Freedom And Revolution Essay Research Paper Freedom

Freedom And Revolution Essay, Research Paper

Freedom & Revolution

In 1922 Emma Goldman complained Soviet Russia, had become the modern

socialist Lourdes, to which the blind and the lame, the deaf and the dumb

were flocking for miraculous cures(1). The Russian Revolution was the first

occasion where decades of revolutionary ideas could be applied to real life.

What was theory was now practice. The struggle between the two concepts of

revolution – the statist-centralist and the libertarian federalist – moved

from the realm of the abstract to the concrete.

The question thrown up by the October revolution is fundamental. Once

capitalism has been defeated, how is communism to be achieved? While there

are certainly faults to be found with aspects of the anarchist movement, at

least it cannot be criticised for getting the basics wrong. Anarchists have

consistently argued that freedom and democracy are not optional extras.

Rather they form part of the conditions necessary for the growth of


What is socialism?

How does one create a communist society? The answer lies in our conception

of socialism. What is meant by ’socialism’? The classic definition is that

of society run according to the dictum from each according to his/her

ability, to each according to his/her needs. To anarchists, material

equality is one dimension to socialism, but there is another of equal

importance, that of freedom.

The world has enough wealth to provide for all our material comforts.

Socialism seeks to liberate people from the constant worries about mortgages

or landlords, the rising cost of living and the numerous other issues,

trivial yet vital that grind us down in our daily life. What’s more,

socialism must also give us the power to control our own lives, power to

take control of our own destinies.

For our entire lives, from school to the workplace, we are forced to obey

somebody else’s order, treated like children or bits of machinery. Human

beings have great potential but for most of us, only in a socialist society,

will this potential be realised.

So though socialism is about material equality it is also about freedom.

Furthermore it is impossible to maintain one without the other. As long as

power is distributed unequally, a section of society will continue to have

privileges leading to material advantage. Ultimately society will again be

divided into classes, into those who have and those who have not.

Furthermore the experience of those attempts to manage the economy through

an undemocratic centralised state has also shown that it is unfeasible to

manage and control a complex system without democracy and accountability.

The revolution must achieve a number of things. It must defeat the ruling

class, removing from them their economic and political dominance. In place

of the bosses, the working class must in every sphere of activity make the

decisions that ultimately affect them; in factories, communities, schools,

universities, newspapers, television and film studios.

This is the sort of society that is worth fighting for. However it not the

sort of society that can be achieved through the dictatorship of a minority

over the majority. Even some Marxists such as Rosa Luxembourg recognised

this. She said, Socialist practice demands a total spiritual transformation

in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois class rule. Social

instincts in place of egoistic ones, mass initiative in place of inertia,

idealism which overcomes all suffering, etc. etc…. The only way to a

rebirth is the school of public life itself, the broadest and the most

unlimited democracy, and public opinion. It is rule by terror which


The questions that face us are: what does revolution mean? Once capitalism

has been overthrown how is society to be run? Who will control the

factories, how will production be managed? How will the population be fed,

how will the economy be organised? And finally, how will the revolution be

defended against opposition and its survival ensured? If communism is to

become a reality, answers must be found.

1.Who’s in charge?…running the revolution.

On midnight 25/26th of October, the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC),

following the directions of the Petrograd Soviet (workers council), started

the confused process of seizing the Winter Palace where Kerensky’s cabinet

was in session. The October Revolution had taken place. In contrast to the

dramatic portrayal of the storming of the winter place by the Soviet film

maker Eisenstien, there was practically no opposition to the take-over and

hardly any bloodshed. Sergei Mstislavskii, a leader of the Left SR’s

(peasant-based party which briefly entered a coalition with the Bolsheviks)

describes being woken up on the morning of the 25th by the cheerful tapping

of rifles…. ‘Gird up your loins boss. There’s a smell of gunpowder in the

city..’ Actually, the city did not smell of gunpowder; power lay in the

gutter, anyone could pick it up. One did not have to gird one’s loins, one

needed only to stoop down and pick it up(2)

The Bolshevik Myth is that the Bolsheviks, under the logical and scientific

leadership of Lenin, guided the revolution over hurdle after hurdle. They

argue that objective circumstances forced them to make difficult but

ultimately correct decisions. Descriptions of the revolution like the

following passage are frequently found:

the the hour of crisis put aside all their indignation at the

governmental persecutions and concentrated on the task of saving the

revolution. The victory before the gates of Petrograd set free the energies

of the masses throughout the country. Peasants revolted against their

landlords, and in far-away industrial centres Soviets took power. The

decisive hour was approaching. Would there be a force capable of directing

the chaotic mass movements into one channel towards the correct aim?(3)

Here it is implied that without the Bolshevik leadership the revolution

would not have happened. The masses are portrayed as incapable of running a

new society. The creative ability of the working class to build a new

society is not present in the Leninist conception of a working class capable

of only ‘trade union consciousness’. The October Revolution was not really

so much a bold stroke by the Bolsheviks under Lenin as is it was a

culmination of months of progressive social revolution throughout the

country, The ubiquitous growth of peasants and workers’ committees and

soviets sapped the power from the hands of Kerensky and the bourgeois

provincial government, which surrendered without a fight as it’s capacity to

govern had completely dissolved(4).

Bourgeois Democracy.

After the October Revolution, the Second Congress of Soviets elected an

interim government (the Sovnarkom), pending the holding of elections to the

Constituent Assembly. This provisional government on the 3rd of March

undertook in a solemn declaration to summon a Constituent Assembly.

Following elections the SR’s had an overall majority, with the Bolsheviks

winning only 175 out of the 707 seats.

It is with the decision to call for elections to the Constituent Assembly

that the anarchists first diverged from the Bolsheviks. What lead them to

take this decision and why did anarchists oppose it?

The western model of parliamentary democracy could more accurately be

characterised as a ‘4-year dictatorship’. The crucial difference between

‘representative’ democracy and ‘direct’ democracy is that under the former,

voters have no part in deciding policy and are unable to recall their

representatives. Instead they have nothing more than the illusion that by

voting they are in some way able to control the political process.

Once power lay in the hands of the Soviets, the Constituent Assembly became

a redundant institution. Here was a country where control had been finally

wrenched from the ruling class and was organised in the hands of the

workers. The Bolsheviks decision to call for new elections was a step

backwards. In terms of fighting for socialism, it made no sense to be

supporting the authority of the Constituent Assembly over that of the

masses. As anarchists said shortly afterwards:

To continue the Revolution and transform it into a social revolution, the

Anarchists saw no utility in calling such an assembly, an institution

essentially political and bourgeoisie, cumbersome and sterile, an

institution which, by its very nature, placed itself ‘above the social

struggles’ and concerned itself only, by means of dangerous compromises,

with stopping the revolution, and even suppressing it if possible… the

Anarchists tried to make known to the masses the uselessness of the

Constituent Assembly, and the necessity of going beyond it and replacing it

at once with economic and social organisations, if they really wanted to

begin a social revolution

………We believe, in fact, that in a time of social revolution, what is

important for the workers is for them to organise their new life themselves,

from the bottom, and with the help of their immediate economic

organisations, and not from above, by means of an authoritarian political


The party

One of the main differences between the anarchist and the Leninist tendency

is in their differing attitudes to power and control. While both agree that

the revolution should be made by the working class, they disagree on who

hold the reigns of power afterwards. Leninists believe it is the job of the

party to exercise control of society on behalf of the ruling class and like

a parent, the party interprets what the best interests of the working class

are. In contrast, anarchists believe that it is the working class who should

run society, making and implementing decisions from the bottom up, through a

system of organisations similar to the factory committees and the soviets.

Often Leninists will counter this argument by saying, the party is made up

of the best elements, the vanguard, of the working class. Although at the

time of October the Bolsheviks were the largest working class party this was

because of what they claimed to stand for (All power to the soviets etc.).

There were still many advanced workers outside the party, so even then the

‘vanguard’ and the party were not identical. In the years that followed as

the party came to be increasingly composed of bureaucrats, the advanced

workers were often as not in opposition. The mistake the Leninists make is

to assume October froze the ‘vanguard’ in one organisation for all time.

Leninists and anarchists agree that, unlike most others in the working

class, they have both an analysis of how society works and practical

experience drawn from involvement in struggles. These are the tools needed

to effect a complete transformation of society. However anarchism and

Leninism diverge on the ability of the working class to run society. They

have differing estimations of how aware the working class are of their

revolutionary potential. Anarchists believe that it is possible to convince

the mass of the working class of our ideas. In contrast, Lenin said that

most workers are capable only of trade union consciousness. Naturally

therefore, Leninists believe that since the working class is sensible only

to its short term interests, it is vital that the Leninists are in power, in

order for the revolution to suceed.

It was this line of thinking that led the Bolsheviks to initially call for

elections to the Constituent Assembly and then, once it had been held, to

call for its dissolution, as Alexander Berkman commented in 1921;

They (the Bolsheviks) had advocated the Constituent Assembly, and only when

they were convinced they could not have a majority there, and therefore not

be able to take state power into their own hands, they suddenly decided on

the dissolution of the assembly

Lenin, in a signed Pravda article published on 22 December 1918, quoted

approvingly from Plekhanov’s speech at the Second RSDRP(6) Congress in 1903;

If in a burst of enthusiasm the people elected a very good parliament…then

we ought to make it a very long parliament and if the elections have not

proved a success, then we should seek to disperse parliament not after two

years but, if possible, after two weeks.(7)

Their opposition wasn’t based, unlike the anarchists, on the essentially

anti-democratic nature of the Constituent Assembly, instead it was on

whether or not the Bolsheviks were the controlling force.

In a revolutionary situation the anarchists are alone in arguing that

society should be organised from the bottom up, through a freely federated

system of workers’ councils. Decisions should be taken at the lowest

possible level. Delegates are elected solely to represent the view of those

who elected them, receive no more pay than the average worker, may act as a

delegate for only a fixed amount of time and are recallable. If the working

class has the power to overthrow capitalism, it certainly is capable of

organising a socialist society afterwards.

2. Fighting the Counter Revolution

Once the capitalist power structure has been dismantled, the next immediate

issue on the revolutionaries’ agenda is to ensure the defence of the

revolution while also fostering its growth. It is a mistake to characterise

revolutions as inherently bloody. In the October Revolution itself there

were only 500 casualties. Many were surprised by the speed and ease with

which the eastern European regimes fell in the 1980’s. Similarly the

dictatorship was bloodlessly toppled in Portugal in 1974. Bloodbaths, such

as those which occurred following the Paris Commune, Chile in 1973 or

Indonesia in 1965(8), are products of failed revolutions or more accurately,

successful counter revolutions.

There is likely to be violent opposition to any attempt by the working

classes to take power from the bosses. After all, the masses have everything

to gain while the minority ruling class have everything to lose. The danger

this poses depends on the relative strength of the bosses’ reaction.

However, whether the threat is large or small, it will be necessary to

physically defend the revolution from opposition, both internally and


This raises a number of issues. The corner stone of any justical system is

access to open and fair trials, a full appeal process and sentence

proportional to the gravity of the crime. While these are easily attainable

in peace, in war, particularly civil war, curtailment of rights and civil

liberties are more likely to occur. This should not be glorified (as Lenin

tended to do), short term expediency is likely to lead to long term damage.

The questions revolutionaries must ask is, are our actions necessary and

‘objectively unavoidable’ or can they be avoided? Furthermore, what effect

will they have on the process of introducing socialism? Again, the answer

given will depend on what socialism is considered to be.

The Secret Police

Only two months after the revolution (well before the start of the civil

war) a secret police force known as the Cheka was founded, initially to

inherit the security functions of the MRC(9). There were no external

controls on its operation. No judicial process was involved in assessing the

guilt or innocence of any of its prisoners. Punishments, including the death

penalty, were arbitrarily applied.The Cheka was meant to be a temporary

organisation, at first it was an administrative body designed to carry out

investigative functions. It was not initially judicial and had no powers of

arrest, however it grew up quickly. Nine days after its birth, it was

granted the power of arrest. In January 1918 it was being assigned armed

units, in February it was granted the power of summary trials and execution

of sentences (which included the death sentence). At the end of 1917 it had

23 personnel, by mid 1918 it had over 10,000.

The Cheka was a police force. The role of a police force is to defend the

interests of a ruling minority. These days the government will always defend

the actions of the police, seen for example in the whitewashing of police

involved in the Birmingham Six case in England. The same was true of the

Bolshevik party’s relationship to the Cheka. This is Lenin speaking to a

rally of Chekists on 7th November 1918.

It is not at all surprising to hear the Chekist’s activities frequently

attacked by friends as well as enemies. We have taken a hard job. When we

took over the government of the country, we naturally made many mistakes,

and it is only natural that the mistakes of the Extraordinary Commissions

[the Cheka] strike the eye most. The narrow-minded intellectual fastens on

these mistakes without trying to get to the root of the matter. What does

surprise me in all these outcries about the Cheka’s mistakes is the manifest

inability to put the question on a broad footing. People harp on individual

mistakes the Chekas made, and raise a hue and cry about them. We, however,

say that we learn from our mistakes…When I consider its activities and see

how they are attacked, I say this is all narrow minded and futile

talk….What is important for us is that the Chekas are implementing the

dictatorship of the proletariat, and in this respect their role is

invaluable. There is no other way to liberate the masses except by crushing

the exploiters by violence.

The quote begs quite a few questions; what are the mistakes being talked

about? What has been learnt from these mistakes? And was the Cheka activity

aimed solely at the old ruling class?

Revolutionary Terror

The Bolshevik policy of Red Terror began shortly after the beginning of the

Civil War in the summer of 1918, and was mirrored by the White Terror. The

policy promoted the use of mass execution and fear as a tactic to be

implemented ruthlessly. Acts of violence, rather than being viewed as

regrettable and destructive were glorified. Latsis, the head of the Cheka on

the Eastern front, wrote In civil war there are no courts of law for the

enemy. It is a life or death struggle. If you do not kill, you will be

killed. Therefore kill, that you may not be killed.(10) . The paper of the

Red Army wrote after an assassination attempt against Lenin; Without mercy,

without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be

thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of

Lenin and Uritskii…let there be floods of blood of the bourgeois – more

blood, as much as possible.(11) It’s hard to see what this frenzied call for

destruction and retribution could contribute to the task of building a new

and freer society.

Collective punishments, categorical punishments, torture, hostage taking and

random punishments – aimed at providing lessons – were all applied in the

name of the revolution. Categorical punishments were punishments based not

on what someone actually did, but on what class or political background they

belonged to. On the 3rd of September 1918, Ivestia announced that over 500

hostages had been shot by the Petrograd Cheka, these were people convicted

not because they had committed a crime but because they were unfortunate

enough to come from the wrong background.

There are two interpretations that may be applied to the use of

revolutionary terror; on the one hand, it may be aimed against

counter-revolution, on the other it may be used to compensate for the

regimes declining popularity. As Emma Goldman wrote in 1922,

insignificant minority bent on creating an absolute State is necessarily

driven to oppression and terrorism(12). The policy of revolutionary terror

is in direct opposition to obtaining mass participation in the running of

the society. While these tactics certainly consolidated the Bolshevik’s

power base, they undermined the socialism the revolution had been about in

the first palace.

In the countryside the Bolsheviks became the ‘occupying army’ instead of the

‘liberating army’, alienating the very population they should have been

trying to convince. Terror is a doubled edged sword, it may be expedient but

its use also discredits any regimes claim to fairness.

Furthermore as Malatesta the Italian anarchist wrote in 1919 Even Bonaparte

helped defend the French Revolution against the European reaction, but in

defending it he strangled it. Lenin, Trotsky and comrades are certainly

sincere revolutionaries, and they will not betray what they take as

revolution, but they are preparing the governmental apparatus which will

help those who follow them to profit by the revolution and destroy it. They

will be the first victims of their methods, and with them, I fear, the

revolution will collapse. History repeats itself, mutatis mutandis: and the

dictatorship of Robespierre brought Robespierre to the guillotine and

prepared the way for Napoleon.(13) Perhaps Trotsky should have heeded

Malatesta’s words.

The Death Penalty

One of the first acts of the 2nd Congress of Soviets in October was the

repeal of the death penalty that had been introduced by Kerensky. This was

restored on the 16th June 1918. On 17th January 1920, The Bolshevik

government abolished the death penalty except in districts where there were

military operations taking place. To circumvent this order, the Cheka

routinely transferred prisoners to the military areas for execution. In the

following passage, the Bolshevik Victor Serge, describes how the Chekas

reacted to the abolition of the death penalty

while the newspapers were printing the decree, the Petrograd Chekas were

liquidating their stock! Cartload after cartload of suspects had been driven

outside the city during the night, and then shot, heap upon heap. How many?

In Petrograd between 150 and 200; in Moscow it was said between 200 and


Neither of these actions can be justified by the necessities of civil war as

they occurred well behind friendly lines. Nor were these actions the product

of random events, they weren’t mistakes, rather, as explained above, they

were part of the policy of revolutionary terror

The Anarchists

On the 11th December Cheka and Lettish troops surrounded 26 anarchist

strongholds in Moscow. The anarchists suffered 40 casualties and 500 were

taken prisoner. On the 26th April similar raids were carried out in

Petrograd. At this stage Dzershinsky (head of the Cheka) justified his

action on the grounds that the anarchists had been preparing an insurrection

and that in any event, most of those arrested proved to be criminal riff

raff. He stressed that the Cheka had neither the mandate nor the desire to

wage war on ideological anarchists. Yet documents(15) dating from the 13th

June outlined that the department for counter revolution investigative

section and intelligence unit had sections allocated to dealing with

anarchists. The fact that ‘ideological’ Anarchists were under Cheka

surveillance gives lie to the Bolshevik claim that they were only opposed to

a ‘criminal’ element within the anarchist movement rather than anarchism


While Leon Trotsky was saying in July 1921 We do not imprison real

anarchists. Those whom we hold in prison are not anarchists, but criminals

and bandits who cover themselves up by claiming to be anarchists(16), 13

anarchists were on hungerstrike in Moscow. Fortunately a French Syndicalist

trade union delegation in the city heard of their plight and the prisoners

were released (all but three were expelled from the USSR). Not so lucky was

Fanyan Baron, a young anarchist woman, shot without trial, along with

several others, on trumped up charges of counterfeiting Soviet bank notes

(it was later proven that the counterfeiting was done by the Cheka itself).

Unlucky also were the 30 or 40 anarchists living near Zhmirink who according

to the soviet press in 1921 had been discovered and liquidated. The last

great mobilisation of anarchists occurred at the funeral of Kroptkin in

February 1921 when 20,000 marched with placards and banners demanding, among

other things, the release of anarchists from prison. From then on the

suppression of anarchists became thorough and complete.

While there was opposition to the Cheka abuses from within the Bolshevik

party, there was no institutional attempt to change its mode of operation.

In any organisation, there is both a human and a structural element. Perhaps

it could be argued that the abuses of Cheka were due to individual mistakes.

If individuals are given unlimited power, including power over life and

death, with no accountability, it’s inevitable that a measure of excess and

corruption will occur. Where this occurs it is up to the revolutionary

organisation to make changes to prevent the same mistakes from being

repeated. This is not what the Bolshevik party did. They continued to

entrust individuals with unchecked power. They did not make any structural

changes to the Cheka. Instead they occasionally rooted out the rotten human

element, closing down certain branches, while leaving the edifice that

engendered these abuses untouched.

Emma Goldman said, on escaping from Russia in 1921, I have never denied that

violence is inevitable, nor do I gainsay it now. Yet it is one thing to

employ violence in combat as a means of defence. It is quite another to make

a principle of terrorism, to institutionalise it, to assign it the most

vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution

and in turn becomes counter-revolutionary.(17)

3. Defending the revolution

The other side to defending the revolution is that of defending it from

outside military attack. Here there are two forms of organisation open to

the revolutionary; employing either a conventional military army or

employing a militia. Again the Russian Revolution provides a concrete

example, though initially a militia structure was adopted, by 1918 the

conventional army structures had returned. The difference between the two is

not, as is so often stated, one of efficiency or organisation (with the army

being characterised as organised, while the militia is characterised as

chaotic). The difference between the two is one of democracy.

Following the Brest-Litovsk treaty, Trotsky as Commissar of Military Affairs

set about reorganising the army. The death penalty for disobedience under

fire was reintroduced, as was saluting officers, special forms of address,

separate living quarters and privileges for officers. Officers were no

longer elected. Trotsky wrote The elective basis is politically pointless

and technically inexpedient and has already been set aside by decree(18).

Why did Bolsheviks feel there was a need to reintroduce military discipline?

Why then was there a need for military discipline in Russia 1917 but not in

the anarchist front lines in Spain in 1936?

The conventional army structure evolved when feudal kings or capitalist

governments required the working class to fight its wars for them. These had

to be authoritarian institutions, because although propaganda and jingoism

can play a part initially in encouraging enlistment, the horrors of war soon

expose the futility of nationalism. A large part of military organisation is

aimed at ensuring that soldiers remain fighting for causes they do not

necessarily believe in. Military discipline attempts to create an

unthinking, unquestioning body of soldiers, as fearful of their own side as

of the other.

But, there is another way of organising armies, that of the Militia. The

only difference between the two is that in Militias, officers and generals

are elected, and soldiers fighting are fighting out of choice rather than

fear. This structure removes the necessity for the creation of a division

between officers and soldiers that is reinforced artificially by measures

such as saluting and differential privileges. These measures are no longer

necessary because there is no need to frighten or order soldiers to fight

when they believe in the cause they are about to risk their lives for. There

are many examples of militias successfully operating; the Boers fought with

a volunteer army against the British. During the Spanish Revolution of 1936,

militias in Anarchist controlled areas fought Franco. In 1936 the CNT


We cannot defend the existence of nor see the need for, a regular army,

uniformed and conscripted. This army must be replaced by the popular

militias, by the People in Arms, the only guarantee that freedom will be

defended with enthusiasm and that no new conspiracies will be hatched from

the shadows(19).

Over the four years 1918-1921 the anarchist Makhno commanded militias who

fought against the forces of the Hetman, White Generals Denikin and Wrangel,

nationalists like Petliura and Grigor’ev and, of course, the Bolsheviks in

the Ukraine. At its height it had 30,000 volunteer combatants under arms.

Makhno and his commanders won against odds of 30:1 and more, on occasion.

The insurgent army was a democratic military formation. Its recruits were

volunteers drawn from peasants and workers. Its officers were elected and

codes of discipline were worked out democratically. Officers could be, and

were, recalled by their troops if they acted undemocratically.

Those supporting conventional army structures argue that they are necessary

because without them, in the heat of battle, soldiers will turn and rout.

History has shown that people will give their lives in defence of a cause if

it is great enough and if they believe in it.

Of course there are many more examples of operation of conventional military

armies (W.W.I, W.W.II., Vietnam etc. etc.). These were conflicts where it

was not necessary to obtain the consent of soldiers. The role of military

discipline is to prevent conscripts from mutineering when faced with the

horror of wars in which they had no interest in fighting. These were

conflicts where human life was lost in great numbers. The generals directing

the war effort were able to make mistake after mistake, wasting lives, with

no accountability (see any military history of the Battle of the Somme,

Galipoli, etc.). These many examples give lie to the excuse that it is more

efficient and that it is necessary, to organise along authoritarian lines.

The function of hierarchies of rank and decision making is to ensure that

the power of an army is directed and controlled by a minority.

4. Factories in Revolution

After the revolution there were two choices available to those running the

economy, either to organise production in the hands of the state or in the

hands of the workers. In order to achieve the former the Bolsheviks had to

move against the latter. The factory committees were groups of workers

elected at most factories before, during and after the October revolution.

The delegates to these committees were mandatable and recallable. They were

elected initially to prevent the individual bosses from sabotaging

equipment. They quickly expanded their scope to cover the complete

administration of the workplace and displaced the individual managers. As

each workplace relied on many others, to supply raw materials, for energy

and to transport their products, the Factory Committees tried to federate in

November 1917.

They were prevented from doing so by the Bolsheviks through the trade union

bureaucracy. The planned ‘All Russian Congress of Factory Committees’ never

took place. Instead the Bolshevik party decided to set up the ‘All Russian

Council of Workers Control’ with only 25% of the delegates coming from the

factory committees. In this way the creative energy of Russian workers,

co-ordinated outside Bolshevik control, was blocked in favour of an

organisation the party could control. This body was in itself stillborn, it

only met once. It was soon absorbed by the Supreme Economic Council set up

in November 1917 which was attached to the Council of Peoples Commissars,

itself made up of Bolshevik party members.

In November 1917 Golas Truada (the official organ of the Union for Anarchist

Propaganda) warned:

Once their power is consolidated and ‘legalised’, the Bolsheviks who are

Social Democrats, that is, men of centralist and authoritarian action will

begin to rearrange the life of the country and of the people by governmental

and dictatorial methods, imposed by the centre. Their seat in Petrograd will

dictate the will of the party to all Russia, and command the whole nation.

Your Soviets and your other local organisations will become little by

little, simply executive organs of the will of the central government. In

the place of health, constructive work by the labouring masses, in place of

free unification from the bottom, we will see the installation of an

authoritarian and statist apparatus which would act from above and set about

wiping out everything that stood in its way with an iron hand.

This is indeed what happened. The factory committees were merged with the

Bolshevik controlled Trade Union movement. In a decree in March 1918

workers’ control was supposed to return to the conception of monitoring and

inspection rather than management, in nationalised enterprises, worker’s

control is exercised by submitting all declarations or decisions of the

Factory or shop committee.. to the Economic Administrative Council for

approval….Not more than half the members of the administrative council

should be workers or employees. Also in March 1918, Lenin began to campaign

in favour of one-man management of industry. In 1919, 10.8% of enterprises

were under one-man management, by December 1920, 2,183 out of 2,483

factories were no longer under collective management.

Control of the Economy

So within a few short months of October, the Bolsheviks had taken control of

the economy out of the hands of the working class and into the hands of the

Bolshevik party. This was before the civil war, at a time when the workers

had showen themselves capable of making a revolution but according to the

Bolsheviks, incapable of running the economy. The basis of the Bolshevik

attack on the factory committees was simple, the Bolsheviks wanted the

factories to be owned and managed by the state, whereas the factory

committees wanted the factories to be owned and managed by the workers. One

Bolshevik described the factory committee’s attitude: We found a process

which recalled the anarchist dreams of autonomous productive communes.

Partly they did this to remove the threat of any opposition to Bolshevik

rule, but partly, these decisions were a result of the Bolshevik political

perspective. These policy decisions were not imposed on them by external

objective factors such as the civil war. With or without the civil war their

strategic decisions would have been the same, because they arise out of the

Leninist conception of what socialism is and what workers control means.

Their understanding of what socialism means is very different from the

anarchist definition. At the root of this difference is the importance given

to the relations of production. In other words the importance of the

relationship between those who produce the wealth and those who manage its

production. In all class societies, the producer is subordinate and separate

from those who manage production. The workplace is divided into the boss and

the workers. The abolition of the division in society between ‘order-givers’

and ‘order-takers’ is integral to the Anarchist idea of socialism, but is

unimportant to the Leninist.

The phrase workers control of the means of production is often used.

Unfortunately it represents different things to different tendencies. To the

anarchist it means that workers must have complete control over every aspect

of production. There must be workplace democracy. They must have the power

to make decisions affecting them and their factory, including hours worked,

amount of goods manufactured, who to exchange with. As Maurice Brinton,

author of The Bolsheviks and Workers Control explains:

Workers management of production – implying as it does the total domination

of the producer over the productive process – is not for us a marginal

matter. It is the core of our politics. It is the only means whereby

authoritarian (order-giving, order-taking) relations in production can be

transcended, and a free, communist or anarchist, society introduced. We also

hold that the means of production may change hands (passing for instance

from private hands into those of a bureaucracy, collectively owning them)

without this revolutionising the relations of production. Under such

circumstances – and whatever the formal status of property – the society is

still a class society, for production is still managed by an agency other

than the producers themselves(20)

In contrast, the Leninist idea of socialism has more to do with the

nationalisation of industry or State Capitalism than the creation of a

society in which workers have control over their own labour power.

In Can the Bolsheviks retain State Power? Lenin outlined his conception of

‘workers control’:

When we say workers control, always associating that slogan to the

dictatorship of the proletariat, and always putting it after the latter, we

thereby make plain what state we have in mind.. if it is a proletarian state

we are referring to (i.e. dictatorship of the proletariat) then workers

control can become a national, all-embracing, omnipresent, extremely precise

and extremely scrupulous accounting (emphasis in the original) of the

production and distribution of goods. By ‘accounting’ Lenin meant the power

to oversee the books, to check the implementation of decisions made by

others, rather than fundamental decision making.

The Bolsheviks saw only the necessity for creating the objective conditions

for socialism. That is, without a certain level of wealth in society, it is

impossible to introduce all those things that socialism requires; free

healthcare, housing, education and the right to work. Lenin said Socialism

is merely the next step forward from state capitalist monopoly. Or, in other

words, socialism is merely state capitalist monopoly which is made to serve

the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be

capitalist monopoly (21) or also State capitalism is a complete material

preparation for socialism, the threshold of socialism, a rung on the ladder

of history between which and the rung called socialism there are no


The introduction of Taylorism and one man management in the factories in

1918 and 1919 displays a fixation with efficiency and productivity at the

expense of workers’ rights. They didn’t see that without control over your

own working life, you remain a cog in someone else’s wheel. Workers’

democracy at the point of production is as important as material wellbeing

is to the creation of a socialist society.

However, there is yet another problem with the Bolshevik vision of a planned

economy. The Bolsheviks thought centralising the economy under state control

would bring to an end the chaos of capitalistic economies. Unfortunately

they didn’t consider that centralisation without free exchange of

information leads to its own disasters. The bureaucratic mistakes of Stalin

and Mao are legendary. Under Mao, the sparrows of China were brought to the

brink of extinction to prevent them from eating the crops. Unfortunately

this led to an explosion in the insect population (previously the sparrows

ate the insects so keeping the numbers down) and resultant destruction of

the harvest. In Russia huge unusable nuts and bolts were manufactured so

quotas could be met. Industrial democracy did not exist. Plans were imposed

on the population. It was not possible to question or criticise. Any

opposition to the state was counter revolutionary, no matter how stupid or

blind the state decisions were. Only with workers democracy can there be

free exchange of ideas and information. Planning an economy in ignorance is

like playing football blind, difficult if not impossible to do successfully.

In short, it was bad politics, perhaps motivated by wishful thinking, that

led the Bolsheviks to believe that holding the reins of state power could

possibly be a short cut to socialism.

5. Learning the lessons of history

What unites all Leninist traditions (Stalinism, Maoism, Trotskyism) against

the anarchists is their defence of the Bolsheviks in the period 1917-1921.

It is this Bolshevik blueprint which they seek to recreate. The reasons

variously given for the collapse of the revolution are the backwardness of

Russia (either industrially or socially), the Civil War and the isolation of

Russia. What Leninists argue is that the fault didn’t lie with the politics

of the Bolsheviks or with the policies they implemented but rather with

conditions that were beyond their control. Even those who were critical of

the Bolsheviks suppression of democracy, such as Victor Serge and the

Workers Opposition group, ultimately defended the Bolsheviks’ position.

Their argument is that without the measures the Bolsheviks took, the

revolution would have fallen to a White reaction and a return to the


Our argument is that no matter what the objective factors were or will be,

the Bolshevik route always and inevitably leads to the death of the

revolution. More than this, defeat by revolutionaries is much worse than

defeat by the Whites, for it brings the entire revolutionary project into

disrepute. For seventy years socialism could easily be equated with prison

camps and dictatorship. The Soviet Union became the threat of a bad example.

Socialists found themselves defending the indefensible. Countless

revolutions were squandered and lost to Leninism and its heir, Stalinism.

Freedom and utopia

In the following passage Engels outlines how revolution will lead to

mankind’s freedom;

Proletarian Revolution – [is the] solution of the contradictions [of

capitalism]. The proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this

transforms the socialised means of production, slipping from the hands of

the bourgeoisie, into public property. By this act the proletariat frees the

means of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne

and gives their socialist character complete freedom to work itself out.

Socialised production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible.

The development of production makes the existence of different classes in

society henceforth an anachronism. In proportion anarchy [chaos] in social

production vanishes, the political authority of the state dies out. Man, at

last the master of his own form of organisation, becomes at the same time

lord over nature, his own master – free.(23)

In power, the Bolsheviks followed this program. They centralised production,

removing from it ‘the character of capital’, yet the existence of different

classes did not die out. Bolshevik party officials got better rations,

accommodation and privileges. In time they were able to transfer their

privileges to their offspring, acting just as the ruling class in the West.

Chaos in social production didn’t vanish, chaos in Stalin’s time led to

famine. The political authority of the state did not die out and the soviet

people were not free.

The ‘character of capital’ is not the only force underpinning the structure

in society. Power relations also have a part to play, and contrary to

Engel’s assumptions, power does not only come from ownership of capital. The

members of the central committee may not have owned the deeds to the

factories per se but they were in charge.

Freedom isn’t just a goal, a noble end to be achieved but rather a necessary

part of the process of creating socialism. Anarchists are often accused of

being ‘utopian’. Beliefs are utopian if subjective ideas are not grounded in

objective reality. Anarchists hold that part of the subjective conditions

required before socialism can exist is the existence of free exchange of

ideas and democracy. To believe that revolution is possible without freedom,

to believe those in power can, through their best and genuine intentions,

impose socialism from above, as the Bolsheviks did, is indeed utopian. As

Sam Faber puts it in Before Stalinism:

determinism’s characteristic and systemic failure is to understand that what

the masses of people do and think politically is as much part of the process

determining the outcome of history as are the objective obstacles that most

definitely limit peoples’ choices(24)

The received wisdom is that there was no alternative open to the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks could have followed a more democratic route, but they chose

not to. They were in the minority and their goal was to have absolute power.

Their failure to understand that socialism and democracy are part of the

same process destroyed the prospect for socialism in the Soviet Union. Next

time there are revolutionary upheavals in society, it is to be hoped that

the revolutionary potential of the working class will not be so squandered.

Leaving the last word to Alexander Berkman;

No revolution has yet tried the true way of liberty. None has had sufficient

faith in it. Force and suppression, persecutionn, revenge, and terror have

characterised all revolutions in the past and have thereby defeated their

original aims. The time has come to try new methods, new ways. The social

revolution is to achieve the emancipation of man through liberty, but if we

have no faith in the latter, revolution becomes a denial and betrayal of



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