Mikhail Gorbachev on Worker’s Control in Perestroika

One of the most interesting aspects of Gorbachev’s plan to restructure the Communist system in Perestroika was the re-introduction of workers’ control. Lenin briefly introduced this after the Bolshevik coup of 1917, but it was reversed when it was found that, contrary to Bolshevik expectations and dogma, the workers couldn’t manage industry on their own. Lenin himself was fiercely autocratic and intolerant, and the Bolshevik monopolization of power offended not only liberal democrats, but also other committed Marists, like Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote articles denouncing it. Much of the intolerance and oppressive nature of the Soviet system came directly from Lenin and his doctrine of ‘democratic centralism’. This was the dogma that once the leaders of the Communist party had made a decision, no further discussion was permissible, and their commands should be carried out with any further debate or protest. Nevertheless, Gorbachev harkened back to Lenin and his supposed espousal of democracy in order to invigorate the moribund and sclerotic Soviet system. The reintroduction of workers’ control was part Gorby’s wider programme of democratizing Soviet society.

In his 1987 book, Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World (London: Collins) Gorby writes

We are taking a new view of the correlation between one-man management and the participation of work collectives in handling production tasks. this is a topical issue. There will be no progress without workers’ involvement in management through the corresponding mechanisms – at the work team, factory shop, plant and integrated works level. Furthermore, a work collective must have the right to elect its manager. And the latter receives the right to one-man rule on behalf of the collective, uniting everybody by his willpower.

Elections of economic managers are direct democracy in action. Initially people were frightened by this, claiming that we had gone too far, that things could come to a bad end. But those who reason that way forget the main point, that common sense always prevails. Group interests, a practice of covering up for one another, will somewhere make themselves felt. But basically everyone wants his work team, factory shop, enterprise, collective or state farm to be headed by dependable, intelligent managers capable of leadership, of opening up vistas for improving production and life. Our people understand this, and they certainly do not need weak management. They need people who are talented, considerate, yet demanding in a fair way.

People want to see changed attitudes on the part of the plant manager, shop superintendent and foreman. People expect a moral example and they expect it particularly from their superiors. There are several such examples. Where there is a good manager, there is success. He takes care of people. Everyone wants to talk with him. He need not raise his voice in giving out orders. He may look quite ordinary, but he sees and can explain everything. It is now extremely important to be able to explain the situation. People will agree to wait if they see why some of their demands cannot be satisfied fully right away. (Pp. 103-4).

The former General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party also wanted to restore greater powers to the trade unions. These did not have the same roles and responsibilities as western trade unions. As the Soviet Union was a workers’ state, the Communists reasoned that trade unions should have no power to block or interfere with the authorities, who were the workers’ representatives. Nevertheless, the Soviet system granted them vast powers. The were to be consulted on economic planning, and the sacking of employees was only legal if the union had been consulted. The trade unions were also given the responsibility for running the health, medical and leisure programmes in Soviet plants, factories and industry. Gorbachev was concerned that the trade unions were acquiescing too much to the demands of management. He wished to alter this situation by giving them the power to represent the workers’ interests against management as well as improving healthcare and leisure at Soviet workplaces. He wrote

What our country is undertaking and the issues it is tackling implies a re-evaluation of the role of trade unions in social affairs.

It should be said first and foremost that our unions are a formidable force. No labour law can be drafted unless endorsed by the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. On all questions concerning labour laws, their enforcement and the safeguarding of the working people’s right the trade unions have the final say. If a manager fires a worker without asking the union for approval, a court of law automatically makes the decision invalid without any deliberation, inasmuch as the trade union has not been consulted for its opinion. No economic development plan, for one year or five years, is submitted to the Supreme Soviet unless approved by the trade unions. When the plans are in the making, the trade unions participate as well at all levels.

Social insurance, the running of sanatoriums and recreation resorts, tourism, physical training and sports, and the rest and recreation of children are all the responsibility of the trade unions. Consequently, they wield real power. But, all, over the past few years there has been less trade union activity. On some issues, they have yielded their prerogatives to economic managers, while not enjoying some rights effectively enough.

So, having set about restructuring, we saw that the work of the trade unions could not be termed satisfactory. During my trip to the Kuban region, I reproached trade union leaders for pandering to managers, sometimes going so far as dancing to their tune. I asked them whether it was not high time they took a position of principle, and stood up for working people?

The new role of the trade unions in conditions of perestroika should consist primarily of giving a stronger social orientation to economic decisions, offsetting technocratic encroachments which have become widespread in the economy in the last few years. this means that the trade unions should be more active in elaborating the social sections of economic plans, and, if need be, setting forth and upholding their own alternative proposals.

Trade union committees should have teeth, and not be convenient partners for management. Bad working conditions at some enterprises, a poor health service, substandard locker rooms- trade union organisations have got used to all this. but Soviet trade unions have the right to monitor managerial compliance with labour contracts, the right to criticise management, and even the right to demand that director who fails to comply with the legitimate interests of the working people be removed from office.

It would be wrong to think that under socialism the working people do not need any protection. They should be protected even more, for socialism is a system for the working people. Hence the tremendous responsibility of the trade unions. All Soviet society is vitally interested in more vigorous work being undertaken by the trade unions. (Pp. 113-4).

All this was discarded during Yeltsin’s administration, when the economy was privatised and the voucher system introduced, which transformed the co-operatives Gorby had been setting up into bog standard capitalist enterprises. If Gorbachev had been successful, he would have created a democratic Socialist state, very close to the vision of the ownership of the means of production by the workers themselves that motivated Socialists as far back as the Owenite John Francis Bray in the 19th century. While not demanding the abolition of capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang states in his book, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, that in countries where there is state interest in industry, or workers’ representatives on the boardroom, firms actually do better than when left simply to managers and shareholders. But unfortunately, that it what we are left with after thirty years of Thatcherism. And its continuing and accelerating under Cameron.

We need a change. British trade unionism needs to be revitalised, and we do need workers’ representatives in our boardrooms. As for Thatcher, her ideas were always bankrupt. They should have been thrown out before she ever took office.

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