Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992
IN 1989, WHEN the first elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies were being held in the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party was the only legal political organization in control of the state apparatus, both the government and the opposition, each after their own fashion, repeated the slogan of 1917: “All Power to the Soviets!”
Two years later, with representatives of all parties now sitting in the Soviets and the Communists having been swept from power in the largest cities and in the most developed republics of the Soviet Union, Gavril Popov, president of the Moscow Soviet and chief ideologist of the new elite, spoke of the need to do away with the Soviets.
The slogan of Soviet democracy first triumphed in Russia in November, 1917. But within a year, Soviet power had given way to the naked dictatorship of the Bolshevik party. The freeing of the Soviets from Communist Party control in 1989-1991, however, only set the stage for the rise in Russia of the anti-democratic and unbridled power of Boris Yeltsin, whose right-wing allies’ dream of dragging the country back into the nineteenth century.
The pre-revolutionary flag and even the double-headed imperial eagle (to be sure, minus the crown—thanks to the “republican” character of our new monarchy), assumed their rightful places.
It seems that history has come round full circle. One gets the feeling that instances of democracy in Russian history are little more than periods of transition from one dictatorship to another.
Naturally, such an explanation is not likely to be accepted by a Marxist, indeed by any serious investigator. At a time when liberal writers in our country prefer to forget the democratic experience of the Soviets in 1917, an American political scientist, Samuel Farber, offers a splendid analysis of that experience.
The chief strength of Farber’s book, in my view, lies in its combination of a clear political standpoint with scholarly impartiality. Though the author does not hide his socialist sympathies, he sides neither with the Bolsheviks nor with the socialist opposition when analyzing political struggles in revolutionary Russia. The anti-democratic policies of Lenin and his associates destroyed the free press and independent trade unions—shoots of people’s power—and are justly regarded by Farber as having prepared the ground for the Stalinist terror. “Lenin’s policies,” writes Farber, “deprived Russian society of the political and organizational ability to resist the later totalitarian Stalinism” (208).
Reiterating the criticisms of Lenin made by the Left Mensheviks and by Rosa Luxemburg, Farber goes further and subjects the views of the Bolsheviks to a critical analysis, exposing their contradictions. Describing the events of 1917-1921, Farber discloses the colorful diversity of political views among Russian revolutionaries and socialists. Here one can find everything, from the most thoroughgoing legal nihilism to the assertion of the principles of lawful government, from the most extreme authoritarianism to “parliamentary cretinism.”
But the attention of the author and reader is drawn particularly toward the so-called “intermediate” positions, toward the views of the “moderate” Bolsheviks, the left-Mensheviks, and the numerous oppositions within the revolutionary camp. It was these left-wing critics who first pointed out how the undemocratic policies of the Bolshevik leadership threatened the revolution. Today, this critique gives us much food for thought.
Democracy and the “Transition”
This discussion is not mainly about Russian history, nor even about the problems facing many revolutionary movements which seize power in the name of democracy. In essence, it is about the problem of democracy in general. It is quite clear that the parliamentary road to social transformation is by no means the quickest. The limitations of parliamentarism are well known. No less well known are the catastrophic outcomes of numerous attempts—Jacobin and Bolshevik—to accelerate social transformation by sweeping aside all obstacles thrown up by democratic “limitations.”
Basically, the whole history of the Soviets in 1917 was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the masses to resolve this contradiction by creating a democratic power of a new type. Despite the Bolsheviks’ numerous verbal endorsements of it, the spontaneously developing grassroots democracy of the workers was incompatible with the Bolsheviks’ own conceptions of the party and of the revolutionary state.
The Leninist theory of the “vanguard party” has been repeatedly criticized by liberal, Marxist, anarcho-syndicalist and social-democratic theorists. But most critics are unaware of the true origins of Leninism’s fundamental premise. Sam Farber rightly notes that Lenin was in reality “neither the creator nor the inventor of this conception of the party. Ultimately, the basis of his ideas lay in an “uncritical endorsement” of the Jacobin experience (213).
Jacobin ideology not only was and is an important element of the bourgeois-democratic tradition, it itself represents the most extreme and logical expression of the ideas of the European Enlightenment, ideas inspiring, in one way or another, all modernization projects, in Russia and in Third World countries. The great attractiveness of Enlightenment ideology lay precisely in the moral justification it gave to many tyrants and dictators to suppress the backward masses for the masses’ own good.
The Enlighteners of the eighteenth century firmly believed that they possessed ready-made and full knowledge of contemporary society. They were convinced that progress was the same thing as the development of industry and the growth of prosperity, and that the modem state in Europe embodied the most advanced form of democracy and, indeed, of bureaucracy. Power was knowledge, and to those who possessed knowledge must belong the power. Society must be run from above by enlightened rulers.
Belief in a ready-made model of growth, existing in reality or only in the minds of ideologues, resulted in coercion over society that was largely incompatible with the model. Many bearers of enlightened ideas took it upon themselves to disseminate true knowledge among the ignorant masses, for they regarded their ideas about society to be as indisputable and as complete as their ideas about the nature of the universe.
Notwithstanding its message of toleration and its defense of human rights, Enlightenment ideology quite naturally turned out to be Eurocentric and authoritarian. Nor is it surprising that it found expression in the eighteenth-century theory of “enlightened despotism,” a “right-wing” variant of which was practiced by Catherine II and Frederick the Great, and a “left-wing” variant by the Jacobin dictatorship.
Beyond Enlightened Dictatorship
Rousseau and Marx, each in their own way, attempted to transcend the limitations of the Enlightenment tradition. But in Russian conditions and, later, in the countries of the Third World, Marxist ideas were taken to be yet another, more modem and more radical, version of the Enlightenment The constant references of the late Lenin to the educational role of the Bolsheviks are by no means fortuitous: the enlightened minority, possessing true knowledge, was the revolutionary party armed with the most advanced theory. Bolshevism was twentieth-century Jacobinism.
According to Farber, Lenin’s attempt to reproduce the Jacobin experience while avoiding the “mistakes” that resulted in the downfall of the Jacobin dictatorship led to the establishment of a repressive state apparatus “the strength of which would not have been imaginable to even the most hard-line Jacobin” (214). It should be noted that many anti-communist dictatorships have been inspired by these very same ideas.
A democratic perspective requires not only rejection of democratic centralism in the party, and of “Leninism” in ideology. One must reject the Jacobin-Enlightenment conception itself. Instead of transformation from above that draws on the practice of already industrialized European models, socialists must promote change from below.” The foremost task of a revolutionary party is not the seizure of power at the center, but solving current social problems through the self-organization of working people in their communities.
This practical work certainly does not mean rejecting the struggle for power, only that the meaning of this struggle changes radically. The challenge is to confront the established powers with growing pressure from below.
Above all, left-wing forces must bank on the redistribution of power in society, on the self-organization of workers, to throw out “bad people” from the seats of power and take control of the seats of power themselves.
Here, the new power arises not as a result of elections or insurrections, but spontaneously, among the masses themselves. The struggle for a majority in parliament or for the creation of a socialist government is by no means given up. But this struggle henceforth takes on an entirely different meaning.
The Bolsheviks, recognizing the actual role of the Soviets as forming the basis of the self-organization of the masses, easily seized and wielded power in the fall of 1917. But the Bolsheviks merely used the Soviets to catapult themselves to power, for they neither could, nor wanted, to abandon their Jacobin politics.
It is easy to see that the model of power embodied in the multi-party Soviets of 1917 was extremely imperfect, and that the frequently proclaimed superiority of “workers’ democracy” over parliamentarism was merely a figment of the imagination of radical ideologues. The very real weakness and ineffectiveness of the Soviets resulted in the destruction of this form of democracy. The Soviets lost real power precisely because they were not capable of effectively defending themselves, either from the attacks of the counterrevolutionaries during the Civil War, or from the Jacobinism of the Bolshevik party.
In this sense, any idealization of the revolutionary multiparty Soviets, or any attempt to revive them, is misconceived. But it would be wrong to think that the lessons of the Soviets have no significance for us. If we are to get out of the vicious circle—either parliamentarism or authoritarianism—we must give up the search for easy solutions.
On the one hand, there are general principles that any party and any government calling itself democratic must respect: the right of citizens to organize (to form parties, trade unions, alliances); freedom of the press; recognition of the rule of law (for example, the right of the accused to a fair trial, the independence of the judiciary from the executive). On the other hand, one must recognize that these principles and values cannot be realized solely by means of a parliamentary democracy.
The parliamentary road quite often seems to mark time and, occasionally, as the Chilean experience demonstrated, leads to the destruction of the liberal democratic institutions that we wish to preserve. The alternative to parliamentarism, however, does not lie in the dispersal of parliaments, but in the unification of parliaments “above” with organs of people’s power below.
In other words, we don’t need Soviets instead of parliaments, but Soviets with parliaments.
From this standpoint, the experience of the first Soviets is relevant and valuable to us today. It is a great pity that not one Soviet historian has written a work like Farber’s, and that we must turn to a foreign source to study our own past.
© 2020 Against the Current
January-February 1992, ATC 36