Accueil » 20-2 ( 1965) » La théorie de Selig Perlman : une étude critique

La théorie de Selig Perlman : une étude critique

Louis-Marie Tremblay


L'auteur analyse du point de vue méthodologique et du point de vue substantif la thèse exposée par Selig Perlman dans«  A Theory of the Labor Movement ». Il en examine la consistance intrinsèque, l’utilité et les faiblesses. Il conclut que la théorie de Perlman est fondamentalement une apologie anti-marxiste dirigée principalement contre des propositions de Lénine. Une telle approche apporte une conception incomplète et normative du phénomène syndical. C'est pourquoi la thèse de Perlman demeure au niveau de généralisations dont l’utilité est limitée. En effet, considérant la base de la solidarité, les buts, les méthodes et les comportements syndicaux, elle ne fournit qu'une explication partielle, parfois subjective, des diverses composantes de faction syndicale.


The Theory of Selig Perlman : A Critical Study

In this article, the author provides a systematic and detailed analysis of the theory of Selig Perlman, and submits it to a critical evaluation, both in terms of methodology and substance. The following is a brief outline of Perlman's approach.

In his methodology, Perlman relies on three analytical elements: 1) three factors: the Power of subsistence of the capitalist system, the degree of influence of intellectuals upon organized labor, the level of maturity of the working class;

2) three characteristics: the strength of the institution of private ownership, the degree of class consciousness among labor, the inadequacy of political tools;

3) the psychology of manual labor.

The essence of Perlman's theory may be outlined in the following manner. At the basis of labor solidarity is « the consciousness of scarcity of opportunity ». This explains why the role of trade unions is to control job opportunities; « job control » is based on « job interests ». For this purpose economic action, through collective agreements and strikes, appears to be the most effective approach. Political action may play, at best, a supplementary role. This approach is bound to lead to equality in industrial relations and to democratization in the economic structure; this may be attained without going through class warfare and without introducing a socialist or a communist system.

A critical analysis of Perlman's theory brings out a number of points of methodological character:

a) Essentially, the theory is an anti-Marxist apology of the stability of the capitalist system, mainly directed against the position of Lenin. At the basis of the divergence between Perlman and Lenin is the different evaluation of the role of the « intelligentsia ».

b) Despite Perlman's claim to the contrary, he provides only a partial definition of trade unionism. This definition presents a scheme for a specific functional model; only through extension by means of a normative projection it becomes a general model for a true trade unionism.

c) The analytical variables are not independent one from another, and because of this their interrelation cannot be significant. The three factors are defined, in part, each one by means of the others. The three characteristics are a descriptive elaboration of the three factors within the American context. Psychological categories are implicit in the definition of the third factor.

d) The depreciatory concept of the « intelligentsia » reflects a subjective and biased approach to the problem of leadership in trade unionism. According to Perlman's definition, leaders who rose from the ranks of labor represent the concept of a « stable and responsible » trade unionism; in contrast, intellectuals, that is, « educated non-manualists », who enter the labor world introduce with them radicalism and revolutionary program of action, or advocate political action within trade unionism, in terms of Perlman's definition.

With regard to the substance of Perlman's theory, this writer suggests the following points for consideration:

a) The psychological approach ( « the consciousness of scarcity of opportunities »), despite some inconsistencies in definition and despite the fact that it may be regarded as typical for a particular group only, provides room for some useful generalizations; yet these generalizations are of limited character and cannot lead to theoretical conclusions. They reflect one element in workers' motivation to join the union and to support its activities. This element, in itself, cannot explain the process of labor organization, nor the occupational and territorial differentiation in the degree of unionization. Moreover, its origin is in the assumption of a state of chronic underemployment — a condition which is least favorable to labor solidarity.

b) The concept of « job control » is related exclusively to occupational goals.

c) Perlman sees in the joint system of control the most advantageous alternative; in his view, the autonomous system of control has no advantages, and control by external factors has an entirely secondary significance. By emphasizing collective negotiations he grossly underrestimates the importance of various forms of mutual assistance. Also, Perlman was not able, unfortunately, to provide a clear distinction between political activities of non-occupational character (revolutionary and other) and the utilization of political levers as a supplementary tool in realization of occupational and semi-occupational goals.

d) The idealistic concept of « parity » in industrial relations cannot be ignored. Its eventual realization will call for a framework different from that provided by Perlman; under modem conditions the solution for existing problems often cannot be found on local level and has to rely on the dynamic intervention of a new interested party — the state.