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Alex Callinicos

Soviet Power

(November 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 103, November 1977, pp. 7–13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Sixty years ago this month, the Russian working class overturned the Provisional Government and seized power. This issue of ISJ is devoted to aspects of the Bolshevik revolution – its nature, the fate of the Russian working class, its international impact. In the following article, Alex Callinicos examines the roots of the revolution in the Soviets.

In December 1917 a young Italian revolutionary wrote an article enthusiastically welcoming the Russian revolution, which had taken place about six weeks previously. He wrote of the Bolsheviks:

‘They live Marxist thought ... This thought sees as the dominant factor in history ... man, men in societies, men in relation to one another, reaching agreements with one another, developing through these contacts (civilisation) a collective social will; men coming understand economic facts, judging them and adapting them to their will until this becomes the driving force of the economy and moulds objective reality, which lives and moves and comes to resemble a current of volcanic lava that can be channelled wherever and in whatever way men’s will determines.’ [1]

A few months later the same writer, Antonio Gramsci, declared,

‘the Russian revolution is the triumph of freedom ... a continuous and systematic elevation of a people, following the lines of a hierarchy, and creating for itself one by one the organs that the new social life demands.’ [2]

Gramsci’s sentiments were echoed throughout Europe and North America. For literally hundreds of thousands of workers the Bolshevik revolution represented the objective which gave their day-to-day struggles as socialists and trade unionists meaning. Working-class power was not a dream – it had triumphed in one country. It was now up to them to establish the rule of workers’ councils similar to the Russian Soviets in their own countries.

There could hardly a greater contrast between what the Russian revolution symbolised at the time and how it is seen today. It has become, for many socialists in the West, an embarrassment. In part, this is a legacy of Stalinism, of the hideous degeneration of working-class power in Russia into a bureaucratic tyranny. But, more fundamental is the rejection by many who regard themselves as Marxists and revolutionaries of the road by which the Bolsheviks achieved their victory – armed insurrection – and the institutions of working-class power on which that victory was based – Soviets or workers’ councils.

Thus the Communist Parties in Western Europe, which trace their origings back to the October revolution [1*], deny that its example has any relevance to their own strategies for socialism. The new draft of the British Communist Party’s programme states:

‘Britain’s road to socialism will be different from the Soviet road. The Soviet path of insurrection and civil war, the creation of new organs of power (the Soviets); and the subsequent development of a one-party system, was governed by the historic conditions and background of Tsarist autocratic rule, imperialist intervention and the development of the counterrevolution.’ [3]

Similar views are expressed by those to the left of the Communist Parties. For example, Nicos Poulantzas, author of a number of extremely influential works on Marxist political theory, recently declared:

‘I think that at the moment we cannot repeat the October revolution in any form.’ [4]

He made clear that what he was rejecting was the Bolshevik strategy:

‘What does seem clearly impossible is the perspective of centralising a workers’ counter-power, factory council by factory council, soldiers’ committee by soldiers’ committee.’ [5]

For both the Communist Parties and Poulanzas the Russian revolution has. been relegated to history – a matter of academic interest, perhaps, but of no practical political relevance. The Soviets, on which the revolution was based, are nothing but historical curiosities, the products of the peculiar circumstances in a backward country sixty years ago. The way forward lies through the parliamentary road to socialism.

Yet at the time things seemed different. At the time what was important about the October revolution was its universality. Workers all over the world saw Soviets as the basis for their own revolutions. Were they wrong? To answer this question we must examine how the Soviets in Russia themselves arose.

The first soviet began as a strike committee. The 1905 revolution in Russia developed as a massive popular rebellion against the brutal and corrupt Tsarist regime. Sparked off by Bloody Sunday, a massacre of peaceful demonstrators in St Petersburg on 9 January 1905, it became a movement in which the Russian working class, although a small minority of the population, took the lead. Bloody Sunday provoked a tremendous wave of strikes among the industrial centres of Russia. But the decisive development was later in the year. To quote Trotsky’s history of the 1905 revolution:

‘The typesetters at Sytin’s printworks in Moscow struck on 19 September. They demanded a shorter working day and a higher piecework rate per 1,000 letters set, not excluding punctuation marks. This small event set off nothing more nor less than the all-Russian political strike – the strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism.’ [6]

The typesetters’s strike spread throughout the printing industry in Moscow and then to other industries. Solidarity action by railway workers spread the strike across Russia. The country was paralysed. On 17 October the Tsar capitulated, issuing a manifesto promising constitutional government. But the situation had already passed by and the stage where the manifesto could stem the tide of working-class rebellion.

On 13 October a meeting of factory delegates in St Petersburg had called on workers to support a general political strike and to elect delegates to a soviet (council) of workers’ deputies. The meeting took place at the initiative of the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party and was attended by only thirty to forty delegates. However, it won the mass support of the St Petersburg proletariat, who supported its call. Delegates attended on the basis of one to 500 workers. By the second half of November the soviet consisted of 562 deputies representing 147 factories and plants, 34 workshops and 16 trade unions. The deputies were drawn principally from the metalworkers. The same was true of Moscow.

From being a strike committee the soviet developed into a workers’ government challenging the Tsarist regime. It organised the food supply, forced the government to implement its promises of press freedom and general amnesty, encouraged a campaign for the eight-hour day and organised a successful general strike in defence of mutineers at the Kronstadt naval base who were threatened with execution. Soviets multiplied at workers all over the country copied the example of St Petersburg.

Willy-nilly, the Soviets were forced into violent confrontation with the state. The liberal bourgeoisie, who had supported the October strike, now sounded the retreat, frightened by the emergence of a revolutionary workers’ movement and largely satisfied by the concessions offered in the Tsar’s manifesto. The Soviets failed to spread to the mass of the peasantry, who remained largely indifferent to the outcome of struggle. On 3 December the St Petersburg soviet was dispersed and its leading members arrested. On 7 December the Moscow soviet proclaimed a general political strike which developed into an armed uprising led by the Bolsheviks. After nine days of fighting between detachments of armed workers and Tsarist troops the insurrection was crushed.

Trotsky, who was president of the St Petersburg soviet in its last days, summed up the experience of 1905:

‘The Soviet organised the working masses, directed the political strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers, and protected the population against pogroms. Similar work was also done by other revolutionary organisations before the Soviet came into existence, concurrently with it, and after it. Yet this did not endow them with the influence that was concentrated in the hands of the Soviet. The secret of this influence lay in the fact that the Soviet grew as the natural organ of the proletariat in its immediate struggle for power as determined by the actual course of events. The name of “workers’ government” which the workers themselves on the one hand, and the reactionary press on the other, gave to the Soviet was an expression of the fact that the Soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo. The Soviet represented power insofar as power was assured by the revolutionary strength of the working-class districts; it struggled for power insofar as power still remained in the hands of the military political monarchy.’ [7]

The extinction of the Soviets after the defeat of the Moscow uprising was only temporary. When the workers and soldiers of Petrograd (St Petersburg) overturned the Tsarist regime in February 1917, their first action was to form a soviet of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. In the following days, the Soviets spread throughout Russia. To quote Trotsky again:

‘The revolutionary leaders did not have to invent it; the experience of the Soviets of 1905 was for ever chiselled into the consciousness of the workers. At every lift of the movement, even in war time, the idea of Soviets was almost automatically reborn. And although the appraisal of the role of the Soviets was different among the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – the Social Revolutionaries had in general no stable appraisals – the form of organisation itself stood clear of all debate.’ [8]

The Soviets, with the backing of the rank and file of the army, possessed effective power. Yet the masses, most of whom had been swept into political activity for the first time in the February revolution, confided their trust in the ‘moderate’ socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who had a majority in the Soviets. These parties supported a continuation of Russian participation in the first world war under a ‘democratic’ bourgeois government. They therefore backed the Provisional Government of the liberal capitalist parties.

Lenin described the resulting situation as one of dual power:

‘This dual power is evident in the existence of two governments: the one is the main, the real, the actual government of the bourgeoisie, the “Provisional Government” of Lvov and Co., which holds in its hands all the organs of power; the other is a supplementary and parallel government, a “controlling” government in the shape of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which holds no organs of state power, but directly rests on the support of an obvious and indisputable majority of the people, on the armed workers and soldiers.’ [9]

This dual power, based on the support of the Soviets for the Provisional Government, had ‘led to the interlocking of two dictatorships: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie ... and the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry (the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies)’. [10] Such a situation, Lenin argued, could represent only a temporary and unstable equilibrium. Either the Soviets or the bourgeoisie would rule. An armed test of strength between the two classes was inevitable. The task of the Bolsheviks was to fight within the Soviets with the aim of winning a majority for the seizure of power by the Soviets.

The centre of this struggle for power was the Soviets. Between Lenin’s return in April 1917 and the October revolution itself the Bolsheviks fought the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries for control of the Soviets. They were finally successful in August and September 1917 when the Soviets in Petrograd, Moscow, and the other major centres swung behind the Bolsheviks. It was this majority in the Soviets that provided the Bolsheviks with the launching for the seizure of power on 25 October.

How did the Soviets organise themselves? How did rank-and-file workers relate to the Soviets?

John Reed, the American revolutionary, wrote this eye-witness account of the Soviets less than a year after the October revolution:

‘The Soviet is based directly upon the workers in the factories and the peasants in the fields ...

‘The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies ... may serve as an example ...

‘It consisted of about 1,200 deputies, and in normal circumstances held a plenary session every two weeks. In the meantime, it elected a Central Executive Committee of 110 members, based upon party proportionality, and this Central Executive Committee added to itself by invitation delegates from the central committees of all the political parties, from the central committees of the professional unions, the factory shop committees, and other democratic organisations.

‘Besides the big City Soviet, there were also Rayon, or Ward, Soviets. These were made up of the deputies elected from each ward to the City Soviet, and administered their part of the city. Naturally, in some parts of the city there were no factories, and therefore normally, no representation of those wards, either in the City Soviet or in Ward Soviets of their own. But the Soviet system is extremely flexible, and if the cooks and waiters, or the street sweepers, or the courtyard servants, or the cab drivers of that ward organised and demanded representation, they were allowed delegates.

‘Elections of delegates are based on proportional representation, which means that the political parties are represented in exact proportion to the number of voters in the whole city. And it is political parties and programmes which are voted for – not candidates. The candidates are designated by the central committees of the political parties, which can replace them by other party members. Also, the delegates are not elected for any political term, but are subject to recall at any time.

‘No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will changes with great rapidity. For example, during the first week of December 1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favour of the Constituent Assembly – that is to say, against the Soviet power. One of these parades was fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards, and several people killed. The reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within twelve hours the complexion of the Petrograd Soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik deputies were withdrawn and replaced by Mensheviki. And it was three weeks before public sentiment subsided – before the Mensheviki were one by one retired and the Bolsheviki sent back.’ [11]

The Soviets were composed of workplace delegates rooted in the factories of Petrograd, Moscow and the other industrial centres. It was, therefore, in the factories that the decisive struggle for influence was fought During and after the February revolution, factory committees rapidly spread across the country. These bodies represented the interests and aspirations of rank-and-file workers within the process of production itself. Immediately after the Tsar’s fall the factory committees led a stormy wave of strikes in support of basic economic demands for higher wages, better conditions, the eight-hour day. As the polarisation between the working class and the bourgeoisie developed, the factory committees found themselves taking on the political task of imposing workers’ control to Combat economic sabotage by the employers.

One historian of the factory committees writes:

‘There can be no doubt that the key Bolshevik intervention in the revolutionary process was at this level. The party convened regional and then national conferences of what had till then been delegate committees isolated in the factories. It was these conferences, not the town Soviets, which discussed the essential practical questions of workers’ control (over employers’ sabotage, spurious fuel shortages, etc., and extending to the control of supervision and management), demilitarisation of industry, the formation of the Red Guards, arid so on. The predominance of the Bolshevik party in these conferences was the basis of its predominance in the workers’ sections of the Soviets and eventually in the Soviets as a whole.’ [12]

The conditions for the formation of the factory committees and for Bolshevik hegemony within them had been created during the war. The Russian proletariat was transformed under the impact of the war. Many militant workers were called up in the first months of the war, while the skilled men who remained found their position undermined by the massive influx of women and chornorabochie (’black workers’ – i.e., peasant labourers) into the new mass production industries which arose to provide for the needs of the war effort.

Initially the impact of the war and the resulting dilution of the workforce was a downturn in the level of struggle. But, to quote Trotsky,

‘The merciless military and police repression, the redoubled exploitation, defeats at the front, and industrial breakdown, pushed the workers into the struggle ... During 1915 and 1916 the diluted working class had to go through an elementary school of struggle before the partial economic strikes and demonstrations of hungry women could in February 1917 fuse in a general strike, and draw the army into an insurrection.’ [13]

The factory committees represented mainly the layer of skilled workers:

‘They had always had scarcity value, and this increased during the war, even as they were being squeezed out at the top to become supervisors, trainers etc., for the new mass producers; they could exploit this scarcity in “economic” terms (differentials increased enormously during the war), but now they could also recruit a new and vibrant rank and file for their “political” ambitions. However, the basis of their power was an obsolete, pre-war technology (production-bays, the seven year apprenticeship); meanwhile, peasant immigrants and women, the new rank and file, were being trained in seven weeks for work on adjacent rows of electric and pneumatic lathes which destroyed the basis of the skilled turners’ power, while giving the latter an army to organise.’ [14]

The formative experience for many factory committees was the struggle against the government’s War Industries Committees. These bodies, an early form of participation, were aimed at involving workers in the war effort. The Bolsheviks led a highly effective campaign against the War Industries Committees. [15] Factory committees emerged first

‘... in those factories run by Tsarist ministerial departments for the war-effort, the small, labour-intensive ordnance plants. It was in precisely these factories that the “workers’ council” experience after February was fullest. Supervisors, foremen and floor managers were largely elected by the workers. This was partly due to the fact that the former management had seen itself as agents of the Tsarist government and therefore went to ground in February; but it was also partly because the highly skilled ordnance workers thought they could manage capitalist production, at shop floor level at least, better than their bosses.’ [16]

The significance of the Bolshevik revolution was that it successfully fused the different layers of the Russian proletariat – the ‘new working class’ created by the war, the sikilled craftsmen, and the revolutionary party – in a struggle to take power. The Soviets provided the framework for this process, because they united the class as a whole, rather than the revolutionaries (as the party did) or the skilled workers (as the unions largely did), because they were based upon, and uniquely responsive to the shiftsof mood within, the workplaces, and because they embodied the direct power of the working class – the armed workers and the rank and file of the army.

The process through which the class was fused in the Soviets under the leadership of the Bolsheviks was an uneven one. As Trotsky put it,

‘The leadership lagged behind the shop committees (i.e., the factory committees – AC). The shop committees lagged behind the masses. The soldiers lagged behind the workers. Still more the provinces lagged behind the capital ... The party also lagged behind the revolutionary dynamic – an organisation which has the least time to lag, especially at a time of revolution.’ [17]

The thrust forward came constantly from below. It was the ‘new working class’, the women and chornorabochie who took the initiative both during the February revolution and in the July days, catching the Bolshevik party unawares. But in October the Bolsheviks were able to canalise the energies and aspirations of a united class into the seizure of power.

The Bolshevik revolution, then arose out of the radicalisation of the Russian working class within the process of production itself. The factory committees and Soviets emerged to give this radicalisation an organised expression which culminated in the establishment of working-class power.

But the radicalisation of the proletariat under conditions of war production was not confined to Russia alone. Every major imperialist country passed through the same experience. In order to meet the needs of the war effort, each of the belligerent governments intervened on a large scale in the economy, imposing rationing and the conscription of labour, taking over or setting up key firms, banning strikes. They received the assistance of the leaders of the traditional workers’ organisations – the social-democratic parties and the trade unions. Across Europe ‘social peace’ was proclaimed as the leaders of the workers’ movement eagerly involved themselves in collaboration with the government and the employers as their contribution to slaughter.

The expansion of mass production undermined the position of the skilled craftsmen creating massive new layers of unskilled and semiskilled workers drawn from among women and from the countryside. Within the process of production itself workers were subjected to military discipline backed by the state and their own trade union leaders, while prices and profits rocketed.

The result was a stormy revolutionary movement which swept across Europe at the end of the first world war. It began in Russia; in February 1917, which was followed by two massive strike waves centred on Berlin in April 1917, and January 1918, strikes by 200,000 British engineering workers in May 1917, and a mass uprising in Turin in August 1917. The culminating points of this Europe-wide movement were the October revolution itself, the German revolution of November 1918 which overturned the Kaiser and led to a situation of dual power, and the occupation of the factories in Italy in September 1920.

At the centre of all these explosions was the metal industry (engineering, steel, ship-building [18]). Throughout Europe this industry was transformed under the impact of the war economy because of its vital role in munitions production. The skilled craftsmen in the industry – turners, fitters, etc, – found their traditional privileges threatened by the techniques of mass production, which made their skills redundant, reduced their traditional control over their work and diluted the workforce with a mass of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers. Management exploited the situation to launch an assault the power which the skilled workers had built up, backed up by the unions through a variety of devices – the Treasury Agreement in Britain, the Committees of Industrial Mobilisation in Italy, the War Industries Committees in Russia.

In order to defend their position the craftsmen found themselves forced to lead a much wider fight against the war economy itself. This fight involved a break from the old craft traditions, ft involved drawing in the mass of the workforce, including the new unskilled labourers who threatened to ‘dilute’ the skilled men’s craft privileges, and challenging the bosses’ control over the process of production itself. If the skilled men’s traditional craft control over the job included them to make this challenge in any case, in the new conditions they found themselves asserting the demand, not for craft control, but for workers’ control, over both the production process within individual factories and the economy as a whole.

This struggles threw up new forms of organisation. The old trade unions, shaped to fight limited economic struggles and weakened by sectional divisions, in any case united only a minority. The same was true of the social-democratic parties, which in any case were opposed to any disruption of the war effort. The new organisations were based on the process of production itself, uniting the different categories of workers. The workers’ committees on the Clyde and in Sheffield, the internal commissions in Italy, the shop stewards’ movement in Germany, the factory committees in Russia – in each case, these new bodies of workplace delegates emerged, under the leadership of the skilled workers, but embracing the class as a whole, in the struggles against the blows struck them by the war economy.

The revolutionary shop stewards centred on the Berlin metalworking industry provided the leadership for the 1917 and 1918 strikes. Pierre Broué has described how the shop stewards emerged:

‘The principal nucleus ... operated in a climate of conspiracy, recruiting its trusted supporters systematically among trade union activists in the enterprises and the different trades, a network whose members concentrated on taking over key positions, taking advantage of the legal cover provided by the turners’ union, operating within the apparatus as a well-organised fraction but maintaining constant contact with workers’ opinion in the factories and workshops, capable of controlling an assembly of delegates, imposing everywhere freedom of criticism, a unique organisation, neither union nor party but a clandestine group within each, the leading circle of the revolutionary shop stewards succeeded on several occasions in expressing workers’ resistance to the state and to the party apparatus, in translating into action their demands and their desire to fight. The principal nucleus, the ‘head’, never consisted, it seems, of more than fifty activists, but, (thanks to the turners), well placed in all the factories, a small but disciplined and closely-knit group in delegate meetings, they were able, with the few hundred men they influenced directly, to put into motion tens and then hundreds of thousands of Berlin workers by enabling them to decide on the proposals for action which corresponded to their aspirations.’ [19]

At decisive moments, the revolutionary shop stewards were overtaken by the action of the masses. Just as in Russia in February 1917 ‘it was the women workers who had rampaged through the Petrograd factories bringing the rest out on strike, against the orders of shop-floor representatives of all parties’ [20] so revolutionary shop stewards like Richard Müller hesitated in November 1918 while rank-and-file workers, soldiers and sailors swept the old regime aside in a wave of strikes, mutinies and street demonstrations. But it was the leaders of the factory movement who took the initiative in forming Soviets. On 9 November 1918

‘... the revolutionary shop stewards, who were joined by several hundred representatives of the insurgent workers, met ... The assembly, which considered itself provisionally to be the workers’ and soldiers’ council of the capital, decided to call meetings in the factories and the barracks at 10 a.m.; they would elect delegates – one per 1,000 workers and one per battalion – to the general assembly at 5 p.m. at the Circus Busch, in order to choose the new revolutionary government.’ [21]

In this way, in Germany as in Russia, the opposition of skilled workers to the war economy fused with the spontaneous movement of the mass of workers in order to establish Soviets.

In Italy again it was the metal industry which formed the storm centre of the biennio rosso, the two red years after the end of the war in November 1918. The metalworkers of Turin developed furthest towards imposing workers’ control of production. This movement was organised through the internal commissions, shop-floor committees which arose as the voice of rank-and-file opposition to the war effort. Under the influence of Gramsci and the other revolutionaries grouped around the journal, L’Ordine Nuovo, the internal commissions in Turin developed from bodies of craft resistance to change into committees of factory delegates elected by skilled and unskilled workers alike. The culmination of this movement was the occupation of the factories in September 1920, which, although provoked by the employers’ rejection of a wage-claim submitted by FIOM, the metalworkers’ union, led to a state of virtual dual power in centres like Turin, where the workers controlled industry and formed squads of armed red guards confronting the forces of the state.

Even in Britain, where no movement of revolutionary proportions comparable to those in Germany and Italy developed, the same dynamic was at work. The workers’ committees, formed in engineering centres like Glasgow and Sheffield initially to resist dilution and the conscription of skilled men, evolved into bodies which sought to lead the mass of workers in opposition to the war. At the end of the war, in January and February 1919, the workers’ committees in Glasgow and Belfast led mass strikes in support of the demand for a forty-hour week.

Across Europe from the Clyde to the Neva the defensive struggle of the skilled men fused with the spontaneous rebellion of the ‘new workers’ sucked into industry by the war into movements which developed into the beginnings at least of organs of workers’ power, of Soviets. From this perspective, the October revolution was no isolated event, it was the high-point of a general rebellion which swept the entire European working class into battle between 1914 and 1920. This rebellion was wrought by changes in the process of production common to all imperialist countries, changes imposed by the nature of the capitalist system, which had now evolved to a stage where competition between capitals took the form of armed conflict.

Only in Russia did this universal movement lead to the establishment of soviet power. There were two fundamental reasons for the failure of the revolution in Western Europe. Briefly, since it is not our purpose to deal with this failure here, the reasons arose from the different social and political structures of Russian and Western Europe. Under the parliamentary regimes in the West there had evolved a trade union bureaucracy, separated by its social position from the mass of rank-and-file workers and forming, with the social-democratic parties it dominated, a powerful force within the workers’ movement committed to the preservation of the status quo.

In addition, nowhere in Western Europe had there emerged before the war to challenge the influence of the trade union bureaucracy revolutionary parties comparable to the Bolshevik party. In Russia, operating under conditions of repression which prevented the formation of a stable trade union bureaucracy, the Bolsheviks had been steeled by the experience of operating illegally and leading mass workers’ struggles against the state. By 1917 the Bolshevik Party had been firmly rooted in the factories for many years. The European revolutionary left, by contrast, emerged largely under the impact of the war, and remained, until the October revolution, largely within the traditional workers’ parties. As a result, it faced the challenge of revolution naive, inexperienced, often sectarian and ultra-left.

The failure of the European revolution carried within it the seeds of the defeat of soviet power in Russia itself. But this does not alter the continued relevance of the soviet experience of those years to revolutionaries today.

The first world war saw the emergence of the capitalism system as we know it today. The tendencies it revealed – towards state intervention in the economy and military competition between rival national capitals – have developed much further in the following sixty years, particularly as a result of the second world war and the massive arms industries built of by the rival Western and Eastern blocs after 1945. The features of the war economy against which the European working class rebelled between 1917 and 1923 were described by Bukharin in 1916; his words are even more true today:

The state power thus sucks in almost all branches of production; it not only maintains the general conditions of the exploitative process, the state more and more becomes a direct exploiter, organising and directing production as a collective capitalist.

As ‘statisation’ culminates in the ‘final form of the state capitalist trust ... the process of organisation continually eliminates the anarchy of the separate parts of the “national economic” mechanism, placing all of economic life under the iron heel of the militaristic state.’ [22] It only needs to be added that Bukharin believed that in place of the anarchy of capitalist competition within individual countries there was arising the anarchy of military and economic rivalry between different national capitals.

With the capitalist system in its modern form there also emerged its gravedigger – the modern working class. We have seen how the conditions of wartime mass production accelerated the process which destroyed the basis of the old craft unions and created, especially in the metal industry, the conditions under which Soviets could emerge. The sectional divisions were only imperfectly overcome after 1917, even in Russia, but the basis now existed, and continues to exist, for mass organisations uniting the whole class in the struggle for power.

Within the revolutionary movement which developed out of the wave of workers’ struggles at the end of the first world war, Gramsci devoted most thought to the task of connecting the example of working-class power which had emerged in Russia with the experience of workers in other countries. Looking back in 1920, Gramsci explained that he intended, when he took direction of the Turin socialist journal L’Ordine Nuovo the previous year,

‘that we devote our energies to “unearthing” a Soviet tradition within the Italian working class, to digging out the thread of the real revolutionary spirit in Italy – real because at one with the universal spirit of the workers’ International, the product of a real historical situation and an achievement of the working class itself.’ [23]

The Bolsheviks led a united class to power

For Gramsci the Soviets were not an artificial institution imported from outside. They grew out of the struggle of workers within the process of production itself. In one of his first articles in L’Ordine Nuovo, he wrote:

‘The socialist state already exists potentially in the institutions of social life characteristic of the exploited working class. To link these institutions, co-ordinating and ordering them into a highly centralised hierarchy of competences and powers, while respecting the necessary autonomy and articulation of each, is to create a genuine workers’ democracy here and now – a workers’ democracy in effective and active opposition to the bourgeois State, and preparing it to replace it here and now in all its essential functions of administering and controlling the national heritage.’ [24]

Gramsci saw the internal commissions (the Italian shop-floor committees) in particular as the existing working-class institutions which could form the basis of a proletarian dictatorship:

‘The internal commissions are organs of workers’ democracy which must be freed from the limitations imposed on them by the entrepreneurs and infused with new life and energy. Today the internal commissions limit the power of the capitalist in the factory and perform functions of arbitration and discipline. Tomorrow, developed and enriched, they must be organs of proletarian power, replacing the capitalist in all his useful functions of management and administration.’ [25]

Gramsci rejected the trade unions as instruments of revolutionary change their raison d’être was to negotiate improvements in workers’ conditions within capitalism. The internal commissions should be developed into factory councils which would impose workers’ control over production:

‘The proletarian dictatorship can only be embodied in a type of organisation which is specific to the activity of producers, not wage-earners, the slaves of Capital. The factory Council is the nucleus of this organisation. For all sectors of the labour process are represented in the Council, in proportion to the contribution each craft and each labour sector makes to the manufacture of the object the factory is producing for the collectivity. The Council is a class, a social institution. Its raison d’être lies in the labour process, in industrial production.’ [26]

More clearly than anyone else in Western Europe Gramsci grasped the basis of Soviets in workers’ experience within the process of production itself. If there is a fault in his analysis it is the tendency to separate the development of workers’ control within the factories and the distinct stages following one upon the other:

‘The construction of communist political Soviets cannot help but follow in historical terms the emergence and primary systematisation of the Factory Councils. In the first instance, the Factory Council and the system of Councils assay and demonstrate empirically the new positions which the working class have come to occupy in the field of production. The Councils give the working class an awareness of its current value, its true rule, its responsibility and its future. The working class draws conclusions from the quantum of positive experience amassed personally by individuals, acquires the character and mentality of a ruling class and organises itself as such; in other words, it sets up political Soviets and establishes its dictatorship.’ [27]

Such a strategy ignores the extent to which workers’ control in the factories and the conquest of political power by the Soviets are different sides of the same revolutionary process. Often they are separated in time, although not necessarily in the order suggested by Gramsci – thus the Soviets emerged in Russia in 1917 before the establishment of the factory committees, while the struggle to impose workers’ control in the factories continued well after the Bolshevik seizure of power. Neither workers’ control nor soviet power can survive in isolation from the other. On the other hand, as we have seen, the Bolsheviks only won over the Soviets thanks to the support of the factory committees. Similarly, the experience of the Portuguese revolution shows that workers’ control in individual factories will be extinguished unless it is matched by the establishment of a workers’ government on a national scale.

Gramsci’s error reflects a general tendency of his at this time, surprising considering his later emphasis on the political and ideological conditions for proletarian revolution, to play down purely political factors.

‘The national parliament no longer has any historical role. The bourgeoisie now governs itself through the banks and the great capitalist consortia which reflect the combined and unified interests of the whole class. Political government rests squarely on these coalitions, and is reduced to police activity and the maintenance of order on the streets and squares.’ [28]

The experience of 1920, when the Turin workers, despite their revolutionary leadership, went down to defeat twice, in April and September because the national movement remained in the hands of the reformists, led Gramsci to revise this mechanical reduction of politics to the economy. It led him to lay stress on a third aspect of the conquest of power by the working class – the existence of a mass revolutionary party. In the wake of the factory occupations Gramsci declared his support for a split in the Socialist Party and the foundation of a Communist Party uniting the revolutionary sections of the working class. He therefore supported the left communist Bordiga’s initiative in establishing the Communist Party after the Livorno Congress of the PSI in January 1921.

Whatever the weakness of his theory of Soviets, Gramsci had grasped their essence. Soviets developed out of the mass struggles of workers at the point of production. Working-class power was, therefore, not something imposed on the class from outside (as both Bordiga and the social-democrats believed, each identifying socialism with the rule of the socialist party). It existed in embryo, within the day-to-day struggles and organisations of the working class.

Lenin expressed the same thought when he wrote of the proletarian state apparatus:

‘That new apparatus is not anybody’s invention, it grows out of the proletarian class struggle as that struggle becomes more widespread and intense. That new apparatus of state power, the new type of state power, is Soviet Power.‘ [29]

A few years later Trotsky stressed this point! in arguing against the Stalinists, who like Bordiga and the social-democrats saw the dictatorship of the proletariat as the dictatorship of the party, and therefore treated Soviets as something which can be set up to order. A similar political approach is to be found today in Vietnam, Mozambique and Angola, where organs of ‘popular power’ at the base are combined with the monopoly of one party, itself organised on bureaucratic lines, at the national level.

Trotsky wrote:

‘The task of the Soviets is not merely to issue the call for the insurrection or to carry it out, but to lead the masses towards the insurrection through the necessary stages. At first the soviet rallies the masses not to the slogan of armed insurrection, but to partial slogans, so that only later, step by step, the masses are brought towards the slogan of insurrection without scattering them on the road and without allowing the vanguard to become isolated from the class.

‘The soviet appears most often and primarily in connection with strike struggles that have the perspectives of revolutionary development, but are in the given moment limited merely to economic demands. The masses must sense and understand while in action that the soviet is their organisation, that it marshals the forces for a struggle, for resistance, for self-defence, and for an offensive. They can sense and understand this not from an action of a single day nor in general from any single act, but the experience of several weeks, months, years, with or without interruptions ... Soviets ... (are) that broad and flexible organisational form that is accessible to the masses who have just awakened at the very first stages of their revolutionary upsurge; and which is capable of uniting the working class in its entirity, independent of the size of that section which, in the given phase, has already matured to the point of understanding the task of the seizure of power.’ [30]

Several years later Trotsky emphasised the same point:

‘The Soviets are created when the revolutionary movement of the working masses, even though still far from an armed insurrection, creates the need for a broad authoritative organisation, capable of leading the economic and political-struggles embracing simultaneously the different enterprises and the different trades.’ [31]

The theory of soviet power, as elaborated by Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci, has a number of implications. First of all, it shows that working-class power and workers’ democracy are inseparable. The Soviets are organs of the working class as a whole. Their composition is determined by the vote of workplace delegates, not the fiat of any party. They are, therefore, multi-party organisations, and the suppression in Russia after the civil war of all parties except the Bolshevik party and of factions within the single, party itself was a sign of the bureaucratic deformation of the soviet regime, not of its strength. Moreover, the theory provides the basis for showing conclusively that the USSR is a soviet regime only in name, and that it is in no sense a socialist or workers’ state. [32]

Equally important, our analysis provides an answer to the question we originally asked. Soviets were not a product of peculiar Russian conditions. They are the natural forms of organisation thrown up by the modern working class as its struggle develops in a revolutionary direction. Further, Lenin’s prognosis remains valid today – any situation in which dual power develops is one which can be resolved only by the restoration of undivided capitalist rule or the transfer of all power to the Soviets. The road to socialism still lies through armed insurrection based on Soviets. [33]

This perspective is no dream. As we have seen, Soviets arise in the course of mass struggles which go beyond economic demands to challenge the capitalist state itself and which therefore pose the need to organise the class as whole. The councils of action which emerged as local co-ordinating bodies during the British general strike of 1926 might have developed into the beginnings of Soviets had the strike continued. More recently we saw during the French general strike in May-June 1968 the central strike committee in Nantes assume the functions of local government and the attempts during the Portuguese revolution of 1974-5 to link up different workers’ commissions, most successfully at Setubal. The red thread running through the history of the European working class this century is the struggle for soviet power. This struggle has had its flashpoints – Russia 1917, Germany 1918, Italy 1920, Spain 1936-7, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Portugal 1975 – but its roots lie in the experience and needs of the working class within the process of production itself. The history of this struggle is far from over.


1*. Although the Bolshevik revolution took place on 7 November 1917 according to the western calendar, the old calendar was still in force in Russia at the time on which reckoning the Revolution took place on 25 October.


1. A. Gramsci, The Revolution Against Capital, in Selections from Political Writings 1910–1920, London 1977, pp. 34–5.

2. A. Gramsci, The Russian Utopia, ibid., p. 54.

3. The British Road to Socialism Draft, lines 1089–93.

4. Interview in International, Autumn 1977, p. 5.

5. Ibid., p. 9.

6. L. Trotsky, 1905, London 1973, p. 102.

7. Ibid., pp. 265–6.

8. L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, London 1967, Vol. I, p. 159.

9. V.I. Lenin, The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, Collected Works, Vol. 24, Moscow 1974, p. 60.

10. Ibid., pp. 60–1.

11. J. Reed, Soviets in Action, IS 69, May 1974, p. 20.

12. C. Goodey, Factory Committees and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1918), Critique 3, Autumn 1974, p. 29.

13. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 389.

14. Goodey, op. cit., p. 31.

15. See T. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 2, London 1976, pp. 40–43.

16. Goodey, op. cit., p. 30.

17. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 403.

18. The following analysis of the basis for the shopfloor movements draws heavily on J. Hinton, The First Shop Stewards Movement, London 1973. It should be emphasised the war accelerated a process that was already developing.

19. P. Broué, Révolution en Allemagne 1917–1923, Paris 1971, pp. 78–9.

20. Goodey, op. cit., p. 31.

21. Broué, op. cit., p. 156.

22. N. Bukharin, Towards a Theory of the Imperialist State, quoted in S. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, London 1974, p. 29.

23. A. Gramsci, On the L’Ordino Nuovo Programme, op. cit., p. 293.

24. A. Gramsci, Workers’ Democracy, ibid., p. 65.

25. Ibid., p. 66.

26. A. Gramsci, Unions and Councils, ibid., p. 100.

27. A. Gramsci, The Instruments of Labour, ibid., p. 162.

28. A. Gramsci, Proletarian Unity, ibid., p. 175.

29. V.I. Lenin, The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Collected Works, Vol. 30, Moscow 1974, p. 264.

30. L. Trotsky, Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution, in Leon Trotsky on China, New York 1976, pp. 319–320.

31. L. Trotsky, The Revolution in Spain, in The Spanish Revolution (1931–39), New York 1973, p. 85.

32. See T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, London 1974, and P. Binns and D. Hallas, The Soviet Union – State Capitalist of Socialist?, IS 91, September 1976.

33. See also the debate between Geoff Roberts and Alex Callinicos on The British Road to Socialist in IS 99, June 1977, and C. Harman Eurocommunism, the State and Revolution, IS 101, September 1977.

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