Miscellaneous Articles
Workers’ 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 [1] 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.[2]

Concern with 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.[3] 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.[4]

But despite 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.[5] However, this is still not control.

The changes 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,[6] 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.[7] 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 countries.

Clearly, we 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.

Proletariat and Dictatorship in Revolutionary Russia

The history 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.

The Russian 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 that area.

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.[8] 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."[9]

Despite the unprecedented surge of factory takeovers which occurred throughout 1917, the
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."[10] 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.[11]

In line with this approach, the Soviet government reacted with consistent disfavor to workers' managerial initiatives, even where the alternative was a factory-shutdown.[12] Lenin defended this overall position by referring to the urgency of the country's economic tasks and to the inexperience of the workers.[13] 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;[14] 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 of threats.[15]

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.[16] 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 of industry.

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."[17] 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.[18] 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; [19] 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.[20] 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 into it.

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.

The circumstances 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.

The Politics of Revolutionary Workers’ Control: Three Cases

The Russian 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 industrialized countries.

Italy, 1920.

The Italian 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.[21] 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.[22] 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,[23] and on the other, in the person of Giolitti, a shrewd political leadership at the national level.

These factors, 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.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26]

Despite their 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."[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] 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. More >>


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