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In Struggle!

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The working class seizes State power

First Published: In Struggle! No. 218, September 16, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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We wound up our last article In the series on a rather pessimistic note. Most of the major organizations that the proletariat had managed to build failed to take a clear stand against making war. The Second International crumbled. The alliance of all classes replaced the struggle between classes within each country.

In this article we will see how that situation was to chance quite quickly between 1914 and 1921 in Europe. In a future article, we will concentrate on the developments of the struggle in the colonies and semi-colonies, an aspect we have barely touched on so far.

The 1914-18 imperlallst war

The First World War started in August 1914 and lasted until November 1918. It left 17 million dead. The war was the result of the inter-imperialist rivalries for a redivision of the colonies and zones of influence. Countries lined up in one of two blocs. On the one side there were the “central powers”: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. On the other there was the Entente led by Russia, France and Great Britain. Italy joined the Entente in 1915. In 1917, it was Canada’s turn to join in the bloodshed together with the U.S., some Latin American countries, Japan, Romania, Australia and others.

The war forced each country to engage in a total mobilization of its industrial and human resources. The State became the overseer of the war effort. What war meant for the people was a progressive across-the-board degeneration of living standards and elimination of democratic rights.

The first mass anti-war protests began in the beginning of 1917. Strikes broke out and mutinies occured in units of the armed forces. In Russia, the running down of the backward economy, military defeats, the disintegration of the army and rationing intensified the contradictions which all countries were experiencing.

In the countryside, where 80% of the people lived, the situation got bitter and desperate after the harsh winter of 1916-17. The average peasant had a mere 7.6 hectares of land. He could not survive without coming into conflict with the landlords whose holdings averaged some 2,500 hectares. There were 5 million workers crammed into the cities. Surprisingly enough, they were actually more concentrated than in the United States: 50% worked in factories with more than 1,000 employees compared to 33% in the U.S. Most of the big plants belonged to foreign imperialists which had set them up quite recently, mostly between 1907 and 1913. The Russian bourgeoisie remained a relatively weak class. The unique thing about Russia was that all social classes were against the oppressive Tsar. The 1905 revolution brought millions of people into political life and let them see for themselves all the relationships which existed between the various classes, more so than in any other country.

When the revolution broke out in February, 1917, Tsarism fell apart in a matter of days when the workers went on strike and were supported by mutinying soldiers. The assault on State power was spontaneous Everywhere – in the army, the towns, and to a lesser extent in the countryside – the masses revived the organizational form which they had adopted in 1905: the Soviets (councils). Soviets are the type of institution of political power that had been created in the Paris Commune in 1871, based on the direct action of the people in arms. In most Soviets, the Mensheviks (socialists supporting the line of the Second International) were elected to leadership positions. The Bolsheviks were in the minority. The bourgeoisie meanwhile had created a provisional government which had some degree of mass support.

From March 1917 on, Russia was in a situation of dual power. An absolutely critical question, the answer to which would affect the whole future, came to the fore: which of the two rival centres of power would win out? Should the proletariat support the new bourgeois republic and pursue the parliamentary road as the Second International was doing? That was the position taken by the leadership of the Soviets. They consciously and voluntarily surrendered power to the provisional government. Alternately, should the proletariat seize State power for itself with the slogan “all power to the Soviets”? That was the point of view that won out within the Bolshevik party, although there was substantial opposition to it [1].

The Bolshevik party started at that point to do broad agitation in the Soviets to wrest the leadership from under the influence of the bourgeoisie. As long as that task had not been accomplished, the Bolsheviks refrained from issuing the slogan calling for the overthrow of the provisional government (which, incidently, was headed by the “socialist” Mensheviks that summer). The provisional government did not satisfy any of the major demands of the masses on all the questions from peace to equal access to land.

The masses thus learned through direct experience just what a bourgeois government was all about. Further, the Bolsheviks won a majority in the town Soviets in August and September of 1917. In the countryside, the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries were the majority and represented the peasantry. In October 1917, convinced that they had the majority of working people behind them, the Bolsheviks launched an armed insurrection. The provisional government fell and all power passed into the hands of the Soviets. The Bolsheviks moved quickly to cement an alliance with the Socialist-Revolutionaries, representatives of the peasant class. The working class, allied with the peasantry, began to exercize its dictatorship over the exploiters [2].

The first moves of the working class State

The first tasks before the new State were to crush the resistance of the profiteers and generals from the old army and to meet the most pressing demands of the masses. Within a few days of taking power, the land was nationalized and joyously handed over to the peasants who had struggled so hard against the landlords to achieve this end. The oppressed nationalities that had suffered under the heel of the Tsar were granted a status of absolute equality. A peace appeal was immediately made to Germany. Worker control, which as often as not was spontaneously established in the factories, was given the force of law by a formal decree.

The establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat was also the signal for a great wave of liberation on a lot of other levels too. The complete equality of women with men was proclaimed. Divorce by mutual consent was recognized. Discrimination’ against children born out of wedlock was done away with. The penal code was radically changed so that the responsibility of society became a factor which had to be taken into account in judging criminal acts. Judges were elected as were the officers in the new army where formal ranks had been abolished. Advanced experimentation flourished in the schools where students were involved in running the schools. Culture was made to serve the people and artistic production boomed in all directions in ways that had never been seen before.

Communism seemed to herald great things for all oppressed peoples. The problem was the disastrous economic situation inherited from the war. Everything had been wrecked. Chaos reigned. Conditions like these threatened the very survival of the Soviet State. Thus the accent was placed on the tasks of organization and control and secondly on stepping up the productivity of labour. Lenin said that unless those two material conditions were transformed there could be no advance towards socialism. The Soviet State did not launch into a wave of nationalizations (just the banks were taken over). The key for the moment was to exercize general worker control over capitalism. It was in fact a kind of State capitalism except that the State was not controlled by capitalists. The Soviet State took on thereby the usual tasks that capitalist countries took on, tasks that had not yet been accomplished in Russia. Worker control was also a way to educate the proletariat in the tasks of economic management which it was not prepared for as yet [3].

The Brest-Litovsk peace

In March 1918, Russia signed a very onerous peace (losing the whole Ukraine) with Germany. There was a lot of storming about it within the Bolshevik party. There appeared to be two choices. The State of Soviets could carry on with the war with the hope of extending the revolution to Europe (up until then socialists had always presumed that revolution could only take palce on a world-wide level). If not, then the peace pact should be signed and workers must get down to work in building socialism in Russia. The Bolsheviks were aware that they were but the first detachment of a world-wide proletarian army and felt that they must hold out as long as possible so that the revolution in Europe could be carried out.

Lenin stated that Russia must be ready to make the greatest sacrifices to help that revolution. Inversely, great difficulties were foreseen for the State of Soviets if that revolution never took place. In actual fact, Russia had no choice. It had to sign the peace agreement. The masses were extremely sick of the war and would have overthrown any State that tried to continue it. After the respite gained by signing the peace, millions of workers and peasants would go through their own experience of a State of Soviets and get involved in the building of socialism.

Whites against Reds

The respite was to be of short duration. Within Russia, the reactionaries took up arms and attacked the new State from all sides. From the spring of 1918 on they were backed by the imperialist powers from the Entente bloc with material aid and men. Canada, for example, sent a full batallion to fight the Soviets. But the workers in many countries also demonstrated their support for the Soviet republic.French sailors on the Black Sea mutinied. British workers threatened to go on strike if its government intervened in Russia.

The Soviet people, already tired out, had to get mobilized all over again in full force to right the civil war which lasted by and large until 1920. The State was obliged to adopt a whole series of draconian measures known as the War Communism policy. These measures had nothing to do with the economic tasks that the proletariat needed to carry out. All major companies and many small ones were nationalized. Money was for all intents and purposes done away with. There was a very strict militarization of work. Worker supervision was not to be exercized by the worker committees (the best workers had all been sent to the front or had been given political tasks) but by a manager accountable to the State.

There was a vast debate about the role that the unions should be playing in such a situation. Lenin supported the view that the unions still must play a role in defending the interests of the workers vis-a-vis the State because the State was notyet perfectly proletarian. There were lots of reasons for them to act in defence of workers to deal with certain abuses of power by certain people. In the rural areas, detachments of workers proceeded to requisition stocks of food accumulated by the peasants. In short, the State increased its lever of activity enormously and imposed a rigorous discipline, so that it would be able to use every last available resource to win the civil war. The situation was so disastrous and the deprivation so profound that 7 million people died of hunger, cold and epidemics which they had no means to control. Many millions more were to die in direct combat.

War communism made a military victory possible but it also created very great social contradictions, especially between the working class and the peasantry. In 1920, agricultural production was but half of what it had been in 1913. Revolts broke out in various parts of the country. The State of Soviets had to move quickly to resolve those contradictions.

Revolutionary Europe

By the end of the First World War, important changes in the balance of power between countries and between the classes within countries had taken place. Unquestionably, it was the United States which dominated. The imperialist countries of the Triple Entente forced a very hard peace on the defeated countries thus revealing their imperialist intentions. They took away large parts of the the territories of the defeated countries, occupied others, made them pay enormous sums by way of “war reparations”, and took over those parts of the means of production in these countries which were still intact. The peoples of these countries ended up paying the bill. A whole series of countries were created at the expense of the defeated countries: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yougoslavia and the Baltic States whose borders were most often determined by the winning imperialists in terms of their efforts to hold back both Germany and Russia. But the creation of these countries was also the result of their long struggles against the Austrian and German yokes and a step closer to the bourgeois revolution in Eastern Europe which was not yet very developed. The economic crisis which was expected at the end of the war did not come at the time, mainly because of the action of the various States which borrowed heavily and intervened to support the economy.

At the end of the war, conditions were no less difficult for the proletariat and, spurred on by the example of the 1917 October Revolution, it stepped up its struggles in all countries, contesting bourgeois power to various degrees. In Canada, there was the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike where workers took over the city. In 1920, in Italy, most factories were occupied by the workers. There was a general movement of revolt among the masses but most of the time neither its goals nor its means of action were clear.

In the defeated countries, this explosion of struggles was transformed into genuine revolutions, especially in Germany. In November, 1918, mutinies by the soldiers and sailors, backed by a vast wave of strikes, led to the creation of more than 10,000 Soviets in just a short period of time. They were led by the heads of the old-social-democratic party. In the face of the revolutionary movement, the bourgeoisie backed down without even resisting. By the end of November, Emperor William II was overthrown and a republic proclaimed, headed up by Ebert and Scheideman, the Ed Broadbent and Dennis McDermott of their day. In December and January, power was in the hands of the Soviets, but they voluntarily passed it over to the bourgeois republican parliament. Under the leadership of the social democrats, parliament sent the army and its quasi-fascist troops to smash the revolutionary workers, notably the Soviet Republic of Bavaria. The social democrats who were in power did almost nothing on behalf of the working class, but showed themselves to be excellent watchdogs for capitalism. The revolutionary left, the Spartacists, which became the Communist Party in 1919, did not succeed; despite its efforts, to break the hold that social-democracy had over the working claps (as we saw before, all the past education of the working class had been done in the purest parliamentary reformist way, and the victories of the working class were due to this reformism). This gave the German bourgeoisie the necessary delay enabling it to progressively reinforce its shakey positions.

There were also revolutions in the Eastern European countries. A Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Hungary which lasted from March to July 1919. In Bulgaria, a peasants’ republic was established. Soviets were created in Finland. Everywhere where the old ruling classes were weakened, the popular forces tried to take power, without ever being able to keep it for any length of time.

An Instrument of attack

The years between the bankruptcy of the Second International (1914) and the foundation of the Communist International (or Third International) in 1919 were years of confusion in the ranks of the socialists around many questions of programme as well as being years of struggle to resolve these questions. Lenin produced important theoretical works on the nature of imperialism and its links with opportunism, on the question of the State, proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Under the social democrats, these questions had been considered as touching on subjects for a far-away future.

The Third International (Comintern) thus appeared in this double context. On one hand, the revolutionary movement was moving forward and to guarantee its success, efforts had to be united on a world scale. On the other, there was much ideological confusion. From the beginning, the Comintern drew lines of demarcation with the Second International. It was to be the centralized world party of the proletariat. It was to be a party of revolutionWy action and not a debating club. In opposition to the parliamentary republic, the idea which was at the heart of all its actions in 1919 and 1920 was “all power to the Soviets”. (As we have seen, this was a concrete choice in many countries). All those who still maintained the revolutionary ideal of destroying the bourgeois State and overthrowing capitalism moved closer to the Comintern.

The First Congress (1919) was a preparatory one while the Second (1920) led to the genuine formation of the Comintern. It was there that the Constitution was adopted, as were the 21 conditions for admission on the basis of which the Comintern tried to demarcate communism from reformism. The call for the formation of communist parties in all countries was also put out at this congress. This call was enthusiastically taken up around the world. The Comintern placed considerable importance on the necessity to join the liberation movement in the colonies with the proletarian movement in the imperialist countries. The creation of the Communist Party of Canada in 1921, and that of many others, was in answer to this call. Everywhere, and at all levels, splits took place between the communists and the social democrats.

We will stop here for the time being, as the revolutionary wave begins to slow down following numerous defeats of the working class. The Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921 recognized this change in the conjuncture and adopted new tactics, while in the U.S.S.R., war communism was abandoned and a new period begun. Up to now, we have deliberately limited ourselves to presenting the facts around the struggle for socialism. In our next article, we will pause to examine what lessons for the working class can be drawn from this history.


[1] For more information read what is known as the April theses by Lenin. “The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution”. Collected Works, vol. 24, pp. 55-91

[2] For more information on the seizure of power, read a very dynamic account by an eye-witness: Ten Days That Shook The World by John Reed.

[3] For more information on the measures which the young Soviet power was forced to take in the first months of Its existence, read: Lenin, “The immediate tasks of the Soviet government” in Collected Works, vol. 27, pp. 235-277.