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,
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
What is characteristic of miners’, railwaymen’s and engineers’ schemes alike is that the further their provisions move away from their respective spheres of practical interest the more unrealistic— and even downright non-existent—does their application become. The miners and railwaymen were intent on securing decent uniform wages and working conditions and therefore in controlling the national policy of their industry at the top: they gave only the most cursory thought to pit-level democracy. In the case of the engineers Pribicevic.’s comment that in their proposals, and particularly in those of the shop stewards, “the problems of district and national control, of the planning and co-ordination of the whole industry, were largely ignored” is confirmed in a foreword by G. D. H. Cole, who says of his own Guild Socialist movement that it “never faced the fundamental problem of power and of large scale organisation and planning”.
This tendency towards a polarisation of ideas at each end of the problem has, I suggested at the beginning of this article, continued to the present day; and to such a degree that the ideas themselves have not substantially grown either in numbers or refinement. If this were all that could be said it would point to a serious enough gap in our theoretical and practical equipment that would almost of itself account for a standstill of four decades. Unfortunately, the outcome of this earlier struggle seems to teach us an even more sobering lesson: that where a deadlock of this kind exists between the programmes of democracy and bureaucracy, the actual movement of events will sooner or later tend to go in favour of the latter. It would be too much to say that the miners and shop stewards were defeated by a deficiency of ideas. The combined power of the State and the Employers, and the post-war economic breakdown proved too much for them. But even before this had happened some of the most forceful leaders of the rank-and-file movement, thwarted at every turn by the government and the employers, had begun to transfer their energies from the struggle for workshop democracy to the struggle for wholseale class power. In doing so, they took the broad road to destruction that leads from the democratised factory to the centralised commissariat, and to that definition of “workers’ control” by which the workers are not in control but are controlled by the State which is a “Workers’ State”. And by the same token, since the public boards of our nationalised industries have come into being, they have turned out to be no improvement at all, in respect of their lack of provision for local democracy, on the Miners Federation.’s proposals of 1919. Indeed, inasmuch as it has been suitably shorn of even such workers.’ participation as the latter included, Morrisonian bureaucracy is a step backward from the earlier position. From whichever direction it was launched the movement for workers.’ control has either shattered on the rocks of the Soviet monolith or choked in the quick sands of the Fabian corporation. If our first task is to chart the course of the alternative route, it may be suggested that our failure to do so up to now is one of the main reasons for the long halt in the journey. Though I agree with Peter Sedgwick (International Socialism No. 6) that depressed economic conditions will enforce a pre-occupation with employment as such at the expense of control, it is my opinion that this gap in our positive proposals is quite as responsible as the “class-collaboration” of trade-union leaders or the misdeeds of Communists which he suggests, for the failure of the movement to revive in more prosperous times.