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Ernest Erber

Workers Party Pre-Convention Discussion ...

‘Factory Committees’ and Labor Today

(22 April 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 16, 22 April 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The articles that appear below are DISCUSSION ARTICLES published as part of the pre-convention discussion in the Workers Party. Because our space is limited, it will be impossible to devote more than two columns per issue to this material. Contributions will therefore have to be brief, not exceeding 750 words. Pre-convention discussion articles are also appearing in The New International and in the Workers Party Bulletin. Copies of the latter may be gotten by sending fifteen cents to the Workers Party, 114 West 14th Street, New York 11, N.Y. Readers will understand that these articles represent neither the views of the party nor of Labor Action, but are written with a view toward establishing policy at the coming convention of the WP.


The minority resolution of Comrade J.R. Johnson for our Workers Party convention has provoked a lot of discussion in our ranks about “factory committees.” Unfortunately, the resolution makes such a capital point of “factory committees” without any elaboration as to just what they are or how we should go about the task of getting them established. As a result, a considerable confusion has resulted, with little advance in the education of our membership. The small space which Labor Action can afford to allot to this discussion is terribly inadequate for the purpose of clarifying some of the misconceptions on this question. However, a few points can be indicated.

The term “factory committees” arose in Europe during the war and the post-war revolutionary period. It was used to designate the on-the-job organizations which the workers formed by short-circuiting the trade union officialdom and proceeding directly to militant actions. They arose from various causes and played somewhat different roles in various countries.

Sometimes they were organized because of the ABSENCE of a trade union tradition and the weakness of trade union organization, as in Russia. Sometimes they were organized because the trade union officialdom had deserted the struggle on behalf of the workers in the interests of the war effort, as in Germany and England during 1914–18. Sometimes they arose from the revolutionary (usually anarcho-syndicalist) background of the trade unions themselves, as in Italy. They arose, therefore, as a result of one or a combination of the following reasons: (1) because the trade unions proved inadequate to the most ELEMENTARY economic tasks of struggle to defend the workers’ wages, (2) because the country was in a REVOLUTIONARY CRISIS and the unions proved too hidebound and bureaucratized to keep up with the revolutionary development of the working class, (3) because “factory committees” were part of the revolutionary philosophy of the trade unions themselves. However, they were usually INDEPENDENT of, if not directly hostile and dual to, the official trade union organization.

The role of the “factory committees” varied with the causes that produced them and the situation prevailing in the country. In the revolutionary situation in RUSSIA between February and October 1917 the “factory committees” were intertwined with the life of the workers’ councils (soviets) and played a highly revolutionary role. Due to the breakdown of Russian economy, they established workers’ control of production long before the Bolshevik Revolution.

In ENGLAND, the “factory committees” took the form of what was known as the shop steward movement. This movement grew out of the failure of the trade unions to struggle on behalf of the workers during the war. The shop steward movement, in the absence of a revolutionary situation, never rose above a militant trade union movement. When the official trade unions led large-scale strike actions in 1919, the shop steward movement was absorbed in the general trade union movement.

In GERMANY, the Shop steward movement began as a frankly revolutionary movement and then oscillated between a “Russian role” and an “English role,” depending upon the situation that prevailed. At various times they were either the white- hot storm centers of the revolutionary movement (1918–19 and 1923) or merely adjuncts of the collective bargaining process. Sometimes they stood in violent opposition to the official trade unions and sometimes they were absorbed in its structure.

In ITALY, the role of the “factory committees” was so closely related to the anarcho-syndicalist influence in the trade union movement that an adequate discussion of this aspect of “factory committees” would require a considerable digression.

Do any of the conditions which produced “factory committees” in the above classical examples prevail in the American labor movement today? Or will they emerge in the next year or two? The trade unions are not abdicating their functions (they did during the war by adopting the no-strike pledge) but, on the contrary, are leading tremendous struggles. There is nothing, however, in the struggles that even approximates a revolutionary situation. (Far from anarcho-syndicalist influence, represented in this country by the IWW, the workers have yet to free themselves from the Democratic and Republican parties.)

Perhaps Comrade Johnson does not at all mean that members of our party should conduct an agitation for “factory committees” in the trade unions nor that Labor Action should call upon labor militants to organize them today. What Comrade Johnson may have in mind is that we should EDUCATE the more politically advanced workers to an understanding of the role which “factory committees” can play in a revolutionary period. With this no one can disagree. Our enlarged Labor Action must devote space to such fundamental revolutionary socialist education. But this cannot be the “center of the party’s propaganda and agitation,” as Johnson proposes, un[less] he wants also to remove us from playing a role in the daily struggles of the labor movement TODAY. This is quite all right for an educational society or a propaganda circle but not for a political organization that seeks to carry its program into the labor movement and find points of contact with what the progressive unionists are thinking and doing NOW. For this latter purpose, the slogan of “factory committees” is more than meaningless, it is dangerous and misleading, as any member of our party who is active in a trade union should know.

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