An article by Daniel Mothé that opened a discussion on the problem of the workers’ journal, which was carried on in issues of Socialisme ou Barbarie.
The Problem of the Workers’ Paper (1955)
This text opens a discussion on the problem of the workers’ paper, which will be carried on in the following issues of Socialisme ou Barbarie. It draws on the experience of Tribune Ouvrière, published for over a year by a group of workers from Regie Renault, from which we have published extracts in the preceding issue of this review, and from which one will find new extracts in the current one.
The development of culture and the role of political parties are at the origin of the enormous expansion of the press that characterizes our century. The division of labor, on the other hand, had turned journalism into a distinct industrial branch with its own laws. This is particularly the case in “liberal” capitalism, where the press must generally be a profitable industry.
Although totalitarian regimes suppress this apparent autonomy, and closely bind the paper to the regime, it is no less true that the paper of a communist party in a popular democracy must obey the same fundamental rules of a liberal paper in a Western democracy: to inform, influence the ideology of its readers – and above all: to be read. It’s for this reason that even in totalitarian countries, the paper must make concessions to readers; since these cannot be made on the political or ideological level, the role of the journalist is precisely to find the means of interesting the reader through the back door. We will not put journalism on trial here, or analyze the contradictions in which it develops.
Against the official press arises the press of revolutionary organizations: the latter, and in particular during periods of revolutionary crisis in society, are blessed by the fact their political content corresponds to the interests of their working-class readers. But, although their political content may be completely different, revolutionary papers always have this in common with bourgeois papers, their separation from the working class; the paper is in both cases a separate body, with its official staff, its hierarchy of editors, of which some have propaganda as their task, all kinds of papers; conclude, under the pretext that both of them produce other information, etc.
On the one side, therefore, we have the bourgeois or Stalinist paper, on the other the revolutionary paper, each of which spreads its own ideology. Our goal here is not to mix these two kinds of papers; to assume that both make propaganda and politics, that they have the same ideology, would be a stupidity that one would only find in syndicalist and anarchist currents.
But if we have spoken of these papers and discovered a characteristic common to them, it’s in fact to set them against another kind of paper, which we call the workers’ paper.
This is not about a new idea, produced through intellectual creation; such papers have already existed in the history of the workers’ movement (workers’ papers of the 19th century). And, as we will try to show in the following pages, this idea belongs to the fundamental conception of socialism, the capacity of the working class to destroy capitalism and manage a socialist society itself.
This workers’ paper will be a paper that will not have a separate apparatus; in other words, its editors, its distributors, its readers will be a reasonably large ensemble of workers. Not only will the paper’s apparatus not be separated from from its readers, but its content, too, will be determined by this collective of working-class editors, distributors, and readers. The paper will not have as its objective the diffusion of an established political conception to the working class, but will share the concrete experiences of individual workers and groups of workers, in order to respond to the problems that concern them.
What are these problems?
There are first of all problems of exploitation, which impose themselves every day, at the heart of production – and we don’t just mean by that the problems of everyday demands [revendication], but all aspects of the workers’ alienation within the framework [cadre] of capitalist production. There are then all the problems that the social framework of capitalism imposes on workers. But the class is not only held in its exploited role by the economic laws of capitalism, but also by the ideology of this society. The concerns of the workers are deviated from their real goals by the dominant ideologies: either bourgeois or Stalinist currents deform the problems that concern workers (for example the problem of wages tied to productivity by the bosses, or German rearmament by the Stalinists), or they insert into the class concerns that are fundamentally alien (electoral law). Finally, the very existence of these ideologies and their diffusion in the heart of the working class poses a problem in itself. What are these ideological currents, in what way do they influence the workers, in what ways do the workers react? Responding to these questions is the goal the paper has to set for itself. It is therefore just as absurd to say from the start that the workers’ paper will only talk about the international political situation, as to say that the journal will only talk about the relationship between workers and the management. Thus, the paper must be “empirical” to a certain degree; it must follow the everyday concerns of the workers. Only the bureaucratic or bourgeois organizations could fear this; revolutionaries have nothing to lose in this dialogue, they have everything to gain because only the working class can provide the means and the forms of struggle against capitalist society.
If we are led to talk to talk about this problem today, it’s because there exist two experiments with a paper of this type, one in the United States with the paper Correspondence, the other in France, with Tribune Ouvrière. We will examine the problem in light of the experience of Tribune Ouvrière, both at the theoretical and practical level, and we will try to draw lessons from this experiment, however slim they may be.
We will therefore remain loyal to this fundamental concern: the relation between the revolutionary organization and the working class, between theory and the practical experience of workers. These two elements will have to meet up, and their junction will not only be an absorption of revolutionary ideology by the working class, but also an assimilation of working-class experience by revolutionary militants. In this article, we will try to put into dialogue [mettre face à face] our fundamental theoretical conception and the dynamic of the workers’ efforts who participate in this paper. We will always be led by these two elements, and in the end we will try to bring them together, the most abstract and the most concrete, to formulate precise conclusions on the development of the workers’ paper.
The Two Processes of Politicization
Politics, in capitalist society, has become a specialized profession, a kind of science requiring study; becoming initiated is arduous and discourages many workers who often end up classifying everything they don’t understand as “politics.” There is therefore a division within the working class between those who do politics and those who don’t.
For socialist, Stalinist, or Trotskyist militants, the objective is to “politicize the worker,” which is to say, to initiate him, in a vulgarized and simplified form, into the mysteries of this science. This initiation aims to convince him that the party in question defends the worker and that, for his part, the worker must defend the party.
For Stalinists, this politicization consists in introducing the workers to the political mechanisms of the bourgeoisie, both on the domestic terrain (the meaning of the bourgeois parties), as well as the foreign (the meaning of international relations). For Trotskyists, introducing workers to politics is much more complex and difficult: it requires an interpretation of the history of the workers’ movement (the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and of the Third International), and an equally abridged explanation of Marxist theories on the economy, politics, etc.
Both the attempts to initiate workers to bourgeois politics as well as the attempt to introduce them to abstract questions rests on a particular conception of the role of mass organizations and movements. For Stalinism and Trotskyism, the mass organizations and movements are only the reservoirs from which the party draws its worker militants, and onto which the party tries to imprint its unique orientation, by means of infiltration and other maneuvers. They tend to substitute the politics of mass organizations with the politics of the party, the initiative of the workers with the initiative of the party; it’s all about substituting the problems that are born in production or in the public lives of workers, with the general political problems that concern the party. This is how they end up explaining to workers that low wages are result of the accords made in Paris, or that they are the product of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution – something that is, in varying degrees, an absurdity and a mystification.
In the two conceptions, we find the same idea: general political problems that concern the party, no interest, the only interest resides in the politics of the French government or in the politics of the Russian bureaucracy.
Aside from its mystifying content, this conception rests on fundamental theoretical error: it misrecognizes the existence of two processes of politicization, one which is particular to militants, another which is particular to the working class.
If the training [formation] of revolutionary militant is a formation that is almost exclusively intellectual, especially in those periods, like the ones we have lived through, where the absence of workers’ movements has uprooted the revolutionary minorities from the class, the political formation of workers is, on the contrary, almost exclusively practical. It’s in the course of its different struggles that the working class assimilates, in a more or less lasting way, a certain political experience, and creates its own methods of struggle.1
If it’s obvious that these two poles, the immediate experience of the workers and the theoretical experience of revolutionary militants, must come together, the controversial question is to determine their meeting point. The Stalinist conception only considers one aspect of the relationship between the organization and the class, the one in which the party gives its revolutionary ideology to the working class. The other aspect, passed over in silence, is that the ideology which the vanguard organization gives to the working class is itself drawn from this class. Thus, there is not only one current, going from the organization to the class and from the class to the organization. In this sense, if the working class needs the revolutionary organization to theorize its experience, the organization needs the working class in order to draw on this experience. This process of osmosis has a decisive importance.
When we say that the organization draws from the working class, we don’t mean that it only draws from it the method to make itself understood, the way of teaching its theories to the proletariat, but also the essential elements for the very development of this theory. To schematize, the revolutionary organization has nothing to do with the Church, which instills a dogma by using every mode of expression, slang for the workers, music for the artists. It’s not a question of finding a language accessible to the class, but of extracting the ideas that it generates within itself.
One is thus led to acknowledge the deep link between the basic and spontaneous reactions of the masses and the establishment of a socialist society; but then, the role of the revolutionary organization is nothing more than to support these reactions through tactics and solely to attach itself to the masses, or else, to transpose these onto the terrain of bourgeois politics. These are the fundamental aspirations that must guide us.
There are not, of course, two separate problems, one of which would be the struggle against the capitalist system culminating in the seizure of power, and the other being the realization of socialism and the management of society by workers; and the role of the revolutionary organization is not to “conquer” mass organisms, but to help them to become the structure of society.
Indeed, socialism is only possible if the workers are able to manage this society. The ability to manage must be developed to a maximum at the very heart of capitalist society. However, this management cannot be done within capitalist production, but only in the struggle against capitalist management; put differently, there’s no way that workers can manage anything so long as capitalism persists, with the only exception of their own political bodies designed to struggle against capital. And the methods of this apprenticeship in management must be directed from the start towards the goal they set out to realize. How can the working class’s ability to manage be developed? It’s this question that the workers’ paper must answer, not only in its content, but also in its very conception, and in its way of operating; which is to say it must itself be managed by workers.
The Nature of the Workers’ Paper
The workers’ paper must therefore be at the same time the expression of workers’ experiences (and in this sense, we will see, it can only be written by workers themselves) and the means of aiding in the theorization of this experience (and, in this way, contributing to the process of politicizing the working class). But the paper must not separate itself from this experience, for otherwise it will necessarily escape the control of the working class.
In this definition, the workers’ paper is neither a political paper, nor a trade-union paper, nor documentary literature.
a) This is not a political paper; that means it is not the expression of a political organization, that it does not circulate the ideology of this organization within the masses. It does not assume a prerequisite agreement between different political tendencies under a program. The principle that it bases itself on, and that suffices to distinguish it from every other undertaking, is that “the working class is itself able to resolve the problems of its emancipation.”
This does not at all mean that the paper will not discuss politics. It can deal with political questions. But the political ideas that will come out of this paper will only be the findings of actual experiences; they will never be posed as thoughts or postulates implying the prior acceptance of whatever ideology.
b) But neither will it be a trade-union paper concerning itself with economic questions.
We have already had the opportunity to show how this separation between economic and political questions does not correspond today to anything in reality, that every syndicalism, however pure it may be, is political. The paper will not be trade-union paper in the sense that the questions treated will go beyond the framework of unionism.
c) This will not be documentary literature. The workers’ paper cannot be a magazine that contents itself with recounting the life of factory workers in an anecdotal fashion. The worker knows what happens in the factory; the description of his place of work and of his relations with management only interest those who are outside the factory. And this is not the case of the paper. The description of an event in the factory or somewhere else is only of interest if one can extract from this event some reflections that concern working-class experience in general.
The paper will be neither a political paper, nor a trade-union paper, nor a documentary on the life of workers, but it will be all of that at once. We are not saying that the workers’ paper must be a paper of which one part must be reserved for politics, another for economics, and another for description.
The paper will have a more universal meaning to the extent that it will condense the political, the economic, and the social. It’s in this way that it will attain a deeper meaning of politics.
In traditional papers one part is reserved for political questions that are the political questions of the bourgeoisie of different countries: the evolution of the relations between the dominant classes of different countries, the relations between different political parties, etc.
Another part is reserved for economic questions and consists in laying out the demands of this or that professional category or of this or that union.
Furthermore a constant effort is made to reconnect these sectors among themselves. For example, the campaign led by the CGT against German rearmament is tied directly to all kinds of minimum demands of workers. This practically amounts to: in order to increase your wages, struggle against German rearmament.
There are therefore two poles, one political, the other economic, and for the party papers, it’s a question of drawing a path from one pole to the other. It is in this sense that today the union is a political form and that the political party is an economic union. It’s a question of going from the unified agreement of the workers around a demand, understood by everyone, towards a general politics which cannot be easily understood by anyone.” For example, the fact that the unions defend a program of demands such that “40 hours paid 48, 3 weeks of paid vacations” might make it so that the workers will accept the politics of the unions, not for themselves but for the demand. The communist municipalities take care of old workers, victims, public works, etc. in order to legitimate their general politics. The fact that at this level the communists are unbeatable is the result of their position of opposition to the government.
A minority that is even more detached from the apparatuses of the bourgeois state than the Stalinists are, which therefore has nothing to lose, could at this level rival and surpass the communist organizations.
This is what Trotskyist and anarchist organizations, which outbid the demands posed by unions as well as their forms of struggle, often do.
Thus appears an entire hierarchical ladder of political and demand-centered struggles. The Syndicat Chrétien or FP ask for a 10 franc raise, in proposing one day of strike. The CGT will demand 20 francs and two days of strikes; the Trotskyists and anarchists demand a 1,000 franc raise and an unlimited strike.
The path that leads from a simple economic demand to a political demand or action is tortuous. Some will tie the demands to the question of German rearmament; for others, the demands will be tied to the destruction of the capitalist system and the seizure of political power by the working class.
For both, there exist two issues. The first is the immediate demands of the workers, that of the spontaneous action of the workers, of the class struggle at its most basic state; the other is the seizure of political power. The connection between these two concerns can be boiled down like this: “if you help us take political power, you will no longer have to struggle for your immediate demands: we will give them to you.”
This propaganda tends to propose a sort of deal to the working class to show it that in every situation it has the most to gain by voting for this party, and to put this party in power or to make a Revolution that demands a 10-franc hourly raise every six months.
In fact, this policy consists either in showing that the working class takes the wrong road when it demands or defends itself in this way, or that it does not demand enough and that in asking for more it will be able to succeed little by little in provoking crises and precipitating the contradictions of the regime and will, in this way, oppose itself more and more to the system itself.
But for all these organizations the workers’ struggle is considered an accessory, something secondary, a means to realizing a final end.
The workers’ paper belongs to a different conception. This conception is that the most elementary class struggle contains within itself the fundamental elements for the destruction of the capitalist system and for the establishment of socialism. And these are the elements that the paper must find and develop. For it, there is a deep connection between the revolutionary conceptions of socialism and the everyday class struggle.
We don’t at all want to say that every class struggle poses in its entirety the fundamental question of the destruction of the capitalist system and the establishment of socialism. Every class struggle carries the trace of bourgeois or Stalinist ideological influences. And it’s first of all these influences that the paper must expel from the class struggle. But this cannot be done by enlarging the scope of the struggle like the Trotskyists or the anarchists do, but in discovering the real objectives of this struggle. Thus, for example, for the strike of 28 April 1954, the Trotskyists and the anarchists launched the idea of an unlimited strike – without concerning themselves with the demand itself. In contrast, we identified the false meaning of the demand, which had been hierarchized. This had a deeper political significance than outdoing a movement that only rested on a tactical objective and which had a false base from the start.
However, the paper could neither address all the fundamental issues nor provide an automatic conclusion to every issue. The experience of the working class is often a particular experience; the role of the paper will be to start with these particular experiences in order to pull general conclusions from them - this is not to say that these general conclusions are always possible.
The paper will also have to combat bourgeois or Stalinist conceptions. In order to do this, it will sometimes have to discuss in general and abstract terms, but will try to reconnect, as much as possible, these issues to the living experience of the workers.
Everything we have just said about the content of the paper corresponds to a certain ideological orientation. This is undeniable and it would be hypocritical to want to present the workers’ paper as a paper that does not follow any course of action, guided simply by “what the workers want and think.”
A paper without a directing line would automatically be contradictory paper which, sooner or later, will fall under the influence of the most wiley political elements. The paper has a line. It’s the discussion and interaction of the workers, but it is only the revolutionary militants who have understood the great meaning of this discussion, and of the participation of workers in political, economic, and social issues, who can prevent the strangulation of this discussion by crafty politicians.
The role of revolutionary militant in the paper is not limited to that. The revolutionary militant is not a spectator who watches the clashing of workers in a discussion, or who gathers, like a collector, the reflections of the working class. He is a defender of this discussion, but also a participant. The revolutionary militant will aim to deepen and develop the discussion, which will become a dialogue between workers and the revolutionary organization. The revolutionary militant will try to make his ideology triumph but, in contrast to bourgeois and Stalinist politicians, he will only use the experience of the workers, on the terrain of concrete questions. In this sense, his dialogue with the workers will be a genuine dialogue, and not a monologue.
In this way the paper will avoid the danger of being nothing but a confrontation between political parties, and can escape the rut of these parties. The role of the revolutionary militant is to help the working class get out of this rut at that will be the directing line of the paper.
In this sense, the separation between political articles and “articles that interest workers” must disappear. In bourgeois or Stalinist papers, it is customary to make the political article easier to swallow by diluting it with faits divers, with things that happen in everyday society.
In this way the two things are separated: the concrete aspects of life and the abstract aspects, the things “of the people” and the things “of the politicians” or the “initiated.” The things that happen every day and which the workers can appreciate are considered gossip, the gossip with which the mainstream media guarantees its success.
The criticism of the mainstream paper is not that it deals with this everyday life but that it deforms it and that it handles it randomly, in accordance with their morality and ideology. But inasmuch as these are the ideological concerns of the exploiting layers who give an interpretation to real facts, it follows that the facts themselves undergo a distortion.
Reality is also, as a result, unreal, above all during the periods in which the proletariat tends to free itself from the dominant ideologies.
In this way one represents abstract men with imaginary feelings. The ideal proletariat – such as it would have to be for a communist bureaucrat or for a bourgeois. Thus the communist Superman has more in common with Great Man of History than with the worker-reader that it is supposed to represent.
The worker paper will not contain these two separate elements – theory on the one hand and reality on the other – not to pander to or to have a larger following, but because the problems of everyday life are the essential problems that the working class and its vanguard have to resolve, and because wanting to limit these concerns of the workers to “political” aspects of the struggle is the inheritance of a false conception that only sees in the proletariat a force likely to back the political party.
The final goal, the solution of all these problems is incontestably the suppression of capitalist society and its replacement by a socialist society.
The final goal is an abstract solution in the sense that it corresponds to a purely intellectual notion. The final goal is the schema, the framework that the revolutionary militant has absorbed. But this notion remains abstract up until the moment when the experience of the working class leads it to concretize this schema, to blanket this framework with an entire network of practical actions. But before this period, the gap separating the real actions of the workers and the final goal cannot be resolved through a leap from the actual situation to an abstract solution. Thus, we have criticized this way of artificially treating every problem, which ends every article with the necessity of making the socialist revolution. In order to remain on a concrete plane, the paper cannot therefore jump over this gap artificially. If, however, we want to offer a conclusion, a perspective that could be absorbed, which appears concrete, we risk falling into certain traps. Simply observing the positive role of the bureaucracy of the factory or of the State, for example, might lead to the conclusion that suppressing the parasites in the very framework of society would be enough to resolve these problems.
That is where the essential role of the revolutionary militant emerges; if he cannot provide a concrete conclusion to a problem, he can show that every solution calling for the reform of this society is impossible. In this sense, the paper becomes the setting of a real dialogue that can continue through several issues.
Even if the solution to every problem finds itself joined in the destruction of the capitalist system, there are actions, possibilities for defense, or of struggle against capitalist society; these struggles succeed in developing the consciousness of the workers, advancing their experience. The militants will have to enrich all of these struggles with their own experience as theorists, without, for all that, saying that they can necessarily provide a solution to every problem.
The Workers’ Paper in the Present Period
If we pose the problem of the workers’ paper today, it’s not solely because this workers’ paper follows from our fundamental theoretical conceptions, but also, and above all, because this paper seems realizable in a very concrete way. It corresponds to the most appropriate form of activity in our present period, the form of activity that may be the link [trait d’union] between revolutionary militants and the worker vanguard. It is necessary here to precisely define this period.
In the period that followed the Liberation, the proletariat adopted the politics of the Stalinist parties. The problems that the workers posed for themselves were resolved by the parties. Insofar as the solutions proposed by the parties were only false solutions, the adhesion of the workers to these political forces could not last for long. This is proving to be true more and more clearly today. In this way, we can say that a workers’ paper in this period was impossible in the sense that the proletariat still put its hopes in the political forces that it followed. If today, the relation between the workers and “their” parties has changed, it has not changed in the sense that the Trotskyist organizations had hoped. The workers have not changed their politics. They have not changed their ideas on Russia in order to progressively constitute themselves as a fraction, or a party, further left than the Stalinists, in order finally to bring themselves closer to the Trotskyist positions, and then the Trotskyists of the Left. This is roughly what the leftist organizations had expected would happen over the years, and the majority of the struggles between these groupings were based on the tactics to adopt in order to form a mass party further to the Left than the Stalinists. If many workers have held onto their hopes about Russia, they have detached themselves little by little from Stalinist politics. They have refused to follow their watchwords, to unionize, to read their press, etc.
In this development of the working class one can say that the influence of the socialist parties or the FO unions had no heft since all the propaganda and every ideology of these organizations limited themselves to an anti-Stalinism that subsequently became their very raison d’être.
If the workers have broken away from Stalinism after breaking away from the Socialist Party, it’s not to go to the Trotskyists, it’s to not do “politics”; the workers are less and less interested in “politics.”
There, we saw a unanimous reaction from all the Leftist parties, from the socialists to the Trotskyists, who were outraged by such an attitude from the proletariat. Everyone saw in it a reactionary development that could have led to fascism.
For all of these parties, the proletariat is a force that has to be dominated, canalized in its own direction. That the workers were mystified by Stalinism is only a lesser evil. For others, it is a question of finding the tactic or the method for securing the workers through compromises, alliances, etc.
But the workers do not want to let themselves be canalized by any existing organization – precisely what makes all these politicians shudder with bitterness.
In contrast to all these parties, we thought that the proletariat’s detachment from “politics” had a positive meaning.
Not only has the proletariat broken away from the pastimes to which the bourgeois or the Stalinist parties tried for year to fasten it and which is their own politics. But this very deep disaffection does not end in blind conformity to other political parties, but in a general distrust.
In this sense, one can say that the indifference of the proletariat to politics is a realization that has a political value infinitely more profound than the discovery of the degeneration of Russia.
These two characteristic traits of the working class today (disengagement from the parties and passivity) are, it is true, applauded by the bourgeoisie which sees on the one hand a weakening of a rival power – Russian Stalinism – and on the other hand an ideological disorganization of the working class. In the past, the workers who broke with the parties, bypassed these parties through their direct action. This was the case with communist minorities within social democracy. If the bourgeoisie delights in the passivity of the working class, we can see the difficulties that this very passivity brings about for the development of its own politics. Because the disaffection of the workers from the Stalinist party is at the same time a very profound detachment of the working class from the dominant classes. Thus, for example, the mobilization of the workers by the Stalinists for a nationalist demonstration against German rearmament does nothing, in reality, except reinforce nationalist ideology, even if it finds itself led against the bourgeoisie in a certain period. On the other hand, the refusal of the workers to mobilize themselves under the watchword “against the CED” signifies a certain rupture with the nationalist ideology, which is to say, bourgeois ideology. This rupture has consequences on another plane. When the bourgeoisie will try to recruit the working class to its national ideology, for this European army or for the maintaining its domination in the colonies, it will find itself faced with the very refusal of the workers who favored it in the preceding case. Seeing the proletariat’s action as positive element in itself, even if this action is completely or in part led towards bourgeois objectives amounts to considering the proletariat’s action, and the proletariat itself, as an instrument merely capable of acting, without itself determining its direction. From such a conception flows, for example, all the Trotskyist propaganda, which consists of leading every workers’ action by supporting these actions and in trying to make them go beyond their framework, “in pushing the movement.”
We think that the passivity of the proletariat is positive insofar as it is a form of disengagement from bourgeois ideology. This is not to say that we welcome such passivity; the proletariat finds itself in a period where it finds its own route by shrugging off bourgeois and Stalinist ideology little by little. The workers’ paper is possible only insofar as this autonomy emerges.
The outline of the present situation in which workers experience develops must however be clarified.
If the working class today has accumulated a certain “political” experience, it is necessary to immediately trace the limits of this experience.
The role of the Stalinist party in France was not as deeply advanced as in the countries of “popular democracy,” the role of the reformist union bureaucracy is not more developed than in countries like England or America. France remained midway between the erstwhile forms of capitalist domination and the new bureaucratic forms. In this sense, workers experience finds itself in a very ambiguous situation and it’s from this situation that comes the difficulty of creating a workers’ paper that can differentiate itself from other political tendencies on every plane. The workers’ paper will not only have to struggle against the new tendencies of exploitation, the bureaucratic tendencies, it will also have to fight the previous forms and there it will find itself next to the Stalinist or reformist forces from which it will be difficult to delimit itself.
The workers’ paper will have to fight two forces:
-The power of the traditional bosses;
-The bureaucratic forces (reformist or Stalinist);
The great majority of French capitalists are composed of small, private owners who manage their firms themselves. In many factories, the unions are practically nonexistent. The trade union militant risks getting fired, there is no union bureaucracy. The struggle against the employers has held onto these older forms and there the workers will even have to aid the unions in making the bosses respect the law. Next to this, there are large factories, private or nationalized, where the union bureaucracy played a certain role in the production apparatus and where the “modernized” forms of domination have surpassed the traditional, violent forms.
In parallel with the diversity of the forms of domination in French capitalism, one finds the diversity of forms of resistance. The fact the union bureaucracy has not been able to play its role in France, the fact that Stalinism finds itself in the position of an opposition party, has given to these forces a character which is different from their true role. Thus, the Stalinist or union forces, instead of demanding to manage society, content themselves with taking over, more often than not, a politics drawn from the traditional reformist arsenal: parliamentarism, municipal disputes, etc.
In this complex situation, the workers’ struggle against the small capitalist [petit patron] or the workers’ struggle against the baiting of the factory management, could be supported by the Stalinist or reformist unions. The workers’ struggle against the union bureaucracy could be supported by the factory management. The struggle against the reformists could be supported by the Stalinists.
Only in particular and really characteristic cases will the workers’ struggle against their exploitation simultaneously be a struggle against the employers and the union bureaucracies; it is over the most fundamental issues that this struggle will therefore become a reality on the three planes.
From this, it appears with evidence that the experience of the French working class with Stalinism and union bureaucracy is a latent and incomplete experience, and it’s from this that the principal obstacles to the realization of a workers’ paper will arise.
We will now try to describe the problems we have encountered in our practical experience with the workers’ paper:
La Tribune Ouvrière.
I. The difficulty in demarcating ourselves from other forces
a) Struggle against the bosses
At an elementary stage, it we found that our struggle against capitalist forms of domination was identical with that waged by Stalinism.
We can cite a few examples:
-Management fires a worker.
-A worker is injured by the lack of proper safety measures.
-Management sets up a fundraiser for the director general’s funeral services.
Faced with these events, what is done?
The workers discuss; some are enraged; others are passive; others finally accept and, even justify, the conduct of the management.
The reaction of the most conscious workers is to protest these kinds of things. They want to talk, to make others understand, and that is justified. But it is impossible to talk about these things in a way that is different from the Stalinists, unless they tie these three events to some political question. The only way to demarcate ourselves would be to deepen these facts by returning them to the course of history. Taking the third case for example: “you are outraged by the fundraiser for the director, yet in a given year you glorify him.” But already the differentiation seems artificial and in bad faith. One can respond that formerly the communist party made mistakes, etc.
b) The struggle against Stalinism
The capitalist in France is anti-Stalinist these days. We have already spoken about the anti-Stalinist tendencies represented by the FO unions, Christian or Gaullist. The necessity of distinguishing ourselves is incontestable, but sometimes difficult. Examples:
-The CGT demands a moment of silence to commemorate the death of Stalin.
-The CGT demands to hold an action to defend a campaign against rearmament or the release of Duclos.
-The CGT calls a warning strike [grève d’avertissement] doomed to failure from the start. The workers find themselves split into two blocs, this split does not often represent a delimitation based on positions in the class struggle.
Some workers go on strike because, for them, the strike is a way of opposing their exploitation: “Everything that is against the boss is for the worker.” Others, on the other hand, don’t go on strike, even if they still share Stalinist ideas about Russia, because the strike requires effort, sacrifice, a risk they are not willing take, because they are afraid of the supervisors, because they want to ingratiate themselves with the management. When a split happens in this way, one is right to affirm that such a split, despite its false political character, corresponds in reality to a split on the level of the class, a split between the brawlers and the cowards.
But in most cases the division is far more complicated. Take for example the strike of April 28, 1954. Many workers really saw the mystification of the movement and the impossibility of its success. Others refused to go on strike to show that they no longer wanted to follow a union that had betrayed them. The refusal to strike was the refusal to follow the union leadership. Still others did not want to go on strike in order to get back at the unions that had led them, in certain periods, almost by force, into movements which they disapproved of. What position to adopt under these circumstances? Any position could be ambiguous. To go on strike is to leave yourself open to reproach for being a tool of the union; not going on strike is open yourself up to reproach that you defend the boss. How to avoid this ambivalence? We solved the question in the following way. We denounced the strike to all those who asked for our opinion, adding, however, that we didn’t want to be scabs, and that we would follow the majority, while affirming that those who refused to participate in this strike were not necessarily cowards. We adopted a very ambiguous position by participating in the movement.
c) The struggle against the reformist unions
-The reformist unions agree to participate in the funeral services of the factory director.
-The reformist unions put together a fundraiser with the management to help out victims.
In our criticism we find ourselves side by side with the Stalinists.
Faced with such problems, the workers’ paper find itself before an alternative:
-either to deal with these events and to risk perhaps adding to the confusion.
-or to keep quiet about these events because they do not sufficiently permit us to distinguish the paper.
To not stand up to a provocation by the management under the pretext that it would be impossible for us to do so without being able to distinguish ourselves from anti-worker forces would be the very negation of a paper that must handle the problems that concern the workers, and which must, on the other hand, cover the problems that appear at the level of workers’ experience.
Wanting to artificially downplay certain problems under the pretext that they are tending to disappear – the struggle against the private employer, for example – would be the proof of an absurd sectarianism.
We must respond to the real problems that the working class confronts every day. If history were cut up into distinct slices, if the world evolved according to the single rhythm, if the development of society were everywhere uniform, such problems would not pose themselves: but the fact that some problems are fated to disappear does not at all mean that they have disappeared, and that is why we must still respond to them.
In certain periods one risks, therefore, in creating a workers’ paper that will be original solely because its articles will be finely tuned, and because it will simultaneously criticize the three tendencies: capitalist, reformist, and Stalinist.
Pretending that a workers’ paper can only exist when it will be able distinguish itself on every question, that one will only be able to pose the problem of the workers’ paper in period that will have permitted the working class to have acquired a far more advanced experience is an absurdity; because, this period will be the period of the totalitarian domination of the bureaucracy. Then the problem of the workers’ paper will have been bypassed, it will be unrealizable and the working class will have to find other forms expression.
II. Difficulties due to the passivity of the working class
The working class’s rupture with the traditional political forces is not accompanied by an autonomous activity; it appears that the experience of the workers in political parties or unions has worn out their desire to revolt, their need for activity. And that is precisely one of the obstacles to the appearance of an activity as simple as the editing, diffusion, and financing of a workers’ paper.
In a situation of acute crisis between the management and the workers, or between the union bureaucracy and the workers, the problem of the workers’ paper is easy to solve; when something has aroused the anger or indignation of the workers, when the division of the workers expresses itself through discussions and showing matches, when they form two camps – those who approve, those who criticize – the revolutionary militant only has to gather these polemics, to arrange the arguments, and the article is written. It will interest, it will correspond to an effort by the vanguard workers to resolve the problem.
But it’s not always like this. The antagonism between the workers and the machine, between the workers and system of management, does not always arouse a violent opposition: this antagonism is like a wound that heals itself during certain periods. The role of the paper is not to artificially open these wounds – it moreover does not have the power to do that; the antagonism can only be born from the events themselves. The paper can, at most, only give an explanation, try to express, and orient this class antagonism.
In these periods the workers will not experience the need to express themselves and the workers’ paper will fall again unto a nucleus of the most conscious, most politicized workers, but who will have the tendency to express their own political or theoretical problems. The workers’ paper will therefore have a tendency to fall back into the same rut as the other papers. It will lose its interest, the problems treated will not correspond to the concerns of the workers. The workers will place their trust in their comrades, designating them to speak, to write, to think, in their place. One therefore sees the danger in such an attitude, which could lead the workers who have the trust of others to express, in turn, their personal ideas, without relating to the problems of workers.
The other danger is of creating a leadership of the paper that is more and more separated from the other workers; that the passivity of some leads to a certain habit by the leaders to decide in their place.
III. Difficulties due to the opposition of workers
We started by affirming that the paper will have to reflect the level of experience of the workers. But two difficulties result:
-First is to determine this level;
-The second is to respond to the problems that the workers pose at this level.
We have said that the problems which interest the workers are essential problems that must be resolved. This is true, but it is necessary, however, to add a few restrictions to this idea – two orders of restriction. The influence of bourgeois of Stalinist ideology on the working class: the discussion around the election of Mendès-France for example. When the majority of workers, at the moment, still end up influenced by a wave of chauvinism, it is obvious that if we address these problems, we will be in opposition to the majority of workers.
At another order of ideas, one finds the problems that divide the workers in two; for example, one worker wants to write an article that criticizes the division of labor and hierarchy, but this critique is solely made against his own comrades; he shifts the blame for his condition onto his comrades. Such a problem is dealt with in a way that agrees with the management, and it is impossible to accept it.
Thus, in certain situations, one finds oneself before the following dilemma: either accept reactionary currents in the pages of the paper, or oppose oneself to the majority of workers. It goes without saying that on this plane we have always chosen the second solution.
We sometimes also find ourselves before the impossibility of responding to certain problems. Faced with this impossibility, the editors will have the tendency to replace solutions with demagogic articles that succumb to the criticism we made above about union or political papers. We will propose a demand that will receive the approval of the workers, but will remain a pious vow; or else we will hurl insults towards supervisors, management, or the government.
IV. Difficulties due to the enlargement of the paper
The level of workers’ experience is not the same everywhere; it differs with profession, industrial sector, corporate tradition, geographic milieu. It also differs for reasons according to the very nature of the problems.
It suffices for all that to refer to the polemics on the union question in order to to observe the diversity of problems. Thus, an article concerning the O.S. on the assembly line at Renault will not necessarily interest, or respond to, the problems of the worker of Toulouse factory. The development of such a paper can therefore only happen in the opposite way of other papers; this development will be conditioned by the growth in the number of its participants and editors. A dilemma poses itself here, which can be distilled as follows: the paper must interest the workers so that they will participate in it and express their own experience, but these workers will only be interested in the paper if they find in it the problems that themselves deal with the experience that they have lived.
V. Difficulties of form
Politics, like journalism, tends to breaks itself away from social reality, to become a particular science. In this way, political and journalistic language tends to separate itself from real language.
One must not think that the workers, when they want to express themselves, draft an article that is free from these literary prejudices. It enters into spoken habits in one way and written ones in another. Therefore the articles written by the workers are quite often stamped by this journalistic form, full of clichés, readymade and inexact formulas. The workers most fit to write are precisely those who have been most subjected to this journalist influence and who, initiated into these mysteries, think they must only express themselves in an equally tortuous way or with the help of expressions that are quite often incomprehensible to the majority of workers. The paper’s task is therefore also to free the workers from literary prejudices, to encourage them to express themselves in a fashion as simple as their natural form of spoken expression. The allusions, images, references, comparisons can only be borrowed from of daily proletarian life. In this sense the most capable of writing will be both the most conscious workers, the most cultivated, but also those who will be the most disencumbered by bourgeois or Stalinist ideological influence.
We have developed several fundamental ideas on the workers’ paper, on what it must be. We have examined the principle obstacles that a paper of this type encounters. In accordance with all of this one question poses itself:
Is a workers’ paper possible today?
Producing a workers’ paper today entails a series of disadvantages.
In those periods when the paper will not respond to the needs of the workers it risks becoming a paper without interest. A paper that will have no echoes among the working class could discourage the few worker militants who devote themselves to it, losing them for good. But can we give up on the paper after having made it, after having earned the support of the workers, letting go of it solely because during six months or more the workers seemed disinterested in it?
Can one think that the combativity of the workers grows in a continual way, that there aren’t periods of calm and discouragement, even when the working class progresses in its experience?
In any event, in the periods of working class combativity, can one think of making a paper from scratch, with such a formula, the day after tomorrow. Can one believe that, because the workers will have understood the role of Stalinism and unions, they will spontaneously be led to write for a paper that we put at their service? Will they not be suspicious of us as well? Would it not be better that the paper exist during the periods that follow and precede these moments?
Must we not prepare the most experienced and most conscious workers to become the cadres of this paper?
An intermittent paper is unthinkable and unrealizable.
What balance sheet can we draw up of this experience that has lasted less than one year?
Despite the errors we have made with the paper, it appears that we have accomplished our objective on the four most important points.
1. The workers – more than fifteen – have participated in and written for this paper – the majority among them having never written before.
2. The subjects of the paper are the problems of the factory and the problems picked up by the workers, and no longer the problems of the bourgeoisie treated by the usual papers.
3. The paper in large part no longer comprises only insiders, but even the least cultivated and least politicized workers.
4. The paper has sparked lively discussions in the workshops.
We believe that this balance sheet is positive and that it allows us to conclude that this paper must be continued, enriched, developed. But this does not only depend on us; it depends on the workers who are interested in it.
Image thanks to Pierre J.
Daniel Mothé was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.
Originally posted: September 26, 2014 at Viewpoint
- 1It is quite obvious that these two processes have been reduced here to a schema; in reality there exists neither one nor the other as pure state. In the formation of revolutionary militants there is always a dimension of practical experience, and in the formation of vanguard workers there exists a dimension of intellectual formation.