The ‘Other’ Workers’ Movement – Paul Mattick Sr (1975)


A new English translation of Paul Mattick’s 1975 review of Karl Heinz Roth and Elisabeth Behren’s Die “andere” Arbeiterbewegung und die Entwicklung der kapitalistischen Repression von 1880 bis zur Gegenwart (The ‘Other’ Workers’ Movement and the Development of Capitalist Repression from 1880 to the Present).

Submitted by Fozzie on November 5, 2022

Introducton by London Workers Council & Autonomy Reading Group

Alongside our discussion summaries, as we move through the Workers’ Councils series we’re also intending to publish previously unavailable or underappreciated companion texts. Here we’re sharing a new English translation of Paul Mattick’s 1975 review of Karl Heinz Roth and Elisabeth Behren’s Die “andere” Arbeiterbewegung und die Entwicklung der kapitalistischen Repression von 1880 bis zur Gegenwart (The ‘Other’ Workers’ Movement and the Development of Capitalist Repression from 1880 to the Present).

Roth and Behrens’ history of the German workers’ movement is one of the canonical texts of the ‘workerist’ (operaist) tradition, represented in this month’s readings by Sergio Bologna’s Class composition and the theory of the party at the origins of the workers’ council movement. Here Mattick, a direct participant in the German council movement analysed by Bologna, Roth and Behrens, rejects a mechanistic or reductive interpretation of the relationship between the ‘technical composition’ (i.e. position in the production process) and ‘political composition’ (i.e. forms of political organisation) of the working class. Instead, Mattick argues that revolutionary subjectivity derives not from one’s position in the production process but from the vicissitudes of capitalist crisis, a perspective we debated last month.

The ‘Other’ Workers’ Movement

As an expression of capitalist relations of production, the workers’ movement is at the same time a movement of workers who have to develop their class consciousness within capitalist market relations. Generalised competition includes that of the workers among themselves. Although many capitals form the total capital, capital does not appear as a total capitalist, and although all workers perform the total social labour, there is no total labourer. But whatever may result from the competition among capital and the competition for jobs, the reproduction of capitalist society always remains the reproduction of capitalist relations of production or class on which market relations are based.

The capitalist division of labour which is determined by the accumulation of capital provides opportunities not only for different capitals but also for different groups of workers to assert special interests within the given class relations. Thus, the workers’ movement is a movement based on class antagonisms, but which, in addition to class interests, also represents special occupational interests. The general proletarian interest within the framework of capitalist society was described by Marx as “political economy – but from the standpoint of the workers”, namely as a permanent struggle against the capitalist creation of surplus value. Like the political economy of the bourgeoisie, that of the workers is tied to the existence of capital. It is still a question of more or less exploitation, not of exploitation itself. The development of class consciousness and the workers’ movement could therefore only be imagined as a revolutionary process that through wage labour would ultimately eliminate the class distinction in society.

However, this expectation has so far been disappointed. The perception of direct special interests within capitalist relations of production appeared far more important to the workers than their revolutionary elimination, which could only be referred to an uncertain future. The emerging class consciousness did not become a revolutionary class consciousness. The expectations thus disappointed demand an explanation. They must have particularly affected Friedrich Engels, the author of the book “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. Within a few decades, the impoverished working class he had described, and on which revolutionary hopes could have been pinned, had become a working class that rejected any revolutionary movement and felt at home within the given conditions. The explanation Engels found was not, as might have been expected, the increasing productivity and thus exploitation of the English workers, which allowed a simultaneous increase in wages and profits, but the corruption of the workers through their willing participation in the imperialist exploitation of the world practised by English capital. This idea was later taken up by Lenin to express his own disappointment with the behaviour of the workers. Imperialist capitalism had produced a workers’ aristocracy no longer amenable to revolutionary ideas, which was partly responsible for the “betrayal” of the Second International.

Such explanations still referred to workers in general or to privileged layers of the working class, not to the division of labour between skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled occupations. Although the living and working conditions of the variously skilled workers were different, these differences were too small to lead to the assumption that mere occupational interests could affect class consciousness. On the contrary, it was assumed that the workers’ trade union struggles would awaken and develop their class consciousness. Similarly, the reformism of the labour movement did not refer to a particular occupational group of workers, but to the generalised illusion that the situation of the working class within capitalism could be progressively improved; an illusion that was favoured by actual developments. Only recently have attempts been made to understand the changes in the workers’ movement not from the general development of capital, but from the changing technology of the production process, which supposedly entailed an “other” workers’ movement from the one hitherto known.

Roth and Behrens’ book is dedicated to this “other” workers’ movement. The position they (and others) advocate is very simple: modern capitalist technology is clearing out skilled workers to replace them with cheaper, unskilled labour, such as in assembly line production. These unskilled or quickly semi-skilled workers are generally interchangeable due to the automation of production processes and can be outlined with the terms “total worker” or “mass worker”. In contrast to the dying skilled workers, the “mass workers” have no relationship whatsoever to production; they are totally “alienated” from work and see themselves as mere appendages of the machinery that dictatorially determines their way of life. Unlike the skilled workers, who are filled with professional pride, the “mass workers” are in total opposition to capitalist society because of their dehumanised position in the production process. It is the “mass workers” who will radically break with the old labour movement tied to the skilled workers in order to create adequate forms of action and organisation out of their own situation.

The thesis is based on the readiness of assembly line workers to strike, which has been particularly pronounced in recent years and mainly in Italy, and their efforts to use autonomous action committees to extend economic struggles beyond the narrow legal boundary favoured by the trade unions. These remarkable, if local, occurrences are not only taken by Roth and Behrens to be harbingers of things to come, but are also used to explain the failure of the whole labour movement up to now due to its tutelage by the skilled workers. In the past, too, they argue, it was only the unskilled or semi-skilled workers, such as the miners and the shipyard workers, who led a truly class-conscious struggle against capital, while the skilled workers formed the “mainstay” of reformist social democracy and the class-conciliationist trade unions.

Of course, the authors cannot deny that the skilled workers built their associations in the struggle against capital. But they insist that this minority within the total workforce, because of its special position in production, understood how to dominate the workers’ movement as a whole. The revolutionary failure of the working class would find its essential cause here. The revolutionary events of the past have always been the work of the “lawless pariah layer of the total worker”: if not today’s multinational assembly line workers, then at least the unskilled workers who are alien to any professional arrogance and whose struggle has always been aimed at more than the purely trade union interest in high wages and better working conditions. In the authors’ view, the “revolutionary soldiers of the Red Ruhr Army” had “nothing in common with the skilled workers who were proud of their work and fixated on the workers’ state”, just as the “shock troops of the unskilled workers” had nothing to do with the limited council initiatives of the “skilled workers’ vanguards”, which only aimed at factory autonomy.

Hence, one must speak of “two co-existing currents of workers’ struggle”, namely, the one led by the traditional workers’ movement, and a struggle that took place and continues to take place outside of and against the limited interests of the official workers’ movement. Thus, the struggle against capital is simultaneously directed against the old workers’ movement, in order to make the “other” workers’ movement the decisive one. And this all the more since the “corporate-union counter-offensive” against the mass workers has already begun through a “consciously staged class split”. Thus, “since 1970, an almost century-long process of workers’ struggle has been completed, with the result that the traditional workers’ organisations are irrevocably and transparently on the other side of the barricade”.

This is hardly news, although it remains incomprehensible how one can be on the other side of the barricades in their absence. The class struggles of recent years, the countless legal and wildcat strikes, have been undertaken not only by “mass workers” but by workers of all professions, including skilled workers, from private and state employees to postal workers and the police. That these strikes in most cases remained under union control, or where they escaped it, returned to it, has nothing to do with the skilled workers or assembly line workers, but with the simple fact that these were union struggles, not struggles against the capitalist system itself.

Even the “mass workers” have not so far broken the trade union character of their action, and, where they have existed for a long time, they have created industrial associations which are no less fused with the capitalist system than the traditional workers’ organisations. One has only to think of the great industrial federations of American mass production to see at once that the expectations attached by Roth and Behrens to the “mass worker” are just as illusionary as those which once applied to the skilled worker. But Roth and Behrens expect more, namely the dissolution and destruction of the entire workers’ movement as it has been understood up to now, and the emergence of “entirely new forms of struggle” with which the unorganised “mass worker” or the one rebelling against the workers’ organisation will gain recognition.

However, very little is said about these “new forms of struggle”, and what is said, such as about factory occupations as a means of strike action, refers not only to “mass workers” but to actions of the most diverse categories of workers. Otherwise, reference is only made to forms of workers’ struggle under fascist conditions, which turn out to be the refusal of required services (“sick leave”, “bunking off”) and silent sabotage. The impression is to be given that the workers are not only resisting under all circumstances and without the intervention of official workers’ organisations, but are waging their struggle more effectively than was possible under the old trade union control. Thus Roth and Behrens stoop to the nonsensical assertion that the Nazi regime was driven into a real crisis by the workers’ struggles waged within it, which could only be overcome by the resolution of the war. The Blitzkrieg is taken by them to be an “instrument for the recomposition of the working class”, namely through the recruitment of foreign forced labourers, with whose help the revolutionary will of the German workers was to be broken. Facts are thus forcibly and against all logic trimmed beyond recognition to fit the preconceived thesis. There is almost no evidence they produce that does not turn out to be a falsified interpretation of the facts they use. And where the evidence does not come from them, it refers to the propagandistic false reports of the exiled bureaucracy of the run-down workers’ movement in Paris, Prague or Basel.

If the book itself is an insufferable piece of work, the problem it raises is nevertheless of the utmost importance for the working class. That the traditional workers’ movement has not become entirely revolutionary has been obvious to everyone since 1914. That it has continued to exist in ever more reactionary forms, however, cannot be attributed to its domination by the skilled workers, but to the unexpected development of power and strength of capital. Incapable of revolution, the workers tried to establish themselves as best they could within capitalism. For this purpose, the traditional workers’ movement was the appropriate instrument, which remained effective even when the organisation slipped out of the workers’ control and fell into the hands of arbitrary bureaucracies. It was not the workers themselves but their “representatives” in the trade unions and parliament and even in the “revolutionary” parties that now determined the theory and practice of the workers’ movement and thus the behaviour of the working class. Since this kind of workers’ movement can only exist on the soil of capitalist relations of production, it inevitably became a pillar of capitalist society. Its own existence was tied to the maintenance of capital, although it had to safeguard the interests of its members within market relations in order to remain as a workers’ movement.

In times that challenge the existence of capital, i.e. in crisis or revolutionary situations, the capitalistically-integrated workers’ organisations side with capital if only for reasons of self-preservation. A socialist society has no room for parties or trade unions. But this means that every revolutionary struggle that sets socialism as its goal is necessarily also a struggle against the old workers’ organisations. The struggle is for the simultaneous abolition of both market and production relations, and thus also for the abolition of the differences in the working class brought about by the capitalist division of labour.

But this struggle is not yet on the agenda. In the existing crisis situation, as in all past ones, it remains the task of the official workers’ organisations to help capital out of the crisis, which can only be done at the expense of the workers: they represent the workers now by violating their future interests. Under such circumstances, it is more than likely that the workers will resort to forms of action that are incompatible with the usual trade union methods and will disregard their own organisations in order to defend their interests through more adequate organisations. And since the “mass workers” to whom Roth and Behrens refer are the most exploited group of workers, it can also be expected that they will be found at the forefront of the coming class struggles.

It is wrong, however, to assume that the near future of class struggles will be under the sign of the “mass worker”. Development is going in a different direction. The productivity of labour has reached a point where the workers actually engaged in production form a minority of the total labour force, while those engaged in circulation and otherwise become the majority. But workers outside direct production are also part of the working class. The pauperisation associated with the crisis affects all workers and forces them to fight back. The class distinction is determined by the relations of production, not by the changing technology and the division of labour determined by it. The future does not belong to the “mass worker” but to the working class, if there is to be any future at all.