Reflections on the Russian Revolution 5

In 1921 Lenin wrote the following on ‘Concessions and the Development of Capitalism’:

“The Soviet government is inviting foreign capitalists to obtain concessions in Russia.”

“What is a concession? It is a contract between the government and a capitalist who undertakes to organise or improve production (for example, felling and floating timber, extracting coal, oil, ore, etc.) and to pay the government a share of the product obtained, keeping the rest as his profit.”

“Is it right for the Soviet government to invite foreign capitalists after expelling the Russian landowners and capitalists? Yes, it is, because, seeing that the workers’ revolution in other countries is delayed, we have to make some sacrifices in order to achieve a rapid and even immediate improvement in the condition of the workers and peasants. The sacrifice is that over a number of years we shall be giving away to the capitalists tens of millions of poods of valuable products. The improvement in the condition of the workers and peasants is that we shall immediately obtain additional quantities of petroleum, paraffin oil, salt, coal, farming implements, and so forth. We have no right to forego the opportunity of immediately improving the condition of the workers and peasants, for our impoverishment makes it essential, and our sacrifices will not be fatal.”

“But is it not dangerous to invite the capitalists? Does it not imply a development of capitalism? Yes, it does imply a development of capitalism, but this is not dangerous, because power will still be in the hands of the workers and peasants, and the landowners and capitalists will not be getting back their property. A concession is something in the nature of a contract of lease. The capitalist becomes, for a specified period, the lessee of a certain part of state property under a contract, but he does not become the owner. The state remains the owner.”

In this view, the proletarian nature of the state guaranteed the socialist character of an economic construction carried out upon the foundations of state capitalism.  The undeveloped and crisis conditions in Russia meant that the state capitalist foundations had themselves to be built under the workers’ own state in alliance with forms of state capitalism that involved individual capitalists, and including foreign capital.  In these circumstances “the worker will never be afraid of such
 a [capitalist] leader, because he knows that Soviet power is his power, that it will stand firm in his defense, and because he knows that he wants to learn the practicalities of organization.”  This was considered a requirement all the more pressing because of the low cultural level of the Russian working class we noted in our earlier posts.

One such collaboration shows what this might involve but also the differences within the Bolsheviks and the new state over the policy and its practical implementation.  In January 1918 the head of the Mining-Metallurgy Department of the Supreme Council of the National Economy (Vesenkha), reported discussions with Alexis P. Meshchersky, a self-made industrialist, 
on the formation of a metallurgical trust.

This would involve creation of a milliard-and-a-half ruble trust combining some 20 industrial enterprises to control approximately 60% of railway wagon and 85% of locomotive production, or 50-60% of Russia’s machine construction and metallurgical industries. Initially, Meshchersky offered the government one-third of the trust’s shares (corresponding to the number of enterprises to be included which were already nationalised) and the same representation on the central administrative board of the trust. Each factory would be run by a board consisting of the existing ‘specialists’ and a commissar representing Vesenkha.

The idea for the trust met with a positive response on the part of leaders in Vesenkha but opposition from some local metallurgical trade unions, who called for complete nationalisation of the factories involved.  Meshchersky then began to back off from his original proposal, in particular with regard to the relative proportions of private/state control.

Meshchersky was forced to reveal that almost 20% of the stocks in the proposed trust were in the hands of German banks and opposition to possible foreign control resulted in readjustment of the shares in the proposed trust from 60% private and 40% government to 50-50, 20-80, and finally to a 100% government share and complete control. However, included in this final proposal was a ‘loophole’ from which Meshchersky never retreated: that 20% of the shares be held in reserve to be returned to the original owners with accumulated dividends should the government ever offer the trust’s shares for sale. When Meshchersky refused further concessions, Vesenkha voted to break off the talks but to proceed with the formation of a unified metallurgical trust.

Vesenkha continued to circulate the Meshchersky proposal to unions and representatives of workers but while they supported creation of trusts or national syndicates they rejected Meshchersky’s proposal because he had refused from the beginning to cooperate with the trade unions and because of the potential influence of foreign capital in the trust.  Eventually Vesenkha nationalised the Sormovo-Kolomna industrial complex in June and other factories in November

Similar negotiations took place in the spring of 1918 between owners and managers of the sugar, textile, and leather industries and trade union representatives, which resulted in formation of a joint or state controlled trust.  The typical pattern for creating joint trust organisations in these cases involved the addition of trade union representatives to pre-revolutionary regulatory boards (usually privately initiated, state sanctioned organisations) which were authorized by Vesenkha to take control of the whole industrial branch.

Lenin cited these organisations as exemplary of state capitalism’s role in the transition period: “The situation is best among those workers who are carrying out this state capitalism: among the tanners and the textile and sugar industries, because they have a sober, proletarian knowledge of their industry and they want to preserve it and make it more powerful-because in that lies the greatest socialism.”

The pursuit of this state capitalist road reflected not only the relative backwardness of Russian capitalism exacerbated by war and economic collapse, but an analysis that socialism could only be built on the grounds of capitalism and not from simply ‘smashing’ the capitalist state and creating socialism ex nihilo.

In neither of these could Lenin be criticised for being wrong.  What was wrong was (1) that the weak development of Russian capitalism could not be overcome within Russia itself and socialism could neither be created through state capitalism (with a workers’ state place on top of it) nor could this stage be leapt over by going ‘straight’ to socialism and (2) the socialisation created under capitalism upon which socialism could be built was not limited to the centralisation and concentration of production by state capitalist trusts.

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Reflections on the Russian Revolution 4

The Bolsheviks faced the same problems as their Tsarist predecessors, caused by war and economic collapse.  It was their ideology that determined their particular responses.

This element of choice has nearly always been considered true in the case of the alternative policies advocated by Stalin and Trotsky in the dispute over the future course of the revolution.  This choice ultimately entailed the former’s forced collectivisation and the Great Terror.  The various policies pursued by the Bolsheviks during Lenin’s life showed that alternatives were possible before as well.  It is not the case that the conditions of crisis determined Bolshevik policies, rather than severely constraining them.

I’m reminded of the exhibition on art and the Russian Revolution held in the Royal Academy in London earlier this year, which felt more like a museum exhibition than an art gallery and which had an audio guide that, in its increasingly reactionary commentary, managed to both present the series of policies pursued after the revolution while implicitly condemning revolutionary single-mindedness.

Policies of War Communism, New Economic Policy (NEP) and forced industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture were presented in such a terse and dismissive way that it would have been impossible for the untutored to make any great sense out of it; other than perhaps that the Bolsheviks capitulated to capitalism under the NEP and then turned 180° to ‘socialism’ (why did they not bother to do it in the first place?)

No appreciation was in evidence that socialism can only be built on the achievements of capitalism. Socialism is not an alternative route to ‘modernisation’, which has proved over the twentieth century to be a route not to socialism but to Stalinist dictatorships; or to ‘national liberation’ and an end to colonial rule, that has simply been a route to capitalist development through greater or lesser intervention by the state.

Some misconceptions derive from the mistaken views of the Bolsheviks themselves, which were understandable when they arose but indefensible now.

Less often noted, is that the Bolsheviks were not united or always very clear themselves on how socialism could be constructed in Russia, even allowing for a shared recognition that they could not ultimately be successful without successful socialist revolution in the more advanced countries in Europe.

In his speech at the First Congress Of Economic Councils in May 26, 1918 Lenin stated that “in such a gigantic task, we could never claim, and no sensible socialist who has ever written on the prospects of the future ever even thought, that we could immediately establish and compose the forms of organisation of the new society, according to some predetermined instruction and at one stroke.”

“The task which we set ourselves is a task of world-historic difficulty and significance.”

“Of all the socialists who have written about this, I cannot recall the work of a single socialist or the opinion of a single prominent socialist on future socialist society, which pointed to this concrete, practical difficulty that would confront the working class when it took power, when it set itself the task of turning the sum total of the very rich, historically inevitable and necessary for us store of culture and knowledge and technique accumulated by capitalism from an instrument of capitalism into an instrument of socialism.”

“All that we knew . . . was that transformation was historically inevitable and must proceed along a certain main line, that private ownership of the means of production was doomed by history, that it would burst, that the exploiters would inevitably be expropriated. This was established with scientific precision, and we knew this when we grasped the banner of socialism, when we declared ourselves socialists, when we founded socialist parties, when we transformed society. We knew this when we took power for the purpose of proceeding with socialist reorganisation; but we could not know the forms of transformation, or the rate of development of the concrete reorganization.”

“With the transition of all power . . . to a new class, and, moreover, to a class which for the first time in the history of humanity is the leader of the overwhelming majority of the population, of the whole mass of the working and exploited people—our tasks become more complicated.”

“We must build our economic edifice as we go along, trying out various institutions, watching their work, testing them by the collective common experience of the working people, and, above all, by the results of their work. We must do this as we go along, and, moreover, in a situation of desperate struggle and frenzied resistance by the exploiters.”

“We know . . . that organisation, which is the main and fundamental task of the Soviets, will inevitably entail a vast number of experiments, a vast number of steps, a vast number of alterations, a vast number of difficulties, particularly in regard to the question of how to fit every person into his proper place, because we have no experience of this . . .“

What preconceptions Lenin did have, which were reinforced by the social and political circumstances under which the revolution took place, were of the central role of the new state in construction of the new socialist economy, something taken for granted by many socialists since, but not at all obvious from a careful reading of Marx.

So Lenin could, at the beginning of his speech, say that:

“There is not the slightest doubt that the further the gains of the October Revolution go, the more profound the upheaval it started becomes, the more firmly the socialist revolution’s gains become established and the socialist system becomes consolidated, the greater and higher will become the role of the Economic Councils, which alone of all the state institutions are to endure. And their position will become all the more durable the closer we approach the establishment of the socialist system . . . After the resistance of the exploiters has been finally broken, after the working people have learned to organise socialist production, this apparatus of administration in the proper, strict, narrow sense of the word, this apparatus of the old state, is doomed to die; while the apparatus of the type of the Supreme Economic Council is destined to grow, to develop and become strong, performing all the main activities of organised society.”

This statist conception of economic construction viewed the increasing socialisation of the socialist economy as almost a linear continuation of the socialisation present and theorised in the existing capitalist economies.

Development of the capitalist system had involved monopoly, increasing domination by finance, and the increasing role of the state.  This form of capitalism was categorised as imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.  According to Lenin, this had brought capitalism to the ‘threshold of the most complete socialisation of production. In spite of themselves, the capitalists are dragged, as it were, into a new social order, a transitional order from free competition to complete socialization’.

The ‘war has accelerated the development of capitalism, which advanced from capitalism to imperialism, from monopoly to state control. All this has brought the socialist revolution nearer and has created the objective conditions for it.”

However, the Russian Revolution took place in particularly unfortunate conditions and

“The capitalism described in 1903 remains in existence in 1919 in the Soviet proletarian republic just because of the disintegration of imperialism, because of its collapse.”

“If we had had an integral imperialism before us, which had entirely altered capitalism, our task would have been a hundred thousand times easier. It would have resulted in a system in which everything would be subordinated to finance capital alone. It would only have remained to remove the top and to transfer what remained to the proletariat.”

The transition from socialised capitalism to the socialisation of production under the rule of the working class was explained in this way: ‘as for the organizational form of work, we shall not invent it, but shall take it ready-made from capitalism: the banks, syndicates, the best factories, experimental stations, etc. …. Our problem here is only to lop away that which capitalistically disfigures this otherwise excellent apparatus and to make it still bigger, still more democratic, still more comprehensive.’

This view was contested by other leading Bolsheviks such as Bukharin and Osinsky.  For the latter, a Bolshevik policy of state capitalism as proposed by Lenin is ‘basically an unchanged continuation of the economic policies of capitalism’, and, therefore, ‘every attempt to establish a truly human society upon the old capitalist foundations is foredoomed.”

Lenin responded to critics in March, April and in May I918, elaborating the transition from capitalism to socialism as an extension of the ‘socialisation process’ begun under capitalism but now under proletarian authority and with new aims. He pronounced Bukharin’s and Osinsky’s reliance on his earlier work ‘State and Revolution’ and the slogan ‘smash the bourgeois state and economic apparatus’ as out of date: ‘this we have already done, it is a task which belongs to a previous day “

For Lenin “the possibility of building socialism will be determined precisely by our success in combining the Soviet government and the Soviet administrative organisation with the modern achievements of capital.”’

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 3

All political forces in the revolution made their own political choices, which conditioned the choice of others.  As the revolution developed the liberal Cadet party moved increasingly into an alliance with the remnants of the old Tsarist regime and the forces that had supported it, including the nobility, generals and landowners.  Such an alliance demanded continued support for the war, opposition to peasant expropriation of landed estates and defence of the prerogatives of capitalist owners of factories, which were more and more subject to workers’ control.

The ‘moderate’ socialists could have seized power early in the revolution with their leadership of the Petrograd Soviet, but the revolution for them could only be a bourgeois revolution and it was therefore inconceivable it could go beyond the boundaries of capitalism.  This tied them to seeking agreement with the liberals, but these liberals moved more and more to the side of the most reactionary forces opposed to any sort of revolution.

Unlike more recent revolutions and mass worker mobilisations, which had potential to develop in more radical directions, such as the Portuguese revolution in 1974 – 1975 or workers action in May 1968 in France, the power of the moderate socialists was based on the Soviets and not on the institutions of bourgeois democracy, and such institutions could not be made the mechanism of an alliance with the bourgeois liberals.

Acquiescence to counter revolution in Russia could therefore only mean acceptance of destruction of the Soviets and the basis of the power of the moderate socialists over much of the working class, while reaction later in Portugal and France had no such barriers and could be successful through widespread acceptance of the institutions of bourgeois democracy, which could neuter the active power of the working class.

The crisis in Russia was of a scale and scope dwarfing that of these later experiences, raising the question – how do we advance the institutional power of the working class without such catastrophic collapse of capitalist society as occurred in 1917, which entails not just a crisis for capitalism but one for any putative socialist alternative?

Refusal to break from the liberal bourgeoisie condemned the ‘moderate’ socialists to refusal to end the war, and refusal to break definitively with bourgeois democratic institutions, which were too weak to be decisive but ever since have been the imagined vehicles for an early twentieth century bourgeois democracy that was simply impossible in Russia in 1917.

The Bolsheviks led by Lenin, on the other hand, were prepared to break with the remnants of the old regime, the liberal bourgeoisie, and the landlords, with their political representatives, and therefore with the moderate socialists who were not prepared to break with these forces.

The ideal, of a united socialist and working class movement, could not exist, except by following the road of disaster pursued by those socialists who believed that because Russia was not ripe for socialism, the revolution must be a bourgeois revolution only.  One that therefore created the best grounds for the development of capitalism in Russia while limiting in advance the political power of the working class.  In this purely theoretical perspective, the task was simply defending and protecting as much as possible the separate class interests of the working class, while letting the bourgeoisie take the lead.  Where it was leading was the problem.

The Bolsheviks however believed, correctly, that the liberal bourgeoisie would not lead a revolution against the Tsarist regime, would not carry out thorough-going land reform and would not end the war, as both the working class and the peasantry demanded.  They were therefore prepared to lead the working class in alliance with the peasantry in a socialist revolution that would overthrow the institutions of capitalist rule and assert the sole supremacy of the Soviets, which by their nature excluded the capitalist forces and old regime from participation.

Far from the October Revolution being a ‘coup’ or ‘putsch’, it represented the wishes of the vast majority of the Russian people – an end to war, land reform, consolidation of workers’ control of industry and definitive rejection of the old regime, including its domination of other nationalities.  The bitter civil war that followed did not demonstrate the unpopular nature of the revolution but the irreconcilable conflict between the forces of the old regime, supported by imperialism, and the working class led by the Bolsheviks.  That it lasted as long as it did and took so many lives was a result of the small size of the working class on which Bolshevik power rested and the nature of the peasantry – which supported the revolution in so far as it impacted on their demand for land and an end to the war, and was either indifferent or hostile when it came to the building of the new state and the requirements of the civil war and of the urban working class.

Thus, it would rally to defeat the White armies when they looked like winning, and go home to their land when this appeared to have been achieved.  They had no immediate interest in consolidating a new workers’ state, revealing the limits of their dispersed and narrow social existence.  It exhibited starkly the Marxist view that the peasantry could not be the leadership of a socialist revolution.

But the Bolsheviks could not simply abolish the immaturity of Russian conditions for socialist revolution that had led other socialists to reject the idea that such a revolution was possible or desirable.  Not only was capitalism undeveloped, and therefore the working class a small minority of society, but what existed was collapsing due to dislocation caused by war and general social and political crisis.

Not only was the working class relatively small, although also relatively concentrated and politically advanced, it was culturally, and in some ways socially, backward, providing a weak foundation for a new ruling class, both in terms of economic management and control, and fashioning the new state apparatus as an effective mechanism of its own rule.  Lenin time and time again complained of its backwardness and of the need for more advanced workers to take it forward.

In his book, Stephen Smith notes that by 1917 there were 18.5 million workers of all kinds in the Russian empire, about 10 per cent of the population. “Something like two-thirds of workers were recent recruits to industry, either peasant migrants or women who had taken up jobs in the war industries (women comprised well over a third of the workforce in 1917) and most of these unskilled, low-paid, minimally literate workers did not have a sophisticated level of political understanding.  Nevertheless, in the course of 1917 they would be drawn into a mass strike movement, would join trade unions, and their disaffection would be given political articulation by socialist activists on the shop floor.”

However, Smith also notes that in some of Lenin’s last writings he argued the need for a ‘cultural revolution’ as a prerequisite for a transition to socialism and the view that Russia was steeped in ‘Asiatic’ backwardness, needing “the propagation of literacy, solid work habits, and the application of science and technology . . vital to socialist construction. Smith notes that ‘culturedness’ could embrace anything from “punctuality, clean fingernails, and having a basic knowledge of biology, to carrying out one’s trade union duties efficiently.”

All these reflect the conditions that led socialists other than the Bolsheviks to reject the view that what was on hand in 1917 was socialism – a workers’ society.  While Marxists since have held fast to the lesson that capitalism could break at its weakest link; that the capitalist/feudal state could be smashed and another one created in its place; many have not appreciated, despite the mountain of evidence, that because socialism could not be built in Russia in 1917, gross distortions in society were inevitable from the start.  These general conditions have not provided the grounds for a model for succeeding generations.  Not for those in developed capitalist countries and not for those developing countries that are now well in advance of the conditions of Russia one hundred years ago.

A weak working class was substituted by the state in the conscious project of creating a new socialist society, and being conscious, this involved misconceptions by the Bolsheviks, not only of the correct policies to be pursued by the state, but of the basic role of the state itself, one very different from that elucidated by Lenin in 1917, before October, in his ‘State and `Revolution’.

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Forward to part 4

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 2

If we consider the conditions that gave rise to the Russian Revolution, these were massive economic dislocation caused by war on an unprecedented scale and an equally unprecedented social and political crisis that rocked the existing state to its foundations, creating a revolution outside the control of any political force.

Stephen Smith[i] quotes the preface to a ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, which is currently the subject of my series of posts on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism.  Many of the points made in that series apply to the circumstances of the Russian Revolution, although also in a contingent way, the way real history develops, as opposed to the perspectives of theory.

So, for example, capitalism was underdeveloped in Russia and the working class was a tiny minority, neither of which are the grounds on which Marx set out as necessary preconditions for replacement of capitalism by socialism.  The revolution did not prove Marx wrong however, rather its failure proved him right, at least in the negative sense, a sense that is as yet inadequate to ultimately confirm his alternative of socialism in a positive fashion.

The international isolation of the revolution ultimately condemned it, as the leaders of the Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky knew well it would – if they did not anticipate the particular way in which this would be confirmed through internal counter-revolution.

As Smith also notes, the Bolsheviks faced the same problems as their Tsarist predecessors – crisis, modernisation, war and foreign state competition – and it was their ideology that determined their particular responses and solutions.  Their ideas are not therefore rendered immaterial to either what happened then or how we might judge the revolution now.  In fact, we are obliged to see how, even if it was under the most unfavourable circumstances, their ideas about socialism contributed to advancing the cause of socialism or failed to do so.

The different programmes put forward by the different Bolshevik leaders, while Lenin was alive and afterwards, are usually and correctly deemed to have had the potential to lead to significantly variant outcomes to that which eventuated.  So, for example, a different outcome to the contest between Stalin and Trotsky would have made a significant difference to the policies of forced collectivisation and the Great Terror, not to mention the policy of communist parties world-wide and their perspectives for revolution. It is hard, even today, to read Trotsky’s writings on Germany and the rise of fascism without thinking of how much suffering might have been avoided if the criminal policy of Stalinism had not been employed in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power.

The experience of revolution in Russia led to ideas that capitalism would break ‘at its weakest link’, sometimes forgetting that socialism could not be built at these weakest links; that how it broke in the first place determined the dynamic and potential for some sort of healthy workers’ society to emerge from the rupture, especially if in a surrounding sea of capitalism.  That not all ‘ruptures’ are anti-capitalist, never mind socialist.

The idea that socialism could emerge through a process of permanent revolution out of initial democratic revolution, sometimes simply forgot the preconditions upon which socialism could be built, and the limits of any such process given undeveloped initial conditions.

Attempting to define the problem as one of the ripeness of socialism, considered not by individual country but at the international level in no way removes the practical problems of an isolated revolutionary regime and did not, as it should have, lead to honest assessments of just how undeveloped the revolutionary socialist forces of the working class were internationally that were supposed to support otherwise isolated struggles.  Only these international working class forces could balance the superior development of capitalism outside of, and in opposition to, the isolated revolutionary breeches of capitalism.

The theory of breaking capitalism at the weakest link might not only downgrade in importance consideration of what could possibly replace it, but also reinforce a fixation with the purely negative – destroying capitalism by smashing its state – but then having to debate just what exactly had replaced it because it wasn’t socialism (a degenerated workers’ state? deformed workers’ state? bureaucratic collectivism? state capitalism? etc.).

This negativity also led to searches outside the working class for forces that could attack and destroy the state, regardless of whether this destruction had anything to do with creating socialism.  So, revolutionary nationalism – ‘national liberation’, Stalinist-type parties, or guerrilla movements all became agents of socialism because state destruction was seen as decisive, forgetting that it could only be decisive if the working class had already begun to wield its social and economic power so that the new state had something to defend, as opposed to it being the mechanism to create this social power, forgetting that no state, no matter how ‘progressive’ can replace the role of the working class itself in creating socialism.

In this sense, the Russian Revolution is not a model to replicate.  The new Russian State struggled to create the rule of the working class when its fundamental problem was that this is not the task of a state, even of the workers, which is to defend the already existing economic and social power of the working class.  The working class cannot achieve self-emancipation by the power of a state, which by definition is a separate body from the rest of society, including the working class.

The working class can wield state power to defend its position as the new ruling class but it is very unlikely to become the ruling class through state power putting it there; that is a separate body placing the working class into power.  The Revolution rather saw the state eventually subsume society under its direction, in the process defining both as ‘socialist’, where socialism would have involved the working class directing society itself, with a much reduced state machinery, playing a subsidiary role in society’s development.

Such anyway would have been a healthy development of the revolution, one unfortunately that the real circumstance pertaining could not allow.  In so far as this happened due to the mass participation in the revolutionary overthrow of the old regime, it became dominated by the state itself becoming the embodiment of socialism, of the rule of the working class, because the state was the dominant force in society that alone could determine the future of the country in the midst of war, civil war and economic crisis.  As a body of men and women separate from the working class, even if in the majority drawn from its ranks, the state formed its own material interests and became a bureaucracy in its own right, even if resting on the foundation of a disenfranchised working class with an expropriated capitalist class.

The specific conditions within which the Russian Revolution occurred were particularly unconducive to healthy socialist revolution and Smith quotes prominent Second International leaders who noted this.  So, he records French socialist Jean Jaurès, stating that “If the social revolution emerges from this chaos instead of coming about as the supreme expression of progress, as a higher act of reason, justice, and wisdom, it will be part of this universal mental crisis, an excess of the contagious fury brought about by the suffering and violence of war.”

He also quotes Kautsky, with perhaps lesser acuteness, that “revolution which arises from war is a sign of the weakness of the revolutionary class, and often the cause of further weakness because the sacrifices it brings with it, as well as by the moral and intellectual degradation to which war gives rise.”

Unfortunately, we are reminded of Marx’s aphorism that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”  The Bolsheviks could not posit socialist revolution in better circumstances, with better prospects, but could only decide whether they would make it with what was at hand.

They subsequently had choices over how this revolution would be spread, be consolidated and built upon, but again not simply or only upon circumstances they had created but under those over which they had no control, “under circumstances existing already.”  To what extent were their failures due to unavoidable circumstance and to what extent wrong political choices?

[i] Russia in Revolution, an Empire in Crisis 1890 – 1928, S A Smith Oxford University Press 2017.

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Forward to part 3

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 1

We have just celebrated the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the key reference point for Marxists and their politics during these one hundred years.

In his recent book on the revolution[i], Stephen Smith notes correctly that –

“Through the twentieth century, capitalism displayed immense dynamism and innovation, permitting the raising of the standard of living of millions of people even as it concentrated immense wealth in a few hands and created new forms of alienation.”

He goes on to say that –

“Everything conspires to make us acquiesce in the world as it is, to discourage belief that it can be organised in a more just and rational fashion.  Yet that is what the Bolsheviks tried to do.”

and –

“Nor will we understand the year 1917 if we do not make an imaginative effort to recapture the hope, idealism, heroism, anger, fear, and despair that motivated it; the burning desire for peace, the deep resentment of a social order riven between the haves and the have-nots, anger at the injustices that ran through Russian society.  That is why millions across the world, who could not anticipate the horrors to come, embraced the 1917 Revolution as a chance to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom.”

The Russian Revolution has been the key reference point for Marxists over the last one hundred years because we want to repeat it – repeat its attempt “to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom” – through revolution, which is the mass of ordinary working people becoming politically active to overthrow the existing exploiting system and create a new society, free of oppression and exploitation.

Of course, when we say repeat it, we don’t actually mean repeat all of it.  We mean a revolution that seeks a society that gives every individual the freedom to develop themselves to their full potential, and, of course, does not repeat its mistakes, and the descent into Stalinist monstrosity that the society created by the Revolution became.

One very important additional reason for what appears to non-Marxists to be a fixation on Russia and its Revolution is the contribution to Marxist thought by the leaders of the revolution, particularly Lenin and Trotsky.  Hence our continual reference to what ‘dead Russians’ have said about this, that, and the other.

But even the neophyte will want to know – what do you mean by the mistakes and what caused them?  And if you celebrate the Revolution, are you sure you have learnt its lessons, which will prevent these mistakes re-occurring or equally awful new ones emerging?

The debates within Marxism are certainly labyrinthine to those new to its politics.  That much debate still revolves around the lessons of the Revolution demonstrates that while success can teach us much, failure is much harder to learn from.  But if failure was the Revolution’s ultimate result then this is perhaps the more important terrain from which lessons must be learnt.  Except of course, that we cannot assume that what worked 100 years ago will work, mutatis mutandis, again today.  Not only failures but previous successes may have to be revised, with all due respect to the heresy hunters for whom the word revise immediately conjures up the spectre of ‘revisionism.’

To talk about the Revolution and to attempt to analyse its lessons is an enormous undertaking and I’m not going to do it here in any even semi-comprehensive fashion.  As the key attempt to overthrow capitalism and usher in a new socialist society everything written on this blog, and every other piece of socialist analysis, implies a view of the Revolution, whether explicitly stated or not.  However, rather basic questions can be posed initially, some of which are rather obvious.

Why is the Revolution still, after 100 years, the key reference point for Marxists and their programme for socialist revolution?  Why, if we are living in a period that is the ‘highest stage of capitalism’, or even more boldly, of the decline of the system, is there no other example of such momentous and significant revolution, which is the only way that capitalism can be overthrown?  If we live in an era of ‘wars and revolutions’, why do we have such little experience that compares in importance to 1917?  Is the experience of the Russian Revolution therefore so central to understanding the future of capitalism and socialism as the space it has so far occupied in our thought might seem to suggest?

Stephen Smith notes the massive changes wrought by capitalism in the last 100 years. What has this to say about the ability of the bourgeoisie to revolutionise “the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. . . Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation. . . All fixed, fast-frozen relations . . .  are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air . . .” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto).  And all this without having brought down its own system through this constant overturning of its own conditions for existence?

What have the changes wrought by capitalism to say about how different the conditions facing socialists are today and what this implies for our programme?  If the Russian Revolution is in any sense the model to be copied or emulated, what does this imply for the conditions upon which it will be repeated?  Must they too be similar?

I can’t answer all these questions satisfactorily and am not going  attempt to do so.  What I will attempt do is to approach the problem, considered broadly, from two aspects, and in doing so make my own contribution to reconsideration of the Revolution and its lessons.

These two aspects are consideration of the material conditions giving rise to the revolution and the particular approach taken by the victorious Bolshevik Party.

[i] Russia in Revolution, an Empire in Crisis 1890 – 1928, S A Smith Oxford University Press 2017.

Forward to part 2

Workers’ control of production

rr06[1]In my review of the programme put forward by the left in Ireland, generally no different from other countries across Europe and further afield, I have argued that while it may be better for workers than the current austerity policies it is not socialist.  By this I mean that it does not involve a class alternative, an alternative to capitalism, one that involves ownership of the means of production moving to the working class.

Only in one area is this not the case: the Left’s occasional demand for workers’ control.  Even in these cases I have argued that the proposals are not put forward within any real practical perspective but put forward in such a way that they must assume a near revolutionary situation.  Demands for widespread workers’ control are only a practical proposition in such circumstances.

In current conditions demands for workers’ control simply demonstrate a lack of seriousness by those proposing them.  In the article by Trotsky previously quoted, he states that “before this highly responsible fighting slogan is raised, the situation must be read well and the ground prepared. We must begin from below, from the factory, from the workshop.”

This is to be done by revolutionaries gauging the moods of other workers – “to what extent they would be ready to accept the demand to abrogate business secrecy and to establish workers’ control of production. . . . Only in the course of this preparatory work, that is the degree of success, can (we) show at what moment the party can pass over from propaganda to further agitation and to direct practical action under the slogan of workers’ control.”

“It is a question in the first period of propaganda for the correct principled way of putting the question and at the same time of the study of the concrete conditions of the struggle for workers’ control.”

One small means of doing this recently was, when the banking crisis erupted, members of Socialist Democracy leafleted bank workers in Dublin asking them to let other workers know what was going on in the banks through leaking internal emails etc.  This small step abrogating business secrecy is a first step to workers’ control.  The poor response showed that the preparatory work described by Trotsky had yet to begin.

In this post I want to look at what is meant by workers’ control and how this is a result of the working class’s historical experience of this means of struggle.  The experience shows that it inevitably arises as a result of a crisis, and crises are by their nature temporary, occasioned by a society-wide political crisis or by the threatened closure of a particular factory that is producing unnecessary products, is working in an obsolete manner or is otherwise failing to compete successfully in the capitalist market.

How to institutionalise such control in periods of relative calm is a central problem we will look at in future. Relying on temporary crises to quickly provide workers with answers to the problems posed by their taking control has not resulted in success.  Revolutions of themselves do not give all the answers to the problems posed by revolution, at least not unless they are prepared for and prepared for well.  Since revolution is the task of workers themselves we are talking about how they can be prepared to take on the tasks of control.  Such preparation involves convincing at least some of them them that they should want to control or manage their own places of work as well as how they might be able to do so.  Only in this way can the superiority of worker owned and managed production be demonstrated.

The historical understanding of what workers’ control means derives mainly from the experience of the Russian revolution in 1917; the only successful workers led revolution.  Yet the goal of this revolution was initially a democratic republic, not a workers’ state, with the result that only a ‘transitional’ social and economic programme was on the agenda.  A decision to seize power by the Bolshevik Party could not change the level of economic and social development in itself.  We can see from an earlier post that this informed Lenin’s view that the immediate economic programme was one more akin to state capitalism than complete working class ownership and  power over the economy.

This is decisive in understanding the development of the revolution.  The workers could seize state power in order to stop the war, support distribution of land to the peasantry and attempt to put some organisation on production but workers could not by an act of will develop the Russian economy under  their own control and management, at least not outside of a successful international revolution, and this never came.

Workers’ control in such a situation did not, and at least initially could not, equate to complete management.  In Russian ‘kontrol’ means oversight; a “very timid and modest” socialism, as the left Menshevik Sukhanov put it.  The Bolsheviks understood that workers’ control was not socialism but a transitional measure towards it.  Capitalists would and did continue to manage their enterprises.  (The historian E H Carr reported that in some towns workers who had driven out their bosses were forced to seek their return.)

This approach was supported by the factory committees created by the workers during the revolution.  These committees initially hardly went beyond militant trade unionism but did not accept management prerogatives as inevitable and, as the bosses increasingly sabotaged production, they increased their interventions to take more radical measures of control.

The workers nevertheless saw the solution to their problems as soviet power and state regulation, evidence by their acceptance of a purely consultative voice in state-owned (as opposed to privately owned)enterprises.  This reflected the worker’s weakness, expressed by one shipyard worker on the eve of the October revolution at a factory committee conference: “often the factory committees turn out to be helpless . . . Only a reorganisation of state power can make it possible to develop our activity.”  Thus much of the activity of the factory committees was attempting to find fuel, raw materials and money simply to keep factories going and real management was sometimes consciously avoided.

Trade union leaders criticised the factory committees for only looking after the interests of their own plants and for not being independent of the capitalists who owned them. The workers in the committees were themselves keenly aware of being compromised by the capitalist owners, of being given responsibility without effective power.

While the revolution was supposed to have a transitional character in economic terms, workers were faced with greater and greater sabotage and recognised that the worsening crisis required a solution that could only come from the state, which would provide the centralised control that would combat economic dislocation. The weakness of the workers themselves can be quantified by the decline in their number.  In 1917 the industrial workforce in Petrograd was 406,312 but fell to 339,641 by the start of 1918 and only 143,915 by May of that year.

Although more active forms of workers’ control were sanctioned after the revolution, it had been increasing anyway, the steps towards the central state regulation that had been championed were constrained by the lack of an “organised technical apparatus, corresponding to the interests of the proletariat”, as the resolution unanimously adopted by the January 1918 Factory Committee conference put it.  Nevertheless the conference called for the immediate nationalisation of factories in a good physical and financial situation.

The economic situation however was desperate as the new state faced immediate armed attack.  The Factory Committee conference noted that: “Every one of us knows that our industrial life is coming to a standstill and that the moment is fast approaching when it will die.  We are now living through its death spasms.  Here the question of control is no longer relevant. You can control only when you have something to control.”

Widespread nationalisation was introduced but it was viewed as a necessity compelled by circumstances, not a positive choice and not one driven by socialist ideology.  Alongside this nationalisation was increasing centralisation of economic decision making, which was imposed on the factories.

But of course if the workers were unable to run the factories how could they run the state?  Complaining that the factory committees were ignoring everything but their own local interests and themselves disorganising production one section of the state’s economic organisation stated that reorganisation would not happen “without a struggle of the worker’s government against the workers’ organisations.”

All these quotes are taken from the article by David Mandel in the collection of articles on workers’ control in the book ‘Ours to Master and to Own: Workers control from the Commune to the Present.’  In this he states that the contradiction between planning and workers self-management can be resolved if there are conditions allowing for significant limitations on central control and these conditions also provide workers with security and a decent standard of living.  Both, he says, were absent in Russia.  More important for the argument here is his view that there must be a working class capable of defending self-management.

This too did not exist in Russia and our very brief review shows this.  The Bolsheviks were acutely aware of the low cultural development of Russian workers, evidenced through their lack of education, high levels of illiteracy, lack of technical skills and lack of experience in the tasks of economic administration and management.  That their numbers declined dramatically, not least because of the demands of the Red Army, leaves no grounds for surprise that this experiment in workers’ control did not prove successful.

The limited character of the initial steps in control and the awareness workers had of their lack of skills were revealed in their calls for the state to reorganise production.  While certain centralised controls over the economy are a necessity, and this is doubly so in order to destroy the power of the ruling classes, the socialist revolution is not about workers looking to any separate body of people to complete tasks that it must carry out.

If workers could not control production they could not be expected to control state power.  This was to turn out to be the experience of the revolution and in its destruction by Stalinism the state turned into the ideal personification of socialism.

This identification of socialism with the state in the minds of millions of workers across the world continues, a product of Stalinism and of social democracy but gleefully seized on by the right.  Since the state is organised on a national basis this also entailed socialism’s corruption by nationalism.

The path required to developing and deepening a genuine workers’ revolution lay not in seeking salvation in the state but in workers creation of this state themselves out of their own activity in the factory committees and soviets.  The coordination, centralisation and extension of the functions of these bodies would ideally have been the means to build a new state power that could destroy and replace the old.  It would also have been the organisation that would have combatted economic dislocation and provided the means for cooperative planning of production and trade with the independent peasantry.

In this sense the Russian revolution is not a model for today.  While workers control came to the fore in this revolution its limitations must be recognised and a way looked to that would overcome them in future.

It might be argued that the backward cultural level of the Russian working class, while acknowledging its high class consciousness, is not a problem today.  After all the working class in Ireland, Britain and further afield is literate, educated and with a large number educated to third level education.  The working class is the vast majority of society, which it was not in Russia in 1917.  Many workers are now highly skilled albeit specialised.  This however is a one sided way of looking at things. 

Firstly on the technical side the very specialisation that makes some workers skilled reflects an increased division of labour that in so far as it is deep, widespread and reflected also in a division of social roles militates against the widespread accumulation of the skills and experience of management and control.

Many workers reflect their specialisation in a narrowing of outlook but illustrates that the increased division of labour is foremost a question of political class consciousness which is at least in part a reflection of social and economic stratification of the class.  Thus some workers see themselves as professionals – engineers, accountants, managers etc. and regard themselves as middle class.  Just like white collar workers and state civil servants in the Russian revolution they do not identify themselves as workers with separate political interests along with other workers slightly below them in the social hierarchy.  They do not identify with socialism.

Modern society in this way reflects early twentieth century Russia: the working class does not rule society, even at the behest of the capitalist class, but there are numerous social layers (the middle classes) who help the capitalist class to do so, and they imbue into themselves and others the political outlook of their masters.

Because the division of labour is increasingly an international phenomenon the road of revolution at initially the national level poses even bigger problems for workers management of production than existed in Russia in 1917.  Especially in Ireland production is often a minor part of an internationally dispersed process so that control of the whole is exercised elsewhere.  How then do workers take control of such production in any one country especially one lower down the value chain?

For these reasons revolution needs to be prepared.  It needs prepared in the sense that workers must be won to a fully conscious commitment to their becoming the ruling class of society; a rule based on their ownership and management of the forces of production.  In order to achieve this, the force of example rather than simply the power of argument is necessary.  In other words workers must have seen and experienced ownership and management.  This can provide many with the experience and knowledge necessary to lead the whole class to own and manage the whole economy when such control is the basis for their own state power, after capitalist state power has been destroyed.

The best, in fact only way, to prepare for socialism is through practice, practice in asserting the interests of the working class as the potential new dominant class of society.  Demands for nationalisation are demands that someone else, the state – because the state is a group of people – create the good society.  And when anyone is asked to create the good society it is always what is good for them.

Such dominance is more than simple resistance to the exploitation of the old society but must in some way herald the new.  Opposition to austerity for example can only ameliorate the effects of capitalism and does not provide panaceas – not even ‘taxing the rich.’  The real importance of fighting austerity therefore lies in the building of the organisation and class consciousness of the working class. This is what Marx meant when he wrote in ‘The Communist Manifesto that:

“the Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”  The future is that in its “support (for) every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” communists “in all these movements, (they) bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

This then is the importance of workers’ control and workers ownership.  It is the question of the future of the movement of the working class because it brings to the fore “the property question.” 

I shall look at it some more in future posts.