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New Left Review I/10, July-August 1961


Denis Butt

Workers’ Control

if the difficulty of a problem is to be measured by the scarcity of ideas for its solution, then the problem of securing workers’ control of industry is the most intractable facing the British working class movement. In this century the struggle for workers’ control has passed through one heroic age, the story of which was chronicled and analysed by Branko Pribicevic two years ago in his book, The Shop Stewards’ Movement and Workers’ Control (1910–1922). Throughout this period some of the most active militant spirits among the miners, railwaymen, and rank-and-file engineers, drawing upon the theoretical resources of Syndicalism Industrial Unionism and Guild Socialism, fought the issue with employers and State (and sometimes with each other) in a conflict which ended in total defeat. Pribicevic’s book, read side by side with the most up-to-date writings on the subject, will reveal that since then, despite some rigorously detailed—if somewhat marginal—studies, hardly a single important new idea has emerged. Workers’ control in presentday theory remains little more than an elaborate commentary on the strategy of a battle lost 40 years ago. As to its practical implementation, it is sufficient to observe that nothing resembling this objective has been achieved in any vital area of British industry. Yet if ever capitalist power is to be finally supplanted here, and not simply within board rooms, this is the decisive ground on which it must be confronted and overthrown. Sooner or later the challenge must be taken up again not from where the earlier generation started but from where they left off. What follows is meant to do no more than give modest help in clearing the ground by outlining some of the problems which their struggles, and the reflections of later investigators, have raised, in the hope that they will be ultimately vindicated by a more effective outcome.

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