Party and class in the revolutionary wave of 1917-21

Image - Petrograd, October 1917

Class consciousness and working class political organisation - Part seven


The experience of the Russian Revolution is the single most important event in any discussion of the nature of working class consciousness, the emergence of a proletarian party and the nature of class decision-making. In the last part we showed how the Bolsheviks had emerged as the class party in 1917. In this part we wish to begin confronting the issue which has hung around the neck of the revolutionary proletariat since the early 1920’s. How is it, that a revolution which began with such promise of liberation for the proletariat and therefore for the whole of humanity ended in the mire of one of the worst tyrannies in world history? This is significant because there has been a long tradition of rejecting the role of the party which has made many would-be revolutionaries (for example, in the current “anti-capitalist” movement”) fear any form of organisation. Given what we have already argued on this question earlier in this series such a fear represents a real danger for the working class. If we cannot overcome it our capacity to act together as a class will not just be severely impeded but the prospect of revolution will vanish. The roots of this anti-organisational tendency lie in the reaction to the Russian Revolution, particularly in the writings of the so-called “councilists” who are still influential amongst today’s anti-capitalists.

Councilism and revolution

Anton Pannekoek, the Dutch communist once wrote that the working class only has two weapons, its organisation and its consciousness. However, Pannekoek, founder member of the German Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD), and later prophet of council communism, gave different answers at different times as to the precise relationship between these two factors. As a member of the KAPD he put the original emphasis on the fact that the proletarian party, as the organisation of the most class conscious workers, had to have a programme which was “hard as steel, clear as glass” in order to carry out its historic tasks. This was what Pannekoek at that time realised was the real legacy of the Bolshevik Party in 1917. He correctly contrasted this with the opportunism and betrayal of the parties of the Third International (including the Bolsheviks) which by 1921 were retreating back to making alliances with the same Social Democrats who had betrayed the workers in supporting imperialist war in 1914, and then became organisations dedicated to the preservation of the capitalist system after the First World War. In Germany this betrayal was clearer than anywhere else since after 1919 a river of blood (that included the cold blooded murder of hundreds of communist workers as well as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht) separated the revolutionary proletariat from Social Democracy. This made it all the more detestable that the German Communist Party under Paul Levi not only expelled those who were to become the KAPD, for their opposition to the tactical use of parliamentarism and trades unionism, but was also to go along with the Comintern’s policy (when faced with a declining revolutionary situation) of forming united fronts with the Social Democrats who, in secret alliance with the Kaiser’s former generals, were now the backbone of the new bourgeois Weimar Republic.

For some of Pannekoek’s comrades in the Berlin section of the KAPD a renewed, German, form of Bolshevism was not the solution . Led by Otto Rühle (who had the distinction of being the first Social Democrat M.P. to vote against war credits after Karl Liebknecht) they now began to condemn the party form itself as being a bourgeois creation and thus alien to the process of proletarian emancipation. The Berlin Tendency had some immediate experience to back up Rühle’s claim. Not only had Rühle been initially forced to obey the Social Democratic parliamentary party discipline and vote for the Kaiser’s war in August 1914, but he had also seen how the once impeccably revolutionary Bolshevik party, the only significant party to fight against the war, had degenerated under the extremely arduous pressure of a so-called “civil war” which was in fact an international war fought on Russian soil. The consequences of this civil war were materially disastrous for the Russian revolutionary proletariat. Not only were more than 2 million wiped out but the mobilisation of the most class conscious workers into a new Red Army undermined the operation of the Soviet system. The Soviets were in decline by 1919 and even though Soviet Congresses were still convened by 1920 these were empty shells rather than the vibrant bodies they had once been.

Rühle however avoided any material analysis of this decline. For Rühle the problem was that the Bolsheviks had failed ideologically to carry out the communist programme. He was the first person to point out that what had been created in Russia was not a communist society but a state capitalist one. This however does him no credit. Lenin himself said that the Soviet Republic was a mixed economy (and the state capitalist parts were for him amongst its better achievements). However no-one was really talking at this point of a socialist society since the young Soviet Republic was still living in the hand-to-mouth existence of the realm of necessity. If economically the proletariat had inherited a situation in late 1917 akin to the economic collapse of the Black Death in the 14th Century (the description is by Edward Acton, Professor of History at East Anglia University in his book Rethinking the “Russian Revolution”), imagine the situation after three more years and 8 million more deaths due to this war foisted on the proletariat by the intervention of international imperialism. Only a world-wide shift in the balance of class power could have posed the question of socialism but Rühle, after years in the ranks of Social Democracy, saw revolution only in idealist terms. The hesitations of the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International were not, according to him, due to adverse historical circumstances but to the inherent conservatism of all ex-social democratic parties. It was a short step from here to the conclusion that all parties are bourgeois. What mattered was no longer the organisation which encapsulated the consciousness of those who had always been communist but only the class wide bodies which gave voice to the whole class. This was the origin of he theory of councilism, of which Rühle has a strong claim to be the father.

Councilism and Marxism

But councilism is predicated on a rejection of the very principles of how class consciousness arises as laid out by Marx in The German Ideology. If class consciousness uniformly arises inside the working class then the question of party versus soviet becomes fairly academic, and the party would be irrelevant, but in fact this is not the case. Class consciousness exists in fragmented form amongst different groups of workers according to relatively recent class experience. Such experiences may be fleeting (a strike in one industry), they may be spaced out over years so that workers only have dim recollections of what has happened previously or they may be particularly violent outbursts of struggle which no-one forgets but which separate groups experience differently. What draws these episodes together is not the direct experience of the actual struggle (the spontaneist/ councilist hypothesis) but the reflection of those workers and activists who recognise that this or that struggle is only a part of a greater whole and is the product of the class antagonisms of capitalist society as a whole. Outside of the immediate struggle how can these groups of workers develop their experience and the consciousness which has been aroused by that experience. A permanent political organisation that takes the acquisitions of the past into the future struggles is not simply desirable - its appearance as part of the process of ever widening class consciousness is inevitable. This is the organisation that we call the party.

Rühle rejected this. Ultimately he argued that only economic organisations of the class were necessary (although he was opposed to all trades unions his view was finally a sort of anarcho-syndicalist idea. Like other members of the German Left who went on to become councilists he never saw the contradiction in this view). For Rühle the very idea of “party” was a bourgeois construct. What he did not see was that the bourgeois party (with its machinery designed to win votes) was a totally different beast from the party of the proletariat. Whilst the former was solely an instrument for representing economic interests within the system the proletarian party only came into existence as the bearer of the historic programme for the emancipation of the class. This means that not only was it a different type of body altogether it also had a fundamentally different relationship to the majority of its class. The bourgeois party demanded that voters vote for it in order to leave it to rule but the proletarian party is a guide, a leadership to direct mass proletarian action towards the overthrow of the old order. Whilst the party has an important guiding role in the actual process of insurrection, and will have to lead in that insurrection, in the last resort it has to be this mass of the class not the party which finally overthrows the old order by drawing an even greater mass into the process which begins to build a new one. The precise relationship between class party and mass of the class cannot be decided in advance since it is only in the process of revolution that the working class shakes off “the muck of ages” (Marx, The German Ideology) but historical logic cannot be turned on it head. First class consciousness takes a minority form and then this minority points the way forward to the whole class in a revolutionary situation. Only once the capitalist order has been overthrown does the working class set up the required new material conditions for the development of a mass communist/class consciousness.

The Russian experience of October 1917

This introduction on the theoretical roots of councilism takes us back to where we had finished Part Six of this series in Russia in the middle of 1917. The Bolsheviks themselves were not a deus ex machina. They were part of the revolutionary development of the Russian working class. As a party the Bolshevik Party did not start and finish 1917 as the same organisation. In the course of that momentous year although it had the right raw material Bolshevism was forged into a tool of the revolutionary proletariat. As we made clear in the last part of this series this was neither a mystical process nor was the outcome pre-ordained. First of all the Bolsheviks in 1914 remained true to a proletarian programme when the vast majority of the Social Democratic parties abandoned all that they claimed to stand for. In second place the Bolsheviks were a grass roots organisation which, despite the arrest and exile of their leaders, worked in the factories and in the garrisons to take their anti-war message into the daily class struggle.

By the middle of 1917 the Bolsheviks were, in a certain sense, almost too successful. Once Lenin had convinced the party leaders in May to accept what the rank and file had known all along, i.e. that the Provisional Government had to be overthrown and an attempt to create socialism started, then the proletariat had a clear banner around which to rally. As the war effort of the Provisional Government ground to a halt in June the steadfast anti-war position of Bolshevism became the only hope for a working class facing starvation and a further mobilisation for yet one more suicidal offensive.

The July Days

Here though a further test of a proletarian party was to take place. Inevitably given what we have already understood about the uneven development of class consciousness some workers are more impatient to make the revolution than others and this was the case of the sailors based in Kronstadt, the naval fortress near Petrograd. In July 1917 they decided to follow up the June demonstration which had been called by those Soviet parties who supported the Provisional Government to show the Bolsheviks that they were an absolute minority. In the event it turned into a pro-Bolshevik demonstration against the Provisional Government with banners calling for immediate peace and the overthrow of the Provisional Government. The sailors decided that an armed demonstration in favour of soviet power would now topple the Provisional Government. However the rest of the class was not yet ready. The consequences of the failure of the June Offensive had not yet sunk in to a wider layer of the class. This the Bolsheviks, present in the factories, understood so the sailors action left them in a terrible dilemma. Here demonstrating below the balcony of the Kseshinskaia Palace, where the Bolsheviks had their headquarters, were thousands of armed sailors demanding that the Bolsheviks put themselves at the head of the demonstration (which, after all, only repeated the Bolshevik slogans of June) and march across the Liteiny Bridge straight towards the centre of the city. Lenin was horrified and even said to Podvoisky, the leader of the Bolshevik military organisation which was supposed to argue for their line within the barracks that he ought to be “thrashed” for not having warned the sailors earlier that what they were trying was premature. When called upon to greet the demonstrators Lenin basically told them to enjoy the demonstration but to peacefully return home as the Provisional Government might use it as a provocation to attack them. The sailors were mystified at this address. They did not see that, though they represented Bolshevik thinking the rest of the class would need more time to get to where they were. The decision of the Bolsheviks in the July Days not to support the sailors nor to criticise them, undermines once and for all the bourgeois idea that they were simply a gang of putschists. The Bolshevik leadership as a whole knew that no action was possible without wider class support. On the contrary it was the Kronstadters (many of them anarchists) who were the putschists since they thought that all that was needed was for them to give a lead and the rest of the class would follow. As the best elements of the revolutionary proletariat were already moving into the Bolshevik Party, the Bolsheviks themselves knew that the tide of class opinion was still flowing in their direction but had not yet reached sufficient strength for a showdown with the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks thus managed to tone down the demonstration a little without ever openly abandoning it to its fate. The Bolsheviks remained with the class.

For this reasons the Bolsheviks were proscribed, their press smashed up, their leaders imprisoned or forced to flee (like Lenin) and subjected to a massive lie campaign that they acted for Germany. But despite the Provisional Government’s assault on the Bolsheviks, the working class never wavered in its support and the Bolshevik Party after an initial fortnight of decline re-emerged from the crisis stronger than ever.

October - Coup d’état or revolution?

The speed of the Bolshevik revival was largely due to the infighting between the various strands of the bourgeoisie. When Kornilov, the man Kerensky had named as his new Army Commander decided to lead an assault on Petrograd it was the Bolsheviks, because they were so deeply rooted in the working class who were the only force to organise resistance. The persuasion of Bolshevik activists undermined the purpose of Kornilov’s troops (even the Savage Division - the former elite support for Tsarism) and the revolt simply faded away. The activity of the Bolsheviks made them the most significant factor in the consciousness of the urban working class in Russia and it was no surprise that they won 80% of the delegate places in elections to the two main soviets (Petrograd and Moscow). This was on the basis of the unambiguous slogans of “all Power to the Soviet” and “Down with the Provisional Government”.

This was now the very concrete advance in consciousness that Lenin (still in exile) was waiting for. It indicated that the anti-capitalist, anti-Provisional Government sentiment of the workers was now so developed that the overthrow of the Provisional Government could now be undertaken. The actual planning of the insurrection was formally given to the Military Revolutionary Committee (headed by Trotsky) of the Petrograd Soviet which was virtually a Bolshevik body since they dominated it and the Mensheviks and SRs (except the Left SRs who were about to split from their bourgeois colleagues) did not attend it. However in the end it was not any detailed plan in advance which guaranteed victory, it was the general class consciousness inside the working class that the Provisional Governemtn was their class enemy. When Kerensky decided to forestall any more armed demonstrations coming from the workers’ districts to the north of the city by closing the bridges over the Neva his troops were stopped and arrested by the workers’ militias who spotted that the bridges were about to be raised. This was the signal for the Military Revolutionary Committee to act and the city was taken over. Despite Eisenstein’s propaganda film October this was done without bloodshed. Kerensky simply could not find loyal troops to defend a regime which had long before lost the confidence of the masses. Indeed it is important to state that it was only when the proletariat removed from the Soviet Executive the parties which had been shielding the Provisional Government (the Mensheviks and the SRs) that the total bankruptcy of the Kerensky regime was revealed. The October Revolution was neither the simple coup d’etat of bourgeois propaganda nor the great military triumph that the Soviet regime later portrayed but the culmination of months of growing class awareness of the alternatives posed in 1917.

For Lenin the month of October had been very frustrating. The overwhelming support of the working class for Bolshevik delegates only underscored that the overthrow of the Provisional Government was on the agenda and he had been bombarding the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd with the request that they seize state power. The rest of the Bolshevik leadership prevaricated and it was only Kerensky’s actions which galvanised them into action. They would have been lost if they had not been working in a situation in which the mass of the class was with them. This is the key to the issue. This article is not about the events of 1917 but we have had to look at 1917 in detail because this is the only raw experience we have of the relationship of party, class and consciousness in a real revolution. 1917 gives us the only direct evidence of how the proletariat can come to power. Our councilists, with whom we started this part of the article, often accept the bourgeois argument that October was a coup d’etat or if they don’t they have an illogical and unrealistic formula which says that the October Revolution was proletarian but the Bolsheviks who led it were bourgeois! What we have briefly tried to show here is that the distinction between party and class will blur in a situation where the party, by all measurable criteria, has the overwhelming support of the mass of the class. In the few months before October even many anarchists recognised that Bolshevism had gone beyond the old statist, reformist Social Democracy and they joined the party. Lenin himself, whilst in exile in Finland recognised at this time in State and Revolution that:

... the anarchists were justified in saying about such Social-Democrats that they were failing in their task of giving the workers a revolutionary education.

in Selected Works Vol 2 p. 283-4

This confluence of anarchism and Bolshevism in the Russian Revolution obviously should not be exaggerated but it is further evidence to show that the experience of 1917 was transforming the political landscape and forging a revolutionary instrument in the Bolshevik Party.

Councilists also cannot fault the Bolsheviks as the quintessential Soviet party. No other party stood so consistently for soviet power. Indeed one of the reasons why the revolution degenerated so quickly is that the other parties represented in the soviet did not maintain the same principles. On some occasions between 1918 and 1920 the Mensheviks, for example, were divided into three factions. One (usually around Martov) was in the soviets, another was neutral whilst a third negotiated with the Whites to get rid of soviet power. It was the same with the Left SRs who were not only in the Soviet but part of the Council of People’s Commissars (i.e. the Soviet Government) until peace was signed with Germany. They then not only abandoned their government positions but also the soviet and returned to terrorism by assassinating the German ambassador and several Bolsheviks.

But that is not the only evidence that the Bolsheviks were the only party committed to workers councils. Under the Bolsheviks many more soviets were set up across Russia and in the first few months of the revolution Bolshevik leaders toured factories urging workers to recognise that the new system was based on participation not passivity. Even the great debate between councilists and left communists that the factory committees were deliberately undermined by the Bolsheviks ignores the fact that it was the factory committees themselves that called for greater centralisation in order to function less chaotically. In some ways the factory committees issue is a bit of a sideshow as the real issue is the decline of soviet power and the growth of the role of the party in every avenue of life. This underlines the most important lesson of the Russian revolution. Whilst the party may represent the vanguard of the class it cannot take on the role of the mass of the class in transforming society. The party is not a government but a political guide. In the circumstances of 1918-21 this was not understood. It was assumed that until the world revolution the party could act as a sort of regent for the proletariat until it revived its conscious activity but the history of proletarian class consciousness shows that this artificial way of looking at consciousness cannot work. Once the class in any generation begins to lose its conscious will to create new society no artificial expedient can revive it.

Lenin knew this. It was the main reason why Lenin insisted that the Provisional Government had to be overthrown in October whilst the proletariat were prepared for it. However Lenin was making his arguments with the perspective that class consciousness was international and that whatever the weakness of the situation in Russia the world revolution would help to transform the material situation. As we now know history did not work out that way, the Russian revolution was isolated and the question of how an isolated proletarian bastion could survive was put on the agenda for the only time in our history. It is to the issue of how the Russian Revolution declined and its significance for us that we turn in our next issue.


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