Source: Socialist Standard, May 2008.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Darren O'Neil
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
What might have happened if, forty years ago, workers in France had taken over the factories and tried to keep production going.
1968 saw an outbreak of protest in various parts of the World. Much of it was very violent and the main thrust of this protest was in France and in America, where a longer-term campaign was being pursued. To a lesser extent, again, some of them very violent, demonstrations took place in Germany and in this country.
No doubt there were some links between these various protests but it was also true that the background in each country was very different. For example, in America there was the civil rights movement being organised by blacks, and of course there was no element of this in what was happening here or in France. The civil rights movement was beginning to find its feet in Northern Ireland; here again, the background was different with its strong element of catholic/protestant conflict.
In Europe, many of the main activists were Trotskyists or anarchists. In America the hippy movement was much stronger than it was here. One common feature was the protest against the Vietnam War and this was linked with the opposition to nuclear weapons. So if we are to remember 1968 as a year of world wide protest and demonstrations, we must also acknowledge that these were not the actions of a world-wide coherent movement; these events erupted at the same time as a result of different and widely dispersed elements. In retrospect, perhaps the spontaneity of these events gave them their immediate strength, but the lack of any cohesion was their longer-term weakness.
In some ways, the ideas which were coming forward were very welcome, especially ideas being produced by the hippy movement which were a reaction to the soul-destroying life of wage slavery with its pursuit of material things. I remember reading a book by Jack Kerouac in which he railed against what he called the #8216;white furniture’ culture. By this he meant that people were selling their human soul in order to acquire refrigerators, washing machines and these sorts of objects on which they mistakenly focused all their hopes for happiness.
Well, of course you could only agree with this outlook, and it was very welcome to see these ideas being popularised. What was slightly irritating was that these ideas were being put forward as if they were some sort of revelation. In fact socialists had been talking about this for years. Since the 1950s we’d had access to the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of Marx, and we’d been talking about the alienation of man in practical contexts. We had been talking about the “sterility of the consumer culture” for years and arguing that individual self-realisation could only be achieved on a basis of common ownership, and where you had people working in direct cooperation with each other to provide for each other’s needs.
The trouble was that Jack Kerouac hadn’t been reading the Economic Manuscripts of 1844, he had been reading some ancient Buddhist manuscripts. So, this very useful development of ideas was diverted into some regurgitated version of Buddhism, flower power and the drugs scene.
Socialists like myself had been active for years throughout the 1950s and what we had suffered from was a most appalling complacency. We couldn’t get a meeting or a debate; there was almost no interest in politics; the social aspirations of people seemed to have become totally trivialised. People only seemed to be concerned about buying a television or a second hand car on hire purchase.
So when there were various stirrings, first perhaps with CND, events in Hungary and the Suez crisis, we were able to feel that people did care after all. Of course as these were able to gather momentum during the 1960s this brought about a very changed situation and it was most welcome. Against this it has to be said that there was disappointment as we say this healthy indignation being diverted into lines of action which we argued would be unproductive.
One of the ideas being pursued by many activists in the 1960s was the aim of workers’ control. A lot of people still believe that we can achieve an advance towards socialism as a result of workers taking over their places of work, the factories etc., bringing them under their control and operating them in their own interests.
It’s quite true that in 1968, in France, at one point, over 9 million workers were on strike: industry was at a standstill and hundreds of factories had been occupied by strikers. Some people thought that industry in France was on the brink of being taken over by the workers. In fact this was not the case. For one thing, although it was in the minds of Trotskyist activists, it was not in the minds of the trade unions in France to establish a system of workers’ control. They took over the factories, and others went on strike, so as to press their demands for wage increases and other improvements in conditions. When these demands were largely met, they resumed normal working.
Another reason why industry in France was not on the brink of being taken over by the workers is of course that the forces of the state would never have allowed them to do it. There was the usual heroic talk about smashing the state, but the workers had no intention of smashing the state and even if they did have that intention they would have failed.
It has to be said that in all the violent confrontations which took place between demonstrators and the various police groups, even in France, the force of the state was only used minimally. You had the very vicious CIS—the special riot police—but the armed forces in their tens of thousands, with all the firepower at their disposal, were always in reserve and not brought into use.
At the time, the activists said that the reason for the failure had been the failure of the mass of workers to support the objective of workers’ control. So they came out of it still believing that their theory of revolution had not been tested - many people still believing in the theory today.
So its useful to consider what would have happened if, for example, the Renault car factories had been taken over by the workers who worked in them.
What we assume here is a situation where theoretically, the wage labour/capital relationship operating in the Renault car company would have altered and become a kind of workers’ cooperative, with all the affairs of this car production unit under the control of the workers.
There is of course no question here that this has happened as a result of a decision by a socialist majority to capture political control and enact the common ownership of all means of production. There has been no social decision to abolish the market and to establish direct cooperation between people in producing goods directly for the needs of the community, with no exchange of any kind and therefore no use of money. What we have assumed, in line with the objectives of the main activists in France in 1968, is that workers have succeeded in taking over the Renault car company together with many other factories.
The present Prime Minister of France (Michel Rocard) was a left wing activist in 1968 and a little later on he said this about workers’ control:
“We must aim at self management, that is, the management of factories by the workers themselves . . . Workers control can only be imposed in strikes where the balance of forces is overwhelming, that is to say, where the unity of the workers is strongest.”
So we’ve assumed that these workers have successfully confronted the forces of the state and imposed this workers control, which is “the management of the factories by the workers themselves.”
The market would still be operating and these workers would be selling the cars which they put together in the factories and the sale of these cars would give them an income which would enable them to live, to support their families, to buy the food, to pay the rent and the mortgage and all the other costs involved in living in a market system. They would have a lot of other costs as well. Renault cars are not simply made in Renault car factories. In fact, in the main, these factories are only the places of final assembly. Of all the labour required for the production of a Renault are only a small proportion is supplied in these factories where the final assembly takes place. If the car industry in France is anything like British car production, Renault would have hundreds of sub-contractors supplying components.
You only have to think of the materials in cars—various metals such as copper, aluminium and steel, glass, paints, plastics, rubber, to realise that the different kinds of labour required for the production of a car are dispersed throughout a world wide network of productive links. You’ve got copper mining in Zambia, the mining of iron ore in Australia, the plastics pre-suppose the world oil industry, the paints, the world chemical industry, rubber from Malaysia, allocations of energy and world transport. Car production is social production and by that we mean production organised on a world scale.
What this means for these workers in France who have taken over factories where final assembly takes place is that they are the sellers of cars but they also constitute a massive market, a market for all the worked-up materials and components which they have to buy in.
These workers will be in competition with other car manufacturers—Fiat in Italy—Volkswagen in Germany—Nissan in Japan—Volvo in Sweden—General Motors in America—Ford and BMC in Britain. So in order to maintain their livelihoods they will be in intense competition with these other companies, trying to sell as many cars as possible and trying to capture a bigger share of the market at the expense of the capitalists and workers in other sections of the world car industry.
They would have to maintain rigorous efficiency in line with the efficiency of these other companies. In any situation where their costs were disproportionately high resulting in relatively higher prices they would lose sales and there would have to economise and perhaps some workers would have to go. Where there was overproduction in relation to market capacity again there would have to be cutbacks. They could not go on incurring the accumulating costs of producing cars which they could not sell. It would then be a matter of them democratically deciding which of them is going to be out of a job.
However, for the moment we are not concerned with the realistic possibilities, we’re assuming that these workers find themselves in a situation where the market for cars goes on expanding. This being the case they will face the problem of financing expanded production so as to take advantage of it. Perhaps they will raise the capital on the share market. This of course is impossible. No bank or any investor would dream of investing in an outfit which had seized the capital funds of a company.
You can of course see where all this is heading. In the impossible circumstances where these workers have been able to expropriate a company like Renault—and succeeded in managing for their own gain as distinct from the previous owners—they would be responding to the same economic pressures faced by the previous capitalist board of directors. They would be acting as the functionaries of capital; different personalities maybe but exactly the same economic role.
What we’ve actually been describing is a set of mechanisms by which the capitalist structure of production maintains itself as an exclusive capitalist structure. Goods are produced throughout a world wide division of labour organised in different production units. The process through which this structure maintains itself as an exclusively capitalist structure is a process of constant economic selection. Whether or not a particular production unit can continue to exist as part of the structure is constantly tested and is determined by the economic viability of the unit.
In every day terms this is matter of income against expenditure. If income exceeds expenditure then the unit can continue to form a part of the whole structure. Conversely, if expenditure exceeds income then it must disappear from the scene.
This process of economic selection may be temporarily upset by the traumas of political or industrial upheaval. In a period of chaos, you may get a change of the people in power. But when production and distribution re-commences, as sooner or later it must, the economic forces of capitalism are immediately brought back into play, so that daily book keeping, cost effectiveness, and the irresistible pressure to sustain income over expenditure again act to maintain production as a capitalist structure.
The particular ways in which a production unit is organised makes no difference whatsoever to this process of economic selection, It can be the usual capitalist company, it can be a so-called workers cooperative under workers’ control. It can be a monastery producing herbs or honey for sale.
The decision-making procedures can be authoritarian or democratic, it makes no difference to the fact that whatever the production unit is, in order to exist it must be economically viable. This is the process of economic selection by which the present structure of production is maintained as an exclusively capitalist structure.
The idea that workers cooperatives under workers’ control is socialism or is in any way a step towards socialism is an illusion.
Bringing the subject back to 1968 when these arguments were much more in the air of course members of the Socialist Party were encouraged by the fact that a lot of action was taking place. But at the same time there was great disappointment that all this protest was being diverted into this useless activity based on the objective of workers’ control.
The only practical way to get a change from capitalism to socialism is to have a majority of socialists acting democratically to capture control of the state and then from this position of control, to remove the capitalist features from social production through the enactment of common ownership.
(from a talk given in May 1988)