The state bureaucracy

Paul Hampton

In The State and Revolution (1917), Lenin wrote that the two institutions most characteristic of the bourgeois state machine were the bureaucracy and the standing army.

He took from Marx that the destruction of the bureaucratic-military state machine was “the precondition for every real people’s revolution”.

Lenin thought that abolishing the bureaucracy “at once, everywhere and completely”, was out of the question. But “to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy” was not a utopia. The socialist revolution would “reduce the role of state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, revocable, modestly paid ‘foremen and accountants’” (Lenin, Collected Works 25).

Bureaucracy here meant more than simply administrative methods. It refers to the bureaucratisation of the political process (Sakwa 1987). The early Bolshevik government required an administration simply to carry out decisions. What developed later was a bureaucracy that involved privileges and power for the administrators (Block 1975). But the Bolsheviks had to deal with both administration and bureaucracy from the very beginning.

Immediately after the Soviet government was set up it met with “a wall of hostility and non-cooperation”. The old tsarist officials rejected the legitimacy of the “Workers’ and Peasants’ Government” and refused to work for it. In one instance the saboteurs went so far as to remove the nibs from pens and pour away all the ink. Although a few senior officials were ready to collaborate, and some former officials came forward and offered their services, it was at first mainly the guards, cleaners, office messengers and so on who remained at their posts (Rigby 1979).

According to Rigby, the sacking and arrest of the more intransigent senior officials decapitated the resistance movement in several ministries and had a markedly intimidating effect on their juniors.

In early December 1917 a nationwide strike of government officials took place. Within three weeks the back of the rebellion was broken (1979). Rabinowitch has a slightly different take, arguing that work stoppages by civil servants petered out in early January, “not because they were smashed or replaced by freshly trained representatives of the revolutionary masses but because ultimately most of them were dependent on wages for survival” (2007).

The workers’ state barely had an administrative machine in the first months after the October revolution. It also took steps to militate against bureaucratisation. For example, the salaries of the people’s commissars were fixed at 500 rubles a month — not much higher than was earned by a skilled worker. In March 1918, the Soviet government transferred to Moscow. It was there that the new rulers fused with the old staff in the face of new crises to create a distinct bureaucratic layer (Rigby 1979).

In 1918, the extensive nationalisation of industry, creation of new economic coordinating agencies, intensified direction of local government bodies, and the exceptional organs, necessitated the recruitment of many thousands of new central government officials, including bourgeois specialists in the army. Rigby’s research indicated that “over half the officials in the central offices of the commissariats, and perhaps 90% of the upper-echelon officials, had worked in some kind of administrative position before October 1917”. Communists comprised only 10% of the main commissariats, but 52% of the Cheka (1979).

Moscow became dominated by a bureaucratic apparatus. The 231,000 people employed in offices in August 1918 represented 14% of the total population and 30% of the workforce (Sakwa 1987). Not only was carryover high (50% to 80%) in the upper and middle reaches of the central government commissariats, but the social origins and occupation of thesemen and women clearly placed themwithin the lower middle strata (Orlovsky 1989).

The situation was widely perceived as out of control by the end of the civil war. Bukharin joked that the history of humanity could be divided into three great periods: the matriarchate, the patriarchate and the secretariat. As Shachtman said, it was not very funny then; by 1923 the joke was clearly on the party (1965).

The 1921 census revealed that almost a quarter of all senior Soviet officials in the provinces who had acquired a definite occupational affiliation by 1914 stated that they were in more or less senior posts in governmental or private bureaucracies. While it is unlikely that many of these had been in high-level jobs, this represents significant elements of continuity between the old elite and the new (Rigby 1971).

The argument is not that the old tsarist hierarchy managed to hold on intact in any meaningful sense. By 1922, the central administration was controlled by a generation more or less free of the presence of such persons. Rather as Rowney has shown, “the 1922 cohort of top administrators included a majority of persons who had been associated with the prerevolutionary government and its institutions as teachers,physicians, soldiers, students, and of course bureaucrats — sometimes even as high-level bureaucrats if their skills were rare enough”. The Bolsheviks who complained of the presence of too many “chinovniki” were not paranoid but “simply trying to face up to a problem that would not go away as fast as had hoped it would” (1989).

Lenin saw the threat more clearly than other leaders. From 1920 he railed against “the huge bureaucratic machine”, “the evils of bureaucracy”, Soviet bureaucrats, “bureaucratic litter”, the “bureaucratic ulcer”, “puffed-up commissars” and “bureaucrats”, the “rotten bureaucratic swamp”, the bureaucracy “throttling us”. By 1921 he was prepared to define the new state sociologically as “a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions” (The Party Crisis, 19 January 1921). He urged Gleb Krzhizhanovsky at the State Planning Commission to reduce Soviet office staff by 25% or 50% He wrote to Bogdanov in December 1921: “We don’t know how to conduct a public trial for rotten bureaucracy; for this all of us...should be hung on stinking ropes.And I have not yet lost all hope that we shall be hung for this, and deservedly so” (Lenin Collected Works 36).

Lenin told the 11th congress of the Communist Party in March 1922: “If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can truthfully be said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth they are not directing, they are being directed” (Lenin Collected Works 33). He told the Comintern’s fourth congress in November 1922: “We took over the old machinery of state, and that was our misfortune. Very often this machinery operates against us. In 1917, after we seized power, the government officials sabotaged us. This frightened us very much and we pleaded: ‘Please come back’. They all came back, but that was our misfortune. We now have a vast army of government employees, but lack sufficiently educated forces to exercise real control over them. In practice it often happens that here at the top, where we exercise political power, the machine functions somehow; but down below government employees have arbitrary control and they often exercise it in such away as to counteract our measures. At the top, we have, I don’t know how many, but at all events, I think, no more than a few thousand, at the outside several tens of thousands of our own people. Down below, however, there are hundreds of thousands of old officials whom we got from the tsar and from bourgeois society and who, partly deliberately and partly unwittingly, work against us” (Lenin Collected Works 33).