1. The Bolsheviks' leadership of the workers' revolution
The 'April Theses'
Upon returning to Russia from exile in April 1917, Lenin published in Pravda The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution, a series of theses arguing for no confidence in the Provisional Government and denouncing coalition with the bourgeoisie ; the transfer of all power to the soviets; and for the new revolutionary government to end the imperialist war and carry out widespread nationalisations. Although the soviets were at that time led by Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, he stressed that they would serve both as the means of taking power and as the form of the post-revolutionary state:
"In most of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies our Party is in a minority, so far a small minority... The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.
As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience.
"The Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, Peasants’ and other Deputies are not understood, not only in the sense that their class significance, their role in the Russian revolution, is not clear to the majority. They are not understood also in the sense that they constitute a new form or a new type of state... Since the end of the nineteenth century... revolutionary epochs have advanced a higher type of democratic state, a state which in certain respects, as Engels put it, ceases to be a state, is "no longer a state in the proper sense of the word". This is a state of the Paris Commune type, one in which a standing army and police divorced from the people are replaced by the direct arming of the people themselves. It is this feature that constitutes the very essence of the Commune..."
Lenin’s determined views were derided by his comrades - Bogdanov characterised the theses as "the delirium of a madman", and Krupskaya thought that Lenin had "gone crazy". As with much of his agitation for imminent revolution during the next six months, Lenin’s views were far from dominant in the party - Alexandra Kollontai was the only leading Bolshevik who agreed with the sentiment of the April Theses. Of course, Lenin had to wage a fight within the Bolshevik party, since he did not for one second think that the current leadership of the soviets would lead a bid for power:
"A "commune state" (i.e. a state organised along the lines of the Paris Commune) cannot be introduced in Russia "immediately" because to do that it would be necessary for the majority of the deputies in all (or in most) soviets to clearly recognise all the erroneousness and harm of the tactics and policy pursued by the SRs, Chkheidze, Tsereteli, Steklov etc."
Yet far from being held back by the apparent weakness of the Bolsheviks in the soviets or widespread complacency with the success of the bourgeois-democratic revolution of February 1917, Lenin knew that it was impossible to stand still - for the workers not to seize power would mean their crushing by the bourgeoisie. Against great opposition, he fought for the party to adopt a similarly revolutionary standpoint, and then agitate for his perspectives among the whole class. This was no simple task, and even on the eve of the October revolution such leading comrades as Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed insurrection, having only taken some of his ideas to heart.
For Lenin, there was no use arguing that the working class was not ready to take up the reins of government - somehow, it had to be made to realise its mission. If the Bolsheviks just waited for the soviets to take power, they might have to wait forever - they had to make it happen themselves, and win support through the act of offering a revolutionary solution. Lenin expressed his admiration for Napoleon’s maxim "Engage, then see what happens". But amidst his angry rows with comrades and his preparations for a militarily effective seizure of power, he wavered as to the best means for revolution - particularly when the tight Bolshevik party clashed with the bureaucracy of the soviets and the lethargy of the SRs and Mensheviks, who of course refused to enact Lenin’s demand that they lead the soviets to power. At the Congress of Soviets, held in Petrograd in June 1917, the Menshevik minister Irakli Tsereteli attacked Lenin, as Michael Pearson describes:
"Accusing [the Bolsheviks] of gross irresponsibility, he asserted "Only by pooling our efforts can we achieve democracy and victory. Today, Russia has no political party which would say "Give us power, go yourselves and we will take your place.""
At that moment, a voice rang out from the back of the big hall. "There is such a party!" To the astonishment of his comrades, who knew his careful reticence in public, Lenin had stood up. "There is such a party," he repeated. "It is the Bolshevik Party!".
The shocked silence was broken by a wave of laughter from the big audience. To men from outside Petersburg, the idea that so small a party as the Bolsheviks - which only had 105 voting delegates among them - could form a government seemed absurd. By contrast, the other parties were represented by 822 delegates.
They laughed again when Lenin mounted the platform to demand that the Soviet should at once seize power from the Provisional Government."
Mocked by Kerensky to the acclaim of the majority parties, Lenin walked out of the Congress in disgust. He had called for working-class self-emancipation - the Mensheviks and their ilk held Russia’s workers in contempt. But although Lenin knew that soviets composed like this would never take power, he continued to call on them and the leading parties to do so - not because immediate insurrection was militarily wise or because he wanted to see the other ‘socialist’ parties in government, but because raising the slogan "All Power to the Soviets" highlighted the obsoleteness of the SRs and Mensheviks, attracted radical workers in the Factory Committees and unions to the Bolsheviks and prepared the working class for a later seizure of control.
May in Kronstadt
The problem was that, although well in advance of the other ‘socialist parties’, the Party had to keep up with the great revolutionary energy of some sections of the class. One early dilemma came on May 13th, when the radical SR-led Kronstadt soviet passed a resolution which declared its sole authority over the city and said it would make contact with the Provisional Government "in matters of state". Leon Trotsky, at the time leader of the Mezhraiontsy group - soon to join the Bolsheviks - addressed a crowd in Kronstadt's Anchor Square the following day during a debate with the Menshevik Mark Broido:
"You yourselves have drafted a revolution about taking power into your hands! Don't you agree that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and what is good for Kronstadt is also good for any other town? It is you who stand in the front line, while the others have fallen behind. It is up to you to call on them to adopt your standpoint. What you have to say is: we are standing firm as a rock, and you too must stand firm, take power into your own hands and demand that the central power of Russia be transferred to the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies."
SR (later Left-SR) Aleksandr Brushvit, a leading figure in the Kronstadt soviet, held that the Petrograd soviet must represent the central state power, and wanted to pressurise it to overthrow the Provisional Government. He recognised the essentially revolutionary character of soviet rule in spite of the Petrograd soviet's then collaboration with the Kerensky régime and the continuation of the imperialist war.
"I am of the opinion that the central power is the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies of the city of Petrograd, since the coalition government is merely its executive organ, a body set up on the basis of a definite platform, which the Petrograd Soviet can remove at any given moment, replacing it with a more suitable executor of its will."
Amending the previous decision to "engage with" the Provisional Government, Brushvit passed a resolution through the Kronstadt Soviet on May 16th, declaring that "the sole power in the city of Kronstadt is the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies which in matters of state, enters into direct relations with the Petrograd soviet." The SRs, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks all voted for this motion, which was passed 211-41.
However, the Bolshevik Central Committee were not impressed by the behaviour of their comrades locally, who had not consulted Petrograd. Secretly furious at what had happened, Kamenev had to play down the episode in a Pravda editorial, claiming that
"Of course, the Kronstadt comrades know perfectly well that there is nothing more dangerous than taking power piecemeal, in different areas, towns and districts. In taking the administration of Kronstadt into their hands they did not establish a 'Kronstadt Republic' that was separate from Russia... but only recognised the right of the local population to run their own local town affairs".
Perhaps a strange counter-argument - the "right" of a soviet to run a town is in direct contradiction to the bourgeois authorities' "rights" there. Indeed, on May 28th the staunchly Bolshevik First Regiment of Machine-Gunners stationed in Petrograd held an armed demonstration in support of Kronstadt's soldiers and sailors and their "staunch position of non-confidence in the Provisional Government". Such was the depth of the change that October saw no further insurrection in Kronstadt itself.
Trotsky's position was correct: the Provisional Government may not have responded militarily to events in Kronstadt, but the socialist revolution could not exist in one city alone and it would necessarily either serve as a beacon for other workers or not survive at all.
All Power to the...?
But the Bolsheviks were unwilling to provoke an insurrection prematurely, which would have risked handing the opportunity to the bourgeoisie to bloodily repress the workers' movement, guaranteeing years of defeat. This was a question of military tactics, not of broader political orientation. However, during the "July Days" the party reluctantly supported the spontaneous uprising, even though it was sure that the time was not yet right to attempt a seizure of power. Indeed, July saw terrible repression of the workers' movement and the Bolshevik Party and it appeared that the government would move ever to the right unless the workers took power. Kerensky disarmed the Red Guards.
The SRs and the Mensheviks, and the soviets they led, failed to put up any resistance to the Provisional Government in this, and Lenin began to see them as an obstacle to working-class revolution. At a secret two-day party Conference in mid-July he described the soviets and the other socialist parties as "mere fig leaves of the counter-revolution", and at the party's Sixth Congress (July 26th-August 3rd), held after Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev had been forced into hiding, Stalin's motion to substitute the slogan "Complete Liquidation of the Dictatorship of the Counter-revolutionary Bourgeoisie" for "All Power to the Soviets" was passed near-unanimously. This was not just some Stalinist machination - Lenin's own position had substantially changed to calling for power to be placed in the hands of "revolutionary proletarian and peasant soviets". Of course, any soviet that takes power is, per se, revolutionary, but Lenin was expressing his disenchantment with those led by SRs and Mensheviks.
At the same time, the Bolsheviks were ever more conscious of the need to topple the Provisional Government, but this was a great risk given their small base. While there were some, such as Bukharin and Trotsky's acolytes, who continued to assert the central role of the soviets throughout August 1917, the party thought it had found an alternative - the Factory Committees. These were the most basic unit of industrial democracy, and indeed were counter-posed to the trade unions, which were bureaucratic and out of the hands of the rank-and-file . Existing in two-thirds of factories with more than 200 employees, the Factory Committees could be an effective organ for workers' control of production but giving them "All Power" jarred with the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. And yet in order to show up the Social-Revolutionaries' and Mensheviks' refusal to break their pact with the Kerensky government - a bourgeois dictatorship with which Lenin and his followers never allied themselves - the Bolsheviks continued to call on these parties to assert themselves and seize power, using insurrectionary slogans propagandistically.
The Bolsheviks never had a clear alternative to the soviets, but it is interesting that they were prepared to look elsewhere, given that soviets had previously been touted by Lenin as the only form of working-class state. "All Power to the Factory Committees", along with the one-sided "Complete Liquidation of the Dictatorship of the Counter-revolutionary Bourgeoisie" meant that they could not specify any particular state form at all, and it was therefore an essentially unMarxist position. Throughout August there was significant opposition within the party to dropping the "All Power to the Soviets" slogan, and Lunacharsky even intervened at the Petrograd Factory Committees' conference (12th-14th August) to persuade it to oppose the Sixth Congress decision. Yet, ironically enough, it was the Bolsheviks' single-handed defeat of the Kornilov coup, acting independently of the soviets, which swung the debate decisively in favour of the pro-soviet stance. The soviets had atrophied during the summer as the SRs and Mensheviks refused to lead them to power, but the fascist threat embodied by Kornilov swung them to the left, with the groundswell of popular support for the Bolsheviks channelled through the soviets.
This was the basis for the seizure of power in October - once the Bolsheviks had won a majority in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets, they had a clear mandate to lead them to revolution. Trotsky and Lenin debated the date of the insurrection - Lenin lambasted his comrades’ failure to take action immediately whereas Trotsky wanted to wait until the Second Congress of Soviets could ratify it - but both accepted the sovereignty of the soviets . And yet just one week before the revolution in Petrograd, led by the soviet which Trotsky personally controlled, Lenin wavered:
"We must shift the centre of gravity to the Factory Committees. The Factory Committees must become the organs of insurrection. We must change our slogan and instead of saying 'All power to the Soviets' we must say 'All power to the Factory Committees'."
The Bolsheviks used their majority in the soviets to make the revolution happen, but Lenin was never fully convinced that they were the organs with which to take power, particularly since the Factory Committees themselves were a major driving force of revolutionary energy, what the Bolsheviks referred to as "the battering ram that would deal blows to capitalism, organs of class struggle created by the working class on its own ground". Furthermore, while the soviets could be bureaucratic, cumbersome and resistant to Lenin's aims, he knew that the disciplined party could act decisively.
2. Workers’ control after the revolution
The authority of the soviets
With the October revolution the soviets became masters of Russia. Sweeping land reforms and nationalisations were coupled with social measures, such as freedom of divorce, rights for gay people and reorganisation of the education system. While this was essentially putting the programme of the Bolshevik Party into effect, the soviets were characterised by free debate and Bolshevik strength was due to voting numbers rather than any institutional advantages. Coupled with the soviet take-over was a wave of enthusiasm among the working class, with hundreds more soviets created in the weeks following the revolution and, for the first time in history, mass participation in the administration of Russia.
There was a pyramid structure in the soviet system, with shop-floor votes to elect delegates to the local soviet, which would itself elect higher bodies such as the Central Executive Committee of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets (CEC). It was a pluralist socialist democracy, with debate between the governing parties - i.e. the Bolsheviks and Left-SRs - up and down this pyramid: for example, the Left-SRs controlled the Commissariat of Justice, and through their strength in the soviets were able to initiate a massive public debate on the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
In the October revolution the Petrograd soviet had acted like an extension of the Bolshevik Party, which controlled the Military Revolutionary Committee, but the Bolsheviks did not dominate the soviets at a national level. However, their apparent laxity about enforcing their will through these organs did have another edge, namely the party’s willingness to make use of extra-soviet bodies, in particular the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom), the de facto national government after the revolution, which was composed entirely of Bolshevik Party members. It only had to seek retrospective approval from the CEC for its actions. The June 1918 constitution of the RSFSR showed the contradiction between these organs:
"31. The All-Russian Central Executive Committee is the supreme legislative, executive and controlling organ of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic.
32. The All-Russian Central Executive Committee directs in a general way the activity of the Workers' and Peasants' Government and of all organs of the soviet authority in the country, and it coordinates and regulates the operation of the Soviet constitution and of the resolutions of the All-Russian congresses and of the central organs of the soviet power.
33. The All-Russian Central Executive Committee considers and enacts all measures and proposals introduced by the Soviet of People's Commissars or by the various departments, and it also issues its own decrees and regulations
37. The Council of People's Commissars is entrusted with the general management of the affairs of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic.
38. For the accomplishment of this task the Council of People's Commissars issues decrees, resolutions, orders, and, in general, takes all steps necessary for the proper and rapid conduct of governmental affairs.
39. The Council of People's Commissars notifies immediately the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of all its orders and resolutions.
40. The All-Russian Central Executive Committee has the right to revoke or suspend all orders and resolutions of the Council of People's Commissars.
41. All orders and resolutions of the Council of People's Commissars of great political significance are referred for consideration and final approval to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. Note: Measures requiring immediate execution may be enacted directly by the Council of People's Commissariats."
From the winter of 1917-18 onwards the Bolsheviks’ attitude towards soviet democracy was characterised by a certain arbitrariness, which appears unnecessary given that at that time they were the majority faction and were in alliance with the Left SRs. Indeed, given how far away they were from considering banning opposition parties or "protecting" the soviets from them, the establishment of Sovnarkom seems like a bureaucratic-centralising manoeuvre designed to entrench Bolshevik control - the party’s leaders found it impossible to trust any other parties with the fragile young Soviet Republic. But the problem was not just the technical point that the CEC could only retrospectively criticise the Sovnarkom’s actions, but that the rights of the soviets were subordinated to the authority of the government. The Central Executive Committee had been conceived as a permanent body, the highest organ of the soviet system, but did not meet at all between July 14th, 1918 and February 1st, 1920 - a fact which did not stop the Bolshevik Party from continuing to issue decrees in its name.
Despite what he had written in the ‘April Theses’, it seems that by the end of 1917 Lenin’s conception of the soviets was one of administration and accounting rather than of direct rule - what "workers’ control" meant was that they could work as a "check" on the government and capitalist businesses, rather than that they had the ability to take initiative or proactively organise society themselves. The month before the revolution, he had offered this definition:
"When we say workers' control, always associating that slogan with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and always putting it after the latter, we thereby make plain what state we have in mind... If it is a proletarian state we are referring to (i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat) then workers' control can become a national, all embracing, omnipresent, extremely precise and extremely scrupulous accounting of the production and distribution of goods".
This transfer of executive authority away from the soviets, initiated even long before the civil war broke out, was a departure from the principle of working-class self-rule. Formerly participatory organs of working-class power, the soviets were increasingly marginalised after a decline in Bolshevik support upon the demobilisation of the Tsarist army . Following big gains for the Left-SRs in the spring 1918 elections, where they won control of Tula, Iaroslavl, Kostroma, Sormovo, Briansk and Izhevsk, these soviets were all shut down by force. Lenin did continue to identify with some notion of "Soviet power" into 1919:
We know very well that there are still many defects in the organisation of Soviet power in this country. Soviet power is not a miracle-working talisman. It does not, overnight, heal all the evils of the past- illiteracy, lack of culture, the consequences of a barbarous war, the aftermath of predatory capitalism. But it does pave the way to socialism. It gives those who were formerly oppressed the chance to straighten their backs and to an ever-increasing degree to take the whole government of the country, the whole administration of the economy, the whole management of production, into their own hands. Soviet power is the road to socialism that was discovered by the masses of the working people, and that is why it is the true road, that is why it is invincible.
Yet the soviets on the ground were hollowed out to the extent that they were in the most part unable to express themselves independently of the Bolshevik government after the early summer of 1918. After the great wave of revolutionary enthusiasm of winter 1917-18 had died down, and famine and destruction set in, the working class was severely weakened in its ability to hold top-down undemocratic structures and bureaucracy in check. Once the opposition parties had been banned (by the edict of the Bolshevik government rather than by soviets themselves), and vote-rigging had become widespread, the soviets were simply rubber-stamps for Central Committee policy, with little of the debate and mass participation which had characterised the early stage of the workers’ revolution. Lenin’s version of "Soviet power", as described in the paragraph above, only makes sense if we assume that organs such as Sovnarkom whose membership was entirely hand-picked by the Bolshevik leadership were themselves authentic workers’ councils.
The disenfranchisement of the Factory Committees
The same went for the Factory Committees, which were unable to maintain their influence over economic decision-making (never mind actually managing production and distribution) in the face of unaccountable national structures and technocratic attempts to kick-start the economy.
Immediately after the October revolution, Lenin set out a Draft Decree on Workers' Control in Pravda. Workers' control was to be "carried out by all the workers and employees in a given enterprise, either directly if the enterprise is small enough to permit it, or through delegates to be immediately elected at mass meetings". Delegates would be entitled to "access to all books and documents and to all warehouses and stocks of material, instruments and products, without exception"...Their decisions were legally binding upon the owners of enterprises but could be "annulled by trade unions and congresses" Furthermore "in all enterprises of state importance" the delegates were "answerable to the state for the maintenance of the strictest order and discipline and for the protection of property". "Enterprises of state importance" were defined as "all enterprises working for defence purposes, or in any way connected with the production of articles necessary for the existence of the mass of the population", which, given the dilapidated state of the economy, meant pretty much all arenas of production.
Workers were to be able to enact some "checks" on state and private production, guaranteeing some level of accountability of officials, but would not take the means of production and distribution in their own hands. Neither the Factory Committees nor the soviets would decide broader production levels, wage rates or working conditions themselves, but would exercise influence over Sovnarkom through the All-Russian Council for Workers' Control, a board of 21 representatives, of whom 5 were from the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, 11 from trade unions and just 5 from the All-Russian Council of Factory Committees. Even aside from the question of its composition - the relative lack of shop-floor representatives from the Factory Committees is worth mentioning - this was not an example of working-class self-rule. The Council for Workers’ Control, much like the CEC, could take no initiative of its own, but merely monitor and counsel government decisions. Indeed, the Council for Workers’ Control was set up in mid-November 1917 in response to the Factory Committees’ own attempts to co-ordinate their actions nationally - the government was very wary of the "anarchic" attitude of the Factory Committees, i.e. their wish to have the final say on workers’ conditions and production practices, and so called on the trade unions to counter their threat. This despite the fact that the purpose of the Factory Committees’ national organisation was to cohere the programmes of workers in different industries to make a viable economic plan. But one month on from his "All Power to the Factory Committees" speech, Lenin was now in favour of top-down economic management with limited trade union supervision.
At the first meeting of the All Russian Committee for Workers’ Control, the rightist Bolshevik representative Larin declared that:
"The trade unions represent the interests of the class as a whole whereas the Factory Committees only represent particular interests. The Factory Committees should be subordinated to the Trade Unions."
Zhivotov, a leading figure in the Factory Committee movement, answered that:
"In the Factory Committees we elaborate instructions which come from below, with a view to seeing how they can be applied to industry as a whole. These are the instructions of the work shop, of life itself. They are the only instructions that can have real meaning. They show what the Factory Committees are capable of, and should therefore come to the forefront in discussions of workers’ control."
But the Bolsheviks continued to pare down industrial democracy and co-opt labour movement organisations into state structures. On December 5th 1917 Sovnarkom created a Supreme Council of National Economy (Vesenka) which was to draw up economic plans, with a handful of Council of Workers’ Control representatives but mostly composed of experts and technocrats nominated by Sovnarkom. Lenin commented, "We have passed from workers’ control to the creation of the Supreme Council of National Economy".
The Factory Committees were systematically undermined by the Bolsheviks, and economic power became more and more alienated from the working class. Originally radical and participatory organs of rank-and-file self-expression, with a libertarian bent towards direct workers’ self-management, the Factory Committees were in January 1918 amalgamated into the official trade union structures. This after the creation of Vesenka, which had seen a fusion of the powers of trade union officials, technocrats and Bolshevik party cadre - a fusion of authority which had no mandate from the soviets.
For every crisis the Bolsheviks could only find a Bonapartist centralising solution, with little attempt to ensure the maintenance of grassroots self-rule or democratic norms. On March 26th 1918, Vesenka abolished all vestiges of workers’ control on the railway, bringing in a régime of one-man management, and four days later Trotsky abolished the election of army officers, and re-introduced saluting, privileges, separate living quarters and the death penalty:
"At the present time, comrades, who is building up the army? The bourgeoisie? No, the workers' and peasants' soviets, i.e. the same classes which compose the army. Here no internal struggle is possible."
In an article for Pravda on April 28th 1918, Lenin further explained the measures taken:
"Concerning the significance of individual dictatorial powers from the point of view of the specific tasks of the present moment, it must be said that large-scale machine industry - which is precisely the material source, the productive source, the foundation of socialism - calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labours of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people. The technical, economic and historical necessity of this is obvious, and all those who have thought about socialism have always regarded it as one of the conditions of socialism. But how can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.
"Given ideal class consciousness and discipline on the part of those participating in the common work, this subordination would be something like the mild leadership of the conductor of an orchestra. It may assume the sharp forms of a dictatorship if ideal discipline and class-consciousness are lacking. But be that as it may, unquestioning subordination to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of process organised on the patter or large-scale machine industry. On the railways it is twice and three times as necessary. In this transition from one political task to another, which on the surface is totally dissimilar to the first, lies the whole originality of the present situation. The revolution has only just smashed the oldest, strongest and heaviest of fetters to which the people submitted under duress. Today, however, the same revolution demands - precisely in the interests of socialism - that the people unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of labour."
Neither Lenin nor Trotsky blamed material circumstances for their policy nor say that what they are doing is an unfortunate necessity. It is instructive that Lenin says that given ideal class consciousness management’s leadership would be milder - but since he thinks "strict unity of will" necessary, he can only mean that if class consciousness were ideal, then no-one would disagree with their managers. Both Lenin and Trotsky assume that free debate, industrial democracy and questioning authority are inefficient, unworkable, and unnecessary after an (incomplete) socialist revolution - Trotsky even uses the paper-thin argument that internal struggle in the army was "not possible" on the grounds that its sociological composition was akin to that of the soviets. Once the managers started "electing" themselves to the soviets as Bolshevik Party representatives, even that was untrue.
The trade unions had little real independence from the Bolshevik government, particularly since strike activity was outlawed. Thus what Deutscher called the "syndicalist slip", the Bolsheviks’ Eighth Congress resolution that "the trade unions must proceed to the actual concentration in their own hands of all the administration of the entire economy, as a single economic unit" was essentially meaningless. Ordinary workers had no control over institutions such as Vesenka - which from August 1918 onwards had no Factory Committee representatives whatsoever - except through intervention in the structures of the Bolshevik Party itself. The Eighth Congress resolution also "urge[d] the unions to impress upon the workers the need to work with and learn from the bourgeois technicians and specialists and to overcome their 'ultra-radical' distrust of the latter", and to tolerate their higher wages.
Rather than acting as vehicles for workers’ representation, the Bolsheviks saw the unions’ role as (i) increasing production rates by administering the labour force and (ii) acting as "schools for socialism", educating the working class in Party doctrine. The Party itself would provide representation and theoretical leadership for Russia’s workers, to the exclusion of other organisations. Lenin, responding to Bukharin's winter 1920 call for "workers' democracy in production", described his platform as:
"a full break with communism and a transition to a position of syndicalism. It destroys the need for the Party. If the trade unions, nine-tenths of whose members are non-Party workers, appoint the managers of industry, what is the use of the Party?"
The Bolsheviks' April 1920 Ninth Congress instructed the Factory Committees (now merely local units of the unions) to "devote themselves to the questions of labour discipline, of propaganda and of education of the workers". Hierarchical and capitalist structures continued to predominate across the economy, which, in Trotsky’s opinion, was neither undesirable nor merely a symptom of Civil War conditions;
"Under capitalism the system of piece work and of grading, the application of the Taylor system etc., have as their object to increase the exploitation of the workers by the squeezing out of surplus value. Under socialist production, piecework, bonuses, etc., have as their problem to increase the volume of the social product... those workers who do more for the general interest than others receive the right to a greater quantity of the social product than the lazy, the careless and the disorganisers".
"The dictatorship of the proletariat is expressed in the abolition of private property in the means of production, in the supremacy over the whole soviet mechanism of the collective will of the workers, and not at all in the form in which individual economic enterprises are administered. I consider that if the civil war had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one man management in the sphere of economic administration much sooner and much less painfully."
3. Strike activity and political opposition
The Constituent Assembly
A leading sympathetic critic of the Bolsheviks, Rosa Luxemburg opposed the Bolsheviks’ decision to disband the Constituent Assembly in January 1918,
"To be sure, every democratic institution has its limits and shortcomings, things which it doubtless shares with all other human institutions. But the remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people."
One consideration was that the electoral list for the Socialist Revolutionary party, which won a majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly elections, had been composed before that party split into Left and Right groups, rendering the results meaningless. Clearly many SR voters would not have voted for the right-wing candidates on offer, given the choice - then again, had there been a Left-SR list, the Bolsheviks would surely have lost support to that party. Luxemburg’s remedy was for the election to be re-staged.
But to create a Constituent Assembly elected by the entire population would have been an affront to the power of the soviets - the organs of the working-class state - recreating a situation of dual power. With a tiny working class, the composition of the Constituent Assembly would necessarily have been far different to that of workers’ councils elected on the shop-floor. As it happens, in Luxemburg’s attack on the Bolshevik decision to abolish the Constituent Assembly, The Russian Tragedy, her whole case for democratic rights is predicated on analogies - England’s Long Parliament in 1642, France’s Estates-General in 1789, the Fourth Russian Duma of 1909 - that is to say, analogies with the role of parliaments in bourgeois revolutions.
These situations were qualitatively different to that of 1918 - while the oppressed could find some more expression for their grievances thanks to bourgeois-democratic institutions, they were far from being able to exercise state power. In a country ruled by workers’ councils, the existence of a national Constituent Assembly would have drawn power away from the working class and away from city soviets. That is in direct contradiction to the "dictatorship of the proletariat" - a phrase used by Marx not to mean "dictatorship" as in totalitarianism, press censorship and death camps, but the rule of one class over another .
Indeed, it is hard to understand why the Bolsheviks would consider allowing such a parliament after the October revolution. Again though, confusion and inexperience in government played their role. In November 1917, Lenin was incoherent on the role of the soviets versus that of the Constituent Assembly:
"In reply to numerous questions from peasants, be it known that all power in the country henceforth belongs wholly to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. The workers’ revolution has won in Petrograd and Moscow and is winning everywhere else in Russia. The Workers’ and Peasants’ Government ensures the alliance of the mass of the peasants, the poor peasants, the majority of the peasants, with the workers against the landowners, against the capitalists.
Hence the Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies, primarily the uyezd and then the gubernia Soviets, are from now on, pending the convocation of the Constituent Assembly , vested with full governmental authority in their localities."
A further complication in the Bolsheviks’ thinking was that they had a long-held programmatic commitment to the creation of a Constituent Assembly. But while a universally elected parliament was a correct demand to place on Kerensky, since he refused to convene any democratic institutions at all, by the time the workers seized power it was abundantly clear that (i) the existence of a Constituent Assembly challenged the soviets (ii) the Bolsheviks would lose heavily in the elections and (iii) the controversy over the Social-Revolutionary list rendered the vote unfair. Rather than entertaining illusions in the Constituent Assembly and then abolishing it upon the publication of the election results, the Bolsheviks should not have tolerated the convention of the assembly at all.
The forced abandonment of the Constituent Assembly was not a working-class issue, and provoked no resistance whatsoever. The militant Baltic Fleet sailors had no qualms about closing down the Right SR dominated parliament. The first significant stirrings of unrest among the working class were expressed in the spring of 1918, when, as I have mentioned, the Left SRs and Mensheviks made significant breakthroughs in soviet elections across European Russia, seemingly through discontent with the government rather than any particular enthusiasm for the programmes of these parties. The soviets which they took over were broken up by the Bolsheviks at once.
Both parties had been inculpated in strikes, typically referred to in the Bolshevik press as "sabotage" and "conspiracies", even though many such strikes had broken out spontaneously and the Left SRs and Mensheviks had merely made attempts to co-opt their leadership. The Bolsheviks were far from compromising in their attitude to those charged with fomenting industrial unrest - on April 11th-12th 1918 the Cheka had raided 26 anarchist offices in Moscow, taking 500 prisoners, and leaving 40 killed or wounded. During the summer of 1918, not only were the Left SRs (who had initiated an terrorist insurrection in their vehement, unreasoned and pseudo-ultra-left opposition to the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty) banned, but also the anarcho-syndicalists Golos Truda, Anarkhia, and Burevestnik. No opposition press existed after July 1918, except for a spell in January-April 1919 when the anti-soviet Menshevik Party was tolerated .
Clearly the government had the right to combat terrorism - but a wholesale ban of all Left SRs and clamping down on all strikes by workers tarred with the Left SR brush was a counter-productive reaction which served only to weaken further the soviet system. Furthermore, it is clear that the Bolsheviks were not simply banning those parties which used violence or helped the Whites. Although rather utopian in terms of abstract, general philosophical perspectives, Golos Truda were hardly of much use to the counter-revolution. Yet in Pravda the Bolsheviks wrote that the masses' lack of political consciousness made it necessary to "shut the mouth" of their opponents. Furthermore, Left SR Maria Spiridonova’s speeches were called "White Guardist propaganda and treason", while the Mensheviks, Left and Right SRs were called "traitors", "social Kolchakovites", "Black Hundreds", and "monarchists"- dishonestly amalgamating different opposition groups to imply that they had a commonality of interests. What the Bolsheviks never did was to determine precisely what opposition was tolerated - for example, they could have required that each party pledge loyalty to soviet power and workers' rule and renounce terrorism before being allowed to stand in elections.
The Bolsheviks could also alienate workers through their seemingly automatic condemnation of strike activity under the workers’ state. At the end of February 1919 a strike broke out at the Aleksandrovskii railway workshops, the central grievance being that the workers had not been paid 40 percent of that month’s wages. Following a rally of 3000 workers, where government representatives were not allowed to speak and the workers demanded pay and rations equal to those of Red Army soldiers, the Bolsheviks said that they would acquiesce to the strikers’ demands. Yet the night before a likely return to work, the Cheka arrested the strike leaders. Workers walked out again, demanding that their leaders were freed. At the end of March, after the Aleksandrovskii workers voted against the Bolsheviks in the soviet elections, they forcibly evicted the strikers, seized control of the factory and closed it down. All the workers were sacked - and twelve put on trial - and Pravda posted an advertisement for replacement staff. In future, workers’ meetings there would be subject to strict Cheka supervision. And yet another strike followed in June.
A further unnecessary provocation was the arrest of Maria Spiridonova in February 1919, which served as the trigger for a strike movement in Petrograd based on workers’ concerns on the fronts of pay and conditions, soviet democracy and workers’ management of production. In the forefront of the spring strikes, which involved half of the Petrograd labour force, were the workers at the Putilov works, who near-unanimously passed this angry resolution on March 10th:
"We, the workmen of the Putilov works and the wharf, declare before the labouring classes of Russia and the world that the Bolshevik government has betrayed the high ideals of the October Revolution, and thus betrayed and deceived the workmen and peasants of Russia; that the Bolshevik government, acting in our name, is not the authority of the proletariat and peasants, but the authority of the dictatorship of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, self-governing with the aid of Extraordinary Commissions, Communists and police.
"We protest against the compulsion of workmen to remain at factories and works, and attempts to deprive them of all elementary rights: freedom of the press, speech, meetings and inviolability of person.
1. Immediate transfer of authority to freely elected Workers' and Peasants' soviets
2. Immediate re-establishment of elections at factories and plants, barracks, ships, railways, everywhere
3. Transfer of entire management to the released workers of the trade unions
4. Transfer of food supply to workers' and peasants cooperative societies
5. General arming of workers' and peasants
6. Immediate release of members of the original revolutionary peasants' party of Left Socialist Revolutionaries
7. Immediate release of Maria Spiridonova"
Strikes spread rapidly across Petrograd. Lenin visited the city on March 12th, offering increased food rations at a Party rally - but the workers demanded his resignation. Anatoly Lunacharsky was roundly heckled, but under pressure from the crowd conceded that the Bolshevik government would have to resign if most workers so wished. Two days later at an extra-ordinary session of the city soviet, the Bolsheviks decided to "clear the Putilov plant of the White Guardists and bagmen". The strike was smashed.
"Meetings and rallies were banned. Anyone with a copy of the Putilov resolution was arrested immediately. Workers who refused to resume work were evicted from their dwellings and their food ration cards were taken away. At the Putilov plant, the Treugolnik rubber factory, and at the Rozhdestvenskii tram-park the strike was suppressed by armed force. The city authorities had intended to deploy Baltic sailors, but they refused to participate and voted at their meeting to join the workers instead. These sailors, of course, had expressed their solidarity with the Petrograd strikers in June 1918, staged their own abortive uprising in October 1918, and were widely known to support the Left SR party. The Petrograd authorities hurriedly brought additional forces into the city. According to an American intelligence report, 18,000 men and 250 machine guns were brought in. Strikers barricaded themselves at the Putilov plant, which was stormed and occupied. Those in possession of firearms were executed on the spot. According to The Times of London, 300 were arrested during the week after 16 March and suspected ringleaders were shot. According to A.G. Gogolevskii, 225 Left SRs were arrested in March, 75 of them at the Putilov plant. The exact number of those shot is not known. Bolshevik newspapers published the name of 15 Left SRs who were executed. Some western reports said 12. A letter from Petrograd, published in the west, simply stated: "a score or so of workmen were shot at the works." The United States consul's figure was the highest: In April, he reported, 200 workers were shot on orders of Zinoviev. The strike was suppressed and the Cheka went to work, holding summary trials. Many executions followed, taking place in a remote locality called Irinovka, near the fortress of Schlusselburg. The procedure was to line up the victims against the wall, blindfolded, and to shoot them down in batches by machine gun fire."
Clearly the Left SR party had had some influence over the workers at the Putilov plant, as evidenced by their demand for the release of Maria Spiridonova. But that by no means implies that the workers did not have the right to strike - some of them fighting against abuses such as managers "electing" themselves to the soviet - nor that the Bolsheviks were right to meet the workers’ grievances with a hail of bullets. Although a petty-bourgeois formation, the Left SRs were the well-organised alternative to the Bolsheviks and given their pseudo-socialist programme and rhetoric it is unsurprising that they were able to win the backing of workers angry with the Bolsheviks. The fact that tens of thousands of Petrograd workers struck against the government cannot simply be dismissed as a Left SR "conspiracy" or blamed on "counter-revolutionary elements" at Putilov - the Bolsheviks themselves had to take responsibility for the fragmentation of their support.
4. Kronstadt and the Tenth Congress
The significance of the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion in the decay of the Russian revolution can be overstated – the suppression of the uprising did not mark a change in the Bolsheviks’ course, but rather continued their policy of opposition to strikes and independent working-class organisation and served as a further expression of the power of the bureaucracy. The soviets and factory committees had been run down long before – structural guarantees of workers’ democracy had been swept away by the beginning of the Civil War in early summer 1918 - but what changed in 1921 was that despite the opportunities offered by the end of the Civil War the chance of reversing bureaucratisation was increasingly impossible. Even though the worst war-time living conditions and exhaustion were now behind them, the working class would not again make a concerted bid to win back its power, cowed by repression.
The Kronstadt rebellion was provoked by the Petrograd strike wave of February 1921. Like that of spring 1919, the labour stoppages were met with lockouts, the declaration of martial law by the city soviet and dozens of arrests. There were fights in the streets, barricades erected and the roads out of the city blockaded by the Red Army.
"The first strike broke out at the Troubotchny factory, on 23rd February 1921. On the 24th, the strikers organised a mass demonstration in the street. Zinoviev sent detachments of 'Koursanty' (student officers) against them. The strikers tried to contact the Finnish Barracks. Meanwhile, the strikes were spreading. The Baltisky factory stopped work. Then the Laferma factory and a number of others: the Skorokhod shoe factory, the Admiralteiski factory, the Bormann and Metalischeski plants, and finally, on 28th February, the great Putilov works itself.
The strikers were demanding measures to assist food supplies. Some factories were demanding the re-establishment of the local markets, freedom to travel within a radius of thirty miles of the city, and the withdrawal of the militia detachments holding the road around the town. But side by side with these economic demands. several factories were putting forward more political demands freedom of speech and of the Press, the freeing of working class political prisoners. In several big factories, Party spokesmen were refused a hearing."
Despite the official ban on ships’ committees, when news of attacks on striking workers reached Kronstadt on February 26th, the crews of the ships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol held an emergency meeting and elected a fact-finding mission of thirty-two sailors to visit Petrograd. According to Israel Getzler’s account, what they found were workers frightened to speak out or explain their grievances, fearful of the Communist Party. He cites one worker brave enough to say what he thought:
"Since you are from Kronstadt with which they frighten us all the time, and you want to know the truth, here it is: we are starving. We have no shoes and no clothes. We are physically and morally terrorised. Each and every one of our requests and demands is met by the authorities with terror, terror, endless terror. Look at the prisons of Petrograd and you will see how many of our comrades sit there after being arrested in the last three days. No, comrades, the time has come to tell the Communists openly - you have spoken enough on our behalf. Down with your dictatorship which has landed us in this blind alley. Make way for non-party men. Long live freely elected Soviets! They alone can take us out of this mess!"
Upon the return of the Petrograd delegation on February 28th, the crews of the two ships voted for a resolution with fifteen demands calling for freedom for socialist parties, free soviet elections and the recognition of workers’ right of association:
1. Immediate new elections to the Soviets. The present Soviets no longer express the wishes of the workers and peasants. The new elections should be held by secret ballot, and should be preceded by free electoral propaganda.
2. Freedom of speech and of the press for workers and peasants, for the Anarchists, and for the Left Socialist parties.
3. The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant organisations.
4. The organisation, at the latest on 10th March 1921, of a Conference of non-Party workers, soldiers and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt and the Petrograd District.
5. The liberation of all political prisoners of the Socialist parties, and of all imprisoned workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors belonging to working class and peasant organisations.
6. The election of a commission to look into the dossiers of all those detained in prisons and concentration camps.
7. The abolition of all political sections in the armed forces. No political party should have privileges for the propagation of its ideas, or receive State subsidies to this end. In the place of the political sections various cultural groups should be set up, deriving resources from the State.
8. The immediate abolition of the militia detachments set up between towns and countryside.
9. The equalisation of rations for all workers, except those engaged in dangerous or unhealthy jobs.
10. The abolition of Party combat detachments in all military groups. The abolition of Party guards in factories and enterprises. If guards are required, they should be nominated, taking into account the views of the workers.
11. The granting to the peasants of freedom of action on their own soil, and of the right to own cattle, provided they look after them themselves and do not employ hired labour.
12. We request that all military units and officer trainee groups associate themselves with this resolution.
13. We demand that the Press give proper publicity to this resolution.
14. We demand the institution of mobile workers' control groups.
15. We demand that handicraft production be authorised provided it does not utilise wage labour."
Note that the sailors did not ask for "market socialism" or a New Economic Policy – their demands relating to the peasantry were all wholly in the interests of peasants who did not hire labour. They did not ask for a Constituent Assembly or for the re-legalisation of the Black Hundreds (or even the Right SRs). There was nothing right-wing, petty-bourgeois or pro-White about these demands – each opposed bureaucracy and sought reforms which would mean the extension of soviet power and workers’ control. The mischaracterisation of the above 15 points in Trotskyist accounts of Kronstadt is amazing - particularly since the Petropavlovsk resolution encapsulates a soviet, democratic and rational criticism of developing bureaucratisation.
The Bolsheviks did not consider meeting these demands. In a botched attempt to quell the unrest, the Communist Party sent Mikhail Kalinin to address a rally of Kronstadt workers the following day. The 15,000 strong crowd was very hostile. He was heckled when he said that he had lost his voice - "there's no need anyhow, for you won't say anything new". He was drowned out by slogans attacking the commissars - "We have had enough of that life - prisons and executions without trial", "Look at all the jobs you've got, and surely you take rations for each of them" – and when he assured the Kronstadters that he too was just an ordinary working-class lad, there was so much shouting that he had to abandon the rostrum. Kuzmin, an associate of Trotsky and commissar of the Baltic Fleet, was similarly angrily denounced, and his sickly effort to appease the crowd by regaling them with stories of the city’s revolutionary past was taken to be some sort of ironical joke. After the government representatives’ speeches, the Petropavlovsk resolution was moved and passed, and the meeting resolved to invite each ship’s crew, army unit, dock, workshop, trade union and soviet institution to elect two delegates to a conference to be held at the Engineers’ College the next day (March 2nd) to draw up the rules for fresh soviet elections.
The 303 delegates at the Engineers' College elected a five man praesidium - Petrichenko, Yakovenko, Oreshin, Tukin, and Arkhipov - none of whom were Communist Party members. This body, labelled as the ‘Provisional Revolutionary Committee’ became the de facto provisional government of Kronstadt, and on March 2nd sent out squads of sailors to occupy the telephone exchange, the Cheka offices and all naval and military installations. There was no resistance to the re-establishment of soviet power over the city. Since no elections had yet taken place, the conference itself worked like a soviet, meeting again on March 4th and 11th to debate the progress of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee and propose edicts.
The commissar Kuzmin, meanwhile, was arrested, having told the conference that the Communist Party could not tolerate "dual power" and were ready for a showdown "Communists will never voluntarily relinquish power and will fight it out to the end". But the Communist Party delegates, representing one-third of the conference, had also voted for the Petropavlovsk resolution. On March 4th the Provisional Revolutionary Committee’s Izvestiia published an appeal from local Communists, who had reconstituted the local party section into a ‘Provisional Bureau of the Kronstadt section of the Russian Communist Party’:
"Comrade Communists, working in all Soviet departments, trade organizations, and factory committees, all economic organs, and also in the military units of the garrison, the PROVISIONAL BUREAU OF THE R.C.P. addresses you with a comradely appeal and urgent call of the following substance:
The moment currently being endured demands of us special caution, restraint and tact. Our party has not betrayed, and is not betraying, the working class, in the defense of which it has stood for many years. The historic course of political events requires us, in the interests of all labourers, to be at our places, and to carry on our daily work without any stoppages. We must remember that the smallest weakening or break in work, in any section of our economic life, brings about worse living conditions for the working class and peasantry.
May every comrade of our party be imbued with an understanding of the moment being endured. Do not believe the absurd rumours that Communist leaders are supposedly being shot, and that Communists are preparing for armed action in Kronstadt. They are spread by a clearly provocative element, which wishes to provoke bloodshed. These are lies and absurdities, and it is on such as these that the agents of the Entente, working to achieve the overthrow of Soviet power, wish to play.
We openly declare that our party, with weapon in hand, has and will defend all the achievements of the working class against the open and secret White Guards who wish the destruction of the Soviet power of workers and peasants.
The Provisional Bureau of the R.C.P recognizes new elections to the Soviet as necessary, and calls on all members of the R.C.P to take part in these new elections.
The Provisional Bureau of the R.C.P. calls on all members of the party to be at their places, and not to cause any obstruction to the measures being carried out by the Provisional Revolutionary Committee. Restraint, discipline, calm and unity are the price of victory for the workers and peasants of the entire world against all the secret and open plots of the Entente.
Long live Soviet power! Long live the Worldwide Union of Labourers!"
Provisional Bureau of the Kronst. Organ. of the R.C.P.
IA. ILYIN, F. PERVUSHIN, A. KABANOV"
However, the goodwill expressed in the RCP(PB) appeal above, the good treatment of the three commissars arrested by the Provisional Revolutionary Committee and the tone of Izvestiia –
"The Provisional Revolutionary Committee takes revenge against no one, threatens no one. All the Kronstadt Communists are at liberty, and are unthreatened by any danger. Only those are restrained who tried to flee and were taken by the patrols. But even they are located in complete security, in a security which guarantees them against revenge by the populace for the "red terror." The Communists' families are inviolate, just as all citizens are inviolate"
- stood in stark contrast to the words of the Communist Party leaders. Zinoviev, who sat at the head of the Kronstadt Defence Committee, attacked the Kronstadters as "puppets who dance at the behest of the Tsarist general Kozlovsky and other notorious White Guards" and told them that if they did not surrender immediately they would be "shot down like partridges". The government party had plenty of other accusations to level against the Provisional Revolutionary Committee, largely based on the theme that it was a White plot funded by French imperialism.
But the Communists did not just have nasty words. Kronstadt conference members in Petrograd were arrested and their families rounded up by the Cheka. Leaflets were dropped out of planes over Kronstadt telling the citizens that those arrested in Petrograd were being held as hostages, in response to the arrest of the commissars. The leaflets proclaimed that "if even one hair falls from the heads of the restrained comrades, the named hostages will answer for it with their heads". The government locked the Petrograd sailors in their barracks, fearing dissent, while striking workers were appeased with a lifting of roadblocks and the unexpected delivery of more meat, shoes and clothing. The Kronstadters were isolated and the stage set for invasion.
Negotiations were not considered – to negotiate would have been to recognise the legitimacy of soviet power, breaking the political and economic monopoly of the Communist Party. In any case, the Bolsheviks were in a hurry to break Kronstadt before the melting of the bay, which would have made the fortress impregnable to invasion by land. After Trotsky had offered a final ultimatum for the immediate surrender of the opponents of the "socialist Fatherland", on March 7th, 60,000 troops began the assault. Some units mutinied and joined the rebellion – many more were forced onto the ice at gunpoint. An appallingly attritional battle over nearly two weeks killed thousands of civilians and as many as 10,000 Red Army soldiers – the number of rebel fatalities was probably even higher.
Mischaracterisations of Kronstadt
The slander volleyed at the Kronstadt rebels deserves to be countered. For a start, it is not true that the general decomposition of the working class in the Civil War meant that the "petty-bourgeois", "White" Kronstadt sailors of 1921 had nothing to do with the revolutionary sailors of 1917:
"Yasinsky's impression that the veteran politicised Red sailor still predominated in Kronstadt at the end of 1920 is borne out by the hard statistical data available regarding the crews of the two major battleships, the Petropavlovsk and the Sevastopol, both renowned in 1917 for their revolutionary zeal and Bolshevik allegiance. Of 2,028 sailors whose years of enlistment are known, no less than 1,904 or 93.9% were recruited into the navy before and during the 1917 revolution, the largest group, 1,195, having joined in the years 1914-16. Only some 137 sailors or 6.8% were recruited in the years 1918-21, including three who were conscripted in 1921, and they were the only ones who had not been there during the 1917 revolution."
Aside from the fact that 93.9% of Kronstadt sailors were active in the revolution (at the end of 1920, a survey found that under four percent of the Communist Party’s members in the city had joined before 1918 ) the "sociological composition" argument is inherently a fallacious one. Only two of the Petropavlovsk demands have anything to do with the peasantry, and all are in favour of greater sovereignty for workers’ councils – and how is it possible to judge a movement without taking some account of what it says it is for? Even if the delegates to the conference had all been the children of peasants, the fact that they were elected by docks and factories to a workers’ council means that they became part of the organised working-class, not the petty-bourgeoisie.
Furthermore, Trotsky’s analogy between fighting the Kronstadt rebellion and fighting Cossacks in Hue and Cry over Kronstadt is highly misleading. Only the most bone-headed pseudo-Marxist could seriously claim that since the Kronstadters were opposed to the Bolsheviks, they were therefore supporters of the Whites. This is a completely unacceptable – indeed, Stalinist – idea: if you disagree with the leader of the ruling party, at any time, on any issue, you are necessarily a counter-revolutionary. While the Bolshevik leaders foamed at the mouth with their absurd allegations that the sailors were monarchists, the reality is that the party most central to events in Kronstadt – where the Mensheviks, Left and Right SRs were infinitesimally weak – was the anarcho-populist Maximalist group.
But even if the rebels were not Whites, did they, against their own intentions, help the White cause through taking over the city? Although in public he had called the rebels "Black Hundreds", at the Bolshevik Congress Lenin described Kronstadt as "the stepping stone and bridge for the White Guards". The argument behind this schema is that, much as Stalinists were wrong when they failed to appreciate that even though Social Democrats’ betrayals of the working class and failure to put up any resistance made them handmaidens of fascism, they were not themselves fascists, it was wrong to simply label the Kronstadters as Whites – they only inadvertently served in their military interests. Paul Avrich expresses his lack of surprise that the Bolsheviks were unwilling to tolerate the situation in Kronstadt given that they had lost military control of a fortress which might serve as a base for counter-revolution.
But aside from whether this is accurate, given that the Civil War had petered out by November 1920, this is a highly elitist conception of socialism – the premise of Avrich’s argument is the workers could not be trusted with control over the soviet, since they might not be able to defend it. As if workers fighting to extend soviet power would not have fought back against an attack by the Whites, as if the Communist Party’s armed forces were the only guarantor of socialism . Bolshevik military intervention against a soviet, the obliteration of working-class organisation in the city and the deaths of tens of thousands of people were hardly "defense" of the revolution – they all served to weaken the workers’ ability to defend their power.
So did the events of the Bolsheviks’ Tenth Congress, which instituted a "temporary" ban on platforms in the party. This would never be rescinded. If one were to hold the view that the working class was the ruling class through the fact that the Bolsheviks were in government rather than because of the existence of soviets, then this is the beginning of the end for the Russian revolution. The possibility of fighting for reform within the structures of the Communist Party and Comintern was increasingly closed off (it is absurd to believe, like Trotsky, that it remained "reformable" until 1933). Of course, the Tenth Congress manoeuvre did not at once put a stop to all dissent and debate within the party, which of course retained much of its 1917 membership and residual culture – but banning internal platforms rather seems to go with the territory of a one-party state without freedom of association or the right to strike.
Farber and Avrich both characterise the Tenth Congress’ New Economic Policy as a concession to the Kronstadt sailors’ demands, the idea being that economic "liberalisation" served the interests of the peasants. This is not based on a rational analysis of what the Kronstadters wanted or what the NEP was. The Petropavlovsk resolution demanded workers’ control and freedom for peasants who did not hire labour, whereas the NEP marked a change from a centralised, nationalised economy under "War Communism" to one with elements of free trade – namely, strengthening capital and freeing up trade in the interests of richer peasants who had a surplus to sell. One-man management in industry was there to stay.
Farber thinks that given the opportunities for reform in the post-Civil War period, the New Economic Policy should have been accompanied by a parallel New Political Policy, with greater democratic freedoms in the soviets – but this analogy is based on a failure to understand what NEP represented or the difference between "liberalisation" in economics and "liberalisation" in the political arena. Workers did not win any extra powers or rights to organise under NEP – far from it. The toleration of market forms in a mostly nationalised economy marked an alliance between industrial managers in the cities and peasants who hired labour in the countryside, all of them opposed to grassroots workers’ management. As Lenin put it in his notes for his Tenth Congress speech "the lesson of Kronstadt: in politics - the closing of ranks (and discipline) within the party, greater struggle against the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries; in economics - to satisfy as far as possible the middle peasantry". The Bolsheviks were not opening up in front of the working class.
5. Bolsheviks and bureaucracy
Lenin’s last struggle
Moshe Lewin’s book Lenin’s last struggle cites various cases where Lenin opposed Stalin in 1922-23 in an effort to establish the lack of continuity between the two men. This is a noble effort, but is based on a great exaggeration of Lenin’s awareness of encroaching bureaucracy, his determination to fight it and the ‘democratic’ nature of his response to it. The fact that in an addendum to his Last Testament Lenin called for the removal of Stalin does not mean that he mounted a sustained effort to defend the working class from the bureaucracy. While it would be unfair to ask of Lenin that he be fully aware of how bad the Stalinist nightmare would be, it is also a mischaracterisation to read back the tone of Trotsky’s later criticisms of Stalin onto the musings of Lenin.
For example, Lenin’s 1923 work Better Fewer But Better is characterised as an anti-bureaucratic tract. While critical of state structures, Lenin’s piece is in reality vague and non-committal; uncritical of authoritarianism or intrigue amongst the bureaucracy; and does not counterpose more effective workers’ control. The kind of criticisms made are epitomised by this kind of passage:
"We must show sound scepticism for too rapid progress, for boastfulness, etc. We must give thought to testing the steps forward we proclaim every hour, take every minute and then prove every second that they are flimsy, superficial and misunderstood. The most harmful thing here would be haste. The most harmful thing would be to rely on the assumption that we have any considerable number of elements necessary for the building of a really new state apparatus, one really worthy to be called socialist, Soviet, etc."
His suggestion for how to improve the state and party apparatus is wholly based on notions such as "better human material", recruiting "irreproachable Communists" and those "recommended by several Communists". He does not see a problem with state institutions, just the people who compose their workforce. Indeed, his means of solving even this conundrum could only be imagined to strengthen the bureaucracy – merging unaccountable state institutions with those of the party. Calling for the fusion of the Central Control Commission and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, he writes,
"How can a Party institution be amalgamated with a Soviet institution? Is there not something improper in this suggestion? I do not ask these questions on my own behalf, but on behalf of those I hinted at above when I said that we have bureaucrats in our Party institutions as well as in the Soviet institutions. But why, indeed, should we not amalgamate the two if this is in the interests of our work? Do we not all see that such an amalgamation has been very beneficial in the case of the People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, where it was brought about at the very beginning? Does not the Political Bureau discuss from the Party point of view many questions, both minor and important, concerning the "moves" of foreign powers in order to forestall their, say, cunning, if we are not to use a less respectable term. Is not this flexible amalgamation of a Soviet institution of a Party institution a source of great strength in our politics? I think that what has proved its usefulness, what has been definitely adopted in our foreign politics and has become so customary that it no longer calls forth any doubt in this field, will be at least as appropriate (in fact, I think it will be much more appropriate) for our state apparatus as a whole. The functions of the Workers' and Peasants' Inspection cover our state apparatus as a whole, and its activities should affect all and every state institution without exception: local, central, commercial, purely administrative, educational, archive, theatrical, etc. - in short, all without any exception."
Whatever the inefficiencies of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate – and there were many - Lenin’s proposition (the only specific reform of the state apparatus he suggests) is very dangerous. Clearly he does not fear that the party will become monolithic or that entrenching its political monopoly by merging it with the state is undemocratic. Much as he wants to ensure that the Bolsheviks "maintain[ed] workers’ support", Lenin makes no reference to the idea that their active involvement in decision making would be the best way to ensure working-class confidence in the "workers’ government". True, in his Letter to the Congress Lenin does recommend as a matter of great urgency:
"increasing the number of C.C. members, I think it must be done in order to raise the prestige of the Central Committee, to do a thorough job of improving our administrative machinery and to prevent conflicts between small sections of the C.C. from acquiring excessive importance for the future of the Party. It seems to me that our Party has every right to demand from the working class 50 to 100 C.C. members, and that it could get them from it without unduly taxing the resources of that class"
But having a few dozen workers on the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party is not the same thing as workers’ power. The idea of working class rule is that as an organised class, through workers’ councils, shopfloor delegates and so on, workers own the government, not that they are a social milieu from which individual officials are hand-picked.
Lenin was not the same as Stalin
Moshe Lewin’s sympathies are in the right place however. After all, one of the most common charges levelled against those who follow in the Leninist tradition is that "Lenin and Stalin were the same" - that due to the existence of a one-party state even before Stalin came to power, the systems of 1919 and 1939 were essentially similar, two points on one totalitarian continuum. Despite the fact that I am opposed to many of the undemocratic measures taken by Lenin, I utterly reject any such version of events. Lenin attempted a radical emancipatory overhaul of the whole social order but ended up resorting to undemocratic tactics and bureaucratic administration for want of any idea what to do. Stalin, however, was little but a mediocre nationalist machine politician who held the working class in complete contempt and spent most of his political career trying to ally himself to different imperialist powers.
Only restricted comparisons can be made between 1919 and 1939. The economy of the immediate post-revolutionary era was controlled by organs in which the working class had little direct participation and formal control, but which they could effect through semi-tolerated strikes, protest resolutions and Bolshevik Party activity. This was far from ideal, and very top-down, as I have outlined, but not the same as a system where trade unions do not exist, the state is absolutely all-powerful and the working class is so atomised and disorganised (since it had no collective representative bodies whatsoever) that it has no social weight. Although the working class cannot rule economically without political power, short-term disenfranchisement can nevertheless leave it a certain residual influence in society, particularly given a somewhat benign government. Between 1917 and 1921 there was an ongoing struggle between labour and capital, and increasingly less so for a few years after that - but the economy of the Five-Year Plans was one of massive exploitation, with colossal rates of inequality of income (far higher than in the UK, never mind the Soviet Republic where Lenin furiously berated an acolyte who offered to give him higher-than-average rations), huge rates of surplus value, extensive market mechanisms and competition, foreign trade in the benefit of the party leaders and an immiserated working class. Economic life in the Soviet Union was barely distinguishable from that of wartime Nazi Germany, except for the fact that Germany’s factories had fewer secret police.
There is no simple cut-off point which marks the transition from one period to the other - to claim that the bourgeoisie was the ruling class in Russia as soon as the soviets lost this or that executive power, or at the moment when the Factory Committees were co-opted into the trade unions, would be to caricature the process. Such ideas as "the counter-revolution happened in 1922" totally fail to grasp the gradual and complex nature of changes in class composition of the state, the rise of the bureaucracy and the decline of the labour movement. Before October 1917 there was a situation of dual power; after the revolution the pendulum swung in favour of the working class, but without workers' management capital, wage labour and hierarchy continued to exist; and from 1921 capital was vastly strengthened. Here was a state of flux, neither socialism nor the stable régime of exploitation and class domination which would follow.
Furthermore, even to the extent that their one-party states were superficially similar, the way in which Lenin and Stalin opposed dissent is different. The Bolsheviks of the Russian revolution were fearful that the revolution might lose, and fought against opposition from both left and right in the belief that if their party held onto political power, the revolution could be "saved". Often lacking in positive perspectives, bureaucratic and dishonest in the portrayal of their opponents, this is not the same as Stalinism, which was a system of paranoid control-freakery, with a massive self-serving police state apparatus exacting random acts of violence against huge swathes of the population. The effort was not to dominate political discourse as much as to create an atmosphere of terror in which everyone was too afraid to speak out. Appalling as the Bolshevik response to Kronstadt was, it seems perverse to imagine that in his time Stalin would have sent representatives to try and talk round the mutinous sailors.
Stalin’s rule was not only predicated on the smashing of the kulaks , forced collectivisation and rapid industrialisation which took power away from individual petty-bourgeois and placed more authority in the hands of a technocratic clique. It was also based on the breaking of the Communist Party, the last organ through which the working class had any ability to express itself. As I have mentioned, the Tenth Congress ban on platforms did not immediately lead to an end to debate, since oppositionists and comrades involved in the party for many years would not change their political culture overnight to that of loyal followers of the leadership. Although the ban was grossly undemocratic and struck a blow against socialist democracy, before it had concretised and before the total change in the party’s membership, the fact of opposition to the party leadership meant that it was potentially reversible. But from 1924 the "Lenin Levy" which flooded the party with uneducated working-class cadre willing to take in everything the leadership said (a manoeuvre justified on preposterous sociological grounds), the purging of the party’s Old Guard and the radical clampdown on all free expression crushed the party and made it nothing more than a weapon of the bureaucracy. True, many managers had served as Communist soviet delegates in Lenin’s era, but there were great tensions within the party and it was nothing like as alienated from working-class control as in the mid-late ‘20s.
Yet although far from sharing Stalin’s subjective intentions, the Bolsheviks’ measures did inadvertently ease his passage into power. Had there been democracy in the soviets, workers’ management of production, and freedom of factions inside the Communist Party, Stalin’s job would have been a hundred times more difficult. How could one individual have been able to portray himself as the heir to the Leninist tradition, how could the bureaucrats have entrenched their perks and political monopoly if the workers and their elected representatives had run the economy themselves? Lenin was wrong - it is impossible to "save" the revolution through undemocratic means, since that destroys its whole character. The revolution only exists insofar as people consciously and pro-actively take ownership over their own lives; insofar as they can express their interests politically, economically, culturally and sexually; workers' power cannot be suspended in the pursuit of some higher interest. The revolution cannot just be experienced as the authority vested in this or that unaccountable government - 'socialism from above' is an oxymoron if ever there was one. And yet tactics used to maintain Bolshevik power were elevated into some sort of timeless principles of socialist rule. The Bolshevik leadership did not themselves finish off the working class - but when the hierarchies they created were used with such a purpose in mind, the workers had few means by which to resist.