The workers’ self-management alternative

There is confusion about self-management, with antagonism even from socialists and Marxists. These attitudes are rooted in misconceptions of both what capitalism is and of the communist alternative.

The workers’ self-management alternative

Discussions about workers’ control and self-management which were once at the heart of the labour movement are now once again on the agenda, both among British activists and internationally. The network of communists who produce The Commune are the most determined advocates of self-management among the English and Welsh radical left, and have generally found a positive response.  However there remains a lot of confusion about self-management, with antagonism even from some people who regard themselves as socialists and Marxists.  Part of the explanation of these attitudes can be found in misconceptions of both what capitalism is and of the communist alternative.

The method of critical Marxism

Marx, unlike many of his followers, was prepared to reconsider his opinions in light of historical events; taking the highest point of the previous revolution as the point of departure for the next, in contrast to the advocates of socialism-from-above he saw the masses that as the shapers of history to be learned from.  It was the Parisian masses, who created the Paris Commune, not Blanqui or Marx, much as it was the workers that created the soviets in Russia, not Lenin or Trotsky.  For over half a century the working class put the self-management struggle on the agenda, most forcefully in the revolutionary upheavals in the former Eastern Bloc, where various dissident Marxists sought to conceptualise a humanist, emancipatory communism as an alternative to both the ‘state-socialist’ regimes and private capitalism. Since the “collapse of communism” there has been a concerted effort to bury this experience in the strongbox of history, with global capitalism declaring ‘there is no alternative’.  If our generation is to succeed in renewing communism for the 21st century then we need to take on board those previous high points as our point of departure.

This exploitative and dehumanising nature of capitalist society is not apparent to most people, hard as it is, capitalism is the normal way life and it seems always will be.  Like in the movie The Matrix the reality of society is disguised. Marx described a ‘fetishism of commodities’. A fetish is when an object is given powers it does not have, such as religious idols created by humans who then allow themselves to be ruled by their own mythical creation. We live in a word where ever more aspects of life are becoming commodified; the manufacture of commodities to bring profit is universal.  These commodities assume a fetish character taking on a life of their own, as  if separate from the workers who created them. The market is allowed to control us like some independent entity whose freedom must be guaranteed.

These forms of fetishism identified by Marx are not an illusion: in capitalism relations between people do appear as relations between things. This fetish itself has led many socialists to see the market as crucial, not the social relations of production. We have experienced various inadequate remedies believing capital can be controlled by the state, planning and regulation. But as opposed to controlling capital, it is capital that reasserts its control over them.

The blind alley of the old conceptions

The antagonism towards self-management by those who profess to be socialists and communists reveals profound antipathy to the very concept of social revolution.  Despite the fashion for the slogan ‘another world is possible’, such is the scale of retrogression in the workers’ movement, we are stuck in the politics of the possible – how best to fight within capitalism.  Few genuinely consider how or if their activity is linked to creating a new society.

Of the strategies that do exist, the one that dominates is the parliamentary road to socialism. Symptomatic is the British Road to Socialism of the Communist Party of Britain, seeking to achieve a “new type of left government, based on a Labour, socialist and communist majority in the Westminster parliament, one which comes about through the wide-ranging struggles of a mass movement outside parliament”. The role of the masses is subsidiary to the state apparatus.  This is reflected in the system, “democratic nationalisation of strategic sectors of the economy”, to be “on a new basis which ensures worker and consumer representation in management”. The operative word here is ‘representation’, meaning, i.e. not ‘self-management’. This schema is replicated in numerous trends of socialism which see current hierarchies as immutable.

The alternative of the traditional revolutionary left consists of two core elements, the primacy of ‘the party’ to lead, and a millenarian historic opportunity. The largest, the Socialist Workers Party, may well emphasise ‘socialism from below’ and the importance of workers’ councils. But these are vitiated by the primary role allocated to ‘the revolutionary party’.  These party-socialists hold that the conquest of power by the party, sovereign above all other workers’ organisations, constitutes the ‘workers’ state’. In the Revolutionary Road to Socialism Alex Callinicos asserts that the entire “future of socialism in Britain depends on the creation of an independent revolutionary party”. We find further incongruity with Chris Harman, who sees the first steps in getting rid of capitalism as nationalisation, “of the whole banking system… In the same way, the answer to the world’s energy crisis… is nationalisation of the oil, gas and coal industries”.  As pundits equated state intervention as “socialism and welfare for the rich”, on the same basis Harman demands “socialism for the workers”.  These strategies may appear as opposites, but they are not: both deny the masses’ role as the conscious organisers of their own emancipation, instead encaging their initiative and aspirations within a state-socialist framework.

A living conception of revolution

At present various advocates of state-socialism confront each other in the labour movement, with a majority of socialists and communists still sharing statist concepts.  If in the early 20th century reform or revolution was raised as the main line of demarcation, in the early 21st century communists need to make the main demarcation line the concept of the system which is aspired to: self-management or statism.

A revolution will necessarily be difficult. Since the defeat of Chartism our class has been imbued with law-abiding pacifism, parliamentary cretinism and myths of ‘British exceptionalism’. Yet we also have numerous examples of organisations based on working-class self-reliance, such as strike committees, the miners’ support groups, and the anti-poll tax rebellion. The important point for communists today is that the idea of self-management is not conceptualised from standing outside of the capital-labour relationship. A dialectical method sees within this antagonistic relationship that workers are not only wage slaves but also engaged in constant, creative, struggles. They continue with or without the organisations of the labour movement. A concrete expression of this creativity is that this is not only a tendency to combine to seek reforms to ameliorate conditions of life within capitalist relations: there is a tendency to obtain greater control over life at work; this arising directly in response to the conditions of alienated labour. This concept of revolution flowed organically from the class struggle in numerous cases in the 20th century, even if much maligned by the CBI, TUC, Trotskyism and Stalinism.  But this denial of an alternative is only conceived externally, by the middle-class intelligentsia, the aspiring socialist administrators to be imposed on the working class.

Driving self-management forward

The experience of class struggle has indicated the line of march, in terms of a power struggle in which the boundaries of workers’ control are pushed towards self-management. Workers’ control means increased influence over the labour process and the erosion of the managerial prerogatives, but with self-management the workers would have total control: managers as such would be abolished, and management eliminated as a function separate from work itself. Italian communist Antonio Gramsci saw in workers’ control the path to future victory, in that it was preparing the working class to master the organisation of production: in that sense self-management means a cultural revolution.

The organs of workers’ self-management would soon come into sharp conflict with the institutions of capital. The goal of communists is to uproot every social institution that reinforces capital.  A reduced conception of self-management that confined it to the workplaces alone would be inevitably self-defeating, as was the case in Italy in 1920 and in Poland in 1981 where the workers took over factories but did not challenge the state. In ignoring the state anarcho-syndicalists and parliamentary socialists are twins; only by an onslaught on capitalism in every sphere where it exercises power can we succeed. The objective must be to develop the organisations of self-management into an alternative governing force.Such a vision means breaking out of the phoney dichotomy of state property versus private property which has blinded the left, as shown by its responses to the current crisis of capitalism.

What is social ownership?

The state recapitalisation of banks has been interpreted as an opportunity to call for further nationalisations.  This has been embellished with all sorts of socialist colorations with oxymoronic calls for ‘nationalisation’ by the capitalist state ‘under workers’ control’. Nationalisation is now often rebranded as ‘social ownership’ and workers resisting the recession advised to adopt this goal. The inadequacy of this is most apparent in the recent factory occupations. The workers who have occupied have done so not because some group told them to but from their own class instincts. In their self-activity they have put into practice the essential characteristics of self-management. Communists need to understand the progressive spirit of such forms of struggle, to grasp the dynamic and potentialities within them. In the Communist Manifesto Marx argued what distinguishes communists is “in the movement of the present, they also represent the future of the movement.”  But to meet the movement from below with the nationalisation disguised as social ownership in neither an adequate remedy of the immediate struggle or a perspective for a future beyond capitalism.

An instructive example is the Workers’ Communist Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who drawing lessons from their own experience, explain:  “Nationalisation of the means of production can not bring freedom for the working class, as state-owned enterprises are under the control of the state, in other words, under the control of the ruling party. Exploitation remains. Only socialisation of the means of production can produce real changes in the position of the working class. Social ownership is connected with socialist self-management… by workers’ councils elected by all workers.”

Put simply, the state is not society. Ownership implies control and social ownership in the Marxist sense implies control by society as a whole. This can only really be the case where the worker-producers actively manage of the resources of society. Marx himself was emphatic in his opposition to state sponsored co-operatives “which the state, not the workers, ‘calls into being’: such initiatives were of “value only in so far as they are the independent creations of the workers”. (Critique of the Gotha Programme).

De-alienation and new social relations

Amongst the criticisms of self-management from the left is that it amounts to workers managing their own alienation. One aspect of this is based on the premise that the organisations of self-management can only remain static within capitalist society. This is the flip side to those who only imagine aspects of self-management within a future communist society, neither considering workers’ self-management as part of a revolutionary process.  But there is a school of thought that does advocate self-management in a form which will recreate the self-alienation of the workers and inevitably dissolution of self-management itself.  This can be found in the current revival of market socialism.

An example of this is Gerry Gold who argues for “worker-owned co-operatives”, and a “genuinely free and competitive market”.  This is partly a reaction to the failure of the state-socialist economies, but is precisely the wrong lesson. The market is not separate but a direct manifestation of production relations.  Whilst producing for a market, competing and trying to increase their income, workers would inevitably come into conflict with other workers’ cooperatives and assume the role of exploiters. As opposed to social ownership we would have competing capitalist cooperatives. Just as local, atomised self-managed workplaces cannot stave off bureaucracy, it would suffer from disintegration in a market economy. Such was the experience of Yugoslavia.

Commodity production generates capitalist social relations: labour would remain alienated, a commodity relating to other humans through the production of commodities for a market. Capital lives by obtaining ever more surplus value from the worker who produces it.  For this reason any effort to control capital without uprooting the basis of value production is self-defeating and it is capital which inevitably reasserts its control.


Communism should be understood as a system based on social ownership and self-management throughout society. If we recognise this then it has far reaching implication for communist organisation and strategy. Such a society can only be created by organisations which are based on the same principles. This places a demarcation line between the conceptions of self-management and state socialism in communist re-composition today as reform and revolution did in the early 20th century.  The way communists comprehend this requires a great deal of further discussion, it is interesting to note that in both Yugoslavia and East Germany, dissident advocates of self-management both drew the conclusion that a league of communists united around the idea of universal emancipation was a necessary alternative to the Communist Party.

It is through the self-management movement that consciousness matures, gathering the knowledge and strength for a wider social transformation. Far from being an afterthought, self-management is a key element to the transformation of the economy. We do not want to reorganise capital in a new form. Neither, however, does self-management offer a comprehensive solution to the problem of getting beyond capitalism to a new communist society.  What it does provide is a framework within which the de-alienation of labour and creation of new production relations can be achieved. It is an axis of the communist revolutionary process which abolishes the class system, transcends the state, replacing it with communal self-management, and abolishes commodity production.


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