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International Socialism, Spring 1980


Jules Townshend

Is Alternative Production a “utopian lunacy”?

From International Socialism 2 : 8, Spring 1980, pp. 110–11.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


To characterize alternative production as ‘utopian lunacy’ as the editors did in IS 2 : 5, may seem a little bizarre when they then counterpose it to the ‘politically correct’ demand of nationalization under workers’ control, a demand that as far as I know has not been taken up seriously by any trade union organisation – official or unofficial – since the war. Further, they then make a concession to the alternative production case by implying that it can make effective socialist propaganda, but are reluctant to pursue this point, in their condemnation of it as ‘utopian lunacy’.

Far more needs to be said on the question. Alternative production can provide very effective propaganda, by calling into question in a concrete way the profit basis of society, just as propaganda about the homeless and unemployed building workers does. So with, e.g., the kidney machine argument. Alternative production can also the have the virtue of uniting different groups of workers in different industries around a concrete issue. It can also have a strong educational impact in demystifying white collar jobs and encouraging the creativity of those who might be doing boring repetitive jobs. Equally important, raising the question of production for what and the nature of job specialisation under capitalism is useful to anyone other than those believing in a ‘big bang’ theory, that only after the revolution will workers want to become creative in their jobs. To show completely how capitalism stunts creativity would seem to be effective socialist propaganda. But having said all this is in no way to suggest that alternative production should be part of a programme for building a political party. Rather it is to say that as revolutionaries we have something important to say both in propaganda terms and political strategic terms at politically naive alternative production ‘forums’; which if the editors are right, could become numerous in the future.

The editors quite rightly criticise the Swedish comrades who give alternative production strategic significance. But a distinction has to be made between alternative production as a strategy and as part of a tactic. It was successfully used in the latter sense to combat redundancies in some Lucas Aerospace plants in the mid-1970s. It increased the morale of the workforce by adding argument to their anger. In no way was it seen as a substitute for trade union organisation. Rather it was designed to enhance morale and militancy. And perhaps because of the success of the Lucas example, other groups of workers have followed suit, or at least adapted the tactic their own situation, with varying degrees of success. Groups of workers increasingly seem to be using alternative plans, as an argument for keeping plants and industries alive. Although in some instances workers have put far too much faith in the plan itself, it can be used as an argument to keep a plant open. Workers will not fight unless they see some hope of winning, and an alternative plan (e.g. that it costs as much to keep a plant open as keep people on the dole) has been used as in the case of the French steel workers recently to provide the basis for militant action. For they saw that unemployment was not inevitable.

A distinction can also be made between alternative production based on commercial viability, and that based on social need. Rightly the editors say that the Lucas proposals cut across the needs of the capitalist system, but they criticise them because they immediately lead to arguments based on commercial viability. This interpretation loses a good deal of its force when the firm in question such as Lucas is heavily dependent on state, ‘social’ demand anyway. In this instance good socialist propaganda can be made about the real needs of society.

But in raising these questions, it is important not to lose sight of the weaknesses of the alternative production approach. Some have already been mentioned by the editors, and there are others, which call into question its generalisability. Its popularity amongst design engineers, draughtsmen, and academics with no political home is understandable. But what alternative production is there say for dockers, farm labourers, coal-miners, etc.? Nevertheless I believe the strengths of alternative production need to be properly confronted and considered.

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