Workers' democracy in the Russian Revolution – part two

The Russian Revolution is the greatest event in human history, because for the first time the working class not only led a revolution, but took power directly into their own hands and proceeded to transform society. The act is slandered as undemocratic, when in reality it involved the most far-reaching and revolutionary democracy the world has ever seen. In this two-part article, Daniel Morley explains how this worked in practice.

[Part one]

Civil war conditions: the closure of parties on the other side of the barricades

In 1918 the country became embroiled in all-out civil war. The political conditions, as one would expect in a revolution, were increasingly fraught and violent, since taking power meant the destruction of the privileges of the old ruling class.

The typical line of attack on the Bolsheviks and the revolution is to point to the closure of other parties and the ‘free press’. No explanation or context is ever given, and such is the reverence for the ‘free press’ in liberal circles, that the mere mention of this fact is enough to condemn the entire revolution. But what was the real context?

In May 1918, the Bolshevik Volodarsky explained that “freedom to criticise the action of the Soviet government and to agitate in favour of another government are granted by us to all our opponents. We will guarantee freedom of the press for you if you understand it in this sense. But you must give up false newsmongering… lies and slander.” One must understand that in these conditions of civil war, with the entire imperialist world ranged against Russia, conscious lies were relentlessly printed in the still free bourgeois press, which directly and deliberately assisted the counter-revolution.

Kaplan2Events like the attempted assassination of Lenin by SR Fanny Kaplan (pictured) led the Bolsheviks to organise the Red Terror to combat the White Terror, which was being spread in the Civil War / Image: public domain

As if to prove Volodarsky right in his warnings, he was assassinated one month later by an SR. Then, one month later again in August, Uritsky, a leading Bolshevik and head of the Cheka (revolutionary secret police), was assassinated by a military cadet. On the very same day, Fanny Kaplan, another SR, shot Lenin three times as he left a workers’ meeting unguarded. He survived, but the injuries he sustained caused the strokes that would kill him in 1924. These three acts caused the Bolsheviks to bring back the death penalty, which they had abolished after taking power, and to organise the Red Terror to combat the White Terror, which was being spread in the Civil War.

The Fourth Congress of Soviets in March 1918 ratified the Brest-Litovsk Treaty that brought peace. This was intolerable to the Left SR coalition partners of the Bolsheviks, for they wanted to resume the war with Germany on a revolutionary basis. As a result, at this congress they walked out of the workers’ government, leading to a Bolshevik-only government. Their passion for war with Germany was so great that, four months later, the Left SRs would assassinate the German ambassador Mirbach, in an attempt to force the Germans to restart its offensive. They had used their official membership of the revolutionary secret police, the Cheka, to gain access to his embassy.

“This coup was followed by an attempt to seize power in Moscow and by insurrections in various provincial centres… Savinkov, the well-known SR terrorist, afterwards claimed to have been the organiser of these revolts, and to have been financed by funds supplied by the French military attaché in Moscow. Faced with treason on this large scale at a moment when allied forces were landing in Murmansk and Vladivostok, when the Czech legions had begun open hostilities against the Bolsheviks, and when the threat of war was looming on all sides… the [Fifth Congress of Soviets] passed a cautiously worded resolution to the effect that ‘insofar as certain sections of the Left SR Party associate themselves with the attempt to involve Russia in war through the murder of Mirbach and the rising against the Soviet power, these organisations can have no place in the Soviet of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies’”. (Carr, op cit pp. 173-4).

In May 1918, the Right SRs openly advocated the overthrow of the Bolshevik regime and a return to parliamentary democracy (as if that were possible in these conditions), with the aid of British and French imperialism (which they said was necessary because they also wanted to resume the war with Germany). This SR call-to-arms led to their exclusion from the Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets, with the recommendation that local soviets also exclude them as part of the civil war struggle. The same applied to the Mensheviks, who adopted a similar position. In the civil war, both the SRs and the Mensheviks took up arms alongside imperialist armies and reactionary White generals from the Tsarist regime, thus contributing to far more death and economic destruction than any Bolshevik repression in this period.

But we mustn’t exaggerate the repression the Bolsheviks were forced to use. Despite the decree banning those parties and newspapers that openly preached disobedience and violence against the workers’ government, most parties and newspapers, from the Kadets (the bourgeois liberals) to the Mensheviks and anarchists, continued to operate.

“When the 6th All Russian Congress of Soviets, the first almost exclusively Bolshevik congress, met on the eve of the first anniversary of the revolution… it at once approved what was described as an ‘amnesty’, ordering the release of all those ‘detained by the organs for combating counter-revolution’ unless a definite charge of counter-revolutionary activities were brought against them.” (Ibid, p.178)

This congress also gave the right of appeal against state officials to all citizens, and granted more powers to local Soviets against the national soviet executive. The congress also sought reconciliation with Mensheviks, who at around the same time had held a conference in which they decided to accept the October Revolution and “cease working with hostile classes”. From this point onwards, i.e. the end of 1918, the Mensheviks and SRs were allowed to operate, to be elected into Soviets, publish their papers etc. Over the next two years (i.e. during the civil war), these two parties operated publicly and got elected onto Soviets. However, from time to time, they would swing back into support for counter-revolution, causing their offices to be raided, editions of their newspaper to be seized etc.

We must not forget that during all of this, an incredibly brutal civil war was being fought, and Soviet Russia was blockaded and being starved by the western imperialists. These were extremely difficult conditions in which to practice a flourishing democracy (which is what liberals seem to expect of the revolution from day one), to say the least. Nevertheless, despite the occasional banning or repression of other parties, workers were free to run their factories, elect delegates to Soviets, and were given access to the means of communication and assembly on a scale hitherto impossible due to private ownership.

Workers’ control

The Bolsheviks are known for their practice of ‘democratic centralism’. A lot of controversy is made out of this, chiefly by anarchists. They present it as uniquely centralist or authoritarian. Actually, democratic centralism is only the general principles of workers’ democracy. The decision by workers to strike is taken after a free debate and vote. That is the first part to democracy. However, once the decision has been taken to strike, it must then be strongly centralised, in other words, there is no ‘opt-out’ for those who voted against. If instead, all the workers could do as they please, what’s the point of striking, or forming unions at all? Authority must be imposed on any would-be scabs, otherwise the strike will fail. That’s centralism: the necessary second part to democracy.

What this means in a revolutionary socialist government is that workers are given full freedom to participate in discussion, elections to soviets, and controlling their workplaces. But this process must be crowned with an overall political direction and national economic plan, to which all the workplaces under workers’ control must be subordinate.

There are many naive ideas about workers’ control, reflecting the influence of anarchism or syndicalism on the left. Workers’ control is assumed to mean each workplace having full freedom, or autonomy, to do as they please. Anarchists stress the need for a federated system, not a centralised one. For them, imposing an authority onto this or that factory or industry is a violation of workers’ democracy. In the early days of the revolution, there were debates over how centralised or federal the state should be. A group known as ‘Left Communists’, featuring prominent Bolsheviks on the Central Committee (including Bukharin), advocated much more autonomy for local workers’ control, and no use of experts from the old system at all, however this debate was cut short by the emergency of the civil war.

Immediately upon taking power, Lenin issued the following decree urging the workers’ to take control of their factories:

  1. “Workers’ control over the production, storage, purchase and sale of all products and raw materials shall be introduced in all industrial, commercial, banking, agricultural and other enterprises employing not less than five workers and office employees (together), or with an annual turnover of not less than 10,000 rubles.
  2. Workers’ control shall be exercised by all the workers and office employees of an enterprise, either directly, if the enterprise is small enough to permit it, or through their elected representatives, who shall be elected immediately at general meetings, at which minutes of the elections shall be taken and the names of those elected communicated to the government and to the local Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies.
  3. Unless permission is given by the elected representatives of the workers and office employees, the suspension of work of an enterprise or an industrial establishment of state importance (see Clause 7), or any change in its operation is strictly prohibited.
  4. The elected representatives shall be given access to all books and documents and to all warehouses and stocks of materials, instruments and products, without exception.
  5. The decisions of the elected representatives of the workers and office employees are binding upon the owners of enterprises and may be annulled only by trade unions and their congresses.
  6. In all enterprises of state importance all owners and all representatives of the workers and office employees elected for the purpose of exercising workers’ control shall be answerable to the state for the maintenance of the strictest order and discipline and for the protection of property. Persons guilty of dereliction of duty, concealment of stocks, accounts, etc., shall be punished by the confiscation of the whole of their property and by imprisonment for a term of up to five years.
  7. By enterprises of state importance are meant all enterprises working for defense, or in any way connected with the manufacture of articles necessary for the existence of the masses of the population.
  8. More detailed rules on workers’ control shall be drawn up by the local Soviets of Workers’ Deputies and by conferences of factory committees, and also by committees of office employees at general meetings of their representatives.”

At this time it was also agreed that the Commissars (the equivalent of ministers) would be paid 500 Roubles – roughly the same as a skilled worker. Lenin’s four principles of workers’ democracy quoted above were being put into practice! Workers’ tribunals were set up to take the justice system out of the hands of the old privileged state bureaucracy.

2nd Congress of Soviets of the Nothern region presidium Image public domainThe Bolsheviks are known for their practice of ‘democratic centralism’. A lot of controversy is made out of this, but democratic centralism is only the general principles of workers’ democracy / Image: public domain

Of course, these decrees, by themselves, were just words on paper – although workers really did take over their workplaces and the policy succeeded in smashing the bourgeois state, and bourgeois management, as Marx explained would be necessary. But real management, effective control and planning, are in practice only realisable within the constraints of technique, education, time and material and cultural conditions.

In Russia, the plan was for ownership to be initially left in the hands of the bourgeois, with workers’ control meaning control over hiring and firing, wages etc. Trotsky explained this:

“[By control] I mean that we will see to it that the factory is run not from the point of view of profit, but from the point of view of the social welfare democratically conceived. For example, we will not allow the capitalist to shut up his factory in order to starve his workmen into submissiveness or because it is not yielding him a profit. If it is turning out economically a needed product, it must be kept running. If the capitalist abandons it, he will lose it altogether, for a board of directors chosen by the workers will be put in charge…

"Again, 'control' implies that the books and correspondence of the concern will be open to the public, so that henceforth there will be no industrial secrets. If this concern hits upon a better process or device, it will be communicated to all the other concerns in the same branch of industry, so that the public will promptly realise the utmost possible benefit from the find. At present, it is hidden away from other concerns at the dictate of the profit motive, and for years the article may be kept needlessly scarce and dear to the consuming public…

"‘Control’ also means that primary requisites limited in quantity, such as coal, oil, iron, steel etc., will be allotted to the different plants calling for them with an eye to their social utility…

"[This will be done not] according to the bidding of capitalists against one another, but on the basis of full and carefully gathered statistics."

As you can see, this power of the workers granted by October was very transitional. The idea to leave the bourgeois in place as owners reflected an understanding among the Bolsheviks that the workers lacked the time and expertise to suddenly control the economy. But giving workers control in the ways listed above was clearly contradictory with leaving the bourgeoisie and their managers in charge, since they want only to make private profits and will not tolerate the incursions of the workers and the greater needs of society. Thus was created a situation of dual power in the workplace.

In practice, the civil war obliged the Bolsheviks to go on the offensive and expropriate the property of the bourgeoisie so that the latter could not sabotage the new regime by halting production.

Problems of workers’ control

The granting of workers’ control won over many anarchists at this time, and it is true that the situation it created did indeed border on total anarchy! As we said, workers’ control in practice depends on the real economic, technical, educational conditions; and time and cultural level. In Russia, these were all very limited. In reality, this anarchist’s dream of workers’ control in early 1918 was very chaotic and the economy was disintegrating.

A workers’ leader at time explained the problem: “workers’ control had turned into an anarchistic attempt to achieve socialism in one enterprise, but actually leads to clashes among the workers themselves, and to the refusal of fuel, metal, etc., to one another” (quoted in Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p. 164).

Some workers were, in these dire economic conditions, stealing. Some factories were asset stripped by the workers. Workers in strategically important industries, or ones supplying goods in short supply and high demand, sometimes conspired with the old owners to hold up production in order to extract a higher price. In some cases, as in a button factory in Moscow, the workers expelled the former management, only to realise they lacked the technical know-how to manage it and so begged them to return!

This is not an argument against workers’ control. These errors were partially a result of the early inexperience and euphoria of the workers in their newly won power, but mainly of the acute shortages and economic chaos that Russia suffered after three years of exhausting war. No one was sure if the raw materials even existed to produce, or if the transport existed to take the products of their factory, and everyone faced serious hunger and poverty; so naturally many resorted to extremely short-sighted acts of desperation, such as asset stripping.

Czechoslovaks victims of Bolshveki near Vladivostok 2 Image public domainThe desperate conditions of the Civil War made the establishment of workers' democracy extremely difficult / Image: public domain

There were also political obstacles to all-out workers’ control. Although the Bolshevik insurrection was actively backed by a majority of the working class, naturally a small number resisted the change. The workers’ of the telegraph exchange, for example, refused to process the communications of the new government, as they were a relatively privileged section of the workforce who never identified as working class. As John Reed describes in his classic Ten Days that Shook the World, the new workers’ government attempted to convince them back to work,

“The Commissar of the Military Revolutionary Committee, little Vishniak, tried to persuade the girls to remain. He was effusively polite. ‘You have been badly treated,’ he said. ‘The telephone system is controlled by the Municipal Duma. You are paid sixty rubles a month, and have to work ten hours and more… From now on all that will be changed. The Government intends to put the telephones under control of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. Your wages will be immediately raised to one hundred and fifty rubles, and your working-hours reduced. As members of the working-class you should be happy’--"

But he was then cut off and they refused to work. Similarly, the trade union leadership of the railway workers, known as Vikzhel, was under Menshevik control, was conservative, and constantly threatened the survival of the government by halting the trains. It was a minority of the working class holding the revolution to ransom.

A workers’ government would in these circumstances hope to convince this backward minority of the class to work in harmony with the class as a whole. But there is no guarantee of this, and the more difficult the objective circumstances, the more inclined are sections of the working class to put their own sectional interests first etc.

Victor Serge quotes a Bolshevik graphically describing the extraordinary difficulties for workers' control in 1918:

“In these conditions it was indescribably difficult to get the various departments of the city administration running again. A strike of all the staff without exception, doctors, teachers and engineers; the boycotting of their jobs; the sabotage practised by the new officials, along with the need to pay the manual workers their normal wages (the civilian and military administrations in Moscow employed over two hundred thousand of these workers); the need to feed tens of thousands of refugees and maintain the services for water, sewage, tramways, abattoirs, gas, and electricity, at all costs: such was the problem which our workers and militants, very inexperienced in these matters, had to face immediately, with nothing to meet the situation except their own wits.” (Serge, op cit, p. 90)

What is a workers’ government to do in such desperate conditions? There were indeed many disagreements within the government and the Bolshevik party, often involving the Left Communist faction mentioned above. Lenin responded to left criticisms of the government’s reliance on central authority at a meeting of the Soviet executive in March 1918:

"When I hear hundreds of thousands of complaints, when there is hunger in the country, when you see and know that these complaints are right, that we have bread but cannot transport it [because the conservative railway union Vikzhel refused to do so, in fact it had just threatened to cut Petrograd off from all supplies], when we meet mockery and protests from Left Communists against such measures as our railway decree…" (Lenin broke off with a gesture of contempt). (EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1932, vol II, p. 395)

There was no alternative but to implement the provision for workers’ control to be overruled from above. Anarchists complain about this "one man management" (as opposed to collective management) but what was alternative in the circumstances?

Socialism means planning

Moreover, even under the most ideal conditions workers' democracy, and socialism in general, cannot be a case of 'do whatever you want'. Workers’ control without subordination to an overall plan is really just a system of cooperative capitalism, with each workplace taking decisions – democratically, yes – on the basis of market anarchy and the hunt for profit, not social need. Socialism means the overall harmonisation of all society’s efforts to meet need. It is only the achievement of this that can bring real freedom to the lives of the masses, by freeing them from poverty, long working hours, competition for scarce resources etc.

Trotsky explained the realities of this:

“No, workers won’t have complete control over their workplace. They will be subject to policies laid down by the local council of workmen’s deputies… [and] their range of discretion will be limited in turn by regulations made for each class of industry by the boards or bureaux of the central government.

“Kropotkin’s communalism would work in a simple society based on agriculture and household industries, but it isn’t at all suited to the state of things in modern industrial society. The coal from the Donets basin goes all over Russia and is indispensable in all sorts of industries. Now, don’t you see if the organised people of that district could do as they pleased with the coal mines, they could hold up all the rest of Russia if they chose? Entire independence of each locality respecting its industries would result in endless friction and difficulties in a society that has reached the stage of local specialisation of industry. It might even bring on civil war. Kropotkin has in mind the Russia of 60 years ago, the Russia of his youth." (Trotsky, In Defence of the Russian Revolution, Workers’ Control and Nationalisation)

By workers’ control we mean control in a local workplace over hiring and firing, election of a manager, and indeed the right to elect delegates to the local Soviet and other bodies that draw up economic plans. But the overall plan, once drawn up, must take precedence. A given workplace cannot opt-out, although it is free to criticise the plan and participate in drawing it up.

Originally in Russia, Vesenkha was formed as a supreme economic soviet beside the political one, with the plan to meet once a month. Its remit was to “regulate and organise all production and distribution, and administer all enterprises of the republics”. It consisted of 10 members from the executive of the political Soviet, 20 from regional industry and 30 from the trade unions. It executed the plan chiefly through channelling credits to the nationalised industries.

Under Vesenkha each industry was managed by a 'Glavki' responsible for implementing the general plan and organising the nationalised industry. Glavki departments were made up of 10 percent former employers, 9 percent technicians, 38 percent officials from the government and 43 percent workers or their representatives.

Problems of workers’ Control

But in the conditions of the civil war, these bodies typically failed to meet on a monthly basis. Vesenkha and the Glavki tended too much towards centralism, with fewer and fewer comrades effectively directing the decisions, largely because of the pressing needs of the civil war. Split-second decisions had to be taken. Everything inherited was an economic and organisational mess, which when combined with the civil war meant that everything was fluid and uncertain, and therefore the plan drawn up in larger meetings continually had to be changed by smaller groups. There were conflicts over the pressure to raise productivity – for instance, some unproductive factories needed to be closed down, producing strikes and a conflict between the government and some workers’ representatives – another example of the difficulty of practicing workers’ control in bad conditions. This tendency of a conflict between the centre, representing the overall plan, and the local workers, led inevitably to over-centralisation.

The same pressures were brought to bear on the Congress of Soviets, the sovereign body. In the Civil War, instead of meeting the requisite at least twice a year, it managed to meet only once a year. It was simply not possible to frequently elect and then transport hundreds of worker delegates from across a country that was being ravaged in a brutal civil war, and indeed many of the likely delegates were actually fighting. Here we can see that the objective pressures of a revolution in an isolated and backward country served to constantly undermine, and indeed eventually destroy, the workers’ democracy that is essential to building socialism. The Soviets withered away. Instead of workers’ collectively running their own system, more and more it ended up being the professional bureaucrats in charge:

“It is indisputable that the Soviet bureaucrat of these early years was as a rule a former member of the bourgeois intelligentsia or official class, and brought with him many of the traditions of the old Russian bureaucracy. But the same groups provided the modicum of knowledge and technical skill without which the regime could not have survived.” (EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1932, vol I, p. 187)

Bolshoi Theatre during 5th All Russian Congress of Soviets Image public domainThe simple granting of workers' control in the workplace is not enough. The material conditions were simply too poor to ever get to true workers' democracy without help from revolutions in the advanced countries / Image: public domain

For Marxists, workers’ control is not an abstract question. It does not come down to formal rules – a mere right to this or that. The working class needs real, material power to change society and end the anarchy, poverty and alienation of life under capitalism. For that we need a highly educated workforce with the time to participate in workers’ democracy. We need an advanced and integrated industry that is well coordinated and highly productive, to meet all of society's needs, everywhere, year after year. We need to raise productivity so that the working week can be reduced, allowing time for the regular participation of workers in running society. The simple granting of workers' control in the workplace is a long way from realising these things, and is only part of the equation. In Russia, the material conditions were simply too poor to ever get there without help from revolutions in the advanced countries. This help never came.

Lenin continually tried to stimulate initiative from below. When the Civil War was won, the Communist Party, at its 10th Congress, tried to open up after those severe years, encouraging widespread debate over its decisions, and control of the central bodies by the rank-and-file. But this unfortunately coincided with a massive economic and agricultural crisis and famine (which led to the New Economic Policy), an emergency that cut short all efforts towards democratisation.

“If Lenin was driven by practical necessities to recognise a constantly growing concentration of authority, there is no evidence that he wavered in his belief in the antidote of 'direct democracy:' But he began to understand that progress would be slower than he had at first hoped and the bogy of bureaucracy more difficult to conjure… In April 1921 Sovnarkom issued a decree whose declared motive was ‘to maintain the link between Soviet institutions and the broad masses of workers, to enliven the Soviet apparatus and gradually to liberate it from bureaucratic elements.’ The decree sought, among other things, to bring working women and peasant women into the sections of the executive committees of the congresses of soviets" (EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1932, vol I, p. 230).

In the end, the objective conditions of the Russian Revolution – the isolation, poverty, illiteracy and long working hours – made the vast clearing out of privileged bureaucrats from the state by an immense proletarian movement impossible. But the efforts of the masses and the Communist Party to this end were very real, were not in vain, and went far far further than in any other instance in history. Workers’ power in the Russian Revolution is an enormous inspiration and invaluable lesson to revolutionaries and workers all over the world, and will be a huge help to future workers’ governments as they strive to realise workers’ control of production. Only that in the advanced conditions of modern industry, our efforts will be wholly successful. Workers’ democracy will be realised once again, and will attain a scope and depth unimaginable to us living in the sham democracy of capitalism.