Self-management is a comparatively new theme in theoretical and political thought as well as in revolutionary practice. In France, for example, it dates essentially from May 1968.
One comes across this theme more or less explicitly, in varying forms in the innumerable texts of social criticism which have appeared since that historic month; one comes across it too in the programmes of some parties and unions, and in the practice of the workers’ movement itself, where there have been many strikes and mobilisations with slogans and tactics that are, more or less explicitly, self-managing ones.
To be sure, the self-management theme can be linked with the more general concept of ‘direct democracy’ and the direct management of social life by its producers and citizens, and as such it is an old theme which has animated many revolutions in the past.
But the content which the self-management idea is in the process of acquiring for revolutionary militants is something new, which it is not possible to link directly with any idea or practice from the past
One can endorse this statement quite simply, by recalling the experience of the Soviets in the October Revolution. Revolutionary Marxists continually refer to this as an example, but in fact socialist democracy in this experience was limited, both in time and scope.
The Soviets only survived for a short space of time – they did not succeed in forming themselves into a system of the democratic management of social life at all levels, going beyond the factory or the locality. All they did was to play the part of co-managing organs, in limited spheres, alongside the representatives of the “workers’ “state and the party, which took on the real power of the working class by delegation.
The kind of self-management that we talk about today corresponds to an entirely different historical context, the essential features of which are as follows:
The new needs and aspirations of (especially) the younger generation; the incorporation of science into the development of productive forces; and the continual process of interaction between these two factors.
The masses of youth suffer from the multiple effects of alienation in their social life as a whole, more deeply now than in the past. It is their increasingly high material and (especially) cultural level that forms the basis for this. The evolution of productive forces (requiring training, permanent education and the recycling of knowledge) has raised the cultural level of the mass of youth and working people, so that the latter are acquiring a more sophisticated technical, general and even political culture. As a result, they are increasingly opposed to the normal social relations of a hierarchic, capitalist society which is oppressive, authoritarian and dualist in every domain.
The same phenomenon, for analogous reasons, typifies the situation in the so-called “workers’” or ‘socialist’ states, which in reality are merely preparatory to a possible evolution towards socialism, to a varying extent.
From this point of view May 1968 in France and the ‘Prague Spring’ are symmetrical phenomena, which have revealed the same basic aspiration of the broad masses of youth and working people for the democratic society of tomorrow, for ‘self-managed socialism’.
Any political tendency which calls itself socialist and refers to the proletariat has a duty to understand the profundity of this new, historic tendency and to draw all the conclusions necessary.
In comparison with many past concepts and practices, these conclusions will be truly ‘revolutionary’.
On the question of organisations and institutions which claim to represent the power of the working people by delegation (parties, unions, “workers’” or “socialist” states), self-management signifies, not that such bodies should be done away with, but that they should be transformed into bodies which assist the working class and the working people as a whole to manage their social life by themselves, directly, and at all levels.
This means that we must begin right now preparing the working people for such a role; we must begin right now to help them construct their own power (however partial this may still be) in the factories, in the services, in the schools; we must help them to participate actively in the formulation of their demands and in organising their struggles; we must help them learn how to transform the inevitable major moments of national revolutionary crisis which can arise in any advanced capitalist country (following factory, office and school occupations and initial attempts to start running them and producing) into situations which can trigger off a real struggle for full power.
Any political formation claiming to be a vanguard must use this kind of concept of its role as a basis for its own re-education, by widening the framework of its internal democracy, and especially by ‘revolutionising’ the ways in which it works with the masses and its relations with the mass movement’s own, autonomous forms.
We must respect these autonomous forms; we must help them to spread freely along the lines of their own experience towards a more ideologically advanced position; we must stop trying to domesticate them for the ‘profit’ of the ‘revolutionary party’; we must avoid setting up party fractions in the unions, or in the movements of youth, women and ethnic minorities, for the aims of party fractions are narrow and sectarian, they destroy the very autonomy which all these movements need in their relations with the parties and with tomorrow’s “workers’ “ state. All this means that we must incite the political organisations to rethink their role within the framework of the revolutionary project for a ‘self-managed socialism’.
The union leaderships themselves have to reconsider their role and associate themselves more organically with the base in the formulation of claims and in the running of the struggle. This is what is so significant about the movement of shopfloor delegates, working closely with the workers’ assembly and union representatives, which has arisen in varied forms in several Italian, French and British experiences and which is of capital importance to the renewal of trade unionism.
After the victory of the socialist revolution and the establishment of a “workers’ state,” the job of the vanguard is to tackle the crucial danger of rapid bureaucratisation of power and the appearance of an omnipotent bureaucratic layer which is capable of the worst mistakes and crimes.
Some of us have been forced to ponder the deeper reasons for this phenomenon. This has been one route (among others) by which we have arrived at our current concept of self-management. The phenomenon of bureaucratisation cannot be attributed solely to ‘objective’ factors (e.g. a low economic or cultural level, or the national boundaries of a socialist revolution). A subjective factor must be added: that is, that because of the lack of sufficient historical experience of what happens following the seizure of power, there has been a systematic tendency to encourage delegation of social management to the state, to parties and unions which refer to socialism and the proletariat but which cannot necessarily be identified with the working people and the citizens.
It is therefore necessary (and from the beginning) for the working class and the working people generally to construct their own power, and they must be rendered capable of managing the whole of social life by themselves, directly.
Hence the importance of ‘councils of working people’ (not just “workers’ councils”) in factories and the services, and of organs of direct management in schools, universities, local councils, regions, and the whole nation.
Of course, we are all aware that self-management is a historical process, which cannot be created ‘perfectly’ at one go. But the important thing is to set out along this particular path from the beginning; and this can only happen if the so-called vanguard has sufficient ideological preparation, which means that it must radically revise not only its socialist ‘model’ but also its concept of its own role.
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Last updated on: 18.2.2005