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Brian Pearce

Workers’ Control

Book Reviews

The Shop Stewards’ Movement and Workers’ Control, 1910-1922. By Branko Pribicevic. Basil Blackwell, 25s.

From Labour Review, Vol. 5 No. 1, February-March 1960, pages 32-36.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by D. Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Advertised on the back of this book is another one from the same publisher, The Employers’ Challenge, by H.A. Clegg and Rex Adams. That study of the national shipbuilding and engineering disputes of 1957 showed, it will be remembered, how Government labour policy during the second world war and after was dominated by concern to avoid a repetition of ‘last time’. What they were afraid of was a second, and possibly improved, edition of the great movement of militant shop stewards described in the present work by Mr. Pribicevic, a young Yugoslav scholar who worked under Cole at Nuffield College.

Separate from the shop stewards’ movement but merging with it to some extent at one stage was the movement, or rather perhaps the sentiment, for ‘workers’ control’. This arose in the mining and railway industries in the years of unrest on the eve of the first world war. Those were industries which were involved in big strikes and lockouts in which the government showed its hand plainly as the workers’ enemy. They were industries in relation to which there was much talk of nationalization. And they were industries relatively free (particularly as compared with engineering) from craft divisions. It was amongst the miners and the railwaymen that the idea of the workers ‘taking over’ their own industry and in some way running it themselves first took root, already before 1914. In engineering the wartime interference by the State in the settlement of problems of introducing new machines, use of different grades of labour, etc., provoked interest in the idea of ‘workers’ control among sections which had hitherto been uninterested.

This was an explosive development because the institution of the shop steward had developed further among engineers than among any other workers. The dynamic character of the engineering industry, with the continuous introduction of new machines with processes, necessitates frequent informal negotiation at workshop level. With the virtual abdication of the trade union leaders during the war the whole burden of fighting for the workers’ interests fell upon the workshop leaders, who rapidly grew in stature and significance.

Mr. Pribicevic shows how the wonderful opportunities for the movement which existed during and immediately after the war were missed owing to the ‘non-political’ outlook of the industrial leaders, together with the indifference of the Marxist and would-be Marxist political groups towards the movement. The growth of mass unemployment, and the employers’ counter-offensive on the engineering workers in 1922, launched against the background of this unemployment, effectively killed the movement. Who was it who said ‘the shop stewards of the war period became the unemployed leaders of the post-war period’? That certainly happened in many cases.

Of especial value is Mr. Pribicevic’s discussion of the differences in the movement on the question of attitude to the trade unions—the conflict between the so-called ‘industrial unionists’ who sought to set up a completely new set of unions (they controlled the Clyde Workers’ Committee after the deportations of 1916) and those who aimed at transforming the existing unions. Another important theme is the gradual realization by the advocates of workers’ control that they could not ignore the question of State power—that the idea of ‘encroaching control’, step by step taking over managerial functions from the employers till the factories fully belonged to the workers, left a vital factor out of account. ‘The struggle would remain confined to the industrial sphere, which the shop stewards considered to be the decisive one. The State and other political institutions were a ‘superstructure’ which would disappear after the fundamental change: This analysis was naive as well as crude, and the movement gradually came to realize it.’

It seems clear—and characteristic of the limitations of the movement—that practically no attention was given in those days to problems of the administration of industry at national level, planning or finance; though this weakness began to be remedied as information became available about the experience of workers’ power in Soviet Russia and as the Communist Party developed its educational work. B.P.

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Last updated: 4 October 2009