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Ian Birchall

He says farewell

(January 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 50, January 1983, pp. 24–24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ian Birchall reviews André Gorz’s new book Farewell to the Working Class (Pluto, £3.95).

André Gorz has not so much written a book as failed to write two different books, each of which might have been useful in its own way.

The first book Gorz has failed to write is a study of the effects of new technological developments on modern capitalism and the class struggle. Such a study would be of enormous importance for socialists. But Gorz gives us no more than the random impressions of a literary intellectual bemused by technological advance. Startling facts (‘In the post office, automation has reduced to three the number of employees required to sort and cancel 27,600 letters an hour’) are quoted out of context in a style more appropriate to an advertising copywriter than to a serious political commentator.

The second book Gorz has not written is a critique of Marxism. Again, Marxists should always welcome the opportunity to sharpen their wits on an intelligent criticism, which challenges the internal logic or the contemporary relevance of Marxism. But Gorz has done no more than pick up one of the tiredest of Cold War clichés – Marxism is a ‘religion’, with ‘priests, prophets, martyrs, churches, popes and wars of religion’. Working class militants are denounced for their ‘rigidity, dogmatism, wooden language and authoritarianism’.

Aborted books

Gorz has rammed the two aborted books into one. The confusion is compounded by a wilfully pompous style and a style of argument that consists in attributing to one’s opponents views they have never held, and then spectacularly demolishing them.

However, the working class is not exactly trendy among certain sections of the Left at present, and Gorz’s book may enjoy a vogue in certain circles. So it may be worthwhile to try to disentangle some of the arguments and examine their validity.

Gorz begins from the changes wrought in the social system by technological innovation:

‘Automation and computerisation have eliminated most skills and possibilities for initiative and are in the process of replacing what remains of the skilled labour force (whether blue or white collar) by a new type of unskilled worker. The age of the skilled workers, with their power in the factory and their anarcho-syndicalist projects, has now to be seen as but an interlude which Taylorism, “scientific work organisation”, and, finally, computers and robots will have brought to a close.’

This is all right as far as it goes; but it doesn’t go very far. Gorz is remarkably vague about when this change occurred; anarcho-syndicalism was largely dead by the 1920s and certainly none of the skilled workers I know has an ‘anarcho-syndicalist project’.

From this Gorz goes on to claim, rather sweepingly, that modern society has reached the end of a process ‘making work virtually superfluous’. When he actually quotes sources the predictions are more modest – for example that by 1990 major production centres in the USA will have achieved a 32-hour week.

But facts are the least of Gorz’s worries; he continues with broad assertions:

‘... the abolition of work is a process already underway and likely to accelerate ... it is absolutely impossible to restore full employment by quantitative economic growth.’

Now of course there is some truth (and pretty obvious truth) in all this. Automation is one of the causes of unemployment. But there are others. One is a world recession, where workers go idle while workers’ needs are unfulfilled. Another is the deliberate will of the ruling class to use unemployment to break trade union organisation. Any serious attempt to analyse the current crisis has to begin by relating these three factors, not by abstracting one of them.

Instead, Gorz prefers to use his one-sided analysis as the launching pad for a moralising attack on a ‘socialist morality’ which, he alleges, ‘equates morality with love of work’. And from this he goes on to identify the ‘traditional working class’ (’unionised, stably employed workers, protected by labour legislation and collective agreements’) as being no more than a ‘privileged minority’. Once again a very old half-truth (the conservatism of the most skilled layers of workers has been a recognised problem in the labour movement since the late nineteenth century) is dolled up as a new insight.

In place of work, which is disappearing, Gorz puts a rather ill-defined notion of ‘autonomous production’, with a number of gestures in the direction of cooperatives, the women’s movement, etc. And on this basis Gorz is able to consign Marxism to the dustbin. All that Marx did, apparently, was to translate Hegel’s history of Spirit into an equally idealistic history of the working class. The historical role attributed by Marx to the working class has no ‘empirical verification’.

Historical role

Now it is obvious that Marxism cannot be ‘proved’ empirically; otherwise there would be no need for any argument. Marxism will only be ‘proved’ when we make the successful socialist revolution. But when Marxists attribute a certain historical role to the working class, they base themselves on a century and a half of experience, from the Paris rising of 1848 to the Polish struggles of 1980. All this is simply ignored by Gorz; a couple of quotations from the Grundrisse suffice to erect a straw person who can be easily demolished.

At this point some of my more perceptive readers may be beginning to get a glimmer of a suspicion that Gorz is an intellectual charlatan. Despite his arrogance in dismissing most other socialists, Gorz is far from original. Almost every point of value made in his book was already made a full hundred years ago by one of the very first French Marxists, Paul Lafargue, in a pamphlet called The Right to Idleness. Lafargue condemns the love of work as ‘madness’, looks forward to a three-hour working day, and hails machinery as the Redeemer of Humanity.

Another striking indication of Gorz’s intellectual confusion is his use of sources. He picks snippets from all points of the political compass, with no apparent regard to the contradictions between them. Thus he quotes with approval Antonio Negri (falsely accused by the Italian state of inspiring Red Brigade terrorism) and a few pages later hails the ‘path-breaking’ achievements of Roy Grantham of APEX. Indeed a strange pair of bedfellows.

It must also be pointed out that Gorz’s past record is not impressive. In 1966 Gorz delivered a lecture which began with the prophecy:

‘It is unlikely that in the foreseeable future there will be a crisis in capitalism so acute that, in order to protect their vital interests, workers will resort to a revolutionary general strike or armed insurrection.’

When, two years later, ten million French workers proved him wrong, Gorz leapt on to the bandwagon, becoming an ardent advocate of the views of the Italian ultra-lefts in Lotta Continua. Now that the promises of 1968 are beginning to fade, Gorz is making sure that his descent from the bandwagon will be noticed on all sides.

In moderate measure

But beyond all this, the real key to Gorz’s position is that he is a Utopian. He has, in moderate measure, the virtues of Utopianism; that is, he shows us the possibilities of an alternative to the present social order. He outlines the feasibility of a two-hour working day, or a ten-year working life. He shows how an economy geared to highly advanced technology could be combined with a society in which there was a very considerable degree of decentralisation and self-organisation.

But on the key question of how we get to this desirable state of affairs, Gorz has nothing to say. Having abandoned the agency of the working class, Gorz has nothing to replace it with but a ‘non-class of non-producers’, whatever that might be. And the extravagant flourishes of Utopianism give way to the most abject reformism in Gorz’s conclusion, when he declares that:

‘In the social and postal services, in local government, the hospitals and health care centres, all that is needed is a simple ministerial directive to ensure that work in one’s own freely chosen time becomes a reality. It is a fundamental reform that will cost practically nothing.’

In bidding farewell to the working class, Gorz also seems to have bidden farewell to the world economy, the ruling class and the state. Economic trends in France and the USA are abstracted from the growth of the working class in the Third World (which rates scarcely a mention). There is no recognition of the fact that the class struggle is the product, not of a few dogmatic Marxists, but of the determination of the existing ruling class to preserve their privileges.

Gorz blithely quotes an opinion poll in which, offered the choice between higher wages and more free time, a majority opted for more free time. That, unfortunately, is not the choice before us. Those who rule at present want both more sackings and wage cuts (the Economist recently argued that wages in the advanced countries are between 8 percent and 24 percent higher than they ‘ought to be’). And, despite Gorz’s hairsplitting about what constitutes the ‘state’, it is clear they will use the whole repressive machine to get their way.

When it comes to more practical issues Gorz shows incredible naivety. He hails job-sharing and flexible working hours as inroads into the new society, although as he himself notes, they lead to greater productivity, which is presumably why the employers permit and encourage them.

Yet amid all the talk of the ‘abolition’ of work, Gorz does not seem to have noticed the devastating effects that workers can still have when they refuse to work. The ruling class, their governments, and their associated lackeys still spend a good deal of their time breaking or avoiding strikes – but the word ‘strike’ does not appear one single time in Gorz’s book.

Likewise, Gorz is quick to dismiss the possible role of workers’ councils:

‘Workers’ councils – which were the organs of working class power when production was carried out by technically autonomous teams of workers – have become anachronistic in the giant factory of assembly lines and self-contained departments.’

Such a formulation simply ignores the historical experience that in the major upsurges of workers’ councils (Russia 1905 and 1917, Germany 1918, Hungary 1956) these bodies were not primarily concerned with the organisation of production, but with the general crisis of society.

Political flexibility

Yet for Gorz the overriding advantage of bidding farewell to the working class is the political flexibility it permits. On the one hand one can appear infinitely radical, breaking with old dogmas. Yet at the same time one can latch on to anything that moves – ecology, feminism or any other flavour of the month. Socialism may come at the behest of the Virgin Mary ... or of Francois Mitterrand.

It is noteworthy that among Gorz’s sources, cited with a reverence seldom shown to the Marxist classics by their devotees, are Jacques Attali and Jacques Delors. Now these men are not just any old academic hobbledehoys. Attali coached Mitterrand in economics before the elections and is now one of a select trio who breakfast with the President every Tuesday. Delors, an ex-Gaullist, is generally recognised as one of the most right-wing ministers in Mitterrand’s cabinet. These men, Gorz would have us believe, understand the realities of modern society. Yet the Mitterrand regime has run away from even the modest goal of the thirty-five hour week, and has contributed to the workless society by cutting dole payments. There is a lesson to be learnt here; but we can be sure that Gorz won’t learn it.

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