Maurice Brinton

The Bolsheviks and
Workers' Control

The State and Counter-Revolution

Published: As pamphlet by Solidarity, London 1970
Transcribed: by Jonas Holmgren
Proofed: by Zdravko Saveski


January 16-25

Second All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions.

Throughout 1918 the trade unions had played an important role in industrial administration. This had vastly increased when the government, afraid that privately-owned industry wouldn't work for the needs of the Red Army, speeded up the nationalization programme, "at first as a matter of military rather than of economic policy".[1] What Lenin called the "state functions" of the unions had increased rapidly. Party members in the trade-union leadership (such as Tomsky, Chairman of the All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions) enjoyed considerable power.

The relation between the union leaderships and the rank and file were far from democratic however. "In practice the more the trade unions assumed the administrative functions of a conventional managerial bureaucracy, the more bureaucratic they themselves became".[2] A Congress delegate, Chirkin, claimed for instance that "although in most regions there were institutions representing the trade union movement, these institutions were not elected or ratified in any way; where elections had been conducted and individuals elected who were not suitable to the needs of the Central Council or local powers, the elections had been annulled very freely and the individuals replaced by others more subservient to the administration".[3] Another delegate, Perkin, spoke out against new regulations which required that representatives sent by workers' organizations to the Commissariat of Labour be ratified by the Commissariat:

"If at a union meeting we elect a person as a commissar - i.e. if the working class is allowed in a given case to express its will - one would think that this individual would be allowed to represent our interests in the Commissariat, would be our commissar. But, no. In spite of the fact that we have expressed our will - the will of the working class - it is still necessary for the commissar we have elected to be confirmed by the authorities...The proletariat is allowed the right to make a fool of itself. It is allowed to elect representatives but the state power, through its right to ratify the elections or not, treats our representatives as it pleases".[4]

The unions - and all other bodies for that matter - were increasingly coming under the control of the state, itself already in the exclusive hands of the Party and its nominees. But although there had already been a very definite shift of power in the direction of the emerging bureaucracy, working class organization and consciousness were still strong enough to exact at least verbal concessions from Party and union leaders. The autonomous Factory Committees had by now been completely smashed but the workers were still fighting a rearguard action in the unions themselves. They were seeking to preserve a few residual shreds of their erstwhile power.

The Second Trade Union Congress "sanctioned the arrangements under which the unions had become at once military recruiting agents, supply services, punitive organs, and so on".[5] Tomsky for instance pointed out:

"that at a time when the trade unions determined wages and conditions of work, strikes could no longer be tolerated. It was necessary to put dots on the i's".

Lenin spoke about the "inevitable stratification of the trade unions". (The pill was coated with talk about the function of the unions being to educate the workers in the art of administration and about the eventual "withering away" of the state.) Lozovsky, who had left the Party, spoke as an independent internationalist against Bolshevik policy in the unions.

A resolution was passed demanding that "official status be granted to the administrative prerogatives of the unions". It spoke of "statization" (ogosudarstvlenie) of the trade unions, "as their function broadened and merged with the governmental machinery of industrial administration and control".[6] The Commissar for Labour, V. V. Shmidt, accepted that "even the organs of the Commissariat of Labour should be built out of the trade union apparatus".[7] (At this stage the membership of the unions stood at 3,500,000. It had been 2,600,000 at the time of the First Trade Union Congress, in January 1918, and 1,500,000 at the July Conference of 1917.)[8]

The Second Congress finally set up an Executive vested with supreme authority between Congresses. The decrees of this Executive were declared "compulsory for all the unions within its jurisdiction and for each member of those unions":

"The violation of the decrees and insubordination to them on the part of individual unions will lead to their expulsion from the family of proletarian unions".[9]

This would of course place the union outside the only legal framework in which the Bolshevik regime would permit unions to exist at all.

March 2-7

First Congress of Comintern (Third International).

March 18-23

Eighth Party Congress.

The Ukraine and Volga regions had now been reoccupied by the Red Army. A short period of relative stability followed. Later in the year, the advances of Denikin and Yudenich were to threaten Moscow and Petrograd respectively.

A wave of left criticism surged up at the Eighth Congress against the ultra-centralist trends. A new Party programme was discussed and accepted. Point 5 of the "Economic Section" stated that

"the organizational apparatus of socialized industry must be based primarily on the trade unions...Participating already in accordance with the laws of the Soviet Republic and established practice in all local and central organs of industrial administration, the trade unions must proceed to the actual concentration in their own hands [my emphasis] of all the administration of the entire economy, as a single economic unit...The participation of the trade unions in economic management and their drawing the broad masses into this work constitutes also the chief method of struggle against the bureaucratization of the economic apparatus".[10]

This famous paragraph was to give rise to heated controversies in the years to come. The conservatives in the Party felt it was going too far. Ryazanov warned the Congress that "we will not avoid bureaucratization until all trade unions...relinquish every right in the administration of production".[11] On the other hand those Bolsheviks who had voted for the incorporation of the Factory Committees into the structure of the unions - and belatedly seen the error of their ways - were to hang on to this clause as to a last bastion, seeking to defend it against the all-pervasive encroachments of the Party bureaucracy. Deutscher describes the famous Point 5 as "a 'syndicalist' slip committed by the Bolshevik leadership in a mood of genuine gratitude to the trade unions for the work performed by them in the Civil War".[12] He describes how Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders "would soon have to do a lot of explaining away in order to invalidate this promissory note which the Party had so solemnly and authoritatively handed to the trade unions". The interpretation is questionable. Lenin was not in the habit of making "slips" (syndicalist or otherwise) or of being influenced by such considerations as "gratitude". It is more probable that the relation of forces, revealed at the Congress - itself only a pale reflection of working-class attitudes outside the Party - compelled the Bolshevik leadership to beat a verbal retreat. The clause was anyway surrounded by a number of others, partly invalidating it.

The programme proclaimed that "the socialist method of production could only be made secure on the basis of the comradely discipline of the workers". It assigned to the trade unions "the chief role in creating this new socialist discipline". Point 8

"urged 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...The workers could not build socialism without a period of apprenticeship to the bourgeois intelligentsia...Payment of high salaries and premiums to bourgeois specialists was therefore sanctioned. It was the ransom which the young proletarian State had to pay the bourgeois-bred technicians and scientists for services with which it could not dispense".[13]

We cannot here become involved in a full discussion on the role of "specialists" after the revolution. The problem is not an exclusively Russian one, although the specific conditions of Russian development doubtless resulted in a particularly marked divorce between technicians and industrial workers. Specialized knowledge of a technical nature will clearly be required by the Workers' Councils but there is no reason why those who now possess it should all find themselves on the side of the bourgeoisie. This knowledge does not of itself, however, entitle anyone either to impose decisions or to enjoy material benefits.

These problems have been exhaustively discussed in a number of publications - but nearly always in terms of either crude expediency or of immutable "basic principles". The theoretical implications have only recently been explored. According to Limon management is partly a technical question.[14] But the historical circumstances in which the working class will be compelled to undertake it will make it appear to them as primarily a political and social task. At the everyday, down-to-earth and human level the workers at the time of the socialist revolution will almost inevitably see the technicians and specialists not as human beings (who also happen to have technological know-how) but exclusively as the agents of the exploitation of man by man.

The capitalist world is one of fetishism, where interpersonal relationships tend to disappear behind relationships between things. But the very moment when the masses revolt against this state of affairs, they break through this smoke screen. They see through the taboo of "things" and come to grips with people, whom they had "respected" until then in the name of the all-holy fetish known as private property. From that moment on the specialist, manager or capitalist, whatever his technical or personal relationship to the enterprise, appears to the workers as the incarnation of exploitation, as the enemy, as the one with whom the only thing they want to do is to get him out of their lives. To ask the workers, at this stage, to have a more "balanced" attitude, to recognize in the old boss the new "technical director", the "indispensable specialist", is tantamount to asking the workers - at the very moment when they are becoming aware of their historical role and of their social power, at the very moment when at last confident in themselves they are asserting their autonomy - to confess their incompetence, their weakness, their insufficiency, and this in the area where they are most sensitive, the field encompassing their daily lives from childhood on: the field of production.

The bureaucratization of the Party itself provoked pointed comments at the Congress. Osinsky declared: "It is necessary to enrol workers into the Central Committee on a broad scale; it is necessary to introduce there a sufficient quantity of workers in order to proletarianize the Central Committee".[15] (Lenin was to come to the same conclusion in 1923, at the time of the so-called Lenin Levy!) Osinsky proposed that the Central Committee be expanded from 15 to 21 members. It was extremely naive, however, to expect that this introduction of proletarians into the higher echelons of the administrative machine could somewhat compensate for the fact that the working class had by now almost totally lost the power it had briefly held at the point of production.

The decline in the Soviets was also discussed at the Congress. The Soviets were no longer playing any active role in relation to production - and very little role in other matters either. More and more of the decisions were being taken by the Party members serving in the "Soviet apparatus". The Soviets had become mere organs of ratification (rubber stamps). The theses of Sapronov and Osinsky - according to which the Party should not seek to "impose its will on the Soviets" - were decisively rejected.

The Party leaders made minor concessions on all of these issues. But the process of tightening up control, both in the Party and in the economy as a whole, continued at an unrelenting pace. The Eighth Congress established the Politbureau, the Orgbureau and the Secretariat, technically only sub-committees of the Central Committee, but soon to assume tremendous power. The concentration of decision-making authority had taken a big step forward. "Party discipline" was strengthened. The Congress ruled that each decision must above all be fulfilled. Only after this is an appeal to the corresponding Party organ permissible:[1*]

"...The whole matter of posting of Party workers is in the hands of the Central Committee. Its decisions are binding for everyone".[16]

The era of political postings - as a means of silencing embarrassing criticism - had begun in earnest.


Highpoint of Kolchak's offensive in Urals.


Decree introducing "labour books" for workers in Moscow and Petrograd.


Highpoint of Denikin's offensive in South Russia. Yudenich's drive on Petrograd.

December 2-4

Eighth Party Conference.

The Eighth Conference worked out a statute which rigidly defined the rights and duties of Party cells (fractions or fraktsya) and elaborated a scheme calculated to secure for the Party a leading role in every organization. "The Communist trade unionist was thus a Communist first and only then a trade unionist, and by his disciplined behaviour he enabled the Party to lead the trade unions."[17] As the Party degenerated this "leadership" was to play an increasingly pernicious role.

December 5-9

Seventh All-Russian Congress of Soviets. (There had been two such Congresses in 1917 and four in 1918). Resolution passed in favour of collective management of industry.[18] At the congress, Sapronov attacked the unpopular glavki, arguing that they represented an attempt to substitute "organization by departments for organization by Soviets, the bureaucratic for the democratic system". Another speaker declared that if people were asked "what should be destroyed on the day after the destruction of Denikin and Kolchak, 90 per cent would reply: the glavki and the centres".[19]

December 16

Trotsky submits to Central Committee of the Party his "Theses on the Transition from War to Peace" (dealing in particular with the "militarization of labour"), intending them, for the time being to go no further.[20] The most fundamental decisions, affecting the material conditions of life of millions of ordinary Russian workers, had first to be discussed and decided behind closed doors, by the Party leaders. The following day, Pravda, under the editorship of Bukharin, published Trotsky's theses "by mistake" (in reality as part of a campaign to discredit Trotsky). For those who can see deeper than the surface of things, the whole episode was highly symptomatic of the tensions within the Party at the time.

At this stage Lenin wholeheartedly supported Trotsky's proposals. (A whole mythology was later to be built up by Trotskyists and others to the effect that "Trotsky may have been wrong on the militarization of labour" but that Lenin was always opposed to it. This is untrue. Lenin was only to oppose Trotsky on this question twelve months later, at the end of 1920, as will be described shortly.)

Trotsky's proposals let loose "an avalanche of protests".[21] He was shouted down at Conferences of Party members, administrators and trade unionists.[22] A comment is perhaps called for at this stage concerning the attitude of revolutionaries towards "drastic measures" needed for the salvation of the Revolution. Throughout history the masses have always been prepared to make enormous sacrifices whenever they felt really fundamental issues were at stake. The real problem is not, however, to discuss whether this or that suggestion was "too drastic" or not. The problem is to know from whom the decision emanated. Was it taken by institutions controlled from below? Or was it taken by some self-appointed and self-perpetuating organism divorced from the masses? Party members opposing the measures being proposed at this stage were caught in an insoluble contradiction. They denounced the policies of the Party leaders without really understanding the extent to which their own organizational conceptions had contributed to what was happening to the Revolution. Only some members of the Workers' Opposition of 1921 (to a slight degree) and Myasnikov's Workers' Group of 1922 (to a greater extent) began to sense the new reality.

December 27

With Lenin's approval the government sets up the Commission on Labour Duty, with Trotsky (still Commissar for War) as its President.


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[1*] A pathetic echo, nearly fifty years later, is to be found in the "Perspectives for I.S.", submitted in September 1968 by the Political Committee of International Socialism. Point 4 ran: "Branches must accept directives from the Centre, unless they fundamentally disagree with them, in which case they should try to accord with them, while demanding an open debate on the matter".



[1] Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions, op. cit., p. 25.

[2] Waldemar Koch, Die Bolshevistischen Cewerkshaften (Jena, 1932), pp. 81-2.

[3] Vtoroi vserossiiski s'yezd professionalnykh soyuzov: stenograficheski otchet (Second All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions: Stenographic Report) (Moscow: Central Trade Union Press, 1919), I, p. 34. (Henceforth referred to as Second Trade Union Congress).

[4] Ibid., p. 103.

[5] Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions, op. cit., p. 26.

[6] Second Trade Union Congress, I, p. 97.

[7] Ibid., p. 99.

[8] Zinoviev, Desyaty s'yezd RKP(b): Protokoly (The Tenth Congress of the RCP(b): Protocols) (Moscow: IMEL, 1933), p. 188. (Henceforth referred to as Tenth Party Congress.)

[9] Second Trade Union Congress, I, p. 127.

[10] Vosmoi s'yezd RKP(b): Protokoly (The Eighth Congress of the RCP(b): Protocols) (Moscow: IMEL, 1933), Resolutions, I, p. 422. (Henceforth referred to as Eighth Party Congress.)

[11] Ibid., p. 72.

[12] Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions, op. cit., p. 29.

[13] Ibid., p. 31.

[14] Limon, op. cit., p. 79.

[15] Osinsky, Eighth Party Congress, pp. 30, 168.

[16] Eighth Party Congress, Resolutions, I, p. 444.

[17] Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions, op. cit., p. 33.

[18] Preobrazhensky, Devyaty s'yezd RKP(b): Protokoly (The Ninth Congress of the RCP(b): Protocols) (Moscow: IMEL, 1934), p. 72. (Henceforth referred to as Ninth Party Congress.)

[19] Carr, op. cit., II, p. 184.

[20] Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, op. cit., p. 487.

[21] Ibid., p. 492.

[22] Ibid., p. 492.


Last updated on: 6.14.2009