Reform or Revolution, 4. Paul Mattick

Lenin’s Revolution

Those in the socialist movement who were thinking in terms of a proletarian revolution were obliged to take all these facts into consideration. In their view, the revolution would not result from a gradual growth of proletarian class consciousness, finding its expression in the increasing might of working class organization and the eventual “legal” usurpation of the bourgeois state machinery, but would be the result of the self-destruction of the capitalist system, leaving the working class no other choice than the revolutionary solution of its own problems through a change of the social structure. And because this choice was restricted to the working class, in opposition to all other class interests, it had to lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat as the precondition for its realization.

In other words, the change in working-class ideology, being by and large a reflection of bourgeois ideology, would be the result of capitalism’s decay and collapse. The dissipation of bourgeois self-confidence and class consciousness through the uncontrollable decomposition of its economic base, and therewith its political power, would also break its ideological hold over the working population. However, this was not a question of merely waiting for the expected economic and political catastrophe of bourgeois society; it involved preparation for such an eventuality through the organization of that part of the proletariat already possessed of revolutionary consciousness. The larger this organization, the less difficult it would be to instill its own ideas into the minds of the rebellious masses to aid their reactions to the disintegrating capitalism. Waiting did not imply passivity, but the legal or illegal forging of ideological and practical instruments of revolution.

The objective conditions for a proletarian revolution were to found in devastating economic crisis conditions from which the bourgeoisie would be unable to extricate itself in time to allay their social consequences. As the social upheavals would be of a violent nature, it would be necessary to arm the proletariat for the destruction of the bourgeois state machinery. The problem was how to get the arms required to this end. But as a severe international crisis would most likely lead to imperialistic wars, or the latter issue into economic crisis conditions, which could not be dealt with in the usual “normal” ways, it was conceivable that an aroused and armed working class might turn its weapons against the bourgeoisie. Even short of war, it was not entirely precluded that a part of the armed forces of the bourgeoisie would side with the rebellious workers if they displayed enough energy to initiate civil war. And because imperialism was itself a sign of the deepening contradictions of capital production, its wars could be regarded as gigantic crisis conditions and as so many attempts at their solution by political means. In any case, what revolutions have taken place – the Paris Commune and the revolutions of the twentieth century in Russia and Central Europe – grew not out of purely economic crises but out of war and defeat and the general miseries associated with them.

We may recall here Karl Kautsky’s answer to Upton Sinclair, referred to earlier, which expressed the rather vague hope that “after the war, after the debacle of a government, we may get strength enough to conquer the political power.” At that time, as the official defender of Marxian orthodoxy, Kautsky still spoke of the conquest of power by revolutionary means and of the dictatorship of the proletariat. While a proletarian revolution, as a consequence of the sharpening of the existing class contradictions, was for Kautsky not a determinable occurrence, a revolution growing out of war and defeat seemed to him a certainty, even though its success remained questionable.(1)Kautsky’s most faithful disciple, Lenin (2) – at the same time, and with the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1905 behind him – likewise associated war with revolution. In a letter to Maxim Gorky in 1913, he pointed out that “a war between Austria and Russia would be a very useful thing for the revolutions throughout Eastern Europe, but it is not very probable that Franz-Josef and Nicky will give us this pleasure.” (3) Soon thereafter identifying the “age of imperialism” as “capitalism’s last stage of development” and as “the eve of the proletarian revolution,” Lenin saw the first world war as the beginning of an international revolution and consistently called not for the restoration of the capitalist peace but for turning the imperialist war into civil war.

If somewhat belatedly, Franz-Josef, Nicky, and all the other potentates of Europe finally provided the revolutionaries and all their other subjects with the pleasures of war. The pleasure did not last long, due to the war’s destructiveness with respect to human lives and capitalist property. But once it started the bourgeoisie could not conceive of an end to it except in terms of positive results, that is, victory, expropriation, and annexation. Like business in general, the war had to be profitable and to that end concentrate more capital into fewer hands on an international scale. However, the expectation that the war would turn into revolution, at least in the defeated nations, also had to wait some time for its realization. As envisioned by Lenin and other revolutionaries, this happened first in Russia, because it was the “weakest link in the chain of imperialist powers.” And it happened not because it provided the Russian revolutionaries with objective conditions to be utilized to win the workers to their side, but because of the population’s own war-weariness and the breakdown of both the war machinery and the economy on which it depended.

Unlike its aftermath in October 1917, Russia’s February Revolution of the same year was a truly spontaneous event, even though it was preceded by a series of increasingly more ominous social and political conflicts involving all social classes and the autocratic government.(4) The military defeats and a relentless deterioration of economic conditions led to lock-outs, strikes, hunger riots, and mutinies in the army, culminating in enormous mass demonstrations, confrontations with the authorities, and finally in the fraternization of decisive groups of the military with the rebellious masses. There were of course also politically organized forces at work, attempting to inject their definitely demarcated goals into the disaffected masses and to give them a socialist direction, but at that time they were too small and ineffective to make much of a difference. On the contrary, instead of leading the upheaval, they were led by it, and adapted themselves to its elemental force.

The Russian revolution could not be a socialist revolution, something that, in a sentence, implies the abolition of wage labor and the socialization of all the means of production. Such a revolution presupposes a developed capitalism and the existence of a proletariat able to determine the social production process. Such conditions did not exist in Russia except in the first stages of their development. But they appeared to exist in Western Europe, which, consequently, was that part of the world in which a socialist revolution could conceivably take place. A Russian revolution could lead only to the overthrow of tsardom and the institution of bourgeois rule. On the other hand, a socialist revolution in Western Europe would most likely preclude the continued existence of a bourgeois Russia, just as it had not been possible to preserve Russian serfdom within a bourgeois Europe. The relationship between the expected socialist revolution in the West and a possible revolution in Russia had already agitated Marx and Engels, both coming to the time-conditioned and speculative conclusion that a revolution in Russia, if it spilled over into Western Europe, might lead to conditions that could prevent the rise of a full-fledged Russian capitalism. In that case, the still existing communal form of agricultural production, the mir, might prove an asset for the socialization of the Russian economy. However, the assertion of this faint possibility was more a concession to the Russian Populists (Narodniks), who were at that time the only revolutionary force in Russia, than a real conviction and it was therefore allowed to be forgotten.

With the rise of a Social Democratic movement and the formation of trade unions in Russia, the Populists’ idea of a people’s revolution based on the peasantry made way for the Marxist conception of revolution by the industrial proletariat. This meant, of course, the revolution’s postponement, as it presupposed the further unfolding of the capitalist system of production. The approaching social revolution was thus almost generally anticipated as a bourgeois revolution, to be supported by the socialist movement and the industrialist proletariat. And it could be supported best by making demands of a more radical nature than those the liberal bourgeoisie was able to formulate, or even think of. The workers were to lead this revolution, even though it could reach no more than a capitalistic bourgeois democracy, that is, conditions such as prevailed in the West.

This seemed to be all the more necessary because the liberal bourgeoisie was itself very weak and, as Alexander Herzen remarked, preferred, “against its own convictions, to walk on a leash, if only the mob is not released from it.” (5) Quite apart from the question as to whether or not it was capable of initiating a bourgeois revolution, it was not willing to do so, out of fear of the blind rage of the peasant masses, which might destroy not only the autocratic regime but the bourgeoisie as well. It seemed so much better to gain political power gradually through the social transformation induced by capitalist development under the auspices of a strong state such as was provided for by a modified tsarist regime.

Capital accumulation itself would slowly change the nature of the regime and force it to adapt itself to the requirements of modern society. While it was clear that it was the Revolution of 1905 which had led to the first, though meager, reforms of tsarism, such as the establishment of the Duma, this revolution, released by the industrial working class, also had opened the Pandora’s box of the capital-labor relation and revealed the threat of an anti-bourgeois revolution.

For the Social Democrats, the development of capitalism in Russia, whatever its course, would at the same time, through its creation of an industrial proletariat, be a development toward socialism. And because capitalist development accelerated rather rapidly at the turn of the century, involving both the capitalization of agriculture and the formation of a proprietary peasantry, the expected revolutionary changes were no longer thought of as based on the liberation of the peasantry and the preservation and utilization of the remaining communal forms of agricultural production, but as based on the extension of capitalist market relations and their political reflections in bourgeois democracy. With this, Marxism came to look toward a socialist revolution in the wake of a successful bourgeois revolution.

For all practical purposes, however, Western socialism had already jettisoned its Marxian heritage. In the revisionist-reformist point of view, the extension of bourgeois democracy eliminated not only the possibility but also the need for a socialist revolution to be replaced by evolutionary changes in the capitalist class and exploitation relations. But if socialist revolution had already become an anachronism in the Western world, there was no point in expecting its arrival in Russia. And as the steady capitalization of the Russian economy promised a reluctant but nonetheless necessary democratization of its political structure, there was, perhaps, not even room for a bourgeois revolution in the Western sense of term. Marxist revisionism was adapted to Russian conditions, the one hand in the “legal Marxism” of the liberal bourgeoisie for whom it merely implied the capitalization of Russia and its integration into the world market, together with all the paraphernalia of bourgeois democracy, such as political parties and trade unions – and, on the other hand in the reformist Social Democratic conviction that the impending revolution in Russia could issue into a bourgeois state, which would first provide the basis for a vast socialist movement striving to transform the capitalist into a socialist society through a constant struggle for social reforms.

In the latter view, meaningful reforms in Russia presupposed a political revolution, and this revolution would, by force of circumstances, have a bourgeois character. This view was shared by the left wing of Russian Social Democracy, as represented since 1903 by its Bolshevik faction, but with the difference that this wing believed that such a revolution would have to be brought about by a political party based on the working class and the poor peasantry, for the liberal bourgeoisie itself, even apart from the question of its practical capabilities, was only too ready to stop short at some compromise with the tsarist regime. The impending revolution would be a worker-peasant revolution, or perhaps even a purely working-class revolution, even though it could accomplish no more within the Russian context than the creation of a modern state and the full release of the capitalist forces of production.

But, the left argued, even such a revolution might conceivably induce a revolution in Western Europe and through its internationalization alter the character of the Russian revolution. After all, such a possibility had entered the minds of Marx and Engels and still had an ideological basis in the West, thanks to the defense of “Marxian orthodoxy” by Karl Kautsky and his followers. This concept of “orthodoxy” was therefore based on a false apprehension of the nature of Western socialism, which mistook its ideology for reality, and on an incomprehension of the transformation this movement had undergone around the turn of the century. These illusions were lost at one stroke with the war of 1914, which revealed that not even Kautsky himself cared much for “Marxian orthodoxy,” for which he had been the symbol within the Second International. The “trustee of revolutionary Marxism” overnight became the “renegade” Kautsky for the Bolsheviks in general and for his most devoted pupil, Lenin, in particular. Prior to this revelation, the Russian socialists had paid far more attention to the conditions of the tsarist regime than to the actual state of international socialism. The latter, at least in an ideological sense, seemed to foreordain the course of the impending Russian revolution, just as Western capitalism prefigured the development of Russian capitalism. “Marxian orthodoxy,” as Kautsky interpreted it, in opposition to the pure reformism of the revisionists, provided the ideology of Bolshevism, in opposition to the Menshevik, or reformist, wing of Russian Social Democracy. Whereas the latter did not expect more from the hoped-for Russian revolution than the undiluted rule of the bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks envisioned the transcendence of this revolution through its internationalization, culminating in the rule of the proletariat. Of course, this was not a certainty, which may explain the ambiguities on the part of the Bolshevik Party as regards the character of the Russian revolution. While admitting its bourgeois nature, they employed at the same time a terminology referring to a socialist revolution, as if these could be one and the same thing.

These ambiguities had their origin in the prevailing Russian conditions, which seemed to rule out either a consistently bourgeois or a proletarian revolution, because of the unresolved quasi- feudal agricultural system and its dependence on the autocratic state. Any revolution must involve the great mass of the population; in this case that meant the peasantry, which, however, could not be expected to subordinate its own interests to those of the bourgeoisie or the industrial proletariat. These three classes would have to partake in the revolution, but could do so only with different ideas and different goals, which could hardly be brought under one hat. While their combined efforts were needed to end the tsarist regime, this could only lead to a reassertion of their particular class interests in the post-revolutionary situation. One class would have to dominate to hold the class-divided society together. Logically, and to judge by historical precedent, the bourgeoisie would have to be the ruling class.

However, as soon as the revolution was seen in an international context, the "historical precedents” and the “logical” rule of ascendance were no longer convincing. While two different social revolutions cannot occur together in a particular nation, they occur simultaneously in an international setting, which may change the international class structure in such a way as to lead to dominance of the proletariat over the whole of the revolutionary process, just as the diversity of the developmental stages of the national entities does not prevent capitalism’s over-all rule the world economy. In view of this possibility, it made some sense to change the “rule” of historical ascendance and to try to base the Russian revolution on the political dominance of the working class, especially since the Russian bourgeoisie was itself an ineffective minority. The peasantry would have to be “neutral” in one way or another, no matter which class, the bourgeosie or the proletariat, should come in possession of the Russian state.

A social revolution cannot be organized, as it depends on conditions which escape conscious control. It can only be awaited, as the result of an observable intensification of the class contradictions existing within the given social relations of production. What can be organized in advance is the leadership required to give the expected revolution a definite direction and a particular goal. Any political party that thinks in terms of revolution concerns itself not with its preparation but with the organization of its leadership, the only thing that is organizable. This involves, of course, a continuous assessment and reassessment of the changing political and economic conditions, so as to make its control of the awaited revolution as effective as possible. Propaganda and agitation serve the formation of organizations aspiring to revolutionary leadership, but once these organizations exist, they see themselves as the irreplaceable presupposition of a successful revolution.

But how to lead a revolution that lacked any sort of homogeneity of interests within its revolutionary forces, as exemplified by the variety of organizations opposed to the social status quo? The situation in Russia at large, with its different specific class interests, was repeated within the revolutionary camp. All its organizations – the right and the left wing of the Social Revolutionaries, (6) the reformists and the revolutionaries of Russian Social Democracy, and the various ideological groupings between these major organizations – had their own ideas with respect to procedures and the desired outcome of the revolutionary process, thus precluding a unified revolutionary policy. Just as one class had to dominate the revolution itself, so one of the competing revolutionary organizations had to strive for supremacy if it was to realize its own program.

As Lenin and the Bolsheviks had opted for the industrial proletariat as the leading element of the revolution, it followed that the party of the proletariat, that is, the Bolshevik Party, must strive to monopolize political power, if only to safeguard the proletarian character of the revolution. Quite apart from Lenin’s assumption that the working class is unable to evolve a political revolutionary consciousness on its own accord, the fact was that the minority position of this class, together with the existence and aspirations of other classes and their organizations, precluded a democratic revolutionary development with an outcome favorable to the working class and socialism. Only a dictatorship, as Lenin saw it, could maintain the proletarian impetus of the revolution and create preconditions for a socialist development in conjunction with the expected socialist revolutions in the developed nations of the West. However, the very existence of the tsarist regime demonstrated that it was possible to hold political power in spite of the existence of the most varied political and economic interests that in one way or another opposed the anachronistic autocratic government. If a backward and decaying political regime had been able to keep itself in power, this should be even more possible for a dictatorial regime geared to a progressive social development in harmony with the global course of evolution. Russia, Lenin once said, “was accustomed to being ruled by 150,000 land owners. Why can 240,000 Bolsheviks not take over the task?” (7) In any case, establishing such a dictatorship would mean having at least a foot in the door leading to world revolution.

Already before the Menshevik-Bolshevik split of Russian Social Democracy in 1903, Lenin had shifted the question of the Russian revolution away from purely theoretical considerations toward its practical problems, that is, the organization of its leadership. In his book What Is to Be Done?(8) however, he presented his concern with organization as a theoretical problem, for, in his view, “there can be no revolutionary movement without a revolutionary theory.” By this he did not mean that men conceptualize their activities, but referred to the social division of labor, as a division between mental and manual work, as it prevails in capitalist society. Like all theory, the theory of socialism, according to Lenin, “grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of propertied classes, the intellectuals."(9) Due to its subordinate position in society, the working class may spontaneously evolve a trade-union consciousness, but not a revolutionary theory able to lead to a change of society. The revolutionary theory is not an outgrowth of the social production relations, but a result of science and philosophy and their practitioners’ own dissatisfaction with these relations and the privileges bound up with them. It is, then, the conscience, the moral scruples, the idealistic disposition, the knowledge of the intellectuals that provide the proletariat the revolutionary consciousness it is unable to develop by itself. Thus the unhappiness of the intellectuals with the realities of capitalist society yields the revolutionary theory on which all revolutionary practice is based.

Lenin did not, as is often assumed, derive this strange inversion of Marxian theory from the peculiar conditions prevailing in Russia, but from a general principle, as is obvious in his application of this analysis to Western socialism. Here too, in Lenin’s view, the labor movement restricted itself to purely reformist forms of class struggle because their intellectual leaders had “betrayed” their comrades and the ideas of revolution by leaving the path of revolutionary Marxism. Although the revolutionary intelligentsia is a necessary presupposition of any revolutionary activity, apparently it can lose its revolutionary inclinations and cease being the ferment of revolutionary theory. To avoid such “betrayals,” it would be necessary to forge a type of revolutionary organization that allowed only the most steadfast revolutionaries into its ranks. In Lenin’s view, this was made possible through the creation of the “professional revolutionary,” whose whole existence depends on his revolutionary activity – in other words, someone like himself, who knows of no distinction between his individual and his organizational life and whose sole function is the promotion of revolution. It is true that Lenin also pointed to the requirement of illegality within the Russian setting, but as an additional argument, not as the basic rationale for his organizational concept. For him, the organizations of revolutionists are not identical with working-class organizations but are necessarily separated from the latter precisely because of their professional character. The effectiveness of such an organization, representing the “vanguard” of the revolution, depends on centralized leadership, endorsed by all its members, thus combining intraparty democracy with centralization, or, in brief, embodying to the principle of “democratic centralism.” What all this amounted to was the formation of a party operating as a kind of state machinery, long before the question of the actual capture of state power arose. The party was to be built up as a counter-state to the existing state, ready to displace the latter at the first opportunity. The construction of this type of party was thus the practical preparation for its assumption of the power of the state. Here theory and practice fell together.

Because of the apparent remoteness of the Russian, or any other, revolution, Lenin’s concept of the party-state was not grasped in its full meaning by the Social Democratic movement, but only as a rather queer idea of the relationship between spontaneity and organization, party and class, democratic and centralized leadership, and was largely adjudged as an aberration from a truly Marxian position. Western Social Democracy was itself highly centralized, as are all organizations in the capitalist system. Lenin’s quest for an even more stringent centralization could hardly be understood, except as an argument for authoritarian control and one-man rule. Everyone knew from his own experience that “democratic centralism” is a contradiction in terms, as it is a practical impossibility to reach a real consensus in a centralized organization wherein the power of persuasion is also vested in the organized leadership. It made in particular no sense from Lenin’s own point of view, which denied the “plain and simple” worker the ability to form his own revolutionary opinions and thus condemned him in advance to accept whatever the educated leadership proposed. Moreover, the many thousands of paid organizers and functionaries in the socialist parties and trade unions could see not much difference between themselves and the “professional revolutionaries” of Lenin’s organization. The organization was also their livelihood, but it did not follow that this determined their revolutionary or anti-revolutionary attitudes. In the face of this opposition, from the right as well as the left wing of international socialism, Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not overstress their organizational principles but followed them nonetheless in the building up of the Bolshevik faction of Russian Social Democracy – a process that also assured Lenin’s unique position within this organization. The pyramidal structure of organizations is not simply the way they are formed but also a means to their control. The higher one climbs up the organizational ladder, the greater the influence he can exert and the more difficult it becomes to be replaced by those occupying the lower rungs. This is not automatically so, but is deliberately built into the organization, so as to assure its control by those who are near, or have reached, its top. Although not totally foolproof the system works well, for which the whole of capitalism bears witness as well as its manifold separate organizations which include those of the labor movement. Control of the organization once gained, this domination is rarely, if ever, relinquished through pressures from below. Unless the organization is destroyed, in most cases, only death can part it from its established leadership. According to Lenin, this is as it should be, for if the leadership is the correct one, it would be silly to replace it a new and untried one. Observe, he wrote, how in Germany this vast crowd of millions values its “dozen” tried political leaders, how firmly it clings to them. Members of the hostile parties in parliament often tease the socialists by exclaiming:

"Fine democrats you are indeed! Your movement is a working-class movement only in name; as a matter of fact it is the same clique of leaders that is always in evidence, Bebel and Liebknecht, year in year out, and that goes on for decades. Your deputies are supposed to be elected from among the workers, but they are more permanent than the officials appointed by the Emperor.

"But the Germans only smile with contempt at these demagogic attempts to set the “crowd” against the ’leaders,’ to arouse turbid and vain instincts in the former, and to rob the movement of its solidity and stability by undermining the confidence of the masses in the ’dozen of wise men.’ The political ideas of the Germans have already developed sufficiently, and they have acquired enough political experience to enable them to understand that without the ’dozen’ of tried and talented leaders, professionally trained, schooled by long experience and working in perfect harmony, no class in modern society is capable of conducting a determined struggle. ... Our (Russian) wise-acres, however, at the very moment when Russian Social Democracy is passing through a crisis entirely due to our lack of a sufficient number of trained, developed and experienced leaders to guide the spontaneous ferment of the masses, cry out with the profundity of fools, it is a bad business when the movement does not proceed from the rank and file.” (10)

It would of course be unfair to point to Lenin’s early and rather silly ruminations on the question of organization, as presented in What Is to Be Done? were it not for the fact that they continued to motivate him throughout his life and guided the activities of the Bolshevik Party. On this point, which formed the starting point of the Leninist type of organization, and which occasioned the split within Russian Social Democracy, Lenin never wavered, bringing it to its full realization in the strictly centralized structure of his party and the latter’s dictatorship over the working class in the name of socialism. However strange these ruminations may have sounded in the ears of socialists, for whom the labor movement implied the self-determination of the working class, they were at the same time devoid of all originality, as they merely copied the prevalent political procedures within the capitalist system and tried to utilize them for its overthrow. What Lenin proposed appeared to him to be a realistic approach to the practical needs of the revolution, the effectiveness of which could be questioned only by those who merely talked about revolution but did nothing to bring it about. As the bourgeois ideology had to be countered by a socialist ideology, so the centralism of bourgeois political rule had to be combated by the centralized determination of the revolutionary party. Although within the general setting of the capital-labor relations, the revolutionary struggle which could yield practical results was, according to Lenin, mainly a fight between the existing state machinery and the party determined to destroy it. The latter was thus the precondition for the anticipated new state and the guarantee that the revolution would not dissipate into formless upheavals but would issue into the dictatorship of the party as a presupposition for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The means and methods of this struggle were determined by the previous structure of bourgeois society itself, but could be turned against it, if used intelligently by a truly revolutionary party and a truly revolutionary leadership, such as Lenin and the Bolsheviks endeavored to construct.

There was of course a wide gap between the Bolsheviks’ intentions and their actual achievements. If statistics can be trusted, around 1905 there were about 8,400 organized Bolsheviks and most probably the same number of Mensheviks. By 1906, membership had grown to 13,000 for the Bolsheviks and 18,000 for the Mensheviks – “one may fairly safely conclude that both factions comprised about 40,000 members in 1907. [Thus] one ought not to view Russian Social Democracy as something centered on the cafes of Geneva and composed of an ’elite mostly in exile’” (11) But it is still astonishing that this small number, spread over of Russia, should be considered the “vanguard” of the revolution. Of course, a rapid growth in numbers could be expected with increasing industrialization, capitalization, and radicalization but even so this growth was limited by the general backwardness of Russian society.

As to the social composition of Russian Social Democracy, it could be considered a working-class movement, even if top-heavy with elements from the middle class. But Lenin’s concern was not with what he called the “plain and simple” workers, but with the “wise men,” designated to lead those workers away from the reformist into the revolutionary path of activity. Apart from the impossibility of transforming all party members into “professional revolutionaries,” which would release them from their working-class status, and which was anyway precluded for financial reasons, the principle of centralization itself excluded more than concentration upon the leadership. Lenin trusted in the rise of revolutionary situations, brought about through society’s contradictory development, but he mistrusted the idea that the objective conditions would also bring forth a subjective readiness for revolutionary change. By and large, the working class was for him a part of the objective conditions, not of the subjective requirements of the revolution. However necessary the aroused masses were, their want of proper knowledge and ideological consistency could easily lead to a failure to recognize their “historic mission,” or to the submission to and betrayal by misleaders of the working class, who either consciously or unconsciously put themselves at the service of the bourgeoisie.

In the prerevolutionary phase of Bolshevism, Lenin’s organizational concepts must have had a rather comical tinge, because of the enormous distance the party would still have to travel to reach its revolutionary goal. Although actually it functioned not much differently from any other socialist organization, it presented itself from its very beginning as the party that would actually lead the revolution, because it was the only one in possession of the theory that assured its success. This claim already implied a relentless struggle against all other organizations and the demand for sole control of the revolution. The party’s authoritarianism can thus not be blamed on unexpected difficulties that arose during the revolution, for it constituted the principle of Bolshevism from the day of its initiation.

At the top of the organizational ladder there is only room for one. But this may have only ornamental meaning and need not imply an ultimate center of decision-making power. In noticeable contrast to other socialist organizations of the time, the Bolshevik Party was from the very outset under Lenin’s complete and undivided control. It was not thinkable under any other leadership. Most theoreticians leave the practical execution of their ideas to others, but in Lenin the theoretical and the practical were combined in his own person. He watched over both with equal fervor, as if incapable of delegating any degree of responsibility to other people. There was of course dissension in the party, but it was always resolved to Lenin’s satisfaction. An alternative solution could only split the party, as Lenin seemed to be unable to admit to errors detected by others than himself. He was capable of self-criticism and sudden reversals but not of accepting corrections by other people. But even so, A. N. Potresov,

who had known Lenin since 1894, and organized and edited Iskra together with him, but later on, during the first and second revolutions, came to detest him, and was thrown into prison under Lenin’s dictatorship, was impartial enough to write the following words about him ... :

"No one could sweep people away so much by his plans, impress them by his strength of will, and win them over by his personality as this man, who at first sight seemed so unprepossessing and crude, and, on the face of it, had none of the things that make for personal charm.” Neither Plekhanov nor Martov, nor anyone else had the secret of that hypnotic influence on or rather ascendancy over people, which Lenin radiated. Only Lenin was followed unquestionably as the indisputable leader, as it was only Lenin who was that rare phenomenon, particularly in Russia – a man of iron will and indomitable energy, capable of instilling fanatical faith in the movement and the cause, and possessed of equal faith in himself"’ (12)

There are such men, fortunately not always at the head of a movement. The competitive aggressive character of Lenin cannot be denied; it comes to the fore not only in his total rule over his own organization, but in all his writings, which – no matter what the subject matter – were always of a polemical nature, designed to destroy real or imaginary enemies of the revolution. Most probably he suffered from some form of paranoia, for his self-confidence was as excessive as his fear of political rivals. But this is neither here nor there, as it is quite possible to share his attitudes and convictions without being obsessed by them to the same degree. The world is swarming with “charismatic” people, sane or insane who would like to head a social movement and to symbolize it in their own person. But each movement can have only one supreme leader, who must claw his way to the top and must command the necessary qualifications. Thus men with dispositions totally different from those characteristic of Lenin, such as Trotsky or Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini, may do as well in reaching and holding supreme power and in winning the admiration of the multitude as well as that of their underlings.

There must of course also be people who accept their subordination willingly and are ready to “follow the line” drawn by leadership. But in a party that expects to become the ruling party, even subordination may appear as a good thing, to assure concerted actions leading to the desired goal. After all, this is how business is done and is the principle upon which state power rests, a situation to which most people have been habituated and which they regard as unavoidable. Just as the world of business competition leads to monopolization, the struggle for political leadership engenders a political monopoly, which must then be defended through the exclusion of any further opposition. In other words, political monopoly must be organized, and thus while the struggle for power may issue into one-man rule, the latter must be retained by ending all serious contention within the organization. In this respect, the Leninist organization was a full success, for it was able to reach a consensus of its membership despite its high centralization dominated by a singular will. More than that, the situation was idealized by a ritual adulation of Lenin that was both earnestly felt and deliberately fostered as an expedient way to maintain internal cohesion. What seemed abnormal for a socialist movement became the norm, foreshadowing the future terror of Stalin’s “personality cult,” and was adopted by all the Marxist-Leninist organizations formed after the Bolshevik Revolution.

It is the Bolshevik type of organization that explains Lenin’s extraordinary personal role in the determination of Bolshevik policy after the February Revolution of 1917. Lenin’s uncontested leadership implied of course political paralysis on the part of those Bolsheviks accustomed to follow the cherished “old man’s” advice and bound to it by party discipline. There can be little doubt that there would not have been the coup d’ etat of October without Lenin’s determination to grasp political power, which, he thought, was there for the asking, and in which he was proven right. The events of October must be credited to Lenin’s leadership, although executed by Trotsky, the party, and its many sympathizers. After that, as the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success.

The will to assume political power by revolutionary means may always be present but has to await a historical opportunity to be exercised. What makes a revolutionary is of course his impatience with the slow course of social development and his desire to hasten its pace. He will therefore often endow his anticipations in regard to the existing social conflicts with a greater revolutionary potentiality than they actually possess. Although Lenin and his colleagues did not object to the policies adopted by Western socialism, which, for the time being, consisted in the utilization of bourgeois democracy and the labor market for purposes of fostering proletarian class consciousness and building up an independent labor movement, they saw this as a time-conditioned endeavor which did not exhaust the possibilities for working-class action. Although vaguely, Lenin recognized after the experience of 1905 that just as it seemed not impossible to take power in the context of a bourgeois revolution, and in conjunction with a Western revolution to annul the bourgeois character of such a revolution, so it would also be possible to set aside the traditional activities of Western socialism and to replace bourgeois democracy with a socialist dictatorship, which would turn the nominal into a real democracy. This view was also shared, with greater consistency, by people outside the Bolshevik Party, such as for instance, A. I. Helphand (Parvus) and L. Trotsky in their concept of the “permanent revolution.”

As pointed out before, Russian Social Democracy around 1905 was too small an organized force to have more than a marginal effect upon the social upheavals of that year. There were about 3 million industrial workers, more than 2 million of whom participated in a wave of strikes which soon took on a political character as they took place within general crisis conditions aggravated by the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese war. Although the revolution involved nonproletarian layers of the population, as well as segments of the peasantry, the army, and the navy, it found in the striking workers in the big cities, particularly St. Petersburg and Moscow, its most decisive element. The strikes were spontaneous in the sense that they were not called by political organizations or trade unions but in the main were launched by workers who had no choice but to look upon their workplace as the springboard of their actions and the center of organizational efforts. The local coordination of the activities demanded representation through city-wide soviets, workers’ councils or workers’ deputies, to formulate policies and to negotiate with the authorities. Of all the soviets formed in Russia during the revolutionary events, the St. Petersburg Soviet, which lasted from October to December 1905, was perhaps the most representive. It found its first historian in Leon Trotsky – himself one of the leading members – who saw the soviets

“as a response to an objective need – a need born of the course of events. It was an organization which was authoritative and yet had no tradition, which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organizational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control – and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours.” (13)

The soviets attracted the most articulate and therefore, generally, the most politically alert of the laboring population, and they found support in the socialist organizations and incipient trade unions.(14) The city-wide soviets comprised delegates of various factories, forming a kind of “workers’ parliament” with an elected executive committee. The delegates could at any time be recalled. The soviets were impartial with respect to socialist organizations, allowing them to send delegates who could advise but had no voting rights. The difference between these traditional organizations and the soviets was summed up in Trotsky’s remark, that while the socialist parties were organizations within the proletariat, and their immediate aim was to achieve influence over the masses, the soviet was, from the start, “the organization of the proletariat, and its aim was the struggle for revolutionary power.” (15)

For Lenin, the soviets of 1905 were "organs of direct mass struggle". They originated as organs of the strike struggle. By force of circumstances they very quickly became the organs of the general revolutionary struggle against the government.... It was not some theory, not appeals on the part of someone, or tactics invented by someone, not party doctrine, but the force of circumstances that led these nonparty mass organs to realize the need for an uprising and transformed them into organs of an uprising.” (16) Lenin saw the soviets as “the embryos of a provisional government” because “power would inevitably have passed to them had the uprising been victorious,” and spoke of the need to shift the center of attention “to studying these embryonic organs of a new government that history has brought into being, to studying the conditions for their work and their success.(17) But he still insisted on the undivided revolutionary leadership of the Social Democratic Party. The soviets were for Lenin “not an organ of proletarian self-government, nor an organ of self-government at all, but a fighting organization for the achievement of definite aims.” (18) Although the party “has never renounced its intention of using nonparty organizations, such as the soviets,” he said, “it should do so in order to strengthen its own influence in the working class and to increase its own power.” (19)

From this position Lenin never deviated even when he proclaimed the slogan “All power to the soviets” in order to break up the dual power of the soviets and the liberal Provisional Government established by the February Revolution of 1917. The soviets were, in Lenin’s view, to be induced to eliminate the provisional government, but only to form a new government, based on the soviets instead of on the contemplated Constituent Assembly. This would exclude the nonworking population from direct or indirect participation in state activities and thus realize the dictatorship of the proletariat. The new government would be subject to the control of the soviets, not to that of any particular party. But at the same time, while asking for a soviet government, Lenin was still thinking in terms of a Bolshevik government, with or without the consent of the soviets. At the First Congress of Soviets on June 3, 1917, Tseretelli, a Menshevik Minister in the Provisional Government, made the remark that in Russia at that time there existed not one political party that would say, give us the power into our hands. “I answer there is,” Lenin retorted. “No party can decline to do that, and our party does not decline. It is ready at any minute to take the whole power."’ (20)

At this time the situation was still in flux; the war was continuing despite the progressive dissolution of the army; counter-revolutionary plots were being hatched; the economy was disintegrating with increasing speed; and the Bolshevik faction in the soviets was still a small minority, unable to turn the situation to its own account. It was not possible to tell, from the existing political constellation, which way the wheel would turn. Would the coalition of the soviets with the Provisional Government last until the calling of the Constituent Assembly – to which all parties had committed themselves – and lead to the formation of a bourgeois government and the completion of the bourgeois revolution? Or would a change in the external situation, or in the composition of the soviets, end the coalition and issue into a renewal of the civil war? Or would the provisional government, with the aid of loyal parts of the army, subdue the soviets to its own will through some form of dictatorship? The many parties operating within the soviets and their widely diverging political and economic programs, as well as frictions within the government itself, made for a chaotic political situation in which everything and nothing seemed possible. Under these conditions, the Bolsheviks could come to power either by gaining the majority in the soviets and then trying to dislodge the Provisional Government, or by risking a military uprising with their own limited forces, without counting on the soviets’ support. Either way was feasible and the best solution would be to prepare for both. This involved a certain ambivalence toward the soviets, which Lenin thus at times found indispensable and at other times saw as a hindrance to the execution of a second revolution. But no matter what role the soviets would come to play, it was power for the party that determined Lenin’s policy, as may easily be surmised from all the subsequent developments. This was of course only consistent with both his general philosophy and his conception of the party as the determining element of the socialist revolution.

Because in February 1917 soldiers went over to the revolution, the first soviets were composed of soldiers’ and workers’ councils with the former in the great majority. The Petrograd Soviet in the second part of March 1917, for instance, had 3,000 delegates, 2,000 of whom were soldiers. The influence of the revolutionary intelligentsia was far greater in 1917 than in 1905, as may be seen from the fact that of the 42 members of the Petrograd Soviet’s Executive Committee only seven were factory workers. Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were at first predominant. The Bolshevik fraction in the Petrograd Soviet consisted of 40 out of the 3,000 delegates. By September 1917, however, the Bolsheviks had gained the majority. Their growing strength within the revolutionary development was due to their own unconditional adaptation to the real goals of the rebellious masses. Apart from the latter’s narrower demands for the relief of immediate miseries, their wider demands embraced the ending of the war and the expropriation and distribution of the landed estates. The February Revolution was at once a bourgeois, a proletarian, and a peasant revolution, but it was its peasant aspect that assured its success. Of Russia’s 174 million population only 24 million lived in cities, and it was the terrible plight of the peasantry that allied it to the industrial proletariat. Although the Provisional Government was ready to institute a series of agricultural reforms, it was not willing to assent to the expropriation of the big landowners without compensation, for this would violate the principle of private property on which the rule of the bourgeoisie is based. Neither was it willing to sue for peace, for it still hoped for an allied victory and participation in the spoils of war. The Bolsheviks, however, were for the immediate ending of the war and for the distribution of land to the peasantry. Because the majority of the soldiers came from the peasantry, the soldiers’ councils no less than the workers’ councils shifted their allegiance from the bourgeoisie and social reformist parties to the Bolsheviks.

It was not the Marxist agrarian program that attracted the peasants but that of the Social Revolutionaries, which demanded the nationalization of all land under the control of democratically organized village communes on the basis of equal land holdings. From a Marxian point of view such a program was utopian. Marxism favors large-scale production that does away with individual peasant farming. Because it envisioned socialism as the successor to capitalism, and because in its view capitalism itself is doing away with small-scale peasant farming, it expected that the peasant question would largely be solved within capitalism so as not to constitute a major problem for socialism. Lenin’s early opposition to Narodnism and its Social Revolutionary heirs was based on the belief that an equal distribution of land to the peasants was not only highly unrealistic but in contradiction to a socialist mode of production. He also favored the breaking up of the semifeudal estates but only to hasten the development of capitalistic agriculture, which would restore the concentration of landownership under progressive conditions. At any rate, this was a problem of the future, of further capitalistic development. The peasantry, Lenin said, "can free itself from the yoke of capital by associating with the working-class movement, by helping the workers in their struggle for the socialist system, for transforming the land, as well as the other means of production (factories, works machines, etc) into social property. Trying to save the peasantry by protecting small-scale farming and small holding from the onslaught of capitalism would be a useless retarding of social development.” (21)

Apart from all programs, however, soon after the February Revolution, the peasants began to expropriate and divide the land on their own accord. Until then, the Provisional Government had paid little attention to the peasant question. It only began to consider it seriously in the face of upheavals in the countryside. But even so, it only brought forth vague suggestions regarding the expropriation and distribution of the land, the enactment of which into law was left to the forthcoming Constituent Assembly. Because Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were now represented the Provisional Government, the latter’s ambiguous attitude and inactivity regarding the land problem cost these parties the active support of the peasants."We were victorious in Russia, and with such ease,” Lenin pointed out at a later date,

because we prepared our revolution during the imperialist war....Ten million workers and peasants in Russia were armed, and our slogan was an immediate peace at all costs. We were victorious because the vast masses of the peasants were revolutionarily disposed against the land-owners. The Social Revolutionaries ... demanded revolutionary methods,...but lacked the courage to act in a revolutionary way. We were victorious ... not only because the undisputed majority of the working class was on our side ... but also because half the army, immediately after our seizure of power, and nine-tenths of the peasants, in the course of some weeks, came over to our side; we were victorious because we adopted the agrarian programme of the Social Revolutionaries instead of our own.” (22)

In the quest for state power, it was clear to Lenin that it was absolutely essential to win the peasants’ support, even if only their passive support. The Marxist agrarian program had been developed in opposition to that of the Social Revolutionaries, but at a time when the practical questions of the revolution were not yet acute. Under Russian conditions this program was totally unrealistic. All abstract considerations of the agrarian problem became meaningless when the peasants simply seized what was seizable. It was not because “the Bolsheviks availed themselves of the agrarian program of the Social Revolutionaries that they were victorious,” but because they merely sanctioned what was taking place anyway. It is true, of course, that in this way they won the “good will” of the peasants and thus had an easier time of gaining and holding state power. But Lenin’s presentation makes it appear as if a timely opportunistic move, a part of a general strategy, led to the Bolsheviks’ triumph, thus justifying opportunism as a weapon of revolution. The acquiescence in the peasants’ seizure of land, though recognized as a violation of Marxian principles, was nonetheless seen as a clever ruse to help the “Marxist” revolution along. Although relentlessly denouncing the opportunism of their political adversaries, Lenin and the Bolsheviks prided themselves on their general willingness to resort to all kinds of temporary concessions and compromises, sacrificing their own principles to gain a greater advantage in the long run.

Although Lenin was the deadly enemy of the bourgeois revolution, his politics were those of the bourgeois mind; that is, he saw the struggle between classes and nations as dependent upon the strategies and tactics of political leaders and statesmen, who determine the movements of the populations. It was a question of outmaneuvering and outwitting one’s adversaries, a game to be won by those most adept in the manipulation of events. Politics and revolution were an “art,” which would give the palm of victory to the most versatile and most knowledgeable of the competing contestants – not an “art” in contrast to the rigidities of science, or the dullness of the commonplace, but as a matching of talents that would bring the best man to the top. To be sure, the game had to be played under the varying handicaps set by the prevailing objective social conditions, but even so, within these conditions it was still a question of “who was going to destroy whom” in the struggle for political power. It was this that Lenin meant by the preponderance of theory over practice, or that of the leaders over the more or less uneducated masses, who could only react blindly to situations beyond their comprehension.

Not denying the objective limitations set for the history-making social process by class relations and the level of economic development, Lenin succeeded in convincing himself that though history is made by men, it is actually made by only a few of them, who by identifying themselves with particular class interests, alter the course of events through their powers of persuasion and their exceptional abilities. But every bourgeois knows that sheer arbitrariness is an impossibility, even though he may insist upon the history-making capacity of individuals and credit historical developments to the existence of great men. He overlooks the fact that the great man is such only because the apex of the pyramidal social structure demands his existence, no matter what his particular qualifications (although competition may on occasion bring some outstanding personality to the top of the pyramid). In a class-ridden society the role of the great man is not only filled automatically, it must be insisted upon to keep the social fabric together. No class society can exist without its great men, for this is only the other side of the same coin. By the same token, however, the great men are limited in their reach by the general socioeconomic conditions which they come to symbolize. Their interference in events is circumscribed by what is historically possible. But what is historically possible is not determined by what may be politically possible, but by the actual level of the social forces of production and the social relations associated with them.

It was political events that favored the Bolsheviks. At the First All-Russian Soviet Congress, in June 1917, the Bolsheviks controlled 13 percent of the 790 delegates; at the second congress, in October 1917, they controlled 51 percent of the 675 delegates. However, though the Bolsheviks had the majority in the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow as early as September 1917, Lenin would have been ready to take power even if it had been otherwise. “It would be naive,” he wrote, “to wait for a ‘formal’ majority for the Bolsheviks. No revolution ever waits for that.(23) Despite opposition within his own party, he demanded an armed insurrection prior to the convocation of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. A fait acompli would make it easier to get the congress’s support for the elimination of the Provisional Government. To that end, the Petrograd Soviet organized a military-revolutionary committee under the leadership of Trotsky, which went into action on the twenty-fifth of October. Within a few hours of the coup d’état, Lenin was able to claim victory for the workers’ and peasants’ revolution, and, later in the day, to win the approval of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. This was the easier because the right Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks had left the congress in protest against the coup d’ etat. On the following day the first Workers’ and Peasants’ Government was formed.

Lenin’s timing of the insurrection proved to be correct. It found the Provisional Government defenseless and assured an almost bloodless transfer of power to the Soviet government. Supposedly, it also changed the hitherto bourgeois into a proletarian revolution, even though this was brought about not by a spontaneous rising of the working class but by a conspiratorially organized military force of armed Bolshevik workers and military detachments siding with the Bolsheviks. Although a party affair, it undoubtedly coincided with the real demands of the workers, as expressed in the shift of political allegiances within the soviets and in the general attitude of the working population. Lenin had actually succeeded in making the proletarian revolution for the workers, thus substantiating his own revolutionary concepts. However, when he demanded the preparation for the insurrection, he did not speak of the exercise of state power by the soviets but of that by the party. With the majority of the soviet deputies being Bolshevik, or supporting the Bolsheviks, he took for granted that the new government would be a Bolshevik government. And that was the case of course, even though some left Social Revolutionaries and left Socialists obtained positions in the new government.

At first, however, the Bolsheviks proceeded rather cautiously, emphasizing the democratic nature of their new regime and their willingness to accept the decisions of the popular masses even if not in agreement with them. They did not at once repudiate the election of the Constituent Assembly, which, as it turned out, gave a large majority to the Social Revolutionaries and put the Bolsheviks in the minority. But despite their election success, due to their traditional empathy with the peasants, the Social Revolutionaries were not a unified party, particularly with regard to the question of the continuation of war. The left Social Revolutionaries were in closer accord with the Bolsheviks than with the right wing of their own party. While the elections for the Constituent Assembly were being held, an All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies was also in progress. The congress split the Social Revolutionaries and the left wing entered a coalition with the Bolsheviks. The election results had made clear that the Constituent Assembly would destroy the Bolshevik Party’s political dominance and the accomplishments of the revolution as well. With the consent of the Social Revolutionaries and some left Socialists, the Bolsheviks simply drove the assembly away.

The will of the majority of the population, workers and peasants, to reach for peace, land, bread, and liberty, found a complete counterpart in the political program of the Bolshevik Party. The early bourgeois democratic aspiration for a Constituent Assembly had lost its apparent importance, not only for the Bolsheviks but for the broad masses as well. Not only in Russia but internationally revolutionaries hailed soviet rule as an accomplishment of historical significance. Even such a skeptical socialist as Luxemburg stated that by seizing power, the Bolsheviks had “for the first time proclaimed the final aim of socialism as the direct program of practical policies.” (24) They had done so by “solving the famous problem of winning a majority of the people” by revolutonary tactics that led to a majority, instead of waiting for latter to evolve a revolutionary tactic.(25) In her view, at least far as the urban masses were concerned, Lenin’s party had grasped their true interests by playing all power into the hands of soviets.

From his own point of view, however, Lenin equated soviet power with the power of the Bolshevik Party; he saw in the latter’s monopoly of the state the realization of the rule of the soviets. After all, there was only the choice between a capitalist government and a workers’ and peasants’ government able to prevent the return of the bourgeois rule. But to continue Bolshevik domination of the government and its state apparatus, the workers and peasants would have to continue to elect Bolsheviks to the soviets. For that there was no guarantee. Just as the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, once in the majority, now found themselves in a minority position, so things could change again for the Bolsheviks. It was thus necessary to prevent a reemergence of the soviets, which might favor a return to bourgeois political institutions. Left to themselves, the soviets were quite capable of abdicating their power position for the promises of the liberal bourgeoisie and their social reformist allies. To secure the socialist character of the revolution demanded, then, the suppression of all anti-Bolshevik forces within and outside the soviet system. In a short time the soviet regime became the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party. The emasculated soviets were retained, though only formally, to hide this fact.

Quite apart from the tactical participation in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, and the occasional lip service paid to this bourgeois institution, Lenin had already, in the so-called “April Theses” proposed to his organization after his return to Russia, argued that a parliamentary republic was unnecessary because of the existence of the soviets, which in his view would allow for a type of state such as had been brought about by the Paris Commune. In accordance with this idea, he did not think that socialism was the immediate task, but that the “transition to the control of production and the distribution of products by the soviet of workers’ deputies” sufficed to serve the immediate needs of the revolution. What was of foremost importance was the nature of the state, of political power, from which everything else would flow in the direction of socialism. “All power to the soviets,” did not include possession of the means of production, or the abolition of wage labor. The workers were not expected to administer but merely to oversee the industrial enterprises. The first decree of Workers’ Control extended it

over the production, storing, buying and selling of raw materials and finished goods as well as over the finances of the enterprises. The workers exercise this control through their elected organizations, such as factory and shop committees, soviet elders, etc. The office employees and the technical personnel are also to have representation in these committees. ... The organs of workers’ control have the right to supervise production. Commercial secrets are abolished. The owners have to show to the organs of workers’ control all their books and statements for the current year and for the past year.” (26)

However, capitalist production and workers’ control are incompatible and this makeshift affair, whereby the Bolsheviks hoped to retain the aid of the capitalist organizers of production and yet satisfy the yearnings of the workers to take possession of industry, could not last for long. “We did not decree socialism all at once throughout the whole of industry,” Lenin explained a year later,

because socialism can take shape and become finally established only when the working class has learned to run the economy. ... That is why we introduced workers’ control, knowing that it was a contradictory and partial measure. But we consider it most important and valuable that the workers have themselves tackled the job, that from workers’ control, which in the principal industries was bound to be chaotic, amateurish and partial, we have passed to workers’ administration of industry on a nation-wide scale.” (27)

The change from “control” to “administration” turned out entail the abolition of both. To be sure, just as the emasculation the soviets took some time, for it required the formation and consolidation of the Bolshevik state apparatus, so the workers influence in factories and workshops was only gradually eliminated through such methods as shifting the controlling rights from the factory committees to the trade unions and then transforming the latter into agencies of the state. In fact, workers’ control by factory councils or shop stewards preceded the governmental decree. These committees arose spontaneously during the Revolution, as the only possible form of workers’ representation due to the destruction of the trade unions during the war. The latter had been, of course, the counterpart of Russian Social Democracy and were a stronghold of its Menshevik wing. They rapidly revived after the February Revolution but found now strong opposition in the factory committees, which held the unions to be superfluous under the changed conditions. Generally the factory councils sided with the Bolsheviks and considered themselves a more adequate form of organization, not only in the fight for immediate demands, for workers’ control, but also as newly founded system for the administration of production in the enterprise and in the economy as a whole.

With the overthrow of the Provisional Government, and even before serious attempts were made to integrate the factory councils into a centralized network so as to secure both the existence of the national economy and the undivided control of production and distribution by the producers themselves, which would practically mean the abolition of wage labor. But even as a mere tendency, and a rather weak one, considering the Russian conditions, this project was at once outlawed by the Bolshevik regime under the subterfuge that it would impair economic revival and reduce the productivity of labor. Although the factory committees had been one of the conditions of the Bolshevik assumption of power, their contemplated self-determination now endangered and contradicted the dictatorial rule of the Bolshevik government. With the Mensheviks’ loss of power went also their control of the trade unions, which were taken over by the Bolsheviks. The factory councils were induced to subordinate themselves to the trade unions, in fact, to turn themselves into a trade-union instrument for the assertion of the latter’s will in the factories. The trade unions, with their bureaucratic centralization, were less susceptible to independent actions and could more easily be integrated into the emerging Bolshevik state. And, as it was pointed out at the time, “the objective course of the revolution demanded the transition to government control and regulation of industry.” (28)

In this way, workers’ control reversed itself, becoming control over the workers and their production. The basic need was for greater production and, because mere exhortation could not induce the workers to exploit themselves more than had been customary, the Bolshevik state extended itself into the economic sphere, insisting all the while that economic control by the state actually meant control by the proletariat. This did not hinder Lenin from declaring that it was absolutely essential that the technical and organizational direction of production must be the exclusive right of the state-appointed managers and directors, for

the foundation of socialism calls for absolute and strict unify of will which directs the joint labors of hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of people ... How can strict unity of will be assured? By thousands subordinating their wills to the will of one. Given ideal class-consciousness and discipline on the part of those taking part in the common work, this subordination would be quite like the mild leadership of a conductor of an orchestra. It may assume the sharp form of dictatorship if ideal discipline and class consciousness are lacking. But be that as it may, un questioning subordination to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organized on the pattern of large-scale industry. (29)

If this statement is taken seriously, class consciousness must have been totally lacking in Russia, for control of production, and of social life in general, took on dictatorial forms exceeding anything experienced in capitalist nations and excluding any measure of self-determination on the part of the workers down to the present day.


1. Cf. Kautsky, The Road to Power (1909).

2. The individuals referred to here represent not only themselves but currents within the labor movement, in which they played outstanding roles through their contributions to the movement’s theory and practice.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 35 (Moscow: Progress, 1966), p. 76.

4. The literature and documentation of the Russian revolution is so immense that hardly anything can or need be added to it apart from the work of professional historians, especially as this upheaval has been treated from every conceivable point of view, pro and contra, as well as with respect to its impact upon the world at large and the development of capitalism. We will therefore deal only with aspects of this revolution relevant to understanding its effect upon the labor movement in general and the theory and practice of Marxism in particular.

5. My Past and Thoughts. The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 500.

6. The Social-Revolutionary Party represented the interests of the peasantry in the Russian revolution. It was organized in 1905 through the unification of a number of Populist groups. Its program demanded a federated republic based on a general frachise, and stressed the “socialization” of all land, that is, its ownership and control by democratically organized communities on the basis of equal holdings and the abolition of hired labor. Although it included workers and intellectuals, the party did not concern itself with the nattionalization of industry, on the assumption that the abolition of landownership would by itself prevent the further development of the capitalist relations of production. However, its left wing, the “Maximalists,” advocated the inclusion in its program of the socialization of industry under the aegis of a Workers’ Republic. It also differentiated itself from the pro-war right wing of the party by its internationalist stand on the war issue. Forming a political bloc with the Mensheviks, the Social-Revolutionaries dominated the Petrograd Soviet; by themselves they controlled the Soviet of Peasant Deputies. In the election for the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, in November 1917, they received 17 million out of 41,700,000 votes, and the party’s chairman, V. M. Chernov, was elected President of the Assembly. Prior to this, the party was represented in the Provisional Government formed at the time of the February Revolution. Its left wing supported the Bolsheviks and took part in the first Bolshevik government, as well as in the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 21(Moscow: Progress, 1964), p. 336.

8. What is to Be Done? (New York, 1929), written in February 1902.

9. Ibid., p. 33.

10. Ibid., pp. 1134.

11. David Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism (State College, Pa.:Pennsylvania State University Press, 1969), pp. 12-15. This is an extensive analysis – with respect to the country as a whole and to specific districts – of the social composition, structure, membership, and political activity of Russian social democratic groups from 1889 to 1907.

12. As quoted by N. Valentinov in his book Encounters With Lenin (1968) p. 42. See also A. Balabanoff, My Life As a Rebe1(1968), and other memoirs.

13. L. Trotsky, 1905 (New York: Vintage, 1972), p. 104.

14. For a detailed history of the soviets see 0. Anweiler, The Soviets: The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921 (New York: Pantheon, 1974).

15. Trotsky, 1905, p. 251.

16. Lenin, “The Dissolution of the Duma and the Tasks of the Proletariat” (1906) in Collected Works, Vol 11 (Moscow: Progress, 1962), pp. 124-5.

17. Ibid., pp. 128-9.

18. “Socialism and Anarchism” (1905), in Collected Works, Vol. 10(Moscow: Progress, 1962), p. 72.

19. “Draft Resolutions for the Fifth Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.” (1907), in Collected Works, Vol 12(Moscow: Progress, 1962), pp. 142-4.

20. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. I (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1932), p. 479. Cf: M. Ferro, The Russian Revolution of February 191 7 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 308.

21. “The Workers’ Party and the Peasantry” (1902) in Collected Works Vol 4 (Moscow: Progress, 1960), p. 422.

22. “Speech in Defense of the Tactics of the Communist International” at the Third Congress of the Communist International (July 1921), Against Dogmatism and Sectarianism in the Working-Class Movement (Moscow, 1965), pp. 179-81.

23. “The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power” (Letter to the Central Committee of the Petrograd and Moscow Party Committee, September 1917) in Collected Works, Vol 26 (Moscow: Progress, 1964), p. 21.

24. R. Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), p. 39.

25. Ibid.

26. J. Bunyan and H. H. Fisher, The Bolshevik Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1934).

27. Questions of the Socialist Organization of the Economy (Moscow: p. 173).

28. A. M. Pankratova, Fabrikriite in Russland (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1976), p. 232. This important book, first published in Moscow in 1923, offers a comprehensive description – albeit from a Bolshevik point of view – of the rise, activities, and aspirations of the Russian factory councils, their relations to the trade unions, and their elimination by the Bolshevik state.

29. Lenin, Questions of the Socialist Organization of the Economy, p. 127.