Tendance Coatesy

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Workers’ Control: The Note That Grew.

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Above available from Spokesman Books.


 (Extract from The Spirit of Factions and Sects – still being worked on. This is a revised and expanded version).

 [This follows a chapter on the Soviet Union and Stalinism. Criticisms of that is..)



Two ways of arriving at socialism…


“One way is the way of democracy of working men; the way of raising the level of production; of voluntary self-reliant activity, self-discipline of the masses. This is, in our   opinion, the only way that can lead, and will inevitably lead, to the triumph of Socialism; while the other ruinous way is the way of the deprivation of the working classes themselves of every right and liberty, the way of transforming the working masses into a scattered human herd, submitted to benevolent dictators, benevolent specialist of socialism, who drive men in this paradise by means of a stick.”


Moscow Printers’ leader, Mark Kefali, in the presence of the British Labour Delegation to Russia, 1920. (55)


Where does this leave us? That is those democratic Marxists who continue to consider that social being should be democratically organised, who refuse the separation of economics from this politics, and who are open to the way outlined by the dissidents and the awkward squad, against Stalinism and capitalism? For all the horrors of totalitarian Stalinism, there are elements from the ‘broken middle’ – the ground between abstract theory and state politics, the area where democracy become actual, and takes an institutional form, which remain to be explored. Marxism is a theory of the development of the capitalist mode of production, the rich variety of social formations in which it is the dominant social pattern, class struggles and the types of state apparatuses (arrays) which are the political condensation of these determinations and conflicts. The most basic elements of class conflict, division of interest, and creation of challenges to the existing order, from the directly economic, to the communities shaped around work, are fundamental to Marxism. This is one the richest sources of stasis in capitalist societies that there is. One might add that attempts in bourgeois society (defined in the most abstract way) to reach a solid and stable sensus communis, is the result of the continuous gnawing away at any hegemonic consensus by the scalding inflicted on it by the heat from these clashes. 


Its most economic and political aspect is centred on the organisation of the workforce into trade unions, or ‘combinations’. The growth of capital means the spread and increase of the working class, while at the same time it expands the division of labour, plant, and machinery, forcing more competition between wage-earners and putting pressure on their wages. How do they react? Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England  (1845) began by describing manufacturing, the centralisation of population and the intense competition between wage earners, in, principally, the prototype industrial city, Manchester. Admit scenes of great squalor and poverty, the workers were treated as “a chattel” as “property”, and this creates amongst the working man “opposition to the whole conditions of his life.”  Such inherent rebellion began with crime, then revolts against machinery (“the “first inventors, Arkwright and others, were harassed in this way and their machines destroyed”), and, finally, with their repeal of the combination act in 1822, strikes and free associations of the workers began. Their objects? To “fix wages and to deal, en masse, as a power, with the employers; to regulate the rate o wages according to the profits of the latter, to raise it when opportunity offered, and to keep it unfair in each trade throughout the country.”  Up to this time, Engels noted, they had largely met with defeat. Yet even with certain failure, when pressed to the quick, and facing wage reductions or increased hours, workers continued to withhold their labour. Why? Because “”they feel bound to proclaim that they, as human begins, shall not be made to bow to social circumstances, but social conditions ought to yield to them as human beings.” From this grew class hatred, against the property-owning class. The unions, in this school of  “social war” were formed in the face of great adversary, by the workers themselves and nurtured, Engels saw, a kind of enduring courage, needed for the long-haul. Chartism, he considered, arose from this soil, it was “of an essentially social nature, a class movement.” Socialism, in Britain at the time, largely in Engel’s view “tame and peaceable”, had not yet properly fused with Chartism, had nevertheless started, “The union of Socialism with Chartism, the reproduction of French Communism un an English manner, will be the next step, and has already begun. Then only, when this has been achieved, will the working class be the true intellectual leader of England. Meanwhile political and social development will proceed, and will foster this new party, this new department of Chartism.”  He considered in addition that “English Socialism affords the most pronounced expression of the prevailing absence of religion among the working men (my emphasis), an expression so pronounced indeed that the mass of the working men, being unconsciously and merely practically irreligious, often draw back before it. But here, too, necessity will force the working men to abandon the remnants of a belief which, as they will more and more clearly perceive, serves only to make them weak and resigned to their fate, obedient and faithful to the vampire property-holding class.


In a nutshell then, Engels in 1845 painted a picture of a complex interaction between economic and social class conflict – from the most basic clash over wages and hours to the standard of living in its widest sense – with the organisational, political and intellectual development of the working class. All the sophisticated writing that has accumulated over the years on the reality that The Condition described, and theories of how these new forms of organisation and politics emerged, has to explain in substance the way in which the nodal points of direct economic conflict and fights over broader living conditions are related to political upsurges. It is worth reading and re-reading Engels to be reminded that while it may be true that many political conflicts have no obvious immediate class origins (ethnic and religious clashes notably involve a spectrum of fractional sparks and are over-determined by factors such as ideology and the deep customs of everyday life), in this founding case in 1840’s Britain and Chartism, politics were immediately and directly bound to class struggle.


There are more general causal mechanisms at work here, which, in the welter of Marxist scholarship on the vast continent that is Historical Materialism, one often tends to forget. In Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy (1846 – 1847) associations of workers, brought together by large-scale industry, are a rational response to this downward drag on pay, and a “veritable civil war” arises “a class against capital”, yet not a fully untied mass which is a “class for itself” – a political force able to take on the state as well as the capitalists. In Wages Prices and Profit (1865) modified the general tendency of Capital to depress wages with the observation that there is a “traditional standard of life” beyond which it would be hard for the employers to abolish, though they may well try to go to the ‘physical limits’ needed for human existence. The ultimate layer of class conflict was the fight over the length of the working day, “ a struggle between collective capital. I/e/ the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class.”  The trade unions were nevertheless there to “prevent the reduction of wages below the level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry. That is to say, they wish to prevent the price of labour power from falling below its value.” In this, “The workers combine in order to achieve equality of a sort with the capitalist in their contrary concerning the sale of their labour.” Capital still has the upper hand.  Against is constant pressure union ‘guerrilla tactics’, though important, were not sufficient. What should be the aim? Trade unions failed though if they kept to these boundaries, fighting the effects of the system, “instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”


These generalities were enriched by later experience.  As the century passed Marx and Engels observed other forms of workers’ struggles, not just over wages and conditions, or the sharp conflicts in the labour process, but efforts to create producers and consumers’ co-operatives. The first of these is marked by a long war over the introduction of machinery, “which becomes a competitor of the worker himself.” Marx observed that, “It is therefore when machinery arrives on the scene that the worker for the first time revolts savagely against the instruments of labour.” As a result of this process, “the social characteristics of their labo9ru come to confront the workers so to speak in a capitalised form; this machinery is an instance of the way in which the visible products of labour take on the appearance of its masters. The same transformation may be observed in the forces of nature and science, the products of the general development of history in its abstract quintessence. “ They “appear as an integral part of capital whenever they intervene in the labour process.” In a related, an equally extensive process. The work of supervision engenders conflicts; “this work of supervision necessarily arises between the worker as direct producer and the proprietor of the means of production. The greater this opposition, the greater the role that this work of supervision plays. It reaches its high point in the slave system.” In the capitalist system it is fused “with the productive functions that all combined social labour assigns to particular individuals in their special work.” The nature of supervisory – management – tasks – will be considered below. But clearly it most directly – in the labour process – is the root of an important layer of conflict – between foremen and workers.


With a concentration on the central mechanisms inside the mechanisms of industry, production, distribution and, these aspects of conflict, over surplus value and the labour process, Marx did not write in detail about the kind of state itnervetion which, fore example, the Communist Manifesto proposed (state bank, progressive taxation, free education, ‘national workshops’ – demand 16). Demand no 16 was not fleshed-out. Yet the central attempt in the 19th century to institute some kind of, state-sponsored, intervention in industry on behalf of the working class is best known for having attempted to implement this (from a very different ideological basis, naturally). The 1848 Revolution threw up the reformist socialist, Louis Blanc, as a member of the 2nd republic’s government. The February revolution, Marx noted in The Class Struggles in France: 1848 – 1850  “was forced by direct pressure of the proletariat to proclaim it is a republic with social institutions. “ As part of the unstable alliances and compromises that swept across Paris and France in this ever-changing situation Blanc was widely held responsible for setting up the so-called ‘National Workshops’ (ateliers nationaux), though they were set up and run by the bourgeois republican M.Maire which (against Marx’s claims that they resembled workhouses) engaged in some useful labour, such as tree-plating though in the main became parking places for the out-of-work. To the German observer, they were “nothing other than the sue of workers for tedious, monotonous, unproductive earthworks for a daily wage of 23 sous.” Marx correctly noted the confusion they created: the lower middle class hated them as a ‘socialist’ measure; the workers defended them, an “army for mutiny”. This classic text then concentrates on the political struggles that toppled the Republican Cabinets and paved the way for the reign of Louis Bonaparte. But instead of neglecting Blanc’s own vision of socialisation perhaps we should investigate it: it reveals something more ambitious than the Communist manifesto’s own plans for workshops, labour armies: it traces out the first social democratic programme of state sponsored reform. This was, based on a complex theory of the ‘organisation of work’ inside a strong public sector. Thus, in the ‘Social Workshops’ (ateliers sociaux) which formed the centrepiece of his theories, workers were helped by the state, but on their own initiative, united in these associations. The National Workshops, Blanc noted, left the workers merely as employees, and engaged in sterile, a waste of public money, and a type of charity. Blanc, and this is usually neglected outside of France, therefore offered a combination of public infrastructure and – in effect – wage-earner control-as s his model. As pillars of that framework Blanch added proposals to establish a central state bank, limit the working day, universal education and a range of what would now be called health and safety ideas. The sparks that flew when the bourgeoisie succeeded in shutting down the National Workshops, (expelling Blanc from the government) led to the doomed June Insurrection. One wonder what would have happened if Blanc’s schemes were ever put into practice. Yet they remain the first open social-democratic project of industrial, economic reform. Marx tended to denigrate the French party of ‘social democracy’, which like its middle class and property-owning counterparts, he considered fixated on the republic (either red or bourgeois). Yet perhaps Alexis de Tocqueville was more perceptive in seeing not just a (absent) presence of the working class’s radical assault on the capitalist order, but also its presence in the Revolution, in the ‘socialism’ of those like Louis Blanc. Blanc’s views, while (like, the majority of French radicals of the period) did not attack on private property as such, but proposed to make social functions socially responsible. This to Tocqueville this showed that this revealed a n attack on the £unalterable laws that constitute society itself… And, “to speak specifically about property, which is, so to speak, the foundation of social order, when all the privileges that cover and conceal the privilege of property had been abolished and property remained as the main obstacle to equality among men and seemed to be the only sign thereof£” – the defenders of Order too fright. To this tempered liberal the whole experience shows that “Socialism will always remain he most essential feature of the February Revolution.” One that left the most frightening memory.”


Even more terrifying memories were to follow in France. One could say that the experience of self-organisation in the Paris Commune, “the political form of the social emancipation, of the liberation of labour from the usurpations (slave-holding) of the monopolists of the means of labour”, the basis of a “new organisation of production” the “delivery (setting free) of the social forms of production in present organised labour”.  That was to democratically take on the market, or rather, presage new forms within the old, while not abolishing it. Marx speculated in Capital Vol. 111 that “Capitalist joint-stock companies as much as cooperative factories should be viewed as transition forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, simply that in the one case the opposition is abolished in a negative way, in the other in a positive way.” (Even asserting that their workers did not see co-operative factories as ‘alien’ powers). Yet there were influences that could impede this realisation. Engels observed in his 1892 Introduction to the Condition that British unions had, by the latter half of the century, long embraced respectability. In craft associations they had, given favourable terms of trade maintained and improved the position of their members. So much so that they had become “an aristocracy amongst the working class.” He speculated that this was possible because in some fashion (not clearly explained) the English international       ”industrial monopoly” all workers have benefited to some extent, and this “privileged minority” had “pocketed most”. Yet all had gained something. Only when this began to breakdown, and industrial unions of the non-privileged workers had begun to be organised was this challenged. – by New Unionism. From this one could conclude that like many Marxist tendential statements, the law of class struggle is open to many ‘counter-acting’ influences. Perhaps this reinforces the case for total change. Engels, throughout his life, empathised that it was the ‘wages system’ itself which needed abolishing (when – during or as the transition to Socialism remains unsettled). Yet his objective remained that should be “possession of the means of work – raw material, factories, machinery – by the working people themselves.”


From this brief summary one can see that a wide variety of different Marxist, neo-Marxist and beyond-Marxist approaches have developed. Initially we can see that workers’ control, and ownership, flows directly from the neo-Ricardian idea that labour creates al wealth, and d that it should belong to it. Marx then produced the concept of labour power, which complicates matters (how is value, which becomes a social product, circulating around the economy and the global circuits of capital, be  ‘returned’ to workers remains an unsettled point, and will always be so).  From the orthodox, calls for the abolition of the wages-system, the pursuit of the trade union fight as the minimum basis of social democratic organisation, the projection of a new social set-up as efforts are made to bring machinery (embodied labour) to workers’ needs, the autonomist affirmation of workers’ power against supervision, the reformist effort to ameliorate conditions by factory legislation, “the first conscious and methodical reaction of society against the spontaneously developed form of its production process…” In short: a broad division between those who assemble the strands in Marx and Engels’s writing that favour reform of the conditions of capitalism (legislation), those who reject it totally (on the model of the Luddite violent attack on machinery), and those who seek some kind of bridge between the day-to-day trade union business of defending workers’ wages and trying to improve their conditions, with broader ambitions – the social ownership of the means of production. Against these approaches it is important to bear in mind two very different strands of thought, which form the axle of the left opposition to workers’ control. The first is that these describe mere tinkering with the value producing process at the heart of capitalism. In fact, this kind of ‘fetishism’ theory argues, the workers are caught up in an ’internal’ relation with the forms of capitalist production, its ‘hieroglyphics’ have such a stamp on the kind that nothing short of a total rejection of the entire mechanism can suffice to effect real anti-capitalist change. In Holloway and similar theorists’ view, there is a “centrifugal dynamic of antagonism, as workers fight against their dependence on capital and capital fights against its dependence on labour”. The answer is not to engage in the process of breaking up and brining under workers’ self-management existing production distribution and exchange, or the state (a particular error in their eyes, since the State is the ultimate fetish). Instead,


 “Our struggle is clearly a constant struggle to get away from capital, a struggle fro space, for autonomy, a struggle to lengthen the leash, to intensify the dis-articulation of domination, This takes a million different forms: throwing the alarm clock against the wall, arriving late for ‘work’ back pain and other forms of abstentionism, sabotage, struggles over tea breaks, for the shortening of the working day, for long holidays, better pensions, strikes of all sorts.”


Holloway’s broader analysis needs further reflection, – in terms of strategy, and its wider content will be placed within the section devoted to the future of political parties on the left. For the moment it is still important to register this line of thought – which had a wider resonance; to observe that the picture of the “mutual repulsion of capital and humanity” implies absolutely no truck with plans for either social ownership change (it’s the whole commodity producing process that has to be transformed), still less taking heart from reforms like the 10 Hour day as steps on the way to socialism, and even more, opposition to such efforts as workers’ alternative plans (sketches of workers’ control within capitalism), co-operatives, and ’transitional’ state aided forms of industrial democracy. All of these, to put it crudely, are designs on managing Capital. They are attempts to make positive a revolutionary impulse whose initial spurt is purely negative. In a not too dissimilar vein – the similarity being largely one – of infinite superiority over reformism – Arthur Scargill violently rejected workers’ control. It would mean managing capitalism. Working class and union democracy were furthered through the process of collective bargaining – the claims and demands of struggle, won as rights. Self-management of any ilk remains a matter for a full socialist economy. (56)


In broad terms these disputes are not new. Here we the trace of a conflict that has arisen in different forms throughout the history of socialism that has shaped it far more than is often given its due. On the one hand we have a picture of embryonic forms of social ownership and control, tiny buds of socialism growing, overshadowed by the tall trees of capital – co-operative production. On the other hand we have a system, a unity, which can only be challenged as a whole. No doubt Holloway would dislike being bracketed with Blanqui (true: he is puerile when the 19th Century revolutionary is serious), but his insurrection of everyday life is as rigidly dogmatic: it never recognises the need for compromise, for the construction of something beyond the moment of stasis, the political instruments and forums which we will unfold in terms of the categories of Political Will and sensus communis, not to mention Sometimes the issues that arise from this opposition have come to dominate the left, for long periods, and particularly at present, they have remained subterranean. John Stuart Mill recognised – without awareness of Marx, in the later addition to his Principles of Political Economy (added 1879) – this distinction,


“Among those who call themselves Socialists, two kind of persons may be distinguished. There are, in the first place, those whose plans for a new order of society, in which private property and individual competition are to be superseded and other motives to action substituted, are on the scale of a village community or township, and would be applied to an entire country by the multiplication of such self-acting units; of this character are the systems of Owen, of Fourier, and the more thoughtful and philosophical socialists generally. The other class, whoa re more a product of the Continent than of Great Britain and may be called the revolutionary socialists, propose to themselves a much bolder stroke. Their scheme is the management of the whole productive resources of the country by one central government. And with this view some of them avow as their purpose that the working classes, or somebody on their behalf, should take possession of all the property of the country, and administer it for the general benefit.”


In other words, we have here one of the clearest outline of the liberal left’s recurring response to socialism. Worker-run factories, collectives, co-operatives,  ‘experiments’, fine, we don’t; have to get involved or do anything. . Socialism, Communism, radical new forms of work, country-wide social ownership, transformation of state power. Bad, they might affect our lives. As one would expect temperament and sensibility favoured Mill’s view that the former type of socialism should be allowed to set up its ventures. And that he would dislike of the ‘hate’ animating the revolutionary socialists who wished to put their principles into universal practice here and now. Yet on the way. Mill pointed to the potential, however, in communism as a complete social system, to break down the barriers of private life, stifle individuality and remove incentives for new thinking: precisely the potentiality the Party-state we have just discussed made actual. But what was the alternative to an endlessly postponed verification of the socialist trial run on a small scale, or an all-encompassing authoritative State socialist scheme? Mill believed that to remedy the “disadvantages of hired labour”, in a company there were means available. His was “industrial partnership – the admission of the whole body of labourers to a participation in the profits”, “after a certain remuneration has been allowed to the capitalist.” But Mill was willing to allow socialist experiments, and he made vague suggestions about the need for reform of the right to inherit property. But this is, frankly no serious reform at all. Yet what if there were ways to bridge the gap, between direct initiatives (control of production on the ground), and the seizure of the means of production as a whole. This is the problematic from which the tradition of workers’ control, autogestion, selbsbewaltung, stems.  (57)


The Institute for Workers’ Control in the United Kingdom, which was founded in the 1960s, did not come straight from the 19th century theoretical work, doctrines and movements we have described. There were movements in-between, syndicalism, Guild Socialism, in the period before the Great War, both of which stood out in opposition to ‘collectivism’ – either of the New Liberal variety of the time (which brought together people in a proto-welfare state), or of the Fabian Society’s project for rationally administered – state – socialism. Most syndicalists opposed nationalism as an extension of state power, their aim (in the form understood in Britain0 was ownership of the means of production by the unions. Guild socialists – at least insofar as they were a distinct body completely from the broad spectrum of the British left, which neither they or the syndicalists were  – preferred intimating that wanted industrial democracy as well) They were more seriously divided – largely on the role of direct producer control of society. Syndicalists were opposed to representative democracy as such (though this aspect of their ideology only partly penetrated Britain, where it was their industrial militancy that counted) or the USA, where the Wobblies stood for One Big Union and were known for their brave activism, not their plans for social reconstruction. On the Continent, some disliked Parliamentary institutions to the point where they embraced various types of political dictatorship, including that of the far-right. Guild Socialists, such as G.D.Cole, in his Self-Government in Industry (1917) made the principle of individual self-government its base, producers’ cartels its instrument, and national), and proposed for consumer interests to have a say in industry. These, pretty obviously, lack an essential democratic element: the say of the people as citizens not engaged in consuming or producing. In fact it was the Webbs (for all their lack of a deep theory of the state) who finally tried to reconcile these strands, by proposing in the early ‘twenties a form of Commonwealth where there would be consumer, producer and elected representatives managing society.


While the industrial militancy of the first decades of the 20th century inspired a variety of responses, such as those just described, they were overshadowed, and almost forgotten, as a result of the much greater impact of the Russian Revolution. The Soviet system when it first merged, however much it was overlain by the Stalinist ideology of Planning) which echoed a trend that emerged amongst various forms of technocratic neo-socialists in Europe during the same period, the 1930s) The experience of the Soviets (from the 1905 mass Russian strikes), to the revolutionary upsurge across Europe in the aftermath of the Great War, gave rise to new hopes and strategies, which only by delayed effect influenced the British and American left. By contrast elsewhere, Gramsci wrote of the Northern Italian plant occupations by Factory Councils as forms of proletarian power that went beyond trade unionism – which he considered trapped in the above ‘guerrilla’ (or limited) struggle – to be able “spontaneously to create new modes of production and labour, new modes of discipline and, in the end, a communist society.” elements from more conservative theories of workers’ participation and liberal corporatism (which Paul Hirst called ‘associative democracy’). At the time their impact was largely confined to an enthusiasm for industrial democracy, and a National Conferences of those interested in the Soviet (in the sense of workers and peasants’ councils) model for domestic politics (such meetings are as often the occasion to bury an idea as to further it) – it did not really take root. The moment when such sympathy even extended into the head of Ramsay McDonald soon passed. C.D.Cole continued his work, but the British Communist party had its own very different models. During the 1930s there was again intense tine rest, in 1935 Attlee himself appeared to consider that ‘workers’ control’ should be part of socialism, but the Party’s Programme in 1934, For Socialism and Peace gave no such commitment in its plans for public ownership. Herbert Morrison took the template of the London Transport Board and applied it when the Party came to power in 1945. “each of the new public corporation was run by a Board of Directors, with a managerial structure beneath, and though trade union personnel were included at the Board and managerial levels, they were there not as worker’ representatives but as managerial personnel.” Experts, managerial cadres ran the corporations, in many cases the “same old faces”. It is often said that no other plans were presented; at least no plans came with the ambit of political possibility. Nationalised industries were largely conceived of as part of planned efficiency, not as mechanisms of expanded socialised democracy. 


The Bevanite upsurge in the 1950s the Labour Party, as well as most of the left (apart from remnants of the Guild Socialists and anarchists) was associated with continued enthusiasm about  ‘planning’ and public ownership rather than self-management. This was – as far as I am aware – true elsewhere in Europe. However, in France, from the 1950s onwards, the review Arguments spread ideas about self-management and workers councils from this time onwards (partly influenced by the British Bevanites), reviving 1920s conceptualisations of workers’ power (from the non-Trotskyist Russian opposition, as well as currents that developed from Trotskyism which also drew inspiration from this tradition). On the non-Communist French left, particularly its most politically ‘moderate’ but socially and economically ‘radical’ wing, a phrase of R.H.S.Crossman, that the gaol of socialism was the maximise liberty, which reinforced their hostility to class warfare. Melding the two spheres, democracy in the workplace and freedom in the political real, had a long-term contribution in what is known in the hexagon as the Second Left. This resulted in the important ‘autogestion’ ideology of the Parti Socialiste Unifié (formed 1960, largely by disaffected members of the socialist SFIO), and the formerly Catholic Trade union federation the CFDT (confederation démocratique du travail), and the ‘second left’ led by Michel Rocard. By 1965 the future Head of the CFDT, Edmond Maire, presented a report to their Congress on ‘autogestion’; by the end of the decade it formed a pillar of the union federation’s ideology – to be quietly smothered in the process of ‘recentrage’ in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties. Before this, nevertheless, a considerable literature had been produced, by such figures as André Gorz, David Guerin, and Serge Mallet, which identified workers’ control (or its variants) as a demand suited to the emergence of a larger technically skilled layer in the working class; the so-called ‘new working class’ (latter rather submerged by debate over the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’ a more problematic social view of the multiplication of technicians, managers and state employees held to defend its own interests against other groups of wage-earners). Outside of this, more radical forces, as the ‘gauchist’ critique of bureaucracy, from the remaining supporters of Council Communism to the early Socialisme ou Barbarie played a part in sustaining this tradition. This has continued in France through the forces associated with the ‘alternative’ left, at present in the federation known as the ‘Alternatifs’ – though with a broader network around it offering plans for self-managed practices. Some of the alternative practices however, as has been the case with consumer co-operatives in the past, have become institutionalised and barely recognisable: artistic and political collectives alone seem to posses the internal dynamic of ‘stasis’ that keeps them alive and antiestablishment.


The Institute for Workers’ Control already referred to, had a serious echo amongst trade unionists. In the 1960s the toppling of the old right-wing union leaderships of the Engineers’ (Hugh Scanlon) union and the T & G (Jack Jones) meant that these ideas has influence right in the heart of the labour movement. Ken Coates reports the late 60s conference of the Institute hearing calls for workers’ councils, elected from unions and shop, mill or office committees. They would the right to receive information about the company’s activities (not unlike the existing powers of the French comité d’enterprise), but, and this is the sticking point, “At ship, mill and office level, the proposals are even more radical…they urge that democratically elected committees should subject to ratification the appointment of shop managers, and foremen, the deployment of labour, promotion, the hiring and dismissing of workers, safety welfare and disciplinary matters. They should also have special responsibilities for training and education, and other responsibilities delegated form the combine or Group Workers’ Council.” This all seems strange today. By 2001, Unions 2001 (the mainstream left-of-centre annual conference, organised by a ‘faction’ in all but name, the ex-CPGB, Eurocommunist, Democratic Left’s last effective gasp), was reduced to talking of ‘social partnership’ between bosses and employees’ organisations (a “genuine two-way relationship”) and the meagre results obtained by the labour movement from the post 1990s Labour governments (“legislation will change the climate” in the workplace, allowing unions a greater say), to look at this current. Not those differences did not exist. Ken Coates notes that “there as s a clear division in the Conference between those who saw the struggle for workers’ control as being worked out through the existing institutions of the Labour Movement, up to an including the Labour Party itself, and those who were agnostic about possibilities in such fields, and turned towards direct action in various forms.” Some, he adds, straddled both views. Another part of the labour movement, by contrast, relied principally on what was then the robust world of collective bargaining to enforce workers’ demands, and distanced themselves from all efforts at ‘control” when there was no socialist economy.


With this ferment, aided by the rise of shop-floor power and rising unionisation (as well as the successful use of strike power), the labour movement, and its radical wing, had a real presence in British politics in the 1970s During the decade became possible for some experiments in “prefigurative forms” of politics, and alternative plans for individual enterprises and companies, to be both credible and, in a few cases, were put into a (kind of) practice. Unfortunately when they got this hearing during the Wilson Governments, which set up a National Enterprise Board to try this out, the firms where this came to be tried out tended to be those that had failed in the capitalist market, such as Norton-Villiers Triumph Meridan and duly failed as a workers’ co-op. The Clydside Shipbuilders’ (UCS) sit-in did not create an island of socialism in Glasgow. There were over 102 similar occupations of factories and enterprises between July 1971 and February 1974, fuelling calls for stronger worker representation in industry or, as it became known more acceptably as, ‘industrial democracy’.  The Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy (1975) seemed to set the tone: envisaging watered down versions of the workers’ control movement (though more in line with Continental legislation on works’ committees). It came back to the issue of the potential conflict between the power of the unions (collective agreements, tripartite management of the economy through the NEB, their influence over the Labour Party), exemplified in the Social Contract with the Government, against the far from clear prospect of rank-and-file presence (without clear pwoers0 on works’ councils. Stuart Holland’s The Socialist Challenge  (1975) offered a strategy for British renewal, focused on the (relative) ‘decline of Britain’ problem (an immense topic in its own right) It promised to reinvigorate the industrial base through extending public ownership, a planned measures the thwart of the power of multinationals and big domestic big business, a “new public sector”, planning agreements, and a form of social contract that recognised long-term socialist objectives. Regarding workers’ control Holland supported the ideas that workers would negotiate “corporate strategy either independently from conventional management or through their own workers; appointed management (with a supervisory role in the government department where the agreement was negotiated), both roles would genuinely extend the range if worker control from the shop floor to Whitehall.” As he wrote powerful forces within the existing system of industrial negotiation were challenging this approach: from the employers and their newly dogmatic free-market supporters. All the talk of industrial democracy was, to a range of committed ideological commentators, a sign of ‘corporatism’. The country seemed in the grip of a legitimation crisis, the unions’ practical strength was not reflected in ideological hegemony – few were agreed on what shape industrial democracy. Or what shape their power should take. The Labour governments of Wilson and then Callaghan were unable to either integrate them or to opt (as Blair would latter do), spurn them. Their offers of help to industry, and social spending, faced a brick wall in the shape of the economic downturn and the need to agree to (by apparent hostage taking, a device of casting blame known in rational choice theory through various paradigms) of IMF conditions for loans. Inside the labour movement the alternative Economic Strategy, which appeared to imply a role of workers’ control in planning agreements, had little concrete to offer nor resolving the tension between the formal union role in industrial relations and the more direct influence of workers;’ council – still less on the radical prospect for the self-management of factories, farms and offices. Outside the very existence of strong unions was held to be incompatible with a prosperous economy. Everything as the 1080s approach seemed designed to push the issue of workers’ control further and further to the margins. More fundamentally, as John Callaghan remarks, the main elements shaping the political conjuncture did this regardless of any ideological offensive, by the liberal free-marketers (the famous ‘Moving Right Show’) and the unions own paralysis,  “The social democratic compromise was this simultaneously under attack from falling productivity of labour, falling rates of profit and the diminishing potency of national regulatory devices consequent upon the goring internationalisation of markets, production and credit. A thud crisis – much of it ideological in character p attacked the legitimacy of social democratic politics directly.” Briefly put, the international wave of neo-liberalism swept all before it: the phenomena now collected under the name ‘globalisation’ were just beginning to be perceived as decisive factors, and the AES appeared, with its call to withdraw from the (then) Common market and import controls, went so far against he grain that it became irrelevant. In these conditions Stuart Holland’s views on taming multinationals got short-shrift, and the enthusiasts for extending democracy across society into the economy, had to seek other, less demanding, vehicles than national politics. Holland himself became relatively pro-European, seeing a Continent-wide dimension as essential for a socialist strategy. Other have drifted in variants of a developmental political economy, one of which ended up in the dead-end of Will Hutton’s fusion between Constitutional reform, promotion of a more balanced role for Financial Capital, and social-partnership, a set of bien pensant ideas now barely remembered, but which seemed for a period to grab the attention of the centre left.


Attention within the Labour movement soon turned to internal Labour battles. The beginnings of the surge to the left in the Constituency parties. Gradually the work co-ops faded away, though there were very small-scale efforts during the 1980s Municipal left’s hey-day – social enterprises. Why? Those who kept to the principle of grass-root accountability and surveillance, rather than NEB and Civil Service guidance, looked later at the Lucas Aerospace alternative plans – doomed from the minute Thatcher came to power in 1979. She got round, added by a terrified Labour leadership, to the council left later. Since then these ideas have led a ghost-like existence. Taken up occasionally by well-meaning (and ineffective) greens and anti-globalisers, with the very faults that both the State-centred and the radical rejectionists (Haliday’s capital-logic’ school) hurl against them all too obviously justified. That is, there can be no localist plans for taking control of enterprises and the lived environment (community self-rule) in isolation, that this is even more ridiculous given that globalised production-exchange-consumption circuits means that the key mechanisms of Capital are out of people’s control. bargaining) or the power of the Works Councils.


 Not surprisingly surveying the literature of the period one constantly comes up against irreconcilable attempts to synthesise state control, and market forces, or, – to the most left-wing – both alternatives offered “the bureaucratic agents of the state and of private capital”. One of the last flowerings of this trend, by Geoff Hodgson, The Democratic Economy (1984) essentially offers every form of participatory, worker-owned, controlled, experimental, co-operative, and democratic planning mechanism going as means to introduce democracy into all social dimensions – above all the economy which capitalism and its agents rule by shutting it off from all popular rule. (56)


How far did this fade away because of the rise of global neo-liberalism, and the specific structures left by Margaret Thatcher’s remoulding of the economy and state? Because of the inability of the labour movement and those in positions of power within it to take these ideas up/ Because of a lack of real popular agitation – from workers –for the principles of the democratic economy? . The question is rather: do we have a way to get out hands on real nodes of power that could make ‘prefiguration’ more than a gesture, that is, a form of attack, and do we have a strategy for these to be effectively translated into the condensed and instructional forms that could make them endure. If there are points within the 19th century debate which remain the case some of the most essential lie in the mechanisms producing the foci of stasis discontent to the point of overturning) of social relations, the raft of conflictual issues within work, that Marx and Engels – by no means uniquely, though most clearly – outlined. As Ken Coates has argued, property was the sticking point. But even so, we may still discover “new ideas about democratic management of the social and publics services, which are answerable, in the last analysis, to the national democratic polity. But it will also take the form of growing international linkages to match and pace the power of transnational capital in the private sector. It will explore the modalities of co-operation between different trade unions, nurtured in different national cultures and political sectors: and it will seek to relate itself to the democratic possibilities of works’ councils organised on a transnational scale.”


Some of the most radical expressions of this current go completely against the grain of representative democratic politics. They hold to a critique of representation that is not merely theoretical (which often involves a conservative resignation to the inevitably of an elite ruling class). It simply, in a not too dissimilar way to Holloway, wants no part in an external reified system: the ‘economy’. It’s worth reminding ourselves of just how radical the aim in strategies of workers’ control can be. That is, it is a process towards socialism, or communism, not an end in itself. What does this mean? By its nature work is the key element which these ideas attempt tot transform. To what? Take the classical thought-experiments of Marx. In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) envisaged a transformation of “estranged alienated labour” is overcome and in its place there is “a new mode of production” a “fresh confirmation of human powers and a fresh enrichment of human nature” Or, in The German Ideology  (1845 –7), to a society where “nobody has an exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes society regulate the general production and this makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in them  morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, Shepard or critics.” One that, Communism, “will liberate the separate individuals from the various national and local barriers, bring them about practical connection with the production (including intellectual production) of the whole world and make it possible for them to acquire the capacity to enjoy this all-sided production of the whole earth (the creations of man.”


Not exactly, for many of the modern council enthusiasts, notably anarchist or anarcho-syndicalists would forbid at least three out of the four activities Marx envisaged!  There are shades of Unabomber in many of their texts, which fantasise about returning the world to a pre-industrial state. More commonly there are notions about non-exchange economies, such as the Native American tradition of Potlatch (extravagant gift-giving, a feature of the ancient world – if the Greeks are to be believed). It is certainly the case that economies without money have existed – in pre-Hispanic Peru the Inca managed without it. But work? In the Melville short story, (Bartleby the Scrivener) the clerk’s refusal to work – I would prefer not to is all to frequently cited as heroism in the cause:  as a refusal to engage in capitalist bureaucratic production. The French Situationists were the most bombastic of such a trend, refusing anything that was tainted by the ‘spectacle’ of reified commodity fetishism and offering workers councils and the urban lumpens as a redoubt of refusal. But there have been more rooted working class variants of this position. For whom production is wrongly challenged, not wrong in itself. The most hard-line councillists, reacting against Leninism and social democracy, would deny any legitimacy to intermediate bodies, let alone to the kind of national-decision making forums I have outlines – a form of co-ordination which involves centralisation, and in the process inevitably decisions taken which are resisted by sections of the producers. To Pannekoek all forms of democratic representation were unnecessary when the working class was itself “master of production”. Then, “when every man knows from his own judgement, what to do. They must, very man of them, act themselves, decide themselves, hence think out and know for themselves.” The classic autonomist texts of Tronti considered that the ‘mass worker’ was such a source of energy in society that it was the existence of the ability of the capitalists even to exploit and rule it that was a question: one heave and it might be free. Which left enough ambiguity about the means to accomplish this to leave a legacy of justifying violent means beyond the measure of the aims. His followers have speculated that post-Fordist paradigms of production were a response to this energy. Which, for all its voluntarism, inspired creative ideas of new forms of resistance that are hardly reducible to the pitiful sight of the black bloc’s autonomous spaces’ of hooded street fighters on demonstrations.  Today we see theorists of the ‘multitude’ disperse the insights of Autonomism into ever more muddled global striations, or anarchism as a hobby for well-meaning vegan cranks.


But there is much more to this tradition. The previous sketch is not just important for reasons of historical detail, but to emphasise that workers’ control and self-management have been concepts from very diverse political currents, even to the point of questioning work – as a separate activity itself. Apart from the divisions already noted between those who believe that the control of production, distribution and exchange can only take place when there has been a left take-over of state power (or that power has been ‘smashed’), and those who back experiments in self management in the here and now, there are significant conceptual distinction to be made. Self-management is a much broader concept than workers’ control – it can, and has, been extended to politics as a whole. Workers’ control may be reduced a syndicalist demand for the ’producers’ to run society – prompting classical fears about the rights of non-producers, and the rights of consumers and people-as-electors. A classical expression of a Council Communist standpoint, Anton Pannekoek, declared that “opposition” is the main principle in the working class fight for emancipation.” Union had become “instruments of power over them”. Political bodies have compromised with capitalism. Thus “Socialist ministers have to represent the interests of the present capitalist society. I.e. of the capitalist class.” To abolish capitalism means the proletarians have to form (yet more!) new organisations. Previous forms are useless. Wildcat strikes are a model of how a break with them takes place. They create the basis or more ambitious strategies: workers’ councils. These are a ‘natural group’; “Council representation is not founded upon the meaningless grouping of adjacent villages or districts, but upon the natural grouping of workers in the process of production, the real basis of society.” It acts as reorientation of a  “fighting revolutionary class”. This, then is proletarian democracy, collectively producing, this democracy is the foundation stone of the “dictatorship of the working class”. In a different vein Hannah Arendt considered workers’ councils to have had strong territorial roots, or rather ancestries, and echoed, unconsciously plans by Jeffersonian democrats in the early United States for democracy based on recallable town councils. Their “regular emergence, during the course of revolutions, of a new form of government that resembled in an amazing fashion Jefferson’s wars system and seemed to repeat, under no matter what circumstances, the revolutionary societies and municipal councils which had spread all over France after 1789”. From the 1871 Paris Commune to the 1956 Hungarian Uprising these arose “spontaneously”. They were “organs of order as much as organs of action”, aspiring to lay down a new order, without party membership. Beyond parties they were “spaces of freedom” Indeed the “challenged the party system as such”. They were in a way “elementary republics” “The councils were organs of action, the revolutionary parties were organs of representation.” In this essential conflict the Party won, crushing the councils, who in any case (another difference with Council communists) were “incapable of understanding to what enormous extent the government machinery in modern societies must indeed perform the functions of administration, “ Thus, “the fatal mistake of the councils has always been that they themselves did not clearly between participation in public affairs and administration or management of things in the public interest.” Management is a no-go area; politics and administration (as we shall see in the next section) should not, for Arendt, mix. Men, for her, “entirely capable of acting in a political capacity, were bound to fail if entrusted with the management of a factory of other administrative duties.” The professional qualities lacked, politics, if for the élite, should not be taken by those whose pride tends to be succumb to overweening arrogance. Yet to the Council Communists and those who have followed them, the ‘little republic’ is still a possible unit of economic democracy which itself brings political figures down to reality. (59)


Thus we have an enduring tension: workers’ councils, self-management, workers’ control, participation, all these plans, and historical experiences, from co-operatives, the occupation of the factories after the Great War, the Germanic rate (councils), The anarcho-syndicalist take-overs of production and land during the war to defend the Spanish republic, revolts in Latin America, some events during the Chinese Cultural revolution (possibly), May 68 occupations, to the last wave of factory councils, in the Portuguese Carnation revolution, revolve around the split between administration and politics. Ernest Mandel rightly pointed to the origins of all these efforts in the inherent tendency of strikes and industrial disputes to grow out of their initial focus on wages (stasis over the pumping out of the social surplus by the owners), to issues of management and working conditions, Far more fundamental even than that between experiments within capitalism, measures of asserting workers’ power again with its confines, and self-organised socialism, continue to rage when these conflicts reach a certain point where the nature of the social stasis engendered reaches over to the fundamental questions of law (property rights) and control that hold the labour process in place. Mandel noted that this leads to counter-power (dual power) in certain conditions, and opens up the even deeper problem of political eldership and the ‘fond des choses’ at stake in capitalist economic and state organisation. .


How could this proceed? The evidence is that such moments have been so unstable that they have led to an impasse, or the occasion for, in conditions of multiparty, for fundamental disputes to enter the whole new centres of counter-power and rend them apart. That is a matter of historical research. More generally there are other snags. The greatest difficulty: the very nature of upsetting order (stasis) is in inherent contradiction with long-term production, distribution and exchange. . It is one that raises uncharted directions, rather than offers solutions. That is the stumbling block, hurdle, arranged in mountains of unresolved disputes, which has hovered over the left ever since Marx described in one passage two things. That is, if there is a need for authoritative decisions (one course of action) in any type of production, how can these be reached in any other way than by means of Authority? Or to put it another fashion: if management (which is necessary as long as there is a need for sustained co-ordination of work, abstract tasks such as accounting, record-keeping and so on), how can one remove the stamp that capitalism gives to it, managerialism as an ideology and as a material reality of command by capital with such ‘special’ characteristics that it ahs flourished in all advanced social formations, (control of organisation beyond the reach of the mass of employees). To put it as it most basic: there can only be one form of accountancy in an enterprise, however social: even if one chooses the most social type of book-keeping it has to in turn by verified by a generally accepted standard. These are minimum requirements, before we even go onto certain tasks (assembly lines) which impose discipline ‘technically’. Marx foresaw the germs of this problem clearly (without, needless to say, even beginning to resolve it),




“All directly social or communal labour on a large scale requires, to a greater of lesser extent, a directing authority, in order to secure the harmonious co-operation of the activities of individuals, and to perform the general functions that have their origins in the motion of the total productive organisation, as distinguished from the motion of its separate organs. A single violin player is his own conductor: an orchestra requires a separate one. The work of directly superintending and adjusting becomes one of the functions of capital, from the moment that the labour under capital’s control becomes co-operative. As a specific function of capital, the directing function acquires its own special characteristics.”


Clearly this special feature is not confined to the fact that the capitalist agents strive to extract as much surplus value as possible. Or the “unavoidable antagonism between the exploiter and the raw material of his exploitation”. It resides also in resistance to the to the capitalist “plan” and his authority, seen by them as “the powerful will of a being outside them, who subjects their activity to his purpose.” But what if conditions are reversed and the plan is socially created in line with the interests of the producers? Not, in all the forms we have just examined, Gosplan, the Bolshevik Leadership, but by the workers. Would this not still have need of leadership and Authority? How a class might manage production in order to dissolve classes remains unresolved. Engels announced that the principle of authority was a quasi-natural necessity in the factory, the dictatorship of machinery, and lordship of the rational command. A whole stream of ‘post-industrial’ and ‘managerialist theory has been constructed around this dilemma.


This has profound and intergrown roots in Marx’s theory. A familiar Marxist forecast for the development of capitalism was that capital would centralise, businesses would development into quasi-monopolies, and the class system would be radically simplified into a division between the capitalist class and the propertyless proletarians. Such a bald prediction was challenged from the start, not least by Marx and Engels themselves. Not by hedging their bets (or not entirely) but by the way their work uncovered a diversity of social tendencies, which they were forced to recognise. One of the clearest modern outlines of such counter-tendencies was give by the liberal social theorists Daniel Bell. He noted in The Coming of Post-Industrialist Society ((1973) that Marx had, through his analysis of this ‘special function’ traced out a scenario in which managerial functions would both grow independently of private ownership (in the shape of joint-stock companies), and that other, subordinate, types of white-collar workers would increase in number. Bell argues that these were not simply the workers-in-offices but a part of a burgeoning ‘knowledge economy’. Marxist approaches initially focused on technicians, as the ‘new working class’ (mallet), though later began to be more critical about radical potential of the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’ (Poulantzas). Marx called a prominent one of these intermediate categories, “commercial workers” whose task was “assistance in reducing the cost for realising surplus value”, a wage-labourer, recruited from the social layers introduced to “popular education”. More significantly Marx stated that (in Volume 111 of Capital),


“Capitalist production has itself brought I about that the work of supervision is readily available, quite independent of the ownership of capital. It has therefore become superfluous for this work of supervision to be performed by the capitalist. A musical conductor need in no way be the owner of the instruments in his orchestra, nor does it form any part of his function as a conductor that he should have any part in paying the wages of the other musicians. Cooperative factories provide the proof that the capitalist has become just as superfluous as a functionary in production s he himself, from his superior vantage-point, finds the large landlord. In so far as the work of the capitalist does not arise from the production process simply as a capitalist process, i.e. d does not come to an end with capital itself; in so far as it is not confined to the function of exploiting the labour of others; in so far therefore as it arises from the form of labour as social labour, from the combination and cooperation of many to a common result, it is just as independent as in this form itself, once it has burst its capitalist shell.”


The broad-brush ideas of the more orthodox theorists workers’ control and self-management (or a self-organised civil society which were fashionable not so long ago and who knows, still are in some places) are not much better in this respect. Adding a principle of election does not make the resulting chain of command inside work necessarily any the less one of command. That, is, the question of the personalities in social life, how face-to-face relations are set up and dealt with, are important. The councilist Paul Mattick reminded Western socialists of a sidelined tradition that considered the rights determined by the continued existence of value production might eventually be replaced by a world of abundance where there would be “free sharing of goods and services.” A rich seam of theoretical analysis of the “collective worker”, its appearance in a political form, workers’ councils, in times of generalised political and economic stasis  (in many European lands after the Great War, the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, 1976 Portugal are some landmarks) and its fragmentation under neo-Fordism. These tentative forms of self-management tend to receive attention from the wider left only at moments of great crisis. When these pass the ambitions of such projects seem absurd, counter-intuitive and doomed. Yet they keep recurring and may be at some point such a leap into a practical version of Infinity and the Absolute – in reality, grappling with the nuts and bolts of social existence, will have an impact.


The classical Marxist left, which concentrates on strategy and tactics, theoretical precision and research, should have a degree of modesty about this, and recognise that the libertarian and anarchist tradition has many valuable points about democracy in the base, and alternatives to authoritarian command. One finds, in this quarter, less self-critical interest in the group dynamics of their own self-proclaimed ‘collectives’ – organisations melded by agreement rather than voting, except perhaps the insights of the American feminists who wrote the Tyranny of Structurlessness (1970). “If the movement continues deliberately not to select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it.” Indeed anyone who has wasted time with people devoted to unstructured non-dominating meeting procedures sometimes longs for the days of the Citrine’s ABC of Chairmanship! Which brings us back to the stumbling block of personality in any ideal model of how people should behave. One-man management didn’t emerge from a vacuum, but once there how is abolished? What do we do against modern ‘team’ forms of control? Or indeed the sophisticated practices of managers, informed by decades of research, and capable of absorbing elements of leftism in contemporary ’horizontal’ control in ‘immaterialised’ production? In fact socialist responses outside the very specialised field of organisational theory are strikingly primitive. The Guild Socialist and workers’ control currents, important at various times, have helped, but none have been so through-going as these often marginalised traditions of pure bloody-minded refusals to obey.  Self-sovereignty, class representation and politics are not problems solved by classical socialist programmes and texts. But these approaches have the merit of certain optimism, against André Gorz’s claim that all forms of workers’ control are stamped by the capitalist mode of production, a hierarchy that they will inevitably reproduce.  More detailed alternative propositions are still to be explored. It is sad the most recent writings on participation, by Hilary Wainwright and others, have accepted a new maxim: co-operation and participation as far as possible, the market where necessary.  It is certain however that self-management within the existing social-up is constantly under pressure to conform to the way affairs are organised elsewhere. This charge, initially made against co-operatives, has still to be answered.  (60)





Written by Andrew Coates

August 22, 2009 at 10:26 am

3 Responses

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  1. The Tendance is a goldmine of information. Thankyou.
    Workers Control- the Undiscovered Country!

    Johnny Uk

    August 25, 2009 at 6:47 am

  2. […] * Ken Coates “A Note on Workers’ Control” […]

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