What are workers' councils? (Part 5) 1917 – 1921: The soviets and the question of the state

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In the previous article in this series we saw how the soviets, having seized power in October 1917, gradually lost it to the point where it was no more than a facade, kept alive artificially to hide the triumph of the capitalist counter-revolution that had taken place in Russia. The aim of this article is to understand what caused this to happen and to draw lessons that will be indispensable for revolutionaries in the future.

The nature of the state born out of revolution

Marx and Engels, analysing the Paris Commune of 1871, drew some lessons on the question of the state that we can summarise here:

1) It is necessary to destroy the bourgeois state apparatus from top to bottom;

2) The state will re-emerge after the revolution and there are two main reasons for this:

a) the bourgeoisie has not yet been completely defeated and eradicated;

b) non-exploiting classes (petty bourgeoisie, peasantry, those on the fringes of society...) whose interests do not coincide with those of the proletariat, will still remain in the transitional society.

This article does not aim to analyse the nature of the new state;[1] however to illustrate the subject we are dealing with, we must show that while the new state is not identical to those that preceded it in history, it still retains characteristics that constitute an obstacle to the development of the revolution; which is why, as Engels had already pointed out and as Lenin had made clear in State and Revolution, the proletariat must on the very day of the revolution begin the process of eliminating the new state.

After taking power, the main obstacle that the soviets would run into in Russia was the newly emerged state, which “despite the appearance of its greater material power [...] was a thousand times more vulnerable to the enemy than other working class organs. Indeed, the state owes its greater physical power to objective factors which correspond perfectly with the interests of the exploiting classes but can have no association with the revolutionary role of the proletariat[2]; “The terrible threat of a return to capitalism will come mainly in the state sector. This, all the more so as capitalism is found here in its impersonal, so to speak, ethereal form. Statification can help to conceal a long-term process opposed to socialism.”[3]

In the previous article, we described the factors that contributed to the weakening of the soviets: civil war, famine, the general chaos in the whole economy, the exhaustion and the gradual decomposition of the working class, etc. The “silent conspiracy” of the soviet state, which would also contribute in weakening the soviets, operated in three ways:

1) the growing weight of the state institutions par excellence: the army, the Cheka (political police) and the unions;

2) the “inter-classism” of the soviets and the growing bureaucratisation that it gave rise to, and

3) the gradual absorption of the Bolshevik Party into the state. We dealt with the first point in the previous article; this article will focus on the last two.

The relentless strengthening of the state

The soviet state excluded the bourgeoisie but was not exclusively the state of the proletariat. It included non-exploiting classes such as the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and the various middle strata. These classes tended to defend their own narrow interests, which inevitably placed obstacles on the road to communism. This unavoidable “interclassism” was a key factor driving the new state, a process which would be denounced by the Workers’ Opposition in 1921: it meant that the “the Soviet policy had different goals and had a distorted relationship with the working class[4] and it became the breeding ground of the state bureaucracy.

Shortly after October, former Tsarist officials began occupying positions in the soviet institutions, especially when quick decisions were needed to deal with urgent problems. Thus, for example, faced with the impossibility of organising the supply of essential goods in February 1918, the People’s Commissariat had to resort to using commissions that had been established by the former Provisional Government. The members agreed on condition that they did not have to rely on the Bolsheviks, which the latter accepted. Similarly, in reorganising the education system in 1918-19, former Tsarist officials had to be called on, and they would gradually amend the proposed school curriculum.

In addition, the best proletarian elements were gradually converted into bureaucrats remote from the masses. The imperatives of the war drew many leading workers into playing the role of political commissars, inspectors or military leaders. The most able workers took the leading role in the economic administration. The former imperial bureaucrats and those newly arriving from the proletariat formed a bureaucratic layer that identified with the state. But this organ had its own logic, and its siren song managed to seduce such experienced revolutionaries as Lenin and Trotsky.

The former officials from the bourgeois elite were imbued with this logic, and they penetrated the soviet fortress through the door that the new state opened to them: But thousands of those who, through custom and culture, were more or less closely attached to the expropriated bourgeoisie were very soon offered the opportunity to re-enter the ‘revolutionary stronghold’ - by the back door as it were - and to resume their role as managers of the labour process in the ‘Workers’ State’.... Many were soon to be appointed (from above) to leading positions in the economy. Merging with the new political-administrative ‘elite’, of which the Party itself formed the nucleus, the more ‘enlightened’ and technologically skilled sections of the ‘expropriated class’ soon resumed dominant positions in the relations of production.[5]. As the Soviet historian Kritsman points out, “in their administrative work the representatives of the old intelligentsia showed off-handedness and hostility towards the public.[6]

But the main danger came from the state machine itself, with its increasing but imperceptible weight of inertia. As a consequence of this, even the most dedicated public servants tended to become detached from, and were distrusted by, the masses, adopting expedient methods, imposing unwanted measures, and carrying out duties affecting thousands of people as nothing more than administrative tasks, ruling by decrees. “The party, turning from the task of destruction to that of administration, discovers the virtues of law and order and of submission to the rightful authority of the revolutionary power.[7]

The bureaucratic logic of the state suited the bourgeoisie perfectly; as an exploitative class, it can safely delegate power to a specialised body of professional politicians and officials. But it is fatal for the proletariat to put its trust in specialists at any time; it must learn directly from its mistakes and by taking decisions and putting them into practice itself it will begin to transform itself in the process. The logic of proletarian power is not in delegating power, but in direct involvement in exercising it.

The revolution in Russia was faced with a dilemma in April 1918: the world revolution had not advanced and the imperialist invasion threatened to crush the soviet bastion. The whole country had descended into chaos, “the administrative and economic organisation was running down at an alarming rate. The danger to the revolution came not from organised resistance, but from a breakdown of all authority. The appeal in State and Revolution to ‘smash the bourgeois state machine’ now seemed singularly out of date; that part of the revolutionary programme had succeeded beyond all expectations.[8]

The soviet state was faced with taking some drastic decisions: to quickly get the Red Army on its feet, to organise transport, to boost production, to guarantee food supplies to the hungry cities, to organise social life. All this had to be sorted out against the total sabotage by the entrepreneurs and managers that would lead to the widespread confiscation of industries, banks, shops, etc. It presented the soviet power with an additional challenge. A heated debate unfolded inside the party and the soviets. Everyone was in favour of militarily and economic resistance up until the proletarian revolution broke out in the other countries, principally Germany. The disagreement was about how to organise resistance: was it by strengthening the state machinery or by improving the organisation and capabilities of the working masses? Lenin led those who defended the first solution while some tendencies on the left of the Bolshevik Party defended the second.

In his pamphlet The Immediate Tasks of Soviet Power, Lenin argues that “the primary task facing the revolution [...] was the task of... rebuilding a shattered economy, of imposing labour discipline and raising productivity, of ensuring strict accounting and control over production and distribution, eliminating corruption and waste and, perhaps above all, of struggling against the ubiquitous petty-bourgeois mentality [...] He did not hesitate to make use of what he himself termed bourgeois methods, including the use of bourgeois technical specialists [...] the recourse to piece work; the adoption of the ‘Taylor system’ [...] He therefore called for 'one-man management.’[9]

Why did Lenin favour this approach? The first reason was inexperience: soviet power was confronted in effect with huge and urgent tasks without being able to draw on any experience, and without this it was not possible to carry out any theoretical reflection on these matters. The second reason was the desperate and intolerable situation we have described. But we must also consider Lenin in turn to be a victim of the statist and bureaucratic logic, emerging bit by bit as its spokesman. This logic led him to put his trust in the old technicians, administrators and officials trained under capitalism and, moreover, in the unions who were responsible for disciplining workers, stifling independent initiatives and demonstrations by workers, imposing the capitalist division of labour and the narrow corporatist mentality that goes with it.

The oppositionists on the left denounced the idea that “The form of state control of enterprises must develop in the direction of bureaucratic centralisation, of rule by various commissars, of deprivation of independence from local Soviets and of rejection in practice of the type of ‘Commune-State’ ruled from below [...] The introduction of labour discipline in connection with the restoration of capitalist leadership in production cannot essentially increase the productivity of labour, but it will lower the class autonomy, activity and degree of organisation of the proletariat”.[10]

The Workers’ Opposition complained that: “given the disastrous state of our economy that still relies on the capitalist system (paid wages, different rates, labour categories, etc.), the elites in our party distrust the creative capacity of the workers, and are seeking salvation from the economic chaos with the heirs of the old capitalists, businessmen and technicians whose creative ability is corrupted in economic affairs by routine, habit and methods and management of the capitalist mode of production.”[11]

Far from withering away, the state power grew alarmingly: “A ‘white’ professor who reached Omsk in the autumn of 1919 from Moscow reported thatat the head of many of the centres and glavki sit former employers and responsible officials and managers of business. The unprepared visitor to the centres who is personally acquainted with the former commercial and industrial world would be surprised to see the former owners of big leather factories sitting in Glavkozh, big manufacturers in the Central textile organisations, etc.’[12] In March 1919, during a debate of the Petrograd Soviet, Lenin admitted: “We threw out the old bureaucrats, but they have come back, they call themselves ‘commonists’ when they can’t bear to say the word Communist, and they wear a red ribbon in their buttonholes and creep into warm places.[13]

The growth of the soviet bureaucracy finally overpowered the soviets. There were 114,259 employees in June 1918, 529,841 one year later, and 5.82 million in December 1920! “State interest” was relentlessly enforced over the revolutionary struggle for communism, “the general concerns of the state began to override the interests of the working class.[14]

The absorption of the Bolshevik Party into the state

The strengthening of the state led to the absorption of the Bolshevik Party. It had not a priori anticipated this conversion into a state party. According to figures from February 1918, the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks only had six administrative employees against 65 for the Council of Commissars, while the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow had more than 200. “The Bolshevik organisations were financially dependent on the help given them by the local Soviet institutions: generally speaking, such dependence was complete. It was even possible for prominent Bolsheviks, such as Preobrazhensky, to suggest that the Party should dissolve itself completely in the Soviet apparatus.” The anarchist Leonard Schapiro acknowledged that “the best of the Party cadres had been integrated in the apparatus, both central and local, of the soviets”. Many Bolsheviks felt that local committees of the Bolshevik party were nothing more than propaganda sections of the local Soviets[15]. The Bolsheviks even had doubts about their ability to exercise power at the head of the soviets. “In the aftermath of the October insurrection, when the Soviet government was being formed, Lenin had a momentary hesitation before accepting his post of chairman of the Soviet of People’s Commissars. His political intuition told him that this would put a brake on his capacity to act in the vanguard of the vanguard – to be on the left of the revolutionary party, as he had been so clearly between April and October 1917[16]. Lenin feared, not without reason, that if the party and its leading members were involved in the daily running of the Soviet government, they would find themselves trapped by the system and lose sight of the global goals of the proletarian movement that cannot be linked to the daily management of state affairs.[17]

The Bolsheviks didn’t want to monopolise power and shared the first Council of People’s Commissars with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. Some of the sessions of this Council were even open to delegates from the Menshevik Internationalists and the anarchists.

The government only became definitively Bolshevik in July 1918, the date of the uprising of the Socialist Revolutionaries against the creation of poor peasants committees: “On July 6, two young Chekist members of the Left Socialist Revolutionary party, and major players in the conspiracy, A. Andreyev and G. Blumkin, appeared at the German Embassy and provided official documents attesting to their status and their mission. Admitted into the office of Ambassador, Count von Mirbach, they shot him and fled. In the aftermath, a detachment of Chekists commanded by a Left Socialist Revolutionary, Popov, would make a series of surprise arrests, including those of the leaders of the Cheka, Dzerzhinsky and Latsis, the chairman of the Moscow Soviet, Smidovitch, and People’s Commissar for the Post, Podbielsky. He also seized the headquarters of the Cheka and the Central Post Office Building.”[18]

As a consequence of this, the party was then invaded by all sorts of opportunists and careerists, former tsarist officials or leading Menshevik converts. Nogin, an old Bolshevik, “spoke ofhorrifying facts about the drunkenness, debauchery, corruption, robbery and irresponsible behaviour of many party workers, so that one’s hair simply stands on end.’[19] In March 1918, before the Party Congress, Zinoviev told the story of the militant who welcomed a new member and told him to come back the next day to collect his membership card; to this he replied “No, comrade, I need it now to get an office job.

As Marcel Liebman noted, “If so many men who were communists in name only tried to enter the ranks of the party, it was because it was now the central power, the most influential institution in social and political life, one that united the new elite, appointed the managers and leaders and was the instrument and channel of upward social mobility and success” and he added that “the privileges of the middle and junior management raised protests in the party ranks[20], when all this is quite normal and commonplace in a bourgeois party.

The party then attempted to fight this influx by carrying out numerous purges. But this would prove to be ineffectual because the measures did not address the root of the problem as the merger of the party with the state was being strengthened inexorably. This danger was also contained in a similar way in the identification of the party with the Russian nation. The proletarian party is indeed international and its section in one or more countries where the proletariat is in control of an isolated bastion can in no way identify with the nation, but only and exclusively with the world revolution.

The transformation of Bolshevism into a party-state was eventually theorised by the argument that the party exercises power on behalf of the class, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the dictatorship of the party,[21] which theoretically and politically disarmed it, completing its surrender into the arms of the state. In one of its resolutions, the 8th Party Congress (March 1919) agreed that the party must “win individual political sway in the soviets and effective control over all their activities.[22] The resolution was implemented in the following months with the formation of party cells in all the soviets to control them. Kamenev declared that “the Communist Party is the government of Russia. The country is ruled by the 600,000 party members.[23] The icing on the cake was provided by Zinoviev at the 2nd Congress of the Communist International (1920) when he declared that “every conscious worker must realise that the dictatorship of the working class can be realised only through the dictatorship of its vanguard, that is, through the Communist Party[24] and by Trotsky at the Tenth Party Congress (1921), who stated in a reply to the Workers’ Opposition:They have come out with dangerous slogans. They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the Party. As if the Party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy!” Trotsky spoke of therevolutionary historical birthright of the Party”'. “'The Party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship ... regardless of temporary vacillations even in the working class... The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy…[25]

The proletariat had lost the Bolshevik Party as its vanguard. No longer was the state made to serve the proletariat; the state used the party as its battering ram against the proletariat. This is how the Platform of Fifteen, an opposition group that emerged within the Bolshevik Party in the late 1920s, denounced it: “The bureaucratisation of the party, the degeneration of its leading elements, the merger of the party apparatus with the bureaucratic apparatus of government, the loss of influence of the proletarian part of the party, the intervention of government in the internal struggles of the party - all this shows that the central committee has already exceeded the limitations of the policy of silencing the party and started to liquidate it - and is transforming it into an auxiliary arm of the state. Carrying out this policy of liquidation will mean the end of the proletarian dictatorship in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The party is the avant-garde and a vital weapon in the struggle of the working class. Without it, neither victory nor the retention of the proletarian dictatorship is possible.[26]

The necessity for the proletariat to organise autonomously from the transitional state

How could the proletariat in Russia have overturned the balance of forces, revitalised the soviets, held back the growth of the post-revolutionary state, opening the door to its real withering away and taking forward the world wide revolutionary movement towards communism?

This question could only have been solved by the development of the world revolution. “In Russia, the problem could only be posed.”[27] “…in Europe it will be immeasurably more difficult to start, whereas it was immeasurably more easy for us to start; but it will be more difficult for us to continue the revolution than it will be over there”.[28]

In the context of the struggle for the world revolution, there were two concrete tasks in Russia: saving the party for the proletariat by tearing it away from the talons of the state, and organising itself in workers’ councils capable of regenerating the soviet structure. Here we are only dealing with the latter point.

The proletariat has to organise itself independently from the transitional state and impose its own dictatorship over it. This may seem stupid to those who stick to facile formulae and syllogisms, which say that because the proletariat is the ruling class the state has to be its most faithful organ. In State and Revolution, going back over Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, written in 1875, Lenin wrote:

In its first phase, or first stage, communism cannot as yet be fully mature economically and entirely free from traditions or vestiges of capitalism. Hence the interesting phenomenon that communism in its first phase retains ‘the narrow horizon of bourgeois law.’ Of course, bourgeois law in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law.

It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie![29]

The state in the period of transition[30] is a “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie”,[31] or, to put it more precisely, a state which conserves the deepest traits of a class society, a society of exploitation: in this phase, bourgeois right,[32] the law of value, the moral and spiritual influence of capitalism still exist. The transitional society still maintains many aspects of the old society, but it has gone through a profound change which is precisely what needs to be kept alive because it is the only thing that can lead to communism: the massive, conscious and organised activity of the great majority of the working class, its organisation into a politically dominant class, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The tragic experience of the Russian revolution shows that the organisation of the proletariat into the ruling class cannot take place through the transitional state (the soviet state)

The working class itself, as a class, considered as a unity and not as a diffuse social element, with unified class needs, with unified tasks and a consistent policy formulated in a clear manner, plays a less and less important political role in the Soviet republic.”[33]

The soviets made up the Commune-State, which Engels spoke about as the political association of the popular classes. This Commune-State plays an indispensable role in the repression of the bourgeoisie in the defensive war against imperialism and in maintaining a minimum of social cohesion, but cannot carry through the struggle for communism itself. Marx had already foreseen this in his draft of The Civil War in France:the Commune is not the social movement of the working class and therefore of a general regeneration of mankind, but the organised means of action. The Commune does not do away with the class struggles, through which the working classes strive to the abolition of all classes and therefore of all class rule ... but it affords the rational medium in which that class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way.”[34] Furthermore, Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune in particular contains a good deal of criticism of the hesitations, confusions, and, in some cases, empty posturings of some of the Commune Council delegates, many of whom indeed embodied an obsolete petty bourgeois radicalism that was frequently outflanked by the more proletarian neighbourhood assemblies. At least one of the local revolutionary clubs declared the Commune to be dissolved because it was not revolutionary enough! [35]

the state is in our hands: but has it operated the New Economic Policy in the way we wanted in the past year? No. But we refuse to admit that it did not operate in the way we wanted. How did it operate? The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand...[36]

To resolve this problem, the Bolshevik Party pushed through a series of measures. On the one hand the Soviet Constitution adopted in 1918 declared that “The All-Russian Congress of Soviets consists of representatives of local Soviets, the towns being represented by one deputy for every 25,000 inhabitants and the country areas by one deputy for every 125,000. This article formalises the dominance of the proletariat over the peasantry[37] while, at the same time, the programme of the Bolshevik Party, adopted in 1919, stated: “every member of a Soviet must, without fail, do a certain job of state administration; secondly, these jobs must be consistently changed so that they embrace all aspects of government, all its branches; and, thirdly, literally all the working population must be drawn into independent participation in state administration.[38]

These measures were inspired by the lessons of the Paris Commune. They were aimed at limiting the privileges and prerogatives of the state functionaries, but to be effective and efficient, only the proletariat organised autonomously in workers’ councils independent from the state[39] was in a position to carry this through.

Marxism is a living theory, which needs to deepen and rectify its conceptions on the basis of historical experience. Drawing the lessons on the Paris Commune that Marx and Engels bequeathed to them, the Bolsheviks understood that the Commune-State, which had to head towards extinction, was the expression of the soviets. But at the same time they erroneously identified it as a proletarian state,[40] believing that this process would come about by itself, from within the state.[41] The experience of the Russian revolution shows that it is impossible for the state to wither away by itself and this makes it necessary to distinguish the worker’ councils from the general Soviets, the first being the place where the proletariat organises itself and exerts its dictatorship over the transitional Commune-State represented by the general soviets.

After the seizure of power by the soviets, the proletariat will have to maintain and develop its own organisations which will act in an independent manner in the soviets: the red guards, the factory committees, the neighbourhood committees, the workers’ sections of the soviets, the general assemblies.  

The factory committees at the heart of working class organisation

We have already seen that the factory committees played a decisive role during the crisis of the soviets in July,[42] and how they prised them from the grip of the bourgeoisie, enabling them to play their role of organs of insurrection in October.[43] In May 1917, the Conference of Factory Committees in Jarkov (Ukraine) called on the soviets to “convert themselves into organs of revolution dedicated to consolidating its victories.[44] Between 7th and 12th October, a Conference of Factory Committees in Petrograd decided to create a Central Council of Factory Committees which took the name of the Workers’ Section of the Petrograd Soviet. It immediately began coordinating all the base soviet organisations and intervened actively in the politics of the Soviet, radicalising it more and more. In his work The Soviet Trade Unions Deutscher recognised that the Factory Committee, the organ on the spot, rather than the trade union was the most potent and deadly instrument of upheaval.[45]

Along with other base organisations that emanated directly and organically from the working class, the factory committees expressed, much more naturally and authentically than the soviets, the thoughts, tendencies, and advances of the working class, maintaining a deep symbiosis with the class.

During the period of transition towards communism, the proletariat will in no way acquire the status of a ruling class at the economic level. This is why, in contrast to the bourgeoisie, it cannot delegate power to an institutionalised structure, to a state. Furthermore, despite its peculiarities, the Commune-State does not express the specific interests of the working class, determined by the need for the revolutionary transformation of the world, but the needs of all the non-exploiting classes. Finally, the ineluctably bureaucratic tendencies of the state mean that this organ will always be pushed towards becoming autonomous from the masses and towards imposing its rule on them. This is why the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot come from a state organ but from a force for permanent struggle, debate and mobilisation, from an organ which ensures the class autonomy of the proletariat, reflects the needs of the working masses and allows them to transform themselves through discussion and action.

We saw in the fourth article in this series how, after the seizure of power, the soviet base organisations and the workers’ organs of struggle progressively disappeared. This was a tragic episode which weakened the proletariat and accelerated a whole process of social decomposition.       

The Red Guard, which made a short-lived appearance in 1905, emerged in February at the initiative of the factory committees and under their control, succeeding in mobilising 100,000 workers. It remained active until the middle of 1918, but the civil war plunged it into a grave crisis. The enormously superior force of the imperialist armies highlighted the inability of the Red Guard to face up to them. Units in the south of Russia, under the command of Antonov Osveenko, put up a heroic resistance but were swept aside and defeated. Victims of the fear of centralisation, the units which tried to remain operational lacked the most basic equipment, such as bullets. It was above all an urban militia, with limited arms and training, without organisational experience, and could function mainly in the form of emergency units or as an auxiliary to an organised army, but it was incapable of waging a full scale war. The necessities of the moment made it imperative to set up a Red Army with the required rigid military structure.[46] The latter absorbed many units of the Red Guard which were dissolved as such. There were attempts to reconstitute the Red Guard up until 1919; certain soviets proposed that their units collaborate with the Red Army but the latter rejected these offers systematically when it didn’t dissolve the units by force.

The disappearance of the Red Guard restored to the soviet state one of the classic prerogatives of the state, the monopoly of arms, depriving the proletariat of one of its main means of defence since it no longer possessed its own military force.

The neighbourhood councils disappeared at the end of 1919. They had integrated workers from small enterprises and shops, the unemployed, the young, the retired, families who were part of the working class as a whole. They were also an essential means for disseminating proletarian thought and action among the marginal urban strata, such as the artisans, to the small peasants and so on.

The disappearance of the factory committees was a decisive blow. As we saw in the fourth article in this series, it took place rapidly and they had ceased to exist by the end of 1918. The trade unions played a decisive role in their destruction.

The conflict came out into the open at a tumultuous Pan-Russian Conference of Factory Committees on the eve of the October revolution. During the debates the idea was affirmed that ...“At the moment when the Factory Committees were formed, the trade unions actually did not yet exist. The Factory Committees filled the vacuum”. An anarchist delegate declared that “the trade unions wish to devour the Factory Committees. There is no popular discontent with the Factory Committees, but there is discontent with the trade unions. To the worker the trade union is a form of organisation imposed from without. The Factory Committee is closer to them”. One of the resolutions adopted by the conference stated that...“ workers’ control - within the limits assigned to it by the Conference - was only possible under the political and economic rule of the working class’. It warned against ‘isolated’ and ‘disorganised’ activities and pointed out that ‘the seizure of factories by the workers and their operation for personal profit was incompatible with the aims of the proletariat.’ [47]

The Bolsheviks continued to defend dogmatically the idea that the trade unions are the economic organs of the proletariat, and they took their side in the conflict between them and the factory committees. At the same conference, a Bolshevik delegate argued that the factory committees have to exercise their functions of control for the benefit of the trade unions and, what’s more, should be financially dependent on them”.[48]

On 3 November 1917, the Council of Peoples’ Commissars passed a decree on workers’ control, stipulating that the decisions of the factory committees could be “annulled by trade unions and congresses....”[49] This decision provoked animated protests by the factory committees and by members of the party. The decree was in the end modified: of the 21 delegates who formed the Council of Workers’ Control, 10 represented the trade unions and only 5 the factory committees! This imbalance not only put the latter in a position of weakness, but also imprisoned them in the logic of the management of production, making them all the more vulnerable to the trade unions.

Although theSoviet of Factory Committees remained active for several months, even trying to organise a general congress (see the fourth article in this series), the trade unions finally succeeded in dissolving the factory committees. The IInd Trade Union Congress, held between the 25th and 27th of January 1919, passed a resolution “demanding that ‘official status be granted to the administrative prerogatives of the unions’. It spoke of statisation’(ogosudarstvlenie) of the trade unions,as their function broadened and merged with the governmental machinery of industrial administration and control’.[50]

With the disappearance of the factory committees, “In the 'Soviet' Russia of 1920 the industrial workers weresubjected again to managerial authority, labour discipline wage incentives, scientific management - to the familiar forms of capitalist industrial organisation with the same bourgeois managers, qualified only by the State's holding the title to the property.’[51]The workers again found themselves completely atomised, lacking their own unifying organisations because the soviets were becoming assimilated with the classic electoralism of bourgeois democracy, no more than parliamentary chambers.

After the revolution, abundance does not yet exist and the working class continues to be subjected to the conditions of the realm of necessity, which includes exploitation for a whole period in which the world bourgeoisie has not yet been defeated. Even after this, as long as the integration of other social strata into associated labour has not been completed, the effort of producing the essential wealth of society will be borne mainly by the proletariat. The march towards communism will therefore contain a constant struggle to diminish exploitation to the point where it has disappeared[52]In order to maintain its collective political rule, the working class needs to have secured at least the basic material necessities of life and in particular to have the time and energy to engage in political life.[53]. Marx wrote that “by cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement”.[54]. If the proletariat, after seizing power, accepts a continuous augmentation of its exploitation, it will be incapable of carrying on the fight for communism.

This is what happened in revolutionary Russia. The exploitation of the working class increased to extreme limits the more the working class lost its autonomy and self-organisation. This process became irreversible when it was clear that the extension of the revolution had failed. The Workers’ Truth[55] group expressed the situation clearly: “the revolution has ended in a defeat for the working class. The bureaucracy and the NEPmen have become a new bourgeoisie which lives from the exploitation of the workers and profits from their disorganisation. With the trade unions in the hands of the bureaucracy, the workers are more disinherited than ever. After being converted into a leading party, into a party of leaders and organisers of the state organisation and economic organisation of a capitalist type, the Communist Party has irrevocably lost any links with and descent from the proletariat.

C. Mir 28.12.10



[1]. See for example: “The Period of Transition”, International Review n° 1, “The State and the dictatorship of the proletariat”, International Review n° 11. See also the articles of our series on communism: International Review n°s 77-78, 91, 95-96, 99, 127-130, 132, 134 and 135.

[2]. Bilan, n°. 18, organ of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left, p.612. Bilan continued the work of Marx, Engels and Lenin on the question of the state and more particularly its role in the transition from capitalism to communism. Adopting Engels’ formulation, it defined the state as a “scourge which the proletariat inherits; in this regard, we will maintain an almost instinctive distrust of it.(Bilan n° 26 p.874).

[3]. Internationalisme, n° 10, organ of the Communist Left of France (GCF), 1945-1952. The Communist Left of France continued the work of Bilan and is the precursor of our organisation.

[4]. The Workers’ Opposition was a left tendency that emerged inside the Bolshevik Party in 1920-21. This article does not to set out to analyse the different left fractions that arose inside the Bolshevik Party in response to its degeneration. We refer the reader to the many articles we've already published on this question. These include “The Communist Left in Russia,” International Review n° s 8-9; “Manifesto of the Workers' Group of the Russian Communist Party”, International Review n°s142, 143, 144 and 145. The quote, translated by us, is taken from the book Workers' Democracy or Party Dictatorship?, the chapter entitled “What is the Workers’ Opposition” on page 179 of the Spanish edition. It should be noted that if the Workers’ Opposition had the insight to see the problems the revolution faced, the solution it proposed could only make things worse. It thought that the unions should have even more power. Based on the correct idea that “the Soviet apparatus is made up from different social strata” (p.177 op. cit.), it concludes with the need for “the reins of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the field of economic construction [to] be given to organs which by their composition, are class organs, united by their vital links to production in a direct way, that is to say, the unions “(ibid.). This approach restricts the activity of the proletariat to the narrow domain of “economic construction” and at the same time gives organs that are bureaucratic and destructive of the capacities of the proletariat, the trade unions, the utopian mission of developing the autonomous activity of the masses.

[5]. See M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, Introduction. Available from: http://libcom.org/library/bolsheviks-workers-control-solidarity-introduction.

[6]. Cited by Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, London 1975, p.320.

[7]. E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Ch. VIII, “The ascendancy of the party,” p.192 of 1973 Penguin edition.

[8] Ibid., note A, “Lenin's Theory of the State”,p.251.

[9]. See International Review 99, “Understanding the defeat of the Russian Revolution” (Part 1), p.17.

[10]. Ibid., quote from Ossinski, a member of one of the first left tendencies in the Party.

[11]. Workers' Democracy or Party Dictatorship?, p.181 of the Spanish edition, translated by us.

[12]. Brinton, op. cit., chapter on 1920. The Glavki were state organs for the management of the economy.

[13]. Lenin, March 1919, “Session of the Petrograd Soviet”, Collected Works, Vol. 29, p.32-3, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965. This quotation differs slightly from that in the French version of this article.

[14]. Workers' Democracy or Party Dictatorship?, p.213 of the Spanish edition, translated by us.

[15]. Quotes taken from Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, p 279.

[16]. International Review n° 99, op. cit.

[17]. This concern was echoed by the communist left, which “expressed, in 1919, the desire to draw a clearer distinction between state and party. It seemed to them that the one more than the other was focused on internationalism in line with their own concerns. The party must somehow play the role of the conscience of the government and the State(Marcel Liebman, op cit.). Bilan insisted on this danger of the party being absorbed by the state, of the working class losing its avant-garde and its main source of support, the soviets: “The confusion between these two notions of party and state is particularly damaging as there is no possibility of reconciling these two organs, when there is an irresolvable opposition in the nature, the function and the goals of the state and the party. The adjective ‘proletarian’ does not change the nature of the state which remains an organ of economic or political coercion, while the party is a body whose role is, par excellence, to achieve, not by coercion but political education, the emancipation of the workers” (Bilan n°.26, p.871).

[18]. Pierre Broué, Trotsky, p.255. The author relates the story of the anarchist author Leonard Schapiro.

[19]. E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Ch. VIII, “The Ascendancy of the party,” Pelican Books, p.212.

[20]. Ibid.

[21]. This theory was rooted in the confusions that all the revolutionaries had about the party, its relationship with the class and the question of power, as we noted in an article in our series on communism, International Review No. 91 (p.16): “the revolutionaries of the day, despite their commitment to the soviet system of delegation which had made the old system of parliamentary representation obsolete, were still held back by parliamentary ideology to the extent that they saw the party which had a majority in the central soviets then formed the government and administered the state.” In reality, the old confusions were reinforced and pushed to the extreme by the theorisation of the mounting evidence of the transformation of the Bolshevik party into the Party-State.

[22]. Marcel Liebman, op. cit., p.280.

[23]. Ibid.

[24]. Ibid.

[25]. Quoted in Brinton's pamphlet, chapter on 1921. Trotsky was right in saying that the class can go through moments of confusion and hesitation and that the party, by contrast, armed with a rigorous theoretical and programmatic framework, is the bearer of the historic interests of the class and has to pass them down to it. But it can't do this by way of a dictatorship over the proletariat, which only weakens it, further increasing its hesitations.

[26]. The Platform of the Group of Fifteen was first published outside Russia by the branch of the Italian Left, which published the journal Reveil Communist in the late 1920s. It appeared in German and French under the title On the eve of Thermidor, revolution and counter-revolution in Soviet Russia - Platform of the Left Opposition in the Bolshevik party (Sapranov, Smirnov, Obhorin, Kalin, etc.) at the beginning of 1928. An English translation appears in the ICC’s book The Russian Communist Left.

[27]. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution.

[28]. Lenin, “Political Report of the Central Committee” to the VIIth Party Congress, 7 March 1918.

[29]. Chapter V, “The first phase of communist society.”

[30]. Like Marx, Lenin made improper use of the term “the lower stage of communism”, when in reality, once the bourgeois state has been destroyed, we are still living under a form of capitalism with a defeated bourgeoisie, and we think it is more precise to talk about a “period of transition from capitalism to communism”.

[31]. In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky took up the same idea when he talked about the “dual” character of the state, “socialist” on one side but “bourgeois without a bourgeoisie” on the other. See our article from the series on communism in International Review n° 105.

[32]. As Marx said in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, there is nothing socialist about the principle of “equal work for equal wages”.

[33]. Alexandra Kollontai, in an intervention to the Xth Congress of the Party. 1921, translated from Workers’ Democracy or Party Dictatorship, p.171 of the Spanish edition. Anton Ciliga, in his book The Russian Enigma, went in a similar direction: “What separated the opposition from Trotskyism was not only in the way of judging the regime and of understanding the present problems; it was, before all, the way in which the part played in the revolution by the proletariat was being considered. To the Trotskyists it was the party, to the extreme left wing it was the working class which was the mover of the revolution. The struggle between Stalin and Trotsky concerned party politics and the directing personnel of the party; to the one as to the other the proletariat was but a passive object. The groups of the extreme left wing communists, on the other hand, were above all interested in the actual conditions of the working class and the part played by it, in what it actually was in Soviet society and what it should be in a society which sincerely set itself the task of building socialism” (Ciliga, p.271 of the 1979 edition).

[34]. Quoted in International Review n° 77: “1871, the first proletarian revolution.”

[35]. Ibid.

[36]. Lenin, “Political report of the Central Committee of the RCP(B)” , March 27th 1922. Eleventh Congress of the RCP(B). Collected Works, vol. 33, p.279. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965.

[37] Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, 1972 US edition, p.270.

[38]. Rough Draft of the Programme of the RCP, “The basic tasks of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia”.

[39]. In his letter to the Republic of Workers’ Councils in Bavaria – which only lasted three weeks before being crushed by the troops of the social democratic government in May 1919 – Lenin seems to be oriented towards the independent organisation of workers’ councils: “The most urgent and most extensive implementation of these and similar measures, coupled with the initiative of workers’, farm labourers’ and - acting apart from them - small peasants’ councils, should strengthen your position.” “Message of greetings to the Bavarian Soviet Republic”, 27th April 1919, Collected Works, Vol. 29, p.325-6. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965.

[40]. Lenin did seem to have doubts about this, since on a number of occasions he called the state “a workers’ and peasants’ state with bureaucratic deformations”; and during the debate on the trade unions in 1921, he argued that the proletariat had to be organised in unions and have the right to strike to defend itself from “its” state: “Comrade Trotsky falls into error himself. He seems to say that in a workers’ state it is not the business of the trade unions to stand up for the material and spiritual interests of the working class. That is a mistake. Comrade Trotsky speaks of a “workers’ state”. May I say that this is an abstraction. It was natural for us to write about a workers’ state in 1917; but it is now a patent error to say: “Since this is a workers’ state without any bourgeoisie, against whom then is the working class to be protected, and for what purpose?” The whole point is that it is not quite a workers’ state. That is where Comrade Trotsky makes one of his main mistakes. We have got down from general principles to practical discussion and decrees, and here we are being dragged back and prevented from tackling the business at hand. This will not do. For one thing, ours is not actually a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state. And a lot depends on that. (Bukharin: “What kind of state? A workers’ and peasants’ state?”) Comrade Bukharin back there may well shout “What kind of state? A workers’ and peasants’ state?” I shall not stop to answer him. Anyone who has a mind to should recall the recent Congress of Soviets, and that will be answer enough.

But that is not all. Our Party Programme—a document which the author of theABC of Communism knows very well—shows that ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it. We have had to mark it with this dismal, shall I say, tag. There you have the reality of the transition. Well, is it right to say that in a state that has taken this shape in practice the trade unions have nothing to protect, or that we can do without them in protecting the material and spiritual interests of the massively organised proletariat? No, this reasoning is theoretically quite wrong. It takes us into the sphere of abstraction or an ideal we shall achieve in 15 or 20 years’ time, and I am not so sure that we shall have achieved it even by then. What we actually have before us is a reality of which we have a good deal of knowledge, provided, that is, we keep our heads, and do not let ourselves be carried away by intellectualist talk or abstract reasoning, or by what may appear to be “theory” but is in fact error and misapprehension of the peculiarities of transition. We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers’ organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state”. The trade unions, the present situation, and Trotsky’s mistakes”, 30 December 1920, Collected Works, Vol. 32, p.24-5. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965.

[41]. Lenin pushed for a Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection (1922) which rapidly failed in its mission of control and was converted into a supplementary bureaucratic commission.

[42]. See International Review n° 141, “What are workers’ councils (II): the resurgence and crisis of workers’ councils in 1917.”

[43]. See International Review n° 143, “What are workers’ councils (III): The revolution of 1917 (July to October).”

[44]. Brinton, op. cit., chapter on 1917.

[45]. Cited by Brinton, ibid.

[46]. Without entering into a discussion about the need or not for a Red Army during this part of the period of transition, which we can call the world civil war (i.e. as long as the proletariat has not taken power on a world scale), one thing came out clearly during the Russian experience: the formation of the Red Army, its rapid bureaucratisation and affirmation as a state organ, the total absence of a proletarian counterweight within it; all this reflected a balance of forces with the bourgeoisie which was highly unfavourable to the proletariat on a world scale. As we remarked in an article from the series on communism in International Review n° 96, “the more the revolution spreads worldwide, the more it will be led directly by the workers' councils and their militias, the more the political aspects of the struggle will predominate over the military, the less there will be a need for a 'red army' to lead the struggle.

[47]. Cited by Brinton, chapter on 1917. Enthusiastic about the result of the Conference, Lenin declared that “we must shift the centre of gravity to the Factory Committees. The Factory Committees must become the organs of insurrection. We must change our slogan and instead of saying 'All Power to the Soviets' we must say 'All Power to the Factory Committees'” (ibid).

[48]. Ibid. We have not been able to find this quotation in the original English version of the pamphlet so have translated it from the Spanish version.

[49]. Ibid.

[50]. Ibid, chapter on 1919. The Russian experience shows conclusively the reactionary nature of the trade unions, their irreversible tendency to convert themselves into state structures and their radical antagonism to the new organisational forms which, since 1905, the proletariat had been developing in the context of the new conditions of decadent capitalism and faced with the necessity for revolution. 

[51]. Brinton, chapter on 1920, quoting from R V Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, p.107.

[52]. “A policy of proletarian management, therefore, can only...have a socialist content if it follows a way which is diametrically opposed to capitalism - if it aims at a constant and progressive elevation of the living conditions of the masses, and not at holding them down or lowering them” (Bilan n° 28, “Problems of the period of transition”, cited in International Review n° 128).

[53]. cf International Review n° 95, “The programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

[54]. Marx, Value, Prices and Profits.

[55]. Formed in 1922, it was one of the last left fractions secreted by the Bolshevik Party in the struggle for its regeneration, its recuperation by the working class. See the ICC’s book The Russian Communist Left.