Russia 1917 - Wildcat,1985

The Petrograd Soviet in session

Originally a contribution to the conference held by UK Wildcat on the Russian revolution and its implications today [i.e. 1985].

RUSSIA 1917 ('N', 1985)


There are so many ideological views conflicting about Russia 1917-1985 that revolutionaries should almost be able to see the nature of modern ideology and non-dialectical critique without even considering what actually happened. But this is not, of course, the case. How much more useful it is if revolutionaries analyse historically what did happen, and at the same time try to understand the social function of all the lies about it ...

In recent years, left-Leninists have attempted to put the boot in against council communism, in order to try to demarcate and strengthen their ideology, and in order to try to assimilate the publicity of partisans of authentic communist revolution with a swamp where it is most difficult to sweep through all the lies of the counterrevolution.

By saying this, in no way do I associate myself with everybody who the left-Leninists lump together in this "swamp". Far from it. Left-Leninist methods are a variation of the Stalinist "amalgam technique" where the fundamentals of communist theory and practice (including anti-Bolshevism) are "amalgamated with" and supposedly "disproved by" anything from the self-managementism of "Solidarity" to the factoryism of Ruhle, from the illuminism of the post-1945 Pannekoek to the' ideology of 'commodity abundance" so dear to pro-situs, from libertarianism to Mattick's crisis theory, from modernism a la Camatte to modernism a la Castoriadis... To make it clear from the beginning, I write this from a communist perspective, and am in favour neither of "self-management" nor factoryism, nor libertarianism, nor federalism, nor the anti-interventionist ideology of orthodox councilism, nor individualism, nor "autonomism" (cultural or marginalist).

The most ridiculous allegations (if they can be called by such a "serious" word) are that communists' opposition to Bolshevism depends on (1) Lenin being a "patriarch" (!); (2) the ideas of the Bolsheviks, seen as in themselves the motor of counterrevolution ; or (3) "one sentence" in "What is to be done?" (about the "inability" of proletarians to become revolutionarily conscious be themselves) (!!), seen by left-Leninists as "taken out of context" (!!) No doubt some idiot will soon say that our opposition to Bolshevism and all its inheritors depends on Lenin's acceptance of German gold, or on the so-called "escape" of the Tsarevich and Anastasia! Revolutionaries, though, have nothing but contempt for such bourgeois views of history, based on "evil Macchiavellian geniuses". This is one aspect which I develop below in part 2.

The movement for communism has always been at war with its own representation (for example, one-third of the Communist Manifesto is about opposing recuperation). This is not surprising seeing that the dominant ideas are the ideas of the dominant class, and seeing that ideas about the proletariat are necessary to capitalism, as long as they rest on the lie that its needs can be achieved within existing conditions. Those who do not understand this ought to wise up about the last sixty years and ought to understand that it's not just a question of having "bureaucratic leaders".

It's impossible to see Russia 1917 in isolation. In particular, it has to be seen;
1, in light of the class struggle elsewhere, of which the most advanced arena was - Germany.
2. in light of the generalised conflict between social democracy and the proletariat.
3. in light of the First World War, some aspects of which are still, 70 years later, waiting to be intelligently analysed by revolutionaries.[1]

It is necessary to see that in Russia and the rest of the old world, the movement for the power of workers' councils in the first quarter of this century did not prove strong enough to defeat the strengths of the counterrevolution. It is necessary to see what worked in favour of the power of authentically revolutionary soviets, and what didn't.


All revolutionaries - and all but the least sophisticated pseudo-revolutionaries - think that some of those who split away from the orthodox social-democratic parties before and during the First World War were able to play a vigorous part in the development of the revolutionary movement towards communism. What I aim to show below is that
(1) there was a tendency everywhere for a representation of opposition to social democracy to crop up, which was still essentially social-democratic and which was fought by a revolutionary opposition to social-democracy, which was founded on an entirely different basis: proletarian autonomy.
(2) Orthodox Bolshevism (from Lenin to the "Comintern" ) was founded on the Russian equivalent of Kautskyism which took on different political forms from the USPD up to a point, owing to the differences between German and Russian conditions; whereas dissident Bolshevism (the Russian "Left Communists", Democratic Centralists, Workers' Opposition,...) merely consisted of policy recommendations for Russian capitalism (styles of management; foreign policy; democracy; accountability, relations between unions and State; ...).


All who consider it important to stress that some Russian cities were quite extensively industrialised when war broke out should remember that Russian capital started to lose the war from the very day on which it was declared by Germany. A map of the progression of the Eastern front from 1914 to 1917 shows the front line edgeing Eastwards continuously through Russian Poland. Tsarist troops were only fleetingly able, throughout the whole of the war, to achieve a foothold in a small part of North-East Germany, from which they were forced to retreat completely by February 1915.[2]


The revolutionary wave of February 1917 ,was sparked off by women proletarians in Petrograd who had taken to the streets in defiance of the Tsarist State and of a Bolshevik directive to wait until the official May Day demonstration. Essentially the main workers' demands and hopes centred around an end to the slaughter of the war, and a beginning to some sort of workers' power, which was seen from various different angles: from accountable management through to workers' power over their wage-slavery, to a representation of workers' power by centralist or federalist bureaucrats - and no doubt many workers looked for a real and total workers' power ... This wave reached a preliminary peak in July, after the Russian bourgeoisie began to send more proletarians to the battlefield, which was a necessary Entente strategy because the intensifying atrocities on the Western front were beginning to incite discontent. The Bolsheviks held back this wave of proletarian struggle; Tomsky was to say "The regiments which have come out have acted in an uncomradely manner, not having invited the Central Committee of our party to consider the question of a demonstration."


The Bolshevik party, in the few months leading up to October, was able - under pressure from its boss Lenin - to throw off mere "centrist" tactics resting on a critical support for Kerensky, and was able to envisage the realisation of the task for which the Bolsheviks had groomed themselves since they split the Russian social-democratic party in 1903: seizure of power over the proletariat.


E. Mav's entire text (The Russian Revolution and the Permanent Need for the Soviets, October 1984) is written from the viewpoint of seeing the capitalist counterrevolution in Russia as a process of a degeneration of the State formed in October 1917. The change in Bolshevik policy is seen as equivalent to the counterrevolution, caused by external isolation and by social-democratic "remnants" of which the Bolsheviks never exorcised themselves. This forgets that nothing can ever be revolutionary in the anti-capitalist sense except that which tends towards conscious and total proletarian power: i. e. the dictatorship of the whole class.


E. Mav sees all the tendencies of the Zimmerwald left (Luxemburg, Lenin, Pannekoek, Ruhle, Gorter...) as communist because they all supported the slogan "Turn the imperialist war into a civil war". Fortunately, there are abundant facts through which which we can test this hypothesis.

Whatever Luxemburg's mistakes during the war (e.g. "The worst workers' party is better that none" (!)), there is no doubt that she took part in the revolutionary class war in Berlin 1919, and had by then gone over to a position of total hostility to the SPD. What we must now look at is the theoretical (and therefore practical) differences between the German-Dutch communist left and Bolshevism, beginning before the war.


The difference between communist opposition to social-democracy and Bolshevik "opposition to social democracy" had one of its first and clearest expressions before the outbreak of imperialist war.

In a word, Pannekoek saw a reformist working class, and then saw that revolution depended on the consciousness and organisation of the masses in struggle. He appropriated and developed Rosa Luxemburg's anti-programmatic view of revolution.

"The proletariat's organisation - its most important source of strength - must not be confused with the present-day form of its organisations and associations, where it is shaped by conditions within the framework of the still vigorous bourgeois order. The nature of this organisation is something spiritual [geist?]- no less than the whole transformation of the proletarian mentality."
(Quoted in S.Bricianer's "Pannekoek and the Workers' Councils".)

This emphasis on proletarian consciousness and mass organizations formed in the process of struggle is already the opposite of blaming the domination of the proletariat by reformism on reformist leaders. The "controversy" between Kautsky and Pannekoek in 1912-1913 must be seen in light of Kautsky's denial that "mass action" could be anything more than "unorganised mob violence", and in light of Pannekoek's position as an open partisan neither of labour aristocracy nor of mob disorganisation, but of a "third possibility": "an extra-parliamentary political intervention by organised workers ... acting directly at the political level instead of leaving this completely to their delegates."

Bricianer mentions that Lenin, in his copy of Pannekoek's text wrote the word Neverho!" meaning "Untrue!", against the piece underlined above.

Five years later, in 1917, Lenin was to recognise implicitly the importance of Pannekoek's landmark text in his own "The State and Revolution". It is difficult to analyse this latter text without seeing that large parts of it were contradicted, even in Leninist terms, by later Bolshevik practice. But Lenin's message was that the Kerenskyist State should be overthrown, and the so-called "lack of precision and concreteness - not to speak of the other defects" of Pannekoek's text should be forgotten. To give Lenin his due regards, "Left-Wing Communism - An Infantile Disease" (a veritable handbook of the counterrevolution) was not long in being published, and indeed it was a more honest attack on Pannekoek's communist position. It did not take long (i.e. after 1912) for the conflict between the revolutionary opposition to social democracy on the one hand, and Bolshevism on the other, to become more and more open.

Bolshevism was non-Kautskyist in that the Bolshevik party had little or no interest after April 1917 in backing Kerensky, whereas Kautsky's party on the whole gave support to the SPD. (But there were also occasions such as in Bavaria 1919 where parts of the USPD violently opposed the SPD.) But Bolshevism was Kautskyist to the core in that it saw revolution as the act of a conspiratorial elite substituting itself for the masses, to which mass-action-for-itself would be an irrelevance. This was the Russian equivalent of all the parliamentarist "consciousness-injectors" of the USPD.


"The historical moment when Bolshevism triumphed for itself in Russia and when social democracy fought victoriously for the old world marks the inauguration of the state of affairs which is at the heart of' the domination of the modern spectacle : the representation of the working class radically opposes itself to the working class."

"During twenty years of unresolved theoretical debate, the varied tendencies of Russian social democracy had examined all the conditions for the liquidation of Czarism : the weakness of the bourgeoisie, the weight of the peasant majority and the decisive role of' a concentrated and combative but hardly numerous proletariat. The debate was resolved in practice by means of a factor which had not been present in the hypotheses : a revolutionary bureaucracy which directed the proletariat seized State power and gave society a new class domination. Strictly bourgeois revolution had been impossible; the "democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants" was meaningless; the proletarian power could not maintain itself simultaneously against the class of small landowners, against the national and international White reaction, and against its own representation externalised and alienated in the form of a workers' party [my emphasis - N] of absolute masters of State, economy, expression, and soon of thought..."
(G. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, paras. 101 and 103.)


The process of bureaucrats substituting themselves for the power of revolutionary Workers' Councils occurred almost everywhere in the great uprisings of 1917-1921. In Russia this meant a new State; in Germany - on a national level - it meant a legalistic framework of a "National Congress of Councils" which expelled the revolutionaries (Spartakists and International Communists) and democratically elected the bourgeois murderers Ebert and Soheidemann to be "People's Commissars". This latter body was dominated by the SPD and USPD and was unequivocably denounced by the IKD and the Spartakists, for whom "All power to the soviets" presupposed mass action and mass creative consciousness. Later, Ruhle was to denounce - from his own personal experience - the "show councils", in both Russia and Germany. The difference was that in Russia the right social democrats were already in government during the war (which they were losing) and the last hope for capitalism, in view of the soviet movement (which was a movement for proletarian power which started before October and ended after it), was that a putschist party would come to power, especially seeing that Russian Tsarist political structures had not allowed this party to play the usual parliamentary role in the pre-Kerensky years.[4]


After October, the immediate aim of the Bolsheviks was not revolutionary class war, but social and imperialist peace.

"The revolution has won. All power has passed to the soviets ... New laws will be proclaimed within a few days dealing with workers' problems. One of the most important will deal with workers' control of production and with the return of industry to normal conditions. Strikes and demonstrations are harmful in Petrograd. We ask you to put an end to all strikes on economic and political issues, to resume work and to carry it out in a perfectly orderly manner ... Every man to his place. The best way to support the Soviet Government these days is to go back to work."
(A proclamation by Bolshevik spokesmen at the second all-Russian soviet congress.)

In September, Lenin had written:
"Socialism is nothing other than the stage following immediately after State capitalist monopoly... State monopoly capitalism is the most complete material preparation for socialism, the antichamber of socialism".
(The Imminent Catastrophe and the Means to Bring it About.)

He went on to say "When the proletariat has... learnt to organise large-scale production on the level of the state, on the basis of state capitalism, ... the consolidation of socialism will be assured."

So much for the internal and national consolidation of capitalist social peace. The Bolsheviks did not wait long before trying to consolidate imperialist peace on a European level. On November 20, 1917 (Old Style - 4 weeks after the October events), the Bolsheviks opened preliminary armistice talks with the Central Powers - the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. An armistice was agreed (although this is not yet the same as peace) on December 2, 1917. New talks, this time around the issue of a full peace were opened five days later at Brest-Litovsk. As these talks dragged on throughout January and February, AND AS STRIKE WAVES BROKE OUT IN GERMANY, the tendencies in evidence were:
- Lenin (in the minority): for immediate unconditional acceptance of German terms, especially in view of the renewed German advance which began on February 5. [IMPERIALIST PEACE]
- Trotsky (also in the minority): for a continuation of the war, with Russia remaining as an Entente power. [IMPERIALIST WAR]
- Left Social-Revolutionaries: for a "sacred alliance" of all classes in a nationalistic war against Germany. [When later to be espoused by some forces in Germany vis-a-vis France, this was called a "NATIONAL-BOLSHEVIK" position.]
- Mensheviks : open continuation of the war, as before.
- Left Bolsheviks (a majority of the Bolshevik Party, who mostly ceded to Lenin's wishes for fear of a split): for a revolutionary international civil war.

The left Bolsheviks, despite everything, were able to make a seering critique of the other tendencies in their party ; they associated Lenin's position with "a refusal of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the name of peace" and Trotsky's with "a refusal of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the name of war."

Before and after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, eventually signed in March 1918, the Bolsheviks were becoming a more and more active force, in the counterrevolution. it is important to see that Germany, at the time was experiencing strike waves which were of enormous historical significance - they were, along with the events leading up to the Russian October, the first mass proletarian confrontations against the social democracy and its parties - they were by their very nature as wartime strikes wildcat , and against the union-cum-boss "sacred alliance".

As far as Lenin's position on the war goes, it conveniently changed from "revolutionary defeatism" and "transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war" (1915-16) to "democratic peace" (April 1917), to "unconditional peace" (November 1917), to "defence of the fatherland" (February 1918, "a hard but necessary lesson" ).

"Since 25 October 1917, we have been partisans of the defence of the nation: since this day, we have been for the defence of the fatherland. For we have proven in practice that we have broken with imperialism. We have denounced and divulged the infamous and bloody plots of the imperialisms. We have overthrown our bourgeoisie. We have given freedom to the peoples that we oppressed. [i.e. whom Russian imperialism oppressed - N] We have given land to the people and brought in workers' control .... We declare a merciless war on all the revolutionary phraseology about revolutionary war." (Lenin, February 1918.)


Clearly this honest "war on revolutionary war" (and ipso-facto on the communist revolution), went along with a progressive rationalisation of management. In summing up Bolshevik achievements since October, Lenin was very lucid: substitution of the party for the proletariat; land to the peasants; defence of the nation; right of self-determination; workers' control ; State ownership.

It cannot be said too often that all those who "excuse" this national policy opposed to international revolutionary war on grounds of "pragmatism", are opposing - or think they are opposing - the interests of the Russian revolution to the interests of the world revolution. They have stopped being internationalists, if they ever were internationalists in the first place. In practice what was being opposed to the international consolidation and extension of soviet power was the development of capitalist rationalisation in Russia.

Proletarians have no country, and in decadent capitalism all consolidation of nation-States (and anything national) is counterrevolutionary.


The left Bolsheviks, despite being right about the need for class war on an international level, otherwise merely differed with Lenin and the Leninist fraction over management strategies. Where Lenin was for one-man management and "the submission of the will of thousands of people to the will of a single person", they were for accountability of managers.[5] Where Lenin was originally for partial State ownership, they were for total State ownership and for getting rid of most of the former owners. (Cf. the later glorification of so-called "War Communism" by most left Bolsheviks). Where Lenin was for "nationalisation from above", they were for "nationalisation from below" and "workers' control".

Later, Democratic Centralists of 1919-20 were to campaign for party democracy, which, as Ciliga was to point out, meant opposing "ascendant" Leninism to "decadent" Leninism. And in 1921 Kollotai's "Workers' Opposition", which supported the suppression of Kronstadt, represented the interests of union bureaucrats whilst not forgetting to call for the party to remain "the controller of the real policy of the Soviets" [6]

As most of the information in E. Mav's text shows, the burning questions amongst the Bolsheviks from 1918 onwards concerned: acountability or non-accountability of factory directors; the mathematical make-up of' boards of directors (e.g. what proportion of union bureaucrats, state bureaucrats, and old owners); what treaties to make with foreign capitalist states (ex-Alliance, ex-Entente), ...

Essentially the proletariat's resistance to capitalism was easily crushed in Russia: the proletarian revolution which rolled along throughout 1917 without ever unifying itself for itself and without centralising its control over the economy, left few visible traces by 1918. The Bolsheviks and their State played the largest part in defeating it, in destroying whatever tendencies there were towards the power of really revolutionary workers' councils.


The success of proletarian revolution depends on:
- COMMUNISATION, as opposed to mere "workers' management" (cf. Upper Clyde, Solidarity-England, LIP...), "Workers' control" (cf. Left-Bolsheviks, Russian anarcho-syndicalists...), or "workers' participation" (the platform of nearly all political parties, from fascism through the Alternative Economic Policy to Lucas), or mere occupation of terrain (cf. May '68, Brixton,...). Communisation means the concrete supercession of wage-labour and the commodity economy, including when these are mediated through labour-time certificates.

- Organisation of the immediate political tasks of the international extension of the dictatorship of the proletariat, through international civil war.

The counterrevolution had many arguments about the differences and relations between "economic power" and "political power", where "economic power" was considered as the management of the factories, and "political power" was considered as the State.

The point for the revolution will be to extend a unified and total proletarian power to all corners of the globe, which is inseparable from the communisation of all social relations (production and everything else), and inseparable from revolutionary war. Thus the political side and the economic side will be unified not through any management techniques, nor on the basis of mere occupation of the factories, but on the basis of seizure and transformation of everything. This will include the necessary seizure of the means of production, and a political phase (the lower phase of communism) where aspects of the old world will still exist (i.e. bourgeois power in some areas) and will need to be suppressed.[7]


THE PARTY: E.Mav thinks that there is a necessity for a party to "play a leading role in the revolutionary process through its historic programmatic clarity" and which "must struggle to win a clear majority in the class for its views". The idea of mass revolutionary consciousness as being related to the acceptance of the views of' a "programmatically clear" party is the same as the idea of the so-called need for "possessors of the class's consciousness", whose heads are seen as a privileged place of the maturation of class consciousness. But mass consciousness is not acceptance of a programme; it is practical or it is nothing, Mass revolutionary consciousness goes along with mass revolutionary practice: it is what it does[8] and its reference-point is its own struggle. It needs no leaders to "win it over to the party's point of view". The emphasis on proletarian autonomy was what Pannekoek was trying to get across in 1912.

This does not in any way deny the necessity for proletarians who consider themselves revolutionary to intervene in the class struggle, i.e. in the joint maturation of its theory and its practice. They are neither leaders nor followers and it is obvious that their action will be more effective if organised internationally.

Revolutionary theory comes from the proletarian condition; it is therefore immanent (although not in a vulgar-deterministic way) in that condition. It comes from the totality of dispossession, as part of the movement for the collective total reappropriation of the planet by the dispossessed: the proletariat, whose power alone can abolish classes.

THE STATE: E. Mav defines the state as the means by which a class holding "political power" "suppresses" the other classes. Elsewhere he speaks of the state as arbitrator of "intra-class disputes". The first definition is inadequate because no power is merely political and because classes have suppressed other classes through other means than the State (e.g. trade unions). If it is assumed that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a dictatorship of the whole class and that this class will have to centralise by means of the revokable delegates in order to ensure that optimum communication, distribution and production in all senses is organised on a world scale, then the second definition is meaningless because arguments will be settled by means of the authority of the majority, which is different from "arbitration". Social organisation will obviously be a means both of effecting the pleasure of individuals of a world human community and of confronting differences.

What I'm saying is that the State means something else. The best definition would be: the separation and institutionalisation of executive powers away from decisive and deliberative powers. This social separation has nothing to do with the communist project. LLM's programme of a "state on the model of the Paris Commune" is indeed a feat of remarkable historical stagnation.[9] Marx was right to say that the Commune provided a glimpse of the "at last discovered historical form under which the emancipation of labour might be realised", but this form has been seen on a much more developed level in the revolutionary workers' councils of 1917-1921. The Commune taught Marx the necessity to smash the bourgeois State immediately (a quarter of a century beforehand, he had already called for the abolition of the State); but what have the intervening 114 years taught today's communists? That in ascendant capitalism it was possible in certain circumstances for proletarians to struggle for a national State in which to struggle for reforms, and even to engage in momentary alliances with petit-bourgeois elements (cf. inside the Commune), whereas in the period of capitalist decadence, (understood on a world scale), sooner or later it's all or nothing, and the revolution is the opposite of all fronts etc. and all compromised organisational solutions.

All States are now the enemy of what will be the necessity for any area of the power of the proletariat-for-itself (by this is meant "the proletariat acting in a way such as to abolish itself through its own power" ): namely the international extension of communisation which can know no treaties, negotiations, armistices or peace with any capitalist power.


1] E.g. the aftermath of the downfall of the Habsburg dynastic Empire in central Europe.

2] See map on p.10 of G. Sabatier'a "Traite de Brest-Litovsk 1918. Coup d'arret a la revolution".

3] Extensively quoted in S. Bricianer, "Pannekoek and the Workers' Councils".

4] I am aware of the danger of over-simplistic political comparisons between Germany and Russia, but would the SPD have retained power in January 1919 if it had replaced the monarchy at the same time as Kerensky had replaced the Tsar? No - it would have been utterly discredited. The sequence of events was as follows: after two years of growing wildcat strikes, Germany was losing the war, and the military High Command (and the de facto dictator: Ludendorff) were forced to call off the war. This they did through shifting the blame onto a newly-created parliamentary government which they had set up for this purpose. When the High Command later changed its mind, the SPD - which had revelled in the imperialist massacres - was able to pose as a party of peacemongers and was therefore in a better position to smash the revolution. Although of course they had to murder revolutionary workers by the tens of thousands, their position as technically against the High Command meant that many workers were still submissive to them. In Russia the Kerensky government was already totally discredited by October 1917 - that's where the Bolsheviks come in as a governmental party, as the USPD might well have done had things gone differently in Germany.

5] See M.Brinton, "The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control", which is a book which equates communism with workers' management of production.

6] See "Les branches d'octobre" by L'Insecurite'Sociale, Paris.

7] By "aspects" I mean "areas" ... I'm not suggesting for one moment that "bourgeois right" and money would exist in any way whatsoever during this "lower phase". Whether or not this was true at the time of the Critique of the Gotha Programme, it's certainly not true now.

8] By saying this, I'm not peddling spontaneism. Consciousness (of history, tasks, enemies, capitalist development,...) cannot be separate from its use, and its development and realisation.

9] LLM, in Hong Kong, publishes "lnternational Correspondence" from the perspective of academic left-Leninist ideology. The text by E. Mav mentioned is an internal text of the communist group Wildcat.