Socialism, as was developed by Marx and Engels in its scientific form after the break from the utopian socialists and Proudhon’s petty-bourgeois mutualism, was never defined as “workers controlling the means of production” but rather as the lower phase of communist society, the transitional stage between capitalist and communist society.
In many of his writings, Marx is explicit in the necessity of a workers state—a dictatorship of the proletariat (DoTP)—which formed the basis of socialism.
The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.
— Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)
Marx says this about the transitional stage between capitalist and communist society.
Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
— Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875)
Engels is even more explicit in the necessity of the State during this revolutionary transformation of society.
The proletariat seizes from state power and turns the means of production into state property to begin with. But thereby it abolishes itself as the proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes also the state as state. Society thus far, operating amid class antagonisms, needed the state, that is, an organization of the particular exploiting class … The first act by which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — is also its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies down of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’. It withers away.
Socialism in this sense was then defined as a class society where the proletariat is the ruling class and exercises its class domination through the state apparatus which has proletarian class characteristics. “Workers control” comes as a direct consequence of this qualitative change in the class character of the State due to the parasitic bourgeoisie having been expropriated and suppressed under the DoTP. But “worker’s control” was never given as the fundamental requirement for a society to be socialist.
There is also the issue of definition with the phrase “workers controlling the means of production.” In the Soviet Union, the workers controlled their workplace and workplace conditions through the soviets and trade councils (1). The soviets formed the basis of the Soviet government (no, Lenin didn’t abolish them). But the workers didn’t “own” individual pieces of factories or the means of production. The means of production were socialized by the state after expropriating the bourgeoisie, claimed for all the workers, not given out piece by piece to individual or groups of workers in little communes. Is it individual or small collective ownership that is implied by “workers control of the MoP”? This way of characterizing workers control has roots in petty-bourgeois, mutualist tendencies and is individualist rather than class-based.
This is not to say that Marxists are against workers controlling their working conditions—far from it. We simply do not define socialism to be something so vague and individualist. Further, construction of socialism under Marxist-Leninist states led to more worker’s control over their workplaces than they previously enjoyed or currently enjoy in a capitalist society (2). It’s only pointing out that judging the existence of socialism in a country by this criteria rather than by the existence of the DoTP is individualist, petty-bourgeois, and an ultra-leftist deviation from Marxism.
1) “In carrying out its activities, the Party rests on the trade unions and on the Soviets. Without the support of the 20 million trade unionists, without the support of the peasantry, organized in the Soviets and in the collective farms, the Party could not last for a week, for it is not the dictatorship of the Party, but a dictatorship of the working-class, in alliance with the peasantry.”
Campbell, J. R. Soviet Policy and Its Critics. London: V. Gollancz, ltd., 1939, p. 15-16
2) “… [W]orkers in the city which had supposedly suffered at least as much as any other in the ‘Great Terror’ were still able to criticize a director to his face and apparently to get a job back after cursing a supervisor. While sane, calm, and sober, no worker would have dared to say that socialism was a poor system or that Stalin was an idiot. But such bounds allowed a great deal that was deeply significant to workers, including some aspects of production norms, pay rates and classifications, safety on the job, housing, and treatment by managers.”
Robert Thurston, Reassessing the history of Soviet Workers