Socialism and workers’ councils


WHILE the Independent Labour Party has always recognised that fundamental objectives of Socialism are industrial democracy and a full and satisfying social life—in a Socialist society of abundance a man’s work will become more and more completely a voluntary contribution instead of a shared obligation —it has concentrated increasingly in the past ten years on propa­ganda for workers’ control in industry.

Realising that workers’ control is inseparable from common ownership, the I.L.P. has nevertheless taken the view that agitation for workers’ control should be carried on to-day in the industrial field as propaganda complementary to the agitation for workers’ political power, for the distribution of consumption goods according to need, and for a planned society. Understanding how their lives are thwarted and frustrated through the control by bosses—private or State—of their working life, the workers will tend, during the transition period in the movement to full socialism, to correlate their struggles for better conditions and pay with the demand for complete workers’ ownership and control. In a society of full socialism, of course, there will be neither “workers” nor capitalists.

The long-term Constitution of the I.L.P. states under the Section headed “National Objectives”:

“The I.L.P. will strive for Socialism as distinct from a planned managerial bureaucracy in which a privileged section of society organises production from the top. Planning and efficiency are reconcilable with freedom from industrial autocracy; indeed real efficiency will arise only when all workers take part in the planning of the work on which they are engaged. Socialism involves workers’ control of production and of conditions of work in industries and services owned by the community, together with th6 distribution of consumer goods on an equalitarian basis.”

Resolutions were passed at the national annual delegate con­ferences of the Party in 1947, 1948 and 1950, dealing with the basic importance of workers’ control, and the principle was re-affirmed in resolutions passed in 1949 and 1952. In 1953 the I.L.P., in a resolution on industrial policy, defined its objective as “the change from the present top-heavy and bureaucratic union structure and organisation of industry to a dynamic system of workers’ councils controlling their work and linked together into nation-wide associations.”

In 1954 a resolution under the heading “The Tasks of the I.L.P.” included the sentence “We call on all workers to organise and prepare to take over the ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

In 1955 a long resolution entitled “Towards Industrial Democracy” began by reaffirming that “workers’ control of industry is an essential part of Socialism. Socialism cannot exist without industrial democracy.” The resolution then explained the meaning of workers’ control in detail and considered the immediate actions which would help to achieve it. A 1956 resolution considered workers’ control in particular in its relation to the coming of automation.

I.L.P. and Common Wealth members were active in the formation of a League for Workers’ Control, acting as a propa­ganda and study organisation, in 1948. The League published two pamphlets in the next few years: Workers’ Control in the Modern World, by Don Bannister, and Industry and Democracy, by Maurice B. Reckitt.

The I.L.P. itself published in 1947 a pamphlet dealing simply and briefly with the subject, Workers’ Control, by Norman Winters; in 1950 it published Socialism and the Trade Unions, outlining the industrial policy of the Party and including extensive extracts from the Conference resolutions dealing with workers’ control; in 1953 was published The Changing Structure of Trade Unions, an inquiry by the Party’s National Industrial Committee into the past, present and future structure of unions from a Socialist angle, devoting one section to the analysis and proposals made by Anton Pannekoek in his book, Workers’ Councils; and in 1954 a chapter from Pannekoek’s book was reprinted, by arrangement with the author, under the auspices of the I.L.P., under the title, The Way to Workers’ Control.

The present pamphlet attempts to relate the idea of workers’ control to the fundamentals of class society and of Socialism. It is written by Jim Graham, who helped in the preparation of the earlier pamphlet, The Changing Structure of Trade Unions, and is the author of two other pamphlets published by the Party. Jim Graham has been for several years a member of the National Administrative Council of the I.L.P., has been a Parliamentary candidate for the Party and is one of its best known propagandists as writer, lecturer and public speaker. The pamphlet is published by the National Industrial Committee of the I.L.P., with the authority of the National Administrative Council.

wilfred wigham,

General Secretary, I.L.P.

February, 1957.

Socialism and Workers’ Councils


Class Thinking

THE worker in industry usually finds his thinking done for him. It may be notices from the management, orders from his foreman, advice from his trade union, and all of these may tend to obscure his real interests and retard the necessary action he must take in order to make any essential change in his living conditions. What action he can take to bring about any real marked change in these living conditions depends a great deal on his understanding of the productive forces of which he is a part.


The particular method of production prevailing at any given period in history is what determines, in the main, the industrial and political outlook of the people. In other words, the way men get their living moulds and conditions to a great extent their thinking. Their education, training and even their entertainment reflect the needs, not of themselves, but of their employers. This is what is meant by the workers having their thinking done for them. There is a ruling class and a working class, and the prevailing ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.

In order to live men must produce the means to live. The bare necessities of life are food, clothing and shelter. It is the manner in which these needs are produced that is important. One might naturally think the best way would be to produce the greatest amount possible. Within the present system of production, how­ever, this is not the case.

The basic reason for the present system of production being unable to produce and distribute sufficient for all is that production is carried on for profit and only incidentally for use. The capitalist produces for a market where he can realise his surplus product in profit. The world’s markets are limited and the workers themselves can only buy back a part of what they have produced. This part is determined by the amount of their real wages. Countries which in the past were undeveloped in an industrial sense could provide a market, but most of these countries can not only supply their own needs now, but are themselves looking for markets to dispose of their own surplus.

Capitalism came about through its ability to develop production with an efficiency never before attained in history. ^In its early days it could distribute its products because of an expaVling world market. The market has now become restricted, and inVhe words of a leading industrialist, Sir Miles Thomas: “Production is a liability and a danger unless it can be sold.”

Production for use would eliminate the necessity for a market. Capitalism which in the past was a spur has now become a fetter on production.

Because of its unregulated production, capitalism is responsible for industrial and financial crises which arise periodically. There are many factors involved in a crisis which cannot all be dealt with here, but basically they arise from a failure to realise a profit because the market is saturated with commodities, and so far as the workers are concerned their wages are insufficient to make an effective demand. The capitalists cannot sell their products, and until the surplus is used up, they must restrict production.

With the produce of the country controlled by the workers, the surplus could be distributed according to the needs of the people. The necessity for a market to realise the profits would disappear; there would be no profits because production of goods would be for use.

Production Relations

Throughout history, in producing the necessities of life, men have entered into certain relationships with others and these relationships depended on the methods of production. Classes in society have always existed, and it is a class relationship that operates within the present system, namely, capitalism. The concern of the workers, therefore, is an understanding of the system of capitalism and the steps to be taken which will change the class relationship, and eventually lead to the complete abolition of all classes.

Workers’ Dependence

The ownership and control of the means of production does not confer on the capitalist any responsibility for the maintenance of the worker. The latter is entirely at the mercy of the employer so far as his job is concerned. He can be engaged to go to work, or he can be dismissed at the whim of the employer. The worker has only his labour-power to sell, and if he can find no purchaser for this, it is no concern of the owner of the means of production.

Thus can be seen at once the difference in status between the two classes — one is privileged, the other dependent.

Political Expression

The interests of any class in society are represented by its political organisation, and that is> where the real power lies. The State is the organised machine of the ruling class and the expression of its power. No State can represent the interests of all the people in a class-divided society. The interests of the working class are diametrically opposed to those of the ruling class and cannot be reconciled. Workers in industry must build up their own organisa­tions in order to give industrial expression to their economic needs, and political expression to their social needs.

Production for Profit

Capitalist production, with all its technical organisation, is entirely directed to the realisation of profits. It takes the form of commodity production and commodities are made for sale or exchange on the market. Over a given period of time these com­modities, on the average, exchange at their value. Labour-power, the1 commodity of the worker, is also sold at its value; yet it is precisely here — at the point of production — that the exploitation of the worker takes place. Labour-power is unique in the sense that it is the only commodity that in use produces more than its own value.

Labour-power and Labour

Labour-power in action is labour. In production labour gets its material basis from the commodity. The quantity of abstract, or undifferentiated labour-time embodied in the commodity gives the commodity its value. The difference between Labour and Labour-power must be realised, as the difference is most important.

Surplus Value

The amount of value produced in production over and above the value of the labour-power is called surplus-value. This is the source of the income of all sections of the capitalist class, and is eventually distributed as rent, interest and profit. Labour-power in use has produced more than its value. With private ownership of the means of production, i.e., machinery, buildings and raw material, all surplus value is owned by the capitalist class. Common ownership is the only solution, and the workers — the real producers — must own and control their own production,

Ownership and Distribution

The workers must not only control the manufacture but also the distribution of the products. They must be masters of the machinery, raw material and all the accessories; the planning in the workshops, fields and factories. Nationalisation and Public Owner­ship both mean that the worker is still under the control of the State. He is not his own master but the servant of a bureaucracy and of officials who may be quite ignorant of the industry they administer. The aim of the workers, and the function of socialists must be to bring about common-ownership. The working class, not the State, must be the directors of production and distribution, and only by means of their own councils can this be done.

At present the workers have nothing to do with the organisation of industry, its development, or the distribution of its products. Their function is to be exploited for profit. Industry is organised for profit; its products are exchanged for profit and this is what brings about anarchy in production with its consequent over­production, unemployment and crises.

With the workers organised in councils, within their own industries, production will be planned for use, not for profit. All production will be used up in satisfying the needs of people, irrespective of nationality, colour or creed. With the means of production in their hands the workers are capable of far greater production than is possible at present. In this way there will be no over-production, no glutted markets, no unemployment and no crises. There will be no need for waste in war production, for there will be no need for war. The need for markets so that capitalism can exchange its products leads to war and war thus is one of the attributes of capitalism.

Political Significance

Politics can be regarded as the science of government. The economic welfare of any class in society is always expressed in its political organisation. The present machinery of the working class is unsuitable as the instrument of any real change in the workers’ conditions.

The Trade Unions—originally evolved to oppose the encroach­ment of capital—have now become, to a great extent, the tool of capitalism. Class-collaboration between employers and workers is openly advocated by the Trade Union leaders. From a weapon to be used in opposing capitalists, the trade unions have become a fetter on the workers. This is shown by the approval given to the unions by the employers. At an earlier stage of industrial history the workers’ leaders were sent as convicts to Botany Bay; now they become Earls, Knights and Barons and sit in the House of Lords. This shows the workers’ leaders are serving capitalism, for the capitalist class have no honours to bestow on the real representatives of the working class.

Parliamentary Representation

Parliamentary action can provide a platform for socialist propaganda, but has many limitations, and its members cannot adequately represent the interests of the working class. Any institution professing to reflect the interests of all the people is a contradiction when the interests of groups of these same people are diametrically opposed.

Parliament is only part of a State whose power is invested in the country’s legislation, administration and judiciary. The State controls all its forces which are chiefly represented by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police. As always, the State represents the concentrated power of a class, and all the power of the capitalist State is behind the capitalist class. Making laws is the function of Parliament, but the application, execution and administration of these laws are in the hands of a privileged few.

Tendencies of Capitalist Development

While changing and developing continuously, capitalism remains essentially the same system of exploitation. In efforts to monopolise the markets of the world huge combinations develop horizontally, in order to control the production and sale of any particular product, and vertically to control production of commodities from the raw material to the finished article.

No changes within capitalism can help the worker. He has nothing to look forward to as far as any improvement in his con­ditions is concerned. It is his business to understand these changes, however.

The development of monopoly capitalism means the intensifica­tion of production. The increase in the centralisation of capital (the merging of firms) and in the concentration of capital (the conversion of surplus value into capital) means that the system must expand, and the combined forces can employ more expensive machinery of production, thus eliminating many smaller rivals because of the inability of the latter to compete with them. This must lead to unemployment.

The real insoluble problem of capitalism is to dispose of its surplus products. These remain in the system, causing complications because the market cannot absorb all of them. The contradiction is that the more effective the production becomes, the worse must become the conditions of the workers, but it guarantees the eventual end of capitalism.

The Transition Stage—Capitalism to Socialism

The scope of the Workers’ Councils must be as wide as industry itself. In a transition stage—and there must be such a stage when capitalism and all its inheritances are changing into socialism—the workers of all industries must assume control. Workers’ control is only feasible in this stage because, while capitalism exists, the owners of industry will never consent to Workers’ Control: on the advent of socialism such control is meaningless. Socialism will have neither workers nor capitalists. Men will then be raised to the status of human beings. While there are masters and wage-slaves mankind has not yet reached his full stature.. That can only come about with full socialism.

It should be apparent that the workers themselves have an enormous advantage in taking over the running of industry. They are familiar with the problems and processes of their own work, whereas the capitalists frequently know little of how their own industries are managed, and care less, as long as profits are high.

Advantages of Councils

Another factor favouring the workers is that industry would no longer be run on a competitive basis but on a co-operative under­standing of production for use. No longer would one industry withhold inventions and improvements in efficiency from others, as is done at present under a patent system. There would be no necessity for this. Each industrial unit would be co-ordinated with others of the same kind, and integrated with industry as a whole; thus allowing for the greatest efficiency. When we speak of industry, of course, we include various methods of transport. Goods are not fully produced until they are in the hands of the consumers. Expressions such as consumers and producers will become meaningless; producers are consumers and consumers are producers.

Historical Progress

It is a historical fact that all social progress got its driving force from below. The ruling upper strata of society has always had to give way to forces coming from a lower but more progressive class. Within the organisation of Workers’ Councils there will be no higher or lower classes. It will be a case of each for all and all for each. Each section of industry will have representatives

elected by the workers who are familiar with the needs of that industry, in order to plan its development. From the various sections will be drawn representatives whose duty it will be to organise industry as a whole. Thus the whole superstructure of the councils must rest on the solid foundations formed by the workers themselves.

All Power to the Workers!

Let no one think the workers themselves are not fully capable of planning the development of industry and its consequent social progress. The failure of bourgeois planners is no criterion of scientific socialist planning.

History teems with examples of the progress of society con­tributed by working men. The fact that these working men were not professionally trained did not stop their influence on progress. A watchmaker, Watt, revolutionised the steam engine; a barber, Arkwright, invented the loom; a jeweller, Fulton, produced a steamship, and Harrison, a carpenter, invented the chronometer. Furthermore the inventor of the sewing-machine, Elias Howe—a mechanical genius—was baffled and failed to make his machine work until his wife suggested putting the hole in the needle near the point. Thus the practical sewing-machine was born. This should be a warning never to disparage the ability of the humblest worker.

Wages: A Capitalist Term

Wages is the term given to that part of capital which is trans­formed into the price of labour-power; and it enables the capitalist to disguise the exploitation of the worker. It is a capitalist category and it is precisely because the price of labour-power is far below the value of what labour produces that exploitation of the worker takes place.

Wages appear to be the value given to the worker for what he has created. On the contrary, it is the value of the commodity the worker has to sell, and this value is far below the value of the commodity he has produced. This must be so, otherwise there would be no profits. With workers’ control the whole of production will belong to the working class, and it will rapidly appreciate the contrast between working for a parasite class and producing for its own needs.

The return to the worker will be based on his needs, keeping in mind that part which must be converted into what is necessary for the development of industry, social services, insurance, etc. The main point is that all production will be used in the interests for the working class.

The Development of Industry

The councils will convert and extend what is now known as capital investment into the efficient organisation and expansion of industrial development; the planned utilisation of natural resources, and the provision of extended transport facilities. Thus there will be no limits set on the increase of production because the interests of private ownership will no longer be a factor. It will now be common, not private ownership, and the production will be for use.

The relationship between the technically trained planning workers and other sections of workers in industry will be social and co-operative. They will not be working in opposition but in com­bination, for their interests are the same. There will be nothing in the nature of a separate “intellectual” class.

Workers’ Education

Part of the council’s duties would be to arrange lectures, discus­sions and demonstrations of progress. All workers, technical and non-technical, theoretical and practical, planners and operators, learners and experts, would meet on common ground as associates co-operating in the improvement of the life of society. This co-operation and combination would be discussed and contrasted with the wasteful competition and opposed interests inherent in capitalism. Workers’ education would be more necessary than ever, because what is now called education contains so much of the vicious inheritances of capitalism and these are so often taken for granted as just part of nature.

The need for socialist education will be necessary to correct many of the capitalist ideas which will for a time be prevalent in the transformation period. No doubt many workers will regard their share of production as wages. The true nature of wages will be explained, and the fact exposed that wages always presuppose exploitation.

The councils will teach the social relationship between the individual and the community. While the whole of production will belong to the working class, each individual worker could not claim the whole of what he produced—even if that was possible with large-scale modern industry. Deductions would have to be made for the replacement and expansion of production, reserve for accidents or damage by storms, administration costs and social services. People too young or too old to work would be equally entitled to their full share of production.

The Conquest of Power

As was expressed by the First International: The emancipation of the workers must be conquered by the workers themselves through their own organisations. The formation of councils within the workshops and factories will be the foundation of the necessary apparatus in bringing about the abolition of capitalism. The political power of the workers will grow from the development of their industrial organisation formed on their jobs. In contrast to their present trade union and parliamentary representation directed from above, and which has no responsibility to the workers—an M.P. can change his party, reverse the principles on which he was elected and there is no redress—through their councils, the workers; will be directly represented, and their representatives subject to immediate recall.

The necessary forms of organisation, of course, cannot be shown in exact detail. The experience of the workers in certain kinds of production will be co-ordinated with the experience of those in other kinds. Their needs and problems in all kinds of industry are basically the same, and the workers will learn to fight as a class. Their aim must be no less than the ownership and control of all industry, irrespective of its kind, and that is what is meant by the common ownership and control of the means of production.

The capitalist relationship of a privileged class to a subject class will cease. The economic relationship will not then be between classes of men, but a relationship between men and things. Instead, then, of a government of persons, there will arise an administration of things.

Published by the National Industrial Committee of the Independent Labour Party , 1957. 

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