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  • Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present ed. by Dario Azzellini and Immanuel Ness
  • Ingo Schmidt
Dario Azzellini and Immanuel Ness, eds., Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present (Chicago: Haymarket Books 2011)

Reading this book is like looking into a kaleidoscope of workers’ efforts to regain control over their work, workplaces, and lives more generally. As any other kaleido-scope, this one, too, displays a perplexing variety of facets and every turn produces a new image looking similar but not quite the same as the old one. The first set of images gives an overview of the history of, and theoretical reflections upon, workers’ councils. The chapters in this first part of the book present the Paris Commune as a prelude to the main acts of revolution and the establishment of workers’ council in Russia, Germany, and Italy from 1917 to 1920. Workers’ experiences in these three cases are presented as benchmarks against which all later struggles for workers’ control are measured. The centrality of these three cases is recognized by separate case studies in the second part of the book. Complemented by a chapter on Spain, this part of the book looks at the early 20th century and shifts the focus from generalizing theoretical reflections to more detailed historical presentations. Contributors to the following parts stick to this historical focus and invite readers on a tour of workers’ control in state socialist and post-colonial countries, struggles against capitalist restructuring in the 1970s, and more recent claims for workers’ control from India to Latin America. Arriving at the finishing line, the reader is left with more questions than answers, questions like: What triggered recurrent outbursts of worker militancy beyond party and union organizing? Why were these outbursts crushed or channeled back into the safe waters of institutionalized politics? Are these instances closed chapters in history or is there anything to learn from them for future struggles? The editors plead for the latter, as they make clear in the introduction. The crucial question, then, is whether the kaleidoscope of historical experiences can be transformed into a theoretical guide for the future. To be sure, after reading the book the answer could be a resounding “no.” Theoretical references to Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, and other members of the Marxist pantheon reflect the confidence in the “Forward March of Labour” that inspired labour activists and intellectuals from the late 19th to the early 20th century. However, the case studies in this book seem to conform to the idea that this forward march was eventually halted, as Hobsbawm, who invented the term, speculated in the late 1970s. Three decades of labour in retreat later, though, the taste for another reading of 20th-century labour has grown. It is such a reading to which the editors and authors of this book invite their readers. Actual labour hasn’t developed the way activists and intellectuals had envisioned and hoped for around the turn of the 20th century. Yet, these ideas can still serve as theoretical [End Page 298] starting points for a reflection upon later experiences. In fact, careful reading of the case studies in the book show that many of the theoretical arguments made some 100 years ago were confirmed by later developments; just the political hopes that were attached to them were disappointed over and over again.

These arguments revolve around three themes that run as common threads, with varying nuances, through the contributions to the book. The first of them is the dynamic of workers’ struggle. In their introduction, Azzelini and Ness explain that their interest is not in workers’ coops that try to carve out market niches in a capitalist economy but in workers’ efforts to replace such an economy by one kind of worker’s self-administration or another. Yet, as they also point out and many of the case studies confirm, such advances are threatened by outright defeat or cooptation or both. The German revolution of 1918/19, for example, was crushed by military counterrevolution among other things, and the idea of worker’s councils was then transformed into co-determination between...