Against Management: Harry Braverman's Marxism

Against Management:
Harry Braverman's Marxism

Dave Renton



Every single day in our capitalist society, the majority of people are subject to paid employment. For most of us, work takes up more time than anything else we do, our work is in this sense the most important moment in our lives. Almost everyone works, has worked or will work, but how much creativity or pleasure do we find in our labour? For most people, for most of the time, work is repetitive and mundane. Much of it is spent counting down to Friday and the weekend. Often the best moments at work are those which subvert the labour that we do. People remember friends they make at work, talking to people on breaks or out of supervision, the day the manager was ill or on holiday, but the labour itself is rarely pleasurable. Indeed, the tedium of work is probably the single most extraordinary fact about our society. If Craig Raine's mythical Martian would ever send their postcard home, one of the first things they would notice is that billions of people voluntarily agree to spent their waking hours in effort, drudgery and toil.

Part of the reason why work is tolerated is that the alternative, to be without work, is even worse. Unemployment is an even more degrading experience, boring, humiliating and debilitating. Unemployed workers are poorer, more isolated, more prone to depression than their working counterparts. To be unemployed is to be reminded permanently of the potentially-liberating character of work. Work should be purposeful, collective social labour, and although it usually is not, to point to its debased character is no comfort to those who are without. Thus there is a contradiction. On the one hand, social labour is potentially a major avenue to human self-development; on the other hand, work is actually experienced, in our sort of society, in boredom or pain.

The most powerful book ever written about work is Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital. It is a sustained historical account of the different managerial initiatives that have shaped people's experience of work since the end of the nineteenth century. The book connects the history of other people's labour to its author's own experiences throughout a life spent as an engineer and then an office worker. Published in 1974, Labor and Monopoly Capital reshaped the whole field of industrial sociology, and opened up for an instant the possibility of a single history of work which would supersede the different studies in the field. In the words of Craig Littler, a sociologist working in this field, 'Braverman's major contribution was to smash through the academic barriers and offer the potential for the birth of a new, integrated approach to the study and history of work.' However, Labor and Monopoly Capital should not be understood primarily as an academic event. It was a book for workers, written in a clear, accessible style. It was also written by a revolutionary, for Harry Braverman had been a member of the American Socialist Workers Party and then the Socialist Union. Shaped by the strength and weaknesses of its author's own political background, Labor and Monopoly Capital is the most powerful indictment of managerial initiatives, but it also underestimates the ability of workers to resist, or to defend a political economy of their own. Braverman's book reflects the ambiguous legacy of orthodox Trotskyism and the American 'third camp' tradition.

From Coppersmith To Office Work

The introduction to Labor and Monopoly Capital, includes a brief autobiographical section, in which Braverman describes his working life. Born into a poor New York family in December 1920, Braverman became a socialist in his teens. Forced to drop out of Brooklyn College after just one year, he apprenticed at the Brooklyn Naval Yards from 1937 to 1941. Together with his partner Miriam, Harry Braverman then moved to Youngstown Ohio, finding work as a steel fitter and an engineer. Later, Braverman became an office worker and then an editor for a socialist publisher. Indeed one of the strengths of his book is precisely its connection to real work. While many sociologists have conveyed the detail of how other peoples lives were organised, Braverman wrote with the immediacy of someone whose life had been shaped by processes which he described:

I began my working life by serving a four-year apprenticeship in the coppersmith's trade, and worked at this trade for a total of seven years ... The extremely limited nature of employment in my trade, and its rapid decline with the substitution of new processes and materials for the traditional modes of copper working, made it difficult for me to continue work as a coppersmith when I moved to other parts of the country or from job to job. But because the trade of working copper provided a foundation in the elements of a number of other crafts, I was always able to find employment in other trades, such as pipefitting, sheet-metal work, and layout, and I did work of these sorts for another seven years...

In later years, Braverman gained first-hand experience of some of the most typical office processes of our times, again at the moment when they were beginning to undergo rapid changes. 'Some years in socialist journalism led eventually to my employment in book publishing as an editor, and this in turn led to more than a dozen years as an operating executive in two publishing houses.' Harry Braverman also mentioned that as an editor he was responsible for introducing computer-based administration systems, and thus had experience of white-collar administration, if from the managers' side.

The 'socialist journalism' which Braverman refers to in the biography above, was his work on the American Socialist, a Trotskyist newspaper. Braverman helped found the paper in 1954, and worked on it as co-editor until it closed. After its demise, he worked as an editor at Grove Press, and later as the Managing Director of Monthly Review Press. The American Socialist was linked in turn to a political party which Braverman helped to found, the Socialist Union. This was set up in 1954, following a large split from the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The American SWP was at the time the largest party in the official Trotskyist movement. Its early leaders, including James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman, were of a calibre unrivalled among European Trotskyism. Each had held leading positions in the Communist Party. Cannon had been the organiser of the International Class War Prisoner's Association, while Shachtman was a former member of the Central Committee of the American CP. The American Socialist Workers Party was the only one of the Trotskyist parties to approach mass size in Trotsky's lifetime, and consequently held a position of unparalleled authority after his death in 1940. At the time, the SWP was still a living party, with a real understanding of working-class politics. Yet after 1940, SWP took on a new role, in which it had to decide which tactics the international movement should adopt. In this new situation, the party's politics changed.

The SWP used its authority in a purely defensive way, to protect every last word of Trotsky's inheritance. This defensiveness meant that the SWP followed Trotsky's pre-war catastrophism, compelling it to predict after 1945 that the USA must be on the verge of imminent economic collapse. In reality, America was in its greatest boom. The SWP also held on to Trotsky's prediction that the Stalinist regime could not survive the war. When the war ended with Soviet state still intact, James Cannon came to the conclusion that the war could not have ended. Writing in November 1945, he insisted that nothing had changed.

Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage and is now in the process of regroupment and reorganisation for the second. The war is not over, and the revolution which we said would issue from the war in Europe is not taken off the agenda.

This was an 'orthodox' conclusion, in the sense that it preserved the letter of Trotsky's argument. Yet, in doing, so it also represented the triumph of faith over reason, the conviction that Trotsky must be correct in all particulars, even if life itself would show that his detailed predictions had been proved wrong. Indeed life did show that Cannon was wrong, as several of his collaborators later recalled:

The turning point in our party's recent history was the party's 1946 convention and its aftermath ... We believed that the class struggle would move steadily forward, and with an oncoming depression, which we were predicting, would be transformed into a great social crisis that in turn would lead to the American revolution in which the Trotskyists would play the leading role ... Unfortunately, this idyllic picture was to be quickly dispelled ... The cold war broke out between American imperialism and the Kremlin, and reaction began to mount the offensive against labour and radical movements at home.

One particular problem for the US party was the question of how to explain the character of the new states which emerged out of Russian conquests in Eastern Europe at the end of the war. The SWP took the position that if Russia was a degenerated workers' state, then each of Russia's satellites must also be some form of workers' state. But why were these countries socialist? There had been no workers' revolution, indeed in East European the Soviet tanks had moved in just as the workers' movement was crushed. The solution for the SWP was to maintain that nationalisation and socialism were the same thing. While Marx had argued that socialism could only happen as a result of workers' power, the orthodox Trotskyists came to the different conclusion that state ownership alone was enough. Some of the consequences of this decision are evident today. The US SWP degenerated into faddism, choosing for its heroes first Che Guevara, then the Black Panthers, next Gorbachev's USSR. The trajectory of its politics was away from the working class, but many of its members, especially those who joined in the 1930s, retained a real identification with workers' struggles. Its orthodox Trotskyism killed the American SWP, but the party has been a long time dying and is not yet formally defunct.

Outside the SWP there were a number of other Trotskyist currents in America, which were less determined to preserve the letter of Trotsky's every analysis, and were thus better situated to preserve the revolutionary kernel of his ideas. The first was the Workers' Party, set up by Max Shachtman in 1940, which in turn gave birth to C. L. R. James' Johnson-Forest 'state cap' tendency in 1947. Others would include Hal Draper's Independent Socialists Club in the 1960s, and the International Socialists, the more recent sister party of the British Socialist Workers Party. This is not the place to review every split and tendency across the American left, but it is worth noticing that some of the smaller and more dissident parties did not share the American Socialist Workers Party's growing enthusiasm for the Stalinist states. Those socialists that remained hostile to the USSR, such as Hal Draper, were more likely to retain the argument that socialism meant workers' democratic control of society or it meant nothing at all.

Harry Braverman knew Hal Draper, and corresponded with him. However, his organisation, the Socialist Union, split from the SWP in 1953-4 in exactly the opposite direction to the one chosen by Hal Draper. While Draper and the Workers' Party criticised the American SWP for compromising in the face of Stalinism, the Socialist Union attacked the SWP for having failed to conciliate disillusioned former Communists. Such people, Braverman argued, were the main potential support for the left. Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, two former fellow-travellers of the American CP from the era of the Popular Front, were singled out as important potential allies of the Trotskyist movement. In a 1953 article for the SWP's internal bulletin, Harry Braverman (writing under the pseudonym of Harry Frankel) argued that the Cold War had divided the world into two irreconcilable camps. In this way, American Communists would be forced into a revolutionary conflict with their own bourgeoisie. He talked of 'a concerted imperialist drive against the USSR which cuts the Kremlin off from the possibility of deals with imperialism.'

Harry Braverman became a spokesman for the minority in the SWP around Bert Cochran. The minority believed that McCarthyism would force the American Communists to turn left, 'The Stalinist movement, regardless of its desires [has] been thrust into opposition to imperialism, it [is] persecuted and hounded as the chief-target of the witch-hunt.' If the American Socialist Workers' Party was unable to understand the tensions within the Communist Party, then this was the sign of its sectarianism, which prevented the Trotskyists from becoming a real force on the US left. After the 1953 split, Braverman left the SWP and joined Cochran's group, the Socialist Union. He worked on their paper, first titled the Educator and later the American Socialist for five years, until the paper was closed down. Later, he allied himself with the magazine, Monthly Review, whose contributors were drawn from a milieu of Maoists and former fellow-travellers of the American CP. It was also at this time that Braverman dropped the pseudonym, Frankel. Braverman remained a supporter of the Monthly Review until his death in 1976, holding to the gut class feeling, but also the political black spots of the orthodox Trotskyist legacy which had helped to shaped him.

As a result of its author's background, Labour and Monopoly Capital was a profoundly political book. It was very much a critique of the dominant trend within academic Marxism. The tendency within the New Left as it moved into the universities in the 1960s was to treat Marxism as a cultural method, examining class through the prism of class consciousness, treating questions of class structure as expressions of ideology. There were vigorous debates between Marxist and academic sociologists as to whether the working-class was becoming a consumer class, obsessed with goods, depoliticised, and withdrawing from public life. In these debates, the character of the working class was debated at the level of culture. Questions of class domination were obscuring the actual, changing nature of production, which was taken for granted. Workers were reduced to objects, the figures in someone else's intellectual game. Braverman's class instincts compelled him to reject this academic Marxism. His preference was for a Marxism with the workers back in. Thus, as Michael Rose suggests, Braverman's book was 'an event in the development of Marxism', an attempt to replace the cultural emphases of the New Left, with a more economic Marxism, more closely rooted in the realities of workers' life. Braverman himself was quite explicit on this point, bemoaning the fact that Marxism had been oblivious to the changing nature of the labour process over the previous one hundred years:

The extraordinary fact is that Marxists have added little to [Marx's] body of work in this respect. Neither the changes in productive processes throughout this century of capitalism and monopoly capitalism, nor the changes in the occupational structure of the working population have been subjected to any comprehensive analysis since Marx's death ... There simply is no continuing body of work in the Marxist tradition dealing with the capitalist mode of production in the manner which Marx treated it in the first volume of Capital.

Some twentieth-century Marxists, including both Vladimir Lenin and the Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, had taken an interest in Fordism and American mass production. Yet Braverman's point was essentially correct. Before 1974, the published Marxist descriptions of work had barely advanced from Marx's day.

Although it is appropriate to see Braverman's book as an intervention into debates within Marxism, it would be wrong to treat Braverman's book as being only aimed at the existing Marxist left. One reason for the immense interest in Labor and Monopoly Capital is that it was published in 1974, following ten years of growing workers' struggles. Huge strikes in Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, indeed throughout the industrialised world, demonstrated workers' increasing rejection of over-work, job hierarchies and de-skilling. The defining moment was the general strike which took place in France, an advanced and fully-industrialised country, in May 1968. Educated young workers were challenging the basis of capitalist society. In America, where Braverman lived, 1969 and 1970 saw huge workers' protests, including strikes by Levi Strauss workers, in Mississippi wood mills and among Memphis sanitation workers. Workers at General Electric struck through the winter of 1969-1970 and in October 1970, 400,000 General Motors workers took part in an unofficial walk-out. The capitalist division of labour was no longer a hidden aspect of life, something to be taken for granted, but was being openly questioned by millions of people. Thus Braverman's contribution was to re-examine the productive process in a precise and detailed way just as it found itself under attack. Not for the first time, Marxist theory took a step forward, not leading the working-class but learning from it.

Labor and Monopoly Capital

Throughout his book, Harry Braverman expressed his debt to Marx. He did not describe himself as someone who had come up with any new theories of his own, but rather as someone who was faithful to Marx's interpretation of capitalism, accepting Marx's description of the factory system 'in every particular'. His novelty, he claimed, was not in abolishing or correcting Marx, but in renewing him. Following Marx, Braverman was fiercely critical of the common-sense approach which treated new technology as something neutral or inevitable. The pessimistic conclusion to be drawn from such a perspective was that if machinery cut jobs, or reduced skills, then it was not in the power of human beings to do anything to prevent it. However, as Braverman pointed out, it was not technology which cuts jobs, but management. And management itself only existed because capitalism was a system of property relations, in which a large majority worked, while a tiny minority owned or administered capital. To reinforce the connection between property relations and social relations, Braverman quoted from Marx's polemic against Proudhon:

Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning their living, they change all social relations.

For Harry Braverman, as for Karl Marx, it was primarily the relations of production which distinguished capitalism. The machinery of production was not the enemy - but the class divisions which shaped how the machinery was used.

Harry Braverman described capitalism as a system 'dominated and shaped' by needs of capital. Because of the pressure of competition, so management has continually been forced to renew and extend its control over the employed workforce. In this way, managerial control has been an ongoing process, in which capital has constantly renegotiated its dominance over labour. However, to recognise its ongoing nature is not to say that this process has continued always in exactly the same way. For Harry Braverman, it was no coincidence that scientific management emerged at the end of the nineteenth and at the start of the twentieth century. Borrowing from Paul Baran and Paul Sweezey, who were both prominent contributors to Monthly Review, Braverman described this as the period of Monopoly Capitalism. What he meant by this phrase was that from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, capitalism had entered into a new period, in which smaller firms were increasingly replaced by huge units of concentrated capital. These huge firms exerted a dominance over markets and states. In this era of Monopoly Capital, capitalism generated surpluses which could be reinvested on a layer of technicians who were not directly employed in production. These engineers, draughtsmen and scientists were trained to administer and control workers, thus enabling even greater managerial control over production. Braverman argued that it was only when monopoly profits were enough to finance management studies, that systematic management could be introduced.

For Harry Braverman, the characteristic form of managerialism was the system of scientific management, which originated in the work of F. W. Taylor. Thus Taylorism was not merely one managerial method among many, but essentially a defining feature of the capitalist labour process, the obvious managerial sequel to industrialisation. Taylor 'dealt with the fundamentals of the labour process and control over it'. According to Braverman, the later management schools including Mayo's and Münsterberg's may have looked innovatory, but they dealt merely with the adjustment of the worker to a labour process which had already been established. For this reason, in order to understand Braverman's argument in his book Labor and Monopoly Capital, it is necessary to follow his description of the evolution of Taylor's scientific management system.

F. W. Taylor was brought up in a well-to-do Philadelphia family. He studied for Harvard, and seemed destined for a career in the law, but instead chose to register on a craft apprenticeship. Helped by his father's acquaintances, he then passed through a series of jobs, becoming in 1880 the gang boss at the Midvale Steel Works. There he developed an absolute hatred of 'soldiering' and other attempts by workers to regulate the pace of their labour. Indeed, one way to read his life is as a single-minded crusade to make workers speed up. He engaged in a battle of will with the workers in the steel mill, which ended with him successfully imposing a system of increased labour discipline. Later, Taylor worked for the Bethlehem Steel Company. There he was able to induce one worker, Schmidt, who was in Taylor's words 'a man of the mentally sluggish type', to move four times the traditional weight for the job, forty-seven and a half tone of pig iron, instead of the normal twelve tons per day. This moment Taylor returned to, telling and re-telling the story of how he induced Schmidt and other labourers to work far harder in return for increased pay.

Braverman noted three aspects of the tale. First, that there was very little that was scientific about Taylor's method. Regular breaks were scheduled in, and Schmidt was followed by a man with a stop-watch, telling him how he was doing. But there was no real attempt to explain why a man ought to be able to work so hard. Taylor arbitrarily imposed a new norm for the job, 'Since, in the case of pig-iron handling, the only decisions to be made were those having to do with a time sequence, Taylor simply dictated that timing and the results at the end of the day.' Second, Harry Braverman pointed out that Taylor used Schmidt's efforts to establish an impossible work rate for the job. Even after more 'scientific' selection of the best workers, not more than one in eight could match this level. Third, Braverman quoted Taylor's description of Schmidt, as 'a man of the type of the ox'. Although it was impossible in retrospect to establish or disprove the absolute stupidity of Schmidt, Taylor elsewhere reported that Schmidt was building his own house, presumably without anyone to manage his labour. As Braverman remarked, 'A belief in the original stupidity of the worker is necessary for management; otherwise it would have to admit that it is engaged in a wholesale enterprise of prizing and fostering stupidity.' Overall, Braverman interpreted the Schmidt episode as an example of Taylor's longer-term ambition, to separate the planning of work from the workers: 'The merit of this tale is its clarity in illustrating the pivot upon which all modern management turns: the control over work through the control over the decisions that are made in the course of work.'

Over a life time spent working as a manager, Frederick Taylor drew up different methods to achieve his goals. He used shop order cards to list precisely what job each worker should do in each shift. Taylor also favoured piece-rate payments which discriminated against slow work. He developed methods of work-study and task-design, which aimed to control every one of the workers' movements, and these methods survive in the modified form of time-and-motion studies. F. W. Taylor published a series of books which popularised scientific management, and was famously invited in 1912 to justify his programme in front of the American House of Representatives. In Labor and Monopoly Capital, Braverman summed up the principles which Taylor generated. There were three of these which he saw as distinctive, 'Thus, if the first principle is the gathering together and development of knowledge of the labour process, and the second is the concentration of this knowledge as the exclusive preserve of management - together with its converse, the absence of such knowledge among workers - then the third step is the use of this monopoly of knowledge to control each step of the labour process and its mode of execution.' According to Braverman, the heart of Taylorism could be further summarised into a single phrase, the separation of conception and execution. Under Taylorism managers would be the only ones to think about work, while workers would be instructed to get on with it.

As I have already mentioned, Harry Braverman saw Taylorism as the defining system of management under industrial capitalism. He noted that it had already been extended from simple to complex production processes, and to white-collar work as well. Indeed, drawing on his own experience of office work, Braverman gave examples of how this had already taken place. Key punch operators, for example, worked with computers and data, but did so in the most demeaning way. Data was prepared according to someone else's system, speed was at a premium, and the element of skill was deliberately reduced to a minimum. Braverman quoted one operator in a large farm-equipment office, 'This job is no different from a factory job except that I don't get paid as much'. In the 1980s, even after Braverman's book came out, the most common argument was that computer work would be creative and emancipatory. It is an impressive testament to his method, that Braverman saw in advance how debilitating the new computer technology, and the new management techniques that came with it, would prove to be.

If Braverman's description of work under capitalism could be summarised in a phrase, it would be in his argument that there was a tendency under capitalism for work to be degraded. The skilled workers who dominated the early years of capitalism were replaced with unskilled workers, condemned to demeaning and unpleasant labour. New skills would emerge, indeed office work was originally a skilled craft profession. But each new skill was subject to management authority, and was undermined, because capital required the greatest profit, and was constantly obliged to make work dull and routine as a result. When Marx described alienation, his account had a timeless quality, the word referred to a general condition which marked capitalism. Harry Braverman updated Marx’s theory, showing that alienation (or in his phrase, the degradation of labour) was a process, which was constantly created and recreated by capitalist management.

Reception Since

The summary I have given does little justice to the qualities of Labor and Monopoly Capital. Written with passion, anger and commitment, the book had an extraordinary impact. It discredited the dominant paradigms within industrial sociology which tended to support management and assumed that technological change was leading to a progressive rise in work satisfaction. The book spawned dozens of imitators, including several which agreed the important outline of Braverman's argument. In America, its reception was glowing. Robert L. Heilbroner reviewed Labor and Monopoly Capital in the New York Review of Books, 'Until the appearance of Harry Braverman's remarkable book, there has been no broad view of the labour process as a whole.' Paul Baran was even more positive, and described reading Braverman's book as 'an emotional experience, somewhat similar, I suppose to that which millions of readers of Volume I of Capital have been through.' In Britain, the first issue of Capital and Class in 1977 was devoted to the Braverman debate. The book was then taken up in dozens of conferences and other public events, spawning a series of further books devoted to the question of whether job degradation was really taking place. Bob Rowthorn described it as 'one of the two most important works of Marxist political economy to have appeared in English in the last decade.' Braverman's accessible book, written for ordinary workers, generated a remarkable interest, and Labour and Monopoly Capital sold an extraordinary 120,000 copies in its first 25 years.

Every one of the writers who has engaged with Braverman's ideas has expressed their debt to him. Braverman has been treated as an authority, an intermediary whose contribution was needed if others were to progress beyond him. Even if they rejected aspects of his argument, other writers could go forward only because and not in spite of Braverman's work. Despite their enthusiasm, however, many writers have been sceptical of his detailed claims. From within the Marxist camp, Al Rainnie has described the book as 'ahistorical'. His claim is that Braverman idealised the character of nineteenth-century craft labour, overstating the independence and control exhibited by workers before the factory system came to dominate. Andrew Friedman maintains that Braverman had exaggerated the success of Taylorism, reducing all managerial techniques to a single strategy of aggression. In reality, he argues, managers have been just as likely to divide workers using more subtle ploys of persuasion and through seeking workers' consent. Other writers have insisted that Braverman downplayed the capacity for machinery to generate new skilled jobs, or that he ignored the role of women or the importance of racism at work. There have been around a dozen books written just about 'Bravermania', the response to Labour and Monopoly Capital, so rather than going through every one of these arguments at length, I will concentrate on just three important criticisms of Braverman's book. The first is the counter-argument that management takes place basically through consent, the second is the claim that Braverman ignored the impact of women's domestic oppression on their work, the third is the suggestion that Braverman downplayed the possibility of workers' resistance to encroaching managerial control.

Management by Consent and Coercion

The first point at which Braverman's account seems vulnerable is in his description of Taylorism as the typical managerial strategy. As any number of academic experts in industrial relations have pointed out, Taylor's full strategy was only rarely adopted as a whole. The history of management initiatives is of a diverse list of different strategies, some of which have been directly influenced by Taylorism, while others, including Mayo's human relations school, have claimed to stand in direct opposition to Taylor's vision of the dumb and stupid worker. One Marxist, Andrew Friedman, has argued that managers have adopted effectively two different strategies to ensure their continued domination over labour. At one extreme, these methods have been overt and despotic, and have involved 'direct control'. At the other extreme, managers have used tactics of encouragement and consensus, what Friedman calls 'responsible autonomy'. Meanwhile Michael Burawoy, who also terms himself a Marxist, has suggested that such consensual tactics often succeed. On the basis of his own experience as a machine operator, he claims that workers typically often to their own subordination. Describing work making diesel engines in South Chicago, he writes, 'We were active accomplices in our own exploitation. That, and not the destruction of subjectivity, was what was so remarkable.' The arguments of Friedman and Burawoy have been influenced by Gramsci's notion that the bourgeoisie rules primarily through consent rather than coercion. As ideology can manufacture consent, or 'hegemony', in the political sphere, so ideology can have the same effect at work.

There are different ways to respond to this argument. Craig Littler makes the point that although pure Taylorism was a failure, the methods of scientific management have had a far wider impact than Friedman and others suggest. In Britain, for example, they were taken up through an intermediary structure, the Bedaux system, which was enormously influential in Britain in the inter-war years. By 1939, approximately 250 British firms utilised Bedaux techniques, and as these were the largest and most authoritative of businesses, so Bedaux became 'the most commonly used system of managerial control in British industry.' Other writers, more closely sympathetic to Braverman's argument, have suggested that the disagreements between Braverman and Friedman boil down to the simple question of which strategy dominates. Managers do employ consent, but not always. They typically employ strategies of containment when workers are making gains, often these ploys are counter-productive, and they are rarely used when management can do without. It is also worth noting that although Burawoy and Friedman have been very critical of Braverman's insistence on the historic importance of Taylorism, neither refutes Braverman's linked argument that capitalism is a process out of which workers have increasingly been denied real control over their work. This raises the question of how far consensus at work can go. On closer inspection, Friedman and Burawoy's autonomous workers may turn out to be participating only in their own subordination at work.

Women and Work

The second major criticism of Labour and Monopoly Capital has come from feminist writers. The book was criticised for functionalism and sexism. Like other Marxist texts, it was accused of reducing the working class to male workers in manufacturing. Jackie West has claimed that Braverman's only explanation for the relative oppression of women workers was that they comprised an ideal reserve army of labour for mass occupations. West argues that Harry Braverman ignored the role of women as house-keepers, whose domestic subjection explained their subordination at work. Yet Braverman did try to integrate an extended analysis of the changing nature of the family into his account of changes in the labour process. The problem, as Veronica Beechey points out, is not that Braverman ignored women's oppression, but rather that he failed to generate a satisfactory explanation of the changing nature of the family and its effects on work.

Harry Braverman discussed the family in his chapter, 'The Universal Market'. Here his argument was that under capitalism the market has increasingly come to dominate every aspect of people's lives. In previous societies, including feudalism, the family had enjoyed functions as an institution of social life, production and consumption. Under capitalism, the family has lost its productive role, and remains only an attenuated location of consumption. Women were taken out of their previous role, in which they had produced use values in the household, and now produce the same use-values at work, under the direct domination of capital. This is where Braverman's analysis of women's role in the reserve army of labour comes in. He stated that women had been taken out of the family and into this situation, without really explaining why it was that women have had a different experience of work

Harry Braverman's account is flawed in so far as it exaggerates the transformation in the nature of the family between late feudalism and early capitalism. In both situations, the family has been an unequal institution, absolutely predicated on the domestic subordination of women. The family has certainly changed under capitalism, but very unevenly. In the mid-nineteenth century, many commentators including Marx and Engels predicted that working-class families would break up under the combined pressures of urbanisation and industrial growth. For much of the next fifty years, however, the family was consciously strengthened as an institution, in Europe, America and elsewhere. This process can be traced through the growth of an ideology of 'separate spheres' which insisted that women's rightful place is in the home. More recently, the relative decline of family sizes and housework, the growth of contraception and divorce, and the increasing acceptance of alternative lifestyles, have all served to undermine the family as an institution, although it remains important even now. In this way, the transformation from feudalism to capitalism has represented more of a potential revolutionising of the family than any immediate change. It is only in the last thirty years or so that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' predictions of the death of the family have come at all close to fruition.

Such a historical account of the changing fortunes of the family would preserve the heart of Braverman's argument, while shedding some of the form. It would lose Braverman's idealisation of the pre-capitalist family, and also his argument that the 'traditional household economy' had recently come to the point of collapse. As a social institution, the family remains important in all sorts of different ways, and it continues to shape our lives. So feminist critics of Braverman are correct to argue that if women have been oppressed at work, then this is largely because of the continuing existence of the family and women's enduring dependency within it. However, even if it is accepted that there are weaknesses in this part of Braverman's argument, it should also be clear from my account that Braverman - unlike most writers of his generation - made a serious and sustained attempt to understand women's oppression. The charge of sexism which is sometimes laid against Braverman has no grounds.

Struggle

The third point at which Braverman's account has come under attack is in his neglect of workers' ability to resist management control. In Labour and Monopoly Capital, Braverman describes the victory of managers in dividing execution from control. Before, there were powerful and skilled craft workers, who could plan their own work, now there are only unskilled labourers. Craft workers could resist, the unskilled do not have that choice. Certainly, at points, Braverman does pull back from the full, bleak implications of his argument, suggesting for example that scientific management is 'an ideal realised by capital only within definite limits', but these limits are never explained, nor discussed in any detail. Two years after the publication of Labour and Monopoly Capital, Braverman responded to this criticism in 1976, remarking that he had placed 'self-imposed limits' on his analysis. He also claimed that one reason for his failure to address workers' resistance was that the workers' movement in America, Japan and Europe had been in a state of 'relative quiescence' for most of 'the past half century'. Braverman denied that he was a pessimist, but left the task of investigating workers' consciousness to other hands. For whatever reason, Harry Braverman's extraordinary and vivid critique of the demeaning effects of management is not matched by an analysis of what workers have done, or could do, to fight back against management control. In the absence of any extended discussion of resistance, the impression given is that managers have all the initiative, workers are inert, and resistance cannot succeed. This, I believe, is the major criticism of Braverman's book. Vividly aware of the destructive and inhuman effect of new management initiatives, Labour and Monopoly Capital was less sensitive to the ability of workers to fight back.

It is at this moment that the debt to Baran and Sweezy proved most problematic to Harry Braverman's Marxism. I have already referred to Paul Sweezy's introduction to Labor and Monopoly Capital. In this short essay, Sweezy acknowledged that his own earlier book with Paul Baran, Monopoly Capital (1966) had failed to discuss the labour process. He went on to identify Braverman's work as 'a serious, and in my judgement solidly successful, effort to fill a large part of this gap'. Yet this link to Baran and Sweezy was a theoretical cul-de-sac. For in Baran and Sweezy's formulation, monopoly capital was victorious. Bosses would reap extraordinary profits, while workers could only suffer. In their words, 'Monopolistic organisation gives capital an advantage in its struggle with labour, hence tends to raise the rate of surplus value and to make possible higher rates of accumulation.' Eventually such super-exploitation would prove counterproductive, as workers would not have the wealth to purchase goods. Consumption would decline and hence investment would slow down. Yet in the short term, there was no role for workers other than as victims. In his introduction to Braverman's book, Paul Sweezy expressed his absolute hatred of the capitalist system, and of the tyranny of capitalist work. Sweezy praised the book, but he did so using a language regret, informed at times by almost religious imagery:

The sad, horrible, heart-breaking way the vast majority of my counterparts in most of the rest of the world, are obliged to spend their working lives is seared into my consciousness in an excruciating and unforgettable way. And when I think of all the talent and energy which daily go into devising ways and means of making their torment worse, all in the name of efficiency and productivity but really for the greater glory of the great god Capital, my wonder at humanity's ability to create such a monstrous system is surpassed only by its amazement at its willingness to tolerate the continuance of an arrangement so obviously destructive of the well-being and happiness of human beings.

These are powerful words, but incomplete. For if the story of capitalism was simply the story of management success, and workers have a role only to be broken, then what hope is there that society can be changed? Gramsci's paper, L'Ordine Nuovo, famously carried as its masthead the slogan 'Optimism of the Will, Pessimism of the Intellect'. Without that optimism, socialism can only be a lament, a sad longing for a moment that cannot be.

Fifteen years ago, Chris Harman subjected Baran and Sweezy's notion of monopoly capitalism to a devastating critique. He argued that it is based on a false chronology of investment, in which high-political decisions were seen to have caused the timing of economic booms and slumps. Yet it would be more accurate to explain the political acts as being shaped by economic events. Another part of their argument was that the greatest monopolies were the most profitable of companies. Yet this claim bears little relation to verifiable fact. Smaller companies are often more profitable than the largest firms. Likewise Baran and Sweezy's notion that huge companies derived their profits from their constant crushing of smaller firms could not be sustained. What would happen if the smaller firms did all go to the wall? Another of their claims was that monopoly capital was doomed because of its success. Baran and Sweezy maintained that declining price competition would create less incentives for accumulation. Having won, monopolies would simply stagnate. Again this is questionable. For if price competition would decline, what about other forms of economic rivalry? There is no evidence that the general anarchy and competition of the market have withered away. In effect, Baran and Sweezy can be seen to have imported Keynesian concepts into Marxist economics, without having improved on the original. They maintained that capitalism could not meet human needs and thus would reach a final and objective limit to its development. Yet any economic system will continue unless there is an alternative, which can sweep away the old and usher in something new.

In the history of the twentieth century, workers have had more power than Braverman or Sweezy would suggest. And the many victories of unorganised workers suggest that Braverman was wrong to imply that only craft workers have resisted the encroachments of capital. Instead the advent of new machinery has often created possibilities for successful resistance by semi-skilled or even unskilled workers. Indeed one of the distinguishing characteristics of large-scale class struggle in the twentieth-century has been the extent to which non-craft workers have been able to oppose capital. The history of militant trade unionism over the past 100 years has been a story of new workers coming to the fore. The skilled engineers who were the face of labour in the 1920s have been displaced by more radical groups, including transport workers, car workers, lorry drivers, nurses and teachers. In Paul Thompson's phrase, 'No amount of deskilling or mechanisation can lead to the complete domination of capital over labour.'

Why did Harry Braverman fail to discuss workers resistance? Why does one finish his book with the impression that capital can achieve a permanent victory through techniques of managerial control? Returning to the themes discussed at the start of this paper, one explanation of his pessimism can be traced through Braverman's continuing loyalty to the orthodox Trotskyist tradition, and especially to its increasing rapprochement with 'really existing socialism' in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, Labour and Monopoly Capital accepts that Russia was not a workers' society, 'Whatever view one takes of Soviet industrialisation one cannot consciously interpret its history, even in its earliest and most revolutionary period, as an attempt to organise labour processes in a way fundamentally different from those of capitalism.' On the other hand, Braverman was impressed by the USSR's success in building up a base of heavy industry. Industrialisation and new machinery under national control was seen to create 'progress in technology and production', an unpleasant and contradictory yet still socialist alternative to capitalism. Workers' control and nationalisation were described as if they were the same thing.

Harry Braverman's mature thoughts on Russia can be read in an important but little-known book he published in 1963. The Future of Russia was a response to changes in the Soviet Union following Kruschev's 1956 'secret speech', which disclosed the worst of Stalin's crimes. Braverman corresponded with the Polish Marxist Isaac Deutscher on the text of his book, and his own account owes numerous debts to Deutscher's approach. Braverman argued that Russia was undergoing an extremely fast process of liberalisation. At the heart of this process, he argued was Russia's economic success. 'The Soviet Union is an economic race with the United States, and barring a war or some other unforeseen major economic development, the outcome of that race is a foregone conclusion ... the Soviet system has fewer problems and stronger perspectives than the capitalist countries.' Economic growth had ushered in a new era of liberalisation and progress. 'Russia, no longer restrained in the Stalinist straight jacket, is responding to the new conditions created by four decades of industrialisation and modernisation.' Further political changes would come, to match the extraordinary growth in the Russian economy. 'The revolution is still going on'. Stalin was a name from the past, Russia had returned to the vision of its Bolshevik founders. 'Russia is at last on the road to socialism.' Harry Braverman distinguished himself from his contemporaries primarily in his analysis the Soviet Union - it was this political question which was his major concern from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Yet Braverman's account of Russian society was simply wrong. If Russia was on the way to socialism, then why did the Russian workers turned against the 'workers state'?

Like many of his generation, Harry Braverman believed that the world was coming to be dominated by huge bureaucratic entities, militarised states and monopoly capital. Socialists in the Workers Party, including Hal Draper, responded to this new situation by describing the Russian working class as a slave class, and identifying American Communists as the agents of the Comintern. Supporters of the American Socialist were more positive in each respect, regarding Russia as a workers' state which was only partly-degenerated, and American Stalinism as a legitimate workers' movement. If Draper's politics were one alternative to the SWP's, the Socialist Union chose an opposite route out. Braverman's Marxism was less dogmatic than the US SWP's, but it was yet more prone to a reconciliation with Stalinism. The intellectual pessimism of the Socialist Union, explains Braverman's enthusiasm for the monopoly theories of Baran and Sweezy. Yet in their undialectical Marxism of monopoly capital theory there was a blank space where workers' struggle should have been. Despite the great power of Labour and Monopoly Capital, Harry Braverman fits awkwardly within the classical Marxist tradition. He shared its sympathy with the plight of the working-class, but not its optimism that capitalism could be overthrown.

A Superb Flawed Book

I have criticised Harry Braverman's Labour and Monopoly Capital in some detail. In the process I have concentrated on its weakest points, and have neglected the enormous polemical power of the book. Labour and Monopoly Capital was a cry of protest against the degradation of work. It described in detail the processes by which work becomes something alien to the worker, work is planned and directed from elsewhere, and is reduced to a series of repetitive and mindless tasks. Braverman stood on the side of the worker against the manager, and wrote for the worker, and as such deserves reading today. If his account was also flawed, and crucially failed to consider in detail how workers could fight back, this is only because Braverman was a product of his time. He reached his political maturity when the American and Russian states both seemed mighty and invincible. From his political allies he drew the conclusion that social machinery, bureaucracies and states, were of greater significance than ordinary people. By contrast, the best of his contemporary Marxists maintained that structures are the products of people, and changing people have the power to change the structures. As Marx wrote, in his Theses on Feuerbach, and in rejection of mechanical materialism, 'The materialist doctrine of history concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated.' Capital can be endured, or it can be resisted, but the greatest hope comes when people fight back.



click here to return to the Materials and Publications index


Produced and Hosted by the Center for Digital Discourse and Culture     © Center for Digital Discourse and Culture, Virginia Tech. All rights reserved. The physical campus is in Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A. For more information, please contact the Center at cddc@vt.edu