Recently a number of labour historians have looked back into the industrial histories of Great Britain and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and have discovered what to them appears to have been the ability of certain categories of skilled workers to ‘control’ the process of production. These historians refer to this phenomenon as ‘workers’ control’. The assumption that industrial craftsmen exercised ‘workers’ control’ underlies many interesting arguments about the political development of the working class advanced by these historians. I am, in the following, chiefly concerned with the work of David Montgomery on the American workers and with that of James Hinton on the 1914–18 shop stewards’ movement in Great Britain.
footnote1 Both Montgomery and Hinton, I argue, romanticize the ‘craft tradition’ of skilled workers. Their work is, in this respect, part of a general movement towards the nostalgification of working-class history, which holds serious possibilities of denuding this history of its essential political content. Both Montgomery and Hinton have illegitimately elevated what should not be called ‘workers’ control’
When the revolutionary workers of St Petersburg took over the management of the Putilov works with the aim of securing a supply of arms for the Red Guards, their ability to organize and regulate production represented the culmination of a process of creating class consciousness, not its beginning. Workers’ control in this sense was an essential tactic in a revolutionary situation and a step towards the achievement of working-class political power. It was workers’ control in this sense which was called for in the Theses and Resolutions adopted at the Third Congress of the Communist International (1921):
‘4. Each factory and mill should become a citadel of the revolution . . .
14. All of the economic struggles of the working class should centre around the slogan of the party ‘Workers’ Control Over Production’ . . . ’ footnote2
The historical examples of what Montgomery and Hinton call ‘workers’ control’ are very different from what is called for in these resolutions. They seem to have in mind something much more like the phenomenon observed by the American sociologist Carter Goodrich in Great Britain and the United States in the late teens and early twenties of the present century.
footnote3 Montgomery often cites the following anecdotes taken from Goodrich’s The Miners’ Freedom: ‘A Hungarian-born miner told Goodrich that on his first day in the pits in America he was toiling with his