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The Strange History of « Workers against Work » The Vicissitudes of a Book

jeudi 26 juillet 2012

This text has been published by Echanges et Mouvement as a pamphlet with a french translation.

You can read the presentation of Echanges in english.

Let me warn the reader that the following essay may be judged overly autobiographical and self-referential. Historians nearly always write about other people’s lives, not their own. I justify my somewhat self-indulgent focus because it may throw some light on the conditions of intellectual and professional production as well as reception. The essay also attempts to revisit aspects of labor history and its relation to theory from the 1970s to the present. Finally, it will explore the little known but intellectually active milieu of the French extreme left during the same period.

My first book, Workers against Work : Labor in Barcelona and Paris during the Popular Fronts (WaW), is a scholarly monograph with, I believe, a unique history. Since its publication by the University of California Press in 1991, it has been reviled and revered, praised and pirated, trashed and translated into five languages. Its admirers have been academics, libertarians, communists, and capitalists ; its detractors nearly equally ­heterogeneous.

WaW originated as a dissertation, which was completed in 1982 under the supervision of Arthur Mitzman of the University of Amsterdam. Its conceptualization was influenced – but not completely determined – by the post-1968 “critique of work” that I absorbed when I lived in Paris from 1979 to 1982. At that time, I became acquainted with a number of French people who redefined the future revolution simply as not laboring for wages. Their position recalled the nineteenth-century socialist demand – articulated by both Marxists and anarchists – for the abolition of wage labor. More pragmatically, to survive in an expensive urban environment, the young Parisians in this circle sometimes performed odd jobs or lived off unemployment and welfare checks. Drinking and smoking, which was heightened by the occasional use of soft drugs, helped to define this milieu. Having experienced undergraduate life in the U.S. during the late sixties and early seventies, these hedonistic activities were less shocking to me than their anti-work ideology. The Parisians exposed me to essential texts, such as the anthology, La Fin du travail, and the pamphlet, Le Refus du travail (1). Both publications argued that work was oppressive and, just as importantly, workers resisted it.

During the 1960s and 1970s in France and in other western nations, a new interest in labor history arose, and, for the first time, historians began to chronicle workers’ everyday refusals of work (2). During these decades, Michelle Perrot and Michel Foucault composed histories of the rejection of disciplinary techniques by workers, women, prisoners, and others (3). This history from below resurrected the popular classes’ search for autonomy and reflected a crisis of militantisme. As Foucault stated in the early seventies, “The masses don’t need him [the intellectual] to gain knowledge ; they know perfectly well, without illusion ; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves (4).” Non-worker activists and militants had only minor roles to play when workers’ autonomy and self-determination were the goals. Intellectuals certainly could not lead the movement or provide it with revolutionary consciousness in the Leninist sense since, according to leftist critics of orthodox Marxism, the struggle itself – not well-meaning intellectuals – formed class consciousness.

Works of labor and social history by Perrot, Foucault, and others, both reflected and sparked desires to revive libertarian traditions. A number of my friends and acquaintances in Paris in the late seventies and early eighties adopted councilism and demanded workers’ self-government. Richard Gombin’s key text reevaluated positively a leftism which Lenin had disdained as “infantile” (5). In turn, anti-Leninist leftists dismissed direction by “revolutionary” political parties and supposedly representative trade unions in favor of wildcat strikes, factory occupations, and varieties of workers’ control which, they posited, prefigured the real socialism of the future. As the motto of the First International stated, “the liberation of the working class must be won by the working class itself.” Gombin argued that the young Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, and Anton Pannekoek agreed that a successful workers’ revolution must rely ultimately only on the workers themselves.

Yet much like their Bolshevik opponents, these early twentieth-century councilists possessed a productivist notion of the revolution. They assumed that workers would efficiently manage the farms and factories that they controlled. The councilists’ project contradicted the spirit of the anti-work advocates whose revitalized ouvriérisme of the 1970s posited that “work is the curse of the class that drinks”. The Situationists slogan – “Never Work” – exercised a powerful attraction among many of these young leftists. The playful spirit of the situs rejected the transformation of artists into workers, as had occurred in Communist states, in order to transmute workers into artists. The Situationists were undoubtedly provocative and clever, but it was questionable whether they or any other leftist group resolved the tension between workers’ self-management and unavoidable social demands for production. In fact, situs tellingly mythologized as the apex of human achievement the collectives established by anarchists and Marxists during the Spanish Civil War. They totally ignored the refusals of work among the rank-and-file workers during the Spanish Revolution, which was a main topic of my dissertation. In other words, the post-1968 portrait of the working class as resisters of work was incompatible with the discipline and organization needed for the functioning of councils, Soviets, and other types of productivist collectives.

My return from Paris to the United States in 1983 as an assistant professor at Rutgers University was not an easy transition. My impression was that the American academy had not changed much, although I had. I arrived questioning, in the words of one historian of twentieth-century France, several fundamental “progressive pieties.” (6)

The iconoclastic arguments of WaW challenged the three major schools of labor history in the 1980s – Marxism, modernization theory, and culturalism. Marxists (E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Herbert Gutman) posited the progressive development of class consciousness which would enable the workers and their representatives to manage the productive forces efficiently. Modernization theorists (Peter Stearns and Charles Tilly) claimed that workers adapted to industrial society and gradually abandoned what I called resistance or refusals to work – strikes, slowdowns, absenteeism, faking illness, lateness, pilfering, and sabotage. Culturalists (G. Stedman Jones and postmodernists) argued that language made work meaningful to workers. Workers against Work attempted to show that none of these theories could explain workers’ continuing resistance against work. Ironically, these refusals of wage labor continued or even increased during the Popular Fronts of the late 1930s in France and Spain, more precisely from 1936 to 1938 in Barcelona and Paris when the left held political power.

WaW engaged with the social theory of both François Guizot and Karl Marx, both of whom explored the formation of social classes and the relationship between them. The Spanish Revolution and Civil War erupted in July 1936 in a country, like Russia and China, where the bourgeoisie had been weak and unable to complete “the bourgeois revolution,” i.e., the creation of a unified nation, development of the means of production, and separation of church from state and military from civilian government. In Barcelona revolutionary anarchosyndicalists, communists, and socialists took over the factories but had to confront the strikes, slowdowns, absenteeism, faked illnesses, indifference, and low productivity of rank-and-file workers. The militants of the parties and unions reacted to the resistance of the workers with the same repressive means – tying pay to productivity and sanctioning absent workers – as the capitalists who had previously managed the factories. Thus, in many ways, the experiences of both workers and managers during the Spanish Revolution repeated those of their Soviet counterparts during and after the Russian Revolution (7).

In France the Popular Front was reformist, not revolutionary as it was in Spain. The French bourgeoisie had created the model “bourgeois revolution,” by unifying the nation, imposing a new relationship between religion and state, and by steadily developing the productive forces. French working-class militants had a different agenda than completing a middle-class revolution. In June 1936 Léon Blum, the head of the Socialist party, became prime minister in a Popular Front coalition government and granted higher pay, the forty-hour week, and two weeks of paid vacations to French workers. Nevertheless, the wage earners wanted more and from 1936 to 1938, they engaged in a guerrilla war against work. Productivity fell in many key Parisian factories as union militants gained power on the shop floor and, by establishing low production quotas, rendered piecework ineffective. Low output created enormous political and economic problems for Blum’s government and the Popular Front. The swing centrist party in his coalition, the Radicals, became alienated from Blum’s socialists whom the Radicals held responsible for low productivity and consequent inflation. The center and the right felt that poor output in the aviation sector was damaging French defense, as German workers under Nazi rule labored fifty to sixty hours per week ; whereas the French only forty. Faced with the growing German threat and rising inflation, the right gained control of the government and smashed the Popular Front in November 1938 by breaking a general strike in defense of the forty-hour week.

WaW concluded that, given the experiences in Barcelona and Paris in the 1930s, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to build a workers’ democracy in the workplace. The volume also tried to contribute to a theory of the state by arguing that a powerful and potentially repressive state was a prerequisite to making workers labor. The book manuscript aroused intense discussion and controversy when I applied for tenure and promotion at Rutgers University in 1989. Rutgers, like most research institutions, solicits confidential outside reviews for its tenure candidates.

Five outside letters were positive, but two were negative. The history department vote was 28 yes and 6 no. The chair of the department, Richard McCormick (now president of the university), recommended promotion. Nevertheless, the internal and external minority was more influential than the majority. The negative decision terminated my career at Rutgers, and I arrived at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 1990.

Given the outcome of the tenure decision, it may be worth­while to examine at some length the negative letters, which greatly influenced my dismissal. As many academics know, in the 1980s solicited evaluations of a candidate’s work were guaranteed confidentiality. However, either by accident or design, during my tenure battle a sympathetic colleague or, more likely, a distracted secretary placed copies of all seven letters in my university mailbox. Thus, I have retained a complete paper trail of essential materials. Since I was never asked to pledge confidentiality, I have no hesitation in revealing the contents of the damaging criticism of my manuscript.

A historian from a major state university in the Northeast authored the first negative response (8). He admitted that he was “no expert in Spanish history” and would concentrate on the French part of the manuscript, which he called “incompletely developed.” He dismissed the argument that a weak bourgeoisie explained the strength of revolutionary movements in Barcelona and that a relatively dynamic bourgeoisie encouraged reformism in Paris as “simply too gross a distinction” which “conceals more than it reveals.” This historian objected to generalizations about the French bourgeoisie which he viewed as too complex for a “simplistic” analysis. He posited that the “real scholarly contribution” of WaW was its discovery of workers’ resistance to work, but “just what this evidence signifies in a historical sense eludes Professor Seidman’s grasp.” “He does not know how to synthesize this data [on workers’ resistance] and put it into readable form.” Furthermore, “Seidman goes too far in characterizing their [workers’] aim as guerilla [sic] against work. Similarly to call the ‘essence’ of the Spanish Revolution the development and rationalization of the nation’s means of production seems excessive…. Seidman’s work lacks a sense of nuance and complexity…. His accomplishments … are not exceptional.” “In print, as at scholarly meetings, Professor Seidman shows an intellectual confidence that sometimes unbalances his argumentation.” Finally, this professor believed that WaW was “publishable” and offered “an important and provocative thesis that deserves to be aired. I wish only that he [Seidman] would reflect more on the meaning of his thesis…. May I ask that this letter be treated in strictest confidence.”

Another professor at a prestigious urban Ivy League institution offered an even more negative opinion (9). “There seems to be several potential books that coexist uneasily in this manuscript…. Part of the manuscript becomes a kind of catalogue of how much more advanced France was than even the most industrialized part of Spain, Catalonia (a close look at Asturias might give a different impression)” (10). This historian argued that the theme of the revolt against work was insufficiently explored and should be related “to the ‘Droit a [sic] la paresse’ of (I believe) Longuet [sic] in the 1880s … and all the way forward to the consumer societies of the 1950s, via Stedman Jones’ classic article (not cited, I believe, though a less relevant work of Stedman Jones’ [sic] is) on the ‘unmaking of the English working class.’” WaW’s discovery that the Catalan syndicalist leadership became productivist in 1936 while the rank and file continued to resist work was “exciting.” However, “this finding, fascinating in itself, contradicts the point with which the manuscript began – that Spain was more revolutionary in 1936 than France.” This historian concluded “on the basis of this manuscript alone, I feel considerable doubt that Professor Seidman would be the best choice to supervise graduate research as a tenured faculty member.”

The first and especially the second letter had a considerable impact on university committees. The Appointments and Promotion Committee voted 3 to 1 against tenure and noted “in keeping with a number of the letters, one can criticize [the candidate] for not yet having arrived at a broad understanding or interpretation of his highly original materials.” The Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences concurred that “too many doubts have been expressed by the referees, the department, and the A & P Committee concerning the current quantity and quality of Professor Seidman’s research accomplishments…. It is the very controversial nature of the work which requires a degree of conceptual and empirical skill that, most agree, appears lacking at this juncture. One important referee argues that, given the difficulties in Seidman’s scholarly work, it would not be a good idea to have him supervise Ph.D.’s… I might recommend hiring him with tenure once the manuscript was ready for publication, but it clearly is not ready, despite its acceptance by the University of California Press. (11)”

The Promotion Review Committee, headed by Rutgers’ chief academic officer, stated that “the candidate’s record shows energetic and versatile teaching which is judged by his colleagues to be above the Department’s average in effectiveness… The peer assessments [i.e. the confidential letters] express reservations about the quality and quantity of the candidate’s research accomplishments.” On this basis the PRC did not recommend tenure and promotion.

The years following its initial publication saw generally decent reviews of Workers against Work. However, UC Press never issued it in paperback, and I expected it would experience the fate of so many academic books – a quick decline into scholarly obscurity. However, in 1998 a Japanese translation by Osaka Keizai Hoka University Press, appeared, to which I contributed a new preface. After this initial translation, the book once again experienced a slow death, and UC Press let it go out of print in 2000. Anarchists or councilists in Baltimore who called themselves Insubordinate Publications issued the first (and last) English-language paperback edition in 2001. This edition was proudly pirated ( “anti-copyright “) and had neither permission from UC Press nor an ISBN number. Thus it could not be sold in bookstores (or probably anywhere except in cyberspace). Only a few copies were published.

Foreign audiences provided a forum for reception of WaW that was lacking in American academic or leftist circles. Although a leftist – apparently trotskyist – group in Athens called Red Thread issued a very partial translation in 2006, the most surprising revival of WaW occurred in the summer of 2010 when two translations appeared and a third is in process. The latter will be issued in October 2011 by the German publishing house, Verlag Graswurtzelrevolution, which defines itself as a collective of “non-violent” anarchists who helped to pioneer the German Green movement (12). The German edition will include a new preface by Marcel van der Linden, research director at the International Institute of Social History, and by Karl Heinz Roth, physician and multi-faceted historian. Bogazici University Press, Istanbul, published a Turkish translation. The translator, Emine Ozkaya, had also translated the works of the American anarchist, Emma Goldman, and the American historian of Russia, Paul Avrich, into Turkish. In the same period, I learned by chance that a self-proclaimed “communist” collective, Editions Senonevero of Marseilles, was printing a pirated French translation, which appeared in June 2010. This act of piracy aroused my own “communist” response, which demanded (of course, without success) the free sale and distribution of Workers against Work to any interested reader :

7 May 2010

Dear Editions Senonevero,

Not being at all acquainted with your maison d’édition, I was shocked to see on your website a notice of your forthcoming French translation of my first book, Workers against Work : Labor in Paris and Barcelona during the Popular Fronts (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1991). As a result, I carefully examined the contents of your site and learned that you advocate the abolition of “capitalisme” and the “la communisation des rapports sociaux” (“communisation of social relationships”).

Therefore, when your totally unauthorized edition of Ouvriers contre le travail : Barcelone et Paris pendant les Fronts Populaires appears as scheduled in May 2010, I respectfully request that you distribute copies completely gratis to all readers who ask for them. I myself would like 100 copies which I shall forward to interested individuals and institutions. If you cannot meet your obligation as “communists” and distribute my work freely, I shall feel compelled to grant the French-language rights of Workers against Work to another less exploitative publisher.

Sincerely yours,

Michael Seidman

The multiplication of translations in the first decade of the twenty-first century may demonstrate the search among the radical left for alternative perspectives following the collapse of Communism at the end of the last century. The extreme left is now more open to a critical examination of wage labor in societies which claimed to be socialist or communist. In addition, the decline of hegemonic Communist parties in non-Communist nations permitted greater intellectual debate amongst various components of the left vying to replace the discredited party. New generations have emerged that have little commitment to defending either an old or new left in which they never participated. In some sense, these leftists have returned to the roots of labor history which had originated among radicals outside the academy.

Given my linguistic limitations, I have been unable to follow the debates aroused by the translations of WaW in Japan, Greece, and Turkey. In France, though, the book’s translation has stimulated discussion among a new generation of the extreme left. The Giménologues, a group dedicated to preserving the works and memory of Antoine Giménez (né Bruno Salvadori) who was a member of the anarchosyndicalist Durutti Column during the Spanish Civil War, devoted six web pages to analyses of the Spanish collectives (13). Their reviewer saw WaW as an important contribution to the literature on revolutionary collectivizations in Spain. The participant-observer Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit (1937) had initiated an examination of the profoundly anti-capitalist nature of the anarchist collectives. He was followed by Gaston Leval, a French anarchist, who delved into the functioning of agrarian workers’ control in a number of publications. In addition, the recently translated WaW “provides paths of reflection to comprehend and refine Borkenau’s analysis.” The Giménologues believed that WaW explained both the strengths and weaknesses of anarchosyndicalism. Their reviewer made the important observation that revolutionary militants became repressive not because of some perverse desire to rule but rather to combat workers’ resistance to work. “This historical analysis must be taken into account for those interested in workers’ control today.”

The French translation also stimulated a two-part, sixteen-page review in the trotskysant journal, Cahiers du mouvement ouvrier, which is animated by Jean-Jacques Marie, a French specialist of Russian history (14). The reviewer, historian Michel Gandilhon, recognized that WaW’s objective was “to present a social history of workers’ resistance to work.” The book offered “an uncustomary image of the CNT [Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, anarchosyndicalist]” which many previous historians, such as Eric Hobsbawm, had viewed as dominated by millenarian rural utopias. Instead, the CNT and the anarchosyndicalist movement in general were quite cognizant of Spanish and Catalan economic backwardness. The reviewer likened Spain before its civil war to pre-revolutionary Russia, where foreign capital also dominated the most modern industrial branches. When the revolution erupted in Barcelona in July 1936, the CNT embarked upon a modernizing mission which included the introduction of scientific management and Taylorist techniques in Barcelona industry. In sum, “the militants of the CNT were close to Trotsky’s arguments on the permanent revolution in 1905. For them, the Spanish bourgeoisie had proven itself incapable of developing the means of production, and it was up to the proletariat to accomplish that task and to modernize social relations while constructing a socialist society.” Thus, the “libertarian, anti-Marxist and anti-Bolshevik CNT in its publications and ordinary propaganda emphasized the same themes that Lenin advocated in 1918 in his The Immediate Tasks of Soviet Power, where he called for a strict work discipline and total mobilization for war.” As the Giménologues had argued, WaW revealed “contradictions [between workers’ resistance to work and the desire of revolutionaries to develop the means of production] that affected and will affect every attempt to liberate a society from exploitation. During the transition begun by the proletarian revolution, these contradictions raise the question of workers’ use of existing capitalist techniques and scientific organization of work and provoke doubts about the widespread belief among nearly all factions of the working class concerning the neutrality of the means of production inherited from capitalism. Thus, Seidman’s book on the Catalan experience of the 1930s is a source of invaluable thought and reflection for anyone concerned about these questions.”

In the second part of the review Gandilhon posited “whereas the section [of WaW] which treated Barcelona reshaped with originality the image of the CNT ; the section on Paris breaks with the accepted and rather folkloric representations on the [French] Popular Front.” In contrast with many previous historians who had focused on a supposed French economic backwardness (retard), WaW demonstrated the modernity of French aviation, chemical, electrical, and automobile industries. Although pivertistes [followers of the revolutionary socialist Marceau Pivert], Trotskyites, and gauchistes had “justly” underlined the “counterrevolutionary character” of the French Popular Front, “no one… before Michael Seidman was ever interested in what really happened in the occupied workshops of the factories. His descriptions allow us to alter the idyllic image of card playing and dances during the factory occupations.” Workers’ violence against foremen and their sabotage of machines showed the proletarians’ hatred of salaried labor. From 1936 to 1938, both Seidman and the French historian, Antoine Prost, concurred that the principal question became “who rules in the factories ?” since the workers continuously conducted a “guerrilla war” against work during that prewar period. Providing a perceptive parallel, Gandilhon asserted that northern Italian industrial workers’ refusals of work during the late 1960s and early 1970s repeated the French Popular Front’s model of a guerrilla against wage labor.

Although Gandilhon called WaW “a great book of social history” because of its treatment of resistance to work, he offered a Marxist critique of the volume. Basing himself on the research of Aimée Moutet, Gandilhon asserted that WaW ignored the lack of worker agitation and the stability of production in the Ford plants at Asnières in the Parisian suburbs, where management had linked pay to productivity. Thus, Seidman could not account for the success of American-style incentives in France (15). Nor did he understand that, unlike the Americans, French manufacturers had introduced Taylorist and Fordist production techniques which had increased productivity without increasing salaries (“Ce point est d’ailleurs insuffisamment pris en compte par Michael Seidman quand il explique le refus du travail exprimé par beaucoup d’ouvriers”). The reviewer acutely perceived that the book had been grounded in “a theoretical radicalism, which was very lively in the post-68 years, which – in the tradition of the young Marx of the 1844 manuscripts – regarded work as an alienation imposed by capital on labor. The author, a prisoner of that vision, seems sometimes to hide or ignore elements that do not support his argument.” Thus, Gandilhon argued that workers are willing to accept work when – as in the French Ford factories – they share in the benefits of productivity gains (16). More fundamentally, the reviewer followed Marx who posited that wage labor – but not work which is a necessity in any society – may be abolished under socialism. The work week could be radically diminished, but work itself can never be eliminated.

A less glowing review was published online by the Red Skinheads de France, who defined themselves as “anti-racist, and anti-capitalist, and anti-sexist” skins “who express a visceral and energetic anti-fascism on the streets and at concerts (17). According to its reviewer, WaW initially seemed a “banal” repetition of the “twenty-first century” and “Situationist” argument that the proletariat was more revolutionary than its anarchist or Communist leadership (18). A supercilious Seidman too easily criticized CNT militants who wanted every worker to have his own car and PCF [Parti communiste français] activists who desired to maintain the antifascist unity of the Popular Front. WaW excessively sympathized with rank-and-file workers who wanted to escape the workplace and live for the moment. Yet neither the revolution in Spain nor in France could allow the workers “total liberation” (« ne pouvait avoir le visage immédiat de la libération totale et du jouir sans entraves »).

Taking a more positive view of WaW which meshed with that of the Giménologues, the reviewer concluded that the volume should not be read as an extreme-left tract ; instead, it offered a necessary anticipation of the inevitable problems the revolution will be forced to confront. Revolutionaries, such as the Redskins de France, must be cognizant that the “masses” prefer to have fun rather than to work even in the face of the fascist menace. Like their predecessors during the Popular Fronts, revolutionaries may be compelled to use repression against workers to ensure the survival of the revolution and the defeat of fascism. WaW is “one of the few works on 1936 which examines deeply the transition to socialism…. The elements it describes are an excellent remedy for the frenzied romanticism about the coming insurrection… This is no doubt why Michèle Alliot Marie [then a key minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government] will not be giving it any publicity.”

Certain elements of the French extreme left had even less use for le droit à la paresse than the Redskins de France. A twelve-page review in the orthodox Leninist Présence marxiste asserted that WaW had “great political weaknesses (19).”Nevertheless, it had the virtue of demystifying the CNT which, according to the reviewer, was not revolutionary since it was fully engaged on the side of the Spanish Republican bourgeoisie in an “imperialist” war. Although it praised the quality of the translation for its sobriety and clarity, it criticized Senonevero for the act of translating WaW : “A revolutionary reader needs something other than a university thesis.” Predictably enough, the reviewer charged that WaW neglected the need for revolutionary discipline. He also denied any significant workers’ resistance to work in France where wage earners were more than happy to labor productively. In short, Seidman “belongs to those who have not understood Marxism.” Instead, he “deifies anti-work, a theory which has nothing to do with revolution.” The call for “an end to work” (la fin du travail) is “petty bourgeois.”

Although much of the critique of Présence marxiste can easily be dismissed as the product of a dogmatic Leninist, the reviewer did make a significant and unique observation about the ambiguity of WaW’s conception of work : “Seidman’s anti-revolutionary theory means that socialism is a historical impossibility because it rests on a utopian hope (in the pejorative sense) for the liberation of work.” Regardless of whether any sort of utopia can be realized in the future, utopias nevertheless provide vantage points from which historians and social scientists can formulate social critiques. Calls for the abolition of wage labor – not for “the liberation of work,” as Présence marxiste contended – offer perspectives which allow struggles against work to be discovered and not merely denounced.

The Hungarian proletarian author Miklós Haraszti provided a trenchant empirical response to Leninist criticism. Haraszti described his experiences in Budapest in the early 1970s in the Red Star Tractor Factory where he engaged in piecework : “‘You have to alleviate the cancer, but not cut it out.’ Even the most well-intentioned say some such thing when they talk about the improvement of workers’ pay or the relations which surround their work – they say nothing about the pitiless inhuman absurdity of paid labor itself (20).” “Piece-rates appear to me in the guise of a man who typifies the managerial spirit… If I showed myself capable of a productivity comparable to the machine, then I received payment for each of my movements (21).” As in capitalist countries, Hungarian workers always referred to management as “them,” never – despite the constant “socialist” propaganda which identified wage laborers and managers as fellow workers – as “us” (22).” As F. W. Taylor recognized, workers refused to cooperate with management to increase their own exploitation : “Our sabotage is nothing other than a refusal to give away our knowledge and experience (23).” Disobedience to an order of a manager or foreman “constitutes refusal to work, which is subject to disciplinary sanctions (24).” #

Haraszti offered a historical vision of Eastern European workers’ struggles to slow the pace : “The workers have always used moments of political tension to force down the norm – for example in 1953 [workers’ revolts in East Germany] or 1956 [the Hungarian Revolution]. On the other hand, the first step towards political stabilization has always been the re-establishment and the enforcement of the norm (25).” Haraszti was particularly interested in “the homer” (la perruque) as a prefiguration of the true socialist future. “Homers” were personal objects created from inexpensive raw materials on time “stolen” from normal wage-labor activity in the factory. “Making homers is the only work in the factory which stands apart from our incessant competition between each other. (26).” “Most friendships begin with the making of a joint homer (27).” Homers indicate that workers “would gladly manufacture, often collectively, things which were useful for the community ; but they can only make what they want to make on their own, or at most with a few others.” (28). The author envisaged a new world in which workers would produce useful homers for other wage earners and make them “a thousand times more efficiently than today (29).”

Haraszti’s desire to see various forms of worker resistance to wage labor as anticipating a new society was seconded by academics and leftists. The American sociologist Michael Burawoy emphasized the consent that factory labor offered to managers and detected the possibility of a future based upon “collective self-management (30).” The Italian theorist Antonio Negri explained that Italian “workerism” (operaismo) was an anti-individual and pro-collective phenomena (31). Advanced capitalism, which was a result of an everlasting class struggle, had created a truly social worker who wants to control the labor process for the benefit of the community (32). Negri predicted that the transition from the obligation to work to the obligation not to work would be violent (33).

Just the opposite seems to have occurred in the Soviet Union. One recent volume has argued that the need and desire to discipline the workers was partially responsible for the top-down management style of the Communist leadership in the USSR in the early 1920s (34). Absenteeism, turnover and theft – the latter an urbanized form of poaching – compelled the Bolsheviks to reject participatory democracy at the workplace

and to become increasingly coercive (35). As had the CNT and UGT [Unión General de Trabajadores] in Barcelona, the official trade unions in Moscow helped to limit strikes and other unauthorized work stoppages (36). The Russian workers grudgingly accepted their lack of political influence in return for an improving standard of living, particularly increased food supplies, the eight-hour day, and the celebration of traditional religious holidays (37). In other words, to some degree the Bolsheviks had created a “workers’ state” in which wage earners did have certain significant rights, which often included the de facto entitlements to set their own pace, enter or leave the workplace at will, negotiate their pay, pilfer state property, and not be dismissed (38).

Rethinking the collective interpretation of resistance against work occurred during the last decade of the twentieth century. During this period, it became clear to some analysts that capitalism tended to destroy work-based solidarities and had rendered the wage earner a consumerist individual in a capitalist society (39). Starting with the individual – usually a major methodological faux pas for many sociologists, anthropologists, and historians – renders the nature of solidarity problematic and demands a rethinking of the Marxist view of the worker and the working class (40). From this perspective, resistance to work reflects deeply rooted worker individualism as much as class solidarity. Since the most influential modern utopias are intrinsically collective, the individualistic approach will, in large part, negate the original utopian perspective which revealed resistance to work. The focus on the singular will further fragment the concept of class.

The libertarian and Marxist interest in WaW reflected a desire of those on the extreme left to defend but also to revive and revise their theories. Unlike earlier generations of leftists who assumed that workers would labor for the revolution, many of their present-day heirs realize that the most difficult problem may not be the overthrow of the bourgeoisie but rather making wage earners labor for the cause. These leftists accepted much more readily than a good number of academics the argument of WaW that the workers’ movement was often a rank-and-file effort to limit exposure to the workplace and to avoid worktime. New elements of the radical left appreciated of WaW’s questioning of the productivism of both the capitalist and the anarchist/Marxist traditions. They also agreed with WaW’s conclusion that the continuation of wage labor would likely guarantee the social necessity – during and even after the revolution – of a repressive state to keep workers working.

The strange history of Workers against Work demonstrates the vicissitudes of intellectual production and reception. A work ambivalently received in the American academy in 1990 found more enthusiastic audiences on foreign soils a generation later. Labor history returned to its early nineteenth-century and non-academic roots among “utopian” and “scientific” theorists of the working class. This personal bit of historiography may suggest to students – especially graduate students in the humanities and social sciences – that a book is like a child. Its author can conceive it, but once in this world it has its own life which is independent from its progenitor and completely unpredictable. The checkered course of WaW might encourage them to write their own volumes to experience their painful and pleasurable paths. I hope it is the latter.

June, 2011


(1) Alexis Chassagne and Gaston Montracher, La Fin du travail (Paris : Stock, 1978) ; Le Refus du travail, (Paris : Echanges et Mouvement, 1977.) ; Bruno Astarian, Aux origines de l’antitravail (Paris : Echanges et Mouvement, 2005) ; Danièle Auffray, Thierry Baudouin, Michèle Collin, Le Travail, et après (Paris : J. P. Delarge, 1978). See also Jacques Guigou and Jacques Wajnsztejn, Mai 1968 et le mai rampant italien (Paris : L’Harmattan, 2008), 150.

You can also refer to Pour une histoire de la résistance ouvrière au travail.

(2) Antoine Prost, La CGT à l’époque du Front populaire : 1934-1939. Essai de description numérique (Paris : Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1964) ; Rolande Trempé, Les Mineurs de Carmaux, 1848-1914 (Paris : Les Editions Ouvrières, 1971) ; Yves Lequin, Les Ouvriers de la région lyonnaise (1848-1914) (Lyon : Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1977).

(3) Michelle Perrot, Les Ouvriers en grève : France 1871-1890, 2 vol. Paris-La Haye : Mouton, 1974) ; Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York : Pantheon Books, 1977).

(4) Foucault quoted in Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East : French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2010), 308 ; Michel Foucault, Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984) (New York : Semiotext(e), 1996), 75.#

(5) Richard Gombin, The Origins of Modern Leftism, trans. Michael K. Perl (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1975).

(6) Julian Jackson, “The Mystery of May 1968,” French Historical Studies, vol. 33, n° 4 (Fall, 2010), 628.

(7) Wendy Z. Goldman, Women at the Gates : Gender and Industry in Stalin’s Russia (New York : Cambridge University Press, 2002) ; Donald Filtzer, “Labor Discipline, the Use of Work Time, and the Decline of the Soviet System, 1928-1991,” International Labor and Working Class History, n° 50 (Fall, 1996), 9-28.

(8) Letter from Prof. X to McCormick, 18 July 1988, 3 pages.

(9) Letter from Prof. Z to McCormick, 8 August 1988, 1.5 page.

(10) Unlike the first critic, this professor had no hesitation commenting – however erroneously – on Spanish history.

(11) Form n° 6, 1 February 1989. Informed of the subsequent history of WaW and its author, the former dean stated that the news was “unnerving”. Correspondence with the author, 12 June 2010.

(12) http://www. graswurzel. net/ (in german).

(13) http:// For the Giménologues’ critique of work, see Antoine Gimenez, Les Fils de la nuit : Souvenirs de la guerre d’Espagne (juillet 1936-février 1939) (Montreuil : L’Insomniaque, 2006), 518-19.

(14) Michel Gandilhon, “La CNT, les ouvriers, Taylor,” Cahiers du mouvement ouvrier, n° 47 (July-September, 2010), 75-82 ; Michel Gandilhon, “L’insubordination ouvrière dans la région parisienne, 1936-1938,” Cahiers du mouvement ouvrier, n° 48 (October-December, 2010), 43-52.

(15) This argument neglects the massive sit-down strikes which occurred in the American auto industry in 1936-37.

(16) Aimée Moutet, Les Logiques de l’entreprise : La rationalisation dans l’industrie française de l’entre-deux-guerres (Paris : Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1997), 371-372.

(17) http://www.

(18) http://www. redskinheads-de-france....

(19) Présence marxiste, n° 85 (January, 2011), 3049-3060.

(20) Miklós Haraszti, A Worker in a Worker’s State, trans. Michael Wright (New York : Universe Books, 1978), 45. Italics in original. #

(21) Ibid., 40.

(22) Ibid., 72.

(23) Ibid., 133.

(24) Ibid., 103. #Italics in original.

(25) Ibid., 131.

(26) Ibid., 143.

(27) Ibid., 144.

(28) Ibid., 144.

(29) Ibid., 145.

(30) Michael Burawoy, The Politics of Production : Factory Regimes Under Capitalism and Socialism (London : Verso, 1985).

(31) Antonio Negri, The Politics of Subversion : A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century, trans. James Newall (Cambridge : Polity Press, 1989), 9.

(32) Ibid., 85.

(33) Ibid., 217.

(34) Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924 : Soviet Workers and the new Communist Elite (London and New York : Routledge, 2008), 2.

(35) Ibid., 7-8, 26-28, 91, 177, 181.

(36) Ibid., 156-157.

(37) Ibid., 112, 139, 145, 209, 235.

(38) Filtzer, « Labor Discipline, » 10-27.

(39) Jacques Wajnsztejn, « Et le navire va, » Temps critiques, n° 6-7 (Fall, 1993), 15-16.

(40) Guigou, Mai 1968, 159. Cf. Alf Lüdtke, The History of Everyday Life : Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1995), 14.

Publications of / publications de Michael Seidman

A. Books / Livres

The Victorious Counterrevolution : The Nationalist Effort in the Spanish Civil War, (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), 352 pages ; Spanish-language edition by Alianza Editorial, forthcoming, 2012.

The Imaginary Revolution : Parisian Students and Workers in 1968, (Berghahn Books, Oxford and New York, 2004, paperback and hardback, 310 pages). Selected as a 2005 Choice Outstanding Academic Title. Reprinted in 2006.

Republic of Egos : A Social History of the Spanish Civil War, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2002, paperback and hardback, 304 pages). Selected as a 2004 Choice Outstanding Academic Title. Spanish-language edition, A Ras de suelo, by Alianza Editorial (2003).

Workers against Work : Labor in Paris and Barcelona during the Popular Fronts (1936-38), (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991, 399 pages). Electronic publication (1999) Japanese translation, including a new preface, by Ôsaka Keizai Hôka University Press, 1998. Paperback edition (Insubordinate Publications, Baltimore, 2001). Partial and updated Greek translation, (Red Thread, Athens, 2006). Turkish translation, including a new preface, by Bogazici University Press, Istanbul, 2010. French translation (Ouvriers contre le travail : Barcelone et Paris pendant les fronts populaires, Editions Senonevero, Marseilles, 2010). German translation, including a new preface, by Verlag Graswurzelrevolution, forthcoming, 2011.

B. Edited Journal / Revue

Editor of a special issue of Alcores : Revista de Historia Contemporánea : “The Spanish Civil War from a Comparative Perspective,” no. 4, (2008), “Introducción,” 13-18 and “Las experiencias de los soldados en la Guerra Civil española,” 101-123.

C. Articles and book chapters / Articles et collaborations

“Protesting Individuals : The French Unemployed in the 1930s,” in Unemployment and Protest : New Perspectives on Two Centuries of Contention, Matthias Reiss and Matt Perry, eds. (Oxford University Press, 2011), 223-244.

“Las guerras del amor ; luchas parisinas (1962-1967),” Abel Rebollo et al, eds., Días rebeldes (Octaedro, Barcelona, 2009), pp. 271-273.

“Historiographie de mai 1968 en langue anglaise,” Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps, n°. 94 (April-June, 2009), 3-9.

“The Soldiers’ Experiences in the Spanish Civil War,” in Martin Baumeister and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, eds. “If You Tolerate This...” : The Spanish Civil War in the Age of Total War (Campus Verlag, Frankfurt and New York, 2008), 186-207.

“Stanley Payne : An Intellectual Biography,” introduction to Brian Bunk, Sasha Pack, and Carl-Gustaf Scott, eds. Nationalism and Conflict in Modern Spain : Essays in Honor of Stanley G. Payne (University of Madison Parallel Press/George Mosse Foundation, 2008), XI-XVIII.

“The Love Wars : Voices from France (1962-68),” Modern and Contemporary France, vol. - v16, 16 (May 2008), 125-141.

“Social History and Anti-Social History,” in Common Knowledge, vol. 13, no. 1 (Winter, 2007), 40-49.

and Anthony Oberschall, “Food Coercion in Revolution and Civil War : Who Wins and How They Do It,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 47, no. 2 (April, 2005), 372-402.

“Making the French Unemployed Work, 1930-36,” French History, vol. 18 (June, 2004), 196-221.

“The Pre-May 1968 Sexual Revolution,” Contemporary French Civilization, vol. XXV, no. 1 (Winter/Spring, 2001), 20-41.

“The Libertarian Pre-Revolution of 1968,” (in Chinese) China Scholarship, vol. 1, no. 2 (2000).

“Agrarian Collectives in the Spanish Civil War,” European History Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 2 (April, 2000), 209-235.

“Quiet Fronts in the Spanish Civil War,” The Historian, vol. 61, no. 4 (Summer, 1999), 821-841. Electronic publication cf “Frentes en calma de la guerra civil,” Historia Social, no. 27, 1997, 37-59. “Revolutionary Collectivism : Parisian Poster Art in 1968,” Contemporary French Civilization (Winter-Spring, 1996), 145-167.

“Individualisms in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War,” Journal of Modern History (March, 1996), 63-82.

“The Artist as Populist : Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War,” Mediterranean Studies (Kirksville, Missouri : Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1994), 157-164.

“Workers in a Repressive Society of Seductions : Parisian Metallurgists in May-June 1968,” French Historical Studies (Spring, 1993), 255-278.

“Women’s Subversive Individualism in Barcelona during the 1930s,” International Review of Social History, XXXVII, 1992, 161-176. Electronic publication (June, 1999) by Collective Action Notes French translation (2002) : L’Individualisme subversif des femmes à Barcelone, années 1930, by the Cercle Social.

“Spanish Social Idealism : The Ideological Art of the Revolution in Barcelona, 1936-38,” in Richard W. Clement, Benjamin F. Taggie, and Robert G. Schwartz, eds., Greece and the Mediterranean (Thomas Jefferson University Press, Kirksville, Missouri, 1990), 113-127.

“The Unorwellian Barcelona,” European History Quarterly (March, 1990), 163-180.

“Hacia una historia de la resistencia proletaria al trabajo : Paris y Barcelona durante el Frente Popular y la Revolución española, 1936-38,” Historia Social (Winter, 1989), 33-59. Pour une histoire de la résistance ouvrière au travail

“Workers’ Rejection and Acceptance of Work in Paris and Barcelona during the Popular Fronts,” in Wolfgang Maderthaner and Helmut Gruber, eds. Labor in Retreat (Europverlag, Vienna, 1988), 305-324.

“Towards a History of Workers’ Resistance to Work : Paris and Barcelona during the French Popular Front and the Spanish Revolution,” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 23, April, 1988, 193-219. Reissued in pamphlet form by News from Nowhere, London, September 1988. Partial Spanish translation in pamphlet form by Etcétera (Barcelona, February, 1998). Electronic publication in Fall, 1999, by Collective Action Notes Revised and translated into French in pamphlet form by Echanges (Pour une histoire de la résistance ouvrière au travail. Paris et Barcelone pendant le Front populaire français et la révolution espagnole, 1936-1938, Paris, 2001). Partial German translation by Tranvía : Revue des Iberischen Halbinsel, no. 61 (June, 2001), 17-23.

“La maternité du week-end,” Temps Libre, no. 7 (Spring, 1983), 107-111. Spanish translation by Etcétera (Barcelona, 2004).

“Work and Revolution : Workers’ Control in Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-38,” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 17 (July, 1982), 409-433.

“Trabajo y Revolución : El control de los trabajadores en Barcelona durante la guerra civil española, 1936-38,” Areas : Revista de ciencias sociales, vol 1, 1981, 65-87.

“The Birth of the Weekend and the Revolts against Work : The Workers of the Paris Region during the Popular Front (1936-38),” French Historical Studies, vol. XII (Fall, 1981), 249-276.

C. Articles accepted for publication / articles à paraître

“The Spanish Civil War : A Comparative Perspective,” in Is Spain Different ? A Comparative Perspective, Nigel Townson, ed. (forthcoming in Sussex Academic Press, 2011).

“Workers’ Strikes in the Paris Region in 1968,” in Strikes and Social Conflicts.

[You can read the presentation of Echanges in english.

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