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'Without worker-management, there is no socialism'

[A talk given at the two-day seminar “Workers Management: Theory and Practise”, held on October 26 and 27, 2007, organised by the Human Development and Transformative Praxis Program at the Caracas-based Miranda International Centre. Lebowitz is the director of the program. A detailed report by Green Left Weekly’s Kiraz Janicke on the seminar is posted at ]

By Michael A. Lebowitz
On May Day 2005, I marched with workers in Caracas. The slogan workers were chanting was, “without co-management, there is no revolution”. Indeed, the main slogans for that May Day march, organised by the National Union of Workers, the main progressive union federation in Venezuela, were “co-management is revolution” and “Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian socialism”. We don’t hear much of that anymore. We don’t have masses of workers saying, “without worker-management, there is no socialism”, or that you cannot build socialism without worker-management. Nevertheless, I think that we have to recognise the essential truth of this proposition. Let me stress, though, that I’m not simply talking about worker-management as workers making decisions in individual workplaces. That’s a necessary part of it, but it’s not enough. When we talk about the goals of production, they should be the goals of workers—but not in single workplaces. They should be the goals of workers in society, too—workers in their communities. The goals which guide production should be developed democratically in both communities and workplaces and based on the concept of solidarity. In this respect, it’s important to remember the different dimensions of what Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has called the “elementary triangle” of socialism: units of social property, social production organised by workers, and production for the needs of communities. You can’t separate those in socialism. As I’ve written in the new edition of Socialism doesn’t drop from the sky, “Without production for social needs, no real social property; without social property, no worker decision-making oriented toward society’s needs; without worker decision-making, no transformation of people and their needs.”

The `capitalist triangle’

Capitalism, of course, involves a different triangle. The “capitalist triangle” is private ownership of the means of production, the exploitation of wage labourers, for the purpose of profits. And what is the situation of workers in this context? They work to achieve capital’s goal; they submit to the authority and will of capital; and, they produce products which are the property of capital. The products of workers are turned against them and dominate them as capital. The world of wealth, Marx commented, faces the worker “as an alien world dominating him”. And, that alien world dominates the worker more and more because capital constantly creates new needs to consume as the result of its requirement to realise the surplus value contained in commodities. For workers, producing within this relationship is a process of a “complete emptying out”, “total alienation”. And, we fill the vacuum of our lives with things -- we are driven to consume.

But that’s only one way that capitalism produces defective people. In Capital Vol. 1 (Penguin Books edition, 1976), Marx described the mutilation, the impoverishment, the “crippling of body and mind” of the worker “bound hand and foot for life to a single specialised operation” which occurs in the division of labour characteristic of the capitalist process of manufacturing. Did the development of machinery rescue workers under capitalism? No, Marx stressed, it completes the “separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labour”.

And, in this situation, head and hand become separate and hostile: “every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity” is lost. The worker is distorted “into a fragment” of a person, degraded and “the intellectual potentialities of the labour process” are alienated from them. In short, in addition to producing commodities and capital itself, the product of capitalist production is the fragmented, crippled human being whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things.

Is that inevitable? Is the only way to escape the effects upon us of capitalist production by lowering the work day? There is an alternative. It is the society that Marx (Capital Vol. 1, 1976: 772) described as characterised not by the capitalists’ drive to increase the value of their capital but, rather, by “the inverse situation in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development”. That society oriented to the full development of human beings is socialism. It is the society where, instead of this crippling of body and mind of the worker and the alienation from the worker of all “the intellectual potentialities of the labour process”, there is the re-combining of head and hand, the uniting of mental and physical labour. In this way, workers develop their capabilities through their practice. The partially developed individual is “replaced by the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1976: 617-8). The combination of thinking and doing, Marx stressed, is “the only method of producing fully developed human beings” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1976: 613-4, 643).

That can’t happen, though, when you work for capital. Even if workers have complete control in the workplace. If the interconnection of workers in production “confronts them, in the realm of ideas, as a plan drawn up by the capitalist, and, in practice, as his authority, as the powerful will of a being outside them” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1976: 450), how can workers develop all their capabilities? Without “intelligent direction of production” by workers, without production “under their conscious and planned control”, in other words, without worker-management, workers cannot develop their potential as human beings (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1976: 173). Clearly, for “the worker’s own need for development” to be the goal and to be the result requires an economic system quite different from capitalism, a socialist system which is the inversion of capitalism.

This brings me, though, to the question of worker-management and what we should learn from the efforts to build socialism in the 20th Century. Let me suggest three propositions:

1. When workers don’t manage, someone else does.

2. When workers don’t develop their capabilities through their practice, someone else does.

3. However much you may think you have banished capitalism from the house, when production is not based upon the relation of production of associated producers, sooner or later capitalism comes in: first, through the backdoor, and then it marches openly through the front door.

Lessons from the Soviet Union

Let’s think about some experiences in the attempt to build socialism in the 20th century. Consider the position of workers in the Soviet Union from the 1950s onward. Workers there had job rights. Not only was there full employment, but they also had significant protection against losing their jobs, or having their individual jobs altered in a way which they didn’t like. That was real job security. And, they weren’t tied to their jobs—in this situation of full employment they could move to better jobs when they wanted; e.g., 30% of industrial workers moved to better jobs in any one year. This certainly was not the situation for workers under capitalism, where the reserve army of unemployed is regularly reproduced and reinforces the dependence of workers upon capital.

What more could workers want? Well, think about what Soviet workers did not have. First of all, they had no power to make decisions within the workplace—they had the right to submit proposals on how to improve work, but the managers decided which, if any, suggestions they would accept. Those workers had no independent and autonomous voice: the trade unions, which protected their individual job rights, had their leaderships selected from above and played the role principally of transmission belts to mobilise the workers in production.

What was the result of the powerlessness of the Soviet worker? One result was the effect upon workers—they were alienated, cared little about the quality of what they produced or about improving production, worked as little as possible (except at the end of plan periods when there was the possibility of getting bonuses) and used the time and energy they had left to function in the second economy, or informal sector.

There was another effect, though, of the denial of opportunity for workers to manage their workplaces and to develop their capabilities. Someone else did—the enterprise managers and their staff. This was a group which maximised its income by its knowledge of production, its ability to manipulate the conditions for obtaining bonuses and its development of alliances. Over a period of time, the leadership at the top of the Soviet Union became increasingly dependent on the managers and came to accept their perspective on how to solve the increasing problems in the economy. The managers, whose perspective was quite different from that of workers, emerged as the capitalist class of the Soviet Union.


This was not the only model for building socialism. Many experiences in the 20th Century were variations on the Soviet attempt to build socialism. In Yugoslavia, though, there was a real contrast, especially with respect to the situation of workers. In 1949, the Yugoslav leadership described the Soviet model as state capitalism and bureaucratic despotism; and they argued that the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union had become a new class. To build socialism, the Yugoslavs stressed, you need worker-management, self-management. So, in 1950, they introduced a law making managers responsible to workers’ councils; and they argued that it was necessary to move from state ownership to the higher form, social ownership.

It was a real experiment. Would it work? Marshal Tito, President of Yugoslavia, pointed out that many people worried that “the workers will not be able to master the complicated techniques of management of factories and other enterprises”. His answer, though, was that workers will gain the necessary experience through practice. We recognise only practice, he said. Only through practice will they learn.

Well, over the next few decades, workers did learn much about their enterprises, especially because there was a principle of rotation on the workers’ councils both at the enterprise and shop levels. But, they learned much less than Tito and other leaders anticipated at the beginning. One key reason is that there was not a sustained effort to educate workers in the workplace as to how to run their enterprises. So, the result was that the distinction between thinking and doing remained—the workers’ councils tended to accept the recommendations of the managers and the experts on the key decisions for these self-managed enterprises. Why? Because they felt the experts knew better. The workers’ councils had the legal power but they didn’t exercise it.

It is important to understand that these Yugoslav self-managed enterprises functioned in the market and were driven by one thing—self-interest. Although the enterprises were state owned and were viewed as social property, there was no focus upon the needs of society and there was no concept of solidarity. Rather, in every enterprise, the goal followed was to maximise income per member of the individual enterprise. They competed against each other, they used their economic strength to dominate each other and they fought against paying taxes. (In fact they attacked the state as engaging in Stalinist exploitation of workers by taxing them.)

Further, these self-managed enterprises tended to introduce advanced, machine intensive technology—so they could be more productive and generate more total income without adding more members to their collective. So, they were productive, but they didn’t generate many new jobs. Not surprisingly, unemployment was high because people coming from the countryside couldn’t find jobs; so, they went to countries in Western Europe as “guest workers”—in 1971, there was 7% unemployment plus 20% of the labour force was working outside the country for this reason.

Legally, these enterprises were called “social property”, but social property means that everyone in the society has equal access to the means of production, and benefits from it. The unemployed had no access to the means of production, and some workers had access to much better means of production than others. In fact, what had happened was that, in the context of the market, a new productive relation had emerged in fact—group ownership of these enterprises, group property. The workers felt that they (and only they) were entitled to the income generated by the sale of their commodities.

And, in their competitive struggle for income, the workers’ councils accepted the recommendations of the managers about investments, new products and new ways of producing because the managers had the same self-interest—maximising the income for the enterprise. Of course, all members of these collectives weren’t really equal—it was the managers and technical experts in these enterprises who understood about marketing and selling commodities; it was the managers and technical experts who knew about investments, about placing the funds of the enterprises in banks and establishing links with other enterprises, creating mergers, etc. Workers didn’t know these things; they knew that they were dependent upon the experts.

By the 1970s, there was the recognition in Yugoslavia that something unanticipated had happened: a “techno-bureaucracy” had emerged. In the struggle against state bureaucracy, they had forgotten about battling against capitalism. So, the government tried to introduce a number of new measures and constitutional changes to strengthen workers against this techno-bureaucracy; however, these measures never went very far—because they continued to stress self-interest as the only way to development, and they did not focus upon communal needs and purposes. They never challenged the new relations of production that had emerged. In the end, it was, of course, the managers who emerged as capitalists, leaving the workers as wage labourers.

`Without worker-management, there is no socialism’

The Yugoslavian case demonstrates that the existence of workers’ councils—even with the legal power to make all decisions—is not the same as worker-management; and, that the focus upon the self-interest of workers in individual enterprises is not the same as a focus upon the interest of the working class as a whole. They had workers’ councils, but the division between thinking and doing that cripples people continued.

So, I come back to my three propositions:

1. When workers don’t manage, someone else does.

2. When workers don’t develop their capabilities through their practice, someone else does.

3. However much you may think you have banished capitalism from the house, when production is not based upon the relation of production of associated producers, sooner or later capitalism comes in: first, through the backdoor, and then it marches openly through the front door.

Let’s come back to that elementary triangle of socialism: units of social property, social production organised by workers, for satisfaction of communal needs and purposes. Of course, we know that this can’t all be put into place at once. Of course, we know that it is a long process of struggle to develop each side of that triangle. But, we also know that if we are not actively building each side, we inevitably infect the whole process … sooner or later.

How can you build socialism without real workers’ management? How can you build fully developed human beings without protagonistic democracy in the workplace and community?

In my book, Build it Now, I quoted a line from an old song by Bob Dylan— ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’. So, I have to say to you how sad it is to recognise how things have changed since 2005. I look forward to being able to march once again with masses of workers on May Day chanting, “without worker-management, there is no socialism”.

[A talk given at the two-day seminar “Workers Management: Theory and Practise”, held on October 26 and 27, 2007, organised by the Human Development and Transformative Praxis Program at the Caracas-based Miranda International Centre. Lebowitz is the director of the program. A detailed report by Green Left Weekly’s Kiraz Janicke on the seminar is posted at ]


Socialism vs Capitalism

Very interesting article.

It is obvious that regardless of how socialist relationships of production are attempted, imposed or otherwise, in the end the deciding factor to attain Socialism is the mind and soul of the people.

It is necessary to change people's attitudes and create for real the so called "new man" with honest Socialist principles.

Only these honest Socialist people will refuse without coercion to become another "new class" (bureaucratic, technocratic or whatever else) looking for their "self"-interest at the expense of the rest.

From this point of view Socialism has also failed in China, as it did in Yugoslavia and in all countries where self-interest (individual or group based) is not only allowed but encouraged.

Workers management and democracy at all levels might be necessary but it is not sufficient.

The fact that the Japanese soldiers of WWII willingly sacrificed themselves in mass for their emperor is an indication that people can be educated to really grow up with values other than selfish ones.

The real transformation will only occur when the great majority of the citizens (workers or not) grow up accepting for real Socialist values.

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