Autogestion, autonomy, and democracy

I am enjoying Ours to Master and to Own, which is a collection of many different essays on worker’s control throughout history.  The central tension in the book is that between more centralized, heteronomous, hierarchical, top-down forms of workers’ organization (unions, parties) and more decentralized, autonomous, horizontal, grassroots forms (here typified by the workers’ council).  That tension of course implicates the state, and it is part of the ongoing debate about what role the state should play in any attempt to radically transform society.  The book offers a wealth of  empirical case studies (Russia, Germany, and Italy after WWI; Spain in the 30s; Yugoslavia in the 60s; Italy in the 70s; Argentina in 2001; Portugal; Indonesia; Poland; Algeria…), and despite that scope the quality of the work is pretty consistently high.

In several places the discussion recalls Marx’s analysis in “On the Jewish Question,” in which he argues that resisting capitalism requires resisting the bourgeois state and its division of society into a political/state sphere and a social/economic sphere.  We accept that division when we accept the division of labor between a workers’ party that operates in the state sphere and a union that operates in the economic sphere, neither one of which aims at transforming the structures in which they exist.  It is always good to be reminded of the importance of the early Marx, and OJQ in particular.

While this volume limits itself to class politics and capitalism, there is no reason it cannot instructive for those of us who are interested in how we might move beyond heteronomy more generally: not just capitalism but all forms of life in which people give up control of their own affairs to an entity beyond and above themselves.  Any struggle for democracy–which is to say the ongoing struggle to increasingly manage our affairs for ourselves–has a lot to learn from the countless examples throughout history and throughout the world of workers’ movements trying heroically to do just that.

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