October 1917: reply to the GPRC

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Presentation of the GPRC’s text

Why, 80 years after the October revolution, does capitalism still dominate the world”. To reply to this question, according to the GPRC, it is necessary to use the method of historical materialism and pose another question: “was the level of the development of productive forces of mankind (first of all in the most highly-developed countries) in the 19th - first half of 20th centuries sufficient to make proletarians capable to organise the ruling over production, distribution & exchange by all the society as a whole?

In other words “had the process of the capitalist production disciplined, united, organised the working class before the beginning of the 20th century sufficiently to make it capable not only to ‘expropriate the expropriators’ - take away the means of production from the capitalists - but also to keep them in its hands, organise the ruling over economics and not lose the control over the leaders, not let leaders become new exploiters?

The GPRC invites us to understand the characteristics of the working class in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, imprinted on it by the process of production: It “practised associated labour” but “To lead all the labour-process of the factory as a whole, somebody which stands over the workers & manages them is necessary. It doesn’t mean that industrial & agricultural workers before the 2nd half of the 20th century never, nowhere & in no cases had interacted in the process of ruling their labour.” Such relations are characterised first and foremost “inter-contacts, but by solitude of workers which rule their operations, in their inter-relations … Manufacture, and later - large machine industry cooperate labour-process, but don’t unite workers in collective … So, workers, which are not united in collective, can`t elaborate ruling decisions. May be, they could if only control their leaders, elect them & change, & those elections not should be only decoration, behind of which the leaders` manipulation over subordinates is hiding?”

For the GPRC, the basic problem is the following: “the more people collect themselves in a group, the more difficult them to communicate with each other & the more time they must give to try discuss and solve their problems. To overcome this barrier, such technical means are necessary which allow very many people to receive the same information, change information & make common decisions in so short terms as those which are necessary for several people to do all it without any technical means. At the 19th - the 1st half of 20th centuries the development of the production forces still had not given such means for people. But without them the workers` control over leadership & the self-governing of labourers on the whole are possible just on the level of very little enterprises…

The GPRC cites Lenin in State and Revolution:

The workers, after winning political power, will smash the old bureaucratic apparatus, shatter it to its very foundations, and raze it to the ground; they will replace it by a new one, consisting of the very same workers and other employees, against whose transformation into bureaucrats the measures will at once be taken which were specified in detail by Marx and Engels: (1) not only election, but also recall at any time; (2) pay not to exceed that of a workman; (3) immediate introduction of control and supervision by all, so that all may become ‘bureaucrats’ for a time and that, therefore, nobody may be able to become a ‘bureaucrat’

But for the GPRC, although these measures are valid, they can have no real effect in the conditions of the development of the productive forces at the time of the Russian revolution. This changed in the second half of the 20th century because of the qualitatively new level of the development of the productive forces, which allowed in particular for the computerisation of production, a far more rapid way of dealing with an important mass of information coming from the great mass of workers; it meant that the analysis of this information could be disseminated among all the workers, and this could be repeated as often as necessary in order to arrive at a synthesis of individual opinions and elaborate the final decision.

The computer is what can unite workers practising associated labour in a collective whole….”. The more their work is computerised the more they can take collective decisions and the easier it is for them to control the leaders who remain necessary to coordinate actions and decisions, in cases where the collective can’t do this itself

When humanity will enter again into the period of great social shocks, similar to the 1st half of the 20th century… much will repeat itself - the treachery of many workers` leaders and organisations which enjoyed the trust of proletarian masses before it, and the defeat of the revolutionary movement in many countries.The objective causes which caused such phenomena 70 - 80 years ago, are still actual today, and any kind of lectures about ‘lessons of history’ read to workers can’t remove their effect”.

Computer systems can’t create socialism just by themselves. The world proletarian revolution is necessary for transition of mankind to socialism. But proletarian revolution can become world & socialist only in the epoch of computers & computer systems. Such is the dialectics of the transition to socialism”.

ICC reply

The GPRC poses a vital question: “why 80 years after the October revolution, does capital still dominate the world?” And to reply, there is indeed no other method than historical materialism.[1]

The aim of the proletarian revolution is to replace relations of production based on scarcity with relations of production based on abundance. It is therefore necessary for capitalism to have sufficiently developed the productive forces to make it possible to lay down the material conditions for such a transformation of society. This is the first condition for the victory of the proletarian revolution; the second is provided by the development of an open crisis of bourgeois society, proving that capitalist relations of production need to be replaced by other relations of production.

Revolutionaries have always paid particular attention to the evolution of the life of capitalism in order to evaluate whether the level attained by the development of the productive forces, and the insurmountable contradictions resulting from this development, permit the victory of the communist revolution. In 1852, Marx and Engels recognised that the conditions for the proletarian revolution were not yet ripe at the time of the revolutionary upsurges of 1848 and that capitalism still had to go through a whole process of development for this to be the case. In 1864, when they took part in the foundation of the International Workingmen’s Association, they thought that the hour of the revolution was nigh, but even before the Paris Commune of 1871, they realised that the proletariat was not yet ready because capitalism still had an enormous capacity for the development of its economy.

Thus, the two revolutions which had taken place up to that point, 1848 and the Commune, failed because the material conditions for the victory of the proletariat did not exist. It was during the course of the period that followed, which saw the most powerful development of capitalism in its entire history, that the conditions really did begin to ripen. At the end of the 19th century, the whole of the non-capitalist world had been divided up among the old bourgeois nations. From now on, for each one of them to gain access to new outlets and territories they had to muscle in on their rival’s spheres of influence. At the same time as a growth in military tensions, fuelled behind the scene by the great powers, the latter began to arm themselves to the teeth. This rise in imperialist tensions and militarism prepared the conditions for the outbreak of the First World War, and with it the outbreak of the revolutionary crisis of society. The first imperialist world butchery of 1914-18, as well as the international revolutionary wave which arose in reaction to this barbarism, demonstrated that the objective conditions for the revolution had now been established. For the proletarian vanguard at the time of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave, the First World War marked the historical bankruptcy of the capitalist system and its entry into its phase of decadence, signifying clearly that the only possible alternative for society from now on was “socialism or barbarism”.

Despite the evidence of this fundamental change in the world situation, the GPRC thinks that the capitalist system still had a progressive role to play in aiding the maturation of the conditions for the revolution. For the GPRC, it was still necessary for capitalism to permit the invention of the computer and to generalise its use, because this is the only thing that can counter the tendency for leaders to betray the workers, a betrayal which is seen as the main reason for the failure of the Russian revolution. Thanks to this formidable technological progress, which makes it possible to “synthesise” the opinion of a considerable number of workers, the latter will finally be able to do without representatives in the taking of decisions. Before stopping to consider this singular explanation for the failure of the Russian revolution, we have to point to a problem of method which derives precisely from an inadequate application of historical materialism

The 80 years and more which have passed since the failure of the revolutionary wave have shown that not only has the prolongation of capitalism’s death-agony not created better conditions for the revolution, but, on the contrary, the material conditions for such a society have become increasingly fragile, as is shown by the present situation of chaos and generalised decomposition across the planet. The revolutionary proletariat will be able to take many inventions realised under capitalism, including those developed in its decadent phase, and use them in the interests of the revolution and the liberation of the human species. This applies to the computer and many others. Nevertheless, however important such discoveries have been, their existence should not obscure the real dynamic of decadent capitalism, which is leading towards the ruin of civilisation. If the first revolutionary wave had succeeded in defeating the bourgeoisie not only would this have spared humanity from the worst epoch of barbarism in the whole of history, but it would also have allowed for inventions which would have enabled mankind to free itself from the reign of necessity; and alongside such developments the current computer would have looked like a prehistoric tool.

The living experience of the revolution, seen in all its true grandeur, refutes the GPRC’s theory of the inevitable betrayal of the leaders. In the ascendant phase of the revolution, the workers councils, with their system of elected and recallable delegates, showed that they were the organs par excellence that allowed the proletariat to develop its struggle both on the economic and political levels, that they constituted the “finally discovered for of the proletarian dictatorship”. The movement gave rise to proletarian leaders who expressed and defended, with courage and abnegation, the general interests of the proletariat. As for the party it did nothing less than put itself at the head of the revolution, to guide it towards victory in Russia while working for the extension of the world revolution, particularly at its most decisive point - Germany.

The world revolutionary wave receded as a result of a series of major defeats for the proletariat, not least the crushing of the uprising of January 1919 in Berlin. Isolated, exhausted by civil war, the Russian revolution could only perish and this is effectively what happened, with the extinction of the power of the workers’ councils and of all proletarian life within them, the process of bureaucratisation and the rise of Stalinism in Russia and the Bolshevik party in particular. In this counter-revolutionary process, many former revolutionaries betrayed and joined the ranks of Stalinism; workers placed in positions of responsibility in the state became servile defenders of the interests of the bureaucracy or even outright members of it.

Betrayals of the proletarian cause by its leaders, by organisations which had thitherto been proletarian, is not a specificity of the period of the reflux of the international revolutionary wave; it is a basic given of the historic combat of the working class. It is the consequence of a growing opportunism towards the ideology of the ruling class, leading to complete capitulation in front of it. Nevertheless, in the face of opportunism, such an outcome is not fixed in advance and is not dependent on whether or not the proletariat can use computers. It depends on the general balance of forces between the classes, as has been illustrated, in opposite directions, by the upsurge and then the reflux of the revolutionary wave. But it also depends on the intransigent political combat which revolutionaries are able to wage against all the manifestations of concessions to bourgeois ideology.

The tasks which the proletariat and its revolutionary minorities faced at the beginning of the century were huge. They had to fight the growing opportunism within the Second International, the result of which was the passage of most of its parties into the camp pf the bourgeoisie at the decisive moment of the world imperialist war. At the same time those revolutionaries who remained loyal to marxism and the historic struggle of the proletariat had to understand, and get their class to understand, nothing less than the implications for the class struggle of the dawn of a new epoch – the entry of capitalism into decadence. If the revolutionary wave was defeated, it was to a large extent because the working class at the time had not understood in a broad and deep enough way that its former parties had gone over to the enemy and had become spearheads of reaction against the revolution, that the trade unions had become organs of the capitalist state in the workers’ ranks; and it was also because the world party of the revolution, the Communist International, had appeared on the scene too late. It was thus the subjective conditions of the revolution which weren’t ripe, not the objective conditions. Hence the importance of the political combat for the generalisation of lessons drawn by generations of revolutionaries about what remains the greatest experience the proletariat has ever been through.

It is also the case that the weight of hierarchy on the brains of the living cannot be fought outside the struggle for the abolition of classes and can only disappear totally when a communist society has been created. The division of labour is not a characteristic unique to class societies. It existed in the societies of primitive communism and it will exist in developed communist society. It is not the division of labour which engenders hierarchy; it is class society which imposes a hierarchical character on the division of labour, making it a way of dividing the exploited and ensuring the domination of the ruling class. The problem with the contribution of the GPRC is precisely that by polarising around the problem of hierarchy seen in itself, outside of any consideration of class antagonisms, it situates itself outside the field of political combat.

In fact, the GPRC is desperately looking for a purely technical solution to a problem which is fundamentally political and which the living experience of the working class had already solved, even before the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, with the first appearance of the soviets in 1905. Discussions in such workers’ assemblies don’t have the aim of “democratically” drawing out an average opinion based on a synthesis of all the individual opinions of the workers. They are on the contrary an indispensable means for debate and political combat, enabling the mass of workers to advance away from the influence of the left and extreme left of the bourgeoisie. In taking decisions and electing delegates it’s not a question of each worker working alone in front of a computer screen, but of voting with raised hands in general assemblies alongside their comrades in the struggle. This is the basic mode of operation for all workers’ assemblies from the lowest to the highest level of centralisation. The GPRC’s recipe is the antithesis of this kind of unitary organ of the working class and can only lead to the negation of the values the proletariat needs to develop in its struggle: confidence in your class comrades and in your elected delegates; creative activity through collective and contradictory discussion. In fact the GPRC is mixing up two ideas: consciousness and knowledge. For the workers to become conscious, they need a certain amount of knowledge: in particular, they have to know about the world in which they are waging their struggle, the enemy they are fighting in all its many guises (official bourgeoisie, state, forces of repression, but also unions and left parties), the goals and means of this struggle. However, consciousness can by no means be reduced to knowledge: in general, a university specialist in history, sociology or economics will have much more knowledge of these subjects than a conscious revolutionary worker. However, his class prejudices, his adherence to the ideals of the ruling class, prevent him from using this knowledge in the interests of a real consciousness. By the same token, what allows workers to become conscious is not an excess of knowledge as such, but above all their ability to free themselves from the grip of the dominant ideology. And this capacity is not acquired in front of a computer screen displaying all the statistics in the world, or all possible and imaginable syntheses. It is acquired through the experience of the class, past and present, through action and collective debate. All things to which the specific contribution of the computer is minimal, in any case less than the press which the working class already had at its disposal in the 19th century.

The GPRC argues that it is useless to go back to the lessons of history to understand the defeat of the Russian revolution. It would be the worst thing for the proletariat if it was to turn away from the essential lessons bequeathed to it by the Russian revolution[2] above all concerning the conditions for its degeneration, because these lessons are a vital contribution to the capacity of the next revolutionary wave to overcome capitalism:

- isolated in one proletarian bastion, the revolution is doomed;

- the state of the period of transition, or semi-state, which will inevitably arise after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, has an essentially conservative function of guaranteeing the cohesion of society, within which class antagonisms still exist.[3] Thus, it’s not an emanation of the proletariat and cannot be the instrument for the forward march towards communism. This role falls exclusively to the working class organised in workers’ councils, and to its vanguard party. Furthermore, in periods of reflux in the class struggle, this state will tend to fully express its intrinsically reactionary nature against the interests of the revolution;

- this is why the identification between the workers’ councils and the state can only result in the proletariat losing its class autonomy;

- for the same reason the identification between the party and the state can only lead to the party losing its essential role as the political vanguard of the proletariat and to its transformation into an organ of state management. The fact that the Bolshevik party fell into this situation led to it carrying out the repression of Kronstadt, a tragedy for the proletariat, and to gradually embodying the rising counter-revolution.

ICC

[1] For our part, we have already devoted an article to this question, called “At the dawn of the 21st century, why has the proletariat still not overthrown capitalism?” in International Reviews n· 103 and 104.

[2] One of the most important expressions of proletarian reaction against the counter-revolution was the publication of Bilan, organ of the Italian Communist Left in the 1930s. Bilan’s main activity was precisely one of drawing the lessons of the first revolutionary wave. The programmatic positions of the ICC are to large extent the product of this work. The ICC has also devoted a number of articles to the Russian revolution in this Review, n· 71,72,75,89,90 , 91 and 92

[3] See our pamphlet The State in the Period of Transition.