Leon Trotsky

A Letter to Comrades

The Question of
Workers’ Control of Production

(August 1931)

Written: 20 August 1931.
Source: The Militant, Vol. IV No. 27 (Whole No. 86), 17 October 1931, p. 4.
Transcription/HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

In answering your inquiry I will endeavor here, as an introduction to the exchange of opinions, to outline a few general considerations which concern the slogan of workers’ control of production.

The first question that arises in this connection is: can we picture workers’ control of production as a fixed regime, not everlasting of course, but as one of long duration? In order to reply to this question, the class nature of such a regime must be more concretely determined. The workers have in their hands – control. That is: ownership and right of disposition remain in the hands of the capitalists. Thus the regime has a contradictory character, presenting a sort of interregnum.

The workers need control not for platonic purposes, but in order to influence practically the production and the trading operations of the employers. This cannot, however, be attained unless the control, in one form or another, within these on those limits is transformed into direct functions of disposition. In a developed form, workers’ control thus signifies a sort of economic dual power in the factory, the bank, trading enterprise, and so forth.

If the participation of the workers in the administration is to be lasting, stable, “normal”, it must rest upon class collaboration, and not upon class struggle. Such a class collaboration can be realized only through the upper strata of the trade unions and the capitalist associations. There have been no few such attempts: in Germany (“economic democracy”), in England (“Mondism”), etc. Yet, in all these instances, it was not a case of workers’ control over capital, but of the subserviency of the labor bureaucracy to capital. Such subserviency, as experience shows, can last for a long time: as long as the patience of the proletariat.

The closer it is to production, to the factory, to the shop departments, the more impossible is this regime, for it is a question here of the direct vital interests of the workers, and the whole process develops before the eyes of the workers themselves. Workers’ control through factory councils is conceivable only on the basis of sharp class struggle, but not on the basis of collaboration. Yet even this means dual power in the undertaking, in the trust, in the branch of industry, in the whole of industry.

What state regime corresponds to workers’ control of produdction? It is obvious that the power is not yet in the hands of the proletariat, otherwise we would have no workers’ control of production but the control of production by the workers’ state as an introduction to the regime of state production on the foundations of nationalization. What we are talking about is workers’ control in the domain of the capitalist regime, under the power of the bourgeoisie. However, a bourgeoisie, which feels itself firm in the saddle, will never tolerate the dual power in its factories. Workers’ control, consequently, can be carried out truly under the condition of an abrupt change in the relationship of forces unfavorable to the bourgeoisie and its state. Control can be forced upon the bourgeoisie by the proletariat only violently, along the road to the moment when it takes away from it the power, and then also the ownership of the means of production. Thus the regime of workers’ control, by its very essence provisional, a transitional regime, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, of the proletarian offensive, and of the falling back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to the period of the proletarian revolution, in the furthest sense of the word.

If the bourgeois is already no longer the master, that is, not entirely the master in his factory, then he is, consequently, also no longer completely the master in his state. This means: the regime of the dual power in the factories corresponds to the regime of the dual power in the state.

This relationship, however, should not be understood mechanically, that is, not in the manner that the dual power in the factory and the dual power in the state see the light of day on one and the same day. The advanced regime of the dual power, as one of the probable stages of the proletarian revolution in every country, can develop in different countries in different ways and out of different elements. Thus, under certain conditions, with a deep and persevering economic crisis (strong state of organization of the workers in the factories, a relative weakness of the revolutionary party, a relative strength of the state which has a strong Fascism in reserve, etc.) workers’ control of production can precede the developed political dual power in one country.

Under the conditions traced above in broad outline, especially characteristic of Germany, the dual power in the country can develop precisely out of workers’ control as its main reservoir. One must dwell upon this fact if only to reject that fetishism of the Soviet form which the epigones in the Comintern have put into circulation.

According to the official view prevailing at the present time, the proletarian revolution can be accomplished only by means of the Soviets, where the Soviets have to arise directly for the purpose of the armed uprising. This stereotype is absolutely worthless. The Soviets are only an organizational form, the question is decided by the class content of the policy, and in no case by its form. In Germany, there were Ebert-Scheidemann Soviets. In Russia, the conciliationist Soviets turned against the workers and soldiers in July 1917. That is why Lenin, for a long time, took into account that we would have to carry out the armed uprising not with the aid of the Soviets but of the factory committees. This calculation was refuted by the course of events, for we succeeded, in the month and a half to two months before the uprising, in winning over the most important Soviets. Yet this example alone shows how little we were inclined to consider the Soviets as the all-saving means. In the Fall of 1923, defending against Stalin and others the necessity of passing over to the revolutionary offensive, I fought at the same time against the creation of Soviets in Germany on command, side by side with the factory councils, which were already actually beginning to fulfill the role of Soviets.

There is much to say for the idea that in the present revolutionary ascent, too, the factory councils in Germany, at a certain stage of developments, will fulfill the role of Soviets and replace them. Upon what do I base this assumption? Upon the analysis of the conditions under which the Soviets arose in Russia in February-March 1917, in Germany and Austria in November 1918. In all three places, the main organizers of the Soviets were Mensheviks and Social Democrats, who were forced to do it by the conditions of the “democratic” revolution during the war. In Russia, the Bolsheviks were successful in tearing the Soviets from the conciliators. In Germany, they did not succeed and that is why the Soviets disappeared.

Today, in 1931, the word “Soviets” sounds quite differently from what it did in 1917–1918. Today it is the synonym of the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks, and by that the bugbear on the lips of the social democracy. The social democrats in Germany will not only not seize the initiative in the creation of Soviets for the second time, and will not only not join voluntarily in this initiative, but will fight against it to the last possibility. In the eyes of the bourgeois states, especially of its Fascist guard, the Communists setting to work creating Soviets will be equivalent to a direct declaration of civil war by the proletariat, and consequently, can provoke a decisive clash before the Communist party itself deems it expedient.

All these considerations prompt us strongly to doubt if one could succeed, before the uprising and the seizure of power in Germany, in creating Soviets which would real embrace the majority of the workers. In my opinion, it is more probable that in Germany the Soviets will first arise on the morning after the victory, already as direct organs of power.

The matter stands quite differently with the factory councils. They already exist today. They are composed of Communists as well as of social democrats. In a certain sense, the factory councils realize the united front of the working class. It will broaden and deepen this one of its functions with the rise of the revolutionary tide. Its role will grow, as will its encroachments into the life of the factory, of the city, of the branches of industry, of the district, of the whole state. Regional, district as well as federal congresses of the factory councils can serve as the basis for the organs which actually fulfill the role of Soviets, that is, the organs of the dual power. To draw the social democratic workers into this regime through the medium of the factory councils will be much easier than to call upon the workers directly to begin with the forming of Soviets on a definite day and at a definite hour.

The factory councils’ central of a city can thoroughly fulfill the role of city Soviets. This could be observed in Germany in 1923. By extending their function, applying themselves to ever bolder tasks, and creating federal organs, the factory councils, intimately connecting the social democratic workers with the Communists, can grow into Soviets and become an organizational support for the uprising. After the victory of the proletariat, these factory councils-Soviets will naturally have to separate themselves into factory councils in the proper sense of the word, and into Soviets as organs of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

By all this, we in no case want to say that the rise of Soviets before the proletarian overturn in Germany is completely excluded in advance. There is no possibility of foreseeing all conceivable variants. Were the collapse of the bourgeois state to come long before the proletarian revolution, were Fascism to run its head into the wall, or fall to pieces, before the uprising of the proletariat, then the conditions could arise for the creation of Soviets as the fighting organs for power. Naturally, in such a case, the Communists would have to perceive the situation in time and raise the slogan of Soviets. This would be the most favorable situation conceivable for the proletarian uprising. Were it to follow, it would have to be utilized to the end. Yet, to count upon it in advance is quite impossible. Insofar as the Communists must reckon with the still sufficiently firm bourgeois state, and the reserve army of Fascism at its back, to that extent the road through the factory councils appears to be the more probable one.

(To be continued)

return return return return return

Last updated on: 4.2.2013