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 bolsheviks..in 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).
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…..so 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
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?
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, ..an
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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