The contours of workers’ control

SINCE THE Industrial Revolution, workers’ control over their own workplaces has been viewed by much of the revolutionary Left as a tangible expression of workers’ power and also the practical means by which the working class can seize power from capita—with the potential of establishing a democratic, worker-run society.

As economic crisis continues to spark global resistance from Madison to Cairo, the working class has taken the stage of world history again. As such, the publication of Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present could not have come at a better time. Through thoughtful analysis and emphasis on historical evidence, its many contributors offer a well-developed (though by no means comprehensive) history of the successes and failures of workers’ control.

Ours to Master and to Own is divided into six parts, each part containing several self-standing chapters. In part one the writers pose theoretical questions about self-management within specific historical and material contexts.  The rest of the book elaborates on these basic themes by providing relevant historical examples.

Parts two through six are organized thematically into the following: Part 2) Workers’ Councils and Self-Administration in Revolution: Early Twentieth Century; Part 3) Workers’ Control under State Socialism; Part 4) Anticolonial Struggle, Democratic Revolution and Workers’ Control; Part 5) Workers’ Control against Capitalist Restructuring in the Twentieth Century; and Part 6) Workers’ Control, 1990–2010.

Every case that is analyzed provides a nuanced history of victories and defeats. By generalizing the lessons from these struggles where appropriate, Ours to Master and to Own identifies the conditions under which situations of workers’ control tend to occur and examines how these conditions affect the revolutionary character of the movements in question.

Workers’ control spontaneously—albeit unevenly and inconsistently—occurs during times of capitalist crisis. It can happen without any knowledge of its predecessors, as self-management is little more than an instinctive expression of democracy and a logical response to the oppressive conditions of capitalism.

Not every situation of self-management is born with a revolutionary spoon in its mouth, however. Some movements develop a revolutionary character over time, and others never do at all. But whenever the working class awakens, with it arises the potential for much more than simply the fulfillment of short-term economic demands. Workers’ struggle holds the greater potential, however fleeting and distant, for workers—if they are able to move from workplace control to revolution—to form a new, democratic system run by the working class.

Ours to Master and to Own offers the Russian Revolution as one compelling case from history that gives us a glimpse of powerful workers’ control during a time of working class revolution. In 1917, democratic workers’ councils known as soviets (which were supported by grassroots factory committees) posed a tangible threat to capitalist control of production. This created a situation of economic and political “dual power” in Russia.  Workers instituted shorter workdays, better working conditions, the socialization of things like food kitchens, and democratic participation in the workplace and society at large.

Yet, the power of the Russian working class was challenged as soon as it began to flex its burgeoning muscles. In the end, before it was able to realize its ultimate potential to spread and change society on a global scale, the revolution in Russia was suppressed by counterrevolution and the rise of Stalinism. And with the demise of workers’ control came the repeal of the reforms promoted by the workers.

Contrary to the explosive and fleeting nature of revolutionary workers’ control like the Russian soviets, history has also witnessed many arrangements of long-term workers’ self-management within the framework of capitalism. Several instances of sustained (and oftentimes legal) control are described in-depth in the later chapters of the book.

One such case occurred in Argentina, after the 2001 economic collapse led to a mass movement that included factory occupations. Thousands of unemployed workers took over and reopened factories that had previously declared bankruptcy and closed. The movement was massive, as thousands realized that they didn’t need a boss to keep their factory open. Through the entire process, workers dealt with problems like old technology, lack of market demand, and broken or missing machinery. Eventually some worker-run factories were forced to close due to failure to compete in the market. Others were returned to previous CEOs.

Working within the illogic of capitalism as they did in Argentina points to the irreconcilability between workers’ democratic interests and capitalist market forces: in these worker-owned enterprises, workers are forced to either continue to exploit themselves in order to extract more and more surplus value from their labor, or watch their workplace succumb to capitalist competition. Given the importance of this paradox, the contributors to Ours to Master and to Own take great pains to differentiate between sustained situations of self-management that depend on collaboration with capital, and revolutionary situations of workers’ control which challenge capital.

Ultimately, all historical attempts at workers’ self-management of any type have been forcefully defeated or, as in the case of Argentina and many others, they have degenerated. None of these attempts—not even the Russian soviets—reached their revolutionary potential to challenge capitalism’s stranglehold on the working class and establish a new, socialist society.  Yet, the undeniable power of the working class remains apparent in contemporary struggles. Today, the world is ablaze with radical political activity and debate. With striking parallel to Argentina in 2001, today’s political theme is again: “Occupy!”

Though it is more of a useful desk-reference than a cover-to-cover read, Ours to Master and to Own is an excellent source for both fact and theory regarding workers’ control and is an essential part of any Marxist’s library. Its editors Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini state that the book serves two primary purposes: (1) to advance academic knowledge of workers’ control and its profound history; and (2) to spark debates and new activity.

Ours to Master and to Own synthesizes the lessons of various situations of workers’ control throughout history, reminding us of the unmatched power of the organized working class and its potential to change the world. 


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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