What is Important?

It is necessary to demolish the monstrously false idea that the problems that workers see are not important, that there are more important ones which only "theorists" and politicians can speak about.

In issue number three of Worker's Power a school teacher asked the question: why don't workers write? He showed in a thorough manner that this is due to their total situation in society and also to the nature of the so-called "education" that is dispensed by the capitalist schools. He also said that workers often think that their experience "is not interesting".

This last point appears fundamental to me and I would like to share my experience on it, which is not that of a worker but of a militant.

When workers ask an intellectual to talk to them about the problems of capitalism and socialism they find it hard to understand that we accord a central place to the workers' situation in the factory and in production. I have often had occasion to present the following ideas to workers:

- The way in which production is organized in a capitalist factory creates a perpetual conflict between workers aid bosses around the production process.

- The bosses always use new methods to chain workers to the "discipline of production"

- Workers always invent new ways of defending themselves.

- This confilict often has more influence on the level of salaries than negotiations or even strikes do.

- The waste which results is enormous and for greater than that resulting from economic crises.

- Unions are always out of touch with and most often hostile to this kind of workers' struggle.

- Militants who are workers ought to spread all the important examples of this struggle outside the enterprise where they occur.

- Nothing is changed in this situation by the simple "nationalization" of factories and "planning" of the economy.

- Socialism is therefore inconceivable without a complete change in the organization of production in factories, without the suppression of the bosses, and the institution of workers' control.

These expositions were both concrete and theoretical — that is to say that each time they gave real and precise examples, but at the same time, far from being limited to description they tried to draw general conclusions. Here were facts of which workers evidently had the most direct and complete experience, and which also had profound and universal importance.

However, one could say that the listeners spoke little, and it appeared they felt deceived. They had come there to speak of or to hear important things, and it seemded difficult for them to believe that the important things were those that they did every day. They thought that they would be told about absolute and relative surplus value, of the decline in the rate of profit, of over-production and under-consumption. It seemed unbelievable to them that the evolution of modern society was determined more by the actions of millions of workers in all the factories of the world than by the grand economic laws, hidden and mysterious, which are discovered by theorists. They even disagreed that a permanent struggle between workers and bosses exists and that workers succeed in defending themselves; however, once the discussion got under way, what they said showed that they themselves fought such a struggle from the moment they entered the factory to the moment they left it.

The workers' belief that the way they live, what they do, and what they think "is not important" is not only something that prevents them from expressing themselves. It is the most serious sign of ideological servitude to capitalism. For, capitalism could not survive unless people were persuaded that what they do and know concerns only then, is unimportant, and that important things are the monopoly of the big shots and the specialists in various fields. Capitalism tries constantly to drum this idea into peoples' heads.

But it must also be said that it has been strongly aided in this task by workers' organizations. For a very long time trade unions and leftist parties have tried to persuade workers that the only important questions concern either wages in particular, or the economy, politics and society in general. This is already false but there is worse to come. That which these organizations took to be "theory" on these questions and that which increasingly passed for such in the eyes of the public was not linked, as it should have been, to the experience of workers in production and social life, but became a so-called "scientific" theory increasingly abstract (and increasingly false). Certainly only the specialists — intellectuals and bosses — can and do speak of such a theory. The workers must simply keep quiet and try hard to absorb and assimilate the "truth" that the latter feed then. We thus reach two conclusions. The intense desire that many workers have to expand their knowledge and horizons, to gain a conception of society that will help them in their struggle is destroyed from the start. The so-called "theory" set before them seems to be in most cases a sort of higher algebra, inaccessible and frequently containing a litany of incomprehensible words that explain nothing. On the other hand, the workers have no verication of the content and truth of such a "theory", its demonstration appears, they are told, in the fourteen volumes of Capital and in the other immense and mysterious works possessed by the learned comrades in whom we must have confidence.

The roots and consequences of this situation go very far. It originates in a profoundly bourgeois mentality: just as with the laws of physics, there are said to be laws of economics and society, "laws" which have nothing to do with the experience of workers. Rather, they are the property of the scientists and engineers who know of them. Just as only engineers can decide how to make a bridge, similarly only the engineers of society — leaders of parties and unions — can decide on the organization of society. To change society is thus to change its "general" organization, but that does not affect in the slightest what happens in the factories, since that "is not important".

In order to move beyond this situation it is not enough to say to workers: speak, it is up to you to say what the problems are. It is necessary to demolish the monstrously false idea that the problems that workers see are not important, that there are more important ones which only "theorists" and politicians can speak about. We can understand society, but still less can we understand society if we do not understand the factory. There is only one way for this to happen: the workers must speak. To demonstrate this must be the first and permanent task of Workers' Power.

Originally published in Pouvier Ouvrier, the monthly supplement to Socialism ou Barbarie, No. 5 , (March, 1959); reprinted in Cornelius Castoriadis, L'Experience du Mouvement Ouvrier: Proletariat et Organisation (Paris: Union Generale, 1974). Translated by Tom McLaughlin.