October 1917: Beginning of the Proletarian Revolution
The bourgeoisie has celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the proletarian revolution of October 1917 in its own way:
in Moscow, by parading its thermonuclear weapons and its latest tanks past the mummy of Lenin and a huge portrait of Brezhnev;
in the ‘Western’ countries by making a vast cacophony on television and in the newspapers, hailing the ‘great economic advances’ in the USSR, the ‘exemplary courage of its people’ in the fight against Hitlerism — with of course the usual reserves about Gulag, etc.;
everywhere by systematically making a travesty of the real meaning of October and portraying the monstrous Russian state as its true descendant. In fact, what capitalism has really been celebrating is not the October Revolution, but its death. The great ceremonies and celebrations all have the aim of exorcizing the spectre of a new October.
For the proletariat on the other hand, and thus for revolutionaries, the memory of October doesn’t require any ceremonies. They don’t need to bury it because for them it is still alive, not as the nostalgic image of a heroic past, but because of the experience it has given us, the hope it represents for the coming struggles of the class.
The ‘homage’ revolutionaries can render to October and its protagonists does not consist of funereal eulogies but of the effort to understand its lessons in order to fertilize these struggles. The International Review has already tried to begin this work (footnote 1), as have all the publications of the Current, and it is something which must be continued in a systematic manner. But this work can only have a meaning if one understands the real nature of the October Revolution, if one sees it and recognizes it as an experience of the proletariat — the most important up until now - and not of the bourgeoisie, which is the view of certain currents like the councilists. Otherwise October 1917 has no more value for the class than 1789 or February 1848, and certainly less than the Commune of 1871. It is for this reason that the precondition for really assimilating the lessons of October is the recognition and defence of its authentically proletarian character, and of the party which was its vanguard. This is the aim of the present article.
Questioning the Proletarian Character of October
When the revolution broke out in Russia, revolutionaries unanimously greeted it as the first step towards the world proletarian revolution, Already in 1914, Lenin had put forward this perspective: “In all the advanced countries, the war is putting the socialist revolution on the agenda.”
And throughout the war he continued to make this perspective more precise:
“It’s not our impatience or our desires, but the objective conditions brought about by the imperialist war which have led the whole of humanity to an impasse and faced it with the dilemma: either let millions more men die and annihilate European civilization, or transfer power in all the civilized countries into the hands of the revolutionary proletariat, carry out the socialist revolution.
“To the Russian proletariat has befallen the great honour of inaugurating a series of revolutions engendered through objective necessity by the imperialist war. But the idea of seeing the Russian proletariat as a revolutionary class elevated above the workers of other countries is absolutely foreign to us…It’s not any particular qualities, but solely particular historic conditions, which for what will probably be a very short time, have put it in the vanguard of the entire revolutionary proletariat.” (Farewell Letter to Swiss Workers, 8 April 1917).
Exactly the same perspective was shared by the other revolutionaries of that time - Trotsky, Pannekoek, Gorter, Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg. None of them had the idea that Russia was going through a ‘bourgeois revolution’. On the contrary, it was the struggle against this conception which separated them from the Mensheviks and the centrists à la Kautsky. Moreover, history soon showed that such an analysis necessarily led those who held it into the arms of the bourgeoisie and against the working class. In fact it became the position of the extreme ‘left’ of the bourgeoisie in its denunciation of the ‘adventurism’ of the Bolsheviks.
In the whole workers’ movement of the time, solidarity with the fight of the Russian proletariat went hand in hand not only with a recognition of the proletarian character of October, but also with an understanding of the need to generalize the essence of the Russian experience all over the world: the destruction of the bourgeois state and the seizure of power by the workers’ councils.
It was only in the wake of the terrible defeats the proletariat went through in the 1920s, particularly in Germany, and faced with the emergence in Russia of a society which dashed all their hopes, that a certain number of revolutionaries — like Otto Ruhle - began to abandon the position which had been unanimous in 1917. This was the time when ‘National Socialism’ in Germany was mobilizing the population for a new imperialist war, when anti—fascism was doing the same job in the democracies, and when ‘socialism in one country’ — really one of the most barbaric forms of capitalism — was being strengthened in Russia. Within certain revolutionary currents which had escaped the shipwreck of the Communist International, there began to be put forward a theory which saw the October Revolution as a bourgeois revolution of a ‘particular type’.
In 1934, ‘Theses on Bolshevism’ were published in the organ of the council communist movement (Raeterkorrespondenz, no.3 and International Council Correspondence). According to this text:
“7. The economic task of the Russian Revolution was, first, the setting aside of the concealed agrarian feudal system and its continued exploitation of the peasants as serfs, together with the industrialization of agriculture, placing it on the plane of modern commodity production; secondly, to make possible the unrestricted creation of a class of really ‘free labourers’, liberating industrial development from all its feudal fetters. Essentially, the tasks of the bourgeois revolution…
“9. Politically, the tasks confronting the Russian Revolution were: the destruction of absolutism, the abolition of the feudal nobility as the first estate, and the creation of a political constitution and an administrative apparatus which would secure politically the fulfilment of the economic task of the Revolution. The political tasks of the Russian Revolution were, therefore, quite in accord with its economic suppositions: the tasks of the bourgeois revolution.”
Here we find, almost word for word, the position of the Mensheviks, who were among the most dangerous enemies of the proletariat. The only noteworthy difference was that the latter concluded from their analysis that it was necessary to give power to the classic parties and institutions of the bourgeoisie (Cadets, Provisional Government, Constituent Assembly) while the ‘councilists’ argued that carrying out this bourgeois revolution was the task of ‘Bolshevism’.
Why is it that some of the revolutionaries who had greeted October 1917 as a proletarian revolution finally ended up with the analysis of the Mensheviks?
In his book written in 1938, Lenin as Philosopher, Anton Pannekoek clarifies this point. Referring to Materialism and Empirocriticism he says:
“It may happen that in a theoretical work there appear not the immediate surroundings and tasks of the author, but more general and remote influences and wider tasks. In Lenin’s book, however, nothing of the sort is perceptible. It is a manifest and exclusive reflection of the Russian Revolution at which he is aiming.
“Its character so entirely corresponds to middle—class materialism that, if it had been known at the time in Western Europe — but only confused rumours on the internal strifes of Russian socialism penetrated here — and if it could have been rightly interpreted, one could have predicted that the Russian Revolution must somehow result in a kind of capitalism based on a struggle." (Pannekoek, Lenin as Philosopher, The Merlin Press Ltd, 1975, p.97).
In brief, the ‘key’ to the nature of the Russian Revolution, which it was not possible to find in the face of the imperialist war of 1914, nor in 1917 in the middle of great class confrontations in Russia and all over the world, nor in the protagonists of the revolution, nor in their methods or their proclamations and appeals to the proletariat of all countries — this key was really contained in a philosophical work published in 1908 and translated into other languages in 1927, somewhat late, because:
“If this work and these ideas of Lenin had been known in 1918 among western marxists, surely there would have been a more critical attitude against the tactics for world revolution.” (ibid, p.102)
In fact, the real reason for this late discovery was not that the marxists’ lacked information about certain of Lenin’s philosophical conceptions but the enormous disarray which the counter—revolution had imposed on the revolutionaries themselves, on those rare militants who were attempting to preserve the principles of communism in the teeth of the storm. A disarray and a disappointment which, as we shall see, led them to abandon the marxist method which had allowed the revolutionaries of 1917, including the Bolsheviks, to understand the real nature of the revolution which had broken out in Russia.
Marxism and Fatalism
When one considers it closely, it can be seen that the councilist thesis was a restatement of an idea which had a lot of success in the bourgeois camp itself in the 1930s: i.e. that the regime in Russia was the necessary consequence of the October Revolution. The Stalinists were obviously the greatest defenders of this idea. For them, Stalin was the ‘genial continuator’ of Lenin’s work, the man who developed and applied “the greatest discovery of our epoch, the theory of the possibility of the victory of socialism in one single country” (footnote 2). But alongside the Stalinists, there was almost unanimous agreement that Stalin was indeed the son of Lenin, or rather that the terrifying state apparatus that had emerged in Russia was the rightful heir of October. The anarchists obviously proclaimed at the top of their voices that the barbaric police regime in Russia was the inevitable consequence of the authoritarian conceptions of marxism (on the other hand they didn’t consider that the entry of anarchists into an ‘anti-fascist’ bourgeois government was the inevitable consequence of their ‘anti-authoritarian’ conceptions). Democrats of all kinds announced that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and the rejection of parliamentary institutions were the roots of all the evils that had befallen the ‘Russian people’. In general they warned the proletariat thus: “this is the result of any revolution, of any attempt to overthrow capitalism: a regime that is even worse!”
Obviously, the councilist conception did not have the aim of discouraging the working class from any attempt at revolution or of depriving it of its theoretical weapon, marxism. On the contrary, the councilists undertook this re-examination of their former analysis in the name of the communist revolution and marxism.
However, by posing the question on the basis that “if the Russian Revolution ended up in state capitalism, it’s because it couldn’t have given rise to anything else”, they borrowed one of the most fundamental ideas of the bourgeoisie: “what happened in Russia necessarily had to happen”. Either this affirmation was a tautology — the present situation is the result of different causes which have determined it — or it was a theoretical error which reduces marxism to a vulgar fatalism.
For fatalism, everything that happens is already written in the Great Book of Destiny. And when it takes the form of ‘common sense’ garnished with philosophical verbiage which is spouted out by university academics, it always has the function of preaching the acceptance of the existing order, with varying degrees of subtlety. But marxism has always fought against submitting to ‘reality’ in this way. Of course, against voluntarist and idealist conceptions, it affirms that men don’t make history “of their own free will under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under given and inherited circumstances with which they are confronted”, but Marx pointed out quite clearly that “men make their own history” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). Concerning the possibility of a revolution, Marx wrote:
“No social order disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.” (Marx, Preface to the Critique of Political Economy)
This is why marxism has always opposed anarchism, for which ‘everything is possible at any time, providing men want it’. In his analysis of the failure of the Paris Commune, for example, Marx was able to point to the immaturity of the material conditions capitalism had developed in 1871. However, it would be wrong to think that all social events can be explained directly by these ‘material conditions’. In particular, the consciousness which men, or more precisely, social classes, have of these material conditions is not a simple ‘reflection’ of them, but becomes an active factor in transforming them:
“When a society has discovered the natural laws which regulate its own movement it can neither overleap the natural phases of evolution, nor shuffle them out of the world by decrees. But this much, at least, it can do; it can shorten and lessen the birth pangs.” (Marx, ‘Preface’ to Capital)
Historic events are the product not only of the economic conditions of society, but also of the totality of ‘superstructural’ factors, of a complex interaction between various determining elements, one of which is ‘chance’, i.e. arbitrary and unforeseen factors. This is why one cannot see history as the working out of a ‘destiny’ which has been fixed once and for all, the unfolding of a scenario which has been written in advance — for some by a ‘divine will’, for others in the structure and movement of atoms.
Just as nowhere written that the works of Marx were to justify one of the most barbaric forms of capitalist exploitation, there was no destiny for the Russian Revolution, whose existence can be proved by what the revolution finally became.
Obviously the councilists would not accept that they were fatalists. For them, their position is perfectly ‘marxist’ because it’s based on an analysis of the development of the productive forces. But the fact that they consider only this problem, and then only at the level of Russia (when even for the bourgeoisie the October Revolution was an event of world—wide importance), betrays a narrow, one—dimensional conception of marxism, almost a caricature of it. And it is with this caricature that they claim to be able to explain why state capitalism emerged in Russia: if the October Revolution ended up in capitalism it is because it was itself a bourgeois revolution. In other words, it was ‘destined’ to lead to the conclusion it arrived at…and so we see good old fatalism coming in through the window after officially being chased out the door!
In fact, the councilist view doesn’t just suffer from a good dose of fatalism. If followed to its ultimate consequences, it leads to the complete abandonment of marxism and of any revolutionary perspective.
The Implications of the Councilist Analysis
For councilism, as expressed in the ‘Theses on Bolshevism’, “The economic task of the Russian Revolution was … the setting aside of the … feudal system … (and) … to make possible the unrestricted creation of a class of really ‘free labourers’”. Although it is not really necessary to provide proof, it is still necessary to remember that in 1917 Russia was the fifth largest industrial power in the world; and in so far as the development of capitalism in Russia largely passed over the stage of artisan production and manufacture, Russian capitalism took on the most modern and concentrated forms (with over 40,000 workers, Putilov was the biggest factory in the world). For councilism, the bourgeois nature of the Russian Revolution can be explained by local conditions. This was partly true for the real bourgeois revolutions like the 1640 revolution in England and 1789 in France. The uneven development of capitalism made it possible for the bourgeoisie to come to power at different periods in various countries. This was also possible because the nation is the specific geopolitical framework of capitalism, a framework which, for all its efforts, it can never go beyond. But while capital was able to develop in ‘islands’ within the autarkic feudal society, socialism can only exist on a world—scale, making use of all the productive forces and networks of circulation created by capitalism. As early as 1847, Marx and Engels responded categorically to the question “will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?”:
“No. By creating a world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place in all civilized countries … it is a universal revolution and will accordingly have a universal range.” (Engels, Principles of Communism)
It is clear that what had already been grasped by revolutionaries in 1847 had to be, after the period of capitalism’s greatest expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century, the basis of any proletarian perspective at the time of World War I. The war showed that capitalism had completed its progressive task of developing the productive forces on a world scale, that it had entered its epoch of historic decline, and that consequently, there could be no more bourgeois revolutions. The only revolution on the agenda was the proletarian revolution all over the world, including Russia. This analysis was not only put forward by Lenin, that mind imbued with ‘vulgar materialist philosophy’, who is supposed to have wanted to turn the world communist movement into an apparatus for defending Russian state capitalism, but also by a revolutionary whom many have tried to set against the ‘bourgeois’ Lenin, and whose proletarian positions or knowledge of ‘things Russian’ have never been questioned by the councilists: Rosa Luxemburg. As she wrote at the time:
“Moreover, for every thinking observer, these developments are a decisive refutation of the doctrinaire theory which Kautsky shared with the government social democrats, according to which Russia, as an economically backward and predominantly agrarian land, was supposed not to be ripe for social revolution and proletarian dictatorship. This theory, which regards only a bourgeois revolution as feasible in Russia, is also the theory of the opportunist wing of the Russian labour movement, of the so—called Mensheviks, under the experienced leadership of Axelrod and Dan. And from this conception follow the tactics of the coalition of the socialists in Russia with bourgeois liberalism. On this basic conception of the Russian Revolution, from which follow automatically their detailed positions on questions of tactics, both the Russian and the German opportunists find themselves in agreement with the German government socialists. According to the opinion of all three, the Russian Revolution should have called a halt at the stage which German imperialism in its conduct of the war had set its noble task, according to the mythology of the German social democracy, i.e., it should have stopped with the overthrow of czarism. According to this view, if the revolution has gone beyond that point and has set as its task the dictatorship of the proletariat, this is simply a mistake of the radical wing of the Russian labour movement, the Bolsheviks. And all difficulties which the revolution has met with in its further course, and all disorders it has suffered, are pictured as purely a result of this fateful error.
"Theoretically, this doctrine (recommended as the fruit of ‘marxist thinking’ by the Vorwaerts of Stampfer and by Kautsky alike) follows from the original ‘marxist’ discovery that the socialist revolution is a national and, so to speak, a domestic affair in each modern country taken by itself. Of course, in the blue mists of abstract formulas, a Kautsky knows very well how to trace the worldwide economic connections of capital which make of all modern countries a single integrated organism. The problems of the Russian Revolution, moreover — since it is a product of international developments plus the agrarian question — cannot possibly be solved within the limits of bourgeois society.
Practically, this same doctrine represents an attempt to get rid of any responsibility for the course of the Russian Revolution, so far as that responsibility concerns the international, and especially the German, proletariat, and to deny the international connections of this revolution. It is not unripeness which has been proved by the events of the war and the Russian Revolution, but the unripeness of the German proletariat for the fulfilment of its historic tasks. And to make this fully clear is the first task of a critical examination of the Russian Revolution.
The fate of the revolution in Russia depended fully upon international events.” (Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution).
This is how one of the greatest marxist theoreticians posed the problem against the sophistries of Kautsky, the Mensheviks and … the councilists. Not only did Rosa Luxemburg put paid to the myth of ‘the immaturity of Russia’, she also provided the key to something the councilists have never been able to understand: the causes of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution which lay essentially on the failure of the world revolution, upon which “the fate of the revolution in Russia depended fully”.
In fact, by searching for the causes of the development of the revolution, and of the capitalist regime it ended up with, in Russia alone, the councilists turn their back on the objective foundations of internationalism. And even if their own internationalism cannot be put into question, in the end it could only be based on a kind of moral imperative. If you take their analysis to its logical conclusion, it leads to the idea that if the revolution had taken place in an advanced country (Germany for example) and had remained isolated, it would not have ended up in the same way as the Russian Revolution. In other words, it could have avoided the re—establishment of capitalism, which means that a victory over capitalism, the victory of socialism, is possible in one country. Just as councilism borrows from Stalinism the idea of a continuity between Lenin and Stalin, between the nature of the October Revolution and the nature of the regime that Russia ended up with, we can see that it also goes close to borrowing from Stalinism elements of one of its most important mystifications: ‘national socialism’. Thus the ‘marxist’ analysis of the councilists not only takes up the thesis of the Mensheviks and of Kautsky: it is also unable to avoid flirting with Stalin’s theory.
But this isn’t the only way the councilists’ analysis leads to an abandonment of marxism. One of the reasons why they see the Russian Revolution as a ‘bourgeois revolution’ is the nature of the economic measures taken from the beginning by the new power. Quite correctly, the councilists see that nationalizations and the dividing up of the land were bourgeois measures. They then rush to exclaim “you can see that this was a bourgeois revolution, because it took measures of this kind”. And against such measures, they put forward a truly ‘socialist’ policy:
“the taking over of the enterprises and the organization of the economy through the working class and its class organizations, the shop councils” (Theses on Bolshevism, Point 49). These are the kinds of measures the Russian Revolution would have adopted if it had been really ‘proletarian’; but for the councilists “The bourgeois character of the Bolshevik Revolution … could not be shown more clearly than in this slogan of control of production” (ibid, Point 47).
Here the councilists are not borrowing the foundations of their analysis from Kautsky or Stalin, but from Proudhon and the anarchists. Once again they are crossing out one of the most crucial teachings of marxism. For marxism, one of the fundamental differences between the bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution is the fact that the first took place at the end of a whole process of economic transformation between feudalism and capitalism, a transformation which was then crowned in the political sphere; whereas the proletarian revolution is necessarily the point of departure for the economic transformation between capitalism and communism. This difference is linked to the fact that, in contrast to the previous transformation, the transition to communism is not a change in the mode of property but the abolition of all property; it’s not the institution of new exploitative relations but the suppression of all exploitation. This is why, in contrast to previous revolutions, the goal of the proletarian revolution is not the establishment of a new form of class rule but the abolition of all classes; it is not the work of an exploiting class but, for the first time in history, the work of an exploited class. Capitalist relations of production developed within feudal society while the nobility had control of the state apparatus. The feudal power may have been a obstacle to the development of capitalism, but the latter was able to accommodate itself to it as long as capital had not advanced to the point where it had to overthrow the feudal order. The bourgeois revolution came as an almost ‘mechanical’ consequence of the extension of the capitalist economy, and its task was to eliminate the last barriers to the expansion of capital. In contrast to all this, communist social relations can in no way develop by little islands within capitalist society, when the bourgeois class still has control of the state. It is only after the destruction of the bourgeois state and the seizure of political power by the working class on a world scale that the relations of production can be transformed.
In contrast to previous periods of transition, the one between capitalism and communism will not be the result of an objective process independent of men’s wills; it will depend on the conscious action of a class which will use its political power to progressively eliminate the different aspects of capitalist society: private property, the market, wage labour, the law of value, etc. But this economic policy can really only be put into effect when the proletariat has defeated the bourgeoisie militarily. As long as this has not been definitively achieved, the demands of the world civil war will take precedence over the need to transform the relations of production in places where the proletariat has already taken power — and this is true whatever the economic development of such an area. In Russia the economic measures adopted by the new power - notwithstanding the errors that were committed, errors that were real and can teach us valuable lessons — are not the criteria for understanding the class nature of the October Revolution, any more than it was the economic measures taken by the Commune which conferred upon it its proletarian nature — and, as far as we know, neither the councilists nor the anarcho—syndicalists have ever questioned the proletarian character of the Commune. It never occurred to anyone that the reduction of the working day, the suppression of night work for bakery workers, the moratorium on rents or the depots at the Mont de Piet should be presented as ‘socialist’ measures. The greatness of the Commune was that, for the first time in the history of the proletariat, the class transformed a national war against a foreign power into a civil war against its own bourgeoisie; that it proclaimed and realized the destruction of the capitalist state and replaced it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. elected and revocable delegates at all levels, wages for functionaries equal to an average workers wage, the replacement of the permanent army by the permanent arming of the workers, and the internationalist proclamation of the Universal Commune. It was these essentially political measures which made the Paris Commune the first international attempt by the proletariat to carry out its revolution. And it is for these reasons that the experience of the Commune has been such an invaluable source of study for the revolutionary struggle of generations of workers in all countries. October 1917 simply took up and generalized the main themes of the Commune and it was certainly no accident that Lenin wrote State and Revolution, in which he made a detailed study of the Commune, on the eve of October. Thus it’s not by analyzing every detail of what the October Revolution did or did not do on the economic level that one can understand its class nature. This can only be grasped by analyzing its political characteristics — the destruction of the bourgeois state, the seizure of power by the working class organized in soviets, the general arming of the proletariat and the impetus the new power gave to the international movement of the proletariat; the ruthless denunciation of the imperialist war, the call to transform it into a civil war against the bourgeoisie, the call for the destruction of all bourgeois states and the seizure of power by the workers’ councils in all countries.
Because it never understood the primacy of political problems in the first phase of the proletarian revolution, anarcho—syndicalism ended up betraying the proletarian struggle, by diverting it into the impasse of self-management and the collectives while it itself sent ministers to the bourgeois government of the Spanish Republic. Its whole standpoint — and that of the councilists when it falls into line with anarcho—syndicalism — turns its back on the socialist revolution because it localizes it within the limitations not just of a country, but of a region or isolated factories, it reduces socialist production, which by definition can only exist on an international scale, to a domestic matter.
Despite the value of many of the criticisms put forward by the Workers’ Opposition in 1921, in particular its denunciation of the bureaucratization of the state and the smothering of life within the party, the platform of the group was fundamentally erroneous in so far as it reduced the problem of the development of the revolution to an economic question, to the direct management of production by the workers, thus implicitly giving credence to the idea that it was possible to establish socialism in one country, that socialist progress could be made in Russia on its own at a time when the international revolution was going through a series of defeats. (footnote 3)
Whatever errors Lenin may have made, he was quite right to attack the petty bourgeois, anarcho—syndicalist aspects of the Workers’ Opposition. It is no accident that, later on, the theoretical leader of the Workers’ Opposition, Kollontai, took Stalin’s side against the Left Opposition to defend the theory of socialism in one country.
Thus the partisans of ‘socialism in one factory’ join the partisans of ‘socialism in one country’ and the theoreticians of the ‘immaturity of objective conditions’ in Russia. And Kautsky, Stalin and the ‘comrade ministers’ of the CNT are not very good company for the councilists, however much they may denounce them.
In fact, the only way councilism could reconcile its analysis of the October Revolution with internationalism — and certain currents have already done this — would be to consider that the ‘objective conditions’ for the proletarian revolution were not ripe in 1917, not only in Russia, but on a world scale. But this means rejecting the analysis of the Mensheviks or of Kautsky only to take up that of the rightwing social democrats who used it to suppress the proletarian revolution in Germany. It is not a question of saying that all those who ended up with such an analysis are like Noske. It’s quite possible to fight in a proletarian struggle even though you consider it premature and desperate — as did Marx with the Commune. But that kind of analysis by proletarian elements leads to conclusions every bit as disastrous as those of councilism.
We don’t want to refute this analysis here (footnote 4) since that would take us outside the scope of the article. We will restrict ourselves to a few remarks.
In the first place, such a conception leads to the rejection of the idea that capitalism has been in its decadent epoch since World War I, an idea which was the crucial issue in the revolutionaries’ break with the IInd International. The ‘councilist’ analysis undermines all the theoretical foundations of the Communist International, which is where the Council Communists came from in the first place. It thus leads to the rejection of the main acquisitions of the workers movement during World War I and the revolutionary wave of 1917—23; or else it makes it necessary to base communist positions on completely different foundations, in particular, the positions which the Communist Left took up against the CI:
the rejection of parliamentarism, even the revolutionary kind;
the rejection of trade unionism;
the rejection of the idea of the mass party;
the refusal to support national liberation struggles or progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie.
If you reject the idea of the decadence of capitalism, you are necessarily led to the conclusion that all the policies of the workers’ movement in the nineteenth century and most of the analyses of Marx and Engels were incorrect, In such a view, the Communist League, the Ist International and the IInd International were completely wrong to support the setting up of trade unions, the struggle for universal suffrage, certain national liberation struggles, etc. At the end of the day you might as well admit that, apart from the general theoretical underpinnings, Proudhon and Bakunin were right against Marx and Engels; and since from a marxist point of view it’s difficult to separate a theoretical vision from political implications, it would then be logical to take the final step and reject marxism in favour of anarchism. If only the councilists, who see the October Revolution as bourgeois because objective conditions on a world scale were not ripe in 1917, had the courage to take this final step and openly declare themselves as anarchists! They would then have one last problem to solve: how to reconcile their analysis with a theoretical viewpoint which rejects the need for an objective basis for socialism and for which ‘the revolution is possible at any time’?
The rejection of the idea that capitalism entered into its decadent epoch in 1914 has other implications which can be summarized briefly as follows;
either the period of capitalist decadence is still to come, although looking at the catastrophes which have befallen society over the last sixty years it’s hard to imagine what the real decadence of capitalism would look like and to see how society could survive it;
or else capitalism, in contrast to previous societies, will never go through a period of decadence. Then you must draw the conclusion from this: either you abandon any perspective for socialism or you base that perspective on something other than the objective necessities of society at a certain stage of its development. This means abandoning marxism, making socialism a ‘moral imperative’ — and thus joining up with anarchism.
During the course of its history, the workers’ movement has confronted three main adversaries: anarchism last century, social democratic reformism at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Stalinism between the two world wars. These currents were all banded against the proletariat at a crowning moment of the counter—revolution: the war in Spain in 1936. It must be recognized that councilism, even though it was one of the healthiest reactions against the degeneration of the Communist International and was able to hold to class positions during the worst moments of the counter—revolution, achieved the rare exploit of taking up many of the basic analyses of these three currents, even when its viewpoint did not lead to the abandonment of any revolutionary perspective — which was the case with some of its best elements. These are some of the implications of rejecting the proletarian character of October 1917.
The first part of this article attempted to show how the nature of the Russian Revolution was determined, not by the particular characteristics of Russia at the time of the revolution, but by the overall development of world capitalism, whose passage into its epoch of historic decline was marked by the imperialist war in 1914. The objective conditions for the proletarian revolution existed internationally, and the Russian Revolution could only be part of this world revolution. Thus we rejected the theories of the ‘councilists’, for whom the Russian Revolution was a ‘bourgeois’ revolution. We showed that such an analysis led:
either to the conception held by the Mensheviks and Kautsky, which led to a betrayal of the working class;
or to the Stalinist conception of the possibility of ‘socialism in one country’;
or to the anarchist conception which identifies socialism with ‘self-management’ by workers in individual enterprises;
or to the conception of the right-wing social democrats for whom the proletarian revolution was not on the agenda in country in 1917.
Finally we showed how the councilists’ analysis led them to turn marxism on its head, even though they believed that this was the basis of their analysis.
In fact the aberrations of councilism are fundamentally the expression of the terrible weight, felt by all the revolutionary minorities of the class, of the longest period of counter—revolution which the working class has ever undergone. Confronted with the monstrous state apparatus which developed in Russia in the wake of the degeneration of the revolution and compelled - unlike the Stalinists or even the Trotskyists to denounce the counter—revolutionary nature of this state, the various currents of the communist left found it very difficult to understand the origins and causes of what was happening in Russia in a situation of defeat for the class. But it would be wrong to think that the councilists were the only ones to lose their way in this difficult situation. Leaving aside Trotskyism whose theory of ‘Bonapartism’ was used to explain the phenomenon of Stalinism while justifying its continued defence of the Russian state, other currents of the communist left were also very confused on this question. Thus while the Italian Left, through its publication Bilan, made many important contributions towards a correct understanding of post—revolutionary Russia, it still remained imprisoned for a long time by the conception of Russia as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. However, one of the most important confusions in the left communist movement came with the elaboration of the Bordigist theory of the double revolution, which represented a partial return to the absurdities of the councilist analysis.
Holy Duality According to the Bordigist Doctrine
“This is the explanation of the ‘degeneration of the USSR’: the October Revolution, when the communist proletariat seized power, could do no more than smash the remnants of feudalism which remained a barrier to the capitalist development of the productive forces. Political dictatorship of the proletariat with a capitalist economy; this describes Russia at the time of NEP. With the help of the world revolution, the Bolshevik Party would have been able to suppress the mercantile economy, and afterwards introduce socialism. Isolated at the head of a formidable capitalist machine, stuck out on a limb, the Bolshevik Party was forced to submit to the mercantile machinery and become a cog in the process of capitalist accumulation." (Programme Communiste, no.57, p.39)
One sees at once what distinguishes this Bordigist conception from the councilist one. For the latter, the economic and political aspects of the revolution are intimately connected: the installation of capitalism is marked by the coming to power of a party that councilism considers to be bourgeois. For the former, on the contrary, the two aspects are completely distinct: Bordigism recognizes the proletarian character of October on a political level, but it rejoins councilism by asserting that, on an economic level, it was a bourgeois revolution. Moreover one could find many passages which demonstrate the convergence of the two analyses, Bordigist and councilist, even though Bordigism is very scornful of councilism. For example:
“If it is permissible to talk of the ‘turning point’ of April 1917, it must be well understood that this is nothing to do with an advanced capitalist country giving way to a communist revolution: it marks no more than the decisive moment of a bourgeois and popular revolution, occurring in a feudal country in an advanced state of decay.” (Programme Communiste, no.39, p.21)
One might well be reading Pannekoek! And in fact the Bordigist conception of the ‘double revolution’ reveals itself as fundamentally ambiguous. Its defenders are forced to contradict themselves from one article to another, if not from one phrase to another. Thus the above quotation is taken from an article entitled ‘The April Theses of 1917, Programme of the Proletarian Revolution in Russia’. In the same article we can find the following commentary on the second thesis:
“Lenin does not accord here any adjective to the word revolution, but we can do so without hesitation ... it was always a question of a bourgeois and democratic revolution, an anti—feudal and not a socialist revolution.”
In another article entitled ‘Marxism and Russia’ (Programme Communiste, no.68, p.20) we read, “For us, October was socialist”. Thus we can clearly and unambiguously summarize the Bordigist conception in the following terms: the October Revolution was proletarian and not proletarian, socialist and not socialist. What opaque lucidity!
But the contradictions and incoherence which mark this conception of Bordiga and his epigones do not disturb the latter: they are used to it. On the other hand, what they really find hard to stomach is the fact that they are putting forward an interpretation of the October Revolution which is directly opposed to that of Lenin. For according to the Bordigist credo, Lenin only made two mistakes in his life (and these were jut ‘minor’, ‘tactical’ errors): on the question of the ‘united front’ and ‘revolutionary parliamentarism’. For the Bordigists:
“In April 1917, it was solely a question of recuperating the social forces of the anti—tsarist revolution, not to do more than had been attempted in 1905, but to remedy the fact that so far, less had been achieved; the programme of the capitalist revolution under the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants had yet to be realized.” (PC no.39, p.25)
For Lenin on the contrary, “the whole of this revolution (of 1917) can only be understood as one of the links in the chain of proletarian socialist revolutions, provoked by the imperialist war” (Preface to State and Revolution). Thus for Lenin it was a question of ‘doing more’ in 1917 than in 1905, whose objectives he had defined more modestly:
“This victory (the decisive victory over Tsarism) will still not transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution. The democratic revolution has not come directly out of the framework of bourgeois social and economic relations; but this victory will none the less provide immense opportunities for the future development of Russia and the whole world.” (Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution).
One could find many other examples where Bordigist texts take up positions directly opposed to Lenin’s own conceptions. We will content ourselves with a single example:
“Thus the party of the proletariat must not reject the soviet, this historical form created in the bourgeois Russian Revolution ... They (the soviets) express what Lenin defined as the democratic dictatorship ... the particular form of the Russian anti—feudal revolution could not be the parliamentary assembly as in France, but a different organ based solely on the class of workers in the towns and the countryside.”
For Lenin, on the contrary:
“It is necessary only to discover the practical form which allows the proletariat to exercise its domination. This form is the soviet regime with the dictatorship of the proletariat. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’: until now this phrase was Greek to the masses. Now, thanks to the spread of the soviet system throughout the world, this Greek has been translated into all the modern languages: the working masses have discovered the practical form of their dictatorship.” (Opening Remarks to the First Congress of the Communist International, March 1919).
“... the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat already worked out in reality, that is, the soviet power in Russia, the system of workers’ councils in Germany and other soviet institutions in other countries.” (Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Proletarian Dictatorship, First Congress of the CI).
It is not in order to hide behind the authority of Lenin that we have drawn on these various quotations, but to show that even if Lenin himself made mistakes, even if his conception of October 1917 was, in some respects, ambiguous, the inanities put forward by Bordigism in the name of fidelity to the positions of Lenin, have actually nothing to do with Lenin’s conceptions.
Refutation of the ‘Double Revolution’
We will not repeat here what was said in the preceding article, where we showed that in Russia, as in the rest of the world, the bourgeois revolution was not on the agenda in 1917, since the material conditions for the communist revolution already existed on an international level. What was said against the councilist and Menshevik conceptions applies equally to the conceptions of the Bordigists. However, it is necessary to refute certain confused ideas which arise from the notion of the double revolution.
In the first place, the idea that the proletariat would carry out the bourgeois revolution is false. Even though Marx could defend such an idea in 1848, and Lenin also took it up in 1905, there is no example in history of one class being able to substitute itself for another in the accomplishment of an historic task. A revolution is the act whereby the class which is the bearer of the new relations of production made necessary by the development of the productive forces, seizes political power. History has shown many times that the revolutionary class cannot achieve political domination until after, and in general until well after, the necessity and the material conditions for the revolution become apparent. This is the classic phenomenon, clearly demonstrated by marxism, of the slow adaptation by the superstructure of society to changes in its infrastructure. In particular this phenomenon allows us to understand the occurrence of periods of decadence within society, when the old relations of production have become fetters on the development of the productive forces, while the class which is the bearer of new relations of production has not yet acquired sufficient power — in particular political power - to overthrow the old social order. Consequently, if a class is strong enough to seize political power, the economic and political tasks with which it is faced are those of developing its own relations of production, not substituting itself for the preceding historical class and accomplishing tasks which are in fact no longer on the agenda. The proletariat, like the peasants and artisans, could participate in bourgeois revolutions, but as an auxiliary force, never the main protagonist. It could even play an extremely active role in the radicalization of these revolutions, by giving its support to the most energetic sections of the bourgeoisie. But when its own class interests became apparent, these were immediately opposed to those of all sections of the bourgeoisie, including the most radical: for example, the Levellers against Cromwell during the English civil war; Babeuf against the Montagnards in the French revolution; and the Parisian proletariat against the provisional government in June 1848.
The other aspect to this notion of the ‘double revolution’ concerns the Bordigist understanding of the type of economic measures that the proletariat can take at the start of the revolution. The Bordigists correctly criticize the Trotskyist idea that ‘unemployment benefits’ or ‘the elimination of private ownership from large scale industry’ are ‘socialist’ measures. For them these are nothing more than ‘welfare state’ measures in the first case, and ‘state capitalist’ measures in the second. The “socialist economy commences with the destruction of capital” (PC, no.57, p.25). In this sense the Bordigists have understood that the economic measures adopted by the proletarian power in Russia were still capitalist measures, and do not attempt to glorify them as ‘socialist’, as the Stalinists and Trotskyists do. However, the Bordigists’ error is revealed in the following passage:
“In the advanced countries, the dictatorship of the proletariat will be able to embark at once on the planned production of physical quantities. In the other countries, while awaiting the extension of the revolution, the proletariat will manage capitalism, concentrating the productive forces as far as is possible in the hands of the state, at the same time as adopting measures to protect the wage—earning class, measures that would be impossible for a bourgeois party in the same circumstances. In all cases the seizure of power by the proletariat is nothing but the first stage of the world revolution, which must conquer or be conquered. Either it will generate other revolutions and extend through revolutionary war; or it will perish in the civil war, or in the case where the proletariat has to manage a young capitalism it will degenerate into a bourgeois power.” (PC, no.57, p.36)
Now we have it! It is only “in the case where the proletariat has to manage a young capitalism” that the “revolution will degenerate into a bourgeois power” (as if capitalism, whose senility is an international phenomenon, could be ‘young’ in certain areas). Thus the revolution degenerated in Russia because it remained isolated in an only partially industrialized country (which PC wrongly defines as a young capitalism). But if the revolution remained isolated in a heavily industrialized country it would not, following this line of reasoning, degenerate, and the relations of production that were established there would cease to be capitalist. In other words, socialism would be possible in a single country, as long as the country in question was an ‘old’ capitalism. If pushed to their logical conclusion, the Bordigist conceptions, just as those of the councilists, lead to the Stalinist thesis. The Bordigists must decide: either the “seizure of power by the proletariat is nothing but the first stage of the world revolution” in all cases, or only in certain cases. In fact the notion of the ‘double revolution’ seems finally to lead to a ‘double conception’: one which alternates between internationalism and nationalism.
In reality whatever the level of development of a country where the proletariat seizes power, it cannot hope to immediately adopt ‘socialist’ measures. It will be able to take a whole series of measures such as, the expropriation of private capitalists, equal remuneration, aid to the most under—privileged, free distribution of certain consumer goods etc., which can lead on to socialist measures, but which in themselves are perfectly able to be recuperated by capitalism. While the revolution remains isolated in a single country, or a small group of countries, the economic policy which it can pursue is largely determined by the economic relations which this or these countries retain with the rest of the capitalist world. These relations can only be trade relations: the zone where the proletariat is in power must sell a part of its production on the world market in order to be able to buy, on the same market, all the indispensable goods which it cannot produce for itself. Because of this, the whole of the existing economy in this zone is still strongly characterized by the need to produce goods at the lowest possible prices in order to find buyers in competition with goods produced in countries where the proletariat has not yet seized power. This in turn must inevitably impose restrictions on the consumption of the working class, restrictions whose purpose is not only to allow the future development of the productive forces (the indispensable basis of communism) but more prosaically, to acquire a surplus which can be exchanged on the world market and to preserve competitiveness. It is clear that the proletarian power must take all possible measures to safeguard itself against the corrupting effects that this typically capitalist practice will inevitably produce in the zone of proletarian power and its institutions; (footnote 5) but it is equally clear that persistence of these practices in the case of the continuing isolation of the revolution can only lead to the downfall of the proletarian power itself. And what is true for the strictly economic sphere, applies equally in the military sphere. Isolated, the revolution will have to deal with the attempts of capitalism to crush it. This means that from the day that the proletariat seizes power, many features of capitalist society will necessarily have to be maintained: armaments production which will depress the workers’ living standards and prevent the development of the material conditions for communism’; the existence of an army which remains (even a ‘red’ army) an institution of a fundamentally capitalist nature: a machine whose function is to kill and coerce in an organized and systematic manner. Here also it is easy to understand the seriousness of the threat which these necessities will pose for the proletarian power. All this is equally applicable to an advanced as to a backward country. In fact, a heavily industrialized country is even more dependent on the world capitalist market. It would not be too absurd to suggest that the revolution, had it been isolated in a country like Germany, would have degenerated even more rapidly than in Russia. Thus it was not simply Russia’s backwardness which explains the capitalist nature of the economic measures adopted in the first years of soviet power. If we examine those which would have been taken in Germany in the case of a proletarian victory we can see that they would have been very similar:
"Confiscation of all crown estates and revenues for the benefit of the people.
Annulment of the state debts and other public debts, as well as all war loans, except those subscribed within a certain limited amount, this limit to be fixed by the Central Council of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.
Expropriation of the land held by all large and medium—sized agricultural concerns; establishment of socialist agricultural cooperatives under a uniform central administration all over the country. Small peasant holdings to remain in possession of their present owners, until they voluntarily decide to join the socialist agricultural cooperatives.
Nationalization by the Republic of Councils of all banks, ore mines, coal mines, as well as all large industrial and commercial establishments.
Confiscation of all property exceeding a certain limit, the limit to be fixed by the Central Council.
The Republic of Councils to take over all public means of transport and communication.
Election of administrative councils in all enterprises, such councils to regulate the internal affairs of the enterprises in agreement with the workers’ councils, regulate the conditions of labour, control production, and, finally, take over the administration of the enterprise.” (From the Programme of the Spartacus League of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), quoted from the article by Rosa Luxemburg ‘What Does Spartacus Want?’ in the pamphlet Spartacus, Merlin Press.).
The major error of the Bordigists is to consider that the world is divided into different ‘geo—economic areas’: those where capitalism has reached a mature or even a senile phase of development, and those where it is still ‘young’ or juvenile. Incapable of understanding that it is a world system (and in this it differs from all past systems), that capitalism experienced an ascendant phase and then, since 1914, a decadent phase, they are equally incapable of understanding that, since 1914, the task of the proletariat is the same in all areas of the world: to destroy capitalism and install new relations of production. For the Bordigists there are some areas of the world where a ‘pure’ proletarian revolution is on the agenda, and others where a ‘double revolution’ is required. This schema implies that:
on the one hand, within a process of the socialist transformation of society, the tasks of the proletariat are conceived of as different in different regions. The proletariat in the advanced countries can adopt socialist measures straight away, while in the backward countries the proletariat must first devote itself to the development of capitalism in order to develop the conditions for socialism;
on the other hand, in the short term, the proletariat and revolutionaries must give their support to the various so—called ‘national liberation struggles’, which the Bordigists see as providing the basis for the development of ‘juvenile’ capitalism in these countries.
Recently we have seen the aberrations which arise from this latter implication of the Bordigists’ conception: apology for the massacres perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge on the population of Cambodia, which are described as ‘Jacobin radicalism’; participation in the Stalinist and Trotskyist chorus of praise for Che Guevara, that “living symbol of the democratic anti—imperialist revolution ... shamefully assassinated by ... Yankee imperialism and its Latin American lackeys” (PC, no.75, p.51), and various other instances of more or less critical support for this or that participant in recent inter—imperialist conflicts (Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique etc).
Concerning the first implication, it revives the absurd bourgeois idea that the proletariat in each country must, once it has seized power, ‘look after its own affairs’. In reality it is the whole world proletariat which must tackle all the economic problems existing in the various regions of the world, problems determined by the dual task faced simultaneously by the proletariat: to develop the productive forces particularly in the backward regions and to progressively transform the relations of production in the direction of communism. Once it has taken power on a world scale, the proletariat has therefore no capitalist tasks of any sort to accomplish. It is within the framework of the socialist transformation of society that the proletariat begins to develop the productive forces, which are condemned to stagnation by the historical decadence of the capitalist mode of production. It is within this framework that the proletariat must eliminate the surviving vestiges of pre-capitalist society - through the integration of the enormous strata of small—scale agricultural producers and artisans, which still constitute the vast majority of the world population today, into associated production in the socialized sector. And this takes place not only in the backward countries, but also in a number of important advanced countries like Japan, France, Italy and Spain, where smallholders still exist in their tens of millions, as well as agrarian workers languishing in social conditions close to feudalism. Why don’t the Bordigists talk about the ‘double revolution’ in these countries as well? Thus on the one hand their conception sets tasks for the proletariat in an advanced country where the revolution remains isolated which are far too ambitious. But on the other hand, it underestimates the historical tasks which will face the world proletariat once it has taken power all over the world, by advocating capitalist development in certain countries, at a time when capitalism everywhere has reached the end of the road.
In the first part of this article we saw how the councilists, after having saluted the achievement of October 1917, joined the social democratic and anarchist chorus of denunciation of the revolution. The Bordigists on the other hand, intransigently defend the revolution. They have an understanding, which the councilists lack, of the primacy of political over economic aspects of the revolution, which is sometimes expressed very clearly:
“The October Revolution must not primarily be considered from the point of view of the immediate transformation of society of forms of production and of the economic structure, but as a phase in the international political struggle of the proletariat.” (PC, no.68, p.20).
But, unfortunately, the Bordigists show themselves incapable of rejecting the Menshevik assertions which were later taken up by the councilists. On the contrary, on the basis of a religious adherence to the analysis of Lenin (particularly on the national question, whose erroneous nature has been shown by more than half a century’s experience), they are not able to understand the fundamental achievement of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, nor the significance of the experience of the October Revolution for the proletarian programme. The October Revolution must therefore endure, not only the lies and attempted recuperation of the bourgeoisie, not only the absurd denunciations made by the councilists, but also the well-meaning but disastrous analysis put forward by its most zealous defenders, the Bordigists.
Nature and Role of the Bolshevik Party
A defence of the proletarian character of the October Revolution would not be complete if it didn’t also deal with the nature of the Bolshevik Party, which was one of its main protagonists. As with the revolution itself, the class nature of this party was in no doubt amongst any of the revolutionary currents of the day. It was only later on that the idea of a non-proletarian Bolshevik Party developed, other than for Kautsky and social democracy. The Theses on Bolshevism of the councilists are quite explicit on this question:
“Bolshevism, in its principles, tactics and organization, is a movement of the bourgeois revolution in a preponderantly peasant country.” (Thesis 66)
Although the Theses are somewhat contradictory:
“The Russian social democratic movement, in its professional—revolutionary leader—element constitutes primarily a part of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie.” (Thesis 16)
Bourgeois, petty bourgeois or ‘state capitalist’, the different versions of the councilist analysis all agree on one point: denying any proletarian character to the Bolshevik Party. Before going any further and examining the reasoning behind this analysis, we should remind ourselves of some elementary facts about the origins and positions of Bolshevism, in particular the struggles it waged against other political tendencies:
Bolshevism appeared as a marxist current, an integral part of Russian social democracy, as such it fought successive battles:
Against populism and agrarian socialism.
Against legal marxism and the defenders of Russian liberalism.
Against terrorism as a method of struggle, defending instead the mass struggle of the working class.
Against ouvrierist economism which reduced the proletarian struggle to the level of economic demands within capitalism, defending instead the global, political struggle of the proletariat, the historical tasks of the class.
Against intellectualism, the intelligentsia, those dilettantish, dubious camp followers of the workers’ movement, and in defence of the idea of the militant commitment of revolutionaries within the class.
Against Menshevism and its support, under the guise of ‘marxism’, for the liberal bourgeoisie in the 1905 Revolution.
Against the ‘liquidators’ who, after the crushing of the 1905 Revolution, began to deny the necessity for the political organization of the proletariat.
Against the defenders of the imperialist war, for a genuine internationalism which clearly separated itself from mere humanist pacifism.
Against the Provisional Government which came out of the revolution of February 1917, against any ‘critical or conditional’ support for the government, for the slogan ‘all power to the soviets’.
These points allow us to have a clearer idea of the Bolshevik Party than the one put forward by the councilists. In fact, the practice of the Bolshevik fraction meant that in all circumstances it was fighting alongside the working class. This was particularly the case in the 1905 Revolution which shook Russian society. The Bolsheviks took an active part in it:
in the struggle for the destruction of the Tsarist regime;
in the soviets, alongside the soviets;
in the insurrection, against the Mensheviks who said that the workers should not have taken up arms.
It is true that the Bolsheviks’ analysis of 1905 (seen as a bourgeois revolution) was incorrect. But their position was an exact copy of Marx’s position in 1848 on the bourgeois revolution in Germany: they stressed the active and autonomous role of the proletariat in the revolution, instead of calling on it to trail behind the bourgeoisie. It is this which marks the class frontier, rather than the understanding that from now on bourgeois revolutions were no longer possible. The Bolsheviks’ analysis lagged behind reality, but since this was a turning point between two epochs, no—one in 1905 was aware that capitalism was on the eve of its historic crisis, its period of decline. It was not until 1910-11 that Rosa Luxemburg began to raise the question of a change in historical perspective.
The activity and positions of the Bolsheviks were not only concerned with the problems that emerged in Russia. Along with the whole of Russian social democracy they were an integral part of the IInd International, within which they were part of the left wing on all the major questions under discussion. They stood against reformism, revisionism, and colonialism. In particular, they were in the vanguard of the struggle for internationalism.
In 1907, at the Stuttgart Congress, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg signed an amendment (subsequently adopted) which strengthened a somewhat timid resolution on war and which was to serve as the basis for the position of the internationalists in 1914:
“Should war break out in spite of this, it is their (the socialists) duty to intercede for its speedy end, and to strive with all their power to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the people, and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.”
In 1912, at the Extraordinary Congress in Basle, which dealt with the threat of imperialist war, the left wing called upon the workers to oppose national defence and adhere to proletarian internationalism.
In 1914, the Bolsheviks were the first to get on their feet after the collapse of the International. They were the first to put forward the slogan which translated the Stuttgart and Basle resolutions into practice: ‘turn the imperialist war into a civil war’. They were the first to understand the need to break not only with the social democratic chauvinists, but also with the ‘centrists’ like Kautsky, and to construct a new International free of the opportunism which had corrupted the IInd, and whose immediate task would be to prepare the socialist revolution.
In 1915, at the Zimmerwald Conference (5—8 September), Lenin and the Bolsheviks were at the head of the left, whose motion, written by Radek and amended by Lenin stipulated that:
“The struggle for peace without revolutionary action is an empty, deceitful phrase; the only road to liberation from the horrors of war is the revolutionary struggle for socialism.”
This motion was rejected without being studied, and in the end the left (8 delegates out of 38) rallied behind the manifesto written by Trotsky (the main animator of the ‘centre’, to which the two Spartacist delegates also adhered), while expressing serious reserves about it: ”a timid, inconsequential manifesto” (‘The First Step’ an article in Social Democrat, 11 October 1915). In order to defend its own position the left set up a ‘Permanent Bureau of the Zimmerwald Left’ alongside the ‘International Socialist Commission’. This Bureau was also animated by the Bolsheviks.
In 1916, at the Kienthal Conference (24 April), the Bolsheviks were once again at the head of the left, whose position was strengthened (12 delegates out of 43), mainly because the Spartacists came to the position of the left, which validated the stand it had taken at Zimmerwald.
In 1917, the preparation, of the October Revolution. was taken up by Lenin in his struggle against the imperialist war and proletarian internationalism:
“It is impossible to slip out of the imperialist war and achieve a democratic non—coercive peace without overthrowing the power of capital and transferring state power to another class, the proletariat ... The international obligations of the working class of Russia are precisely now coming to the forefront with particular force ... There is one, and only one, kind of real internationalism, and that is - working whole-heartedly for the development of the revolutionary movement and the revolutionary struggle in one’s own country, and supporting (by propaganda, sympathy and material aid) this struggle, this, and only this line, in every country without exception.” (The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, 10 April 1917)
“The great honour of beginning has fallen to the Russian proletariat; but it must not forget that its movement and its revolution are only a part of the world revolutionary proletarian movement, which is growing stronger and stronger every day, for example in Germany. We can only determine our tasks from this standpoint.” (Opening Speech at the Conference of April 1917).
In March 1919, the Communist International was founded in Moscow. Its fundamental task was summed up in the name it gave itself: World Party of the Communist Revolution. This was the culmination of the efforts of the Bolsheviks since Zimmerwald. It was the Bolshevik Party (now the Communist Party of Russia) which called the Congress; it was two Bolsheviks, Lenin and Trotsky, who wrote its two major texts: ‘Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Proletarian Dictatorship’ and the ‘Manifesto’. It was not only because the revolution had taken place in Russia that the two members of its Executive Committee, Lenin and Zinoviev, had already been among the three members of the Permanent Bureau of the Zimmerwald Left. This was simply an expression of the consistent and irreproachable internationalism which the Bolsheviks defended until the reflux of the revolution led them towards the enemy camp. This is how Bolshevism acted in the convulsions which shook capitalism at the beginning of the century. And there are still revolutionaries who think that this was a bourgeois current! Let’s examine their arguments.
1. The ‘Substitutionism’ of the Bolsheviks
“The basic principle of Bolshevik policy - the conquest and exercise of power by the organization — is jacobinical.” (Theses on Bolshevism, Thesis 21)
“As a leader—movement of jacobinical dictatorship, Bolshevism in all its phases has consistently combated. the idea of self—determination of the working class and demanded the subordination of the proletariat to the bureaucratized organization.” (Thesis 21)
Before going any further, and in order to rectify a few legends, let’s look at what Lenin had to say:
“We are not utopians. We know that an unskilled labourer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration. In this we agree with the Cadets, with Breshkovskaya, and with Tsereteli. We differ, however, from these citizens in that we demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administrating the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration. We demand that training in the work of state administration be conducted by class-conscious workers and soldiers and that this training be begun at once, i.e., that a beginning be made at once in training all the working people, all the poor, for this work.
“It goes without saying that this new apparatus is bound to make mistakes in taking its first steps. But did not the peasants make mistakes when they emerged from serfdom and began to manage their own affairs? Is there any way other than practice by which the people can learn to govern themselves and to avoid mistakes? Is there any way other than by proceeding immediately to genuine self—government by the people ... The chief thing is to imbue the oppressed and the working people with confidence in their own strength, to prove to them in practice that they can and must themselves ensure the proper, most strictly regulated and organized distribution of bread, all kinds of food, milk, clothing, housing, etc, in the interests of the poor ... The conscientious, bold, universal move to hand over administrative work to proletarians, will, however, rouse such unprecedented revolutionary enthusiasm among the people, will so multiply the peoples forces in combating distress, that much that seemed impossible to our narrow, old, bureaucratic forces will become possible for the millions, who will begin to work for themselves and not for the capitalists, the gentry, the bureaucrats, and not out of fear of punishment.” (Lenin, Can The Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, October 1917)
These are the words of Lenin the ‘Jacobin’. Some people will say “this was before the October Revolution; this language was pure demagogy and had the sole purpose of winning the confidence of the masses in order to take power in place of them. Afterwards, all this changed!” Let’s see what Lenin—Robespierre said after October:
“The venal bourgeois press can crow as much as it likes about the mistakes made by our revolution. We’re not afraid of mistakes. Men don’t become saints just because the revolution has begun. The toiling classes, oppressed, brutalized, forcibly kept in a state of misery, ignorance, and barbarism for centuries, can’t carry out a revolution without making any mistakes ... For every hundred errors we make and which cause such glee among the bourgeoisie and its lackeys (including our Mensheviks and Right Social Revolutionaries), there are ten thousand great and heroic acts — all the more great and heroic because they are simple, invisible acts hidden in the daily life of a workers’ neighbourhood or a remote village, because they are accomplished by men who are not used to shouting about their success from the rooftops ... But even if things were the other way round, even if for every hundred good actions there were ten thousand mistakes, our revolution would still be great and invincible, because for the first time it’s not a minority, not the rich or the educated, but the immense majority of the workers who are themselves building a new life, and on the basis of their own experience, solving the arduous problems of organizing socialism.
“Each error in this work, which is being consciously and sincerely undertaken by tens of millions of simple workers and peasants in order to transform their lives, each one of these errors is worth thousands, millions of infallible ‘successes’ by the exploiting minority. Because it is only through these errors that the workers and peasants can learn to build a new life, to do without the capitalists. Only by surmounting a thousand obstacles can they build the road which leads to the triumph of socialism.” (Letter to American Workers, 20 August 1918).
This might temper the usual image of Lenin as a sardonic bogeyman solely preoccupied with maintaining his own dictatorial power and “consistently combating the idea of the self—determination of the working class”. And one could cite dozens of other texts from 1917, 1918, 1919, expressing the same ideas. Having said this, it’s true that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had the erroneous idea that the seizure of political power by the proletariat meant the seizure of power by its party - a schema deriving from the bourgeois revolution. But this idea was held by all the currents of the IInd International, including its left wing. It was precisely the experience of the Russian Revolution, of its degeneration, which made it possible to understand the fundamental difference between the proletarian revolution and the bourgeois revolution. For example, to the end of her life in January 1919 Rosa Luxemburg, whose differences with the Bolsheviks on the organization question are well known, held the same erroneous idea:
“If Spartacus takes power, it will be with the clear, indubitable will of the great majority of the proletarian masses.” (Founding Congress of the KPD, 1 January 1919).
Are we to conclude that Rosa Luxemburg herself was a ‘bourgeois Jacobin’? But what kind of ‘bourgeois revolution’ were she and the Spartacists fighting for in the industrial Germany of 1919? Perhaps she had this position because she had also been the leader of a party (the SDKP) which conducted its activities in the Polish and Lithuanian provinces of Tsarist Russia, ‘where only a bourgeois revolution was on the agenda’? However ridiculous such an argument might be, it’s no more so than the one which portrays Lenin, who spent the major part of his life as a militant in Germany, Switzerland, France and England (i.e. the most developed countries of that time), as a ‘pure product of the Russian soil’, of the bourgeois revolution which this country is supposed to have been pregnant with.
2. The Agrarian Question
“The Bolsheviks ... perfectly expressed in their agrarian practice and slogans (‘Peace and Land’) the interests of the peasants fighting for the security of small private property, hence on capitalistic lines, and were thus, on the agrarian question, ruthless champions of small—capitalist, hence not socialist proletarian interests against feudal and capitalist landed property.” (Thesis 46)
Here again, some basic truths have to be reasserted. If the Bolsheviks made mistakes on this question, we have to criticize their real position, as Rosa Luxemburg did in her pamphlet The Russian Revolution, and not a position invented in order to prove an argument. This is what appeared in the ‘decree on the land’ put forward by Lenin and adopted at the Second Congress of Soviets on the very day of the October insurrection:
“1. Private ownership of land shall be abolished for ever; land shall not be sold, purchased, leased, mortgaged, or otherwise alienated.
All land, whether State, crown, monastery, church, factory, entailed, private, public, peasant, etc, shall be confiscated without compensation and become property of the whole people, and pass into the use of all those who cultivate it...
3. Lands on which high-level scientific farming is practised — orchards, plantations, seed plots, nurseries, hot—houses, etc. — shall not be divided up, but shall be converted into model farms, to be turned over for exclusive use to the state or to the communes, depending on the size and importance of such lands.
Household land in towns and villages, with orchards and vegetable gardens, shall be reserved for the use of their present owners, the size of the holdings, and the size of tax levied for the use thereof, to be determined by law...” ( ‘The Land Decree', quoted in The Russian Revolution & The Soviet State 1917—21 Documents, ed. Martin McCauley).
This is very different from a defence of “small private property ... on capitalist lines”. The latter was “abolished forever”.
These decrees were a concretization of the ‘Model Decree’ drawn up in August 1917 on the basis of 242 local peasant mandates. In his report Lenin explained:
"Some people will argue that the decree itself and the mandates were established by the Social Revolutionaries. Does it matter whose work it is? We, as a democratic government, cannot evade the decision of the rank and file of the people, even if we do not agree with it. In the fire of life, by applying it in practice, by carrying it out on the spot, the peasants themselves will come to understand what is right ... Life is the best teacher and will prove who is right; let the peasants starting from one end, and us starting from the other, settle this question.” (Lenin, Works, xxii, 23)
The position of the Bolsheviks was clear: if they made concessions to the peasantry, it was because they could not impose their programme on them by force; but they didn’t renounce this programme. What’s more, at the very time that the decree was adopted, the peasants had almost everywhere begun to divide up the land. As for the slogan ‘land to the peasants’, it was not the product of “ruthless champions of small capitalist interests”, but an attempt to expose all the bourgeois and conciliator parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who were simply deceiving the peasants with promises of agrarian reform — a reform which they had neither the intention nor the capacity to implement. In this, these parties were simply confirming what Lenin and the whole marxist left had been saying for years: the bourgeoisie in the underdeveloped countries was no longer able to accomplish any ‘progressive’ historical tasks, in particular the elimination of feudal laws and structures and the imposition of peasant property in land, as the bourgeoisie had done in the advanced countries at the beginning of capitalism. On the other hand, Lenin was wrong to think that these tasks, uncompleted by the bourgeoisie, could be taken in hand by the proletariat. If the bourgeoisie was unable to accomplish these tasks, it was because, historically, they were no longer realizable: they were no longer demanded by necessity, by the development of the productive forces, and were in fact in opposition to the tasks facing society. And Rosa Luxemburg was right to stress that the dividing up of the land “piles up insurmountable obstacles to the socialist transformation of agrarian relations” (The Russian Revolution).
Rosa Luxemburg called for “the nationalization of the large and middle—sized estates and the union of industry and agriculture.” But instead of denouncing the Bolsheviks as ‘defenders of small-capitalist ... interests’, she wrote quite correctly:
“That the soviet government in Russia has not carried through these mighty reforms - who can reproach them for that! It would be a sorry jest indeed to demand or expect of Lenin and his comrades that, in the brief period of their rule, in the centre of the gripping whirlpool of domestic and foreign struggles, ringed about by countless foes and opponents — to expect that under such circumstances they should already have solved, or even tackled, one of the most difficult tasks, indeed, we can safely say, most difficult task of the social transformation of society! Even in the West, under the most favourable conditions, once we have come to power, we too will break many a tooth on this hard nut before we are out of the worst of the thousands of complicated difficulties of this gigantic task!” (The Russian Revolution).
3. The National Question
“The appeal to the international proletariat was only one side of a largely-laid policy for international support of the Russian Revolution. The other side was the policy and propaganda of ‘national self—determination’ in which the class outlook was even more definitely sacrificed than in the concept of ‘people’s revolution, in favour of an appeal to all classes of certain peoples.” (Thesis 50)
It’s difficult to believe that, ever since its foundation in 1898, Russian social democracy (and not only the Bolsheviks), following the lead of international social democracy, had adopted the slogan of ‘the right to national self—determination’, simply as a ‘tactic’, to defend a revolution that did not take place till 1917, and in a country and a way that no—one had foreseen. Are we to believe that Gorter and Pannekoek, who criticized Lenin’s positions on this question, had in mind the future defence of a ‘bourgeois revolution’ in Holland, when they made an exception in their analysis and called for self-determination of the Dutch Indies?
As for sacrificing the ‘class outlook’, let us see what Lenin said in the middle of his polemic with Rosa Luxemburg on this question:
“Social democracy, as the party of the proletariat, sees as its main positive task to cooperate in the free disposition, not of peoples and nations, but of the proletariat of each nationality. We have always unconditionally supported the closest union of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it’s only in particular, exceptional cases that we can actively put forward demands for a new class state or for the replacement of the overall political unity of the state by a looser federal union.” (Iskra, no.44).
Having established this - and it’s worth pointing out that, most often, those who denounce Bolshevism as bourgeois, know even less about it than those who defend it to the letter - it must be said that the ‘right to national self-determination’ must be categorically rejected, because of its erroneous theoretical content and, even more, because experience has shown what this slogan has meant in practice. The ICC has devoted many texts to this question (especially the pamphlet Nation or Class?), so it’s not necessary to go over it again here. But it is important to show what significance this slogan had for the Bolsheviks, to point out the fundamental difference between a mistake and a betrayal. Lenin and the majority of the Bolsheviks, basing themselves on the interests of the world socialist revolution, believed that it was possible to use the position of ‘the right to national self-determination’ against capitalism; and on this they were completely mistaken. But the renegades and traitors of all kinds, from the Socialists to the Stalinists, have used this position to develop their counter-revolutionary policies, to conserve and strengthen national and international capitalism. There’s the difference. But it has all the thickness of a class line.
It’s quite natural that renegades and traitors should try to camouflage themselves by using this or that erroneous phrase of Lenin’s; but they arrive at conclusions completely opposed to the revolutionary spirit which guided Lenin’s actions all through his life. But it’s stupid for revolutionaries to help them by obliterating the differences between the scoundrels and Lenin, by claiming that they are just the same. It’s stupid to say that Lenin proclaimed ‘the right to national self—determination’, up to and including secession from Russia, in order to defend the national interests of the ‘bourgeois revolution’ in Russia. When we say that the ‘liberation’ of the colonial countries, their formal independence, is not incompatible with the interests of the colonialist countries, we mean that imperialism can easily accommodate itself to this formal independence. But this in no way means that imperialism follows this policy benevolently or indifferently. All the ‘liberations’ have been the product of internal struggles and clashes of interest between different bourgeoisies, of the international intrigues of antagonistic imperialist powers. Later on Stalin was to demonstrate, at the cost of rivers of blood, that the interests of Russia didn’t exactly correspond with the independence of the countries surrounding it; on the contrary, these interests demanded the forceful incorporation of these countries into the great Russian empire.
To explain is not to justify. But those who, in order to condemn an erroneous position, make an amalgam between the right of peoples to separation and violent incorporation, between Lenin and Stalin, understand nothing, and turn history into an amorphous, insipid porridge. Lenin saw the right to self—determination as a way of denouncing imperialism — not the imperialism of other countries but the imperialism of ‘his’ own country, his own bourgeoisie. It’s undeniable that this led to contradictions, as the following passage shows:
“The situation is very confused, but there is one point which allows everyone to remain internationalists: that is, that the Russian and German social democrats demand ‘freedom of separation’ for Poland, whereas the Polish social democrats will struggle for the unity of revolutionary action in their small country as in the big ones, without, in the present epoch (that of imperialist war), calling for independence for Poland.” (‘The Conclusions of a Debate on the Right of Nations to Define Themselves’, October 1916)
But, as this passage also shows, the contradictions, the ‘very confused’ situation his analysis led to, was undeniably animated by an intransigently internationalist concern. At the time he wrote this text, the main counter-revolutionary force was social democracy, the social imperialists as Lenin called them, “socialist in words and imperialist in deeds”. Without their aid capitalism would never have been able to drag the workers into the butchery of world war. These ‘socialists’ justified the war in the name of the national interests the workers were supposed to have in common with ‘their’ bourgeoisie. According to them, the imperialist war meant defending democracy and the workers’ freedoms and conquests, which were being threatened by evil ‘foreign imperialisms’. Exposing these lies, these false socialists, was the primary duty, the imperative task for every revolutionary. For Lenin, the right of peoples to self—determination was part of this preoccupation; not for the interests of Russia, but against the national interests of the Russian and international bourgeoisie. As for using this slogan to justify participation in the imperialist war, Lenin replied quite clearly:
“Whoever refers today to Marx’s attitude towards the wars of the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie and forgets Marx’s statement that ‘workers have no fatherland’, a statement that applies precisely to the epoch of the reactionary, obsolete bourgeoisie, to the epoch of the socialist revolution, shamelessly distorts Marx and substitutes the bourgeois for the socialist point of view.” (Lenin, Socialism and War).
4. ‘Tactical’ Internationalism
“But their revolutionary internationalism was as much determined by their tactic in the Russian Revolution as was later their swing to the NEP.” (Thesis 50)
“The only real danger threatening the Russian Revolution was that of imperialist intervention ... The problem of the active defence of Bolshevism against world imperialism consisted, therefore, in counter—attacking in the imperialist centres of power. This was brought about through the two-sided international policy of Bolshevism.” (Thesis 51)
“Thus the concept of ‘world revolution’ has for the Bolsheviks an altogether different class content. It no longer has anything in common with the international proletarian revolution ...”(Thesis 54)
This another well-established legend about the Bolsheviks: their internationalism was just a ‘tactic’ aimed first of all at winning the confidence of the popular masses, who were tired of the war; and secondly at subordinating the whole world workers’ movement to a policy of defending the Russian capitalist state.
Concerning the first argument, we recall to the reader the positions the Bolsheviks took up well before the war broke out, particularly at the International Congresses of 1907 and 1912. What’s more, the struggle against war in the conception of the Bolsheviks had nothing to do with the positions of the pacifist bourgeoisie, which influenced certain sectors of the workers’ movement. Instead of calling on the belligerent states to make a ‘democratic peace without annexations’ instead even of simply calling for ‘a war against war’, they were the first in the movement to put forward the truly revolutionary slogan ‘turn the imperialist war into a civil war’, pitilessly denouncing all the illusions of pacifism. If their only concern had been to ‘win the masses in order to take power’, why did they need to take up slogans which isolated them from the masses, who were caught up in the idea of ‘fighting on till the end’ — at first in its chauvinist form, then in the guise of ‘revolutionary defencism’? And our Bolshevik—slayers reply: “because they foresaw that the masses, tired of the war and the misfortunes it brought, would turn to them in the end”. But then why didn’t Plekhanov, the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries, Kerensky, all the bourgeois factions who also wanted to take power — why didn’t they also call for ‘revolutionary defeatism’, i.e. explain that it was in the interest of the Russian workers that their country be defeated in the imperialist war? These currents should also have played the ‘internationalist’ card, since this was a real winner which didn’t conflict with the interests of Russian capital. After all, these people are supposed to have had the same basic interests as the Bolsheviks. Is the difference between the Bolsheviks and all these others, not a class difference, but simply a difference in clairvoyance, in intelligence? This is what the analysis of our professional detractors would imply. But then, how was it that all the advanced elements of the world proletariat (the Spartacists and the Arbeiterpolitik group in Germany, the elements grouped around Loriot in France, around Russell Williams or The Trade Unionist in England, Maclean in Scotland, in the Socialist Workers' Party in the USA, the Tribunists in Holland, the socialist left or the socialist youth in Sweden, the ‘Narrows’ in Bulgaria, the ‘National Bureau’ and the ‘General Bureau’ in Poland, the left socialists in Switzerland, the elements around the ‘Karl Marx Club’ in Austria, etc.) - the great majority of whom were to be in the vanguard of the great class combats which followed the war — how was it that all these elements (including the ‘future’ councilists) adopted or rallied to a position on the war identical or very close to the position of the Bolsheviks? Why did they collaborate with the Bolsheviks within the Zimmerwald and Kienthal left?
In general, councilism does not dispute the proletarian nature of these currents (and with good reason!). Why then argue that what separated the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks was simply a difference of ‘intelligence’, whereas the same opposition between the Spartacists and social democrats expressed a class difference? Germany, a much older, more powerful and tested capitalism than Russia, was unable to do what its much weaker rival succeeded in doing: produce a political current which was clever enough, as early as 1907 and especially in 1914, to put forward internationalist slogans which, at the given moment, would allow it to recuperate the discontent of the masses to its own advantage and to the advantage of the national capital. This is the logical conclusion to this idea of ‘tactical’ internationalism. And the paradox is even greater when we think that at Zimmerwald it was this bourgeois current which had the most correct position, whereas the proletarian Spartacists were sunk in the confusions of the ‘centre’. And when that great revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, wrote this confusion into her pamphlet against the war, The Junius Pamphlet:
“Yes, socialists should defend their country in great historical crises, and here lies the great fault of the German social democratic Reichstag group. When it announced on the fourth of August, “in this hour of danger, we will not desert our fatherland,” it denied its own words in the same breath. For truly it has deserted its fatherland in its hour of greatest danger. The highest duty of the social democracy towards its fatherland demanded that it expose the real background of this imperialist war, that it rend the net of imperialist and diplomatic lies that covers the eyes of the people. It was their duty ... to oppose to the imperialist war, based as it was upon the most reactionary forces in Europe, the programme of Marx, of Engels, and Lassalle.”
It’s really surprising that it was the ‘bourgeois’ Lenin who dealt with her errors as follows:
“The fallacy of his argument is strikingly evident, ... He suggests that the imperialist war should be ‘opposed’ with a national programme. He urges the advanced class to turn its face to the past and not to the future! ... At the present time, the objective situation in the biggest advanced states of Europe is different. Progress, if we leave out for the moment the possibility of temporary steps backward, can be made only in the direction of socialist society, only in the direction of the socialist revolution.” (On the Junius Pamphlet)
Finally, the theory of ‘tactical’ internationalism leads one to argue that the position on imperialist wars was a secondary point in the proletariarn programme at that time, since it could quite easily be part of the programme of a bourgeois party. This is quite wrong. In fact in 1914 the problem of the war was central to the whole life of capitalism. It uncovered all its mortal contradictions. It showed that the system had entered its epoch of historical decline, that it had become a barrier to the development of the productive forces, that it could not survive without successive holocausts, repeated and increasingly catastrophic mutilations. Whatever conflicting interests divided the bourgeoisie of a given country, the war forced all these factions to mobilize themselves in defence of their common heritage: the national capital and its highest representative, the state. This is why, in 1914, there appeared a phenomenon which had seemed impossible only shortly before: the union sacre, which bound together parties and organizations which had been fighting each other for decades. And though conflicts within the ruling class appeared during the war, they did not question the necessity to grab as much of the imperialist cake as possible; they arose only around the problems of how to go about this. Thus the bourgeois Provisional Government which took power after the February revolution did not abandon any of the objectives agreed upon in the diplomatic settlements between Tsarist Russia and the countries of the Entente. On the contrary, it was because it considered that the Tsarist regime was not conducting the war alongside France and England with sufficient determination, that the Tsar was being tempted to break his alliances and come to an agreement with Germany, that the faction of the bourgeoisie which dominated the Provisional Government helped to get rid of Nicholas II. If the October Revolution had really been a ‘bourgeois revolution’, with the aim of more effectively defending the national capital, it would not have immediately proclaimed the necessity for peace, published secret diplomatic agreements, renounced all the war aims which figured in them. On the contrary, it would have immediately taken the necessary measures to ensure a more efficient conduct of the war. If the Bolshevik Party had been a bourgeois party, it would not have been at the head of all the proletarian parties of the day, denouncing the imperialist war and calling upon the workers to put an end to it by making the socialist revolution. During an imperialist war, internationalism is not a secondary point for the workers’ movement. On the contrary it is the line of demarcation between the proletarian camp and the bourgeois camp. And this is only an illustration of a more general reality: internationalism belongs only to the working class. The proletariat is the only historic class which has no property of its own, and whose rule over society involves the disappearance of all forms of property. As such, it is the only class which can go beyond the territorial divisions (regional for the nobility, national for the bourgeoisie) which are the geo—political expression of the existence of property, the framework within which the ruling class protects and defends its property. And if the constitution of nations corresponded to the victory of the bourgeoisie over the nobility, the abolition of nations will only be brought about by the victory of the working class over the bourgeoisie.
This leads us to the second argument which councilism puts forward to show that the internationalism of the Bolsheviks was just a ‘tactic’: that it was a slogan which aimed to subordinate the world workers’ movement to a policy of defending the Russian state, and that the Communist International, from its foundation, was simply an instrument of Soviet diplomacy. This idea is also put forward by Guy Sabatier of the group Pour Une Intervention Communiste in the pamphlet Traite de Brest-Litovsk 1918, Coup d’Arrêt â la Revolution. For this comrade (who doesn’t fall into the Menshevism of the councilists concerning the ‘bourgeois’ nature of the Russian Revolution):
“The IIIrd International was conceived with the immediate perspective of def ending the Russian state in all countries, as a support to diplomacy of the usual kind.” (p.32).
And though he admits that:
“several texts reflect the thrust of the international proletarian movement, like for example, the Manifesto ‘To the Proletarians of the Whole World’ written by Trotsky.”
Sabatier considers that:
“The appeal ‘To the Workers of all Countries’ launched by the Congress was the most significant document concerning the real role this world organization was taking up behind a smokescreen of professions of communist faith: the workers were first and foremost called upon to give their unreserved support to the ‘struggle of the proletarian state encircled by capitalist states’; and in order to do this, they were to use all means to put pressure on their governments ‘including, if need be, revolutionary means (sic)’. What’s more, this appeal stressed the ‘gratitude’ that was owed to the ‘Russian revolutionary proletariat and its leading party, the communist party of the Bolsheviks’, thus preparing the ground for the ‘defence of the USSR’, the cult of the party-state.” (p.34)
When you want to kill a dog, first of all say that it’s got rabies! It’s somewhat curious to think that the “most significant document” concerning the real role of the CI was a simple memorandum which Sadoul brought to the Congress as the declaration of the French delegation; it is fraudulent to present this text as an “appeal launched by the Congress” because it wasn’t even submitted to ratification! Thus, it is through this quite secondary document that the CI is supposed to have revealed its essential task to the world proletariat: defending the Russian state. And yet the essential texts of the Congress (written by the Bolsheviks - the ‘Manifesto’ by Trotsky, ‘Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Proletarian Dictatorship’ by Lenin, the ‘Platform’ by Bukharin and Albert, the ‘Resolution on the Position with regard to Socialist Currents and the Berne Conference’ by Zinoviev) defended the following positions:
denunciation of the Socialist parties as agents of the bourgeoisie and the absolute necessity to break with them;
denunciation of all the democratic and parliamentary illusions weighing on the workers;
the necessity to violently destroy the capitalist state;
the seizure of power by the workers’ councils on a world scale and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
And in none of these texts can one find any trace of an appeal to ‘defend the USSR’, not because it would have been wrong to call on the workers of other countries to oppose the support their governments were giving to the White armies and their direct participation in the civil war, but quite simply because this was not the main function of the CI, which conceived itself as “the instrument for the international republic of open mass action, the International of revolutionary realization, the International of the deed” (‘Manifesto’). Perhaps it could be claimed that Sadoul was being ‘remote—controlled’ or ‘manipulated’ by the Bolsheviks, to show the workers their duty to ‘defend the USSR’, while they themselves took charge of creating the “smokescreen of professions of communist faith”. This would be further proof of the much—vaunted ‘duplicity’ of the Bolsheviks! But if such a hypothesis was true, it would still be necessary to explain why the Bolsheviks should have used such a ‘tactic’. If the real aim behind the foundation of the International was to mobilize the workers, behind the ‘defence of the USSR’, would not the best way to achieve this have been to insert the slogan in the official texts of the Congress and to put all their authority behind it (an authority which was considerable among the workers of the whole world)? Can one seriously think that such a slogan would have more impact on the proletarian masses if it appeared in an almost confidential manner in a secondary document presented by a militant who was not very well known and who even the official delegate (the representative of the Zimmerwald left was Cuilbeaux)? The poverty of these arguments is further proof of the inconsistency of the thesis that the Communist International was, from the beginning, an instrument of Russian capitalist diplomacy.
No, comrade Sabatier! No, dear Bolshevik—slayers! The CI was not bourgeois at its foundation. It became bourgeois. But, at the same time, it died as an International, because there can never be an International of the bourgeoisie. A bourgeois revolution has never given birth to an International: the ‘bourgeois’ revolution of 1917 would be the one exception, and since the councilists, like the Stalinists, say that the October Revolution was no different from the so-called Chinese ‘revolution’ of 1949 (see Theses on the Chinese Revolution by Cajo Brendel), they should explain to us why the latter didn’t give rise to a new International.
And if the CI, from the very beginning, was nothing but a capitalist institution, it has to be explained why all the living forces of the world proletariat were regrouped within it, including those elements who later became the communist left. Wasn’t the CI’s Bureau in Western Europe led by Pannekoek and his friends? How could a bourgeois organism secrete these communist fractions which, in the midst of the most terrible counter—revolution in history, were the only ones to carry on defending proletarian principles? Are we to imagine that during the great post—war revolutionary wave millions of worker’s in struggle, as well as all the most conscious and lucid militants of the workers’ movement, had simply come to the wrong door when they rallied to the Communist International? Councilism has an answer to these questions.
5. The ‘Machiavellianism’ of the Bolsheviks
“... the Bolsheviks have ... dropped slogans among the’ workers, e.g. that of the soviets. Determining for their tactic was merely the momentary success of a slogan which was by no means regarded as an obligation of principle on the part of the party with respect to the masses, but as a propagandistic means or a policy having for its final content the conquest of power by the organization.” (Thesis 31).
“The establishment of the Soviet state was the establishment of the rule of the party of Bolshevik Machiavellianism.” (Thesis 57).
Councilism didn’t invent this idea about the Machiavellianism of the Bolsheviks and of Lenin. The bourgeoisie invented it in 1917. After this, and following on from the anarchists, the councilists added their voices to the choir. Let’s say straight away that such a viewpoint betrays a policeman’s conception of history, characteristic of exploiting classes for whom any social movement is simply the product of ‘manipulations’ or ‘ringleaders’. This conception is so absurd from the marxist point of view (and the councilists call themselves marxists) that we will limit ourselves to a few quotations and a few facts about the actions of the Bolsheviks to show how invalid it is. Was it out of ‘demagogy’ or ‘Machiavellianism’ that Lenin declared in April 1917:
“Don’t believe in words. Don’t be beguiled by promises. Don’t overestimate your strength. Organize yourselves in every factory, in every regiment and company, in every neighbourhood. Work at organizing yourself day after day, hour after hour; work at it yourselves, because no—one can do it for you ... This is the essential content of all the decisions of our conference. This is the main lesson of the revolution. This is the main measure of success.
“Comrade workers, we call on you to begin a difficult, important, tireless work, which will have to unite the conscious, revolutionary proletariat of all countries. This is the only road which can lead anywhere, which can deliver humanity from the horrors of war and yoke of capital.” (Introduction to the Resolution of the Conference of April 1917, Works, vol.24)
“It is not a question of numbers, but of giving correct expression to the ideas and policies of the truly revolutionary proletariat ... It is better to remain with one friend only, like Liebknecht, (if) that means remaining with the revolutionary proletariat.” (The Tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution)
Not only did the Bolsheviks say that it was necessary to be able to remain isolated; they effectively did so every time the working class was mobilized on the terrain of the bourgeoisie.
But perhaps it was out of mere ‘demagogy’ that they found themselves alongside the class or at the head of the class when it was marching towards the revolution. All this was just ‘tactics’, and since 1903 they had been consistently deceiving everyone:
the Russian proletariat, so they could come to power;
the world proletariat, so that it could be used to defend this power;
the Russian peasants, who were given the land, the better to take it away from them afterwards;
the national minorities;
the Russian bourgeoisie;
the world bourgeoisie.
And in fact their ‘Machiavellianism’ was so great that they even achieved the tour de force of deceiving themselves ... Pannekoek discovered this when he wrote: “Lenin (who, however was a ‘pupil of Marx) never understood what marxism really was” (Lenin as Philosopher).
The Development of Consciousness in the Proletariat
We have not undertaken this defence of the proletarian character of the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution in order to piously honour their memory. It’s because the whole conception of them as a bourgeois party or a bourgeois revolution represents a break with marxism, the essential theoretical instrument of the class struggle without which the proletariat will never be able to overthrow capitalism. We’ve seen how the councilist or even the Bordigist conceptions of October 1917 lead to Menshevik or Stalinist aberrations. Similarly, any analysis of the Bolsheviks as a bourgeois party is a barrier to understanding the living process by which consciousness develops in the proletariat, a process which it is the task of revolutionaries to accelerate, deepen and generalize. In order to do this they must understand this process as clearly as possible.
To those who say that the October Revolution was proletarian but that the Bolshevik Party was bourgeois, or who say that both were bourgeois but are unable to deny that:
“The Russian Revolution was an important episode in the development of the working class movement. Firstly, as already mentioned, by the display of new forms of political strike, instruments of revolution. Moreover, in a higher degree, by the first appearance of new forms of self-organization of the fighting workers, known as soviets, i.e. councils.” (Pannekoek, Workers’ Councils)
To all these people, we pose this question: in an event so important for the life and struggle of the class, how was class consciousness expressed? Can it be that such an event wasn’t accompanied by any development of class consciousness? That the proletarian masses were on the move and giving rise to unprecedented forms of struggle and organization while suffering from the domination of bourgeois ideology in the same way as before? You only have to pose the question to see how absurd much an idea is. But then did this development of consciousness take place in total silence? In which militants, newspapers, and leaflets was it expressed? Was it generalized throughout the class by telepathy or by the mere addition of millions of identical individual experiences? Is it possible that all members and sectors of the working class evolved in a homogeneous, uniform manner? Obviously not! But then, is it possible that the most advanced elements and sectors remained isolated, atomized, without trying to regroup in order to deepen their positions and intervene actively in the struggle and the general process of coming to consciousness? Obviously not! Which organization or organizations (in addition to the councils which grouped the whole class and not only its most advanced elements) expressed this coming to consciousness and helped to enlarge and deepen it?
The Bolshevik Party? Some of the people who think that this was a bourgeois party, think that ‘even so’, or in a ‘deformed way’, it did express this consciousness. Such an analysis is untenable. Either this party was an emanation of capitalism, or it was an emanation of the working class, or of some other class in society. But if it really was an emanation of capitalism (in whatever form) it couldn’t at the same time express the life of its mortal enemy, the proletariat. It could not regroup the most conscious elements of the class, but only its most mystified members.
The anarchist current? This current was very divided and heterogeneous. There was a huge gulf between someone like Kropotkin, who called for a struggle against ‘Prussian barbarism’, and someone like Voline who remained an internationalist even at the worst moments of World War II. As a whole, unable to organize itself, divided into its individualist, syndicalist and communist varieties, and despite the important audience that it had, anarchism was either left behind events or, up to October 1917, followed an identical policy to that of the Bolsheviks. If the most conscious elements of the class could not regroup within the Bolshevik Party, it would have been even harder for them to have regrouped in the anarchist current.
The Left Social Revolutionaries? Here again, at its best, this current fought alongside the Bolsheviks: struggling against Kerensky’s Provisional Government, participating in the October insurrection, defending the soviet power. But it saw itself essentially as a defender of the small peasant and after 1917 it rapidly returned to where it had come from: terrorism. If the Bolsheviks weren’t militants of the working class, the Left Social Revolutionaries were even less.
Should we then look for the most advanced elements in the parties which participated in the bourgeois Provisional Government, the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks? Perhaps some councilists think that the latter were the clearest from the proletarian viewpoint, since they borrowed their analysis from them?
In fact the councilist analysis is completely incapable of replying to any of these questions; the only conclusion it can reach is that:
either the events of 1917 did not produce or express any development of consciousness in the class;
or that this consciousness remained completely dumb, atomized and ‘individual’.
But these are not the only aberrations the councilist analysis leads to. We’ve seen that this analysis ‘demonstrates’ the bourgeois character of the Bolshevik Party by showing that it defended bourgeois positions on certain questions:
the agrarian question
the national question
Although, as we have seen, councilism attributes to the Bolsheviks positions they never held (at least up till 1917 and during the first years of the revolution), although it sees behind these positions a coherence which is quite opposite to the one they really defended, it is necessary to recognize the errors of the Bolsheviks and not hide them, as do the Bordigists for example. The Bolsheviks themselves were the first to admit their errors when they became aware of them. But what councilism refuses to admit is precisely that these positions were errors; for them, they are simply an illustration of the ‘bourgeois nature’ of the Bolshevik Party.
Note the systematic bias of the councilists: when, on any given point, the Bolshevik Party had the most correct position from a proletarian standpoint (the break with social democracy, destruction of the capitalist state, power of the workers’ councils, internationalism) this was just ‘by chance’ or because of ‘tactics’. On the other hand, when they had a position which was less correct than that of other revolutionary currents of the time (agrarian question, national question); this is proof of their ‘bourgeois nature’. In fact, using the criteria of the councilists, you are led to the conclusion that all the proletarian parties of the time were part of the capitalist class.
For councilism, the IIIrd International, and the parties which belonged to it, were capitalist organs from the beginning. What then are to think about the IInd International? On the various incriminating points, did it have a better position than the IIIrd International or the Bolsheviks? On the national question for example, and in particular the Polish question which was at the centre of the controversy between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, what was its position? The answer is clear when we recall that Lenin based his position in this debate on the resolutions of the Congresses of the International, which Luxemburg had fought against so resolutely. On the seizure of power by the proletariat, the International considered that this was the task of the workers’ party: Lenin (or Luxemburg) didn‘t invent anything here. On the other hand the Socialist parties weren’t all that clear about the need to destroy the capitalist state. We could give many more examples to show that the erroneous positions of the Bolsheviks were simply an inheritance from the 2nd International. Therefore, following the councilists’ analysis, this International was also a bourgeois organ: poor old Engels, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Pannekoek, and Gorter, who spent so many years as militants inside an institution for defending capitalism. What’s more, it’s hard to see why the 1st International was any more ‘working class’ than the one which followed it. Perhaps the presence within it of positivists, Proudhonists, Mazzinists gave it that breath of proletarian air which its successors lacked? Or should we go back to the Communist League to find a real proletarian current? Some councilists actually have this idea. We would recommend to them a re-reading of the 1848 Manifesto. They might get a shock to find that the class and the party are identified with each other and that the programme of concrete measures it puts forward bear a strong resemblance to state capitalism. In the end, the councilists’ analysis leads to the interesting discovery that there has never been an organized workers’ movement. Or rather that such a movement only began with them. And further, there have never been any revolutionaries before them either. Marx and Engels? They were just bourgeois democrats. How else can you explain Engels’ position on the conquest of power through parliament in his 1895 introduction to The Class Struggle in France, or Marx’s speech on the same theme at the Hague Congress of 1872, or Marx’s telegram of congratulation to Lincoln, or the attitude of Marx and Engels during the 1848 revolution, when they moved away from the Communist League and got mixed up in Rhenan’s democratic movement ...?
As with the Bordigists for whom there has been an ‘invariant’, ‘immutable’ programme since 1848, the councilist analysis is completely ahistorical because it refuses to admit that the consciousness and political positions of the proletariat are the product of its historical experience. The idea that any error, any bourgeois position held by a proletarian organization means that it is part of the capitalist class, presupposes the absurd idea that communist consciousness can exist straight away in a fully formed manner. This is completely alien to the marxist viewpoint. Class consciousness is the result of a long process of maturation in which theoretical reflection and practice are intimately linked, and in which the workers’ movement stammers and struggles forward, stops, re—examines itself:
“...proletarian revolutions...criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, the weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible...” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).
Expressions of the disarray of a communist current during the most terrible counter-revolution in history, the councilist conceptions today seem to have become a refuge for sceptical academics (is it by chance that councilists like Paul Mattick, Cajo Brendel or Maximilien Rubel seem more interested in writing, conferences or marxology than in animating communist political groups?). There’s nothing unusual in this: isn’t it typical of academic mandarins to have this attitude of judging history, of sitting in a high throne and, on the basis of a posteriori criteria, retrospectively condemning the errors or inadequacies of the proletariat and of revolutionaries, instead of drawing lessons from the past in order to fortify the struggle in the future? Councilism ‘discovered’ that the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party were bourgeois after the event, using criteria established a posteriori and largely thanks to the experience of this ‘bourgeois’ October Revolution.
We’ve seen in this article and in other published in our International Review (especially ‘The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution’ in no.3) that the existence of a capitalist regime in the USSR today can in no way be deduced from the backward state of the country in 1917, nor from the policies carried out by the Bolsheviks once they were in power, even though both have influenced the specific form capitalism has assumed in Russia and its ideological justification. We have seen that the degeneration and failure of the revolution were not the result of the lack of ‘objective material conditions’: the latter existed because capitalism as a whole had entered its epoch of decline. The causes of the failure of the revolution reside in the immaturity of the ‘subjective conditions’ i.e. the level of consciousness in the proletariat. Does this mean that the proletariat was premature to embark upon the revolution in Russia, that the Bolsheviks were wrong to push the class in this direction?
Only academic philistines and reformists could answer yes. Revolutionaries can only answer no. First because the only criteria for judging the level of consciousness in the class, its ability to face up to a situation, are the action and practice of the class itself. And second because this level of consciousness can only be modified in action and through action, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in her polemic against Bernstein:
“It will be impossible to avoid the ‘premature’ conquest of state power by the proletariat precisely because these ‘premature’ attacks of the proletariat constitute a factor, and indeed a very important factor, creating the political conditions for the final victory. In the course of the political crisis accompanying its seizure of power, in the course of the long and stubborn struggles, the proletariat will acquire the degree of political maturity permitting it to obtain in time a definitive victory of the revolution. Thus these ‘premature’ attacks of the proletariat against the state power are in themselves important historic factors helping to provoke and determine the point of the definite victory. Considered from this viewpoint, the idea of a ‘premature’ conquest of political power by the labouring class appears to be a political absurdity derived from a mechanical conception of the development of society, and positing for the victory of the class struggle a point fixed outside and independent of the class struggle.” (Reform or Revolution)
The only way the ‘premature’ seizure of power by the proletariat in 1917, its experiences and errors (and thus those of Bolshevism) can be “an important factor of its final victory” is for the proletariat and above all the revolutionaries of today, to make a ruthless critique of these experiences and errors. One of the first to do this, even before the future councilists, was Rosa Luxemburg in her pamphlet Russian Revolution. But this means we have to adopt the same attitude as hers against all the detractors of the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks:
“To those who ... shower calumnies on the Russian Bolsheviks, we should never cease to reply with the question: ‘where did you learn the alphabet of your revolution? Was it not from the Russians that you learned to ask for workers’ and soldiers’ councils?” (Speech at the Founding Congress of the KPD)
“Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honour and capacity which western social democracy lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism.”
“... 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 problem of the realization 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.” (Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution)
See: ‘The Epigones of Councilism’, International Review no.2; ‘The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution’ and ‘The Lessons of Kronstadt’, IR no.3; ‘Platform of the ICC’, IR no.5; ‘Contributions on Period of Transition’, no.6; ‘The Communist Left in Russia’ IR nos. 8 & 9; ‘Texts on the Period of Transition’, IR no.11. Back
Preface to Selected Works of Lenin by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism (Central Committee of the CPSU). Back
See the following articles: ‘Degeneration of the Russian Revolution’, International Review no.3 and ‘The Communist Left in Russia’, IR nos. 8 & 9. Back
See the ICC pamphlet ‘The Decadence of Capitalism’ and other ICC texts. Back
Of course some brave spirits think that the proletariat cannot make any concessions once it has taken power (c.f. the pamphlet by Guy Sabatier Brest-Litovsk 1918, Coup d’Arrêt â la Revolution). But unfortunately for these ‘pure’ hardliners, reality will rarely conform to the will of revolutionaries. In reality, we are dealing with a world where, for most countries, more than one quarter of production is destined for export to foreign markets, and an equivalent proportion of the economy is dependent on imported goods. In these conditions, to refuse to make any concessions in principle would mean for example, that the English proletariat would die of hunger a month after seizing power, since the population cannot be supported by British agriculture alone. It is likely that capitalism would attempt to overthrow the victorious proletariat in a single country through starvation and blockade, and it is not impossible that it could succeed if it was allowed to do so by the workers in other countries. But this does not mean that, for the sake of absurd principles, the proletariat should choose suicide rather than accepting indispensable goods from this or that country which chooses to put its own immediate commercial interests above those of class solidarity with world capitalism. Back