Against fetishising soviets
Retreating from Marx’s arguments for political action of the class leads to Bakuninism. Mike Macnair replies to Levi Rafael
In 1924, Leon Trotsky wrote the following comment about those who treated the formation of workers’ soviets as a “fetish”:
In our country, both in 1905 and in 1917, the soviets of workers’ deputies grew out of the movement itself as its natural organisational form at a certain stage of the struggle. But the young European parties, which have more or less accepted soviets as a ‘doctrine’ and ‘principle’, always run the danger of treating soviets as a fetish, as some self-sufficing factor in a revolution. Yet, in spite of the enormous advantages of soviets as the organs of struggle for power, there may well be cases where the insurrection may unfold on the basis of other forms of organisation (factory committees, trade unions, etc) and soviets may spring up only during the insurrection itself, or even after it has achieved victory, as organs of state power .…
Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the past decade. It is true that the English trade unions may become a mighty lever of the proletarian revolution; they may, for instance, even take the place of workers’ soviets under certain conditions and for a certain period of time. They can fill such a role, however, not apart from a communist party, and certainly not against the party, but only on the condition that communist influence becomes the decisive influence in the trade unions. We have paid far too dearly for this conclusion - with regard to the role and importance of a party in a proletarian revolution - to renounce it so lightly or even to minimise its significance.1
I begin this response to Levi Rafael’s polemic, published in last week’s Weekly Worker,2 with a pair of longish quotations from Trotsky for two reasons. The first reason is ‘tit for tat’. Comrade Rafael accuses me of abandoning the dogmas of the early Comintern, and in particular repeats some of Trotsky’s arguments at length. But the burden of comrade Rafael’s argument - like that of the 1960s-70s ‘new left’ versions of Trotskyism from which his ideas descend - fails to grasp Trotsky’s critique of the fetishism of soviets and analogous forms. This is, in fact, not just Trotsky’s, but also implicit in Lenin’s argument against ‘anti-parliamentarism’ in ‘Leftwing’ communism,3 and reflected in the theses on the role of the party discussed at the Second Congress of Comintern, and the resolutions on tactics of the Third and Fourth Congresses.
The second reason is that Trotsky’s judgment here is that the fundamental question is the need for a Communist Party, not the question of the particular forms through which the working class masses organise their action. And this judgment is not primarily a judgment about the success of the Russian Revolution - which could be objected to as reflecting peculiar Russian conditions, even before the collapse of the USSR in 1991. It is a judgment about the failure of revolutionary attempts and mass movements in western and central Europe in 1918-23. In this respect, moreover, it is a judgment which has been repeatedly reconfirmed by failed revolutionary movements - not only in Europe, but all over the world.
And it is a judgment - though Trotsky seems not to have been aware of the point - which was at the core of Marx’s arguments for working class political action at the Basel and Hague Congresses of the First International in 1871 and 1872, and in the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier; and was at the centre of debates in the early Second International in 1889-96.
Comrade Rafael has very curiously undertaken to polemicise against the second part only of a five-part series of mine, criticising the arguments of Trotskyist comrades (August 2, 9, 30 and September 6, 13 2007). Within this fragment of an argument, he addresses in fact only the first 1,200 words of a 4,500-word article - and within this fragment of a fragment, he still selects arbitrarily in order to ‘spin’ my argument as a version of post-1917 Kautskyism and the advocacy of ‘liberal democracy’, meaning rule-of-law constitutionalism. It is worth publishing and responding to this polemic, because the core mistake involved in fetishising the organisational form of soviets underlies a lot of the political tailism of the modern far left. But there is a lot of nonsense to deal with before we can get to the core issue.
Errors and omissions
A large part of comrade Rafael’s argument is mere vituperative rhetoric designed to show that I - and the CPGB more generally - are guilty of responding to Stalinism by adopting post-1917 Kautskyism and “the Fukuyama consensus”. He accuses me of calling for “a total rejection of the theoretical legacy of the Third International”, of hostility to the January 1918 dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, of trying to go back to the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, and of supporting the 1936 Stalin constitution; he says that “Macnair seems even to reject the prospect of nationalisation of all large and medium-scale industry …” and - closer to the immediate topic - that “Macnair dreads” factory committees.
This is almost entirely rubbish, which reflects comrade Rafael’s selective quotation from a series of articles, and refusal to place his extracted target within any context of my other writings or of the CPGB’s formal positions, expressed in the Draft programme and Draft rules available on our website.
As to post-1917 Kautskyism, I wrote in the first article in the series (August 7 2007):
Thirdly, in the revolutions at the end of World War I the left wing of the German and Austrian social democrats, the ‘centrists’ like Kautsky, used the idea of the minimum programme - and especially the idea of the democratic republic - to justify the right social democrats’ decision to set up what were in substance simply capitalist states. In the German case, this involved the right social democrats making both an alliance with the far-right Freikorps militia in order to repress the far left and the workers’ movement, and a direct military alliance with the Entente imperialist states to keep German troops in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in order to keep the Russian Revolution at bay.
There was a brief period in 1918-21 in which the Russian Revolution might have spread into a Europe-wide seizure of power by the working class. In this context, the ideas of the minimum programme and the democratic republic - as interpreted by the social democrats - played a direct counterrevolutionary role in mobilising working class support for the capitalist regime.
The fifth article in the series (September 13 2007) was, in fact, largely devoted to opposing the arguments of the ‘centrists’, Kautsky and co, and of the later Comintern and ‘official’ communist reinterpretation of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ as a line for class collaboration; as well as showing that soviet power was a political dividing line between revolution and reaction in 1918-21 because of the particular dynamics of the Russian Revolution and Russian priority in the Europe-wide revolutionary movement of 1917-21.
The “Fukuyama consensus” refers to the regime in which the political establishment and mass media of the imperialist ‘west’ calls its constitutions ‘democracies’ (in fact they are ‘mixed constitutions’, containing monarchical, oligarchic and limited democratic elements); but this operates an increasing exclusion of the public in general from government in favour of financial, bureaucratic and judicial technocrats. Accepting this Big Lie is politically disabling in exactly the same way as accepting that the marginalist economists ‘disproved’ Marx is politically disabling - or accepting the current Big Lie, that the left is ‘anti-Semitic’, is politically disabling. I have written at considerable length about this point elsewhere and will not repeat it here.4
I have also written at more length my views on the political legacy of the Third International - in the book Revolutionary strategy (2008). I will repeat here only four points from that book.
First, in the introductory chapter, I wrote that we have to accept that at the end of the day the Russian Revolution and the strategic line of the Comintern failed. And we have to accept that it is no good blaming this failure on the moral frailties of individual leaders, since this method of approach leads absolutely nowhere: we need to ask why the proletariat as a class was unable to resist effectively the successive moves of the bureaucracy to block its ability to organise against its own state, and - in the end - to restore (neocolonial) capitalism for the benefit of oligarchs coming from the state and party bureaucracy (pp10-14). Hence:
Once we recognise that this is true, we can no longer treat the strategy of Bolshevism, as it was laid out in the documents of the early Comintern, as presumptively true; nor can we treat the several arguments made against the Bolsheviks’ course of action by Kautsky, Martov and Luxemburg (among others) as presumptively false. I stress presumptively. In relation to each and every element of Bolshevik strategy there may be independent reasons to accept it; in relation to each and every argument of Kautsky, etc, there may be independent reasons to reject it. But the ‘victory of the Russian Revolution’ on its own, or the course of the revolution after late 1917-early 1918, can no longer be taken as evidence for Bolshevik strategy as a package (p14).5
Second, towards the end of the same chapter, I wrote:
… When I criticise the arguments and decisions of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, I do not intend by this to pass some sort of moral judgment on the decisions they took under extremely difficult circumstances.
I do not even necessarily mean that any superior alternative was open to them. For example, I said above that October 1917 was a gamble on revolution in western Europe, which failed. But the alternative to this gamble, put forward by Martov and Kautsky - a Menshevik-SR government based on the Constituent Assembly - was unreal: the real alternative available was either the policy the Bolsheviks actually followed, including the coercion of the peasantry to supply food, ‘red terror’, and so on, or a government of the ‘White’ generals and ‘White terror’. The problem here is not the actions the Bolsheviks took: it is their over-theorisation of these actions, which has been inherited by the modern far left (pp23-24).
And at the beginning of chapter 4 I wrote:
… at least some of the strategic concepts of the Comintern are not simply rendered obsolete by the fall of the USSR, but are proved by the fate of the ‘socialist countries’ to be a strategic blind alley.
Nonetheless, we cannot splice the film of history to skip a century … We live after the great schism in the socialist movement which resulted from the 1914-18 war. Most of the organised left and a good many ‘independents’ still identify with traditional ideas derived from the first four congresses of the Comintern (usually in a diluted and confused form).
Moreover, the Comintern re-posed the problems of the state and internationalism, party organisation, unity and government coalitions. Any judgment on possible socialist strategies for the 21st century must take the Comintern’s ideas into account, even if in the end it proves necessary to reject some or all of them (p66).
The bulk of the rest of the book is about what is to be defended, and what rejected, in the policies of Comintern on the basis of subsequent experience. For example, on the issue of the party form, I wrote:
The split in the Second International was not a sectarian error on the part of the communists. It was required by the unwillingness of the coalitionist right to act democratically. Marxists have to organise in a way which is not dependent on unity with the right. We have to accept that the split in the Second International will not be reversed (unless Marxists altogether abandon our politics and accept the corrupt world of Blairism, etc) (p99).
In short, I did not and do not propose “total rejection” of the theoretical legacy of the Third International.
The issue of nationalisation is a point of real apparent difference - but comrade Rafael’s choice to splutter about it, rather than actually engaging with the arguments in the bulk of the article and series he is writing against, makes it rather obscure.
In the CPGB Draft programme, we pose the issue in the following way:
The historic task of the working class is to fully socialise the giant transnational corporations, and programmes for wholesale nationalisation can only succeed in breaking such corporations into inefficient national units. From the point of view of world revolution, programmes for wholesale nationalisation are today objectively reactionary. Our starting point is the most advanced achievements of capitalism. Globalised production needs global social control.
Communists oppose the illusion that nationalisation equates in some way with socialism. There is nothing inherently progressive or socialistic about nationalised industries.
However, specific acts of nationalisation can serve the interests of workers. We call for the nationalisation of the land, banks and financial services, along with basic infrastructure, such as public transport, electricity, gas and water supplies.
Faced with plans for closure, mass sackings and threats of capital flight, communists demand:
- No redundancies. Nationalise threatened workplaces or industries under workers’ control.
- Compensation to former owners should be paid only in cases of proven need.
- There must be no business secrets hidden from the workers. Open the books and data banks to the inspection of specialists appointed by and responsible to the workers.
In the article against which comrade Rafael polemicises, I wrote:
Let us imagine that we do create democratic-republican political forms in the state, but we statise only those parts of the economy which are either ‘pure rent’ institutions (the financial sector and the landlord’s right to ground rent), are natural monopolies (transport infrastructure, utilities and extractive industries), have become monopolistic or oligopolistic through capitalist concentration (eg, car production, big pharmaceuticals, ‘white goods’ and so on) or are clearly socially necessary, but cannot be carried on without subsidy (large-scale farming, education, health). This still leaves a substantial ‘small and medium enterprise’ sector in which capital has not yet socialised the forces of production.
I take it that this is the passage which provoked comrade Rafael’s jibe. It is, in fact, a considerably more extensive programme of ‘nationalisation’ than the CPGB Draft programme proposes; this reflects the fact that my prima facie view is that the working class will need to take political power on a continental scale, if it is not to be rapidly starved out by imperialist ‘sanctions’, and on this scale the objection to breaking up internationally coordinated production is weaker.
In fact, I wrote rather more extensively on the Draft programme passage in the third article in the same series, arguing against Trotsky’s claim in Results and prospects that the problem of capitalist resistance to the minimum programme overturns the distinction between minimum programme (proletarian dictatorship) and maximum programme (full socialisation):
It is absolutely routine for capitalists to both threaten to withdraw their capital in order to coerce governments to abandon proposals they dislike, and for them actually to do so in response even to quite limited proposals, like those of the first Mitterrand government in France in 1981. There is no sanction which will be effective to deter this conduct other than forms of confiscation of property without compensation - which then requires that the firms in question be, at least temporarily, kept running under public management.
I went on to quote the Draft programme passage, and continued:
In this passage nationalisation is formulated as a defensive demand to defend the immediate interest of the working class in the availability of employment (and of the particular group of workers in their jobs). But most cases of capitalists using the withdrawal of capital to coerce a workers’ government would fall under this head anyhow. Trotskyists need not fear that a hypothetical government which had the CPGB’s political ideas would hesitate to use coercive confiscation of the property of capitalists who attempt to withdraw their capital in order to coerce the government.
The second point, however, is that the coercive use of confiscation of property does not amount to the maximum programme. In the first place, such measures are routinely used by capitalist governments in wartime against the property of enemy nationals. Secondly, capitalist revolutions have equally normally involved not only the abolition of forms of feudal property rights, but also the coercive seizure of the (‘capitalist’) property of opponents of the revolution. The parliamentary regime of the 1640s-50s seized the property of royalist ‘Malignants’, the revolutionary regime in the 1770s-80s US the property of pro-British ‘Tories’. The British state maintained through the 18th century a legal regime in which Protestant relatives could expropriate the landed property of Catholics. None of this, obviously, amounts to socialism.
The socialisation or collective appropriation of the means of production - the maximum programme - involves the holding in common of the means of production as a whole. To achieve this result, a large swathe of productive activities which are now carried on by petty proprietors (small farmers, self-employed tradesmen, etc) and by small capitalist firms, needs to be socialised. No Marxist before the Stalinist ‘forced collectivisation’ ever suggested either that the way to approach this problem was by forcible coercion of the petty proprietors and small capitalists to give up their property, or that the overcoming of surviving petty property could be achieved in a single ‘revolutionary leap’. After the results of the Russian forced collectivisations, Chinese ‘great leap forward’ and so on, no Marxist should suggest it.
This is, in fact, a fundamental reason for a minimum programme. It is also why the demands of the minimum programme have to be in a certain sense consistent with the continued existence of money and commodity exchange. If the workers are not to expropriate the petty proprietors by force, it will be necessary to trade with them and tax them; while setting the terms of trade and taxation in such a way as to favour socialisation of their productive activities, whether through promoting cooperatives or through competition driving them out of business (the capitalists, of course, already set the terms of tax and trade in ways which favour large-scale enterprises). This implies that, in the first phase at least of workers’ rule, money and markets will continue to exist. Hence the demands of the minimum programme should be consistent as far as possible with this continued existence.
I have reiterated these points because they are really fundamental. In reality, even the forced collectivisations did not eliminate private production in Soviet agriculture. This was ‘permitted’ on small plots, which turned out, because of the disastrous consequences of forced collectivisation, to produce more than a quarter of total output. And other small businesses continued to operate in the ‘second economy’.6
The other side of the argument about nationalisation is the second half of the article comrade Rafael criticises, which argued that Trotsky was wrong to suppose that nationalisations and the plan amounted to the dictatorship of the proletariat. My basic grounds for this were, first, that the proletariat, unlike capitalists, feudal lords or slave-owners, is not in a position to bribe officials, and that the nearest approach to such a regime would be a regime of co-ops linked by a market; I said in passing that the Yugoslav regime showed that the market would tend to dominate in such a set-up. Second, I argued that the Trotskyists were generally wholly unable to make this analysis work politically in the post-World War II period, and that it actually disabled their politics in the period of the fall of the USSR.
Comrade Rafael responds to these arguments with two very underdeveloped points. To the first, he denies that the Yugoslav regime was equivalent to cooperatives linked by a market; he seems to have illusions in this regime, of the sort which were common in the left of the 1950s-70s, due to the US government and other capitalist agencies promoting the idea that Yugoslavia offered a better alternative to the USSR (they hoped that this idea would be an entering wedge for marketisation). The point is completely secondary, because it is perfectly clear that ‘self-management’ did not allow the Yugoslav working class either to hold the bureaucratic tops in subordination or indeed to control the overall shape of the economy. Witness (for example) the work of the Trotskyist, Catherine Samary.7
Comrade Rafael’s second point is to repeat in extreme outline Trotsky’s arguments from The revolution betrayed (1936) and In defence of Marxism (1939-40) - first, that the Soviet regime has to be grasped as a totality and in motion, not by formal-logical categories; and, second, that it can be analogised to a wrecked motorcar, which remains (for the purpose of thinking about repairs, or even about disposal of the parts) a car and not a cart. The second of these points is utterly irrelevant to my argument, since - as I said above - the issue is not what attitude we should take to an existing Soviet regime, but whether we should set out to repeat the Soviet experience after 1989-91: should we aim to build a wrecked car?
The first argument is in principle sound. But then, to grasp the USSR and its satellites and imitators in totality and in motion requires us to grasp the whole history, including the collapse of 1989-91 and its consequences. In particular, the inability of the Russian working class to act as a class for itself at any time after the effective implementation of the 1921 ban on factions, or under the conditions of the collapse of the regime, should tell us that this was not, as Trotsky argued, a regime historically analogous to the English Restoration of 1660-88 or the French Restoration of 1815-308: the class could not defend the changed property relations or overthrow the political regime in order to do so.
Factory councils and soviets
As to factory committees (and, indeed, councils of action/soviets), I have no hesitation in supporting the line of the CPGB’s Draft programme on this front:
3.10. Trade unions
.... Within the trade unions communists fight against bureaucracy by demanding … :
All-embracing workplace committees. Organise all workers, whatever their trade, whether or not they are in trade unions. Workplace committees should fight to exercise control over hiring and firing, production and investment.
3.11. Councils of action
In any decisive clash of class against class, new forms of organisation which are higher, more general, more flexible than trade unions emerge. In Russia they have been called soviets, in Germany Räte, in Britain councils of action.
Embracing and coordinating all who are in struggle, such organisations have the potential to become institutions in the future workers’ state. Communists encourage any such development.
My objection in my original article is not to the creation of works committees, shop-stewards’ committees, strike committees, trades councils or councils of action, etc. I am - just as much as the CPGB - for the creation of such bodies. And more! Let there be - if we can do it - all sorts of trade unions, organisations of the unemployed, cooperatives, tenants’ associations, block committees, delegate-based Labour Party general committees (as long as the Labour Party continues to pretend through its affiliate structure to be the party of the whole class) - and so on, and so on.
What I oppose is the fetishisation of the soviet form, and in particular the ‘transitional method’, which attempts to lead workers by the nose to create soviets and such-like bodies by focussing on issues and demands which can bring people into ‘action’, at the expense of offering an actual critique of the capitalists’ constitutional order and an alternative minimum programme.
The working class is driven to organise, in a whole variety of forms, by its separation from the means of production - yes, including when workers are at work in factories. The problem which caused the failure of the Russian Revolution is that capital captures control of workers’ organisations through the union, co-op or party bureaucracy and converts them into outer lines of defence against workers’ action. There is active intervention of the state apparatus to secure this control (a current example is the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign and witch-hunt in the Labour Party).
Thus the mere existence of Räte (workers’ councils) in Germany and Austria in 1918-19, of factory councils in Turin in 1919-20, could not serve as instruments of workers’ power unless the party and union leaderships of the Majority-SPD, SPÖ, PSI were also overthrown - the failure to overthrow these leaderships ended in the isolation of the workers’ revolution in Russia after 1918, and hence its eventual defeat. Trotsky in 1924 correctly drew the lesson: “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.”
This role of the labour bureaucracy (including, I should say, the bureaucracy of the Socialist Workers Party, and so on), as out-forts, counterscarps and ravelins of the capitalist state’s defence-works, means that the problem of overthrowing the bureaucracy is not a moral problem of judging the USSR (when it existed!) against some abstract Kantian norm, but a practical problem of how to get close to the working class taking political power.
But the party then has to be understood - and Trotsky seems never to have fully grasped this - as an intervention of the working class as a class - as a whole, not factory by factory - in ‘high politics’. This is Marx’s understanding, expressed most clearly in his November 1871 letter to Friedrich Bolte:
NB as to political movement: The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.
On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc law is a political movement. And, in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement - that is to say a movement of the class - with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.
Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power - ie, the political power - of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands …9
This line is reflected also in the character of the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, of the Erfurt and other such programmes. The problem is that the capitalist state and its parties and media endeavour to manipulate the working class and its organisations, and, to counter this, what is needed is a workers’ party which stands for a radical constitutional alternative.
Under the conditions of Russia 1917, ‘All power to the soviets’ looked like a plausible way of expressing this idea. October 1917 meant that for a few years it could seem like this elsewhere too. But the labour-bureaucratic control of the western workers’ councils, and then increasingly visibly of Russian soviets, demolished the idea. The lines of argument comrade Rafael picks up from Lenin - that the workplace basis of soviets brings government close to the workers, and gives the institution a clear class character - became increasingly implausible.
In their ‘new left Trotskyist’ version they represent a retreat away from Marx’s arguments for political action of the class - into Bakuninism.
L Trotsky Lessons of October chapter 8.↩︎
‘No ideal state’, July 30.↩︎
Most recently in a critique of Kautsky’s views, in reviewing Ben Lewis’s translated volume, Karl Kautsky on democracy and republicanism in ‘Democracy and republic’ Weekly Worker February 13 2020.↩︎
I have also made the same point in a different way in ‘Defeat was fault of enemy machine guns’ Weekly Worker May 25 2007.↩︎
For some detailed analysis see, for example, S Merle, ‘Why did the attempt under Stalin to increase agricultural productivity prove to be such a fundamental failure?’ Le Monde Russe Vol 57, pp191-220 (2016): journals.openedition.org/monderusse/8343. In relation to other small businesses, see L Sayfutdinova, ‘Post-Soviet small businesses in Azerbaijan: the legacies of the Soviet second economy’ Caucasus Survey Vol 5, pp11-26 (2017).↩︎
Le marché contre l’autogestion: l’expérience yougoslave (La Brèche 1988); Plan, market and democracy (iire.org/node/663), lectures 2 and 3.↩︎
I have argued elsewhere that a better analogy is the post-Roman Arian ‘barbarian kingdoms’, considered as failed attempts at proto-feudal regimes, or the medieval Italian city-states, considered as failed attempts at proto-capitalist regimes. See ‘Historical blind alleys: Arian kingdoms, Signorie, Stalinism’ Critique Vol 39, pp545-61 (2011).↩︎