When they sprang up in early 1917, the factory committees functioned essentially as trade union organisations, fighting to achieve the eight-hour day and to improve wages (Smith 1983).
Mandel’s study found that workers’ control remained “first and foremost a practical response to the concrete problems the workers faced and not, as the dominant view in western historiography has maintained, an anarchistic or anti-authoritarian movement” (1984).
There were 244 factory committees in Petrograd province by October 1917. Some 289,000 workers or 74% of the city’s industrial workforce worked in enterprises under some form of workers’ control. But workers’ control affected mainly one hundred large factories and left the majority of smaller enterprises untouched (Smith 1983).
One of the first and most popular decrees of the new Soviet government (passed November 1917) was on workers’ control. This decree breathed “a spirit of libertarianism” and made a nonsense of the claim that, “once power was in his grasp, Lenin, the stop-at-nothing centraliser, proceeded to crush the ‘syndicalist’ factory committees” (Smith 1983). The decree was passed not not without some controversy. Remington states that “three times between October 1917 and January 1918 the factory committee leadership outlined a conception of control institutions that ultimately pointed toward a self-managing model of proletarian socialism. On each occasion the party leadership opposed them” (1989).
But the decree was obsolete within weeks, after the Bolsheviks decided that the rising tide of economic chaos required that factory committees be integrated into the trade unions. Smith argues that this proposal was not, as has been argued, contrary to working class democracy. To counterpose the factory committees to the Bolsheviks party is wrong, since most of the leading cadres of the committees were also Bolsheviks. Such a juxtaposition suggests a uniformity of views within both the committees and the Bolshevik party which did not in fact exist (Smith 2002).
On 14 December 1917, Lenin signed the first decree officially nationalising 81 businesses, a large majority of which employed over 1,000 persons. Workers’ control organisations were not to participate in or take responsibility for the management of the enterprises.
According to Victor Serge, even in April 1918 the government was still envisaging the formation of mixed companies, which would have been floated jointly by the state and by Russian and foreign capital. Serge is candid on the reasons for nationalisation: the collapse of production and the acute food crisis, the sabotage by employers and managers but also “the backward attitude of various sections of workers” (Serge 1992).
Between November 1917 and March 1918, 836 enterprises were nationalised, including by action from below. On 28 June 1918, the government took some 2,000 joint-stock companies into state ownership (Smith 2002). The decree of nationalisation gave one-third of the places in management to the elected representatives of the workers, while giving effective control to the managers appointed by Sovnarkom (Farber 1990).
Some residual elements of workers’ control persisted. By the autumn of 1918, 212 factories in Petrograd province had control-commissions: 24% of these had been established before November 1917; 51% had been established between November and March 1918, and 25% after March 1918 (Smith 1983).
By 1922 the shift away from collegiality had been fully implemented. In March 1920, 69% of Petrograd factories employing more than 200 workers were still run by a collegial board (Farber 1990 ). However it is clear that even before the civil war had ended, direct workplace democracy and control by workers had been substantially eroded.