Reflections on Socialism

Banksy, Walled Off Hotel - Wall Sculpture (Dove), 2018


Commentary on the book by Maurício Tragtenberg

Socialism was among the issues that occupied Maurício Tragtenberg's anti-capitalist thought and practices. In the footsteps of his teachings, which he inserted the class struggle in the context of the workplace, and, with that, proposed a different perspective to analyze administration as a practical expression of business power, a space where “real politics is fully exercised", he understood that this terrain, a field of tension between workers and capitalists, opens up real possibilities for the struggle against capitalism.

In the work of Maurício Tragtenberg, social struggles and conflicts are the object of analysis and are discussed in terms of the struggle between exploiters and exploited. By the way, we refer to Reflections on Socialism, published for the first time in 1986. In this book, the author presents, from a historical perspective, the workers' movement against economic exploitation and political oppression, practiced by private or state employers – its real advances along with its defeats –, accompanied by through the attempt to create new relations of production, new social relations. Reflections on Socialism is among the most important books in Maurício Tragtenberg's body of work, comprising ten volumes, alongside bureaucracy and ideology, Administration, power and ideology, and Russian revolution.

From the first pages of Reflections on Socialism when Maurício Tragtenberg (p. 13 and 14) clearly exposes his perspective of socialism, the conflict is made explicit: “The problem of socialism arises before the real existence of the class struggle between exploiters and exploited, between oppressors and oppressed. Socialism implies self-organization, association, workers' self-management. Self-management is not an objective of capitalist society, whether in the form of private capitalism, whether in free-competitive, monopolistic or state-owned form. It means that the proletariat and wage-earners in general manage their struggles themselves, through which they become aware that they can manage their own production and create new forms of work organization. In short, that they can put 'workers' democracy' into practice. The predominance of self-management in the economic, social and political fields is manifested whenever workers appear as revolutionary subjects. These are the periods of rising mass movements that took shape in the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Spanish Civil War of 1936, the 1918 rebellions in Hungary, and the creation of the Solidarity trade union (1978) in Poland. . The driving cause of these social movements was the struggle against exploitation, whether practiced by private capital or state capitalism”.

when you write Reflections on Socialism, in the 1980s, the global workforce was nearly 2 billion people, and 30 years later, in 2010, it rose to almost 3 billion workers, according to the The Economist, of June 16, 2012. Based on information from the International Labor Organization – ILO for 2020, the last access currently is at 3,3 billion workers. The five hundred largest companies on the planet, in terms of revenue, innovation, production scale and number of employees, together employ almost 70 million workers distributed in thirty-two countries. Among the two largest employers in the global ranking, Walmart and Amazon, each employs, respectively, 2,300 million and 1,600 million workers (Global Fortune.

The worldwide increase in the workforce, on the one hand, confirms the ability of capitalism to manage the lives of workers and, on the other hand, that social conflicts are concentrated in the social relations of production. And it was in this global framework, now updated, that Maurício Tragtenberg (2008, pp.25 and 27) indicated the urgent need to rescue and/or reaffirm the internationalism of the working masses and the solidarity between their struggles: “The world market, created by capitalism already in its monopoly era, integrates the worker and his family, subordinating them to this market. Man exists for the market, either as a direct producer or as a consumer. This internationalization of capitalist production relations consequently produces the need for workers' organization at an international level. A workers' response to the universalization of the capitalist system was the creation of the International Workers' Association (AIT) or the First International, on September 28, 1864”.

Next, he summarizes the principles of the First International: “The AIT served to make workers aware that they belonged to an international community and should associate to carry out their economic struggles and, in terms of international relations between States, fight for a policy of peace and freedom. Above all, the merits of the AIT were the affirmation of proletarian internationalism as a positive value and the linking of the struggle for the liberation of the working class from economic exploitation and political oppression as a symptom of the liberation of humanity” (Tragtenberg, 2008, p. 33 ).

If, on the one hand, capitalism adopts administrative despotism, because it is in the capitalist company that real, decisive power is found, as social and economic domination over the worker and from there it extends to the entire social fabric to constitute the foundations of the capitalist order; on the other hand, it opens space for the development of social relations antagonistic to capitalist society, which can go beyond the limits of the workplace, giving impetus to an internationalist movement of workers (Bernardo, 2018; Tragtenberg, 2008).

“Thus, the internationalization of capitalism”, wrote Maurício Tragtenberg (2008, p.101), “allows the emergence of forms of proletarian struggle which, when developed, create the minimum conditions for communism. And the proletariat, defining itself as an international class in Poland, Brazil, Portugal or Bolivia, tends to develop identical forms of struggle”. Thus, he asserted that if capitalists were transnationalizing, workers could not be left behind. For this reason, he has always defended self-organization as a global opposition to the forms of capitalist framework, whether the means of production are in the hands of a State or in the hands of private capitalists.

Reflections on Socialism it provides us with a key to thinking about why social conflicts have not yet overthrown capitalism. For the author, either because fights are domesticated or because they are destroyed, materializing in a profound defeat; this confirms the existence of the various mechanisms that capitalism uses to claim the defense of its social relations, because, to the extent that workers express in practice that they are capable of self-organizing, they face the employers, the union bureaucracy and partisan.

One concerns direct repression, such as the crushing of the Paris Commune by the forces of capital; or when, in developing capitalist societies – as in Brazil –, strikes become a matter for the police. A second is when the struggle from an autonomist point of view, through which social relations are created that make it possible for workers to unite, become bureaucratized and lose their initial purposes.

Regarding this event, Tragtenberg (2008, p.46) refers to the moment when “Lenin introduced Taylorism in the USSR, meaning, therefore, the return to hierarchy in factories, to planning restricted to a body of specialists and hand-to-hand. workforce carrying out what the technical leadership defines as the companies' objectives. Although he considered Taylorism a typically capitalist form of work organization, Lenin argued that the power rested with the Party and this would guarantee the supremacy of the working class in the country. Thus, the Taylorist technique could be placed at the service of the proletariat. This meant the end of factory committees and self-management in companies. Trotsky's new watchword was: work, order and discipline. Thus, as early as 1920, out of 2.051 important companies, 1.783 were under the direction of a state-appointed administrator. Logically, the first achievement of the Russian Revolution, that is, the control of the means and the rhythm of production by the workers themselves, had been usurped by the State and by the Party that directed it”. To this, Tragtenberg (2008, 101) adds the repressive degeneration of the revolution during the “destruction of the Opposition in the USSR, the repression of the Kronstad rebellion and the peasant revolution of Makno and the replacement of the collective leadership of the factory by the universal leadership show how the Russian Revolution was destroyed by internal forces and not by foreign invasion”.

Another mechanism that capitalists resort to refers to the assimilation and/or recovery of social conflicts and then returned in the form of increased productivity, as originally analyzed by historian João Bernardo in Economics of Social Conflicts. In this line of argument, Maurício Tragtenberg (2008, p.40) summarizes the issue clearly and precisely: “In countries with developed capitalism – West Germany, France, Sweden – the high bourgeoisie cannot resort to open forms of repression; the “social-democratic” solution appears, then, as the one with the lowest social and political cost, allowing to maintain a left-wing discourse and a conservative practice, covered by an anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian language”.

Removing the confusion between socialism and State capitalism was a concern that guided the thinking of Maurício Tragtenberg (2008, p.19) in the understanding that “workers' self-organization in the workplace and the democratization of labor relations constitute the basis of any democracy at the level of global society, because the existence of factory despotism with formal democracy, beyond the walls of the factory, is a profound contradiction”. This picture led Maurício Tragtenberg to situate socialism as the practice of direct and spontaneous action by workers, that is, without the tutelage of self-styled leftist parties or union organizations, much less of intellectuals – because no one can free them except them. themselves –, in the impetus for structural social changes, based on the self-management of the economy and social life.

In this context, a society self-managed by workers must be preceded by self-management of struggles. While what was called socialism, both by a certain left and by the conservative-liberal camp, it consists, in practical terms, of a “state economy in the hands of a dominant bureaucracy that exercises power in the name of the worker. That there is a vertical State and a bureaucratic and hierarchical army above the population is directed against it in times of crisis. Therefore, no dictatorship is revolutionary, as it tends to be exercised by a bureaucratic framework and defend the status quo. This is called "really socialism" by its professional advocates. In reality, it is a monopoly state capitalism, in which the bureaucracy collectively owns the means of production and the worker remains a wage slave, domesticated through the party and the state” (Tragtenberg, 2009, p336).

In this plan and outside the dominant official perspective, left and right, the author revealed that “the repression of the Workers' Opposition, the Kronstadt revolt and the revolution in Ukraine shows the profound incompatibility between a socialist proposal based on the autonomy of class action , in its self-organization, and the Bolshevik proposal that, through the hegemony of the Party, builds state capitalism. The Soviet state bureaucracy fulfilled the same industrializing role that the classical bourgeoisie fulfilled in the West. The USSR has become a great power and its policy corresponds to this.

By comparison, the average Soviet standard of living [was] higher than in the tsarist period. But the Soviet bureaucracy runs the state like private property. The adoption of Taylorism in the factories, the disciplinary role given to the unions – which led to the formation of a union opposition, led by the metallurgist Klebanov – and the maintenance of wages gave the Russian State the character of an integral State capitalism. In this sense, Stalin was a perfect continuator of Lenin's work, and Trotsky, who at first was an armed prophet, creator of the Red Army and later expelled from the USSR (1929), became an unarmed prophet. Only after losing power did Trotsky return to the theme of workers' democracy” (Tragtenberg, 2008, pp. 61 and 62).

The work of Maurício Tragtenberg, in particular Reflections on Socialism, allows a critical reconsideration of the ambiguities of labor forces in motion, especially their attempt to overcome capitalism. It shows that the parties, organizations and/or movements born in the class struggle and that propose to promote social transformations, due to capitalist pressure, reproduce in their organizations the same structures (hierarchical relations, relations of exploitation and domination) of society that they intend to transform and end up being converted into capital appreciation institutions.

In other words, instead of globally opposing any form of capitalism (companies and governments), and weaving new social relations, they reproduce it in other guises (Bernardo, 2018; Tragtenberg, 2008, 2009).

*Marcelo Phintener is a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at PUC-SP.


Mauricio Tragtenberg. Reflections on Socialism. São Paulo, Unesp, 2008, 136 pages.


BERNARDO, J. Labyrinths of fascism: at the crossroads of order and revolt. third version, revised and enlarged ed. [Sl: sn], 2018

TRAGTENBERG, M. Reflections on Socialism. São Paulo: Editora UNESP, 2008.

TRAGTENBERG, M. The bankruptcy of politics. São Paulo: Editora UNESP, 2009

TRAGTENBERG, M. Libertarian theory and action. São Paulo: Editora UNESP, 2011.

The site the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters. Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles