Without Worker – Management, There is no Socialism, pt. 2

We don’t have masses of workers saying, “without worker- management, there is no socialism”, or that you cannot build socialism without worker-management. Nevertheless, I think that we have to recognise the essential truth of this proposition.
Michael A. Lebowitz

talk given at the two-day seminar “Workers Management: Theory and
held on October 26 and 27, 2007, organised by the Human Development and
Transformative Praxis Program at the Caracas-based Miranda
Centre. Lebowitz is the director of the program. A detailed report by Kiraz Janicke on the seminar is posted at http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2784

May Day 2005, I marched with workers in Caracas, Venezuela. The slogan workers were chanting was, “without
co-management, there is no revolution”.
Indeed, the main slogans for that May Day march, organised by the National
Union of Workers, the main progressive union federation in Venezuela, were “co-management is
revolution” and “Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian socialism”.

We don’t
hear much of that anymore. We don’t have
masses of workers saying, “without worker-management, there is no socialism”,
or that you cannot build socialism without worker-management. Nevertheless, I think that we have to
recognise the essential truth of this proposition.

me stress, though, that I’m not simply talking about worker-management as
workers making decisions in individual workplaces. That’s a necessary part of it, but it’s not
enough. When we talk about the goals of production, they should be the goals of
workers—but not in single workplaces.
They should be the goals of workers in society, too—workers in their
communities. The goals which guide production should be developed
democratically in both communities and workplaces and based on the concept of
solidarity. In this respect, it’s
important to remember the different dimensions of what Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez
has called the “elementary triangle” of socialism: units of social property,
social production organised by workers, and production for the needs of
communities. You can’t separate those in socialism. As I’ve written in the new
edition of Socialism doesn’t drop from
the sky, “Without production for social needs, no real social property;
without social property, no worker decision-making oriented toward society’s
needs; without worker decision-making, no transformation of people and their

The `capitalist triangle’

of course, involves a different triangle. The “capitalist triangle” is private
ownership of the means of production, the exploitation of wage labourers, for
the purpose of profits. And what is the situation of workers in this context?
They work to achieve capital’s goal; they submit to the authority and will of
capital; and, they produce products which are the property of capital. The products
of workers are turned against them and dominate them as capital. The world of
wealth, Marx commented, faces the worker “as an alien world dominating him”. And,
alien world dominates the worker more and more because capital constantly
creates new needs to consume as the result of its requirement to realise the
surplus value contained in commodities. For workers, producing within this
relationship is a process of a “complete emptying out”, “total alienation”.
And, we fill the vacuum of our lives with things — we are driven to consume.

But that’s only one way that capitalism produces defective people. In Capital Vol. 1 (Penguin Books edition, 1976), Marx described the mutilation, the impoverishment, the “crippling
of body and mind” of the worker “bound hand and foot for life to a single
specialised operation” which occurs in the division of labour characteristic of
the capitalist process of manufacturing. Did the development of machinery
rescue workers under capitalism? No, Marx stressed, it completes the “separation
of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labour”.

And, in this situation, head and hand become separate and hostile: “every
atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity” is lost. The
worker is distorted “into a fragment” of a person, degraded and “the
intellectual potentialities of the labour process” are alienated from them. In
short, in addition to producing commodities and capital itself, the product of
capitalist production is the fragmented, crippled human being whose enjoyment
consists in possessing and consuming things.

Is that inevitable? Is the only way to escape the effects upon us of
capitalist production by lowering the work day? There is an alternative. It is
the society that Marx (Capital Vol. 1, 1976:
772) described as characterised not by the capitalists’ drive to increase the
value of their capital but, rather, by “the inverse situation in which
objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development”. That
society oriented to the full development of human beings is socialism. It is
the society where, instead of this crippling of body and mind of the worker and
the alienation from the worker of all “the intellectual potentialities of the
labour process”, there is the re-combining
of head and hand, the uniting of mental and physical labour. In this way,
workers develop their capabilities through their practice. The partially
developed individual is “replaced by the totally developed individual, for whom
the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in
turn” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1976:
617-8). The combination of thinking and doing, Marx stressed, is “the only
method of producing fully developed human beings” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1976: 613-4, 643).

That can’t happen, though, when you work for capital. Even if workers
have complete control in the workplace. If the interconnection of workers in
production “confronts them, in the realm of ideas, as a plan drawn up by the
capitalist, and, in practice, as his authority, as the powerful will of a being
outside them” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1976:
450), how can workers develop all their capabilities? Without “intelligent
direction of production” by workers, without production “under their conscious
and planned control”, in other words, without worker-management, workers cannot
develop their potential as human beings (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1976: 173). Clearly, for “the worker’s own need for
development” to be the goal and to be the result requires an economic system
quite different from capitalism, a socialist system which is the inversion of

This brings me, though, to the question of worker-management and what we should
learn from the efforts to build socialism in the 20th Century. Let me
suggest three propositions:

1. When workers don’t manage, someone else does.

2. When workers don’t develop their capabilities
through their practice, someone else does.

3. However much you may think you have banished
capitalism from the house, when production is not based upon the relation of
production of associated producers, sooner or later capitalism comes in: first,
through the backdoor, and then it marches openly through the front door.

Lessons from the Soviet Union

think about some experiences in the attempt to build socialism in the 20th
century. Consider the position of workers in the Soviet Union from the 1950s onward. Workers
there had job rights. Not only was there
full employment, but they also had significant protection against losing their
jobs, or having their individual jobs altered in a way which they didn’t like.
That was real job security. And, they weren’t tied to their jobs—in this
situation of full employment they could move to better jobs when they wanted; e.g.,
30% of industrial workers moved to better jobs in any one year. This certainly
was not the situation for workers under capitalism, where the reserve army of
unemployed is regularly reproduced and reinforces the dependence of workers upon

more could workers want? Well, think
about what Soviet workers did not
have. First of all, they had no power to make decisions within the workplace—they
had the right to submit proposals on how to improve work, but the managers
decided which, if any, suggestions they would accept. Those workers had no
independent and autonomous voice: the trade unions, which protected their
individual job rights, had their leaderships selected from above and played the
role principally of transmission belts to mobilise the workers in production.

was the result of the powerlessness of the Soviet worker? One result was the
effect upon workers—they were alienated, cared little about the quality of what
they produced or about improving production, worked as little as possible
(except at the end of plan periods when there was the possibility of getting
bonuses) and used the time and energy they had left to function in the second
economy, or informal sector.

was another effect, though, of the denial of opportunity for workers to manage
their workplaces and to develop their capabilities. Someone else did—the enterprise managers and
their staff. This was a group which maximised its income by its knowledge of
production, its ability to manipulate the conditions for obtaining bonuses and its
development of alliances. Over a period of time, the leadership at the top of
the Soviet Union became increasingly dependent on the managers and came to
accept their perspective on how to solve the increasing problems in the
economy. The managers, whose perspective was quite different from that of
workers, emerged as the capitalist class of the Soviet Union.


was not the only model for building socialism. Many experiences in the 20th
Century were variations on the Soviet attempt to build socialism. In Yugoslavia, though, there was a real contrast, especially with respect
to the situation of workers. In 1949, the Yugoslav leadership described the
Soviet model as state capitalism and bureaucratic despotism; and they argued
that the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union had become a new class.
To build socialism, the Yugoslavs stressed, you need worker-management,
self-management. So, in 1950, they introduced a law making managers responsible
to workers’ councils; and they argued that it was necessary to move from state
ownership to the higher form, social ownership.

was a real experiment. Would it work? Marshal Tito, President of Yugoslavia, pointed
out that many people worried that “the workers will not be able to master the
complicated techniques of management of factories and other enterprises”. His
answer, though, was that workers will gain the necessary experience through
practice. We recognise only practice, he said. Only through practice will they

over the next few decades, workers did
learn much about their enterprises, especially because there was a principle of
rotation on the workers’ councils both at the enterprise and shop levels. But,
they learned much less than Tito and other leaders anticipated at the
beginning. One key reason is that there was not a sustained effort to educate
workers in the workplace as to how to run their enterprises. So, the result was
that the distinction between thinking and doing remained—the workers’ councils
tended to accept the recommendations of the managers and the experts on the key
decisions for these self-managed enterprises. Why? Because they felt the
experts knew better. The workers’ councils had the legal power but they didn’t
exercise it.

is important to understand that these Yugoslav self-managed enterprises
functioned in the market and were driven by one thing—self-interest. Although
the enterprises were state owned and were viewed as social property, there was
no focus upon the needs of society and there was no concept of solidarity.
Rather, in every enterprise, the goal followed was to maximise income per
member of the individual enterprise. They competed against each other, they
used their economic strength to dominate each other and they fought against
paying taxes. (In fact they attacked the state as engaging in Stalinist
exploitation of workers by taxing them.)

these self-managed enterprises tended to introduce advanced, machine intensive
technology—so they could be more productive and generate more total income
without adding more members to their collective. So, they were productive, but they didn’t generate many new jobs. Not
surprisingly, unemployment was high because people coming from the countryside
couldn’t find jobs; so, they went to countries in Western Europe as “guest
workers”—in 1971, there was 7% unemployment plus 20% of the labour force was
working outside the country for this reason.

these enterprises were called “social property”, but social property means that
everyone in the society has equal access to the means of production, and
benefits from it. The unemployed had no
access to the means of production, and some workers had access to much better means of production than others. In
fact, what had happened was that, in the context of the market, a new
productive relation had emerged in fact—group ownership of these enterprises,
group property. The workers felt that they (and only they) were entitled to the income generated by the sale of
their commodities.

in their competitive struggle for income, the workers’ councils accepted the
recommendations of the managers about investments, new products and new ways of
producing because the managers had the same
self-interest—maximising the income for the enterprise. Of course, all members
of these collectives weren’t really equal—it was the managers and technical
experts in these enterprises who understood about marketing and selling
commodities; it was the managers and technical experts who knew about
investments, about placing the funds of the enterprises in banks and
establishing links with other enterprises, creating mergers, etc. Workers didn’t
know these things; they knew that they were dependent upon the experts.

the 1970s, there was the recognition in Yugoslavia that something unanticipated
had happened: a “techno-bureaucracy” had emerged. In the struggle against state
bureaucracy, they had forgotten about battling against capitalism. So, the
government tried to introduce a number of new measures and constitutional
changes to strengthen workers against this techno-bureaucracy; however, these
measures never went very far—because they continued to stress self-interest as
the only way to development, and they did not focus upon communal needs and
purposes. They never challenged the new relations of production that had emerged.
In the end, it was, of course, the managers who emerged as capitalists, leaving
the workers as wage labourers.

`Without worker-management, there is
no socialism’

Yugoslavian case demonstrates that the existence of workers’ councils—even with
the legal power to make all decisions—is not the same as worker-management;
and, that the focus upon the self-interest of workers in individual enterprises
is not the same as a focus upon the interest of the working class as a whole.
They had workers’ councils, but the division between thinking and doing that
cripples people continued.

I come back to my three propositions:

1. When workers don’t manage, someone else does.

2. When workers don’t develop their capabilities
through their practice, someone else does.

3. However much you may think you have banished
capitalism from the house, when production is not based upon the relation of
production of associated producers, sooner or later capitalism comes in: first,
through the backdoor, and then it marches openly through the front door.

come back to that elementary triangle of socialism: units of social property,
social production organised by workers, for satisfaction of communal needs and
purposes. Of course, we know that this can’t all be put into place at once. Of
course, we know that it is a long process of struggle to develop each side of
that triangle. But, we also know that if we are not actively building each side, we inevitably infect the whole
process … sooner or later.

can you build socialism without real workers’ management? How can you build
fully developed human beings without protagonistic democracy in the workplace
and community?

my book, Build it Now, I quoted a
line from an old song by Bob Dylan— ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’. So,
I have to say to you how sad it is to recognise how things have changed since
2005. I look forward to being able to march once again with masses of workers
on May Day chanting, “without worker-management, there is no socialism”.

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