Sunday, November 6, 2011

Socialisme ou Barbarie and the origins of Solidarity.

Origins of an influential
libertarian socialist organisation - 'Genesis' Part 2

The politics of the Socialisme ou Barbarie (S ou B) group were a considerable influence on Solidarity and had origins, like Solidarity, in the Trotskyist movement. The prime movers, Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort, were members of the Parti Communiste Internationale (PCI), the French section of the Fourth International. Working together from 1946 these two argued that the Stalinists in the USSR and out of it were not a part of the workers’ movement but bureaucrats who were as much enemies of the working class as the capitalists. (The US Johnson-Forest Tendency, subsequently the group round the publication Facing Reality, were thinking along similar lines at this time. Relations were close between the two groups or at least their key members for many years.) At the end of 1948 ten or twenty dissidents left the PCI and in March 1949 the first issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie was published. The choice posed in the title – Socialism or Barbarism – stemmed from the emergence of two atomic-armed superstates, both aiming for world domination. The result of the conflict between them would be atomic war and a return to barbarism for
humanity unless the power elites both east and west were overthrown by socialist revolution.

At the same time as the group were locating all power in the rank and file the majority of the group including Castoriadis resolved that S ou B should develop into a vanguard party able to lead and co-ordinate the workers’ struggle and conquer state power; Lefort amongst others opposed this idea, taking the position that the essential problem was not the organisation of the revolution but workers’ power. After 1953 the anti-bureaucratic critique began to acquire some influence among rank and file militants particularly in the Renault factories on the outskirts of Paris. Instead of working to capture the unions and provide ‘correct leadership’ the industrial militants worked independently from the unions in autonomous groups.
Cornelius Castoriadis
From the mid-1950s Castoriadis developed a critique of Marx’s views of technology as a neutral historical force and labour as a simple commodity. The former was rather a class-technology designed to increase control over the workers. In the latter case the price of labour was not fixed but depended on the ‘relationship of forces between capitalists and workers’. The implications were that Marx’s economic ‘laws’ were no such thing, the nature of history became unpredictable and every historical situation was open. From 1958/9 he combined his concepts of the central contradiction in modern society, that between management and worker, with these criticisms of Marx. ‘The new critical theory of society which grew from this assumed that the real contradiction of capitalism could no longer be sought in the economic arena but within production itself.’ In this view the initiative and participation of the workers was required to allow work processes to function but the room needed for this participation also made room for worker self-activity and a degree of shop-floor control which management would continually try to contain and which trades unions would try to sell for cash gains.

It is not difficult to see where the attractions lay for the 1960 Workers’ Party. S ou B emphasised the importance of rank and file industrial organisation More than this, it stressed the necessity for this rank and file organisation to be autonomous and placed the increasing spread and power of such autonomous organisations at the heart of the process leading to socialism. The role of the political group was to put autonomous groups in contact with each other and publish detailed and honest accounts of particular struggles to discuss lessons learned and encourage further autonomous activity elsewhere. [This puts Solidarity’s future practice in a nutshell].The project of capturing the trades union hierarchies was simply abandoned.

Chris Pallis of the Grainger-Pennington group through which these ideas were translated had met Castoriadis in 1947 through a friend who was at that point breaking with the PCI under Castoriadis’ influence. They met again when Chris returned to London (from Malaysia) in 1950/52 but it was not until 1956 that he began seriously to take note of Castoriadis’ ideas, as he became disenchanted with the Trotskyism of the Club and the SLL. He began to read back through Socialisme ou Barbarie and made contact with the group. There is evidence of well-developed traffic between S ou B and a group of people in the SLL around Chris Pallis some time before it became more public and spread its ideas in 1959/60, resulting in the Grainger-Pennington expulsions.

‘Socialism Reaffirmed’ – founding ideas and principles of organisation
The ‘Socialism Reaffirmed’ text published in October 1960 set out the position of the new group, or perhaps more accurately put forward ‘certain ideas which might form a basis for a regroupment of revolutionary socialists’. This text, largely the work of Chris Pallis, is a summarised selection from the founding text published in the first issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie in March 1949. A full version also titled ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ would be published in 1961. The 1960 leaflet is the recognisable forebear of later texts such as ‘As We See It’ and ‘As We Don’t See It’. Like them it attempts to set out complex ideas in as clear a way as possible with simple precise sentences, although not yet free of Marxist linguistic tics.

Key points [some abbreviated] are:
  • No existing supposedly working class organisations express the interests of the working class...
  • A socialist movement is the self-conscious and independent movement of the immense majority.
  • The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves... Revolutionary bodies can assist the process but mass socialist consciousness and mass participation are essential...
  • No ruling class ever has [given] or will give up its privileges without ferocious struggle.
  • Society is divided into the majority and those who own, manage, decide and direct. The result is crisis and conflict ...
  • The working class develops an ‘essentially socialist’ consciousness in everyday struggle at the point of production in both capitalist and communist societies...
  • In one revolutionary upsurge after another the working class has attempted to solve ‘the basic question of its status as an exploited class’ and challenged ‘the very basis of all exploiting regimes’.
  • Between these peaks of activity the working class has created political and trade union organisations but they have degenerated partly because capitalism has adapted itself and partly because capitalist methods of thinking and organisation have been imposed on them... The revolutionary organisation must fight mystification and its peddlers.
  • Socialism means workers’ management in the factory and in society as a whole – without economic power the working class hold on political power will be insecure. ‘Factory committees and workers' councils are the probable forms through which the working class will exert its rule’ ...
  • The working class needs a revolutionary organisation not as leadership but ‘as an instrument of its struggle’ whose role is to assist struggles and link them, publish material to generalise experience and to stress the revolutionary potential of independent mass action.
  • The structure of the revolutionary organisation should reflect the highest working class forms, i.e. workers’ councils. Local bodies will have the fullest autonomy ‘that is in keeping with the general purpose and outlook of the organisation.’ All central decision making bodies should be made up of elected delegates, revocable at any time.
This is very clearly a summary of the S ou B/(Castoriadis) position. There are some noteworthy features: firstly, the assertion of the primacy of struggle over theory and, with caveats, the primacy of autonomous working class organisation over the revolutionary party. The essential element of a socialist society is asserted to be workers’ economic power enshrined in ultra-democratic bodies not the political organs of party or state. The leaflet’s significance in the context of the times is that it was a libertarian challenge to the Leninist left on its own ground, using its own language to attack its own fetishes in the kind of logical progression of argument familiar from its better polemics. This made it rather more dangerous and challenging than arguments in terms taken from other traditions whether social democratic or anarchist.

Nevertheless there are some internal contradictions and inherited assumptions. One is the assumption that the working class engaged in the struggle for socialism is the manual working class engaged in production. This does not mesh particularly well with the concept of the socialist movement as the movement of the vast majority. Already by 1960 the proportion of the population engaged in manual and white collar non-managerial service jobs was considerable. Similarly movements such as CND were potentially capable of independent mass action but had no relationship to class struggle at the point of production.

Another feature of the leaflet is the way that 'the' revolutionary organisation is described not 'a' revolutionary organisation. However self-effacing as an instrument of working class struggle the organisation may be, no matter how great the (nevertheless conditional) autonomy of local branches, what we have here is enough residual Leninism to assume an exclusive and essential role in relation to working class struggle. These points are not trivial or abstractly theoretical and would be tested soon enough by the group’s practical experience. This experience would in turn modify its practice and the statements that the group put out from time to time in future.

[Solidarity, later joined by members from a more libertarian background, was to devote much of its intellectual energy to getting any ‘residual Leninism’ out of its system, and to developing and extending its critique not only of Stalinism and Trotskyism but of marxism in general. - LW]

JQ emphasises that this is a work in progress, as part of a longer “Insiders’ History” of Solidarity, and that comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. The Alan Woodward archive at the Bishopsgate Institute (see post on this blog, 17 Nov. 2015, with link to catalogue) includes material on Solidarity and Ken Weller:
    Modern anarchism/Ken Weller Project: papers, correspondence, ephemera and cuttings, 1987-2006
    Solidarity: writings by AW and others on Solidarity, 1977-c2000.