Reviews: beyond the usual scope of discussion on the working class

A review of Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini's collection of essays, Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control From the Commune to the Present.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 16, 2014

Azzellini, Dario and Immanuel Ness, Editors. Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control From the Commune to the Present. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011 . Paperback, 400 pages, $19.00.

Much recent discussion and scholarship has gone into dissecting the decline in the strength of the working class in the United States. For the most part, the emphasis has been on the steady weakening of trade unions and on excavating why union officials have been unwilling to attempt new forms of resistance. In such a context, discussions of workers’ control of the means of production—how it might look, what about it has succeeded and failed in the past, its relationship to revolutionary change—may seem a stretch. However, maybe it doesn’t. For perhaps what the U.S. working class needs as much as anything is to explore alternatives, not only to neoliberalism, but to traditional unionism, even that of the social movement type.

“Ours to Master and to Own: Workers Control from the Commune to the Present,” edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, goes a long way in assisting us in that exploration. Ness and Azzellini are well-positioned to put together such an important work; both have long radical histories as writers, teachers and activists. The result of their efforts is a rich collection of stories of workers seizing control of production in different epochs under a vast array of circumstances in numerous countries.

Councils, in a nutshell, are self-management organizations established by workers to administer production, usually in periods of great tumult. They may take shape in a single plant, in an entire industry or, in a revolutionary situation, in many plants and industries simultaneously. Through them, workers oversee all aspects of production including those which, under capitalism, are done by owners and bosses. The forms differ greatly but the common thread is that those who do the work should decide how it’s done.

There are two important themes that emerge as one reads through the cases collected by Ness and Azzellini. One is that many workers across time and around the world have understood better than any revolutionary theoretician that the working class controlling its own work is the way it should be. Second, councils, apart from any trade union or vanguard party, develop spontaneously and organically as the system of private ownership slips into crisis. As detailed in the book, this development occurs so frequently in such instances as to be almost a natural phenomenon.

“Ours to Master and to Own” begins with four overview essays, then moves on to 18 case histories grouped into four fairly loose categories. Significantly, stories of the global South are well-represented, as Argentina, Venezuela, and other historically under-developed countries are home to some of the most important contemporary experiments in workers’ control. With upheaval rocking much of the Middle East and Latin America, these case histories, together with those where councils were an integral part of anti-colonial insurgencies in Indonesia and Algeria, take on an additional timeliness.

“Ours to Master and to Own” also includes a number of familiar cases. Perhaps the three best known occurred in revolutionary (or at least what were perceived by some of the participants as revolutionary) situations: The Soviets in Russia leading up to and immediately after 1917, the councils in Germany during World War I up to the unsuccessful uprising of 1919, and the anarchist-led movement in Spain in the 1930s. Each of these chapters is highly instructive, with nuanced analyses of the wide array of challenges the different groups faced. For the most part, each of these council movements failed simply because the forces aligned against them were too strong. However, there are valuable lessons within each as well that the contributing authors do an excellent job of mining.

Equally important are more recent cases such as Argentina during the economic crisis of 2001, which is compellingly summarized by Marina Kabat. Out of a movement that began in response to neoliberalism, workers took over factories and helped topple President Fernando de la Rua. As the takeovers evolved, workers grappled with how best to affect a degree of control within a capitalist society— something that is no easy feat, and many efforts have failed or have been co-opted. As with the uprisings in the early 20th century, however, there is much in the experience of value. As Kabat writes of the takeovers, “an objective study of their characteristics and shortcomings will help remove obstacles and develop their complete potential for the future,” especially since “[t]he reprise of the economic crisis has opened new horizons for the taken factories.”

Other chapters of note are two from Eastern Europe, one on Yugoslavia by Goran Music and one on Poland by Zbiginew Marcin Kowalewski. Both document ongoing struggles for autonomy in societies that purported to be workers’ states. The class conflict that surfaced quite dramatically in Poland in 1980 with the formation of Solidarity, for example, was the culmination of decades’ worth of work, rather than a brand new phenomenon. In Yugoslavia, Music relates the continuous contention between workers and the state over the form of self-management that lasted until the collapse of 1989.

Then there’s a fascinating case in India authored by Arup Kumar Sen, where workers in a variety of workplaces went head to head with a Communist state government within a capitalist society. Events unfolded much as those in other cases, and workers there faced many of the same obstacles. It would seem from so many examples that vanguardists are right in one thing they know, and that is the revolutionary potential of the working class. That they often fear it and have frequently been, from Lenin and Trotsky forward, as hostile to it as any capitalist is one of the most important lessons of this volume.

Trade unions, including ones of the left, have also frequently opposed working- class autonomy in the form of councils, especially at times of great upheaval. The period when fascism in Portugal was overthrown in 1974-75 is a prime example. As related by Peter Robinson, the alliance the Socialist unions forged with liberal military officials checked the possibility that the Revolutionary Councils of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors might expand their influence right at a point when something besides corporate liberalism was a possibility. Again, as we examine what was, we are left, too, to wonder what might have been.

Overall, though, the tone of “Ours to Master and to Own” is decidedly positive. In chapter after chapter, we can practically see workers contending with the most fundamental of revolutionary questions: What should the kind of society we want look like? How do we best get there? Again and again, as events unfold, great emphasis is placed on process. In fact, in case after case, a successful outcome, however else that be measured, is inseparable from process. Workers went forward as often as not without deeply elaborated theories but with a highly attuned sense that each was responsible to one another as well as to the future.

There is also much strategic discussion in “Ours to Master and to Own” that is of immense value. In a revolutionary situation, for example, do councils pre-figure an aborning working-class state? Or does their consolidation mark the beginning of the end of the state? If the former, what should the relationship of the councils be to the state? Although some of the contributors put forward more decisive answers than others, the overall tone of the book is that these are still open questions to be answered with greater experience.

Inclusion of at least a few chapters authored by workers might have added another dimension to “Ours to Master and to Own.” Workers are quoted throughout and their insights are meaningful parts of a number of the analyses. Hearing summaries and perhaps some tentative conclusions from on-the-ground participants could have provided an even fuller understanding of the subject at hand.

The specific experiences of women in worker councils are also largely invisible in these accounts, perhaps because industrial work has overwhelmingly been the domain of men and the councils largely the domain of the industrial workforce. Still, it would have been beneficial to hear about the role of women in at least a few of the case studies.

Though it is difficult to imagine any popular movement, working-class centered or otherwise, in which women would not play a prominent role, much of the work women do remains below the surface. It is for this reason that councils of the present and the future, at least those that are the most inclusive, may be influenced by cooperative economics, with its emphasis on the citizenry at all levels—be it worker, domestic laborer or consumer. At the same time, analysis that assumes the special role of women may help to bring into being richer, more inclusive council formations.

The wonderful value of “Ours to Master and to Own” is that its contributors collectively wrestle with precisely these kinds of big questions. Who should decide and which factors must be weighed in the deciding? These are not questions with easy answers, after all. “Ours to Master and to Own” is a valuable work. By thinking beyond the usual scope of radical discussions of the working class, Ness, Azzelini, and all of the contributors have provided fresh insights to the gnawing question of how workers—the social force that makes up a majority of the 99 percent—might go forward. Rich in history and devoid of blueprints, it’s well worth studying and discussing. It is all the better that a second volume is in the works.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (June 2012)