What is Important?
In issue number three of Worker's Power a school
teacher asked the question: why don't workers write? He showed in
a thorough manner that this is due to their total situation in society
and also to the nature of the so-called "education" that
is dispensed by the capitalist schools. He also said that workers
often think that their experience "is not interesting".
This last point appears fundamental to me and I would like to share
my experience on it, which is not that of a worker but of a militant.
When workers ask an intellectual to talk to them about the problems
of capitalism and socialism they find it hard to understand that
we accord a central place to the workers' situation in the factory
and in production. I have often had occasion to present the following
ideas to workers:
- The way in which production is organized in a capitalist factory
creates a perpetual conflict between workers aid bosses around the
- The bosses always use new methods to chain workers to the "discipline
- Workers always invent new ways of defending themselves.
- This confilict often has more influence on the level of salaries
than negotiations or even strikes do.
- The waste which results is enormous and for greater than that
resulting from economic crises.
- Unions are always out of touch with and most often hostile to
this kind of workers' struggle.
- Militants who are workers ought to spread all the important examples
of this struggle outside the enterprise where they occur.
- Nothing is changed in this situation by the simple "nationalization"
of factories and "planning" of the economy.
- Socialism is therefore inconceivable without a complete change
in the organization of production in factories, without the suppression
of the bosses, and the institution of workers' control.
These expositions were both concrete and theoretical that
is to say that each time they gave real and precise examples, but
at the same time, far from being limited to description they tried
to draw general conclusions. Here were facts of which workers evidently
had the most direct and complete experience, and which also had
profound and universal importance.
However, one could say that the listeners spoke little, and it
appeared they felt deceived. They had come there to speak of or
to hear important things, and it seemded difficult for them
to believe that the important things were those that they did every
day. They thought that they would be told about absolute and relative
surplus value, of the decline in the rate of profit, of over-production
and under-consumption. It seemed unbelievable to them that the evolution
of modern society was determined more by the actions of millions
of workers in all the factories of the world than by the grand economic
laws, hidden and mysterious, which are discovered by theorists.
They even disagreed that a permanent struggle between workers and
bosses exists and that workers succeed in defending themselves;
however, once the discussion got under way, what they said showed
that they themselves fought such a struggle from the moment they
entered the factory to the moment they left it.
The workers' belief that the way they live, what they do, and what
they think "is not important" is not only something that
prevents them from expressing themselves. It is the most serious
sign of ideological servitude to capitalism. For, capitalism
could not survive unless people were persuaded that what they do
and know concerns only then, is unimportant, and that important
things are the monopoly of the big shots and the specialists in
various fields. Capitalism tries constantly to drum this idea into
But it must also be said that it has been strongly aided in this
task by workers' organizations. For a very long time trade unions
and leftist parties have tried to persuade workers that the only
important questions concern either wages in particular, or the economy,
politics and society in general. This is already false but there
is worse to come. That which these organizations took to be "theory"
on these questions and that which increasingly passed for such in
the eyes of the public was not linked, as it should have been, to
the experience of workers in production and social life, but became
a so-called "scientific" theory increasingly abstract
(and increasingly false). Certainly only the specialists
intellectuals and bosses can and do speak of such a theory.
The workers must simply keep quiet and try hard to absorb and assimilate
the "truth" that the latter feed then. We thus reach two
conclusions. The intense desire that many workers have to expand
their knowledge and horizons, to gain a conception of society that
will help them in their struggle is destroyed from the start. The
so-called "theory" set before them seems to be in most
cases a sort of higher algebra, inaccessible and frequently containing
a litany of incomprehensible words that explain nothing. On the
other hand, the workers have no verication of the content and truth
of such a "theory", its demonstration appears, they are
told, in the fourteen volumes of Capital and in the other
immense and mysterious works possessed by the learned comrades in
whom we must have confidence.
The roots and consequences of this situation go very far. It originates
in a profoundly bourgeois mentality: just as with the laws of physics,
there are said to be laws of economics and society, "laws"
which have nothing to do with the experience of workers. Rather,
they are the property of the scientists and engineers who know of
them. Just as only engineers can decide how to make a bridge, similarly
only the engineers of society leaders of parties and unions
can decide on the organization of society. To change society
is thus to change its "general" organization, but that
does not affect in the slightest what happens in the factories,
since that "is not important".
In order to move beyond this situation it is not enough to say
to workers: speak, it is up to you to say what the problems are.
It is necessary to demolish the monstrously false idea that the
problems that workers see are not important, that there are more
important ones which only "theorists" and politicians
can speak about. We can understand society, but still less can we
understand society if we do not understand the factory. There is
only one way for this to happen: the workers must speak. To demonstrate
this must be the first and permanent task of Workers' Power.
Originally published in Pouvier Ouvrier, the monthly
supplement to Socialism ou Barbarie, No. 5 , (March, 1959);
reprinted in Cornelius Castoriadis, L'Experience du Mouvement Ouvrier:
Proletariat et Organisation (Paris: Union Generale, 1974). Translated
by Tom McLaughlin.
Published in Volume 3, Number 1 of The
Red Menace, Winter 1979.
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