From Russia 1917 to Hungary 1956: October of the soviets

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With the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution on the horizon, the ruling class will certainly not miss the opportunity to repeat its lies and myths about the events that culminated in the seizure of power by the working class in October 1917: that is was a ‘coup’ orchestrated by the Bolsheviks; that the roots of Stalinism – and all of its horrors - go back to Lenin and his ‘clique of bourgeois conspirators’.

With the great democracies bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the world economy lurching from one crisis to another, the working class is once again looking for alternatives to the tired and tattered lies offered by the ruling class. But what is there to learn from the Russian Revolution? For some it belongs to a by-gone age with no relevance to the modern world of call centres and the Internet. For others the dictatorship of the proletariat conjures up nightmares befitting of The Exorcist or Halloween. But what 1917 really showed is that, faced with the need to challenge and overthrow the bankrupt rule of capitalism, the working class has shown itself capable of creating its own forms of mass organisation, its own organs of ’self-government’ - the soviets or workers’ councils. This was confirmed in other major expressions of the class struggle in the 20th century, from the German revolution in 1918 to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. 

1917: Russia

The first anniversary we are dealing with here is of 1917. The month of October is now firmly associated in the memory of revolutionaries with the soviets, even if the memory of the true soviets has been buried deep amongst the wider layers of the class. 

It is associated with the October insurrection of 1917 in Russia, in spite of the fact that we are told by all the history books and documentaries - echoed at every step by the ideologies of “Marxist Leninism” and anarchism - that this event was only a new leadership seizing power, either on behalf of the masses, or for its own sinister ends.

Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, responds to number of critics who argue, in one way or another, that the insurrection was the work of the Bolshevik party substituting itself for the class:

 Professor Pokrovsky denies the very importance of the alternative: Soviet or party. Soldiers are no formalists, he laughs: they did not need a Congress of Soviets in order to overthrow Kerensky. With all its wit such a formulation leaves unexplained the problem: why create soviets at all if the party is enough? ‘It is interesting’, continues the professor, ‘that nothing at all came of this aspiration to do everything almost legally, with soviet legality, and the power at the last moment was taken not by the Soviet, but by an obviously ‘illegal’ organisation created ad hoc’. Pokrovsky here cites the fact that Trotsky was compelled ‘in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee’ and not the Soviet, to declare the government of Kerensky non-existent. A most unexpected conclusion! The Military Revolutionary Committee was an elected organ of the Soviet. The leading role of the Committee in the overturn did not in any sense violate that soviet legality which the professor makes fun of, but of which the masses were extremely jealous”.

This was an insurrection carried out by an elected committee of an organ created by the working class through massive struggles against the old state regime: the soviets, councils of delegates elected by assemblies of workers, and also of soldiers, sailors and peasants as the revolutionary movement spread throughout the Tsarist Empire.

It was therefore the seizure of power by the working class - for the first time in history at the level of an entire country. It announced itself unambiguously as the first victory of the world-wide proletarian revolution against the capitalist system – a system which, by plunging the world into a barbaric imperialist war, had given clear proof that it had become a barrier to the needs of humanity.

The proletarian revolution was not a conspiracy by all-powerful secret societies. The revolution was not directed by the Freemasons or the Jews; nor was it a plot hatched by a power-hungry Lenin. A proletarian revolution can’t be reduced or even compared to uncoordinated riots, nor is it the arbitrary rule of terror. The revolutionary masses are jealous of “soviet legality” because they understand the necessity for responsibility, for commonly agreed norms of behaviour and action, for accountability. They are jealous of their assemblies and the decisions that they take in them, and they demand that their delegates carry out those decisions. They demand a consistency between means and ends, and the October revolution, the first massively conscious revolution in history, was consistent with its ultimate goal – a society in which self-aware human beings have become masters of their own social forces.  

1956: Hungary

The second anniversary is one of exactly 50 years: the Hungarian uprising of October/November 1956, which witnessed the last true soviets of the 20th century.

The most powerful expression of the prole­tarian character of the revolt was the appearance of genuine workers’ councils all over the country. Elected at factory level, these councils linked whole industrial areas and cities, and were without doubt the organizational focus of the entire insurrec­tion. They took charge of organizing the distribution of arms and food, ran the general strike, directed the armed struggle. In some towns they were in total and undis­puted command. The appearance of these soviets struck terror into the hearts of the ‘Soviet’ capitalists and no doubt tinged the ‘sympathy’ of the Western democracies with unease about the excessively ‘violent’ character of the revolt.”(‘Fifty years since the Hungarian workers’ uprising’,  wr/009_hungary56.html )

Soviets against the Soviet Union: because for four decades the soviets no longer ruled in the ‘Soviet Union’. The revolution succumbed to economic blockade and military invasion, directed above all by the democratic powers; it succumbed to fatal isolation, in particular because of the bloody defeat of the proletarian uprisings in Germany – prepared by the thoroughly democratic Weimar Republic; it succumbed to the haemorrhaging of human and economic resources caused by three years of savage civil war. The ‘Soviet’ regime that arose on the ashes of the first October was a pure incarnation of the counter-revolution, of a bourgeois regime that now bitterly opposed world revolution in the interests of its own imperialist grandeur. Founded on a centralised state-capitalist war economy falsely declared as ‘socialism’, founded on the ruthless exploitation of the Russian proletariat, the USSR also drew its strength from the blood it sucked from the countries of Eastern Europe, which it had claimed as booty for its participation in the imperialist re-division of 1945.  

The 1956 soviets in Hungary arose as part of a wave of workers’ revolts against the insatiable demands of accumulation under the Stalinist model of capitalism. In response to open and brutal attack on workers’ living standards, the workers of East Germany in 1953 and Poland in 1956 took up the weapon of the mass strike. In Hungary the movement reached the stage of an armed uprising. The councils it generated were not merely central strike committees, but veritable councils of war of the working class. But these heroic movements were cordoned off behind the Iron Curtain, and, living under the oppressive weight of Stalinism and Russian imperialism, the workers of Eastern Europe were also weighed down by illusions in nationalism and in western-style ‘democracy’. As for the western democrats, they had already agreed at Yalta to make Stalinism the gendarme of Eastern Europe and were not prepared to risk much in defence of the victims of ‘Communist Totalitarianism’. On the contrary, while they condemned the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the ruthless suppression of the uprising, the dust and smoke they kicked up in the Suez war of 1956 provided the Russian tanks with a very effective screen to cover their dirty work. 

The soviets of 1956 pointed in two directions: backwards, to the extent that they were a distant echo of the Russian soviets of 1917 and indeed of the fleeting Hungarian council republic of 1919. But they also pointed forward, to the end of the counter-revolution and the dawn of a new era of workers’ struggles. In the second half of the 1950s in western Europe, the first stirrings of rebellion against the established order were taking a mainly cultural form that was easy enough to manage and recuperate (beatniks, angry young men, rock and roll…), but like the student revolts of the mid-60s, these were straws in the wind announcing the proletarian storms which were to sweep the globe between 1968 and 1974, storms  whose epicentre was in the developed capitalist countries of western Europe.

Since 1956 there have not been any more soviets, but the embryos of future soviets have appeared in many struggles: in the ‘MKS’ (strike committees) which centralised the mass strike in Poland in 1980; in the mass assemblies of Vigo and Vittoria in Spain in the ‘70s, and again in Vigo this year; in the base committees in Italy in the early 70s and again in the 80s; and in the general assemblies of the students in France last spring. These are the forms of organisation, which, in a context of spreading class war, will serve as the basic units of the workers’ councils in the next revolutionary attempt of the working class.    

In the Hungary of today, the blatant lies of the government about the real state of the economy has produced a massive outburst of anger, with crowds on the street chanting “56, 56” as they lay siege to parliament and TV stations. In reality, unlike 1956, the working class does not seem to be present as a class in these demonstrations. As the internationalist anarchists around the Barrikad collective in Hungary put it, “The real class discontent is toeing the line of nationalism.”  (libcom.org/news - see also the article in this issue). This is testimony to the difficulties facing the working class in the present period, where both material and ideological dispersal has undermined a sense of class identity. But the working class is also in the process of redefining and re-appropriating this identity, and as it does so, it will surely rediscover the organisational weapons which it has itself invented in its struggle for a different world.

Amos, 30/9/6.