Introduction to Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements (1975) - Jeremy Brecher

Jeremy Brecher's Introduction to Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements (1975), pp. 11-27.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on December 5, 2021

Most people have a healthy distrust of political statements and the people who make them, whether they come from Left, Right, or Center. Those of us who have worked on this book hope that they will treat the material in it with the same skeptical regard. For we believe the problems people face today cannot be solved simply by "correct ideas," or by following the "right people," but only by constantly criticizing present ways of thinking and acting and testing out new ones for ourselves.

Those of us who have worked on this book see it as one contribution to that process. It is an outgrowth of a magazine/pamphlet series, Root & Branch, we have published sporadically since 1969. Root & Branch developed in the context of the student and anti-war movements of the 1960s, in which its editors were active participants. From the beginning, our objective was a society in which decisions were controlled by those they affected. For that reason, we rejected both those who only wanted to change the policies of the present ruling elites, and those who wanted to replace those old elites with new ones. We found in the history of workers' councils concrete experience suggesting that such a transformation of society might be possible. We discovered in the little-known traditions of the libertarian left much to learn from, though also much to criticize. We found in the mass strikes in France, Italy, and Poland, and in the widespread wildcat strikes in England and the United States, an indication that through acting on their own to meet their needs, working people under certain circumstances would have to challenge the existing power relations of society. From a critical study of Marx, especially Capital, we gained much insight into the organization of capitalist society, the nature of its problems, and the process by which a society controlled by the producers might arise from it. We learned from a study of American labor history something about the problems workers had met before in trying to organize themselves to gain more power over their conditions of life. Whatever sources we drew on however, we tried to bring to bear on the situation we faced.

The concerns of Root & Branch are reflected in this book. Section I presents four accounts of contemporary American workers and their struggles. Section II analyzes several aspects of the social reality we face today in the United States. Section Ill examines a number of important working-class struggles of the past, with special emphasis on the attempts by working people to take over and run society for themselves. Section IV presents a classic elucidation of that process. Section V discusses some of the issues facing those who share such an objective.

While all of the selections in this book have contributed to our own thinking, they are by no means intended as a complete expression of a unified "political position." Many questions of great importance are not dealt with at all—not because we believe them insignificant, but because we had little new light to shed on them. Further, individual editors disagree with each other and with the pieces on various points. Still less are the authors responsible for any views besides their own. This diversity reflects our belief that what is needed today is not a "correct line," but rather a serious and open study of our society and how to change it. We see our ideas as one contribution among many, which we hope will come together in a ferment of thought and discussion about these problems on the part of working people everywhere.

We share with most other people a basic problem: that we have no control over the fundamental processes of our society. All modern societies claim that they represent the will of the people. The ruling systems of our world, "Democracy" and "Communism," proclaim in their speeches and in their very names that they stand for equality and self-rule of the majority. But this rhetoric only cloaks the control of real social power by the few.

In capitalist societies, control over production and distribution is split up among a number of competing individuals and businesses, but it is still tremendously concentrated. In the United States, for example, 1.6 percent of the population owns four-fifths of all privately held corporate stock.1 These corporations, in turn, own most of the factories, machines, raw materials, offices, and other materials needed for production. Thus, directly or indirectly, the great majority of working Americans are working for these less than a million families who own society's most important means of production. Where 100 years ago most Americans were self-employed farmers, artisans, and small businessmen, today less than 10 percent are self-employed—the overwhelming majority, whether they wear a blue or white collar, are employees2 . In "Communist" countries there is a single employer, the government, whose officials make the key decision; in capitalist countries, the key decisions are made by businessmen under the constraint of the forces of competition. But the great majority of the population, there as here, are in exactly the same predicament, forced to work for those who possess the means of production.

All of us who share that predicament are, however great the divergences in our immediate circumstances, members of the working class. It matters little whether the immediate boss represents corporate stockholders or self-perpetuating government bureaucrats; nor does it matter much whether the products we create are controlled individually by private capitalists or collectively by party functionaries. As long as our productive labor and its product are controlled by someone besides ourselves, we will be forced to serve their interests, not our own3 .

Capitalists run their businesses with an eye to making profits, not to meeting the needs of those, their employees, who do the producing. This system has resulted in a tremendous expansion of production combined with chronic deprivation for the great majority of working people. Throughout its history, capitalism has had periods of considerable stability and growth, punctuated by periods of depression, war, and crisis.

During relatively prosperous periods, working people's social ideas have been directed largely toward how to better their lives within the framework of their subordinate position. Such strategies can either be directed toward getting ahead individually, or toward improving conditions within capitalism generally, but in either case they require working people to participate in the system that subjugates them. This does not mean that they become remote-controlled robots or passive sheep; people go on pursuing their own apparent interests, rarely doubting that they can do so within the framework of existing power relations. During times of crisis, however, such strategies break down along with the social reality that gave rise to them, and workers have at times turned instead to actions which attempt to wrest control of their productive activity from their employers and wield it for themselves.

The two decades following World War II were among the lengthiest periods of growth and stability in the history of American capitalism. Punctuated by "small" wars in "remote" areas and by "recessions'' of "minor" proportions, these years nonetheless saw a steady improvement of living conditions for most working people in America4 . Given these conditions, there was no compelling reason for most working people not to try to find ways to fit into the existing organization of society.

Ever since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the United States government has been attempting by means of government spending policies to counteract the economic crisis cycle that has plagued capitalist society since its birth. Such "Keynsian" techniques considerably moderated the business recessions which continued periodically. A steadily growing government sector provided employment for millions who might otherwise have been jobless. This took the form above all of a continuous expansion of America's military power by means of what Charles Wilson (who moved from head of General Motors to U. S. Secretary of Defense) once hailed as the "permanent war economy."

This period of economic expansion was based in considerable part on the unique position in the world economy which the United States had achieved through World War II. With the economic and political power of capitalist competitors in Europe and Japan largely destroyed, American business found apparently limitless areas for investment. American products dominated the markets of the world, and American business was free to supply the expanding domestic market as well, with little fear of foreign competition.

At the same time, some of the worst vicissitudes of working class life were eased by a variety of liberal reform measures. The social security system of unemployment compensation and old-age pensions provided an opportunity to subsist—albeit generally in poverty—to those aged, disabled, and "technologically obsolete" workers whom employers could no longer use profitably. Welfare payments allowed those never absorbed into regular employment, such as the steady stream of black and white migrants from the rural South, to survive, if barely. A constantly expanding educational system allowed most youngsters to receive more schooling than their parents and to aspire to a higher place in society.

From the days of Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic Party made itself the vehicle for the impulse toward liberal reform, and won the support of a major part of the working class. Within it the union movement became a tremendous power, the backbone of the party organization. Many workers looked to its programs as an important prop to the "good life." Like the labor and social-democratic parties of Europe, the Democratic Party functioned as a means by which workers could pursue their needs within the framework of capitalism.

The development of trade unionism on a large scale allowed a substantial minority of workers—especially in industry­—to find a better place for themselves in capitalist society. Legally protected by the federal government and fought for by workers in bloody struggles during the late 1930s, large­ scale trade-unionism was actively fostered by the government during and after World War II, the period of greatest union growth. Union power kept workers' standards of living rising with economic growth, established a previously unknown security from arbitrary dismissal and demotion, and created a court of appeals for workers' grievances over working conditions. It created a channel through which workers could express their idealism, ambition, and sense of the need for organization—not to mention their anger—without threatening the ongoing processes of social life.

These developments created a markedly better position for most working people in American society. Compared to the terrors of the Great Depression, life seemed quite bearable. Many working people were able to buy (albeit on credit) suburban tract houses, new cars, and many other products they may never have expected to possess. The system was "delivering the goods"—ideas about how to change it were of little interest to most people. If the system provided for people's essential needs, then it seemed worthy of support, even at the cost of sending young men off to defend it periodically in foreign wars. Life might still be no bed of roses, but this year seemed better than last, and last year better than the year before.

The conditions of life in the post-World War ll years, and the attitudes they fostered, were eagerly seized on by many social scientists as signs of a fundamental change in the nature of capitalist society. No longer was the "real issue" the conflict between the owners of the means of production and those who had to work for them. Indeed, they argued, class was no longer very important in a society where everyone lived well and workers seemed no more discontented than anybody else. The working class, they held, was now "integrated" into capitalism.

This comforting view had one flaw-it assumed that a unique historical situation would last forever. Indeed, every period of extended growth has fostered the illusion ,that capitalism has overcome its problems and has reached a "permanently high plateau" of "enduring prosperity," only to have this idea come crashing down amid the ruins of the expansion of which it was a part.

The specific conditions of the post-World War ll period, which made American capitalism appear stable and the working class fully integrated into it, have now come to an end. Over the past quarter-century, Japanese and European capitalism have fully modernized their war-battered production plant and rapidly increased their industrial productivity, while the United States lagged behind. Only through massive devaluation, with its consequent increase in prices at home, has the American economy been able to remain internationally competitive. The real wages of American workers can no longer rise without threatening the international position of American business.

This international decline in tum resulted from economic stagnation at home, as Keynsian techniques ceased to ensure stable economic growth. No matter what mix of monetary and fiscal prescriptions the government has applied, the economy has produced both high unemployment and rapid inflation simultaneously for the past half-decade, an unheard of situation in the past. Professional economists, who in the past have proudly proclaimed the ability of their policies to control the course of the economy, admit their bafflement at this situation. As Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth J. Arrow said recently, "The coexistence of inflation and unemployment is . . . an intellectual riddle and an uncomfortable fact."5

Current economic difficulties are essentially a return to the long-term pattern of capitalist boom and bust. The techniques which were believed to have made the capitalist economy subject to government management and control have evidently reached their limits. Government budget deficits and credit expansion now aggravate inflation without greatly increasing employment or economic growth. Likewise, deliberate government attempts to slow the economy and raise unemployment have had little success in preventing inflation. Once unemployment and inflation occur simultaneously, no solution can come from trying to shift from one horn of the dilemma to the other. Both hold us fast.

What this means for working men and women is all too clear. Inflation means that even those who managed to squeeze through last month have trouble meeting the bills for the most basic needs for food, shelter, and medical care this month. Anyone who predicted ten years ago that American workers would have a problem putting meat on the family table would have been considered hopelessly out of touch with reality; over the past two years, many families have had to cut back sharply on their meat consumption. Working people are forced into more and more inadequate housing as prices soar and construction falls to depression levels. Illness has become a financial disaster, even for those with health insurance, as benefits fall behind rising medical costs6 .

As if the problems of inflation were not enough, simultaneous high unemployment poses another set of problems for working people. Hit hardest are those who are actually out of work or—even more common—employed only sporadically. In the event of layoffs, those who have been steadily employed in the past are likely to lose quickly whatever benefits of the "good life" they have been able to acquire—a home in the suburbs, consumer durables, and the other attributes of a mortgage-and-installment-payment way of life. For those who have never had even this, the "unemployment problem" is largely a problem of survival. Government studies show that undernourishment is already a severe problem for tens of millions of Americans, preventing healthy development for millions of children. Unemployment and underemployment are largely concentrated among young people, women, blacks, and other minorities, and those in depressed areas, aggravating the special problems of these groups.

But it is not only the unemployed themselves who are affected by unemployment. Employers have always viewed a long line of job applicants outside the gate as the best weapon to discipline their workforce. When the Nixon Administration took office in 1969, its top officials publicly portrayed rising unemployment as a way to pressure employed workers to limit wage demands. Furthermore, the unemployed are already being used directly to break down the established labor standards of employed workers—as in the employment of welfare recipients at low wages under the "workfare" program and the Talmadge Amendment. The rise of unemployment ensures the end of the era of steadily rising real wages that marked the two decades after World War II.

These new developments present working people with a set of pressing problems that can neither be escaped nor solved in the old ways. The conditions that made it easy to adapt to the status quo no longer exist. The unions and other institutions of reform by means of which people adapted, as we shall see, are no longer capable of dealing with the new situation.

Virtually from the moment unionism was established, in most industries there began a process of separation between union officials and the "rank and file." Workers have, of course, continued to support union efforts to achieve better wages and working conditions, but the feeling that "their'' union constitutes an expression of their own ideas and activities has steadily eroded.

The most important reason for this is that union officials have taken over from management many of the functions of disciplining workers. It is the union that enforces the con­tract's no-strike clause7 . When workers have a grievance and stop working, it is often a union representative who orders them back to work, saying "Cool down and let the grievance committee handle this." When there is a spontaneous strike it is the union which, by refusing to authorize it, gives the employer the right to fire participants. This situation is aggravated in many industries by the virtual collapse of grievance procedures. In some plants, thousands of grievances pile up; sometimes it takes years of going from one level of the grievance hierarchy to another for any kind of settlement to be reached.

This results neither from accident nor conspiracy; their specific context has led unions to develop interests separate from those of their members. U .S. business in the 1930s agreed to accept unionization if the unions would guarantee "management's right to manage" and prevent workers from disrupting production. Any union which permitted workers to strike when they wanted to or allowed them to "run wild in the plants'' would not be fulfilling its side of the bargain with management and would meet immediate reprisals—lockouts, harassment, closing of plants, export of jobs, fomenting of challenges to union leadership, or even to the union itself. Further, any union victories which threatened an employer's competitive position would equally threaten the union's institutional survival—no industry, no union. Under these conditions, the path of least resistance for union officials—themselves not subject to their members' day-to-day problems—is cooperation with the employer.

Of course, unions must win something for their members and therefore must make demands on the employers and at times even fight them. But these fights proceed within a ritualized set of rules maintained by the government-rules which make most official strikes resemble a badminton game more than a boxing match. Far from trying to deliver each other a knockout blow, the objective of both union and management in many modern collective bargaining strikes is to get the workers back to work on terms they will accept. This mutual interest between employers and union officials is understood by both parties. As Richard C. Gerstenberg, Chairman of the Board of General Motors, put it recently, "We have come to a time when we can acknowledge that we have far more in common than in conflict, when we can jointly pay our respects to the buried animosities of the past even while we pay tribute to what we have jointly achieved despite them."8 And as Steelworkers' Union President I. W. Abel said of the agreement by which his union voluntarily gave up the right to strike for four years, "The industry and the union had the mutual problem of self-preservation."9

The result of this complicity of union and management officials has been a rising level of wildcat strikes, job actions, and other movements by workers independent of "their" unions. We have included accounts of two such actions, the 1970 postal wildcat and a job action in the New York fuel oil industry. Of course, such actions independent of the union are nothing new. Workers have always developed their own ways of cooperating with each other to prevent the pace of work from getting too fast, to make a detested foreman or supervisor look bad in order to get him transferred, to establish some free time for themselves, and to make life more bearable for each other in any way possible. But in the past such actions often coincided with a genuine loyalty to the union, based on its defense of working conditions and its success at negotiating steady increases in real wages.

Several factors today are breaking down this lingering loyalty. The decline in America's economic position is undermining the strongest card in the unions' deck—the capacity of American business to raise wages and pass on the costs in higher prices. Employers can no longer raise wages without impairing profits. American companies now face increasing pressure to increase their productivity in response both to foreign competition and to low profit margins at home. The unions' top-down structure and their acceptance of "management's right to manage its own business'' make them highly ineffective in combating speed-up attempts at the point of production. Indeed, the unions in many industries, dependent as they are on the health of their employers, are participating in the drives to increase productivity through the introduction of new machinery and reorganization, which inevitably mean speed-up, layoffs, and the breakdown of traditional work practices through which workers have se­cured improvements in life on the job. Rapid inflation turns union-negotiated wage increases into wage decreases for the great majority of workers not covered by full cost-of-living escalators. Thus during the rapid inflation of 1965-70, unions negotiated some of the largest wage increases in U.S. history, but the real weekly take-home pay of production workers nevertheless declined-prices and taxes rose even faster than wages. The result was a wave of wildcat strikes, peaking in 1970, not only against employers but against union-negotiated contracts. As inflation becomes chronic, workers find themselves falling further and further behind and are forced to act on their own—union contracts, official exhortations, government wage policies, and no-strike clauses notwithstanding.

In the years 1961-68, the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations passed the greatest barrage of social legislation in American history. The entire liberal reform program of the postwar decades was enacted into law and funded at levels unprecedented in American history. Two civil rights acts, several education acts, a slew of housing acts, expanded Social Security, Medicare, urban development, War on Poverty, Aid to Depressed Areas-programs covering the entire list of social problems identified by liberalism.

Yet at the very time of its greatest "success,'' liberal social reform was losing its effectiveness as a channel for working­ class aspirations. Indeed, the very institutions through which reform programs were carried out became objects of suspicion to those they were presumed to "help." Urban development programs came to be viewed as hostile attacks on poor and working-class neighborhoods; the welfare bureaucracy was recognized as an enemy of the welfare recipients, charged with "regulating the poor"; school administrators became the targets of attack for parents and students alike.

Liberal social reform programs came into disrepute because they failed to solve the problems they were presumably supposed to deal with. Education, housing, racism, poverty­ these problems proved unresponsive to government programs. Indeed, as the bureaucracies that managed them grew, most of these programs were administered in such a way that little help ever reached those directly affected by the problems. The impact of the New Frontier-Great Society reforms on daily life was barely visible even before subsequent administrations began eliminating what little human services they provided in a "battle against inflation."

At the same time, loyalty to the main agent of liberal reform, the Democratic Party, rapidly eroded. The automatic assumption among industrial workers that the Democratic Party, the Party of Roosevelt, reflected their interests, has been severely shaken. There is a deep skepticism about all politicians, a feeling that they all are crooks, and that there are "no leaders you can trust." This attitude is reflected in the low level of participation in elections, especially among younger people. Few working people now view liberal reform through the electoral process as a solution to their problems.

* * *

In sum, we can see that the special conditions that led working people to accept their own subordination so willingly are at an end. The economic framework that made the status quo acceptable—America's world hegemony and steady domestic economic expansion—no longer exists. Without that framework the institutions through which workers have adapted to their position within American capitalism—trade unions and social reform through electoral politics—are losing their credibility as ways of solving the problems of daily life.

Working people are facing deteriorating conditions of life. No longer is it true that this year, whatever its hardships, is at least better than last. No one can tell how long the new circumstances we have described will last or how they will end. What we can say with confidence is that the special circumstances of the immediate postwar decades can never be restored, and that any new stabilization of society will have to rest on some new basis. Without it, the years ahead promise little but inflation, unemployment, international conflict, and general social crisis.

Each of us has an understanding of the society we live in which shapes the ways we meet the problems of daily life. When society stays the same for a long time it may be possible to go on living by the same understanding from year to year and even from generation to generation. But when, as now, the problems we face are changing, fixed ideas are no longer much help in dealing with them-indeed, they become a hinderance. In such situations, people have to develop new ideas and new ways of acting.

Such periods of continuing social crisis have throughout history called forth popular social movements. The recent years have been no exception. By the middle 1960s, radical movements had developed in the United States on quite a substantial scale, and by 1968 the atmosphere was so heated that leading historians were maintaining in the popular press that the level of social conflict was higher than at any time since the Civil War. Through the 1960s, a variety of social problems were growing, particularly for blacks, women, and students. But various facets of the crisis hit different special groups one by one, at a time when most working people could still hope that the former steady improvement of their conditions would soon be resumed. From their perspective, the noisy radical movements of the 1960s presented a threat to a stability they hoped to preserve. The "working-class conservatism" of the 1960s was grounded in the hope that the favorable conditions of the postwar era might continue indefinitely.

Minorities who were already reeling from the shocks of the new era could hardly count on this majority to bring about massive social change. This situation limited the possibilities and narrowed the perspectives of the radical movements of the 1960s. They developed in a period when there was no real possibility of challenging the power over working people's lives of those who own society's means of production. The most that could be hoped for was modest changes in government policies and moderate improvements in the status of discriminated-against groups. Consequently, the radical movements of the 1960s tended toward attempts at much-needed social reforms on the one hand (lunch­ counter integration, legalization of abortion, and a new Viet­nam policy, for example) and, on the other, cultivation of the internal life of the group, often glorified with an overlay of revolutionary rhetoric (communes, consciousness-raising, and black studies). None of these approaches could provide the basis for a challenge by working people to the power of their bosses. This helps explain why such movements are declining at the present time, when living conditions for most people are getting worse and their need to challenge the status quo is rising. In their time, these movements did much to raise the possibility of alternatives to the status quo and to demonstrate the power people can exercise through direct action. If their achievements were limited by the conditions in which they arose, their best aspirations may still contribute to the development of a new movement for power on the part of the great majority of working people.

One other radical tendency—it can hardly be called a movement—persists from the 1960s. This consists of the various sects and parties, each claiming to be the true vanguard of the revolution, who would "organize," "lead," and "bring revolutionary consciousness" to the working class10 . They generally envision themselves leading a revolution in America modelled after such revolutionary super-heroes as Lenin, Mao, Castro, or even Stalin. In both theory and practice, these groups try to establish themselves as an alternative leadership for the working class, and see themselves taking power as a new, socialist government. For some of their members, such groups reflect the power drives of individuals who cannot find a place in the ruling class of this society, or the need for social community which provides a sense of meaning and purpose, emotional support, intense group life, and absolute certainty of the truth of one's beliefs. To the extent to which these groups reflect more general social conditions, they are a response to workers' acquiescence in their position through much of the 1960s. Since workers were clearly exploited, and yet seemed to accept their exploitation, many radicals assumed that the radical's function was to bring to workers an understanding of their oppression which the workers could not achieve for themselves. These radicals saw themselves as outside the working class, injecting radical ideas into it. This whole approach, while natural to a period of working-class quiescence, neglects the fact that what working people need to take control of society is not alternative leaders with alternative programs, but the ability to think, plan, decide, and act for themselves. The radical parties have little chance of winning a mass following—most often they are quickly sized up as just one more group of people looking for power for themselves. But if they could win such a following, it would weaken rather than strengthen working peo­ple's capacity to act in response to their own needs.

* * *

What for the capitalist system is a crisis, is for those sub­jected to it both a scourge and, paradoxically, an opportunity. Crisis makes it impossible for the routine of daily life to go on. As we have seen, inflation and unemployment undermine the established living standards for all workers, while concentrating misery among those in the weakest position. Employers attempt to recoup their losses by speeding up production and breaking down work standards. Meanwhile war and preparation for war not only lower living standards through taxation, but kill and maim those sent out to fight and threaten all with the possibility of nuclear devastation. Yet these very conditions create the possibility for a new kind of movement, based on the common interests of the great majority of working people—a movement to eliminate the power of those who cause such conditions by taking control of society for ourselves.

The working class is potentially powerful because it constitutes not only the great majority of the population, but the organized productive power of society. If workers refuse to cooperate with the existing set-up, it cannot function; if they do not work, production stops; if they refuse to produce for anyone but each other, capitalism will cease to exist. By such methods of direct action as strikes, mass demonstrations, general strikes, workplace occupations, and insurrections, workers have the means of parlaying this potential power into the real direction of society.

The difficulty is to find a mode of organization which joins together the entire power of the working population, yet at the same time does not become merely a new, separate bureaucracy, contesting with the old rulers for control over the workers' activity. This is the problem to which Anton Panekoek's Workers' Councils is directed. He proposes an approach, growing out of the present organization of society, which would let working people keep control of their activity in their own hands, while allowing them to coordinate their action on the widest possible basis.

The basic unit of social decision-making in Panekoek's conception is the assembly of all people who engage in face­-to-face cooperative activity in a work-group, neighborhood, apartment building, school, or the like. What action a group will take is debated and decided within these assemblies. The decision of an assembly is not merely a poll of opinion for or against a proposal, but rather a decision on the participants' part of whether they will implement it. Where decisions must be made concerning groups too large to meet and discuss together face-to-face, the assemblies send delegates to more central coordinating bodies. These delegates are given binding mandates by those they represent. Delegates to central councils are vested with no authority of their own by virtue of their position. In this they differ completely from the elected officials of so-called "representative democracy," who exercise their own authority from election day to election day over the people they supposedly represent. Nor does any apparatus of coercion exist separate from the assemblies to enforce the delegates' decisions. The objective of this form of organization is to eliminate any separation of deciders and implementers and to prevent the formation of any special class of officials or bureaucrats.

This conception is far different from the usual idea of "an organization" to which individuals "belong." It is rather a method by which working people can direct and coordinate their own activity. In the struggle against the present rulers, it allows maximum local initiative at the same time that it permits the widest possible coordination. It has the added advantage of being far more resistant to repression; as long as people grasp the necessity for this kind of cooperation and control of their activity themselves, their "organization" can­ not be broken by jailing or corrupting of leaders, or by court injunctions and other government attacks directed against formal organizational structures. As the basis for a new organization of society, it suggests a way in which production can be organized and all necessary social activities carried out, without the need for any class, bureaucracy, state, or other special group separate from the rest of us.

The idea that working people can create this kind of organization and use it to attempt solutions to their problems is no mere product of fantasy or theory. Indeed, they have done so repeatedly. But the history of workers' attempts to take over control of their labor and their society are little known. In this volume we have tried to present a few examples of that history. Older examples include the factory committees which took over much of Russian industry in 1917 and the Seattle General Strike of 1919. A more recent episode was the French general strike and occupation of factories of 1968.

Needless to say, all these attempts ended in failure—either through workers' domination by a new elite or through the restored power of the old one. Workers have been all too willing to give up their power to leaders who promised to solve their problems for them. Defeated in their bid for power, revolutionary workers' movements have often evolved into new institutions for workers' adaptation to their basic powerlessness—witness the Soviets in Russia and the Workers' Councils in West Germany today. The experiences of such movements reveal the great power of workers to act, but they require critical scrutiny if they are to be of any use to us in thinking about the future. Above all, we believe one lesson must be learned from them: working people can establish their control over society only if they keep direction of their own activity themselves, refusing to give it up to any other group, organization, Of leadership, however much it may claim to represent the interests of the workers or the needs of society.

* * *

There are great obstacles to the process we envision. Work­ing people are divided in myriad ways-by race, sex, age, nationality, residence, and job status11 . We are taught from birth to "look out for number one" and to "get along by going along." It is always easier to let officials and leaders take responsibility for solving problems and making decisions than to do it ourselves. The risks involved are awesome, when challenging a ruling elite which is armed to the teeth.

But the alternatives are grimmer still. A continued deepening of the present crisis will mean a continued deterioration of living and working conditions. A continued intensification of international competition can only lead to war and more war. Perpetuation of the present system of social organization means mass misery and mass death on a scale to rival, and perhaps to exceed, what this system has produced for the past sixty years of war and crisis. To avoid such a fate, we must abolish all systems of power by which some people seek to control and exploit the activity of others. In doing so, we can open up the possibility of an entirely new kind of society, one in which we can direct our own activity to meeting our own needs and desires, and in which the free development of each can be the basis for the free development of all. If we can begin the process of taking control of our lives—through discussion and through action—in every place we work, live, study, and cooperate with other people, we can perhaps reduce the agony through which we will have to live in the years ahead.

  • 1Robert Lampman, The Share of Top Wealth-Holders in National Wealth, 1922-1956. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N. J. 1962.
  • 2Statistical Abstract of the United States, Bureau of Census, 1972 93rd edition Table No. 365.
  • 3For a further discussion of this and related points raised in this Introduction, see Jeremy Brecher, Common Sense for Hard Times. Straight Arrow Books, San Francisco, 1975.
  • 4Much of the information which follows on changing living standards for various groups is drawn from "Living Conditions in the United States" below.
  • 5New York Times, March 26, 1973.
  • 6For further discussion of these points, see "Living Conditions in the United States" below.
  • 7"In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" and "Keep on Truckin'" illustrate this tellingly.
  • 8New York Times, March 20, 1973.
  • 9Boston Globe, June 11, 1973.
  • 10This attitude is discussed further in "Old Left, New Left, What's Left."
  • 11These divisions are discussed further in "The American Working Class," "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," "The Origins of Job Structures in the Steel Industry," and the "Introduction to 'Workers' Councils.' "