Workers power in action

July 21, 2010
Part 2

At the Socialism 2010 conference in Oakland, Calif., contributor Leela Yellesetty spoke on "What Would Socialism Be Like?" This three-part article is based on her talk. In the second part, she looks back at the historical examples of working-class struggle that provide a glimpse of a socialist future.

FOR KARL Marx, the heart of socialism was the vision of mass democracy and workers' control over society. So the best way to see the potential of a future society is to look at the mass working class movements that have shaken capitalism in the past. These historical examples give a glimpse, if only a brief one, of what socialism will be like.

The first example for Marx himself was the Paris Commune of 1871. In the midst of a gruesome war between France and Germany, the working people of Paris, who successfully defended the city from attack, rebelled against the violence and privations caused by the war. The masses of Parisians instituted the Commune as the first workers' government in history.

The Commune immediately implemented a series of unheard-of measures that included, among other things:

-- Universal male suffrage, with all elected officials subject to immediate recall and paid no more than the average worker.

All rents temporarily suspended, interest on all debts abolished, and the right established of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it was deserted by its owner.

Separation of church and state.

A communal kitchen serves striking workers during the Seattle General Strike of 1919
A communal kitchen serves striking workers during the Seattle General Strike of 1919

In addition, the Commune was anti-imperialist--a red flag flew atop the capital and the Commune declared that this "flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic." After being under siege by the German army for months, the Paris Commune nevertheless elected a German worker as its minister of labor.

Although women didn't get the vote, the commune gave rise to a radical feminist movement. The Women's Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Injured believed that the struggle for women's rights could only be pursued through a global struggle against capitalism. Among other things it demanded gender equality, equal pay, the right of divorce for women, and secular and professional education for girls.

Marx was thrilled by the Commune and saw in it a vindication of his ideas. As he wrote in the Civil War in France:

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce...They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it, that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.

The ruling classes of France, who had mostly fled the city, were terrified by the Commune, to say the least. When they first sent troops to try to retake Paris, the Communards convinced the soldiers to switch sides and shoot their officers instead.

In a final effort to defeat the rebellion of Paris, the old order of France joined forces with Germany--its mortal enemy in the Franco-Prussian War--to crush the Commune once and for all. What ensued was one of the most brutal episodes in history to put down the rebellion--in all, more than 30,000 people were killed and another 38,000 imprisoned.

WHILE THE experience of the Commune was short-lived, there were many other inspiring examples of workers' power to follow. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the most prominent, but there were a host of other revolutionary situations in the late 20th century. I can't go through the details of all of them, but I did want to draw out some key patterns and lessons.

First of all, what strikes you is how rapidly people's consciousness change, compared to how slowly it can move in normal times.

One of my favorite examples comes from the French May of 1968--one of the most inspiring events during the upheavals of the 1960s. The movement there started out with college students, eventually leading to mass student strikes and battles with the police. It ultimately spread to the factories until there was a general strike across Paris. As Joel Geier wrote in the International Socialist Review:

The strikes led to a dramatic rise in working-class confidence and consciousness. The first night of the occupation of the Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt, the workers put up a large banner over the factory. It said, "For higher wages and better pensions." The second day, they took it down, and they put up a new sign over the factory, which raised the traditional left-wing slogan, "For a Socialist Party-Communist Party-trade union government." The third day, they took it down, and they put up another banner over the factory, and it said, "For workers' control of production."

In three days, they had gone from higher wages to we should be running the show.

Most of the time, as individuals, we're powerless to control most things in our lives. This is often described as apathy, but it's a pretty understandable response. Everything changes when people get a taste of their collective power. Suddenly, politics become relevant in a way they never were before.

Everyone should read John Reed's book Ten Days that Shook the World to really get a sense of this spirit in the Russian Revolution. I love this passage:

All Russia was learning to read, and reading--politics, economics, history...In every city, in most towns, along the Front, each political faction had its newspaper--sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organizations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets....

We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us, they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, "Did you bring anything to read?"

This was a country that until recently had lived under a despotic monarch, where most of the population was illiterate and had almost zero control over their lives. But now they were in the driver's seat.

IT WAS in Russia that a new form of organization, called the soviet, or workers council, sprung up and eventually formed the basis of a workers' government. The same kinds of councils have sprung up time and time again, in every revolutionary or near-revolutionary situation in history.

These councils made decisions about how to run their own particular workplace and elected delegates--immediately recallable, as in the Commune--to local, regional and national councils, which would coordinate overall how much of what to produce and how to distribute things.

It was a chaotic process, to be sure--but arguably less chaotic, and certainly less destructive, than the anarchy of the free market. Like Goldman Sachs making money off betting that the housing market would collapse--or whole countries for that matter. In fact, this system is a lot more complicated to manage precisely because it's necessary to impose policies that only benefit a minority. A very elaborate apparatus, ranging from subtle means of control through the media to full-out coercive power through the police and the military--all of it exists to prevent us from objecting to the current state of affairs.

In contrast, the soviets in Russia were so successful precisely because they had not only the full confidence, but the direct participation of masses of ordinary people. As John Reed said of the soviets, "No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will has ever been invented."

All this gives the lie to the popular idea that workers can't run society. Even short of a revolutionary situation, there are countless examples to show that workers are perfectly capable not only of shutting down production, but also of running things for themselves.

One great example is chronicled in the book called Sin Patron, which tells the story of how workers began to reclaim abandoned factories and run them under cooperative control after the 2001 economic crash in Argentina. Here's a description of a reclaimed ceramics factory:

The assembly established some rules for the cooperative. Showing up 15 minutes early and leaving work 15 minutes after officially getting off, for example, so the workers can get updated on the latest news. Moya tells about when "a co-worker who was stealing" had to be fired. On the other hand, "one compañero who had a drug addiction--we paid for his treatment and kept his job on hold for him."

Each worker decides his or her own lunch hour. Moya says, "Everyone knows their responsibilities. Some rules may even be similar to the old company's, but this is no boot camp."...

What about the pace of production? Quiñimir, sipping on mate without stopping his department's machines (moving ceramic pieces into the ovens) describes, "When we had an owner, I couldn't talk the way we are right now. I couldn't even stop for a couple of minutes. Now I work calmly, with my conscience as my guide, and without a boss yelling that we have to reach the oh-so-important objective. Back then, we ran very short oven cycles. It got down to 28 minutes, when the recommended time is 35 or more, as we do it today.

What's the difference? "It was really easy to burn your hands and because of the speed of the machines. You couldn't stop them to make adjustments. You had to fix them while they were running, which led to many accidents. You could easily lose two or three fingers."

This could be taken to imply that things don't move at the speed of the hyperactive capitalism of recent history. Nonetheless, the workers have increased production, profits and the workforce--from 240 when they took over the factory to 400 in 2004."

Being from Seattle, I have to share one last example: The Seattle general strike of 1919. As Harvey O'Connor describes in his excellent book Revolution in Seattle:

The strike machinery was working a lot more efficiently than the most hopeful had expected. Thirty-five milk stations were functioning in the residential sections; 21 cafeterias were serving meals...hospitals were getting their linen and fuel...The organization of the strike and the ability for the working class to figure out how to shut the city down, but still provide vital services was incredible.

Another thing about the Seattle General Strike--the business press was up in arms that "Bolshevism" had come to Seattle, and all sorts of chaos and violence would break lose. In fact, the opposite was true. O'Connor writes:

A Labor War Veteran's Guard was organized to keep the peace. On the blackboard at one of its headquarters was written: "The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only." During the strike, crime in the city decreased. The commander of the U.S. army detachment sent into the area told the strikers' committee that in forty years of military experience he hadn't seen so quiet and orderly a city.

I WANT to look at the role of oppression in the fight for a better world. There is a common critique of socialists that we just say we have to wait until socialism and then racism, sexism and homophobia will magically disappear.

It's true that only under socialism will it be possible to rid ourselves of all these forms of oppression once and for all, because the capitalist system constantly breeds them. But on the other hand, there's no way we will ever see a successful socialist revolution unless we fight against these oppressions in the here and now.

Without explicit arguments and struggles against racism and for solidarity, right-wing anti-immigrant bashing can have an appeal for people--as we're seeing right now with SB 1070 in Arizona. It's one of the most time-honored and time-tested strategies used by the ruling class--to sow divisions between workers to keep us from blaming them.

On the flip side, these forms of oppression are dealt the most serious blows in the course of struggles that are gaining ground. When people discover the power of solidarity, prejudices that may have been held for a lifetime are suddenly called into question.

Nearly up until the revolution, Russia was a deeply anti-Semitic society, with a history of violent pogroms against Jews. But in the midst of the revolution, many Jews became popular leaders, including Leon Trotsky, who was elected head of the Petrograd soviet!

This isn't to say that oppression went away just like that after the revolution. In fact, there was a widespread recognition among revolutionaries of the need to undertake a huge social reorganization to dismantle institutionalized oppression and pave the way for true liberation.

In Russia, the revolutionary government enacted legislation establishing full social and political equality for women. It became one of the first countries in the world to grant women the right to vote and hold public office; it established the right of divorce at the request of either partner, the principle of equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave for four months before and after childbirth, and child care at government expense. Abortion--viewed only as a health matter--was made legal in 1920, and women won the right to obtain free abortions in state hospitals.

The revolution repealed all laws criminalizing homosexuality. Consider this next to the fact that anti-sodomy laws were not completely struck down in the U.S. until 2003.

But legal equality wasn't enough. The Bolshevik leadership forcefully argued that revolutionaries had a duty to struggle against oppressive attitudes that persisted. German socialist Clara Zetkin recalled lengthy discussions with Lenin where he said:

Very few husbands, not even the proletarians, think of how much they could lighten the burdens and worries of their wives, or relieve them entirely, if they lent a hand in this "women's work"...Our Communist work among the masses of women, and our political work in general, involves considerable educational work among the men. We must root out the old slave-owner's point of view, both in the party and among the masses. That is one of our political tasks.

So while it's true that in the course of a revolution, many things can change quite rapidly, it's also true that a completely classless, oppression-free society can't be built overnight. The reorganization of society takes time to change, but it's also a process in which people educate themselves and rid themselves of the previous crap from capitalist society that will doubtless still haunt people like a bad hangover.

NOW SOME people might object at this point that while it's true the Russian Revolution brought some positive changes, at the end of the day, they got Stalin. Doesn't that reinforce the notion that socialism is impossible--that you're always going to have someone come along who is corrupt and wants to take power?

The problem with the standard morality tale about Russia is it leaves out the glaring fact that the country was decimated by years of the First World War, then the civil war against internal counterrevolutionary forces, which was aided by the intervention of 14 other countries. Just like with the Commune, the ruling classes of other countries could pause from fighting each other if it meant uniting to crush the threat of workers' power.

By the end of this, Russia's working class was decimated and starving. Even then, it took years for Stalin to ultimately consolidate his power--which accomplished only after killing or exiling every last leading Bolshevik who had taken part in the revolution.

From the outset, the leaders of the Russian Revolution knew that the only hope for survival was for the revolution to spread to more advanced countries. This wasn't a ridiculous fantasy: the contagion of the Russian Revolution rippled throughout the world, inspiring by example workers as far as Seattle. There were near-revolutionary situations across Europe, and hopes hung particularly on Germany. But tragically, these revolutions didn't succeed.

Isolated and in economic ruin, Russia could not sustain a socialist society. As Marcel Liebman points out, "The chief obstacle in the way of the plans for education reform was the general situation in a country where, while the government was publishing cheap books for the education of the masses, households were obliged to burn other books to keep themselves from freezing."

Socialism is premised on abundance, and while worldwide, there is an abundance of resources to take care of everyone, it certainly wasn't true in Russia alone at that time. You can call what happened in Russia the result of our bad human nature, but it's the particular nature of human beings who are desperate and starving.

On the flip side, as American revolutionary leader James Cannon explained:

In the socialist society, when there is plenty and abundance for all, what will be the point in keeping account of each one's share, any more than in the distribution of food at a well-supplied family table? You don't keep books as to who eats how many pancakes for breakfast or how many pieces of bread for dinner. Nobody grabs when the table is laden. If you have a guest, you don't seize the first piece of meat for yourself, you pass the plate and ask him to help himself first.

Further Reading

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