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Revolutionary Road

Alex Callinicos

The Revolutionary Road to Socialism

The Revolutionary Tradition

Workers’ Councils

The power of the capitalist system is not, as we have seen, purely economic. It is also political – through its control of the state machine, the army and the police. It also has power over our ideas – through the education system, newspapers, radio and television.

The failure of reformism lies in the simple fact that this power will ultimately be used even against an elected socialist government. It will be used economically, through the flight of capital, as Harold Wilson’s government discovered. It will be used ideologically, to whip up popular hatred of socialists – the treatment meted out recently to Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and Ken Livingstone is only a foretaste of what a left-wing government would suffer. And, in the last instance, it will be used politically, forcibly to crush any serious threat to capitalist control of the economy.

The fundamental question is then whether workers have a power to match that of the capitalist class. As we have seen, such a power exists in the collective organisations which workers build to fight their daily battles with capital.

In the process of production, where the wealth of capitalist society is created, workers have the power to paralyse the entire system. This power, usually employed through the trade unions to renegotiate workers’ position within capitalism, could be used to overturn existing society.

The fact of workers’ power is indisputable. In Britain, the miners showed it in 1972 and 1974, when they forced the Tory government into a corner when they tried to impose wage controls, from which they could escape only by fighting – and losing – an election. The 1971 Industrial Relations Act was destroyed by workers’ collective action – above all by the threat of a general strike when the five dockers’ leaders were jailed in Pentonville in July 1972.

In 1982 the Thatcher government’s anti-union Employment Act was made to seem an ass by the Fleet Street electricians, who closed down the newspapers for a day in solidarity with the health-workers and received in punishment a derisory £250 fine – which they never paid.

Normally, however, this enormous strength is kept within the boundaries of what is regarded as acceptable in capitalist society. The trade unions (or, more especially, their leaders) try to confine themselves to purely economic struggles, and to keep out of politics. But some trade-union struggles burst out of these artificial boundaries. For example, militant picketing challenges the capitalist state. Workers take into their own hands the right to control the movement of goods, and defy the authority of the police and the courts.

When a strike becomes general, embracing different sections of workers, the threat becomes greatest. For during a general strike, when the entire economy is paralysed, strike committees are forced to take on the responsibility for running certain essential services, such as ambulances and making sure that food is distributed. In other words, workers’ organisations begin to take over some of the functions of the state. This began to happen in Britain during the General Strike of May 1926. In some areas Councils of Action set up by local trade unionists became effectively government bodies.

The General Strike lasted only nine days, but in other countries things have developed much more dramatically. Situations of dual power have emerged, where the institutions of the existing capitalist state have been confronted by the beginnings of a rival workers’ state.

The first example of this was the Paris Commune. In March 1871 the workers of Paris set up their own government. The most important action they took was to dissolve the standing army and the police, and to replace them with a people’s militia. All officials were directly elected, and paid the average workers’ wages. Moreover, they were subject to immediate recall – in other words, if the voters decided that they didn’t like what one of their representatives was doing, they could vote to remove him. This principle applied to judges as well – the French equivalents of Lord Denning were not allowed to hide behind their sham ‘independence’.

The Paris Commune was crushed by the French government, and 20,000 men and women were slaughtered for their part in it. But they left behind them the model of what a workers’ state would be like. All previous states had been the means through which a minority of exploiters held on to their wealth and power. The workers’ state would be the instrument through which working people liberated themselves.

The ‘Commune-State’ re-emerged in Russia during the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. But now things were taken a step further. For the 1905 revolution gave birth to a form of political organisation which reflected workers’ power in production – the soviet.

‘Soviet’ is the Russian word for ‘council’. The soviet first emerged in St Petersburg in October 1905 as a council of factory delegates. Formed first as a strike committee by print-workers who wanted to be paid for the punctuation marks as well as the words which they set up into type, it grew into a body which represented all the workers of the city. It cut across all the sectional lines which trade unions reflected, and based itself on the power of workplace organisation.

The 1905 revolution was crushed, but the Soviets reappeared on a mass scale when the revolution of February 1917 toppled Tsar Nicholas II. This time these councils included not only the workers but also the millions of soldiers who had rebelled against Russia’s involvement in the First World War. Because of this, the Soviets directly challenged the ultimate source of state power – the monopoly of armed force. Not only did the councils command the active support of many soldiers, but they created their own workers’ militia, the Red Guard. The Provisional Government which replaced the Tsar found itself confronted by what was effectively a workers’ government, and one that was growing in strength day by day.

A situation of dual power is unstable – it can’t last for any length of time. Either the capitalist class will move against the workers’ councils to restore their monopoly of force, or the councils will overthrow the state and take power for themselves. In October 1917 the Soviets, led by the Bolsheviks, seized power from the Provisional Government.

The October revolution was only the high-point of a wave of workers’ militancy which shook Europe from one corner to another. In Germany workers’ and soldiers’ councils overturned the Kaiser in November 1918. Italy was shaken by two years of class struggle in 1918–20, coming to a climax in the factory occupations of the summer of 1920. Even in Britain the shop stewards’ movement represented a serious threat to the government and the trade-union leaders.

We shall look more closely later at the reasons for the success or failure of different workers’ movements. It’s important to see, however, that the upheavals at the end of the First World War were not a flash in a pan, something unique to those few years and never to be repeated.

In June 1936 the Spanish right wing, led by General Franco, launched a coup d’etat against Spain’s republican government. It was beaten off by an enormous effort on the part of Spain’s workers and peasants, who rose in arms against Franco’s professional soldiers. George Orwell, who served in a left-wing militia during the Civil War which followed, wrote this vivid description of Barcelona under workers’ control:

It was the first time I had ever been to a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or the red and black flags of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the boot-blacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Service and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared ... Tipping was forbidden by law. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

Franco eventually won the Civil War, in part because, on the republican side, these beginnings of a workers’ government were suppressed and replaced by an orthodox capitalist regime. But the same pattern of workers’ councils re-emerged again in Hungary in 1956, when the mass of the people rebelled against the brutal rule of Moscow and its Hungarian puppet government. Factory councils and an armed workers’ militia led the resistance to the Russian tanks which eventually crushed the rising.

In Portugal, when the coup of 23 April 1974 ended nearly fifty years of right-wing dictatorship, the popular upsurge that followed saw the spread of a movement for workers’ control of the factories in alliance with rank-and-file soldiers radicalised by the revolution. Although the right wing eventually restored control, the Portuguese events showed the potential for workers’ power in Western Europe itself.

Most recently, and most dramatically, when Solidarity emerged in Poland during the summer of 1980 it went much further than a purely trade-union movement. Organising the mass of Polish workers independently of the institutions of the state, it directly threatened the power of the ruling class and its Russian backers. For a time, the regime was forced to concede victory after victory to the workers’ movement.

But the case of Solidarity also shows how unstable any situation with elements of dual power is. Just because its very existence represented a direct challenge to the Polish state, Solidarity had to overthrow that state or itself perish. The fact that Lech Walesa and its other leaders insisted on seeking to improve workers’ conditions only within the framework of the existing system made them vulnerable to the regime’s counter-attack.

While the rest of the Polish state had been badly shaken by the emergence of Solidarity, the armed forces, the ultimate source of any state’s power, had survived intact, and could be used to crush the union in December 1981.

The Revolutionary Party

So although workers’ struggles may spontaneously throw up Soviets or workers’ councils, and create a situation of dual power, these conditions are not enough for a successful socialist revolution.

A revolutionary situation places a premium on effective organisation and leadership. Events move very quickly, and on a snap decision may hang the fate of the entire revolution. What is needed is a cool and clear head, a firm sense of the ultimate objective, the ability to make rapid tactical judgements, and an organisation capable not only of making decisions, but of carrying them out.

Unfortunately, none of these qualities are to be found in the leaders of the reformist parties. Yet experience shows that it is they who at first dominate the workers’ councils. Even when workers break from the past by creating such councils, they still carry with them many traditions and especially loyalty to those who have led them in the past. Thus in Russia in February 1917 the two main reformist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, had a majority in the Soviets. Similarly, workers’ and soldiers’ councils which emerged in Germany in November 1918 were controlled by the reformist Social Democrats and Independent Socialists.

These two revolutions had very different outcomes. In Germany capitalist rule was restored, in the form of the Weimar republic. In Russia, on the other hand, the Soviets seized power in the first, and only successful workers’ revolution. The cause of this difference lies in the simple fact that in Russia a revolutionary socialist party existed at the beginning of the revolution, while in Germany it did not.

The Bolsheviks were founded in 1903, when Lenin and the majority of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party decided to build an organisation of those who wanted to work for a socialist revolution. The Bolsheviks took part in the revolution of 1905, and nearly fell apart after it was defeated. But a core held together around Lenin, and kept an organisation going during the difficult years between 1906 and 1912. When an upsurge in Russian workers’ struggles began with the angry response to a massacre of miners at Lena in 1912, the Bolsheviks were ready, and their semi-legal paper Pravda won a wide audience among workers.

This organisation was able to survive the repression which followed the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, and to give a voice to the growing workers’ opposition to the war and the Tsar which exploded into the revolution of February 1917.

The Bolsheviks were, at first, only a minority in the Soviets of 1917. But under Lenin’s leadership they set themselves the task of winning the workers’ and soldiers’ councils to the goal of overthrowing the Provisional Government. They rejected the idea of seizing power with only minority support, and concentrated on, in Lenin’s words, ‘patiently explaining’ the need for a second revolution.

The Bolsheviks’ arguments, and their own experience, convinced Russian workers of the necessity of this revolution. By the late summer and early autumn of 1917 the Bolsheviks had a majority in the Soviets. After a prolonged internal debate, Lenin persuaded the party to seize power, and on 25 October 1917 the Provisional Government was overthrown.

Compare what happened in Germany. The revolutionary left there had in Rosa Luxemburg as outstanding a leader as Lenin. What they lacked was a party. Rosa Luxemburg and her supporters in the Spartacus League remained part of the reformist Social Democratic Party even after it had supported the First World War. They left only when they were expelled in 1917. Luxemburg then founded the German Communist Party, on the Bolshevik model, in December 1918, after the revolution had broken out.

This was too late. The reformists dominated the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. The Social Democratic premier, Friedrich Ebert, struck a deal with General Groener of the General Staff to crush the revolutionary left. Tens of thousands of workers had been radicalised by the revolution but lacked any effective leadership. It was easy for the right wing to provoke an unsuccessful revolutionary rising in January 1919 and then slaughter the Spartacists. Luxemburg was the chief victim of this massacre, even though she opposed the rising.

The same pattern has been repeated again and again since 1918–9. Let’s just take the most recent case, that of Poland in 1980–1. The Polish workers were prepared to take action against the regime and set up their own independent organisation, Solidarity. They were still, however, heavily influenced by the past.

The most important of these influences was the Catholic Church, the one institution in Poland independent of the state. Lech Walesa and the ‘moderate’ wing of the Solidarity leadership were largely guided by the advice they received from the church, which said they should seek a compromise with the regime. Unfortunately, within Solidarity there was no revolutionary organisation capable of presenting a coherent alternative based on the strength of the working class to overthrow the state. Walesa’s strategy led, as every reformist strategy must, to defeat.

A revolutionary party is a necessary condition of any successful revolution. But it’s important to understand what a revolutionary party is, and what it is not.

In the first place, the party is no substitute for the working class itself. The baneful influence of Stalin’s perversion of Marxism (of which more in the next chapter) has meant that the idea of ‘The Party’ casts up images of an infallible, all-seeing monolith which makes the revolution for the working class.

Such a conception of the party is, of course, completely at odds with Marx’s idea of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. It is the spontaneous action of workers which creates revolutionary situations with the potential for socialism. What the party seeks to do is to render this movement conscious, and to direct its energies to the goal of wresting power from the capitalist class.

In the words of Leon Trotsky, who was with Lenin the main leader of the Bolshevik revolution: ‘Without a guiding organisation the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.’

Secondly, revolutionaries do not, even in revolutionary situations, spend their time running around with guns and bombs. Their task is rather ‘patiently to explain’ to workers the necessity of revolution. The chief battle they fight is one of ideas, the struggle to break the hold of the past, of conservative traditions on the majority of workers.

The revolutionary socialist party does not engage in this battle only through meetings and newspaper articles. As we have seen earlier, workers become open to socialist ideas chiefly when involved in struggle. So revolutionaries must involve themselves in the daily trade-union struggles in every workplace, in factory and office, mine and hospital, even though these struggles have very non-revolutionary aims, such as higher wages or better working conditions.

The revolutionary party, in other words, is a combat organisation. It does not exist only to discuss ideas, but to engage in, and organise working-class actions. By taking an active part in winning small gains today, revolutionary socialists win the confidence of their fellow-workers, who will then be more likely to see that socialism offers a positive alternative for the future.

Thirdly, the tasks of the party are reflected in its internal organisation. The image of the Bolsheviks which we have inherited, thanks to the degeneration of the Russian revolution, is that of a monolith guided by an infallible leader, Lenin. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before, during and after the October revolution the Bolshevik party was continually engaged in the most vigorous debates, which were often conducted openly in the press, and in which Lenin was often in a minority.

Such lively internal democracy is essential to a revolutionary party. For if it is to intervene in and influence workers’ struggles it has continually to be learning from these struggles, and adjusting to changes in circumstances. This can happen only if the party’s organisation permits open and democratic debate.

But the other side to this is that the party must be able to intervene effectively in day-to-day workers’ struggle. This means that a decision, once arrived at democratically, must be carried out by all the members of the party, even those who were in the minority that opposed the decision. The effectiveness of a revolutionary party lies in the fact that all its members act as one.

This delicate balance – the fullest possible democracy in making a decision, the fullest possible unanimity in carrying it out – is what Lenin called democratic centralism. It is essential to the success of a revolutionary socialist party.

There is one final lesson to be drawn from the experience of previous revolutions. The task of building a revolutionary party must begin long before a revolutionary situation develops. It was not superior intelligence or courage that distinguished Lenin from Rosa Luxemburg, but simply the fact that he had grasped the need for a party as long ago as 1903, while she broke with the reformist Social Democrats at the last possible moment. As a result, the Bolsheviks had the experience and strength from fourteen years of ups and downs in the workers’ movement, while the Spartacists were a weak, divided and disorganised group, highly vulnerable to the counter-offensive.

This has obvious implications for what socialists do today. It is not enough to stagnate in the Labour Party, saying that there will be time enough to break with the right-wing leadership when there is an upturn in the class struggle. We must build an independent revolutionary socialist party now, however difficult and discouraging the circumstances may be.

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Last updated: 2 June 2015