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Ernest Erber

A Discussion of Workers’ Control
in a Workers’ State

(31 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 13, 31 March 1947, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The article by Ernest Erber printed here is a discussion of an interesting point raised by a previous article by Stanley Grey which appeared in the March 24 issue of Labor Action. This point involves the. crucial questions: What is a workers’ state? How would workers exert control of a workers’ state?

The problems involved in this discussion are vital and complex; neither Grey’s nor Erber’s articles should be viewed as official expressions of the editorial board of Labor Action. We wish, however, to invite any other readers who are interested in the matter to write briefly; we are prepared to open our columns to further discussions on if.


I consider the question dealt with in Stanley Grey’s article, Workers’ Control of Industry (Labor Action, March 24, 1947) to be one of the most important facing the Socialist movement today. Its importance, as with so many of the new questions which demand a solution, arises from the tremendous accumulation of experience on the questions of workers’ power in the course of the Russian Revolution and its degeneration into Stalinist totalitarianism.

In stating that mere nationalization of industry does not constitute a workers’ state (nor even necessarily a step toward Socialism) and in declaring that there can be no workers’ state without a direct control of the state apparatus by the working class, the Workers Party has made a tremendous contribution toward resolving the negative side of the question; namely, what a workers’ state is not. The positive side of the question, what is a workers’ state, cannot be simply answered by saying that it is a state directly and democratically controlled by the workers. The essence of the question is: how does the working class exercise control over its state?

This is not a simple problem, far less simple than it appeared to the earlier generations of Marxists, including that which mad’e the Russian Revolution. Yet we have contributed far too little by way of solution. Comrade Grey bravely approaches the question, but then quietly skirts around it with the repetition of a few standard generalizations about democratic correctives from below to state planning. This is not a suggestion that Grey should have given us a more concrete blueprint on the relationship of the workers in the shop to the state planning Agencies. It is not a question of practical plans that is involved. It is a matter of the theoretical question: by virtue of what is the working class the ruling class in a workers’ state? We knew how, to answer this question in previous social orders. The bourgeoisie, the feudal nobility and the patricians of antiquity ruled by virtue of ownership of capital, land or chattel slaves. The working-class character of Russia is assured by the nationalized economy, said Trotsky. This concept we have rejected. Then what assures the working class character of the workers’ state? Or, to be more exact, how does the working class exercise its control over its state?

Democratic Control

The investigation of this question, in my opinion, must proceed along the lines of the workers’ role in managing production. This involves the whole question of the status of shop organization arid its relationship to centralized (i.e., state directed) economy. If the working class character of the state is assured by direct and democratic control by the workers, then the more direct and the more democratic that control, the less possibility of bureaucratic deformations and degenerations. This means that the less delegated authority, the more certain the working class character. Yet where the numerically preponderant class is the ruling class, as with the proletariat, less delegated authority means less central authority.

Yet how resolve the contradiction between the need for local controls and the need for control authority to conduct nationwide planning and direction of the economy (not to speak of the armed forces of the workers state)? Those who discard the easy formula that nationalization means a workers’ state, cannot avoid the responsibility of answering this question. I do not think it insoluble. But I fear that the easy posing and dismissal of it, as in Grey’s article, will only strengthen the tendency to ignore the importance of the question.

There is another aspect of the article that must be commented on. Grey speaks of “workers’ control of production.” As a matter of fact, he begins his article by asking, “What is the meaning of ‘workers’ control of production”? He then correctly proceeds to point but that a measure of workers’ control already exists in even capitalist economy in the form of the trade unions’ power in matters relating to wages, hours, hiring and firing, job classification, etc. (This is a very important concept which we should make greater use of in explaining our transitional program to workers.) Grey then points out that the really vital sphere into which “workers’ control” must be carried is the sphere of production. He correctly observes that: “the transition from this very limited workers’ control to full workers’ control is not a simple quantitative change in which new spheres are added to old ones, but is a basic, qualitative social change.”

Workers’ Control

However, in arguing that the institution of workers’ control of production is not a simple trade union problem, he states that it is “the social question of who is to rule the state. For the institution of workers’ control it is necessary to institute a workers’ state.” This, I submit, nullifies the entire purpose of the slogan of “workers’ control of production” as a part of our transitional program.

If we can only achieve workers’ control of production as a result of achieving a workers’ state, then workers’ control of production becomes only an aspect of the socialist organization of industry which we propose. Yet the entire object of a transitional slogan is to achieve a partial solution which poses the need for going further, of making greater inroads upon capitalist property relations. One of the phases of the struggle for power, that is for the achievement of a workers’ state, is the struggle for workers’ control of production.

The Russian workers achieved workers’ control of production some six months before they achieved a workers’ state. It was their achievement of workers’ control of production that posed the necessity of achieving workers’ state. This is the object of a transitional slogan like workers’ control. Once it is achieved it can only be relinquished under the blows of a counter-revolution or it must be fortified by the achievement of state power.

Comrade Grey has confused two things here, workers’ control and workers’ management. Space does not permit me to expand upon what is involved in this important distinction. Suffice it to say here that when Lenin used the term “workers’ control of production” during the Russian Revolution he was not speaking of the workers managing the economy. They could not have done the latter before the October Revolution since the economy was still in the hands of the capitalists.

What was meant by workers’ control was the intervention of the workers in the sphere of production in the same manner in which they intervene in the sphere of wages, hours, conditions, etc., under private ownership. This is evident from the fact that one of the specific forms of “workers’ control” was access to the records (Open the books!). In my opinion, workers’ management will not be achieved for a considerable period of time after the socialist revolution. The workers will have to undergo a period in which they prepare themselves technically for the task of direct management of production. In the meantime, a form of the control they exercised over the capitalist proprietors before the latter were expropriated, will continue to be exercised over the functionaries of the workers’ state.

To those interested in pursuing the background of this question I suggest reading the following: Trotsky: Germany, What Next? (chapter devoted to workers’ control). Lenin: The Threatening Catastrophe and How to Fight It (also sections of Lenin’s State and Revolution). The polemics in the Bolshevik Party in 1918–19 over factory committee vs. “specialists” in industrial control and in 1920 over the role of the trade unions in a workers’ state can be profitably read on this question. The latter are available in the Selected Works of Lenin. The study outline, What Is a Program of Transitional Demands? issued by the Workers Party Educational Department is a modest contribution on this question that merits serious study.

An outstanding contribution to the question has been received in the form of a document by a European comrade, one of the young generation of German Trotskyists at work rebuilding the movement in his native city, entitled The Problem of the Workers’ State. It is in process of translation and will be issued by the WP Educational Department.

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