Bring back the Institute for Workers' Control: The movement for workers' control in the 1970s was among the most promising of the many roads not taken in the forgotten history of the left.

Author:Guinan, Joe

McKenzie Wark, in Molecular Red, his recent book on theory for the Anthropocene, argues that we need new ancestors for our next civilisation. It's an arresting suggestion, and one that stems from willed optimism in the face of mounting difficulties. The book opens with a parched vision of the Aral Sea in what used to be Soviet Central Asia, a stark signifier of our cataclysmic present. Its feeder river the Amu Darya diverted by Soviet engineers to irrigate a vast basin of mechanised cotton production following the Second World War, the Aral Sea has all but dried up, shrunk to a tenth of its former size, its fishing fleet grounded, one of the world's worst environmental disasters, a man-made desert and monument to the Promethean productivity of industrial agriculture.

It would be a mistake, we are cautioned, to view this as a purely Soviet folly, for 'the collapse of the Soviet system merely prefigures the collapse of the American one' (Wark, 2015, xii) as a consequence of what Karl Marx understood to be our 'metabolic rift' with nature (Foster, 2000, 141). In volume one of Capital, Marx wrote of the degradation of the soils and alienation from natural systems that accompanied the transformation of production under the sway of capital (Marx, 1974, 474-5). This process is now sufficiently far advanced as to have leapt to an entirely different level, beyond localised ecological disasters to geophysical change on a planetary scale:

The Anthropocene is a series of metabolic rifts, where one molecule after another is extracted by labor and technique to make things for humans, but the waste products don't return so that the cycle can renew itself. The soils deplete, the seas recede, the climate alters, the gyre widens: a world on fire. (Wark, 2015, xiv) Whether it is potassium nitrate, dihydrogen monoxide, or atmospheric carbon dioxide, the molecules in question are increasingly deviating from their established routines, and the consequences of the enormous complacency involved in production systems predicated on unending growth are rapidly bearing down upon us. Anthropogenic climate change, the mother of all metabolic rifts, is a game-changer, transforming our previously self-correcting and -balancing relationship with planetary ecosystems in irreversible ways that call for similarly huge shifts in our economics, politics, and culture. For Wark, this means our abrupt ejection from pre-history and entry into history-proper where there are radical limits to the boundless commodification of everything: 'We all know this civilisation can't last. Let's make a new one' (Ibid, 225).

With precious few exceptions, the traditional left, globally and taken as a whole, could scarcely be less prepared for such a world-historical challenge. For decades now the left has been traversing a desert plain of its own, arid, featureless, Ozymandian, without pity. Soviet communism and social democracy, its two great twentieth-century political projects, are only the closest of the rusting hulks rising out of the sand; similar ruins lie beyond--of representative democracy, the liberal state, and more. The recently launched Salvage magazine ('because we are wrecked. Because we need a strategy for ruination') finds us scrabbling for fragments amongst the stony rubbish (Salvage, 2015, 2). It is in this context of widespread ideological systems failure that Wark urges a new kind of low theory, for designing integrated solutions on a collaborative basis' capable of mitigating the metabolic rift and creating the kind of world in which we'd actually want to live. It might, in fact, be a 'new-old' theory, since the place to begin is not from scratch but by excavating 'forgotten histories, neglected concepts and minor stories' (Wark, 2015, xvi), a doubling back to some earlier roads not taken in the left's long line of march.

For our first prospective new ancestor, Wark returns to a 'previous, failed attempt to end pre-history' (Ibid, xii) and offers up the neglected figure of Alexander Bogdanov. One of the original twenty-two Bolsheviks, a close associate of Lenin and onetime rival for the party leadership, if Bogdanov is remembered at all today it is usually only as Lenin's opponent in a 1908 chess game on the isle of Capri, watched over by Maxim Gorky and captured in a famous photograph (1). In fact, Bogdanov was a polymath of impressive range, a talented scientist, physician, philosopher, novelist, administrator, and revolutionary, masterminding the bank robberies that helped finance the Bolsheviks' activities in exile after 1905. He fell out with Lenin, becoming for a time leader of the left opposition within the party and developing an anti-authoritarian libertarian communism, but eventually retreated from politics into organisational science and 'proletkult', the workers' cultural movement he helped found before 1917. For Wark, Bogdanov is worthy of recovery because of the extraordinary body of work he produced attempting to unify the social, physical, and biological sciences by understanding them as systems of relationships and seeking out their common underlying principles. The result was an attempted super-science of organisation he called 'tektology', a forerunner of cybernetics and an early form of critical systems theory. The central proposition of his work, that 'our species-being is as builder of worlds', was an insight that allowed Bogdanov to anticipate anthropogenic climate change (Ibid, 3). It was also a powerful statement of the viewpoint of social labour.

Though Wark passes over it quickly, Bogdanov's engagement with political economy is also worth a second look. In 1923 Bogdanov was arrested by the GPU, predecessor to the KGB, on suspicion of being involved with Workers' Truth, a left opposition group whose platform included freedom of speech and elections for the factory soviets (Stokes, 1995, 261). He was released after five weeks, having demanded a personal interview with secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky, to whom he explained that he had views in common with the group but no formal connection. As it happens, Bogdanov had long espoused ideals of worker collectivism, although not the kind that had emerged during War Communism, which he criticised for fostering individualism and competitiveness and destroying working class solidarity, with each factory committee compelled 'to fight for the interests of its own enterprise, its own labor force, against those of other enterprises'. In this, his attitude was 'typical of that of the left opposition, who supported workers' control but not "anarcho-syndicalism"' (Ibid, 266). When Bogdanov died in 1928, while conducting an experimental blood transfusion on himself, his obituary in Pravda was written by Nikolai Bukharin, an admirer.

Perhaps the fullest exposition of Bogdanov's political economy is to be found in his farsighted 1908 novel Red Star, the 'first Bolshevik utopia' and foundational work of Soviet science fiction. The novel's narrator, Leonid the Bolshevik, having been transported to Mars, encounters an advanced post-capitalist civilisation in which everyone produces according to ability and consumes according to need in a fully automated economy built upon voluntary unpaid work, short hours, and flexible job rotation. Taking a tour of a Martian factory, Leonid is struck by the mesmerising spectacle of unalienated labour:

Hundreds of workers moved confidently among the machines, their footsteps and voices drowned in a sea of sound. There was not a trace of tense anxiety on their faces, whose only expression was one of quiet concentration. They seem to be inquisitive, learned observers who had no real part in all that was going on around them. It was as if they simply found it interesting to watch how the enormous chunks of metal glided out beneath the transparent dome on moving platforms... To an outsider the threads connecting the delicate brains of the men with the indestructible organs of the machines were subtle and invisible'. (Bogdanov, 1984, 63-4) Information about what to produce and in what quantities, and on corresponding labour shortages and surpluses, is compiled by an office of statistics, making for a regime of worker self-management within a planning system. But if the relations of production on Mars have been harmonised through social control over the means of production, Martian communism is still struggling with the metabolic rift. In their race to industrialise, the Martians have begun to rapidly exhaust their natural resources and horribly degrade their environment, and the search is on for new energy sources beyond their unsustainable form of nuclear power: 'the tighter our humanity closes ranks to conquer nature, the tighter the elements close theirs to avenge the victory' (Ibid, 79). Bogdanov's prescience only extended so far. It would fall to later generations of exponents of workers' control to set about developing integral solutions to such problems, incorporating an understanding of the inescapable ecological limits to growth.

A road not taken

The comings and goings of the old mole of revolution can be mysterious indeed. At just the moment when Lenin was moving artfully to break up the movement for workers' control on the Russian railways (Carr, 1952, 394-7), an upsurge of industrial militancy in Britain, driven in part by the tremendous impact of the Bolshevik revolution on the rank and file, led to the explosive growth of the Shop Stewards' and Workers' Control Movement (Pribicevic, 1959; Goodman and Whittingham, 1969). For a time this movement, a meld of industrial unionism, syndicalism, and guild socialism, came close to supplanting the leadership of the official trade unions over workers in engineering, then Britain's largest industry. 'It was', according to its principal chronicler, 'perhaps the first major workers' movement to put workers' control in the form of an immediate demand instead of an ultimate objective'...

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