Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

4: Revolutionary Democracy

Every great revolution has depended upon people exercising power through institutions much more genuinely democratic than elected parliaments and presidents. People have tried to create forms of organisation subject to their continual control, knowing that they could not simply rely on voting once for a representative to act on their behalf in face of the powerful forces trying to preserve the old order.

This was true even in the bourgeois revolutions. At the height of the English Revolution of the 1640s, the soldiers of the revolutionary New Model Army, drawn from the lower classes, elected delegates known as ‘agitators’. They were briefly able to force the wealthy grandees who commanded the army to listen to some of the demands from below and to push through the revolution. In the French Revolution of the early 1790s, the lower classes of Paris – the sans culottes – met in each district to enforce their demands on the city council and on the revolutionary convention that ran the government.

However, these experiences proved transitory. Once the rising middle class had sufficient power to subordinate the old feudal interests to their control, they crushed the revolutionary democracy, preferring to revert to monarchical government rather than see their economic power threatened by a democratic mass movement.

The first great attempt by workers to take power, the Paris Commune of 1871, produced a much greater extension of revolutionary democracy. Following a war with Germany that saw the French army crushed and Paris besieged, the workers of the city took control and established a commune. They elected delegates from each district to represent them, making them subject to recall at any time and paid no more than the wage of a skilled worker. They implemented decisions themselves rather than turn to an unelected hierarchy of bureaucrats, and relied not upon a professional or conscript army, but on the armed workers, organised as a national guard.

New forms of revolutionary democracy began to emerge in the working class revolutionary upsurges of the 20th century – the workers’ councils. The first was born in October 1905, during strikes that came close to destroying the 400-year-old Tsarist Empire. Striking print workers in the capital St Petersburg elected delegates to form a council, or soviet in Russian, and delegates from other striking factories joined them. The council became the organising centre of a movement that held the city in its grip, a focus for the economic and political demands of the oppressed classes and, in effect, an alternative government to that of the Tsar.

Dual Power

This set the pattern for what was to happen in every Russian city in 1917, when mass strikes and demonstrations led the army to mutiny. The Tsar abdicated and was replaced by a government committed to capitalism and to keeping Russia in the First World War. However, workers’ and soldiers’ councils emerged overnight from the mass movement and gave organised expression to the growing anti-war and anti-capitalist feelings of the mass of people. For eight months there was a state of ‘dual power’, with the councils acting virtually as a workers’ government challenging the prerogatives of the official government. In October 1917, the majority in the workers’ and soldiers’ council in the capital took power into its own hands – a decision immediately ratified by a congress of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils across the country.

A similar situation developed in Germany a little over a year later when strikes and mutinies overthrew the empire of the Kaiser. Again there was dual power, with an official government seeking to maintain capitalist rule, and workers’ and soldiers’ councils taking many day-to-day decisions. But this time the official government won out, using sections of the old officer corps to smash the revolutionary movement in a succession of localised civil wars.

Delegate bodies of armed workers played a similar role in the Spanish revolution of the summer of 1936 after mass uprisings had defeated General Franco’s military coup in more than half the country’s cities. These committees organised the militias which fought a civil war against Franco and at the same time began to take over sections of the economy – a story told in George Orwell’s book Homage to Catalonia and Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom.

When Hungarian workers rose against Russian occupation in 1956, workers’ councils again became their organising tool. In the first place, delegates were elected from factories in different localities to organise the struggle against the occupation and ensure food and basic services were provided. But the councils soon began to coordinate their efforts to provide the beginnings of a government from below.

Peter Fryer went to Hungary to report for the Daily Worker, the paper of Britain’s Communist Party, and was subsequently expelled from the party for the honesty of his reporting. In his book Hungarian Tragedy (London 1997) he wrote:

In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organisation of food supplies and civil order ... and not least in their resemblance to the workers, peasants and soldiers councils which sprang up in Russia in the 1905 revolution and in February 1917, these committees, a network of which now extended over the whole of Hungary, were ... at once organs of insurrection – the coming together of delegates elected by factories and universities, mines and army units – and organs of popular self government in which the armed people trusted.

Even after Russian troops crushed the armed uprising, the Central Budapest Workers’ Council operated as an alternative government in the city for several weeks, until its members were arrested.

In Chile, in the last months of 1972 and early 1973, delegates from factories in the industrial belt of the capital Santiago began to play a somewhat similar role in committees known as cordones. The left-wing government was under increasing attack from capitalist interests, with the barely concealed support of sections of the state machine. When the employers attempted to close down industry, in a kind of bosses’ strike, workers set up factory committees to keep industry running and supply their communities with food. In drawing the different committees together through the cordones, they created the beginnings of a popular government network.

The experience was repeated in the Polish city of Gdansk in 1980. Workers occupied a shipyard to resist the sacking of a female activist and to demand improved wages and conditions. Workers in 250 other workplaces joined in and together they created a delegate body, the ‘Inter-enterprise strike committee’ (MKS). In his history of the struggle, Colin Barker wrote:

The whole movement was based on a huge wave of workplace occupations. Each striking enterprise sent a delegate to its local MKS. The delegates elected an inner executive committee under this immediate control. The major negotiations with the state were conducted in front of microphones, which were linked to the shipyard tannoy system so that thousands of workers could follow the proceedings ... Delegates returned to their workplaces with tape recordings of the proceedings, to report and renew their mandates ... Within days of its establishment the Gdansk MKS had begun taking control of essential services in the area [Colin Barker, Poland, 1980–81: The Self-Limited Revolution, in Colin Barker (ed.), Revolutionary Rehearsals, London 1987].

For 16 months there were two powers in Poland. There was the official government, which controlled the army and police but had little support among the population, and there was the network of workers’ organisations, now calling themselves a trade union, Solidarnosc, but in practice more like workers’ councils than any union (by contrast, when Solidarnosc reformed in 1989 it was as an old-style trade union, lacking any mass-based workers’ democracy).

Workers played the key role in each of these movements. But the momentum drew in much wider layers of society. In Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918–19, Spain in 1936, Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1980 similar democratic forms of organisation spread to encompass all sorts of groups – soldiers, peasants, teachers, intellectuals, sections of the lower middle class and oppressed minorities. Once one section of the exploited and oppressed showed it had the power to fight back and reshape its existence, it drew all sorts of other sections behind it and began to unite the whole of society. In doing so, these movements began to show in practice how society could be rebuilt on a new basis. In each case, people of all sorts began to consider how to make a different world.

Which Class Dictates?

As Karl Marx saw it, every class society involves a dictatorship of the ruling class over the rest of society. Sometimes this dictatorship is exercised by a despot. Sometimes it is exercised through a form of democracy restricted to the ruling class. So in the Roman Republic the slave-owning upper classes exercised their dictatorship ‘democratically’ through a senate to which they alone had access. In the southern states of the US before the Civil War, slave owners decided among themselves how to exercise control over their slaves.

In modern capitalist societies, control of the economy and the state by a small ruling class amounts to a dictatorship over the rest of society, even when it is tempered by the granting of political rights to the masses. In each case, one class rules over another.

Revolution involves turning the situation upside down, so the exploited and oppressed rule. It means the working class becoming the ruling class. This is the sense of a phrase Marx used – ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. He meant that the working class would organise democratically to impose its will on those who previously held power. This would be something more democratic than parliamentary democracy, not less so. It would involve replacing the existing authoritarian state with institutions directly accountable to the mass of society, and these would take over economic as well as political decision-making. Marx argued such institutions would arise as the mass of the population organised themselves to counter the violence of the existing state, and would reorganise society as a whole in the interests of the majority. Frederick Engels pointed to the Paris Commune of 1871, with its elected delegates subject to recall, to illustrate in practice what working class rule – the dictatorship of the proletariat – would look like. Where the Commune led, the workers’ councils of the 20th century would follow, providing a taste of the kind of revolutionary organisations we can expect in the upheavals ahead.

Last updated on 5 October 2016