Marx’s desire to transform society into a “free association of producers” has long been ignored by large swathes of the left. Not only Stalinists and social democrats, but also supposedly Trotskyist organisations such as the Militant Tendency have equated nationalisation with socialism, with the state bureaucracy substituted for the working class as the vanguard of social transformation. Sometimes gestures are made towards democracy through formulations such as “public ownership”, but the dominant trend of the left in recent decades has been to move further than ever from the perspective of workers’ management of the economy, with the Socialist Workers Party having abandoned their former commitment to “workers’ control and international socialism”.
To avoid perpetuating the culture of “top-down” socialist planning it is necessary to promote an alternative vision of workers’ power – that of grassroots control. A new contribution to this important task is Pete Burton’s Workers’ Control blog (www.workerscontrol.blogspot.com) which features discussion of worker-managed businesses in Argentina like FaSinPat/Zanon and the Hotel Bauen, a film about the Sanitarios Maracay in Venezuela, as well as articles from across the twentieth century featuring different conceptions of workers’ control.
The opportunity to compare the varied ideas of what workers’ control actually means is the strongest point of the new website. Over the years the lack of even the most basic consensus here has been remarkable. The Zanon workers operate their factory under their own steam, with decisions made by a democratic assembly of all its workers (who are all paid the same basic rate plus experience bonuses) - a method sharply counterposed to that exhibited in texts like Jaroslav Vanek’s 1975 collection Self Management, which does not distinguish between trade union supervision of the bosses, a market system based on undemocratic co-operatives, or the deeply hierarchical Yugoslav system where votes were staged for workers to give their assent to management plans. The problem in such conceptions is that all of them leave ownership rights and decision-making powers entirely in the hands of bosses and unaccountable state bureaucrats, with workers offered a limited ability to voice criticism but no right to take any initiative for themselves or subjugate specialists to their own authority.
Meanwhile, Trotsky’s 1931 article Workers’ Control of Production is careful to guard against class-collaborationist trade union participation in bourgeois management structures. This was later most sharply posed in West Germany’s “co-determination” system, where worker representatives were co-opted onto boards and served as a labour movement face for the employers, taking responsibility for keeping up profitability. Trotsky however sees workers’ control as a prelude to socialist revolution -
“What state regime corresponds to workers’ control of production? It is obvious that the power is not yet in the hands of the proletariat, otherwise we would have not workers’ control of production but the control of production by the workers’ state as an introduction to a regime of state production on the foundations of nationalization. What we are talking about is workers’ control under the capitalist regime, under the power of the bourgeoisie… the regime of workers’ control, a provisional transitional regime by its very essence, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, the proletarian offensive, and the failing back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to the period of the proletarian revolution in the fullest sense of the word.”
- a view echoed in an article written by the Melbourne Centre for Workers’ Control also featured on the blog. This adds another layer of argument – workers’ control is portrayed as a necessary reform in the sense of Lenin’s State and Revolution (workers being able to hold capitalist bosses to account), but then the task comes to extend workers’ own ownership of the economy through ‘workers’ management’
“Workers’ control implies a series of measures which increasingly challenge the power and authority of the bosses and the capitalist state, whereas workers’ management implies the rule of the workers after this power and authority have been overthrown”
The creation of organs of economic dual power such as factory committees and workers’ councils is proposed as the means by which workers’ management can ultimately be achieved. This is the key point for Marxists – rather than looking to build islands of socialism within a capitalist economy, extend trade union involvement in management boards or merely see workers’ control as veto power over the bosses, the task is to fight for industrial democracy and workers’ rights in the here and now in preparation for direct workers’ management of the economy – for participatory and democratic working-class rule – in a socialist society.