People's War Digest №2
Don Quijote Battles the Windmills

The myth of self-management

Translated from RCP(OC)’s Arsenal magazine, No. 2, March 2004.

The majority of men and women are forced to live under capitalism. Because of an unfavorable strength balance under capitalism, the proletariat is forced to consider its liberation only through its immediate living conditions. To say the least, the proletariat is the prisoner of a system which leaves it very few occasions of escaping.

Doing away with capitalism is the main task of the proletariat. But to eliminate a system so powerful that it will relentlessly defend itself and will not let the exploited organize, more than good intentions are needed: a clear separation must be drawn at all levels (theoretical, practical, organizational) from the bourgeoisie. As long as the bourgeoisie will prevail, this separation will need to neverendingly be started over. It is not spontaneous, neither is it innate within the proletariat: it requires going back more than once on questions that seemed resolved, reexamining, re-doing.

Utopia and revolution

From its beginnings as the proletariat’s revolutionary theory, Marxism distinguished itself from utopian socialism, especially from that of Proudhon (1809-1865)’s followers, then those of Bakunin (libertarian communists and anarchosyndicalists), on the central issues of the goals, means and objectives of the revolution. This boundary between anarchists and communists, between utopian socialism and scientific socialism still prevails, although in a different manner.

In the history of the proletariat and its struggle for communism, in the general history of the proletarian revolutionary movement, few issues were the subject of as many debates as the one over the content of the period which follows capitalism and leads to communism. While being opposed on this question, anarchists and communists have at least one thing in common: the objective of a free, equalitarian society rid of any form of exploitation and state. But from that goal, anarchists have made a utopia: communists a revolutionary project. This is a fundamental difference which reflects in all domains of revolutionary activity.

From historical experience, communists draw the following teachings: the proletariat cannot ignore to exert an integral dictatorship over the bourgeoisie in every field and at each step of development of the revolution. Any important change to the bourgeois system of property over the course of history, as much as through the substitution of slavery by the feudal system, as that from feudalism to capitalism, invariably began by the conquest of power, which supporting itself by the strength of the conquering, proceeded with the transformation of property on a large scale, to consolidation and development of the new property system.

What the dictatorship of the proletariat made up of? Marx gave the most succinct description: “What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

To this conception, libertarian communists oppose their own vision of an anti-authoritarian socialism which aims to be “a radical change of society concretizing workers’ spontaneous socialism, realizing libertarian and equalitarian aspirations so often expressed into the exploited’s class-struggle and into the oppressed and women’s emancipation fights.” This project could be realized “because production intercourses, the wage-earning intercourse are broken, because big means of production are socialized, collectivized at the basis and not under state-control, because autogestion [self-management] substitutes to the ruler/ruled people intercourse, and because thus, the social division into antagonistic classes is replaced by a reunifying human community, socially and politically equal and free.” Finally, anti-authoritarian socialism would be “an authentic democracy, because the state mechanic-i.e. the exploiting classes domination mechanic-is broken, replaced by a federalist organization of society and by generalized autogestion, exercized on every bid decision, the actual collective sovereignty, the ‘down to up’ or ‘from the periphery to the center’ democracy, the power to the basis Assemblies and to their freely associated Councils.” “From this follows that the new power will not exclusively be the proletariat’s power-even if it weighs in it in a decisive manner-and even less its dictatorship…

These quotes are from the Manifesto for a Libertarian Alternative from the French organization of the same name (“Alternative Libertaire“, or AL). From these is drawn the libertarian communist vision of transition to communism whose merit is at least to be written on paper. AL claims 1) that there is no State-run transitional society between capitalism and communism; and 2) that self-management, practiced on a large scale, insures this transition.

We will draw our attention to these two elements demonstrating that anarchist theses, when put to the test, contradict objective reality on every point. That the anarchist doctrine, as Lenin wrote over 100 years ago, “has produced nothing but general platitudes against exploitation. These phrases have been current for more than 2,000 years. What is missing is (alpha) an understanding of the causes of exploitation; (beta) an understanding of the development of society, which leads to socialism; (gamma) an understanding of the class struggle as the creative force for the realization of socialism.

Protest struggle and revolutionary struggle

Beaten in its overt form of refusal to engage in the political struggle, the anarchist utopia of social revolution without political revolution, of creating a classless society without a stage in which the proletariat exerts its political leadership onto the whole masses (hence the dictatorship of the proletariat) reappeared under the guise of merging protest struggles and revolutionary struggle, as if both were the same thing and took the same shape.

Contrary to anarchists, Marxists always took good care of distinguishing the masses’ protest struggles (waged in order to keep or win gains, improvements from the bourgeoisie, forcing it to act against its immediate interests) and the revolutionary struggle led by the communists and the proletariat to conquer political power, eliminate the bourgeoisie and its state, establish the dictatorship of the proletariat to then make ahead towards communism. Between these two forms of struggle, there is a qualitative leap the anarchist movement completely ignores, refuses to make or shows itself incapable to accomplish.

For the anarchist movement, protest struggles simply have to go beyond the framework imposed by the ruling class and become less and less compatible with capitalism to see “counter-powers” spontaneously erupt within the base which is challenging the state. However, all of historical experience showed, costing the lives of thousands of revolutionaries, that revolution doesn’t erupt simply from a multiplication of protest struggles, however radical they may be (let’s just think of Argentina), but that it needs the unification of various objective factors: 1) an economical and political crisis which affects all classes; 2) the incapacity for the bourgeoisie to maintain its domination intact; 3) the incapacity for the proletariat and the masses to live like before; and a subjective factor: 4) the existence of a revolutionary political leadership, a Communist Party.

By not distinguishing the revolutionary struggle from protest struggles, the anarchist movement is brought to oscillate between direct action (dead propaganda) and an anarchosyndicalist strategy articulated around following the organized workers’ movement and on the exaltation of all struggles carried by trade unions. This alternative is significantly reproduced in all of anarchism’s history (from the Bonnot gang to revolutionary trade-unionism in France, from attacks to anarchosyndicalism in Spain, etc.).

A necessary political detour

According to anarcho-communists, the protest and social struggle leads to socialization of means of production, which would not be a concentration of the latter into the hands of the state, but rather collectively possessed by the whole of society, global self-management of production, and self-management of each unit by those employed by it. Everything looks fine on paper, but one essential issue remains: if government was to be abolished, the economy collectivized and self-managed, would exploitation and capitalism be eliminated?

It is paramount to answer this question because it is the basis of the whole world conception of anarcho-communists since Proudhon, who claimed that society could develop on the basis of relationships among producers and between producers and consumers, independently from the state. Leaning on this notion, Bakunin then developed the idea of federalism based on workers’ associations or companies, linked to one another, but free and independent in their decisions, property being managed on a collectivist basis.

To answer our questioning, a sufficiently complete example must be found in history to drive any teachings. Does this example exist? Yes, it does in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) which gives the most advanced example of self-managed anarchist communes, which embraced both agriculture and industry, countryside and cities, on a massive scale. Despite all precautions that have to be taken due to this experience’s short life span, many teachings can be deducted from it, especially since anarchists are using it as an example and have made it “their revolution”. However, as we will see, history’s irony wanted-as is always the case each time doctrinaries come to power-that the Spanish anarchists had to do the opposite of what their doctrinary school taught them; in fact, they prove incapable of mobilizing the masses when they were confronted with the fundamental problems of transforming capitalism into communism.

In Spain, just before the bourgeoisie’s attack led by Franco, anarchists were leading the most important mass trade union (the CNT had more than one million members) and had a political apparatus, despite what they claim, with the Federación Anarquiste Ibérica (FAI). In a dominating position, anarchists had the organizational capacity and the possibility to lead the proletarian and peasant masses to assault the bourgeois state, which they refused to do, conforming to their doctrinary apolitical stance. The Spanish Civil War was thus imposed by the bourgeoisie, depriving the proletariat and peasantry from the initiative.

From the first days of the civil war, the void left on Republican terrain by the fleeing of thee bosses’ and administrative authorities allowed the proletariat and peasantry to easily take over economic power; but once that done, they still had to resolve the difficulty of defending and maintaining the new society. Which depended on the constitution of a genuine proletarian power capable of consolidating the gains and beat the enemy!

With self-management, did production escape the laws of capitalism?

Spanish anarchists believed, like today’s ones, that a system of autonomous self-managed communes, with the weakest links between each other, was the alternative to capitalism and Marxism. Hence they thought that as soon as they had collectivized villages in the countryside and places of work in the city, they would have, they thought, suppressed inequalities, capitalism, money, government, the state. But this prove to be untrue.

Anarchist comrades should have rather known that when production is the result of small (or large) independent companies, whether managed by a capitalist or a workers’ collective, this production does not lead to more freedom, but quite the opposite: it becomes the most firm basis of development for exploitation and capitalism. Self-management within the federalist framework promoted by anarchists (allowing thousands of businesses, factories and proletarians to be linked not by a conscious and discussed plan, but by the sole forces of the market) though the result of thousands of transactions between these small groups, will constantly regenerate capitalism, divisions between the poor and rich and finally end up with monopolies.

What we will try to shed some light on is that despite the incredible heroism of anarchist activists, the anarchist project in Spain failed because the material bases which gave birth to capitalism, social classes, the capitalist state, are compatible with production, even collectivized. Anarchism failed because it saw in small affinity or production groups (basic assemblies) self-sufficient units, while only proletariat in its entirety-by building its party and leading the revolutionary struggle-can get to control and master the economy, restricts the bourgeois right and at the same time overcome its own exploitation (which is the content of the dictatorship of the proletariat). Finally, anarchism failed because it did not understand the link between freedom and mass revolutionary activity; by the fact, it reflects the bourgeois ideology of “everybody for himself”.

More specifically, the forces of capitalism (market laws) rapidly asserted themselves within communes led by anarchists. These forces were not mainly linked to difficulties of the civil war, but by economical relationships (or absence of) between communes. The communes’ incapacity to overcome inequalities, as with other problems, was noticed by all serious civil war commentators, from various tendencies, and even by some leaders of the CNT. This cannot be denied, except by those who are turning Spain into an Eldorado of revolution but refuse to study what actually happened.

This incapacity to overcome inequality does not mean that the communes were a failure. Some functioned well, others not: positively, they allowed the masses to take charge of business and demonstrating that proletarians could continue production without bosses. But at this point, it is only was a means of struggle, nothing more.

Abolishing the state

Taking control of factories and various workplaces is an inevitable step in the revolutionary process. But to stop there necessarily means that one does not understand the requirements of revolution and the tasks to be accomplished to really abolish capitalism. As Lenin explained, what is to be done is to transit “from the very simple task of further expropriating the capitalists to the much more complicated and difficult task of creating conditions in which it will be impossible for the bourgeoisie to exist, or for a new bourgeoisie to arise“.

For the proletariat, it is necessary to repress the bourgeoisie and counter-revolution, to expropriate the upper bourgeoisie, among others banks, major industries and communication networks; to nationalize real estate and other major assets, lands, subsoil and waters; to develop social and collective property of the main means of production; to constitute in all units of production a leadership that will act in the general interest of the proletariat i.e. in the goal of satisfying collective means and serve world revolution; to manage companies according to a national plan and local plans that assign tasks to be accomplished, allocate resources and determine the destination of products.

This demands a proletarian state, since production relationships will not be able to be transformed completely and at all levels at the first attempt; consequently, classes will subsist. Forms of small production will also subsist (let us think of the thousands of small businesses), as repartition according to work, in opposition to needs, will be maintained. Inequalities will persist, for example between those who lead and those who execute.

The anarchist theory during the civil war, as for today, was allergic to all forms of state, centralism and central planning. For anarchism, centralism and democracy are basically incompatible. Facing the necessity of making the communes work with one another, anarchists did not see that revolution required in the first stage a strategic centralization which lays on grassroots initiatives. Instead of directly (by authority, we would say) and globally taking productive forces, they preferred letting things go, hoping that coordination if necessary between communes would easily be attained through “mutual aid” or “voluntary cooperation” or, in the worst case, by the weakest possible Federalism.

The capitalist state is certainly a monster, but this monster did not simply appear out of nowhere. The state appears when society divides into classes with irreconcilable interests and is always the ruling class’s state, i.e. the bourgeoisie under capitalism. This division between antagonistic classes is itself the fruit of production’s development; this production and the forces that allow it are under the control of one class, that of the capitalists.

Revolutions from the last century taught us that the proletariat cannot hope to reverse the situation unless it becomes the ruling class. By refusing to support the proletariat’s state and proletarian democracy (dictatorship of the proletariat) in the transition phase towards communism, simply be denying the need itself for this transition, the anarchist movement was brought to participate, defend and spare the capitalist state. Confronted with the need for coordination and planning encompassing all of the proletarian and peasantry, anarchists were progressively brought to adopt their adversaries’ plans, among others those of the liberal bourgeoisie. This was not a tactical withdrawal meant to favor alliances with other forces to beat the bourgeois army (which is admissible and even in this case necessary), it simply is that anarchists had no independent idea about how to accomplish the necessary centralization. [1]

One could oppose to us that communes in Spain had little time to develop. However, for more than a year, anarchists nearly had carte blanche to develop communes in the Aragon and Levante regions and in the Barcelona industrial area and, from the beginning, difficulties linked to planning and centralization were experienced. There are good reasons to believe that the problem would only have gotten worse had the experienced lasted.

Eliminating inequalities

In its manifesto, Alternative Libertaire states that Federalism leads to “stabilized structuration of society“. Coordination of production is done by federations and branches. Precisely, during the Spanish Civil War, one of the objectives of the communes, set by anarchists themselves, was to insure equality for all participants; and one of the privileged instruments to reach this objective were federations and branches. Anarchist activists believed that living conditions between communes would rapidly equalize on the basis of “mutual aid”. Here again, we must admit that it did not happen.

In the countryside, communes were organized in a very different way. In some cases, the commune’s merchandise was centralized in a warehouse; in others, it was not the case. Disparities rapidly established from commune to commune, and from factory to factory. Some communes could count on a much superior income than the poorest ones.

But where did “mutual aid” go, which communes had to commit to each other? The answer is simple: communes, afraid of seeing landowners taking back their land, were more prone to send any surplus to the city or the Front rather than to one another. To insure the cities’ and the Front’s supply, columns of anarchist militia were used (small detail, these militia people charged with supplying the cities and whose members did not come from these communities, were they not like an armed force separated from the population-and is it not true that this separation of the armed forces from the people is the basis of… the state?). But when time came to attack discrepancies between communes-a task too strenuous, sensitive and complex to be accomplished by mobile militia columns-very little was done. It is precisely what happened in Aragon and Levante, the two areas where land collectivization went the furthest, and this even if regional federations took redistribution between communes very seriously (it was even seen as being their main task). Variations between communes probably indicated historical inequalities, but also reflected the minor role played by the redistribution organized by federations.

The same phenomenon occurred in collectivized factories in Barcelona, which was the main center of anarchist industrial communes. Proletarians had control of the factories, but on the basis of the same anarchist principles applied in the countryside, it proved impossible to establish lasting cooperation. [2]

More concretely, the anarchist theory brought proletarians to consider their factory as the possession of those who worked in it rather than property of the whole proletariat. While unemployment was high, proletarians in collectivized shops tended more often than not to proceed to improve their own working conditions (better wages, social programs) than to distribute their advantages with other proletarians. As with agricultural communes, great disparities lasted between working proletarians and unemployed ones, between proletarians from strategic sectors (thus better paid) and those from secondary sectors.

Facing the difficulties of organizing sustainable cooperation between collectivized factories in Barcelona, how did anarchists react? Despite their declarations against money, they used the same tools as capitalism, namely a central labour bank, an economic council, credit, cash purchases, demand, etc. Not only could they not eliminate accounting, money, they also had to organize forms of banking and financial operations.

One of the most striking effects of the increasing polarization between collectivized workplaces was the loss of independence for many of them. The poorest collectivized workplaces not having the necessary funds to pay wages, got these funds by mortgaging their workplace’s equipment, as well as their warehoused material with the bourgeois Catalan government. One by one, workplaces passed from proletarian hands to those of the bourgeoisie without the latter playing any role in this, except that of a pawnbroker.

Suppressing money

Let’s take a look at money. Anarchists believed that taking control of workplaces and villages would suffice to eliminate money. For example, in Binéfor, like in 450 other collectivized towns in Aragon, money was declared abolished. An economy totally based on barter being impracticable, the Committee thus proceeded to emitting notes of 5, 6 and 7 pesetas each. The value of each male person’s work was set at 7 pesetas, and that of women at… 5 pesetas. The old currency not being seized, a black market bloomed.

So, after announcing that money was suppressed, the autonomous commune’s local committee proceeded with emitting local notes which worked for locals like money. Ironically, the fact these notes played the same role as money never struck the anarchists. For them, money was national bank notes, while the local currency, to their eyes, was not. The emission by several communes of differently valued notes had as a consequence to make exchanges between communes more difficult. Many people in the communes were led to think that a national currency was maybe not such a bad thing. The main point here is that anarchists struggled against outside aspects of money-a bank note emitted by capitalist financial institutions-and not against the social and production relationships brought by money.

Once more, we have to pinpoint that the problem is not that anarchists failed to accomplish the impossible-immediate abolition of money. From the Marxist theory’s point of view, it is not surprising that money cannot immediately be abolished. The problem is not the practical measures taken (rationing of first necessity goods, various free-of-charge services, etc.) either. The problem lies in the anarchist theory itself. When the objective reality came to crush all of the anarchist dogmas, they found themselves facing a difficult choice: taking control of the economy and carrying out the dictatorship of the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry, or leaving the bourgeoisie to take over control; and it was the second option that won because for them, centralization was a synonym of authority, which was in their eyes equivalent to capitalism.

The dictatorship of the proletariat

Marxism identifies the need for a relatively protracted period of transition between the beginning of the social revolution and the accomplishment of a classless society which has eliminated government, money, etc. During this period, proletarians must learn to lead society, thus surpassing capitalism. Productive forces must also be developed enough to eliminate the risk of shortages from the masses. During this period, society’s division into classes must be practically overcome before the proletariat can avoid using a state revolutionary machine.

As Lenin taught: “…during every transition from capitalism to socialism, dictatorship is necessary for two main reasons, or along two main channels. Firstly, capitalism cannot be defeated and eradicated without the ruthless suppression of the resistance of the exploiters, who cannot at once be deprived of their wealth, of their advantages of organization and knowledge, and consequently for a fairly long period will inevitably try to overthrow the hated rule of the poor; secondly, every great revolution, and a socialist revolution in particular, even if there is no external war, is inconceivable without internal war, i.e., civil war…”

As it is said in the RCP(OC)’s Programme: “The state that keeps on existing during the socialist phase but that will progressively “wither away” must lead the masses into assuming leadership of society. The conditions to allow them to do this must be set. This will require spare time for the masses (provided by the reduction of the working week); a collective take over of household chores; the furnishing of tools such as ink, paper and places to hold meetings must also be provided so they can express themselves freely, etc.

They must also work in destroying privileges that are imparted to those who are in positions of leadership. One way to do this is to enable them to vote and to revoke leaders. The reduction of salary disparities between leaders and the proletarian masses and the participation of managers in labour are also tasks that will have to be undertaken.

In the long run, everyone must assume leadership. Not only that of a firm or of a neighborhood (although this will be a necessary step in the process of learning), but equally that of society as a whole. This means the organization of its activities and the mastery of the direction it will be headed for.

In order to make this type of participation possible, and to insure it is something authentic and unlike the bogus consultations the capitalists hold on occasion for the people to give them the impression that they are partaking in a democratic process, the State itself must undergo change. It must give birth to new types of leadership, based on the participation of the masses.

Disarmed before the tasks brought by the revolution, without a theory that is not a dogma but rather a guide for action, the anarchist movement resembles Don Quijote, a great reader of chivalry novels who decided to leave for adventure, conquer glory by valorous deeds and save the world. Like many before him, he will pursue his quest to the end, deluded with his dreams, reinventing the world. Like Don Quijote fighting with flocks of sheep he took for enemy armies, windmills become giants, the anarchist movement stayed too long on the surface of things: while it thought abolishing inequalities, they reappeared; when it thought it had abolished money, one sees it reappear; the State was thought to have vanished, however proletarians were forced to mortgage machinery to it. By paying more attention to form rather than foundation, drawing no lessons from the past, anarchism proved its limits, which we absolutely must overcome.

Christophe Jacobson
  • 1 On September 24, 1936 in a congress of the CNT’s Catalonia Regional Federation in which 500 delegates took part, the long debate in the anarchosyndicalist movement between political and apolitical stance was for the first time clearly resolved in favor of the former. For the sake of antifascist war and syndicalist revolution, the congress decided to participate in the Generalitat cabinet. (The Generalitat was the legislative power also known as the Parliament of Catalonia. The 1932 Statute of Autonomy granted Catalonia’s Parliament its own justice system [with High Court] and its own police force.)
  • 2 Evidence of difficulties in the union-controlled economy soon came in abundance. The Republican Minister of Industry reported that by January 1937 he had received petition asking for state intervention in no less than 11,000 enterprises (Juan Peiró, De la fábrica de vidrio de Mataro al Ministerio de Industria – Valencia 1937).
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