Workers Against Work - Review

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005

This 400 page book is also available in a much shortened pamphlet version, which is probably easier to get hold of, and despite sounding dull as shit it's actually really interesting. It deals with the situations in France and Spain during their Popular Front governments of the 1930's, focusing on developments in Paris and Barcelona, drawing out the differences and similarities between the two. As Michael Seidman points out, there are a lot of books available on this period in both countries -what distinguishes this one is it's focus on the everyday lives of workers, rather than the actions of the unions, political parties, military forces etc that usually make history. What this reveals is that workers consistently tried to avoid work as best they could, a fact that's usually been hidden or ignored by the left.

France and Spain in the 1930's were in very different situations. In France a dynamic bourgeoisie had created a modern industrial economy, separated church and state and generally put the military under firm civilian rule. In Spain, however, even the most modernised areas as Catalonia were economically backward compared to France, the clergy was still a very powerful conservative force and the armed services were almost autonomous centres of right wing and fascist activity. In France the labour movement had been accommodated to an extent and was geared towards reformism, while in Spain it had little choice but revolutionary struggle. Despite these differences in both countries there was a widespread refusal of work, which proved a problem for both the anarcho-syndicalists who controlled most Barcelona unions and their reformist socialist and communist counterparts in France. Although they had many political differences, they were both committed to an ideology of glorifying work and developing the productive forces. For example, both resented capitalists as 'unproductive' and 'parasites', contrasting them with the hard working masses.

In Spain, where a revolution had given unions control of industry, they were faced with a dilemma -the ongoing war against Franco needed increased production, but workers refused to work any harder now their organisations controlled the factories than they did before. In fact they often tried to work less! The anarcho-syndicalists thought that all that was needed was for the workers to control industry and run it themselves. Workers showed sod all interest in doing so, however -in many places the only way to have mass meetings was to have them during the day, at the expense of production. Instead workers preferred to avoid work as much as possible by working slowly, leaving early, calling in sick and even insisting on respecting every religious holiday that could be found (not that many felt like using their Sundays to go to church). Faced with this the anarcho-syndicalists ended up abandoning their idea of workers control and tried to force people to work harder, re-imposing piece-work, factory discipline and so on. Not recognising a conflict between their goal for a free, stateless society and their ambition to run and develop industry, they put production first, even to the extent of becoming the world's first (and hopefully the last!) anarchist government ministers.

In France, where the unions were never actually in control of the economy, they were in some ways more consistently supportive of workers actions, since workers resistance to work was still the bosses problem and not theirs. However, serious differences still emerged between the rank and file and the leadership, which largely supported the popular Front government. After the Popular Front's election victory, a massive wave of strikes and factory occupations took place, "sensing a favourable political climate...2 million workers impulsively left their machines or laid town their tools in May and June 1936" (p. 220). Although concessions from the employers largely defused the situation, direct and indirect resistance to work continued at a high level, taking many of the same forms as in Spain. The left blamed this on the bosses, fascists and saboteurs rather than the working class they claimed to represent, when in fact it was workers resistance to work that created some of the Popular Front's most difficult problems. While enjoying the Popular Front's reforms, such as the creation of the weekend as holiday, workers refused to take up their side of the 'deal' and take on the left's vision of happy proles working harder. Instead they tried to reduce their worktime still and the state to maintain and increase production, eventually managing to restore a large measure of work discipline.

By revealing this hidden history of working class people refusing to identify themselves as workers, Seidman contributes to our understanding of what revolutionary change actually means. By glorifying production and the role of 'worker', groups with the best intentions ended up forcing actual working class people into the roles and factories they rejected. People will not willingly work at things they don't like, even if they can control their own workplaces, and no amount of revolutionary speeches or even revolutionary situations seems to change that. (The fact that such an obvious statement should sound surprising coming from most left/revolutionary groups shows just how many myths they've created about working people). Given that people won't work at the kind of shitty jobs that form the basis of the economy unless they're forced to, (whether just by having to survive in a world of wages and commodities or by more blatant coercion as well) we come to a choice between maintaining the state, perhaps dressed up as workers councils, unions etc and the industrial system, or getting rid of both. Seidman concludes that the State can't be abolished until a science fiction utopia of robotic production has been achieved, but there's no reason to take the current level of industry as a given. Just what level of technology and production people would want to maintain in a free, classless society we can't say, but it's safe bet that it wouldn't include the heavy industry and factory system developed by the inhuman needs of capital and currently fucking up both workers health and eco-systems around the world.