Socialism in One Factory

Socialism in One Factory

We stand together on one side of a great river, which we all must cross. The workers at the French watch factory Lip swam ahead, and lit a beacon for us all.

A Lip strike poster calling for socialist self-management (Association Autogestion)

Opening the Gates: The Lip Affair, 1968-1981
by Donald Reid
Verso, 2018, 512 pp.

In the early 1960s, I wrote an essay for the journal Studies on the Left entitled “Socialism, the Forbidden Word.” The world has changed. Thanks to Bernie Sanders and many others, it has again become possible to say publicly, “I am a socialist.”

But what does “socialism” mean? And how do we make real progress toward it within the confines of a capitalist society? Can socialism take the form of merely changing the distribution of income, or must there also be changes in ownership of the major means of production—what Lenin called capitalism’s “commanding heights”?

Furthermore, are there social and cultural shifts, beyond economic changes like nationalization, that are needed to bring about a socialist society? And if so, how can the individualism, violence, and male hegemony that presently permeate the social world of the United States be transformed?

These are the questions of today.

Very few economic entities have managed to operate successfully in a sustained socialist manner within a capitalist framework. Typically, the project either gives up its utopian features and becomes a capitalist firm like any other, or else it fails and disappears.

One such effort, which lasted longer than most from 1973 to 1981, was at Lip, a French company that made watches in a city near the Swiss border. The workers of Lip tried over and over to find a way to preserve and expand the spirit of “the long 1968.” In the words of historian Donald Reid, whose 2018 book Opening the Gates traces the story of the Lip workers, theirs was “the last widespread expression in France of a belief in the creativity and moral universe of workers engaged in labor conflicts as the driving force in
social transformation.”

Initially, Lip seemed to have found a path between the socialist and anarchist visions of 1968 and the recession of the 1970s. Four-fifths of the more than 100 parts needed to make a mechanical watch were produced in the Lip factory, a building with large glass windows constructed in 1962. In 1973 the number of employees was 1,427. About half of the factory workers and office personnel were women, but men “dominated the positions as skilled workers, technicians, and supervisory personnel,” writes Reid.

When they learned in the spring of 1973 of plans to restructure the factory that would involve mass layoffs, the workers themselves became les Lip. They occupied the factory, produced and sold watches, and paid their own salaries.

In 1974 a group of industrialists took over the plant under the direction of ...

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