‘To develop a strategy of advance’ say the authors of this bookfootnote1 ‘is the crucial task of the left today.’ (page 407). It is in the search for such a strategy that a new interest in industrial democracy and workers’ control has arisen. This was evident at the Nottingham Conference on Workers’ Control which was held this March and attended by nearly 500 delegates. The resolution passed at this Conference called for ‘Workers everywhere . . . to form Workers’ Control Groups to develop democratic consciousness . . extending workers’ control over industry and the economy itself, through uniting Workers’ Control Groups into a national force in the Socialist movement.’
‘Have we not been here before?’ I was asking myself. I had already begun to delve into working class history when the appearance of this admirable book lightened the task. Ken Coates and Anthony Topham have been amongst the main architects of the new Workers’ Control Movement and in this book are explicitly directing their learning in support of this important political activity—one that may well be the most significant growth point in the British Labour Movement today.
The authors tell the history of workers’ control in Britain by inviting the main protagonists in the debate since 1910 to speak for themselves. Valuable but brief comments, accounting for less than one-sixth of the whole book, link and explain the setting of some 125 extracts averaging about two or three pages each.
After a short review of the nineteenth century lineage of the movement, Section 1 deals primarily with the rise and fall of Guild Socialism and Syndicalism; Section 2 deals with the Shop Stewards’ Movement from its origin during World War I through to 1964; Section 3, on Industrial Democracy and Nationalization, surveys early attitudes beginning with the Syndicalists (who opposed nationalization) and the Guild Socialists (who supported it if, and only if, it gave workers a part in management) and follows the argument through to 1964; Section 4 deals with the ‘New Movement 1964–67’ in which the pressure for industrial democracy in the nationalized industries is mounting, secrecy in business is coming under attack and a new awakening is apparent in a number of the trade unions.
A ground swell has begun, but the political content of the new movement is still far from clear. It is just for this reason that this book is of such value; it will help Socialists to think out the theoretical implications of the movement. More theoretical work is badly needed, for example, on the relationship of workers’ control to the economic and political organization of socialist societies. We need to know more about the theory and practice of workers’ control abroad. A critical study of the Minority Movement in Britain would be relevant; and so forth.
Without a clear theory the movement for workers’ control cannot grow; it will lack cohesion; it will become an easy prey to employers who want to use it or, recoiling from this danger, pursue unrealistic demands and become divorced from the mass support without which it will have no point or purpose.
There is no better way of trying to focus ideas than ‘communing with the past’, and here this book provides a text of practical value. It must, however, be admitted, I think, that in important respects the lessons of the past are negative. James Connolly, with his uncanny power of combining depth with originality, wrote way back in 1908 ‘. . . they who are engaged in building up industrial organizations for the practical purposes of today are at the same time preparing the framework of the society of the future. It is the realisation of that fact that indeed marks the emergence of Socialism as a revolutionary force from the critical to the positive stage.’ Very little has in fact been done to explore two fundamental ideas thrown out by James Connolly (see pages 10 to 14), namely, that the institutional basis of socialism must be industrial and not territorial and that realisation of this fact marks the emergence of Socialism ‘from the critical to the positive stage’. Antonio Gramsci followed similar lines of thought in 1919–20 in relation to the Workers’ Councils in Italy. However, these very important ideas from the standpoint of Marxism seem to have been left to lie dormant, presumably since it was assumed that they were relevant only to a situation of revolutionary upsurge when working class power in the Central Government seemed to be on the order of the day. But if the claim of Socialism is that the workers can run industry democratically and more competently than the capitalists, is it not possible—as a way of exposing capitalist administration and building up a consciousness among workers of socialist aims—to establish groups in factories, mines, hospitals and so on, to criticise capitalist administration concretely by formulating alternative policies and to demand that workers’ control should rank above shareholders’ control? It is not difficult to show that workers On The job are far better qualified than absentee owners to protect the community’s interests. There are many other aspects, of course, to be considered—such as the special interest of the workers as recipients of part of their own product in the form of wages; co-ordination with other enterprises; the compatibility of workers’ control with private ownership of capital; the possibility of sustaining interest in complex time-taking work which seems to ‘get nowhere’ against the hard facts of social power. In general, is it possible to try to foreshadow a new socialist structure by fighting for