Posts Tagged ‘Soviets’

The Russian Revolutionaries on the Democratic Right to Recall Politicians

March 19, 2014

Soviet Poster

Russian Revolutionary poster showing the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!’

One of the promises the Tories and Tory Democrats have also gone back on was that they would give people the right to have their MP suspended or dismissed if they were guilty of misconduct. The promise was made during the expenses scandal, and was obviously far too radical for the Coalition. In the words of Sir Humphrey in BBC’s political comedy, Yes Minister, it was very ‘courageous’. This meant that it might lose them the next election. After all, what would happen if even more Tory or Liberal MPs were caught fiddling their expenses or some other, worse activity, like sexual assault? And so it was announced the other week that the policy had been dropped.

The Russian revolutionaries also initially demanded the right to recall unsatisfactory delegates to their national assembly. On the 7th December the All-Russian Executive Committee of Soviets issued the following resolution, stating clearly their demands for such a right:

However a body of elected representatives may be constituted, it can only be considered truly democratic and representative of the will of the people when the right of the voters to recall their representatives is recognised and implemented. This founding precept of democracy applies to the Constituent Assembly as to all other representative bodies … The Congress of the Councils of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ delegates, which is constituted on the basis of parity, has the right to call for new elections to all bodies representative of citizens, peasants or any other groups, and this includes the Constituent Assembly. At the request of more than half the electors in the constituency in questions, the Councils must order new elections.

Karl Kautsky: ‘Dictatorship and Democracy’, in Patrick Goode, ed. and trans. Karl Kautsky: Selected Political Writings (London: Macmillan 1983) 124.

at the time the All-Russian Executive Committee of Soviets issued the demand, Russia was still in a state of turmoil. The Bolsheviks hadn’t yet seized power, although the Tsar had been overthrown. There were thus demands for the formation of a constituent assembly to decide the constitution and political form of the new Russia. In the event, this demand was also much too radical for the Bolsheviks. The provisional government and its elected ministers were overthrown, and the Bolsheviks installed as the only permitted political party. Nevertheless, the idea that citizens should have the right to recall their political representatives would be a powerful democratic right.

It will not, of course, ever be implemented in Britain, and especially not by the Tories or Tory Democrats. As has been shown by the government’s attitude to parliament, where demands for a cumulative impact assessment in to the terrible effect the government’s cuts to disability benefit was having on disable people and their careers, and Ian Duncan Smith’s refusal to explain his department’s conduct and policies before the Work and Pensions Committee, Cameron and the rest do not see themselves as responsible to the honourable gentlemen and ladies of parliament, let alone the British electorate. Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and IDS are all aristos who assume, they have a natural right to govern. They need to be shown that they do not, and that they are responsible to the people.

Workers’ Councils as a Support for Democracy

March 18, 2014

Eisner pic

Kurt Eisner, Bavarian politician and Workers’ Council leader, in 1918.

Yesterday I put up a piece about the establishment of workers’ control of industry during the Russian revolution in 1917, when Lenin granted the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils – the soviets – the power to manage the enterprises in which their members were employed. Germany also experienced a council revolution of its own 1918, following its defeat in the First World War. This was a period of immense political turmoil throughout Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Germany, the Kaiser was forced to abdicate and his noble successor, Prince Max of Baden, granted sweeping changes to the constitution. Germany was to become a constitutional monarchy, stripped the emperor of command over the army and made the Reichstag, the German parliament, responsible for deciding war and peace. In Germany the revolution started on the 29th October, when the sailors at Kiel mutinied against an order to launch one last attack on England. With support from the dockers, they established a workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ council. From there the movement spread through the rest of Germany.

Although the councils appear to have been modelled on the Russian soviets, there was very little Communist influence in them. Most of their members belonged to the majority socialist Social Democrat Party. In many cases the movement fizzled out after a year. In some parts of Germany they acted as Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, advising working people on how to obtain better wages, conditions or housing. Only in the Ruhr did they attempt to nationalise the mines. Their existence was a matter of considerable controversy, as majority of the German Social Democrats felt that they were a threat to the parliamentary democracy they wished to create.

The leader of the workers’ council in Munich, Kurt Eisner, was a left-wing theatre critic. He was not a radical nor an opponent of parliamentary democracy. He wished instead to combine the new workers’ councils with parliament to create a system where the workers and peasants had a direct influence on parliament. In a meeting with the representatives of other German states in Berlin, Eisner thus explained his ideas

The workers; and soldiers’ councils must remain the basis of the whole movement, and in the south the peasant councils too, which in the east would be agricultural labourers’ councils. The more the workers’ and soldiers’ councils were given an opportunity to do fruitful work the less we would have to fear the bogy of chaos.

With regard to the question of the National Assembly it was entirely obvious that it must be summoned. This applied to the Reich as well as to the individual Diets. The revolution was no the same as democracy, the revolution would have to create democracy (Hear, hear!)

It must thus be our task to use the time to lead the whole mass of the people towards democracy. There were people who maintained that democracy consisted of elections every five years and then remaining at home for five years. That was the bourgeois parliamentarianism of the past. Now all productive forces must be employed in the work of democratic consolidation…

The revolution was only two weeks old, and if there was much discussion about the excesses of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, one thing was certain: they had not yet ignited a world war; such small matters should not be taken too seriously…

F.L Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918-19 (Aldershot: Wildwood House 1988) 183.

In a debate in the Bavarian cabinet with Frauendorfer, who opposed the councils, Eisner stated that giving the council legislative, rather than advisory powers, would be Bolshevism, to which he was opposed. He was instead a supporter of parliamentary democracy. This was, however, qualified in a speech he made a few days later to a conference of Bavarian workers’ councils.

The workers’ councils shall be the parliaments of those doing physical and also intellectual work, and if this is countered by the view that the National Assembly, the Diet, will make these workers’ councils redundant, then I maintain: on the contrary, we may do without the National Assembly rather than without the workers’ councils. (Tumultuous applause.)

For, if the National Assembly is not to lead again into empty parliamentarianism, then the living force of the workers’ councils must unfold itself., The workers’ and other councils are as it were the organization of the electors. The electors must watch and be active and must not leave it to the deputies to do whatever clever or stupid things they see fit to undertake. The function of these councils in my opinion is the direct politicization and democratization of the masses…. (pp. 185-6).

Eisner, however, lost the subsequent Bavarian elections and the Diet passed a Basic Law establishing the Diet as the organisation to which ministers were responsible, rather than the councils. Eisner was therefore asked to offer his recognition the next day, the 21st February. As he was on his way to the Diet to do so, he was shot dead by an extreme right-wing aristocrat, Count Anton Arco-Valley.

Parliament should clearly be at the heart of British politics as the cornerstone of democracy and representative government down the centuries. There is, however, a real problem in that many people are alienated from government., especially the working classes, who feel that all the parties are the same. This is to some extent true, as all the parties have adopted the same Neoliberal policies to a greater or lesser extent. If the parties really are serious about trying to get more people to take an interest in politics, then they need to create institutions where ordinary people genuinely feel that their voices are heard, and that politicians are not left to do whatever they wish in parliament regardless of the views or the impact it will have on the electorate. And politics should be far more than simply a case of putting a cross in a box every five years. We now need an expansion of politics and democratic institutions, not the atrophied state in which they have lapsed since Thatcher.

Lenin and Workers’ Control of Industry

March 17, 2014

Lenin Pic

Lenin: Leader of the Russian Communist Party

One of the motives of the workers joining and leading the February 1917 revolution, which established the duma – the Russian parliament – and which overthrew the Tsar was for the control of industry by the workers themselves. The system of soviets – workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils set up during the Revolution organised the control of industry, including the railways, factories and other services. Lenin initially supported and looked forward to the management of industry by the workers themselves through elected councils, with the managers merely their paid officials. He wrote

We the workers, shall organise large-scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created, relying on our own experience as workers, establishing strict, iron discipline backed up by the state power of the armed workers. We shall reduce the role of state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, revocable, modestly paid ‘foremen and accountants’… This is our proletarian task, this is what we can and must start with in accomplishing the proletarian revolution. Such a beginning, on the basis of large-scale production, will of itself lead to the gradual ‘withering away’ of all bureaucracy, to the gradual creation of an order … under which the functions of control and accounting, becoming more and more simple, will be performed by each in turn, will then become a habit and will finally die out as the special functions of a special section of the population.

From: Anthony Wright, Socialisms – Why Socialists Disagree – and What They Disagree About (Oxford: OUP 1987) 85-6.

Soviet Poster

Russian Revolutionary Poster: the slogan on the banner says ‘All Power to the Soviets’.

This led to the Decree on Workers’ Control, issued on the 14th November 1917. This stated:

1. In the interests of a systematic regulation of national economy, Workers’ Control is introduced in all industrial, commercial, agricultural (and similar) enterprises which are hiring people to work for them in their shops or which are giving them work to take home. This control is to extend of the production, storing, buying and selling of raw materials and finished products as well as over the finances of the enterprise.

2. The workers will exercise this control through their elected organizations, such as factory and shop committees, soviets of elders, etc. The office employees and the technical personnel are also to have representation in these committees.

3. Every large city, province and industrial area is to have its own Soviet of Workers’ Control, which, being an organ of the S(oviet) of W(orkers’) S(oldiers’), and P(easants’) D(eputies’), must be composed of representatives of trade-unions, factory, shop and other workers’ committees and workers’ co-operatives…

6. The organs of Workers’ Control have the right to supervise production, fix the minimum of output, and determine the cost of production.

7. The organs of Workers’ Control have the right to control all the business correspondence of an enterprise. Owners of enterprises are legally responsible for all correspondence kept secret. Commercial secrets are abolished. The owners have to show to the organs of Workers’ Control all their books and statements for the current year and for the past years.

8. the rulings of the organs of Workers’ Control are binding on the owners of enterprises and can be annulled only by decisions of the higher organs of Workers’ Control.

From Robert V. Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism, Vol.1: Communism in Russia (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd 1987) 89.

Lenin eventually abandoned workers’ control of industry, as contrary to his expectations the workers were largely unable to run it efficiently. Nevertheless, it later influenced the Yugoslavs and other Communists to develop similar systems. Gorbachev was also planning to introduce it into Russian factories under perestroika to transform them into co-operatives.

Gun Rights in 19th Century Britain: A Left-Wing Cause

July 7, 2013

The issue of gun rights – the right of the individual to bear arms, as stated in the American 2nd Amendment, is today pretty much the preserve of the Conservative Right in America and Britain. There are some Democrats and Radicals, however, who support the individual’s right to arm him- or herself against tyranny. In 19th century Britain, however, gun rights were supported and demanded by radical members of the disenfranchised working class.

Peter Hitchens on Contemporary Politics and the British Empire

After the last shooting tragedy in America, Peter Hitchens’ posted his views on the issue on his blog on the Mail on Sunday webpage. Hitchen’s is very much a man of the Right, having rejected his youthful Trotskyite Marxism and moved across the floor to Conservatism. He is also a staunch defender of Christianity, unlike his late brother, Christopher, who was a militant New Atheist. Nevertheless, politically Hitchen’s is very much his own man. He heartily despises David Cameron for his rejection of tradition, Conservative marriage and sexual morality. He frequently derides him as ‘Mr. Slippery’ for Cameron’s electoral duplicity and lack of any consistent morals. Some of his views seem to be those of the traditional Left, or Butlerian Conservatism, rather than modern Cameronite post-Thatcherism. He had opposed the sale to the private sector of council houses and the railway network, and objects to private policing and prisons on the grounds that only the state has the moral authority to prosecute and punish crime. Many of his views are eccentric and highly controversial. He believes that we should have stayed out of the Second World War, for example. In his view this would have allowed us to preserve our national independence and Empire against the supranational, unaccountable misgovernment of the European Union. I believe he is profoundly mistaken in this. In one of his articles from the 1930, George Orwell describes watching a parade of Black African troopers in the French army in Morocco. Orwell describes the troopers’ expectant looks as they saluted the watching White officers. He stated that at that point, he knew what every white man there was thinking, ‘How long can we keep on fooling these people?’ The break-up of the British Empire was partly a product of Britain’s economic exhaustion and near-defeat by the Axis during the Second World War. Nevertheless, the independence movements in Africa and particularly India predate the War. Modern historians of the British Empire have pointed out that the Empire was actually an economic drain on Britain after c. 1900. In many ways the Second World War merely accelerated a process that had already began, rather than caused the break-up of the Empire.

Peter Hitchen’s on Gun Ownership

However strange or peculiar Hitchen’s views are, they are always historically informed. According to Hitchen’s, 19th century Britain had an attitude towards the freedom to buy arms that makes modern Texan legislation look positively effeminate. The licensing of firearms was only introduced in the 1920 when governments feared a possible revolution. I don’t know, but this sounds about right. The 1917 Russian Revolution had been accompanied by radical revolutionary campaigns throughout Europe. A soviet revolution broke out in Germany in 1919, comprising independent radical Socialists and anarchists, which then gave rise to a full-scale Communist insurrection in German, Austria and Hungary. Italy in the same period saw ‘Red Week’ and the invasion of the factories, again by radical Socialists. Even after these were put down, the situation was still very unstable politically, with militant anti-democratic movements of both Left and Right. These included the Nazis in Germany, and the seizure of power by Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy. It was against the rise of these violent, paramilitary movements, including the British Union of Fascists, that the government introducing legislation banning uniformed political organisations. My guess is that the restriction on firearms ownership was part of this legislation.

19th Century British Chartism

In 19th century England, the right to own guns and other weapons was demanded by the ‘physical force’ Chartists, militantly campaigning for the franchise to be extended to the working class. Government at that time was strongly aristocratic, and the franchise was very much restricted to the landed aristocracy and gentry and the middle classes. Poverty, disease and squalor were common. Working hours were long, and conditions appalling. Fourteen hours days were the norm. One German writer in the 1820 in Bavaria said he knew young people in their 1920s who already looked like old men, so worn out were they by hard work. Chartism was an attempt by the working class to gain the right to vote and political freedom against this background of hardship and inequality. Led by the London cabinet-maker, William Lovett and Francis Place, a master tailor, the movement’s charter, from which it took its name, had six demands:

1. Votes for all men over 21.
2. No property qualifications.
3. Annual parliaments.
4. Equal Representation (which meant that all electoral constituencies were to be equal in size)
5. Payment of MPs
6. Vote by ballot.

Chartism and the Right to Bear Arms

Beyond the Charter, the movement could be extremely diverse with no uniform political philosophy. Most Chartists were laissez-faire economic liberals. Some were Socialists. There were Christian Chartists, who combined a radical programme of political democracy with worship of the Lord in their own chapels. There was also a division between ‘physical force’ Chartists, who were prepared to use violence to advance their gaols, and the more respectable ‘moral force’ Chartists, who believed that only logic and rational persuasion should be used. Among the ‘physical force’ Chartists were Joseph Rayner Stephens and R.J. Richardson. Stephens was a radical Methodist minister from Ashton-Under-Lyne, who had been disowned by the Methodist Conference for his views. He exhorted working men to take up arms to defend their constitutional rights against a brutal, centralizing authority. R.J. Richardson, who came from Salford, joined him in his demands. In 1839 he gave a lecture to the Chartist National Convention ‘to show the advantage and propriety of arming the people as the best guarantee of the liberties of a country’, citing authorities as diverse as Aristotle, Queen Elizabeth and Dr. Johnson.

Decline of Chartism and Hitchen’s View of Gun Ownership

Chartism declined after the middle of the century from a number of causes. Partly this was ridicule, as the monster petitions of millions of signatures presented to parliament by the Chartists to secure constitutional reform consisted mostly of forged signatures, like ‘the Duke of Wellington’ and ‘Queen Victoria’. Another cause was the rise in living standards as the economy expanded and legislation improved housing and working conditions. Lastly, successive legislation enlarging the franchise, culminating in that of Disraeli’s Conservatives, gave nearly all working men except the very poorest the vote, thus making the Charter obsolete. Nevertheless, its history does show that in the 19th century the right to bear arms was a demand of the revolutionary Left, rather than the Conservative Right as it is today. As for Hitchens’ view of gun ownership, he stated that in his view you should have the right to own one, but having seen what they did to the human body, you shouldn’t really want one.