Ossinsky's Demand for Clear Answers (April 1918)

It is often asserted by bourgeois and anarchist histories of the Russian Revolution that the Bolsheviks arrived in power in the soviets with a distinct plan in mind. The document which follows (which should be read alongside Ossinsky’s early criticism which we published as Ossinsky’s Criticism of State Capitalism in Russia at leftcom.org) demonstrates quite clearly that the Bolsheviks had no plan at all. They had no preconceived notions about what they would do after October. After all they had only ditched their old social democratic programme in the early summer of 1917 after a debate that lasted almost two months. The only premise on which the October Revolution was based was that it was the first step on the road to world working class revolution. Even in the speech which Ossinsky criticises here, Lenin emphasised this perspective was their one great hope:

The task before us is the inflexible exertion of all our strength and its application to new creative work, for only iron endurance and labour discipline will enable the revolutionary Russian proletariat, as yet so solitary in its gigantic revolutionary work, to hold out till the time of deliverance when the international proletariat will come to our aid.

“Holding out” though posed its own problems. Some on the right of the Party, like the Commissar for Finance Gukovsky, were actually in favour of just letting the capitalists carry on as long as they worked with the soviets. The Left though realised that socialism can only be built on the initiative of the working class itself. And, as Ossinsky had noted in Kommunist No. 1, this cannot be turned off and then back on. The workers had brought about soviet power and they alone were the ones who could carry out the transition to socialism. From October 1917 Lenin agreed with the Left. He toured factories and soviets tirelessly repeating the same message that only the working class could build socialism and no-one else could do it for them.

At the heart of this were the factory committees which had arisen during the revolutionary year of 1917. The working class via its factory committees had been forced to take over production in many places when the bosses simply walked away or refused to run the factory. These same workers in their factory committees also compelled the Council of Peoples’ Commissars (Sovnarkom) to set up a body to coordinate the economy – the Supreme Soviet of the National Economy (called Vesenkha for short). Its first Chairman was none other than Ossinsky himself, and he was accompanied on the Board by other Left Communists, like Bukharin and Lomov. Under them the new body tried to facilitate worker initiative in the factory despite the opposition of their own comrades on the Party right and in the trades unions (who wanted to supplant the factory committees in the workplace).

They were fighting a losing battle but their real enemy was not in their own Party. The October Revolution had already inherited a disastrous economic situation from the Provisional Government. It was made worse by the need to end the war which the soviet power tried to do immediately. Since at least 60% of industry was devoted to war production achieving peace meant unemployment. As Edward Acton observed in his Rethinking the Russian Revolution,

In the aftermath of October, the country suffered an economic collapse on the scale of a modern Black Death... The capital lost no less than a million inhabitants in the first six months after October as workers streamed from the capital in search of bread. (p.201)

Even those workers who had jobs still had to spend their time looking for food and demoralisation was compounded by mass absenteeism. Attempts by Bolsheviks on the factory committees at this time to increase labour discipline led to new delegates being elected who were more compliant with the workers' demands. Eventually though even these factory committees began to be more concerned with labour discipline and output. In the anarchist/libertarian demonology this was, of course because the Bolsheviks had suppressed the workers' initiative in the factory committees. But this is too simplistic as Steve Smith showed in his Red Petrograd:

[...] one cannot see in this the triumph of the Bolshevik party over the factory committees. From the first the committees had been committed both to maintaining production and to democratising factory life, but the condition of industry was such that these two objectives now conflicted with one another. (pp.250-1)

However, the economic crisis was worsening, and every article in Kommunist which deals with the economy focuses on this. Ossinsky here tells us that;

the distress is so great that every hour of delay, every indecision halts future creative work.

Ossinsky makes it clear that more worker initiative, more actual running of the economy by the workers is the only solution to the decline in the economy. Lenin now took the opposite view. If the revolution in Russia was to survive until the international revolution came to its aid then capitalist management techniques would have to be restored to save the economy. It was his answer to the cruel dilemma facing soviet power in April 1918. Ossinsky though persisted in his belief which Lenin had shared up until that point. This is why he ends by calling for yet greater involvement of the working masses in the economic sphere:

Mass discussion on these questions will involve the workers in the construction of socialism which can only be realised by the workers themselves.

However the document also reveals that the Bolsheviks thought that the period of civil war was over. In fact this was a period of the “peredyshka”, the breathing space. Within a few weeks of this debate the civil war would begin in earnest as White Armies financed by imperialist powers plus those powers themselves invaded the Soviet Republic. The Moscow Soviet had just been re-elected when the debate took place between Lenin and Ossinsky. It would not be re-elected again until 1920 but by then many other aspects of the revolution had already gone awry…

Clear Answers

In his speech to the plenary session of the newly elected Moscow Soviet, Comrade Lenin declared that the main task of the workers is “the inflexible exertion of all our strength [...] iron endurance and labour discipline”. [1] This is not the first time that Comrade Lenin has called on us for such an accelerated construction “of steel” on the home front. Is this call justified and relevant? A thousand times yes. We must construct a new republic of labour decisively and more quickly and first and foremost organise its economy. Speed and energy are needed for what follows. In the first place, we need to completely cement our victory against the bourgeoisie and their old servants, the intelligentsia. At this moment, they are defeated, isolated and have capitulated. Only by cementing victory can we reap its rewards. Secondly, given the economic pressure of international imperialism which we are facing from all sides, we must resolve our internal economic weaknesses as quickly as possible. Thirdly, the distress is so great that every hour of delay, every indecision halts future creative work. Lastly, internal construction (if it is undertaken in the correct sense) will solidify the terrain for the proletariat and reduce the damage, class disintegration and the influence of the petty bourgeois elements on the proletariat.

What do we need to achieve this accelerated and decisive construction? A clear plan, strong will and energetic action. First and foremost, a clear plan: not abstract reflections, but markers for immediate action. Without these markers, action is impossible. The only ones who march forth quickly are those who know the goal they are working towards.

But what do we see in reality? Do we find (in the same speech by Comrade Lenin), alongside generous calls, concrete proposals and a programme of action? Do we see real actions in the financial and economic domain?

Neither of them. Instead of a programme of action in the financial domain, we have obscure phrases from Gukovsky [2], who does not get remotely near declaring himself in favour of the decisive nationalisation of the banks, preferring to tread water. In the domain of economic policy: first the advanced plans of the semi-capitalist trust, then abstract rhetoric on the need for total nationalisation (without practical realisation). At the same time, there is no organisational work and permanent chaos at the Supreme Soviet of the National Economy; instead of actions, only decrees of nationalisation of foreign commerce and broadcasts of obligations, etc. Where does this come from, all this indecision on the programme, all this water-treading? The main reason is clear: the Soviet political leaders have not yet decided what their path and their programme should be.

In this sense, the attitude of Comrade Lenin is very typical. On 4 April, during the meeting with the group of the Left Communists [3], he explicitly stated that the current slogan was “to learn socialist organisation from the organisers of the trusts”. So he said that he was prepared to give Meshchersky and Co. a payoff of up to 200-250 million roubles in the form of a bond loan, provided that they would organise the “State” metalworking Trust. [4] Not a week had gone by when, at the meeting of the representatives of the leading economic organisations, Comrade Lenin declared himself in favour of the total nationalisation of the metalworking factories. Comrade Trotsky also changed his position on military questions between his speech at the Moscow City Conference and his latest report to the Central Executive Committee. [5] Now Comrade Lenin seems to be in favour of the nationalisation of industry, but nobody knows what he thinks of the nationalisation of the banks, nor of the opinion of Gukovsky. If he had a clear programme, he would present it with his normal decisiveness and clarity.

The Soviet political leaders have shown neither as a whole nor individually the path they wish to follow. However, as we have demonstrated in our Theses on the Current Situation [In Kommunist Vol. 1 which can be found online at libcom.org], after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, two paths opened up to the Russian proletariat. One path leads to the petty bourgeois degeneration from soviet power to state capitalism. The other leads to the defence of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the consolidation of its basis by the construction of a proletarian socialism. Those who do not follow the second path stray to the first, by force of circumstances. However, only the second path contains the possibility of definitively overcoming the difficulties, of conquering the petty bourgeois elements and safeguarding the proletariat as an active and revolutionary class. This hesitation redoubles the forces of the Russian bourgeoisie, facilitates the capitulation of the Russian economy to foreign capital, increasingly disorganises the working class and contributes to the deleterious influence of the petty bourgeois landowners.

We must now explicitly choose one or the other. The economy and the country as a whole cannot hesitate for much longer. Either we return to bourgeois society in a new form, purified and liberated from servitude. This is an issue as well. Although it foretells of serious political and economic upheavals, notably the death of the workers’ revolution, it is a political solution all the same. Or we advance on the path to socialism.

The Soviet political leaders are not saying explicitly which path they are choosing. Perhaps they do not want to say? In certain situations, there is a motive for keeping silent, to let others speak, those who are not afraid to explicitly or implicitly extol the retreat. Having a group of more decided people at one’s disposal, they can (by making “concessions” to this “right” wing) steer the policy sufficiently to the right whilst still retaining a fairly consistent position. We fear that things are unfolding this way, especially taking into account the fact that the attacks by our leading comrades (for example Lenin in his latest speech) are addressed exclusively to the left. This heavy artillery does not fire at the right where a great number of deserters from October are assembled… [6]

We were wrong to say that in Lenin’s speech there was no concrete point of programme or action. One point does exist: self-discipline (certainly, obviously, “of iron”) of workers and the struggle against the rotting influence of the petty bourgeois “free for all”. In this struggle the workers must recover and ruthlessly eliminate all those (even in their own ranks) who “plunder” or hinder the struggle against those who “plunder”.

As we know, Comrade Lenin (and especially the right Bolsheviks at his side) closely links the iron self-discipline of the proletariat with the introduction of piece work, as bonuses for increased productivity and the Taylor system (under the guise of “norms of work”).

Not only are we not opposed to the struggle against those who “plunder”, even among the working class, but it is in fact we, the Left Communists, who lead the most ruthless struggle against the petty bourgeois currents among the proletariat. And if Comrade Lenin alludes to Left Communists in characterising us as the “hesitant and harmful elements among us” who dare to “disorganise the discipline of work” [7], he is either misled himself, or he hopes to mislead his listeners.

We are opposed to those who “pillage” and foment disorder. But we must stress as clearly as possible that eliminating the petty bourgeois currents and restoring labour discipline at the same time as introducing wages based on piece work and bonuses means fighting the devil to aid Beelzebub. Indeed, this comes back to speaking in pretty, hollow rhetoric on the struggle against petty bourgeois appetites, all the while developing in reality, in the workers’ ranks, petty bourgeois debauchery, the pursuit of kopeks, and methods of negotiation that distract the workers from their political tasks and reduce their class combativity and consciousness.

In order to eliminate petty bourgeois tendencies and individualist interests, the dictatorship of the workers’ organisations are not enough. The external material conditions must liquidate the bases of the “free for all”. Here it must be added that, on the one hand, the introduction of bonuses and piece work creates the material conditions most favourable to bourgeois speculation; on the other hand, the stalemate of the organisation of production, even with programmatic clarity, transforms all of the discussions on the struggle against the petty bourgeois enemy into pleasant but useless chit chat.

Only the organisation of production on socialist grounds can effectively and materially avoid an economic “free for all”. We should not need to explain this to Marxists. In the absence of these decisive conditions, the “free for all” will take on extreme dimensions with the piece work system of pay, it will develop petty bourgeois inclinations that lead to “quibbling over the last bit of fat” and this will stifle the consciousness of the working class. In such conditions, the dictatorship wielded by the proletariat, itself, will inevitably transform itself into a dictatorship over the proletariat - it will not be that of the proletariat, but quite clearly that of the petty bourgeoisie, which depends entirely on the extent of the agreements with Meshchersky’s gentlemen of the big bourgeoisie.

Thus does our analysis of Comrade Lenin’s only slogan bring us to the same question: which path will the soviet power choose? How does it imagine it can bring about the construction of socialism? If no clear answers are provided to these questions, the struggle against the petty bourgeois shopkeeper spirit remains a meaningless phrase or threatens to lead to its triumph.

The present political time has become truly threatening, difficult, and decisive. Precision of intentions and actions is crucial. The working class has not only the right, but the obligation to demand of its leaders that they clarify themselves unambiguously, that they clearly explain their positions and that they begin to take rapid and energetic measures.

For this reason, we call on worker comrades to demand meetings of the party and the soviets where the leading comrades should give “clear answers to the questions raised”. These questions should be the following: 1) what are the general perspectives of Soviet policy regarding the current political and economic situation; 2) what are the immediate tasks of the soviet power, its programme of “creative work”; 3) what must the workers do and what is the soviet power already doing to realise this programme?

Mass discussion on these question will involve the workers in the construction of socialism which can only be realised by the workers themselves. It will rectify the party line, and put an end to the hesitations. Instead of a stalemate, it will oblige us to carry out the work of which we do nothing but speak.

N. Ossinsky


[1] Cf. “Speech to the Moscow Soviet” on 23rd April 1918, marxists.org

[2] Isidor Emmanuilovich Gukovsky (1871–1921) was a former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks after October and became Peoples’ Commissar for Finance. His conservative instincts made him an opponent of the Left Communists. He was replaced by Krestinsky in August 1918 and died of pneumonia representing the Soviet Republic in Estonia in 1921.

[3] Meeting between Lenin and the Left Communist fraction during which Ossinsky presented his Theses on the Current Situation.

[4] Prince V. Mechtchersky, iron and steel magnate owned the leading factories for building locomotives and wagons. Representing an important group of capitalists in the machine and metallurgy industries in March 1918 he proposed to the Soviet government to set up a new trust. The group would hold half the shares of the metallurgy trust and the state the other half. The group would be responsible for management in the name of the trust. On the basis of a narrow majority the government decided to negotiate but on 14 April finally rejected the proposal in favour of the complete nationalisation of industry. The Government suspected that German capitalists were behind Mechtchersky’s proposal.

[5] This meeting was not open to the public, but was of an official nature. There were witnesses to these words, they could prove it. The Left Communists protested fervently against this slogan and the trust plan. (Editor’s note)

[6] An example of this heavy artillery: “And anyone who acts in opposition to the tactics to which we have adhered in the recent period — even if he calls himself the most “Left”, even super-Left, Communist — is a bad revolutionary, I will say more, is not a revolutionary at all.” marxists.org

[7] Lenin’s precise words were as follows: “We shall be merciless both to our enemies and to all waverers and harmful elements in our midst who dare to bring disorganisation into our difficult creative work of building a new life for the working people.” marxists.org

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


Another illuminating piece in this series which traces the activity/political arguments of the left communist strand inside the Bolshevik Party. Anyone who follows this can see that a) the Bolshevik Party was far from composed of submissive followers of Lenin; that b) the Left in particular were well aware not only of the likelihood of the defeat of the revolution but of the danger of that taking the form of state capitalism. And above and beyond all that, simply the feel of what was at stake comes through these texts… keep up the good work.