Anarchism, Bolshevism and 'workers' control'

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A recent discussion on the Libcom website has raised the question of the role of the Bolshevik party in the Russian Revolution. All the fractions of the Communist Left that broke with the Communist International examined the experience of the revolution from a marxist perspective to see what lessons could be learnt for the future struggles of the working class, and for the revolutionary party. The ICC has tried to draw on the clearest contributions from the Italian, Dutch and German Left (see for example, our pamphlet on The Period of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism.) The article that we are publishing here comes from a close sympathiser of the ICC.

A common criticism made by anarchists – of both the leftist and internationalist varieties – is that the Bolsheviks began dismantling organs of workers’ control immediately following the Russian Revolution. The most common expression of these critiques presents a naive opposition between a utopian picture of an economy self-managed by workers and the grotesque domination of the state by wicked Bolsheviks who usurped the self-activity of the working class.

Many of these criticisms appear superficially true – the Bolsheviks did begin to dismantle workers’ organs and subordinate them to an increasingly powerful central apparatus. The question for communists is what were the material pressures that drove this process – and were these tendencies entirely negative.

The economy and the political structures were pulled between the twin poles of localism and centralism. For example, in Moscow in 1918 a Moscow Oblast Council of People’s Commissars appeared. This locally formed council duplicated the functions of both the city Soviet and the national Soviet and its Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars). The Moscow Oblast even had its own Foreign Affairs Secretariat! Councils like this reflected a strong tendency towards localism – effectively trying to establish Moscow as a city-state – as opposed to the unifying tendencies of the Soviets. The organisation of Soviet society in this early phase, while certainly embodying the revolutionary energy of the proletariat, also created many conflicting organs with no clear idea how they were all supposed to interact.

The Factory Committees meanwhile, were caught between the rock of managing essentially capitalist enterprises in the midst of profound crisis and the hard place of angry workers. The Russian economy, already in serious distress, effectively collapsed in the six months following the Revolution. The Committees themselves had appeared on the initiative of the workers in an effort to manage the economic crisis as the economy collapsed from February 1917. Although extremely powerful and influential[1], and definite expressions of working class self-activity, they were never anything other than immediate ad hoc arrangements to combat the economic crisis. Their very foundation, based on the immediate running of the factories that produced them, opened them up to the influences of localism and illusions of self-management.

As the crisis developed, even the most minimal demands of the working class were unable to be met. Many factors, not least of which was the decision by the new proletarian power to abandon all military production, conspired to cause many factories to shut down. In Petrograd, where industry was dominated by arms production, unemployment rocketed to 60%! Factories began to establish armed guards to keep the unemployed out as working class solidarity began to disintegrate in the face of extreme social pressures. Factories sent out procurement teams to gain supplies and these teams – often armed – would sometimes come into conflict with similar teams from other factories.

Political power during economic crisis

During this period there were five centres of power that impinged on economic management at this time: the factory committees, the capitalist owners, the economic departments of the soviets, the trade unions and the state! As the economic crisis advanced, all these organs began to suffer from extreme stress. Angry workers elected factory committees one week, only to dissolve them the next, making accusations of abusing their powers and failing to solve the crisis. In some factories, committees changed almost daily, forming an extremely destructive cycle.

Both the Soviets and the Factory Committees were demanding centralised state intervention in order to co-ordinate the economy and sort out the growing chaos. But, in reality, the response of the Bolshevik-controlled state was confused. In fact, it was the first Bolshevik decrees from the national Soviet Sovarknom that had given economic power directly to the Factory Committees, admittedly legalising an already existing state of affairs.

Against this backdrop of chaos, where no-one was in control of the wider processes taking place in the economy - not the capitalists, certainly not the working class, not even the Bolsheviks! - there was the growing problem of famine. Agricultural production had been taken over by the small peasants, who had no desire to feed the working class for free even if workers were unable to afford food because of the virtual collapse of the manufacturing economy. The central government was also faced with the continuing war with Germany (which did not end until March 1918, with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), numerous assassination attempts, marauding bands of Cossacks and widespread banditry.

By mid-1918, Lenin had become completely disillusioned with the capacity of the working class (at least in Russia) to run the economy. The Party, always perceived as a vanguard of the working class, was now being perceived in radical Social Democratic terms i.e. being able to run the state and the economy on behalf of the working class - until such time as the Revolution spread across Europe and the more experienced workers in the West came to the aid of the Russian proletariat. The Party’s organisational structures - which had been practically dissolved during the post-October period - were reorganised and a new discipline in force. From now on, Party directives were to take priority for militants regardless of their posts in the Soviet state. The Party was thus re-organised for the means of wielding administrative power, rather than the role it had played in the pre-revolutionary movement i.e. providing a political orientation to the workers’ struggles.

As the most class-conscious workers departed for the various fronts or to participate in the burgeoning Soviet state, the Factory Committees and Soviets began to take on a far more Menshevik colouring. Factory committees began to call for the re-establishment of the old municipal authorities i.e. the return of the state apparatus of the bourgeois and Tsarist state! Other resolutions were passed in favour of an end to the Civil War, i.e. accommodation with the same Whites that were (literally) crucifying communist workers wherever they found them. In this period, the Bolsheviks feared the collapse of the revolution above all else and they began to reinforce the state to protect the fundamental gains of the revolution. They were also prepared to do this in the face of opposition from the mass of the working class, believing (with some justification in this period) that the fiercest opposition was coming from the most backward and degenerated parts of the proletariat.

What anarchists said at the time

Anarchism today cites these practices as proof of Bolshevism’s bourgeois nature. But in practice, anarchists at the time vacillated between three main positions:

  • Open support for the Provisional Government under Kerensky – they saw the February revolution with its petit-bourgeois democratism as the true goal of the Russian Revolution. As an example, Kropotkin served as an adviser for the Kerensky Government, even though he refused any posts within it. These anarchists were essentially Mensheviks;
  • Support for the Bolshevik Revolution – the best elements of anarchism lined up with the Bolsheviks, at least initially. Many, like Victor Serge, remained loyal to the Revolution and to the original content of Bolshevism for the rest of their lives and joined the best elements of Left Communism in their critique of the Revolution’s degeneration;
  • Opposition to Bolshevism on the basis of a false radicalism that challenged any form of ‘authority’. These anarchists shared the error of the contemporary Left Communists in rejecting the Brest-Litovsk peace. But unlike the Communist Left, which submitted to the democratic will of the Soviet, the anarchist and Left-SRs attempted to re-ignite the conflict through a programme of agitation on the front and assassination of prominent German figures. This was the trigger for an attempted ‘Third’ Russian Revolution to unseat the ‘Bolshevik Dictatorship’. The leader of the main force of this uprising, however, was actually a Left-SR called Popov who – far from decrying the use of state power – was actually a leading member of the CHEKA!

This vacillation on the part of the anarchist milieu is also present in their theoretical approach to Red October. Their fetish for the Factory Committees betrays their vision of ‘communist’ society: a loose federation of commune factories, trading with each other. This arrangement does not fundamentally challenge what Marx called the “cell-form” of capitalism – the production of commodities. Whatever pretensions about ‘workers control’ it may have, the real rulers of such a system are the market, anarchy of production and the law of value. This is not the communist vision of the proletariat, but that of the peasantry, artisan-class and petit-bourgeoisie. While modern anarchism’s critique of the Revolution’s degeneration does contain a genuine proletarian opposition to Stalinism there is a strong element of the peasant or petit-bourgeois’s resentment of centralisation, the subordination of parts to the whole and their overall reactionary egotism.

Lessons for the future

Communism proper can overcome the law of value, not by creating a network of free trading communes, but by rigorously subordinating production to an internationally co-ordinated plan. This does not mean the domination of the state but the mobilisation of the global working class on the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. This true proletarian vision has no need of trade, only distribution, nor of any rivalry between this or that factory commune but harmony and unity between all with each worker, factory and geographical sector of the ‘commune state’ subordinating its own needs before the whole because this is the only way that the needs of all can be satisfied.

Nonetheless, this understanding and a natural desire to defend Bolshevism from its detractors cannot blind us to its very real failings. The proletariat has nothing to fear from confronting its past failings. The Bolsheviks made many grievous errors as they attempted to centralise the economy and defend the revolution against the bourgeoisie. In particular, they were unable to see that their increasing reliance on state repression was creating the very menace they thought they were fighting against. In addition, the centralisation of society’s economic organs does not of itself produce socialism. What made the Russian Revolution a real revolution was not the fact that workers formed committees in an effort to defend themselves in the face of the advancing capitalist crisis[2]. While an expression of the class struggle, these organs cannot be considered the final form of the proletariat’s control of society, simply because while they are essential to run the local aspects of economic activity their nature precludes them being able to manage the economy for the collective benefit of society as whole. The true revolutionary content of Red October was the fact that, through the Soviets, the working class was able to perceive itself not simply as a class capable of controlling factories for the purposes of its own immediate survival but one that could destroy the political power of the bourgeoisie as embodied in the capitalist state and then begin to manage the whole of society. The Bolsheviks began the revolution as an expression of that process but when the consciousness of the class began to retreat they made the mistake of believing they could substitute themselves for the working class.

How then can the proletariat and its revolutionary minorities respond to such pressures in the future? The first point of principle – learned from the experience of the Russian Revolution – is that the revolution cannot be saved by the actions of a vanguard substituting itself for the working class with or without the power of the state. Such actions can only serve to demoralise the class, separate it from its most conscious minorities, and destroy the essential content of a revolution – the actions of the workers themselves. Communists must accept that the class will make mistakes and that often their views will be in a minority within the class. At times, the working class will hesitate and appear to want to hand power back to the bourgeoisie from whom it has just been seized! Communists can only respond to this hesitancy in the way the Bolsheviks did when faced with Soviets dominated by Mensheviks in the first stages of the Revolution – with patient but energetic agitation. When confronted with the inevitable confusions concerning localism, communists must follow the method of Marx and propagandise for the interests of the proletariat as a whole.   DG, 16/11/06

[1]               The Committee were also very pro-Bolshevik at this point. Such was the combination of their support and influence, that at one point Lenin considered changing the Bolshevik slogan from “All Power To The Soviets” to “All Power To The Factory Committees”.


[2]               The anarchist fixation on purely economic forms also betrays the tendency to discount the need for the proletariat to seize political power before it can truly seize economic power. This fundamental error of approach is what leads anarchism to trumpet the successes of the Spanish Civil War in terms of the ‘collectives’. While it is true that these collectives took on the form of workers’ economic control, their content was that of workers managing their own exploitation in service to a particular fraction of the capitalist state.