The history of workers control

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James Drummond reviews Ours to master and own: Workers control from the commune to the present by Immanuel Ness & Dario Azzellini (eds.) Haymarket Books / 2011 / £13.99

“Within a short time, strike committees were deciding what moved in and out of the ports and factories. Passes were issued for essential materials . . . in some cases strike committees controlled the public services of whole cities.”

This might seem to be a description of a foreign country in the grip of revolution. In fact it is how one commentator described the winter of discontent in Britain in 1978-79. This quote is from just one of the collections of essays on workers’ control, an international and historical survey that is particularly timely. Throughout the trade union movement, in the local anti-cuts committees and in the universities, new generations of activists are being drawn into battle. The global Occupy movement has taken over public space in a challenge to corporate greed; students have battled with a police force intent on silencing a new generation protesting against a lifetime of indebted penury; and significantly, millions of trade unionists have taken united industrial action on 30 November in the largest strike in Britain since the General Strike of 1926.

Unfortunately rank-and-file voices challenging the trade union bureaucracy are far too few. But there is every sign that they are growing, which is where this new collection of essays comes in. For anyone frustrated at the state of the left and the working class movement in the new age of austerity, this book is potentially a weapon, since the central objective of the editors is to gather and analyse instances of rank and file workers’ control across the last 150 years – in every corner of the globe.

The editors distinguish between those examples of workers’ initiatives which seek to encroach upon or challenge capitalism itself – factory councils, strike committees and revolutionary workers’ councils – and those instances where workers have taken over factories and enterprises within a national context implacably opposed to workers’ control. Most of the contributors also sharply counter-pose the radical left traditions which have supported rank and file initiatives – anarcho-syndicalism, council communism and autonomism, as well as various strands of Trotskyism – with the “official” left and trade union movements dominated by Stalinism and social democracy.

The book resonates with enthusiasm for workers’ action from below, and leaves readers in no doubt that it is a good thing, but not unproblematically so, as workers’ control can sometimes throw up as many problems as it solves. Those readers expecting a detailed, lengthy analysis of the major high-points of workers’ struggles over the last 150 years might be disappointed. Despite the title, there is little said about the Paris Commune of 1871. As far as the Russian, German and Spanish revolutions are concerned, the essays seek to examine less well known and possibly under researched areas rather than give a comprehensive overview. A single essay on Russia examines the factory committees in the period 1917-18, and the debates which took place as the slogan of “all power to the soviets” gave way to the reality of soviet power. This led to controversy on the extent to which this political conquest of power should be accompanied by economic power in the workplace, the pace at which this should proceed, and the forms this should take – supervision of the old bosses by delegate bodies of workers, expropriation by the workers of an individual enterprise, or full-scale nationalisation by the state?

Similarly, an extremely interesting essay examines the tactics and forms of organisation adopted by the revolutionary shop stewards in Germany during and immediately after the First World War. This example highlights the problem of political leadership within autonomous workers’ struggles. Here there was a workplace-based network of revolutionary shop stewards intervening in the municipal workers’ councils which were politically dominated by reformist social democracy. For several of the shop stewards’ leaders this fact was all the more reason to win the German councils to revolutionary communism before launching an uprising in Berlin, something which Luxemburg and Liebknecht failed to do, with catastrophic consequences.

Further essays examine the Italian factory councils in Turin in 1919-20 and the shortcomings (as well as the undeniable potentialities) of the uneven patchwork of revolutionary committees during the Spanish Revolution of 1936-37. These are informative and well-written surveys which should no doubt serve as good introductions to episodes about which much has been written already. However, quite apart from the “classical” revolutions of the twentieth century, the main strength of this book, arguably, is to provide examples of workers’ struggles in less familiar, less studied, but possibly far more relevant contexts. There is an inspiring account of Portugal in 1974-75 which provides a vivid picture of the sheer power and optimism when the working class moves centre stage. In the ferment which followed a military revolt against an ageing dictator, increasingly well-rooted workers’ councils began to co-ordinate strikes and protests, as well as attending to the most immediate needs of the population. A radio station under workers’ occupation, Rádio Renascença, hung microphones in the street so that passing demonstrations could articulate their demands. A golf course in the Algarve declared that it was now open to everyone apart from its members. Unfortunately, this was also a story of sell-out and betrayal, most notably from the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). The PCP misled and then systematically disarmed the workers who looked to it for revolutionary leadership, at a time when the potential for workers’ power was real.

Closer to home, an analysis of factory occupations in Britain in the 1970s illustrates that occupation can be a useful tactic when the bosses seek to throw workers on the dole. The occupation at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in 1971-72 is now the stuff of legend. Workers refused to accept the closure of the shipyard and instituted a work-in where, as CP shop steward Jimmy Reid famously remarked, “We are not strikers. We are responsible people and we will conduct ourselves with dignity and discipline”. This sparked a modest wave of occupations across Britain. Workers at a leather factory in East Anglia occupied against closure, produced handbags bearing the label “Fakenham Occupation Workers’”, and considered forming a workers’ co-operative. In several places, such as at Leadgate Engineering in Durham and Briant Colour Printing in East London, workers did form themselves into co-operatives, and began competing on the market.

Due to a lack of credit and the vagaries of capitalist competition, most of these co-operatives were short-lived. Others like the Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative ended up super exploiting themselves to try and compete with the capitalists. In some circumstances, capitalism can very well accommodate workers’ control, as long as this does not threaten to spill over into a threat to the system as a whole. These examples also show that occupation as a tactic can only work if it escalates into a more generalised offensive against capitalism itself, not to run our enterprises better than the private bosses within the system, but to fight for a new type of society. Yet whilst these occupations lasted, they showed real creativity in their methods of struggle. Furthermore, amongst some CP affiliated trade unionists and intellectuals in Britain in the 1970s, ideas of “workers’ self-management” along the lines of Tito’s Yugoslavia became fashionable, seeing them as an alternative to bureaucratic control through state nationalisation.

Unfortunately, as an essay on factory councils in Yugoslavia illustrates, these councils were little more than a rubber-stamp for the factory bosses appointed from above. Worse still, the councils lent legitimacy to the regime by providing a radical cover using the language of Marxism. They produced a layer of workers’ representatives with a stake in the Stalinist system not dissimilar to that of trade union bureaucrats in western Europe. Similarly, a contribution on Poland covering the workers’ struggles over three decades from the 1960 to the 1980s, demonstrates that when so-called “communist” regimes have been threatened with the power of real workers’ self-organisation, they are crushed with riot police, water cannon and guns. These twin dangers – of worker managed enterprises seeking to survive in a capitalist marketplace and workers’ councils organised from above by “socialist” governments – are further highlighted by several articles on Latin America. These include analyses of factory and land occupations in Argentina in the 1970s and the takeover of factories following the financial crash of 2001, which includes some coverage of the Zanón ceramics factory which this journal has reported upon on several occasions.

There is also a very weak contribution on Venezuela, which seeks to portray the attempts by Chavez to set up workers’ co-operatives and community councils as proof of the socialist nature of the Bolivarian Revolution. Little mention is made of the fact that the Venezuelan bourgeoisie is currently doing very well under Chavez.

The contributions to this volume are not naively optimistic about the results and prospects of autonomous workers’ struggle. This is what makes this volume all the more important. But the overriding message is that real workers’ power can never be dispensed from on high – it can only be demanded, and taken, by organised workers themselves. This has happened many times before, and it will happen again.

There are 22 essays in this volume, by an even greater number of contributors, and the editors admit that there are some notable omissions. There are no contributions on China in the 1920s, France in the 1930s, on May ’68, or on Chile in the early 1970s. Fortunately, this will be a two volume project. The editors have also set up a website, intended as a resource to collect and study examples of workers’ control from round the world. This can be found at www.workerscontrol.net. Moreover, any attempt to review such a collection should surely leave some essays unremarked upon and waiting to be discovered afresh.

To their credit, the editors have commissioned some extremely novel contributions on little-known instances of strikes, take-overs and workers’ self-organisation in the post-colonial world. These include Indonesia in the late 1940s, self-management in Algeria in the 1960s, and workers’ struggles in “communist-ruled” West Bengal in India in the 1990s. Activists should get this book. The next time you’re sitting in a meeting at work annoyed with your boss, or in a union meeting listening to some unaccountable officials arguing for a sell-out – read it, then pick it up and throw it at them.

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