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(en) Australia, Sydney, Rebel Worker, Vol.22 (182) Aug.-Sept. 2003 - Re-igniting the Flames of Workers' Control Conference

From dr.woooo <dr.woooo@nomasters.org>
Date Sat, 30 Aug 2003 08:58:13 +0200 (CEST)

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> From: Jura Books <spajura@chaos.apana.org.au>
From Paper of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network PO Box 92 Broadway 2007 NSW Australia,
Subs. $25 pa (Aus.) by Air, $20 pa(Aus.)sea mail, $12pa in Australia.
Commencing on Friday evening, October 1Oth, 2003, and running through to
the evening of Sunday, October 12th, a Conference on Workers' Control will
be held at the Haymarket campus of the University of Technology, Sydney
(UTS), for further details contact: www.jura.org.au/workerscontrol/ The
Conference is organised by members and supporters of the Organising Centre
for Workplace and Union Democracy, located at the Jura Books premises at
Petersham, and is open to anyone who's interested in workers' control as a
strategy for the advancement of the class interests of working people, or
who wants to see the democratisation of the top-down practices of 'service
unionism' and of those unions with supposedly 'left' leaderships who
nevertheless limit members' rights of participation in union affairs.

To my knowledge, this will be the first conference on workers' control to
be held in Australia since the heyday of the workers' control movement in
the early 1970s, when a National Workers' Control Conference was held at
Newcastle, NSW, over Easter in 1973. It was organised by militants
associated with the Sydney Centre for Workers' Control and the Communist
Party of Australia (CPA), which at the time held critical views in relation
to the bureaucratism and top-down methods of the state socialist countries
(then in existence) and of workers' organisations in general.

What is Workers' Control?

The methods of workers' control are a practical response, with
revolutionary implications, to the one central fundamental fact of social
life under capitalism: that bosses own and/or control the means of
production, and workers do not, and that this unequal relationship in the
ownership and control of capital permeates the entirety of goings-on in
capitalist society, replicating itself in every social sphere, and
perpetuating a tendency in which the bourgeoisie dominates and exploits the
working class, to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the balance of
class forces at any given time.
Workers' control is a strategy by which workers can roll back capitalism
and pave the way for the introduction of a fully democratic, classless
society. Ken Coates and Tony Topham describe the process well: workers'
control is "a struggle by workers and their organisations to encroach upon
the prerogatives of management and to cut back the managerial authority in
the enterprise, and the powers of capital in the economy. It begins with
simple trade union demands, for control of hiring and firing, tea-breaks,
hours, speed of work, allocation of jobs, and so on, it mounts through a
whole series of demands (open the books, for example) to a point where,
ultimately, over the whole society, capitalist authority meets impasse". At
this point, a condition of 'dual power' can be said to exist, where
workers, through their newly-won power in the form of a predominantly
worker-controlled economy run by democratically elected councils and
unions, confront the remnants of bourgeois power. Only two options at this
stage are possible: either the workers advance to abolish, once and for
all, what remains of capitalist power, or the old bourgeois establishment
unleashes upon the revolutionary forces what's left in its arsenal of
repression in a last, desperate bid to save itself from historical
annihilation. The record shows that dual power situations have thus far not
yet been resolved in favour of the working class, the reasons for this
being complex and unique to particular circumstances. But a common factor
in their ultimate defeat is due to the fact that workers have never
successfully asserted complete control over their class organisations and,
therefore, over their revolutionary theory and practice. Some external
force has always impeded their autonomous revolutionary development. For
example, in 1917 the Bolsheviks hijacked and put down the workers' control
movement that was emerging in Russia after the February revolution, paving
the way for what would ultimately become Stalinist methods. In 1970-73, the
avowedly socialist Allende government in Chile pressured workers through
its apparatchiks in workers' organisations not to exceed the bounds of
constitutional legality in their struggle for socialism by, for example, arming
themselves to defend their 'liberated zones': the result was an easy
victory for the coupists in September '73, which led to the subsequent
obliteration of a generation of militants in Chile.

In the case of Russia above, the vanguardist outlook of the Bolsheviks gave
them the right to 'lead' the working class to victory against the Russian
bourgeoisie and autocracy. The workers' control movement in this case had
not had sufficient time to grow numerically or in political maturity before
being put down. In Chile, the working class movement was large, militant
and experienced but was held back by political allegiances to the big
working class parties that dominated the government and advocated a
cautious approach.

If we want to learn from the mishaps of the past, and play a part in the
establishment of a socialism that truly puts the working class 'at the
helm' of society, then we must assert our autonomy from all vanguardists
and political parties, and insist an democratic and accountable processes
within working class organisations.

To this end, our organisations must adhere to principles such as the

* Only the full assembly of the workers' organisation should be sovereign.

* No individual or group of individuals should ever hold executive power.

* All elected 'representatives' must be delegates and must be responsible
and accountable to those who elected them.

* Delegates who meet with bosses must convey to them only the decisions of
the mass meeting.

* Any breach of trust by delegates must render them liable to immediate
recall by their electors.

These principles must be treated as universally applicable (at least, for
the foreseeable future) and must be applied at every level of social
development to guard against the encroachment of dictatorial or
undemocratic practices, and against attempts at take-over by vanguardists.
They function equally effectively at the workplace level during struggles
against the bosses during the capitalist era, or at the macro-economic
level when workers' delegates from several industries meet with community
delegates to plan for the production of particular social needs in the
socialist era.

After the final victory of the working class, there will come a time in the
distant future when the problem of scarcity has either ceased to exist, or
ceases to have a competitive effect on people. Enormous advances will have
been made in the forces of production and in the knowledge of things. The
continued practice of, and advancement in, socialist relations will begin
to produce a communist sensibility, and it is in this developing communist
future that humankind may yet begin to live unhindered by the discipline of
political organisation.

But this is still a long way off. We must begin at the beginning.

The Genesis of the Workers' Control Movement of the 1970s.

The turn towards the methods of workers' control in the 1960s and '70s by
many in the workers' movement (as well as the student activist milieu) had
been an outcome, firstly, of the ever increasingly evident failure of the
state socialist countries to truly bring the working class to the helm of
the political and production processes in their respective countries, and
secondly, by the evident failure of the 'old left' in the capitalist
countries (the old communist and social-democratic parties, and the
traditional trade unions) to break with the same top-down bureaucratic
methods and ideas about socialism and workers' organisations that many
workers the world over were beginning to reject as undemocratic and
anti-socialist in content.

Some important watersheds in this development were, firstly, the Hungarian
revolution of 1956, when a demonstration by students in Budapest for 'civil
rights' escalated within days to become a nation-wide revolt in which
workers occupied workplaces and ran them according to workers' control
principles. On reading the ideas and demands put forward by some of the
Hungarian workers' councils, one notices progress from a somewhat
politically confused and quasi-liberal outlook early in the course of the
revolt, developing to become politically mature calls for workers' control
of workplaces and for workers' direction of the economy. Such is the
transformative power of the internal logic of the proletarian revolutionary
process: workers' class consciousness increases dramatically during periods
of intense struggle, culminating in the development of high levels of
socialist consciousness. The positive example of the Hungarian workers'
efforts at self-management and the negative example of the Soviet Union's
military invasion and its drowning of the workers' councils in blood,
caused many militants in the West to seriously review their politics. Some
moved into liberalism, others into liberalised forms of Marxism, others
still, moved further to the left, eventually taking up workers' control
positions in the years ahead.

A second important watershed in the development of the workers' control
perspective emerged out of the events of May 1968 in France, where student
demands for reform of archaic and authoritarian conditions in the
universities escalated and drew in workers who demanded reform of workplace
conditions. A strike wave ensued and workers occupied workplaces according
to the logic of workers' control. The French Communist Party (PCF), which
at the time had a mass base amongst the working class, with representation
at parliamentary, communal and trade union levels, could have played a
major role in advancing the workers' control tendency that was exploding
into existence. It chose, instead, to help the bourgeoisie to 'normalise'
the situation thus demonstrating that the PCF, when push came to shove,
wouldn't fight for workers' real class interests, rather, it would put its
own bourgeois interests first - it would seek to protect its stake in the
running of bourgeois France: its positions in the parliament, the communes
and trade unions.
With the forces of the state and the orthodox labour movement ranged
against it, the potentially revolutionary upsurge faded, but not without
leaving its legacy amongst many workers, students and revolutionary
organisations around the world. A new, rank-and-file-based,
non-bureaucratic form of struggle had become legitimised in the eyes of many.

The Road to Workers' Control in Australia: De-Stalinisation.

In Australia, prior to the late 1960s, the only serious challenger to the
hegemony of capitalism was the CPA. While there were many honest committed
militants in the party, their efforts were largely wasted by being
channelled into carrying out policy which rank-and-file members played no
part in developing. The party's theory and practice, rather than being
based on a scientific Marxist assessment of the balance of class forces in
any given situation where the intervention of workers was needed, was
distorted by its adherence to Marxist-Leninist ideology, which had as its
primary purpose the defence and advancement of the strategic interests of
the Soviet Union, and the popularisation of its foreign policy in Australia.

The de-Stalinisation process within the CPA was able to begin in June 1956
when the "Secret Speech" outlining the 'crimes' of Stalin, delivered by
Khrushchev to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
(CPSU) in the previous February, began circulating in revolutionary circles
in Australia. The demoralising impact of this speech, on many who truly
believed in Marxism-Leninism's revolutionary role was exacerbated a few
months later in October and November when Soviet forces fought and defeated
the working class Hungary. Vast numbers of people left the CPA to rethink
their politics in the wake of the events of '56.

In 1964, after the split in the world communist movement between the Soviet
Union and China, significant numbers of Stalinist militants left the CPA to
establish the Maoist and pro-China Communist Party of Australia
(Marxist-Leninist), charging that the Soviet leadership and the CPA were
reconciling themselves with capitalism and imperialism. The departure of
these elements left a sizeable number of people in the rump CPA, who, after
the experience of the crises in the communist movement up to that time,
became sufficiently realistic to not be averse to casting a critical eye on
information and directives from Moscow. Unorthodox tendencies began to
develop and found sustenance in the events of May '68 in France and August
'68 in Czechoslovakia.

The libertarian nature of the May events in France were a positive
inspiration for many amongst the 'unorthodox' in the CPA while the Warsaw
Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in August turned them yet further
against the Soviet Union and Soviet methods in general. Of the CPSU's
fraternal parties in the world, the CPA became the first to publicly oppose
the intervention in Czechoslovakia and to seriously criticise the Soviet
Union's instigation of it. Other communist parties, notably those of Italy,
France, Japan and Spain (in exile) eventually adopted similar critical
positions Pro-Moscow elements in the CPA began to find themselves in an
embattled minority, and in 1971, were either forced out for breaches of
party rules or left of their own accord. They formed the pro-Moscow
Socialist Party of Australia, which came to be recognised by the CPSU as
its sole fraternal party in Australia.
The absence of the Stalinist elements, the coming to prominence of a
consciously anti-bureaucratic discourse, the absorption of the militant
mood that prevailed amongst workers in general at the time, all combined to
steer the CPA on a 'turn to the left', which emphasised workers' control as
being central to any viable, democratic notion of socialism.
Consolidating this tendency within the party were the experiences of CPA
militants operating within various unions, the most notable of which had
been the New South Wales branch of the Builders' Labourers' Federation
(BLF), which, under the leadership of Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob
Pringle, put principles of workers' control into practice.
The NSW BLF was a union that truly put the interests of its members above
all else. To prevent bureaucratism from developing, officials were elected
for a maximum of two terms after which they were required to go back 'on
the tools' and give someone else a go. The salaries of officials were no
more than the wages of the highest paid builders' labourers, and during
strikes, officials were not paid their salaries at all but received the
same strike pay as workers. The conference will concentrate a great deal on
the experience of the BLF, noting strengths and weaknesses.
The NSW BLF was eventually defeated by a combination of factors: the end of
the building boom in Sydney, collusion between the Maoist federal branch
and the builders, and its failure to link up with rank-and-file members of
other building unions to form combined site committees and thus create
industry-wide bases from which to mount defence campaigns against attacks
on the union.
Around the same time (the mid-'70s), the militant turn of the CPA began to
give way to right-wing opportunism as working class militancy declined due
to the failing economy, and later in response to anti-worker policies
imposed by the newly-installed Fraser government. The CPA leadership, under
the new conditions, was no longer optimistic about the possibility for
success of the workers' control project, and since it's not in the nature
of any leadership to be seen to be backing a loser, the leadership swerved
right-wards, declaring its political outlook to now be Eurocommunist.
Clearly, the self criticism inspired by the events of the previous two
decades had not penetrated deeply and thoroughly enough in the CPA.
As the economics of neo-liberalism ripped through the economy over the
following decades, disempowering workers further and further, the idea of
workers' control seemed less and less a possibility, as workers struggled
to slow the decline in their living standards and in what was left of their
class power.
The last five years or so, however, have seen an increase in people's
reluctance to accept without question the imposition of the neo-liberal
agenda. It has become clear to many that the promises made by
neo-liberalism's advocates that it will "make us all richer" are false and
that their real purpose is to increase capital's share of the surplus by
increasing the rate of exploitation of workers. The mass street spectacles
that accompanied various ruling class talk-fests - like the WTO (World
Trade Organisation) and WEF (World Economic Forum) forums - in cities such
as Seattle, Prague and Melbourne are a symptom of this developing
scepticism, as are the increases in instances of 'industrial action' and
outright rebellion around the world. The phenomenon of political Islam is
also a response to neo-liberalism and globalisation (imperialism), albeit
of an ultra-sectarian kind. More and more people are willing to stick their
necks out to fight against the neo-liberal onslaught to replace it with
some form of 'equalitarian', and 'communitarian' society that is capable of
providing a decent living for all.

What might this Conference achieve?

Social-democracy, labourism, Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism and top-down
trade unionism have all failed to advance the interests of workers in the
long run because they have not delivered control of the struggle to the
workers themselves. When workers are in control of their struggles, then
and only then will they truly be able to express and fulfil their class
interests, whether at the workplace level or at wider social levels
comprising entire industries, countries or federations of several
countries. This conference will discuss historical instances of workers'
control at micro and macro levels, and will consider the practical
possibilities for increasing our class power in the here and now. There
will be plenty of time for questions and comments from the floor, indeed,
several sessions will be held in seminar form to maximise participation and
discussion time for all.
It's my hope that workers, students, socialists, communists, anarchists,
rebels and leftists of all traditions attend the conference and contribute
their experiences of fighting the class struggle. The event will provide
fertile ground for network-building, discussion and argument amongst
activists. A measure of the success of the conference will be if we go back
to our workplaces having made new allies and contacts, and be equipped with
new perspectives and a new optimism on how to battle the bosses and win.
Peter Siegl (one co-organiser of several).

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