Susan Green Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Susan Green

A Contribution to Discussion on
the Workers’ Control Theory

(2 June 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 22, 2 June 1947, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Without clinching with any of the points raised by Ernest Erber and Stanley Grey in the discussion on workers’ control, I wish to contribute a few thoughts on the subject.

My concept of the function of workers’ control under a workers’ government is far more inclusive than merely control of working conditions, etc. My idea is that to prevent bureaucratic degeneration and for the working class really to develop into the ruling class, the workers will have to control management. Workers’ control would be ineffective unless the workers control management.

To be sure under a workers’ state the workers control management through their government. But actually this control is too far removed from the man and woman in the factory. The factory worker and the farmer are represented by their own chosen representatives on the local council, or Soviet, and this representation is carried through to the central government, of the whole nation, where economic planning is done. But then the plan is handed down from above, and every factory, mine, mill and farm is allocated its place in the general scheme. The function of management is to carry out the plan, industry by industry, and the worker is at the receiving end—receiving orders, unless workers’ control is a reality.

Would it not be essential, first of all, to have more direct mass participation in the formulation of policies and plans? This involves nothing less than the question of how a workers’ state should function. The workers’ state is concerned with national production and its decisions revolve more and more around the administration of things, things affecting every life. As the Soviet Government developed in the early years, it was apparent that the differences within the government and the Communist Party were of vital concern to the masses. Why should these differences not have been submitted to the Soviet electorate in the form of different platforms advocated by the several groups? Here we have the question of whether socialist parties with their various programs for industrial development, etc., should not be permitted in a workers’ state.

By having to choose their own plans and policies through elections, when well-defined platforms on vital economic and nationwide problems are presented, the economic knowledge and self-reliance of the masses would develop. Such election campaigns would, by their nature, have to be on a high level, with wide dissemination of all kinds of information. With the election over and the choice having been made, the man and woman in the factory would know what they voted on, and what plan and policies management must serve. The wide base for workers’ control would thus be there.

However, is not more concrete and specialized industrial knowledge also needed to effectuate real workers’ control? Unless there is a high level of economic enlightenment, so that workers do not feel helpless before complicated industrial problems, they will allow those who do understand to take over. How can workers make management responsible to them if they haven’t the knowledge to have intelligent opinions of what the industry, the nation, the socialist ideal require? Is not industrial knowledge the very heart of workers’ control? As long as the workers’ knowledge is limited to their little jobs in the complicated economic structure, they are not equipped to exercise intelligent control.

Lenin spoke and wrote of the need of every worker to understand the books and accounts of his factory. That implies of course knowledge of all the facets of the industrial processes in which the worker takes part. Lenin also posed the aim of interchangeability of jobs, thus removing from socialized industry the gradations of “more important” and “less important.” Objections arise as to the practicability of these ideas. We know the indispensability of experience, of skill coming from long experience, of expert and specialized knowledge based on long study. If this mechanical and technical schema is to continue, expertness that necessarily cannot be shared by every worker, will continue to be necessary. However, the essence of Lenin’s idea remains, namely, that deep and wide industrial knowledge must become the property of every worker regardless of the job he performs.

What would such deep and wide knowledge cover? The worker would lift his nose from his particular grindstone. He would learn the ins and outs first of his whole department, then the place of his department in the plant, then the place of his plant in the whole industry. To grasp the relation between his industry and the national economy, the worker would learn something about the sources of the raw materials worked in his plant and something about the outlets for the finished product. He would be conversant with the problems of the industry, the status of technical development, the prospects of new inventions and methods to save labor and increase productivity. The worker and statistics would be on most friendly terms. The tasks of management would be generally understood by the workers. Otherwise, how could the workers in a plant exercise control of production and of management?

The Russian Experience

The above enumeration is suggested by one of Trotsky’s articles in the collection The Problems of Life. Facing the great lack of industrial skill and knowledge among the Russian workers, he advocated the issuance of trade manuals to increase the skill and the economic understanding of the workers. The manuals were to have been written for each industry, in collaboration, by a skilled worker to contribute specific technical information, an industrial expert to add more expert understanding of the whole industry, and a tried Communist to give the whole its place in the economic plan and in the building of Socialism.

Trotsky tackled this problem after the revolution. However, is it not as essential to have at least a core of industrially educated workers in order to turn the socialist revolution irretraceably onto the road of socialism, as it is essential to have a revolutionary party to accomplish the revolution? Can such industrial education be postponed till after the revolution? The period after the revolution is necessarily chaotic. It becomes of paramount importance to reestablish industrial processes so that the nation can be fed and clothed and sheltered. Necessarily there is great reliance upon engineers, technicians, experts, managers to get things going again. In this transition period, stark economic necessity relegates to second place the education of the rank and file work-"ers for the job of intelligent control of industry.

Lenin in his Program Address delivered in the spring of 1918 (published in this country as the pamphlet The Soviets at Work) showed that while the necessity for workers control was always spoken about, it was actually pushed to the background by the overwhelming difficulties just to get production going. He said, for instance: “The revolution has just broken the oldest; the strongest and the heaviest chains to which the masses were compelled to submit. So it was yesterday. And today the same revolution—and indeed in the interest of Socialism—demands the absolute submission of the masses to the single will of those who direct the labor process.” While demanding that the workers submit to the managers without question, Lenin at the same time sounded the alarm against the growth of bureaucracy: “The more firmly we now have to advocate a merciless and firm rule and dictatorship of individuals for definite processes of work during certain periods of purely executive functions, the more diverse should be the forms and means of mass control in order to paralyze every possibility of distorting the Soviet rule, in order to repeatedly and tirelessly remove the wild grass of bureaucracy.”

It is history that “the forms and means of mass control” did not develop quickly enough, and that “the wild grass of bureaucracy” overran the whole garden and smothered the revolutionary seedlings. In submitting to those who directed the labor process instead of controlling them, the workers lost their chance to become a ruling instead of a ruled class. It is not necessary again to go over the reasons for this degeneration, and for the counter-revolution. Somehow we have assumed that in an advanced country, or if the revolution occurs in several complementary countries, the workers would not have to submit to those who direct the labor process but will be able to exert effective workers’ control from the beginning. But why do we assume this?

It is true that in a highly advanced industrial country, the new workers’ state would not have the task of teaching the workers elementary skills, workmanlike ways, reliability, etc., as was the case in backward, peasant Russia. But, certainly if we judge by the highly skilled American workers, specific skills do not branch out into general knowledge. Workers must be guided into this world of information.

Safeguarding Democracy

Furthermore, we must not assume that post-revolutionary ruin was a peculiar Russian phenomenon. A different turn of the wheel of history and the social revolution might have occurred in devastated Germany after World War II. In the future, the revolution may conceivably occur in completely ruined countries, countries ruined by modern warfare. Civil war in the revolutionary period would, at its mildest, mean great dislocation of normal functioning. As in Russia after the revolution, the immediate tasks of reconstruction could well transcend all else. There would, as in Russia, have to be reliance on engineers, technicians, experts, managers to get things going. The stark economic necessities would again relegate to second place the education of the rank and file for the job of intelligent control of industry. This is the crucial point. “The forms and means of mass control” cannot be relegated for attention to the end of the working day spent by the workers in unquestioning’ submission to those Who direct the labor process. Workers’ control should become a reality without delay and should act as an indispensable curb on the bigwigs just when their indispensability to reconstruction is at its height. Here is where industrially educated workers can shape the outcome of the revolution.

The revolution will of course not wait till the workers have the required industrial knowledge to effectuate intelligent control of industry. Neither is it the province of the Workers Party to undertake this kind of industrial education. But if industrial education is the heart of workers’ control, why could not the party agitate for both? Why not help create among rank and file workers the desire for more knowledge and know-how?

There resides Within the labor unions a wealth of industrial knowledge. The Goldens and the Reuthers of the labor movement know about their industries, and about industry, as much as, if not more than, management. Every union has its competent and clever experts and statisticians and its files of information. It would be well if union members became interested in this store of knowledge, if they demanded it in the form of manuals, pamphlets, educational, lectures, forms. Could our party help create such a demand? The labor bureaucrats would not like rank and file intrusion on their “business.” But if such knowledge seeps into the rank and file, workers’ control of production and management will be effective, when history gives the workers the chance to build Socialism.

Susan Green Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers’ Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 12 October 2022