In this article, we are concerned with a social system which seeks to interpret democracy in terms of the participation of the whole working population of a country in the processes of decision-taking at all levels of the social organization. This concept starts from a different basic assumption from that which underlies the social systems of the Western liberal democracies. In the latter, the words “freedom” and “democracy” are primarily concerned with the life of man as a political animal. The liberal considers that a society is free if he can answer the following questions about it in the affirmative. Have the people the right to turn out a government of which they disapprove? Is there the right of free expression of minority opinions and the right to criticize and oppose the government of the day? Are the law courts free from interference by the Executive or by a political party?
Even assuming that these conditions are fulfilled in any existing liberal democracy—and in practice they are suspended where a fundamental challenge to the social order is presented—there would still be a serious objection to their validity as expressions of democratic principle. The implication behind what is excluded from them is that all the important decisions in society are those which fall within the competence of a multi-party Parliament. Yet, as the early Spender wrote, “the political questions which most deeply concern us are not decided by parliament at all, but by the industrial interests which control the liberal democratic state.” Despite the Liberal Party’s recent highly dubious flirtations with “workers’ control”, it remains true today that no major party in Britain challenges the assumption that the partial democracy which offers us the right to choose once in five years between Gaitskell, Grimond or MacMillan, is anything but adequate to our needs. Democracy which begins at the level of the shop floorfootnote1 and permeates every aspect of national life, democracy which is lived day by day, and not indulged in spasmodically once in five years, is in our view
The idea of workers’ control has a long history in the British Labour movement, but its advocates have always failed to carry conviction because they have paid too little attention to detail, and have never been able to offer a concrete example of how such a system would work out. As Dennis Butt wrote in the NLR of August, 1961:
“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 through the whole range of activities.”
We believe that such a system does operate today in Yugoslavia, and that an examination of its main features is relevant to the discussion about workers’ control which is developing amongst British socialists. There is no doubt in our minds that the subject is of vital importance to our society today, and that it is tragic that the Labour movement has not yet grasped this. The TUC leaders are at present engaged in a study of their role within a planned capitalist society, and are about to look at the Swedish system of industrial relations to see whether they can create in this country something on the lines of the Scandinavian “eternal triangle” in which a respectable and responsible trade union leadership joins with employers and the state to assist in the formulation of industrial policy. There is little talk amongst them of industrial democracy, still less of socialism. It is left to the Liberals to sense the frustration of many workers at their role of hired hands, and to propose their phoney scheme for “workers’ control” which is to be operated in a way which is “neither socialist nor capitalist”.