Reviewing Solidarity’s Vision: The Self-Managed Society Pt. 2

This is the second in a series of blogs reviewing the Solidarity groups 1972 pamphlet publication of Workers’ Councils and the Economics of Self-Managed Society by Cornelius Castoriadis, first published in 1957 (Number 22 of the French journal Socialism or Barbarism). I chose to re-produce and review the pamphlet because of the insight it presents, its timelessness, as well as the issues it raises about vision.

Things to keep in mind while reading this review:

The text was written in the middle of the Cold War, 1957, just one year after the Hungarian uprising and its subsequent Soviet suppression. During this period there were numerous challenges to Stalinism (who had passed) and Soviet Influence in Eastern Europe. New forms of worker control and self-management took the form of workers’ councils in Poland, Yugoslavia, and Hungary before dissipating due to repression or institutional pressures.

Continuing with the pamphlet…


1. Introduction

The development of modern society and what has happened to the working class movement over the last 100 years (and, in particular, since 1917) have compelled us radically to revise most of the ideas on which that movement had been based.

Several decades have gone by since the Russian Revolution. From that revolution it is not socialism that emerged, but a new and monstrous form of exploiting society in which the bureaucracy replaced the private owners of capital and ‘the plan’ took the place of the ‘free market’.

There are several basic ingredients for the revision we propose. The first is to assimilate the vast experience of the Russian revolution and of what happened to it. The next is to grasp the real significance of the Hungarian Workers’ Councils and other uprisings against the bureaucracy. But there are other ingredients to the proposed revision. A look at modern capitalism, and at the type of conflict it breeds, shows that throughout the world working people are faced with the same fundamental problems, often posed in surprisingly similar terms. These problems call for the same answer. This answer is socialism, a social system which is the very opposite both of the bureaucratic capitalism now installed in Russia, China and elsewhere — and of the type of capitalism now prevailing in the West.

The experience of bureaucratic capitalism allows us clearly to perceive what socialism is not and cannot be. A close look both at past proletarian uprisings and at the everyday life and struggles of the working class — both East and West — enables us to posit what socialism could be and should be.


Written well before the failed reforms of the Soviet Union, and its subsequent demise in 1989, the comments above were targeted at corporate divisions of labor and central planning structures defining command economies of "Actually Existing Socialism" in the 20th Century. However, looking back from our vantage point of 2008, two concepts are used in the above paragraph that should be un-packed here for clarity. One is use of the word "socialism," the second is the phrase "bureaucratic capitalism." First, use of the term socialism since the Russian revolution has been a bit tricky. U.S. and Soviet elites both liked to call the Soviet model "socialist" for equally propagandistic purposes—Soviet elites because they wanted to project the Soviet image at home and abroad as promoting the classical and human values of socialism, in contrast to the evils of Western capitalism and imperialism, so as to rally support for the Soviet cause domestically and internationally. The Cold War, Stalinism, and Soviet interventionism enabled U.S. elites to portray the authoritarian model of Soviet socialism as the only form of socialism possible, in contrast to the U.S. which was supposed to be the ideal form of democracy and governance when implemented at home or abroad. By the end of the 20th Century the concept "socialism" had acquired so much baggage that some on the Left stopped using the term even though they despised the capitalist system. Now, this century, there is a narrative emerging from Latin America with roots in the transformation unfolding in Venezuela—what Hugo Chavez calls "21st Century Socialism," a vision inspired by the Bolivarian Revolution. While it’s not entirely clear what Chavez has in mind for his vision of socialism, it seem to be different from the authoritarian models of last century, and based on council structures for both the polity and economy. The term "socialism" may or may not be re-gaining currency, but the thing that matters most is not whether one uses the term or not, but that the institutional structure of the vision we propose is defined no matter what we call it. Even if you choose to use the term socialism, you will still be pressed to answer when someone asks what you mean by it, or how it is different from the authoritarian failures of last century.

Next is this phrase used in the pamphlet "bureaucratic capitalism." What is meant by it and is it an appropriate label for the Soviet Model? Certainly there were many varieties of "Actually Existing Socialism" just as there are many varieties capitalism. Here is an example: even though  they are both capitalist, there are differences between the social democracy of Sweden and the "Shock Therapy" experiments of Milton Friedman in Chile under the dictatorship of Pinochet—more or less social welfare spending, more or less government intervention in markets, more or less privatization of public services, etc. However, across variations of the capitalist system there are defining institutions in all which give us reason to differentiate it from "socialism" and vice versa. Broadly speaking, it is not difficult to understand. Capitalism’s defining features are private ownership of productive assets; markets are used for allocation of the material means of life; corporate divisions of labor are used in the work place; and remuneration norms based on output due to luck, bargaining power, or brute force. The Soviet Union was a model of "Central Planning," the model most prevalent in the 20th Century. Other countries that adopted variations of that model are North Korea, Cuba, China, as well as other Eastern Europe countries. Just as there are variations of capitalism so too are there variations of central planning. But the broad strokes, the broad contours of centrally planned economies, were essentially the same.

The dominant characteristics of centrally planned economies are state or publicly owned property, with a central planning authority; the economic outcome of society was generated by an economic plan. There were a variety of different economic plans used; there were short term plans, annual plans, five year plans, long term plans, etc. However, the key issue here is that implementing a plan was mandatory and top down. The economic process of central planning can be described as a mammoth bureaucracy where hundreds of thousands of functionaries in the Communist Party, the state administration, the firm, cooperative management, and the mass organizations negotiate, calculate, renegotiate, and recalculate before the millions of planning commands emerge at all levels. Basically, planners would call in information about the state of the economy and the state of peoples economic desires within society. They would massage that information and come up with a plan to be implemented. They would decide who was going to do what, what gets produced, how much is produced and where it’s going to go. They would also make decisions about choosing, hiring and firing, appointing, rewarding, and disciplining managers of each firm. Likewise, each manager also had similar control over each individual enterprise that they operated within; as in corporate hierarchies. The rationale behind the system of central planning was that the planners could, using as much information as they could gather, get the best possible economic plan for society.

So what is meant by the term "bureaucratic capitalism" when speaking of "Russia, China and elsewhere" in the 20th Century? What I think is meant by the term is that, in those countries, a new elite rose to power replacing the former capitalist class. This new elite class, like the old, controlled productive assets and exploited labor while at the same time increased their own power, wealth, and privilege at society’s expense. However, the rise of this new elite class, does not mean that capitalism and "socialism" have institutions and defining features, that resemble each other indistinguishably. Pareconists would call this new class the "coordinator class." This class exists both in capitalism and communism and is the result of corporate divisions of labor. In capitalism the coordinators are positioned above workers who do rote and un-empowering tasks, who want higher wages, better working conditions, more control over their work, etc., and below capitalists who own the means of production and want to lower wages while extracting more labor and progressively weaken the bargaining power of workers in order to gain more profit. In centrally planned economies the capitalist class—those who owned the productive assets—as a class, were not prevalent. The coordinator class were the planners and mangers mentioned above. They rose to power after the capitalist class had been expropriated. Identifying a coordinator class, and being clear about the institutional differences between capitalism and socialism seems to convey a more accurate understanding of the institutional roles and relationships of these two different systems, which, if we’re seeking to transform society, has strategic consequences. 


Basing ourselves on the experience of a century we can and must now define the positive content of socialism in a much fuller and more accurate way than could previous revolutionaries. In today’s vast ideological morass, people who call themselves socialists may be heard to assert that ‘they are no longer quite sure what the word means’. We hope to show that the very opposite is the case. Today, for the first time, one can begin to spell out in concrete and specific terms what socialism could really be like.

Again, considering last century’s baggage packed into the idea of socialism, we should place importance on defining our terms and what we mean.

The task we are about to undertake does not only lead us to challenge many widely held ideas about socialism, many of which go back to Lenin and some to Marx. It also leads us to question widely held ideas about capitalism, about the way it works and about the real nature of its crises, ideas many of which have reached us (with or without distortion) from Marx himself. The two analyses are complementary and, in fact, the one necessitates the other. One cannot understand the deepest essence of capitalism and its crises without a total conception of socialism. For socialism implies human autonomy, the conscious management by people of their own lives. Capitalism — both private and bureaucratic — is the ultimate negation of this autonomy, and its crises stem from the fact that the system necessarily creates this drive to autonomy, while simultaneously being compelled to suppress it.

The revision we propose did not of course start today. Various strands of the revolutionary movement — and a number of individual revolutionaries — have contributed to it over a period. In the very first issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie we claimed that the fundamental division in contemporary societies was the division into order-givers (dirigeants) and order-takers (exécutants). We attempted to show how the working class’s own development would lead it to a socialist consciousness. We stated that socialism could only be the product of the autonomous action of the working class. We stressed that a socialist society implied the abolition of any separate stratum of order-givers and that it therefore implied power at the base and workers’ management of production.


Correct in identifying relations of power and empowerment in stressing "a socialist society implie[s] the abolition of any separate stratum of order-givers," there should be no less stressed placed on abolition of ownership of productive assets, whether in the form of stocks and bonds, or property deeds. Indeed, and to Castoriadis’s/Solidarity’s credit, most anti-capitalists overlook the importance of power and empowerment in divisions of labor (even Libertarian Leftists), and instead place singular importance on ownership relations. In capitalist society one is as structurally important as the other.


But, in a sense, we ourselves have failed to develop our own ideas to the full. It would hardly be worth mentioning this fact were it not that it reflected — at its own level — the influence of factors which have dominated the evolution of revolutionary theory for a century, namely the enormous dead-weight of the ideology of exploiting society, the paralyzing legacy of traditional concepts and the difficulty of freeing oneself from inherited methods of thought.

In one sense, our revision consists of making more explicit and precise what has always been the deepest content of working class struggles — whether at their dramatic and culminating moments (revolution) or in the anonymity of working class life in the factory. In another sense, our revision consists in freeing revolutionary thought from the accumulated clinker of a century. We want to break the deforming prisms through which so many revolutionaries have become used to looking at the society around them.

Socialism aims at giving a meaning to the life and work of people; at enabling their freedom, their creativity and the most positive aspects of their personality to flourish; at creating organic links between the individual and those around him, and between the group and society; at overcoming the barriers between manual and mental work; at reconciling people with themselves and with nature. It thereby rejoins the most deeply felt aspirations of the working class in its daily struggles against capitalist alienation. These are not longings relating to some hazy and distant future. They are feelings and tendencies existing and manifesting themselves today, both in revolutionary struggles and in everyday life. To understand this is to understand that, for the worker, the final problem of history is an everyday problem.

To grasp this is also to perceive that socialism is not ‘nationalization’ or ‘planning’ or even an ‘increase in living standards’. It is to understand that the real crisis of capitalism is not due to ‘the anarchy of the market’, or to ‘overproduction’ or to ‘the falling rate of profit’. Taken to their logical conclusion, and grasped in all their implications, these ideas alter one’s concepts of revolutionary theory, action and organization. They transform one’s vision of society and of the world.


Perhaps due to their irreverence (which I mostly enjoy) this last paragraph overshoots the problem I think. It contradicts statements both made above and later to follow i.e. as will be quoted in pt.3 of this review "Everywhere, the capitalist structure of society imposes on people an organization of their lives that is external to them." If the paragraph above means that revolution should emancipate people in their everyday lives by providing an institutional setting where work, life, culture, decision-making, familial relations, etc. are embedded with solidarity and compassion, self-managed decision-making where people have input in proportion to the degree they are affected, equity, diversity of life style options, etc., a society where human consciousness and potential is explored—and that this should be the primary concern of revolutionaries, than it could be clearer. But if it is meant that the defining institutional structure of capitalism (or socialism) are not core issues to be concerned with, which I don’t think they mean, than I would disagree. The primary goal for revolutionaries should be to do away with the imposition of classist, racist, sexist, and authoritarian institutions and replace them with emancipatory ones.

Part three of review coming soon…

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