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.

If, to begin with, we were to ask ourselves what in present knowledge and experience, is the most glaring general deficiency in our grasp of the subject, a reasonable answer would be that we have no real understanding of a scheme of workers’ control that is sufficiently comprehensive to operate over an entire industry, from top to bottom, and throughout the whole range of activities. At one end of the scale we have innumerable—and as far as they go— quite soundly-detailed prescriptions for shop floor organisation: election of foremen and shop managers, for example, control of engagement and dismissal and systems of collective contract (i.e. an undertaking, by all the workers concerned, of total responsibility for a specific project and for the distribution of wages out of a negotiated lump sum). At the other end there is likewise no shortage of proposals—some of them all too well known from their embodiment in nationalised or Soviet industrial bureaucracies—for the overall control of industries. There is more than one difference between the nature of these two opposite approaches, not the least of which is in the motives which initially inspire them. But, granting that both were originally derived from attempts at industrial democracy, what they share in common is the complete failure to extend upwards or downwards as the case may be, that direct, immediate, meaningful control which each exerts over its own sphere of operations. All that can be added is that, of the two, the bureaucratic method is obnoxious as well as inadequate since, of its nature, it seizes all authority and leaves no scope lower down for any control except on its own behalf. The point may become clearer if we turn to Pribicevic’s account which tells us clearly how this has been a fundamental weakness of the movement for workers’ control from the beginning.

It is obvious in the first place, that, as the author insists over and over again, the movement did not stem from a demand for workers’ control as such, but from an effort to solve a number of much more restricted and intensely practical difficulties which the various groups of workers were then facing. Without drawing too sharp a distinction between the different sections of a movement whose motives and tactics often overlapped, it is true to say that whilst the main concern of the miners and railwaymen was with problems affecting the whole condition of their industries (atrocious working conditions and even worse industrial relations), that of the engineering industry in general and the shop stewards was with detailed craft and workshop practices whose defects could be most effectively overcome at factory level. This difference is further illustrated by the fact that whereas the demand for some form or other of workers’ control came eventually to be officially formulated by the miners’ and railwaymen’s unions, in engineering the major initiative from first to last came from the rank-and-file.

The crucial difference is between the areas in which the problem is felt most intensely. If, as in the case of the first two groups, it is the total condition of an industry that must be remedied, the struggle for control will be directed at the centre of power—that is at national level—from which, once it is secured, the proposed remedy can be applied downwards uniformly throughout the industry. Hence the miners’ and railwaymen’s initial demand was for nationalisation, to which proposals for workers’ control were only later added as the general movement gained momentum. Engineering worker’s demands followed an almost exactly opposite course, and for similar reasons. The apparent threat to traditional craft skills and shop practices was a general phenomenon of the period, arising in the first place from the technological demand for new types of semi-skill, and then from the introduction by the war-time government of emergency trained “dilutees” for the purpose of expanding munitions production. Notwithstanding its general character, however, the resulting problem presented itself most acutely on the shop floor, where the traditional engineering craftsman came face to face with semi-skilled, and found his established privileges jeopardised by alterations in workshop grades and practices which, questions of craft jealousy apart, might be exploited to his disadvantage by a hostile management. In a situation like this solutions prescribed from a remote centre are academic. Conditions within the engineering industry are notoriously too varied for detailed workshop issues to be settled on more than a local basis—even in respect of the higher policy levels, we have not to this day produced a really convincing plan for the nationalisation of engineering. The engineers, like the miners and railwaymen, therefore, sought for workers’ control in the area where it would have the most immediate practical effect: in their case, not at the centre, but over the local conditions of workshop and plant. The ensuing conflict with the employers, the refusal of assistance by the government (to whom the shop stewards first looked for support) and the growing authority of Guild Socialism and other doctrines, swiftly developed the engineering movement towards a demand for comprehensive control of the industry. But right to the end their actual proposals for control are at their clearest when they apply most closely to the workshop. One further example of this immediate practicality is afforded by the important rank-and-file Amalgamation Committee Movement, whose adoption of Syndicalist policy, Pribicevic tells us, was inspired less for the purpose of workers’ control— and very much less for the purpose of revolution —and more with the object of uniting the various engineering unions in response to the altered structure and composition of the industry.

It is easy enough to understand how, with this concentration of practical interests upon specific areas of power, the various schemes put forward at the time were exclusively framed with a view to wresting workers’ control in precisely those areas. The miners’ scheme, submitted to the Sankey Commission in 1919 and described by Pribicevic as “the most important document produced by the British workers in their struggle for workers’ control”, provided for joint control by miners and government through a series of Mining Councils at National, District and Pit Levels. The lower organs of control, however, “were to be entirely dependent on the National Council”. By the time Pit Council Level was reached indirect had been substituted for direct elections, and Pribicevic adds that “whereas the functions and composition of the National Council were elaborately defined very little was said of (those) of the local Pit Council”. The railwaymen’s scheme, he adds, did not even make formal provision for workers’ control at the lowest level. On the other hand every single detailed measure for local control, of the kind mentioned above—workshop elections, control of labour, collective, contracts, etc.—is a product of the localised pre-occupations of the engineers and shop stewards of this period. Without doubt each one of these measures could be established in industry with beneficial effects, and could even be extended some distance beyond the limits of workshop or factory. The collective contract was first envisaged (though later anbandoned) by its Guild Socialist initiators as the method of that “encroaching control” upon the functions of management to the point where capitalist authority would be eventually eliminated. Here Pribicevic points to only one of its fatal weaknesses: that it failed to explain how the employers were to acquisce in relinquishing their authority at any critical point.