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Ken Tarbuck

The Workers’ Control Movement
and the Building of a Revolutionary Cadre

(Spring 1970)

From Marxist Studies, Vol. 2 No. 2, Spring 1970.
Signed ‘John Walters’.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Minor spelling errors have been corrected without indication.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In order to discuss and assess the perspectives for the workers’ control movement, and to indicate the role that cadres play within it, it is necessary to make a brief survey of the main features of the development of the campaign since 1964 – when the campaign began – up to the present time. This is not to say of course that the ideas of workers’ control only started in 1964, but it was in that year that a serious campaign began once more to inject the whole concept back into the living labour movement.

It is possible to distinguish three phases, so far, in the development of the present movement.

The initial stage ran from 1964 to 1966, during which the movement sought to define its central strategy, and during which it attracted the support and active participation of some small groups of workers, and several key individual worker militants. Sponsorship and organisation of conferences plus publications were at this stage carried out by the group around The Week in Nottingham, together with the editors of Union Voice and Labour’s Voice in London and Manchester respectively. Tribune was usually involved as a sponsor, though without any real participation in the practical work. The London Cooperative Society was involved as a sponsor in the important second conference in 1965, which was held in London. The various left tendency journals participated in the early conferences and considerable effort was expended in debating between the groups, particularly between the IS [1] and The Week. The later controversy centred between possibilist oppositional militancy and activity, advocated by IS, and the transitional demand for opening the books of the bosses, advocated by The Week tendency. This was an important clarifying debate for many of the participants. It is now possible to characterise the IS position of that period as representing the apolitical, or economist local spontaneity of the stewards’ groups of the 1950s, whilst the programmatic approach which was advanced by The Week was an anticipation of the politicised trade unionism which has emerged under the impact of the Labour government with its ‘incomes policy’ and productivity bargaining, anti-union drive generally which has been thrust upon the government and employers by the sharper economic crisis of the mid and late 1960s. In this sense the period since 1964 – with its enormous balance of payments deficit – can be viewed as a turning point in postwar history in this country. In this phase too, the practice of organising conferences and activities along seminar lines, which at first sight might have appeared somewhat ‘academic’, forged the continuing alliance between socialist cadres and workers – at first in small numbers – which has given the movement its resonance and living quality. There was also the conscious attempt to pick up the thread of the historical tradition in the British labour movement, reaching back to the 1910–26 period, when a genuinely hegemonic ambition prevailed among large sections of the British working class in its industrial politics, and to re-establish the authenticity of that tradition. However, this tradition was never more than the expression of a minority, albeit a large one. Critics sometimes saw this as a rather academic or nostalgic exercise, yet no movement which aims at hegemony can neglect the historical roots of consciousness, if it hopes to build upon and in the mass labour movement.

Even without any conscious stimulus, it was inevitable that anarchism, syndicalism, guild socialism, utopianism and participationist reformism would emerge and struggle with revolutionary Marxism within the movement, as soon as a class-based strategy for the transition to socialism was reopened. So it proved. And therefore the necessity of establishing and preserving an open movement, in which the debate between all tendencies and views could continue. This meant that there should be no premature search for a formal closing of the debate on issues. For it is of fundamental importance that this debate engages workers and revolutionary cadres together. A didactic and consciousness-forming process is generated by such a debate, both for the worker-militants and for the revolutionary cadres who are formed and developed as the movement grows. (And this will be a continuing process just as long as the movement draws to it new and wider layers of workers.) Indeed, in the process, the gulf fixed by the capitalist division of labour between the intellectual and the worker is narrowed. The problem of overcoming that gulf must be high on the agenda of any discussion about the future development of cadres in the workers’ control movement. It should be obvious that after five years of development and expansion, it cannot be overcome by any narrowing of the debate on the issues themselves, or by establishing a rigid orthodoxy for the cadres.

At the end of the first phase then, a general strategy of transitional demands existed, alongside other tendencies, and an important start had been made in specific research and programme-building in one or two industries. Notably steel, docks and road transport. The demand for opening of the books had been taken up by the seamen during their national strike in a genuinely mass campaign.

The second phase of the movement, from 1966 to 1968, was characterised by more intensive programme-building, by responses from the official labour organisations (for example, the Labour Party’s Report on Industrial Democracy), by the widening of the working-class base, and by an attempt (not wholly related to the needs of the workers’ control movement) to build an organisational structure to link the various activities together. At the end of this phase 500 delegates were assembled at the 1968 Nottingham conference, it was quite clear that a more structured organisation was necessary to continue the expansion of the movement. This point had really been indicated by the 1967 conference, when Bill Jones, a London busman and lay member of the TUC General Council, took the chair, and there was the first appearance of Hugh Scanlon – then campaigning for the AEF Presidency – brought together significant forces from the left wing of the trade-union leadership, and also rank-and-file militants from transport, engineering and vehicle production, who recognised that the movement was serious, and was attempting to base itself on an appreciation of their problems. These problems were in themselves, of course, becoming more acute in the period of wage freeze and compulsory incomes policy. The Labour Party response – policy document already referred to – was also debated at the 1967 conference, and partly as a result of this the movement was involved in a debate that still continues on the distinction between participation and control. (The debate on definitions was indeed widened beyond these two terms, since the whole question of self-management in a socialised economy was and is a continuous preoccupation for us. A cadre force in this field must study this issue in general, theoretical terms, must examine experiences in such countries as Yugoslavia, Algeria, etc, and must use its expertise in its participation in such actual political situations as have developed in, for example, Czechoslovakia.) The protagonists of participation do not form, in this debate, a single ‘school’. There are at one extreme, the authors and practitioners of a deliberately corporate strategy to be found amongst employers, right-wing academics, and the Labour government. But there are also genuine reformers who are motivated by the idealistic version of industrial democracy, and who aim to reform institutions and structures within the existing social framework. Judgement on the latter category cannot be made a priori, since in certain circumstances they represent a crippling ‘institutionalisation’ of workers’ control demands, whilst in others they do create embryonic situations of dual power. In the first category, we might place some of the recently created ‘productivity committees’ set up by joint management–union agreement in factories; in the second, especially at the present time, we should certainly place the joint control exercised by dockers over the system of discipline, hiring and firing, in the Dock Labour Scheme. This example – in the context of a different country – occurred to Ernest Mandel when he wrote:

Where is the dividing line between ‘institutionalisation’ and dual power? That is the real problem and the real difficulty. It is very hard to advance a fool-proof formula. Tentatively I would say that every form of ‘effective demand’ whose realisation is compatible with a more or less ‘smooth’ functioning of the capitalist system, which does not create a situation of explosive crisis… is a situation of ‘institutionalisation’ which should be avoided. At the contrary, every effective demand whose realisation creates a permanent crisis for the system, a situation of permanent conflict, is an embryonic element of dual power.

You might say that this doesn’t give you a concrete answer in each and every case – especially where local industries are concerned (one should take into consideration however the great sensitiveness of the employers and the bourgeois state to problems of ‘principle’ and of ‘bad examples’). You can also say that it becomes a matter of subjective judgement – whether or not a given effective demand could be normally ‘assimilated’ by the system or not. I agree. As in so many other questions, here applies this eternal truth of Marxist dialectics: the real test of knowledge is praxis; the ‘proof of the pudding is in the eating’. It is only in practice that you can find out whether you have campaigned for ‘dual power’, or whether inadvertently you have permitted neo-capitalism to ‘integrate’ a radical group of workers.

But this should not inhibit you in the least. If you don’t risk anything and limit yourself to abstract preaching you won’t get one inch forward to socialism, under the given conditions. So my advice would be: full speed ahead, while bearing in mind the dangers I tried to underline.

While writing this letter, a good example just comes to my mind. The Antwerp shipyard and dockworkers made a huge conquest some 20 years ago. A definite number of workers would get a card as ‘stable workers’ under union control, and receive minimum pay, whether there was work for them or not. This demand, born of the experiences of the years 1929–38, would have been revolutionary and ‘unassimilable’ for capitalism under condition of crisis; under conditions of 20 years of nearly uninterrupted ‘boom’ in the docks, it became undoubtedly a means of corrupting a radical sector of the workers, creating in addition a dangerous division between the ‘permanently employed’ and privileged ones, and the ‘temporarily employed’ who have to go back on the dole each time the jobs are slightly reduced.

The above should in many respects be a key text for any Marxist cadre engaged in practical political work, especially in the field of workers’ control. The business of the workers’ control campaign is the ‘making of puddings, and the subsequent eating of them’, in docks, cars, education, communications, etc., etc. However, there are obvious dangers here in two directions, firstly adventurism, which could lead certain groups of workers into untenable positions. Secondly opportunism, that is, deluding oneself into accepting certain situations as being victories, when in fact they are merely participationist assimilation. The dividing line in each case can be very narrow, that is why it is the responsibility of Marxists both to give a lead and to remain with feet firmly planted on the ground of reality.

Before leaving the question of participation, however, it is necessary to describe a third sense in which the term is used. Ernie Roberts [2] was quick to point out (at the 1967 conference) that workers themselves may demand ‘participation’; but they may well mean by that word something much closer to what we mean by control than what the employers and government mean by participation.

An argument parallel to this question of control or participation arose in the context of the 1967 conference, and was resumed in a slightly different setting in 1968. This was the question of the efficacy of pursuing demands for legislative reform through parliament. Here again, it would be wrong to adopt a dogmatic anti-parliamentary position; gains which feed the appetite for, and consciousness of, control may be adopted in certain critical circumstances by a bourgeois legislature. Just as the conscious revolutionary forces may make mistakes in the direction of ‘assimilation’ so may hard-pressed governments, looking for concessions, err in the opposite direction. And we should bear in mind that reforms at one moment are on one side of the dividing line, yet fall on the other in different circumstances. Who, for instance, would have called one-man, one-vote a revolutionary demand before the events in Northern Ireland over the last 18 months? It would have been dismissed as a reformist demand, yet it (and other similar demands) sparked off a situation which had elements of a pre-revolutionary situation within it. When the Derry workers drove the police out of Bogside, that was not a reformist move. However, it remains axiomatic that the major breakthrough will most probably occur in industrial struggle, and our problem here is to make the transition from propagandist activity, or an educational role, to the work of initiation. That problem is most intimately connected with an earlier point – that our cadre-building must solve the division between workers and ‘politicos’. Our cadre must contain the worker militant leaders at the very core of its structure or it will fail. When that is achieved the solution to the propaganda–action dichotomy will probably follow. Yet perhaps this is a little too mechanistic; we should recognise that action for workers’ control demands can and probably will occur at any time, before any neat solution to this problem is found (GEC-EE Merseyside). [3] We should not underestimate the degree to which workers’ control is already a part of the conscious programme in several key industries.

So much for the second stage of development and its principle controversies. Of course we should expect that newly-recruited activists and whole sectors will continue to work their way through these phases anew: no one will come to the workers’ control movement fully appraised and conscious of this development. However, as the process takes place we may perhaps expect the transitions to be more rapid, as the movement learns to assimilate new groups of workers.

The third stage of development was marked by the conferences of 1968 and 1969, and the formation and work of the Institute of Workers’ Control. It is not difficult to identify a qualitative change in the movement, as a result of these events and developments. The numbers participating at the conferences, the increased representation of the industrial trade-union rank and file, the greatly expanded range of publications, all point to this change.

As the movement has grown in size and significance, it has attracted the attention of the left political groups. Some of them are wholly negative in their attitude, yet as organised forces they may find it possible to achieve some presence and exercise a divisive influence. It is now necessary to coordinate the thinking and the work of all those whose positive attitudes to the movement include a determination to protect it from such ultra-left forays, and also protect the movement from the place-seekers who wish to have some of the glamour of ‘leftism’ cast about them without in reality being committed. Neither of these tasks will be carried out by bans and proscriptions, but only by open and honest debate and discussion. But this debate must not be one-sided. The Lawrence Dalys [4] of this world must be told that the workers’ control campaign is not a vehicle for their own advancement.

No ready-made group at present has lived through this whole building process. It is therefore necessary to construct a Marxist cadre which is flexible enough, yet also committed enough, to carry the movement beyond its propagandist role into its activist one. This process must be a dialectical one, the present workers’ control movement will run into the sands of opportunism or ultra-leftism if no viable Marxist cadre is formed within, conversely no Marxist cadre can be created unless it participates in the building of this movement. Workers’ control is not just another campaign, it is central to the thinking of creative Marxists, those who are deeply committed to a vision of society that is self-managed.

We are now about to enter a new phase of industrial struggles, as we have seen by the wave of militancy over the last six months or so. One of the big questions looming ahead (indeed is here now) is that of productivity bargaining. The left must have an answer that is more than mere rejection, for at the heart of productivity bargaining is the question of power, and this is what the workers’ control campaign is also about.


1. IS – International Socialists, later the Socialist Workers Party – MIA.

2. Ernie Roberts (1912–1994) was a left-wing militant in the engineering industry; he became Assistant General Secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers in 1957, and was the Labour MP for Hackney North during 1979–87 – MIA.

3. GEC-EE – General Electric Company/English Electric, a major engineering company – MIA.

4. Lawrence Daly (1924–2009) was a left-wing militant in the National Union of Mineworkers; he became General Secretary of the Scottish section of the NUM in 1965, and was General Secretary of the NUM during 1968–84. He was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain during 1940–56, the Fife Socialist League during 1957–64, and after that the Labour Party – MIA.

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Last updated: 14 October 2014