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OCTOBER 1917-2017 (Part 2)

From a decolonial Communism to the democracy of the Commons:

The ‘Soviet century’ – in the turmoil of the ‘permanent revolution’

By Catherine Samary

3- From the Cuban ‘great debate’ to a self-managed system  

2017 12 19 01Catherine SamarySoviet planning suffered from a slowing up of growth, the damage of bureaucratism both on the quality of the products and their cost, internal pressures (popular and coming from the apparatus) in favour of the consumption of Western products, and of the need to improve the possibilities of exports to countries with strong currencies to buy their products. It was under these pressures that the debate on reforming planning took place: it was initiated in the first half of the 1960s from inside an apparatus which, in the USSR, had put an end to the ‘chaos’ of Khrushchev’s thaw and had assumed Soviet intervention against the Hungarian workers’ councils. That is to say, that in a dominant fashion, the reformist economists discussing ‘economic laws’ and productivity, avoided any issues of democratisation and workers’ self-management – except in Yugoslavia and inside the Czech CP, the self-management wing linked to Jaroslav Sabata.

The Cuban ‘great debate’ was situated within the Soviet or Maoist orbit (without a self-management current) – contrasting with the Yugoslav debates (which were ignored there). But it was similar to the debate among Bolshevik Marxists in the USSR in the 1920s: socialist democracy was excluded from it, either by conviction that the ‘level of development of the productive forces’ and of the education of the workers did not allow its introduction, or through a desire for protection from repression.

The return to the use of the notion of ‘transition between capitalism and socialism’ in the post-Stalinist phase reintroduced continuities with the debates of the 1920s in the USSR. It marked a positive break with the Stalinist apologetic concepts proclaiming a ‘socialism’ realised on the sole basis of this centralised planning. All Marxist thinkers who have used this notion to analyse the countries of ‘actually existing socialism’ stress the fact that the social formations which corresponded to it were both conflictual and fragile, subject to internal and external capitalist pressures, behind different forms of legal ownership, without the future being assured. We find this approach in the writings of Che Guevara (1965), Ernest Mandel (1970), Charles Bettelheim (1970), Edvard Kardelj (1976) or the Marxist intellectuals of the Praxis current in Yugoslavia – as before with Bukharin or Preobrazhensky. This is true whatever the evolutions of their thought and their divergences on the place of the market in the post-capitalist transition. They affirmed their adhesion to Communist objectives but had divergences on the means to attain them. But the bureaucratisation of revolutions was mostly absent from these approaches – apart from that of Ernest Mandel.

Finally, history has shown that this was not a ‘higher level’ of development which ‘legitimised’ the historic introduction of rights of self-management in a post-capitalist society, but, as we have seen, the Yugoslav Communists’ break with Stalin. This audacity modified the conception of the transition to socialism in all or part of the anti-Stalinist Marxist currents[56] – notably those who debated with the Yugoslav Marxists. The irreplaceable and precious character of this example is to have contested the idea of the ‘primacy’ of the productive forces - or ‘material preconditions’ to introduce self-management, which would open the floodgates of the anarcho-communist debate on practice. Such debates were absent in the USSR or Cuba.

The ‘great debate’ in Cuba[57]

It was situated in 1963-1964 in the context of the market reforms advocated by the ‘economists’ presenting their analyses inside the party/state in the USSR (Liberman) and in Czechoslovakia (Ota Sik). Alberto Mora in Cuba shared their viewpoint, supported by Charles Bettelheim (1971). Their accent was on economic ‘efficiency’ which in their view was related to ‘laws’ independent of consciousness and ideology. Leaning on Marx’s Introduction to the critique of political economy, Bettelheim argued that the level of development of the productive forces did not (yet) allow the application of socialist relations of production, whatever the legal appearances. He deduced that in practice the informal relations between Soviet enterprises in planning depended on market exchanges and an (incorrect) application of the law of value. He criticised the voluntarism of ineffective ‘moral’ incentives and advocated efficiency: thus, like the Soviet or Czechoslovak reformers, he recommended an accounting autonomy for enterprises. This allowed, beyond the calculation of costs, the extension of the market determination of prices and an increase in wages according to results in the context of greater responsibility for directors, linked to bonuses if they reduced production costs (thus generating ‘profits’). The debate in fact recalled that of the early 1920s in the USSR on the ‘law of value’ (Bukharin then believed that the plan should apply it) against the viewpoint of Preobrazhensky (for whom the advantage of planning was to make its own criteria or ‘law of socialist accumulation’ emerge).

Che Guevara did not share the analysis of planned relations as ‘commodities’ subject to the law of value; he also opposed what he considered as recourse to capitalist methods, contradictory to the quest for the emergence of a socialist ‘new man’. And in the concrete case of Cuba, he also believed that the country was small enough for a centralised planning, operational in kind. If he opposed individual monetary incentives which he deemed to be subversive of solidarity and contrary to socialist objectives, he was favourable to ‘moral’ and possibly material incentives, providing the latter were collective and not commodities.

Ernest Mandel did not deny the manifestation of the law of value in the pressures of the world market or the relations with the internal commodity sector. But he supported Guevara, both on the incentives plan and the interpretation of the law of value under planning. He stressed that the plan (whatever its bureaucratic wastages) rightly did not respect the ‘law of value’, notably by investing in sectors which were ‘non- profitable’ from a market viewpoint (in particular if one took the world market as basis). Also, the disequilibria, errors, and wastages of planning were not reflected by any enterprise closure and automatism. He stressed the need to distinguish the domination of a ‘market regulator’ (or a ‘law of value’ which orients investment) from the partial use of market categories inserted in non-market choices: money and prices would remain necessary, in his view, as long as abundance did not allow their disappearance by the extension of a free satisfaction of needs.

In a text written under the name of Ernest Germain (1963), he thus specified, against Bettelheim’s thesis, that the obstacle to an effective socialisation did not reside ‘in centralism in itself’; it stemmed from the ‘absence of workers democracy on the national political level’. He continued:

This means that a genuine guarantee against bureaucratisation depends on workers’ management at the enterprise level and workers democracy at the state level. Without this combination, even the autonomy of the enterprises will eliminate none of the authoritarian, bureaucratic and (often) erroneous character of economic decisions made at the government level of the plan. With this combination, the centralisation of investments – priorities being democratically established, for example through a national congress of workers councils – would not encourage bureaucratisation, but, on the contrary, suppress one of its principle sources.[58]

It nonetheless remains true, as Samuel Farber (2016) has said, that none of the public positions in the Cuban debate frontally raised the democratic question in Cuba.  It is in this context that we should also judge a specific aspect of the debate: Mandel shared with Che a certain ‘New Man’ humanism (as did the Marxists of the Praxis current in Yugoslavia), against Bettelheim and the Althusserian currents.[59] Indeed, the absence of socialist democracy stressed was reflected also, in Cuba as in Lenin’s USSR, by a ‘substitutionism’ on the part of Che (or Castro). This was the reason for the ineffectiveness of the appeal to the ‘New Man’: the Althusserian or Mao-Stalinist currents could hardly raise this question given their support for Mao’s China which criticised Khrushchev’s USSR while defending Stalin and his excommunications. It was true that the ‘moral’ appeals to mobilisation and revolutionary consciousness ‘to increase productivity’ without socialist democracy, thus without the direct responsibility of the workers, of all kinds and categories, in the management of the economy at the level of the enterprises and the country, could only be ineffective. But the appeal to productivity increases stimulated by market relations, and the renunciation of the ‘new man’ in the name of the insufficient development of the productive forces, was nonetheless worthy of criticism.

Samuel Farber (2016) attempts a transcendence of this false alternative, writing:

Che Guevara advocated what in effect was the ‘sweating of labour.’ But better organisation, technology, and — most importantly — worker control would have the same effect.

Control, in itself, represents a powerful motivator. The current low productivity comes from a bureaucratic system that systematically creates disorganisation and chaos and does not provide workers either with political incentives — allowing them to have a say and control over what they do — or with material incentives — typical of the developed capitalist world — to motivate them. Guevara’s moral incentives failed: they were a method to get workers to take responsibility without power and to work harder without control or pay.

This critique is at the heart of what is at stake – and in reality, close to what Ernest Germain was saying in 1963. It should be added, as Farber recalls, that the market reforms which were interrupted in Czechoslovakia, but applied in Yugoslavia in a self-managed context, very quickly showed their disruptive effect. But what he does not know (and which is not widely known) is that in the second half of the 1960s a third way was concretely elaborated both in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia (in the self-management wing of the CP and the trade unions, inspired by the Yugoslav debates), at the same time critical of bureaucratic statism and market reforms. It was absent from the Cuban debate – essential for its realisation.

Self-management alienated by statism and/or the market

The lifespan of Fidel Castro was not as long as Tito’s – but both remained Presidents of the regimes which emerged from their revolutions until their death (in 1980 for Tito).

We will not here enter into the analysis of the different phases and reforms of Yugoslav self-management, as we have done elsewhere.[60]  But it is important to stress that the 1965 reforms introducing ‘market socialism’ in Yugoslavia stemmed from several logics. On the one hand, that of the ‘economists’, as in the USSR or Czechoslovakia, discussing ‘efficiency’ as defined by the market. But also, libertarian or Marxist currents favourable to self-management and wishing to extend rights of self-management to control the social ‘surplus income’[61] against a statist (or para-statist in the 1950s) planning.[62] Finally, the representatives of the richest republics opposed to the redistributionist logic of the plan which, in their view, detracted from the efficacy of these republics and harmed the system as a whole. Such critiques were sensitive in a multi-national federation whose revolution had only been victorious by recognising the plurality of the Yugoslav nations. The Slovene leader Edvard Kardelj was notably attentive to these questions while nonetheless opposing nationalism.

The stakes were then much bigger (and more current) than the debates on the ‘law of value’ and to reduce them to a threat (real, but not dominant) of capitalist restoration or worse, to interpret the reforms as related to a dominant pro-capitalist orientation of the Titoist leadership (as argued by the Maoist currents and some Trotskyist groupings) displays a historical and theoretical blindness. Such was not the view of the philosophical current expressed in the review Praxis. In the 1960s it developed the theorising of a radical humanist Marxism, explicitly anti-Stalinist and linked to a new international left outside the pro-Soviet CPs or the Maoist groups, which met every summer on the island of Korčula.  Without being involved in the Cuban debate, the intellectuals of Praxis shared in practice the critique of the market reforms, though they considered the latter a substitute for the introduction of an effective self-managed socialist democracy, which was urgently on the agenda.

 Indeed, the rapid effect of the ‘socialist market’ in destroying the self-managed coherence that it sought proved them right. Yugoslavia was confronted with a crisis where many roads certainly remained open, but where society was polarised by contradictory tendencies in the context of a system which remained dominated by a legality and ideology identifying with self-managed socialism. The historic Titoist leadership, which had been excluded from the debate of the economists, would intervene in its fashion to try to stem the explosive dynamic unleashed by a combination of repression of the autonomous movements and constitutional changes considering the demands related to the ‘contract’ binding it to its social base: increased rights for self-managing workers and national rights,[63] not without contradictions.

Indeed, it was on these two fronts that the crisis manifested itself, with thousands of strikes protesting against the growing inequalities with the market and the non-respect of self-management rights by the technocratic directorates of the enterprises allied to those of the banks.  The youth movement around the Praxis current denounced the ‘red bourgeoisie’ and privilege by demanding ‘self-management from below’[64] both against statism and the market reforms – with precise demands we will return to below. Meanwhile the Albanians of Kosovo mobilised in favour of an egalitarian status as a republic. Finally, in Croatia, there was the ‘Croat spring’ in 1971, eclectic in character: beyond the demands for cultural and democratic pluralism, notably expressed in the faculties of law and economics, there were currents favourable to more market decentralisation taking the form of a demand for control of foreign trade (and hence currency) at the level of the republics. In Slovenia, some of the Marxist youth turned towards Charles Bettelheim.[65] Some considered the battle for self-management as ‘premature’ inasmuch as world capitalism did not create the preconditions for a socialist success – a consequence of the thesis of the ‘primacy of the productive forces’?

This did not facilitate the emergence of a pan-Yugoslav political current in defence of self-management and fighting for the existence of a politico-social ‘place’ where, on the basis of constitutional rights – of the self-managers, nations and Yugoslav national  communities – all the defenders of the Yugoslav multi-national and self-managed system could together analyse the roots of the conflicts and the means of surmounting them on the basis of rules established together  – such is the coherence of the debates on the ‘commons’.

In the absence of this ‘context’, the response from above was imposed.

It was the Titoist leadership which presented its response to the crisis – not without attentive listening to all the conflicts, and by introducing a block on what could have been the ‘place’ adequate to the management of the crisis: a congress of self-managers met in Sarajevo in 1971.[66] In practice, the critiques expressed by the Praxis current and the youth movement, demanding a self managed system, or those who demanded the rights of Yugoslav national communities and peoples were taken up (without any acknowledgement of their authors) and ‘processed’ in the form of draft constitutional amendments by Edvard Kardelj after a repressive clampdown on the main  protagonists: in 1968, Tito had congratulated the students of Belgrade for their commitment to socialism and self-management – but at the same time he inflicted several months imprisonment on the young libertarian or Marxist leaders of the autonomous movement, which was dissolved, and the Praxis intellectuals were subjected to repressive measures.[67]

The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia during the summer of this same year of 1968 was exploited by the Titoist leadership at three levels: the impulsion of a citizens ‘national mobilisation’ to create, alongside the national army, a decentralised popular army against an alleged risk of Soviet intervention in Yugoslavia; this done, the oppositional left was excluded from the exercises of military preparation, thus placed on the index as not reliable to defend the system; meanwhile, the establishment of links with neighbouring Albania, which had also condemned the Soviet intervention, allowed the creation of an Albanian speaking university in Kosovo and favoured the Albanianisation of the province and its status as ‘quasi-republic’ in the Constitution of 1974 – which was unsatisfactory to both Serbian and Albanian nationalists. The Constitution also conceded a more confederal system – notably in the management of foreign trade, in response to pressure from the richer republics. 

The second congress of self-management in 1971 in Sarajevo thus denounced the technocratic powers at the head of the banks and big enterprises – which were dismantled. The former were reinserted in the self -managed system and the latter dismantled by the introduction of the ‘Base Organisations of Associated Labour’ (OBTA) – smaller units equivalent to the workplaces, to bring them closer to the workers, endowed with basic rights in the new system.

The concrete proposals which had emerged from the critiques of the Marxist left were nearly all introduced by Kardelj as amendments to the new Constitution of 1974 (as the last survivor of the historic leadership):

  • the creation of ‘Self-managing communities of interest’ of producers, consumers and state functionaries concerned with specified goods or services (schools, crèches, hospitals, roads and so on: they should manage together the overall production and use of this good or service on the basis of funds allocated at the adequate territorial level, provided by social contributions. This challenged a vision of self-management seen solely from the point of view of the producers;
  • the introduction of ‘self-managed planning’ at various territorial levels on the basis of cooperation between ‘base units of associated labour’ (dismantling the big enterprises: this allowed an anchoring in the workplaces and enterprises, while broadening the horizon of management of social ownership against both statism and the restricted horizon of the enterprise or of group ownership;
  • the establishment of ‘Chambers of self-management’, at the communal, republican and federal level, alongside the parliaments, giving the various self-managing socio-political communities a political space for elaboration and control of the major planned objectives.

The role of the single party and the army was strengthened at the constitutional level, in order to try to contain centrifugal tendencies. The new, extremely complex, system of rights was explicitly intended to protect social ownership against statism and ‘group ownership’; but it allowed no overall control of foreign trade and favoured an internal growth based on high rates of borrowing. There was then no overall ‘regulator’ – neither a plan from above, or a framework ‘from below’ or a socio-political framework to render a system of self-managed planning coherent: the League of Communists of Yugoslavia was increasingly penetrated by corruption and the rise in the state apparatuses of bourgeois aspirant republics who would use nationalism to consolidate their privileges while the system remained vulnerable to the external shocks of the world market. This would facilitate the ignorance of the Yugoslav contribution in a context where the world (including some former defenders of self-management) teetered between (or combined) nationalism and generalised privatisation.

4- Towards a ‘society of Commons’?

The search for an alternative to both generalised privatisation and the statism of the old Soviet system explains the interest in theorising around the question of the ‘commons’.[68] There is no single and unequivocal approach to this subject. Here we are not talking about the ‘nature’ as such of various goods – from which would be ‘deduced’, according to these naturalist theses, adequate forms of governance – but on the collective approaches of people who decide to put in common goods of various natures (in a space which can be very diverse) and establish together the rules they will apply.[69]

But these debates ignore the wealth of the discussions and proposals raised about ‘social ownership’ in the self-managed Yugoslavia of the 1960s on the basis of an unprecedented experience. Such an ignorance has obviously been reinforced either by contempt for rights introduced ‘from above’ (in what remained a single party system, even if softened), or by the conviction that it amounted to a utopia – the two postures being moreover reinforced by the dramatic end of the federation and the Yugoslav system. But the evacuation (ignorance) of this past joins, without wishing to do so, the ideological operation which has in various ways accompanied the neoliberal counter-revolution, ‘demonstrating’ the impossibility of an effective ‘collective’ management.

From ‘The Tragedy of Commons’ to the ‘Commonwealth’ (Hardt and Negri, 2009)?

In the international ‘turning point’ phase of the 1960s, when Yugoslavia experienced self-managed ‘market socialism’ and its conflicts, the review Science published ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ by Garett Hardin (1968). It did not deal with the Yugoslav experience but rather natural goods (parcels of land, ponds) put in common as was the case in England before the 16th century. The ‘enclosures’ (forms of privatisation of these lands which marked at the time the emergence of a capitalist agriculture) were supposed to respond to a perverse effect analysed by Hardin:  individual rationality led to the exhaustion of the collective resource. The response was either state ownership, or privatisation.

This type of reflection has been extended since then by neoliberal theoreticians opposed to anything that was not private ownership – as stressed by David Harvey (2011) in indicating the narrowness of the dilemma in which recent debates have been enclosed: privatisation or state ownership, The general affirmation by the neoliberal school, supported in part by real behaviour, is that the absence of private ownership can only lead to inefficient behaviour: the latter stemming from either the logic of a ‘clandestine passenger’ (everybody looks to others, hence to nobody in practice, to take care of the common good which deteriorates), or again of a ‘rationality’  attributed to the self-managing workers, necessarily sacrificing long term investment (and hirings) to increase immediate incomes.  

Except that, precisely, where such behaviour existed, it was in relation to the horizon of management (micro-economic) and market imposed on the self-managers, inadequate for the rationality of management of a social ownership of the means of production forming the ‘system’. The critique obviously ignored the existence of other responses, based on solidarity and consistent with self-management rights, which had not had the time and the context to be applied and broadly known. It was on the contrary an open crisis then a globalised ideological and social counter-revolution which imposed itself in the 1980s and 1990s.

This was the context in which a breath of fresh air was propagated on the academic terrain through the work of Elinor Östrom (1990) on the ‘commons’. She rejects the thesis of the ineluctable ‘tragedy of the commons’. Her main research was anchored above all (like that of Hardin) on the management of common natural goods – land, water and so on. Studying the experience of indigenous communities, she shows that such a management had been efficacious, through rules adopted by the populations directly concerned.

The academic valorisation of this work by a ‘Nobel prize’ has enlarged the margins of ideological resistance to privatisation, although, as is the case with many other notions, the neoliberal appropriations of these themes has also been manifested; notably analysed by Silvia Federici (2011): the neoliberal state can very well accommodate itself, indeed satisfy itself, from the energy deployed by generous volunteers to attempt to compensate for the destruction of the social state. This can even be integrated in the ‘anti-poverty’ programmes of the World Bank. But this can also be registered in approaches subversive of the existing order – notably if one is conscious of these traps and has access to international networks.

What goods are liable to become ‘common’ and what precisely do we understand by this? The viewpoints have been and remain very diverse and ambiguous, as has been stressed notably by Sébastien Broca (2016), although we cannot deal with this subject here. We will note only the tendency of several approaches to rest on supposedly objective, indeed ‘scientific’ criteria to ‘legitimise’ either privatisation or the commons. Indeed, there is no serious theoretical demonstration on this terrain and experience proves moreover that there are no properties which would ‘by essence’ be absolutely ‘non- appropriable’ and thus fated to be either put in common or in public ownership: when the relationship of forces allows it, as is the case for some decades, capitalism privatises everything, sparing nothing – from the human body (and being) to public services as well as nature and knowledge.

The real question is then who decides and to do what, on the basis of which criteria – on which territorial scale? We must rehabilitate choices against all the slogans which deny them, like Margaret Thatcher’s TINA, consolidated by the intellectual dogmatism of neoliberal economists seeking to impose ‘scientific’ pseudo-criteria. It is on the contrary true that the choices face constraints: those of resources but also (conditioning the use of resources) the systems of property rights and relations protected by the dominant institutions, camouflaging private interests. It is necessary then to explain the existence of ‘systemic’ constraints and issues of relationships of forces, social and intellectual – notably to create a ‘counter-hegemony’, ideological and political-social, working towards a coherent alternative to neo-liberalism as a system. But can we change the world ‘without taking power’ (J. Holloway 2008)[70] or by multiplying the ‘fissures’ and cracks (Holloway, 2012) – or again by the ‘power of the common’? And if not, according to what logic from above and below – what new type of ‘power’ breaking with the existing or the rejected past? But that is also about the power of decision-making and control over recognised rights as a whole – from the local to the planetary. L'essor et les crises du mouvement altermondialiste (Samary 2017) concerns the rise of and crises of the movement for global justice – but also its possible bounce back, organically linked to the updating of these issues.

From there, instead of an approach by the nature of the goods, we should support an approach focused on explicit finalities, of rights and a plural democratic approach to making these objectives explicit, without a priori limitation as to the goods and political spaces concerned, linked to these rights: this should be decided, freely, in the context of mobilisations in quest of an alternative to financialisation, commodification, privatisation of the planet, its resources, and of human beings.

What rights?

Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval (2014) have privileged an approach to the commons as linked to ‘rights of use’ which, according to them can restore vigour to a revolutionary approach in the 21st century. And their study and approach is very stimulating, inasmuch as it is true that rights of use – and of sharing – appear more essential than the right of ownership. Yet it is not easy to dismiss the Yugoslav reflections on social appropriation[71] – more all-encompassing than the right of use alone, and allowing a transcendence of statism and nationalism.

Benjamin Coriat (2015) thus proposes other approaches than that of ‘right of use’. In an interview in 2016, he summarised his viewpoint: ‘A common only exists under three conditions. A shared resource, rights and obligations on this resource attributed to commoners, a structure of governance which allows the assurance of the long-term reproduction of the resource and the collective entity which governs it’. If the third attribute in particular is lacking, we possibly have, he says, a ‘common good’ – like the climate – which is not (yet) a ‘common’: ‘the key issue of the negotiations underway, like the huge mobilisations around the climate issue, is precisely to transform this common good into a common. By assuring its governance’. As Coriat says:

We understand... that when the size of the resource increases (and notably if it is a global public good like the climate) conceiving the structure of governance and implementation becomes very complicated. We need to be able to link the regulation and the local monitoring and vigilance structures to have this regulation respected. Whatever the difficulty, the establishment of this structure of governance is an indispensable moment.

But the criteria which work at one scale may not do so at another – as stressed by David Harvey (2011).

The ‘putting in common’ of fundamental goods must resist the ravages of the destruction of the very notion of public service by the neoliberal policies which have enclosed many horizons of resistance, at the local level. Should a hospital or a university be ‘self- financed’ – thus on the basis of unequal resources according to region or locality? Should we fix the price of transport or other services according to their real local cost – abandoning the regions most disadvantaged by nature? Struggles over rights, in an unfavourable context, can be concentrated on a local health dispensary, a school or public transport, on the basis of a local population. But we should highlight the fact that the responses provided in this case are restricted by the environment, and leave a growing number of peoples without homes, schools or health access. But the criteria of management, organisation of work and satisfaction of needs is enlarged considerably if we transcend the rules and constraints of competition and capitalist financing. We must simultaneously take over local possibilities of resistance and maintain reflection and solidarity-based links at the territorial levels – national, continental (notably European) indeed transnational – where they could become effective and just.

In the countries of ‘actual existing socialism’ as under capitalism, accounting autonomy and competition did not allow the emergence of a ‘political economy of the workers’ with its own indicators of development – integrating concrete criteria of access to essential goods and services and environmental protection; and with the elaboration ‘in common’ of rules of social justice and egalitarian relations, against all relations of exploitation and discrimination. It certainly this which is on the agenda against an increasingly barbarous world which treats human beings and the planet as commodities whose ‘cost’ must be compressed - in reality exploitation for profit. And it is this which poses also the strategic question of a challenge to the dominant logic of market privatisation and the institutions of globalisation – from the privatised state to the financial and military institutions.

Neither ‘big bang’ nor stalemate

It is often around issues of survival or protection of jobs sacrificed by the logic of profit that experiences of management of commons emerge.  As has been said, they are sometimes welcomed by neoliberal currents if they allow acceptance of the destruction of the social state. As will the xenophobic nationalisms, selecting for access the ‘true Greeks’, ‘true French’, ‘true Hungarians’ or Americans.

In such a context, resistance faces two impasses. The first is to believe that it is possible to democratically deepen and extend the management of commons – with their financing – without major confrontation with the privatised states under the control of the minority of property owners and financial markets. The dictatorial imposition of neoliberalism and its criteria, initiated with Pinochet, has continued up to the Greece of Syriza – and there are many other experiences. The second is, through fear of stalemate or corruption by the system (dangers which are very real), rejecting the self-organised experiences of survival and the search for self-managed alternatives with appeals to the ‘big bang’ of social revolution. But this is to remain on the margins without concretely outlining the perception of other criteria and possible worlds, without awaiting the response to the ‘strategic’ questions; and it is to believe wrongly that one can invent other possibilities after a hypothetical seizure of power without preparation and without relapsing into past setbacks. It is another form of illusion and paralysis.

The Yugoslav self-managed experience can be rethought in the light of these debates – and reciprocally, enrich them. Why limit oneself to a ‘right of use’ – or on the contrary to a ‘private’ or group appropriation? The notion of self-management is often perceived as relevant only to ‘small enterprises’ or cooperatives – and of the management of an enterprise or of a service by its own working community, in a solely ‘autonomous’ fashion. If we fight regional inequalities (indeed from one city to another), this raises the question of financing: self-management – or the management of ‘Commons’ – becomes ineffective and very unjust if the financing and choices become tributary to a logic of market competition, or are atomised according to an autonomous egotistical approach of ‘everybody for themselves’. The anchoring of self-management in ‘base units’ at ‘human scale’ – workshops, enterprises, land – should not prevent the cooperative and concerted collective construction, the ‘networking’ of branch experiences, ‘territorialisation’ which allows consumers and producers to link up in ‘communities of self-managing interest’. The possibility of decentralised choices under constraints of mutualised resources and of rules elaborated at a scale ensuring the coherence and justice of the system, is broadly facilitated today by recourse to computers. But far from confining ourselves to atomised responses, it is necessary to integrate to the struggles the need for a self-managed planning of solidaristic choices (at various territorial levels) against the market and statist logic – but not without need of a ‘right’, of institutions which allow the realisation of choices and their control of political debates on these choices. It is in such a process that we need to discover the ‘principles of subsidiarity’ according to which one only delegates to a broader territorial level that that which proves best controlled at this level (like environmental questions, the coherence of criteria, solidaristic financing and son) with regular corrections and adjustments. 

As Benjamin Coriat said in one discussion, the emergence of a ’Common of commons’ – state of commoners is one of the strategic stakes:  with its chambers of self-management, its ‘self-managed planning’, its multiple ‘communities of self-managed interest’ and its congresses of self-management, to elaborate its rules - a ‘socialisation’ of the state by the self-managers?

Several sources today facilitate the networking and mutualisation of resistance to generalised privatisation, from the local to the planetary: on the one hand by the multidimensional rise of this ‘shared tool’ (notably by the new generations) that is the internet. It also helps the creation of communities managing the ‘non-rival’ goods (whose use by a person does not prevent, indeed favours, the quality of use by others, on the basis of cooperative logics). These are so many domains which can help combat the legitimation as ‘efficacious’ of market relations of profit and privatisation.

But, touching more at the heart of the system, a massive indignation is growing in the face of the social and ecological disasters linked to the transformation of natural wealth, goods, services and human beings into ‘market values’. The mobilisations of the peasant and indigenous populations of Latin America, Africa or Asia, with the global justice networks, notably Via Campesina, are in multiple fashions rooted in the demands for re-appropriation of commons against the destruction of agricultural crops by agro-export firms and the neo-colonisation of resources by the multinationals. Everything can change’ Naomi Klein (2015) asserts forcefully, notably when the dispossessed populations rise up and organise to produce and live in another manner. 

The recuperation and collective management of enterprises, lands, services, territories, towns where fundamental rights are suppressed byes privatisation is (and will be) an essential component of the relationship of forces which is transformed, on several axes.

The appropriation of the cities and the networking of ‘rebel cities’ (D. Harvey 2015)[72]  is undoubtedly ones of these grand axes. As witnessed notably by Barcelona[73] and its platform which allies anti-racism from the welcoming of refugees to the management of public spaces. In June 2017 the city organised ‘The alliance of cities against the new political monsters’, a meeting of ‘cities without fear’. The young Mayor of Valparaiso, the Chilean Jorge Sharp[74], has expressed a new internationalist radicalism issued from the social movements in a vibrant plea for ‘municipalism’ – which is in no way enclosed in localism. Joan Subirats, one of the inspirers of the Spanish citizen’s platforms also affirmed here that ‘the agenda of the municipalities proves that they are capable of raising hope, faced with the financialization of our everyday life’.

Everywhere, in the enterprises which lay off workers, against the privatisation of services, or faced with the pressures of creditors on municipal or national public debts, counter-powers – notably  stimulated by the  network of the CADTM[75] – contest the criteria of management, financing, efficacy (quality satisfaction and cost control) linked to the dominant policies: taking up the theme of ‘workers’ control which was during the rise of the October Revolution an essential phase of an unfavourable relationship of forces, it is pluralist ‘social control’ or societal control which should be imposed everywhere. It is in this logic that the CADTM has begun to denounce ‘odious’ and ‘illegitimate’ debts (contradicting basic human rights) relying on mobilisations for pluralist ‘citizen’s audits’ which transform the question of the debt into a political question.

The demand for opening of the account books should be expressed not only in the enterprises which lay off workers or relocate to boost dividends, but also in the discussion of the budgets of municipalities or states: it is about highlighting the hidden criteria, the modes of financing which favour the rentiers and increase the debt whereas public expenditure is compressed. It is necessary to place in the public arena other criteria and other concrete choices, starting from the mobilisation of the populations concerned. It is a ‘workers’ economy’ which is being elaborated – and which tends also to network[76] the experiences of recuperation of enterprises, of cooperatives, of resistance, inventing other possibilities.

In all cases it is about resting on the defence of rights for all – against racism and against the reign of financial oligarchies, against rights which are de facto dependent on income, affecting especially women, the old, youth, the immigrants who form the great mass of the army of ‘poor workers’. The ‘pluriversalism’ of rights defended should be concrete against inequalities of gender, against xenophobic, Islamophobic or racist exclusion. This involves the explicit recognition of inequalities (of class, gender or racialised populations). The sole guarantee of not hiding discrimination is to recognise and favour the self-organisation of the populations concerned (of all ages and genders, of all origins, consumers, producers in industry, services or the countryside, employees, precarious workers or the jobless), and to create meeting places and networks of common struggle.[77]

The defence and re-appropriation of commons concerning everyday life and basic rights (to health, education, transport, housing, water, land and so on) – also raises the democratic issue of their management, at the heart of the mobilisations rejecting the false alternatives of privatisation or statism. They bring out the perception of other possible human statuses, of protection of old or new rights that it will be necessary to legitimate not only by powerful revolutionary democratic movements but to legalise – from the national to the planetary, via the continental level. A new international architecture of rights is drawn up, resisting to the full the powers of the multinationals and denouncing the submission of states and the institutions of globalisation to finance, the markets and their criteria: these are the same criteria ‘of competition which is free and not false, destructive of human rights and the environment who wish to impose Free Trade Treaties, denounced by significant mobilisations and networks of popular education focused on action’.[78]

It is the rooting of these actions among the poorest and most dispossessed populations on the planet which places them at the crossroads of the social, cultural, environmental issues, where women often play a major role. They are built notably today, on the basis of an accumulation of experiences since the 1990s around Via Campesina and peasant and indigenous resistance: a seventh international meeting of its network took place in the Basque Country, from July 16-24, 2017[79]: the Declaration of Euskal Herria made there proclaimed that ‘the capitalist and patriarchal system is not capable of responding to the crisis in which humanity finds itself plunged, which destroys our peoples and heats up Mother Earth. The Earth is living but capitalism is a sickness which is killing it’.

The World Social Forum which will take place in Bahia in Brazil, in 2018 will have as its central theme ‘the peoples, territories and movements in resistance’, seeking a ‘collective, creative and transformative construction in the face of a serious and uncertain Brazilian, Latin American and planetary context’.[80] It will face strategic debates which henceforth raise everywhere the ‘capitalist tragedy’ and the emergence of a ‘society of commons’ which must also find the means to impose itself against the law, the institutions, the dominant relations of ownership.

 The new phase of structural crisis of capitalism is located within a world which is profoundly different from that of the 20th century. But the crisis is nonetheless profound and global. More than ever, the resistance cannot win and find its coherence ‘in one country’ –being anchored in the local, the national, the transnational. The challenging of the system will pass then by other scenarios than in the 20th century – but we already see the contours of this. From the local to the planetary, the same targets emerge (financial oligarchies and their political and institutional, economic and repressive supports) and the same motors of resistance: the aspiration to social justice and dignity, to the defence of rights for all, to the protection and management of the commons by inventing a democracy which does not stop at the door of the enterprises and the popular neighbourhoods – and deploys a ‘counter-hegemony’ from the local to the planetary by reappropriating the lessons of all past resistances and revolutions.


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[56]  This was the case with Ernest Mandel and the major part of the Fourth International of which he was one of the leaders in the late 1960s. This allowed a reunification with the ‘Pabloite’ currents favourable to self-management.

[57]  See on this subject Ernesto, Che, Guevara (1965), Samuel Farber (2017), Mesa-Lago C., (1971); E. Germain (1963), Ernest Mandel (1987), Bettelheim C. (1971); the collection edited by Michael Löwy Man and Socialism in Cuba; The Great Debate published by Bertram Silverman (1971). Ernesto Che Guevara : Ecrits d’un révolutionnaire, Published by Michael Löwy with texts by Charles Bettelheim and Ernest Mandel, Montreuil, La Brèche-PEC, 1987

[58] . Mandel’s viewpoint here was explained in numerous articles, notably in the debate with Alec Nove.

[59]   Michaël Löwy (1970), supporting Che and Mandel, criticised in ‘L’humanisme historiciste de Marx – ou relire le Capital’ the Althusserian viewpoint distinguishing an ‘abstract’ humanism of the ‘young Marx’ from the ‘true’ Marx of Capital, after an ‘epistemological rupture’.

[60]  See Samary, 1988, 2010

[61]   In the first phase of self-management, the ‘surplus income’ (what remained after payment of incomes and costs linked to the replacement cost of means of production) – allowing an ‘enlarged reproduction’, that is new investment, was centralised in para-state investment funds. The 1965 reform dismantled these funds in favour of self-managed organisations in the enterprises and the new banking system.  

[62]  It is interesting to find on a site of archives of the anarchist press in 2013 a text reproduced from Communist Anarchist Tribune number 2 (winter 1969), entitled ‘L’autogestion et la Yougoslavie’ ( ) which asks their comrades to seriously consider the self-managing reformism of the Yugoslav CP, ending thus: ‘We understand that many comrades find it hard to fully acknowledge this development of Yugoslavia and its Communist party. It amounts in fact to a true reformism inside a socialist state. It is then worth envisaging the role of the revolutionary organisation in a new way according to generalised self-management. But it seems to us legitimate to consider Yugoslavia as part of a general approach to self-management and that it occupies here perhaps the most significant position, in any event at the current time. This article will undoubtedly be considered by some as an apologetic schema. We would reply that it is only an attempt to locate the problem and that in these perspectives we are ready to criticise Yugoslavia and its self-management, but in these perspectives, to allow this critique to be fruitful and not chaotic.’

[63]  It is notably on this point that I discuss the application of the analyses of Michaël Lebowicz to the Yugoslav context.

[64]  This ’moment of Yugoslav socialism’, in the broadest sense of a phase of crisis at the crossroads, was analysed by the editorial of the review Praxis number 3-4 published in 1971. See also Rudi Supek (dir) 1973. The archives for 1965-1973 are on the site:  See notably ‘Dissolutionary process in the system of self-management of Mladen Caldarovic’ (1965/4) and the articles of the 1970s, notably by Zagorka Golubovič, Mladen Čaldarovič, Svetozar Stojanovič. On the pressures of the regime against Praxis see JM. Palmier, 1973)

[65]  Except that it was true this time (contrary to what he had analysed in Soviet planning) that the introduction of ‘market socialism’ allowed the pressures of the law of value in the relations between self-managed enterprises. But these pressures were negative and not efficacious. Bettelheim (1968) could moreover show (as did the Yugoslav Marxists) how it did not allow a ‘socialisation’ of self-management of the means of production. But was it necessary to conclude from this that the market reforms were destructive – contrary to his position in the Cuban debate – and orient towards a third path absent in the Cuban debate and defended by the Yugoslav Marxists?

[66]  See the Second Congress of Self-Managers of Yugoslavia (1972) where we find the official speeches by Tito and Kardelj, the analysis of the destructive conflicts and tendencies created by the market reforms and the logic of the constitutional amendments which would be made concrete in 1974. 

[67]  The publication of Praxis was blocked from 1975 onwards.  The Praxis academics were forbidden from teaching, but could continue their research.

[68]  See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth. (2009).

[69]  See note 9

[70]  See the discussion on this subject in Contretemps (2003), ‘Changer le monde sans prendre le pouvoir?’ (coordinated by P. Corcuff and M. Löwy) with notably a discussion of John Holloway by Daniel Bensaïd.

[71]  See A. Artous et al (2003).

[72] not without confrontation with the projects of finance and the market exploitation of urbanity: Cities in the Hands of Global Finance, by Raquel Rolnik

[73]   See the manifesto ‘La ville que nous voulons’ drawn up in Barcelona.


[75]   ‘Comité pour l’abolition des dettes du tiers monde’ (CADTM), which became the ‘Comité pour l’abolition des dettes illégitimes’,, extending its network on the international scale – a component of the global justice movement.


[77]   See

[78], Attac (2017). On the  strategic issues of the global justice  movement see also G. Massiah (2011). See also the contributions of Thomas Coutrot, including (2010) Jalons vers un monde possible: redonner des racines à la démocratie, Editions Le Bord de l'eau.

[79] and

[80]  and on the continental experiences F. Gaudichaud (2015).

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