Oskar Anweiler on the workers' councils and the Bolshevik dictatorship in the Russian revolution.
(Originally published in: Frits Kool and Erwin Oberländer, Arbeiterdemokratie oder Parteidiktatur. Ed. Herbert Lüthy, Walter-Verlag AG Olten, Buchergilde Gutenberg Frankfurt. Zürich, 1968. A collection of texts of the left opposition in the Bolshevik party, 1918-1923, to which reference is occasionally made in footnotes—e.g., “See text no. 8”, etc.). C
“A group of intellectuals with a central committee for its leadership (also composed of pure intellectuals), this group pretends to be a party of the proletariat, this group wants to resolve the colossal tasks and place itself in the forefront of the liberation movement in Russia (. . .). By following this path do we not run the risk of ending up like the conspiratorial societies of the pre-proletarian era?”
A. Potressoff to K. Kautsky, May 22, 1904 (Kautsky Archive, IISH).
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“We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom—not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy—not to eliminate democracy altogether.”
“But socialist democracy is not something that begins only in the Promised Land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party.”
Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1961, p. 77. (Written in 1918.)
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A half century after the Russian revolution of 1917, this date has hardly lost any of its power for succeeding generations: not with regard to the glorification of the “great socialist revolution of October” by the stylized historical legend or the revolutionary tradition, whose political-pedagogical function in the Soviet Union and the communist world is certainly well-known, nor with regard to the much less frequently encountered contrary view which passionately rejects the Bolshevik dictatorship for moral reasons, a view that has been held from the times of Kautsky to Mihailo Mihailov today. Likewise, one can be persuaded of the “tragedy of socialist ideas”, which began with Lenin and ended with Stalinism, but also nonetheless recognize the provocative effect of the Russian revolution, whose impact we feel even today, and which has prevented this revolution from possessing a merely antiquarian interest.
This is not due exclusively to the dramatic conclusion of the events of 1917 and the subsequent civil war between Whites and Reds; nor is it merely the consequence of psychological fascination with the revolutionary figures Lenin and Trotsky. In other words, it is not a result of a simple aesthetic appeal. The historical reality of this initial phase of communist power in Russia, which the impartial historian cannot ignore, owes much more to its political substance. By this I mean: the study of the Russian revolution, of its prehistory, of its unfolding and of its results leads into the midst of a tense encounter with a complicated web of political ideas and activities that finally resulted in such a singular event. Just as the French revolution played the role for later generations of a great “textbook” where all modern political ideas and parties find their “exemplary” inspiration, so also can the Russian Bolshevik revolution, with relation to the 20th century, be said to have set forth the fundamental problems of state power and political liberty as problems of a transformation of the social relations between men.
Lenin’s party, which seized power in Russia in the October revolution, felt that it was the mouthpiece of a world historical mission. Therefore in the Russian revolution the decisions that were made appeared in the eyes of the Bolsheviks to have been privileged with a crucial meaning for the proletarian world revolution they expected to take place. Very soon, however, an attitude came to predominate that may be called ideological pragmatism, an orientation towards the goal of staying in power and not towards theoretical postulates. The problems that arose from the contact of socialist ideas with Russian reality, from the political program and from everyday decision-making, were finally resolved in accordance with the purposes of the Bolshevik state, which was accused by deceived militants of “treason to socialism”.
Before this conclusion was reached, however, Soviet Russia underwent a period when these problems were openly debated and bitter polemics raged. The political substance of the Russian revolution was largely determined in this debate. The historical literature produced outside Russia, too long almost exclusively devoted to the winners in the struggle for power, is now beginning to deal with the hidden side of the problem. And this development also embraces those revolutionaries who constituted the “left” fraction within the communist movement, called the “conscience of the revolution”. As an opposition within the Bolshevik party, these advocates of “purely revolutionary ideas” defended the essential theoretical premises of Leninist Marxism and not just a few principles of the political praxis of Bolshevism. But just as disagreements between heretics and the orthodox are often more harsh and of more account than disagreements between believers and non-believers, the critiques of the left communist opposition with respect to the Bolshevik central power were necessarily stronger than those directed against “class enemies”.
This left critique was carried on for the most part within the same ideological framework and utilized the same vocabulary as the group that seized power. This both facilitated as well as hindered historical judgment: while on the one hand the system of reference within which the internal opposition of the party operated was “immanent to the system” and thus makes it possible for the historian to determine with precision the opposition’s position within the system, on the other hand this community of language used by both the group in power as well as the left often conceals from the historian the evident rupture in the very heart of the doctrine shared by both groups. The interpretation of the texts of the opposition in Bolshevik Russia is therefore at the same time a chapter of political semantics. One must not forget this while reading these documents.
The Russian Workers Movement and Marxist Socialism prior to 1917
When the struggles within the Russian Communist Party concerning the relation between “workers democracy” and party dictatorship became increasingly divisive in 1920, the opposed factions differed with respect to an issue that had profoundly affected the socialist movement in Russia for over a quarter century. How to combine the workers movement with Marxism formed the central organizational problem of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia; the way that this merger was brought about and the attempt to resolve the problems posed by this task had also determined the divisions in Russian social democracy since its earliest beginnings.
“History has shown that in Russia the schism within socialist thought among the advanced militants of the working classes is much deeper than in other countries, and that this separation has condemned the Russian revolutionary movement to impotence. From this alone arises the task which Russian social democracy is called upon to realize: to combine socialist ideas with autonomous political consciousness in the proletarian masses, and to organize a revolutionary party, indissolubly linked to a powerful workers movement.”
These programmatic words of Lenin written in 1900 highlight the fundamental problem of the socialist workers movement in Russia: the relation between the “intelligentsia” and the working class. Until the end of the century and even thereafter each proceeded independently of the other—the daily social struggle of the workers in the factories and the activism of the revolutionary groups of the “intelligentsia”—although they grew closer and closer as time passed. When Georgi Plekhanov (1856-1918), after breaking with the Narodnik movement in 1883 in Switzerland, founded with a few of his fellow believers the group known as “Workers Freedom”, inspired by Marxist and social democratic ideas, the outlines of a proletarian movement could barely be discerned in Czarist Russia. Was it even possible to speak of a proletariat in Russia generally? Numbering perhaps 2,400,000 proletarians, working in industries and mines in Czarist Russia, these workers had not yet abandoned their peasant legacy and their rural traditions. Properly speaking they were still no more than peasants and members of their respective peasant communities, the “Mir”. Although the metal workers of the Riesen factories in Petersburg were more emancipated from the land than the male and female textile workers in the Moscow area, the Russian proletariat as a whole remained to a great extent rooted in the countryside until the period of the revolution. Even during the first few decades of soviet power the industrial proletariat was still recruited and trained for the most part from among the surplus agricultural population.
Marx’s Russian disciples operated “on the periphery of a young and inexperienced factory proletariat, striving to impregnate this proletariat with political ideas in order to make them understand the purpose of their historical existence”. The doctrines of Karl Marx supplied Plekhanov and his disciples not only with the sociological methods to be used for the analysis and study of Russia’s economic development towards capitalism and bourgeois society, but also provided radicals discouraged by the failure of terrorism with a new “objective” assurance of the meaning of their political struggle. Under the conditions of Czarist autocracy in Russia the first Russian Marxists understood that the organized workers movement had to adopt the goal of overthrowing czarism, and that it was not enough to expound mere economic and social demands for the correction of the “historical mission” of the proletariat.
Thus towards 1900 the problem of organization was posed in all its bitterness. The spontaneous strike movement that had arisen for the most part between 1895 and 1897, together with the attempts to form organizations in the form of resistance funds and workers committees, already exhibited the character of an incipient “proletarian consciousness”. In the factional struggle of the Russian Marxists, this current was designated as “economism” and was opposed by the majority of the “old” (Plekhanov’s group) as well as the “young” (Martov, Lenin). A great deal of ink was spilled in this polemic against the “economists”, whose journal was called Delo Raboce (Labor Affairs), and it was claimed that they wanted to sacrifice political goals for small economic improvements. Here one can already see, in this first rupture within Russian social democracy, the dilemma that affected it throughout its entire history until the 1917 revolution, and even later, when it arose within the communist party under a distinctly dialectical form as the following question: how can a movement that claims to be the vanguard of the political struggle for liberation be a party organized according to democratic principles and strictly bound to the real interests of the working class, a proletarian party in reality and not just in name ?
The answer of the “economists” was to advocate a pure class party born from concrete economic needs which seeks as many improvements as it can obtain including the legalization of its existence, without thereby renouncing the political struggle for a democratic republic. But in principle the goal was the consolidation and extension of the workers movement. They reproached the Marxist intellectuals of the emigration for having become too separated from the workers’ everyday struggle and for only being interested in achieving a monopoly over the leadership of the struggle. Towards 1900, in fact, the “economists” possessed a majority on the local committees, considered to be appendages of the Russian social democratic workers party, formally established in 1898.
Such was the situation when Lenin joined the socialist workers movement in Russia. After his participation in the founding of the “League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class” in Petersburg in 1895, from the period of his exile in Siberia for several years and his emigration in the summer of 1900, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov played a major role in the imminent split between the economic movement of the workers and the political organization. His principle attack was directed against “economism”. Finally (1903) the model for a new party emerged.
In Iskra and above all in “What Is To Be Done?” (1902), while still a member of Plekhanov’s Geneva group, Lenin elaborated the organizational principles of a socialist party under the particular conditions of Czarist Russia. Lenin supported and extended Plekhanov’s theses concerning the primacy of political action: “Fundamentally, the basic economic interest of the proletariat can only be successfully achieved by means of a political revolution that replaces the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with the dictatorship of the proletariat”. The principal goal of the social democratic party must therefore be the destruction of czarism as a presupposition for socialism. Against the economistic concept of a “spontaneous” process of the workers movement, which must be measured by the party, which, moreover, according to Lenin, will lead in the best case to “Trade Unionism”, Lenin upheld the leading role of “consciousness” and of revolutionary theory. From the conjunction of the need for a leading role for the “proletariat” in the revolution and the need for the implantation of “revolutionary consciousness” in the mass of workers by means of the intelligentsia, the practical necessity arose for an organization of professional revolutionaries, who, numerically few, but devoted to a life of conspiracy, must play the role of the leadership in the revolution.
It was in “What Is To Be Done?” that Lenin wrote: “The political struggle of social democracy is much more general and complicated than the economic struggle of the workers against the capitalists and the government. Thus, as a consequence, the organization of the revolutionaries of the social democratic party must inevitably assume a different form than the organization of the workers for this struggle (. . .). This organization of revolutionaries must (. . .) above all and primarily recruit people whose job will be revolutionary activity (. . .). Under the general influence of the members of such an organization, any distinction between intellectuals and workers must totally disappear (. . .). This organization cannot under any circumstance be very numerous, but it may be conspiratorial”.
Lenin understood, as he formulated it so well, “the organizational problem of Russian social democracy as a problem of the organization of the revolution” . The form of the party, as it had been practically defined in autocratic Russia, was to henceforth remain defined in terms of its political principles. What for the other Marxists, who until 1903 had essentially defended Lenin’s theses, signified nothing but a transitory form of the primitive state of the social democratic party, was for Lenin an indispensable condition for the plan for revolutionary action. A party of workers, such as existed in Western Europe, with the concomitant danger of losing sight of its revolutionary goal, as was demonstrated by the crisis of German social democracy at the end of the century (“revisionism”), in Lenin’s eyes made no sense in Russia, nor was it capable of forwarding or expressing in reality “the armed revolution of all the people”.
The theoretical fundamentals of bolshevism were, according to Lenin, already formulated prior to the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks at the Second Party Conference in the summer of 1903. Lenin’s proposal for the party’s organizational statute was the logical outcome of the opinions he expressed in “What Is To Be Done?”. For him there could be no doubt that only professional revolutionaries (as exemplified by his formula of “personal participation in one of the party organizations” as opposed to Martov’s proposal, who advocated the concept of cooperation “under the direction” of one of its organizations) were part of the party with the right to deliberate and vote. Against Martov’s desire that “we should be glad if every striker, every demonstrator, led by their actions to responsibility, would call themselves members of the party” , Lenin objected: “It would be better if ten comrades should work without calling themselves comrades of the party (. . .), than that any charlatan should have the right and the possibility of calling himself a member of the party” . While the Mensheviks saw the purpose of their work among the proletariat realized in the striker, whom they considered to be a member of the party, Lenin’s ideal was that of the popular tribune, who leads the masses to the destruction of absolutism.
After the unexpected organizational schism took place during the two months following the Second Party Conference, this issue constituted the principle division between the opposed leaders of Russian Marxism, which could only occasionally be overcome, and then only superficially. What was most often attributed to Lenin in the midst of the fierce polemic of 1904 by his critics, was brought to light by historical events after 1917 more and more frequently and in retrospect appeared to be a prophecy of the events, to which even those who had joined in the critique also succumbed. Trotsky, who assayed his first literary works in his attacks on Lenin, compared Lenin to Robespierre, and added that a Jacobin tribunal “would have accused the entire revolutionary movement of the proletariat of moderation and the first head to fall to the guillotine would have been Marx’s leonine head” . Since Lenin had no faith in the mass of the workers and wanted to strictly limit admissions to the party, it would be necessary to replace the party as such with the inner nucleus of the party, and later to place the central committee in the position once held by the party organization, and finally a sole “dictator” would have to reign in the name of the proletariat. Rosa Luxemburg, who participated in this debate from Germany, also condemned with no less intensity Lenin’s lack of faith in the movement of the masses of producers, and condemned his “ultra-centralism” with equal vigor.
For Lenin’s coreligionists in the struggle against “economism”, the split was also consistent with their own “sectarian” past. The accusations bitterly leveled by Plekhanov to the effect that Lenin’s supporters confused “dictatorship of the proletariat with dictatorship over the proletariat”, that his centralism was in reality a Bonapartism and that in his plan for the revolution the proletariat as a class would play no role --these literary accusations against yesterday’s comrade in arms constituted an act of liberation from the conspiratorial traditions of the Russian revolutionary movement, which Lenin, on the contrary, sought to preserve and augment. Such accusations also presupposed the eruption of democratic thought, which until the disagreement of 1903 remained subordinated, even among those who would become Mensheviks, to the tactical considerations of the revolutionary struggle. The “democracy” demanded by the workers opposition of the 1890s, as well as the “freedom of criticism” within the workers party, were not only used as a simple rallying cry, but were also used against Lenin. After 1904 the Mensheviks most decidedly took the road of an “Europeanization” of the Russian workers movement, which included a reorganization of the social democratic “party intelligentsia” along the lines of a real proletarian party.
The 1905 revolution seemed to open up the way to realizing this design. At the same time, however, it gave Lenin more evidence supporting his program of action. Thus questions of revolutionary tactics came to be involved in the organizational debate, and both issues made the split within the Marxist workers movement more serious, even if in the excitement of the strike movement Bolsheviks and Mensheviks moved closer together under pressure from the workers. The Mensheviks, because of their analyses of the stages of development in Russia, which only allowed for a “bourgeois” revolution, concluded that the fundamental task consisted in the “unification of the proletariat as a class” and the “construction and reinforcement of its class party”.
The victorious revolution, according to the Menshevik conception, must lead to the creation of a bourgeois government, which must carry out democratic and social reforms. The socialists could expect nothing from this management, insofar as the responsibility for the errors of capitalism must fall squarely upon the bourgeoisie. In the parliamentary struggle at the heart of the democratic conception the social democracy would increase in strength and the political consciousness of the Russian workers would be raised. At the same time, the economic relations in Russia will have been altered, since the beginning of the socialist revolution in the advanced countries of western and central Europe would have spread the spark of revolution towards Russia, so that the flame of proletarian revolution will spread there as well.
On the basis of this assessment of the revolution as a bourgeois-democratic revolution, in the view of the Mensheviks the following practical tasks were incumbent upon the party: 1) the formation of a solid social democratic organization by means of the combination of the old conspiratorial apparatus with the new mass organizations; 2) development of the trade unions. The Mensheviks also advocated the idea of a “general Russian workers congress” that would unite the various currents and groups in the working class as well as represent the working class against the other social layers. In this way the Mensheviks hoped to introduce the revolutionary movement to the workers who were still not involved in political life and transform the social democratic party from a sect of conspirators into an open mass party. After the “Days of Freedom” that followed the October demonstration, when the Czar promised a Constitution, the Mensheviks believed the road to the formation of a broad-based social democratic workers party was already mapped out. When the revolutionary wave died out after the Moscow December rebellion, the Mensheviks also spoke, after initial vacillations, about participating in the elections for the first Duma, because “even in a miserable and deformed parliamentarism” they thought they could obtain “an enormous majority considering the insignificant means for the political development of the laboring masses that we have hitherto possessed”.
For Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who were just as surprised as the Mensheviks were by the extent and power of the spontaneous strike movement that followed the “Bloody Sunday” of January 1905, the armed revolution occupied the center stage of the labor of the revolutionary party. It is true that the Mensheviks, pulled along by the mass movement, developed plans to organize a “revolutionary self-administration” of the population’s democratic forces for the purpose of “liquidating the autocracy”, but they were nonetheless totally opposed to the outbreak of revolution, and Martov pointed out that the prospects for a socialist seizure of power were tempting but dangerous. Under such circumstances the revolution would bring in its train “a Jacobin dictatorship”, since Russian society was still far from mature enough for “a dictatorship of the proletariat” in the Marxian sense, which implied a “dictatorship of the majority”.
As his 1905 program for revolution demonstrates, however, Lenin was by no means daunted by this possible perspective. For Lenin the formula “bourgeois revolution” and “democratic republic”, the formula that must herald the historical position of the Russian revolution, did not mean an inherent limitation to socialist action, but only a stage that could not be avoided or skipped. The goal that Lenin wanted for the specifically Russian form of the European “bourgeois” revolution was called the “democratic-revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasant class”. The inclusion of the Russian peasantry (which Lenin considered as a potential revolutionary factor and not as a conservative prop of the old system) in the program of action of the “proletarian” party was based upon an evaluation of the social conditions of the Russian revolution. The “provisional revolutionary government” that was supposed to arise from the victorious revolution would bring with it a coalition of the social democrats, the social revolutionary peasants and other possible radical democratic parties. “Lenin’s secret plan at that time was that within the framework of such a democratic coalition it would be easy for the extremely disciplined and logical Bolsheviks to exclude both the romantically impassioned social revolutionaries as well as the Mensheviks left disarmed by the revolution. This having been accomplished, the Bolsheviks would then be the only leaders of the democratic republic”.
The measures of the revolutionary government, which must possess full dictatorial powers and bring about a social change to a radically new order, meant for Lenin the passage to the socialist revolution, which must lead the proletarians with only the help of the poor peasants against the bourgeoisie and the rich peasants. “Immediately after the revolution, we will devote ourselves to the transition to the socialist revolution, and will do so according to the strength of our forces (. . .). We are in favor of a permanent revolution. We will not stop halfway”, Lenin wrote in the autumn of 1905.
These ideas of Lenin’s were very close to those of Trotsky, who also elaborated the notion of “permanent revolution” during the same period (1905-1906). The difference consisted in the fact that Lenin included the peasant class as a definitive factor in his revolutionary strategy, while Trotsky saw the voice of the revolution only in the thin layer of urban proletarians, who would inevitably carry out the revolution with the aid of the European proletariat. Leninism has an “emergency exit in case the world revolution does not take place, while such an exit is lacking in Trotskyism”. These differences, later to acquire such great importance in the struggle for power among Lenin’s would-be successors upon his death, were of only secondary importance in 1905. For Lenin’s supporters, the theory of an immediate and imminent socialist revolution in Russia remained without practical importance until the “April Theses” of 1917.
The very close connection between Lenin’s revolutionary theory and his organizational model for the social democratic party is clear: only a small, exclusive and disciplined group of “professional revolutionaries” can organize the revolution and seize power; sympathizing masses may grant their support to the movement, but the leadership and the goals are to be held and established by the conspiratorial minority. As opposed to the Menshevik concept of the revolution as a “spontaneous process”, during which no action should be carried out prematurely, Lenin claimed: “A revolution can be made if each revolutionary has influence on the masses, and knows how to correctly evaluate each moment”. These words, written in early 1905, became a reality in October 1917.
During the two and a half years of the first Russian revolution (between the strike in January 1905 and the dissolution of the second Duma in July 1907) Lenin and his followers first faced the problem of how to unite their party’s unconditional desire for leadership with the spontaneous process of the workers movement. The Bolshevik forces were few in number; even among the workers of Petersburg, during the first half of 1905, the party had perhaps 1,000 members. After the revolutionary upswing of the fall, in April 1906 there were 13,000 Bolsheviks in all of Russia (along with 18,000 Mensheviks). The majority of the party committees at the beginning of 1905 were “frozen in illegality”, according to Lenin, and were incapable of influencing the advanced layers of the workers. From Geneva Lenin said that the party committees of the intelligentsia, led by the latter, must be fleshed out with factory workers; this met with the direct resistance of the professional revolutionaries on the committees, who claimed that among the workers no one was properly prepared. The principle essays in “What Is To Be Done?” began to influence the party rank and file. Among Lenin’s supporters in Russia there were not a few who expressed their lack of faith in the “spontaneity” of the working class, and many of them were so opposed to Lenin’s proposal that they rejected Bolshevik participation in the recently created non-party organizations.
Lenin himself demonstrated much more flexibility with regard to this issue after his return from Switzerland in November 1905. He immediately announced that alongside the old secret party apparatus, which must be preserved, new legal and semi-legal organizations should be created, and the party committee must influence the already existing organizations. His attitude towards the councils of workers deputies was ambivalent: on the one hand he considered the Petersburg workers soviet to be a foreshadowing of “the seed of the provisional revolutionary government”; on the other hand he unequivocally denied that this soviet could be the organ of “proletarian self-administration”. “We can, and even must under particular circumstances, come to blows with the uninstructed proletarians (. . .), but in no event must we ever allow the rigorous harmony of our party to grow soft
(. . .). Participation in non-party organizations is only exceptionally permissible for socialists (. . .), only if the autonomy of the workers party is completely realized, or if the members who are ‘delegates’ in the non-party associations, or in the soviets, or in party groups, rely upon the unconditional control and leadership of the party in its totality. . . .”
Lenin’s fear of “anarchosyndicalist currents in the proletariat”, which led him in March 1907 to propose a resolution at the Fifth Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, resulted from organizational activity that spontaneously arose in the revolution of 1905 within the working class. Such a current was expressed not only in the founding of trade unions, whose membership rose in 1907 to almost 250,000, but also in various proposals to hold an all-Russian workers congress for the purpose of bringing together all existing proletarian organizations (trade unions, mutual aid societies, factory delegates, etc.). Other groups also advocated this idea, which originated among the Mensheviks for the purpose of extending the militant base of the social democracy, after the revolutionary waves of 1905, with the goal in their case of uniting the workers groups within the workers movement who were against the preeminence of the intellectuals in the revolutionary movement. Various anarchosyndicalist groups, most notably the group in southern Russia led by D. I. Novomirski, exercised considerable influence in the factories between 1905 and 1907. In their view, the workers committees in the factories, just like the soviets, were apolitical organs of struggle and not led by parties, and utilized “direct action” against the capitalist order, a spontaneous expression of proletarian self-acquired knowledge, freed from the noxious rule of socialist intellectuals inspired by “Jacobin traditions”.
Lenin, meanwhile, wasted no time in denouncing the plans for a workers congress as an “opportunist adventure”. He pointed out, with a great deal of lucidity, that such a congress posed the risk of weakening the only recently attained strength of the party organization and of an ideological split. The resolutions approved by the Bolshevik majority at the Fifth Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (1907) were opposed to all plans for a workers congress; they opposed the “anarchosyndicalist movement in the proletariat”, as well as “all disorganizing and demagogic attempts” to replace social democracy with non-party organizations or organizations above the parties, and against all these tendencies the principle of “the struggle determined by principles” must be adopted.
Lenin’s first ideological attack on those tendencies that would henceforth be called “anarchosyndicalist” occurred because he thought these currents were threats to the harmony and ideological purity of the Marxist party and also because certain tendencies within social democracy were seeking to put an end to the old framework of a conspiratorial past. It is true, of course, that Lenin, cognizant of the necessity of taking advantage of the greater opportunities to carry out open propaganda for the party during the political opening of 1905-1907, had insisted on the need to “move ever larger contingents of the working class towards entry into the party organizations in all their complexity” ; but this need was not to be accompanied by organizational changes in the party structure. The more eager for change the socialist parties became after the defeat of the first revolution, the more energetically and unequivocally the centralist power structure held on to its structural imperative of “democratic centralism”, proclaimed by Lenin to be the cornerstone that must order the internal life of the party. Axelrod, co-founder of Russian Marxism, who was increasingly inclined to defend a democratic form for Russian social democracy, asserted at the Fifth Party Conference, in an openly rebellious manner: “The mass of the proletarians admitted to the party felt like a kind of plebian layer within the party, while the intelligentsia played the role of the aristocracy, of the Patriciate, which determines all internal and external matters and protects the plebian layers from pernicious outside influences” .
Until the beginning of the world war and even during the war years this situation hardly changed with regard to its basic outlines. The fractional splits within Russian social democracy between 1907 and 1912, which for the first time led to the simultaneous existence of two leadership groups within the Bolshevik wing, were disputes within the “party aristocracy”, which hardly involved the plebian layer. The formal separation between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1912 was the culminating point of a development in which the Bolshevik party discovered its own form of organization based on the theoretical foundations laid down by Lenin since 1900. During the world war, when the debates over what stance to adopt towards the war and national defense split European social democracy and led to the collapse of the Second International, Lenin’s Bolshevism made its first entry into the international arena after being limited to Russia for many years. The question of the degree to which the peculiarities of Lenin’s Russian Marxism influenced the formation of the Third International and its member parties must be reserved for separate discussion. One can hardly deny, however, the following observation made by Trotsky at the height of the conflict within Russian social democracy concerning the role of the intelligentsia in the Russian workers movement in 1909: when the socialist intelligentsia “entered the workers party, it brought with it its social characteristics as a whole: sectarianism, intellectual individualism, ideological fetishism; the intelligentsia adapted all these peculiarities to Marxism, and deformed it. Thus the Russian intelligentsia brought Marxism to its most exaggerated extreme”.
Bolshevism and Soviet Democracy in the 1917 Revolution
When the monarchy was overthrown in the Russian revolution of February 1917 and the country obtained “the freest constitution in the world” (Lenin), the Russian working class was given the opportunity, for the first time in its history, to take its destiny into its own hands. The working class shared this opportunity with other social layers that had been almost entirely excluded from political life under the reign of the czars. What distinguished the Russian development was not the readiness of the Russian bourgeoisie for revolution, as this bourgeoisie was nothing but a late fruit of the European bourgeoisie, but that of the radical intelligentsia, which had taken the leadership of the workers movement since the end of the century. The 1917 revolution was the acid test of the meaning of the “hegemony of the proletariat” in the revolution, as Marx had announced and bequeathed as a legacy to his Russian disciples.
The fact that is most noteworthy in a political sense and, as must be proven, the one that was most determinative of the course of the revolution at a higher level, was the generalization of the council movement, which expressed a new social phenomenon. As was most clearly demonstrated during the first Russian revolution, the emergence of approximately fifty councils of workers deputies (among which, however, only the Petersburg soviet played a political role) was a sign that the Russian factory workers were only marginally involved with the main underground parties, and that during the course of the strike movement they had to create their own organizations. As we pointed out above, the socialists had to accept this fait accompli. The Mensheviks expected the councils of workers deputies to either transform themselves into trade unions or, should they resist this, to remain as formally non-party organizations that could be ideally led by social democracy. For Lenin, however, the soviets were “organs of the revolution”, subordinated to revolutionary government, which must be based on the democratic majority of the population of workers and peasants. Neither the Mensheviks nor Lenin ever conceived of the possibility that the soviets could act as State organs. Certain statements made by Trotsky, who played a leadership role in the Petersburg soviet, went as far as any party leaders would go in this regard.
When, immediately during the first days of the February revolution (this time with the participation of socialist intellectuals), a soviet of workers and soldiers was formed in the Russian capital, and when in the following weeks and months such soviets arose all over Russia, the Czarist system (unlike what happened in 1905) disappeared. The soviets of 1905 originated as strike committees and had the character of organs of “workers self-administration”. Because they employed direct and informal election of deputies for the workers soviets, who were subject to recall at any time, the soviets were flexible organs of representation and directive committees of the struggle.
In 1917, however, two tendencies came into conflict within the councils: on the one hand (in accordance with their origins), the tendency to view them as direct organs of “workers democracy” in one way or another; on the other hand, a tendency to consider them to be quasi-parliamentary representative institutions of the working class, the soldiers and, finally, the peasants as well. Soon the structure of the parties just then emerging from illegality, or semi-legality, with their theoretical, tactical and personal contrasts, was combined with the structure of the soviets, which had originally been established in a different way. All the socialist parties (unlike the anarchists and syndicalists) considered the soviets to be primarily organizational instruments for the activation and articulation of the political consciousness of the “active masses” in the sense of their revolutionary programs. Fractions were formed in the soviets along the usual party lines, and even when the deputies did not belong to any party they constituted an important reserve force in political votes, a reserve force that every party leadership tried to recruit.
Alongside the councils of workers and soldiers, the latter represented according to their military units on the basis of elected members, which represented a good part of the residents of the cities, there were also, among the lowest layers of the workers movement, certain committees known as factory committees (fabrichno-zovodnye komitety). These factory councils, which could have been inspired by the oldest models provided by Russian factories, were organized with the legal authorization of the provisional government and also with the assistance of the soviets. In the capital, Petrograd, and later in Moscow, there was a central council that united all the services, and in October 1917 there was even an all-Russian conference of service councils. Due to the fact that the factory committees were in direct contact with the workers and the latter followed them closely their revolutionary role increased considerably, at the same time that the soviets also grew more powerful, but on the other hand they began to succumb to parliamentarism and lost their close contact with the masses.
A third form of workers organization must finally be mentioned, that of the trade unions. For the trade unions, as well, the revolutionary proclamation of complete freedom of association ushered in the first opportunity for legal activity. Their development was from the start characterized by their rivalry with the factory committees. Because the Russian trade unions did not have a base in manufacturing industries, they had a tendency to form large coalitions on the basis of every branch of an industry rather than on the basis of specific occupations. The problems that emerged as a result will be considered elsewhere.
These three forms assumed by the Russian workers movement (soviets, factory councils and trade unions) were under the preponderant influence of the political ideas and leadership of the socialist parties. There were of course considerable differences with regard to the role played by each party. In general one can say that until the fall of 1917 the social revolutionaries (largely thanks to their influence among peasant soldiers and young officers) and the Mensheviks dominated the soviets of workers and soldiers. The Mensheviks enjoyed a majority among the workers sections of the soviets. In the factory committees, on the other hand, the Bolsheviks had already between the winter and summer of 1917 gained a decisive influence, supported by the anarchosyndicalists who, despite their organizational weakness, wielded considerable influence. In the trade unions, however, the Mensheviks had a slight advantage until the end of the summer of 1917; among the trade unions there were some, such as the printers, which formed a solid base for the social democratic Mensheviks, while others, such as the metal workers, soon inclined towards the Bolsheviks.
The social dynamic of the Russian workers movement in the revolution of 1917-1918 was expressed both by support of and sometimes by opposition to these four kinds of organization (soviets, factory committees, trade unions and parties), and it was from the former that all the latter organizations emerged under the influence of this spontaneous movement, which in the language of the revolution was designated as stichiya, i.e., as an elemental, unconscious, amorphous social force. In the context of the political vacuum of a country at war, the problem of the organization of the revolution was once again posed; the problem Lenin had devoted most of his attention to since the turn of the century. The revolution of 1917 involved, above all, the relation between the Bolshevik party and the “democracy of the revolutionaries”, which took the form of the soviets.
After the victory of the February revolution there arose in Russia a skillful balancing act, which was recorded in the history of the Russian revolution as a system of “dual power” between the provisional government, on the one hand, and the soviets of workers and soldiers, on the other. The majority of the executive committee of the Petrograd soviet, composed of socialist intellectuals from diverse political backgrounds, decided on the day the Czar was deposed to hand over the formal powers of government to the provisional government, formed by politicians from the old Duma, and to be satisfied with role of “control organ of the revolutionary democracy”. The soviets in other parts of Russia, which had previously united in an all-Russian conference and in June met in an all-Russian congress of soviets, also accepted this policy of the decisive council of workers and soldiers in Petrograd.
As far as the moderate majority in the Soviets was concerned, the theoretical and practical fundamentals were resolved. As we said above, from the very beginnings of Russian Marxism the prevailing view was that the “bourgeois” character of the Russian revolution was the foundation of Marxist revolutionary theory. Both the Mensheviks and the social revolutionaries deduced from this postulate that the political form of the government that would replace czarism was a democratic-parliamentary republic, which was to be coupled on the economic plane with the bourgeois-capitalist order of society and production. Only when the economic conditions in Russia were mature would it be possible to take the next step to socialism and the power of the proletariat. As a necessary corollary of these theories, there arose among the moderate socialists a refusal to acknowledge a proletarian government in the form of the soviets and instead a willingness to recognize the bourgeois provisional government.
Also influential were the practical reflections that arose from the feeling of inadequacy felt by the moderate socialists when they contemplated the prospect of taking power. These moderate socialists were afraid of handing over the power over such a vast country to those who, at the moment of the destruction of the old order, had no experience at all in government administration, and therefore they preferred to hand over power to the liberals, who already during the times of the Czars had some opportunities to perform certain roles in local administration in cities and country districts, while they had also accumulated practical experience in the Duma in the matter of State administration. Above all, it was their preoccupation with the problem of maintaining the defense forces of the new revolutionary Russia that prevented the moderate socialists, despite their fundamental predisposition to pacifism, from forming a minority socialist government that lacked a broad base in the population.
On April 16, 1917 Lenin entered Petrograd. On this day he brought with him a new revolutionary program, as set forth in the “April Theses”. With his party he was ready to consider the possibility of uniting with the Menshevik left. Lenin’s program was the result of the further development of his theory of revolution during the war years and his accommodation to the practical balance of forces in Russia in the first weeks of the revolution. The new perspective was: socialist revolution and soviet republic.
The February revolution occurred when Lenin, in exile in Switzerland, was engaged in intensive study of Marx, Engels and contemporary socialists (above all Kautsky and Pannekoek) with reference to the future proletarian State. This study provided the material that would form the basis for the work written in August and September of 1917 entitled The State and Revolution. It was largely under the influence of Bukharin (who in various articles published in 1916 had examined the relations between the State and the socialist revolution) and the Dutchman Pannekoek (who had already foreseen in 1912 the replacement of parliamentarism by exclusively proletarian organs) that Lenin arrived at his basic position that the revolution must create new institutions while simultaneously destroying the existing State institutions. Lenin in his own way “discovered” the anti-State Marx of the 1871 essay on the Commune, and merged this discovery with the experiences of the Russian revolution.
Here Lenin could connect his reflections from 1905-1906, concerning the councils as organs of revolutionary struggle, and merge them into a broader historical and theoretical context. Lenin noted: “The fundamental idea of Marx: the conquest of political power by the proletariat is not equivalent to the seizure of a State machine that is ‘ready to use’, but its ‘destruction’, overthrow and replacement by a new one (. . .). This can be more succinctly expressed in the following way: replacement of the old ‘ready to use’ State machine and the parliaments by soviets of workers deputies and their authorized representatives.”
Here we find ourselves before a very significant convergence of theory and historical reality. It is worth noting how Lenin could with such clarity carry out an analysis of the political situation in Russia and how he could deduce his plans for action on the basis of the few reports that reached him in Switzerland. The Bolshevik party had to utilize the “dual power” of the soviets and the provisional government solely for the purpose of furthering soviet power. From “control organs” they must become organs of power. The goal, as Lenin wrote in the “April Theses” is not a parliamentary republic, but a “republic of the soviets of workers, agricultural day laborers and village deputies throughout the country, from the bottom up”.
Lenin therefore took a very significant step, which took most of his supporters by surprise. The most obdurate opposition was waged by Kamenev who, together with Stalin, was responsible for Bolshevik tactics prior to Lenin’s return from exile. Kamenev charged that Lenin’s theses were suitable for socialism’s first step in England, Germany or France, but that they were not appropriate for Russia. Kamenev contrasted Lenin’s theses with the resolution approved by a conference of representatives of factory workers in favor of the introduction of an internal “factory constitution”, as a means of control, and the right of co-management by the factory councils, but without any other steps towards socialism. Kamenev went on to add that, “these workers fully understand that the road to socialism does not lead to their ownership of their factories, or to communes that are independent of one another, but to the conquest of the central apparatus of economic and political life, by the administration of the banks, railroads, [etc.] which will be under the supervision of the proletariat as a class in its state framework.”
Here Kamenev touches upon the point that exemplified Lenin’s break with his previous views. Until April 1917 the Bolsheviks, like the Mensheviks, remained faithful to the Marxist concept of the revolution which held that there should be a transition to socialism by way of a series of centralizing-nationalizing measures involving “despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production” carried out by the proletarian government. In opposition to this conception, the anarchists and maximalist groups had in 1905 called for the immediate local “socialization” of the factories. Lenin’s theses concerning the conquest of power by means of the workers and peasants councils, which implied a decisive step towards socialism and the destruction of capitalism, sounded to Kamenev and most of the Bolsheviks like an echo of such resolutions, and Lenin was accused of having usurped Bakunin’s throne.
Kamenev’s critique turned on the fundamental question of the nature of the Russian revolution. This is what Kamenev wrote in Pravda on April 8, 1917: “As for the general schema of comrade Lenin, it seems unacceptable to us due to the fact that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is excluded, and it seeks to immediately exchange this revolution for a socialist revolution.” The “old Bolsheviks”, accused by Lenin of clinging to “old forms”, maintained as of old that the revolution was still in its first stage, and this first stage would be followed by the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, as was held by the Bolsheviks in 1905. In response Lenin claimed: “The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry has already become a reality in the Russian revolution (. . .). The ‘Council of Workers and Soldiers Deputies’, that is the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ (. . .). This formula is utterly obsolete (. . .). Today’s watchword is something totally new: separating the proletarian elements (. . .) within this dictatorship from the smallholders or petit bourgeois elements” (by which Lenin meant the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries).
Behind the bitter debate over the correct “formula” for the Bolshevik revolutionary program was concealed the fundamental decision about the future path of the party. For Lenin, socialist revolution, seizure of power by the councils, and Bolshevik dictatorship went together. The unremitting struggle against the other socialist parties would necessarily lead to the absolute rule of the Bolsheviks. It was precisely this aspect of Leninist tactics that Kamenev and his supporters saw as dangerous. They advocated “a party of the revolutionary proletarian masses”, not “a group of communist propagandists” which, were it to take power, would only be able to survive by using terror. Despite all their differences with the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, they recognized them as members of the confraternity of socialist culture, while Lenin dismissed the moderate soviet majority as no better than the bourgeois provisional government, and sought to drive the revolution forward against the socialists and not just with them.
It was not difficult to see that Lenin’s new revolutionary theories were in essential agreement with Trotsky’s views concerning the “permanent revolution” developed after 1905. Even then Trotsky had clearly denounced the formula of the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” as unreal, and added that the Russian proletariat would be forced to go beyond the limits of the democratic program in the direction of socialism. After 1905 Lenin often attacked the formula popularized by Trotsky: “Down with the Czars, up with the workers government.” In April 1917 Lenin tried to distinguish his new perspectives from Trotsky’s theory, referring to the councils as the real and openly realized “dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, upon the basis of which the next step towards the dictatorship of the proletariat would be taken. But in regard to essentials he came notoriously close to Trotsky’s perspective. The admission of the small but brilliant group of intellectual followers of Trotsky, the “Mezhraiontsy”, into the Bolshevik party was the logical result of this ideological fusion.
Until the eve of the October revolution Lenin continued to elaborate his considerations on the essence of the revolution and the tasks of the new soviet power. In his State and Revolution, written in 1917 in his temporary Finnish hideout, he sought to provide his program of revolutionary action with a kind of basis in the philosophy of the State. He no longer spoke of the concrete soviets, which he considered as springboards to power (the chapter corresponding to this stage was never written; Lenin said in his epilogue that it is “more gratifying and useful to experience the revolution than to write about it”). Lenin’s pamphlet instead contained the outlines of a social State, situated somewhere between an anarchist idyll and a bureaucratic utopia.
The “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the period of transition from capitalism to communism had, in its Leninist version, two facets: it was an instrument of oppression to be used against the “exploiters” but also the first stage towards the “extinction of the State”. Using a few passages from Engels, Lenin openly expressed his views concerning “the final goal of the annihilation of the State; that is, of all organized and systematic violence, of all coercion of men in general”, although he added that naturally this involved “a long process” whose conclusion could not be exactly dated.
Lenin especially emphasized two characteristics of this “process of extinction”. On the one hand he stressed the necessity for total economic and social planning, for (as he called it) “accountancy and control”, which would be carried out by all members of society on a rotating basis, and would remain in the hands of the social administration, and not of a State bureaucracy. “If everyone participates in running the State, then capitalism cannot survive (. . .). Accountancy and control; this is what is most important and necessary for the ‘inauguration’ and correct functioning of the first stage of communist society. All citizens are now unwaged employees of the State, comprising the armed working class. All citizens are employees and workers of a trade union-State which embraces the people in its totality (. . .). From the moment that all the members of society or at least the great majority have learned how to govern the State and have even done so with their own hands (. . .); from that moment the necessity for any government in general begins to disappear (. . .), then the door opens for the transition from the first stage of communist society to the highest stage, and therefore as well the doors will open wide for the total extinction of the State”.
Lenin’s other point of view was of a pedagogical nature. He emphasized that for the survival of the future communist society the most important fact would be that “men freed from capitalist exploitation will be increasingly accustomed to adjust without fear to the compulsion of elementary rules of communal life which have been preached and have prevailed for thousands of years in all literatures, that they will be habituated to adjust to them without being forced to do so, without servitude, without the special coercive apparatus called the State”. In furthering the advancement of this process of accommodation Lenin saw the specifically pedagogical function of the “transitional State”, which would increase until leading to “communism” as soon as all the members of society had become accustomed to administering the State and, as Engels had prophesied, the situation will arise where “[t]he laws of man’s own social activity . . . will then be applied by man with full knowledge and hence be dominated by him.”
As Lenin construed the socialist State of the councils, as he had discussed the question in The State and Revolution, a fundamental contradiction became manifest after the October revolution. Socialism, Lenin wrote, allowed for “the inevitable resurgence of many aspects of ‘primitive’ democracy”, just as the Paris Commune of 1871, to which Lenin referred, was also a form of direct democracy. In Lenin’s utopian State the soviets became the ideal of a general essence which left the bureaucracy behind, but at the same time numerous new bureaucratic functions would be engendered as a result of the unavoidable “control” and accounting requirements. The Bolsheviks’ economic program on the eve of the conquest of power called for the nationalization of the banks and industrial trusts, as well as popular union-control in communities of producers and consumers. In the pamphlet written in September 1917 entitled The Threatening Catastrophe and How to Avoid It, Lenin outlined proposals for the creation of massive industrial trusts following the example of the German war economy. Here he defined socialism as “State capitalist monopoly”.
Was Lenin aware of the contradiction between state monopoly with a controlled economy and the direct council democracy he simultaneously advocated? Was he really convinced that modern industry and all of society could be organized in accordance with the principles of “primitive democracy”? A few months after the Bolshevik seizure of power Lenin fearlessly declared that a socialist economic order could not be realized by way of a “democracy of the producers”. But this means the ideas he advocated in the past were no longer the same ones he advocated now; the “left” communists could appeal to the “real” Lenin of 1917 when they began to criticize the soviet reality from the perspective of the ideal of The State and Revolution”.
It has often been said, with justification, that Lenin’s revolutionary program of 1917 was closer to anarchism than to Marxism. In the political struggle, in the factory committees, in the local soviets, in demonstrations and riots, during the summer and the fall, a very close community of interests between Bolsheviks, left Social Revolutionaries and even more leftist independent “maximalists” evolved. The virulent anarchosyndicalist agitation in the factories of Petrograd, in the locomotive factories of Kharkov and in the mines of the Donets basin were important topics of debate for the Bolsheviks in their disputes over the organizational question. In fact, the boundaries disappeared in blurred outlines. Those workers who did not remain faithful to the Mensheviks or who supported the Bolsheviks out of conviction formed the properly revolutionary reserve, from which the Bolsheviks could draw their proselytes for the October revolution.
The revolution unleashed a social dynamic that Lenin at first resolved to support and later to domesticate. The anarchist component in Lenin’s revolutionary theory and practice of 1917 could be justified ideologically by the eschatological and communitarian notion of the “just society” of communism, which Marxists and anarchists had in common. But it was in fact something quite different. The radical demands and slogans of the anarchists and the syndicalist workers, who called for the overthrow of the Czarist regime, the end of the war and “workers control” in the factories, served Lenin’s tactical conception; he did not want to allow the revolution to take place in a bloodless manner before his party could seize power. Lenin’s use of anarchist phraseology (which his erstwhile social democratic party comrades, like Plekhanov and Martov, scornfully noted) embodied a political calculus that was finally proven to be correct.
Lenin’s philosophy of the State had the struggle for power as its real background. As opposed to any kind of idealization of the councils and their role, as a higher and more democratic type of State, Lenin viewed them first of all as merely a means for the seizure of power by the party. The foundation upon which Lenin made his formula of “all power to the soviets” the core of the Bolshevik program of 1917 consisted in the fact that he was resolved to take power in Russia by means of the soviets. In his governmental and social utopia Lenin did not mention the factor that played the most decisive role in his political program: the party.
Lenin had learned from the experiences of 1905 that the Bolshevik sect of professional revolutionaries needed a large mass base in order to take over the leadership of the revolution. The soviets blooming everywhere in Russia appeared to Lenin to be organizational transmission belts by means of which the Bolsheviks could exercise their influence over the masses. Lenin gave no more thought to the ancient origins of the soviets: immediately after finding out about the overthrow of the Czar Lenin wrote that the Bolsheviks, in the new democratic order, just as before, must combine both legal and illegal work. This dual tactic was definitive for Bolshevik policies in 1917.
Alongside their role as centers of Bolshevik agitation, according to Lenin, the soviets were also to have a second purpose: Lenin hoped that with their help it would be possible to paralyze the weak State apparatus, to destroy the authority of the central government in the provinces, to weaken military discipline at the front and in the rearguard, and to overcome the barriers that stood in the way of the Bolshevik seizure of power. This is why the Bolsheviks defended all tendencies to eliminate the local soviets, which were themselves despotic centers of government and administrative power. They also agitated among the soldiers in favor of election of officers by soldiers committees, and encouraged the peasants in their efforts to seize land. Not in vain did Lenin demand the “destruction of the machinery of the bourgeois State”. The Bolsheviks sought to encourage the anarchy of the masses, while the other parties attempted to channel the revolutionary movement. “Some people (the Bolsheviks) want (. . .) so-called ‘maximal democracy’, so as to have free hands, since this ‘maximal democracy’ means ‘maximal disorganization’ of the State apparatus, which they seek to annihilate. This democracy is, as a result, a battlefield. It is the terrain upon which the non-democratic Bolshevik forces have the best conditions for maneuver.”
The role played by the councils in Lenin’s revolutionary calculations depended upon the corresponding degree of political development. After the July uprising, when the Bolsheviks were weakened and their party organizations were forced into a semi-legal existence, Lenin did not want to hear anything about the formula “all power to the soviets”. Instead it was the seizure of power by the proletariat through the class of poor peasants, that is, the seizure of exclusive power by the Bolsheviks, the goal that remained hidden from the outside world under the formula of council democracy.
Lenin’s proposal to do away with the “old formulas” because they stood in the way of the Bolsheviks road to power had a mixed reception in his party. The debate at the Second Conference in Petrograd, the discussion held at the second conference of the Moscow district and, finally, that held at the Sixth Plenary Session of the party (July 26 to August 3, 1917), which Lenin was unable to attend, clearly displayed the contours of the opposing tendencies. The most radical tendency, which supported Lenin’s tactic, did not assign to the soviets either a primary or a tactical-revolutionary role. As Sokolnikov said: “I don’t know what Marxist encyclopedia says that only the councils can be revolutionary organs. Many other types of organization can also be organs of the revolution”.
At the opposite extreme were those who feared the complete isolation of the Bolsheviks, in case the latter should be separated from the soviets. In opposition to the direct road recommended by Lenin for the seizure of power by the party, some raised their voices in rejection of a minority dictatorship of the Bolsheviks, as such a dictatorship could only be upheld “at gunpoint”, and socialist measures in peasant Russia seemed to them to be condemned to failure. If this “right wing” group was opposed in April 1917 to Lenin’s formula “all power to the soviets”, because they believed that this formula was too advanced for reality, now they became defenders of the soviet formula against Lenin because they felt that now the councils embodied democracy and assured the necessary mass base for the party. While Lenin and his supporters were interested in finding new revolutionary organs, with whose help the Bolsheviks could mobilize the masses (factory councils), the supporters of the soviet formula said that the councils were the only basis of the revolution, and that only through them could the revolution prevail, but not without them.
These discussions during the summer of 1917 were soon rendered meaningless due to the unfolding events. After mid-September, when the Bolsheviks had won over the majority in the Petrograd council of workers and soldiers, Lenin combined the idea of the armed revolution with that of the dissolution of the soviets. Fundamental problems occasionally still arose, however, in the course of later revolutionary development. On the eve of the October revolution Kamenev and Zinoviev complained about the “conspiratorial tactic” to which, with a dramatic pathos, they opposed “the tactic of faith in the elemental forces of the Russian revolution”. These “elemental forces” were according to them represented not only by the Bolsheviks, but also by all the other proletarian and peasant parties, as well as organizations like the social revolutionaries, the trade unions and even the left-wing Mensheviks; if the Bolsheviks wanted to reach the majority of the Russian people they would have to reckon with these non-Bolshevik forces of the “revolutionary democratic” left.
Immediately after the glorious October coup, which presented the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets with a fait accompli, and thereby irremediably aggravated the rupture within council democracy, an even more serious crisis affected the party leadership. Lenin, who wanted to bolster the absolute rule of a purely Bolshevik government, as had been resolved at the unfinished conference, was confronted by a powerful and hostile opposition that called for a coalition government composed of all the parties represented in the soviets. For a while it could have appeared as if the democratic principles of one faction of the opposition were mixed with the fear of the political risk implied by supporting an exclusive Bolshevik seizure of absolute power, and that this was why they called for the reestablishment of the council democracy. Lenin and Trotsky, however, were able to maneuver and divide the opposition by way of personal pressure and manipulation. With the entrance of left social revolutionaries into the council of people’s commissars, Lenin and Trotsky began to go into high gear.
Among the first Bolsheviks who opposed the party’s Leninist course, and became its first dissenters and Jeremiahs after the October revolution, due to the fact that they did not want to so precipitously abandon a democratic base for the party, A. L. Lozovski, Bolshevik trade union representative until 1918, deserves special mention. In his protest letter to the party central committee he says, among other things: “I cannot, in the name of party discipline, remain silent if I recognize (. . .) that the central committee’s tactic is leading to the isolation of the vanguard of the proletariat, civil war among the working class and the destruction of the great revolution (. . .), I cannot keep quiet in the face of a press that holds the opposite view, the house searches, the capricious arrests and the persecutions that awaken a subterranean murmur among the whole population and which give rise to the impression among the working class of living under a regime of bayonets and sabers, and that this regime is the very same one that was preached by the socialists as the dictatorship of the proletariat (. . .); I cannot conceal the obscure discontent of the masses who are fighting for soviet power, and meanwhile discover that ‘it is a purely Bolshevik power’”. Lozovski sought to have a plenary party conference called, in order to decide the following question: “Should the social democratic workers party of Russia (the Bolsheviks) remain a Marxist party of the working class, or should it finally take the road that has absolutely nothing to do with revolutionary Marxism?”
Although abstractly formulated, this was the enduring motive of the opposition currents within Bolshevik party history. In certain crisis situations (and the first years witnessed many crises) the question was continually posed regarding how far the party’s policies should be guided by principles anchored in its world of political ideas, in order to plant them on the earth. With respect to this question it was clear that the Bolsheviks, since their crystallization, around 1902, as a distinct political tendency, were molded by Lenin’s personality, without actually being identical with Lenin. They were still a long way from the “gray monolith” of a dull and blind party bureaucracy surrounding its leader. A doctrine of “Leninism” first emerged as the result of the adaptation of Marxist ideas to the Russian reality by means of the vanguard party that must assert its claim to power, and from these beginnings some of its primary ideological principles were derived. In this process, driven by one part ideology and one part party organization, the question posed by Lozovski was answered in the first years after the October revolution, and not in the simplistic sense of a choice between “Marxists” and “non-Marxists”. Such a formula had little to do with a party “of a new type”.
War Communism and Party Dictatorship
On the night following the Bolsheviks’ victorious uprising in Petrograd, Lenin told Trotsky: “Listen, having so quickly passed from the persecutions and an underground existence to power (. . .) it is overwhelming”. In fact, Lenin and his party found themselves facing challenges that would repeatedly bring them to the edge of the abyss. In a country exhausted by war, weakened by the destruction of State power and torn apart by political and social conflicts, a revolutionary minority set its hands to the task of achieving a total transformation of the State and society, a transformation that was not just to be limited to Russia, but was supposed to lead to the proletarian world revolution. It is between the messianic mission to redeem humanity, with its revolutionary pathos of a new beginning, and the crude struggle for survival against enemies both domestic and foreign, that the tension of the first few years of Bolshevik rule in Russia must be located. After the problem of the seizure of power all the other tasks arose: the civil war generated terror, starvation and destitution, and the political dictatorship gradually addressed all vital problems.
The first six months of Bolshevik rule looked much more like a revolutionary chaos than the beginning of a new social order. The policy turn implemented after the first attempts at economic reorganization and after the peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 was interrupted in the summer of 1918, when the civil war began and the Bolsheviks assumed sole power over the government, after the exclusion of all the other parties from the supreme organs of the soviets. In this social-economic system, for which the name “war communism” was later coined, goals and methods of both a utopian and a practical nature were openly mixed together. When this period gave way to the “new economic policy”, there was no agreement among the Bolshevik leaders as to whether the economic policy that prevailed between 1918 and 1920 was influenced more by the imperious necessities of the civil war and poverty, or by convictions inherent to Marxist doctrine. While in later years the dominant view was that almost every measure was taken in response to circumstances as they arose, in their public declarations the Bolshevik leaders, on the other hand, at the high point of war communism, tried to prove that the current policy was the first stage of the construction of communist society, a great step forward towards the attainment of that ideal.
This two-faced nature of the early period of Bolshevik rule in Russia that, as seen from the outside, has led to contradictory interpretations, can basically be explained by the fact that the communist party was forced to uphold a policy full of self-contradictions over a common ideological denominator. Throughout this process Lenin was the undisputed chief. While it was true that within the party concepts concerning particular measures and their results often encountered strong principled opposition, in the struggle against the common enemy on the battlefront, as well as in the struggle for holding power domestically, the communist party was forced to act as one man to preserve the unity and cohesiveness of its ranks. The essential difference between the tactical and ideological disputes of this period and those which affected the party before October 1917 consists in the fact that after seizure of power the question of staying in power assumed greater importance than all other questions. Revolutionary principles retained their validity only insofar as they did not threaten the preservation of the political dictatorship.
Before we address this process of the deepening of revolutionary principles and the ideological development of the communist party itself, a few words must be said about the role played by the other socialist parties after the October revolution. The parties of the old soviet majority that had condemned the Bolshevik uprising, the Mensheviks and right-wing social revolutionaries, vacillated between open opposition (which finally led some of them into the “camp of the counterrevolutionaries”) and a sort of semi-legal opposition. The left-wing social revolutionaries, who had supported the Bolshevik program of soviet power since the autumn of 1917, and who were, as members of the council of people’s commissars (from the end of November until mid-March), the most bellicose advocates of a radical revolutionary policy, later resigned from the government in protest against the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, and after a failed attempt at an uprising in Moscow in July 1918 they were excluded from the soviets as well. The Bolsheviks had previously tolerated some small groups of left-wing “maximalists” because these groups did not themselves constitute any kind of political threat. As for the rest, the attitude of the ruling party towards its former comrades in the socialist struggle was subject to extreme vacillations. Repression alternated with tolerance, allowing for a certain kind of critique in some local soviets, and even Mensheviks and left-wing social revolutionaries were represented at council congresses, their leaders occasionally exchanging detention cells for the speaker’s podium.
For the Bolsheviks, the existence and the limited political effectiveness of the other socialist parties, with which the Bolsheviks shared their revolutionary past and a good part of their program, was a constant thorn in their side. After the spring of 1918 the Mensheviks, under Martov’s undisputed leadership, could verify with bitter satisfaction that their forecasts of the failure of a “socialist experiment” in a country that was still too immature for socialism were well founded, and that this immaturity was only exacerbated the longer war communism lasted. In a large part of the working class the Mensheviks had already by the beginning of 1918 (after the first revolutionary illusions had dissipated and after the harsh new road followed by the Bolsheviks led to endless privation) recovered their past support; in some trade unions they even had, despite all obstacles, solid bastions of support among the membership. The more consistently the Bolsheviks pursued Trotsky’s obsessive organizational mania, which led to the “militarization of labor”, the more insistently did the Mensheviks defend the “freedom of labor”. In addition, the Mensheviks were constantly proposing the re-establishment of basic political freedoms, even where the constitution of the soviets at least guaranteed these rights “to the working classes”.
While the Mensheviks argued with the aid of quotations from Marx in order to deliver the Bolsheviks from their errors, the left-wing social revolutionaries reminded Lenin and his party of the “socialist principles of the October revolution”, believing that the Bolsheviks were more devoted to these principles than ever. All of them, together with the opposition within the Bolshevik party—the “left communists” and other groups—were left-wing critics of Bolshevism. As unconditional and enthusiastic supporters of the “pure” principle of the councils, that is, of the “dictatorship of the working class” represented by the councils, they all accused the Bolsheviks of corrupting the soviets and discrediting them in the eyes of the working class. In an “open letter” written in the autumn of 1918 Maria Spiridonova said that the Bolsheviks were “the real rebels against the soviet power” because of their cynical attitude towards the councils and their distrust of the rights granted by the constitution. The “councils should be a sensitive barometer that is easily accessible to the people, united with the people; therefore and as a result there must be unconditional freedom of choice, a free space where the spontaneous will of the people can prevail; only then may one speak of a creative force and only then can a new life exist, a living organism. Only then can the people come to feel that everything that happens in the country is really theirs, and that it is not something alien to them”.
In their faith in the “creative force of the masses” the left-wing social revolutionaries proved to be the true descendents of the narodniki, whose ideas and slogans they tirelessly repeated. They viewed the “extinction of the State” not as a “metaphysical task of the distant future, but as a program that must really be implemented during the transitional period itself”. The free association of producers and consumers must prepare for the “extinction of the State” in a system of “economic federalism”. Small groups of left socialists, such as the maximalists, the revolutionary communists and the populist communists, also advocated similar ideas. All of them wanted to “push the Bolsheviks to the left, to the road that leads to the immediate realization of socialism and the workers republic”. All of them advocated the direct administration of public services by the workers “under the control of the local and central soviets”, agricultural communes in the villages and the connection of the State with the local, industrial and peasant producers associations, towards the development of an economic-political federation.
While the Bolsheviks did not forbid the activities of the three largest left-wing socialist parties (most of their members later joined the communist party), an obvious rivalry existed between Bolshevism and anarchism. Lenin’s ideological near approach to the program of anarchism in The State and Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ occasional use of anarchist formulas in their propaganda in 1917 could only be momentary lapses in this rivalry. During the years 1918-1920 the various anarchist groups (which never merged into a single organization) underwent continuous persecution that was occasionally interrupted by temporary concessions. Following Bakunin in their animosity towards the coercive force of any organized power, the anarchists fought against the Bolshevik “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the name of freedom, which the anarchists believed was threatened by so much centralism, so many commissars, and so much terror. Because they saw the soviets as the preliminary stage to the anarchist commune, they were in the forefront of criticism of the existing soviets, and often refused to participate in them. The Ukrainian anarchists, who had been officers in Nestor Makhno’s infantry units, proclaimed the slogan of “free soviets without governmental power” (vol’nye i bezvlastnye), in opposition to the “councils commanded and ruled by Bolshevism”. The active groups of anarchosyndicalists in Moscow and Petrograd defined the soviets as “machinery for the exploitation and submission of a large number of workers by a small clique”. Many anarchist slogans and ideas would later resurface in the Kronstadt rebellion.
The rising wave of disappointment with the revolution increased in the interval between the assault on the Winter Palace, supported by the Kronstadt sailors with their cruiser the Aurora, and the attack by Trotsky’s red army against the naval fortress of Kronstadt. The Bolshevik leaders, members of the government as of October 1917, were the first to understand the discrepancy between the revolutionary pathos and practical action, between great ideals and concrete necessities, after a few months in power. Lenin’s revolutionary tactics in 1917 were based on the combination of fully planned actions undertaken by an organized minority, and a massive and active movement of amorphous masses, which he needed for the victory of his party, but which, on the other hand, could endanger Bolshevik rule. With respect to this issue it has been said with justification that the party of Lenin and Trotsky seized power “five minutes before midnight”, and that at midnight “the great anarchist revolution would have taken place”. Thus, it was only shortly after the victory of October that the problem was posed concerning the disciplining of the revolutionary mass movement and transforming the soviet republic proclaimed with such high hopes, which had nothing to do with the State in the traditional meaning of the word, into the guarantor of a new order. The period between the October revolution and the Kronstadt rebellion can therefore also be characterized as a process of progressive “disciplining” of the revolution by the ruling parties in their struggle against the stichiya revolution and against the conditions that gave rise to it. Overcoming the elemental forces of the social revolution, however, had its cost: the abandonment of the council democracy proclaimed by Lenin in 1917—the council democracy that was preserved as an ideal by the opposition groups inside and outside the Bolshevik party until they were totally silenced.
The first clashes between the anarcho-revolutionary forces (which called attention to the Bolshevik formulas of 1917) and the incipient power of the revolutionary State took place in the factories and in the army. In early 1917 the Bolsheviks advocated the slogan of “workers control”, and had thus won the support of most factory councils by autumn. Although Lenin’s economic program prior to October advocated “workers control” in strict connection with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and also with the general state control over production that he had favored, it was not sufficiently distinguished from a trade unionist conception of these principles so as to clarify for the workers the difference between political control by the organs of the proletarian State and the actual control over the management of factories by the factory committees. Since “workers control” had been conceived by Lenin as both a rallying cry for exacerbating the class struggle as well as an element of the future socialist order, it was inevitable that immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power tension would arise between those who supported a trade unionist interpretation of “workers control” and those who supported a centralist concept of “workers control”. Proponents of “the general interests of the economy” were led by the trade unions, which, on the basis of their ambition to attain their own monopoly over organization, did not want to countenance the existence of any other autonomous workers organization that could possibly compete with them. The trade union officers, whether they were Bolsheviks or Mensheviks, could hardly be distinguished from each other with regard to this issue.
The decree on workers control proclaimed barely three weeks after the October revolution was intended to nullify the autonomous factory councils and to establish regional councils for workers control above them. This was a copy of the hierarchical political organization of the council organization; in the upcoming all-Russian council on workers control, alongside the representatives of the supreme soviet organs, representatives of the trade unions and councils from factories, workers communities and professional associations of engineers and technicians were also required to attend. Lozovski, a hard-line supporter of the centralized system of economic planning and control, judged that the decree restricted rather than reinforced the centrifugal tendencies of workers control in the factories.
In reality, the bureaucratic regulations were never enforced. The factory councils in most cases never had anything to do with control functions (direct control over business decisions and management of the enterprise) or with any economic interests beyond the factory. During those weeks what took place was an “unplanned conquest of industry by an elemental revolution of the masses of the workers”, the beneficiary of the factory owners’ refusal to carry on production under the conditions established by the Bolsheviks. Prior to the total nationalization of industry in June 1918 there was a great deal of talk about the socialization of the factories by the spontaneous actions of the workers committees. “The first stage of the October revolution could be characterized as the era of the real dictatorship of the real workers (. . .). The omnipotence of the factory councils was then based (. . .) on the impotence of the State.”
The Bolsheviks were confronted for the first time by a danger that came from within, from the factory democracy, a danger described by Lenin as taking the power of the councils seriously. Against the dismemberment that threatened to turn the economy into a mass of highly autonomous individual factories, accompanied by a similar process of disintegration into smaller and smaller “communes”, the Bolsheviks called upon the trade unions for help. The trade unions prevented the convocation of an all-Russian factory congress, and instead managed to integrate the factory councils into their organizations as “local organs of the corresponding trade unions”. At the First Trade Union Congress, in January 1918, where this decision was made, the future role of the trade unions in a socialist state was also defined: that is, they must serve as class organizations of the proletariat for the purpose of “carrying out the main task of the organization of production and the recovery of the depleted forces of the country”, and also become “organs of the socialist state” during the course of the socialist revolution. What this meant in practice was not very clear at the time, but it was later to provide a reason for the most embittered disputes during “war communism”.
The passage from the rule of the factory councils to the reinforcement of the trade unions was also accelerated in the first months of 1918 by the further weakening of the country’s productive forces. In Lenin’s view, the new institution disencumbered “workers control” in the old sense of its drawbacks, as it had been demonstrated to be inappropriate for central control over industry. After the left communist leaders had withdrawn from the Supreme Economic Council (Osinsky and Bukharin, among others) as a result of their opposition to the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, supporters of statist-centralist economic planning and a “state-capitalist” turn (Larin, Miliutin) assumed the most important posts in this Council. The debate over economic policy reached its high point within the communist party during the first months of 1918.
It was not just in industry that the stage of the spontaneous “destruction” of the old order came to an end. The same thing happened in the army and the navy. The introduction of the council principle a few weeks after the October revolution confirmed the dissolution of the old military relations that had previously been encouraged by the Bolsheviks, but was not enough to create a new discipline. The election of military officers had already proven in February 1918 to be incompatible with the reestablishment of a minimum degree of military readiness in the units that remained at the front. Dybenko, under whose command the sailors from the Baltic fleet had dispersed the constituent assembly, made the following observations: “The sailors still live under the impact of October. The appeal for armed insurrection and distrust of the coalition government still sounds in their ears. These masses must be re-educated to make them a pillar of soviet power (. . .). We needed to nominate fleet commissars with full powers and to restrict the functions of the committees. This first attempt to create a solid organization led to a wave of revolution not only among the sailors, but also among some of the members of the Zentrobalt (the Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet).” A sailors’ conference sought to declare itself a kind of naval parliament. “The authors of these ideas were imprisoned,” Dybenko laconically noted.
On March 28, 1918, Trotsky, the newly-appointed Peoples Commissar for Military Affairs, convened a conference whose title was a harbinger of future policy: “Work, Discipline and Order Will Save the Soviet Socialist Republic.” One month later Lenin published his full report to the Central Committee under the title “The Future Tasks of the Soviet Power”. This work contains the new program for the next stage of the revolution. “Russia,” Lenin wrote, “finds itself at the beginning of the gigantic task of constructing a new socialist world order. Instead of the destruction of the old order that has until now been the order of the day, that is, the ‘immediate expropriation of the expropriators’, now the organization of the direction of administration and control must arise.” This is not possible without the help of bourgeois “specialists”, technicians and administrators in general. The workers must increase production, organize the rivalry that would allow for this increase, and preserve strict labor discipline. All of this is impossible without unitary leadership. In his crude fashion Lenin posed the question of whether “the appointment of a few particular people as leaders will give them the unlimited powers of dictators, and whether this is compatible with the fundamental principles of the soviet power”, and he provided an unequivocal answer: “Since we are not anarchists, we must recognize the necessity of a State, that is, of an instrument for the passage from capitalism to socialism (. . .). Therefore, there is not the least contradiction between soviet (that is, socialist) democracy and the acceptance of the dictatorial power of individuals”. The current situation demands the “necessary subordination of the masses to the unitary will of the leaders of the labor process in the interests of socialism”. The party had to spare no efforts to impress the need for this change upon the masses, who were still living in the period of assembly democracy.
The left social revolutionaries, who withdrew from the government in March, and the opposition within the party led by Bukharin, which was known as “the Bolshevik Right”, passionately combated the conceptions of Lenin and Trotsky. In the four issues of the short-lived journal The Communist, they attacked (and Osinsky did so in an especially cruel and detailed way) the “deviations on the road to a petit-bourgeois policy” as a threat to the achievements of the proletarian revolution. The specter of this deviation was called “State capitalism” (see Text Number 1). Lenin accepted the challenge. In a pamphlet entitled “Left Wing Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality” he blamed the leftists for not having understood the difference between the first stage of the revolution, the destruction of the old state apparatus, and the new stage, the construction of socialism. In view of the fact that they had in their international policy utilized the phrase “revolutionary war” without considering the actually existing relations of forces, ignoring the country’s economic disaster, which the proletariat cannot overcome by means of its own unaided efforts, and in view of the fact that Bukharin had read the pages of Lenin’s State and Revolution, pages that spoke of hostility towards the bourgeois state, Lenin then emphasized the sentence: “As long as the highest stage of communism is not attained, the socialists need the most stringent control of society and the State over labor and consumption.”
Lenin saw the problem in its full historical scope. “State capitalism” was a gigantic step forward for Russia. “Socialism is unthinkable without the technology of large scale capitalism constructed according to the last word in modern science, without state organization in conformance with a plan, which directs tens of millions in strict obedience to a single norm in the production and distribution of the products.” Lenin said that Germany provided the model for the economic-technical form of advanced capitalism: “In 1918 Germany and Russia embody in a highly intuitive way the material realization of, in the first case, the economic and technocratic preconditions with regard to production and social-economic matters, and in the second case, the political preconditions, for socialism (. . .). While in Germany the revolution is still busy with its ‘birth’, it is our task to learn from German state capitalism, to take as much as possible from it, without fear of dictatorial measures, in order to accelerate this appropriation even more, just as when Czar Peter accelerated the reception of western culture in barbarous Russia, but without shrinking from using barbarous methods in the fight against barbarians.”
Lenin has since been compared, and not unjustly, with Peter the Great, who undertook the first “Europeanization” of Russia. What Lenin called a “cultural revolution” near the end of his life, and which even in early 1918 constituted the background of his debate with the left opposition, was not, however, a mere copy of European and American development. In one of Lenin’s notes from this period there is a sentence that explains the problem with a mathematical equation: “With both hands we have to take everything that is good from other countries, or: soviet power + Prussian railroad organization + American public education, etc. + + = the sum = Socialism.” That communism should be “soviet power plus electricity” expresses in a concentrated form Lenin’s conception of socialism for Russia, which is in its organizational and technical aspects the same as a strengthened and politically adjusted capitalism. In the above-mentioned text, “The Next Tasks of Soviet Power” (April 1918), Lenin said that the most important preconditions for the development of a socialist economy in Russia were “first of all, raising the cultural and educational level of the masses of the population, and secondly, increasing the discipline of the active workers, increasing their endurance for work, raising their skill level, raising the intensity of labor and improving their organization.”
Faced with such perspectives, born from Lenin’s historical sense of the meaning of the Russian revolution, the arguments of his opponents could easily sound like ideological purism without any connection to concrete reality. Lenin was undoubtedly the greater realist, and was therefore not afraid to draw conclusions and to act accordingly. He did not lack the courage required, six months after the supposed “liberation of the working class by the revolution”, to confront the working class with the Taylor System, advocating the latter as “the last word in capitalism” and to seek to obtain “the immediate subordination of the masses under the unitary will of the leaders of the labor process”. Lenin was also convinced that the vast majority of the workers “are slow to learn” and that “we are facing a catastrophe”, that “this catastrophe is comparable to the destruction we have already undergone” and that only by recourse to a degree of labor discipline similar to that which prevails in the military could it be avoided. But Lenin built upon the foundation of the power that his confidence of being solidly grounded on the terrain of the facts gave him, as was demonstrated by the failure of direct rule in the factories, and he did not have any qualms about leading a proletarian state against the proletarians. Already in May 1918 threats of punishment were directed against workers who did not work as hard as they were supposed to, and special labor commissars were named for this purpose.
The leftist critique that resounded at the First Congress of Economic Councils at the end of May 1918 (just a few months after the “proletarian revolution”) painted a bleak picture of the future destiny of the Russian working class: “The introduction of labor discipline, in connection with the restoration of capitalists in the management of production, cannot significantly increase labor productivity; on the contrary, it will reduce the autonomy of the proletarian class, its activity and its organization. It threatens to enslave the working class, arousing discontent in the most backward layers as well as the vanguard of the proletariat. In order to carry this through, the communist party, aware of the hatred of the proletarian ranks for the ‘capitalist saboteurs’, must turn against the working class in favor of the petit-bourgeoisie, which will destroy the communist party as a party of the proletariat.”
Osinsky and Lomov, who presented the Congress with the basic positions of the opposition group of “democratic centralists”, demanded workers control “not only from above”, that is, by State and trade union institutions, but “from below” by the factory committees. The repertoire of future accusations against the party dictatorship for losing touch with the proletariat and the council democracy was rehearsed in its entirety in the first issue of The Communist: “Bureaucratic centralization, the rule of various commissars, abolition of the independence of the local soviets and practical rejection of management from below as the ‘state commune’.”
The left opposition current within the communist party had fewer principled supporters in the summer of 1918, when the civil war flared up on all fronts and internal differences of opinion necessarily were shunted to the background. Some leftists, Bukharin among them, completely accepted Leninist policy and greeted the rigorous measures of war communism as a decisive step in the passage to communism. Other left communists, however, played the role of permanent critics of what appeared to them to be the party’s opportunist policy. These dissidents raised their voices in the three party congresses that took place during this period: at the VIII Congress, in March 1919, which approved the Party Program; at the IX Congress, in March-April 1920, when the question concerning industrial management was posed amidst internal political debates; and, finally, at the X Congress, in March 1921, which inaugurated a new era of internecine political splits. In the autumn of 1920, when the IX Party Conference took place, the party opposition reached its historical peak in the heyday of internal party democracy.
The opposition current cannot be considered to have been uniform with regard to either its program or its personnel. It is true that there were some communists, like Osinsky, Sapronov and Smirnov, who had since 1917 defended a consistently “left” politics with regard to essential political issues, but for the most part the composition of this opposition converged in changing constellations, which also included supporters of the most hard-line circle in the party leadership. Three groups can be clearly distinguished in 1919-1920: the “military opposition”, composed of personal enemies of Trotsky and supporters of a “proletarian military doctrine”; the group of “democratic centralists” that crystallized in the autumn of 1919 and was led by veteran leftists; and, finally, the “workers opposition” led by Shlyapnikov, whose influence reached its high point during the winter of 1920-1921. The latter two groups were utterly unlike each other due to the fact that the “workers opposition” was based on popular support and had considerable influence in the factories, while the “democratic centralists” were basically a group of party intellectuals. In addition, there were also individual leftists who did not affiliate with any opposition group, such as Myasnikov and Panyushkin.
In the party debates that took place between 1918 and 1921 three problems were indissolubly and fundamentally linked: the centralization and bureaucratization of the State apparatus; the question of intraparty democracy; and the principles of economic policy. These questions were not subjects for mere abstract debate: the adversaries had before their eyes the prospect of the victory or the failure of the revolution, and they were finally led to debate whether the revolution that had taken place was indeed the one they wanted. This enormously cruel and insensitive quality of the dispute was obscured to a certain extent due to the fact that both sides played upon the meaning of their revolutionary activity, the justification of sacrifice and the confidence of being right.
The Bolsheviks called the State they had won, after the October revolution, “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, and considered the soviets to be its institutions. The council movement that spontaneously arose in 1917 was institutionalized in the Constitution drafted on July 10, 1918 for the Russian federal and socialist soviet republic; the councils had become, after their beginnings as simple revolutionary organs, mouthpieces of State power. Nonetheless, even then the articles of the Constitution concealed the actual reality of the soviet State: when the Constitution was published, the Bolshevik party was the only legal party in the soviets. The juridical peculiarities of the Russian council system, which were heatedly debated outside soviet Russia and frequently overrated, represented in contrast to the actual monopoly of power enjoyed by the communist party only a minor element.
Aside from the separation of the non-Bolshevik parties from the soviets, which meant the end of real democracy, during the civil war the councils lost even their character as broad-based mass organizations. Even before the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, the power of political decision-making had been totally transferred to the executive committee, while the soviet assembly was only conceded the role of approving or rejecting resolutions and decisions involving basic issues. This trend towards the concentration of power was to continue: alongside the executive committee and sometimes directly replacing it, a presidium was formed with only a few members, which made all decisions. The same thing happened in the supreme organs of the soviets. In the latter case the all-Russian congress of soviets lost its political authority to the central executive committee, and the latter, to the council of peoples commissars.
At the Seventh all-Russian Congress of Soviets, held in December 1919, Kamenev offered the following somber image of the soviets’ existence under conditions of civil war: “We know that as a result of the war the best workers are taken away in droves from the cities, and sometimes this leads to a situation where one or another regional government or city experiences difficulties in creating a soviet and lacks the basic means for the regular conduct of its affairs (. . .). Consequently, the plenary assemblies of the soviets very often languish as political organizations; people are busy with purely technical work (. . .). General assemblies of the soviets are rarely convened, and when they are it is only so that the deputies can receive a report, listen to a speech, etc.” In February 1921 the president of the all-Russian central executive committee explained in a circular that the end of hostilities “now requires the education of the masses of the workers for the labor of construction, according to the fundamentals of the Constitution”, and that henceforth there must be new elections for the soviets under these fixed conditions, they must meet regularly and consider all relevant issues.
In addition to the extensive interconnections of economic and political functions on the part of large meetings of deputies in small meeting halls, there was the increasing concentration of despotic power in centralist state departments at the expense of local councils. The new central administrative bodies, especially on the economic terrain, created for their operations their own lesser organs, which clashed with the rights of the local soviets. The Red Army and the Cheka, an impressive instrument of terror, were for all practical purposes completely exempt from the control of the councils.
The degeneration of the soviets was first of all the consequence of the dictatorship of a single communist party, and secondly the result of the devastated social and economic relations. Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and later Stalin, too, attempted, however, to preserve the fiction of soviet democracy and to harmonize it with the obvious party dictatorship. Lenin could recall his old reflections from 1900 concerning the role of the party leadership, for example, in these sentences from 1904: “One must not confuse the party as vanguard of the working class with the whole class (. . .). We are the party of the class, and therefore almost the entire class (and in time of war, in time of civil war, the class in its totality) must be under the leadership of our party.”
Trotsky, in the meantime, had forgotten his previous attacks on such statements made by Lenin, and wrote in 1920: “All leadership is concentrated in the hands of the party. This leadership does not immediately arise, because its apparatus is not immediatist. But the party has the final word on all basic questions. Furthermore: our praxis has led us to admit that, in general, in all disputed questions (. . .) the last word belongs to the central committee of the party (. . .). Perhaps we have been accused of having usurped the soviet dictatorship, and for having in reality created the dictatorship of our party. In response to this one can only say with full justification that the dictatorship of the soviets is only made possible by means of the dictatorship of the party: thanks to the clarity of its theoretical knowledge and its solid revolutionary organization the party assures the soviets of the chance to abandon their former status as amorphous parliaments of labor and to become an apparatus for workers rule.”
Zinoviev also unambiguously stated “that the soviet power in Russia, without the iron dictatorship of the communist party, not only would not have resisted three years, but would not have lasted three weeks. Every class-conscious worker must understand that the dictatorship of the working class cannot be realized except by way of the dictatorship of its vanguard, that is, by means of the communist party. All questions of economic reconstruction, of military organization, of public education, of politics, etc., all these questions, upon which the destiny of the proletarian revolution is utterly dependent, are decided in Russia, first of all and above all, within the framework of the party organizations (. . .). The party controls over the soviet organs and the trade unions constitute the sole firm guarantee that the latter will not represent group or occupational interests, but the interests of the entire proletariat.”
The leftists also shared this unconditional aspiration for the political leadership of the communists over the soviets with the entire party. Among the well-known soviet communists only Myasnikov expressed his support for legalizing other parties and allowing them to freely participate in the soviets. This was the line that even the “workers opposition” did not dare to cross, however resolutely this group criticized the alienation of the masses of the workers by the high level party organizations. The “democratic centralists” wanted to reform the soviets, to reintroduce elections and confer greater responsibilities upon the local councils, but never even considered a council democracy in the strict sense of the term, one based on the free play of opinions among different political tendencies.
A principal aspect of the Bolshevik theory of the soviets was that the soviets, as organizations of the working class, are superior to bourgeois-parliamentary democracy, because “proletarian or soviet democracy transforms the mass organizations of those who are oppressed by the capitalist class, of the proletarians and semi-proletarians (the poor peasants), that is to say, of the immense majority of the population, into the permanent and unified foundation of the entire State apparatus, local and central, from the bottom to the top”. The methods of primitive democracy, reborn under the council system, must set aside, according to the Bolshevik theory, the contrast between people and government, making democracy as a separate institution superfluous. Lenin, as we have said, had proclaimed the revitalization of the bureaucracy to be one of the most important characteristics of the new socialist society.
The attempt to transform the soviets into organs of a democratic administration that would overcome all the characteristics of the old bureaucratic system tainted by the flaws of the Russia of that period was a failure from the very start. The councils created in the first weeks following the October revolution for the various sectors of public welfare, for the economy or education, for example, which had been united with the corresponding sections of the political soviets and were supposed to coordinate the interests of the active population, were inoperative by the spring of 1918, even before they could really get started. In their place, the Bolsheviks were forced, for the establishment of their own state apparatus, to appeal to those people who had previously been branded as “class enemies”. In the various soviet institutions these “bourgeois specialists” became indispensable, just as czarist officers had become indispensable in the Red Army formed by Trotsky. This was the origin of constant disagreements between the party’s left opposition and the leadership clique around Lenin, which protected these specialists (“specy”) despite the criticisms of the party members, because they were convinced above all of their necessity.
Complaints against “bureaucratic proliferation” were not directed, however, only against former Czarist officials. The left opposition reacted even more violently to the transformation of former proletarians into new bureaucrats. This transformation did not take into account that sociological law that a western observer, already in 1919, had recognized: “Perhaps the councils are merely an incremental stage of the ultimate end in the bureaucracy (. . .) and a midway point on the road leading to the culmination and renovation of the bureaucracy among the workers.” Instead, the “workers opposition” proposed at the Tenth Party Plenary Conference that each member of the party should work at an ordinary job for at least three months a year, and that no one should occupy a position of responsibility in the party or the party apparatus without being able to prove that they had fulfilled at least this requirement. Lenin thought that these ideas were those of a “utopian anarchism” that had been fully superseded by the epoch.
But the left critique of the new alienation of the soviet employees from the workers (an example of this can be found in Kollontai’s text) was also necessarily recognized as justified by Lenin and Trotsky. During the last years of his life Lenin’s thoughts constantly addressed the problem of the new soviet bureaucracy. In 1922 Lenin wrote: “We have practically accepted the state apparatus of the old regime, since for us it was practically impossible to reorganize such an apparatus in such a short period of time, much less during a time of war, famine, etc.” An attempt was made to overcome this difficulty by expanding the components of the party’s central committee and by creating a central control commission (within the party) and a workers and peasants inspectorate (within the State), since “we have accepted the Russian apparatus of Czarism without change and we have only superficially consecrated it with the holy oil of the soviets”. Lenin saw the most crucial element favoring the continuation of the bureaucracy in the low cultural level of Russia, which guaranteed “that the soviets, which according to their program were supposed to be organs of administration by the workers, are in reality organs of administration for the workers, an administration by the advanced layer of the proletariat, but not by the working class itself”.
Already in February 1919, Trotsky expressed his scorn for the “new soviet bureaucrats” and publicly expressed for the first time the thoughts that would later serve as the leitmotif of his struggle against Stalinism. The revolution would make no sense, Trotsky wrote, if its only result were to raise a few thousand workers into government posts and state power. “Our revolution would only be completely justified if every worker, person, man and woman, sees that life is more beautiful, more free, cleaner and full of meaning. This condition has yet to be attained. Between us and our essential and unique goal there is still a very difficult stretch of road”. Ten years later Trotsky would see the new party and the new party bureaucracy as the social basis for Stalinist bonapartism, and in 1936 he would define the Thermidor of the soviets as the “victory of the bureaucracy over the masses”. In the same context he wrote that an essential cause of Stalinism was the degeneration of the Bolshevik party, which was manifested in the disappearance of democracy within the party.
With these words Trotsky was only repeating what the opposition in the party had been saying since the October revolution. At the eighth party plenum, in March 1919, at the high point of the civil war, Osinsky raised his voice against the concentration of power at the summit of the party, but the resolutions approved by the congress emphasized the unconditional centralization and rigorous discipline demanded by Lenin. At the next party congress, which inaugurated the passage from the military style of leadership during the war to what was understood to be a democratic organization, the “democratic centralists” sounded the alarm (see text no. 3). Yurenev: “We say once and for all. The Central Committee of our party is a responsible ministry and not an irresponsible government.” Maximovsky: “The Central Committee is guilty of bureaucratic centralism. This is the crux of the matter: this centralism flourishes here with all its nourishment (. . .). The party is beginning to succumb from the top down to the influx of this bureaucratic centralism.”
The concentration of political power, later reinforced in 1919 by the creation of the Politburo and the Organizational Bureau, was not affected at all by the temporary concessions made by the leadership to the opposition current. On the eve of the tenth party plenum the “democratic centralists” complained because the resolutions approved “under pressure from the local organizations have generally changed nothing with regard to the inclusion of party members in party life, with regard to the reinforcement and interconnections between the local organizations and the masses, with regard to the distribution of privileges among a minority” (see text no. 9).
The reform proposals of the “democratic centralists” and the “workers opposition” revolved around a reanimation and strengthening of what the party majority of that period also called “workers democracy” (rabochaya demokratiya). This appellation was mistaken, because it was not a question of the democratic representation of the totality of the workers by means of elected organs, but of the role of proletarian elements in the party and the extension of democracy within the party. It is true that the concept would have been suitable for the task of embracing under a common denominator for the exposure before the soviet public of the other kinds of critiques and to thereby highlight the confrontation of “workers democracy” with the party dictatorship. But the opposition groups were neither capable of precipitating nor wished to bring about such a confrontation with the communist party; it was the inhabitants of Kronstadt who would take the next step in carrying out this task.
The conflicts concerning intraparty democracy merged during the winter of 1920-1921 with the general problem of the further development of domestic policies after the conclusion of the civil war, and culminated in the trade union controversy, where the tensions of the previous few years were dramatically discharged. Many of the particular arguments employed in these debates (the most violent ever experienced by the members of the party) did not have much to do with the original subject of the disputes. Matters were complicated still more by the personal rivalries within the party leadership concerning opposing views on the economy and social policy, and with relation, finally, to the future development of the Russian revolution. These rivalries presaged events that took place at the summit of the party during the years between Lenin’s death and Stalin’s assumption of power.
The root of the debate was the role of the trade unions within the more general framework of the question of principles of management and economic organization. As we said above, the party, after its cleavage from the left opposition at the beginning of 1918, favored centralized control of industry, which implied the end of the originally spontaneous “workers control”. In this system the trade unions were attributed with a significant role. After having been accredited with the role of defenders of the general interests of the state against the syndicalist factory councils, it was suggested that they be entrusted with the responsibility for production and a very close connection with the state economic organs. This tendency was designated by the concept of “nationalization” (ogosudarstvlenie, or “statization”) of the trade unions, an ambivalent term, as would be seen, which gave rise to diverse interpretations.
The program of the RCP(B), approved at the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919, includes this passage: “The organizational apparatus of nationalized industry must be based first of all on the trade unions (. . .). The trade unions, which participate in accordance with the laws of the soviet republic and as a result of naturalized praxis in all the local and central administrative organs of industry, must in fact concentrate the administration of the entire economy in their hands. The trade unions, which thus assure an indissoluble link between the central state administration, the economy and the great masses of the workers, must attract these masses of workers in their widest array to direct involvement in the management of the economy.”
The obverse of these administrative privileges conferred upon the trade unions was the responsibility of the trade unions, also set forth in the party program, for the “new discipline of socialist labor”, the raising of productivity and the prevention of strikes. In the following months, the trade unions were increasingly integrated into the economic and military system of war communism. The consequence of this was that the policies of the trade union leaders began to differ more and more from the interests of the man in the street and the trade unions began to succumb to increasing bureaucratization. Nonetheless, there was by no means a convergence of interests between the state economic organs and the trade unions with regard to the current questions affecting industrial policy. Controversy and disagreement flared up especially with regard to the question of collegial or unitary management. This issue had already played an important role in early 1918 in the left’s criticism of Lenin and his “state capitalist” orientation (see text no. 1), and persisted at the Ninth Party Plenum in 1920 (see texts 2 and 3).
For Lenin and Trotsky the form of management was not a question of principles, but of practical effectiveness. But among other communists this question was linked to that of collegial management in all the existing institutions and with the idea of the democratic collaboration of the workers in the sense of the councils. Once again the idealist and the pragmatic points of view were involved in this question. The majority of the trade union representatives defended the collegial principle because they saw it as a counterweight to the increasing influence of the “non-working class specialists” and as a school of management for proletarians. After the radical form of factory democracy had ultimately not failed, despite the Russian workers’ lack of administrative and technical experience, one could expect, they argued, to recover from this neglect and to create the preconditions for a real and not fictitious administration by means of the trade union organs. These advocates of collegial management were willing to pay the price of reduced effectiveness of the system, because they placed more value on the social and political advantages linked to such a form of management.
Lenin and Trotsky (who in this debate defended Lenin more tenaciously than the other party leaders), however, viewed the problem from the perspective of the difficult situation and the measures that were absolutely necessary for its solution. Effective orders can only be issued by one, fully vested and responsible leader, and these orders can be controlled and guided only by that leader. There can be no doubt that Lenin’s centralist convictions, which had led him to build the Bolshevik party organization, also determined his ideas concerning the organization of the soviet economy. The approval of the resolution on economic policy, which he carried at the Ninth Party Plenum, demanded “the real introduction (. . .) of a clearly delimited responsibility for certain persons for a particular task, from the bottom up. The collegial principle can be suitable for debate or deliberation, but in the process of implementation it must give way without reservation to one-man management”.
The question of one-man management, voted on by the party plenum, was in Lenin’s view one aspect of a more general and fundamental issue that arose in early 1920 in the context of labor policy. It was in this period that the practical “militarization of labor” reached its high point. After a series of special decrees, which implied a significant degree of restriction of workers’ individual rights and had in addition created a labor service for certain categories of the population, a decree was proclaimed in January 1920 that authorized a general mobilization of the workers for various forms of national labor service. Lenin’s idea of a society where “all citizens, employees and workers are members of a universal trade union-state” (State and Revolution) was realized in the form of the militarization of labor.
Trotsky strove to frame this extreme form of war communism within a perspective fundamentally connected with the future communist social order. Under his leadership the troops of the existing Red Army began to be trained prior to their mobilization as “armies of revolutionary workers” who would serve in various theaters of the “economic front”. Nor was this merely a temporary measure to respond to the needs of the war. At the Ninth Party Plenum, which took place at the end of March 1920, Trotsky further elaborated his ideas concerning a militarily planned economy, which anticipated in their most significant outlines Stalin’s first five year plans.
“If we take the idea of a planned economy seriously,” Trotsky announced to the Congress, “one that must be unified by the goals established by the center, if the forces of labor are apportioned in accordance with the economic plan in the current state of development, then the working masses will not be able to go here and there all over Russia. They must be brought here and there, governed, ordered, just like soldiers (. . .). Otherwise we cannot seriously speak, in conditions of ruin and famine, of industry based on new foundations.” Such a militarization of the labor force was impossible without the “militarization of the trade unions”, “without the creation of a regime where each worker feels like a soldier of labor, who cannot do as he will. When he is ordered to change his job, he must change it; if he does not, he is a deserter, who must be punished as such. Who is responsible for this task? The trade unions, which rule the new order. This is how the militarization of the working class is achieved.”
It cannot be denied that these radical theses triggered a tremendous protest by the left groups within the party, which during this period were still entrenched within the central council of the trade unions. At the Ninth Party Plenum Osinsky reiterated the arguments of the “democratic centralists” in the following statement: “Full militarization leads to a restriction of the civil and political rights of man, due to the fact that he is chained to production, etc. Full militarization means that man is put into a situation where he is told: now you are not a citizen, you are only a worker, and you must not fulfill your civic duty in the assemblies, but in the factory (. . .). Forget for the time being all the political dialogues, you are only a technical worker, think a little, but work more” (see text no. 4).
In fact, Trotsky’s militarization schemes were only relatively successful. In the transport industry the fusion of the peoples commissariat, trade union and political apparatus was indeed effective, but this concentration of power was carried out at the price of creating a large number of personal enemies, as was revealed by the controversies of autumn 1920 regarding the relations between the State and the trade unions, which controversies in addition raised the fundamental question of workers democracy in a system of proletarian dictatorship.
Between November 1920 and the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, the trade unions debated the nature of the communist party. The party summit itself was divided, and similar disagreements erupted in the regional and local party organizations. The rival groups made use not only of tactical subterfuges, but also, as in the case of the Leninist majority in the Central Committee, of massive pressure on their opponents to vote for their proposals. For the first time since the October revolution fractions with their own “platforms” were formed within the communist party, and these fractions were represented in the assemblies and in the press. It seemed as if the Bolsheviks, after having won the civil war and retained power, were facing a crossroad in their history.
In these debates, disregarding the small groups that formed at this time, three distinct positions can be discerned: the main current of Lenin and Zinoviev and the “Platform of the Ten”; the program of Trotsky’s and Bukharin’s united groups, and, finally, the theses of the “workers opposition”, whose spokesman was Shlyapnikov (see texts nos. 6 and 7). The “workers opposition” was the beneficiary, by way of a pamphlet written by A. Kollontai that was printed immediately prior to the X Party Plenum, of a notorious publicity, as a result of which their arguments were featured later as evidence to prove the danger of the dissenting activities of the “workers opposition” (see text no. 8).
These disputes essentially concerned the question of whether the trade unions, which enrolled the majority of the proletariat as opposed to the minority who were members of the party, should be conceded a greater right of co-determination. It is true that the leaders of the “workers opposition” advocated the management of production by the communist trade unions, and the conflict of the various currents generated a distrust of the “leadership cliques” within the party, while the supporters of the “workers opposition” also comprised the voice of the discontent of the masses. The formula of “production democracy” proposed by the workers opposition was directed against the system of factory managers, against excessive state bureaucracy, and against the abandonment of the pure proletarian line by “a policy imposed on the classes, which is nothing but the ‘accommodation’ of the managing organs to the diverse and contradictory interests of a socially unequal and mixed population”. The economy should be organized by an “all-Russian congress of producers brought together in the trade unions, which will elect the central organ for the management of the whole economy of the republic”. At the lowest level, in the factory, the factory councils must once again have the decisive role.
What underpinned the dissent of the “workers opposition” was nothing less than the question of proletarian democracy within the system of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which were identical according to official Bolshevik theory. The “workers opposition” sought to realize the self-administration of the proletariat with the participation of the trade unions in the management of the economic process. But it still did not consider the issue of the democratization of the State, that is, of the soviets, nor did it contemplate how to prevent the monopoly of the communist party. But it did demand greater freedom and open debate within the party, a consistent implementation of the principle of election and the exclusion from the party of all non-proletarian elements. In this respect its resolution on the party structure was in full agreement with the proposals of the “democratic centralists” (see text no. 9), while in the trade unions the latter accepted the role of intermediate negotiators.
The left wing current in the Bolshevik party, which since the October revolution had experienced numerous vicissitudes, culminated in the reform proposals of the “workers opposition”. The continuous criticism of the State and party bureaucracy, of the alienation of the working class and the communist party and the antidemocratic practices in the party were joined (especially in Kollontai’s striking expressions) to a profession of absolute faith in the “creative force of the working class” and the ideal goals of the revolution. Although none of the supporters of the left opposition in Russia was then aware of Rosa Luxemburg’s fragmentary notes on the Russian revolution (first published in 1922), their ideological similarity is striking. Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1918: “Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class—that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.”
In the eyes of the “workers opposition”, the original proletarian spirit of the Russian revolution was in danger and on the verge of collapse. This situation required a return to the “pure line of class politics”, that is, a reinforcement of the dictatorship which, however, would not be a dictatorship of an exclusive, bureaucratic and terrorist party, but the “dictatorship of conviction” of the workers, in the hands of whom was entrusted the political and ideological leadership over the masses of peasants. Shlyapnikov and Kollontai were convinced of the compatibility of the proletarian dictatorship over all of society with workers democracy within the class and the party. They did not fully realize the dilemma this poses, which Marx had not resolved, because they did not understand that the essence of political power cannot be reduced to the social capability of the class.
Lenin, on the other hand, recognized in the theses of the leftists the political danger that they could pose for the unity and consequently for the preservation of power of the party. For him the question about the role of the trade unions in the communist economic system was not an economic question, but a political one. Lenin was prepared to preserve the dictatorship of the proletariat at all costs, and certainly not in the idealist sense of the “workers opposition”, but by means of concrete measures of power in the fields of politics and administration. Lenin clearly expressed his view that soviet Russia was not a pure workers state, but a republic of workers and peasants. As a result, the communist party was forced to carry out “an active class policy”; that is, to consider the interests of the peasants insofar as this was necessary for the preservation of its dictatorship. In Lenin’s “Platform”, with regard to the trade unions, he said that the trade unions must represent the interests of the proletariat and defend the workers against their state, if such a situation arose, with respect to matters relating to labor and wages. Otherwise, they were a link between the party and the working masses, a “transmission belt”, as Lenin said even before Stalin, and, in addition, “schools of communism”, or a training ground for the backwards elements of the working class.
Trotsky’s proposals were in a sense a combination of Lenin’s views on the party dictatorship and the theses of the “workers opposition” concerning “production democracy”. Together with Bukharin he thought that the “nationalization” of the trade unions, not as a legal act, but as a continuing creative process, was a necessary step towards a developed communist society. While Lenin defined “production democracy” as neither more nor less than “real childishness, if we don’t have disciplinary tribunals”, Trotsky was more optimistic. Trotsky appealed to the workers for discipline, subordination to one-man management and the renunciation of egotistical interests, but he wanted to give them, through their organs the trade unions, power of management in all economic questions. Trotsky’s views were close to Lenin’s with regard to their realistic judgement of the situation and the question of political power, but he shared the views of the “workers opposition” in their faith in proletarian democracy, except that he did not think it was immediately realizable. War communism, with its militarized labor, did not imply a return to a mixed system of capitalism and socialism, as Lenin’s program caused some to suspect and as was soon to be realized in the new economic policy, but was the road towards an industrial communist society in which the most decisive stage would be the “trade union state”.