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’ but rather ‘job control’ into a position of primary importance in the development of class consciousness among the workers. What Montgomery and Hinton call ‘workers’ control’ is really equivalent to the defensive devices built up by workers through years of struggle at the point of production. It represents but one of the many aspects of the development of class consciousness. To see the emerging self-consciousness of the working class through the prism of what is in fact job control is to be condemned to a particular form of tunnel vision which I shall refer to as the ‘workerist illusion’.

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 shovel as laborer for a miner when the foreman entered the room. To the Hungarian’s astonishment the miner told him: “Sit down Frank.” Fearfully glancing from the miner to the foreman, Frank sat down. The miner chattered with the foreman casually about various problems on the job, until the foreman left. Then the miner said to the Hungarian, “Don’t you ever let me catch you working when a boss is around.” ’ footnote4 This story clearly represents the miner’s ability to control his work environment in some sense, but it also depicts a form of ‘workers’ control’ very different from that which is evoked in the Comintern resolutions quoted earlier. Goodrich himself made clear distinctions between these two sorts of ‘control’. Writing of the great 1914–18 labour struggles in Great Britain, Goodrich was quick to point out that there were ‘frontiers’ which limited the possibilities of ‘workers’ control’. ‘The demand for personal freedom in industry’, he wrote, ‘is not identical with the demand for political power within industry; the one begins as a desire for no government, the other is a desire for a share in self-government.’ footnote5

At about the same time, Italian premier Giovanni Giolitti expressed his awareness of the crucial difference between working-class political power within industry and ‘control’ in the defensive sense. After the failure of the Turin factory occupations (1920), he wrote: ‘Inaccurate and false reports were disseminated abroad even as regards the control of the factories by the workers. The misunderstandings were brought about by the enormous differences in the meaning of the word “control” in the English and Italian languages. In America and England “control” virtually means command and statutory authority, whereas in Italy it means “check”.’ footnote6 Giolitti was wrong if he thought that the British and American workers had achieved ‘command and statutory authority’. He was, nevertheless, under no illusions about what the Italian workers had won, for he had brought their movement to an end with a certain degree of facility and had thus prepared the way for the Fascism which was very soon to follow. The Italian workers had occupied their factories, guns in hand; but they had failed the ultimate test imposed upon them in a revolutionary situation and were to suffer for more than twenty years under Mussolini as a consequence. This is a piece of working-class history which should be reviewed by the various theorists of ‘workers’ control’, in search of an answer to the following question: How does the workers’ ability to ‘control’ what takes place in the factory lead to political power for the working class?

Some enthusiasts of ‘workers’ control’ see the effort to achieve ‘control’ over production as the main object of working-class organizing; they merely hold a theory of ‘encroaching control’ in which the abuses encountered by the workers in their employment are annihilated one by one in a sort of Fabianism of the factory. footnote7 Historians like Montgomery and Hinton, however, although they manifest nostalgia for the ‘craft tradition’ and celebrate a past in which ‘control’ by the workers is supposed to have been the norm, have a more complex political position. Underlying both points of view, however, is the workerist illusion: namely, the belief that the struggle for power at the point of production leads to advances in class consciousness in and of itself and without the intervention of political organization in the working class.