From mass strike to new society - Jeremy Brecher

Occupied factory during the Biennio Rosso in Italy

Excellent text by Jeremy Brecher examining where mass strikes have progressed into the working class attempting to run society in its own interests and the lessons we can learn from them.

Submitted by Steven. on May 13, 2014

If you enjoyed this book, please purchase Strike! by Jeremy Brecher here.

In Strike! we saw how mass strikes might lay the basis for a new society. We have noted occasions when, as in the Seattle general strike, workers themselves envisioned "reopening more and more activities under. [their] own management," and situations such as the bootleg coal industry where they have actually done so. We have observed the development of "new independent forms of workers' organization" within which lie "a foundation of social relations at the point of production which can potentially come forward to seize power in a crisis situation and give new direction to society." But how can such a new society come about? In this chapter we shall try to project the mass strike process beyond the limits it has so far reached in the U.S. To start with, let us look briefly at three occasions when workers in other countries Russia, Italy, and Spain have tried to take over the means of production and run them for themselves. They are presented not as models to be followed - all took place under circumstances that practically guaranteed failure but as experiments showing how in certain conditions mass strikes can turn into revolutions, and revealing some of the problems they then face and the solutions that come to hand.

In February, 1917, a spontaneous general strike followed by street fighting shook Russia, especially the capital, and led to the collapse of the Czar's government. Revolutionary discontent spread through the peasantry and the peasant-based army. Meanwhile, workers' committees sprang up in the factories of every major industrial center of European Russia.1 As historian E.H. Carr wrote,

The first demands were for the 8-hour day and for increased wages. But these demands soon culminated in more or less organized attempts by the workers, sporadic at first, but becoming gradually more frequent, to interfere with managements and themselves take possession of factories.

This. was the inevitable reaction of the workers in a revolutionary situation to refusals of their demands.2

Widespread strikes and lockouts developed over these attempts:

There was a common feature to these struggles: the employers were prepared to make concessions through increased wages but categorically refused to recognize any rights to the Factory Committees. The workers in struggle. were prepared to fight to the bitter end not so much on the question of wage increases as on the question of the recognition of their factory organizations.3

Starting in May, the Factory Committees in the capital area began holding conferences to coordinate their action. The second conference passed such rules as these:

"All decrees of the Factory Committee" were declared compulsory "for the factory administration as well as for the workers and employees", unless revoked "by the Central Soviet (council] of Factory Committees. Committees would meet, with pay, during working hours.

Factory Committees were to have "control over the composition of the administration and the right to dismiss all those who could not guarantee normal relations with the workers or who were incompetent for other reasons." "All administrative factory personnel can only enter into service with the consent of the Factory Committee, which must declare its hirings at a General Meeting of all the factory or through departmental or workshop committees."

Factory Committees were to have their own press and "to inform the workers and employees of the enterprise concerning their resolutions by posting an announcement in a conspicuous place." The "internal organization" of the factory working time, wages, holidays, and the like-was to be determined by the Factory Committee.4

On the eve of the October Revolution, an All-Russia Conference of Factory Committees met in Petersburg. It called for the creation of a central organ "for the regulation of the national economy," to be elected by the all-Russia organization of Factory Committees, and to function within the trade union structure.5

By October, a great revolutionary wave was sweeping Russia, and largely with the support of the Factory Committees the Bolshevik Party seized state power in the name of the workers, peasants, and soldiers. As a contemporary commentator wrote, "workers' control" stood side by side with "land" and "peace" as the "most popular and widely current slogans of the October Revolution" among the workers.6 In many situations where the management deserted their enterprises, the Factory Committees simply took over in the name of the workers. Where they were strong enough, the committees "boldly ousted the management and assumed direct control in their respective plants."7

As a Bolshevik historian wrote, "During its struggle for a 'factory constitution,' the working class had become aware of the need itself to manage production."8 The means to do so were laid out in December, 1917, in a Practical Manual for the Implementation of Workers' Control in Industry, published by the Central Council of the Petrograd Factory Committees. Each Factory Committee was to establish a "production commission." It would establish the necessary links between the different sections of the factory, supervise the state of the machinery and its depreciation, deal with deficiencies in the arrangement of the plant, determine the "coefficients of exploitation" (rates of work and payment) in each section, set the optimum number of shops and of workers in each shop, determine job allocations from top to bottom, and take charge of the financial relations of the factory.

Other commissions of the Factory Committee were to deal with reconversion from war production, the supply of raw materials, and the supply of fuel. The commissions were "entitled to invite the attendance of technicians and others in a consultative capacity." Since no factory is an isolated unit, the Manual announced the intention of grouping the Factory Committees into regional federations and these into an All-Russia Federation. "Workers' control of industry, as a part of workers' control of the totality of economic life," must be seen, it declared, "as the workers moving into fields previously dominated by others. Control should merge into management."9

Such a development was completely against the intentions of the Bolshevik Party, which had seized state power, controlled the soviets, and to a considerable extent the unions, and now desired to centralize the economy under its own direction. Far from wanting workers to take over the factories, Lenin shortly before taking power had called for a "compulsory syndicalization" of industry which "does not in the least affect conditions of ownership and does not deprive the proprietor of a single penny of his money."10 Socialism," he added, "is nothing else than a capitalistic State monopoly worked in the interests of the whole nation and therefore no longer a capitalist monopoly."11 But, as Arthur Rosenberg wrote in his History of Bolshevism,

Armed workmen intoxicated by their revolutionary victory were not to be kept within the bounds of such a moderate scheme of reform. Instead they took possession themselves of the factories and drove out their employers.

It is clear. that the Bolsheviks did not expropriate Russian employers but that it was accomplished as the result of spontaneous action on the part of the workers and against the will of the Bolsheviks.12

Before seizing power, the Bolshevik Party had supported the Factory Committees and their demands for workers' control as a way to undermine the old regime, but now it saw them as a threat to its own authority and attempted to bring them under its control by making them responsible to an All-Russia Council of Workers Control run from above, of which less than one-quarter of the members were to come from the Factory Committees and most of the rest from party-controlled organizations. As E.H. Carr wrote of this move, "Those who had paid most lip service to workers' control and purported to 'expand' it were in fact engaged in a skillful attempt to make it orderly and innocuous by turning it into a largescale, centralized, public institution."13

The trade unions played a central role in this process. According to Trotsky's biographer, Isaac Deutscher, a few weeks after the October Revolution the Factory Committees attempted to form their own national organization, which was to secure their virtual economic dictatorship. The Bolsheviks now called upon the unions to render a special service to the nascent Soviet State and to discipline the Factory Committees. The unions came out firmly against the attempt of the Factory Committees to form a national organization of their own. They prevented the convocation of a planned All-Russian Congress of Factory Committees and demanded total subordination on the part of the Committees.14

Once the Bolshevik state thus seized the initiative in industry, it established a Supreme Economic Council, attached to the "Council of People's Commissars"-the Bolshevik cabinet-with power over all existing economic authorities. Through its appointees and organs, the Bolshevik Party succeeded in establishing its control over the factories, sending in its own representatives as managers.

As Lenin put it soon after, "we passed from workers' control to the creation of the Supreme Council of National Economy."15

The movement toward workers' self-management was defeated in Russia for several reasons. First, a large proportion of the workers accepted the idea that the Bolshevik Party represented their interests and that its seizure of power meant control by the workers. Second, the Bolshevik Party possessed a powerful organization prepared to defend its power by ruthlessly suppressing all opposition to it. Third, it was widely felt that a powerful centralized organization was necessary and the only alternative to chaos. The workers represented only a tiny part of the population, of Russia, and could not rule the vast peasantry by themselves. Neither did they believe they could cope with the collapse of the economy and underdevelopment of the country.

Another interesting case of a mass strike developing into a direct attempt by workers to take charge of production occurred in the Italian factory occupations of 1920. Despite a substantial increase in real wages16 from 1918 to 1920, the working classes of Italy were in continuous turmoil. Membership in the dominant union federation, the C.G.L., increased from 250,000 to 2,200,000.17

In 1919, 1,000,000 industrial workers and 500,000 peasants struck18 ; in 1920, the figures were 1,200,000 and 1,000,000.19 In late June and July, 1919, riots against the high cost of living swept through the entire country, with crowds sacking hundreds of shops in dozens of cities and proprietors handing over their warehouse keys to the unions to distribute their goods. "The authorities often found it useless to invoke the aid of troops on a large scale because the soldiers fraternized with the mobs."20 In the countryside, peasants began seizing land that had been promised them during the war.

The year 1920 began with strikes of state postal, telegraph, and railroad workers C.G.L. officials had to discourage constituent organizations from joining local strikes in solidarity with the railroad workers. Textile, sulphur and metalworkers struck in February. In March there was a general strike in Milan protesting the killing of a streetcar worker. In Turin in April a general strike raged over union powers, triggered by a conflict over daylight saving time. Workers had occupied and in some cases run factories in various parts of Italy, without this yet developing into a concerted movement.

Out of the mass strike workers developed a determination, centered in the auto city of Turin, to take direction of production.

The process started with the metalworkers union's demand for recognition of plant grievance committees (commissioni interne) which would discuss with management questions of wages and the distribution of work. They were recognized by the Turin employers in early 1919, and until August were seen essentially as agencies for decentralized union activity with specific, limited functions agreed on by union and management. The committees were under great pressure from the rank and file; one union official complained that within fifteen days or so after a grievance committee was elected, the workers would send it packing, accusing its members of betrayal and collusion with management.21

Toward summer, revolutionary discussion groups developed in the Turin factories around the idea of transforming the grievance committees into factory councils through which workers would develop the power and capacity to take control of the factories. At the Fiat plant in August, 1919, the workers threw out the old grievance committee and the new one held elections to establish a factory council of commissioners selected by the work-teams in each department of the plant. All workers could vote regardless of union and political affiliation, and commissioners were removable by referendum at any moment. By October, nearly all Turin metalworking shops had factory commissions, with the commissioners from different factories meeting on a city-wide basis. By the end of the year, 150,000 Turinese were organized in councils.22 The union leaders tried to gain control of the councils by demanding that the voters and commissioners be union members, but won only the latter.

In August, 1920, metalworkers' union wage demands were turned down. The unions were broke and unwilling to risk a protracted strike, so they called a "working by the book" slowdown.

The employers began to respond with lockouts, and the union called for factory occupations September 1st to forestall them. Workers held hundreds of plants in Milan, as well as others throughout Italy, including most of the country's heavy industry.

In Turin, vortex of the movement, the factory councils took over management and started up production under their own direction, while protecting the plants from counter-attack. At Fiat-Centro, production of around thirty-seven cars per day was maintained, compared to sixty-eight in normal times, despite the desertion of technicians and white-collar workers.23 "It seemed to most Italians that the revolution had begun."24

The C.G.L. on September 5th listed the three courses available: to confine the movement to the metalworkers; to spread it throughout Italy; or to transform the factory occupations into a revolution. The unions opposed immediate revolution. The Socialist Party thereupon offered to take charge of the movement--':'" but instead of choosing one course or another, it merely called for the Parliament, then in recess, to convene. With this, workers gave up the initiative. The Prime Minister, who "knew socialist leaders too well to fear any revolution of their making,"25 Stalled until the movement lost momentum, then negotiated a settlement based on a wage increase, holidays and severance pay. Between September 25th and 30th, the occupations ended.

The Italian factory occupations of 1920 illustrate how the sense of power workers develop in the course of mass strikes, combined with the inability of the existing authorities to meet their demands, leads naturally to the idea of workers taking over production for themselves. It also illustrates the fundamental conflict that has arisen again and again at such moments between organizations developed to adapt workers to existing society (such as unions and political parties) and those which aim to win workers' complete control over society-workers councils, soviets, and the like.

Waiting for the unions and the Italian Socialist Party led inevitably to loss of the power the workers had already won. The result was disastrous. The Turin socialists had warned several months before,

The present phase of the class struggle in ltaly is the one which precedes either the conquest of power by the revolutionary proletariat. or a terrible reaction on the part of the property-owning class and the government caste. No form of violence will be spared in their effort to subjugate the industrial and agricultural proletariat; they will endeavour to smash once and for all the workers' organs of political struggle (the Socialist Party) and to incorporate the workers' organs of economic power (trade unions and co-operatives) into the machinery of the bourgeois State.26

Within two years, Mussolini's Fascist movement had indeed taken power, after informing the leaders of Italian industry that "the aim of the imminent fascist action is the restoration of discipline, especially in the factories."27

Perhaps the most impressive example of workers' management of production occurred in Catalonia during the first stage of the Spanish Civil War. Nearly half of the industrial workers in Spain were in Catalonia. They possessed strong anarchist and syndicalist traditions and a powerful belief that in the event of revolution the workers and not the state would take over society. In the months before the Civil War, the national congress of the C.N.T., the dominant union federation in Catalonia, laid out a revolutionary program expressing this belief:

Once the violent aspect of the revolution is finished, the following are declared abolished: private property, the state, the principles of authority and, as a consequence, the classes which divide men into exploiters and exploited, oppressed and oppressors. Within each community elected committees would deal with agriculture, hygiene, culture, discipline, production, and statistics.

All these functions will have no executive or bureaucratic character.

Apart from those who discharge technical functions. the rest will perform their duties as producers, meeting in sessions at the end of the day to discuss the questions of detail which do not require the approval of the communal assembles.

The communes were to be based on free associations of workers in their syndicates (unions), producing and exchanging the necessities of life, and linked in "regional and national federations for the realization of their general objectives."28 The C.N.T.'s structure was adapted to this goal.

The C.N.T. had a number of prominent leaders, but the real power rested not in a bureaucracy of paid union officials there were none but in local assemblies of workers in the various trades who formulated their own policies and were free to take action on their own. They sent delegates, mandated and with circumscribed authority, to local committees and national congresses, which were essentially coordinating bodies with no authority over the local groups.

The months between February and July, 1936, were ones of extreme labor unrest in the young Spanish Republic. According to one estimate there were 110 general strikes29 as well as numerous uprisings and other outbreaks; a right-wing military revolt was anticipated at any time. On July 18th, the revolt broke out, led by General Francisco Franco, who expected to occupy most of the country within a few days. The Republican government was largely unprepared to meet it and had few loyal troops of its own, but the workers in large parts of Spain demanded and received arms, counterattacked, and defeated the rebellion in perhaps half of the country.

The result was that "the government. lost all authority. The workers, through their party and trade union organizations, became the real rulers of the country and the organizers of the war.30

Throughout much of Spain the Socialist and Communist unions and parties merely extended state control and left private production intact, but in Catalonia the story was different.

After the workers of Barcelona, the main city of Catalonia, defeated the military rising in two days of street fighting, they were the only real social force. The upper classes fled, went into hiding, or were killed. Companys, head of the middle-class Catalonian government, told the anarchist leaders, "Now you are masters of the city and of Catalonia. You have conquered and everything is in your power."31

The Catalonian workers thereupon began organizing society for themselves. They took over the railroads, busses, trams, and subways, the petroleum companies, the automobile industries, the steamship companies, the hospitals, electricity, gas and water systems, the large stores, the munitions plants, the theater and movie houses, with the workers in each responsible for production. General meetings of the workers elected councils in which all activities of the workplace-production, administration, technical services, etc. were represented. Collectives of barbers, bakers, shopkeepers and the like regulated small trade. Coordination was largely carried on through the unions. The evidence indicates that the life of the city was at least as well run as before the revolution, despite the crisis conditions. The Austrian historian Franz Borkenau arrived three weeks after the rising and recorded in his diary that

The amount of expropriation in the first few days since 19 July is almost incredible. In many respects, however, life was much less disturbed than I expected it to be after newspaper reports abroad. Tramways and buses were running, water and light functioning.32

Borkenau visited a collectivized bus factory and reported that

Only three weeks after the beginning of the civil war, two weeks after the end of the general strike, it seems to run as smoothly as if nothing had happened. I visited the men at their machines. The rooms looked tidy, the work was done in a regular manner. Since socialization, this factory has repaired two busses, finished one which had been under construction and constructed a completely new one. The latter wore the inscription "constructed under workers' control." It had been completed, the management claimed, in five days, as against an average of seven days under the previous management. Complete success, then.

It is a large factory, and things could not have been made to look nice for the benefit of a visitor, had they really been in a bad muddle. Nor do I think that any preparations were made for my visit.

But if it would be hasty to generalize from the very favourable impression made by this particular factory, one fact remains: it is an extraordinary achievement for a group of workers to take over one factory, under however favourable conditions, and within a few days to make it run with complete regularity.33

Wages and money were not abolished, but profits were eliminated, wages were levelled upwards, and equalized between men and women, skilled and unskilled, adults and juveniles, increased for those with families, and reduced for directors. In some cases food was made available by food supply workers not on the basis of money but of tickets showing the holders had been working.

These extraordinary developments were made possible in large part because Spanish workers had planned and discussed them for years. A contemporary observer in Spain, Gaston Leval, later recalled

For decades, anarchist papers and reviews and pamphlets had been forming in militants a habit of acting individually, of taking initiative. They were not taught to wait for directives from above. They had always thought and acted for themselves-sometimes well, sometimes badly. Reading the paper, the review, the pamphlet, the book, each developed and enlarged his own personality. They were never given a dogma of a safe, uniform line of action. In the study of concrete problems, in the critique of economic and political ideas, clear ideas of revolution had gradually matured.

For some time, the problems of social reconstruction had been the order of the day A great number of the 60,000 readers of the libertarian review Studi followed with interest the detailed articles on the problems a revolution faces, in food supply, fuel, or agriculture. Many syndicalists groupings did likewise. I knew many syndicalist committee members who understood the problems of revolution and economic organization very clearly. They spoke intelligently about raw materials, imports, the need to improve or eliminate this or that branch of industry, armed defence, and other matters.34

Workers' militias were organized at the same time. George Orwell, himself a volunteer in a militia unit from Catalonia, described them in Homage to Catalonia:

In the early days of Franco's revolt the militias had been hurriedly raised by the various trade unions and political parties; each was essentially a political organization, owing allegiance to its party as much as to the central government. The essential point of the system was social equality between officers and men. Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality. If you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious. In theory at any rate each militia was a democracy, and not a hierarchy. It was understood that orders had to be obeyed, but it was also understood that when you gave an order you gave it as comrade to comrade and not as superior to inferior. There were officers and N.C.O.'s, but there was no military rank in the ordinary sense; no titles, no badges, no heel-clicking and saluting. They had attempted to produce within the militias a sort of temporary working model of the classless society. Of course, there was not perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would have thought conceivable in time of war.35

Workers similarly replaced the police force in patrolling the streets and borders. For practical purposes, they were society.

The Catalonian government, with no power of its own, endorsed the workers' action, and the leaders of the C.N.T. supported it in turn. A Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias of Catalonia coordinated activities connected with the war effort, in cooperation with the government. Gradually, the government, which C.N.T. leaders had joined, asserted more and more authority over the situation. For example, on October 24th, it passed a collectivization decree which recognized the workers' seizure of the factories but set up machinery for governmental coordination and supervision which eventually developed into the means of government control. Thus began a process in which, as the New York Times put it somewhat later, "The principle of State intervention and control of business and industry, as against workers' control of them in the guise of collectivization, is gradually being established36 Even Companys complained that production had fallen off owing to the prodigious bureaucratization set up by the government; an army of inspectors and directors had descended on the factories, and the workers had been demoralized, Companys said.37

Similarly, the Republican government gradually broke up the various militia units, whose proud cry had been "Militiamen of freedom, never soldiers!" and dissolved them into its new army, in which traditional divisions of rank and authority were reestablished.

This gradual retreat of the revolution must be explained on several levels. First, the workers succeeded in maintaining production, but they did not build up a system of coordination under their own control. Since the need for coordination was strongly felt, this function passed first to the union and party leaderships, then to the government. This problem was aggravated by the isolation of the revolution; the central government used its control of materials needed by the Catalonians to force them to accept its authority.

This became even more decisive as Russia became the prime supplier of war material and used its position to build up the previously insignificant Communist Party and to destroy the anarchists and their allies. Finally, Italian and German military support made a Franco victory always probable, so that the Catalonian workers were under constant pressure to submit to government demands for coordination and unity or face extermination. Even anarchist leaders, pledged to eternal hostility to any state, joined the Republican government and refrained from attacking it.

The final suppression of the revolution came in May, 1937, and it came not at the hands of Franco, but of the Republican government. Two months before, the government had dissolved the revolutionary patrols in Catalonia and established a unified police force, much to the resentment of the C.N.T. workers. Newspaper attacks capped by murders of leaders on both sides brought tensions to a fever pitch. On May 3rd, the Catalonian police launched an attack on the telephone exchange, which had been run by the workers for ten months, after which street fighting broke out throughout the city. The government in Madrid took advantage of this situation to send 4,000 soldiers to occupy Barcelona, even though a truce had been reached, finally establishing its authority there until the time of its defeat by General Franco.

The actual course of events which leads from a mass strike to a revolution is of course unique in each case. But certain common elements can be seen in each of the examples we have discussed.

1) In the course of a long period of conflict, workers form the goal of taking over production themselves. This goal develops as a response to two conditions that an escalating workers' movement eventually produces. First, the workers reach the limit of what they can gain without taking power. This limit is generally experienced in the intransigence or counter-attack of the old rulers, expressed through lockouts, coups d'etat and the like. The obvious solution that presents itself, therefore, is removing the old rulers from power. Second, the workers discover through their own actions their real power and ability, and therefore realize that taking over management is possible for them. The goal of a dual power over management which we have seen in American, Russian and Italian mass strikes then passes over into a desire for unilateral control.

2) At some point, workers take over the productive apparatus through occupations, street action or both. In Russia and Catalonia, this occurred through brief barricade battles; in Italy through occupations. Both of course are normal aspects of the mass strike itself, but are here put to a further purpose.

3) Workers have to find means to defend themselves against the counter-attacks of the old rulers. In both Russia and Spain, counter-revolution took the form of civil war backed by foreign powers. In Italy it took the form of armed bands. In each case, workers formed guards or militia units based on the factories. Their greatest strength, however, lay not in warfare but in their overwhelming numbers, their control of production, and the justice and popular support of their cause.

4) Workers start producing for themselves. This begins as part of the struggle itself-provisioning the population, providing needed equipment, etc. But it has a further significance: it is the vital tip-point in the social balance of power, showing that society can and is going on without the old rulers. At first, production can be resumed on the basis left by capitalism; the machines are, still there, the workers already know how to run them, and all that is necessary is to start them up. Similarly, the links between different units of production already exist in the form of order departments and transportation facilities; initially these can be used to assure the flow of raw materials and products where they are needed.

5) In each of the cases we have examined, we can see the competition between two types of organization. In one, power moves from the top down. The activity of great numbers of people is directed by a special group. This is the case under capitalism. It is likewise the case in the forms of state control into which the Russian and Spanish revolutions evolved. In the other, power moves from the bottom up. The basic cell-unit of decision is simply those who work together at a particular task. They decide what they will do, and themselves coordinate their activity with others. This form of organization can be observed in the factory committees and councils we have seen develop in Russia, Italy and Spain-as well as in numerous other cases we have not examined here, such as Germany after World War I and Hungary in 1956. These organizations start out simply as means to coordinate the struggle of groups acting in solidarity with each other. But because they follow the organization of the productive system itself, their structure is excellently adapted to taking up the coordination of work.

As we have seen, the work-groups are the cell-units of mass strikes. The principles under which they could govern their own activity can be seen in the self-organisation of the sitdown strikers in Flint in 1937. All those who worked together simply met in assembly and made the decisions that affected their common activity, and all were responsible for doing their share of carrying the decisions out. As our foreign examples have shown, they could have run not only the sitdown but the factory itself in this way. Certain experts such as engineers and chemists might sometimes be needed, but the foremen and the rest of management would be completely unnecessary.

Since society is not composed of isolated units, workers would face the problem of coordinating from below an enormous range of social activities. For if those who do the work do not coordinate their activity, someone else will and thereby gain power over them-as we have seen in our Russian and Catalonian examples. The coordinating councils and committees we have described in this chapter give an imperfect but useful idea of how work groups can coordinate their activities from below. Different groups can be tied together by liaison committees of many types, weaving "a variegated net of collaborating bodies through society."38 Just what forms of coordination would be necessary cannot be predicted, but it is clear that each group would need at least to coordinate with its suppliers, with others doing the same work, with those who use their product, and with others in the same community. Such an organization would allow the entire life of society to be brought under human control while realizing the principles of cooperation and self-directed activity which underlie the mass strike.

This conception of the revolutionary process is of course far different from the model of insurrection familiar from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is this very difference, in fact, that makes possible an outcome different from past revolutions. In the past, a special minority has seized state power and then directed the reorganization of society, thereby retaining the real power in its own hands. But mass strikes are actions of the people themselves. In directing their own activity the people themselves possess the real social power, and unless they give it up to someone else they can retain it in the new society.

Of course, in any such situation there will always be individuals and groups who would like to establish themselves as the ruling power, governing in the name of the people and the workers. This, indeed, is just what defeated such past revolutions as that of Russia in 1917, where the Bolshevik Party seized power in the name and under the guise of the soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers, in order to establish their own control. In any revolutionary situation there will undoubtedly be numerous such parties and groups clamoring for power. They may even sincerely believe they are serving the revolution. They will undoubtedly put themselves forward as the champions of whatever ideas are popular at the time just as the Bolsheviks embraced workers' control and the anarchistic soviets when they really meant to centralize power in the hands of the party. Leaders will try to entrench themselves in every position of power from the shop to the most central organs of the revolution.

Nor is it only in such organized parties and groups that the seeds of a new ruling minority lurk. There is a natural tendency for responsibility to re-centralize in the hands of a few individuals, accepted leaders, who then come to do more and more of the movement's thinking and deciding for it. This occurred to a considerable extent in Catalonia. Such people, if entrenched for a long enough time in the various coordinating bodies, could gradually develop into a separate class of decision-makers who would come to rule.

There can be no guarantee in advance against these possibilities. Only the will to keep in their own hands the power they have taken can protect ordinary people from losing it. As long as the real responsibilities and initiative remains with the work-groups themselves, coordinating organs cannot become a new separate ruling group. Their power can be circumscribed by giving them no authority or means to impose their will on those they represent; limiting their role to particular questions; mandating or rotating delegates, with recall of those defying mandates; keeping all activities public; and giving coordinating bodies no means to execute decisions save the activity of those they represent. Under such circumstances, workers can prevent the development of a new ruling group simply by refusing to work for anyone but themselves.

Past mass strikes have ended in the restoration of control from above. But what would happen if ordinary workers succeeded in holding power themselves? Can the continuing life of society be organized by those who actually do the work? Since no such cases have arisen to date, we can only try to visualize what might happen using what has happened so far as a guide.

In order to survive, the workers must promptly restore the production of life's necessities. Unless this is done, social panic inevitably results. It can be done by the already existing work groups themselves. All that is necessary is to reactivate the existing agricultural, energy, transportation, and other systems. We have seen this happen in Catalonia. The different units which form a chain of production can coordinate their action initially through simple liaison committees.

In each workplace, everything that happens in the production process can be recorded what machinery and labor is used in each step, how much time is put in by each worker, how much is produced. On the basis of this information, workers can understand and therefore manage production-compare the advantages of different machines and techniques, allocate work responsibilities, and make similar decisions. The same information can be calculated for each group of related enterprises, each branch of production and each community and region. Through their coordinating organs the workers can decide what to produce, how much to produce, how much to put aside for new equipment and the like. The level at which each of these decisions is made depends on how wide a range of people is affected by them. In short, a new and 309 readily intelligible system of accounting is called for, which will reveal rather than conceal the actual flow of work and materials and which will thereby make possible effective control from below.

In contrast to the present system, this allows production to be planned to meet human needs. To produce the necessities and amenities of life for everyone, a great expansion is required in just those areas which the present system has failed to provide-housing, medicine, nutritious foods, community facilities and the like.

No doubt, many aspects of consumption become more collective than at present, with community meals, housing, transportation, medicine and the like expanding the range of possible life styles.

New life styles give rise to new needs; the workers and their coordinating organs have to meet them as they come to be felt.

An enormous amount of labor currently goes into waste and destruction. The making of nuclear weapons, Cadillacs, advertising, and pollutants simply has to be stopped. The state, military, and other bureaucratic establishments pose a threat to popular rule until disbanded. Whatever useful functions they perform, such as health care and construction, can be taken over by the workers who previously performed them. A great many commodities produced today serve needs deliberately generated by the present system through advertising, emulation, and other forms of social control. Their production naturally tapers off as these pressures cease and manipulated forms of consumption decline,

The large numbers of workers engaged in wasteful and destructive activities such as military production, sales promotion and management, can shift to productive work. Blacks, women, the unemployed, and others hitherto largely excluded from production can join the work groups. At the same time, a great many activities not presently organized as jobs, such as housework and child care, can come to be considered as valued forms of social labor. Everyone able to work takes up his or her share with an equal responsibility, not only for performing it, but for planning and controlling it.

With the elimination of waste production and the increase in productive workers, the time each person has to work can be reduced to a fraction of the present work time.

The new workers coming into production generally lack the skills necessary for the work. Even those doing familiar work are handicapped in their knowledge because they have been limited to one particular function. All are victims of a carefully fostered ignorance of how the different parts of the work are integrated. In order to understand the workplace they will have to manage, each one has to teach his own knowledge to the others. Through job rotation, the work can be kept interesting and such inequalities as that between skilled and unskilled workers dissolved. This requires apprenticeship training, especially for those members previously denied the opportunity to learn special skills. This rotation can include such work as child care and housekeeping, which come to be viewed like any other work; men must be trained in this work by women, so that the latter can gain equal participation in other activities.

Young people can receive much of their education through participation in various work-groups rather than through educational institutions separate from life. Indeed, the division between life and learning breaks down, as work becomes a constant expansion of skills and capacities. The constant discussion, decision, and application of one's own plans become in themselves an education in social management. In short, an enormous growth of education is one of the main features of this as of other post-revolutionary societies; but here education is a process of teaching each other, not of inculcation by the state. All such teaching and learning are considered, like other work, part of meeting society's needs.

The production plant which the workers inherit has been centralized with a view to profit-making and bureaucratic control.

Enormous populations have been concentrated in urban belts while vast regions have been farmed without regard to the natural qualities of the terrain. Entire cities and regions have specialized in the production of coal, steel, cars and the like. This has unbalanced the natural environment of every region and restricted the people of each area to limited forms of life. By controlling production from below, workers are able in many cases to make the units of production smaller and better adapted to the local environment and needs-even while improving the coordination among the various units. This process of decentralization not only helps restore ecological balance, but allows a much greater social diversity, in which local units can experiment with new forms, and in which everyone can experience many kinds of work. It also allows more economic independence for local communities and regions, thus providing another barrier to any group trying to seize central social power.

The inherited means of production are organized to reduce the necessary amount of labor only when profits are thereby increased. Nor do they aim to maximize the freedom and pleasure of work. Workers can eliminate a great part of the more boring, repetitive and degrading jobs through automation. At the same time, they can recover the pleasure of personal creativity found in craftsmanship craftsmanship now based on an advanced technology.

At this point the opportunity for an infinite range of experimentation opens up. In some cases work can be altogether removed from a factory context, an individual doing his share at home whenever he feels like it-a virtual return to cottage industry. In other cases, the whole community can participate with pleasure in such activities as harvesting. Since necessary work time is minimal, most of people's time is free for whatever they desire. With the principle of cooperative self-direction spreading to all social activities there even ceases to be a special realm of "work" or any reason to think of people as "workers." They are simply people doing the things they need in order to live as they want to.

The basic idea underlying such a society is simply that the individuals who make it up are working together to meet each other's needs. Each working group must take responsibility for meeting society's needs in its area of work, knowing that others are working in turn to produce for its various needs.

Simple and obvious as this idea is, the thought that people could live by it immediately comes in conflict with our conventional image of "human nature." Aren't people too irresponsible and selfish for it to work? We live in a society where "nice guys finish last" and where people have to be cutthroat to "make it." Hence people's potential for selfishness and irresponsibility is maximized and their cooperative feelings repressed. But even in contemporary society, we see behavior which contradicts this. For example, the overwhelming majority of fathers support their families, and rare is the mother who does not take responsibility for her young children. Is this "merely biological"? It may be considered biological in the sense that people have an inborn capacity for taking responsibility to meet needs beyond their own. But this capacity need not apply just to the immediate family; when we examine different cultures we find that each has its own pattern of mutual responsibilities.

It is true that the kind of society we have projected will require a change from selfishness to cooperation and from passivity to responsibility. Indeed, this transformation is the inner content of revolution, the necessary corollary when people take control over their own lives.

It is just this transformation which we see beginning in the mass strike.

This text was taken and very slightly edited by libcom to make sense as a stand-alone article from Jeremy Brecher's excellent book, Strike!

  • 1 E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, A History of Soviet Russia, 1917-1923, Vol. 2 (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 63.
  • 2Ibid.
  • 3A. M. Pankratova, Fabzovkomy Rossii V Borbe Za Sotsialisticheskuyv Fabriky [Russian Factory Committees in the Struggle for the Socialist Factory] (Moscow: 1923), Page 9, Cited in Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control 1917 1921 (London: Solidarity, 1970), Page 10.
  • 4Brinton, pp. 8-9.
  • 5Carr, pp. 69-70.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 72.
  • 7 R.V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 83, cited in Brinton, p. 5.
  • 8A. Pankratova, p. 36, cited in Brinton, pp. 10-11.
  • 9Brinton, pp. 25-6.
  • 10 Arthur Rosenberg, A History of Bolshevism (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1967), pp. 115-6.
  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12Ibid., pp. 124, 126.
  • 13Carr, p. 75.
  • 14I. Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1950), Page 17, cited in Brinton, Page 19.
  • 15V.I. Lenin, Sochineniya XXI/, p. 215, cited in Brinton, p. 22.
  • 16Neufield, Italy. p. 368
  • 17Ibid.
  • 18Ibid., p. 370.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 379.
  • 20Ibid., p. 371.
  • 21Ibid. P. 372.
  • 22 "Introduction to Gramsci, 1919-1920," in New Left Review, No.51.
  • 23 Giuseppe Fiori, "Antonio Gramsci" (N LB, London, 1970), p. 138.
  • 24Neufield, p. 379.
  • 25Ibid., p. 380.
  • 26Fiori,op. cit., p. 128
  • 27Fiori,op. cit., p. 158.
  • 28James .1011, The Anarchists (N.Y.: Grosset & Dunlap, 1966), pp. 252-3.
  • 29Wilfred H. Crook, Communism and the General Strike (Harnden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, Inc., 1960), p. 294.
  • 30Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth (N. Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1967),p.317.
  • 31.1011, p. 255.
  • 32Franz Borkenau, The Spanish Cockpit (1937)cited in George Woodcock, Anarchism, a hislory of libertarian ideas and movements (Cleveland: Meridian Books, World Publishing Co., 1967), p. 395.
  • 33Ibid., pp. 395-6.
  • 34Gaston Leval, "Some Conclusions on the Spanish Collectives”, Anarchy, No.5 (July 1961), p. 154.
  • 35George Orwell, Homage to Calalonia (N .Y.: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., Harvest Book ed., 1952), p. 27.
  • 36New York Times, February 1938,cited in Living Marxism, Vol. IV, No.6 (April 1939), p. 172.
  • 37Brenan, p. 321.
  • 38Anton Pannekoek, "Workers Councils" (Root and Branch Pamphlet 1, 1970), p.54.