Can you do your job better than your boss could do it? Ask yourself this question. Ask your friends and workmates. Nine out of ten people will answer with a resounding and contemptuous “yes”.
Yet this question leads to the very heart of what we mean by socialism. Our society divides us into two basic classes. On the one hand there are those who make the things and provide the services we all need. On the other there are those who decide what shall be produced and provided in order to make the greatest profits.
All too often the supporters of socialism, as well as its enemies, identify socialism with state ownership. But as we’ve just seen in the US, even George Bush can resort to a form of nationalisation, taking over two giant mortgage corporations – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The Daily Telegraph thinks this is “a socialist response to market failure”. Outside the bizarre thought-world of the Telegraph nobody imagines that Bush is a socialist.
Socialists support nationalisation if it’s used to protect jobs. We oppose privatisation of public services because it means less public accountability.
But nationalisation is no cure-all. In 1947 miners welcomed nationalisation of the pits. Within a year Yorkshire miners were striking in opposition to their new bosses – and their union officials.
That is why workers’ control has always been vital to the real socialist tradition. As the British socialist GDH Cole put it, “Socialism cannot be soundly built except on a foundation of trust in the capacity of ordinary people to manage their own affairs.”
Before the First World War syndicalist ideas were widespread in the working class movement. The syndicalists were opposed to state ownership – they believed the trade unions, as workers’ organisations, should take over and manage industry.
The French unions had the slogan, “The workshop will replace the government.”
In Britain syndicalism had great influence among engineers, miners and railway workers.
That is why, when the Labour Party adopted Clause Four of its constitution in 1918 it called not only for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” but “the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”.
Labour never took any notice of this. The 1945 Labour government carried out several nationalisations, but Labour minister Stafford Cripps contemptuously declared, “I think it would be almost impossible to have worker-controlled industry in Britain, even if it were on the whole desirable.”
Just to make sure, Tony Blair abolished Clause Four in favour of some meaningless verbiage about a “spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect”.
In Russia after the 1917 revolution people responded at a higher level.
One of the first decrees issued by the Bolsheviks on taking power stated that “workers’ control over the manufacture, purchase, sale and storage of produce and raw materials and over the financial activity of enterprises is introduced in all industrial, commercial, banking, agricultural, cooperative and other enterprises”.
The real movement came from below. In many cases factory owners were driven out or fled. Workers had no option but to take over the workplaces and run them for themselves. John Reed, a US socialist in Russia in the early days of the revolution, describes this process:
“There was a committee meeting at one of the factories, where a workman arose and said, ‘Comrades, why do we worry? The question of technical experts is not a difficult one. Remember, the boss wasn’t a technical expert, the boss didn’t know engineering or chemistry or bookkeeping. All he did was to own. When he wanted technical help, he hired men to do it for him. Well, now we are the boss. Let’s hire engineers, bookkeepers and so forth – to work for us’.”
In the difficult circumstances of economic collapse and the invasion of foreign armies, these embryos of workers’ control did not survive long.
Sometimes workers’ control meant particular groups of workers putting their own interests before those of the class as a whole. To counter this the Bolsheviks had to take tough decisions. But those early attempts at workers’ control remain an inspiration to us today.
Over the last 90 years workers’ control has reappeared again and again. In Spain 1936, in France 1968, in Chile 1973, in Poland 1980 and most recently in Argentina, workers have taken control of their own workplaces and shown that the old owners and managers were quite unnecessary.
During the Hungarian rising in 1956 workers set up councils to manage production. These controlled basic wage levels, hiring and firing, and appointed the director.
Some former managers went back to work on the factory floor. At the radio station the workers’ council brought together actors, producers, reporters, technicians, garage hands and cleaners, all with equal rights.
In Portugal in 1974 the overthrow of the dictatorship led to workers taking over their workplaces. Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, gave examples of some of the struggles that took place there:
“In Charminha, a small garment factory outside Lisbon, [bosses] tried to pay salaries with bounced cheques. The Austrian manager fled the country, and the workers, mainly women, set up a cooperative to sell their work to the people.
“In Eurofil, which makes plastics, fibres, rope and sacking, etc, and was run on 40 percent casual labour, the management tried to make the company go bankrupt. The workers occupied the factory and continued production. They have kept out the bosses and are demanding nationalisation without compensation under workers’ control.”
In Iran in 1979, when the Shah’s dictatorship was overthrown, workers established “shoras” – councils – to run the factories. The writer Maryam Poya described how they functioned:
“The shoras began to exercise their power at every level of factory life, in purchasing, sales, pricing and orders for raw materials. Different committees were organised to carry out various tasks. Guild committees to secure trade union demands with respect to wages, conditions, insurance, health and safety.
“Financial committees to control the incomes and expenditures of the individual factories and to watch over managerial financial affairs. Communications committees to maintain contact with shoras in other factories.
“Women’s committees, made up solely of women, to press women workers’ specific demands, especially in the chemicals and textiles industries where women constituted the majority of the labour force.”
Recently there have been warnings of another “Winter of Discontent” in Britain like that in the early months of 1979. What really frightens our rulers and their hangers-on about that period is the way that workers began to grasp control of industry.
A strike by lorry drivers in January 1979 led to the closure of petrol stations and threatened essential supplies.
The T&G union agreed to permit “emergency” supplies to be exempted. But the definition of an emergency was left up to local union officials, and shop stewards in different areas set up “dispensation committees” to make decisions.
In the same month there were strikes across the NHS. Again the definition of emergency became a vital question.
At the end of January a government minister announced that nearly half of NHS hospitals were only treating emergencies, that virtually no ambulance service was operating normally, and, worst of all, that ancillary health service workers were deciding which cases merited treatment.
This was far worse for the government than just a strike for higher pay. It was a challenge to the whole hierarchy of the medical profession. Health service workers, who routinely saved human lives, had the impudence to claim that they were better qualified to define emergencies than politicians.
But under capitalism workers’ control can only go so far. There cannot be socialism in a single country and certainly no socialism in a single workplace. Even if workers take over their factory, they will eventually end up competing on the market and thus organising their own exploitation.
True workers’ control can only exist in the framework of a democratically decided general plan which sets overall targets and priorities.
Print workers alone can’t decide what we should read, or bus workers alone at what hours the buses will run. Sectional interests have to be balanced against the needs of society as a whole.
But workers’ control remains the key issue distinguishing what US socialist Hal Draper called “socialism from below” from “socialism from above”.
In some circumstances a reforming parliament can carry out nationalisations, or bring in real reforms that benefit workers, such as the NHS. But workers’ control can never be given – it must be taken by workers acting on their own behalf.
Till then every small victory in the workplace can represent what Tony Cliff called “creeping workers’ control”.
Every time we challenge management’s right to hire and fire by defending a victimised workmate, every time we prevent a deterioration of our working conditions in the name of “flexibility”, we strike a blow for workers’ control.
In doing so we increase our own self-confidence to challenge our rulers. As the world slides into recession, war and looming environmental disaster, we have to say to them – you can’t run the world, but we can.