Understanding October 1917 and the factory committees

Printer-friendly versionSend by email The defence of the October revolution has always been a central duty for revolutionaries. The task takes on renewed importance con­fronted with the international campaign about the ‘death of Communism’, since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.

This defence is not confined to combating the official lies of the bourgeoisie. Since 1917 Communists have also had to defend the revolution and the Bolsheviks against the attacks of anarchists and modernists, who, while claiming to support the revolution re­gurgitate the capitalist lies about Bolshevism leading to Stalinism.

The libertarian attack on the revolution is very dangerous because those looking for a communist alternative to capitalism read or hear these ‘radical’ attacks and reject the necessity for political organisation in disgust, or at least have serious doubts about the role of the proletariat’s revolutionary minorities, and their continuity with the past.

This is seen in the correspondence we have received from a comrade who has read one of the most famous modern ‘libertarian’ attacks on the Bolsheviks: Solidarity’s book The Bol­sheviks and Workers’ Control. The comrade, in an initial letter denounced the Bolshevik ‘suppression’ of the Factory Committees, which were formed by the proletariat in Russia in 1917, as an expression of their revolutionary efforts and criticised the ICC’s lack of analysis of these organs and asked whether “the poten­tial for Stalinism was inherent in Bolshevism from early on?“ After reading our publica­tions and articles on the proletarian nature of the Revolution and the Bolsheviks, the com­rade has begun to reject his anarchist position:

“I now accept that the overriding cause of the revolution degeneration was the isolation it suffered due to the failure of tile German revolution. “. The comrade now “also appreciates the massive debt owed to the Bolsheviks and Lenin for deepening proletarian positions and playing an indispensable role in the devel­opment of the revolution.”

We salute the comrade’s effort to take up the Marxist method that analyses the revolution and the role of the Bolsheviks in its interna­tional context. However, there are still hesita­tions about the Bolsheviks and the factory committees: “There is still one question that I am uncom­fortable with, what if the factory committees had formed a fully national organisation and achieved a higher level of production and distribution than the Bolshevik ‘one man management’ and Taylor system industrialisation?” From this the comrade then speculates about what difference it would have made to the civil war and the politics of the 3rd International.

This hesitation is very serious, because behind it is the central theme of Solidarity’s book: “Workers’ management of production - implying as it does time total domination of time producers over time productive process - is not for us a marginal matter. It is the core of our politics. It is the only means whereby authori­tarian (order-giving, order-taking) relations in production can be transcended and a free, communist or anarchist, society introduced” (page vii).

In other words the book preaches the anar­chist transformation of relations of authority in the individual factory before the political overthrow of the bourgeois state on a world scale. It turns things upside down and seeks to explain the failure of the revolution on this or that mistake of economic management by the ‘authoritarian Bolsheviks’ instead of on the failure of the proletariat to take political power on a world scale. The ‘what if’ of our corre­spondent seems to come from the same sort of reasoning.

Given the weight that Solidarity’s book has had on the comrade and throughout the anar­chist swamp, from which some elements are trying to break, it is important to denounce this work as a source of confusion and not clarifi­cation. We don’t plan to give a detailed critique, but to draw out the central dangers of this work[1].

The necessity for an international perspective

Central to the marxist analysis of 1917, is that the Revolution in Russia was not an isolated action in one country, that could have hap­pened at any time, but the product of the historical change in world capitalism marked by the First World War. This slaughter marked the entry of capitalism into its decadent pe­riod. Capitalism had spread all over the world, under the pressure of the need to constantly expand the market and had fin­ished being a progressive social force. Now it offered humanity a series of ever more de­structive wars. However, while capitalism had entered into decay, it had also produced the conditions for its overthrow. A world proletariat had been formed and faced with the new period had only one choice: socialism or barbarism.

This historical challenge to the proletariat was taken up internationally from 1917. From then until 1923 the international capitalist order was rocked by the revolutionary strug­gles of the proletariat (see International Re­views, 72, 73, 75 and 80 for more detail). The highest moment of this challenge was the establishment of the dictatorship of the prole­tariat by the workers in Russia.

Thus the Russian Revolution was neither a national affair nor an isolated event, it was part of the proletariat’s international revolu­tionary movement. However for Solidarity: “The Russian Revolution represents an unsuc­cessful attempt by the Russian working class to break out of relations of production that were proving increasingly oppressive” (p. viii) ie it was a specific, Russian experience.

The Bolsheviks, the international vanguard

Throughout its book Solidarity castigates the Bolsheviks for ‘authoritarian’ and defenders of ‘law and order’, On the other hand, Rosa Luxemburg is treated with respect, she is called a “great Marxist”. Why? Because Solidarity can thus distort the criticisms she made of some Bolshevik policies, to give its attack ‘Marxist’ credibility. However, Soli­darity just happens to forget that Luxemburg gave her full support to the Bolsheviks: “The Party of Lenin was the only one which grasped the mandate and duty of a truly revolutionary party and which, by time slogan - ‘all power in the hands of the proletariat and peasantry’ insured the continued development of the revolution” (The Russian Revolution, 1918). And in complete contradiction with Solidari­ty’s denunciation of October as “a semi­-military putsch, carried out by a minority” (page xiv) Luxemburg saw: “The October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian revolution; it was also the salva­tion of the honour of international social­ism...” (ibid).

This clear defence of the Bolsheviks, re­flected the position of the whole international revolutionary movement. Solidarity’s distor­tions and slanders, which it claims to be a ‘new’ method of analysis, could be found amongst all the enemies of the Bolsheviks’ ‘authoritarianism’ at the time like the Mensheviks and anarchists (as well as the main bourgeois parties) many of whom put their anti-authoritarianism into practice by fighting on the side of the Whites in the civil War.

Isolation: the death of the revolution

Just as the Bolsheviks were an expression of the international revolutionary movement, so the future of the revolution itself depended on the ability of the international proletariat to overthrow international capital. Without this the revolution would remain isolated and be defeated, because it is impossible to build socialism in one country.

It was from within this international context that Luxemburg made her criticisms: “The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of the historical possibilities. They are not supposed to perform miracles. For a model and faultless proletarian revolution in an isolated land, exhausted by world war, strangled by imperi­alism, betrayed by the international prole­tariat, would be a miracle” (ibid).

For Solidarity this fundamental question is totally ignored “The basic question: who man­ages production after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie? should therefore now become the centre of any serious discussion about Social­ism” (p. xiii).Thus, the central question con­cerning socialism is not the international exten­sion of the revolution, but how the factories are run before this has been achieved! The logical conclusion of this position is that socialism is possible in one country as long as the workers manage production.

Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks’ defence of the need for the international revolution, marks their class divide from Stalinism, which acted as the vehicle for the counter-revolution. And the slogan used for the triumph of the counter-revolution was ‘socialism in one coun­try.’ Thus, while spending pages trying to link Lenin to Stalinism, which is an impossibility, because Stalin was the executioner of Bolshe­vism, it is Solidarity who are linked by ‘liber­tarian’ chains to Stalin’s slogan of socialism in one country.

The bankruptcy of the pseudo-radical idea of self-management of production was proved in Spain, in the thirties. Collectivisation in some industries in republican areas, inspired by the anarchists, was very advanced, but the bour­geois state remained in place. This wasn’t the only service the anarchists rendered to the capitalist state! The latter can indeed tolerate such a ‘revolution’ if it needs to wear out the energies of the masses. Later it can re-establish ‘order’, which is just what happened in Spain.

The necessity for the independent political life of the proletariat

The international isolation of the Russian revolution was certainly the root cause of its defeat, but it is also necessary to see that the terrible degeneration of the revolution produced an­other fundamental lesson, which will be essen­tial for the future revolutionary struggles of the proletariat: the absolute necessity for the pro­letariat to maintain its political independence from the state.

The Bolsheviks, along with all the main revolutionary organisations at that time (in­cluding the Spartacists) saw the role of the party to take power on behalf of the proletariat through its winning of the majority in the Soviets. This was based on the idea that the transitional state between the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of commu­nism would be a proletarian state. So when the Soviets destroyed the bourgeoisie state in 1917, and set about setting up a Soviet controlled state, the idea of the proletarian state seemed to be confirmed.

This idea proved in practice to be a grave political error, because it undermined the political independence of the working class and the ability of the proletariat to push for­ward the revolution. This was because, far from assuring the maintenance and vitality of the class organisations of the proletariat, this identification of the proletariat with the state sterilised them by incorporating them into the state apparatus.

Solidarity, under the cover of anti-statism also wants to do this: “The factory committees were cells of the future... they, not the state, should now rule” (Solidarity’s approving quote from an anarcho-syndicalist, p.15), ie. they should be the state, but not call themselves such. No matter what organisation controls the army or any other organ of state power it is still a state organisation, and it certainly will have to give orders.

The factory committees were class organs. In 1917 they were one of the forms generated by the proletariat to express its growing con­sciousness: “The soviets lagged behind the factory committees, the factory committees lagged behind the masses... the masses showed themselves to be a ‘hundred times to time left’ of the most left party (the Bolsheviks)” (Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution).

After the revolution, in an unprecedented situation and with the illusion in the proletar­ian state, the Bolsheviks and the Soviets, along with the committees themselves saw the lat­ter’s role to be part of the workers’ control of the economy. For the Central Council of Petrograd Factory Committees “Control (Workers’) must be understood as a transi­tional stage towards organising the whole economic life of the country according to socialist principles” (Draft instructions on workers’ control, issued in 1917). The new Soviet government believed that: “Workers control is exercised by all the workers of the given enterprise through their elected bodies, such as the factory committees.” (Decree on Workers’ Control, 27/11/1917).

This effort to have the workers control the economy led to important forums of the pro­letariat class consciousness, like the commit­tees, losing their political content by being absorbed into the state structure for control­ling the economy.

The loss of these political organs was far more damaging than any introduction of one-man management, Taylorism and all the other measures that enrage Solidarity and causes concern to our correspondent. These eco­nomic measures were a product of economic ruin and chaos, along with the demands of the civil war. Lenin called them retreats and tried to explain them at every opportunity. But in themselves they did not call into question the ability of the proletariat to defend its own class political interests. By contrast the loss of the political nature of the committees and the mass assemblies they were based on seriously un­dermined the mass political activity of the proletariat. Without a flourishing base of mass assemblies and committees, the soviets were left as empty shells, which meant the prole­tariat had no means, apart from the Bolshevik Party, of trying to exercise its control over the state, including its economic organisations, and to push back the growing attacks on its interests.

Here we can see that the idea that the committees represented a “higher level of production and distribution than Bolshevik one-man management”, turns everything on its head. It is only by the proletariat exercising its political dictatorship internationally that it will lay the basis for a ‘higher’ level of production etc, not speculation about this or that form of factory control.

The fundamental lessons of the Russian Revolution

On the basis of this painful experience, we can draw a fundamental lesson for the next revo­lutionary wave. The proletariat has to main­tain its political party and to organise class wide organs independently of the state. The party and the workers councils express class consciousness and thus the determination to defend the needs of the international revolu­tion, against the interests of the state, which, arising from the democratic structure of the territorial soviets made up of workers, peas­ants and other non-exploiting strata, will still be a conservative social force. (See our pam­phlet The State in the Period of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, for a more detailed analysis of this question).

From this brief critique of Solidarity’s book some fundamental lessons can be drawn:

- the political imperatives of the world revolution and the political independence of the proletariat and its political organisations, are the essential lessons of the Russian Revo­lution, not anarchist moralising about anti-authoritarianism and recipes for organising the factories.

- far from “Bolshevism (being) a monstrous aberration, the last garb donned by a bour­geoisie ideology as it was being subverted at time roots... The last attempt of bourgeoisie society to reassert its ordained division into leaders and led, and to maintain authoritarian social relations in all aspects of human life” (p. 85) it was in the vanguard of the international proletariat. The grave errors they made have helped to arm the future revolution “In Russia the problem (how to exercise political power) could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bol­shevism’” (Luxemburg, The Mass Strike)

TH, September 1995.

[1] Solidarity was the English sister group of the French group ‘Socialism ou Barbarie’­ which broke from Trotskyism after the 2nd World War to develop a libertarian alternative to Marxism with the theory that class divisions had been replaced as the root cause of exploi­tation by those between ‘order givers and order takers’. S ou B distinguished itself by proclaiming the end of the economic crisis and the failure of the working class, and by dis­solving itself.. .shortly before the general strike in France in May 1968. Its chief theoretician, Paul Cardan, also known as Chaulieu and Castoriadis, proclaimed in the early eighties that USSR was a more evil empire than the USA. Solidarity survived the disastrous theo­retical legacy of its mentor for several years but now seems to be completely dead.