Class Consciousness and Working Class Political Organisation (Part VIII): The Decline of the Russian Revolution and the Cult of the Party

Class consciousness and working class political organisation - Part eight


In the last two parts of this article we have looked at the Russian Revolution. Despite taking place more than 80 years ago, it remains the single most important event for shaping our understanding of the question of class consciousness in this epoch. As the only time in history when a self-consciously working class movement actually arrived at the head of state power, it hands down to us a rich heritage of experience which we cannot ignore. In fact, so important is this event for our epoch that we have to return to it yet again.

In Part Seven we tackled the ideas of councilism which sprang up as the revolutionary period which followed the First World War came to a shuddering defeat. We consider that councilism is itself a distorted product of that counter-revolution because it actually theorises the idea that spontaneity alone will be enough to spark the revolutionary movement which will transform society. In doing so it actually does violence to the way in which class consciousness amongst a propertyless working class arises. Councilism blamed the Bolshevik Party as the agent of proletarian defeat and, councilists have gone on to argue that this was because the Bolsheviks were either insufficiently clear politically and programmatically or were even, in some versions, always counter-revolutionary in their ideas. This is both historically inaccurate and methodologically untenable. The Bolsheviks, for good or ill, were the best elements in political terms that existed within the old Second International. Their position on the war alone made them the vanguard of, not just the Russian proletariat, but the international proletariat as well. We should also remember that, as we show in our pamphlet 1917, Bolshevism wasn’t just a movement which sprang from the head of one man, it was a political representation of the revolutionary working class and which was forged as a revolutionary party in the struggles of 1917 by responding to the actual class movement. As a result of that experience revolutionaries from many countries looked to them to lead the world revolution. However this was a task which was actually beyond Bolshevism (or anyone else for that matter). The Russian proletariat was a minority in a backward capitalist country. As all the Bolshevik leaders repeatedly stated in 1917-18 “without a German Revolution we are doomed”. Or as Rosa Luxemburg put it, the question of socialism could only be posed in Russia. It would have to be answered further West. As that answer never came the question became one of survival rather than revolutionary transformation. As we have said many times in the past there was nothing in Marxist theory which prepared an isolated proletarian bastion to deal with this question.

Bolshevik “errors” and the rise of the party dictatorship

Bolshevism was an instrument of the revolution forged in the class struggle but in one sense alone the councilists are right, it was also the agent of the counter-revolution when the class movement was defeated. However, here we have to differentiate ourselves methodologically from the councilists in that we see this as a result of an objective process of defeat and not due to the pre-determined weaknesses of the Bolshevik Party. As we have shown in this series the Bolsheviks were the least hidebound, the most open to change of all the Social Democratic Parties of the Second International.

This does not mean that there is nothing to learn. On the contrary it makes it all the more important for us to learn from the manner in which the Russian Revolution collapsed into a bureaucratic counter-revolution, which ultimately spawned Stalinism. The first lesson is that no amount of revolutionary will can reverse a material process. In the winter of 1917-18, even hostile observers concede that the Bolsheviks went around trying to get more workers to run their own system. In this period real grassroots soviet power expanded. Lenin’s own exhortations in the factories were all along the lines of what he said at the Third Congress of Soviets in January 1918,

... socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the Party. It can be implemented only by tens of millions when they have learned to do it for themselves. (1)

However, harsh reality was soon to undermine this early aspiration. In the first place, during the course of the revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik Party had welded itself into a disciplined whole to lead the assault on bourgeois power. It was the largest and most all-Russian organisation in Russia by October 1917. However, proletarian revolutionary parties are not governmental parties. Whilst they lead the revolutionary assault they do not form the government as such (even if party members take important roles in the post-revolutionary society). As Lenin said repeatedly, in the winter of 1917-18 the proletariat as a whole have to build socialism. Bolshevik practice, however, soon began to undermine this. To start with, the Bolsheviks set up a cabinet of the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) to run the Departments of State. Calling the leaders of these Departments “People’s Commissars” (Trotsky’s brainwave) did not hide the fact that they were Ministers in the old sense. Instead of relying on the class-wide bodies of the soviets to elect an executive which ran the government, the Bolsheviks had already begun the process of supplanting soviet rule. This was not a conscious process but followed a recurrent pattern in every area of life in the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR). In the early days Sovnarkom always made sure that the Soviet Executive (VTsIK) got the chance to discuss and reject Sovnarkom plans but in practice this happened less and less often as the revolution was faced with international invasion. The Soviets met less and less often, and the Congress of Soviets which began as quarterly affairs had ceased to be such by 1920. In some ways, even if the form of soviet rule had been more firmly adhered to it would have made little difference. The need to send the most class conscious workers to fight in the Red Army in the period 1918-20 tore the heart out of properly functioning soviets. The Party was quite rapidly transformed into the real governmental organisation in Russia. Again this was not planned in advance nor was it an immediate reality. The victory of October had led to

an outburst of unfettered discussion and controversy unprecedented in the annals of the Bolshevik Party, and perhaps rare in those of any other. (2)

However, the process of concentration of power within the party had already begun. And with it came the domination of the Party over the organs of the state.

The same men, sharing the same traditions and the same purpose, directed the afairs of party and state; the same incessant crisis and the same uninterrupted pressure of events weighed equally between 1917 and 1921 on party and Soviet institutions. The outstanding developments of these years in the machinery of the state - the concentration of central authority in the hands of Sovnarkom at the expense of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets and of VTsIK, and the concentration of authority at the centre at the expense of the local soviets and Congresses of Soviets and their organs - had actually preceded the corresponding developments in the party organisation. For some time the lines of development in party and state ran parallel. Then, by an inevitable process they began to converge and finally, to coincide. This process had been virtually completed by the time of Lenin’s death. (3)

This is the schematic overview and takes in the whole period 19 17-24. However, the pattern is the same in every area. Even on the issue of the factory committees, whose “suppression” the councilists make so much of, the truth is rather more complicated. It was clear to all that the factory committees were at best patchy in their performance. Workers on the railways who took to housing themselves in rolling stock rather than using it for running the railways for society is perhaps one of the more extreme examples, but the factory committees were also dominated by Bolshevik workers who demanded greater coordination and centralisation. It was they, supported by the Left Communists, who were the main opposition group inside the Party in 1918, who insisted on the setting up of the Supreme Economic Council or VESENKha. Even a left liberal critic of the Revolution could write that:

The Council of People’s Commissars took a step in the direction of the Leftist plan, apparently at the behest of the factory-committee leadership, with the creation of the Supreme Economic Council (and the authorisation for similar local councils) in December 1917. The council was initially dominated by Leftists - the first chairman was Ossinsky, and the governing bureau included Bukharin, Lomov and Vladimir Smirnov. Despite the dubious success of the central and local councils in the ensuing months, they represented enough doctrinal momentum to evoke from Lenin a final expression of his 1917 anarchism. He declared to the congress of local economic councils held in May 1918: “The apparatus of the old state is doomed to die; but the apparatus of the type of our Supreme Economic Council is destined to grow, develop, and become strong, fulfilling al the most important functions of an organised society”. (4)

This, though, was at the end of what the Bolshevik economist L. Kritsman called later “The Heroic Period of the Revolution”. It was a period which ended when the civil war broke out after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918. From now on the constant drain on the already shattered Russian working class was to further undermine the soviet principle.

Party and class

Again we have to repeat, though, that the degeneration of the revolution was not the result of any preconceived idea about the Party. At the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919 there was no babbling about the Party being the same as the class or that the vanguard could make the revolution on its own. On the contrary the relationship of Party and class was seen quite clearly

The Communist party sets as its goal the achievement of decisive influence and complete leadership in all organisations of the workers; in trades unions, in cooperatives, agricultural communes etc. The Communist Party especially tries to carry out its programme and its complete domination in the state organisations of the present time, the Soviets. The Party attempts to guide the activities of the Soviets but not to replace them. (5)

This last line sums it up. The class-wide organs represent the whole class whilst the Party represents only the vanguard. The most advanced workers alone cannot make the revolution since the revolution means the total social and economic transformation of the whole mode of production. It cannot be done by the minority. It is not that soviets are just a “nice idea”. They (or some other class-wide body) are indispensable for the actual transformation of society and to return to the classical statement of Marx in The German Ideology it is this very process of the revolutionary movement which also transforms the consciousness of human beings. (6)

Soviets are the historically discovered solution to the problem of how to make the mass of the population the master of its own destiny. It is one of the great inventions of the working class. This brings us to the crux of the issue.

It is in the nature of the way class consciousness develops within the working class that the actual overthrow of capitalist rule will be carried out by a large minority led politically by a small minority. The party will be at the head of a movement larger than its own numerical adherents. But overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism are two different things. The one can be achieved by a movement in which communists play the overwhelming part. However the question of constructing socialism is of an altogether different order. It requires that every worker in every area of society is drawn into the creation of a new mode of production, a new political order and ultimately a totally different type of society which has lost all trace of the “muck of ages” (Marx). In the course of the vast bulk of humanity will have their conceptions transformed.

The problem thrown up by the Russian experience is that the best intentions are no use if the material situation works against the proletariat. An example of this is the issue of Party membership. In order to try to stop careerism the Party only recruited at those times when the civil war against the Whites was going badly and the consequences of joining could have been fatal for any given individual. This was supposed to ensure that the Party would maintain its revolutionary and proletarian purity - its revolutionary class consciousness. Laudable though this was (and it is difficult to see how the Bolsheviks could have acted better) the fact remained that less than 5% of the population of the old Russian Empire were working class. As many of these were all either already in the Party or fighting in the Red Army the scope for new recruits was limited. Despite this, as the Party took on more and more of the functions of operating the system more and more were recruited. Party membership rose from tens of thousands in mid-1917 to 3 millions by 1921 but “bureaucratism” continued to be denounced at Soviet and Party Congresses. And all the way throughout the civil war the soviets were dying as the most class conscious workers were fighting at the front. In 1919 Arthur Ransome still found life in the grassroots functioning of provincial Soviets but returning in 1920 he found that this had all but vanished. (7)

The increasing bureaucratism and the decline of real soviet life led to the setting up in February 1920 of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate (Rabkrin) which was supposed involve ordinary workers to act as a check on bureaucracy. The members of it were supposed to be elected by other workers in the same way as soviet delegates and membership was supposed to rotate so as to give as many proletarians, men and women, as much experience as possible. This was in some ways a perfect recognition of the decline of the hopes for soviet democracy of 1917-18. As with all artificial solutions to a real problem, it achieved nothing except give Stalin a further power base from which to interfere in every aspect of the Soviet Republic’s life. Amazingly, despite criticism from all sides, Lenin still held out the prospect that it could be reformed as late as 1922. By 1923, partially because he had dimly seen the danger posed by Stalin, he was stating that it did not “enjoy a vestige of authority”, and had joined those, like Trotsky and Preobrazhensky, who were calling for its overthrow.

The Russian Communist Left

Equally disastrous was the decline of the way in which the party and state institutions functioned internally. To some, even amongst the communist left, the term “democratic centralism” has today been discredited. This is only because it has become distorted through the experience of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (as it later became). Originally, democratic centralism meant a dual process where policy was decided by the party from the bottom up and then it became incumbent on all members to carry it out. The members still had the right to criticise the policy internally but it remained the policy until a subsequent decision of the whole party rejected it. The long-drawn out debates over the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk show that the principle was still alive and well in 1918. At the Ninth Party Congress in March 1920 an opposition around Sapronov developed taking the title “Democratic Centralists” (or Dekists for short) calling for an end to the growing adoption of one-man management in all spheres of life. Sapronov stated that the supposed basis of the party and soviet organs was democratic centralism but this had been replaced by “vertical centralism”. (8)

He pointed to the shower of complaints from local Rabkrin we have already criticised.

This fact only underlines what we have been arguing. There are no solutions to problems which don’t take into account the material reality of the situation. Contrary to the myth of the Bolshevik monolith later maintained by Stalin and liberal commentators alike, the opposition to the decline of the revolution within the Bolshevik Party was stubborn and continuous throughout the Civil War period and even after it. There is hardly a Party Congress between the Eighth in 1918 and the death of Lenin, where an opposition of one sort or another is not able to speak (even after the formal banning of factions at the Tenth Congress in 1921 they continued to exist). This opposition, though, remains fairly weak. This is not because of the enormous prestige of Lenin, nor of the lack of talents of the opposition leaders. Bukharin, Radek, Preobrazhensky, Sapronov, Lomov, Ossinsky, Piatakov, Kollontai, Shlyapnikov and Smirnov were all involved, at one time or another, in trying to hold back the tide of counter-revolution. Some of these, like the Left Communists of 1918, the Democratic Centralists, the Workers’ Truth group and the Communist Workers’ Group were politically the indirect ancestors of much of the thinking of today’s communist left. In one definition these were distinguished by

  • a characterisation of Social Democracy and the Second International as capitalist organisations, the left wing of the bourgeoisie, and therefore counter-revolutionary world-wide (i.e. not only in Russia). This was the basis of their opposition to the United Front. This represents a rejection of the notion of “bourgeois workers’ parties which Lenin and others saw as the right-wing of the workers’ movement;
  • insistence on the Soviets and soviet democracy as the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat;
  • opposition to substitutionism and the fusion of the party with the state apparatus;
  • opposition to the notion of state capitalism being a progressive and necessary stage in the struggle for communism;
  • opposition to the right of nations to self-determination and national liberation wars as reactionary;
  • support for all the defensive and economic struggles of the workers;
  • opposition parliamentarism and participation in elections;
  • opposition to trades unionism in all its forms. (9)

But, for all their clarity, the communist left, and indeed the other oppositions, could not resist the tide of counter-revolution that was sweeping the world. Some of them (like Ossinsky) did however argue that it would be better to separate party and state in order to preserve the clarity of the communist programme. The Theses of the Left Communists in 1918 clearly understood that the party itself could become the manager of the counter-revolution and this to them would be the worst outcome because that would mean that the revolutionary programme would be lost. If there is no revolutionary programme there is no revolutionary party and a whole generation is lost to the revolution. This prescience was actually too optimistic since the nightmare that today’s communist have to live with is the legacy of the degeneration of the revolution.

Even before Stalin’s time, and despite all the sound theoretical and organisational instincts of the Bolsheviks, the Party gradually absorbed the state, the soviets withered away and then, after the fact came the rationalisation of the “dictatorship of the party” as the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Even here there is a gradual process of shifting the meaning of the phrase. When Lenin first defended the idea of the “dictatorship of the party” in 1919 he also said that the party’s ideas can only be carried out in reality by the new body, the soviets but by December 1920 (the very month in which the civil war against the Whites and Allied imperialism was won) he was stating,

... the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of that class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded and so corrupted... that an organisation taking in the whole of the proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard that has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class. (10)

This is mysticism not materialism. It has more in common with the fascist myth that the Führer/Duce is the real expression of the will of the nation than with the Marxist materialist Lenin of 1917-18. Nor was Lenin consistent in his declining years. At the Eleventh Party Congress in March 1922 he seems to have realised that it has all gone terribly wrong.

... and if we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can be truthfully said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth they are not directing, they are being directed. (11)

Those were virtually Lenin’s last words on the condition of the revolution and naturally they were brushed aside. Indeed, now that the party dictatorship was accepted, it remained only for Lenin’s successors to pronounce their own dictatorship. Zinoviev, at the Twelfth Party Congress, went on to argue that not only was it a good thing to have “the dictatorship of the party” but, in Lenin’s absence, went one stage further.

We need a single strong, powerful central committee which is leader of everything... the central committee is the central committee because it is the same central committee for the Soviets, and for the trades unions, and for the cooperatives, and for the provincial executive committees and for the whole working class. In this consists its role of leadership, in this is expressed the dictatorship of the party. (12)

And by 1928, of course, the General Secretary would express the dictatorship of the proletariat. The idea that communism was about the withering away of the state had itself long since withered away. The Communist Left had issued a siren call to warn of the process but in the dangerous situation of 1918-21 they had been ignored. With no world revolution to reverse the situation, a purely Russian solution could not be socialist (and Lenin had never pretended that socialism had even been minimally established in Russia).

However criticism is easy. Less easy is the task of drawing the lessons from this experience. We reject the idea that it was because of the a priori policies of the Bolsheviks that the revolution degenerated but what we today suffer from is the fact that the vanguard did not remain a vanguard, It merged with the state apparatus of a single territory. It thus ceased to be able to maintain a communist programme for the international stage. This has to be the role of the communist vanguard of the future. It has to be international and centralised and to stick to the task of holding up the revolutionary programme on an international stage. It is to this aspect of class consciousness and political organisation that we turn in our next issue.


(1) The course of how Lenin’s thinking on the role of the Party degenerated as the revolution declined can be found in the documents in J. Daborn Russia: Revolution and Counter-revolution 1917-24 (Cambridge University Press, 1991) pp80-2.

(2) E.H.Car The Bolshevik Revolution Volume 1 (Pelican 1966) p194.

(3) Carr op. cit. p220.

(4) R.V. Daniels The Conscience of the Revolution Simon and Schuster 1960 p84.

(5) Quote in W.H.Chamberlain The Russian Revolution Vol. II (Macmillan 1965 p363.

(6) See the early parts of this series in RP20 and 21.

(7) See Six Weeks in Russia 1919 and The Crisis in Russia 1920 both published in 1992 by Redwords.

(8) See E.H. Carr, op. cit. p223.

(9) I.R. Hebbes The Communist Left in Russia (unpublished dissertation) p1.

(10) Quoted in Daborn op. cit. p82.

(11) Lenin Collected Works (Moscow 1966) Vol. 33.

(12) Carr, op. cit. pp236-7.

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