Workers Against Work

It seems plausible to imagine that workers, no matter how abused they are in their workplaces, would rally around the work ethic during moments of national catastrophe. During WWII US productivity advanced as industrial workers “enlisted“ in the war effort. We have all seen those old newsreels with hundreds of workers streaming out of factories looking noble and, of course, at a brisk clip – wouldn’t you if you just spent 10 hours manufacturing war materiel? And then there was Rosie the Riveter – the iconic figure of the dedicated anti-fascist worker.

The real story of war production, however, depicts regimentation that rivaled the military. One need only recall the post-war labor agitation, as workers released from the pressure cooker period of war, erupted in strikes that eventually led to state repression in the way of anti-labor laws.

One would think however that the workers in Barcelona and Paris during the late 30s, in their struggles to fight fascism, had an allegiance to their role as anti-fascists to conform to the demands of production. Especially in Barcelona where in most cases they had taken over the factories when the owners fled.

Michael Seidman, in his 1991 book (out of print), Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts relates an entirely different scenario, one of workers resisting the productivist demands of the militants in Spain’s CNT and the French union CGT. Through meticulous research Seidman details the absenteeism, the defense of a casual work pace, the theft and the resistance to overtime, among other acts of rebellion against the workplace, and presents us with a more complex appreciation of the struggle against the work ethic.

There are several points that arise from Seidman’s history, aside from the repudiation of the standard histories of so-called politically committed workers and their zeal for work. The most significantly, Seidman questions the revolutionary ideology of both anarchist and Marxist organizers. When push came to shove these politicos, despite their putative disagreements, were devoted to an economic vision that duplicated that of their class enemy. They became the new bosses. The workers recognized this and fought against it.

Seidman, in a short pamphlet: The Strange History of “Workers against Work” – The Vicissitudes of a Book, comments on the reviews of his book from both the legitimate and clandestine translated editions that have appeared recently, 20 years after its original publication. This alone is noteworthy. As he remarks, there seems to be a revival of interest in the questions that he delved into in 70s France while living with some ultra-leftists. At that time, he says that he recognized a seeming contradiction with those he knew who resisted work and yet at the same time believed in a form of council communism, after the fashion of the Situationists. I guess if you presume that workers’ control would be limited to a simple transfer of industrial production from the current bosses to dedicated militants then I can see some difficulties. But was that the view of those who believed – in agreement with council communism – that the workers would be satisfied with new asses warming the seats of power? Or that the workers, disgusted with their enslavement to wage labor, would not transform the way they work?

I have no idea of course what his friends thought, but those who I knew at that time in the US had a more nuanced view of the Situationist’s “generalized self-management” that incorporated the utopianism of William Morris and Oscar Wilde, the vitriol of Paul Lafargue and Albert Parsons, the visions of the surrealists and the long tradition of dissident Marxism and anarchism. Seidman’s newer book, The Imaginary Revolution: Parisian Students and Workers in 1968, may illuminate some of these currents in that explosion against work in May.

In The Strange History…, Seidman makes a telling distinction between advocating the “ abolition of wage labor” and not “for ‘the liberation of work.’” The implication here is that he is for the former and he should not be confused with those who advocate the work-free utopia.

Appropriately enough, Seidman, in his concluding chapter raises the viewpoint of Paul Lafargue on work; unfortunately, he misinterprets Lafargue’s intent in The Right to be Lazy. He presumes that Lafargue took the 1848 slogan – “The Right to Work” – resurrected by the conformist opposition of the 1880s, as the position of the workers themselves. But in fact, his essay was directed at the politics of those who wished to compromise with those in power. When published, Lafargue’s pamphlet was enthusiastically received by the French workers and as Seidman mentions, is the most translated socialist text aside from the Communist Manifesto.

One last point: Here are Seidman’s concluding sentences:

Accepting labor uncritically and believing that it provided meaning for workers, the productivist utopians [the militants of CGT] logically concluded that the state would be superfluous once workers had taken control of the production forces. Yet the actual historical experience of the Left in power in Paris and Barcelona question such a vision. Despite the presence of working-class parties and unions in government, workers continued to resist constraints of workspace and worktime, thereby provoking state intervention to increase production. Historians may conclude that the state can be abolished only when Lafargue’s cybernetic utopia has been realized.

The “cybernetic utopia” refers to Lafargue’s speculation that the capitalist technology currently used to increase profits, needed to be re-conceptualized to benefit the workers. Mainly this meant, for Lafargue, that timesaving advances in mechanical work should reduce the workday and that homicidal machines should be abolished. He, like the socialists of his day, did not address the question of technology’s supposed neutrality. Only the Romantics rejected technology which they saw as synonymous to industrialism, a despoiler of the environment and human crafts. A more nuanced view of capitalist technology didn’t appear for almost a century.

The modern industrial plant of today would probably affirm Lafargue’s wildest dreams of a workplace paradise. The industrial worker today benefits from the enormous power of automated devices that, to use an extreme example, flip huge metal carcasses around to accommodate a delicate application of human power. And wouldn’t he marvel at the sight of a lone technician manipulating a control panel to dictate mechanical operations with the power of a Greek god? We have one half of Lafargue’s utopia all around us, and no prospect of the other half – workers’ control. And the workers are fast disappearing!