Models of Industrial Democracy: A Comparative Study of Russian Soviets and Spanish Collectives

A research proposal I had written back in 2018 on industrial democracy that married my obsession with the two revolutions and workers control.


I had written this for the Cambridge Tunku Scholarship workshop in 2018, not fully understanding what they wanted and maybe that’s why I wasn’t selected. At the time, I still thought I might become a Russian Studies scholar specializing in the soviets and workers councils. I spent the whole of 2017 studying the soviets (the Russian word for councils, not the Soviet Union per se) for a 3-hour workshop for the 100 year anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, and had begun reading about the Spanish Revolution (1936 - 1939) shortly after. Even though I am now about to pursue postgraduate studies in Malaysian political economy and industrialisation, I revisit this proposal every so often, hoping that I will one day find the time to work on this topic which I am absolutely crazy about.


In response to the latest crisis of capitalism, the Financial Crisis of 2008, there is growing sentiment that there are structural flaws in the current capitalist system. The ensuing backlash in the form of the Occupy movements and anti-austerity protests revived public discussion for genuine democracy, both in the realm of politics and economics. Though the history of economic democracy stretches back to the utopian socialists of the 18th century, the academic study of industrial democracy developed in the post-World War II era. This period would see two capitalist systems emerge victorious, one based on private capital ownership, the other based on state capital ownership (Novkovic and Sena, 2007). The theories of industrial democracy have largely been applied in these systems under relatively stable conditions. I would like to attempt to use these theories and frameworks to analyse two systems under very different conditions, Revolutionary Russia (1917 - 1919) and Republican Spain (1936 - 1937). 

Research background and questions

Poole et al (2001) identified several ways in which systems of industrial democracy have been classified, by their internal structural properties, underlying ideologies, the initiating agent, and the scope, range and levels of participation. Poole et al also developed a multivariate approach to analysing the development of industrial democracy as opposed to the traditional evolutionary and cyclical approach. It looks at four broad sets of variables: 

  1. Macro conditions (economic and technical conditions, cultural values and ideological predisposition, legal framework and the polity)

  2. Strategic choices on institutional arrangements for industrial democracy

  3. The power of the principal actors

  4. Organizational structures and processes at the level of the firm

These variables are linked sequentially (from 1 to 4) to affect outcomes such as productivity, efficiency, system stability and worker sentiment. 

Looking at the two cases of Russia and Spain, the macro conditions were significantly different from conventional case studies of industrial democracy. While both were brief instances of widespread workers’ control operated under wartime conditions; their historical, cultural and ideological disposition varied greatly. The soviets (Russian for council) developed out of a combination of a tradition of democracy in rural village communes and a government decree for the election of factory elders to represent worker’s interest (Anweiler, 1975). The formation of these soviets was said to be relatively spontaneous and had little influence from its historical or ideological forerunners. The Spanish industrial and agricultural collectives, however, were the result of more than half a century of agitation and organizing by socialist activists, workers and peasants (Dolgoff, 1990). The proceeding years after the formation of these systems of economic democracy would see greater ideological influence from Marxist and anarchist leaders bleed into said systems. Utilizing Poole’s multivariate approach to locate and identify the variables in these two case studies, I will attempt to analyse the relationship between each set of variables. This will hopefully provide a foundation to synthesize a general theory on the necessary conditions to achieve and maintain workers’ control over the means of production. 

Beyond the technical measures of success such as productivity and efficiency, the resultant social and institutional outcomes of these systems can be assessed based on its achievement of a set of principles, grounded in notions of social and economic justice. Vanek attempted to formulate a unified theory of social systems for industrial democracy and broadly outlined five “fundamental laws” (Novkovic and Sena, 2007). 

  1. Human labour will not be treated as a commodity but the very subjects of social participation.

  2. Social groups must participate in determining their collective interests.

  3. Participation must be governed by “the intensity of involvement” e.g. one person, one vote.

  4. The nature and quality of participation need to be governed e.g. workers involved in the production process will be better suited to participate vis-à-vis a shareholder who has never set foot in the factory they own.

  5. The quality of participation will also be determined by the method, frequency and structure of participation.

The analyses of workers’ control in Revolutionary Russia and Republican Spain is expected to produce a set of principles in the same vein as those set out by Vanek. These principles will be developed in view of the espoused ideals of the political groups participating in the discourse of industrial democracy and the realities experienced by the workers themselves. 

These two case studies would also shed light on the dynamic between economic democracy and political democracy. During the onset of these social revolutions, Revolutionary Russia and Republican Spain were governed under a system of direct democracy, modelled largely on a syndicalist framework (Anweiler, 1975; Dolgoff, 1990). As their civil wars continued, workers’ control would become increasingly suppressed as the state apparatus became more centralized to effectively respond to conditions of war-induced scarcity and hence greater need for productivity. The development in levels of interaction and autonomy of the soviets and collectives vis-à-vis their superior bodies at the district and national level over time and under evolving political structures will elucidate the optimal political and technical conditions for industrial democracy. 

Research methods

The identification and analyses of the four sets of industrial democracy variables will be done using secondary sources in the form of social histories and general accounts of Revolutionary Russia (1917 - 1919) and Republican Spain (1936 - 1937). Historical accounts such as those by Avrich (1963), Rocker (2004) and Dolgoff (1990), have a specific focus on the nature of workers’ self-management during these periods. These accounts, coupled with social histories like those of Leval (1975) and Smith (1983), will hopefully provide adequate material to form the basis for analysis using the framework of industrial democracy as laid out by Poole and Vanek. Accounts and polemics by political leaders and theorists will deepen the context and analysis of said principles.


Anweiler, O. (1975). The soviets. New York: Pantheon Books.

Avrich, P. (1963). The Bolshevik revolution and workers' control in Russian industry.

Dolgoff, S. (1990). The Anarchist collectives. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Leval, G. (1975). Collectives in The Spanish Revolution. [S.L.]: Pm Pr.

Novkovic, S. and Sena, V. (2007). Cooperative Firms in Global Markets, Volume 10. Burlington: Emerald Group Pub.

Poole, M., Lansbury, R. and Wailes, N. (2001). A Comparative Analysis of Developments in Industrial Democracy. Industrial Relations, 40(3), pp.490-525.

Rocker, R. (2004). Anarcho-syndicalism. Edinburgh: AK.

Smith, S. (1983). Red Petrograd. Cambridge, GBR: Cambridge University Press.