Workers’ power and the failure of communism

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote that the first step towards communism was for the working class to become the ruling class by taking control of all the instruments of production. Here this first step is designated as workers’ power. The argument is that the twentieth century’s version of communism – Soviet Communism – was the antithesis of communism because workers’ power was reversed and then eliminated. It tests this claim by analysing the decisive role of three independent workers’ movements in the struggles to overthrow tyrannies, Poland, South Africa, Iran, 1979-89, in the shadow of Soviet Communism’s impending implosion in 1989. It argues that communist aspirations, based on workers’ power, were implicit in these workers’ movements. But they were thwarted by the influence of Soviet Communism in the first case by its satellite Polish Communist state and in the second and third cases by its satellite Communist parties. The hypothesis gains its credibility from primary source interviews with key actors, former workers’ leaders and the political activists closest to them, supported by secondary sources, contemporary with the period, and later scholarly studies as well as personal memoirs. The research investigations in the three countries, with very different political and cultural histories, on three different continents, constitute case studies which form the three core chapters of the thesis. In each case, the studies of Poland’s Solidarity workers’ movement, the “workerist” movement as part of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980’s and the workers’ “shoras”, (workers’ councils), which appeared in the first few months following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, yield results all showing workers challenging for control of the productive process, in some cases very successfully, if only temporarily. The potential significance of these developments has been previously overlooked, buried by political outcomes which fell far short of the expectations of the millions of people mobilised for fundamental political transformations.
Date of Award1 Apr 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorStathis Kouvelakis (Supervisor), Matt Vidal (Supervisor) & Jim Wolfreys (Supervisor)

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