Michael Kidron

Nationalisation Is a Class Issue

(January 1957)

First published in Socialist Review, Vol. 6 No. 4, January 1957, p. 5.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 149–52.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive
Thanks to Ted Crawford.

We are very happy to publish Comrade Reed’s article on Nationalised Coal and Socialist Industry as a contribution to the discussion on this subject which is of such vital importance to the Labour Movement. We find it extremely informative and lucid. However, we believe that it suffers from a basic deficiency quite common in our movement in that it fails to deal with the social aspect, the class content, of the nationalised mining industry.

For lack of space, we shall have to confine our comments to the major points of difference between us and Comrade Reed (leaving aside such questions. important as they are, of compensation payments to the ex-owners who ruined the lives of generations of miners).

Coal – part of capitalist economy

Comrade Reed considers the mining industry in isolation from the capitalist economy of which it is a part. It is surely the essence of schematism and formalism to say that “the British nationalised industries, in themselves, are neither capitalist nor socialist and to stop there. We have only to look at the basic decisions on wages, prices and investment policies and how they are taken to see how meaningless the neutrality of the industry is.

The demand for coal depends on conditions in the private capitalist economy. If there were general overproduction with too many cars, too much steel, too many machines in the market; in other words, if we were faced with a slump as in the thirties with two or three million unemployed, the demand for coal would drop considerably and unemployment spread to the pits. If, as is usual under such conditions, wages were under pressure generally, there is no question that miners’ wages would be a target for the offensive as well.

Finally, the ceiling on coal prices is determined directly or indirectly by international capitalist competition. Car exporters, machinery exporters, ship-builders and the rest are under pressure to keep their costs low. That pressure is a basic determinant of the price of coal.

In other words, where the nationalised sector of the economy forms only a small part of the whole and where genera! economic planning does not exist the running of a nationalised industry is determined by just those elements which determine the running of any individual capitalist enterprise, namely the anarchy of international competition.

Who has power to hire and fire

Comrade Reed fails to appreciate the class significance of the organisational structure of the National Coal Board.

It is true, as he suggests, that in every advanced economy, whether capitalist or socialist, technicians are necessary for production. Who would deny it? But the relations between technicians or managers and workers today are certainly not derived from technical considerations alone, or even basically from such considerations. On the contrary, they reflect rather fundamental social relationships.

In a private firm the manager appoints his deputies. These appoint section managers who, appoint foremen etc. Instructions come from the top downwards. Hiring and firing decisions also travel downwards. And the same applies to the nationalised mining industry where the miner is subject to the discipline and direction of a whole host of officials from the deputy immediately above him, through the overman, the deputy manager, the manager, and so on up to the NCB itself. And the NCB itself does not decide on its directives arbitrarily. It is, as we have already seen, subject to the pressures generated in the anarchic competitive capitalist economy of which the mines are a part.

Two forms of organisation, two kinds of discipline cannot coexist in one economy for any length of time. There is no half freeman, half slave.


“Open ladder”

And what of the “open ladder of promotion” about which Comrade Reed speaks? We might well ask him what is the criterion of promotion? Will the militant miner active in the defence of his comrades be the one to climb up the ladder of promotion? Or will a deputy from the ranks be less obnoxious to workers than someone else? Experience has proved otherwise. The fact that Ford started at the bottom rung has not endeared him to his workers despite the American myth.

Ownership, control and management

In dealing with the question of workers’ control Comrade Reed falls into the common error of not distinguishing between three different functions: ownership, control and management.

At the dawn of capita1ism, when the individual factory was usually quite small, it was normal for the capitalist to fill all three: he owned it, controlled it (in the sense of making all the operative decisions on the policy on the firm) and personally managed it. Today, in all the big corporations, ownership by shareholders is usually divorced from control by the big financial or industrial families and both are far removed from management which is exercised by (highly paid) salaried employees.

We can expect that after the overthrow of capitalism and during the first years of socialism, ownership will be in the hands of the state which, in turn, will be “owned” by the working class collectively. There is no question of Guild Socialism here: each factory will not be owned by its own workers, nor will the question of competition and conflicts between various factories arise. Management will continue to be the job of technicians, but control over them will be in the hands of the workers. Of course, the exact mechanism of this control and the delimitation of the areas of control of the various bodies representing the working class is a question of great importance, but it is one that cannot be entered into here.

Lenin out of context

When referring to Lenin, Comrade Reed forgets the context of Lenin’s remarks. Lenin started from the basic assumption that the means of production were owned by the workers’ state, that is by the workers’ collective organisation. Secondly, he assumed the existence of a planned economy. Under such conditions, every growth in production would be in the workers’ interest. And yet. even in these conditions one-man management was very much subject to the control of the workers. Thus the Bolshevik Party made it clear in its programme (adopted at the 8th Party Congress, March 18th to 23rd, 1919) that

the trade unions must in the fullest possible measure induce the workers to participate directly in the work of economic administration. The participation of the trade unions in the conduct of economic life, and the involvement by them of the broad masses of the people in this work, would appear at the same time to be our chief aid in the campaign against the bureaucratisation of the economic apparatus of the Soviet Power. This will facilitate the establishment of an effective popular control over the results of production.

The Party cells participated in the running of industry together with the workers’ plant committees. Together with these, and under their control, worked the technical manager; the combination of these three formed the Troika, the basic unit of workers control in Revolutionary Russia, the first to be axed by the bureaucratic reaction.

(By the way, Comrade Reed to the contrary, Lenin did not advocate the statification of the unions but the unionisation of the state as a way of bringing unions and state together. This is certainly unlike the present, “ideal” relations between the NCB and the NUM.)

The apathy argument

Finally, Comrade Reed bolsters up his argument by saying that the miners “do not have the slightest interest in workers’ control or management”. Why on earth, then, is it a basic plank in every revolutionary socialist platform?

A similar argument has often been used to defend bureaucratic rule in the trade unions. The Bevins and the Deakins and the contemporary followers in their footsteps trot out the fact that only 4 or 5 per cent of union members attend branch meetings and pretend that it means a silent vote of confidence.

Why this apathy

It is a fact, a sad fact, that the overwhelming majority of miners, as well as workers in other industries, are not interested in workers’ control. But we should understand why.

First, there is the existence of bureaucracy which has, in state, union and party, accustomed the worker to let decisions go by default. Second, every worker knows that the economy of the country runs according to certain rules of a capitalist game which would require more than the effort of one man or even a group of workers to change. Third, like every other enterprise, the nationalised mining industry keeps its books tightly shut. As Comrade Reed states, even the price of coal is not publicly known. Flow can one expect any interest in control where the possibilities of change. the resources with which to change are known only to a group of privileged bureaucrats?

Finally, and this is the most important of all, it must be realised that under capitalism, the money nexus rules supreme. When coal is in great demand and miners hard to come by. wages will be good at the pits. Why worry about control while the sun shines, is quite a normal reaction in such circumstances.

Of course, by the same token, conditions of insecurity and unemployment will change the miners’ attitude quite quickly. After all, the majority of workers do not attend trade union meetings – until there is a strike. Apathy towards the question of control is as fleeting as the stability of capitalism.

Last updated on 16 February 2017