Max Shachtman on Democratic Workers Councils and the “Workers’ Government”

Shall economic life be democratically managed and controlled?

Absolutely! It is the maintenance of capitalist domination of society that demands, more and more, the abandonment of democracy. A Worker’s Government would have to extend democracy continually, not merely because it is a desirable ideal, but because it is indispensable to the planning of production for use. …

If, however, production were carried on for use, to satisfy the needs of the people, the question immediately arises: Who is to determine what is useful and what would satisfy these needs? Will that be decided exclusively by a small board of government planners? No matter how high-minded and wise they might be, they could not plan production for the needs of the people. Production for use, by its very nature, demands constant consultation of the people, constant control and direction by the people. The democratically-adopted decision of the people would have to guide the course of production and distribution. Democratic control of the means of production and distribution would have to be exercised by the people to see to it that their decision is being carried out.

Otherwise, the government and its planning would undergo a complete perversion of its purpose. At best, we would have a benevolent regimentation of the people “for their own good.” A government which declares itself to be “for” the workers, but is not a government of and by the workers, is a Workers Government only in name. Instead of being regulated by the blind market, as under capitalism, production would be regulated by the autocractic, uncontrolled will of a bureaucracy. Economic distortions, social conflict, exploitation and oppression would inevitably result. Production for use, aimed at satisfying the needs of society and freeing all the people from class rule, would be impossible.

Democratic control, the continual extension of democracy, is therefore an indispensable necessity under a Workers Government. The idea of a Workers Government is this inseparably connected with the idea of nationalization of the means of production and exchange, the centralized organization and planning of production and distribution, and the continual extension of democracy and democratic control. No one of these can exist in the absence of others. To have democratic control of industry, there must be planning of production. To plan production, the economic machinery of the country must be socially owned and centrally operated. To nationalize the means of production and exchange, a Worker’s Government must be established with power to act. For it to be a Workers’ Government, it must be democratically run and controlled by workers. None of these is possible without having all. ….

[Shachtman then argues that initially the Workers’ State would have to remain an instrument of force, in order to hold back reactionary attempts to end the revolution; and that the new State would inherit social inequality from the prior, capitalist society—something the Workers State would struggle against.]

These characteristics of the Workers’ Government show its similarities with the preceding state. But it is in its fundamental differences with it that the workers’ state shows, as the founders of scientific socialism have put it, that it is no longer a state in the classic sense of the word. A whole world of difference separates the two.

First, the force at the disposal of the workers’ state would not reside in bodies of armed men separated from the people, and under capitalism or feudalism or slavery. The arms would be in the hands of the workers themselves. The government which could summon these arms into action would be in the hands of the workers themselves.

Second, the state power would no longer be the instrument of an exploiting minority for the domination of the exploited majority. For the first time in history, the state would be in the hands of the majority to be used whenever necessary against the reactionary or anti-social minority.

Third, the state power would no longer be governed by a special or professional bureaucracy. It would be ruled and controlled by the people. It would have no permanent officials, and all elected officers would be subject to immediate recall by their electors. By virtue of its system of democratic representation, which will be dealt with in detail further on, every worker will participate directly in the affairs of government, from the humblest to the most prominent.

# # #

The parliamentary form of government, supposed to be the best expression of the will of the people, is nicely suited to cover up the actual rule of the enormously wealthy minority which monopolizes industry, banking and transportation.

The workers cannot possibly rule by means of such a governmental machine. It will have to be replaced from top to bottom by an entirely different form and machinery of government. A workers’ government has as its main task the centralization and planned organization of production, under democratic control, for the welfare of the people. This task can be accomplished only if there is a form of government suited to it.

If the workers are to be assured of control of the administration of industry, and if the centralized planning of production and distribution is to be under their democratic control, it follows that the government must be based directly on the workers and under their constant control. The only way in which this can be effectively done is by having the government elected directly by the workers in the industries. Just how would this work?

Every factory and other center of production or distribution would be administered by a Council, elected by the workers and subject to recall at any time. These Workers’ Councils themselves would run the factory and see to it that the plans [145] and other decisions of the national planning council, or board, are carried out promptly and properly. At the same time, however, these Councils, which are the direct representatives of the producers, would have to have the power to participate democratically in the selection of the national planning council and in the decisions that it makes. Without such democratic participation and control, planning would soon become bureaucratic and would not represent the interests of the masses.

The municipal, state and federal governments would therefore be composed of direct representatives of the Workers’ Councils, elected by popular ballot and likewise subject to recall at any time. (In the agricultural regions, the Councils would of course be elected by the agricultural workers and farmers.) The National Congress of Councils would elect its officers, committees and boards, again under its direct control and subject to recall. Legislative and executive functions would be exercised by a single power. The decisions of the Council government would not be carried out by a professional bureaucracy, separated from the people and beyond their control. They would be carried out, instead, by the state, municipal and industrial Councils, composed of workers themselves and constantly subject to their control.

Only under such a form of government can we have a genuine workers’ democracy, in which millions and ten of millions actually rule, in contrast with the most advanced capitalist democracy in which thousands, or tens of thousands at most, are the actual rulers.

If the laws adopted or the work carried out by the National Councils’ Congress are not satisfactory, it can be recalled and replaced by the direct action of the Workers’ Councils, without having to wait for two or four or even six years to change the government. If the decisions and plans of the National Congress are satisfactory, but are not being carried out satisfactorily by the Municipal or Factory Council, the latter can be recalled and replaced by the same direct action.

Every worker becomes a direct part of the government administration. His power is not confined to marking a ballot once a year. He exercises his power, his control, his participation in making decisions and carrying them out, every day in the year, year-in and year-out.

= = =

From Max Shachtman, The Fight for Socialism: The Principles and Program of the Workers Party (New York: New International Publishing Co, 1946).

first section is from “Chapter VII: A Workers Government and Socialism”: pp. 115, 116-17, 125.

second section is from “Chapter VIII. The Need for a Revolutionary Party”: pp. 144-46.

Transcriptions from the original book; it is available online as both text and PDF at

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