If Labour wins in 2020

There are many lessons to be drawn from the experience of revolutionary Russia and contemporary Britain. Chris Knight looks back at what he wrote in 1969

The first part of this article, written in 1969, surveyed the way in which Trotsky attempted to apply the lessons of October to conditions in other countries, Britain among them.1 He was not trying to draw a parallel between, say, Alexander Kerensky and this or that reformist British leader of the Labour Party. Rather he was making a general point. His argument was that that wherever and whenever reformist leaders assume office as representatives of the labour movement, the key task of revolutionaries is to confront them with a programme of transitional demands, culminating in the demand, ‘Break with the bourgeoisie - take real state power into your hands!’

In this second part, also written in 1969, I take up what in my experience has always been the main objection to extending Trotsky’s strategy from the leadership of the Russian soviets to the leadership of the British Labour Party.

It has been suggested to me that this two-part article may have some contemporary relevance. I am circulating it as a contribution to discussion on where we go from here, given Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party.

It seems quite possible that the coming general election, whether in 2020 or earlier, will result in a landslide Labour victory, depending on how the left conducts itself in the meantime. We have recently been informed that any attempt by a Corbyn-led government to cancel Trident or take Britain out of Nato would be regarded by the establishment as a security threat. This surely means that the crown would be advised to declare a state of emergency and refuse royal assent to our bills. The logical slogan to raise in response would then, of course, be: ‘All power to the Labour government!’

To give such a slogan concrete content, Labour’s national executive might be persuaded to convene an emergency Labour Party conference in the days building up to the election. Given Jeremy’s plans to open up our movement and to involve not only trade unionists, but also Occupy activists with their global reach, this should be a million-strong popular gathering located in the heart of Westminster and buttressed by multiple outreach events convened across the country and in capitals across Europe and beyond.

The most successful insurrections are always bloodless, as was the October insurrection. Avoiding violence means acting as far as possible in a way which is legal in the eyes of the masses - defending our own sovereign institutions, democratic proceedings, streets, workplaces and buildings in defence of what the populace perceives as the law. Nobody wants the heads of the armed services to contemplate mutiny, but unfortunately it seems likely on present evidence that certain key figures will. Rather than back down under those circumstances, we would need at that point to go the whole way. Having the law on one’s side is always an enormous advantage. Fortunately, in a situation in which Labour has just won a mandate for power, it now looks as if it will be the establishment which - in seeking to move against us - will have to face the disadvantage of being perceived as shamelessly in breach of the law.

In the Bolshevik case, the civil war which caused so much bloodshed occurred at a later stage, owing to the revolution’s isolation in one country and consequent need to defend itself against intervention by external powers. With no help from outside, what began as a liberating popular revolution descended inexorably into despotism and counterrevolution. The lesson here, needless to say, is that we need to ensure that any Labour electoral landslide does not remain isolated, but is backed by popular mobilisations planned in advance and synchronised across borders - a difficult challenge, but something which modern communications technology should make easier than it was a hundred years ago.

Soviets and the Labour Party

The objection regularly made by comrades to the slogan, ‘All power to the Labour government!’,runs roughly as follows:

The Labour Party cannot be compared with the soviet. The soviet was an organ of direct workers’ democracy, the most perfect workers’ organisation the world has known. The slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’, therefore presented itself naturally as a revolutionary slogan, quite unlike ‘All power to the Labour government!’, which suggests giving power to an organ obviously collaborating with the bourgeoisie.

The answer to this is that the usual idealised picture of the soviets is altogether misleading. Lenin’s slogan had to be fought for with great difficulty, and always despite the official policy of the soviets. It was by no means a ‘natural’ slogan: it required a tremendous determination and will-power on the part of Lenin to raise it at all. At one point, during the July days, the Bolsheviks were calling on the soviet executive committee to “take the power”, while this same EC was attempting to shoot and imprison Bolsheviks!

Those who think of the soviets, before October, as ‘pure’ political expressions of the working class, quite unlike the political expressions of British labour, including the Labour Party, should read the following words of Lenin, written just after the July days, when it had become practically impossible to raise the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’, any longer - because the soviets themselves had gone so far over to the reaction:

The present soviets have failed, have suffered complete defeat, because they are dominated by the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik parties. At the moment these soviets are like sheep brought to the slaughterhouse and bleating pitifully under the knife. The soviets at present are powerless and helpless against the triumphant and triumphing counterrevolution. The slogan calling for the transfer of power to the soviets might be construed as a ‘simple’ appeal for the transfer of power to the present soviets, and to say that, to appeal for it, would now mean deceiving the people.2

Far from thinking of the soviets as ‘pure’ democratic workers’ organisations, Lenin at this point felt that they had become useless to the working class - “organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie” - and that the working class would have to take the power independently of the soviets, in order to replace the present soviets with completely new ones once the revolution had taken place:

No-one, no force, can overthrow the bourgeois counterrevolution except the revolutionary proletariat. Now, after the experience of July 1917, it is the revolutionary proletariat that must independently take over state power. Without that the victory of the revolution is impossible ... Soviets may appear in this new revolution, and indeed are bound to, but not the present soviets, not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie.

It is true that even then we shall be in favour of building the whole state on the model of the soviets. It is not a question of soviets in general, but of combating the present counterrevolution and the treachery of the present soviets.3

In the same article, Lenin said that “above all else” the people had to know that the soviets - even though they were in the government - were really without power. The soviet ministers, the Tseretelis and Chernovs, were “ministers without power, puppet ministers”. Both the soviet and the government itself Lenin described as “mere figureheads, puppets”, saying, “Real power is not in their hands.” It was necessary for the people to know where real power lay: ie, not in the hands of the soviet or the government, but in the hands of a ruling class with its armed men, its prisons, its military chiefs and reactionary Cossacks to serve it. “These butchers are the real power,” insisted Lenin.

The apparent power of the soviets and government was mere ‘formal’ power. In this way, Lenin drew a careful distinction between formal and real power - a distinction which, he wrote, normal periods obscure, but which revolutionary periods must of necessity reveal and bring to the fore as “the fundamental issue of revolution”:

We said that the fundamental issue of revolution is the issue of power. We must add that it is revolutions that show us at every step how the question of where actual power lies is obscured, and reveal the divergence between formal and real power. That is the chief characteristic of every revolutionary period. It was not clear in March and April 1917 whether real power was in the hands of the government or the soviet.4

Throughout the period of Bolshevik agitation in the months after Lenin’s arrival, the masses were taught to see where power lay, and where it did not lie.

In the early months, the Bolsheviks insisted that real power lay with the capitalist Provisional government and not the soviet EC, despite the fact that to most people, as Lenin writes, “it was not clear in March and April 1917 whether real power was in the hands of the government or the soviet”. As the soviet was more and more drawn into the government (for reasons similar to those which prompt the British ruling class to draw Labour into government in crisis periods), the Bolsheviks insisted that “real” power was represented only by the openly capitalist ministers, whereas the soviet ministers were mere “figureheads” without power. They carefully distinguished between the two, attacking the openly capitalist representatives with the slogan, ‘Down with the 10 capitalist ministers’, while presenting the “powerless” soviet ministers with the demand that they take real power into their hands.

When, as time went on, almost all actions of the government were carried out with the official seal of approval of the soviet, Lenin even went so far as to describe the very government itself as without real power - real power being in the hands of reactionary forces operating behind the scenes, plotting counterrevolution behind the people’s backs. The official government spokesmen were mere figureheads.

This method of attacking the soviet and government leaders was, of course, very effective, since it meant that the Bolsheviks could conduct their revolutionary agitation in the form of merely defending soviet and government legality from a counterrevolutionary and illegal power. Illegality was thrown upon the enemy. The simple demand that the existing soviet leaders take the power - the real state power - into their hands was bound to lead to a Bolshevik majority in the soviets. But, at the same time, we can see that this was a very difficult demand to make, and required a will-power and understanding that only a trained Marxist leadership could give.


We have seen that at a certain stage the soviets, under their compromisist leadership, were in Lenin’s eyes “organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie”. Lenin even felt that the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’, had therefore outlived its usefulness - so far had the soviets degenerated by July 1917. The lesson for us in this is not that Lenin was right, but that the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’ - far from presenting itself obviously as the Bolsheviks’ slogan - became at times almost impossible to defend.

In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky shows that Lenin was in fact wrong when he thought that power would have to be taken independently of the soviets, and that the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’, would have to be permanently withdrawn until after the revolution. The mere fact of having campaigned within the soviets on this slogan ensured that before long the soviets went Bolshevik. The ‘new’ soviets called for by Lenin were created precisely out of the organised demand that the ‘old’ soviets take the power into their hands.

The difficulty of ‘All power to the soviets!’ was, as Lenin says, its ambiguity - ie, the fact that it “might be construed as a ‘simple’ appeal for the transfer of power to the present soviets”. We cannot deny that ‘All power to the Labour government!’ faces us with a similar difficulty - it will be construed by many as a ‘simple’ appeal for the transfer of power to the present Labour government. The fact that the present Labour government cannot take the real power from the ruling class without ceasing to be the present Labour government, and that at present Labour has only “formal” power, its government spokesmen being only “figureheads” - these are facts which will become fully apparent only through experience. For the moment, there is no getting round this difficulty, which is one experienced in a not altogether different way by Lenin and Trotsky before us. Despite the fact that the Labour government, and to a lesser extent the Labour Party NEC and the TUC, are all organs collaborating with the ruling class, we nevertheless are obliged to demand the transfer of all industry and power from the ruling class to these organs as potential state organs of the working class.

For Lenin in his ‘April theses’, and for Trotsky and the Bolshevik leadership from then on, the decisive fact about the soviets was that they were potential state organs of the working class leading the other oppressed classes in society. The decisive fact about Britain’s TUC and Labour Party structures is this: that they are the potential organs of state power for the British working class. Were it not for these organs, the seizure of power and the retention of power by the British working class would be an impossibility.

Apart from this, however, it is, of course, true that the Labour Party and soviet structures have little in common. The Labour Party is a definite political party competing against openly bourgeois parties for votes and for representation in the bourgeois parliament. It is a bureaucratic organisation, with a middle class outlook, and it excludes communists and other socialists from its ranks because of their political views. The soviets, however, were not a political party, but simply a mass working class arena and ‘parliament’ for the participation of all parties within it. The soviet did not compete with openly bourgeois parties, on their terms, for seats in a bourgeois parliament: it was itself its own, working class parliament, taking the place of a bourgeois parliament altogether.

The fact is, however, as a historical analysis will show, that Britain’s Labour Party, although different from the Russian soviet, has developed in place of - instead of - the soviet as it developed in Russia. To put it another way, the Labour Party occupies the same space or place in class society as did the soviet: the differences are to be explained by the differences between British and Russian class society.

Bourgeois democracy

The explanation for the ‘super-democracy’ of the soviets is simple: they were performing not only working class functions - they were performing also the functions performed by bourgeois parliaments and assemblies in the earlier history of western Europe.

The absence of a real bourgeoisie in Russia meant that there could not exist in that country even ‘bourgeois’ democracy - except within the framework of workers’ institutions. The only living ‘parliamentary’ and ‘democratic’ life Russia ever knew - comprising and upholding the freedoms of press, speech and assembly normally associated with bourgeois rights in western Europe - blossomed in 1905 and 1917 within the framework of workers’ organisations and nowhere else. Without workers’ power in the streets and in the factories, there could be no bourgeois rights. Wherever the 1905 strike wave rolled, there went freedom of the press, speech and assembly, voting and ‘bourgeois equality’. Wherever the strike wave receded and collapsed, there fell these bourgeois democratic rights. The soviets were the organisers of the strikes. They were therefore at the same time the fighting organs of democracy - performing against the tsar something like the role performed by Parliament in 17th century Britain against the crown.

Instead of a parliament, there developed in Russia in 1905 and 1917 a mass of workers’ councils, peopled to a large extent by petty bourgeois radicals who had nowhere else to go. Attempts by bourgeois politicians to set up a parliament (or ‘constituent assembly’) on the French or British model were doomed to failure. As Trotsky so brilliantly shows (Results and prospects, Permanent revolution) these attempts were based ideologically on a misunderstanding of Russian and European history. At that time in Russia, only the working class had the power to stand up to the autocracy, and so it was in the workers’ soviets that the real power of the democracy always lay.

To such an extent was this true, that the words ‘democracy’ and ‘soviet’ became almost interchangeable. As simple organs of democracy - which was all that the petty bourgeois radicals wished them to be - the new workers’ bodies were called, simply, ‘councils’. The word ‘soviet’ meant just that: a ‘council’ - the idea (like that of ‘parliament’) being devoid of all working class content. In reality, however, it was only the action of the working class which formed and sustained these councils, and all the parties within them were therefore wholly dependent upon active workers’ (and peasants’) support. In this sense, they were all ‘workers’ parties’. A non-workers’ or peasants’ party would find no place in the soviet and hence, as a force in ‘the democracy’, would not exist at all.

All parties being in this sense ‘Labour’ parties, the idea of a specific ‘party of labour’, embracing the general interests of labour within the soviets, did not arise. All parties purported to be parties of labour out of absolute necessity. The question at issue between the factions within the soviets was the question, ‘What kind of workers’ party?’ So from this point of view, the soviets as a whole formed an amorphous conglomeration of workers’ tendencies - as it were, one big open ‘Labour Party’ which was not formed into a political party in parliament, because it itself was its own substitute for a parliament, and which did not at first think of itself as a specifically labour organ, because it was conceived as the organ of democracy generally, as against autocracy. The possibility of making the soviets into organs of the separate class interests of labour as against those of the bourgeoisie was realised only by the Bolsheviks.

Just as the non-party formation of the mass organs of the Russian working class is explained by the non-existence of a powerful parliament or bourgeois party political life in Russia, so, conversely, the exceptionally well-defined party political formation of the mass British working class organs is explained by Britain’s uniquely well-developed bourgeois parliament and political life. The conditions giving rise to soviets have never existed in Britain at all - for here bourgeois democracy has always had its own, bourgeois institutions. The dependence of bourgeois rights on workers’ power, while very much present as an underlying relationship, has never been direct and immediate, in the way it was in Russia. History did not give the British organised working class the task of winning bourgeois-democratic rights from an all-powerful monarchy. Britain’s bourgeois democrats and liberals have not had to garb themselves in the ideology of socialism, or fight within workers’ institutions, to anything like the extent required of their counterparts in Russia.

Bourgeois democracy in Britain has been the oldest and strongest such democracy in the world - and the fight of the British working class has historically been a fight for a place within this democracy already in existence. Hence the fight of the Chartists was for ‘One man, one vote’, and the political expression of the industrial working class has developed in the form, not of soviets replacing parliament, but of a political party finding its place within parliament.

The declared purpose of the Labour Party has been not to secure ‘democracy’ in general, but to safeguard the interests of the industrial working class through trade union representation in parliament. Its opponent has been not a tsar and autocratic power incompatible with democracy in any form, but a bourgeoisie whose political parties have been concerned only to subordinate ‘democracy’ to its particular interests as a class. Hence the Labour Party has thought of itself not as ‘the democracy’, but, specifically, as the political party of labour. As such, it has attempted to exploit the rights gained under bourgeois democracy for its own purposes - obtaining the vote, payment of MPs, the trade union political levy, and, occasionally, even office as ‘the government’. Virtually the whole life of the British working class this century has taken place in and through this party as its political expression. Politically, the existence of the working class has been the Labour Party. Its illusions have been the illusions of the Labour Party, just as its strength has been the Labour Party’s strength.

We have seen that, for straightforward historical reasons, where the Russian working class formed soviets, the British working class has formed the Labour Party. Where the potential state organs of the Russian working class were the soviets, those of the British working class are the organisations of the trade unions and Labour Party. However different, each form is simply the political expression of its own working class. If the Russian proletariat had to take power through the total political conquest of its ‘soviet’ organs, the British proletariat will have to conquer similarly its ‘Labour’ organs in order to take the power.

The traditional organisations of the British working class are quite capable, in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation, of breaking out of their parliamentary straightjacket, quite capable of freeing and opening themselves, in the absence of bourgeois state power, into the form of the directly democratic original soviets of the Russian (and, in 1918-19, the German) working class. To replace parliament, to extend ‘parliamentary’ life from its sterile bourgeois confines into the factory workshop, itself requires only that they take the power into their own hands: which means, as soon as conditions permit, taking industrial action, occupying the factories, universities and all other places of work, disarming the present ruling class and occupying its buildings, and handing over the whole power to a special Trades Union Congress and Labour Party conference, with the purpose of reconstituting the Labour government on the basis of workers’ power.


1. See ‘All power to the Labour government’, September 24.

2. ‘On slogans’ VI Lenin CW Vol 25, Moscow 1964, pp189-90.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.