October 1917, beginning of the proletarian revolution (part 2)

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

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 any 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 defense 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 just ‘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 program 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 super-structure 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;1 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:

1. Confiscation of all crown estates and revenues for the benefit of the people.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Nationalization by the Republic of Councils of all banks, ore mines, coal mines, as well as all large industrial and commercial establishments.

5. Confiscation of all property exceeding a certain limit, the limit to be fixed by the Central Council.

6. The Republic of Councils to take over all public means of transport and communication.

7. 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 labor, control production, and, finally, take over the administ­ration of the enterprise.” (From the Program 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 as 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 program. 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 defense 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:

1. Against populism and agrarian socialism.

2. Against legal marxism and the defenders of Russian liberalism.

3. Against terrorism as a method of struggle, defending instead the mass struggle of the working class.

4. 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.

5. Against intellectualism, the intelligent­sia, those dilettantish, dubious camp-followers of the workers’ movement, and in defense of the idea of the militant commitment of revolutionaries within the class.

6. Against Menshevism and its support, under the guise of ‘marxism’, for the liberal bourgeoisie in the 1905 Revolution.

7. Against the ‘liquidators’ who, after the crushing of the 1905 Revolution, began to deny the necessity for the political organization of the proletariat.

8. Against the defenders of the imperialist war, for a genuine internationalism which clearly separated itself from mere humanist pacifism.

9. 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 defense 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 for 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 honor 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 combatted 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 laborer 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, ie, 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 people’s 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’. “But”, 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’ neighborhood 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 (ie 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 practiced -- orchards, plan­tations, seed plots, nurseries, hot­houses, 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 defense 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 program on them by force; but they didn’t renounce this program. 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, the most diffi­cult task of the social transformation of society! Even in the West, under the most favorable 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 favor 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 defense 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 counter­revolutionary 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 defense of Bolshevism against world impe­rialism consisted, therefore, in counter­attacking in the imperialist centers 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 workers’ 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’, ie 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 Russel 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 rends 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 program of Marx, of Engels, and Lassalie.”

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 program. 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 proletarian program at that time, since it could quite easily be part of the program 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 defense 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 sacree’, 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 geopolitical 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’Arret a 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 defend­ing 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 ‘defense 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 councils” and “the International 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 ‘defense 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 wasn’t even the official dele­gate (the representative of the Zimmerwald left was Guilbeaux)? 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 workers 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 ‘Machiavellainism’ of the Bolsheviks

... the Bolsheviks have ... dropped slo­gans among the workers, eg 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 neighborhood. 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, vo1.24)

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 defense of the proletarian character of the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution in order to piously honor 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, ie 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 such 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:

-- substitutionism

-- 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 IInd 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 Ist 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 program 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’ program 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 counter­revolution in history, the councilist con­ceptions today seem to have become a refuge for skeptical 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’, ie 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 laboring 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 The 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 honor 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 honor 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 labor 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)


1 Of course some brave spirits think that the proletariat cannot make any concessions once it has taken power (cf the pamphlet by Guy Sabatier Brest-Litovsk 1918, Coup de Arret a la Revolucion). 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 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.

See also :