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Colin Barker

Workers, Inc.

(June 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.37, June/July 1969, p.41.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Industrial Democracy: The Sociology of Participation
Paul Blumberg
Constable, 45s

Can The Workers Run Industry?
Ken Coates (ed.)
Sphere Books, 8s 6d

Blumberg’s book is a plea for greater industrial democracy, directed, seemingly, at other industrial sociologists. The author stands clearly on the side of the angels, against manipulative approaches to the issue of workers’ management of production, battling doughtily with the spectre of Hugh Clegg, sifting and sorting with sociological evidence on workers’ alienation in the despotic authority structures of capitalist production. As a (partial) review of the sociological literature, the book is fine. Beyond this, however, Blumberg’s lack of an encompassing theory leaves serious gaps in his argument. He suggests that workers’ control might be impossible in capitalist production, but does not develop the argument. He falls more or less completely for Yugoslav ‘workers’ management’, side-stepping the debate on the Yugoslav economy and the issues this raises for his subject. He never discusses the relationship between workers’ control (of production) and workers’ power (the state), indeed he seems unaware that there might even be a real problem here. The result is a useful but very incomplete, idealist argument about the desirability of industrial democracy, largely divorced at the theoretical level from actual movements along industrial workers in capitalist society. Others will be able to use the material assembled here, but hopefully to fuller theoretical purpose.

The volume edited by Ken Coates has the virtues and defects of the politics of the tendency it speaks for. In its pages, dull, uniformative slag-prices by Ian Mikardo MP and Ernie Roberts of the AEF tumble together with sharp reporting on a number of industries. Neither illuminates the other.

The Institute for Workers’ Control, in whose name this is copyrighted, is an attempt to revive Guild Socialism for the 1960s. It suffers from all the contradictions of G.D.H. Cole’s movement. Shop-floor militancy is yoked, uneasily, to left-wing reformism in Parliament and the unions. This fundamentally unrealistic and unrevolutionary perspective generates its own illusions. Ken Coates’ Introduction suggests that the TGWU, NUPE and the Foundryworkers are somehow committed to workers’ control; this is constructing reality from paper resolutions. ‘This book,’ he writes,’ reflects many of the disagreements which exist among those who seek change, and makes no attempt to smooth out the edges of these arguments’. But the book nowhere examines what are the ‘arguments’. It is curiously unanalytical in its approach to the key questions that underlie the debate on workers’ control: What is the .contemporary role of the union bureaucracies? What is the role of the state in state monopoly capitalism? Are reformism and revolution compatible?

The question of workers’ control is not raised in its totality, as a question of workers’ power. Instead, industry by industry, the case against the existing order is posed. The case is presented in blue-printing terms: what would be better than this state of society would be this state of society. ‘Socialism is both a movement here and now, and a goal to be achieved’. Fragmented, blue-printed goals are described, but the movement is nowhere critically assessed. Enroaching control, ‘structural reformism’, is still the key to practice. When things go wrong, when the government fails to meet up to the opportunities provided for it by the workers’ blueprint, the failure is not analysed. Thus William Meade assesses very realistically the Government’s proposals for worker participation in the nationalised steel industry, but demonstrates no theoretical comprehension of the reasons for this kind of proposal, or of the role of nationalisation in contemporary capitalism. Analysis is replaced by hurt polemics.

But if the book as a whole is unsatisfactory, and the politics behind it are left-reformist, there are some small nuggets for revolutionary readers. John Hughes and Michael Barratt-Brown provide some useful, if unsynthesised, data on current ruling-class economic organisation. Stephen Bodington contributes a nice, imaginative piece on the possibilities for socialist employment of computers. Eric Sherratt on mining, Bob Harrison on motors, and Tony Topham on the docks give gritty accounts of the state of play in these industries (Topham’s piece is especially well researched). And Alan Rooney provides an extended version of his solid work on the aircraft industry (first published in IS 33), giving a most useful and detailed account of one aspect of contemporary state monopoly capital and its modes of operation and organisation.

The book is valuable for its parts, then, rather than as a whole. Revolutionary socialists still await the book they need.

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Last updated: 23.2.2008