Workers' Liberty 3/37: How bureaucracy strangled the Russian Revolution

How bureaucracy strangled the Russian Revolution

The Russian revolution remains the high point of working-class history.

The Russian revolution remains the high point of working-class history. In October 1917, the Russian working class led by the Bolshevik party made a revolution, took power, smashed the old state and proceeded to build a new state based on workers’ democracy. This socialist political and social revolution not only showed that working class power was possible, but unleashed an enormous democratic festival of the oppressed — poor peasants, minority nationalities, women. But when and how did the workers’ rule degenerate?

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The Russian workers’ government in 1917

On 25 October 1917, the Second Soviet Congress unanimously voted to form a coalition government of parties represented in the soviets.

The Congress created the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) as the day-to-day government, with Lenin as chair. Apparently Trotsky proposed the name commissar, to distinguish them from bourgeois cabinet ministers.

Russia became a workers’ state because the workers had shattered the old bourgeois stateand replaced it with specifically working class institutions of democracy — principally the soviets. The control by workers over their own state and over the surplus product of the economy through the soviets made it a workers’ state.

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The soviets after the Russian Revolution

Academic histories tend to neglect the study of Soviet government institutions in favour of accounts focused on the role of the party. That is because they want to project the later degeneration of the workers’ state and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy back onto the original revolution.

At the beginning, neither the Bolshevik party central committee nor the Politburo (formed in 1919) functioned as the government. Sovnarkom led the government and neither Lenin nor Trotsky occupied any post in the party machine (Rigby 1979).

The early Soviet workers’ state was accountable to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, where delegates were elected by local soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers.

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Factory committees after the Russian Revolution

When they sprang up in early 1917, the factory committees functioned essentially as trade union organisations, fighting to achieve the eight-hour day and to improve wages (Smith 1983).

Mandel’s study found that workers’ control remained “first and foremost a practical response to the concrete problems the workers faced and not, as the dominant view in western historiography has maintained, an anarchistic or anti-authoritarian movement” (1984).

Even before the Russian civil war ended, direct workplace democracy and control by workers had been substantially eroded.

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Trade unions and the Soviet state

Under the new Soviet state, unions were the site of fractious battles between the Bolsheviks and other political forces.

The main railway workers’ union Vikzhel, led by Mensheviks, launched the first general political crisis of the regime over the establishment of a coalition socialist government. At the end of December 1917, the minority Bolshevik fraction walked out of the union’s congress and set up a new organisation (Aves 1989).

The trade unions were strengthened by the incorporation of the factory committees at the beginning of 1918.

Under the new Soviet state, unions were the site of fractious battles between the Bolsheviks and other political forces.

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Party degeneration

At the beginning of its rule the Bolshevik party did not have an apparatus. In February 1918, the staff of the renamed Communist Party central committee consisted of 10 people (Liebman 1975 ). The central committee secretariat’s staff grew from 30 in February 1919 to 150 in March 1920 and 602 the year up to March 1921 (Pirani 2008).

The degeneration of the Bolshevik party after the Civil War.

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The state bureaucracy

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 on the growth of bureaucracy in 1920's Russia.

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The fusion of party and state

The bureaucracy was not born of a one-party state, or the rule of the Bolshevik party.

Administration is a necessary function of any state, but precisely because of its role in allocating, dividing up and distributing the surplus product, it carries the risk of developing into a bureaucratic layer with its own distinct interests. In backward Russia, with a huge pool of peasant labour and a minority working class, such a bureaucracy composed of residue elements of the old ruling class was able to wrap its tentacles around the organs of workers’ power from the beginning.

The fusion of the Bolshevik party and Soviet state after the Civil War.

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