Thoughts on bureaucracy - Bob Potter

Paris 68 anti-bureaucracy poster
Paris 68 anti-bureaucracy poster

Bob Potter of Solidarity critiques bureaucratic state socialism in 1963.

Submitted by Steven. on November 30, 2013

One of the greatest problems facing the revolutionary movement today is that of bureaucracy. What is it? Is it a rootless "thing," floating between the working class and their rulers? Is it a "new class"? No other issue more clearly shows up the bankruptcy in ideas of the traditional "left" than its inability seriously to grapple with this problem.

The traditional "left" is incapable of looking at reality as it is, of analysing it here and now. Instead it gazes at society from the standpoint of political doctrines expounded a century ago, doctrines in many cases relating to very different social conditions and class alignments.

The contributions of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and other "giants" of the past have been reduced to "sacred scriptures." They are quoted as "divine authority" on the assumption that "nothing has changed." The term "revisionist" has become a term of abuse. That the "giants" themselves constantly revised their ideas in the face of the constantly developing experience is conveniently forgotten.

This "religious" attitude to the past is a complete rejection of dialectical thinking. With such tram-lines firmly laid in their brains it is little wonder that so many self-styled revolutionaries fail to see that Russia today, for instance, is as much a class society as any Western country.

The traditionalists, for instance, are all obsessed with the legal status of property, as if this were the fundamental thing. They fail to see that the bureaucracy in Russia has assumed the role of ruling class because it dominates production, manages it in its own interests and decides, through the exclusive control of the State, all about the distribution of the social product. State capitalism hadn't developed in Marx's day. His doctrines must be brought up to date in this respect.

Marx's dream of state ownership, centralised [1] and rapidly increasing productive forces, has been fulfilled with a vengeance in Russia today. But is this socialism? The Russian workers are never consulted in the important, everyday decisions that concern them most: hours or tempo of work, wages, consumption and leisure. They were never consulted about the resumption of nuclear tests (any more than ordinary people in the West were). Sometimes they are not even informed of such facts. And in the arts, what the Party says, goes.

Marx defines capitalism as a society based on commodity production and wage labour and in which "surplus value" is extracted from the workers. Part of this surplus value goes to capitalisation and part goes to the unproductive consumption of the rulers themselves. But many "marxists" fail to see that from this standpoint the Russian worker is exploited just as much, if not more, than his American counterpart.

The mere assertion that the State is "owned" by the workers has about as much relevance to the Russian worker as the fact that British Railways are "publicly owned" has for the rank-and-file member of the NUR. The abolition of private ownership is clearly not enough. Private ownership is only one "legal form" for the power of the ruling class. The ruling class has certainly perceived this. It is high time the revolutionaries did too.

The more far-sighted sections of the ruling class are beginning to realize that only by introducing State ownership can they effectively rationalize their economics, overcome the old type of economic difficulties, and thus maintain their rule. [2]

At the same time the rulers have learned that they need the Labour bureaucrats to discipline the workers, to tie them ever more closely to the job. They need the traditional unions as an outlet for grievances. In parallel with the increased State intervention in the economy, the Labour leaders and the unions have become increasingly integrated into the political structure of capitalism.

For the worker, these developments have meant increasing domination from above, both in work and in leisure. More and more the employer tries to fashion his employees along the lines so accurately depicted by Charlie Chaplin in Modem Times.

Many other "doctrines," unquestioningly accepted by the "left" today, are equally contradictory. For instance, some people pay lip service to the idea that "the liberation of the working class can be achieved only by the working class itself." But the same people act and speak as if the working class is an unintelligent herd, incapable of achieving socialism without an "elitist" party, "steeled in struggle," "disciplined," "centrally controlled," a party which would lead the class to revolutionize society by capturing political power.

Socialism to us means the maximum freedom for the worker in all his activities. It is the very opposite of the massive bureaucratic control which has developed on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The germ of socialism, i.e. maximum participation of the workers themselves, existed in the Paris Commune of 1871, in the Soviets or Workers' Councils of 1905 and 1917, in Spain in 1936 and 1937, and for a few weeks in Budapest in 1956. What has happened to that germ?

Millions of words have been written about the "degeneration" of the October Revolution and of the Bolshevik Party. The writers invariably miss the crucial point, namely that the seeds of the degeneration lay in the dual (and typically capitalist) conceptions of an elitist party and of the authoritarian management of industry. These ideas - or rather this mentality - was to govern all decisions on political and economic questions.

The elitist theory finds its highest expression in the works of Lenin. In What Is To Be Done, written in 1902, he argues that the working class is incapable of independently developing "socialist consciousness," which has therefore to be injected from outside. "Socialist consciousness," he wrote, "arose quite independently of the spontaneous growth of the working class movement. It arose as a natural and inevitable development of ideas among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia." [3]

From here it is a logical step to the overall conception of the ignorant herd of workers on the one hand, and the leading "cadre" of intellectuals on the other. The "cadre" do all the "thinking." The workers "test" the resultant "theories" in their everyday struggles with the boss. The division of labour between manual and intellectual, which capitalism developed, has now affected the ranks of the would-be "revolutionaries." Here is the ideological justification for bureaucratic politics.

Once these premises are accepted it matters little how opponents are fought, so long as workers "believe" the facts given them. In describing how one should deal with opposing factions (i.e. members of the same party) Lenin advocated "the spreading among the masses of hatred, aversion and contempt for the opponents." "The limits of the struggle based on a split are not Party limits, but general political limits, or rather general civil limits, the limits set by criminal law and nothing else." Modern "Leninists" [4] certainly seem to have learnt this part of the message!

In the field of production, this philosophy found expression in the doctrine of "one-man management," the militarization of labour and the determination to prevent the rank-and-file bodies from taking over the factories. It was presumed, in a typically bureaucratic way, that only those possessing technical knowledge were entitled to impose decisions concerning production. "In the interests of socialism, the revolution demands," Lenin wrote as early as 1918, "that the masses unquestionably obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process." Writing in Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky echoed: "The unions should discipline the workers and teach them to place the interests of production above their own needs and demands." Trotsky continued: "That free labour is more productive than compulsory labour is quite true when it refers to the period of transition from feudal to bourgeois society. But one needs to be a liberal to make that truth permanent and to transfer its application to the period of transition from the bourgeois to the socialist order."

These quotations show the contemptuous attitude held by the Bolshevik "vanguard" for the working class. It was to have disastrous results. It led for example to the bloody suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny in 1921, when workers demanded that the power stolen from the Soviets by the Bolshevik Party be returned to them. The mutineers were massacred by the Bolsheviks. Significantly, both Lenin and Trotsky publicly claimed that it was a counter-revolutionary rebellion, led by Tsarist officers. They both knew this to be a lie, but truth did not matter. Political expediency did.

The culmination of these doctrines was the introduction of completely capitalist methods into Russian production: speed-ups, piecework, unpaid "voluntary" overtime, permanent labour control, time and motion study, and the open advocacy of a drive for "American efficiency." Engels could have been foreseeing modern Russia when he wrote: "The modern State, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the State of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers, proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head." [5]

"Being determines consciousness" is an oft-quoted marxist truism. Related to a bureaucrat it means that any man possessing power over others cannot fail but to see society through the eyes of a master. So long as political power exists, class society will exist. So long as a specific social stratum manages production, the ruler and ruled relation ship will persist. The political power held by Lenin and his elite over the rank and file of the pre-revolutionary Bolshevik Party was simply transformed, by the October Revolution, into State power. The Party appointed the industrial managers. It opposed workers' management of production. Its members took up key positions in the State apparatus. The Party built a society in its own image.

The trade union and Labour bureaucrat in this country plays the same role as his Russian counterpart. His prime concern is to maintain himself. This he has no difficulty to do as he is an essential cog in the whole edifice of bureaucratic capitalism. Socialism and workers' power would mean his extinction.

It is no accident that trade union and Labour bureaucrats, of every political colouring, instinctively and inevitably must oppose any form of rank and file activity. The bureaucracies are fully integrated into the structure of capitalism. Independent action by the working class is the greatest threat to their existence. To talk, therefore, of these leaders "selling out" the membership is absurd. There is no other way in which they could act. They differ with one another only in respect to the kind of class society they would choose: the Western, based to an ever-diminishing degree on private ownership, or the Russian brand, organized through total State ownership.

As capitalism develops, the State bureaucracy "takes over" managerial functions to an increasing degree until it becomes the ruling class. The economic basis for this new bureaucracy is the enormous concentration of capital and power and the increasing intervention of the State in all economic transactions, and finally in every aspect of social life. The old "property-owning bourgeoisie," which characterized the capitalism of the days of Marx, is dying together with the era of laissez-faire. It now has to share its power with the new bureaucracy. It will eventually be eliminated altogether, either gradually and piecemeal (as in the West) or suddenly, as the result of a violent struggle (as in Russia and China). In this respect the only difference between East and West is that the former has already achieved total centralization in the hands of the State, while in the West the process still continues. It is a quantitative difference...not one of quality.

In their attitude to rank and file ("unofficial") activity, the organizations of the "left" reveal most clearly their bureaucratic make-up. The great Frank Foulkes, then "Communist" President of the ETU, could say to the power workers (November 14,1960) that "Unofficial bodies are not in the best interests of the industry." The Stalinist weekly World News devoted a major article, in May 1958, to attacking the "unofficial" attempts of sections of the London busmen to extend their strike. Even the ultra "r-r-revolutionary" S.L.L. declares its policy in all strikes is to make them official. [6] This is a permanent call for workers to leave control of the disputes in the hands of the bureaucrats. It goes hand in hand of course with calls for "better leadership" (i.e. themselves).

Experience has shown that movements relying on leaders can achieve nothing of fundamental benefit to the working class. Bureaucratic parties can only build bureaucratic societies. Socialism cannot be built with capitalist tools. The only saviour of the working class must be the working class itself - a statement that must be taken in its most literal sense.


[1] " wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of proletariat organized as ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible." Manifesto of the Communist Party, Foreign Languages Publishing House edition, Moscow 1957, p. 85.

[2] Bismarck and Churchill were advocates, in their time, of nationalisation. Even the Nazis put forward the following economic demand, in 1923: "We demand the abolition of unearned incomes and the abolition of the thraldom of interest. We demand the nationalisation of all industrial trusts." History of Nazi Germany, Pelican Books, p. 199.

[3] What Is To Be Done, Foreign Languages Publishing House edition, p. 51.

[4] Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. Ill, Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 493 and 494.

[5] F. Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Foreign Languages Publishing House edition, Moscow 1954, pp. 105-106.

[6] Gerry Healy, letter to The Guardian, October 26, 1961.

From London Solidarity, 1963
OCRed by lurdan, 2013