Peter Sedgwick

The Fight for Workers’ Control

(Winter 1960/61)

Peter Sedgwick, The Fight for Workers’ Control, International Socialism (1st series), No.3, Winter 1960-61, p.18-25.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Peter Sedgwick works as an educational psychologist in Liverpool. He was the co-author of The Insiders, wrote A Dialectical Materialist’s Love Song and The Politics of Family Planning. He contributes to Clarion, New Left Review, and frequently to Socialist Review. He is currently translating the autobiography of Victor Serge, the Belgian-Russian novelist, poet, historian and Left Oppositionist.

Note on vocabulary: The term ‘Workers’ Control’ as used in the following article has the sense defined in Branko Pribcevic’s recent book on the subject; ‘the replacement of the capitalist industrial system by a new industrial order in which the industries of the country will be controlled (partly or completely) by associations of the workers employed in those industries.’

Other terms relating to the same issue have, on the whole, not been used. For example, ‘workers participation’ in management, as propagated in the Communist party’s publications, is an altogether vague demand: it seems to cover the promotion of particular workers to leading positions in nationalized boards without saying anything about the role of workshop organisation in management. ‘Workers management’ is a more attractive formulation; but it sometimes contains the implication that, in some future system of socialist production, the workers and the managers of industry will be the same people, and hence that the managers will not need controlling by the workers, at least to any great extent. The concept of ‘worker’ control’ seems to me to steer admirably between the promotion-ladder reformism of ‘participation’ and the naive hopes of ‘workers management’. It is also an idea which has played a healthy and even magnificent role in the traditions of British and international labour, and as such will be used extensively and unashamedly.

Centralization of decision-making is, to a certain degree inseparable from the organization of any kind of collective labour. In particular, large-scale and complex production requires as part of the specialization of labour, some kind of practical division as between ‘management’ and ‘workers’. However, as Marx emphasized in Capital III, exploiting and antagonistic system of productive relations exaggerate, distort and sharpen these centralising tendencies. ‘The greater this antagonism, the more important is the role played by superintendence. Hence it reaches its maximum in a slave system. But it is indispensable also under the capitalist mode of production, since the process of production is at the same time the process whereby the capitalist consumes the labour-power of the worker.’ The worker, consequently, experiences the regime within his factory as a despotism, benevolent at best, oppressive at worst. The doctrines of ‘consultation’ and ‘non-authoritarian management’ have made no essential difference to this experience.

Such precepts of ‘enlightened’ management are in any case more common on the lips of the Human Relations text-book-writer than in the practice of the actual manipulator of such relations, be he Personal Manager or foreman. In its extremest form, ‘industrial partnership’ à la John Spedan Lewis bears a significant resemblance to its racial counterpart à la Sir Roy Welensky; trade union organization among Africans in the Rhodesian copperbelt and among shop-assistants in the Lewis combine is likely to encounter all too similar obstacles.

Even in its more dilute applications, the employer’s ‘philosophy of the round table’ tends to work out primarily as a means whereby the bourgeois King Arthur assisted by the Merlin-like incantations of the Industrial Relations advisor, seeks to cajole the lesser Knights of Labour into such doughty feats as deciding who is to be ‘first out’ in a period of redundancy. In the words of J.T. Murphy’s pamphlet of 1918, Compromise or Independence ‘such methods force workers to undertake responsibility for the development of property which they do not own, and become part of an organisation which is pledged to prevent them from ever owning it’.

Among the more politically conscious of the workers who react against the despotism of the factory, the slogan of ‘workers control’ has a special place. For this far-seeing minority, industrial struggle is not a means of gaining this or that wage increase, reduction in hours or other improvement or of resisting a particular act of victimisation or speed-up. The organisation of the workers, the preservation and prosecution of their demands, the resort, where necessary, to the strike-weapon, are all techniques which have the long-term objective of depriving the boss of his rights and powers to determine the conditions of employment. It is difficult to draw hard-and-fast conclusions from the tangled mass of strike statistics; yet it seems true that, as compared with before the war, there has been a considerable increase in the number of strikes concerned with working arrangements, rules and discipline, and a proportionate decline in the percentage arising from wage demands. (Of course, by far the greatest number of working days lost annually in strikes is taken up by one or two official national disputes concerned with wage questions.) This increase in the number of strikes not attributable to ‘money-wage militancy’ is symptomatic of a tendency for workers to revolt against the conditions of work in the shop, that is, to interfere with that holy of holies of capitalism, the so-called prerogatives of management. [1] This is not to say that most workers involved in such disputes would say outright that they were on strike for workers’ control. However, in addition to the more conscious workers, a good many employers realize what the argument is fundamentally about; hence the denunciation of the shop–steward that has become such a monotonous feature of business propaganda.

The demand for workers’ control functions as an intermittent, unofficial, semi-utopian slogan, current among stewards, Trades Council delegates, and branch and district activists. It has virtually no existence in official trade-union Conference statements, and has not been brought to bear in the recent union revolt against the ‘revision’ of Clause Four. The Clause Four Campaign Committee [2] has avoided propagating the demand. official long term policy documents like the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions’ Plan for Engineering and the National Federation Building Trades Operatives’ plan for the building industry contain no hint of any interest in the devolution of power in industry to the workers. In 1952 the Trades Union Congress asked the general Council ‘to formulate general proposals for the democratization of the nationalized industries’. However, the 1957 Labour Party documents on public ownership, Public Enterprise and Industry and Society, were void, of any pre-occupation with the problem of industrial democracy, and were passed overwhelming at Conference with the acquiescence of most of the big block-vote battalions. Part of the explanation may be the suspicion of the shop-steward common among many top-level union officials; it would be extraordinary if such bureaucrats could combine their repugnance to local, rank-and-file initiative in the present, with an avid yearning to see such initiative vested with constitutional authority in a future society of workers’ control. Such considerations may go far to explain the long-run politics of a Carron or a Deakin. Many unions, however, are capable of taking a militant stand on the future of public ownership, with the agreement and even under the leadership of their leading officials (Cousins being the most obvious example), and yet display an extraordinary complacency when it comes to considering the structure of power, vis-a-vis State management and workers, in the industries whose nationalization they press for.

This discrepancy cannot be explained except by reference to the whole political tradition of the Left in Britain. Within the mainstream of British socialism since 1900, the slogan of workers’ control has flowed torrentially but briefly: for just over a decade, from 1910 to 1922, its source in mass experience was enriched by the influx of multitudinous ideas, issues and struggles; during this phase the stream of rank-and-file activity burst out and submerged the bounds between ‘industrial’ and ‘political’, ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ territory. The tributary became a notable river; but with the drying of the source of struggle, the dissipation of the current into sectarian rivulets, and time’s slow silting of the watercourse, nothing remains of the torrent. Nothing, that is, except a few annual resolutions and constitutional preambles (particularly in the National Union of Railwaymen and the Union of Post Office Workers), high-water marks persisting from a long-past flood; and except for some bottled samples of the dead flow, analysed painstakingly and labelled with care, the Guild Socialist library, the Independent Labour Party pamphlet, the article in Freedom. [3] We have the brave resolution and the detailed blue-print; but the movement, where is it?

The history of the hey-day of workers’ control, as well as of its decline, has been excellently chronicled by Branko Pribicevic, a Yugoslav student of labour history who worked at Oxford under the supervision of G.D.H. Cole. The section of his study dealing with the shop stewards’ movement in the engineering industry was published last year. [4] The rest of the thesis, unpublished as yet, describes the progress of the demand for workers’ control among miners and railwaymen. All socialists who are interested in workers’ control (and there should be no socialists who are not so interested) should read and study Pribicevic’s book. It contains material which is indispensible for anyone who is concerned to discover how the movement originated and why it collapsed.

The conditions of the success and failure of the movement as outlined by Pribicevic are of two kinds: one describable under the headings ‘objective’, ‘environmental’ and ‘practical’, and the other classifiable as ‘subjective’, ‘ideological’ and ‘theoretical’. The demand for shop-floor control in the factory gained strength from 1910 onwards because of the impact of certain economic and political conditions which affected the lives of ordinary workers in a particularly critical manner; and also because the theoretical climate in the labour movement was such that a stable rank-and-file leadership could emerge with convincing answers, both transitional and ultimate, to the real-life problems that beset the working class of the time. From 1920 the movement declined and then speedily vanished, because both the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’ conditions had changed. The pressures of unemployment and the employers’ offensive combined to force the workers back to struggling for bread rather than for power. Union membership dropped and the experimental Building and Engineering Guilds, managed throughout by workers, disintegrated in the general ruin of the market. The Russian Revolution and the political challenge of the capitalist state pushed very many of the propagandists for workers’ control into a preoccupation with national politics, at the expense of their agitation for ‘face-to-face’, shop-floor democracy.

The study of labour history is not to be undertaken out of nostalgia. The bare bones that have been flung at the reader so far should serve to whet his appetite for meatier questions. For example, are social conditions favourable to the generation of widespread explicit demands for workers’ control likely to emerge within our political lifetime? If they do emerge, have we any grounds for supposing that they will not be replaced by other conditions which demoralize the working class and shatter its organizations? Then too, can we evolve a theoretical approach to the problem of workers’ control that will harbour none of the weaknesses and gaps of the old propaganda? This does not mean planning out a ‘blue-print’ for the control of a factory by its workers, complete with flow-charts of power and lists of sub-committees. There are plenty of these around already, and, in the absence of any live activity to implement them, they have a very limited value.

‘Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative at that ... This is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties. The socialist system of society should be, can only be, an historic product, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history ...’ [5]

It seems that some of the ‘main signposts’ of socialism have been pointing into blind alleys. This will become evident when we examine the various theoretical trends that arose in relation to the concept of workers’ control: Syndicalism, Guild Socialism, and their antagonist ‘State Socialism’ in its various masks. It is important for socialists to analyse past theoretical deficiencies so that future action will not be impeded, hoodwinked or outstrpped through the formulation of inadequate or immature principles.

Pribicevic shows how massive industrial unrest in the years before and during the First World War led to a deep concern among rank-and-file miners, railwaymen, and engineers that the capitalist industrial system must not be allowed to go on. The 1911 railway strike and its smashing by the Government produced a climate favourable to the agitation of the Syndicalist Railwayman. In one railway union after another, unofficial propaganda conducted largely through local ‘vigilance committees’ was successful by 1917 in swinging official policy behind the demand for nationalization with either complete control by the workers or ‘joint control’ shared between the state and the unions. A similar transition from unofficial campaigning to official policy took place in the Miners’ Federation. The South Wales Reform Committes’s pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step (1912) actually argues that the demand for nationalization was bureaucratic and tantamount to an employers’ manoeuvre: control of the industry by the miners’ union, to be achieved by an aggressive industrial policy which would force the bosses out, was the recommended alternative. This demand encountered great resistance among the leadership of the Federation and it was not until 1918, when miners had felt the effects of State control of the industry in war-time, that the official union program was changed from simple nationalization to nationalization with ‘joint control’. A detailed scheme for this form of administration, ‘the most important document produced by the British workers in their struggle for workers’ control’, was presented by the Federation to the government-appointed Sankey commission in 1919 without, however, any eventual effect upon the form of public ownership which was adopted for the mining industry by the postwar Labour Government.

The story of the struggle for workers’ control in the engineering industry is given in rich and fascinating detail by Pribicevic, and it is impossible in the space of this article to do more than hint at the main outlines. With the advent of the First World War, engineering assumed a crucial position in the national economy. Government demands for the ‘dilution’ of the industry’s rigid craft standards (by the introduction of semi-skilled or unskilled labour to perform traditional skills) forced the workers to rely on local bargaining in order to protect their interests. Power thus necessarily devolved from the national executives of the many engineering unions to the shop stewards, integrated for practical purposes in workshop committees, each with its convener. The unions at national level made rather unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Government and employers to accept a form of ‘joint consultation’ in the munitions factories, merely in order to protect the threatened craft barriers. Despite the presence in these negotiations of G.D.H. Cole, as special adviser to the Associated Society of Engineers, the unions did not see these proposals as in any sense transitional to workers’ control of the industry. During the war, agitation for workers’ control was conducted almost entirely on an unofficial, local level, largely (though not wholly) through the workshop representatives. The Amalgamation Committees, led by Tom Mann and W.F. Watson among others, conducted widespread and effective propaganda for the amalgamation of existing unions into one Industrial Union. This demand was placed within a context of a class-struggle policy of ‘Solidarity and Direct Action’, with the aim not only of fighting for day-to-day improvements, but of challenging the existing social system, and of taking over the complete control and ownership of the whole national economy. The Industrial Union was to be, as well as the organ of effective struggle against capitalism, the organ of direct administration in the future workers’ society. The Amalgamation Committee movement had a vigorous and fairly prolonged existence, from 1910 in the Federation of Amalgamation Committees and the Industrial Democracy League (1913), through a brief eclipse at the outbreak of war, then with an explosive revival in a series of successful National Rank and File Conferences (1915 and 1917), until the movement merged in 1918 with the Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committee Movement (SS&WCM) – of which more anon. The ideological basis of the Amalgamation movement veered from its pre-war syndicalism (under Mann’s influence), when amalgamation was seen as a goal to be pressed for within and upon the existing unions, to Watson’s outright Industrial Unionist (or IWW) position of aggressive liquidationist ultimatums to the ASE and final attempts to form a breakaway Union. These tactics were frowned on by the shop stewards’ movement which was able to appeal to the Amalgamation Conferences to reject the breakaway policy and fuse with the SS&WCM on a more realistic program.

The Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement began with the formation of the Clyde Workers’ Committee after the engineering strike on the Clyde in 1915. Speakers from the Committee toured the country in response to numerous requests, and during the war years Workers’ Committees, composed of shop-stewards from the different engineering works in each locality (plus) in the case of the Clyde Committee, sympathizers from outside the factories like John Maclean) were formed in almost every engineering centre. Eventually, from 1917 onwards, despite a negative attitude to any form of ‘leadership’, national conferences were held, assembling the different Committees – those from Sheffield, the Clyde, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Elswick being the most important. These Conferences failed to co-ordinate strike action (since the delegates did not feel themselves empowered to take decisions for solidarity strikes in the absence of a mandate from their rank-and-file), but carried resolutions on the major issues affecting the engineering industry. For example, the Whitley Reports, which proposed Joint Councils between employers and workers, were rejected by the Conference of December 1917, and independent Workers’ Committees were advocated as an alternative.

The Clyde Workers’ Committee, in the years before the establishment of the national movement, attempted to offer a policy of workers’ control as an immediate answer to the problem of dilution in the local shipyards and factories. The form of control advocated was government ownership, with responsibility for management shared equally between the state and the workers. Representatives of the Committee actually met Lloyd George in December 1915, and confronted him with this demand as the price of dilution. The Government, not surprisingly, proved unwilling to assist in the expropriation of the employing class, and forced dilution on the Clyde with an arbitration clause over-riding the powers of the shop committees. Of the leading shop stewards, Kirkwood capitulated, and the others, after a variety of tactics ranging from further negotiation to an unsuccessful strike, were deported from the area in 1916. The deported leaders then concentrated on building up the national movement. The SS&WCM did not attempt to ask for workers’ control as an immediate gift from the capitalist State, but confined itself to propaganda for the demand, and to attempting to establish a network of workshop organizations that would encroach upon and eventually oust the private employers. After the war, however, the unions regained their powers of bargaining at a national and district level, so that, except in Scotland, the functions of the local Workers’ Committees were curtailed. The shop stewards were given official recognition, but limited powers. The SS&WCM thus became, in the main, a propagandist body, composed of individual militants who conducted educational activity for workers’ control through journals, pamphlets and conferences. The lessons instilled by the Government’s attitude during the war, and by the success of the Russian Revolution, transferred the preoccupations of these workers from the purely industrial to the political arena. Mann, J.T. Murphy, Gallagher, J.R. Campbell and other leaders were now drawn to an increasing participation in the movement to set up a British affiliate to the Communist International. The idea of workers’ control speedily took second place to the seizure of State power by the vanguard party of the working class. In 1922 the SS&WCM dissolved itself into the shadows of the British Section of the Red International of Labour Unions.

Of the lasting effects of the Shop Stewards’ and Amalgamation Committee movement, Pribicevic writes:

‘First, it made an important contribution to the official amalgamation of the engineering unions in 1920. It created a spirit of unity in the industry which overcame the deep-seated craft prejudices and sectional exclusiveness. Second, and perhaps more important, it helped to win for the workshop organization a permanent place in the trade union structure. The great impact of the SS&WCM on the whole labour movement was largely responsible for the general acceptance of workshop organization as a permanent institution. Official recognition cost it a good deal of its powers, but this was compensated for by the stability which recognition gave it’. [7]

Such, all too sketchily, is the outline of the story. Let us now attempt to analyse the record with a view to formulating some guiding principles for the future. First of all, it appears that a movement for workers’ control is far more than a reflex to economic misery. The harsh winds of the early twenties eroded the gains in working-class consciousness that accompanied the rise of the Amalgamation Committee and Shop Steward movement. One reason for the present decline of the slogan of control is probably to be found in the formation of a whole generation’s consciousness in the consequences of the 1929-39 slump. During this period the burden of industrial militancy inevitably fell on the unemployed: Socialism, as desired by the advanced elements of these workers and formulated by theoreticians such as Strachey, was predominantly a system whereby nationalization combined with planning would secure work for all; not essentially a system where real power would be devolved to the workshop floor. No doubt the theoretical degeneracy of Stalinist state-centralism, and of the model of planning offered in the Soviet Five-Year Plans, has much to do with this failure; but there are real obstacles to the propagation of an ideal of workers’ control in a period when the main concern of the labour movement is bound to be with work as such, rather than with the conditions of work. It is true that the munitions boom during the Second World War might have offered fertile ground for agitation on similar lines to that of the old SS&WCM. Factory organization was indeed greatly strengthened during the war. However, there was nobody around on the industrial scene to fan the flames of discontent in that particular way. The employers, the TUC and the Communist Party united to weld the Joint Production Committees into instruments of class-collaboration. Of the dissenting forces during the war, Tribune had (as now) no systematic industrial approach, the Commonwealth Party was mainly oriented to Parliament and national politics (besides – or perhaps therefore – being rather middle-class), and the Trotskyists were interested in revolutionary defeatism on the political level, and strikes more or less simply as strikes, without any attempt to develop the use of Joint Committees as ‘encroaching’ organs of confrontation and struggle between employers and workers.

This assessment probably contains a good deal of facile hindsight, but somebody should try to begin answering the question: why didn’t the Second World War start any movement for workers’ control as the First one did? Much of the answer, I think, lies in the ‘subjective’ or ideological inadequacies of the whole left, which has, in the course of evolving from the naive vision of the Guild Socialists, Syndicalists and ‘Wobblies’, forgotten some of the more valuable elements of that vision: in particular, the picture of workshop organization as transitional to forms of the Socialist society, and the practice of increasingly insatiable demands for the control of industrial conditions.

What of the present day? There are numerous features of the industrial scene which may arouse some confidence in the possible success of a properly conducted campaign for workers’ control. In the first place, we are no longer subject to such violent fluctuations of the capitalist trade-cycle. Those socialists who would wish it otherwise are quite wrong. Nostalgia for the slump, as well as being a disgusting attitude in its element of yearning for mass social misery, is also wildly impractical. The relatively mild fits of stagnation and recession which nowadays beset our economy at least do not demoralize millions. If we can get a movement for workers’ control really moving, its progress may not be as spectacular as that of the old campaign, but it may at least be more stable over a number of years.

Secondly, we have nationalized industries. Propaganda for democratic control conducted among the workers of this sector will not fall on deaf ears. The Railway Review’s poll of railwaymen some years back was most instructive: practically 100 percent supported nationalization, but 73 percent found that they had no say in running the industry (as opposed to 14 percent who thought they had some say), and 96,9 percent thought they should be consulted before changed working methods were introduced. Only 10 percent found their jobs more encouraging since nationalization, the other 90 percent being about equally divided between those who found the job more frustrating and those who felt it was about the same. Similar data, less statistical but more linguistically pungent, have been gathered by many observers in contact with other workers in the ‘public sector’, particularly miners.

Thirdly, there are a good many trade unions whose structure and outlook cries out for a reform movement similar to the Amalgamation Committees: that is, a movement demanding both recognition of representative bodies based on the place of work, and an end to craft barriers through the formation of industrial unions. The first of these demands would apply, for instance, to the National Union of Seamen: the recent seamen’s strike was outstanding in the pressure brought to bear on the officials to recognize ship committees and sea-going union representatives. The second demand would be particularly appropriate for unions in industries where working-class organization is demarcated by trade, and where solidarity is undermined by craft loyalties and assembly-line sectionalism: the ship-building and motor-car industries, for instance. The connection between this kind of union reform and the demand for workers’ control is necessarily less direct than in the days of Syndicalism. For Syndicalists and Industrial Unionists, union reform and social revolution went together, for the new Industrial Union was also to be the organ of workers’ control. A particular union structure, fashioned and empowered in the course of the class-struggle, was not only necessary for the attainment of working-class power: it was also sufficient for that purpose, since it was ‘the organ of the new society formed within the shell of the old’. Nowadays we should rightly regard the creation of industrial unions, devolving power to the workshop representatives, as insufficient, by itself, for the Socialist revolution. But we would be wise to regard a movement towards such an end as a necessary component of Socialism. The society of workers’ control will not be built out of the decisions of national executives, nor out of demarcation disputes, however militantly conducted. Further, any struggle for union reform is an indispensable part of the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society as a whole. Workers who are prepared to tolerate expense-account frolics and vote-fiddling from their own leaders are hardly likely to be roused to battle against the inequalities and irresponsibilities engendered by the capitalist mode of production. Workers’ control of the trade union movement is an essential preliminary to workers’ control of industry.

There are, then, at least some grounds for supposing that workers’ control can be popularized with at least more success than has been the case hitherto. The people among whom and by whom the demand has to be circulated are, of course, largely the shop stewards; and the shop steward system has suffered less than any other element of the labour movement, from the demoralization, ageing and absenteeism that has eaten into the body-politic of the working class since betrayal and the telly joined forces. Industrial action is one form of dissent whose frequency is increasing, and which has not been absorbed within the system as a licensed safety-valve. (Just compare the attitude to strikes implied in I’m All Right Jack and The Angry Silence with the American assumption of permanent reformism that can set a strike as a background for musical comedy as in The Pajama Game, or for cops and robbers as in The Garment Jungle.) The tragedy is that there are so few connections in post-war working class experience between militancy on the job and broader attitudes towards the social system. It is quite likely that over the next few years the strike figures and the Tory vote will both go up. Coventry should be a warning; and the recent apprentices’ and seamen’s strikes both contained ‘anti-political’ features that may mark a break with the past traditions of Labour.

Propaganda for workers’ control, attuned to the actual problems of workers in different industries, may form nearly the only possible connection between job-militancy and political wisdom. Such an estimate may sound alarmist, but the possibility of its truth should not be dismissed out of hand.

We must now turn to the theoretical problems which will have to be considered within any future movement for workers’ control. The chief ideological obstacle to any thorough-going acceptance of the demand in the Labour movement is that ‘workers’ control’ is one of the easiest concepts to pay lip-service to. Gaitskell, Ramsey MacDonald, Attlee, and JH Thomas have all enthused over the ideal or proposed a long range blueprint for its infinitely-distant realization. (The relevant quotations are gathered in Clive Jenkins’ section of The Insiders and in Royden Harrison’s article in NLR4.) Agitation for workers’ control can be rather like boxing with a statue of blancmange: the opponent yields so readily to the blow that one’s fist may be trapped inside the mess of gooey assent. The same is true even of the audience of the broad Left. The demand (particularly in a diluted or distorted form) is too often conceded as an afterthought or optional extra to the general Socialist programe, not as integrated into the very meaning of Socialism and the full vision of the Co-operative Commonwealth.

This failure is partly the responsibility of Marxist theoreticians. Marx remarked in passing (in the passage cited at the beginning of this article) that ‘in the co-operative factory, the antagonistic character of the labour of superintendence disappears, since the manager is paid by the labourers instead of representing capital against them.’ It was not Marx’s habit to elaborate the patterns of power obtaining in the New Jerusalem: and where such elaboration became necessary, in the evolution of Soviet practice or in controversy with Syndicalist theory, later Marxists popularized a bureaucratic image of management which has persisted without question in the minds of a great mane Socialists.

Sometimes the bureaucratic idea has been transmitted by the force of a grotesque analogy. Engels on the anarchists: ‘How these people propose to run a factory, operate a railway or steer a ship without having in the last resort one deciding will, one single management, they do not of course tell us’ [8] (Yet to whom is this ‘one will’ accountable? Is the ‘captain of industry’ to persist under Socialism?) Trotsky in In Defence of Terrorism: ‘No board of persons who do not know the given business can replace one man who knows it. A board of patients will not replace the doctor’. (Who knows the working conditions of ‘the given business’ better than the workers in it? Is the condition of the working class a malady to be manipulated by expert treatment?) Sometimes the voice of authoritarian centralism speaks openly. Lenin on The Role of the Trade Unions Under NEP: ‘It is absolutely essential that all authority in the factories should be concentrated in the hands of the management ... Under these circumstances, all direct interference by the trade unions in the management of factories must be regarded as positively harmful and impermissible.’ Trotsky, justifying what was to become the machinery of Stalinism: ‘The trade unions become the organizers of labour discipline’. [9]

Later, in exile, Trotsky was to advocate workers’ control, but only transitionally, under capitalism. ‘For us therefore the slogan of control is tied up with the period of dual power in industry, which corresponds to the transition from the bourgeois regime to the proletarian.’ [10] Under Socialism, workers’ control was to be abolished and replaced by a system called ‘workers’ management’, in which control would pass primarily to the state. ‘On the contrary, the workers’ management of industry, to a much greater degree, even in its initial steps, proceeds from above, for it is inseparable from state-power and the general economic plan. The organs of management are not factory committees but centralized Soviets. The role of the factory committees remains important, of course. But in the sphere of management of industry it has no longer a leading but an auxiliary role.’ [11] The ‘auxiliary role’ of workshop organization may or may not imply the use of trade unions as the prefects of labour discipline. Certainly Trotsky never repudiated the morality of his views of 1921 when he had advocated the militarization of the unions.

It does not matter that Lenin and Trotsky were on opposite sides on the Trade Union question. Whether the trade unions were formally excluded from management, or whether they were to be wholly integrated into ‘the labour of superintendence’, the working class was the loser. The manager was not ‘paid by the labourers’, i.e. appointed, controlled and (where necessary) sacked by them. The workers lost their defence against management as the trade unions became subordinated to the Party and the industrial bureaucracy: they lost their positive powers of management, except by the promotion of individuals into the bureaucracy, because there were no institutions of control available to them. The Syndicalists had not helped by demanding union control of industry, since their opponents could always claim to be maintaining the independence of the workers’ organizations from managerial decisions while in fact undermining this independence through Party domination. The idea that workers need both organizations for bargaining and defence against management (ie trade unions) and organizations of control and management, had not been worked out. In their repugnance against ‘dual power’. Marxists forgot that Socialism is a system of not merely dual, but multiple power.

Latter-day Communist Party ideology has for some time been torn between the necessity for maintaining Marxist theory as a justification for the propaganda-picture of the Soviet bloc presented by the ‘Friendship Societies’, and the necessity for distorting Marxism in order to validate openly-admitted sharp practice. Communist Party members will sometimes argue that the majority of Hungarian workers supported the Russian intervention against Nagy and sometimes that intervention was justified even though the majority were opposed to it. Similarly, ‘workers control’ is occasionally advertized as a desirable objective by Communist Party writers, but more often ignored or denounced as ‘Utopian nonsense’ (to repeat the phrase flung at the writer by the National Organizer of the Communist Party during a discussion on the Hungarian workers councils of 1956). Hence the stagnation of the demand among the trade union Left (which is in many unions very strongly influenced by the Communist Party), workers’ control can neither be repudiated nor advocated too powerfully. This dilemma is not a matter of conscious chicanery, but the result of the Communist Party militant’s situation as member of a Party possessing a certain continuity with revolutionary tradition as well as a considerable loyalty to a counter-revolutionary regime. Thus the empirical Centre and Left of the trade union movement has found its theoretical inertia amply justified both by the Fabian centralism of official Labour attitudes and by the Communist Party’s apologetics for ‘the new class’.

Yet, without a renewal of the call for workers’ control, it is hard to see how even the present aims of the broad Left – in particular the return of a Labour Government committed to public ownership can be fulfilled. The stories of an electorate disillusioned with the record of nationalization are not just a propaganda-stunt run by Transport House or Colin Hurry. They are very largely true, as any constituencv worker with his ear to the ground will be able to confirm. If Clause Four is going to be put across to the middle-class workers and working-class workers of this country, it must be advocated in such a way as to mark a decisive break with the bureaucratic forms of nationalization – Fabian or Stalinist which constitute the only variety of common ownership available to popular experience. It is no use speaking of ‘making the public sector dominant’ if ‘the public sector’ means the Coal Board and Eastern Germany. What kind of common ownership? is a question that comes before How much of it? It is even possible that the language of ‘nationalization’ will have to be attacked, as it was by many of the early fighters for workers’ control. It is not simply that the word is unpopular: it may well be that the very idea of ‘the nation’ owning anything is either meaningless, or else a constitutional justification for control by a State bureaucracy. Like the Syndicalists and Guild Socialists, the modern Socialist should be in favour of the expropriation of the expropriators and workers’ control of industry. Unlike them, he would also emphasise national planning of the economy. Whether he must also argue for some sort of ownership is very questionable. Ownership, as distinct from the actual powers that workers will have over the State and the factories, is rather an elusive concept. On a number of occasions in the past, Socialists have felt obliged to abandon the use of an important word because what was designated by it had become too corrupt. After the First World War, ‘Social-Democrat’ became a dirty word, and as a self-description was replaced, in certain Socialist circles, by ‘Communist’. Many Socialist who would have been quite happy to call themselves Communists in the days of say Marx or William Morris, would now be most reluctant to do so. When these words were abandoned as favourable descriptions, everybody understood that it was not just a matter of changing a label, but of establishing the identity of a valid idea, which would otherwise be confused with a degenerate idea. The same procedure may well have to be adopted again.

In asserting the identity of Socialism through the propagation of workers’ control, we shall not be simply raking over old ground. Enough has been said above to indicate that the earlier proponents of the demand were, in certain essential respects, confused or crude. Their conception of the means of transition to Socialism, either through industrial unions or the ‘encroachment’ of Guild organization, was deeply inadequate; as was their common identification of the unions with the workers’ organs of management. Their general critique of capitalist centralism, and corresponding vision of a decentralized Socialism is one of the most valuable elements of their particular tradition, and one which, mainly through the one-sided polemics of orthodox Marxism, has been bundled out of public view for far too long.

However, even this broad social vision cannot be assimilated as one piece into the body of a relevant modern Socialism. It is wrong to think that the deformities of bureaucratic centralism can be avoided merely or largely by the advocacy and implementation of a radically decentralized social system, which will overcome or by-pass the problems before which the centralizers succumbed. ‘Cast out Nature with a pitchfork,’ the old Roman poet warned, ‘but all the same, it will keep breaking in again.’ A degree of centralization has reached the status of ‘Nature’ in all modern economic systems, both on the level of the factory and on the national and supranational level. The problems of State power and managerial function cannot be wished away or ignored. The anarchists who entered the Spanish Republican Government. and sanctioned its bourgeois timidities and pro-Stalinist connivances, were not traitors to their political dream, but victims of the gap between it and reality. Martov, a most interesting deviationist from all the main orthodoxies of Russian Socialism, once argued that the degeneration of Soviet Russia was at least as much the product of the Bolsheviks’ utopianism concerning the State, as of their Party centralism. Slogans of local autonomy and decentralization may conspire in a most curious way with authoritarian rule: Yugoslavia is the most obvious instance of this sort of mixture, combining as it does a somewhat anarchic devolution of economic power to workers’ councils, with single-Party political and ideological control enforced by the judiciary. (Tony Cliff has pointed out to me the parallel between the Yugoslav system and the co-existence with Czarist despotism of the old Russian self-governing Mir or village community.) The simple truth is that workers’ control has no meaning in the absence of political democracy for the working-class. Many of the choices which have to do with over-all economic programs affecting more than one industry must inevitably be expressed at a national, electoral level. This is quite impossible without complete freedom for the existence of a number of socialist parties.

The task of socialist theory has too often been conceived as one of establishing an Apostolic succession from the ideas of certain revered forerunners to those of their (usually self-enthroned) successors in the present day. Part of this task naturally consists of casting documentary doubt upon the validity of rival ideological orders. To those confirmed in any of the various true faiths, it may be intolerable to confront a historical record which shows the saints as heretics, and the heretics as at least part-time saints. James Connolly in his role as Industrial Unionist or Morris as revolutionary, or Marx as anti-Semite, or Engels as advocate of Summit Conferences, or Lenin as authoritarian or as democrat, or Willie Gallagher as advocate of Workers’ Control. Some of the orthodox would no doubt like to forget their own past irregularities or those of their deities and devils. Socialist writers should always be reminding the world of these distasteful and untidy facts; not to make a fresh orthodoxy out of unorthodoxy, but in order that their readers and comrades in the working-class movement may never lose the mental suppleness and serious concern with principle that are essential for the planning of Socialist activity. Socialists must be prepared to undertake a perpetual dialogue with deviation: if there is one thing clear from the history of the workers’ control movement, it is that many of the dividing lines which separated socialists were drawn around the wrong issues.

Cole’s preface to the book by Pribidevic is, in all likelihood, the last political statement by that most heretical of saints, and most saintly of heretics. It will stand some quoting, both as the testament of a great comrade and as a careful estimate of a movement whose importance has long been hidden from us, not least by certain of its main participants:

‘Looking back, forty years later, to the movement as it existed when I was young, I am very conscious how much in those days we oversimplified the issues, and how much of the reality we failed to face. But I am as convinced as ever I was that we were essentially in the right, and that Socialism cannot be soundly built except on a foundation of trust in the capacity of ordinary people to manage their own affairs – which requires methods of management on a scale not so large as to deprive them of all possibility of exerting any real control over what is done. Mass democracy, I feel sure, is bound to be unsound unless it can be broken up into units of normally manageable size and complexity. We made, no doubt, many errors; but in that respect we were right and our critics wrong.’




1. S. Papert, The Strike Movement in Britain, Socialist Review, July 1957, a study worth attention, as is the same authors’ Strikes and Socialist tactics, Socialist Review, October 1957.

2. The Clause Four Campaign Committee is a body set up by labour party members and trade unionists in the London area in May to organize a campaign inside the Party and the unions for the retention of Clause 4. It is now a paper organisation.

3. Anarchist weekly journal.

4. The Shop Steward’s Movement and Workers Control, 1959, Blackwell, Oxford

5. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution.

6. Pribicevic, op. cit.

7. Ibid., pp.108-9.

8. Letter to Cuno, January 14th, 1872.

9. In Defence of Terrorism.

10. What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, 1932.

11. Ibid.


Last updated on 22.4.2007