Can workers run the world?

Erima Dall begins our series answering common questions about socialism

Capitalism today relies on two great myths. One is that we in “the West” live in a democratic society. The other is that ordinary people are incapable of running society.

Capitalist democracy is confined to one tiny sphere, parliament, where representatives are elected just once every three years or so. These representatives cannot be recalled when they inevitably break promises and betray those who voted for them.

Many people with immense power are entirely unelected. The state is full of unelected individuals who make decisions that affect all of us—military leaders, judges, top bureaucrats, police chiefs, the governor of the Reserve Bank and so on.

The economy itself is completely undemocratic. Our workplaces are mini-dictatorships where we do what we are told and can be fired if we don’t. Nobody elects the bosses. Unelected capitalists decide the direction of our economy, including what to build and produce, what jobs will be provided and what jobs will be lost. And they do this entirely on the basis of what is profitable, not on the basis of what will meet human needs.

Workers’ power

We are told to be grateful because, the story goes, without these capitalists production would cease and chaos would reign. They’d have us believe they produce the wealth, as if money makes money.

But as Jordan Belfort tells his stockbrokers in the recent film The Wolf of Wall Street, “I’m gonna let you in on a little secret about these telephones. They’re not gonna dial themselves! Without you, they’re just worthless hunks of plastic.” The same is true throughout the whole economy—trains cannot drive themselves, hospitals cannot run themselves, newspapers cannot write themselves.

The competition for jobs, promotion, housing and services under capitalism makes us feel like we’re all in it alone, against one another. This obscures the fact that even under capitalism we work cooperatively to produce everything. Factories, transport, supermarkets, banks, and businesses are run by teams of workers working together.

It is workers who really do the work and create wealth in society. Socialists fight for a genuine democracy where political and economic control of society and its wealth are put back in the hands of those who produce it, the working class.

This is only possible when millions of ordinary people organise themselves to take decision-making power away from the bosses and the state that rule us today, and impose their own collective power through a new form of workers’ democracy.

Many movements of the past that challenged capitalism have involved the development of workers’ control of society, starting with the Paris Commune in 1871 and encompassing the German Revolution in 1918, the revolutionary upsurges in Spain 1936, Hungary 1956, Chile 1973, Portugal 1974, Iran 1979, Poland 1981, and most importantly the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Our own bosses

Those who question the possibility of working class power say we need managers and bosses who are more highly skilled and know how to run industry.

But the most common complaint in any workplace is that, most of the time, bosses and managers don’t know the half of it. Much managerial work is just maintaining discipline: think of a supervisor in a call centre who doesn’t answer the phone, just roams the floor keeping an eye on the workers.

There may be a genuine need to co-ordinate the work of a big firm or factory, but there is no reason why anyone should earn more and be treated as superior for doing so. They should instead be democratically accountable to the workforce.

Instead of being considered part of management, separated from the process of production, white collar workers and those with particular skills would be part of the workers council where all aspects of production would be democratically discussed and determined.

Any co-ordinating roles would be democratically elected and accountable.

Workers’ democracy

In 1917 in Russia, in a society where workers were far less educated and skilled than today’s working class, workers led a revolution that put Soviets, workers’ councils, in power.

At both a local and national level, workers were in control of society. Factory Committees based in individual workplaces controlled production. They took over where owners and administrators had fled or been forced out by workers.

Workers learnt in the course of the struggle how to run their workplaces, against attempts by the old ruling class to restore their control. As American journalist and eyewitness to the revolution John Reed put it:

“The owners [of the factories] attempted to falsify the books, to conceal orders; the Factory Shop Committee was forced to find out ways to control the books. The owners tried to strip the works—so the committee had to rule that nothing should go in or out of the plant without permission… In the breakdown of the railroads, committee agents had to make agreements with the Railwaymen’s Union for transportation of freight. To guard against strike-breakers, the committee had to take over the function of hiring and discharging workers.”

Russian workers’ representatives from different workplaces met together in Soviets to co-ordinate production and make decisions about society as a whole.

Similarly in Iran in 1979, the institution of workers’ control, the “shora”, “comprised the whole workforce of a given enterprise, manual workers and professionals, men and women, and constituted itself through general assemblies. In the assembly, an executive committee was elected, a constitution drafted, and major decisions taken. The executive committee reported back to the assembly, and mandates could be revoked at any time.”

The reason these experiments in workers’ control have been short lived is not because ordinary people can’t run society, but usually because they were not convinced to take power off the old rulers completely.

The ruling class does not relinquish their control without a fight. To secure genuine democratic control, it must be spread internationally. If history tells us anything it is that workers can run the world, but nothing less.


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