The phrase “workers’ control” is today frequently used as if it were some sort of definition of socialism. In fact it is nothing of the kind, implying as it does the continued existence of a working class and control of the productive system by units less than society.
The origin of the idea can be found in the 19th century divisions between socialists and anarchists. These saw society from two completely opposed points of view. Socialists saw society and the individual as reciprocal terms; the one couldn’t exist without the other. The anarchists, on the other hand, as a caricature of bourgeois individualism, saw the individual as the important unit, as an isolated being. For them society was a restriction on the freedom of the individual. While socialists recognised the need for an organisation to arrange the affairs of society as a whole, the anarchists were for a free federation of local communities and as much decentralisation as possible.
Socialists did distinguish between society and the state. In their view the State, as a coercive instrument, only flourished in class societies and was the instrument whereby a ruling class controlled society. In the classless society of the future there would be no coercive government machine, central control would be purely administrative. Unfortunately many people, including some who called themselves socialists, overlooked this distinction between society and the state.
In Germany, for example, this was the period of the “cult of the state.” The state was Truth, Freedom and so on; its mission was to free mankind; to do this it must be made democratic. The anarchists, understandably, rejected this view though their view of the state was equally inadequate: for them it was the enemy and root of all evil, Kropotkin correctly labelled the views of the German Social Democrats of this period as state capitalism.
In opposition, Kropotkin put forward the idea that the basic unit of the future society should be the free commune; where necessary, as for running things like the railways, these communes should be linked in a loose federation. This is the doctrine of Anarcho-Communism; it should be contrasted with the socialist view, that the basic unit of future society can only be society itself.
The real origin of the idea of workers’ control comes from another anarchist trend, anarcho-syndicalism. The commune, of course, is a geographical unit. For the anarcho-syndicalists the basic unit was not to be geographical, but industrial, with industrial unions as the basis of the new society. The workers in a particular industry would own and control that industry through their union. Once again, the various unions were to be linked together in a federation. More elaborate plans envisaged an Industrial Republic, a world Federation of Labour. The syndicalists, who were particularly strong in France (whence their name, from the French word for trade union, syndicat), advocated that the workers should directly own and control the means of production. This was opposed to the socialist view, that under socialism the free producers would own and control the means of production as a whole through society. The slogans Workers’ Control, The Mines for the Miners, The Factories to the Workers, are all syndicalist in origin.
At the turn of the century the idea was taken up by the American Daniel De Leon. He put forward the idea of what he called Socialist Industrial Unionism. Under this scheme the means of production were to be collectively owned, but administered by the workers through Industrial Unions. De Leon, the leader of the Socialist Labor Party, was also one of the founders of the I.W.W., the Industrial Workers of the World.
De Leon’s conception of the future society was criticised because it didn’t recognise that society would be the unit, and because it allowed for conflicts of interest between the producers in different industries. Under Socialism, there could be no permanent conflict groups; society as a whole would exercise democratic control over the means of production.
The Russian Revolution was a further source of theories of workers’ control. It often happens that when the capitalist class temporarily lose control through the breakdown of the government machine and general anarchy is threatened, the workers do the obvious: they take over the factories and try to run them themselves. This happened in Russia in 1917-18, in Italy in 1921, in Spain in 1936 and in Hungary in 1956. In Italy and in Spain the experiments rapidly came to an end as soon as the capitalists had regained control. In Hungary the Red Army performed this task. In Russia the Bolsheviks were faced with a fait accompli: the workers had themselves seized the factories. All the Bolsheviks could do was to pass decrees recognising this.
These experiments in workers’ control failed, not least because of the inexperience of the workers, which was not surprising considering the backwardness of Russia at that time. In order to keep production, going the Bolsheviks had to institute one-man management. The idea of workers’ control and workers’ councils still lived on in the minds of dissident Bolsheviks, and some of these developed a coherent theory. These theories received more support in the general reaction against Stalinism after the second world war, when the bureaucratic State Capitalism of Russia was said to have its origins in the decision to end workers’ control in 1918. This was hardly an adequate explanation, of the excesses of Stalin’s rule, but, it did provide some sort of an answer for disillusioned ex-Stalinists.
Ideas of workers’ control became more popular in periods of disorder of the sort described above. The experiences of these periods have provided the basis for many theories’ of workers’ control and of spontaneous revolution without understanding or organisation. They have become part of a general mythology fostered by loose-thinking and an inadequate understanding of the nature of present-day society. These episodes in Russia, Italy and elsewhere have very little relevance for socialism; they were not socialist in character and could not have led to socialism, even if they hadn’t been suppressed.
A little thought shows them to be exceptional and isolated incidents occurring when the control of the capitalist class had been weakened. But workers imbued with capitalist prejudices before the collapse can be expected to keep them during and after it. Without socialist understanding there was bound to be a rapid return to normal capitalism as soon as order was restored. Unfortunately, clear thinking is uncommon on this whole question of workers’ control. It seems to be a slogan full of meaning. A closer examination discloses its inadequacy.
Basically it reflects the anarchist hostility to society and social control as such; it also reflects their naive insistence that everything should be done through voluntary associations rather than permanent machinery. Basically the demand for workers’ control is a demand that the workers on the shop-floor should control production through a workshop organisation rather than through society. Quite apart from the fact that there won’t be any “workers” under Socialism, this demand is unrealistic and Utopian. The productive system of today is incredibly complicated in its world-wide organisation. It could only be controlled by society as a whole through a fairly complex and permanent administrative apparatus. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the nature of the modern world with its large-scale industry.