Control and Revolution
(page 1 of 2)
By Victor Wallis
Author's Note (12/98):
This article originally appeared in Self-Management VI, 1 (Fall,
1978). Given the difficulty of obtaining that now-defunct journal,
I welcome any opportunity to circulate the piece through other channels.
I would be interested in extending my reflections on the topic and
would welcome any comments. They may be addressed to me at 14 Park
Avenue, Somerville, MA 02144
In the perpetual
striving of the left to integrate long-range vision and immediate
practice, the idea of workers' control  occupies a special place.
On the one hand, its generalized application would satisfy one of
the main requirements for a stateless society; on the other, the
basic units and the specific measures, which it involves, are such
that it can sometimes be put into practice within particular enterprises
in an otherwise capitalist framework. In the first of these perspectives,
workers' control has always been one of the most radical possible
demands, indistinguishable in effect from the communist ideal, while
from the second vantage-point it has appeared to be limited, innocuous,
and easily cooptable.
How can a single
demand appear at the same time so easy and so difficult, so harmless
and so explosive? The contradiction lies of course in the system,
which has given rise to the demand. Prior to capitalism, the idea
of "workers' control of the production process" could
not have been a demand; it was a simple fact of life (within the
limits allowed by nature). Hence the apparent accessibility of workers'
control, which at bottom reflects no more than the capacity of all
humans to think as well as to do. In these terms, it should not
be surprising that workers occasionally take over and run productive
enterprises without necessarily having an explicit socialist consciousness
or political strategy. The faculties they draw upon for such initiatives
are not so much new as they are long suppressed--for the majority
of the population.
It is the overcoming
of this suppression, as old as capitalism, which constitutes the
explosive side of workers' control. What workers' control points
to is more than just a new way of organizing production; it is also
the release of human creative energy on a vast scale. As such, it
is inherently revolutionary. But at the same time, because of the
very weight of what it must overcome, it appears correspondingly
remote from day-to-day struggles. As a political rallying point,
it has two specific drawbacks. First, its urgency in many situations
is not likely to be as great as that of survival-demands; and second,
its full application will remain limited as long as there are economic
forces beyond the reach of the workers--whether within a given country
or outside it.
these dimensions is often seen as precluding an emphasis on workers'
control, and as a result, the self-management impulse, despite its
original naturalness, is consigned to utopia. Such a dismissal is
altogether unjustified. The current growing interest in workers'
control cannot be explained merely by its timeless qualities. Like
Marx's critique of capitalism, it reflects a definite historical
juncture. The countries with extreme physical privation are no longer
the only ones in which the system's breakdown is manifest. The advanced
capitalist regimes are likewise in question, even if not for the
first time. A new feature of the current crisis is precisely a redefinition
of the concept of basic needs. The "environment," after
all, exists inside as well as outside the workplace, and the old
distinction between survival needs (identified with wages) and other
demands (self-determination, participation, and control) is increasingly
losing its meaning. Linked to this is the fact that the fragmentation
of the capitalist work process has reached a limit in the leading
industrial sectors and is fast approaching it in clerical and sales
operations. As the reaction develops, there is no reason why
it should stop half way. Finally, with the rightward evolution of
the Chinese leadership (the last great foreign model), there has
opened an increasing space on the left to reexamine long-held assumptions
about revolutionary organization--assumptions which after all had
gained their principal confirmation in countries with vastly different
economic starting points from our own.
all such arguments for placing workers' control on the agenda, one
may well remain skeptical as to the real possibilities it encompasses.
The isolated self-managed enterprises are interesting, but by their
very nature they require either a small scale of initial operations,
or else a negotiated transfer, which would be beyond the reach of
the workers in any major industry. A second possibility to consider
would be some of the West European reform models. These seem to
have stopped short of all but the most token worker input except
in the Swedish case. In Sweden, the results are more impressive,
extending to major changes in the work process, flexibility in scheduling,
and even the beginnings of an input into production decisions.
However, this is still not control.
in Sweden are important for showing the workers' capabilities and
also for developing them further, but they do not amount to a decisive
shift of power. Thus they still leave unanswered the question of
what the actual autonomy of the workers would mean. As a third alternative,
we might consider the practice of some of the existing post-capitalist
societies, which have instituted one form, or another of elective
principle at the factory level. The two main cases in point, where
such measures have been directly introduced by the political leadership,
are Yugoslavia and China. But in both cases the measures were subject
to important checks all along, and more recently have been counterbalanced
by decisive reversions to earlier practices: market-oriented in
the case of Yugoslavia; bureaucratic in the case of China. As a
further counter-consideration, so far as workers' control is concerned,
we should note that attention to such cases, particularly that of
China, frequently encourages an attitude of postponing any consideration
of workplace-reorganization until after the question of state power
has been "settled." Like other aspects of a full socialist
transformation, however, workers' control has a way of losing its
priority if it is not built into the process from the beginning.
In sum, if we
survey the available current examples of workers' participation
in management, what we find falls very far short of control except
in the most isolated cases, even where considerable social upheaval
has intervened. It would seem, then, that while workers' control
may perhaps not be impossible, it at least requires almost laboratory-controlled
surroundings for its success. There is one type of experience,
however, which explodes such a view completely, and that is the
experience of the revolutionary periods themselves. On the one hand,
workers' control has gone further and deeper in such periods than
at any other times, whether pre- or post-revolutionary. And on the
other hand, far from being peculiar to this or that crisis, workers'
control initiatives have arisen along with every revolutionary crisis
that has yet occurred in industrialized or even partly industrialized
are dealing with a phenomenon of universal force and appeal. And
yet, without more than this initial recognition of it, we are tempted
to ask whether the crises themselves don't constitute an environment
just as artificial as the isolated small enterprise or the self-sufficient
community. Such a view is contradicted, however, by two immediate
considerations. First is simply the range of different settings
and circumstances in which the initiatives arose. Without setting
any across-the-board criteria as to the depth or thrust of the crises,
a listing would have to include: Russia 1917-18, Germany 1918-19,
Hungary 1919, Italy 1920, Spain 1936-39, Czechoslavakia 1945-47,
Hungary and Poland 1956, Algeria 1962-65, China 1966-69, France
and Czechoslovakia 1968, Chile 1970-73, and Portugal 1974-75. Second
and more decisive is the fact that in no case did the radical initiative
die a natural death. Although there may have been natural disadvantages
(inexperience, excesses, or abuses), what killed the initiative
in every case was not any loss of enthusiasm, but rather the threat
or use of armed force. It is true that in many of the cases there
were also divisions among the workers, but it was the military factor
which invariably sealed the argument.
If we grant,
then, that workers' control has shown itself to have a core of viability,
it remains for us to ask what can be learned from all these experiences
which might point toward its implementation under stable conditions.
Focusing first on the Russian case and then on three cases directly
pertinent to today's advanced capitalist democracies, we shall have
to look for both positive and negative lessons in such matters as
the capacities of the workers, the ripeness of the surrounding conditions,
and the role of political leadership.
and Dictatorship in Revolutionary Russia
of revolutionary workers' movements presents an inspiring but at
the same time a sobering succession of rises and falls. Tremendous
but short-lived outpourings of human potential are followed by longer
periods of often-bitter repression. Indeed, the rule so far seems
to be: the higher the hopes, the bloodier the repression.
case inescapably sets the terms for any comparative discussion.
In its combination of hopes and disappointments, it was certainly
a prototype, although it differs from its successors on our list
in being the only case of a movement initiated under capitalism
in which the capitalist state was decisively overthrown. In that
sense, it represents the closest approach of any of them to a clear-cut
workers' victory. Related to this point is the uniqueness of the
Russian Revolution in being, despite the immensity of the country's
peasant population, the only revolution yet to have triumphed on
the basis of an industrial working class. This fact, combined with
the forcefulness of Lenin's writings, has given the Bolshevik approach
a historic influence on discussions of workers' control which is
out of all proportion to the revolution's long-run attainments in
In point of
fact, the Bolshevik leadership, from the moment that it took power
in October 1917, entered upon an irrevocable collision course with
workers' self-management initiatives. For
Lenin himself, there may have been some misgivings; at least there
is no question about his enthusiasm for workers' initiatives during
the whole pre-October period. But his position after October
is unambiguous: "large-scale machine industry--which is precisely
the material source, the productive source, the foundation of socialism--calls
for absolute and strict unity of will.... But how can strict unity
of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the
will of one."
unprecedented surge of factory takeovers which occurred throughout
Bolshevik leadership looked upon such actions as at most an expression
of revolt against the bourgeoisie. It did not treat them as being
something which they could directly build upon in the course of
a transition to socialism. Instead, going along with the emphasis
on obedience, Lenin repeatedly urged a prominent managerial role
for former capitalists. When the Bolsheviks adopted the slogan of
workers' control, therefore, they made clear that they understood
"control" in the limited European sense of "checking."
While the performance of the ex-capitalists was thus indeed to be
"controlled," Lenin never spelled out what aspects of
the production process the workers would be empowered to judge.
What this meant in practice, however, is clearly suggested in his
remarks about Taylorism, namely, that if a given method can quadruple
productivity for the benefit of the capitalists, it can just as
well do so for the benefit of the working class.
In line with
this approach, the Soviet government reacted with consistent disfavor
to workers' managerial initiatives, even where the alternative was
a factory-shutdown. Lenin defended this overall position by
referring to the urgency of the country's economic tasks and to
the inexperience of the workers. He did not consider the possibility
of using the old managers just as consultants, but instead accepted
the idea that they should retain prime authority. In defense of
this stance, one can point out that many workers escaping the old
discipline used their freedom of action for purely private or sectoral
advantages; however, the widespread heroism displayed by workers
in the civil war suggests that if given a meaningful opportunity,
they might well have acted differently. While critics of self-management
are right in stressing the need for coordination, there is no reason
for them to assume--particularly in periods of revolutionary mobilization--that
it is incompatible with increased reliance on rank-and-file initiative.
In any case, what was perhaps even more significant than the government's
position was the peremptory manner in which the leadership imposed
it, not through discussion with the workers but rather by means
What was at
issue, in effect, was an entire approach to the transitional process.
The acceptance of Taylorist methods was just one component--albeit
a central one--of Lenin's larger view of the Russian economy as
still requiring full development of the capitalist production process
even if under (presumed) working class leadership. Lenin referred
to this contradictory stage as "state capitalism," which
he saw as a necessary prerequisite to socialism. Its essence
was a continuous increase of economic concentration. As such, its
opponents could easily be classified as petty bourgeois, even though
in fact workers might just as well resist the associated rationalization
In any case,
it was in the context of his state-capitalism argument that Lenin
presented his most general response to the self-management-oriented
critics of his policy. The essay in question,
"'Left Wing' Childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality"
(May 1918), makes important reading in relation to present-day discussion
of workers' control and socialism. Lenin treats workers' self-management
as being not only premature but even counterproductive to his overall
strategy for reaching socialism by way of state capitalism. The
either/or nature of his position is made explicit in the following
exhortation: "our task is to study the state capitalism of
the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not to shrink
from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of it."
There can be little question as to which class would be the butt
of such dictatorship at the factory level.
If the workers,
however, are so ill equipped for self-management, how can their
party be justified in taking state power? Lenin takes up this question
of prematurity in general terms in the same essay, arguing convincingly
against the kind of purism ("man in a muffler") which
requires a perfect evenness in the development of all forces before
any step forward can be taken. It is strange that this properly
dialectical response should accompany Lenin's totally undialectical
exaltation of the priority of state capitalism. For while the latter
approach could and did kill workers' self-management initiatives,
the dialectical approach, with its recognition that people's faculties
develop in conjunction with their responsibilities, prompts precisely
the opposite suggestion: namely, if it was not too soon for the
workers (through their parties) to seize state power, why was it
too soon for them to start using it to transform production relations?
Or, in other words, if Soviet industrialization was to differ from
that of capitalist countries by being completed under a workers'
government, why could it not also differ in the manner in which
it was administered at the unit-level, i.e., within the factory?
What is at issue
here is not in the nature of an "error" on Lenin's part.
In terms of the immediate priority of defeating the counterrevolution,
he was undeniably successful, although whether his approach was
the only one possible is something that we may never know. Two things
are certain, however. One is that the supposedly temporary restraints
upon workers' initiatives were never removed;  the other is
that the economic assumptions, which seemed to justify them were
not peculiar to Lenin but were widely shared in his time, even among
Marxists. Briefly put, the assumptions are (1) that growth is good,
(2) that results are more important than processes, and (3) that
capitalists get results. Linked to them in Lenin's thinking
was the more specific belief in the relative neutrality of capitalist
management techniques (Taylorism) and, with it, the implicit conclusion
that communists can play the capitalist game without getting drawn
The irony of
all this is that while Lenin's approach may have been necessary
to prevent the immediate counterrevolution, it undoubtedly worked
to facilitate the more long-term restoration of traditional hierarchical
management practices. The negative lesson of the Soviet experience
is therefore clear: socialist revolution will not lead directly
to the establishment of workers' control unless the appropriate
measures are incorporated into the process through all its stages.
What the Russian workers accomplished in 1917 was of unparalleled
importance in raising this possibility. If their efforts failed,
it was not because of any inherent flaw in what they were striving
for, but rather because of historical circumstances specific to
the Russian case.
in question all relate to Russia's position as pacesetter. First,
as already suggested, the period itself was one in which the impressiveness
of capitalism's productive attainments was still largely unquestioned.
Secondly, the very economic backwardness, which made Russian society
so explosive, also required that any revolutionary government place
a premium upon growth. And third, the workers themselves operated
under a series of specific disadvantages, the most decisive of which
was the lack of sufficient tradition and organization to enable
them to coordinate their self-management initiatives.
Politics of Revolutionary Workers’ Control: Three Cases
experience, while only the first of its kind, was also the one in
which the anti-capitalist struggle came closest to success. We have
already seen, though, how distant it still was from a genuine victory.
The capitalists were politically and militarily defeated, but their
conception of the workplace hierarchy survived--with decisive consequences
for the overall development of Soviet society.
Looking at the
subsequent experiences of Italy, Spain, and Chile, we can make almost
exactly the opposite comment. The capitalist class in all three
cases recovered its position in the most thoroughgoing and brutal
form possible, via fascism. But the workers in each case made unprecedented
advances which, taken together, go far toward mapping the place
of workers' control in the transformations which still await the
factory occupations of September 1920 were in some ways more limited
than their crisis-counterparts elsewhere. They lasted less than
a month, during which time a liberal bourgeois government remained
in place; and the immediate withdrawal of the workers was based
on a compromise. There was no doubt on either side, however, that
class and state power were at issue throughout. This was the
first instance of factory-seizures in a capitalist democracy, and
it also gave rise for the first time to the idea that the workers
could make the revolution not by bringing production to a halt (the
general strike) but rather by taking charge of it themselves.
If the short-run
scope of the episode remained limited, it was partly because the
workers lacked a strategy for going beyond the factory-seizures
and partly because of the reluctant patience of the capitalist class
in waiting them out. The seizures themselves reflected an ad hoc
decision. Although they climaxed more then a year of dramatic advances
by the workers--including an election in which the Socialists emerged
as the top vote-getting party--, the immediate occasion for them
was a lockout. The unity of the workers' direct response was
not matched by any thoroughness or consensus in their prior planning.
As for the capitalists, their patience at that moment was prompted
not only by their unwillingness to destroy the factories but also
by two contingent factors: on the one hand a cyclical downturn in
the demand for their products, and on the other, in the person
of Giolitti, a shrewd political leadership at the national level.
however, served only to delay the more fundamental capitalist response.
The full reaction began with the fascist takeover of 1922. The connection
between Italy's "first" in the sphere of fascism and its
"first" in the sphere of factory-seizures is by no means
accidental. The actual experience of the factory-seizures constituted
a trauma for the bourgeoisie. Giolitti's temporizing strategy
had proved to be a sufficient palliative in only one sense: it gave
short-run results simply because the workers had no way of extending
their leverage beyond the factories themselves. But Giolitti had
had higher hopes than just winning the immediate battle; as he admitted
in his memoirs, he had assumed--in a manner doubtless common to
the class he represented--that if he simply let the occupation run
its course, the workers would soon realize that they were incapable
of managing production. This comfortable assumption was shattered
once and for all. The working class threat was clearly more profound
than Giolitti had thought, and for the bourgeoisie this justified
new methods of repression.
brevity, the Italian factory occupations signaled a major step forward
for the workers compared to the Russian experience. In Russia, for
reasons already noted, the workers had displayed considerable disorganization
and indiscipline, sometimes degenerating into outright corruption,
all of which had provided the element of justification for Lenin's
repressive approach. In the Italian factories, by contrast, "absenteeism
among workers was negligible, discipline effective, combativity
widely diffused." Moreover, unlike the Russian situation,
where worker-run factories had related to the market on a one-by-one
basis, in Italy the workers set in motion the rudiments of a coordinated
sales policy. In general, then, the Italian workers gave important
practical evidence to show that one-man rule in the factory is not
necessarily the only alternative to chaos.
It may seem
paradoxical that the workers' revolutionary self-discipline should
have advanced more in a situation where they were remote from power
than in one where they could think of themselves as a ruling class.
Even at an immediate level, however, this is not necessarily implausible,
for the Italian workers were encouraged in their self-discipline
by two practical requirements: on the one hand, that of guarding
against provocation in a setting where the factories were surrounded
by hostile armed forces, and on the other, that of building up support
in new sectors of the population.
But one must
still look deeper in order to see what enabled the Italian workers
to respond to these requirements in the appropriate way. Italy's
political development is characterized by some unique combinations
of features not found together elsewhere. At the broadest level,
it combines the late-industrialization traits of Germany and Russia
with some of the constitutionalist traits of Northern and Western
Europe. While late industrialization gave a revolutionary thrust
to the working class, the possibility of incorporating democratic
demands into labor struggles made the unions less "economistic"
than they were--for varying reasons--in the other industrializing
countries. As a result, there was less of a basis in Italy than
elsewhere for the radical dichotomy between trade-union consciousness
and class consciousness which at so many points shaped Lenin's thinking.