Workers’ Control and the Theory of Socialism
From New Interventions, Vol.3 No.3, 1992
The present revival of interest in workers’ control comes at a time when established socialist attitudes are being challenged in both East and West. The heavy economic losses involved by the attempt to apply Stalin’s military command economy to an industrial society which has passed beyond the stage of primitive accumulation have already caused serious re-thinking in the Soviet Union. The Czechoslovak economy, more developed than that of the Soviet Union, experienced a "negative rate of growth" (which translated from Stalinist gobbledegook means a decline in output). The present liberalisation debates are in an important degree the offspring of a decentralisation in economic command which was enacted as a consequence.
The vision of "the plan" as utopia has been cruelly disrupted. Decentralisation has been placed on the order of the day. Yet this in turn raises fresh problems. If real entrepreneurial decisions are to be taken at enterprise level, the role which the party has played over decades as the universal progress chaser of the plan becomes superfluous. Is it then to restrict itself to a purely pastoral role or, logically, to relinquish hegemony altogether? Again if real entrepreneurial decisions are to be taken at enterprise level, what justification can there be in a socially owned economy for excluding the social producers in the enterprise from a say in, or control over, these decisions?
The demand that workers both as individuals and as a class shall now enter into the patrimony from which the party in the self-appointed role of god-like protector has hitherto excluded them, will now most certainly begin to be raised. In Britain and Western Europe similarly the old ideas of nationalisation are up for renewal. If the Miners are dissatisfied with the National Coal Board, then it is a measure of structural change, not "nationalisation" that they must propose. If the Electricians have their differences with the Electricity Board, these must take the form of posing a positive alternative if they are not to become more demagogic militancy which leads nowhere because the leaders do not know where they wish to go. If the Steel Workers don’t like the Board, then they should show us how they wish it should be changed. Nationalisation has lost much of its old mystique. The production workers at BMC Cowley see no reason to find the nationalised Renault plant an archetype of the new society, nor it may be presumed will the consumer, having seen the stubby Skoda on the British scene, see in this a desirable alternative either. The abolition of capitalist enterprise must lead to visibly improved social control and a visibly improved product, if it is to gain fresh attraction for a tolerably affluent Western European working class.
In the United States, which the USSR after five decades of endeavour has, despite incredible sacrifices and hardship, still "to catch up and surpass", the dream of prosperity begins to assume the character of a chromium plated nightmare. Wealth beyond the dreams of mankind half a century ago has led neither to a happier, nor to a more socially conscious and socially responsible working class and national community. The United States as a whole is in danger of drowning in its own affluence whilst the submerged Negro tenth in the ghetto simmers on the brink of a wild unplanned revolt. The long-held radical beliefs that increasing affluence, of itself, would lead to a broadening and widening of human values faces a living refutation in the lives of 200,000,000 citizens of the United States. Plainly, affluence alone is not enough. The Great American Dream has gone wrong precisely because it is predicated on the jackal theory that each man lives off his fellow and that the good society emerges through a callous self-regarding lack of concern for any interest except one’s own. As a result the city becomes a desert and no one is more alone than when in the midst of mankind. In production terms the United States has already entered the Soviet promised land. If the goal is to deliver no more than this, then the answer is plain to see. Russia’s sacrifices, gigantic as they were, have been made in vain. Affluence alone is not a justifiable goal. Affluence without a healthy socially oriented society creates mass murder in Vietnam, violence in the ghetto and on the streets, a society in which there is no other criterion of worth than the dollar, the elevation of power as an end in itself, the degradation of man to no more than a cipher to be manipulated as an individual by the mass media and to serve in the mass as none other than a giant intestine for the absorption of limitlessly expanding quantities of consumer goods whose production is essential to keep the wheels of the profit machine turning.
Workers’ control then is valid in the countries passing out of the stage of primitive capital accumulation because decentralisation is now economically obligatory and this offers the opportunity for the workers to re-enter the political scene and assert control over their destiny at the point of production.1 Workers’ control is valid in Britain because only by postulating positive concrete alternatives to the status quo can the working class apply its mass economic and political power to the transformation of society. Workers’ control is valid in the USA since the increasingly manipulative and corporative control of society has led to growing numbers of citizens, young people in the main, but others also, rejecting totally the values of the most economically successful, richest and most powerful nation the world has ever known. The alternative to corporative control is a genuine social democracy and we may expect increasing numbers of Americans to recognise that fact.
Workers’ control is relevant too in another way, as yet insufficiently appreciated. A great deal of what has passed for socialist theory in recent decades has been nothing more than the sentimental reiteration of tired-out clichés. The average left winger, inside or outside of the Communist Party, has seen in the Russian Revolution the pattern of our future, just as George Julian Harney, red sans-culottes cap on his head, mistakenly expected the French Revolution to arrive in Britain like an approaching thunderbolt at the time of the Chartist upsurge in 1848. Harney of course was 59 years behind the times. Some of our own people are no less.
The view these comrades have of life is distinguished by childlike simplicity. Under capitalism nothing can be done. Under socialism everything can be done. Each statement is of course as absurd as the other. The first is reactionary defeatism disguised in revolutionary phrases. The second is utopian romanticism dressed up in an ill-fitting Marxist cloak. The advocates of either view have learnt nothing from British or Russian history over half a century. Unless, like Rip Van Winkle, they now wake up, one despairs of them ever leaning anything.
Intimately associated with this child’s view of history is a total failure to understand the nature of the world in which we live.
No one of course is about to deny the H Bomb, the two world wars, the revolutions in the East, the thousand contradictions to which the system is subjected. What needs to be contested is the Mr Micawber, waiting for something (in this case revolution) to turn up, attitude which results. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist International of March 1919 launched the Communist Parties of the world on the premises that the World Revolution was on the order of the day, that the whole of Western Europe would fall in a matter of months, a year at the outside, two years at the most. That prophecy has totally failed of fulfilment. With the exception of the Yugoslav (and perhaps Czech), there exists no Communist Party in Europe which rose to power by any other method than that of riding in on the back of the Russian Army. The Revolution in Western Europe, 49 years later, still awaits to be born.
The collapse of the Leninist-Trotskyist scheme is rooted neither in the errors of Stalinism, nor in the sins, if sins they be, of Trotskyism. The source of collapse lies in the fact that the key prognosis on which the Communist Movement was launched has not been fulfilled. The final crisis of the productive system which in inaugurating an era of absolute stagnation and decline was to drive the workers into Revolution, has, in retrospect, proved a utopian myth.
World energy production, a key indicator, stood at 9,387 million megawatt hours of electricity equivalent in 1910. This rose to 11,298 in 1920 and 20,556 in 1950. It has risen a great deal further since then. Far from a "final crisis" of stagnation and decline, the energy available for man’s productive activity increased more in the years 1910 to 1950 than in the whole of previous recorded history. Between 1909-1918 and 1939-1948 the national income of the United States, despite the slump, more than doubled, outstripping population growth by a wide margin, and has risen greatly since then. As far as Western Europe is concerned, the strategic general crisis is utopia. If we take 1955 as a base year, industrial production stood at 51 in 1913, 67 in 1937, 100 in 1955. Given that despite two world wars, the average standard of living roughly doubled between 1913 and 1955 the absence of social revolution is not surprising. All that remains for as a matter of astonishment is that in such circumstances anyone should expect the apocalypse at all.
The fact is that the larger proportion of well-intentioned "Marxists" have in this context conducted themselves as utopian romantics. Unable to postulate any other programme than to prepare for a revolution not on the order of the day they have resorted to a left wing version of Bernsteinism in which activism (the movement) is everything and the final goal (which constantly changes) is nothing. The hysterical gyrations of the Socialist Labour League show this phenomenon in the most highly developed form. Only modesty prevents one naming others who exhibit the same symptoms but in a lesser degree.
The real problem for socialists, that is excluding the wilfully blind, utopian romanticist Mr Micawber, forever waiting for something to turn up, is to adapt the left wing socialist programme to conditions of limited prosperity, to take account of the fact that whilst in the twenty years 1921-1941 unemployment never went below the 1,000,000 mark (and reached 3,000,000 in 1931) in the 22 years that followed 1945 it has yet, despite the present Labour Government, to reach this figure, except for the few weeks fuel crisis in 1947. For those of us who reject the Micawber view of history, the problem is one of, within the objectively determined limits of the existing situation, so aligning and utilising our forces as to maximise the possibilities of eroding and transforming the existing framework of society, the social productive relations which determines its class character and rule.
If the foregoing be true, it follows that neither an apocalyptic collapse of the Labour Party, nor the meteoric rise of a new socialist revolutionary party can be relied upon. The Independent Labour Party, powerful in the 1920s, is now a hollow shell with almost as many officers as members. Commonwealth, the sun of 1944, is no more. The Socialist Labour League, like some other less vicious organisations, reveals a total inability to grow beyond the boundaries of a sect, or to assume other than a Peter Pan age composition which proves conclusively that members march out at one point of the age scale as steadily as they march in at another. The Communist Party, founded to displace the Labour Party in 1920, is revealed 47 years later as less influential than the SDF. In a nation with a working population of over 20,000,000 the Communist Party has proved unable, for more than a decade, to muster enough support to elect even a single member of Parliament. Sectarian politics have demonstrably failed and they have failed more than any other reason due to a total inability to realistically relate ends to means.
The logical fallacy of "either-or" on which the sectarian position depends is not of course a valid one for any socialist. Their apocalyptic, either total socialism, or total capitalism view of the social revolutionary process has more in common with primitive magic than dialectical materialism. It was Marx in his Critique of Political Economy who wrote that "political revolution becomes social revolution when a hitherto socially oppressed class is forced to complete its political emancipation by its social, on account of its low position in society becoming incompatible with its political predominance". Just as General Giap’s final assault on Dien Bien Phu was preceded by so comprehensive a degree of preparatory moves as to make final victory verge on the inevitable, so the social revolution must be prepared, most certainly in the advanced and affluent countries, by a steady erosion of capitalist power over time and the establishment of working class centres of authority within the hostile framework of capitalist society. This view, most ably stated by James Connolly, first chairman of the Socialist Labour Party from which the first generation Communist Party leaders sprang, remains a valid one. Connolly remarks:
"the function is to build up an industrial republic inside the shell of the political State, in order that when that industrial republic is fully organised it may crack the shell of the political State and step into its place in the scheme of the Universe. The power of this idea to transform the dry detail work of trade union organisation into the constructive work of revolutionary socialism and thus to make of the unimaginative trade unionist, a potent factor in the launching of a new system of society cannot be overstated. It invests the daily incidents of the class struggle with a new and beautiful meaning and presents them in their true light as skirmishes between the two opposing armies of light and darkness. In the light of this principle ... every fresh shop or factory organised under its banner is a fort wrested from the control of the capitalist class and manned with soldiers of the Revolution to be held by them for the workers."2
That the Connolly view is correct is thoroughly understood by militant workers who have seen the major changes in life experience and status which have taken place during their own lifetime and those of their parents. Those who deny it are as a rule, middle class intellectuals, students, and others whose style of life has over the same period not been subject to any comparable change in an upward direction. Such people, whilst to their credit rejecting the barrack state which is the product of Stalinism’s military method of primitive collective accumulation, have, because of their apocalyptic view of history, no idea either of what to put in its place, or how to set about doing it, even if they had.
In short, those socialists who are not Liberals in pink clothing, those socialists, who also reject the Soviet barrack state as a model,3 must have clear ideas about their own alternative, how it is to be achieved, how a collective economy may be guaranteed against a Stalinist relapse.
The campaign for workers’ control which seeks to erode capitalist economic class power at the point of production and guarantee a collective economy against state dictatorship by vesting real economic (and therefore political) power with the workers themselves, provides an alternative platform of criticism and of action. At the present moment of history the British Labour Movement desperately needs a more thought out vision of the world it wishes to build for without that it will never succeed in implanting its own image upon the nation. There are numberless fields in which this is possible.
The infamous York Memorandum, in the engineering industry could be amended to delete the notorious clause that "the duty of management is to manage" and replace it with something more in line with the ideas of industrial democracy. The whole nature of company law, its reactionary and outdated attribution of sole control to shareholders and total exclusion from authority of the workers on whose labour the company and its profits depends needs to be challenged and transformed. The obsolescence of many features of Parliamentary Government which sprang from an era of oligarchic rule and economic laisser faire needs to be definitely criticised and re-examined. Political democracy it has been said is nothing without economic democracy. But how is economic democracy to be expressed? By simple parliamentary forms? By a House of Producers alongside the House Commons? By totally new political forms? These are real and valid questions. Bourgeois democracy has been a product of bourgeois class rule. Industrial, working class rule, will require its own organs of power. What will they be?
Not only do such questions need to be raised and resolved. The conclusions need to be taken into the heart of the mass organisations of the British working class. Between 1890 and 1910 the socialists, hitherto shut out by Liberal leaders, effectively converted the unions. This was done so effectively that the unions proved the rock on which the Gaitskell anti-Clause Four offensive ground to a halt forty years later. The workers’ control, industrial democracy movement, must now set itself to convert the unions, just as the socialists converted them in 1890-1910. No strategy of industrial democracy can succeed without the convinced support of the workers themselves and with that the class organisations which they themselves have created and ultimately control. The struggle to convert the unions should now become the main order of the day. Our task from now on should be to make industrial democracy a part of the bread and butter labour movement issues, to assimilate it into the flesh and blood of the movement. Industrial democracy, can, if we wish, become practical day to day politics, the connecting of missing connecting links between theory and practice, the bridge which brings the world to the brink and over the brink into the new. That sectarian politics have manifestly failed is, I suggest, manifestly plain to see. New roads open up before us, the time to commence the journey has begun.
1. "In the history of Soviet planning the worker appears as a disposable factor, the slave who sits down to eat the crumbs at the table when once the banquet is done. The first priorities in the plan provide for capital accumulation for defence, the secret police, the vast inflated apparatus of statised bureaucracy which makes forced accumulation possible. The allocation of gross national production between consumption and accumulation is decided in secret, behind closed doors, without any reference to the working class. In this vital sphere the workers influence is undoubtedly a great deal less than in capitalist society where the workers mass organisations are able to a visible and perceptible degree, to make their influence felt." (Walter Kendall, "Stalinist Socialism", Socialist Leader, 15 August 1965.)
2. James Connolly, Socialism Made Easy, Socialist Labour Press, Glasgow, 1917, pp.26,19. Connolly’s words refer to the function of the Industrial Union but they are equally appropriate to our work today.
3. William Paul of Derby was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In his excellent The State: Its Origins and Function, published by the Socialist Labour Party in 1917, he makes this excellent analysis of the dangers of a statised system which illustrates the extent to which the present workers’ control movement is reviving an earlier but hitherto largely lost tradition of democratic socialism. The quotation would certainly strike an echo in Poland or Czechoslovakia today.
"As capitalism enters upon its final stage ... the desire to control national production, the fear of industrial unrest, and the wish to enforce discipline upon the workers will compel the capitalist class to extend State control. The extension of State control will bring with it armies of official bureaucrats, who will only be able to maintain their posts by tyrannising and limiting the freedom of the workers. The nominal wages of the workers may rise, but it will be at the expense of their relative position in society and of the limitation of their freedom. Within such a system the workers will be little better than serfs. And instead of having to overthrow a system buttressed by a handful of individual capitalists, the workers will be faced by a gigantic army of State-subsidised officials, who will fight like tigers to maintain their status and power. Such indeed is the logical outcome of State or National ownership. It is a social despotism organised from above." (Emphasis in original.) This paper was presented to the Institute of Workers’ Control Conference in 1967.