Leninism and Workers Control
By Joseph Seymour
Workers Vanguard no 162, 17 June 1977
The following article is based on a talk by Joseph Seymour at a West Coast Spartacus Youth League educational in mid-March 1977
There is probably no question in contemporary left-wing politics where greater confusion, both substantive and terminological, reigns than over “workers control.” Of the several forms of confusion, the most dangerous is a stagist conception of workers control as the link between day-to-day trade-union militancy and revolutionary dual power, as the necessary, first step toward the seizure of state power. Workers control is not a demand which communist trade unionists agitate for and seek to implement every day in every way. It is only appropriate to a qualitatively different, higher level of class struggle.
Workers control—dual power at the point of production—is an aspect, usually secondary, of a generalized revolutionary crisis. With one exception—Italy in 1969—workers control has emerged only after, not before, the government was overthrown and the repressive state apparatus was in disarray: Russia 1917, Germany 1918, Spain 1936, Portugal 1974-75. And in Italy’s “Hot Autumn” in 1969, workers control was a subordinate aspect of a mass strike wave centered on economic demands.
There are four characteristic kinds of confusion. The most important is an attempt to exploit terminological ambiguity in the service of a reformist programmatic conception. This is the trade unionization of workers control. In the conventional sense, trade unions normally exercise some control over the conditions of production, job standards and the like. Trotsky, who was very precise in his programmatic formulations, always speaks of “workers control of production” or “of industry” to distinguish this concept from the kind of control that trade unions normally exercise.
In a recent article, “Nuclear Power and the Workers Movement” (WV No. 146, 25 February), we demanded “trade-union control of safety conditions in all industrial situations.” This is not a call for generalized dual power at the industrial level. Rather it is a strong trade-union demand. Many unions in many countries have forced management to adhere to a thick rulebook specifying safety standards. This is not “workers control of production.” Of course, it is in the interests of reformists and centrists to blur the distinction between this type of trade-union control of working conditions and generalized dual power at the point of production signaling a revolutionary situation.
A second source of confusion is more purely terminological. “Control” is a word which exists in many Indo-European languages with similar but not identical meanings. In European languages other than English, “to control” means to check or monitor the actions of another. For example, the functionary who checks tickets on French trains is called the controleur de ballets. However, in English the term “control” means to administer or direct. While in other languages “workers control” is distinct from and weaker than “workers management,” in English the two are usually identified. Thus English-speaking Trotskyists sometimes confuse these two qualitatively different concepts. For example, Felix Morrow in his Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain uses “workers control” to describe what was actually workers management of nominally nationalized enterprises.
A third area of confusion centers on workers management, which is neither identical with nor necessarily occurs under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Our program is not workers management, but rather the management or administration by a workers government of a centrally directed and planned economy.
It is possible for generalized workers management or, more precisely, self-management to exist as another, distinct form of dual power. Workers control is dual power within the production unit; management is still trying to reassert its traditional authority. In Italy 1969 there were pitched battles of Fiat workers against Fiat foremen and company goons—that’s what we mean by workers control or dual power. Workers management, by contrast, occurs when the bourgeois management abandons the productive units to the workers, while the latter are not subject to economic administration by the state. It is obvious that such an extraordinary situation can occur only when a proletarian state power has not yet consolidated its rule (Bolshevik Russia in late 1917-early 1918) or in a civil war under a weak bourgeois “popular front” government (Spain 1936-37). Workers management is then a situation of dual power between the productive units and the government, which may be either proletarian or bourgeois. The government’s monopoly over the mechanisms of finance is invariably the Achilles heel of workers management.
A fourth point of confusion concerns “workers control” as an institution under a democratically governed workers state with a centralized planned economy. The terminological identity of this concept with “workers control” in a revolutionary, dual-power situation is codified in the Transitional Program and reflects the political language of the Russian experience. That the same term refers to two fundamentally different programmatic concepts is inherently confusing and ideally should be avoided. However, it would be ineffectual scholasticism for us to invent and use different terms.
Nevertheless, comrades must understand the difference. Workers control under socialist economic planning is an authoritative consultative voice at the point of production. It is absolutely not counterposed or antagonistic to the managerial hierarchy of the workers government. The notion that “workers control” has the selfsame character during a revolutionary offensive against capitalism and in a workers state is an economist or syndicalist deviation.
Workers control is not a demand made upon the employer or state; it is a condition of struggle. Workers control cannot be incorporated into a trade-union contract or otherwise institutionalized. By its very nature workers control posits open-ended struggle between workers and management. Comrade Douglas’ document captures well the difference between strong trade unionism and workers control. Putting assembly-line speed in the contract is a strong trade-union demand; workers control means determining line speed against management’s will. A union hiring hall is a strong trade-union demand; workers control is forcing management to hire more people than it wants to employ. These are real and significant differences.
Because workers control cannot be institutionalized, it is wrong to call for workers control in a particular firm or industry as a programmatic norm. In a revolutionary, situation, of course, certain firms and industries are in the vanguard of workers control struggles–the Putilov metalworks in St. Petersburg in 1917, Fiat in Turin in 1969, the Lisnave shipyards in Lisbon in 1974-75. However, a call to action on a particular firm in a revolutionary period is different from a programmatic norm.
The leading exponents of reformist and stagist conceptions of workers control are the European Pabloites. In Britain the best-known left-wing advocates of workers control are two freelancing independent Pabloites, Ken Coates and Tony Topham of the Institute for Workers’ Control. The very name reveals a reformist conception. Think of the Institute for Revolutionary Dual Power in Industry! The purely social-democratic nature of the Coates/Topham project is spelled out openly:
“The aims of the Institute for Workers’ Control shall be … to assist in the formation of Workers’ Control groups dedicated to the development of democratic consciousness, to the winning of support for Workers’ Control in all existing organizations of Labour, to the challenging of undemocratic actions wherever they may occur, and the extension of democratic control over industry and the economy itself…”
—Bulletin of the Institute for Workers’ Control, Vol. 1, No. 1 (no date)
A far more sophisticated exponent of a reformist, stagist position on workers control than the “industrial democrat” Coates is Ernest Mandel. Labeling workers’ control an “anti-capitalist structural reform,” he presents it as an institutionalized aspect of trade-union bargaining:
“Workers’ control is the affirmation by the workers of a refusal to let the management dispose freely of the means of production and labour power…. It is a refusal to enter discussions with the management or the government as a whole on the division of the national income, so long as the workers have not acquired the ability to reveal the way the capitalists cook up the books when they talk of prices and profits.”
—”Lessons of May,” New Left Review, November-December 1968
Mandel simply trivializes workers control as an appendage to every kind of social struggle normally occurring in capitalist society:
“The struggle for workers’ control–with which the strategy of anti-capitalist structural reforms, the struggle for a transitional programme, is largely identified—must… keep close to the preoccupations of the masses, must constantly arise from the everyday reality experienced by the workers, their wives, the students and revolutionary intellectuals.” [our emphasis]
The anti-revolutionary nature of Mandel’s position is clear when he attempts to inject workers control into the French May 1968 general strike. I read the following passage several times because I didn’t understand it. This is because it’s inherently confused and confusing, grafting a reformist, stagist concept of workers control onto a revolutionary dual power situation:
“The general strike of May 1968 … offers us an excellent example of the key importance of this problem. Ten million workers were out on strike. They occupied their factories. If they were moved by the desire to do away with many of the social injustices heaped up by the Gaullist regime in the ten years of its existence, they were obviously aiming beyond simple wage scale demands.”
It is significant that Mandel does not see the strikers as having a revolutionary anti-capitalist impulse, merely wanting to eliminate “many” (sic) of the social injustices associated with the Gaullist regime. He goes on:
“But if the workers did not feel like being satisfied with immediate demands, they also did not have any exact idea of what they did want. Had they been educated in the preceding years and months in the spirit [sic] of workers’ control, they would have known what to do: elect a committee in every plant that would begin by opening the company books; calculate for themselves the various companies’ real manufacturing costs and rates of profit; establish a right of veto on hiring and firing and on any changes in the organization of the work.”
—”The Debate on Workers’ Control,” International Socialist Review, May-June 1969
But for there to be “workers control of production” there must be production. A functioning workers control committee during a general strike would be scabbing! Workers control and a general strike are two mutually exclusive economic-military tactics, which usually arise in very different situations. As we shall see, workers control is usually an attempt to maintain production in the face of employer sabotage, the disruption of war or severe economic crisis.
The call for workers control during the French May events would not merely have been wrong and confusionist, but dangerous and liquidationist. Under those conditions, the French ruling class would have promised considerable concessions toward workers control–open books, union veto on firing, the right to beat up foremen and all kinds of good things—if only the workers ended the general strike and defused the political crisis.
Mandel himself drew out the liquidationist consequences of his call for workers control during the French May-June 1968 events in an article published at that time:
“It is here that the strategy of ‘anticapitalist structural reforms,’ transition demands, assumes all its validity. The masses cannot seize power in the factories and neighborhoods; that calls for a new and centralized revolutionary leadership that does not as yet exist. But the fact that the masses are not yet in a position to seize power does not at all imply the impossiblity of winning, right now, demands over and above wage increases.
“The workers hold the factories and nerve centers of the nation…. They must immediately establish a de facto power that the bosses and the state cannot cancel out once ‘calm’ has been restored….
“This de facto power consists in democratically elected committees which establish workers control overall production….
“These committees should decide which enterprises would begin operating again, and to what end—that is, exclusively to fill the needs of the working population. They should have veto power over every investment project.” [our emphasis]
—”From the Bankruptcy of Neocapitalism to the Struggle for the Socialist Revolution,” in Revolt in France (1968)
The French 1968 general strike is a perfect example of when a stagest concept of workers control is dangerous. Workers control would have meant a lowering of the level of class struggle. It would have been equivalent to abandoning a major battle on the verge of victory and retreating into guerrilla war. The correct revolutionary demand for the French May events was the unification and centralization of the strike committees as embryonic soviets, bypassing a distinct period of workers control.
Trotsky on Germany 1931
Trotsky’s 1931 article, “Workers’ Control of Production,” is absolutely unambiguous that workers control is not a reform, but a manifestation of dual power in a revolutionary situation:
“Control can be imposed only by force upon the bourgeoisie, by a proletariat on the road to the moment of taking power from them, and then also ownership of the means of production. Thus the regime of workers’ control, a provisional, transitional regime by its very essence, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, the proletarian offensive, and the falling back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to a period of the proletarian revolution in the fullest sense of the word.”
However, taken out of historic context and read superficially, Trotsky’s article could be interpreted as positing workers control as a necessary or normal early stage of a revolutionary crisis.
Amid Trotsky’s voluminous writings on revolutionary strategy and tactics, there is only one substantive article on workers control—concerning Germany in 1931. Why did Trotsky bring to the fore the demand for workers control at that particular place and time? Why did he consider factory committees rather than soviets as the most likely form of dual power? Why did he regard workers control rather than a mass strike wave or street fighting as the probable initial form of confrontation with bourgeois authority?
First, the economic conditions militated against the strike tactic. Given a sharp and worsening depression, the tasks of the workers were to prevent plant closures, lockouts and increased unemployment.
Apart from economic conjunctural considerations, Trotsky’s position on workers control was governed by the relations of the Communist Party (CP), which he considered bureaucratic centrist with a potential for revolutionary renewal, to the Social Democrats on the one hand and to the Nazis on the other. In most circumstances the strength of the workers movement against the employers is roughly in line with its strength against the state. Try having a work action in Brazil, Iran or South Korea. However, in Germany 1931 the power of the workers in the shops was far greater than in the streets. The Communists alone, a minority of the proletariat, could not overcome the Nazi stormtroopers; the CP’s sectarianism and the Social Democrats’ legalism prevented united military action against the fascists. However, the Nazi writ did not run into the factories so that in military terms resistance to workers control was far less than to other forms of a proletarian offensive.
The German Social Democrats associated soviets with Communist rule and would have opposed them as a united-front form. The “Third Period” Stalinists refused to work in the Social Democratic-dominated trade unions. The factory committees were the only existing common organizations of Social Democratic and Communist workers. Thus Trotsky saw in the factory committees and workers control the path of least resistance for a united proletarian offensive. His advocacy of workers control was not a universal tactical schema, but a concrete form for a united front of a deeply divided workers movement against the growing fascist threat. If one abstracts Trotsky’s position from the concrete conjuncture and political alignment in Germany 1931, one is liable to project a false tactical schema involving the fetishization of workers control.
The Bolsheviks and Workers Control
The Bolshevik Revolution and Spanish civil war witnessed the most profound workers control struggles and the only experiences of widespread workers self-management. Therefore the assimilation of these two historic experiences is essential to understand our programmatic positions on the question.
Unlike the Russian revolution of 1905, 1917 was not marked by mass strikes. The workers knew that the war had severely damaged and dislocated the Russian economy, industry was on the verge of collapse due to breakdowns and shortages, and the urban population was threatened by famine. Workers control arose primarily to counter capitalist neglect and sabotage, rather than to extract economic concessions. Lenin’s strong support for workers control in this period was motivated by a conservative economic purpose. In a major article, significantly entitled “The Impending Catastrophe and How To Fight It” (September 1917), he states:
“Control, supervision and accounting are the prime prerequisites for combatting catastrophe and famine. This is indisputable and universally recognised. And it is just what is not being done from fear of encroaching on the supremacy of the landowners and capitalists, on their immense, fantastic and scandalous profits….” [emphasis in original]
Shortly after coming to power, the Bolshevik government issued two decrees (14 November and 13 December) designed to institutionalize the dual power already existing within Russian factories. The second decree details the powers of the control commissions:
“The control commission of each enterprise is to establish the amount of materials, fuel, equipment, workers and technicians, etc., required for production, the actual stock in hand and labor available; to estimate the prospects of carrying on or closing down; to maintain labor discipline; to check whether buying and selling conform to state regulations; to watch over productivity, and assist in ascertaining production costs, etc.
“Decisions of the control commission designed to secure the conditions for its operation are binding on the owner.” [our emphasis]
It also stipulates that direct management remains in the owners’ hands and that the control commission has no right to expropriate the enterprises on its own:
“The owner retains his managerial rights over the administration and operation of the enterprise. The control commission does not take part in the administration of the enterprise and is not responsible for its operation…. The control commission may, through its higher authorities, raise the question of sequestration of an enterprise or any other compulsory measure with the economic state organs, but it has no right itself to seize and administer an enterprise.”—reproduced in Margaret Dewar, Labour Policy in the USSR 1917-1928 (1956)
Why did Lenin put forth a policy he later described as a “contradictory and incomplete measure”? Lenin’s position on workers control is incomprehensible unless one realizes that he was opposed to the nationalization of industry in the short term. He defended this policy as late as spring 1918 against left communist opponents (Bukharin, Radek, Ossinsky). The Bolshevik government did not have available the technical/managerial apparatus capable of administering a socialized, planned economy. Lenin believed that through a combination of concessions and pressure Russia’s capitalists could be made to serve the new Soviet state. Workers control commissions were projected as the lowest level of state economic administration. Secondly, Lenin considered workers control a school to train a proletarian managerial cadre, who could take over the administration of a socialized economy in a gradual, orderly and efficient way.
The Bolshevik attempt to institutionalize workers control broke down almost immediately. Capitalists hostile to soviet power abandoned their factories for counterrevolutionary intrigue. Workers, in turn hostile and distrustful toward their employers, drove them out and took over the factories. Frequently instructions from the Supreme Council of the National Economy (VSNKh) not to expropriate an enterprise were met with the response that it has already been done. In the months following the October Revolution, workers control gave way to workers self-management imposed from below.
The instructions of VSNKh to the individual factory committees concerning production and distribution were frequently disregarded. The factory committees sought to maximize enterprise income through unbridled competition for supplies and markets. A Bolshevik leader of the Metal Workers Union, writing in late 1917, described the situation as follows:
“Another proprietor came, who was equally an individualist and anti-social as the former one, and the name of the new proprietor was the control committee. In the Donetz area, the metal works and mines refused to supply each other with coal and iron on credit, selling the iron to the peasants without regard for the needs of the State.”
—quoted in Maurice Dobb, Soviet Economic Development Since 1917 (1948)
Another Bolshevik trade unionist in November 1917 summarizes the situation thus:
“Workers control by itself is an anarchistic attempt to achieve socialism in one enterprise, and actually leads to clashes among the workers themselves and to the refusal of fuel, metal, etc. to one another.”
—quoted in Paul Avrich, The Russian Revolution and Factory Committees (unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1961)
These quotes are somewhat onesided. The recourse of the factory committees to unrestrained atomized competition did not primarily express either parochial self-centeredness or anarcho-syndicalist prejudices, though both were present. Rather the economic situation reflected the new Bolshevik government’s lack of authority and organization amid the anarchic turmoil of revolution. The workers in the mass supported Lenin’s government to one degree or another, but questioned its viability and permanence. It was understandable for individual factory committees to refuse to sell on credit to a government they believed would not be around long enough to pay.
The disastrous effect of workers self-management and the exigencies of the looming civil war convinced most workers of the need for centralized economic direction. The institution of “war communism” met with general support and little resistance.
The onset of full-scale civil war in mid-1918 led to wholesale nationalization and the subordination of the factory committees to centralized economic direction. However, the main reason that Lenin had earlier opposed general nationalization remained. The Bolshevik government did not have an apparatus capable of administering a nationalized, centralized industry. So it turned to the one politically loyal organization which had a hierarchy conforming to the industrial structure—the trade unions. The economy under “war communism” was administered by the trade unions, not by a separate state body. Industrial management by the trade unions, traditional workers organizations, had the further advantage of allaying syndicalist prejudices against the new soviet state power.
The threat of white terror strengthened the loyalty of the workers to Bolshevik rule and generated a spirit of self-sacrifice. Economic administration by the unions worked fairly well. A policy originally undertaken as a practical expedient was accepted as a programmatic norm for a workers state. The new Bolshevik program adopted at the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919 stipulated the trade unions would be the basic organ of economic administration. Point 5 of the section entitled “In the sphere of economics” states:
“The organizing apparatus of socialized industry must first of all rest upon the trade unions. The latter must free themselves from the narrow guild outlook and transform themselves into large productive combinations comprising the majority, and gradually all the workers of a given branch of production.”
—Robert H. McNeal, ed., Decisions and Resolutions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1974)
This programmatic statement would cause much trouble a few years later.
The overwhelming economic exigencies of the civil war suppressed any differences within the Bolshevik party over the optimal organization of a workers state, of the relations between the government administration, the trade unions and other workers organizations. Such differences exploded with the end of the civil war in early 1921 amid a mass reaction against the severe austerity and commandism of “war communism.”
The Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 saw the semi-syndicalist Workers Opposition advocate the administration of the economy by autonomous trade unions. Trotsky, short-sightedly concerned with rehabilitating the economy as speedily as possible, advocated the total statification of the unions, liquidating them as autonomous, internally democratic bodies. Lenin, whose views prevailed, occupied a middle position. He insisted on the direct administration of the economy of the state. He also supported autonomous trade unions to represent the interests of specific groups of workers vis-à-vis the government administration hierarchy, which was capable of bureaucratic abuses as well as errors.
Only with the institution of the New Economic Policy in 1921 did the Bolshevik government acquire its own distinct organs of economic administration. This freed the unions to defend the consumerist interests of specific groups of workers. The Labor Code of 1922 stipulated that wages and working conditions be determined by collective bargaining between the unions and state employers.
The early 1920’s also saw the introduction of a new form of workers control as an authoritative consultative voice designed to increase productivity. Production conferences of the entire work force elected standing control commissions to oversee that their recommendations were carried out. The Stalini’st political counterrevolution eroded and eventually suppressed the control commissions, as it did the trade unions and all other independent proletarian bodies.
The Trotskyist Left Opposition in its 1927 “Platform” calls attention to the atrophying of workers control and the growing indifference of the workers toward productivity:
“The production conferences are gradually being reduced to nothing. The majority of the practical proposals adopted by the workers are never carried out. Among many of these workers a distaste for these production conferences is nourished by the fact that the improvements which they do succeed in introducing often result in a reduction of the number of workers.”
The “Platform of the Joint Opposition” called for strengthening the control commissions:
“The functions of the control commissions of the production councils must be extended to include supervising the execution of their decisions and investigating their success in protecting the workers’ interests.”
The 1938 Transitional Program incorporated workers control in the consultative sense as a programmatic norm in a workers state, an integral part of proletarian democracy and rational economic planning.
Workers Management in the Spanish Civil War
While workers management in the Bolshevik revolution was a short-lived, anarchic episode, workers management was a central element in the Spanish revolution and civil war. Following the defeated military coup of July 1936 most of Spain’s capitalists either fled or were driven out into the areas controlled by Franco’s army. Workers management became widespread throughout Spain and dominant in Catalonia (which then accounted for 70 percent of Spanish industry) where the labor movement was dominated by the anarcho-syndicalists through their trade-union federation, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). Workers management was legalized by the Collectivization Decree of October 1936.
The anarchist masses did not look upon workers management as a temporary situation or expedient caused by the civil war, but as the realization of their ideal program. They believed the libertarian millennium had arrived. Despite this very different political attitude, the initial experience of workers management in Spain resembled that of Russia in 1917-18. The anarchist-managed collectives acted like competing producer cooperatives. In those collectives which inherited ample material and financial reserves, which had new equipment and enjoyed favorable market demand, the workers’ incomes were relatively high. In those collectives without these advantages, the workers suffered accordingly. The situation is well described by Gaston Leval, a French anarchist and prominent CNT militant at the time:
“Too often in Barcelona and Valencia, workers in each undertaking took over the factory, the works, or the workshop, the machines, raw materials, and taking advantage of the continuation of the money system and normal capitalist commercial relations, organised production on their own account, selling for their own benefit the produce of their labour….
“There was not, therefore, true socialisation, but a workers’ neo-capitalism, a self-management straddling capitalism and socialism, which we maintain would not have occured had the Revolution been able to extend itself fully under the direction of our Svndicates.”
—Collectives in the Spanish Revolution (1975)
The anarcho-syndicalist cadre, like Leval, were dismayed that the “libertarian” collectives reproduced the irrationality and inegalitarianism of the capitalist market, a situation which also impeded the war against Franco. The CNT hierarchy more-or-less successfully countered the anarchic parochialism of the collectives and imposed some centralized economic direction. In general, the anarcho-syndicalist workers regarded the enterprises as belonging to the CNT as a whole, not to the individual collectives. Through the CNT, the Spanish workers achieved miracles of economic organization. In Catalonia, which had no metal-working industry, the CNT collectives built a munitions industry from the ground up. The Spanish proletariat displayed outstanding labor discipline, self-sacrifice and ingenuity. This is one of the factors that caused Trotsky, in arguing for the unique significance of the Bolshevik Party, to state that in their mass consciousness the Spanish proletariat stood higher, not lower, than the Russian workers of 1917-18.
The CNT attempted, with mixed success, to combine the individual enterprises into vertically-integrated industrial syndicates (e.g., textiles, wood products). However, all the CNT collectives—individual factories, multi-enterprise industrial syndicates (like the light textile syndicate in Alcoy), transport and utilities—had to relate to the rest of the economy through capitalist commercial methods.
Were the CNT collectives economically viable? Those collectives which had a relatively self-contained production process, supplied a localized market, enjoyed a monopolistic position and a large, regular cash flow were generally “profitable.” The pride of the CNT industrial collectives was the Barcelona tramways syndicate, a localized monopoly supplying an essential service for immediate cash payment. But those collectives which were part of a long chain of production, imported raw materials, sold on long-term credits or to the government (e.g., the munitions industry) were not economically viable without state support and cooperation. Such collectives were critically dependent upon state credit and, therefore, on parties hostile to workers management and the anarcho-syndicalist masses. One justification the anarchist leaders advanced for entering the central Popular Front government was to secure state finance for the CNT collectives.
The collectives were naturally the most resolute defenders of workers management. Despite the attitudes of the workers and given the absence of a planned, socialized economy, the collectives had an organic tendency to become competing producer cooperatives.
The CNT bureaucracy administered the collectives partly in the interests of what it considered economic rationality and partly to carry out the bidding of its Popular Front partners. The CNT did on behalf of the bourgeois Popular Front government what the Russian trade unions did on behalf of the Bolshevik government; it disciplined the anarchic, localist tendencies of the collectives in the interests of the government’s economic objectives.
The “expanded economic plenum” of the CNT in January 1938 adopted a series of measures resembling “war communism.” These measures, of course, grossly violated anarcho-syndicalist principles. An inspectorate was created to “put forward the expected norms which will effectively orientate the different industrial units with a view to improving their economy and administration…” (quoted in Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution ). These inspectors had the right to sanction the elected factory committees. The plenum also empowered managers to dismiss workers for lateness, absence and failure to meet work norms, as well as those labeled “troublemakers” who “create dissensions between the workers and the managers or the trade union representatives.”
The Popular Front government, with the Stalinists in the vanguard, recognized in the factory committees and workers management a locus of independent proletarian power capable of challenging its authority. Therefore the basic policy of the Popular Front was to liquidate workers management and statify the CNT collectives. The CNT was too powerful to achieve this end by direct administrative/military action, so the government resorted to economic sabotage. Capital equipment was requisitioned from the collectives on the pretext that they were needed for the war effort. Leval recounts an incident where the War Ministry, requisitioned two modern milling machines from the Barcelona tramways syndicate. Later it was discovered the ministry had a secret cache of some 40 comparable machines.
The primary method by which the Popular Front sabotaged workers management was through its control of finances. The government literally starved the workers in the CNT collectives. Leval describes how this was done:
“And when, in Catalonia, the Communist leader Comorera became Minister of Finance after the May Days, the means of struggle he adopted were original. It was clear that it was quite impossible to destroy the outstanding influence of the Syndicates of the C.N.T. To attempt to do so would have paralysed production overnight. So, Comorera had recourse to two complementary procedures; on the one hand he deprived the factories of raw materials or deliveries did not arrive on time, thus resulting in production delays which were knowingly criticised; on the other hand they paid for deliveries of cloth, clothing, arms, etc., with a delay which affected the workers’ own budgets. As the wages were distributed under the supervision of the Syndicates, it was against the delegates of the C.N.T. and against the organism of which they were the representatives that the discontent of one section of the workers was directed.”
—Collectives in the Spanish Revolution
The turning point of the Spanish revolution, the “May Days” in Barcelona, was precipitated by a military attack by the Popular Front government on workers management. The CNT collective which ran the telephone system was especially irritating to the Popular Front because it enabled the anarchist workers to listen in on communications between the central ministries in Valencia and their Catalan counterparts. On 3 May 1937 the Stalinist commissar of public order in Catalonia, Rodriguez Sala, attempted an armed assault on the Telefónica building. The infuriated response of the Barcelona workers–a massive general strike including the erection of street barricades–was on the verge of sweeping away the government forces when the anarchist ministers, Garcia Oliver and Federica Montseny, intervened to arrange a truce. This gave the central government time to send 6,000 Civil Guards to occupy Barcelona.
In the rightist reaction which followed, the POUM leader Andrés Nin and anarchist Camillo Berneri were assassinated among others, the left-centrist POUM was suppressed and the anarchists were expelled from the government (although they remained loyal to the Popular Front). The “May Days” broke the back of the vanguard of the proletariat; the liquidation of the revolutionary dual power established in July 1936, including workers management, followed apace.
The Trotskyist position toward workers management in the Spanish revolution is governed by the fact that it constituted a form of proletarian dual power in relation to an essentially bourgeois government. While criticizing and opposing anarcho-syndicalist doctrine, we would be the most resolute defenders of workers management in practice, far more so than the treacherous CNT bureaucracy. While maintaining and stepping up production for the war of the Republic against Franco, a Trotskyist leadership would have refused and resisted the Stalinist-inspired state requisitions of capital equipment on the pretext of furthering the war effort. Trotskyists would have demanded the ouster of official representatives of the Popular Front government from all bodies administering the collectives. Above all, the Trotskyists would also have explained that genuine socialization of production required the overthrow of the Popular Front (no less than the defeat of Franco’s army) and the establishment of a planned economy administered by a workers government.
The contrasting experiences of Russia 1917-21 and Spain 1936-39 indicate that our attitude toward workers control and management depends above all on the class nature of the state power, and secondarily on the development of the revolution from a proletarian offensive against capitalist rule to the consolidation of a workers government administering a centralized, planned economy.