Posts Tagged ‘‘What Is To Be Done?’’

Solidarity Pamphlet on Bolsheviks’ Destruction of Workers’ Control in Russian Revolution

September 24, 2016

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Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control/ 1917-1921/ The State and Counter-Revolution (London: Solidarity 1970).

I picked this short book – 89 pages – in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham. Solidarity were a libertarian Communist group that believed that the workers should operate and manage the means of production. In their statement of beliefs at the back of the book, they state in point 9 ‘We do not accept the view that by itself the working class can only achieve a trade union consciousness.’ (p. 89). This is a direct contradiction of Lenin’s belief, firmly expressed in his 1905 pamphlet, What Is To Be Done?, that the workers could only achieve trade union consciousness, and needed to be led to Socialism by a group of dedicated revolutionaries. The book itself states that it is a work of history, which intends to show how the Bolsheviks betrayed the revolution of 1917 by suppressing the movement for workers’ control in the factories and the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets.

The Revolution had begun when Russia’s working people rose up against Tsarism and the Kerensky government that replaced it. They formed factory committees which took over the management of the factories to various degrees in industry, and formed the soviets – councils – of working people across Russia, which formed a parallel system of popular government to that of the duma, the Russian parliament. Communist historiography has presented Lenin as fully behind these developments. He passed a decree stating that ‘workers’ control is established in the factories’ and praised the soviets, proclaiming the slogan, ‘All Power to the Workers’ Soviets’. The conventional historical view states that the workers were in fact unable to run industry, and so the government was forced to reintroduce the entrepreneurs, managers and technicians that the workers had previously turfed out of the factory gates in wheelbarrows.

This pamphlet shows that the opposite was true. From initially supporting them as a bulwark against the return of capitalism, and a necessary precondition for the nationalisation of industry, Lenin turned to active dislike and opposition, but was forced to support them for reasons of expediency. Lenin, Trotsky and their faction in the Bolsheviks really wanted Russian industry to be managed by a state bureaucracy, with a single person in command of individual factories and enterprises. Lenin adopted the slogan to present himself and his faction as fully behind the soviet revolution, while doing everything he could behind the scenes to reduce this to a mere slogan. Their practical strategy for destroying the factory committees involved incorporating them into the trade unions. These had always been under political control in Russia, partly through necessity as for most of the time they were illegal. The Bolsheviks in turn transformed these from popular organisations to campaign for better wages and conditions, to instruments of the Bolshevik party to discipline and organise Russian labour, so that it obeyed the state and the managers. It was the trade unions that set wages and determined working conditions. At the same time as they were being absorbed by the unions, the committees were gradually stripped over their powers until they were finally dissolved following the Kronstadt rebellion, which was intended to restore democracy to the Revolution by overthrowing Bolshevik rule. The Bolsheviks were also actively destroying democracy throughout the system of government and industrial management by gradually removing elections and replacing them with political appointments. As part of this, the trade unions could elect their members to the various Bolshevik political organs, but this became subject to the party’s veto. Candidates elected by the unions not approved by Lenin and his faction could be blocked.

This resulted in the construction of the totalitarian, monolithic Soviet state, while industry saw the removal of workers’ power and the return of the very industrialists and entrepreneurs, who had been overthrown. Indeed, after the failure of authoritarian ‘war communism’, with its forced requisitions of food from the peasantry during the Civil War, 1921 saw the limited return of capitalism itself in the establishment of a private sector as part of the New Economic Policy.

Not all of the Bolsheviks were in favour of this policy, and Lenin, Trotsky and their faction faced bitter opposition from a series of groups and individuals within the party, including Preobrazhensky, Osinsky, Bukharin and Alexandra Kollontai, in the ‘Democratic Centralists’ and ‘Left Communists’. Despite their efforts, theirs was a losing battle and in the end they were fighting a series of rearguard actions to preserve the last vestiges of the factory committees and the autonomy of the trade unions.

Outside the party, the Bolsheviks also faced opposition from anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, who also wished to preserve the factory committees from attacks from the party and the trade unions. The booklet discusses the increasing mass arrests of these, and the closure of a range of anarchist newspapers and magazines, such as Burevestnik, Anarkhia and Golos Truda (Workers’ Voice). The final demands of the Left Communists for trade union autonomy and its management of industry was also denounced by Lenin as ‘anarcho-syndicalist deviation’.

Apart from its description of the way the Bolsheviks overturned the founding principles of the revolution, supplanting control and management by the workers themselves, with a system of control and management by the party, its functionaries, and returned capitalist businessmen in the name of the workers, the pamphlet’s also interesting for discussing the various literature produced by the revolutionaries and their plans for instituting practical system of workers’ control. For example, the Exploratory Conference of Factory Committees of Petrograd War Industries, convened on April 2nd, 1917, issued the proclamations that

From the Factory Committee should emanate all instructions concerning internal factory organisation (i.e. instructions concerning such mattes as hours of work, wages, hiring and firing, holidays, etc.) The factory manager to be kept notified…

The whole administrative personnel (management at all levels and technicians) is taken on with the consent of the Factory Committee which has to notify the workers of its decisions at mass meetings of the whole factory or through shop committees…

The Factory committee controls managerial activity in the administrative, economic and technical fields … representatives of the Factory Committee must be provided, for information, with all official documents of the management, production budgets and details of all times entering or leaving the factory … (p.2).

The Kharkov Conference of Factory Committees, held on May 29th that same year, declared that the committees should become

organs of the Revolution… aiming at consolidating its victories. The Factory Committees must take over production, protect it, develop it. They must fix wages, look after hygiene, control the technical quality of products, decree all internal factory regulations and determine solutions all conflicts. (p.4).

The Second Conference of Factory Committees of Petrograd, held at the Smolny Institute from the 7th-12th August, also stipulated that

‘All decrees of Factory Committees’ were compulsory ‘for the factory administration as well as for the workers and employees – until such time as those decrees were abolished by the Committee itself, or by the Central Soviet of Factory Committees’. The pamphlet states that

the committees were to meet regularly during working working hours. Meetings were to be held on days designated by the Committees themselves. Members of the Committees were to receive full pay – from the employers – while on Committee business. Notice to the appropriate administrative personnel was to be deemed sufficient to free a member of the Factory Committee from work so that he might fulfil his obligations to the Committee. In the periods between meetings, selected members of the Factory Committees were to occupy premises, within the factory, at which they could receive information from the workers and employees. Factory administrations were to provide funds ‘for the maintenance of the Committees and the conduct of their affairs’. Factory Committees were to have ‘control over the composition of the administration and the right to dismiss all those who could not guarantee normal relations with the workers or who were incompetent for other reasons’. ‘All administrative factory personnel can only into service with the consent of the Factory Committee, which must declare its (sic!) hirings at a General Meeting of all the factory or through departmental or workshop committees. The ‘internal organisation’ of the factory (working time, wages, holidays, etc.) was also to be determined by the Factory Committees. Factory Committees were to have their own press and were ‘to inform the workers and employees of the enterprise concerning their resolutions by posting an announcement in conspicuous place’. (pp. 8-9).

The Wikipedia entry on Solidarity states that the group was always small, but played a disproportionately large role in the industrial disputes of the 1970s and the campaign for workers’ control and management in industry. The system of complete workers’ control set up during the Russian Revolution is far too extreme to be popular in Britain, at least at present and the foreseeable future. Worker’s involvement in management has still been put back on the agenda, even if in a half-hearted way by Theresa May, no doubt as a calculated deception. The pamphlet itself remains a fascinating description of this optimistic movement in Russian revolutionary history, and its betrayal by the Communist party, and is an important corrective to the standard view that workers’ control was fully supported by them.

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Thomas Sowell on Marx and Engels’ Support for Democratic Socialism

July 6, 2016

Sowell Marx Cover

For just about everyone born after the Russian Revolution, and particularly after the horrors of Stalin, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot and a myriad other dictators, who have claimed to govern on behalf of the workers and peasants, Marxism has appeared quite contrary to democracy. Marx and Engels stood for violent revolution, and their theories provided the basis for oppressive, oligarchies ruling through mass arrests, terror and murder.

Marx on Democracy

Thomas Sowell in his brief book on Marx and his theories, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (London: George Allen & Unwin 1985) shows that while Marx and Engels certainly did not disavow violent revolution, and despite his sneers about it, like his quip that democratic capitalism was merely a case of ‘deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in parliament’, took democracy very seriously, and believed that Socialism could be achieved mainly through the victory of Socialist parties at the ballot box. He writes

To the French workers in 1870, on the eve of the uprising that produced the Paris Commune, Marx advised against an uprising as a “desperate folly” and urged instead: “Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican Liberty.” He closed with the motto: ” Vive la Republique.” A quarter of a century later, Engels wrote in a similar vein that “the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal actions of the workers’ party, of the results of election than those of rebellion.” In Britain, according to Marx, “the gradually surging revolt of the working class compelled Parliament to shorten compulsorily the hours of labour.”

Democracy was seen as a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for freedom. (p. 142).

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat Does Not Justify Dictatorship

He warns the reader not to read back into Marx’s discussion about the dictatorship of the proletariat – the period in which the working class will govern society before the achievement of true Communism – the all too real dictatorships of Stalin and its counterparts in eastern Europe and Asia. Sowell writes further

The Communist Manifesto described “the first step in the revolution” as being “to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” In a preliminary draft for the Manifesto, Engels declared that a Communist revolution “will inaugurate a democratic constitution and thereby, directly or indirectly, the political rule of the proletariat.” the use of the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” – in Marx’s sense – is little more than a paraphrase of these statements

Between capitalists and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

In his correspondence, Marx asserted that “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which in turn represents a “transition” to a classless society. How is this compatible with “winning the battle of democracy,” as mentioned in the Communist Manifesto? Because “the democratic republic,” as Engels explained, is “the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Just as in a capitalist state “wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely”, so in a workers’ state the numerical superiority of the proletariat turns democracy in form to a class dictatorship. Marx’s contemporary, John Stuart Mill, agonised over precisely this point. The democratic republic under capitalism becomes the arena in which workers struggle to wrest political control from the capitalists. Once this is accomplished, then under socialism it is the workers’ state that exists as long as any state is necessary -i.e. until the “withering away of the state”. (p. 143).

The Revolution Could Be Peaceful

He notes that Marx admired the Paris Commune, because he believed it had universal suffrage, an open society, freedom of religion and separation of church and state, and a non-militaristic viewpoint. (p. 144).

On revolution, he quotes Engels as saying ‘the abolition of capital is itself the social revolution’, and later, at the end of his life, that ‘the bourgeoisie and the government came to be more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of lections than of those of rebellion.’ (p.148). Engels was also aware that it was extremely rare for civilian rebels to overcome an army in street fighting. (p.149). He also believed that violence was more likely to be started by the capitalists than by the workers.

The irony of world history turns everything upside down. We, the “revolutionists”, the “over-throwers”, – we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and overthrow. The parties of Order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves … And if we are not so crazy as to let ourselves be driven to street fighting in order to please them, then in the end there is nothing left for them to do but themselves break through this fatal legality. (p. 149)

Democracy Draws the Working Class into Politics

He also quotes Marx as admiring democracy under capitalism for drawing the masses into politics and political discussion:

The parliamentary regime lives [according to Marx] by discussion: how shall it forbid discussion? Every interest, every social institution, is here transformed into general ideas, debated as ideas; how shall any interest, any institution, sustain itself above though and impose itself as an article of faith? The struggle of the orators on the platform evokes the struggle of the scribblers of the press; the debating club in parliament is necessarily supplemented by debating clubs in the salons and the pothouses; the representatives, who constantly appeal to public opinion, give public opinion the right to speak is real mind in petitions. The parliamentary regime leaves everything to the decision of majorities; how shall the great majorities outside parliament not want to decide? When you play the fiddle at the top of the state, what else is to be expected but that those down below dance?

Rejection of Terrorist Conspiracies

Marx and Engels contrasted the democratic nature of the Communist League, which had elective and removable boards, which ‘barred all hankering after conspiracy, which requires dictatorship, with revolutionary secret societies of Louis Blanqui and his followers. He stated that such conspiratorial small groups – such as those which Lenin would later advocate in his book What Is To Be Done? were “the fantasy of overturning an entire society through the action of a small conspiracy.” (pp. 150-1). He also notes that Marx did not see the workers as being automatically paragons of virtue from the very beginning, or would have to be led by a group of elite leaders. (p.151). Again, this is very in contrast to Lenin and his theories in What Is To Be Done? Engels said

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. (p. 152).

He also notes that Engels did not abandon the possibility of armed revolution where the aims of the ‘workers’ party’ could not be achieved through democracy. And he also notes that Marx was quite happy for terror to be used against ‘hate individuals or public buildings that are associated only with hateful recollections’. Engels, however, had a much more critical attitude. He said

We think of this reign of people who inspire terror on the contrary, it is the reign of people who are themselves terrified. Terror consists of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves. (p. 153). It’s advice that far too few self-confessed Marxist regimes put into practice.

What makes this particularly interesting is that Margaret Thatcher tried to have legislation passed to ban Marxists from having positions in academia. Furthermore, radicals like Noam Chomsky point out that America did have a tradition of working class, left-wing politics, under this was destroyed by the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War. In all fairness, Thatcher and the Cold Warriors had a point, in that the Communist Party founded by Lenin was based on the monopoly of power by a small, revolutionary coterie, who jailed and persecuted their enemies, with horrific brutality. But many Marxists actively opposed them. Rosa Luxemburg was bitterly critical of the Bolshevik coup and the suppression of political freedom in the USSR. So was Karl Kautsky, one of the leading figures of Austrian Marxism, who occupied the centre of the country’s Social Democratic Party, the main Socialist party, and which today roughly corresponds to the Labour party in Britain. Kautsky wrote pamphlets and articles attacking the Bolshevik coup, and supported the break-away Menshevik regime in Georgia.

There are very many problems with Marxism, ranging from its rejection of eternal, objective moral values, to its conception of history as based on the class struggle and the Hegelian dialectic, as well as its materialism. But it also provides material for a democratic socialism, as against totalitarian tyranny and mass murder.