Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 4, 2004
In the opening moments of Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s documentary about occupied factories in Argentina titled “The Take,” we see Klein being hectored by a rightwing TV host. If she is not for the capitalist system, then what is she *for*. This is obviously is a tough question for autonomists like Klein who resist being pinned down, but she and her partner decided to make an attempt in “The Take.” Despite their best intentions, the film poses more questions than it answers. Ultimately, the film succeeds not as a political statement but as a record of ordinary workers trying to maintain their dignity.
For non-Marxist radicals like Klein, coming up with a model means first of all rejecting the USSR or Cuba which are dismissed as verticalist nightmares at the beginning of the film. The attraction of occupied factories in Argentina is that they are exercises in direct democracy, but do not involve the messy business of government, with its distasteful cops, courts and bureaucracy, etc. Of course, if you do not evaluate such institutions through the prism of class, you will never be able to operate politically on the most basic level. In the final analysis, cops will either support factories run by workers or they will evict them. Class power is the ultimate determinant of that outcome.
The film focuses on the efforts of workers to keep three factories running on a cooperative basis: Forja San Martin, Zanon and Brukman. Although Brukman, a garment shop, has only 58 workers, it is by far the best-known of these experiments. For autonomists, it has achieved the kind of mythic proportions that the St. Petersburg Soviet has for some Marxists. (It should be mentioned that the sectarian Marxist left rallied around Brukman as well, not so much because it was a model but because it was seen as an apocalyptic struggle between society’s two main classes.)
What gives the film its most dramatic tension is the uneasy relationship between a young woman who is working at Zanon, a ceramics plant, and her mother–an ardent Peronista. For her daughter, voting is a sign that you support the “system.” Her mother is a precinct organizer for the Nestor Kirchner campaign. Kirchner was running against former President Carlos Menem, who had been the chief architect of the undoing of Argentina with the cooperation of the IMF and Wall St. Perhaps the refusal of the young Zanon worker to get involved with organized political activity might have something to do with the fact that at least one of her fellow workers had plans to vote for Menem. When radicals abstain from electoral politics, the field is left wide open for the class enemy.
If you can filter out Lewis and Klein’s autonomist preaching, you are left with an inspiring story of the spirit of cooperation of working people. In many of these factories, workers have decided to pay themselves an equal wage. In addition, the fact that these factories can operate without a boss is a testimony to the feasibility of socialism.
The film fails both as a coherent narrative and as ideology by taking a dismissive attitude toward the role of the government following the election of Kirchner. It states that he has cut a deal with the IMF, just as Menem his predecessor did. The truth is more complex. In reality Kirchner has tried to balance himself between the Argentine masses and the IMF after the fashion of Michael Manley in Jamaica or other populist and social democratic politicians in Latin American history. While they will never decisively break with imperialism, they can carry out progressive measures under the pressure of the masses. But not to be able to distinguish between a Michael Manley and an Edward Seaga, or a Kirchner and a Menem is a big mistake.
We might also ask whether Cuba society is so antithetical to the example of workers taking control over their plants at the grass roots level in Argentina. One might hope that Klein and her co-thinkers would take a look at Edward Boorstein’s “The Economic Transformation of Cuba” someday. This important MR book is a Marxist attempt to answer the question Klein attempted to answer: “what are you for”. When we read Boorstein, we discover the ways in which ordinary workers, including blacks–the most oppressed–asserted themselves in Cuba, moreover with the support of the cops, the courts and the bureaucracy! Boornstein writes:
By October 1960 most of the administrative and technical personnel had left Cuba. The Americans and some of the Cubans were withdrawn by the home companies of the plants for which they worked, or left of their own accord: they found themselves unable to understand the struggle with the United States, unwilling to accept the new way of life that was opening up before them.
The Revolutionary Government had to keep the factories and mines going only with a minute proportion of the usual trained and experienced personnel. A few examples can perhaps best give an idea of what happened.
Five of us from the Ministry of Foreign Commerce, on a business visit, were being taken through the Moa nickel plant. In the electric power station–itself a large plant–which served the rest of the complex, our guide was an enthusiastic youngster of about 22. He did an excellent job as guide, but his modesty as well as his age deceived us and only toward the end of our tour did we realize that he was not some sort of apprentice engineer or assistant–he was in charge of the plant. I noticed that he spoke English well and asked him if he had lived in the States. “Sure,” he answered, “I studied engineering at Tulane.” As soon as he finished, he had come back to work for the Revolution and had been placed in charge of the power plant.
In another part of the complex, the head of one of the key departments was a black Cuban who had about four years of elementary school education. He had been an observant worker and when engineer of his department left he knew what to do–although he didn’t really know why, or how his department related to the others in the plant. Now to learn why, he was plugging away at his minimo tecnico manual–one of the little mimeographed booklets which had been distributed throughout industry to improve people’s knowledge of their jobs.
And so on throughout the Moa plant. The engineer in charge of the whole enterprise, who had a long cigar in his hand and his feet on the desk as he gave us his criticisms of the way our Ministry was handling his import requirements, was about 28 years old. His chief assistants were about the same age and some of them were obviously not engineers.
Yet Moa was made to function. Even laymen are struck with its delicate beauty–a testament to American engineering skill. ‘Es una joya’–it’s a jewel, say the Cubans. It is much more impressive than the larger but older nickel plant at Nicaro. Shortly after the nickel ore is clawed out of the earth by giant Bucyrus power shovels, it a pulverized and mixed with water to form a mixture 55 percent and 45 percent water. From then on all materials movement is liquids, in pipes, automatically controlled. The liquids move through the several miles of the complex, in and out of the separate plants, with the reducers, mixing vats, etc. Everything depends on innumerable delicate instruments, and on unusual materials, resistant to exceptions high temperatures and various kinds of chemical reaction. The margin for improvising in repairing or replacing parts is small-much smaller than in the mechanized rather than the automated Nicaro plant. Yet the Moa plant was in operation when we were there: two of the main production lines were going-and all four would have been going jf it had not been necessary to cannibalize two lines to get replacement parts for the other two.
Except that Moa was an especially complex and difficult operation, jt was typical of what happened throughout the mines and factories, and far that matter in the railroads, banks, department stores, and movie houses that had been taken over. The large oil companies had expected that the Cubans would not be able to run the oil refineries. But they were wrong. When a co-worker and I talked to the young administrator of the now combined Esso-Shell refineries across the bay from Havana, he said, only half-jokingly, that he was about two lessons ahead of us in his understanding of how the refinery worked–and I wondered how it was kept going. But we had been around the ten minutes earlier and there it was–going.
A textile plant was placed in the charge of a bearded young man of about 23 who had impressed Major Guevara with his courage and resourcefulness in the Rebel Army. The former Procter and Gamble plant, which each year turns out several million dollars worth of soaps, and tooth paste, was run by a former physician who, besides being generally able, knew some chemistry. For many months, the Matahambre copper mine was in the charge of an American geologist, a friend of mine. After coming to Cuba to work for the Revolution, he had been pressed into service, though he was not a mining engineer and had never run a mine, because he was still the most qualified person available. He had to educate himself rapidly in mine ventilation; this was one of Matahambre’s biggest problems at the time. I went through the mine with him once end it was obvious from the way the men treated him that he had gained their respect for the way he was handling his job.
Once an economist from the Ministry of Industry and I visited a large plant near Matanzas that produced rayon for tires, textiles, and export. We sensed at the plant that the harassed, outspoken administrator, almost the only engineer left, was all but sustaining the whole operation by himself. We got into a conversation about him with one of his assistants. It turned out he had a bad leg of some sort which was giving him trouble; his father, who had owned valuable property in the nearby swanky bathing resort at Varadero was out of sympathy with the Revolution; and his brother, also an engineer, had left for Venezuela or some such place. But there he was, holding a meeting with his staff at 11 P.M., using all his energy to help keep the rayonera going.
When you walked through a Cuban factory, you didn’t need to be told that it was under new management–you could see and feel it everywhere. In the Pheldrake plant for producing wire and cable, formerly owned by Dutch and American interests, the whole office of administration was filled by men in shirt-sleeves who were unmistakably workers; the engineers had gone and the workers had taken over. On the main floor, a group of them were struggling–using baling wire techniques–to repair one of the extrusion machines so that the wire required by the Cuban telephone industry could be kept coming. In a large tobacco factory, the administrator was black; in the metal-working plant formerly owned by the American Car and Foundry Company, the head of a department turning out chicken incubators was black. Black people had not held such positions before the Revolution.