1918: the revolution criticises its errors

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The working class is still living with the heavy consequences of the defeat of the Russian revolution. Primarily because its defeat was really the defeat of the world revolution, of the first attempt by the international proletariat to overthrow capitalism, and the result of this failure was that humanity has since been subjected to the most tragic century in its entire history. But also because of the manner of its defeat: the Stalinist counter-revolution that stifled it assumed its mantle, the mantle of Lenin and Bolshevism. This has permitted the world bourgeoisie to get away with the immeasurable lie that Stalinism is communism. This has been a factor of profound confusion and demoralisation within the working class for decades, but never more so than after the final collapse of the Stalinist regimes at the end of the 1980s.

 For communist organisations today, the combat against this lie therefore remains a primordial task. It is one in which we can be very sure of our ground: “the statified regimes which arose in the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba etc and were called ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ were just a particularly brutal form of the universal tendency towards state capitalism, itself a major characteristic of the period of decadence” (political positions of the ICC, reprinted in every publication). But this gift of clarity was by no means easily obtained. On the contrary, it took at least two decades of reflection, analysis and debate before the “Russian enigma” can be said to have been definitively solved. And prior to that, when the revolution in Russia was still alive, but showing signs of going off the tracks, revolutionaries were faced with the challenge of criticising its errors and warning of the dangers it faced, while at the same time defending it from its enemies - a task that in some ways was even more difficult.

In the next group of articles in this series, we will look at some of the key moments in this long and arduous struggle for clarity. While it is beyond our ambitions to write a complete history of this struggle, it is equally impossible to omit it from a series whose declared goal is to show how the proletarian movement has progressively developed its understanding of the goals and methods of the communist revolution; and it is perfectly evident that understanding why and how the Russian revolution went down to defeat is an indispensable guide to the path that the revolution of the future must follow.

Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian revolution

Marxism is first and foremost a critical method, since it is the product of a class which can only emancipate itself through the ruthless criticism of all existing conditions. A revolutionary organisation that fails to criticise its errors, to learn from its mistakes, inevitably exposes itself to the conservative and reactionary influences of the dominant ideology. And this is all the more true at a time of revolution, which by its very nature has to break new ground, enter an unknown landscape with little more than a compass of general principles to find its way. The revolutionary party is all the more necessary after the victorious insurrection, because it has the strongest grasp of this compass, which is based on the historical experience of the class and the scientific approach of marxism. But if it renounces the critical nature of this approach, it will both lose sight of these historical lessons and be unable to draw the new ones that derive from the groundbreaking events of the revolutionary process. As we shall see, one of the consequences of the Bolshevik party identifying itself with the Soviet state was that it increasingly lost this capacity to criticise itself and the general course of the revolution. But as long as it remained a proletarian party it continuously generated minorities who did continue to carry out this task. The heroic combat of these Bolshevik minorities will be the main focus of the next few articles. But we will begin by examining the contribution of a revolutionary who was not in the Bolshevik party: Rosa Luxemburg, who, in 1918, in the most trying of conditions, wrote her essay The Russian Revolution, which provides us with the best possible method for approaching the errors of the revolution: the sharpest criticism based on unflinching solidarity in the face of the assaults of the ruling class.

 The Russian Revolution was written in prison, just prior to the outbreak of the revolution in Germany. At this stage, with the imperialist war still raging, it was extraordinarily difficult to obtain any accurate information about what was happening in Russia - not only because of the material obstacles to communication resulting from the war (not to mention Luxemburg’s imprisonment), but above all because from the very start the bourgeoisie did everything it could to hide the truth of the Russian revolution behind a smokescreen of slander and bloodthirsty fabulation. The essay was not published in Luxemburg’s lifetime; Paul Levi, on behalf of the Spartacus League, had already visited Rosa in prison to persuade her that, given all the vicious campaigns against the Russian revolution, publishing articles criticising the Bolsheviks would add grist to these campaigns. Luxemburg agreed with him, and so sent the essay to Levi with a note saying “I am writing this only for you and if I can convince you, then the effort isn’t wasted” (Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, p 366). The text was not published until 1922 - and by then Levi’s motives for doing so were far from revolutionary (for Levi’s growing break with communism, see the article on the March Action in Germany in International Review no.93).

 Nevertheless, the method of criticism contained in The Russian Revolution is entirely in the right spirit. From the very start, Luxemburg staunchly defends the October revolution against the Kautskyite/ Menshevik theory that because Russia was such a backward country, it should have stopped short at the “democratic” stage, showing that only the Bolsheviks were able to uncover the real alternative: bourgeois counter-revolution or proletarian dictatorship. And she simultaneously refutes the social democratic argument that formal majorities have to be obtained before revolutionary policies can be applied. Against this deadening parliamentary logic she praises the revolutionary audacity of the Bolshevik vanguard: “As bred-in-the bone disciples of parliamentary cretinism, these German Social-Democrats have sought to apply to revolutions the homemade wisdom of the parliamentary nursery: in order to carry out anything you must first have a majority. The same, they say, applies to revolution: first let’s become a ‘majority’. The true dialectic of revolution, however, stands this wisdom of parliamentary moles on its head: not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority - that is the way the road runs.

Only a party which knows how to lead, that is, to advance things, wins support in stormy times. The determination with which, at the decisive moment, Lenin and his comrades offered the only solution which could advance things (‘all power in the hands of the proletariat and peasantry’) transformed them overnight from a persecuted, slandered, oulawed minority whose leaders had to hide like Marat in cellars, into the absolute master of the situation” (ibid, p 374-5).

And, like the Bolsheviks, Luxemburg was perfectly well aware that this bold policy of insurrection in Russia could only have any meaning as a first step towards the world proletarian revolution. This is the whole significance of the famous concluding words of her text: “theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problems of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism’” (ibid, p395).

And this solution was, in Luxemburg’s mind, entirely concrete: it demanded that the German proletariat above all must fulfil its responsibility and come to the aid of the proletarian bastion in Russia by making the revolution itself. This process was under way even as she wrote, although her assessment, in this very essay, of the relative political immaturity of the German working class was also an insight into the tragic fate of this attempt.

 Luxemburg was therefore well placed to develop the necessary criticisms of what she saw as the principal errors of the Bolsheviks: she judged them not from the detached heights of an “observer”, but as a revolutionary comrade who recognised that these errors were first and foremost the product of the immense difficulties that isolation imposed on the Soviet power in Russia. Indeed, it is precisely these difficulties that required the real friends of the Russian revolution to approach it not with “uncritical apologetics” or a “revolutionary hurrah spirit”, but with “penetrating and thoughtful criticism”: “Dealing as we are with the very first experiment in proletarian dictatorship in world history (and one taking place at that under the harshest conceivable conditions, in the midst of the worldwide conflagration and chaos of the imperialist mass slaughter, caught in the coils of the most reactionary military power in Europe, and accompanied by the completest failure on the part of the international working class), it would be a crazy idea to think that every last thing done or left undone in an experiment with the dictatorship of the proletariat under such abnormal conditions represented the very pinnacle of perfection” (ibid p 368-9).  

 Luxemburg’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks were focussed on three main areas:

  1. the land question
  2. the national question
  3. democracy and dictatorship. 

1. The Bolsheviks had won peasant support for the October revolution by inviting them to seize the land from the big landowners. Luxemburg recognised that this was “an excellent tactical move” But she went on: “Unfortunately it had two sides to it; and the reverse side consisted in the fact that the direct seizure of the land by the peasants has in general nothing at all in common with socialist economy…Not only is it not a socialist measure, it even cuts off the way to such measures; it piles up insurmountable obstacles to the socialist transformation of agrarian relations” (ibid, pp375-376). Luxemburg points out that a socialist economic policy can only start from the collectivisation of large landed property. Fully cognisant of the difficulties facing the Bolsheviks, she does not criticise them for failing to implement this straight away. But she does say that by actively encouraging the peasants to divide the land up into innumerable small plots, the Bolsheviks were piling up problems for later on, creating a new stratum of small property owners who would be naturally hostile to any attempt to socialise the economy. This was certainly confirmed by experience: though prepared to support the Bolsehviks against the old Czarist regime, the “independent” peasants later became an increasingly conservative weight on the proletarian power. Luxemburg was also very accurate in her warning that the division of the land would favour the richer peasants at the expense of the poorer. But it has also to be said that in itself the collectivisation of the land would be no guarantee of the march towards socialism, any more than the collectivisation of industry; only the success of the revolution on a world scale could have secured that - just as it could have overcome the difficulties posed by the parcellisation of the land in Russia.  

2. Luxemburg’s most trenchant criticisms concern the question of “national self-determination”. While recognising that the Bolsheviks’ defence of the slogan of “the right of peoples to self-determination” was based on a legitimate concern to oppose all forms of national oppression and to win to the revolutionary cause the masses of those parts of  the Czarist empire which had been under the yoke of Great Russian chauvinism, Luxemburg showed what this “right” meant in practise: the “new” national units which had opted for separation from the Russian Soviet republic systematically allied themselves with imperialism against the proletarian power: “While Lenin and his comrades clearly expected that, as champions of national freedom, even to the extent of ‘separation’, they would turn Finland, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, the Baltic countries, the Caucasus etc into so many faithful allies of the Russian revolution, we have witnessed the opposite spectacle. One after another, these ‘nations’ used the newly granted freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian revolution as its mortal enemy, and, under German protection, to carry the banner of counter-revolution into Russia itself” (p 380). And she goes on to explain why it could not be otherwise, since in a capitalist class society, there is no such thing as the “nation” separate from the interests of the bourgeoisie, which would far rather subject itself to the domination of imperialism than make common cause with the revolutionary working class: “To be sure, in all these cases, it was really not the ‘people’ who engaged in these reactionary policies, but only the bourgeois and petty bourgeois classes, who - in sharpest opposition to their own proletarian masses - perverted the ‘national right of self-determination’ into an instrument of their counter-revolutionary class policies. But - and here we come to the very heart of the question - it is in this that the utopian, petty bourgeois character of this nationalistic slogan resides: that in the midst of the crude realities of class society and when class antagonisms are sharpened to the uttermost, it is simply converted into a means of bourgeois class rule. The Bolsheviks were to be taught to their own great hurt, and that of the revolution, that under the rule of capitalism there is no self-determination of peoples, that in a class society each class of the nation strives to ‘determine itself’ in a different fashion, and that, for the bourgeois classes, the standpoint of national freedom is fully subordinated to that of class rule. The Finnish bourgeoisie like the Ukrainian bourgeoisie, were unanimous in preferring the violent rule of Germany to national freedom, if the latter should be bound up with Bolshevism” (ibid).

Furthermore, the Bolsheviks’ confusion on this point (although it must be remembered that there was a minority in the Bolshevik party - in particular Piatakov -  who fully agreed with Luxemburg’s point of view on this question) was having a negative effect internationally since ‘national self-determination’  was also the rallying cry of Woodrow Wilson and of all the big imperialist sharks who were seeking to use it to dislodge their imperialist rivals from the regions that they themselves coveted. And the whole history of the twentieth century has confirmed how easily the “rights of nations” has become no more than a cloak for the imperialist desires of the great powers and of their lesser emulators.

 Luxemburg did not dismiss the problem of national sensitivities; she insisted that there could be no question of a proletarian regime ‘integrating’ outlying countries through military force alone. But it was equally true that any concession made to the nationalist illusions of the masses in those regions could only tie them more closely to their exploiters. The proletariat, once it has assumed power in any region, can only win those masses to its cause through “the most compact union of revolutionary forces”, through a “genuine international class policy” aimed at splitting the workers from their own bourgeoisie.

3. On “democracy and dictatorship” there are profoundly contradictory elements in Luxemburg’s position. On the one hand there is no doubt that she falls into a real confusion between democracy in general and workers’ democracy in particular - the democratic forms used in the framework and in the interest of the proletarian dictatorship. This is shown by her resolute defence of the Constituent Assembly, which the Soviet power dissolved in 1918, in perfect consistency with the fact that the very appearance of the latter had made the old bourgeois democratic forms entirely obsolete. And yet somehow Luxemburg sees this act as a threat to the life of the revolution. In a similar vein she is reluctant to accept that, in order to exclude the ruling class from political life, “suffrage” in a Sovietregime should be based primarily on the workplace collective rather than on the individual citizen’s domicile (albeit her concern was also to ensure that the unemployed would not be excluded by this criterion, which was certainly not its intention). These inter-classist, democratic prejudices are in striking contrast to her argument that “national self-determination” can never express anything else than the “self-determination” of the bourgeoisie. The argument is identical as regards parliamentary institutions, which do not, whatever the appearance, express the interests of the “people” but of the capitalist ruling class. Luxemburg’s views in this text are also totally at odds with the programme of the Spartacus League formulated soon after, since this document demands the dissolution of all municipal and national parliamentary type bodies and their replacement by councils of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates: we can only presume that Luxemburg’s position on the Constituent Assembly  - which also became the rallying cry of the counter-revolution in Germany - had evolved very rapidly in the heat of the revolutionary process.

But this does not mean that there is no validity to any of Luxemburg’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks’ approach to the question of workers’ democracy. She was fully aware that in the extremely difficult situation facing the beleaguered Soviet power, there was a real danger that the political life of the working class would be subordinated to the necessity to bar the road to the counter-revolution. Given this situation, Luxemburg was right to be sensitive to any signs that the norms of workers’ democracy were being violated. Her defence of the necessity for the widest possible debate within the proletarian camp, and against the forcible suppression of any proletarian political tendencies, was justified in light of the fact that the Bolsheviks, having assumed state power, were drifting towards a party monopoly that was to damage themselves as much as the life of the proletariat in general, particularly with the introduction of the Red Terror. Luxemburg did not at all oppose the notion of the proletarian dictatorship. But as she insisted “this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class - that is, must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people (ibid, p 394).

Luxemburg was particularly prescient in warning of the danger of the political life of the Soviets being emptied out more and more as power became concentrated in the hands of the party: over the next three years, under the pressures of the civil war, this was to become one of the central dramas of the revolution. But whether Luxemburg was right or wrong in her specific criticisms, what inspires us above all is her approach to the problem, an approach that should have served as a guide to all subsequent analyses of the revolution and its demise: intransigent defence of its proletarian character, and thus criticism of its weaknesses and its eventual failure as a problem of the proletariat and for the proletariat. Unfortunately, all too often the name of Luxemburg has been used to pour scorn on the very memory of October - not only by those councilist currents who have claimed descent from the German left but who have lost sight of the real traditions of the working class; but also, and perhaps more importantly, by those bourgeois forces who in the name of “democratic socialism” use Luxemburg as a hammer against Lenin and Bolshevism. This has been the speciality of those who descend politically from the very forces who murdered Luxemburg in 1919 to save the skin of the bourgeoisie - the social democrats, particularly their left wing factions. For our part, we have every intention, in analysing the mistakes of the Bolsheviks and the degeneration of the Russian revolution, of remaining faithful to the real content of her method.       

The first debates on state capitalism

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 manoeuvring 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. In subsequent articles, we will examine how the communist left responded to the real process of degeneration that took hold of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet power when the international revolution entered into reflux.