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Occupy, resist, produce

Peter Hogarth

February 19, 2012

Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present

Edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini

Reviewed by Peter Hogarth

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, writing on the workplace occupations in the US in 1937, wrote that “every sit-down poses in a practical manner the question of who is the boss of the factory, the capitalist or the workers?” For this reason, Ness and Azzellini’s collection of essays is an incredibly valuable resource for people thinking about what another world could look like.

Ness and Azzellini’s collection takes a detailed look at instances where workers took over their workplaces and ran them collectively, making demands from the routine to the revolutionary. It features examples drawn from a range of experiences including revolutionary movements in Europe in the early twentieth century, the role of mass workers’ movements in anticolonial struggle, and even a chapter on how BC telecommunications workers operated the BC telephone system under workers’ control for five-days in 1981.

Whether focusing on Poland or Portugal, Indonesia or Chicago, what comes through clearly in this collection is that workers the world over will resist. As Sheila Cohen points out in her chapter, when they resist they continue to independently adopt a near identical committee-based, delegate-led, directly democratic structure for their most powerful expressions of resistance. The forms which this resistance takes points to the potential for a new society based on equality and democracy. But why does the working class, often with no explicit socialist consciousness or political strategy, consistently organize itself in such a way as to challenge the very logic of capitalism and the world we know? And why do socialists insist on the centrality of the working class in toppling capitalism?

Donny Gluckstein, in his chapter on workers’ councils in Europe, makes the point that “an effective challenge to capitalism must be based in a numerous group of people—a class. This class must not be driven by the pursuit of private gain as are the capitalists, but by a collective, shared interest. It must possess the power to defeat capitalism…only the working class meets these criteria. It cooperates in workplace units and produces the necessities of life.”

The workplace occupation points to this alternative and it disrupts the business as usual of normal employee/employer relations. Call it a book for its time, but it is obvious that employers today are holding nothing back in their vicious attacks on the working class. The old patterns of labour negotiations and symbolic strikes will not stop the offensive or even maintain the standards of yesterday. Instead,Nessand Azzellini have assembled an argument that bold, creative action that challenges the bosses, in which workers can commandeer both the shop-floor and the community can not only win, but inspire.

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