Historical and Theoretical Origins of Codetermination in German Companies

Theories of Worker Participation in Germany
By Bernd Zielinski

This paper traces back the theoretical debates that marked the historical creation of the principle of codetermination in German companies. By looking at four major authors from the first half of the 19th century through the first decades of the 20th century, it analyses the attempts to justify the creation of workers’ committees in companies. An examination of the approaches of theoreticians Robert von Mohl (1799-1875), Gustav Schmoller (1838-1917), Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919) and Fritz Naphtali (1888-1961) shows that in every period, discussions and thinking about worker participation were influenced by a certain level of institutional and technological development of capitalism, as well as by specific political contexts. In parallel, each author’s handling of the question of workers’ committees refers to different schools of German economic and social thought, from the”Historical School” to the”Economic Democracy” approach. In the 19th century, theories of worker participation were mainly devised by intellectuals who viewed them as a means for social peace, while the labour movement was mainly hostile to this principle, considered to be an ideological means of obscuring the actual balance of power in companies. Only from the start of the 20th century did unions and Social Democrats begin to view workers’ committees as an instrument for democratisation of the economy, as part of a reformist strategy.

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