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Russia: How the Bureaucracy Seized Power

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Part two continued:

5. The Exhaustion of Soviet Democracy


The Russian workers' state survived the civil war, but at a terrible cost.

By 1920, the output of large-scale industry was down to 14 per cent of the 1913 level, and manufacturing output to less than 13 per cent. Agricultural production fell by a further 16 per cent between 1917 and 1921. Steel production stood at 5 per cent of the 1913 level.

Famine raged in east and south-east Russia during 1921 and 1922, killing five million people, reducing isolated communities to barbarism, even to cannibalism. The Úlan of 1917 was turned into despair, the drive to transform society into a grim struggle for survival.

Political democracy could not survive under these conditions. Every was demands a tight centralization of command over resources and manpower. A revolutionary civil war, moreover, is fought not only on the military front, but also against those sections of society who support the counter-revolution in the rear.

The October revolution had depended on an alliance between the working class and the peasantry. The peasants had supported the workers' state because it offered them peace and land.

But the deprivations of the war eroded the peasants' support for the revolution. Manufactured goods became almost unobtainable, while food supplies were requisitioned from the peasantry to feed the Red Army and the cities.

Only the savagery of the White armies, and their intention of giving back to the landlords, prevented large sections of peasants from going over to the counter-revolution.

Freedom of speech and organization could not be maintained with society split into two and workers' rule hanging by a thread. Hostile elements, agitating around the grievances of the masses, could have set the country on fire with rebellion and opened the door to counter-revolution. Trotsky explained:


"We are fighting a life-and-death struggle. The press is a weapon not of an abstract society, but of two irreconcilable armed and contending sides. We are destroying the press of the counter-revolution, just as we destroyed its fortified positions, its stores, its communications, and its intelligence system." (Terrorism and Communism, page 80)

This was the period known as "war communism". In the economy, the consumption of the country's desperately scarce resources had to be strictly controlled. At the same time, anticipating the victory of the German working class, the Soviet government hoped to pass from control over distribution to control over production, using the methods of war communism as the starting point for a planned socialist economy.

Reformists and ex-Marxists raised a great outcry at the ruthless measures the Bolsheviks were forced to take in crushing the counter-revolution. What is the difference, they asked, between the methods of Bolshevism and the old dictatorship of the Tsar [emperor]? Trotsky replied:


"You do not understand this, holy men? We shall explain to you. The terror of Tsarism throttled the workers who were fighting for the socialist order. Out Extraordinary Commissions shoot landlords, capitalists and generals who are striving to restore the capitalist order. Do you grasp this... distinction? Yes? For us communists it is quite sufficient." (Terrorism and Communism, pages 78-79)

Repression, however, was seen by the Bolsheviks as an exceptional and temporary method, forced on them by the imminent danger of reaction. Even under these critical conditions they remained conciliatory towards their political opponents, on condition that they supported the workers' state in practice, and campaigned for their policies on that basis.

At no stage did the Bolsheviks put forward the idea of a "one-party state", for which there is no foundation in Marxism.

In practice, however, those who supported the revolution overwhelmingly joined the Bolsheviks. The opposition parties were increasingly abandoned to out-and-out enemies of the workers' state. They struggled, and they lost.

In June 1918 the soviets excluded the Right SRs and Mensheviks from their ranks as a result of their involvement with the counter-revolution.

As late as August 1920 the Mensheviks held their party conference in Moscow, and received press coverage. But by 1921 most of the Menshevik leaders had left Russia, to conduct their campaign against the Soviet state from abroad.

The Communist Party congress of 1921 recognized that workers' democracy needed to be rebuilt. But the basis for workers' democracy - the unity, organization and revolutionary energy of the working class - had been shattered by the superhuman effort of winning the war.

The collapse of industry meant the decimation of the workers' ranks:


"By 1919 the number of industrial workers declined to 76 percent of the 1917 level... By 1920, the figure for industrial workers generally fell from three million in 1917 to 1,240,000, i.e., to less than half. In two years the working-class population of Petrograd was halved." (A. Woods and E. Grant, Lenin and Trotsky: What They Really Stood For, page 75)

The workers' political cadre - the class-conscious activists who had mobilized their workmates, led the strikes, taken up arms, created and led the soviets - was almost eradicated. As Ilyin-Zhenevsky recorded in Petrograd even in the opening days of the war:


"the front was calling for reinforcements - both rank-and-file Red Army and leading executives... the Petrograd Committee sent to the front about 300 such persons, members of our Party. We were having to sacrifice our best forces to the demands of the front." (The Bolsheviks in Power, pages 116-117)

Thousands of these revolutionary cadres perished in the war. Most of the survivors were absorbed into the ministries of the workers' state.

The workforce remaining in the factories was transformed into the opposite of the revolutionary vanguard of 1917. As early as 1919 a delegate to the congress of trade unions warned:


"We observe in a large number of industrial centres that the workers... are being absorbed in the peasant mass, and instead of a population of workers we are getting a half peasant or sometimes purely peasant population." (Quoted by Woods and Grant, page 75)

With the class-conscious workers decimated and dispersed, with the raw, semi-peasant workforce in the factories struggling night and day to continue production with the dilapidated equipment and constant shortages, the soviets ceased to function.

The All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which had been supposed to meet every three months, was meeting only once a year by 1918; and even those meetings were insufficiently prepared.

Through utter exhaustion the masses were no longer able to exercise power directly. This factor was decisive in the degeneration of the Russian workers' state.

But, it might be asked, couldn't the Bolsheviks have ensured that the state remained an instrument of working-class policy? They were in power - why could they not stamp out bureaucratism and carry out socialist policies?

This question is also important in clarifying why, today, genuine socialist policies are impossible without mass working-class participation in the running of every state organ.

The next three sections will examine in more detail the objective barriers the Bolsheviks were faced with, the limitations of their control over the state apparatus in the absence of functioning soviets, and the effects of the changing situation on the Communist Party itself.


6. Bureaucracy and the Workers' State


Lenin, shortly before the October revolution, brilliantly explained the nature of the workers' state in his book The State and Revolution:


"Alongside of an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor... the dictatorship of the proletariat brings about a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery; their resistance must be crushed by force... but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the 'state', is still necessary, but this is already a transitional state." (see pages 107-110)

The "dying away" or "withering away" of the state as a specialized organ of repression and control, as armed bodies of men separate from the mass of people - this is the political measure of workers' rule. Lenin sums up what it means:


"The exploiters are naturally unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine... but the people can suppress the exploiters with a very simple 'machine'... by the simple organization of the armed masses (such as the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers Deputies...)" (page 110)

How would this "simple machine" work in practice? How can the working people keep control over the state they had created, and prevent the growth of a military and bureaucratic elite? Lenin's basic guidelines are as valid today as on the day they were written:


"1. No official to receive a higher wage than that of the average skilled worker...

"2. Administrative duties were to be rotated amongst the widest strata of the population to prevent the crystallization of an entrenched caste of bureaucrats.

"3. All working people were to bear arms to protect the revolution against threats from any quarter, internal or external.

"4. All power was to be vested in the Soviets. The composition of the Soviets, lay delegates from the workplaces subject to instant recall, obliged delegates to report back to mass meetings of their workmates... and thus ensure maximam mass participation." (R. Silverman and E. Grant, Bureaucratism or Workers' Power?, page 3)

The revolution had smashed the old Tsarist state to the extent of driving out the most reactionary generals and nobles at the head of the ministries and the armed forces. Communists took their places wherever possible.

But a thorough-going transformation of the state apparatus was impossible with the resources of the isolated Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks numbered only 23,600 in February 1917. A minority of this number formed the cadre of the party, able to lead others in struggling for party policy. The state apparatus, on the other hand, numbered hundreds of thousands of officials.

"Specialists" and skilled administrators of the old regime could not be replaced; they had to be kept on, even at the cost of bribing them with privileges. In the town of Vyatka in 1918, for example, no fewer than 4,476 out of 4,766 officials were the same individuals who had previously served the Tsar.

Trotsky, in his book The Revolution Betrayed, explained the significance of what was taking place.

A workers' state, he said, is "a bridge between the bourgeois [capitalist] and socialist society". Its task is to create a society of abundance through the planned use of resources, through which class divisions - and the state itself as an organ of class rule - will disappear.

For the first period, the workers' state has to operate with the economic means it has inherited from capitalism. It has to use the skilled people trained under capitalism and some of the methods of capitalism: the division of labour, the payment of wages, etc.

The whole development of the workers' state is thus determined by "the changing relations between its bourgeois and socialist tendencies" (page 54) - i.e., between the remaining elements of the old bourgeois apparatus and its methods of control from above, and the development of working-class management from below.

Only the increasing command of the working people over society can eradicate the remnants of capitalism.

In backward Russia, however, the soviets had ceased to exist as organs of the armed people. Day-to-day administration was in the hands of an army of non-Communist officials, representing the outlook of the privileged layers in society.

Bureaucracy in a backward country, Trotsky explained, is a product of backwardness itself - the weakness of the working class, its lack of skills, and the position of power which the state officials enjoy:


"The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come when they want to. When there are a few goods, the purchasers can come when they want to. When there are a few goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the Soviet bureaucracy. It 'knows' who is to get something and who has to wait." (The Revolution Betrayed, page 112)

Thus the bureaucracy in an isolated, backward workers' state does not simply become redundant and "die away". To the extent that the "underdeveloped" working class is unable to take over its functions, bureaucracy acquires - at least for a period - an objective basis for its existence.

Through the bureaucracy, the pressure of the reactionary classes were exerted upon and within the Russian workers' state. This became more and more obvious as the exhaustion of the soviets left officials with greater freedom to act as they wished.

The political representatives of the working class, organized in the Communist Party, were caught up in an increasingly hard-fought struggle against this bureaucracy.

Lenin, struck down by illness in the last two years of his life, became sharply aware of the dangers of the situation. At the fourth Comintern congress in 1922 he gave the international delegates this frank appraisal of the position in Russia:


"Undoubtedly, we have done, and will still do, a host of stupid things... Why do we do these foolish things? The reason is clear: firstly, because we are backward country; secondly, because education in our country is at a low level; and thirdly, because we are getting no outside assistance. Not a single civilized country is helping us. On the contrary, they are all working against us. Fourthly, our machinery of state is to blame. We took over the old machinery of state, and that was our misfortune. Very often this machinery operates against us... We now have a vast army of government employees, but lack sufficiently educated forces to exercise real control over them." (Lenin, The Fourth Congress of the Communist International, page 19)

By "educated forces", Lenin meant Communist workers, organized and able to control the "specialists". Lenin could offer no immediate solution to the problem because, within Russia, there was none.


"In all our agitation," Lenin said, "we must... explain that the misfortune which has fallen upon us is an international misfortune, that there is no way out of it but the international revolution." (Quoted by Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, volume 3, page 367).

In other words, only the conquest of power by the working class in the developed countries, and the provision of large-scale technical assistance to their brothers and sisters in Russia, could remove the basis for bureaucratic power.

7. Party Democracy

The exhaustion of the Soviet working class placed a critical responsibility on the Communist Party and its leadership to defend the gains of the revolution.

War conditions destroyed the soviets, the basic organs of the workers' state. By 1921, even the Executive of the Congress of Soviets was meeting only three times a year. "Sovnarkom" (the Council of People's Commissars, or government) remained as the effective organ of state power.

Sovnarkom consisted of leading Communists, elected to carry out party policy. Naturally they operated within the discipline of the party.

The party remained, in other words, as the nucleus and backbone of the workers' state. Authority was necessarily concentrated in the hands of the central committee - and, later, the political bureau ("Politbureau") elected by the central committee -as a result of the extreme centralization required by the war.

Trotsky gave an example of what this meant at the Comintern congress of 1920, in relation to the question of signing peace with Poland:


"Who decided this question? We have Sovnarkom, but it must be subject to a certain control. Whose control? The control of the working class as a formless chaotic mass? No. The central committee of the party has been called together to discuss the proposal and decide whether to answer it." (Quoted in E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, page 226)

But the centralization of power under Lenin and Trotsky, however uncompromising, at no stage degenerated into systematic bureaucratic imposition from above.

The party and its cadre had been built through the struggle to unite a large number of separate revolutionary groups, each with its own leadership and ideas, around a Marxist program. The method was that of debate. The right of members or groups ("factions" or "tendencies") to question the leadership, and campaign for their ideas in an organized manner, was absolutely taken for granted.

In 1918, for example, the opposition of the "Left Communists" arose out of sharp debates within the party over the question of peace with Germany. For a fortnight they published their own daily paper in Petrograd; in Moscow they won control of the party organization.

But, with the start of the civil war, the Lefts closed ranks with the rest of the party and threw themselves into the struggle.

The explosion of unbridled workers' democracy during those early days is well captured by the account of Ilyin Zhenevsky:


"A People's Commissar [Minister]... was obliged in some cases not to issue orders but to address requests to an administrative organ that was subordinate to him. And this own organ might not agree with the People's Commissar, and might refuse his request. This sort of thing was a common occurrence. A broad democratism in the way of affairs were conducted found expression in the slogan 'power at a local level'." (The Bolsheviks in Power, page 30)

Even in the red army, critics of Trotsky's leadership - essentially supporters of guerrilla war - were able to organize themselves as a "military opposition" and campaign for their views. They were defeated through argument and example.

In late 1920 there emerged the so-called Workers' Opposition, with a program summed up by Carr as "a hotchpotch of current discontents, directed in the main against the growing centralization of economic and political controls". (The Bolshevik Revolution, page 203)

Their view were carried in the party press, day by day, for months on end. A pamphlet stating their case was circulated at the party congress in March 1921, where the issues were to be fully debated.

The proceedings of the congress, however, were dramatically cut across by the uprising of sailors at the naval base of Kronstadt, an island in the Bay of Finland facing Petrograd.


The Kronstadt Uprising

In 1917 the Kronstadt sailors had been in the forefront of the revolution. By 1921 this generation had disappeared to the war fronts and been replaced with peasant conscripts, politically inexperienced, who came under Anarchist influence.

Affected by all the peasants' grievances, demanding more freedom but without a program for solving the country's problems, they staged an armed insurrection under the slogan "Down with Bolshevik tyranny!"

This presented a far more serious threat to the workers' state than the bands of armed insurgents still roaming parts of the country. Kronstadt commanded the approach to Petrograd. With Kronstadt out of government control, Petrograd could not be defended. This gave the Whites and the imperialists a unique opportunity to attack a key center of the revolution.

The Bay of Finland was still frozen, defended by heavy guns and by the Baltic Fleet, would become impregnable. Time to solve the crisis was very short.

The sailors refused to surrender. Trotsky with the unanimous support of the party leadership, ordered the attack. After days of bitter fighting, Kronstadt was taken by Bolshevik troops.


The survival of the Soviet Union once again hung by a thread. Would the rebellion spread? To delegates at the party congress it was clear that firm and united leadership was essential. Public divisions in the party, at this point, would have been seized upon by the enemy to disorient the workers and peasants. It was decided that organized factions within the party had to be dissolved.

Lenin, a year later, summed up the basis for this unprecedented position:


"If we do not close our eyes to reality we must admit that at the present time the proletarian policy of the party is determined not by the character of its membership, but by the enormous undivided prestige enjoyed by the small group which might be called the Old Guard of the party. A slight conflict within this group would be enough, if not to destroy this prestige, at all events to weaken the group to such a degree as to rob it of its power to determine policy." (Collected Works volume 33, page 257)

The operative words were "at the present time". The Bolsheviks knew that problems could not be resolved by organizational measures alone; in the longer run, unity could only be built on discussion, education and agreement. The denial of tendency rights could only be justified as an emergency measure in grappling with the immediate crisis, to be abolished as soon as the situation was once again under control.


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Russia: How the Bureaucracy Seized Power

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