Thursday, 20 November 2008

The Chance of a Lifetime

I was watching an old 1950's film on Film 4 the other day The Chance of a Lifetime . Its a mild comedy about a factory making and maintaining agricultural implements in post-war Britain. A review and opportunity to see the film is given at the above link, but as a short summary the film goes something like this.

There is a dispute a the factory. Workers in the post-war environment are feeling more militant. They object to the Management style of a new manager brought in, and the main worker's spokesman is fired for challenging Management. The workers immediately down tools demanding his reinstatement. In response, the factory owner gives the workers a lecture about the long hours he works, and the responsibility he bears. They should try doing his job he says, and offers them the chance. The workers take him up on the offer much to his amazement and chagrin. Convinced they will soon fail and backed into a corner on his offer, he agrees to lease the firm to the workers at a rental of 5% of the Capital value.

The workers agree, and qickly elect two new Factor Managers, and a production manager played by Kenneth More. There are a number of well-known actors in the film including Hattie Jacques who plays the part of a production workers who scolds one or two of the more Bolshy male workers for being hypocritical and lazy both before and after the workers take over the factory.

At this point you are of course expecting that the workers begin to fall out amongst themselves that they are proved incapable, and need the boss to come back. The Secretary decides her place is alongside the Boss and walks out, but the firm's bookkeeper says he can't afford to quit. The new management at this ask him how much he's paid. "£8 a week", he replies. "We thought you suit and tie blokes were on at least £20," say the new bosses, "We'll have to see about giving you a rise." But, I was pleasantly surprised. This is not one of those comedies of the time like, for example, the pretty appalling "I'm Alright Jack", starring peterSellers and Ian Carmichael, which was a parody of class relations, and a charicature of workers and Trade Unions. More true to life we see the factory owner having a get together with the Company Secretary, the firms bank manager, and others discussing what to do. The are all convinced the experiement will fail, and decide to simply wait, for the owner to go on holiday in the meantime.

The Company Secretary, on this basis comes back to work, but clearly looks down her nose at the new bosses, being unhelpful when they want to dictate letters etc. But, the workers quickly set about sprucing up the factory, which like much of post-war Britain was in a run-down state. They tidy work areas, paint the building, and refurbish the firm's vehicle fleet. They bring in new ideas, and do well.

But, again, true to life in the experience workers have had in such situations, the firm's Bank and its suppliers withdraw Credit. The Bank will only advance Credit if the workers provide collateral. In response the workers have a whip round to raise the money. This provides the first conflict with some of those workers who were the most Bolshy under the old management continuing to view the running of the firm in the same terms. This was interesting. In many ways the way the firm was being run, WAS the same as before. The vision of workers management portrayed was not one of a functioning workers democracy. It was a mix of Leninism and bouregos democracy. The workers had elected new Managers - by a process we never actually witnessed - and now these managers acted as the old bosses making decisions on behalf of all the workers - a combination of representative democracy, and Leninist centralism and leadership. The only time we see the workers themselves actually being consulted over an issue is here when they are being asked to cough up Capital, and when changes in work practices mean that some workers will lose out on bonuses.

Both situations are fairly quickly resolved, which was unrealstic, but probably inevitable if the film wasn't to be an epic. On the bonus issue the union bureaucrats are brought in to suggest that those affected simply suck it up. But, that isn't really the solution. The solution to this and the other problem is effectively resolved through the medium of Hattie Jacques who shames the dissenters into accepting.

The firm had developed a new type of plough which the workers begin to put into production. Its seen by a trade delegation from Zenobia, who get a demonstration, and decide to buy a large quantity. This causes a further problem. Fulfilling this contract will secure the firm, but doing so will mean retooling and reconfiguring the plant to concentratesolely on producing the new plough. One of the managers objects arguing that not only would it mean putting all their eggs in one basket, but it would mean abandoning all of their existing customers on whom the business had been built. Again the decision isn't put to the workers, but is resolved simply within the management. Kenneth More gets his way, and the dissenting Manager returns to his old job in the fitting shop.

At this point the firm's steel supplier holds up deliveries so that production has to stop, and workers face being laid off. Enter the old boss. He had been responsible for the design of the new plough,and seeing the success of the workers objects to the wrecking tactics of the steel company. Was this unrealistic? Taken as a whole probably, but not altogether. There have been such instances. Indeed, were it not for sections of the bourgeoisie having a glimpse of the future society we would not have had Marx and Engels. The Co-operative at Ralahine was only possible because the Landlord leased the farm to the workers, and even in Russia some foreign Capitalists such as Armand Hammer of Occidental petroleum were prepared to collaborate with lenin in trying to develop the economy. Given the fact, that the boss was getting a 5% whack from the workers, and that longer-term he would have no incentive to see what was still technically his firm go bust, its not that unrealistic. He threatens to go to the press to expose the steel supplier for damaging Britain's export potential. The steel arrives.

But, then an economic crisis means that Zenobia stops all imports,and the contract gives no protection against such a withdrawal to the workers. Again the boss comes in to help out, using his foreign contacts and knowledge he is able to find new markets for the ploughs that areen route to Zenobia, or waiting to be shipped. All is well, he returns, but Kenneth More takes the big Chair in his place.

I wouldn't recommend you go out of your way to see the film, but if its on one rainy afternoon its worth watching. It gives an antidote to the usual propaganda that workers can't exist without bosses. But, it hedges its bets. It is really a film about class collaboration. What it is really saying it seems to me is "Look, workers are brighter more capable than they are given credit for. If they are allowed to have a say and put in their input they can make a great contribution. But, wouldn't it be nice if bosses recognised that, and they combined their effort."

Of course, on a class wide scale that is never going to happen. Nor did the film give us a vision of how a workers Co-operative could function now or in the transition to socialism as a functioning workers democracy. There are, of course, questions that socialists have to raise about that themselves. We have had experience of workers co-operatives, and democracy does not always serve the interests of efficiency and effective decision making. Nor do democratic decisions always provide the best outcomes. It may be possible to undertake such experiements in a trasnition to socialism, but under conditions of Capitalism workers will need to ensure that the decisions they take are based on sound commercial principles rather than being carried away with the idea that within their own little encalve they can go straight away to the kind of egalitarian society that will only be possible under Communism.

I was reminded of soemthing that Gramsci wrote,

"The working masses must take adequate measures to acquire complete self-government, and the first step along this road consists in disciplining themselves, inside the workshop, in the strictest possible, yet autonomous, spontaneous and unconstrained manner. Nor can it be denied that the discipline which will be established along with the new system will lead to an improvement in production - but this is nothing but the confirmation of one of the theses of socialism: the more the productive forces acquire consciousness, liberate themselves from the slavery to which capitalism would have liked to condemn them forever, the better does their mode of utilization become - a man will aways work better than a slave. So to those who object that by this method we are collaboraing with our opponents, with the owners of the factories, we reply that on the contrary this is the only means of letting them know in concrete terms that the end of their domination is at hand, since the working class is now aware of the possibility of doing things itself, and doing them well. Indeed from one day to the next it is acquiring an ever clearer certainty that it alone can save the entire world from ruin and desolation. Hence every action that you undertake, every battle that is waged under your leadership, will be illuminated by the light of that ultimate goal which is in all of your minds and intentions."

"To the Workshop Delegates of the Fiat Centro and Brevetti Plants" September 1919

Gramsci here was talking about the Workers Councils springing up across Italy at a time of heightened class struggle that were demanding some degree of workers control and workers inspection. Ultimately, as I have written elsewhere the demand for Workers Control of Capitalist property is utopian outside such periods i.e. periods in which a situation of dual power is effectively developing within society as a whole. The bourgeoisie will not cede control of its property other than if it is forced to do so, and it is only during such periods that workers can mobilise such force. But, Gramsci's words do have significance outside that. On the one hand the real means for workers to obtain control over the means of production is for workers to actually own them by setting up Workers Co-operatives. They will face the same kind of obstruction and problems the workers in the film faced and more, which is one of the reasons we do not see more workers co-operatives in existence. But, then for centuries Capitalist enterprises were few and far between they faced similar problems against the entrenched monopolies of the guild system, obsruction by the feudal state and so on. History does not make the birth of new modes of production easy. Any new mode first has to prove ist superiority as against the old in the face of such adversity if it is to be accepted by the majority of socity and become adopted. That is what the Leninists fail to understand in thinking theyc an short-cut that process by carrying out the political revolution before the social revolution reversing the whole of Marx's teaching.

But, that does not mean either than workers should not seek where possible to exercise some control over the work-process even where they do not own the means of production. Undertaking such struggles can demonstrate to workers why such control can work, but can only work properly if the workers own the means of production. After all, the bosses to a certain degree have taken on the message set out above. The whole "After Japan" techniques that British leyland and others adopted in the 1980's was precisely about harnessing the ideas and creativity of workers in Quality Circles and so on. If we follow Gramsci here it would mean taking such initiatives of the bosses and running with them, pursuing their logic to the fullest extent against the inevitable resistance of the bosses to accept that logic.

For more than 100 years Leninism has been taken as actually being Marxism. It isn't, and it has singularly failed along with its two offspring - Stalinism and Trotskyism. Not only has it failed, but it has failed disastrously. The workers movement is much further back now than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. It is time to reject the idea that such a shortcut is possible, to return to the historical materialism of Marx, to the knowledge that ideas spring from and depend upon the material world, that workers cannot come to accept the idea of a socialist organisation of society unless they see icnreasingly, in practice, socialistic production being more effective than Capitalist production. The statism of both Leninism and of Social democracy over the last 100 years has resulted in the very opposite, of State Capitalist enterprises created by Social Democracy, and of inefficient bureaucratic enterprises created by Leninism - the bureaucratisation of the state and enterprises in Russia began immediately under Lenin, it cannot be passed off as Stalin's responsibility, Stalin was only possible because of it, and because he was its representative in Chief. It is no wonder that workers require some convincing.

Until Marxists begin to show in practice that workers have an alternative to relying on the bosses andtheir State, that will continue to be the case

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