Melbourne Anarchist Archives Index

On Workers' Control - 1 (1969)

The importance of the current revival of interest in "workers' control" is that it is a concept which could give rise to a movement synthesising the viewpoints of the marxists and anarcho-syndicalists and involving wider circles of workers than any purely political movement could.

If this is to happen however there will have to be some clarity as to what is meant by 'workers' control'. Within the movement defined by the term there seems to be three quite divergent positions. These are:

  1. workers' control as a defensive concept,
  2. workers' control as an aggressive concept, and
  3. workers' control as a method of organising society.

The first position is exemplified by Jack Hutson in an article in Australian Left Review, No. 1., 1969. He conceives workers' control as an ideological counter offensive against capitalist control and as an extension of the right of Trade Unions particularly in the workshops, through their representatives, to have an effective say in decisions made in respect to such matters as trade unionism, safety, welfare, discipline, wage fixation, appointment of supervisory staff, deployment of labour, technological changes, hiring and firing and access to financial records.

This amounts to control by the workers over the immediate job environment, a limited control over the longer term environment and a limited right of information. However radical a change this would be for Australia it remains a reformist demand in that it has largely been achieved at various times overseas without necessarily being part of a socialist offensive against capitalism. In West Germany trade unionists sit on the boards of directors in mining and steel concerns and have a large say in the appointment of personnel managers but this is participation rather than workers' control. A very real pre-requisite for workers' control is the abolition of supervisory staff and direct worker self-management on the shop floor.

In this defensive sense the word 'control' is a misnomer and what is really meant is a check on the absolute power of the capitalist - or state appointed manager - in his own enterprise. A similar interpretation was adopted by Lenin between 1917 and 1919 as a measure during the period of "dual power". In his conception the right of information was primary since his aim was to prevent capitalists from sabotaging the economy. But to understand workers' control as an aggressive concept it is necessary to turn from Lenin to the Russian workers.

Following the March revolution workers acting in the name of local soviets began seizing engineers and expelling unpopular foremen. In June the executive committee of the Soviets advised all industrial workers to create councils at the enterprises, the control embracing not only the course of work at the enterprise itself, but the entire financial side of the enterprise. Inspection of all financial matters was also being undertaken at this time. In October coal miners seized control of the mines. Most such actions were undertaken by the workers on the spot rather than by the soviets.

After the bolsheviks came to power they decided on the limited conception of worker control discussed above (and only later were forced to change to state ownership). Notwithstanding this many factory committees went beyond the Decree on Worker Control (sic) and took administration into their own hands. Of firms "nationalised" before June 1918 one hundred were nationalised by decree and four hundred "illegally" seized by the workers.

This aggressive and revolutionary conception of workers control comes naturally to the working class in periods of revolutionary crisis if the unions have remained autonomous or if autonomous workers' councils can be set up. A consideration of events of 1917 in Russia, 1919-20 in Italy, 1936 in Spain, 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in France lead to the conclusion that there is a spontaneous syndicalism of the working class and that the characteristic form of revolution in an industrial environment is the imposition of direct worker control. (Although this did not happen in France the factory occupations were a step in that direction and it was the CP-controlled unions that stopped the movement foreward. Similarly in Germany 1918 both unions and councils were dominated by the socialist party, and a specifically industrial power struggle could not develop). This fact has certainly been recognised hitherto but it has never been encouraged. However if there is to be a socialist revolution this spontaneous syndicalism will have to be linked with the conception of worker control as a mode of social organisation, i.e. self-management. This latter conception is at once both old and new.

In the past it was fundamental to guild socialism, anarchism and syndicalism; today reappears in the writings of East European humanist socialists and in far left western revolutionary thought. It is on its basis that the conflicting currents of the classical workers' movement can be reunited.

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