Book Review: The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control

A Great Exaggeration

The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control by Maurice Brinton. Solidarity. 25p.

Built-in to capitalism is a conflict between the capitalists who own the means of production and the wage-earning or working class who operate them. This conflict goes on without its participants being necessarily or fully aware of its nature and its most obvious signs are strikes over wages and working conditions. However, this is not just a wages struggle; it is a struggle between the two classes for control over the means of production. In its highest form the workers consciously organise to win political power with the aim of transferring the ownership of the means of production from the capitalist class to the community as a while.

This stage has yet to be reached, but incidents in working class history already show that the class struggle is more than mere wage bargaining. When, under exceptional circumstances such as occur after wars, the capitalists’ control over their factories has broken down the workers have themselves on a number of occasions taken over the means of production and through trade unions or factory committees tried to keep production going. Such “workers’ control” was not Socialism nor could it have led to Socialism because most of the workers involved had never been convinced socialists. The State has always been able to re-assert capitalist control.

The classic example of this was the occupation of the factories in Northern Italy in 1921, but before that in Russia in 1917 something similar had happened. Engineering workers in Petrograd in particular took over control of the factories where they worked. Brinton’s book is an account of how between 1917 and 1921 the Bolshevik government suppressed this “workers’ control” and instituted instead their own state (capitalist) control.

This process of suppression began soon after the Bolsheviks had seized power in November 1917 which clearly showed up right from the start (rather than from the death of Lenin) their anti-working class character. These facts have long been known to Socialists but will probably be new to Trotskyists and their ilk.

The book suffers from a number of defects, not least that when he conies to theorise Brinton shares the illusions of the anarchists, syndicalists and dissident Bolsheviks he quotes. He does not bring forward any evidence to show that “workers’ control” enjoyed the general support of the workers he seems to suggest it did. He ignores the problems the partisans of “workers’ control” would have faced had they triumphed, in view of the economic backwardness of Russia as a whole where four-fifths of the population were peasants who had never been near a factory.

To see, as Brinton does, the Russian Revolution as essentially an unsuccessful attempt to establish “workers’ control” is a great exaggeration. The occupation of the factories was only incidental to the seizure of political power by the Bolsheviks and their use of it to sweep away out-dated obstacles to the development of capitalism in Russia — and was only made possible by the same breakdown of law and order which allowed the Bolsheviks to seize power.

The attempt to maintain “workers’ control” was doomed to fail not only because of Russia’s economic backwardness but also because of the lack of understanding of the Russian workers. Oddly enough at one point Brinton comes very near to expressing our view — and almost in our own words — of events in Russia in 1917:

“The year 1917 certainly saw a tremendous social upheaval. But it was a utopian dream to assume that socialism could be achieved without a large proportion of the population both understanding and wanting it. The building of socialism . . . can only be the self conscious and collective act of the immense majority.”

We do not mind people making the analysis we pioneered but we would prefer this to be openly acknowledged rather than disguised by the kind of inaccurate account of our position given by Brinton in his introduction.

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