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  • Marcelo Vieta

Talk. Cooperation, Revolution, Liberation: Reflections on Rocker and Worker Self-Management


This is a talk I gave for the commemorative event celebrating the 150th anniversary of Rudolf Rocker’s birth, organized by the Rudolf Rocker Institute, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany, on June 8, 2024.


Many thanks to the Rudolf Rocker Institute for the invitation!


Go here for the full text of the talk. See below for an abridged version of my talk.


Go here for the accompanying PPT presentation, with quotes from Rudolf Rocker's book Anarcho-Syndicalism, photos of Rocker, and portraits of Rocker by his son, Fermin Rocker.


Cooperation, Revolution, Liberation Reflections on Rocker and Worker Self-Management


First, I would like to thank the Rudolf Rocker Institute for inviting me, and in particular, Jerome Warren and the Rocker family. I am honoured to be here today.

 

I would like to speak briefly about the continued relevance of Rudolf Rocker today, including the prefigurative force of his social and political theories and practice for working people.

 

While you will never see these on your mainstream social media feeds or television news, there are innumerable experiments the world over today manifesting the hopes for the future liberated society that coincide with the anarcho-syndicalist visions of Rudolf Rocker:

 

  • Argentina’s, Brazil’s, Venezuela’s and Uruguay’s empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores, and the over 500 factories and shops taken over and now managed by their workers over the past 30 years across the region.

  • Worker cooperatives and agricultural cooperatives across North America, Southern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

  • Communes and council democracies, such as the Zapatista Indigenous communities of Chiapas, the Movimento Sem Terras movement of landless workers and peasants in Brazil; and the women-led Rojava communes of Western Kurdistan located in norther Syria.

  • Indigenous communities underscored by ancient practices of mutual aid, reciprocity, and redistribution in their relational forms of socio-economic organizing.

  • African notions (still practiced today) of ujamaa cooperation, susu rotating savings and credit groups, and ubuntu ways of being with others and the world.[1]

  • The pre-Incan system of ayllu village production, and concepts and practices of suma qamaña, sumac kawsay and other Indigenous expressions of living a “plentiful life” – or buen vivir – found throughout what is today known as Latin America.

  • The social practices of mutual aid, community barn raisings, communal work bees, Finnish talkoots, and myriad commons-based economies throughout Europe, such as the forestry practices of the Trentino Province of Italy, and open pasture lands and mountain passes for transhumanism in Italy.

  • And also, today’s student-led and -run occupations and encampments of universities struggling for higher education institutions to disclose, divest, and cut ties, and for peace in the Levant.


I could go on. They all embrace, in one way or another, practices and theories that Rudolf Rocker wrote about and advocated, for the present and the future. For that more just and equitable economic reality and a freer society that, he envisioned, would come, sooner or later.


[1] Hossein, Austin, and Edmonds 2022.

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By the mid-to-late 1930s, Rocker was drawing much inspiration from the workers’ self-managed factories, farms, and shops and the councilist and syndicalist promises of revolutionary Spain, motivating much commentary from him. This included one of the masterpieces of anarchist expository scholarship Rocker aimed at working people – his protagonists for the other world he and many of us still desire: That book was Anarcho-Syndicalism, published in 1938 at the behest of Emma Goldman and the radical London publishing house, Secker & Warburg. He would write it in a few months in mid-1937 while living in the US.

....


Prefiguring today’s empresas recuperadas and communes movements in Latin America today, in the book he would presciently write the following concerning the anti-fascist and workers’ liberation movements of Spain:

 

By taking the land and the industrial plants… under their own management [workers] have taken the first and most important step on the road to Socialism. Above all, they have proved that the workers, even without the capitalists, are able to carry on production and to do it better than a lot of profit-hungry entrepreneurs’ (Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, 1938, p. 104, emphasis in original).

 

Here, he shared the critiques and ideas underscoring the “stream of self-determination of modern socialist thought,” as I have recently written about.

...


The notion of the stream of self-determination is rooted in modern socialisms’ longing for human freedom,[1] which was itself inspired in part by the Enlightenment’s call for freedom from autocratic rule, religion, and myth. But a critical theory of freedom as espoused by Rocker and others is not only a freedom from socio-political and socio-economic constraints – a ‘negative freedom’ – but also a freedom to self-actualise – for the full ‘development of [human] faculties’, as Saint-Simon termed it[2].

 

Freedom is the very essence of life, the impelling force in all intellectual and social development, the creator of every new outlook for the future of mankind. (Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, 1938, p. 33)

 

Rocker, as other theorists of the stream of self-determination do, merges freedom from with freedom for, the negative and the positive sides of freedom, into something beyond them: “one single freedom of self-determination” as the Croatian socialist economist Branko Horvat would write.[3]


[1] What David McNally has called ‘the dream of freedom’ (McNally 1997, sec. I).

[2] Saint-Simon, in Lebowitz 2008, par. 8.

[3] Horvat 1982, p. 497 (emphasis added).

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The voices of the worker-protagonists of Argentina’s worker-recuperated companies movement, the work of Rocker, and the writings of some of the other theorists and revolutionaries of workers’ control and self-management that I have mentioned today have inspired.


[A]utogestión means to self-determine and self-manage productive activity cooperatively and democratically as an alternative to strictly capitalist organisations of work. More profoundly, for many self-managed workers’ collectives [today], autogestión means to self-constitute and self-direct production and economic life while attempting to minimise the intrusive mediation of free markets, hierarchical organisation, or state and union bureaucracies…. [A]cross Latin America, myriad social justice groups and movements, including [worker-recuperated enterprises], have been using the concept of autogestión to articulate for themselves and to others how the (re)invention and (re)construction of their organisations, their labour processes, and the social relations therein, are to take place under more humane values than those offered by the capitalist system of work organisation and its principal interest: the pursuit of profit. (Vieta, Workers’ Self-Management in Argentina, 2020, p. 6)

But, how do we scale-up autogestión and Rocker’s vision for a free society today in the midst of our looming climate catastrophe, wars, genocides, and the continued stubborn ordering of our planet within hyper-capitalism and increasingly authoritarian state systems? For Rocker, revolution was inevitable. But what was this to look like?


Most Anarchists of our time are convinced that a social transformation of society cannot be brought about without violent revolutionary convulsions. The violence of these convulsions, of course, depends upon the strength of the resistance which the ruling classes will be able to oppose to the realization of the new ideas. The wider the circles which are inspired with the idea of a reorganization of society in the spirit of freedom and Socialism, the easier will be the birth pains of the coming social revolution. (Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, 1938, p. 21)

Rather than more violent revolution, perhaps we need to conceive today – more than ever – of a soft revolution. One that, like Rocker’s texts and lived life, makes the alternative social and economic arrangements that already exist among us more compelling to more and more people. I think Rudolf Rocker would be sympathetic to this pathway for the dire transformations we so desperately need.

 

Thank you.


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Go here for the full text of the talk.

Go here for the accompanying PPT presentation.

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