The growing debate on the question of workers’ control seems to have reached an impasse for many socialists. Doctrinally, the progress made in recent years is considerable, but the problem of a strategy for the implementation of even the first and pioneer stages remains obscure.
Some on the Left regard the demand for full workers’ control as unrealistic in the present context of British society, however desirable a socialist goal it may be. Looking at the relatively quiescent surface of industrial relations, and remarking the absence of articulate working class demands, they conclude that no popular rank and file movement can occur. Yet they are genuinely appalled by the spectacular heaping up of pyramidal power centres in industry, trade unions and the state, and would alleviate this by the gradualist tactic of providing for a measure of increased ‘participation’ by workers in the management of nationalized industry, to be introduced through legislation by the next Labour Government. Such a programme, they argue, will not meet with fatal opposition from the Labour Parliamentary leadership, nor will it rely for success on a non-existent rank-and-file movement. It stands some chance of tactical success, since it does not challenge the basic assumptions on which our trade union and parliamentary leadership are working out their programme for a
Others fear that such concessions as may be won by parliamentary legislation (and we may well witness some such, during the next few years) are in danger of pre-empting the growth of a popular demand for genuine and undiluted control. In support they would cite the negative aspects of Joint Consultation, or the experience of Co-determination in Germany, where one of the motives behind the introduction of those measures was to divert the German working class into a political activity, and away from socialism.
‘Until the Nazis substituted the German Labour Front for them, three rival labour organisations—the Socialist, the Christian, and the Liberal, in order of strength—had competed for the support of the workers. But these “mistakes” of the Weimar period and collaboration in anti-Nazi resistance movements or in exile had convinced the leaders that German labour could only gain by uniting its forces. Nevertheless, no matter how much labour’s bargaining power might be increased by such a merger, most of the trade union leaders with Roman Catholic or Protestant leanings would have found a program aiming at socialization unacceptable. Economic democracy on the other hand, as embodied in co-determination, could be easily stomached by them.’footnote1
And again: ‘Because of the important rôle played by ideological motives in German Labour relations, the conversion from ideologism to advocacy of the theory of co-determination would, by itself, be an important benefit brought about by this new institution...’footnote2
But this second view, whilst opposing pre-emptive legislation for workers’ ‘participation’ in management, is also sometimes given to despair of a new rank-and-file demand. ‘We have the brave resolution and the detailed blue print; but the movement, where is it?footnote3 The author of that quotation does, however, go on to ask: ‘...are social conditions favourable to the generation of widespread explicit demands for workers’ control likely to emerge within our political lifetime?’ The purpose of the following observations is to assemble some evidence for an affirmative answer to this, the most important question which can now be asked.
We seek to show that the quantitive growth of the shop stewards’ strength in industry, the causes and numbers of strikes, (particularly local, spontaneous strikes) are significant factors, and that the whole area of conflict surrounding the rôle of the shop steward is likely to intensify in the near future. Finally we argue that whilst the Left’s main task should be to assist at the birth of articulate and explicit demands for control at shop-floor level, we must insist upon the need to generalize these outwards to embrace the whole framework of social, economic and political decision-making.