions, political parties, cultural organisations and workers cooperatives.
The opposite of this road is reliance on the state, expressed in the demand for nationalisation. In Spain, Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Portugal it was the State which became the guarantor of capitalist ownership and power.
Today we are in circumstances where workers must not only defend themselves against the depredations of capitalism – battling against austerity – but socialists must also look to ways in which to advance a workers consciousness that seeks permanent expression of their needs and powers. Not just defending immediate interests but looking and taking care of the future of the movement and workers’ position in society.
But it is not simply about the needs of the present as against the needs of the future because Marxism is the belief, confirmed by nearly two centuries of industrial capitalism, that it is not possible to satisfy the needs of workers today by only fighting today’s battles. A socialist society is the future only because it is the answer to the challe-nges and problems of the present. The demands for workers control and ownership express this view and are rejection of the clam that the existing capitalist state, by nationalisation etc, can provide the answer.