[Classics] What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat

14. Workers’ Control and Collaboration with the USSR

Whenever we speak of the slogans of the revolutionary period, the latter should not be construed in too narrow a sense. The Soviets should be created only in a revolutionary period. But when does that begin? One cannot consult the calendar and thus learn. One can only feel one’s way through action. The soviets must be created at the time when they can be created. [8]

The slogan of workers’ control over production relates, particularly and in general, to the same period as the creation of soviets. But neither should this be construed mechanically. Special conditions may draw the masses toward control over production considerably prior to the time when they will show themselves ready to create Soviets.

Brandler and his left shadow—Urbahns—have used the slogan of control over production independently of the political background. This has served no purpose other than to discredit the slogan. But it would be incorrect to reject the slogan now, under the conditions of the looming political crisis, only because on the face of it the mass offensive doesn’t exist as yet For the offensive itself, slogans are necessary which would define the perspectives of the movement. The period of propaganda must inevitably precede the penetration of the slogan into the masses.

The campaign for workers’ control can develop, depending upon the circumstances, not from the angle of production but from that of consumption. The promise of the Brüning government to lower the price of commodities simultaneously with the decrease in wages has not materialised. This question cannot but absorb the most backward strata of the proletariat, who are today very far from the thought of seizing power. Workers, control over the outlays of industry and the profits of trade is the only real form of the struggle for lower prices. Under the conditions of general dissatisfaction, workers’ commissions with the participation of worker-housewives for the purpose of checking up on the increased cost of margarine can become very palpable beginnings of workers’ control over industry. It is self-evident that this is only one of the possible manners of approach and it is given only as an example. Here the matter will not as yet concern the management of industry; the working woman will not go so far at once; such a thought is far removed from her mind. But it is easier for her to pass from consumer control to control over production and from the latter to direct management, depending upon the general development of the revolution.

In contemporary Germany, under the conditions of the present crisis, control over industry signifies control not only over the operating but also over the partly operating and shutdown industries. This presupposes participation in control by those workers who worked in those industries prior to their dismissal. The task must consist of setting the dead industries into motion, under the leadership of factory committees on the basis of an economic plan. This leads directly to the question of the governmental administration of industry, i.e., to the expropriation of the capitalists by the workers’ government. Workers’ control, then, is not a prolonged, “normal” condition, like wage-scale agreements or social insurance. The control is a transitional measure, under the conditions of the highest tension of the class war, and conceivable only as a bridge to the revolutionary nationalisation of industry.

The Brandlerites accuse the Left Opposition of having snitched from them the slogan of control over production after having jeered at this slogan for a number of years. The accusation has quite an unexpected tone! The slogan of control over industry was first issued, on a wide scale, by the Bolshevik Party in 1917. In Petrograd, the charge over the entire campaign in this sphere, as well as in others, was placed in the hands of the Petrograd Soviet. As an individual who watched this work and participated in it, I bear witness that we were never obliged to turn to Thalheimer-Brandler for initiative, or to make use of their theoretical information. The accusation of “plagiarism” is formulated with a certain imprudence.

But that is not the chief trouble. The second part of the accusation is much more serious—until now, the “Trotskyists” have argued against a campaign under the slogan of control over production, but right now they come out for this slogan. The Brandlerites see herein our inconsistency! As a matter of fact they only reveal a complete ignorance of the revolutionary dialectic embodied in that slogan of workers’ control, which they reduce to a technical prescription for “mobilising the masses.” They condemn themselves when they cite the fact that they have been repeating for a number of years the slogan which is suitable only for a revolutionary period. The woodpecker who has drilled away at the bark of an oak tree, year in and year out, in all probability at the bottom of his heart also holds to the conviction that the woodsman who chops down the tree with the blows of his axe has criminally plagiarised from him, the woodpecker.

For us, therefore, the slogan of control is tied up with the period of dual power in industry, which corresponds to the transition from the bourgeois regime to the proletarian. Not at all, objects Thalheimer: dual power must signify “equality [!] with the proprietors”; but the workers are fighting for total direction of industries. They, the Brandlerites, will not allow the revolutionary slogan to be “castrated” (that is the way they put it!). To them, “control over production signifies the management of the industries by the workers” (January 17, 1932). But why then designate management as control? In the language of all mankind control is understood to mean the surveillance and checking of one institution over the work of another. Control may be active, dominant, and all-embracing. But it remains control. The very idea of this slogan was the outgrowth of the transitional regime in industry when the capitalist and his administrators could no longer take a step without the consent of the workers; but on the other hand, when the workers had not as yet provided the political prerequisites for nationalisation, nor yet seized the technical management nor yet created the organs essential for this. Let us not forget that what is involved here concerns not only taking charge of factories, but also the sale of products and supplying of factories with raw materials and new equipment as well as credit operations, etc.

The correlation of forces in the factory is determined by the strength of the overall drive of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Generally speaking, control is conceivable only during the indubitable preponderance of the political forces of the proletariat over the forces of capitalism. But it is wrong to think that in a revolution all questions need to be and are solved by force: the factories may be seized with the aid of the Red Guard, but their management requires new legal and administrative prerequisites, and over and above that, knowledge, skills, and proper organisational forms. A certain period of apprenticeship is required. The proletariat is interested in leaving the management during that period in the hands of an experienced administration, but compelling it to keep all the books open and establishing an alert supervision over all its affiliations and actions.

Workers’ control begins with the individual workshop. The organ of control is the factory committee. The factory organs of control join together with each other, according to the economic ties of the industries between themselves. At this stage, there is no general economic plan as yet. The practice of workers’ control only prepares the elements of this plan.

On the contrary, the workers’ management of industry, to a much greater degree even in its initial steps, proceeds from above, for it is inseparable from state power and the general economic plan. The organs of management are not factory committees but centralised soviets. The role of the factory committees remains important, of course. But in the sphere of management of industry it has no longer a leading but an auxiliary role.

In Russia where, like the bourgeoisie, the technical intelligentsia was convinced that the Bolshevik experiment would endure only a few weeks, and therefore had steered its course towards all sorts of sabotage and had refused to enter into any agreements, the stage of workers’ control did not develop. Moreover, the war was destroying the economic structure by changing the workers into soldiers. Therefore there is comparatively little in the Russian experience to be found in relation to workers’ control, as a special regime in industry. But this experience is all the more valuable for the opposite reason: it demonstrates that even in a backward country under the general sabotage of not only the proprietors but also of the administrative-technical personnel, the young and inexperienced proletariat, surrounded by a ring of enemies, was able nevertheless to organise the management of industry. What wouldn’t the German working class then be able to accomplish!

The proletariat, as has been said above, is interested in seeing to it that the transition from the private capitalist to the state capitalist and then to the socialist method of production be accomplished with the least economic convulsions and the least drain upon the national wealth. That is why, while nearing power and even after seizing power by way of the boldest and most decisive struggle, the proletariat will demonstrate complete readiness to establish a transitional regime in the factories, plants, and banks.

Will the relations in industry in Germany during the period of revolution differ from those in Russia? It is not easy to answer this question, particularly from the sidelines. The actual course of the class struggle may not leave room for workers’ control as a special stage. Under the extreme tension of the developing struggle, under the increased pressure of the workers on the one side and the sabotage on the part of the proprietors and administrators on the other, there may be no room left for agreements, even though temporary. In such a case, the proletariat will have to assume, together with the power, the full management of industry. The present semi-paralysed state of industry and the presence of a great army of unemployed make such an abridgement quite possible.

But, on the other hand, the presence of mighty organisations within the working class, the education of the German workers in the spirit of systematic activities and not of improvisations, and the tardiness of the masses in swinging towards revolution can tip the scale in favour of the first way. Therefore it would be inexcusable to reject beforehand the slogan of control over production.

In any event, it is obvious that in Germany, even more than in Russia, the slogan of workers’ control has a meaning apart from that of workers’ management. Like many other transitional slogans, it retains an enormous significance independent of the degree to which it will be realised in reality, if realised at all.

By its readiness to establish transitional forms of workers’ control, the proletarian vanguard wins over to its side the more conservative strata of the proletarian and neutralises certain groups of the petty bourgeoisie, especially the technical, administrative, and banking staffs. Should the capitalists and the entire upper layer of the administration demonstrate an utter irreconcilability by resorting to methods of economic sabotage, the responsibility for the severe measures that follow therefrom will fall, in the eyes of the nation, not upon the workers but upon the hostile classes. Such is the additional, political import of the slogan of workers’ control, along with the above-mentioned economic and administrative meaning.

In any case, the extremes of political cynicism are attested by the fact that those people who have issued the slogan of control in a non-revolutionary situation, and have thereby given it a purely reformist character, accuse us of centrist duality, because of our refusal to identify control with management.

The workers who rise to comprehend the problems of the management of industry will not wish nor will they be able to become drunk with words. They have become used in factories to dealing with materials, less flexible than phrases, and they will comprehend our thoughts better than bureaucrats; genuine revolutionary thinking does not consist in applying force everywhere and at all times, and far less in choking with verbal enthusiasm over force. Where force is necessary, there it must be applied boldly, decisively, and completely. But one must know the limitations of force, one must know when to blend force with a manoeuvre, a blow with an agreement. On anniversaries of Lenin’s death the Stalinist bureaucracy repeats memorised phrases about “revolutionary realism” in order the more freely to jeer at it during the remaining 364 days.

The prostituted theoreticians of reformism attempt to discover the dawn of socialism in the emergency decrees against the workers. From the “military socialism” of the Hohenzollerns to the police socialism of Brüning!

Left bourgeois ideologists dream of a planned capitalist economy. But capitalism has had time to demonstrate that in the line of plans it is capable only of draining the productive forces for the sake of war. Disregarding everything else, in what manner can the dependence of Germany—with its enormous figures of import and export—upon the world market be regulated?

We, on our side, propose to begin with the sector of German-Soviet relations, i.e., the elaboration of a broad plan of collaboration between the Soviet and German economy in connection with and supplementary to the second five-year plan. Tens and hundreds of the largest factories could go ahead full steam. The unemployment in Germany could be entirely liquidated—it would hardly take more than two or three years—on the basis of an all-embracing economic plan involving just these two countries.

The leaders of capitalist industry in Germany, obviously, cannot make such a plan, because it means their social self-elimination. But the Soviet government, with the aid of German workers’ organisations, first of all the trade unions and the progressive representatives of German technology, can and must work out an entirely practical plan, capable of opening truly grandiose perspectives. How petty all these problems of reparations and added pfennigs for customs will appear in comparison to those possibilities which will be opened by coupling the natural, technical, and organisational resources of the Soviet and German national economies.

The German Communists are spreading wide-scale propaganda concerning the successes of Soviet construction. This work is necessary. But they go off into sickly-sweet rhapsodies. That is entirely superfluous. But worse yet, they have been unable to link together both the successes and the difficulties of the Soviet economy with the immediate interests of the German proletariat; with unemployment, with the lowering of wages, and with the general economic impasse of Germany. They have been unable and unwilling to pose the question of Soviet-German collaboration on a strictly practical and at the same time deeply revolutionary basis.

During the first stage of the crisis—more than two years ago—we posed this question in print. And the Stalinists immediately set up a hue and cry that we believe in the peaceful coexistence of socialism and capitalism, that we want to save capitalism, etc. They failed to foresee and understand just one thing, to wit, what a potent factor in a socialist revolution a concrete economic plan of collaboration could become, if it were made the subject of discussion in trade unions and at factory meetings, among workers of operating as well as shut-down industries; and if it were linked with the slogan of workers’ control over production and subsequently with the slogan of seizing power. For international planned collaboration can be realised only under monopoly of foreign trade in Germany and the nationalisation of the means of production, in other words, under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Along this road, one could pull new millions of workers, non-party, Social Democrat, and Catholic, into the struggle for power.

The Tarnows are scaring the German workers with the prospect that the industrial breakdown as a consequence of the revolution would result in frightful chaos, famine, etc. Let it be kept in mind that these same people supported the imperialist war, which could bring to the proletariat in its train nothing save tortures, hardships, and degradation. To burden the proletariat with the agonies of war under the banner of the Hohenzollerns? Yes! Revolutionary sacrifices under the banner of socialism? No, never!

Discussions concerning the topic that “our German workers” would never agree to suffer “such sacrifices” consist in simultaneously flattering the German workers and vilifying them. Unfortunately, the German workers are too patient. The socialist revolution will not exact from the German proletariat one hundredth of those sacrifices that were swallowed up in the war of Hohenzollern-Leipart-Wels.


[8] Some ultra-lefts (for instance, the Italian Bordigist group) hold that the united front is permissible only in economic struggles. The attempt to separate the economic struggle from the political is less feasible in our epoch than ever before. The example of Germany, where wage agreements and workers’ wages are cut by means Of administrative decrees, should instil this truth even in small children.

We shall add in passing that in their present stage, the Stalinists are reviving many of the early crotchets of Bordigism. Small wonder that the “Prometeo group,” which has learned nothing and which has not taken one step forward, stands today, in the period of the ultra-left zigzag of the Comintern, much closer to the Stalinists than to us.