1919: the programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat

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The period 1918-20, the "heroic" phase of the international revolutionary wave inaugurated by the October insurrection in Russia, was also the period in which the communist parties of the day formulated their programme for the overthrow of capitalism and the transition towards communism.

In IR 93 we examined the programme of the newly formed KPD - the Communist Party of Germany. We saw that it consisted essentially of a series of practical measures designed to guide the proletarian struggle in Germany from the stage of spontaneous revolt to the conscious conquest of political power. In IR 94 we published the Platform of the Communist International - drawn up at its founding congress as a basis for the international regroupment of communist forces and as an outline of the revolutionary tasks facing the workers in all countries.

At almost exactly the same moment, the Communist Party of Russia - the Bolshevik party - published its new programme. The programme was closely linked to the CI platform and indeed had the same author - Nikolai Bukharin. Even so, to a certain extent, this separation between the CI platform and the programmes of its national parties - and between the latter programmes themselves - reflected the persistence of federalist conceptions inherited from the period of social democracy; and, as Bordiga was later to point out, the inability of the "world party" to subject its national sections to the priorities of the international revolution was to have very serious consequences in the face of the retreat of the revolutionary wave and the isolation and degeneration of the revolution in Russia. We will have occasion to return to this particular problem. And yet it is instructive to make a specific study of the RCP programme and to compare it with the ones previously mentioned. The KPD programme was the product of a party faced with the task of leading the masses towards the seizure of power; the CI platform was seen more as a general point of reference for those aiming to regroup with the International than as a detailed programme of action. Indeed, it is one of history's little ironies that the CI did not adopt a formal and unified programme until its 6th Congress in 1928. Here again Bukharin was the author, but this time the programme was also the International's suicide note, since it adopted the infamous theory of socialism in one country and thus ceased to exist as an organ of the internationalist proletariat.

The RCP programme, for its part, was drawn up after the toppling of the bourgeois regime in Russia and was thus first and foremost a precise and detailed statement of the aims and methods of the new soviet power. In short, it was a programme for the dictatorship of the proletariat and thus stands as an invaluable indication of the level of programmatic clarity attained by the contemporary communist movement. Not only that: although we shall not hesitate to point to those parts of the programme which practical experience was to put into question or definitively refute, we shall also be showing that in most of its essentials this document remains a profoundly relevant reference point for the proletarian revolution of the future.

The RCP programme was adopted at the 8th Party Congress in March 1919. The need for a fundamental revision of the old 1908 programme had been apparent at least since 1917 when the Bolsheviks had abandoned the perspective of the "democratic dictatorship" in favour of the proletarian conquest of power and the world socialist revolution. At the time of the 8th Congress there were numerous disagreements within the party about the way forward for the soviet power (we shall return to this in a subsequent article) and so in some senses the programme expressed a certain compromise between different currents in the party; but since, like the CI platform, the document was very much a product of the bright hopes and radical practices of the early phase of the revolution, it was able to satisfy the majority of the party, including many of those who had begun to feel that the revolutionary process in Russia was not advancing with sufficient rapidity or even that certain basic principles were being put into question.

The programme was shortly to be accompanied by a considerable work of explanation and popularisation - The ABC of Communism, penned by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky. This book was constructed around the points of the programme but is more than a mere commentary on it; rather it became a classic in its own right, a synthesis of marxist theory and its development from the Communist Manifesto to the Russian Revolution, written in a lively and accessible style that made it a manual of political education both for the party membership and for the broad mass of workers who supported and sustained the revolution. If this article focuses on the RCP programme rather than The ABC of Communism, it is because a detailed examination of the latter is outside the scope of a single article; it is by no means intended to lessen the importance of the book, which still repays reading today.

The same point can be made even more emphatically with regard to the numerous decrees issued by the soviet power in the initial phases of the revolution, and to the 1918 constitution which defined the structure and functioning of the new power. These documents also need to be examined as part of the "programme of the proletarian dictatorship", not least because, as Trotsky wrote in his autobiography, "during that first period the decrees were really more propaganda than actual administrative measures. Lenin was in a hurry to tell the people what the new power was, what it was after, and how it intended to accomplish its aims" (My Life, Penguin edition, p 356). These decrees covered not only burning political and economic issues - such as the structure of the state and the army, the struggle against the counter-revolution, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and workers' control of industry, the conclusion of a separate peace with Germany etc - but also numerous social issues such as marriage and divorce, education, religion, and so on. Again in Trotsky's words, these decrees "will be preserved forever in history as the proclamations of a new world. Not only sociologists and historians, but future legislators as well, will draw repeatedly from this source" (ibid, p 358). But precisely because of their immense scope, their analysis lies beyond the ambitions of this essay, which will focus on the 1919 Bolshevik programme for the very reason that it provides us with the most synthetic and concise statement of the general goals of the new power and the party whose aims it had adopted.

The epoch of proletarian revolution

The programme begins, like the platform of the CI, by situating itself in the new "era of the world-wide proletarian communist revolution", characterised on the one hand by the development of imperialism, the ferocious struggle for world dominion by the great capitalist powers, and thus by the outbreak of imperialist world war - the concrete expression of the collapse of capitalism; and, on the other hand, by the international revolt of the working class against the horrors of capitalism in decay, a revolt which had taken tangible form in the October insurrection in Russia and the development of the revolution in all the central capitalist countries, particularly Germany and Austria-Hungary. The programme itself does not elaborate on the economic contradictions of capitalism which had led to this collapse; these are examined in The ABC of Communism, although even the latter does not really formulate a definite and coherent theory of the origins of capitalist decadence. By the same token - and in surprising contrast to the CI platform - the programme does not utilise the concept of state capitalism to describe the internal organisation of the bourgeois regime in the new era; again however, this concept is elaborated in The ABC of Communism and in other theoretical contributions by Bukharin which we will come to in another article. Finally, like the CI platform, the RCP programme is absolutely firm in its insistence that it is impossible for the working class to make the revolution "without making it a matter of principle to break off relations with and wage a pitiless struggle against that bourgeois perversion of socialism which is dominant in the leading official social democratic and socialist parties ".

Having affirmed its membership of the new Communist International, the programme then moves on to the practical tasks of the proletarian dictatorship "as applied in Russia, a land whose most notable peculiarity is the numerical predominance of the petty bourgeois stratum of the population". The subheadings that follow in this article correspond to the order and titles of the sections of the RCP programme.

General politics

The first task of any proletarian revolution - the revolution of a class which has no economic base in the old society - must be to consolidate its political power; and in line with the Platform of the Communist International and the accompanying Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship, the RCP programme's "practical" sections begin by affirming the superiority of the soviet system to bourgeois democracy. Against the misleading all-inclusiveness of the latter, the former, based primarily on workplace rather than territorial base units, openly proclaims its class character; in contrast to bourgeois parliaments, the soviets, with their principle of permanent mobilisation through base assemblies and of the immediate revocability of all delegates, also provide the means for the immense majority of the exploited and the oppressed population to exert a real control over the organs of state power, to participate directly in social and economic transformation, and this regardless of race, religion or gender. At the same time, since the immense majority of the Russian population was made up of the peasantry - and since marxism recognises only one revolutionary class in capitalist society - the programme also registers the leading role of the "industrial urban proletariat" and points out that "our Soviet Constitution reflects this, by assigning certain preferential rights to the industrial proletariat, as opposed to the comparatively disunited petty bourgeois masses in the villages" (specifically, as Victor Serge explains in his book Year One of the Russian Revolution, "The All-Russian Congress of Soviets consists of representatives of local soviets, the towns being represented by one deputy for every 25, 000 inhabitants and the country areas by one deputy for every 125, 000. This article formalises the dominance of the proletariat over the peasantry" (Chicago 1972 edition, p271).

The programme, it must be remembered is a party programme, and a true communist party can never be satisfied by any status quo until it has reached the ultimate goal of communism, at which point there will be no need for the party to exist as a separate political organ. That is why this section of the programme repeatedly insists on the need for the party to fight for the increasing participation of the masses in the life of the soviets, to raise their political and cultural level, to combat the national chauvinism and prejudices against women that still exist in the proletariat and other oppressed classes. It is noteworthy that there is within the programme no theorisation of the dictatorship of the party - this was to come later, even if the question of whether or not the party wields power had always been ambiguous for the Bolsheviks and indeed for the entire revolutionary movement at the time. Rather the opposite: there is a real awareness expressed in the programme that the difficult conditions facing the Russian bastion at the time - cultural backwardness, civil war - had already created a real danger of bureaucratisation in the soviet power, and it therefore outlines a series of measures to combat this danger:

"1. Every member of a soviet must undertake some definite work in the administrative service.

2. There must be a continuous rotation among those who engage in such duties, so that each member shall in turn gain experience in every branch of administration.

By degrees, the whole working population must be induced to take turns in the administrative service".

In fact, these measures were largely insufficient given that the programme underestimates the real difficulties posed by the imperialist encirclement and the civil war: the siege conditions, the famine, the grim reality of territorial warfare fought with the most extreme ferocity, the dispersal of the most advanced layers of the proletariat to the front, the plots of the counter-revolution and the corresponding Red Terror: all this sapped the lifeblood from the soviets and other organs of proletarian democracy, more and more subsuming them into a vastly atrophied bureaucratic apparatus. By the time the programme had been written, the involvement of even the most advanced workers in the tasks of state administration was having the effect of removing them from the life of the class and of turning them into bureaucrats. Instead of the tendency for the withering away of the state advocated in Lenin's State and Revolution, it was the soviets that began to wither away, isolating the party at the head of a state machine that had become increasingly divorced from the self-activity of the masses. In such circumstances, the party, far from acting as the most radical critic of the status quo, tended to merge with the state and so become an organ of social conservation (for more on the conditions facing the proletarian bastion at this time, see 'Isolation spells the death of the revolution' in IR 75)

This rapid and tragic negation of the radical vision that Lenin had stood for in 19 J 7 - a state of affairs which had already advanced to a considerable degree by the time the RCP programme was adopted - is frequently utilised by the enemies of revolution to prove that this vision was at best utopian, at worst a mere deception aimed at winning the support of the masses and propelling the Bolsheviks to power. For communists, however, it is proof only that if socialism in one country is impossible, this is no less true of that proletarian democracy which is the political precondition for the creation of socialism. And if there is an important weakness in this and other parts of the programme, it is in the passages that imply that merely applying the principles of the Commune, of proletarian democracy, in the case of Russia could lead to the disappearance of the state, without clearly and unambiguously stating that this could only be the result of a successful international revolution.

The problem of nationality

While on many questions, not least the problem of proletarian democracy, the RCP programme was faced above all with the practical difficulty of applying its measures in the conditions of the civil war, the section on the problem of nationality is flawed from the outset. Correct in its starting point - the "primary importance of ... the policy of uniting the proletarians and semi-proletarians of various nationalities in a joint revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie ", and in its recognition of the need to overcome feelings of suspicion engendered by long years of national oppression, the programme adopts the slogan that had been defended by Lenin since the days of the Second International: the "right of nations to self-determination" as the best way to allay these suspicions, and applicable even (and especially) under soviet power. On this point the author of the programme, Bukharin, took a significant step backwards from the position he, along with Piatakov and others, had put forward during the imperialist war: that the slogan of national self-determination was "first of all utopian (it cannot be realised within the limits of capitalism) and harmful as a slogan which disseminates illusions" (letter to the Bolshevik Central Committee, November 1915). And as Rosa Luxemburg showed in her pamphlet The Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks' policy of allowing "subject nations" to secede from the soviet power simply handed over the proletarians of these newly "self-determining" bourgeois nations to their own predatory ruling classes, and above all to the schemes and manoeuvres of the great imperialist powers. The same disastrous results were obtained in "colonial" countries like Turkey, Iran or China where the soviet power thought it could ally itself with the "revolutionary" bourgeoisie. In the 18th century Marx and Engels had certainly supported certain struggles for national independence, but only because in that period capitalism still had a progressive role to play vis-a-vis the old feudal or despotic remnants of a previous era. At no stage in history could "national self-determination" mean anything but self- determination for the bourgeoisie. In the epoch of the proletarian revolution, where the entire bourgeoisie stands as a reactionary obstacle to human progress, the adoption of this policy was indeed to prove extremely harmful to the needs of the proletarian revolution (see our pamphlet Nation or Class and the article on the national question in IR 67). The one and only way to struggle against the national enmities that existed within the working class was to work for the development of the international class struggle.

Military affairs

This is inevitably an important section of the programme given that it was written when the internal civil war was still raging. The programme affirms certain basics: the necessity for the destruction of the old bourgeois army and for the new Red Army to be an instrument for the defence of the proletarian dictatorship. Certain measures are put forward to ensure that the new army does indeed serve the needs of the proletariat: that it should be "exclusively composed of the proletariat and the kindred semi-proletarian strata of the peasantry"; that training and instruction in the army be "effected upon a basis of class solidarity and socialist enlightenment", to which end "there must be political commissars, appointed from among trusty and self-denying communists, to cooperate with the military staff", while a new category of officers composed of class conscious workers and peasants must be trained and prepared for leading roles in the army; in order to prevent the separation between the army and the proletariat, there must be "the closest possible association between the military units and the factories, workshops, trade unions and poor peasants' organisations", while the period of barrack life should be "reduced to the utmost". The use of military experts inherited from the old regime was accepted on condition that that such elements be strictly supervised by the organs of the working class. Prescriptions of this type express a more or less intuitive awareness that the Red Army was particularly vulnerable to escaping the political control of the working class; but given that this was the first Red Army and the first soviet state in history, this awareness was inevitably limited both at the theoretical and the practical level.

The last paragraph of the section already poses certain problems, where it says that "the demand for the election of officers, which had great importance as a matter of principle in relation to the bourgeois army whose commanders were especially trained as an apparatusfor the class subjugation of the common soldiers (and, through the instrumentality of the common soldiers, the subjugation of the toiling masses), ceases to have any significance as a mailer of principle in relation to the class army of workers and peasants. A possible combination of election with appointment from above may he expedient for the revolutionary class army on practical grounds".

While it is true that elections and collective decision-making have their limitations in a military context - particularly in the heat of the battle - the paragraph seems to underestimate the degree to which the new army was itself reflecting the bureaucratisation of the state by reviving many of the old norms of subordination. In fact, a "Military Opposition", linked to the Democratic Centralism group, had already arisen in the party, and at the 8th Congress it was particularly voiciferous in criticising the tendency to deviate from the "principles of the Commune" in the organisation of the army. These principles are important not merely on "practical" grounds but above all because they create the best conditions for the political life of the proletariat to infuse the army. But during the civil war period, the opposite was tending to happen: the imposition of "normal" military methods was helping to create a climate in favour of the militarisation of the entire soviet power. The leader of the Red Army, Trotsky, became more and more associated with such an approach in the period 1920-21.

The basic problem we are dealing with here is the problem of the transitional state. The Red Army - like the special security force, the Cheka, which is not even mentioned in the programme - is a statist organ par excellence, and, while it can be used to safeguard the gains of the revolution, cannot be considered as a proletarian and communist organ. Even exclusively composed of proletarians (which could hardly be the case in Russia), it inevitably appears as an organ one step removed from the collective life of the class. It was thus particularly damaging that the Red Army, like other state institutions, was more and more escaping the overall political control of the workers' councils; while at the same time, the dissolution of the Red Guards, based in the factories, deprived the class of a means of direct self-defence against the danger of internal degeneration. But these were lessons that could only be learned through the often merciless school of revolutionary experience.

Proletarian Justice

This section of the programme complements the one on general politics. The destruction of the old bourgeois state also involves the replacement of the old bourgeois courts with a new apparatus of justice in which judges are elected from among the workers, and jurors drawn up from amongst the mas of the labouring population; the new court system was [Q be simplified and made more accessible to the population than the old labyrinth of higher and lower courts. Penal methods were [Q be freed of any attitude of revenge and become constructive and educational. The long term aim being that "the penal system shall ultimately be transformed into a system of measures of an educative character" in a society without classes or a state. The ABC of Communism, however, pointed out that the urgent demands of the civil war had required the new popular courts to be supplemented by revolutionary tribunals to deal not only with "ordinary" social crime but with the activities of the counter-revolution. The summary justice handed out by these tribunals was a product of bunting necessity, although abuses were committed, and certainly carried the danger that the introduction of more humane methods would be postponed indefinitely. Thus the death penalty, abolished by one of the first decrees of the new soviet power in 1917, was rapidly restored in the fight against the White Terror.


Like the proposed penal reforms, the soviet power's efforts to overhaul the education system were very much subject to the demands of the civil war, Furthermore, given the extreme backwardness of social conditions in Russia, where illiteracy was widespread, many of the proposed changes themselves aimed no further than enabling the Russian population to reach a level of education already attained in some of the more advanced bourgeois democracies. Hence the call for free, compulsory co-educational schooling for all children up to the age of 17; for the provision of crèches and kindergartens to free women from domestic drudgery; for the removal of religious influence from the schools; the provision of extra-scholastic facilities such as adult education, libraries, cinemas etc etc.

Nevertheless, the longer term aim was "the transformation of the school so that from being an organ for maintaining the class dominion of the bourgeoisie, it shall become an organ for the complete abolition of the division of society into classes, an organ for the communist regeneration of society ".

To this end, the "unified labour school" was a key concept, elaborated more completely in The ABC of Communism. Its function was seen as that of beginning to overcome the division between elementary, middle and upper schools, between the sexes, between common schools and elite schools. Here again, it was recognised that such a school was the ideal of every advanced educationist, but as a unified labour school it was seen as a crucial factor in the communist abolition of the old division of labour. The hope was that from a very early stage in a child's life, there would no longer be any rigid separation between mental education and productive work, so that "in communist society, there will be no closed corporations, no stereotyped guilds, no petrified specialist groups. The most brilliant man of science must also be skilled in manual labour ... .A child's first activities take the form of play; play should gradually pass into work by an imperceptible transition, so that the child learns from the very outset to look upon labour, not as a disagreeable necessity or an a punishment, but as a natural and spontaneous expression of faculty. Labour should be a need, like the desire for food and drink; this need must be instilled and developed in the communist school".

These basic principles would surely remain valid in a future revolution. Contrary to certain strains of anarchist thought, school cannot be abolished overnight, but its aspect as an instrument for imposing bourgeois discipline and ideology would certainly have to be attacked straight away, not only in the content of what is taught (The ABC is very insistent on the need to instil the school with a proletarian outlook in all areas of education), but also in the way (hat teaching takes place (the principle of direct democracy, as far as possible, would have to replace the old hierarchies within the school). Similarly, the gulf between manual and mental labour, work and play would also have to be addressed from the start. In the Russian revolution, numerous experiments took place in these directions; although disrupted by the civil war, some of them continued well into the 1920s. Indeed, one of the signs that the counter-revolution had finally triumphed was that the schools once again became instruments for the imposition of bourgeois ideology and hierarchy, even if concealed in the garb of Stalinist "marxism".


The inclusion of a specific section on religion in the party programme was, at one level, an expression of the backwardness of Russian material and cultural conditions, compelling the new power to "complete" certain tasks unrealised by the old regime, in particular, the separation of church and state and the ending of state provision for religious institutions. However, this section also explains that the party cannot remain satisfied with the measures "which bourgeois democracy includes in its programmes but has nowhere carried out owing to the manifold associations that actually obtain between capital and religious propaganda". There were longer term aims guided by the recognition that "nothing but the fulfilment of purposiveness and full awareness in all the social and economic activities of the masses can lead to the complete disappearance of religious prejudices". In other words, religious alienation cannot be eliminated without the elimination of social alienation, and this is possible only in a fully communist society. This did not mean that the communists took a passive attitude to the existing religious illusions of the masses; they had to be actively fought on the basis of a scientific conception of the world. But this was above all a work of propaganda; it was completely foreign to the Bolsheviks to advocate the forcible suppression of religion - another hallmark of the Stalinist regime which could dare in its counter-revolutionary arrogance to have realised socialism and thus to have extirpated the social roots of religion. On the contrary, while carrying out a militant atheist propaganda, it was necessary for the communists and the new revolutionary power to "avoid anything that can wound the feelings of believers, for such a method can only lead to the strengthening of religious fanaticism". This is also far removed from the approach of anarchism, which favours the method of direct provocation and insult.

These basic prescriptions have not lost their relevance today. The hope, sometimes expressed in Marx's earlier writings, that religion was already dead for the proletariat, has not been fulfilled. Not only the persistence of social and economic backwardness in many parts of the world, but also the decadence and decomposition of bourgeois society, its tendency to regress to extremely reactionary forms of thought and belief, have ensured that religion and its various offshoots remain a powerful force of social control. Consequently communists are still faced with the necessity to fight against the "religious prejudices of the masses".

Economic Affairs

The proletarian revolution necessarily begins as a political revolution because, having no means of production or social property of its own, the working class needs the lever of political power in order to begin the social and economic transformation that will lead to a communist society. The Bolsheviks were fundamentally clear on the fact that this transformation could only be carried to its conclusion on a global scale; although as we have noted, the RCP programme, this section included, does contain a number of ambiguous formulations which talk about the establishment of complete communism as a kind of progressive development within the "soviet power", without making it clear whether this refers to the existing soviet power in Russia or to a world-wide republic of councils. In the main, however, the economic measures advocated in the programme are relatively modest and realistic. A revolutionary power could certainly not avoid posing the "economic" question from the start, since it is precisely the economic chaos provoked by the collapse of capitalism which compels the proletariat to intervene in order to ensure that it provide society with the minimum needed for survival. This was the case in Russia where the demand for "bread" was one of the main factors of revolutionary mobilisation. However, any idea that the working class, having assumed power, could set about calmly and peacefully reorganising economic life was immediately dismissed by the speed and brutality of the imperialist encirclement and the White counter-revolution which, coming in the wake of the World War, had "bequeathed an utterly chaotic situation" to the victorious proletariat. In these conditions, the primary aims of the soviet power in the economic sphere were defined as being:

* the completion of the expropriation of the ruling class, the seizure of the principal means of production by the soviet power;

* the centralisation of all economic activities in all the areas under soviet rule (including those in "other" countries), under a common plan; the aim of such planning was to secure "a universal increase in the productive forces of the country" - not for the sake of the "country" but in order to ensure "a rapid increase in the quantity of goods urgently needed by the population";

* the gradual integration of small-scale urban production (handicrafts etc) into the socialised sector via the development of cooperatives and other more collective forms;
* the maximum use of all available labour power by "the general mobilisation by the soviet power of all members of the population who are physically and mentally fit for work";

* the encouragement of a new labour discipline based on a collective sense of responsibility and solidarity;

* the maximation of the benefits of scientific research and technology, including the use of specialists inherited from the old regime.

These general guidelines remain fundamentally valid both as the first steps of a proletarian power seeking to produce the necessities for survival in a given area, and for the real begirmings of communist construction by the world-wide republic of councils. The main problem here was again the harsh conflict between overall aims and immediate conditions. The project of raising the consuming power of the masses was straight away thwarted by the demands of the civil war which turned Russia into a veritable caricature of a war economy. So great was the chaos brought about by the civil war that "the development of the productive powers of the country" remained a complete non-starter. Instead the vastly diminished productive powers of Russia, the result of the imperialist war, were still further diminished by the ravages of the civil war and by the necessity to feed and clothe the Red Army in its combat against the counter-revolution. The fact that this war economy was highly centralised, and, in conditions of financial chaos, virtually did away with monetary forms, led to its being dubbed "war communism"; but this altered nothing of the fact that military necessities more and more prevailed over the real aims and methods of the proletarian revolution. In order to maintain its collective political rule, the working class needs to have secured at least the basic material necessities of life and in particular to have the time and energy to engage in political life. But we have already seen that instead, during the civil war, the working class was reduced to absolute penury, its best elements dispersed to the front or swallowed up in the growing "soviet" bureaucracy, subject to a real process of "declassment" as others fled to the countryside or scrabbled to survive by petty trade and theft; those who remained in factories which still produced were forced to work longer hours than ever before, sometimes under the watchful eye of Red Army detachments. The Russian proletariat made these sacrifices willingly, but since they were not compensated by the extension of the revolution, they were to have profoundly damaging longer term effects, above all in undermining the proletariat's capacity to defend and maintain its dictatorship over society.

The RCP programme, as we have also seen, did recognise the danger of growing bureaucratisation during this period, and advocated a series of measures to combat it. But whereas the "political" section of the programme is still wedded to the defence of the soviets as the best means of maintaining proletarian democracy, the section on economic affairs emphasises the role of the trade unions, both in the management of the economy and in the defence of the workers from the excesses of bureaucracy: "The participation of the trade unions in the conduct of economic life, and the involvement by them of the broad masses of the people in this work, would appear at the same time to be our chief aid in the campaign against the bureaucratisation of the soviet power. This will also facilitate the establishment of an effective control over the results of production".

That the proletariat, as the politically dominant class, also needs to exercise to the maximum a direct control over the process of production, is axiomatic and - on the understanding that political tasks cannot be subordinated to economic tasks, above all in the period of the civil war - this remains true throughout all phases of the transition period. Workers who cannot "rule" in the factories are unlikely to be able to take political control over an entire society. But what is mistaken here is the idea that the trade unions could be the instrument for this task. On the contrary, by their very nature, the trade unions were much more susceptible to the virus of bureaucratisation; and it was no accident that the trade union apparatus became the organs of an increasingly bureaucratic state within the factories. by abolishing or absorbing the factory committees which had been a product of the revolutionary élan of 1917, and which were therefore a far more direct expression of the life of the class and a far better base for resisting bureaucracy and regenerating the soviet system as a whole. But the factory committees are not even mentioned in the programme. It is certainly true that these committees often suffered from localist and syndicalist misconceptions, in which each factory was seen as the private property of the workers who worked within them: during the desperate days of the civil war, such ideas reached their nadir in the practice of workers bartering "their own" products for food and fuel. But the answer to such errors was not to absorb the factory committees into the trade unions and the state; it was to ensure that they functioned as organs of proletarian centralisation by linking them much more closely to the workers' soviets - an obvious possibility given that the same factory assembly which elected delegates to the town's soviet also elected its factory committee. To these observations we should add: the difficulties that the Bolsheviks had in understanding that the trade unions were obsolete as organs of the class (a fact confirmed by the very emergence of the soviet form) was also to have very grave consequences in the International, especially after 1920, where the influence of the Russian communists was decisive in preventing the CI from adopted a clear and unambiguous position on the trade unions.


The basic approach to the peasant question in the programme had already been outlined by Engels in relation to Germany. Whereas large scale capitalist farms could be socialised fairly rapidly by the proletarian power, it would not be possible to compel the small farmers to join this sector. They would have to be won over gradually, primarily thanks to the capacity of the proletariat to prove in practice the superiority of socialist methods.

In a country like Russia, where pre-capitalist relations still held sway in much of the countryside, and where the expropriation of the great landed estates during the revolution had resulted in the peasants dividing up the land into innumerable smallholdings, this was all the more true. The policy of the party could thus only be to, on the one hand, encourage the class struggle between the semi-proletarian poor peasants and the rich peasants and rural capitalists, helping to create special organs for the poor peasants and rural proletarians who would be the main support for the extension and deepening of the revolution in the countryside; and, on the other hand, to establish a modus vivendi with the smallholding middle peasants, helping them materially with seed, manure, technology etc, so as to increase their yield, and at the same time fostering cooperatives and communes as transitional steps towards a real collectivisation. "The party aims at detaching them [the middle peasants] from the rich peasants, at bringing them over to the side of the working class by paying special attention to their needs. It attempts to overcome their backwardness in cultural matters by measures of an ideological character, carefully avoiding any coercive steps. On all occasions upon which their vital interests are touched, it endeavours to come to a practical agreement with them, making to them such concessions as will promote socialist construction". Given the terrible economic scarcity in Russia immediately after the insurrection, the proletariat was not in a position to offer these strata much in the way of material improvement, and indeed, under war communism, many abuses against the peasants were committed during the requisitioning of grain to feed the army and the starving cities. But this was till a far cry from the forced Stalinist collectivisation of the 1930s, which was based on the monstrous assumption that the violent expropriation of the petty bourgeoisie (and this for the requirements of a capitalist war economy) signified the achievement of socialism.


"In the sphere of distribution, the task of the soviet power at the present time is unerringly to continue the replacement of trade by a purposive distribution of goods, by a system of distribution organised by the slate upon a national scale. The aim is to achieve the organisation of the whole population into an integral network of consumers' communes, which shall be able with the utmost speed, purposiveness, economy and a minimal expenditure of labour, to distribute all the necessary goods, while strictly centralising the whole distributive apparatus". The existing cooperative associations, defined as "petty bourgeois ", were to be as far as possible transformed into" consumer communes led by the proletarians and the semi-proletarians" . This passage conveys all the grandeur but also all the limitations of the Russian revolution. The communisation of distribution is an integral part of the revolutionary programme and this section shows how seriously it was taken by the Bolsheviks. But the real progress they had made towards it was greatly exaggerated during - and indeed because of the war communism period. War communism was in reality no more than the collectivisation of misery and was largely imposed by a state machine that was already slipping out of the workers' hands. The fragility of its basis was proved as soon as the internal civil war had ended, when there was a rapid and general return to private enterprise and trade (which had in any case flourished as a black market under war communism). It is certainly true that, just as the proletariat will have to collectivise large sectors of the productive apparatus after the insurrection in one region of the world, it will also have to do the same for many aspects of distribution. But while these measures may have some continuity with the constructive policies of a victorious world revolution, neither should the they be identified with the latter. The real communisation of distribution depends on the capacity of the new social order to "deliver the goods" more effectively than capitalism (even if the goods themselves differ substantially). Material scarcity and poverty are the soil of commodity relations; material abundance the only solid basis for the development of collectivised distribution and for society to "inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875).

Money and Banks

As with distribution, so with money, its "normal" vehicle under capitalism: given the impossibility of immediately installing integral communism, above all in the confines of a single country, the proletariat can only take a series of measures which tend in the direction of a moneyless society. However, the illusions of war communism - in which the collapse of the economy was confused with its communist reconstruction - lend an over-optimistic tone to this and other related sections. Equally over-optimistic is the notion that merely nationalising the banks and fusing them into a single state bank would constitute the first steps towards "the disappearance of banks and to their conversion into the central book-keeping establishment of communist society". It is doubtful that organs so central to the operation of capital can be taken over in this way, even if the physical seizure of the banks will certainly be necessary as one of the first revolutionary blows aimed at paralysing the hand of capital.


"During the epoch in which the socialisation of the means of production confiscated from the capitalists has begun, the state power ceases to be a parasitic apparatus nourished upon the productive process. There now begins its transformation into an organisation directly fulfilling the function of administering the economic life of the country. To this extent the state budget will be a budget of the whole of the national economy". Again, the intentions are laudable but bitter experience was to show that in the conditions of an isolated or stagnating revolution, even the new commune-state more and more becomes a parasitic apparatus feeding on the revolution and the working class; and even in the best conditions it can no longer be assumed that merely centralising finances in the hands of the state "naturally" leads an economy that once functioned on the basis of profit to become one functioning on the basis of need.

The housing question

This section of the programme is more rooted in immediate necessities and possibilities. A victorious proletarian power cannot avoid taking rapid steps to relieve homelessness and overcrowding, as did the soviet power after 1917, when it "completely expropriated all the houses belonging to capitalist landlords and handed them over to the urban soviets. It effected mass settlements of workers from the suburbs in the bourgeois dwellings. It handed over the best of these dwellings to the workers' organisations, arranging for the upkeep of the houses at the cost of the state; it undertook to provide the workers' families with furniture, etc". But here again, the programme's more constructive aims - the clearing of slums and the provision of decent housing for all - remained largely unrealised in a war-ravaged country. And while the Stalinist regime embarked upon massive housing schemes later on, the dreadful results of these schemes (the infamous workers' barracks of the ex-Eastern bloc) were certainly no solution to the "housing problem ".

Evidently, the longer term solution to the housing question lies in a total transformation of the urban and rural environment - in the abolition of the antithesis between town and country, the reduction of urban gigantism and the rational distribution of the world's population over the face of the earth. Clearly such grandiose transformations cannot be carried through until after the definitive defeat of the bourgeoisie.

Labour protection and social welfare work

The immediate measures put forward here, given the extreme conditions of exploitation prevailing in Russia, are merely the application of minimum demands long fought for in the workers' movement: the 8-hour day, disability and unemployment benefit, paid holiday and maternity leave, etc. And as the programme itself admits, even many of these gains had to suspended or modified due to the demands of the civil war. However, the document pledges the party to fight not only for these "immediate demands" but also for more radical ones - in particular, the reduction of the working day to six hours so that more time could be devoted to training, not only in work-related areas but also and above all in state administration. This was crucial because, as we have already noted, a working class weighed down by daily labour will not have the time or energy for political activity and the running of the state.

Public Hygiene

Here again it was a matter of struggling for "reforms" which were long overdue because of the terrible conditions of existence experienced by the Russian proletariat (diseases related to slum housing, unsupervised hygiene and safety standards at work), etc. Thus, "the Russian Communist Party regards the following as its immediate tasks:

1. the vigorous pursuance of extensive sanitary measures in the interests of the workers, such as:

(a) improvement of the sanitary condition of all places of public resort; the protection of earth, water and air;

(b) the organisation of communal kitchens and of the food supply generally upon a scientific and hygienic foundation;

(c) measures to prevent the spread of disease of a contagious character;

(d) sanitary legislation (. . .)

4. a campaign against social diseases (tuberculosis, venereal disease, alcoholism).
5. The free provision of medical advice and treatment for the whole population" .

Many of these apparent basics, however, have yet to be achieved in many regions of the globe. If anything, the scope of the problem has widened immeasurably. To begin with, the bourgeoisie, faced with the development of the crisis, is everywhere cutting back the medical provisions that had begun to be regarded as "normal" in the advanced capitalist countries. Secondly, the aggravation of capitalism's decadence has vastly amplified certain problems, above all through its "progressive" destruction of the natural environment. Whereas the RCP programme only briefly mentions the need for the "protection of earth, water and air", any programme of the future would have to recognise what an enormous task this represents after decades of systematic poisoning of "earth, water and air".


We have noted that the essential radicalism of the RCP programme was a product of the unity of aim and purpose in the Bolshevik party in 1919, and a reflection of the high revolutionary hopes of that moment. In the next article in this series we shall examine a further effort by the Bolshevik party to understand the nature and tasks of the transition period, this time posed in a more general and theoretical manner. Once again the author of the text in question - The Economics of the Transformation Period - was Nikolai Bukharin.


Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 

General and theoretical questions: 


Communism is not a nice idea, it is on the historical agenda