Sir Richard Acland on Nationalisation and Workers’ Control in Industry

Unser Kampf Pic

Looking through one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham the other week, I found a copy of Sir Richard Acland’s 1940 book, Unser Kampf, published by Penguin. Acland was a baronet from a Devon and Somerset aristocratic family, and a Liberal MP. In Unser Kampf, he laid out his ideas for the post-War world as a kind of riposte to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Mein Kampf means ‘My Struggle’, while Unser Kampf means ‘Our Struggle’, referring to the national goals, which Acland believes would form a better national and international order once victory had been achieved.


His was a radical vision, far more radical than that of the contemporary Labour party. He argued for the complete socialisation of industry, and the replacement of the current system of management by unelected bosses with a system of workers control. He wrote

The world of the future belongs to common ownership. Only under common ownership can we abolish class distinction, unemployment, inequality and strife. Only under common ownership can we free ourselves from the system which positively encourages every man to seek his own personal advantage here on Earth.

Would it not be rather wonderful to live in a world in which we did not all have to think about ourselves all the time? Would it not be rather wonderful to get away from “this is mine,” “this is yours,” “this is t’other fellow’s,” and look out on everything we saw and say “this is all ours?” (Pp. 94-5).

Capitalist Sabotage

Acland’s proposal for the nationalisation of industry was far more radical than the contemporary Labour party’s. He discusses Labour’s plan to nationalise a small number of industries, and then see how they fare under nationalisation. Then, after this has gained popularity, the party then planned further nationalisations. Acland argued against this on the grounds that the capitalists in the intervening time would be doing everything they could to sacrifice the nationalised industries’ chance of success.

Labour’s Immediate Programme for example proposes that nationalisation, in the first five years, of industries employing one tenth of insured workers. For those five years, therefore, these industries would have to survive in a world whose conditions, as far as boom and slump were concerned, would be entirely dominated by the remaining nine tenths in private hands. In those five years we would be asked to judge by the results and make up our minds whether to nationalise other industries. We would be asked to consider whether the nationalised industries had “paid” in the accepted sense of the word. It may be taken as fairly certain that in those five test years the owners would take good care – some acting consciously and some unconsciously – that the whole of industry did not pay. Of course, if in those five years the owners wanted to do something they would have to come to the Labour government and accept its terms. But the game is far easier than that for the champions of monopoly capitalism. Labour has made a fundamental mistake in assuming that in those vital five years these people would want to go on making money. These men have bigger ideas than that. They would care about nothing in this world except smashing the Labour Government for ever. And the beauty of the situation from their point of view is that in those five years, to achieve their purpose, they would not have to do something, they would merely have to do nothing. They would let their nine tenths of industry run down, and you cannot run the railways, the mines and the banks and make them pay while all the industries they serve are slowing down. At no stage would you be able to do the manifestly sensible thing, namely, to take the unemployed as a whole and put them to work producing bread and clothes and boots, because that would compete with private enterprise which, by the terms of Labour’s election promises, must not be nationalised in the first five years. (Pp. 102-3).

There is no question to my mind then but that the advance to common ownership should be made boldly and not by a series of timid little shuffling steps. this does not so much mean that on the very first day every single industry down to the smallest must be taken over and run exclusively by the state. What it does mean is that from the very first day anyone who finds himself still working on his own account will be regarded as occupying entirely new status. (P.104).

On the matter of the amount of compensation that should be given to their owners for nationalised industries, he argued that the proprietors of the largest industries should receive the least amount of money while the smaller business owners should have the most. This is because he saw the right to ownership as based on work. The owners of large industries had mostly inherited them, and so they were not the result, or only minimally the result, of their personal labour. On the other hand, the opposite is true of small businesses, which were far more likely to be the result of their owners’ hard work.


It is quite true that mere ownership of property conveys no right to an income. Only work conveys that right. It is also true that most of our property is derived from long inheritance or from business transactions which, though not called illegal (or not discovered by the police to be illegal), were in morals nothing less than bare-faced swindling. But as against this, a great deal of property is still even in our days the result of honest work and honest savings. This property represents in fact crystallised work, and the owners of this property must receive compensation not in respect of their property as such, but in respect of the work which it represents… (Pp. 98-9).

I would submit that it is true in general that the smaller properties contain the larger element of crystallised work and the larger properties contain the larger element of inheritance and swindling.

I would therefore submit that it is reasonable to compensate the smallest properties virtually in full, and proceed on a sliding scale until the rate of compensation for the larger properties is very much lower. (P. 99)

He replies to the objection to the removal of the vast majority of the inherited wealth of the rich by pointing out that this would leave them with an income that is perfectly satisfactory for everyone else, and that others are also making their sacrifices to build a better world.

If anyone says it is monstrous to confiscate 90% of a millionaire’s property, I say that £8 4s 3d. per day is something which ought to enable a man to live quite reasonable well. If any owner asks, “Why should we make any sacrifice at all” Why should not we and our children have every last penny for ever?” I reply that millions of men, owners and non-owners alike, are going to risk their lives in these next months. They make their sacrifice for the common good, that those who are left may live fuller lives. Do I ask sacrifices which are too much if it is the fact that we cannot build a noble civilisation, while the means of production are in private hands only to be used if the owners can make a profit?

Workers’ Control

He also states that the nationalised industries should be managed through a system of workers’ control through a system of workers’ councils. The most efficient and enterprising workers on these councils would be those, who would be promoted to positions of management.

But above all the whole taunt of the present capitalists who ask how we will manage our industries without them shows that people have failed to imagine what industry under common ownership will be like. To-day, an owner manages an industry in which the workers work. We are asked how we are going to organise the thing which will manage the industry the industry and tell the workers how to work? It is not going to be like that at all. The industries are going to be the workers’ industries and the detailed organisation is not going to be piled on to them from on top, but built up by them from below.

The workers in each productive unit – or their representatives in the larger units – will be meeting every week to consider their work, their condition of work, how they can improve their work themselves, and what improvements might be made in their work with the assistance of other groups of workers. In addition, all the workers in all the trades in any area will be regularly meeting – either directly or again through representatives – to consider what improvements could be made in the industrial possibilities of the entire area. Surely, these meetings supply the answer to those who suggest that there would be no way in which new processes and new techniques and new devices and gadgets of all kinds would find their way into industry under common ownership. Surely, they answer also those who wonder how the problem of promotion would be solved. Is it reasonable to suppose that those who showed themselves most effective in the councils of these meetings would be marking themselves out for promotion? Of course some unworthy men would gain promotion by spuriously impressing themselves on their colleagues. But are there really no unworthy promotions today? (Pp. 107-8)

Acland’s book was a radical manifesto for a complete transformation of British society and industry. In the event, it was far more radical than the Labour party, which nationalised about a fifth of the British economy, but left much in private hands because they felt there was simply no case for it being taken into state ownership.

Acland nevertheless makes a good case for workers’ representation at least in industry. He’s also right about large firms being due to inheritance and not the hard work of individual entrepreneurs, though there are some exceptions, such as Microsoft. And he is absolutely right about the way private industrialists would wreck the economy to prevent the nationalised industries from succeeding. This is exactly what the Tories are trying to do now to the NHS, in order to prepare it for privatisation.


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4 Responses to “Sir Richard Acland on Nationalisation and Workers’ Control in Industry”

  1. Michelle Says:

    Very interesting thank you, bet Acland was popular amongst the powers that be, wonder how much surveillance he was under? 🙂

    • beastrabban Says:

      Quite a bit, I imagine. Robin Ramsay in the latest issue of Lobster speculates that with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the head of the Labour party, and all the traditional Leftists that have rejoined it, MI5 will also have reformed F Branch to deal with domestic subversion – meaning Communists, Anarchists, Trotkyites and anyone else they don’t like – instead of just hunting for al-Qaeda and ISIS.

      • Florence Says:

        We have already been defined as NVEs (non violent Extremists), so without a doubt there is massive surveillance. That’s always been the problem, looking at the normal behaviour of the left in the UK instead of the other threats. It also gives employment to the lesser scions of the well connected families, though, bless, it’s a job creation scheme par excellence.

      • Michelle Says:

        Yes Florence, we can’t be having a more fairly shared society, there would less problems to control and less fear to use as a control, so many jobs for the boys (and girls) would be lost and there would be a lot of cold turkey sufferers coming off their hierarchical power trips – though I could recommend some community gardening 😊

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