The role of the soviets in Russia's bourgeois revolution: the point of view of Julius Martov - Adam Buick

Julius Martov

Questions the assumption that the form of working class organisation to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism has been found in the workers' "soviets" or councils such as those that appeared during the Russian revolution. Looks at Martov's work "The State and the Socialist Revolution".

The basic principle defended by Marx throughout his forty years of socialist activity can be summed up in the clause of the General Rules of the First International that "the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working classes themselves". This is a rejection of the view that socialism can be introduced for the working class or that the working class can be led to socialism by some enlightened minority.

Those who set themselves up as leaders of the working class fall into two groups. First, there are the parliamentary reformists who tell the workers: "vote for us and we will introduce socialism for you". And then there are the various "vanguards" who see themselves leading the workers in a violent assault on the capitalist state. Both groups, despite being bitter antagonists, share a common standpoint: a denial that the majority of workers are capable of understanding and of organising themselves, without leaders, in order to achieve it.

But to deny this is to in effect deny that socialism can be established. For socialism, as a fully democratic society based on the common ownership of the means of production(1), demands, in order to function, the voluntary co-operation and conscious participation of the immense majority of the population. It is a society which simply cannot be established by a minority, however enlightened, determined or benevolent. Leaders, whether reformist parliamentarians or insurrectionist vanguards, cannot establish socialism; all they can and have established is some form of state capitalism.

During and after the first world war a number of working class thinkers and militants (such as Luxemburg, Gorter and Pannekoek) came to recognise that the traditional Social Democratic policy of seeking to win a parliamentary majority on an electoral programme of reforms of capitalism could never lead to socialism but only to state capitalism. They re-asserted that only the working class, socialist-minded and democratically-organised, could establish socialism. However, under the impact of the events of November 1917 in Russia, they imagined that the form of working class organisation to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism has been found in the workers' "soviets" or councils that had come into being after the overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917.

It is understandable, and perhaps excusable, that in the early days of the "soviet regime" people outside of Russia should have been mistaken about its nature. War-time censorship and the lies of the capitalist press, together with the exaggerations of some of its supporters, meant that little accurate information about what was happening in Russia was available. On the face of it, in November 1917 the Congress of Soviets, a body of working class delegates from all over Russia, had deposed the capitalist Provisional Government and itself taken control of governmental power; capitalist rule had been overthrown and a socialist regime established - at least this is what appeared to have happened.

But those who had some knowledge of Marx's theory of social development ought to have quickly had some doubts. Without denying that capitalist political rule had been overthrown or that power had passed into the hands of people calling themselves socialists, they could have questioned whether the outcome could be socialism. Quite apart from the fact that socialism could only have been established as a world system, neither the economic nor the political conditions for a socialist revolution existed in Russia in 1917. Russia was an industrially backward country, with an overwhelmingly peasant population engaged in individual, rather than socialised, production. The workers and peasants of Russia certainly were discontented, but wanted "Peace, Bread and Land" (as the slogans put it) rather than socialism properly-understood.

To be fair, those who supported the Bolshevik coup d'etat because they believed it to have been a soviet or workers' council revolution did eventually - by about 1921 - come to recognise the real nature of the Bolshevik regime as a minority dictatorship forced by economic circumstances to continue the development of capitalism in Russia. But these "Left Communists" (or "Council Communists" as some of them later called themselves) still continued to believe in workers' councils as the form of working class organisation for establishing socialism.

One man, however, was not taken in by "sovietism": Julius Martov. Martov was one of the second generation of Russian Social Democrats who, at the turn of the century, worked to build up the Social Democratic movement inside Russia. With Plekhanov, Lenin and others he was one of the editors of the journal Iskra which had been launched in 1900 to counter the nebulous theories of "economism". When, however, the Iskra group, together with the rest of Russian Social Democracy, split over the organisation question Martov was amongst the minority (or "Mensheviks", from the Russian word for minority) who opposed Lenin's proposal for a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries which was supported by a majority (or "Bolsheviks"). Martov favoured the traditional Social Democratic idea of a mass, open - and, let it be admitted, reformist - workers' party. Unlike most Mensheviks, however, Martov was an opponent of the first world war, being a member of the small group of "Internationalists" who took up a working-class position on this issue. He was a respected writer (even by Lenin) on Marx and socialist theory and, indeed, it was because of his criticism of the Bolshevik regime from a Marxian point of view that he was forced into exile in 1922, where he died a year later.

Some of the articles he wrote in the period 1919-23 were published in English translation in 1939 under the title The State and the Socialist Revolution (2). Reading these articles it is easy to see why he was such an embarrassment to the Bolshevik government. Not for one moment was he taken in by their claims that the "soviet regime" represented the "dictatorship of the proletariat" as envisaged by Marx (3). For him, it was a cover for the dictatorship, albeit revolutionary, of the Bolshevik Party.

It is instructive to see why the Bolsheviks were, for a few years, advocates of workers' councils. The "constitutional' basis for their seizure of power in November 1917 had been a decision of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets to depose the Provisional Government of Kerensky and set up instead a "Provisional Workers and Peasants Government". Thus the Bolsheviks popularised the slogan, in the rest of Europe as well as in Russia, of "all power to the soviets" (i.e., workers' councils). After they had dissolved the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 they were forced, in order to justify this action, to step up their propaganda in favour of the soviets as an alternative to parliament. The election of a Constituent Assembly, which would decide the future constitution of Russia, had long been a demand of all Russian revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks. Elections, even though held after the Bolsheviks take-over of power, gave the Bolsheviks only a quarter of the seats, a majority going to the peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries. Lenin gave a number of reasons why the Assembly had had to be dissolved such as out-of-date electoral lists and a split in the Social Revolutionary party between the presentation of candidates and the election. But all these could have been remedied by fresh elections. This the Bolsheviks wished to avoid since they were fully aware that the result would be more or less the same. They determined to hold on to power, while still wishing to be regarded as democrats. Hence Lenin proclaimed that the soviet system was a higher form of democracy than the "bourgeois" parliamentary system.

Martov knew this to be hypocrisy. Lenin favoured the soviet rather than the parliamentary system because he knew that he could get a majority under the former but not the latter - a sure sign, we may add, that the soviet system was not more representative or democratic than the election of a central assembly by universal, direct, equal and secret ballot.

The reason for this was that the soviets - the soviets as they really existed in revolutionary Russia as opposed to the ideal workers' councils of Left Communist theory - as loose makeshift bodies were easily manipulable by a well-organised group such as were the professional revolutionaries of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin's leadership. Indeed it could be said that it was precisely because they were the best-organised and disciplined group that the Bolsheviks finally emerged as the government of revolutionary Russia following the collapse of the Tsarist regime - and they came to power by successfully manipulating the soviets.

The soviet system served the Bolsheviks' purpose because elections to the All-Russia Congress of Soviets were neither universal nor direct nor secret. The Congress was composed of delegates from local soviets who were in their turn delegates from local factories. Its members were thus only indirectly elected. Urban areas were over-represented. There were no set procedures for the election of the delegates to the local soviets; in most cases they would have been chosen by a show of hands at a general assembly of the workforce of a factory, with all the drawbacks of this method of election.

We mention these points not to defend parliamentary democracy but to show how the soviet system was far from being the highest form of political democracy.

It is of course a reasonable point to say that in a revolutionary situation such as existed in Russia in 1917 democratic perfection was not to be expected. The soviets were only makeshift representative organisations which had come into being precisely because working class opinion had been denied expression under the Tsarist regime. They thus played a useful role, filling a void until such time as a more permanent, and structured, system of representation could be set up. To praise their makeshift, unstructured character as being a sign of their ultra-democratic nature is to make a virtue out of necessity and to forget that this made not just for flexibility but also meant that it was easier for a determined minority to manipulate them.

A second argument put forward by the Bolsheviks in favour of the soviet system was that it gave power to the more determined revolutionary elements in Russia whereas to have let power pass into the hands of a parliamentary government responsible to a Constituent Assembly elected by universal suffrage would have led to a slowing-down of the revolutionary process. This is undoubtedly true, but it shows clearly that the Russian revolution was essentially a bourgeois rather than a socialist revolution.

The socialist revolution can only be a revolution carried out consciously by the immense working-class majority acting in their own interests. In these circumstances any system of representation - whether soviets or parliament - would give a majority for the revolution. This is not necessarily the case during a bourgeois revolution, however, where the revolutionaries can find themselves impeded by the lack of revolutionary will of the masses. Martov describes a typical bourgeois revolution thus:

"The role of active factor in the overturn belonged to minorities of the social classes in whose interest the revolution developed. These minorities exploited the confused discontent and the sporadic explosions of anger arising among scattered and socially inconsistent elements within the revolutionary class. They guided the latter in the destruction of the old social forms. In certain cases, the active leader minorities had to use the power of their concentrated energy in order to shatter the inertia of the elements they tried to wield for revolutionary purposes. Therefore, these active leader minorities sometimes made efforts - often successful efforts - to repress the passive resistance of the manipulated elements, when the latter refused to move forward toward the broadening and deepening of the revolution. The dictatorship of an active revolutionary minority, a dictatorship that tended to be terrorist, was the normal coming-to-a-head of the situation in which the old social order had confined the popular mass, now called on by the revolutionaries to forge their own destiny". (The State and the Socialist Revolution, p. 16).

That an enlightened minority of revolutionists were justified in ignoring the views of the unenlightened majority in order to carry through the revolution was an idea that had first made its appearance, in the form of Jacobinism, during the French bourgeois revolution. It was inherited by utopian Communists such as Buonarotti, Weitling and Blanqui. And it was, as Martov points out, an element in Bolshevik thinking too.

The Bolsheviks supported the soviet system because it enabled them, as a determined revolutionary minority, to come to power:
"The 'soviet regime' becomes the means of bringing into power and maintaining in power a revolutionary minority which claims to defend the interests of a majority, though the latter has not recognised these interests as its own, though this majority has not attached itself sufficiently to these interests to defend them with all its energy and determination." (p. 19).

This, Martov goes on, applied equally to the partisans of the soviet idea (workers' councils) outside of Russia. They too saw workers' councils as a short-cut to power, as a means of by-passing the need to have majority socialist understanding amongst the working class before trying to overthrow capitalism:
"The mystery of the 'soviet regime' is now deciphered. We see now how an organism that is supposedly created by the specific peculiarities of a labor movement corresponding to the highest development of capitalism is revealed to be, at the same time, suitable to the needs of countries knowing neither large capitalist production, nor a powerful bourgeoisie, nor a proletariat that has evolved through the experiences of the class struggle.

"In other words, in the advanced countries, the proletariat resorts, we are told, to the soviet form of the dictatorship as soon as its elan toward the social revolution strikes against the impossibility of realizing its power in any other way than through the dictatorship of a minority, a minority within the proletariat itself.

"The thesis of the 'finally discovered form', the thesis of the political form that, belonging to the specific circumstances of the imperialist phase of capitalism, is said to be the only form that can realize the social enfranchisement of the proletariat, constitutes the historically necessary illusion by whose effect the revolutionary section of the proletariat renounces its belief in its ability to draw behind it the majority of the population of the country and resuscitates the idea of the minority dictatorship of the Jacobins in the very form used by the bourgeois revolution of the 18th century. Must we recall here that this revolutionary method has been repudiated by the working class to the extent that it has freed itself from its heritage of petty-bourgeois revolutionism?" (p. 21-22).

The view that a revolutionary minority could and should establish its dictatorship in order to try to introduce socialism is of course a denial of the basic principle upheld by Marx that "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself". That this view should be popular amongst revolutionaries in Russia was no coincidence. For, as we have seen, the Russian revolution - as the process of overthrowing, root and branch, the Tsarist social order - was essentially bourgeois. The soviets had a role to play in this bourgeois revolution: to allow the determined revolutionary minority to come to power. After noting how in July 1917, when the Congress of Soviets was dominated by the vacillating Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, Lenin had thought of abandoning the slogan "all power to the soviets" in favour of an open demand for "all power to the Bolshevik Party", Martov goes on:
"The consequent course of the Russian revolution cured Lenin of his passing 'lack of faith'. The soviets fulfilled the role expected of them. The rising tide of bourgeois revolutionary enthusiasm set in motion the worker and peasant masses, washing away their 'meanness'. Lifted by the wave, the Bolsheviks possessed themselves of the government apparatus. Then the role of the insurrectionary element came to an end. The Moor had accomplished his task. The State that came into power with the aid of the 'Power of the Soviets' became the 'Soviet Power'. The Communist minority incorporated into this State made itself secure, once for always, against a possible return of the spirit of 'meanness'" (p. 28).

The coming to power of the Bolsheviks did not represent, as they themselves believed, progress from Russia's bourgeois revolution to its "proletarian revolution". It was, says Martov, echoing what Marx had said about the so-called Reign of Terror in France in 1794, "a point in the process of the bourgeois revolution itself". Commenting on the passage in Marx's 1847 article in which this phrase occurred (4), Martov says:
"One might say that Marx wrote this specially for the benefit of those people who consider the simple fact of a fortuitous conquest of power by the democratic small bourgeoisie and the proletariat as proof of the maturity of society for the socialist revolution. But it may also be said that he wrote this specially for the benefit of those socialists who believe that never in the course of a revolution that is bourgeois in its objectives can there occur a possibility permitting the political power to escape from the hands of the bourgeoisie and pass to the democratic masses. One may say that Marx wrote this also for the benefit of those socialists who consider utopian the mere idea of such a displacement of power and who do not realize that this phenomenon is 'only a point in the process of the bourgeois revolution itself', that it is a factor assuring, under certain conditions, the most complete and radical suppression of the obstacles rising in the way of this bourgeois revolution" (p. 59-60).

It only remains to add that, unlike in 1794 in France where the determined minority were replaced by the traditional bourgeoisie after having done their dirty work for them, in Russia the determined minority remained in power and that it was from amongst their ranks that evolved the ruling and exploiting class of the capitalist Russia they had no alternative but to develop.

So, from a bourgeois revolutionary point of view, the Bolsheviks were justified in maintaining their minority dictatorship. Where they were wrong was in imagining, and propagating amongst the workers of the rest of Europe, that this had something to do with "socialism". Their sympathisers in the West, including the Left and Council Communists, were equally mistaken in imagining that the soviets (or workers' councils), which had served as a cover for the Bolshevik minority to come to power, were the form of working class organisation for socialism in advanced capitalist countries.

Certainly, workers' councils or something akin to them, as workplace organisations of the workers, are bound to arise in the course of the socialist revolution. But to claim that they are the only possible form of working class self-organisation is to go too far, is in fact to make a fetish of a mere organisational form. What is important in working class self-organisation, however, is not the form but the principle.

The principles of democratic self-organisation - which are in fact democratic principles generally - can be applied, given a sufficient democratic consciousness, to any working class organisation, including even organisation to contest elections and to control central parliaments and local councils. There is no reason whatsoever in theory why a workers' socialist political party could not be organised on the same basis as has been proposed by Left Communists for workers' councils: no leadership and so no division into leaders and led; the candidates, including those elected, just like the delegates to the ideal workers' council, could be subject to continual control and, if need be, instantly recalled; they could be strictly mandated to fight for socialism and not to pursue reforms of capitalism. In other words, there is no necessary connexion between the principle of democratic working class self-organisation and organisation at the place of work. As stated, what is important is not the form of organisation but the democratic - and socialist - consciousness of the working class. This can express itself in a great variety of organisational forms, including a mass political party. Indeed, this was the form Marx himself expected it to take.

Martov, whose writings are unfortunately not generally known, must be given credit for having demystified a little the idea of workers' councils by showing the essentially bourgeois revolutionary role that the soviets played in Russia in 1917.
Adam Buick

(1) Common ownership is not the same as State ownership. Since the State is a feature only of class societies State ownership is a form of sectional or class monopoly of the means of production. In socialism the State is replaced by the democratic administration of social affairs, including production which would be directed solely to satisfying human needs, with the resulting disappearance of production for sale, profits, wages, money, banks and all the other paraphernalia of buying and selling.
(2) The State and the Socialist Revolution, translated by Integer, International Review, New York, 1939. Integer gives as the source of the articles translated:
"The first two sections of this book, The Ideology of Sovietism and The Conquest of the State, were written early in 1919. They form a compact whole and should be read as such. The first essay appeared serially in the periodical Mysl of Kharkov. The introductory section of the second was first published in the issues of July 8 and September 1, 1921, of the Sozialisticheski Vestnik (Berlin). The remainder of the second essay appeared for the first time in Mirovoi Bolshevism (World Bolshevism), Berlin, 1923, from the text of which the entire present translation was made. The final section, entitled Marx and the Problem of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was first published in 1918 in the Workers International of Moscow, edited by Martov".
(3) For Marx the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was the political form of the period during which the working class would be transforming capitalism into socialism. He advocated that it take the form of a fully democratised State controlled by the working class. See H. Draper 'Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat', New Politics, Vol. I, Number 4, Summer 1962.
(4) "Die moralisierende Kritik und die kritische Moral". A recent English translation of the passage in question reads:
"If the proletariat destroys the political rule of the bourgeoisie, this will only be a temporary victory, only an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself, as in 1874, so long as in the course of history, in its movement', the material conditions are not yet created which make necessary the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production and thus the definitive overthrow of bourgeois political rule" (Karl Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, edited by T. B. Bottomore and Maximilien Rubel, Penguin Books, London, 1963, p. 244).

This article originally appeared in the French political journal, Economies et societes, cahiers de l'ISMEA, (Paris, serie S, Number 18, April-May 1976)

Posted By

darren p
May 7 2009 12:50


Attached files


May 8 2009 08:21

The strength of the workers' councils is that they can respond to the mood within the working class. At times of great militancy this can involve the greatest number of workers and the widest-ranging discussions. Times of retreat will also be reflected - as workers turn away from struggle and concerns on how to organise themselves to fight.. Indeed, workers' councils can fade away, or be transformed into something else that has nothing to do with the defence of workers' interests but its opposite. Workers' councils are not a "short cut", but they do at least express where the class is at (in terms on consciousness, organisation etc). They are not an 'ideal' form, but they can involve the widest number of workers.

Parties - whatever they call themselves - will always be minorities, and of course, can't substitute for the mass movement of the working class. The idea that voting for the SPGB is a serious alternative to workers organising themselves (in assemblies, with strike committees, factory committees, workers councils etc) is a fallacy put around by those putting themselves forward as 'libertarians' but still flogging the same old social-democratic horse.

On Martov himself: he was indeed an internationalist, and never supported military intervention against Russia.

darren p
May 8 2009 09:02

The question "Workers councils or parliament?" misses the point. Until the majority understand and want socialism neither councils or parliment can bring it about.

The idea that voting for the SPGB is a serious alternative to workers organising themselves (in assemblies, with strike committees, factory committees, workers councils etc) is a fallacy put around by those putting themselves forward as 'libertarians' but still flogging the same old social-democratic horse.

This is a false representation of the SPGB position, to quote declaration no.5:

That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

Working class emancipation necessarily excludes the role of political leadership. The Socialist Party has an absolute need of supporters with understanding and self-reliance. Even if we could conceive of a leader-ridden working class displacing the capitalist class from power such an immature class would be helpless to undertake the responsibilities of democratic socialist society.

At a time of mass socialist understanding the working class will no doubt organise itself in "assemblies, with strike committees, factory committees, workers councils" and political parties. There is a need for a form of working class organisation that overcomes the atomisation of the individual workplace. To say that parties "will always be minorities" is tantamount to say that the majority will never reach socialist consciousness and that therefore socialism is impossible.

May 8 2009 10:04

"Workers councils or parliament?" makes the point precisely. Parliament is an institution of capitalism, workers' councils are a form of organisation of the working class. The two 'forms' express the interests of different classes with different interests. Parliament is part of the apparatus that sustains the atomisation of the working class, the workers' councils have the potential to involve all the energies, enthusiasm, capacity to organise and discuss etc that mark the working class in struggle.

The idea that mass political parties are needed for the working class to overthrow capitalism is a relic from social democracy. The development of consciousness takes place in all sorts of situations and while minorities with far-seeing ideas have a role to play it is not exclusively because of them that workers develop an understanding of the need to overthrow capitalism and establish a classless society. The alternative view is that put forward by Lenin in What IsTo Be Done, that workers can only develop tradeunionist consciousness without the help of revolutionaries (a view that he subsequently went beyond)

darren p
May 8 2009 10:26

Again to quote the declaration of principles (number 6):

That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organize consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

It would be foolish to expect the capitalist class to voluntarily give up its privileged position in society. Governments exist solely to administer the society as it exists, in the interests of the ruling (capitalist) class, so governments will not end the privilege. Capitalism will continue as long as the working class accepts it. The working class will have to force the capitalist class to give up its position of privilege.

Socialism will be the result of workers democratically choosing a new, classless society based upon the satisfaction of human needs. And since capitalism is a global system of society, it must be replaced globally.

It is dangerous and futile to follow those who support violence by workers against the armed force of the state. Violent revolution has sometimes meant different faces in the capitalist class, always meant dead workers, and never meant the liberation of the working class. Unless workers organize consciously and politically and take control over the state machinery, including its armed forces, the state will be ensured a bloody victory.

Political democracy is the greatest tool (next to its labour-power) that the working class has at its disposal. When the majority of workers support socialism, so-called "revolutionary" war will not be required. The real revolution is for workers to stop following leaders, to start understanding why society functions as it does and to start thinking for themselves.

May 8 2009 13:19

1) When workers have to use force to defend themselves you're saying it's futile?

2) So workers have to take over the state rather than destroy it? What use have workers for the capitalist state that enforces their exploitation and oppression?

This is all classic social democracy.

darren p
May 8 2009 13:44
1) When workers have to use force to defend themselves you're saying it's futile?

If a minority try to use violence to gain socialism it's futile.

If in the face of a socialist majority, a capitalist minority attempt to use violence to preserve their privilege then self defence would not be futile.

2) So workers have to take over the state rather than destroy it? What use have workers for the capitalist state that enforces their exploitation and oppression?

The working class captures state power and then destroys it.

May 10 2009 06:30

It's not a question of minorities using violence "to gain socialism". In the struggle between classes the bourgeoisie and its state use violence against militant workers. Saying that class resistance must exclude force is to guarantee that struggle will be futile. This is classic social pacifism, entirely in line with the ideology of social democracy.If you fight for anything there will be setbacks, for many reasons, but any group that tells workers they should not use force in their fight serves the state, not the working class.

Remember that this thread starts with Martov on workers' councils, or rather on the 'ideology' of "sovietism". In reality when workers organise themselves in struggle and gradually become conscious of the wider needs and possibilities of their struggles we are seeing the development of an exploited class into its realisation as a revolutionary class. When workers create workers' councils they are creating bodies in which it is possible for the widest involvement of the greatest number of workers, in organising the struggle, in discussion, in extending the struggle. As said before, the alternative is that the working class is only an exploited class until the SPGB comes along and says "we will make you socialists; all your struggles are useless; do not struggle; do not organise yourselves, but follow us into the promised land; do not create workers' councils, or anything else, because the SPGB already exists and it is all that is needed (apart from the capitalist state!) to make socialism"

darren p
May 10 2009 10:12

Again more false representations and incorrect assumptions.

The purpose of the SPGB is to spread understanding of and argue the case for socialism. Members, as individuals, ARE involved in "struggles" - it is impossible to be a member of the working class and not be involved in the class struggle. However most "struggles", no matter how violent, are merely for piecemeal alterations to the capitalist system and as such only improve the conditions of small sections of the working class. The only struggle that will finally get rid of capitalism is the struggle to build a movement of socialists for socialism.

The SPGB is in not against violence per se. Though it is romantic nonsense to think that a small group of unarmed workers would gain anything other than a beating by violently taking on the armed force of the state.

I disagree that workers councils guarantee the "widest involvement of the greatest number of workers", they isolate the workers in their separate enterprises, disadvantage the unemployed and other non wage-workers and can easily be manipulated by organised minorities. Workers councils are but one form of working class organisation, others exist, and undoubtedly more will be discovered. The important thing is their socialist content.

As said before, the alternative is that the working class is only an exploited class until the SPGB comes along and says "we will make you socialists; all your struggles are useless; do not struggle; do not organise yourselves, but follow us into the promised land; do not create workers' councils, or anything else, because the SPGB already exists and it is all that is needed (apart from the capitalist state!) to make socialism"

And as I said before this is not at all the socialist position!

"..the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind, without distinction of race or sex. ..this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself."
May 10 2009 16:36

Er, factory committees or occupations of individual plants that don't have the perspective of extending the struggle to other workers do indeed isolate workers. But any discussion of workers' councils has to start with the real experience of actual workers in their attempts to organise and extend their struggles, that is to go beyond isolation. What was the experience in Russia or Germany of trying to go beyond isolation? Maybe darren p could pause for a moment and examine the actual history of the working class and all its attempts to unite in struggle, all without the assistance, and indeed with the opposition of the SPGB.

As for the role of political parties, saying "this is not at all the socialist position!" is not actually an argument. Standing in capitalist elections (with any programme, no matter how 'radical') only adds to a spectacle that is designed to give cover to the dictatorship of capital.

And the "small group of unarmed workers ... taking on the armed force of the state" ... who would they be? If they're unarmed it's because they've been listening to the pacifist ideas of the SPGB and if they're a small group it's because they've not seen the need to extend their struggles. The strength of workers' struggles comes in the increasing unity of struggles, in the development of self-organisation, in a growing consciousness of the means and the goals of the struggle. The 'socialist' content of workers' struggles is not injected by the SPGB but comes from the very nature of the working class as the only class that can overthrow capitalism and in the social relations that they have the capacity to establish. Workers councils, and similar bodies that are responsive to the will of workers, will be central in the struggle for socialism, while the SPGB will still be waiting for the next parliamentary election in SW London (in order to put the 'socialist case')

darren p
May 11 2009 08:51

"The actual history of the working class" confirms the SPGB's theses more than it refutes them. What was the real outcome of the Russian or German experiences? Certainly not the victory of socialism.

The socialist party does not claim to inject consciousness into the working class from the outside. We can only hope to act as a catalyst in the process.

If you are attempting to critique the socialist party you have to base your arguments on its actual positions not what you imagine them to be. I would recommend David A. Perrin's book.

In the final analysis, no majority understanding and will for socialism, no socialist revolution. Once a socialist majority has been reached, many forms of socialist organisation will undoubtedly appear, some resembling workers councils. It is not unreasonable for this majority to wish to use the vote to call the bluff on capitalist democracy, a final cherry on the top of the cake.

We use the vote because it exists, (unlike the idealised assemblies of councilism) if you read any of our election material it is far from giving "cover to the dictatorship of capital."

May 11 2009 18:49

The fact that socialism does not exist confirms that all workers' struggles have not, ultimately, succeeded. And, yes, the importance of consciousness can't be underestimated. But, reel back this movie, and what do you see? In Russia and Germany millions of workers in struggle, organising themselves and trying to work out what to do. To say there is "no majority understanding of socialism" is hardly headline news. What is more important is that the creativity of workers in struggle, our attempts to organise ourselves, are indications of i) the capacity of the working class to extend and unify our struggle and ii) the creative capacities that will be at the heart of a socialist society.

The defeat of the German and Russian Revolutions can be dismissed as failures to establish a majority consciousness of the need for socialism. Political currents different to the SPGB, whether they be anarchist, councilist or left communist have tried to draw more profound lessons of these defeats. What have workers done? What did they fail to understand? What obstacles did they fail to deal with? The SPGB just says that defeat was inevitable because there was no majority socialist consciousness. Every other current of thought has tried to see what the working class was doing and where it failed. Parrroting ' no majority socialist consciousness' is no help to anyone. And with positions that, among other things, defend the use of parliament and unions, and oppose class violence the SPGB is clearly an obstacle to the advance of class consciousness.

Of course, the main reason that the SPGB attack workers' councils is because it thinks that the body that will take power in a revolution can not be the creations of the working class but can only be the SPGB itself. This basic substitutionism explains all of darren p's remarks. The workers' councils are no good because they will never be able to replace the 'socialists' of the SPGB. The SPGB, as you will have heard at any meeting where they spell things out, is the body that they want to take power. and not the working class organisations of the workers' councils.

May 11 2009 20:30
In the final analysis, no majority understanding and will for socialism, no socialist revolution. Once a socialist majority has been reached, many forms of socialist organisation will undoubtedly appear,...

Ultra-utopian. People taking action against the conditions they face precedes and creates the understanding and will for socialism. Self-organising becomes understanding of socialism.

Also the form of councils is part of their content - people always seperating form and content on this site annoys me.

darren p
May 12 2009 21:39

The SPGB has never dismissed workers councils as a possible form of workers organisation.

To quote Steve Coleman from "Non-market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century" (1987)

Advocates of soviets or council communism will note that their insistence upon how socialism would have to be organised is not ruled out by the SPGB. The point emphasised is that those establishing socialism will be free to determine the nature of its administration. Of course, such a decision will not be based on utopian fancy, but will have to accord with the historical circumstances existing at the time of the revolution.

Socialism requires the conscious and willing co-operation of the worlds population to operate. It is pure vanguardist utopianism to think that somehow it could come about before the majority of people understand and want it.

The SPGB has always held that "unless people understand Socialism and want it, they will never establish it" and that revolution "must be the work of the working class itself", this is the very opposite of substitutionism.

I will leave debates on the union question for another thread.

May 13 2009 05:06

The SPGB have "never dismissed" and "not ruled" out workers' councils as a "possible form of workers organisation"! Superficially this might seem very broad-minded for such a narrow-minded sect. You can even imagine workers everywhere waiting for the final verdict. Are workers councils a "possible form" or maybe not? What's forgotten is that this thread follows a text warning against the 'ideology' of 'sovietism', so, on balance, the SPGB jury is not actually out on the question. Workers councils can be manipulated, apparently, but a social democratic party, the SPGB, can come to power without any problem. After all, that's what 'majority socialist consciousness' means when it comes down to it - voting for the SPGB. This is not a parody but the actual answer given by real SPGB speakers at actual SPGB meetings. No problem for the party to come to power when there's 'majority socialist consciousness'.

The real problems facing workers as they try to organise themselves in struggle and identify the means and goal of their struggle can be discussed elsewhere.

darren p
May 13 2009 09:43

The SPGB has no wish to come to power! Another misrepresentation on your part.

To quote our object (which you seem to blissfully ignore)

The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Nothing about running and administrating a "socialist" or "transitional" society. The goal of the SPGB is to aid the growth of a conscious movement of socialists to bring about socialism. To repeat myself, during the socialist revolution the working class captures state power and then destroys it.

Finally, where do you think the members of the socialist party come from? They are workers trying to organise themselves in struggle!

May 13 2009 11:54

Completely agree with Trenchone - nothing new to add but please allow a little rant as I find the reasonable,sober patter of the 'socialist' priests of the SPGB so........ ! If only the working class wasn't so thick it would stop voting for the capitalist parties and start voting for the SPGB.

"The SPGB has no wish to come to power! Another misrepresentation on your part".

Why then do, time after time, SPGB speakers (of both versions of the party) publically say the opposite. For members of 'The Party', the party is the class! When the party is elected the class takes power. But you're not a 'vanguard', oh no roll eyes . As for:

"during the socialist revolution the working class captures state power and then destroys it".

I wouldn't call a legislative vote for socialism a socialist revolution (no real difference in my eyes from the nonsense spouted by your namesakes - the Trotskyist - SPEW) but ignoring this I never heard an SPGB speaker call for the smashing of the state either. Taking it over and running it on behalf of the class, yes, smashing it, never.

Anyway, my apologies, rant over. I'll get back in my box.


darren p
May 14 2009 08:17

Fortunately, there are 104 years worth of literature to counter the false claims above.

For example, some extracts from "How the SPGB Is Different From Others"

The SPGB and our companion parties in the WSM

* claims that there can be no state in a socialist society.
* claims that only the vast majority, acting consciously in its own interests, for itself, by itself, can create socialism.
* seeks election to facilitate the elimination of capitalism by the vast majority of socialists, not to govern capitalism.

May 14 2009 10:44

So, Darren, and this is a serious question, why do so many Party speakers so often say things that contradict "104 years of literature". Is there no 'control' (I use the term loosely) over what party speakers say? Or do members not understand or agree with the Declaration of Principles? (Which includes this: "Unless workers organize consciously and politically and take control over the state machinery, including its armed forces, the state will be ensured a bloody victory" - my emphasis).

My other main gripe,which I alluded to in my first post, is what I see as the contempt the SPGB has for the working class. If only it could be rational / sensible, if only it wasn't stupid enough to vote for the capitalists, if only they would listen to the 'case for socialism' while all the time ignoring the material conditions workers find themselves in. Relying on 'religious conversion', sorry, 'making socialists', the SPGB chooses to abdicate itself from the class struggle and this is why it is of no benefit, no use, to the working class and why ultimately it will become irrelevant.

FC! Morven

darren p
May 15 2009 19:38

Speakers have to pass a speakers exam and by approved by the EC.

The passage you quote is from the explanatory notes rather than the actual principles, but it is correct. A socialist majority does take control of the state machinery - and then immediately liquidates it.

"Make socialists" is a phrase pulled from William Morris and in my opinion is useful as a short-hand expression only, it does have the unfortunate connotation you point out. Though a more thorough examination reveals that that the process is something far more complicated. As the Socialist Party of Australia wrote:

if we hope to achieve Socialism ONLY by our propaganda, the outlook would indeed be bad. But it is Capitalism itself, unable to solve crisis, unemployment and poverty, engaging in horrifying wars, which digs its own grave. Workers are learning by bitter experience and bloody sacrifice for interests not their own. They are learning very slowly. Our job is to shorten the time, to speed up the process

"Contempt for the working class" aside, it is more utter nonsense to say that the Socialist Party "abdicates" from the class struggle. Party members are proletarians and as such are no more able to escape from the material conditions than they are to escape from the law of gravity and levitate towards socialism.

As I have said already party members, as individuals, ARE involved in "struggles" and "issues" to a greater extent than you would realise. However:

What we don’t do – and which all the anarchist groups engage in – is to participate, as a group, in “micropolitics”, local single-issue campaigns. We don’t necessarily dismiss all such campaigns as entirely useless but think it best to leave them up to the people directly concerned, merely advising them (if asked) to organise and conduct themselves democratically, without leaders and without outside interference from Leninist (and, indeed, anarchist) groups. As a group composed of people who have come together because we want socialism, we see our group’s task as to concentrate on spreading socialist ideas.
May 16 2009 09:36

The SPGB doesn't just want to 'spread socialist ideas'. It wants the working class to "muster under its banner", it wants the working class to "support" it. While denying that it's a leadership (and insisting on the need for "self-reliance"), it's only a leadership that needs to ask for support. And what is the reason for this support? It's so that the SPGB can convert the state from "an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation". It is not a "misrepresentation" to say that the SPGB wants political power as this was perfectly normal for social democratic parties at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it's what SPGB speakers say at their meetings. They always say that workers' councils can be manipulated, but the SPGB can be trusted because it's made up of those who believe in socialism.

The idea that the SPGB will 'immediately liquidate' the state (with or without the support of a "socialist majority") rather than 'convert' the state into an "agent of emancipation" is an innovation. It is advocated by some of the SPGB (and not all, as it's not, actually, an entirely monolithic organisation) are embarrassed to acknowledge the contribution of Marx, on one hand, while, on the other hand, being in an organisation that explicitly doesn't agree that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes." This is something of a detail in the wider scheme of things. The basic understanding of social democracy is that the party takes power because the workers councils can't be trusted.

darren p
May 16 2009 10:47

From the ridiculous to the surreal!

The party is a leadership because it asks for "support"! Striking workers at Visteon ask for support, as do any number of official and unofficial workers struggles, are they a leadership to? In reality the SPGB is probably the longest running example of a leaderless organisation.

The idea that the SPGB will 'immediately liquidate' the state (with or without the support of a "socialist majority") rather than 'convert' the state into an "agent of emancipation" is an innovation

Hardly, as written in a 1984 conference resolution "This Conference affirms that Socialism will entail the immediate abolition of and not the gradual decline of the State"

I suggest you re-read the final paragraph of Buick's article above.

May 17 2009 16:57

It's getting to be a bit repetitive the so called critique of the SPGB by some who should know a lot better . It is conveniently forgotten here that situations and circumstances and conditions determines actions and that in a different historic period the Canadian OBU was created and encouraged by members of the SPC , the SPGB's companion party . A brief summary of points already made on Libcom at various threads about the SPGB

The SPGB has always declared that it is the quality of the voters behind the vote that, in the revolutionary struggle, will be decisive. The SPGB has never held that a merely formal majority at the polls will give the workers power to achieve Socialism. We have always emphasised that such a majority must be educated in the essentials of Socialist principles and have a party democratically organised .

William Morris wrote.:-
"It should be our special aim to make Socialists by putting before people, and especially the working classes, the elementary truths of socialism… before any definite socialist action can be attempted, it must be backed up by a great body of intelligent opinion — the opinion of a great mass of people who are already socialists…"

No-one can be exactly sure which form the revolutionary process will take but the SPGB has always held that the potential use of parliament as part of a revolutionary process may prove vitally important in neutralising the ruling class's hold on state power. For us, this is the most effective way of abolishing the state and ushering in the revolutionary society .[ one commenter remarked the use of parliament seemed likely to prove the least bloody means of ushering in a revolutionary society. (And that minimizing bloodshed is indeed a worthy consideration.) ]

From a Socialist Standard review of Benjamin Franks’s book, Rebel Alliances :-

In Franks’s scheme, we would be classified as a group practising “propaganda by word” with occasional forays into “constitutional activity” in the form of participation in elections. What we don’t do – and which all the anarchist groups engage in – is to participate, as a group, in “micropolitics”, local single-issue campaigns. We don’t necessarily dismiss all such campaigns as entirely useless but think it best to leave them up to the people directly concerned, merely advising them (if asked) to organise and conduct themselves democratically, without leaders and without outside interference from Leninist (and, indeed, anarchist) groups. As a group composed of people who have come together because we want socialism, we see our group’s task as to concentrate on spreading socialist ideas.

The difference between socialists and anarchists is not over the aim of abolishing the State but over how to do this. Anarchists say that the first objective of the workers' revolution against capitalism should be to abolish the State. Socialists say that, to abolish the State, the Socialist working class majority must first win control of it and, if necessary, retain it (in a suitably very modified form) but for a very short while just in case any pro-capitalist recalcitrant minority should try to resist the establishment of socialism. Once socialism, as the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by the whole people, has been established (which the SPGB has always claimed can be done almost immediately ), the State is dismantled, dissolved completely We are not talking years or decades or generations here , but as a continuation of the immediate revolutionary phase of the over throw of capitalism .

There appears to be disagreement on what form of resistance to capitalism is the most effective. Direct action or party political work through the electoral system . Such views have always divided anarchists and socialists. Some now argue that both forms of resistance not only complement each other but are also essential in the pursuit of class struggle. For the Trotskyist Lenininist Left, all activity should be mediated by the Party (union activity, neighbourhood community struggles , etc.) , whereas for us, the Socialist Party is just one mode of activity available to the working class to use in their struggles, a tail to be wagged by the dog.

We advocate using Parliament; not to try to reform capitalism (the only way Parliaments have been used up till now ), but for the single revolutionary purpose of abolishing capitalism and establishing socialism by converting the means of production and distribution into the common property of the whole of society.No doubt, at the same time, the working class will also be organising itself, at the various places of work or in their communities , in order to keep production going, but nothing can be effectively and successfully done here until the machinery of coercion which is the state has been taken out of the hands of the capitalist class by political action.

The SPGB said in 1915
"The workers must prepare themselves for their emancipation by class-conscious organisation on both the political and the economic fields,the first to gain control of the forces with which the masters maintain their dominance, the second to carry on production in the new order of things."

The SPGB has always said that, in countries where there exist more or less free elections to a central law-making body to which the executive, or government, is responsible, the working class can do this by sending a majority of mandated delegates to the elected, central legislative body. Just as today a pro-capitalism majority in Parliament reflects the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population wants or accepts capitalism, so a socialist majority in Parliament would reflect the fact that a majority outside Parliament wanted socialism... Anarchists have to envisage some other means of expressing the popular will/public demand than a parliament elected by and responsible to a socialist majority amongst the population. But what, exactly? It would have to be something like the Congress of Socialist Industrial Unions or the Federation of Workers Councils or Confederation of Communes . That's not to deny that it could be one of these (because bodies such as these will exist at the time), but would any of these bodies be more efficient and more effective (and even more democratic) in controlling the State/central administrative machinery than a socialist majority elected to Parliament by universal suffrage in a secret ballot.

The first step towards taking over the means of production, therefore, must be to take over control of the state, and the easiest way to do this is via elections. But elections are merely a technique, a method. The most important precondition to taking political control out of the hands of the owning class is that the useful majority are no longer prepared to be ruled and exploited by a minority; they must withdraw their consent to capitalism and class rule-they must want and understand a socialist society of common ownership and democratic control.We need to organise politically, into a political party, a socialist party. We don't suffer from delusions of grandeur so we don't necessary claim that we are that party. What we are talking about is not a small educational and propagandist groupsuch as ourselves , but a mass party that has yet to emerge. It is such a party that will take political control via the ballot box, but since it will in effect be the useful majority organised democratically and politically for socialism it is the useful majority, not the party as such as something separate from that majority, that carries out the socialist transformation of society.

The institution of parliament is not at fault . It is just that people's ideas have not yet developed beyond belief in leaders and dependence on a political elite .Control of parliament by representatives of a conscious revolutionary movement will enable the bureaucratic-military apparatus to be dismantled and the oppressive forces of the state to be neutralised , so that Socialism may be introduced with the least possible violence and disruption. Parliament and local councils , to the extent that their functions are administrative and not governmental , can and will be used to co-ordinate the emergency immediate measures to transform society when Socialism is established . Far better , is it not , if only to minimise the risk of violence, to organise to win a majority in parliament , not to form a government , but to end capitalism and dismantle the state.Capitalist democracy is not a participatory democracy, which a genuine democracy has to be. In practice the people generally elect to central legislative assemblies and local councils professional politicians who they merely vote for and then let them get on with the job. In other words, the electors abdicate their responsibility to keep any eye on their representatives, giving them a free hand to do what the operation of capitalism demands. But that’s as much the fault of the electors as of their representatives, or rather it is a reflection of their low level of democratic consciousness. It cannot be blamed on the principle of representation as such. There is no reason in principle why, with a heightened democratic consciousness (such as would accompany the spread of socialist ideas), even representatives sent to state bodies could not be subject – while the state lasts – to democratic control by those who sent them there. The argument that anarchists sometimes raise against this is that “power corrupts” . But if power inevitability corrupts why does this not apply also in non-parliamentary elected bodies such as syndicalist union committees or workers councils?

i think i have said enough to show that too often the SPGB position presented by some anarchists is an over simplified caracture of quite a sophisticated model that has developed from the failures of Social Democracy , Bolshevism , Syndicalism and Reformism

We are neither mechanical determinists:-

A period of revolution begins not because life has become physically impossible but because growing numbers of workers have their eyes suddenly opened to the fact that problems hitherto accepted as part of man’s unavoidable heritage has become capable of solution…No crisis of capitalism , however desperate it may be , can ever by itself give us socialism ” Will Capitalism Collapse ? S.S.April 1927

Nor are we idealists:-

If we hoped to achieve Socialism ONLY by our propaganda , the outlook would indeed be bad .But it is Capitalism itself unable to solve crises , unemployment , and poverty, engaging in horrifying wars , which is digging its own grave . Workers are learning by bitter experience and bloody sacrifice for interests not their own . They are learning slowly. Our job is to shorten the time , to speed up the process” Socialism or Chaos ,Socialist Party of Australia

Socialist consciousness on a wide scale is not going to emerge from mere abstract propagandizing or proselytizing . All we are doing in the SPGB , essentially, is trying to help the emergence of majority socialist consciousness, but even if the sort of activities we engage in can't be the main thing that will bring this consciousness about , it is still nevertheless essential. People can, and do, come to socialist conclusions without us, but they can come to this more quickly if they hear it from an organised group dedicated exclusively to putting over the case for socialism. We can't force or brainwash people into wanting to be free , they can only learn this from their own experience .We see majority socialist consciousness emerging from people's experiences of capitalism coupled with them hearing the case for socialism (not necessarily from us, though it would seem that we are the only group that takes doing this seriously).Socialist consciousness emerges through discussion and analysis. Our main task is to find better ways of expressing our message to as many workers as possible, to evolve a strategy so that we use our resources to most effect.

just ice
Jul 9 2011 00:29

Buick says Bolsheviks originally supported the constituent assembly. This's news to me, can anybody source this for me?

Jul 9 2011 15:34

Are you serious? The whole RSDLP supported the Constituent Assembly, it was part of the Bolshevik programme in 1917, they stood for the elections...

Jul 10 2011 18:49

I have grown tired of arguing against the SPGB brick wall on this issue and and those of it's representative bricks such as darren. ajj's slightly more nuanced reasoning fairs little better in my opinion since it still seeks to concentrate on secondary matters of dispute relating to organisational forms and mere repetition of the need for widespread 'socialist (or communist) consciousness' for socialism/communism to become an established world system, which is frankly not in dispute as an abstract point.

The underlying disagreement between the SPGB and it's pro-revoluionary critics is really about how, when and by what process that communist consciousness can arise (and become effective) in relation to the class struggle as an active force in which communist minorities can participate in an organised way.

ajj seeks to reject accusations of 'idealism' or 'mechanical determinism' (I would say mechanical materialism) but his justification rests on quotations that only reinforce their view of a slow evolution towards socialist consciousness based on workers passive reflection on capitalism's ills and failed reformist solutions aided by spgb education.

The traditional social democratic separation of the 'economic' and the 'political' continues to be promoted by the SPGB in no way undermined by it's brief flirtation with industrial unionism and even less so the individual choice of it's members to participate or not in trade union style activity.

As ajj says these arguments have been pursued in other threads where I have sought to argue my case in more detail but I couldn't just let this nonsense from the spgb go on in the same vein without making these few basic points again.