1918: The revolution criticises its errors, Part 2

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Part two: the first debates on state capitalism in the Bolshevik party

In the first part of this article, we looked at the criticisms which Rosa Luxemburg made of the early policies of the Bolshevik party after the October revolution, emphasising that Luxemburg always made these criticisms from a standpoint of unflinching support for the Russian revolution. In this second part, we look at some of the debates that arose inside the Bolshevik party, which was faced with a totally unprecedented historical situation: the establishment of a proletarian power at the level of an entire country. These debates expressed the fact that, far from being the monolith portrayed both in ‘anti-Bolshevik' and Stalinist mythology, the Bolshevik party in 1918 was still very much a living organism of the proletariat.

Almost simultaneously with Luxemburg's criticisms, the first important disagreements arose within the Bolshevik party about the direction of the revolution. This debate - provoked in the first instance by the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, but subsequently moving on to the forms and methods of proletarian power - was carried out in a completely open manner within the party. It certainly gave rise to sharp polemics between its protagonists, but there was no question of minority positions being silenced. Indeed, for a while, the "minority" position on the signing of the treaty looked as if it might become a majority. At this stage, the groupings who defended different positions took the form of tendencies rather than clearly defined fractions resisting a course of degeneration. In other words, they had come together on a temporary basis to express particular orientations within a party that, despite the implications of its entanglement with the state, was still very much the living, breathing vanguard organism of the class.

Nevertheless, there are those who have argued that the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty was already the beginning of the end, if not the end, for the Bolsheviks as a proletarian party, already marking their effective abandonment of the world revolution (see the book by Guy Sabatier, Brest-Litovsk, coup d'arrêt à la révolution, Spartacus editions, Paris) And to some extent the tendency within the party that most vociferously opposed the treaty - the Left Communist group around Bukharin, Piatakov, Ossinski and others - feared that a fundamental principle was being breached when the representatives of the Soviet power signed a highly disadvantageous "peace" agreement with a rapacious German imperialism rather than committing itself to a "revolutionary war" against it. Their views were not dissimilar to those of Rosa Luxemburg, although her main concern was that the signing of the treaty would retard the outbreak of the revolution in Germany and the West.

In any case, a simple comparison between the Brest-Litovsk treaty in 1918 and the Rapallo treaty four years later shows the essential difference between a principled retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, and a real marketing of principles which paved the way towards Soviet Russia being integrated into the world concert of capitalist nations. In the first case, the treaty was debated openly in the party and the Soviets; there was no attempt to hide the draconian terms imposed by Germany; and the whole framework of the debate was determined by the interests of the world revolution, rather than the "national" interests of Russia. Rapallo, by contrast, was signed in secret, and its terms even involved the Soviet state supplying the German army with the very weapons that would be used to defend capitalist order against the German workers in 1923.

The essential debate around Brest-Litovsk was a strategic one: did the Soviet power, master of a country that had already been exhausted by four years of imperialist slaughter, have the economic and military means at its disposal to launch an immediate "revolutionary war" against Germany, even the kind of partisan warfare that Bukharin and other Left Communists seemed to favour? And secondly, would the signing of the treaty seriously delay the outbreak of the revolution in Germany, whether through the "capitulationist" message it sent out to the world proletariat, or more concretely through providing German imperialism with a life line in the East? On both counts, it seems to us, as it did to Bilan in the 1930s, that Lenin was correct to argue that what the Soviet power needed above all was a breathing space in which to regroup its forces - not to develop as a "national" power but so that it could make a better contribution to the world revolution than by going down in heroic defeat (as it did, for example, by helping to found the Third International in 1919). And it could even be said that this retreat, far from delaying the outbreak of the revolution in Germany, helped to hasten it: freed from the war on the Eastern front, German imperialism then attempted to launch a new offensive in the west, and this in turn provoked the mutinies in the navy and army that sparked off the German revolution in November 1918.

If there is a principle to be drawn from the signing of the treaty, it is the one drawn by Bilan: "The positions of the fraction led by Bukharin, according to which the function of the proletarian state was to liberate the workers of other countries through a ‘revolutionary war', are in contradiction with the very nature of the proletarian revolution and the historic role of the proletariat". In contrast to the bourgeois revolution, which could indeed be exported by military means, the proletarian revolution depends on the conscious struggle of the proletariat of each country against its own bourgeoisie: "The victory of a proletarian state against a capitalist state (in the territorial sense of the word) in no way means a victory of the world revolution" (‘Parti-Etat-Internationale: L'Etat prolétarien', Bilan no.18, April-May 1935). This position had already been confirmed in 1920, with the debacle around the attempt to export revolution to Poland on the bayonets of the Red Army.

The position of the Left Communists on Brest-Litovsk - especially in the "death rather than dishonour" way that Bukharin defended it - was not therefore their strong point, even if it is the position that they are best remembered for. With the conclusion of "peace" with Germany, and the suppression of the first wave of bourgeois resistance and sabotage that arose in the immediate aftermath of the October insurrection, the focus of the debate shifted. The breathing space having been won, the priority was to determine how the Soviet power should set about consolidating itself until the world revolution had moved on to its next stage.

In April 918, Lenin made a speech to the Bolshevik central committee that was subsequently published as The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Power. In this text he argues that the primary task facing the revolution - assuming, as he and many others did, that the worst moments of the civil war were behind rather than in front of the new power - was the task of "administration", of rebuilding a shattered economy, of imposing labour discipline and raising productivity, of ensuring strict accounting and control in the process of production and distribution, of eliminating corruption and waste, and, perhaps above all, of struggling against the ubiquitous petty bourgeois mentality that he saw as the ransom paid to the huge weight of the peasantry and of semi-mediaeval survivals.

The most controversial parts of this text concern the methods that Lenin advocated to achieve these aims. He did not hesitate to make use of what he himself termed bourgeois methods, including: the use of bourgeois technical specialists (which he described as a "step backwards" from the principles of the Commune, since in order to "win them over" to the Soviet power they had to be bribed with wages much higher than that of the average worker); the recourse to piecework; the adoption of the "Taylor system" which Lenin saw as "a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of the greatest scientific achievements in the field of analysing mechanical motions during work, the elimination of superfluous and awkward motions, the elaboration of correct methods of work, the introduction of the best system of accounting and control, etc" (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 27, p 259). Most controversial of all, Lenin, reacted against a certain degree of "anarchy" at the level of the workplace especially where the factory committee movement was strong and was disputing control of the plants with the old or the new management. He therefore called for "One man management", insisting that "unquestioning subordination to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organised on the pattern of large-scale machine industry" (p269). This latter passage is often quoted by anarchists and councilists who are keen to show that Lenin was the precursor of Stalin. But it must be read in the proper context: Lenin's advocacy of "individual dictatorship" in management did not at all preclude the extensive development of democratic discussions and decision-making about overall policy at mass meetings; and the stronger the class consciousness of the workers, the more this subordination to the "manager" during the actual work process would be "something like the mild leadership of a conductor of an orchestra".(ibid)

Nevertheless, the whole orientation of this speech alarmed the Left Communists, particularly as it was accompanied by a push to curb the power of the factory committees at shop-floor level and to incorporate them into the more pliant trade union apparatus.

The Left Communist group, which was extremely influential both in the Petrograd and Moscow regions, had established its own journal, Kommunist. Here it published two principal polemics with the approach contained in Lenin's speech: the group's "Theses on the Current Situation" (published by Critique, Glasgow, as a pamphlet in 1977), and Ossinski's article "On the construction of socialism".

The first document shows that this group was by no means animated by a spirit of "petty bourgeois childishness" as Lenin was to claim. The approach is profoundly serious, beginning by trying to analyse the balance of forces between the classes in the aftermath of the Brest-Litovsk treaty. Certainly, this reveals the weak side of the group's analyses: it both clings to the view that the treaty has dealt a serious blow to the prospects of revolution, while at the same time predicting that "during spring and summer the collapse of the imperialist system must begin" - a piece of fortune-telling that Lenin rightly lambasts in his reply to this document. This contradictory stance is a direct product of the false assumptions the Lefts had made during the debate over the treaty.

The strong side of the document is its critique of the use of bourgeois methods by the new Soviet power. Here it must be said that the text is not rigidly doctrinaire: it accepts that bourgeois technical specialists will have to be used by the proletarian dictatorship, and does not rule out the possibility of establishing trade relations with capitalist powers, although it does warn against the danger of "diplomatic manoeuvering on the part of the Russian state among the imperialist powers", including political and military alliances. And it also warned that such policies on the international level would inevitably be accompanied by concessions to both international and "native" capital within Russia itself. These dangers were to become particularly concrete with the retreat of the revolutionary wave after 1921. But the most immediately relevant aspect of the Lefts' criticisms concerned the danger of abandoning the principles of the commune state in the Soviets, in the army, and in the factories:

"A policy of directing enterprises on the principle of wide participation of capitalists and semi-bureaucratic centralisation naturally goes with a labour policy directed at the establishment among the workers of discipline disguised as ‘self-discipline', the introduction of labour responsibility for the workers (a project of this nature has been put forward by the right Bolsheviks(, piecework, lengthening of the working day, etc).

The form of state control of enterprises must develop in the direction of bureaucratic centralisation, of rule by various commissars, of deprivation of independence from local Soviets and of rejection in practise of the type of ‘Commune state' ruled from below...

In the field of military policy there must appear, and can in fact be noted already, a deviation towards the re-establishment of nationwide (including the bourgeoisie) military service...With the setting up of army cadres for whose training and leadership officers are necessary, the task of creating a proletarian officer corps through broad and planned organisation of appropriate schools and courses is being lost from sight. In this way in practise the old officer corps and command structures of the Czarist generals is being reconstituted" (‘Theses...').

Here the Left Communists were discerning worrying trends that were beginning to appear within the new Soviet regime, and which were to be rapidly accelerated in the ensuing period of War Communism. They were particularly concerned that if the party identified itself with these trends, it would eventually be forced to confront the workers as a hostile force: "The introduction of labour discipline in connection with the restoration of capitalist leadership in production cannot essentially increase the productivity of labour, but it will lower the class autonomy, activity and degree of organisation of the proletariat. It threatens the enslavement of the working class, and arouses the dissatisfaction both of the backward sections and of the vanguard of the proletariat. To carry this system through with the sharp class hatred prevailing in the working class against the ‘capitalists and saboteurs', the communist party would have to draw its support from the petty bourgeoisie against the workers and therefore put an end to itself as the party of the proletariat" (ibid).

The final outcome of such an involution, for the Lefts, was the degeneration of the proletarian power into a system of state capitalism:

"In place of a transition from partial nationalisation to general socialisation of big industry, agreements with ‘captains of industry' must lead to the formation of large trusts led by them and embracing the basic branches of industry, which may with external help take the form of state enterprises. Such a system of organisation of production gives a base for evolution in the direction of state capitalism and is a transitional stage towards it" (ibid).

At the end of the Theses, the Left Communists put forward their own proposals for keeping the revolution on the right path: continuation of the offensive against the bourgeois political counter-revolution and capitalist property; strict control over bourgeois industrial and military specialists; support for the struggle of the poor peasants in the countryside; and, most importantly, for the workers, "Not the introduction of piece-work and the lengthening of the working day, which in circumstances of rising unemployment are senseless, but the introduction by local economic councils and trade unions of standards of manufacture and shortening of the working day with an increase in the number of shifts and broad organisation of productive social labour.

The granting of broad independence to local Soviets and not the checking of their activities by commissars sent by the central power. Soviet power and the party of the proletariat must seek support in the class autonomy of the broad masses, to the development of which all efforts must be directed". Finally, the Lefts defined their own role: "They define their attitude to the Soviet power as a position of universal support for that power in the event of necessity - by means of participation in it...This participation is possible only on the basis of a definite political programme, which would prevent the deviation of the Soviet power and the party majority onto the fateful path of petty bourgeois politics. In the event of such a deviation, the left wing of the party will have to take the position of an active and responsible proletarian opposition".

A number of important theoretical weaknesses can be discerned in these passages. One is a tendency to confuse the total nationalisation of the economy by the Soviet state as being identical with a real process of socialisation - ie as already part of the construction of a socialist society. In his reply to the Theses, ‘Left wing childishness and the petty bourgeois mentality' (May 1918, CW, vol 27), Lenin pounces on this confusion. To the statement in the Theses that "the systematic use of the remaining means of production is conceivable only if a most determined policy of socialisation is pursued", Lenin replies: "One may or may not be determined on the question of nationalisation or confiscation, but the whole point is that even the greatest possible ‘determination' in the world is not enough to pass from nationalisation and confiscation to socialisation. The misfortune of our ‘Lefts' is that by their naïve, childish combination of words they reveal their utter failure to understand the crux of the question, the crux of the ‘present situation'...Yesterday, the main task of the moment was, as determinedly as possible, to nationalise, confiscate, beat down and crush the bourgeoisie, and put down sabotage. Today, only a blind man could fail to see that we have nationalised, confiscated, beaten down and put down more than we have had time to count. The difference between socialisation and simple confiscation is that confiscation can be carried out by ‘determination' alone, without the ability to calculate and distribute properly, whereas socialisation cannot be brought about without this ability" (p333-4). Here Lenin is able to show that there is a difference in quality between mere expropriation of the bourgeoisie (especially when this takes the form of statification) and the real construction of new social relations. The Lefts' weakness on this point was to lead many of them into confusing the almost complete statification of property and even distribution that took place during the War Communism period with authentic communism: as we have shown, Bukharin in particular developed this confusion into an elaborate theory in his Economics of the Transformation Period (see International Review no.96). Lenin, by contrast, is much more realistic about the possibility of the besieged, depleted Russian Soviet power taking real steps towards socialism in the absence of the world revolution.

This weakness also prevents the Lefts from seeing with full clarity where the main danger of counter-revolution comes from. For them, "state capitalism" is identified as a central danger, it is true, but this is seen rather as an expression of an even greater danger: that the party will end up deviating towards "petty bourgeois politics", that it will line up with the interests of the petty bourgeoisie against the proletariat. This was a partial reflection of reality: the post-insurrectionary status quo was indeed one in which the victorious proletariat found itself confronting not only the fury of the old ruling classes, but also the dead weight of the vast peasant masses who had their own reasons for resisting the further advance of the revolutionary process. But the weight of these social strata made itself felt on the proletariat above all through the organism of the state, which in the interests of preserving the social status quo was tending to become an autonomous power in its own right. Like most of the revolutionaries of their day, the Lefts identified "state capitalism" with a system of state control that ran the economy in the interests either of the big bourgeoisie, or the petty bourgeoisie; they couldn't yet envisage the rise of a state capitalism which had effectively crushed these classes and still operated on an entirely capitalist basis.

As we have seen, Lenin's reply to the Lefts, ‘Left wing Childishness', hits the group on its weak points: their confusions about the implications of Brest-Litovsk, their tendency to confound nationalisation with socialisation. But Lenin in turn fell into a profound error when he began to laud state capitalism as a necessary step forward for backward Russia, indeed as the foundation stone of socialism. Lenin had already outlined this view in a speech delivered to the executive committee of the Soviets at the end of April. Here he took issue with the best intuition of the Left Communists - the danger of an evolution towards state capitalism - and went off in entirely the wrong direction:

"When I read these references to such enemies in the newspaper of the Left Communists, I ask: what has happened to these people that fragments of book-learning can make them forget reality? Reality tells us that state capitalism would be a step forward. If in a small space of time we could achieve state capitalism in Russia, that would be a victory, How is it that they cannot see that it is the petty proprietor, small capital, that is our enemy? How can they regard state capitalism as the chief enemy? They ought not to forget that in the transition from capitalism to socialism our chief enemy is the petty bourgeoisie, its habits and customs, its economic position...

What is state capitalism under Soviet power? To achieve state capitalism at the present time means putting into effect the accounting and control that the capitalist classes carried out. We see a sample of state capitalism in Germany. We know that Germany has proved superior to us. But if you reflect even slightly on what it would mean if the foundations of such state capitalism was established in Russia, Soviet Russia, everyone who is not out of his senses and has not stuffed his head with fragments of book-learning, would have to say that state capitalism would be our salvation.

I said that state capitalism would be our salvation; if we had it in Russia, the transition to full socialism would be easy, would be within our grasp, because state capitalism is something centralised, calculated, controlled and socialised, and that is exactly what we lack; we are threatened by the element of petty bourgeois slovenliness, which more than anything else has been developed by the whole history of Russia and her economy... " (Works, 27, p293-4).

There is in this discourse a strong element of revolutionary honesty, of warning against any utopian schemes for rapidly building socialism in a Russia which has hardly dragged itself out of the Middle Ages, and which does not yet enjoy the direct assistance of the world proletariat. But there is also a serious mistake, which has been verified by the whole history of the 20th century. State capitalism is not an organic step towards socialism. In fact it represents capitalism's last form of defence against the collapse of its system and the emergence of communism. The communist revolution is the dialectical negation of state capitalism. Lenin's arguments, on the other hand, betray the vestiges of the old social democratic idea that capitalism was evolving peacefully towards socialism. Certainly Lenin rejected the idea that the transition to socialism could begin without the political destruction of the capitalist state, but what he forgets is that the new society can only emerge through a constant and conscious struggle by the proletariat to supplant the blind laws of capital and create new social relations founded on production for use. The "centralisation" of the capitalist economic structure by the state - even a Soviet state - does not do away with the laws of capital, with the domination of dead labour over living labour. This is why the Lefts were correct to say, as in Ossinski's oft-quoted remarks, that "If the proletariat itself does not know how to create the necessary prerequisites for the socialist organisation of labour, no one can do this for it and no one can compel it to do this. The stick, if raised against the workers, will find itself in the hands of a social force which is either under the influence of another social class or is in the hands of the Soviet power; but the Soviet power will then be forced to seek support against the proletariat from another class (eg the peasantry) and by this it will destroy itself as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Socialism and socialist organisation will be set up by the proletariat itself, or they will not be set up at all; something else will be set up - state capitalism" ("On the construction of socialism", Kommunist 2, April 1918). In short, living labour can only impose its interests over those of dead labour through its own efforts, through its very struggle to take direct control over both the state and the means of production and distribution. Lenin was wrong to see this as a proof of the petty bourgeois, anarchist approach of the Lefts. The Lefts unlike the anarchists, were not opposed to centralisation. Although they were in favour of the initiative of local factory committees and Soviets, they were for the centralisation of these bodies in higher economic and political councils. What they saw, however, was that there was no choice between two ways of building the new society - the way of proletarian centralisation and the way of bureaucratic centralisation. The latter could only lead in a different direction altogether, and would inevitably culminate in a confrontation between the working class and a power which, even though born out of the revolution, had increasingly estranged itself from it.

This was a general truth, applicable to all phases of the revolutionary process. But the criticisms of the Left Communists also had a more immediate relevance. As we wrote in our study of the Russian communist left in International Review no.8.

"Kommunist's defence of factory committees, Soviets and working class self-activity was important not because it provided a solution to the economic problems facing Russia, still less a formula for the ‘immediate construction of communism' in Russia; the Lefts explicitly stated that ‘socialism cannot be put into operation in one country and a backward one at that' (cited by L Schapiro, The Origins of the Communist Autocracy, 1955, p137). The imposition of labour discipline by the state, the incorporation of the proletariat's autonomous organs into the sate apparatus, were above all blows against the political domination of the Russian working class. As the ICC has often pointed out, the political power of the class is the only real guarantee of the successful outcome of the revolution. And this political power can only be exercised by the mass organs of the class - by its factory committees and assemblies, its Soviets, its militias. In undermining the authority of these organs, the policies of the Bolshevik leadership were posing a grave threat to the revolution itself. The danger signals so perceptively observed by the Left Communists in the early months of the revolution were to become even more serious during the ensuing Civil War period".


In the immediate aftermath of the October insurrection, when the Soviet government was being formed, Lenin had a momentary hesitation before accepting his post as chairman of the Soviet of People's Commissars. His political intuition told him that this would put a brake on is capacity to act in the vanguard of the vanguard - to be on the left of the revolutionary party, as he had been so clearly between April and October 1917. The position that Lenin adopted against the Lefts in 1918, though still firmly within the parameters of a living proletarian party, already reflected the pressures of state power on the Bolsheviks; interests of state, of the national economy, of the defence of the status quo, had already begun to conflict with the interests of the workers. In this sense there is a certain continuity between Lenin's false arguments against the Lefts in 1918, and his polemic against the international communist left after 1920, which he also accused of infantilism and anarchism. But in 1918 the world revolution was still in the ascendant, and had it extended beyond Russia, it would have been far easier to correct its early mistakes. CDW