Workers' democracy in the Russian Revolution

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 article, Daniel Morley explains how this worked in practice.


“Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your Soviets are from now on the organs of state authority, legislative bodies with full powers.

“Rally around your Soviets. Strengthen them. Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.”

These powerful words of Lenin, addressed to the Russian masses 10 days after taking power, faithfully reflect his real attitude to workers’ democracy. One day previously, Lenin had made the same point in more detail.

“The creative, living, activity of the masses, is the principal factor of the new society. The workers must begin to organize workers’ control of their factories, revitalize the farms with industrial products and exchange them for wheat. Every object, every pound of bread should be counted, for socialism is above all else census-keeping. Socialism is not created by orders from on high. It is a stranger to mindless, official bureaucratism. Living, breathing socialism is the creation of the popular masses themselves.”

With these revolutionary proclamations, Lenin announced the greatest event in history and the beginning of a radically new era. Let no one lie that the October Revolution was undemocratic. The Russian Revolution, as these statements show, ushered in the most thoroughly democratic form of state ever realised.

Under capitalism, we hear a lot about democracy of a different type. Our politicians, media, prominent intellectuals, the establishment in general, never tire of proudly extolling the virtues of ‘democracy’, at least in the abstract.

Where they are vague and abstract, let us be concrete. The democracy they praise is actually only one form of democracy, that is bourgeois democracy. This, as Lenin said, is like democracy in Ancient Greece – democracy for the slave owners. It masks the dictatorship of capital.

Workers’ democracy is very different, indeed it is directly opposite from bourgeois democracy. Bourgeois democracy is formal and contrived. Insofar as it even exists – and don’t forget it was fought for against the ruling class over many centuries – its associated rights and freedoms say very little about what you really have the freedom to do. We all have the formal freedom to vote – but this is in the context of an economic system that we have no control over. A clear recent example is the referendum on EU-imposed austerity in Greece, in which 61 percent voted against the austerity. This was duly ignored because it did not conform to the imperatives of the all-important European banks, and even harsher austerity was meted out as a punishment.

That voting in this system usually achieves little, and that the real decisions are controlled, day by day, by big banks and other leading bourgeois figures behind the scenes – is a widely held opinion, and rightly so. Parliament is largely a talking shop. Over the last period, the struggles within the British Labour Party have been very instructive of the extent to which the ruling class manipulates and hems in the democratic process behind the scenes. Yes, workers can join and participate in the Labour Party, which is a real freedom. But should they vote in a leader from the left, this will face relentless opposition from organisations such as Progress – a right-wing faction of Labour funded by billionaires. At every step, the bourgeoisie has its money and agents pulling strings, whilst the workers struggle on meagre incomes and lack the time to devote to politics. Democracy in the end is a material, and above all, a class question.

The first example of a workers’ state

Workers’ democracy is an altogether different form of rule – it is the rule of the majority. It is not a contrived and fixed set of rules drawn up to mask what is really happening, nor does it serve to hinder as much as to empower. Workers’ democracy places real power in the hands of the proletariat. It is a real, practical and initially spontaneous development.

It is not some ideal plan invented by Marxists. Instead, we have derived it from real events. The first example, from which Marx and Lenin derived much inspiration, was the Paris Commune of 1871.

“[The Paris Commune] was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.

“Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage.

“In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents…. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes” (Marx, The Civil War in France, The Third Address).

From this inspirational and heroic initial experience, Marx and then Lenin derived general principles of the form of a democratic workers’ state, which we will discuss later. The main point for us here is that workers’ democracy is a product of the practical experience of the working class, and reflects the real needs of the workers’ revolutionary struggle of self-emancipation.

Barricade Voltaire Lenoir Commune Paris 1871 Image public domainThe Paris Commune of 1871 was the first example of a workers' state, from which Marx and Lenin derived much inspiration / Image: public domain

It was also from this experience that Marx came up with the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. By this he meant not a dictatorship over the proletariat, but exactly what we saw in the Paris Commune – the working class democratically organising itself as the ruling class and running society on its terms. In Marx’s day, the term ‘dictatorship’ lacked the bad connotations it has today, and was actually a reference to a tradition of Ancient Rome.

One of the abstractions of bourgeois democracy is that we are all equal atoms, assumed to command equal resources and time, and therefore each vote represents exactly the same as the next. But behind this fiction lies the reality of incredible material inequalities, and, crucially, conflicting class interests. But in bourgeois democracy, these fundamental truths are ignored, and behind the scenes, the vast wealth of the capitalists pulls the strings.

From the standpoint of these liberal abstractions, workers’ democracy appears less democratic, for it necessarily excludes the capitalists. But this flows from the conditions from which it springs. As a practical and real democracy, this is necessary. Bourgeois democracy gives everyone the vote (at least, after various struggles won universal suffrage) as a means to hide where power really lies, and to condemn the democratic system to the status of a useless talking shop.

When workers form a trade union, do they invite the boss into its meetings? Would it be more democratic if they did so? Or would it hinder their ability to discuss freely and put into practice their decisions?

Workers’ democracy, across society, must mean the dictatorship of the proletariat, just as in the workplace it must mean the exclusion of the boss. It is honest about it. Bourgeois democracy is really the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, only it is not honest.

The Soviet system

The Soviet state was built through just such a spontaneous, living and practical example of workers’ democracy – the Soviets. They were the greatest-ever creations of workers’ democracy. Many of their principles and rules were inspired by those of the Paris Commune, the first real instance of workers’ power.

"The new constitution did not so much create new forms of government as register & regularise those which were in course of being established by uncoordinated initiative in the aftermath of the revolutionary upheaval” (EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1932, vol I, p 134).

The word Soviet means council, or alternatively advice or assembly. Soviets were initially created in the 1905 Revolution, and then recreated in 1917, as defensive organisations of the working class. Informal and flexible, their form depended on the needs and stage of development of the class struggle. Generally, workers and members of the local community would elect delegates from their own workplace or community to attend the local Soviet, which would debate matters pertaining to the revolution and then put decisions into practice. The experience of building Soviets facilitated the most enormous advancing of political consciousness amongst workers.

1917petrogradsoviet assembly Image public domainThe Soviets were the greatest-ever creations of workers’ democracy. Many of their principles and rules were inspired by those of the Paris Commune / Image: public domain

Due to their spontaneous and informal character, and owing to their origins in the revolution, they quite naturally took on the character of being a class-based democracy, or organs of the oppressed classes to fight for their emancipation. It never occurred to anyone to formally exclude the rich, for they never turned up.

Although upon their first appearance in 1905, many Bolsheviks did not grasp the significance of Soviets, Lenin did. For him, these were not mere ad hoc committees of defence, but organs of workers’ power in potential; the embryo of a new, workers’ state, similar to the Paris Commune. The possession of this idea was a decisive difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1917 – the latter often leading the Soviets without understanding them – and it inspired the all-important slogan that defined the October Revolution: ‘All Power to the Soviets!”

Following the seizure of power on 7 November (modern calendar) 1917, the Soviets finally became the organs of the new workers’ state, as Lenin had envisaged 12 years before.

On 16 January 1918, the Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People was passed by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets and was published the next day in Izvestia. It formally declared that, throughout Russia, the Soviets were sovereign. Unsurprisingly this resolution, when presented to the rival Constituent Assembly the next day, was rejected.

But we should not forget that, included within this victory of workers’ democracy in a socialist revolution, was the realisation of a whole swathe of bourgeois democratic freedoms to a hitherto unheard of degree. There was a huge extension of rights & freedoms. Freedom of speech and of assembly were guaranteed, and indeed workers were positively encouraged to assemble! Freedom of religion (whilst stripping the official church of its official status and vast land holdings), freedom of sexuality, equal freedom for women and men to divorce and equality in all other aspects of marriage, the right to abortion – all these and more were granted by the October Revolution and the Soviet government.

On 3 July 1918, the draft of the new Soviet Constitution was finished, and would be presented to the Fifth Congress of Soviets later on for approval. It declared:

“[T]he federal character of the republic; the separation of church from state and school from church; freedom of speech, opinion and assembly for the workers, assured by placing at their disposal the technical means of producing papers, pamphlets and books as well as premises for meetings; the obligation for all citizens to work on the principle ‘he that does not work, neither shall he eat’ [this was directed against bourgeois individuals who lived off the labour of others, not the disabled or jobless proletarians]; the obligation for all workers of military service in defence of the republic; the right of citizenship for all workers living on Russian territory and of asylum for foreigners persecuted on the ground of political or religious offences; and the abolition of all discrimination on grounds of race or nationality.” (EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1932, vol I, p 135, our emphasis).

It is a common feature of bourgeois society that it cannot even realise its ‘own’ freedoms. In Britain, with the ‘mother of Parliaments’, we have another (unelected) parliament with the right to block legislation passed in the elected chamber. It is composed of appointees, aristocratic peers and the anachronistic church hierarchy. Britain’s head of state is the queen, to whom the military swear allegiance. It is the task of the socialist revolution to fully realise all democratic freedoms, as well as going on to put the organised workers in charge and to end capitalism.

The Soviet constitution declared that the supreme power in society was:

“[The] All-Russian Congress of Soviets, composed of representatives of city soviets on the basis of one deputy to every 25,000 inhabitants and of provincial Soviets on the basis of one deputy to every 125,000 inhabitants. The All-Russian Congress elected the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of not more than 200 members which exercised all powers of the congress when the congress was not in session” (Ibid, p136).

Similar provisions were made for how regional Congresses of Soviets, responsible for smaller regions, would be composed of the smaller, local Soviets, which according to the constitution, “down to [the] smallest, is fully autonomous in local questions, but conforms its activity to the general decrees & resolutions of the central power & to larger Soviet organisations”.

In 1918, the All-Russian Congress, which was composed not of professional politicians elected only once every five years, but of working-class delegates from all over society, met four times, usually for about a week. It debated with intensity the fundamental questions of the revolution and how to build a new society. Specifically, it “authorises, amends and supplements the constitution, directs general policy, declares peace and war, fixes the plan for the nation’s economic life, votes the budget, regulates financial and similar arrangements, legislates and amnesties” (Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, 1992 p273).

The Soviet constitution required at least two such congresses every year, which would mean the executive committee would be held accountable and re-elected by the delegates at least twice yearly. The executive committee, or one-third of local Soviets, had the right to call emergency Congresses. This body was not an invention of the Bolsheviks. In fact, the first Congress was held in the middle of 1917, before the October Revolution made it sovereign. It was a living product of the revolution created by the workers’ themselves, and therefore had democratic legitimacy in their eyes.

The principles of the Paris Commune

The most general principles of this democracy were formulated by Lenin in State and Revolution, and inspired by the experience of the Paris Commune (as well as of the Russian Soviets in 1905 and early 1917). They were:

1) Free and democratic elections and the right of recall for all officials.

2) No official to receive a wage higher than a skilled worker.

3) No standing army but the armed people.

4) Gradually, all the tasks of running the state to be carried out in turn by the workers: when everybody is a "bureaucrat" in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat.

These are the general principles and watchwords of proletarian power, the best rules by which the working class retains democratic control of their state. At the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1918, Lenin also argued for the following ten principles of the new power,

  1. Unity of all the poor and exploited masses.
  2. Unity of the conscious, active minority for the re-education of the whole labouring population.
  3. Abolition of parliamentarianism, which separates legislative from executive authority.
  4. A unity between the masses and the State which will be closer than in the older democratic forms.
  5. Arming of the workers and peasants.
  6. More democracy and less formalism, greater facilities for election and recall of delegates.
  7. Close links between the political authority and production.
  8. The possibility of eliminating bureaucracy.
  9. The transition from the formal democracy of rich and poor to the real democracy of the toilers.
  10. Participation of all members of the Soviets in the management and administration of the State.

One feature of the Paris Commune that Marx noted positively was the fusing of the executive, legislative and judicial functions. Bourgeois democracy insists upon their separation, ostensibly as protection against ‘tyranny’. But tyranny in the eyes of the bourgeois liberals means primarily state tyranny against private property, and property for them is the key to freedom. The separation of powers really serves to preserve the capitalist status quo, to grant capital the freedom to dominate behind the scenes whilst the state restricts its own power. The socialist transformation of society is an enormous practical task requiring ‘all hands on deck’, ‘all forces to the point of attack’. The working class, with its finger on the pulse of production, must exercise collective power over the economy and society in order to reorganise it to meet the needs of the masses and end the anarchy of the market.

The franchise

In making the Soviets sovereign, the constitution made the franchise within this system exclusive to those who work, as well as soldiers and the disabled; those who employed others to work for them were excluded from participating. Naturally, there were no gender restrictions to the franchise. Soviets could recall their delegates, if unhappy with them, at any time. As Lenin said, “All bureaucratic formalities and limitations disappear from the elections, and the masses themselves determine the ordering and timing of the elections with free right of recall of those elected.”

Soviets were the real organs of power that the workers had themselves created, elected directly from the factories and truly reflecting their wishes and power. They could not involve the capitalists, who had never even tried to participate in Soviets. For the Soviet system to be what it needed to be – the most democratic system ever created – it had to base itself exclusively on the living struggle of the masses against their exploiters.

Lenin speaking1919 Image public domain"The old bourgeois apparatus—the bureaucracy, the privileges of wealth, of bourgeois education, of social connections, etc... all this disappears under the Soviet form of organisation" / Image: public domain

Lenin wrote that the Soviets were originally politically open and inclusive entities, noting in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918):

"[T]he disenfranchisement of the bourgeoisie is not a necessary and indispensable feature of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And in Russia, the Bolsheviks, who long before October put forward the slogan of proletarian dictatorship, did not say anything in advance about disenfranchising the exploiters. This aspect of the dictatorship did not make its appearance “according to the plan" of any particular party; it emerged of itself in the course of the struggle...even when the Mensheviks (who compromised with the bourgeoisie) still ruled the Soviets, the bourgeoisie cut themselves off from the Soviets of their own accord, boycotted them, put themselves up in opposition to them and intrigued against them. The Soviets arose without any constitution and existed without one for more than a year (from the spring of 1917 to the summer of 1918). The fury of the bourgeoisie against this independent and omnipotent (because it was all-embracing) organisation of the oppressed; the fight, the unscrupulous, self—seeking and sordid fight, the bourgeoisie waged against the Soviets; and, lastly, the overt participation of the bourgeoisie (from the Cadets to the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, from Milyukov to Kerensky) in the Kornilov mutiny — all this paved the way for the formal exclusion of the bourgeoisie from the Soviets."

In the same work, Lenin argued that, far more important for the realisation of democracy in practice, is not the granting of formal freedoms (such as that of speech), but the practical measures necessary to realise this, which again must take on a class character, i.e. it was necessary to nationalise, and grant workers’ control over newspapers, airwaves, meeting halls etc., in order to guarantee the workers access to them. They filled these legalistic provisions with material content.

As Lenin explained,

“The old bourgeois apparatus—the bureaucracy, the privileges of wealth, of bourgeois education, of social connections, etc. (these real privileges are the more varied the more highly bourgeois democracy is developed)—all this disappears under the Soviet form of organisation. Freedom of the press ceases to be hypocrisy, because the printing-plants and stocks of paper are taken away from the bourgeoisie. The same thing applies to the best buildings, the palaces, the mansions and manorhouses. Soviet power took thousands upon thousands of these best buildings from the exploiters at one stroke, and in this way made the right of assembly—without which democracy is a fraud—a million times more democratic for the people. Indirect elections to non-local Soviets make it easier to hold congresses of Soviets, they make the entire apparatus less costly, more flexible, more accessible to the workers and peasants at a time when life is seething and it is necessary to be able very quickly to recall one’s local deputy or to delegate him to a general congress of Soviets.

“Is there a single country in the world, even among the most democratic bourgeois countries, in which the average rank-and-file worker, the average rank-and-file farm labourer, or village semi-proletarian generally (i.e., the representative of the oppressed, of the overwhelming majority of the population), enjoys anything approaching such liberty of holding meetings in the best buildings, such liberty of using the largest printing-plants and biggest stocks of paper to express his ideas and to defend his interests, such liberty of promoting men and women of his own class to administer and to “knock into shape” the state, as in Soviet Russia?

“In Russia, however, the bureaucratic machine has been completely smashed, razed to the ground; the old judges have all been sent packing, the bourgeois parliament has been dispersed—and far more accessible representation has been given to the workers and peasants; their Soviets have replaced the bureaucrats, or their Soviets have been put in control of the bureaucrats, and their Soviets have been authorised to elect the judges.”

The Constituent Assembly

In 1917, the first workers’ government formed out of this process was actually a coalition between the Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionaries (SRs). At this time, all these parties – both left and right SRs, all the Mensheviks etc. – were participating in Soviet elections, being elected to the Congress of Soviets, and freely publishing their papers.

Military delegates to a session of the 3rd All Union Congress of Soviets Image public domainThe Constituent Assembly, essentially a bourgeois parliament, simply ceased to exist when its guards refused to keep it open. Real, material power lay with the Soviets / Image: public domain

However, in the course of the struggle of the Civil War, beginning in mid-1918, it is true that many of these freedoms were restricted. That this was necessary shows there can be no real 'supra' class democracy. These other parties took up arms against the regime, they conspired with imperialist governments in the Civil War that would lead to so many deaths and so much hardship. To treat them in the manner of a gentlemanly debating club would be impossible.

After having rejected the Bolshevik Chernov’s resolution that the Constituent Assembly accept the power of the Soviets as sovereign in its first ever session on 18 January 1918, the assembly, essentially a bourgeois parliament, simply ceased to exist when its guards declared they were too tired to keep it open. In other words, real, material power lay with the Soviets. They commanded the ‘armed bodies of men’, not through compulsion but through class loyalty, since these armed bodies of men were Red Guards from the working class. Any would-be state that can find no one to enforce its will is doomed from the start.

The following day a decree dissolving the assembly succinctly explained that “the toiling masses have become convinced by their own experience that bourgeois parliamentarism is outdated; that it is completely incompatible with the construction of socialism; for only class institutions, not national institutions, can break the resistance of the propertied classes and lay the foundations for the socialist society.” (Quoted in Serge, op cit, p135).

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.

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