The red jacobins : no substitute for workers’ freedom

1 09 2010

Mark Hoskisson departs from the conventional Trotskyist interpretation of the Russian Revolution, in his analysis of Thermidor and the Russian Revolution. (Permanent Revolution issue 17). His conclusion is that the political counter-revolution took place inside the Bolshevik party in 1921 and was led by Lenin and supported by Trotsky.

Yet Mark still dismisses  the possibility of Bolshevik values, and methods of organisation, prior to 1921, contributing to the betrayal of the political aspirations of 1917. He still clings to the orthodox view that the Bolshevik Party could somehow be a custodian of workers’ power, despite substituting itself for the working class  following 1917, as long as the right to form factions were preserved. Hence, the banning of party factions in 1921 is seen as the historic turning point. Mark asserts that Bolshevism’s descent into counter-revolution marked a distinct break with, not a continuation of its fundamental character and politics in the period 1912 to 1920.

But why start with the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic party in1912? The Bolshevik Party was not proclaimed in 1912. Instead, eighteen Bolshevik-Leninists in Prague held an RSDLP conference as if it was their sole factional property.   Lenin and his followers had always considered themselves as the true party within the RSDLP. In 1920, Lenin put the origins of Bolshevism and his values of strict centralism and iron discipline back to 1903, and the organisational split with the Mensheviks. However, the split with the Mensheviks in 1903, was not programmatic, nor was the break a division between reformists on one side and revolutionaries on the other. Trotsky, the future practical leader of the Russian Revolution was against Lenin, whereas his supporter Plekhanov, opposed both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.

As for the dispute about the rules, in the unity conference of the RSDLP, in 1906, the Mensheviks agreed with Lenin’s version of the party rules. Lenin was distorting the history of Bolshevism to emphasis what he regarded, in 1920, as the enduring values of Bolshevism, which were, a stress on the continuity of a handful of leaders , top down centralism, intolerance of non Leninist  views, organisational activity in place of discussion, and a distrust of the spontaneity of the masses. In a word, substitutionism. This had been a fundamental feature of Bolshevism prior to 1921.

The counter-revolution was a process which began shortly after 1917, and had a firm link with old Bolshevism. Victor Serge’s reflections on his first hand experience of the Russian Revolution in ,Marxism in our Time, highlighted the origins of the counter-revolutionary process, in the Bolshevik leaders lack of revolutionary audacity, and  the fear of working class freedom. Looking to government restraint rather than the creativity, and initiative of the masses. (1) This was also the main historical lesson drawn by the Workers Opposition,  the Democratic Centralists, and other Communists, who challenged Leninist orthodoxy. Leninist values of top down centralism, disregard for workers democracy, organisational methods instead of discussion, dishonest polemics, which had been in evidence in 1903-4 and 1907-12 resurfaced, to fuse with what Serge described as the old Statism.

The party state was built from the top down in conventional ways. Shortly after the revolution,  Sovnarkom or cabinet government was rooted in the party leadership,  not Soviet representation. Local Soviets and factory committees were emasculated, and all Russian Soviet executives were by-passed, as ex Tsarist central economic institutions, and their local centres were imitated, in the setting up of the supreme economic council Vesenka, and it’s local Glavki. The idea of  soviets with participatory democracy was forgotten. The revolutionary promise of workers control was broken.Lenin declared that while industry was indispensable,  workers- democracy was dispensable.  Socialism was not about transforming production relations, but increasing productivity.

Workers power at the point of production was irrelevant for the party leadership. Lenin called for the workers unquestioning subordination to the sole will of the factory manager. Workers were subjected by the Bolshevik government to the Taylor System, once described by Lenin as the latest scientific capitalist exploitation. American efficiency was the way forward. The Bolsheviks used the technical apparatus of capital,utilizing highly paid bourgeois specialists. They reintroduced hierarchical and alienated social relations. Trotsky, who had been a harsh critic of Lenin’s ultra centralism in the years of exile, proclaimed that the elective basis was politically pointless and technically inexpedient. Orders from above were final.

Trotsky quickly became an advocate of traditional forms of authority. Find the best man for the job and let him use his individual authority. Ideas about workers militias and guerrilla tactics were bushed aside. The red army was modelled on the old imperial army. There was a failure to develop mass democratic decision-making. Party and state centralism were chosen instead.  The Bolsheviks greatest strength in 1917 was its  revolutionary opposition, from below,  to the provisional government. The Bolshevik centre was swamped with the influx of new members. Local branches of the Bolshevik party enjoyed the general features of the mass movement: freedom of criticism. They did not wait for instructions from above.

The leadership was not ideologically homogenous either. The  old Bolsheviks such as Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev  clung to Lenin’s old mistaken perspective of the Democratic Republican revolution. For this reason, Lenin was compelled to work with comrades who he had previously denounced as useless to the revolution. Non Bolsheviks such as Trotsky, Lunacharskii, and Antonov Ovsenko became central to the struggle for workers power. Charles Bettelhiem, (2) has provided an estimate that about half of the leading Bolshevik activists in 1917 had  previously been  non Leninist prior to the revolution. In Trotsky’s words : the party had become de-Bolshevised.

The Bolshevik party returned to the traditions of its ideological youth in 1918. Trotsky adopted the undemocratic organisational principles he had previously criticised in Bolshevism. In our political tasks in 1904, Trotsky scolded Lenin’s organisational ideas and declared that the task of Marxists was to replace factory discipline, not glorify it. He shared Rosa Luxemburg’s view of Lenin’s, one step forward two steps back. The ultra Centralism advocated by Lenin was imbued with the sterile spirit of the supervisor. The only thinking element in the Bolshevik organisation was the leadership. Lenin was an advocate, in 1904, of bureaucracy rather than democracy. Consequently, he saw undemocratic methods as effective in Russian conditions.

As Marcel Liebman (3) notes, Lenin in his Letter to a Comrade on Organisational tasks in 1904, assigns all power to executive bodies ignoring the requirements of democracy completely. Yet, strict top down centralism is not the only effective way to operate in conditions of  dictatorship. If the party centre is penetrated by an agent, as it was by Malinovsky, then the entire organisation is put in danger. In any case, Bolshevism was not good at keeping out state agents. Lenin’s concept of political organisation was strongly influenced by the model of German Social Democracy. There with a heavy stress on the role of a few leaders. The proletarian Jacobins would act as the custodians of the socialist future, with their own correct political perspectives.

Lenin’s focus  in What is to be Done, was on the guidance of a dozen tried and talented leaders, professionally trained, schooled by long experience and working in  harmony. Without this prompting no class in society could wage a determined struggle. Lenin never repudiated WITBD. Its political logic came into play in 1918-21. In our Political Tasks , (1904) Trotsky perceptively detected the seeds of substitutionism in Lenin’s politics. The danger of the party substituting itself for the class and the leadership substituting itself for the party .  Following the revolution in 1917, as Neil Harding (4) points out, a vast bureaucratic structure was established outside democratic control. This was not simply a response to adverse conditions.

From mid 1918, the Bolsheviks began to substitute the party for the self-activity of the working class. The Bolshevik instinct was for tight leadership direction and control by a tiny number of trusted comrades.  Gorky complained that there was a fake identification of the party with the class.  At the eighth party congress in 1919, a small elite leadership of the Politburo was set up, followed up by an organisational concentration of power in a tiny Orgburo. Sapronov described it as vertical centralism. Party rules in 1919 compelled organised Bolshevik fractions in the soviets and factories to take instructions from party bosses. Militarization of Labour was agreed on the recommendation of the Bolshevik leadership at the ninth congress. The militarization,of the transport unions was agreed by the central committee, in the absence of Trotsky, in the same year. Trotsky was the most militant advocate of these dictatorial methods, but he was not alone in his enthusiasm.

At the tenth Congress in 1921, a report about extra rations, luxury apartments, and extravagant cars for Bolshevik leaders, was kept secret from the delegates. Lenin promoted Stalin into key positions in both Orgburo and Politburo, even  in the Workers and Peasants Inspection, a committee to root out bureaucracy! Lenin defended Stalin’s multiple jobs, which became the organisational basis of Stalinism, against the criticism of Preobrazensky and Shlyapnikov.Stalin had been favoured by Lenin prior to 1917. There was a continuity with old Bolshevism. Stalin had been a key member of Lenin’s Bolshevik- Leninist’s from 1908-12. Lenin co- opted Stalin onto the central committee, despite the refusal of the  Bolshevik conference in 1912 to elect him to the leadership.

Mark Hoskisson is absolutely correct to write that the dictatorship of the party in the name of a class is an absurdity. Any party has to be subordinate to the class, not the other way round. However, Mark still adopts substitutionist logic by also asserting that since the party had been temporarily entrusted with the stewardship, on behalf of workers, it was vital that internal democracy be maintained at the highest level, to ensure the revolutions future. But, in the Bolshevik Party there was an undemocratic culture of party patriotism and loyalty to the leader. As late as 1923-4, Trotsky articulated this value in the phrase we cannot be right against the party. The party in turn could not be wrong in relation to the class, and the leadership could not be wrong in relation to the party. Even Lenin’s critics at the tenth congress felt compelled to put loyalty to the leadership, party before the class, by crossing the ice at Kronstadt to attack and try to kill comrades who shared their criticism of the Bolshevik leadership.

In any case, anti Leninist positions inside the party were regularly denounced as petty bourgeois and anarchist: the expression of the pressure of outside non working class forces. This was before Shliapnikov, of the workers opposition, was told he was more dangerous than the armed Kronstadt rebels in 1921. There was a leadership fear of debate within the party before 1921. It was not a matter of legitimate or honest rational debate. There had been a history of false polemics from Lenin since 1902-3 ,when Rebochee Delo and Vladimir Akimov were falsely accused of Economism. Lars T Lih (5) has recently confirmed Akimov’s own defence, that he was not an economist, was correct. Lenin treated critics with uncomradely suspicion and vituperation. The workers opposition were dishonestly labelled Syndicalist. Any deviation from Lenin’s line was, by definition, petty bourgeois.

The Leninist leadership not only dominated information and interpretation between conferences, but was able to manipulate the make up of conferences and co-op leaders.  A Minority could be a loyal opposition, although it would not be able to become the majority. Factional rights could not and did not prevent the counter evolution gravitating around the Bolshevik bureaucratic apparatus. This form of counter-revolution cannot be explained simply by adverse material circumstances. The political ideology of Democratic Centralism played a key role. The apparatus created Stalin, but Lenin created the apparatus.  Trotsky(6) pondered these words in his notes in exile.  Lenin prized Stalin for the ability to exert pressure The more the state machine required the exertion of pressure, the more important Stalin became.

Democratic Centralism, which probably originated in the parliamentary practice of German Social Democracy, imitating, parliamentary centralism, was introduced into Russia by the Mensheviks. Essentially DEmocratic Centralism in the RSDLP, in 1906, allowed members to elect leaders and delegates to a conference. Nevertheless,  freedom to criticise the elected leadership, was restricted to the requirements of party unity. The Bolshevik’s were in a minority in  the unified party, so Lenin’s definition of Democratic Centralism, at the time, was wide and flexible:  free and open discussion was allowed.  The only time criticism was not allowed was when criticism disrupted a party action. But what constituted disruption?  Following instruction from above was clear, although local autonomy and the scope of the instructions might cause debate, but who was to decide in any controversy about  party disloyalty? In practice, this would depend on the toleration of the leadership.

This begged the question of how much freedom there was for party members. Lenin asserted that any controversy about disrupting a definite action would rest with the party congress. In effect, this gave the Bolshevik faction freedom to openly act against  the Menshevik leadership majority, in the day-to-day operations of the RSDLP. Lenin was not committed to this unpractical definition of democratic centralism. It was all a matter of instrumentalism or short-term considerations. In 1918 , he informed the left communists, who were asking for local autonomy,that Democratic Centralism was simply a congress electing a central committee, who then governed.

In 1921, Lenin decided to put the lid on the opposition and ban non Leninist factions. The Leninist faction was in charge of the party following the factions consolidation at the top, with the ousting of some of Trotsky’s supporters from key positions after the trade union debate. For those oppositionists who wanted to encourage workers initiative from below, the debate was a distraction from the issue of the danger of bureaucratic centralism. It was  a manoeuvre to scapegoat Trotsky for the authoritarian politics agreed by all the leadership. The old Bolsheviks stage-managed the debate to tighten their grip on the party. Lenin’s loyal and trusted lieutenant Stalin, and his followers, filled the organisational vacancies.

In 1921, Lenin saw things very much as he did in the factional fight with Bogdanov in the period 1907-12: it was a struggle against a petty bourgeois deviation. But, in 1907-12 , Lenin took political intolerance to absurd lengths, as Leibman describes in his account of this period. In these years , Bolshevism became not just centralised around Lenin, but synonymous with his leadership line. Even tactical views had to be unanimous. The Bolsheviks had to have a single mind: Lenin’s. The tactical battle with Bogdanov revolved around the question of participation in the Duma. There had been various tactics adopted towards the first and second Duma 1905-6 ,and with the Third Duma, and an even more restricted franchise, more tactical differences emerged. At the July 1907 conference of the RSDLP, the majority of the Bolshevik delegates voted for a boycott of the Third Duma, under the leadership of Bogdanov. Lenin crossed factional lines and voted against his own faction, breaking his own rules of democratic centralism. He then drew up his own motion to participate in the Duma against the organised Bolshevik’s which was carried with Menshevik votes.

Then organisational methods were used to settle a tactical dispute. Rather than convene a conference of the Bolshevik faction and risk a majority vote for Bogdanov, Lenin engineered a meeting of an extended (with his supporters added) editorial board of the Bolshevik paper Proletarii, to expel Bogdanov from the Bolshevik centre,which removed his control of Bolshevik funds. When Bogdanov refused to accept this decision of the irregular meeting, he was unconstitutionally expelled from the Bolshevik faction. Trotskyists , such a LeBlanc (7) agree with Stalin and Zinoviev that these years were central to the whole meaning of Leninism. This was when Lenin’s leadership team was established, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, and Stalin. These were the original Bolshevik- Leninists.

Mark contends that with the adoption of NEP in 1921, Lenin was now explicitly fighting to preserve Bolshevik rule by bureaucratic force if necessary. Socialism would come later. Although even before 1921, the underlying  piecemeal adoption of policies out of step with the revolutionary politics of 1917 ,was based on consolidating the revolution in Russia. Lenin had returned to a version of his old Bolshevik perspective of a national revolution. This was  a historical phase in Russia before the introduction of socialism, in which the party would introduce decide for the workers what was possible in the current historical stage. The party leaders would preserve  socialism for the future. Trotsky had mocked these elitist Jacobin ambitions in his famous anti-Bolshevik polemic of, Our differences, in 1905. Trotsky would never be able to bring himself to return to this kind of critical assessment of Bolshevism. Lenin’s perspective of consolidation of the Bolshevik state in isolation was clear with the refusal to gamble on the German revolution, in signing the Brest Litovsk Treaty in 1918. Lenin defended the separate peace from what Uritsky described as a Russian point of view: a seed of socialism in one country.

Whatever the merits of the case for and against revolutionary war, Lenin’s old Bolshevik undemocratic organisational methods returned. He made it clear he would not accept a majority vote on the Central committee against the treaty. He threatened to resign from leadership positions and give the majority revolutionary war! Trotsky knew one of Lenin’s factional fights would seriously damage the prospects of the regime. He gave Lenin a central committee majority. This decision was ratified by a conference of a small number of party workers.  The Moscow party committee wanted to gamble on the European revolution, and significantly declared that Soviet Power was already formal. There was a high pressure vitriolic leadership campaign against the publication of Kommunist , by the so-called left communists. Lenin denounced them :  they represented a complete renunciation of Communism. He demanded that they end their organisational existence.  So much for formal factional rights.

Later the violent crushing of the Kronstadt Soviet marks the end of the revolution. Kronstadt was the last mass struggle for soviet power and freely elected soviets. what was decisive was not the factional rights of Red Jacobins. The party apparatus could have neutralised minorities or silenced them in one way or another outside formal factional rights. At the 1920 congress of the party there were 500 complaints that administrative measures had been taken to separate oppositionists from their supporters. The ban simply made control of the party by the apparatus much easier. Besides, to repeat the sentiments of Rosa Luxemburg(8) : freedom solely for the members of one party, no matter how numerous, is no freedom at all. Workers participatory democracy is essential, not a luxury. What fundamentally counted was that the Bolshevik leadership retained authoritarian methods following the civil war and repressed workers attempt in Moscow and Petrograd to revive collective political decision-making. This included mass sackings, the withdrawal of rations, and imprisonment of workers leaders .

Recent research by Simon Pirani has shown, despite numerical weakness, and  the civil war, workers organisation in the industrial heartlands were still intact. In spite of this,  Bolshevik vanguardism and statism made them blind to the creative potential of workers organisation and ruthless in silencing dissent.(9) Workers were disaffected, alienated, and hostile to the Bolsheviks and their state. In 1921 , Trotsky was substitutionism personified. He admonished the workers opposition after the tenth congress, telling them that the party must assert its dictatorship, even if it clashed with the democratic moods of the masses. The dictatorship of the proletariat was not the domination of society by the working class as envisaged by Marx, but the dictatorship of the party.

Lenin confessed, in 1922, the Bolsheviks had used the Tsarist state and its ex officials to a considerable extent. But Trotsky remained blind to the counter-revolutionary development of party-state bureaucracy. His thinking did not move with history. Even in 1923, he dogmatically denied Thermidor had taken place. It was over a decade later before he admitted that it had taken place. yet he located it in 1923. The result was Trotsky shared Stalin’s and Zinoviev’s view of the relations between party and class in the period 1918-21. This uncritical view of  post 1917 Bolshevism, making a fetish of Bolshevik organisational forms, led to undemocratic organisation principles and dogmatism in the Trotskyist movement.

In comments directed against Victor Serge in Their morals and ours Trotsky(10 )reiterates that centralism is indispensable, whereas internal party democracy is not a goal in itself. Centralism is indispensable because of changing moods and vacillations of the masses, and the need to repel backward elements. Then again, as the events of 1905 and 1917 in Russia demonstrated, the party itself was subject to changing moods. The masses were spontaneously in the vanguard and the party in the rear guard, or playing catch up, as Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution described. The revolutionary organisation should not be seen as separate from the masses, but internal to its struggle. But Trotskyism continued to counter pose a handful of leaders to the masses. Only the freedom and creativity of the working masses can overcome the state, exploitation and alienation.


1 David Cotterill, ( edited)  The Serge Trotsky Papers , Pluto Press. (London 1994) p.181

2 Charles Bettleheim , Class Struggles in the USSR, 1917-23,  Harvester Press. (Sussex 1976) p.123

3  Marcel Leibman , Leninism under Lenin, p 39,  (London 1975) p.39

4 Neil Harding,  Lenin’s Political Thought, Macmillan. (London 1983) p.325

5 Lars T Lih , (2006) Lenin Rediscovered,  Brill. (Boston 2006) p.219

6 Phillip Pomper,  Trotsky’s Notebooks , Columbia University Press. ( New York 1986) p.28

7 Paul Leblanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party,  Humanities press. ( London 1990) chapter 8.

8 Rosa Luxemburg, Leninism or Marxism, Ann Arbour, (Michigan 1961) p.69

9 Simon Pirani, The Russian Revolution in Retreat, Routledge. (New York 2008 ) p24

10 LeonTrotsky,  Their Morals and Ours, Pathfinder Press. ( New York 1972 ) p.45

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15 responses

2 09 2010

Indeed! The very detailed account of Leninism against workers’ self-organisation by Maurice Brinton can be found here:
Strangely, the author of the ‘Red Jacobins’ avoided confronting these empirical sources of information…

2 09 2010

Brinton’s argument and examples are interesting. Another even more detailed account is Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks in Power- though to be fair to Brinton he wrote his piece several decades before and with less access to some of the archives released since the fall of Stalinism and he does give sources for the most part.

Mark’s piece argues that the degeneration of the Russian revolution was a PROCESS not a single event
“Stalin’s control of the apparatus had evolved since the seventh congress of 1918… “ there was a “drift towards bureaucratism and party rule”
Mark’s article is not arguing that 1921 is the beginning or the end of the degeneration but a watershed. 1921’s banning of factions marks a decisive point in this process, not an end point to be sure but a turning point, a Rubicon, a crossing from which it is difficult to turn back.
On this he is right. We can criticise many aspect of some of the decisions made by the Bolshevik leadership and indeed many of the rank and file before then but while there was still a vibrant party democracy and some soviet democracy those arguments and political battles could be waged in the mass organisations of the working class. 1921 made this much more difficult. By 1928 the party was effectively dead as mass organisation and was wholly a party of rule over the working class not of the working class.

It insufficiently emphasises I think earlier decisions by some of the Bolshevik leadership to sideline soviet democracy and the incorporation of factory committees into the state apparatus and the introduction of one person management were all setbacks- some perhaps necessary, some problematic but the tendency of some Bolsheviks, Lenin being a particularly stark example, to regard workers’ control as a luxury or a side issue was a mistake in my view.

Workers’ control is essential to socialism and it clearly meant to the Bolsheviks democratic control by mass organisations of all aspects of society not only production but consumption, leisure, art, spirituality and all aspects of human life and culture. Control means control or should do- not some kind of etiolated inspection as Brinton seems to argue the Bolsheviks maintained. It may be that Lenin did sometimes give this impression later but Brinton confuses the words of one man – albeit a powerful man- with the mass of the Bolshevik party and the organised workers who supported it but it is clear that workers’ control, meant for the Bolsheviks, and for almost all Leninists, Trotskyists and all supporters of working self-emancipation control from below- even Lenin argued this
“In introducing workers’ control, we knew that it would take much time before it spread to the whole of Russia, but we wanted to show that we recognise only one road —changes from below; we wanted the workers themselves, from below, to draw up the new, basic economic principles.”

The other major problem with Maurice Brinton’s piece I think is that it underestimates the difficulties of constructing a complete new society one run by workers in a country devastated by war, a slump in production, isolated and under siege from all sides. Under these conditions some compromises were necessary. Many in the factory committees argued for centralisation (Smith, 144-145) Red Petrograd Revolution in the Factories

Now of course you could argue that the workers in the factory committees were wrong to call for centralisation. Perhaps they were. But how to decide?

By workers’ democracy. If workers in one factory decide to elect delegates to a region wide planning committee then so be it. May be they were wrong and mistaken and we have a perfect right to criticise them but it was their mistake to make. That’s the whole point of workers’ democracy it is based on learning and self-determination and growth of people both as individuals and collectives.

There should be enough diversity to test in practice which works better central planning or decentralised decision making by neighbourhoods and workplaces.

I suspect a mix would work best with some aspects of human production and need served centrally and some served by the buzzing diversity of localised soviet control.

Workers can rule but part of their rule might be democratically voting for aspects of centralisation. Not everything the Bolsheviks did in 1917-1918 was right. Mistakes were made. There were party bureaucrats even then. But to see it as all flowing form Lenin and Trotsky as evil manipulators is a distortion of real living history made by the masses not a few great men – that myth is a Stalinist one and can be inverted by the anarchists into a few evil men.

History is not made by a few men, great, evil or othewise but by social processes. This is particualrly true of revolutions!

3 09 2010

Hi Barry

Thanks for your contribution. You raise some interesting points. However, I think a weakness of your argument is a lack of evidence- you give a very thorough bibliography but some choice quotes or references from those sources would help the reader evaluate your points, place them in historical context and give some pointers for further research.

Briefly I think you are right that the decisions of the party in 1921 don’t come out of nowhere but have a history. Though I think Mark does cover some of this history- it is true that it is a complex period of history with much more to be said! However, I think that in 1917 and 1918 the party was a mass organisation, very democratic and there were other mass organisations of workers’ democracy primarily the soviets – workers’ councils- and factory committees.

Another part of the history ignored largely by your article Barry is the conditions of Russia, the isolation, the slump in production, world war and shortly thereafter civil war. Workers discussed response s to this in mass organisation with many workers voting for increased centralisation. I suspect that a careful examination of the politics of 1918- 1920 may well reveal mistakes by the workers including their democratically elected readers- mistakes from which we can learn. But to present it a sinister manipulation is far from true I think.

For example see Red Petrograd in The Factories, e.g. pages 144-145

cited above

I suspect that one of the lessons is that despite many from below calling for more centralisation and despite the objective conditions more should have been done and crucially in a future revolution more will have to be done to keep alive workers’ democracy. However, there were at least elements of a healthy democracy until well into the twenties. Mark’s thesis is that the ban on factions and other decisions of the 1921 congress were strategic errors making it easier for the bureaucracy to grow and harder for workers’ democracy to continue – the essence of what socialism should be.

Anyway thanks for your contribution and here’s to future discussions.

3 09 2010

The crucial turning point, if there was one, was June 1918, when the Bolsheviks rigged the elections for the Fifth All Russian Congress of Soviets in order to give themselves a massive majority – otherwise they would have been roughly equal with the SRs, and that even when industrial soviets had a much higher per capita delegate representation in the Congress than rural ones. After that, Soviet democracy on a national level ceased to be the defining basis of society: since it was the Bolsheviks who decided who ruled. The question of party democracy is secondary to the question of soviet democracy; soviet democracy does not rule as long as another power can veto or manipulate it.

5 09 2010
Wladek Flakin

“Lenin never repudiated WITBD and its political logic came into play in 1918/21.” (above)

“The basic mistake made by those who now criticise What Is To Be Done? is to treat the pamphlet apart from its connection with the concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the development of our Party. (…) What Is To Be Done? is a controversial correction of Economist distortions and it would be wrong to regard the pamphlet in any other light.” (Lenin: Prefane to the Collection Twelve Years.

5 09 2010
Barry Biddulph

I have sent an updated verson of this article which does have Ten Footnotes as well as the Biography which is not complete so further updating will happen when I get time.

I do think it is important to respond to the points made rather than try to distort the argument and the meaning. Anyone who carefully reads the review of Marks red Jacobins will see than I have not argued about a process of sinister manipulation. This is rather an odd dismissive remark. It was a process of Bolshevik ideological choices, and organisational values which were often far from democratic. As for the allegation of lack of evidence,again this a complete distortion. References have been made to Simon Pirani,Neil Harding Marcel Leibman to name a few. In the version i sent to the commune for publishing even more references are given including one to Lars Lih and so on. All the evidence has been around for many years, but buried in accounts stressing the tradegy of objective circumstances( EH Carr and Issac Dautscher) Maurice Briton produced evidence in the 1960’s See maurice Brinton for workers Power Edited by David Doodway. Recently even more evidence has come to light and the incomplete bibligraphy has some of the new publications of Lenin. But even Marcel Leibmans Leninism under Lenin which is more than two decades old contains a lot of criticism and evidence of the undemocratic methods and values of Leninism. But its more a refusal to see the evidence and the points made or the years of Trotskyism still have an influence. For exmple some comrades been making a religion of Trotsky and Lenin or whitewashing Lenin and Trotsky for decades. This kind of experience must have a huge political hangover. which brings me to the point about objective circumstances. The Trotskyist tradition has a one sided stress on objective coditions to the neglect
Bolshevisms organisational values and Bolshevisms neglet of democracy or refusal to see it as an essential rather than a luxury. Obviously my review of the Red Jacobins deals with Marks illusions and uninformed view of the history of Bolshevism which seems to be shared by one of the commentators above. Again the evidence on the lack of respect for workers democracy have been around for more than a hundred years. The undemocratic process began before the civil war and remained after the civil war. Trotskyist Group bosses or ex group opinion formers have taken small steps forward, but there are many more to take and given the history its suprising they have even got that far. So hopefully the process of enlightenment will continue, but only if the specific criticism is addressed rather than excuses to dismiss reassessing Bolshevism. I should add that Marks points about Trotsky’s mistakes on Thirmidor have been around for decades but now only just aknowledged

5 09 2010

Hi Barry

I think it is useful to have footnotes to provide some evidence so will look forward to reading the updated version.

“Anyone who carefully reads the review of Marks red Jacobins will see than I have not argued about a process of sinister manipulation. This is rather an odd dismissive remark.”

Not sure who this is aimed at but I didn’t say anything about you arguing it was a process of sinister manipulation that I can see- though that is a common bourgeois historian’s argument.

It is indeed the case that there is a one sided overemephasis on objective conditions by many Trotskyists. Objective conditions do not provide excuses, or at least not much, but they do provide a context. However, even if there are some good reasons for the errors of workers and revolutionaries in the immediate aftermath of the revolution (they after all were in a new situation) it is no excuse for Trotskyists subsequently to keep these erros or even difficult emergency decisions as a model for now.

My comment about your analysis is that it does not take objective conditions sufifciently into account.

Workers’ democracy is key and that is the lesson we should learn and that is the point of Mark’s article and the ensuing debate as far as I can see,

5 09 2010

Rereading my comments above, I think Barry may have confused a comment I made in response to the Maurice Bronton piece with a comment on his
” evil manipulators is a distortion of real living history made by the masses not a few great men”

I have read the David Goodway edited book and I like a lot of what Bronton wrote e.g. the accounts of France in 68, Portugal, Belgian general strike and some of the short pieces ‘As We See It’ etc. His pamphlet on the Bolsheviks is also good especially for thise people who only read articles about Lenin and Trotsky in the pages of Socialist Worker or the euqivalent though it has to be said that anyone who has read some of th emore detailed histories including Serge and Trotsky it doesn’t contain great revelations but is useful nonetheless.

However, it does contain some generalisations that are I think a little lazy e.g. ” Leninism had always seen in workers’ control …just a slogan to be used for manipulatory purposes in specific and very limited historical contexts”

I think this is inaccurate. The Bolshevik party in 1917 was a mass party and there is no reason to beleive that the many thousands of members were just parroting an empty phrase- Rabinowitch in The Bolsheviks Come to Power
offers impressive evidence that the Bolsheiks enjoyed widespread support because many workers did have the audacity to beleive that they really should control things for themselves! To dismiss that as ‘manipulatory’ is rather wide of the mark and denies the possibility of workers activing for themselves (not something to be fair to Brinton he normally did but he does here)

5 09 2010
Barry Biddulph

On Wladek Flakins point i will respond more fully tomorrow when I have time. But a defensive remark by Lenin about aknowledging WITBD was controversial and should be seen in context is not a repudiation. A reference often used from 1905 is not a repudiation either. This is the quote in which lenin writes that the

5 09 2010
Barry Biddulph

(continued ) – Russian workers were spontaneously revolutionary but he qualifies this later in the paragraph stating that more than ten years of social democratic work has helped produce this consciousness. if you look at the stress on leadership and the relationship to the working masses and look at the history of 1918/21 there is still not a repudiation. Indeed Lenin returns to 1903 and the Bolshevik values of the time without any criticism, let alone repudiation in his left wing communism an infantile Disorder.

Jasons criticism on footnotes is point scoring. He makes no attempt to challege the views stated on Serge or others. Besides he is already familiar with the books listed in the Bibliography or gives that impression. He does not need me to substantiate the remark of serge that the Bolsheviks lacked the spirit of liberty and relied on the old statism which can be found in Marxism in our time in the Trotky serge Papers. There is nothing new in my review. The information and evidence has been around for years.I am surprised someone is acting as if it is novel. Wheres your evidence! I am suitably intimidated. i am also sarcastic. If jason has any specific points about how I might have misinterpreted serg or others I will respond on this list. But none of this is the point. He wants to come back to objective circumstances. An old habit . MY review is a controversial correction of the mistakes of Mark Hoskisson and should not be seen in any other light.

5 09 2010

Just to note, the version above has been updated, so now includes footnotes.

5 09 2010

To C0mmunard (first post)
Interesting point.

I don’t entirely agree for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, soviet power is based on the idea of workers ruling based on mass organisations democratically controlled form below with decisions made democratically either through mass meetings directly or delegates elected and personnel and decisions recallable at any moment by popular vote.
If there was a vibrant soviet democracy then that would not primarily be based on the top down power of an All Russian Congress of Soviets but on the direct democratic organising power of workers’ councils in particular neighbourhoods, factories, farms, districts to make and communicate decisions to run and organise the economy, defence and society as a whole. So the representatives at a congress whilst important would not be the crucial factor. In fact if election fraud was suspected the soviets themselves could clamour for and implement a workers’ investigation and whether there was fraud or not veto decisions from a more centralised ‘higher’ body. Soviet democracy is bottom-up not top-down.
Russia in 1918 was not much like this. However, this isn’t entirely down to the Bolsheviks but for much more complex reasons – chaos of world war and the disorganisation of industry and society under the Tsarist autocracy.
Secondly, there is (as far as I am aware) no compelling evidence for electoral fraud, though there are reasons to be suspicious. Rabinowitch concludes
“There is in fact substantial circumstantial evidence that the huge Bolshevik majority in the congress was fabricated”

(p288) but also concludes that the factory committees and soviets found it hard to recruit fighters and that there was “popular resistance to recruitment” (p186) which suggests that many workers were against the Left SR’s call for continuing revolutionary defence against German encroachment and that there was some popular support for the Bolshevik’s policy of peace at any price to defend the revolution. Of course the task should have been to strengthen soviet democracy.

5 09 2010

“Jasons criticism on footnotes is point scoring. He makes no attempt to challege the views stated on Serge or others.”
Hi Barry, I think you misunderstand.

I could agree with everything you say and still make a point that some footnotes are useful. Why? Because without them it can just sound like a series of assertions- it is important to be able to back up points. This is fairly elementary and strengthens your piece rather than detracts from it.

However, my disagreement with your piece is that in the context of a civil war, of foreign intervention, of a slump in production and the very real prospect of soviet power being defeated by bourgeois power there were demands from workers for centralisation- e.g. the point S A Smith makes in his book on Red Petrograd and the factory committees,
“Almost nothing in the factory committees suggests that they rejected the concepts of state power, political struggle or a centrally planned economy” p145
Workers’ control in the sense of workers in particular workplaces running things directly was also not in and of itself a panacea but ran into all sorts of problems. As Rabinowitch argues,
“In the short run, spontaneous workers’ control, coupled with …institutional zig-zags, only caused the further disintegration of Petrograd industry”
Election of officers in the army also was disastrous in fighting the civil war leading to Trotsky suspending this.

My argument is that the Bolshevik leadership and the masses did make mistakes, depending too much on bureaucratic solutions not nurturing democratic ones partly because of the dramatic urgency of the situation. Nevertheless workers’ democracy could have been a solution by allowing workers to vote for centralisation, to elect experts and managers on a temporary basis, for the working class as a whole through Soviet power to elect for a period of time to have Red army units managed by officers for a set period of time and to always have democratic control from the workers’ councils.


All these decisions are tremendously dangerous but in the real world may be just may be they need to be taken so are abolsutley necessary life and death decisions.

The point is that can be taken by a working class democratically.

The Bolsheviks made some short cuts and made many mistakes- as is perhaps inevitable during the first time in world history that the working class takes power.

But the second or third time we can learn from these lessons and make sure that whatever temporary measures are taken they do not take away the sovereign power of the workers, organising their own lives and society.

That is why we should argue for the centrality of workers’ democracy not as a panacea but as an essential defence of the revolution against degeneration from within by a parasitic bureaucracy.

6 09 2010

it’s all very well saying “it should be bottom up”, but the point is that state power including military authority was effectively invested in the All Russian Congress majority, wasn’t it?

You say: “In fact if election fraud was suspected the soviets themselves could clamour for and implement a workers’ investigation and whether there was fraud or not veto decisions from a more centralised ‘higher’ body. Soviet democracy is bottom-up not top-down.”

The bit you quote from Rabinowitch is not his conclusion. He continues (bottom of the same page):

“The legitimacy of these delegates was challenged by the Left SR minority in the credentials commission and by Left SRs in the institutions from which they came. At the start of the congress, Left SRs insisted on parity with the Bolsheviks on the credentials commission in order to expose these manipulations, but these demands were rejected in a straight party-line vote, strongly suggesting a cover up. Archival documents for Mogilev province, much of which was occupied by the Germans, clearly illustrate this fraud.”

There was blatantly fraud, there were objections, and the Bolsheviks used the de facto top down (or top down enough, at least, for these purposes) state power – whatever you might wish it had been like – to cover it up, and institute their own party rule, over and above the wishes of mass soviet democracy. It couldn’t be clearer.

6 09 2010

What it clearly illustrates is that there were serious concerns amongst the Socialist Revolutionaries and that the Bolsheviks used their party majority to vote against the SRs having parity.

At the best reading this is far from ideal. Indeed it suggests at least th epossibility of fraud- it is though only ‘circumstantial’ evidence as Rabinowitch argues.

However, the crucial point is that soviet democracy was already weak and the essential lesson that revolutionaries learn should be that even under the most pressing and violent circumstances workers’ democracy remains essential. To not acknowledge that there were extraordinary and almost unbearable pressures in Russia is almost to invite a suppression of democrayc when circumstances do become unbearable. It may well be that contributors on here do recognise the severity of the objective circumstances- I am arguing that only by recognising that even in the midst of and the aftermath of civil war and destruction even then it is essential to retain workers’ control of society.

Of course there might be compromises, a degree of centralisation that is far from ideal, a recourse to representative democracy rather than decisions made by mass meetings (though of course the representatives will have to be chosen by mass meetings), for the workers to sometimes elect managers but in all circumstances there must be retained control from the bottom up, from below.

I think the following from Luxemburg is instructive and enlightening
“The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history, which – just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part – has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution. However, if such is the case, then it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase. It has as its prerequisite a number of measures of force – against property, etc. The negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the building up, the positive, cannot. New Territory. A thousand problems. Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative new force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts. The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress. (Proof: the year 1905 and the months from February to October 1917.) There it was political in character; the same thing applies to economic and social life also. The whole mass of the people must take part in it. Otherwise, socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.

Public control is indispensably necessary. Otherwise the exchange of experiences remains only with the closed circle of the officials of the new regime. Corruption becomes inevitable. (Lenin’s words, Bulletin No.29) Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois rule. Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror – all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes.

When all this is eliminated, what really remains? In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month periods!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc. (Lenin’s speech on discipline and corruption.)”

We have to recapture a form of socialism as a proactical politics giving answers to the most acute needs of workers’ lives- how to organise together, to resist cuts and improve services, to make our lives better through struggle, to unleash the creative potential of humanity much of which is imprisoned and constrained within the slave relations and poverty (of imagination as much as the degradation of infant mortality and starvation) of globalised capitalism. Socialis, as Luxemburg argues, does not offer presecriptions and set programs but the ability to realise our full human potential individually, collectively, however we see fit, to live our lives as our own.

“Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook. That is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties.”

Rosa Luxemburg, 1918, may we value her memory by realising her dream


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