Paul Mattick. 1967

Workers’ Control

Source: Kurasje Archive;
Written: by Paul Mattick in 1967. Later it was included in The New Left: A collection of essays ed. Priscilla Long. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1969. In 1978 it was included in Anti-Bolshevik Communism Merlin Press, London, 1978, ISBN: 0 850 36 222 7/9. The e-version of this text was delivered by Kavosh Kavoshgar for Kurasje.
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, for 2003.

According to socialist theory, the development of capitalism implies the polarisation of society into a small minority of capital owners and a large majority of wage-workers, and therewith the gradual disappearance of the proprietary middle class of independent craftsmen, farmers and small shop-keepers. This concentration of productive property and general wealth into always fewer hands appears as an incarnation of ‘feudalism’ in the garb of modern industrial society. Small ruling classes determine the life and death of all of society by owning and controlling the productive resources and therewith the governments. That their decisions are controlled, in turn, by impersonal market forces and the compulsive quest for capital does not alter the fact that these reactions to uncontrollable economic events are also their exclusive privilege.

Within the capital-labour relations which characterise the prevailing society, the producers have no direct control over production and the products it brings forth. At times, they may exert a kind of indirect control by way of wage struggles, which may alter the wage-profit ratio and therewith the course or tempo of the capital expansion process. Generally, it is the capitalist who determines the conditions of production. The workers have to agree in order to exist, for their only ‘means of livelihood is the sale of their labour power. Unless the worker accepts the exploitative conditions of capitalist production, he is ‘free’ only in the sense that he is free to starve. This was recognised long before there was a socialist movement. As early as 1767, Simon Linguet declared that wage-labour is merely a form of slave labour: In his view, it was even worse than slavery. “It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm labourers to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat, and our masons to construct buildings in which they will not live. It is want that drags them to those markets where they await masters who will do them the kindness of buying them. It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission to enrich him ... What effective gain has the suppression of slavery brought him? ... He is free, you say. Ah. That is his misfortune. The slave was precious to his master because of the money he had cost him. But the handicraftsman costs nothing to the rich voluptuary who employs him ... These men, it is said, have no master – they have one, and the most terrible, the most imperious of masters, that is need. It is this that reduces them to the most cruel dependence.”[1] Two hundred years later this is essentially still the same. Although it is no longer outright misery which forces the workers in the advanced capitalist nations to submit to the rule of capital and to the wiles of capitalists, their lack of control over the means of production, their position as wage-workers, still marks them as a ruled class unable to determine its own destiny.

The goal of socialists was then and still is the abolition of the wage system, which implies the end of capitalism. In the second half of the last century a working class movement arose to bring about this transformation through the socialisation of the means of production. Profit-determined production was to be replaced by one satisfying the actual needs and ambitions of the associated producers. The market economy was to make room for a planned economy. Social existence and development would then no longer be determined by the uncontrollable fetishistic expansion and contraction of capital but by the collective conscious decisions of the producers in a classless society.

Being a product of bourgeois society, however, the socialist movement is bound to the vicissitudes of capitalist development. It will take on varying characteristics in accordance with the changing fortunes of the capitalist system. It will not grow, or it will practically disappear, at times and in places which are not conducive to the formation of proletarian class consciousness. Under conditions of capitalist prosperity it tends to transform itself from ~ revolutionary into a reformist movement. In times of social crisis it may be totally suppressed by the ruling classes.

All labour organisations are part of the general social structure and, save in a purely ideological sense, cannot be consistently anti-capitalistic. In order to attain social importance within the capitalist system they must be opportunistic, that is, take advantage of given social processes in order to serve their own but as yet limited ends. It does not seem possible to slowly assemble revolutionary forces in powerful organisations ready to act at favourable moments. Only organisations which do not disturb the prevailing basic social relationships grow to any importance. If they start out with a revolutionary ideology, their growth implies a subsequent discrepancy between their ideology and their functions. Opposed to the status quo but also organised within it, these organisations must finally succumb to the forces of capitalism by virtue of their own organisational successes.

At the end of the century, traditional labour organisations – socialist parties and trade unions – were no longer revolutionary movements. Only a small left-wing within these organisations retained its revolutionary ideology. In terms of doctrine, Lenin and Luxemburg saw the need to combat the reformist and opportunist evolutionism of the established labour organisations and demanded a return to revolutionary policies. While Lenin tried to accomplish this through the creation of a new type of revolutionary party, emphasising centrally-controlled organised activity and leadership, Rosa Luxemburg preferred an increase in proletarian self-determination generally, as well as within the socialist organisations, through the elimination of bureaucratic controls and the activiation of the rank-and-file.

Because Marxism was the ideology of the dominant socialist parties, opposition to these organisations and their policies expressed itself also as an opposition to Marxian theory in its reformist and revisionist interpretations. Georges Sorel[2] and the syndicalists were not only convinced that the proletariat could emancipate itself without the guidance of the intelligentsia, but that it had to free itself from middle class elements that usually controlled political organisations. Syndicalism rejected parliamentarianism in favour of revolutionary trade union activity. In Sorel’s view, a government of socialists would in no sense alter the social position of the workers. In order to be free, the workers would have to resort to actions and weapons exclusively their own. Capitalism, he thought, bad already organised the whole proletariat in its industries. All that was left to do was to suppress the state and property. To accomplish this, the proletariat was not so much in need of so-called scientific insight into necessary social trends as of a kind of intuitive conviction that revolution and socialism were the inevitable outcome of their own continuous struggles. The strike was seen as the workers’ revolutionary apprenticeship. The growing number of strikes, their extensions and increasing duration pointed towards a possible General Strike, that is, to the impending social revolution.

Syndicalism and such international offspring as the Guild Socialists in England and the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States were, to some extent, reactions to the increasing bureaucratisation of the socialist movement and to its class-collaborationist practices. Trade unions, too, were attacked for their centralistic structures and their emphasis upon specific trade interests at the expense of proletarian class needs. But all organisations, whether revolutionary or reformist, whether centralisers or federalists, tended to see in their own steady growth and everyday activities the major ingredient for social change. As regards Social Democracy it was the growing membership, the spreading party apparatus, the increasing number of votes in elections, and a larger participation in existing political institutions which were thought of as growing into the socialist society. As regards the Industrial Workers of the World, on the other hand, the growth of its own organisations into One Big Union was seen, at the same time, as “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”[3]

In the first twentieth century revolution, however, it was the unorganised mass of workers which determined the character of the revolution and brought into being its own, new form of organisation in the spontaneously arising workers’ councils. The Russian councils, or soviets, of the 1905 Revolution, grew out of a number of strikes and their needs for committees of action and representation to deal with the industries affected as well as with legal authorities. The strikes were spontaneous in the sense that they were not called by political organisations or trade unions, but were launched by unorganised workers who had no choice but to look upon their workplace as the springboard and centre of their organisational efforts. In the Russia of that time political organisations had as yet no real influence on the mass of workers and trade unions existed only in embryonic form. “The soviets,” Trotsky wrote, “were the realisation of an objective need for an organisation which has authority without having tradition, and which can at once embrace hundreds of thousands of workers. An organisation, moreover, which can unify all the revolutionary tendencies within the proletariat, which possesses both initiative and self-control, and, which is the main thing, can be called into existence within 24 hours.” ... [Whereas] “parties were organisations within the proletariat, the soviets was the organisation of the proletariat.”[4]

In essence, of course, the 1905 Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, supported by the liberal middle class to break Czarist absolutism and to advance Russia via a Constituent Assembly towards the conditions that existed in the more developed capitalist nations. In so far as the striking workers thought in political terms, they largely shared the programme of the liberal bourgeoisie. And so did all existing socialist organisations which accepted the necessity of a bourgeois revolution as a precondition for the formation of a strong labour movement and a future proletarian revolution under more advanced conditions.

The soviet system of the Russian Revolution of 1905 disappeared with the crushing of the revolution, only to return in greater force in the February Revolution of 1917. It was these soviets which inspired the formation of similar spontaneous organisations in the German Revolution of 1918, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the social upheavals in England, France, Italy and Hungary. With the council system a form of organisation arose which could lead and coordinate the self-activities of very broad masses for either limited ends or for revolutionary goals, and which could do so independently of, in opposition to, or in collaboration with, existing labour organisations. Most of all, the rise of the council system proved that spontaneous activities need not dissipate in formless mass-exertions but could issue into organisational structures of a more than temporary nature.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 invigorated left-wing oppositions in the socialist parties of the West, but as yet more with respect to the spontaneity of its mass strikes than the organisational form these actions assumed. But the reformist spell was broken; revolution was again seen as a real possibility. However, in the West it would not be a bourgeois-democratic but a pure working class revolution. But even so, the positive attitude toward the Russian experience was not as yet transformed into a rejection of the parliamentary methods of the reformist parties of the Second International.


The prospect for a revival of revolutionary policies in the West proved at first illusory. Not only the ‘revisionists’ within the socialist movement for whom, in the words of their foremost spokesman, Eduard Bernstein, “the movement was everything and the goal nothing”, but also so-called orthodox Marxists no longer believed in either the desirability or the necessity of social revolution. While they were still sticking to the old goal – abolition of the wage system – this was now to be reached in piecemeal fashion through the legal means offered by the democratic institutions of bourgeois society. Eventually, with the mass of voters favouring a socialist government, socialism could be instituted by government decree. Meanwhile, trade union activity and social legislation would alleviate the lot of the workers and enable them to partake in the general social progress.

The miseries of laissez faire capitalism not only produced a socialist movement but also various attempts on the part of workers to ease their conditions by non-political means. Apart from trade unionism, a cooperative movement came into being as a medium of escape from wage-labour and as a vain opposition to the ruling principle of general competition. The precursors of this movement were the early communist communities in France, England and America, which derived their ideas from such utopian socialists as Owen and Fourier.

Producers’ cooperatives were voluntary groupings for self-employment and self-government with respect to their own activities. Some of these cooperatives developed independently, others in conjunction with the working class movements. By pooling their resources, workers were able to establish their own workshops and produce without the intervention of capitalists. But their opportunities were from the very beginning circumscribed by the general conditions of capitalist society and its developmental tendencies, which granted them a mere marginal existence. Capitalist development implies the competitive concentration and centralisation of capital. The larger capital destroys the smaller. The cooperative workshops were restricted to special small-scale industries requiring little capital. Soon, the capitalist extension into all industries destroyed their competitive ability and drove them out of business.

Consumers’ cooperatives proved to be more successful and some of them absorbed producers’ cooperatives as sources of supply. But consumers’ cooperatives can hardly be considered as attempts at working class control, even where they were the creation of working class aspirations. At best, they may secure a measure of control in the disposal of wages, for labourers can be robbed twice – at the point of production and at the market place. The costs of commodity circulation are an unavoidable faux frais of capital production, dividing the capitalists into merchants and entrepreneurs. Since each tries for the profit maximum in its own sphere of operation, their economic interests are not identical. Entrepreneurs thus have no reason to object to consumers’ cooperatives. Currently, they are themselves engaged in dissolving the division of productive and merchant capital by combining the functions of both in the single production and marketing corporation.

The cooperative movement was easily integrated into the capitalist system and, in fact, was to a large extent an element of capitalist development. Even in bourgeois economic theory it was considered an instrument of social conservatism by fostering the savings propensities of the lower layers of society, by increasing economic activities through credit unions, by improving agriculture through cooperative production and marketing organisations, and by shifting working class attention from the sphere of production to that of consumption. As a capitalistically-oriented institution the cooperative movement flourished, finally to become one form of capitalist enterprise among others, bent on the exploitation of the workers in its employ, and facing the latter as their opponents in strikes for higher wages and better working conditions. The general support of consumers’ cooperatives by the official labour movement – in sharp distinction to an earlier scepticism and even outright rejection – was merely an additional sign of the increasing ‘capitalisation’ of the reformist labour movement. The widespread network of consumers’ cooperatives in Russia, however, provided the Bolsheviks with a ready-made distributive system which was soon turned into an agency of the state.

The division of ‘collectivism’ into producers’ and consumers cooperatives reflected, in a sense, the opposition of the syndicalist to the socialist movement. Consumers’ cooperatives incorporated members of all classes and were seeking access to all markets. They were not opposed to centralisation on a national and even international scale. The market of producers’ cooperatives, however, was as limited as their production and they could not combine into larger units without losing the self-control which was the rationale for their existence.

It was the problem of workers’ control over their production and products which differentiated the syndicalists from the socialist movement. In so far as the problem still existed for the latter, it solved it for itself with the concept of nationalisation, which made the socialist state the guardian of society’s productive resources and the regulator of its economic life with respect to both production and distribution. Only at a later stage of development would this arrangement make room for a free association of socialised producers and the withering away of the state. The syndicalists feared, however, that the state with its centralised controls would merely perpetuate itself and prevent the working population’s self-determination.

The syndicalists envisioned a society in which each industry is managed by its own workers. All the syndicates together would form national federations which would not have the characteristics of government but would merely serve statistical and administrative functions for the realisation of a truly collectivist production and distribution system. Syndicalism was predominant in France, Italy and Spain but was represented in all capitalist nations; in some with modifications as in the already noted I.W.W. and the Guild Socialists. Not only with respect to the final goal, but also in the everyday class struggle, syndicalists differed from parliamentary socialists and ordinary trade unions by their emphasis on direct actions and by a greater militancy.

Although the concern with final goals was premature, it affected nonetheless the actual behaviour of their propagators. The rapid bureaucratisation of the centralised socialist movement and trade unions deprived the workers in increasing measure of their self-initiative and subjected them to the control of a leadership which did not share their living and working conditions. Trade unions lost their early connection with the socialist movement and degenerated into business-unionism, solely interested in wage-bargaining and, where possible, in the formation of job monopolies. The syndicalist movement was bureaucratised to a far lesser extent, not only because it was the smaller of the two main streams of the labour movement, but also because the principle of industrial self-control affected the everyday class struggle as well.

To speak of workers’ control within the framework of capitalist production can mean only control of their own organisations, for capitalism implies that the workers are deprived of all effective social control. But with the ‘capitalisation’ of their organisations, when they become the ‘property’ of a bureaucracy and the vehicle of its existence and reproduction, it follows that the only possible form of direct workers’ control vanishes. It is true that even then workers fight for higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions, but these struggles do not affect their lack of power within their own organisations. To call these activities a form of workers’ control is a misnomer in any case, for these struggles are not concerned with the self-determination of the working class but with the improvement of conditions within the confines of capitalism. This is, of course, possible so long as it is possible to increase the productivity of labour at a rate faster than that by which the workers’ living standards are raised.

The basic control over the conditions of work and the surplus-yields of production remain always in the hands of the capitalists. When workers succeed in reducing the hours of their working day, they will not succeed in cutting the quantity of surplus labour extracted by the capitalists. For there are two ways of extracting surplus-labour prolonging the working day and shortening the working time required to produce the wage-equivalent by way of technical and organisational innovations. Because capital must yield a definite rate of profit, capitalists will stop producing when this rate is threatened. The compulsion to accumulate capital controls the capitalist and forces him to control his workers to get that amount of surplus-labour necessary to consummate the accumulation process. He will try for the profit maximum and may only get the minimum for reasons beyond his control, one of which may be the resistance of the workers to the conditions of exploitation bound up with the profit maximum. But that is as far as working class exertions can reach within the capitalist system.


The workers’ loss of control over their own organisations was, of course, a consequence of their acquiescence in the capitalist system. Organised and unorganised workers alike accommodated themselves to the market economy because it was able to ameliorate their conditions and promised further improvements in the course of its own development. Types of organisations effective in such a non-revolutionary situation were precisely reformist socialist parties and centrally-controlled business unions. The enlightened bourgeoisie, too, saw the latter as instruments of industrial peace by way of collective agreements. Capitalists no longer confronted the workers but their representatives, whose existence was based on the existence of the capital-labour market, that is, on the continued existence of capitalism. The workers’ satisfaction with their organisations reflected their own loss of interest in social change. The socialist ideology was no longer supported by real working class aspirations. This state of affairs came dramatically to light in the chauvinism which gripped the working classes of all capitalist nations at the outbreak of the First World War.

Left-wing radicalism had been based on what was designated by their reformist adversaries as the ‘politics of catastrophe’ The revolutionists expected not only deteriorating living standards for the labouring population but also economic crises so devastating as to call forth social convulsions which would, in the end, lead to revolution. They could not conceive of revolution short of its objective necessity. And in fact, no social revolution occurred except in times of social and economic catastrophe. The revolutions released by World War One were the result of catastrophic conditions in the weaker imperialist powers and they raised, for the first time, the question of workers’ control and the actualisation of socialism as a real possibility.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the result of spontaneous movements in protest to increasingly unbearable conditions in the course of the unsuccessful war. Strikes and demonstrations escalated into a general uprising which found the support of some military units and led to the collapse of the Czarist government. The revolution was backed by a broad stratum of the bourgeoisie and it was from this group that the first provisional government was formed. Although the socialist parties and trade unions did not initiate the revolution, they played a greater part in it than had been the case in 1905. As in that year, so also in 1917, the soviets did not intend, at first, to replace the provisional government. But in the unfolding revolutionary process they encompassed increasingly greater responsibilities; practically, power was shared by the soviets and the government. The further radicalisation of the movement under deteriorating conditions and the vacillating policies of bourgeois and socialist parties soon gave the Bolsheviks a majority in the decisive soviets and led to the October coup d’etat which ended the bourgeois-democratic phase of the revolution.

The growing strength of the Bolsheviks within the revolutionary movement was due to their own unconditional adaptation to the real goals of the rebelling masses, that is, the end of the war and the expropriation and distribution of the landed estates by the peasants. Already on his arrival in Russia in April, 1917, Lenin made clear that for him the existence of the soviets superseded the quest for a bourgeois-democratic regime. It was to be replaced by a republic of workers’ and peasants’ councils. Yet when Lenin demanded preparation for the coup d’etat, he spoke of the exercise of state power not by the soviets but by the Bolsheviks. Since the majority of the soviet delegates were Bolsheviks, or supported them, he took it for granted that the government formed by the soviets would be a Bolshevik government. And this was the case, of course, even though some left Social-Revolutionaries and left Socialists were given positions in the new government. But to continue the Bolshevik domination of the government, the workers and peasants would have to continue to elect Bolsheviks as their deputies in the soviets. For that there was no guarantee. Just as the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, once in the majority, found themselves in a minority position, so things could change again for the Bolsheviks. To retain power indefinitely meant to secure for the Bolshevik Party the monopoly of government.

However, just as Lenin equated soviet power with the power of the Bolshevik Parry, so he saw in the latter’s government monopoly only the realisation of the rule of the soviets. After all, there was only the choice between a parliamentary bourgeois state and capitalism and a workers’ and peasants’ government which would prevent the return of bourgeois rule. Considering themselves the vanguard of the proletariat, and the latter the vanguard of the ‘people’s revolution’, the Bolsheviks wished to do for the workers and peasants what they might fail to do for themselves. Unguarded, the soviets were quite capable of abdicating their power positions for the promises of the liberal bourgeoisie and their social-reformist allies. To secure the ‘socialist’ character of revolution demanded that the soviets remain Bolshevik soviets, even if this should require the suppression of all anti-Bolshevik forces within and outside the soviet system. In a short time, the soviet regime became the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party. The emasculated soviets were only formally retained to hide this fact.

Although the Bolsheviks won with the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’, the Bolshevik government reduced its content to that of ‘workers’ control’. Proceeding at first rather cautiously with its socialisation programme, the workers were not expected to administer but merely to oversee the industrial enterprises that were still in the hands of the capitalists. The first decree on workers’ control extended this control “over the production, storing, buying and selling of raw materials and finished products as well as over the finances of the enterprises. The workers exercise this control through their elected organisations, such as factory and shop committees, soviet elders, etc. The office employees and the technical personnel are also to have representation in these committees ... The organs of workers’ control have the right to supervise production ... Commercial secrets are abolished. The owners have to show to the organs of workers’ control all their books and statements for the current year and for the past years.”[5]

Capitalist production and workers’ control are incompatible, however, and this makeshift affair, whereby the Bolsheviks hoped to retain the aid of the capitalist organisers of production and yet to some extent satisfy the yearnings of the workers to take possession of industry as the peasants had done of the land, could not last very long. “We did not decree socialism all at once throughout the whole of industry,” Lenin explained a year after the decree-on workers’ control, “because socialism can take shape and become finally established only when the working class has learned to run the economy ... That is why we introduced workers’ control, knowing that it was a contradictory and partial measure. But we consider it most important and valuable that the workers have themselves tackled the job, that from workers’ controls, which in the principal industries was bound to be chaotic, amateurish and partial, we have passed to workers’ administration of industry on a nationwide scale.”[6]

But the change from ‘control’ to ‘administration’ turned out to entail the abolition of both. To be sure, just as the emasculation of the soviets required some time, for it required the formation and consolidation of the Bolshevik state apparatus, so the workers’ influence in factories and workshops was only gradually eliminated through methods such as shifting the controlling rights from the soviets to the trade unions, and then transforming the latter into agencies of the state controlling the workers instead. Economic collapse, civil war, peasant opposition to any socialisation of agriculture, industrial unrest and partial return to the market economy, led to various contradictory policies, from the ‘militarization’ of labour to its subordination to the revived free enterprises, in order to secure the Bolshevik government at all costs. The government’s dictatorial policies confronted not only its capitalist and political enemies but the workers as well. The basic need was a greater production and because mere exhortation could not induce the workers to exploit themselves to the same or greater extent that they had suffered in the old regime, the Bolshevik state took on the functions of a new ruling class to reconstruct industry and to accumulate capital.

Lenin perceived the Russian Revolution as an uninterrupted process leading from the bourgeois to the socialist revolution. He feared that the bourgeoisie proper would rather accept a compromise with Czarism than risk a thorough-going democratic revolution. It was, then, up to the workers and poor peasants to lead the impending revolution, a point of view shared by other observers of the Russian scene, such as Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. In the context of World War One, Lenin approached the Russian Revolution from an international point of view, envisioning the possibility of its westward extension, which might provide the opportunity to destroy Russian bourgeois rule at the very point of its inception. It was then essential to hang on to power; regardless of compromises and violation of principles which this might involve, until a Western revolution complemented the Russian Revolution and allowed for a form of international cooperation wherein Russia’s objective unreadiness for socialism would be a less weighty factor. The isolation of the Russian Revolution eliminated this perspective. To remain in power under the actually ensuing conditions meant to accept the historical role of the bourgeoisie but with different social institutions and a different ideology.

Of course, to hang on to power was already necessary if only to save the Bolsheviks’ own necks, for their overthrow would have meant their deaths. But aside from this, Lenin was convinced that the capitalisation of Russia under the auspices of the state was more ‘progressive’ and, therefore preferable to leaving her development to the liberal bourgeoisie. He was also convinced that his party could do the job. Russia, he once said, “was accustomed to being ruled by 150,000 landlords. Why can 240,000 Bolsheviks not take over the same task?” And so they did, by constructing a hierarchical authoritarian state and its extension into the economic sphere, insisting all the while that economic control by the state meant economic control by the proletariat. Just the same, the foundation of socialism, Lenin declared, “calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labours of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people... How can strict unity of will be assured? By thousands subordinating their wills to the will of one. Given ideal class-consciousness and discipline on the part of those taking part in the common work, this subordination would, be quite like the mild leadership of a conductor of an orchestra. It may assume the sharp form of a dictatorship, if ideal discipline and class-consciousness are lacking. But be that as it may, unquestioning subordination to, a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organised on the pattern of large-scale machine industry.”[7] If this statement is taken seriously, class-consciousness must have been totally lacking in Russia, for control of production and social life in general took on dictatorial forms exceeding anything experienced in capitalist nations and excluding any measure of workers’ control down to the present day.

All this does not alter the fact, however, that it was the soviets which overthrew both Czarism and the bourgeoisie. It is not inconceivable that under different internal and international conditions the soviets might have retained their power and prevented the rise of authoritarian state-capitalism. Not only in Russia, in Germany, too, the actual content of the revolution was not equal to its revolutionary form. But while in Russia it was mainly the general objective unreadiness for socialist transformation, in Germany it was the subjective unwillingness institute socialism by revolutionary means which largely accounted the failure of the council movement.

In Germany, opposition to the war expressed itself in industrial strikes, which, due to the patriotism of Social Democracy and the trade unions, had to be clandestinely organised at the workplace through committees of action that coordinated various enterprises. In 1918, workers’ and soldiers’ councils sprang up all over Germany and overthrew the government. The class-collaborationist labour organisations found themselves forced to recognise and enter this movement, if only dampen revolutionary aspirations. This was not difficult because workers’ and soldiers’ councils were composed not only of communists, but socialists, trade-unionists, non-politicals and even adherents of bourgeois parties. The slogan ‘All power to the workers’ councils’ was therefore self-defeating as far as the revolutionists were concerned, unless, of course, the character and composition of the councils should come to change.

However, the great mass of the workers mistook the political for a social revolution. The ideology and organisational strength of Social Democracy had left its mark; the socialisation of production was seen as a governmental concern, not as the task of the working class itself. Though rebellious, the workers in the main were such only in a social democratic reformist sense. ‘All power to the workers’ councils implied the dictatorship of the proletariat, for it would leave the non-working layers of society without political representation. Democracy, however, was understood as general franchise. The mass of workers desired both workers’ councils and the National Assembly. They got them both: the councils in a meaningless form as part of the Weimar Constitution – but with it also the counter-revolution, and, finally, the Nazi dictatorship.

It was not different in other nations – Italy, Hungary and Spain, for example, where workers gave expression to their revolutionary inclinations through the formation of workers’ councils. It thus became obvious that workers’ self-organisation is no guarantee against policies and actions contrary to proletarian class interests. In that case, however, they will be superseded by traditional or new forms of control of working class behaviour by the old or newly-established authorities. Unless spontaneous movements, issuing into organisational forms of proletarian self-determination, usurp control over society and therewith over their own lives, they are bound to disappear again into the anonymity of mere potentiality.


All that has been said relates to the past and seems to be without.” relevance to either the present or the near future. As far as the Western world is concerned, not even that feeble world-revolutionary wave released by World War One and the Russian Revolution was repeated during the course of World War Two. Instead, and after some initial difficulties, the Western bourgeoisie finds itself in full command over its society. It boasts of an economy of high employment, economic growth and social stability which excludes both the compulsion and the inclination for social change. Admittedly, this is an overall picture, still marred by some as-yet-unresolved problems, as evidenced by the prevalence of pauperised social groups in all capitalist nations. It is expected, however, that these blemishes will be eradicated in time.

It is not surprising then that the apparent stabilisation and further expansion of Western capitalism after World War Two led not only to the demise of genuine working class radicalism but also to the transformation of the reformist social-democratic ideology and practice into the ideology and practice of the mixed economy’s welfare-state. This event is either celebrated or bewailed as the integration of labour and capital and the emergence of a new, crises-free socio-economic system, combining in itself the positive sides of both capitalism and socialism while shedding their negative aspects. This is often referred to as a post-capitalist system in which the capital-labour antagonism has lost its former relevance. There is still room for all kinds of changes within the system, but it is no longer thought to be susceptible to social revolution. History, as the history of class struggles, has seemingly come to an end.

What is surprising are the various attempts which are still being made to accommodate the idea of socialism to this new State of affairs. It is expected that socialism in the traditional concept can still be reached despite the prevalence of conditions which make its appearance superfluous. Opposition to capitalism having lost its base in the exploitative material production relations, finds a new one in the moral and philosophical sphere concerned with the dignity of man and the character of his work. Poverty, it is said[8], never was and cannot be an element of revolution. And even if it were, this would no longer be true because poverty has become a marginal issue, for, by-and-large, capitalism is now in a position to satisfy the consumption needs of the labouring population. While it may still be necessary to fight for immediate demands, such struggles no longer bring the entire order into radical question. In the fight for socialism more stress must be laid upon the qualitative rather than the quantitative needs of the workers. What is required is the progressive conquest of power by the workers through ‘non-reformist reforms’.

Workers’ control of production is seen as such a ‘non-reformist reform’ precisely because it cannot be established in capitalism. But if this is so, then the fight for workers’ control is equivalent to the overthrow of the capitalist system and the question remains how to bring this about when there are no pressing needs to do so. There is also the question of the organisational means to be employed to this end. The integration of existing labour organisations into the capitalist structure has been possible because capitalism was able to provide the majority of the working class with improving living conditions, and if this trend were to continue there is no reason not to assume that the class struggle will cease being a determinant of social development. In that case – man being the product of his circumstances – the working class will not develop a revolutionary consciousness, will not be interested in risking its present relative well-being for the uncertainties of a proletarian revolution. It was not for nothing that Marx’s theory of revolution based itself on the increasing misery of the working class, even though this misery was not to be measured solely by fluctuating wage-scale of the labour market.

Workers’ control of production presupposes a social revolution cannot gradually be achieved through working class actions within capitalist system. Where it has been introduced as a measure of reform, it turned out to be an additional means of controlling the workers via their own organisations. The legal work councils in the wake of the German Revolution, for instance, were mere appendices of trade union and operated within their restricted activities. Although attempts were made to substitute councils for trade unions the latter were able, with the aid of the employers and the state, to assert their control over shop committees. This relationship did not change with the rebirth of the council system after World War Two, then implemented by a so-called co-determination law, which was to give labour a voice decision-making with regard to production and investments. But the spirit of all this labour legislation may be surmised from Article 49 of the German Works Constitution of 1952: “Within the framework of applicable collective agreements, employer and works council collaborate in good faith, working together with the trade union employer associations represented in the enterprise, for the good of the enterprise and of its employees and under consideration of the common welfare. Employer and works council must not do anything which might endanger the work and the peace of the enterprise. In particular, employer and works council must not carry out any measures of labour struggle against each other. This does not affect the labour struggle parties entitled to conclude collective agreements.”[9]

Co-determination did not and does not affect the employer’s sole determination over his property, i.e. his enterprise and production. What it was meant to imply was the right of workers’ representatives make suggestions to management – in theory, even regarding the use of profits. But suggestions need not be accepted and, actually, there is no evidence that suggestions running against capitalist interests were heeded by management. To be meaningful, co-determination would have to be co-ownership, but that would be the end of the wage system. Co-determination itself merely allows for the usual activities carried by trade unions, such as wage agreements, plant regulations, and grievance procedures by which industrial peace is maintained.

What has been said about workers’ control in Germany, can repeated, with some unimportant modifications, for any other capitalist nation which legalised shop stewards, works committees and similar forms of workers’ representation within the industrial enterprises. These measures do not point to an unfolding industrial democracy but are designed to safeguard existing production relations and reduce their immanent frictions. They are not a way toward but away from social hinge. But even social revolutions may not lead to workers’ control when workers fall to secure their hold over the means of production and relegate their power to governments as the sole organisers of the social transformation process. This was the case in Russia and, with some modifications, it became the model for the East European ‘socialist states’ which emerged as a consequence of World War Two. Yugoslavia, however, seems to be an exception, for there it was the government which offered the workers’ councils managerial functions rid a measure of control over their production.

Although the Yugoslav Communist government remains the ultimate source of all power, after its break with Russia it decided on a policy of economic decentralisation by a return to market relations and the on sequent autonomy of individual enterprises under the control of workers’ councils. The latter took on competitive entrepreneurial and managerial functions within the framework of a state-determined general developmental plan. Within definite limits set by the government, the councils and managing boards elected by them, make decisions regarding the regulation of work, production plans, wage schedules, sails and purchases, the budget, credit, investments and so forth. A rector, appointed by a mixed commission of workers’ councils and local governments, presides over each enterprise, managing its everyday activities with respect to workers’ discipline, hiring and firing, job assignments and the like. He has the right to veto decisions made by he workers’ councils should they conflict with state regulations.

Government regulations of a rather complicated nature circumscribe the self regulatory powers of the workers’ councils. They are partly introduced by government decree and partly by local authorities in conjunction with the workers’ councils. A system of taxation determines hat part of the individual enterprise’s income over which it may itself dispose and therewith its range of decision-making as regards investments and wages. Profits are siphoned off by government to cover its own expenses and to invest in government enterprises. The government determines the general rate of increase of personal incomes, but, while demanding adherence to a minimum wage, it allows for incentive-wages and bonuses to increase the productivity of labour. The social security system diminishes the workers’ gross income by more than half. Investments or disinvestments are determined by the profitability principle and are steered in the desired direction by price, interest and credit policies. In brief, in so far as possible under these conditions, overall control of the economy remains in the hands of the government despite the limited self-control on the part of the workers’ councils. While the latter cannot affect the decisions of government, the government sets the conditions within which the councils operate.

What is far more important than the relationship between councils and government, however, is the objective impossibility of establishing genuine workers’ control of production and distribution within the market economy. It comes up against the same dilemma which harassed the early cooperative movement, even though, in distinction to the latter, it cannot be destroyed by private capital competition if the government decides otherwise. “The workers forming a cooperative the field of production,” wrote Rosa Luxemburg, “are faced with contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production cooperatives, which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.”[10] Operating in a competitive market economy, the Yugoslav workers have to exploit themselves as if they were exploited by capitalists. While this may be more palatable, it does change the fact of their subordination to economic processes beyond their control. Profit production and capital accumulation control behaviour and perpetuate the misery and insecurity bound up with it. Yugoslav wages are among the lowest in Europe; they can increase only as long as capital increases faster than wages. The measure of control granted the workers’ councils promotes anti-social attitudes because fewer workers have to yield larger profits in order to raise the income of those employed. Workers are unemployed because their employ would not be profitable, i.e. yield a surplus above their own reproduction costs. They roam all over capitalist Europe in search for the work and payments denied them in their own ‘market-socialism’ integration of the national into the capitalist world market subjects working class not only to self-exploitation and to that of a new class, but to the exploitation of world capitalism by way of trade relations and foreign capital investments. To speak of workers’ control under these conditions is sheer mockery.

While there cannot be socialism without workers’ control, neither can there be real workers’ control without socialism. To assert that gradual increase of workers’ control in capitalism is an actual possibility merely plays into the hands of the widespread demagoguery of the ruling classes to hide their absolute class-rule by false social reforms dressed in terms such as co-management, participation or determination. Workers’ control excludes class-collaboration; it cannot partake in but instead abolishes the system of capital production. Neither socialism nor workers’ control has anywhere become a reality. State-capitalism and market-socialism, or the combination of both, still find the working class in the position of wage workers without effective control over their production and its distribution. Their social position does not differ from that of workers in the mixed or unmixed capitalist economy. Everywhere, the struggle for working class emancipation has still to begin and will not end short of the socialisation of production and the abolition of classes through the elimination of wage labour.

It can hardly be expected, however, that a working class, satisfied with the social status quo, will engage in power struggles in preference to wage struggles for higher incomes within the prevailing system. Although improvements in proletarian living conditions in advanced capitalist nations are highly exaggerated, they have nevertheless been sufficient to extinguish working class radicalism. Even though the ‘value’ of labour power must always be smaller than the ‘value’ of the products it creates, the ‘value’ of labour-power may imply different living conditions. It may be expressed in a twelve- or a six-hour day, in good or in bad housing, in more or less consumption goods. At any particular time, however, the given wages and their buying power determine the conditions of the labouring population as well as their complaints and aspirations. Improved conditions become the customary conditions, and continued acquiescence of the workers requires the maintenance of these conditions. Should they deteriorate, it will arouse working class opposition in the same way that deterioration of less-fluent conditions did previously. It is then only on the assumption at prevailing living standards can be secured and perhaps improved at the social consensus may be maintained.

Though apparently supported by recent experiences, this assumption not warranted. But to assert its lack of validity on theoretical grounds[11] will not affect a social practice based on the illusion of its permanency. There are indications, however, that the capitalist crises mechanism is reasserting itself despite various modifications of the capitalist system. In view of America’s persistent economic stagnation and the levelling-off of West European expansion, a new disillusionment has already set in. With the diminishing potency of government-induced production, the capitalist need to secure its profitability regardless of the ensuing social instability increases. The new economic innovations reveal themselves as being capable of postponing, but not of overcoming, capitalism’s built-in crisis-mechanism. This being so, it is only reasonable to assume that when the hidden crisis becomes acute; when the pseudo-prosperity leads to real depression, the social consensus of recent history will make room for a resurgent revolutionary consciousness – the more so as the growing irrationality of the system becomes obvious even to social layers that still benefit by its existence. Apart from pre-revolutionary conditions existing in almost all under developed nations, and apart from the seemingly limited, yet unceasing wars, waged in different parts of the world, a general unrest underlies and undermines the apparent social tranquillity of the Western world. From time to time there is a breaking out into the open as in the recent upheavals in France. If this is possible under relatively stable condition it is certainly possible under general crisis conditions.

The integration of traditional labour organisations into the capitalist system is an asset to the latter only so long as it is able to underwrite the promised and actual benefits of class collaboration. When these organisations are forced by circumstances to become instruments of repression, they lose the confidence of the workers and therewith the value to the bourgeoisie. Even if not destroyed, they may be overruled by independent working class actions. There is not only the historic evidence that lack of working class organisations does not prevent organised revolution, as in Russia, but also that the existence of a wet entrenched reformist labour movement can be challenged by new working class organisations, as in the Germany of 1918, and by the shop steward movement in England during and after the First Won War. Even under totalitarian regimes, spontaneous movements may lead to working class actions that find expression in the formation of the workers’ councils as in Poland and in the Hungary of 1956.

Reforms presuppose a reformable capitalism. So long as it has this character, the revolutionary nature of the working class exists only latent form. It will even cease being conscious of its class position and identify its aspirations with those of the ruling classes. But when capitalism is forced by its own development to recreate the conditions which lead to the formation of class consciousness, it will also bring back the revolutionary demand for workers’ control as a demand for socialism. It is true that all previous attempts in this direction have failed, and that new ones may fail again. Still, it is only through the experiences of self-determination, in whatever limited ways at first, that the working class will be enabled to develop toward its own emancipation.


1. Théorie des lois civiles, ou Principes fondamentaux de la société, pages 274, 464, 470.

2. G. Sorel Reflections on Violence, 1906.

3. Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World.

4. Russland in der Revolution, Dresden, 1909, pp.82, 228.

5. J Bunyan and ll.H. Fisher, The Bolshevik Revolution, Stanford, 1934. p.308.

6. V. L. Lenin, Questions of the Socialist Organisation of the Economy, Moscow, 173

7. Ibid p. 127.

8. By André Gorz, for example, in his Strategy for Labor, Boston, 1964.

9. Quoted in A. Sturmthal, Workers’ Councils, Cambridge, 1964, p.74.

10. R. Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution.

11. See: P. Mattick, Marx and Keynes, The Limits of the Mixed Economy.