I wrote this document in 1969, when I was in my ‘twenties and active in the movement against the Vietnam War. Four years earlier, while a student at Sussex University, I had become a member of the Labour Party, attaching myself in particular to the "Militant" tendency which was influential in Brighton at the time. I supported "Militant" because they seemed to be the only part of the Labour Party who would not make compromises with capitalism in general or Harold Wilson’s collusion with the United States war effort in particular. "Militant" was a Trotskyist organisation of about 100 members, grouped together since 1964 to read the basic works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and apply their lessons to our political work. I had made a two-year study of the Russian revolution and wanted to highlight Trotsky’s imaginative approach in finding a way to make the planned Bolshevik insurrection legitimate in the eyes of the people. My comrades in the "Militant" tendency spoke regularly of applying the lessons of October 1917 to Britain, but it seemed to me that this needed to be made concrete in terms of the traditional organizational loyalties of the British working class. I submitted this document to a conference of "Militant" in 1969 and on that basis was immediately expelled, without any debate. The comrades acknowledged that I was "sincere" but regarded me as inexperienced; at that time, they were evidently unenthusiastic about opening up a discussion inside the organisation. In particular, their view was that Labour Party members should be recruited to a pre-set programme centred on the slogan "Nationalise the 500 monopolies!". Had "Militant" instead adopted the perspective outlined here, there would have been less emphasis on specifying how people should think and more on uniting the whole labour movement in a struggle to establish a Labour Government which was truly autonomous and accountable to those who voted for it. "Militant" were expelled from the Labour Party in the late 1980s.
DON’T HATE THE MEDIA – BE THE MEDIA!
DON’T HATE THE GOVERNMENT – BE THE GOVERNMENT!
ALL POWER TO THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT!
According to Trotsky, who bases his teaching on the experience of the Russian revolution, "Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!" is obligatory as a revolutionary demand, and obligatory as the culminating point of a programme of transitional demands. In his "Transitional Programme", in the chapter on the "Workers’ and Farmers’ Government", he says that wherever state functionaires speak in the name of the workers’ organizations and are obliged to do so to retain the confidence of the working class, the working-class vanguard must challenge them to take full power into their hands. Only the refusal to do so can provide the masses with their necessary education in the class-nature of the state, and the bourgeois class-dependence of their own reformist representatives. It is not enough merely to challenge the reformists’ programme. The demand must be not merely for a new programme, but for the state-power without which a programme in the masses’ interests cannot be implemented. And at first, when the working-class vanguard is without mass support itself and is therefore not in a position to take power, the demand must be that those representatives of the labour movement who hold the strings of power, and could take it if they wanted to, do so. The masses will agree that there is no point in their electing these people to highest office if they refuse to take the power. The masses vote for power and for action, not for good ideas.
The British revolution can only be won by a working-class vanguard basing itself on the tried and successful methods and experience of the Russian revolution. In the same way, the Russian revolution could not have been won had it not been for the experience — utilized to the full by Lenin – of the Paris Commune. Just as Lenin and Trotsky gained their knowledge from a conscientious study of the works of Marx and Engels combined with their own experience, so we must conscientiously and humbly and exactly study the lessons’ of the past as embodied in the teachings of Lenin and Trotsky.
According to Trotsky himself the Bolsheviks took the power in October 1917 through the strategy of calling on their opponents (Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries) to take the power. It was upon the demand "Take the power!", addressed to the official leadership, that the Bolsheviks mobilized the support to take power themselves. The Bolshevik road to power was not simple and direct but contradictory and dialectical. From April to September 1917, the Bolsheviks demanded that the S.R.s and Mensheviks break with the liberal bourgeoisie and take power into their own hands" writes Trotsky in the ‘Transitional Programme’.4
"The demand of the Bolsheviks, addressed to the Mensheviks and the S.R.s : Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power into your own hands! had for the masses tremendous educational significance. The obstinate unwillingness of the Mensheviks and S.R.s to take power, so dramatically exposed during the July Days, definitely doomed them before mass opinion and prepared the victory of the Bolsheviks."
The specific organ which the Bolsheviks in their resolutions called upon to take the power was the Executive Committee of the Soviet. The slogan "All Power to the Soviets!" was, concretely, the demand that the whole power pass to this organ. It was chosen simply because it was recognized as their highest class-organ by the masses themselves and hence was actually in a position to take power. Although, as a body composed of Mensheviks and Social- Revolutionaries, it was very reluctant to pull the strings of power, it at least had these strings in its hands.
Opposition to the demand that it seize power came from two opposite directions. The anarchists and radicals on the extreme ‘ultra’ left saw the Soviet and its E.C. as simply a direct instrument of the capitalists, the landlords and the war machine. Confusing it with the capitalist state apparatus, they thought it had too much power already. From the right-wing
Social-Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and some centrist Bolsheviks came opposition on the grounds that the Soviets were doing fine and had all the power they needed for the present. If they accepted that the full power should at some date be taken, they pushed this date far off into the indefinite future — when, for instance, the European Revolution had been completed. Really both forms of opposition — from left as much as from right – meant in practice supporting the capitalist state against the Soviets, the ruling classes against the masses.
Yet today’s ‘left’ radicals — those who in Britain oppose the slogan of industrial power to the Labour Government because the government is ‘capitalist’ — should sympathise with the Russian anarchist opponents of the slogan of power to the Soviet B.C. For this too was ‘capitalist’ in the sense that it was used by the capitalists and turned against the masses. Although the Soviets themselves were democratic at rank-and-file level, the Executive Committee itself was almost completely free of rank-and-file control. Trotsky 5 describes it as a ‘sub-government’ — in general subordinate to the capitalist government, yet itself possessing a state significance. Its main concern was to command the confidence of the bourgeoisie in its ability to subordinate the masses.
Hence Trotsky writes6: "The first care of the Executive Committee was to reconcile soldiers with officers. That meant nothing but to subordinate the troops to their former command". The first care of the Soviet Executive Committee was to take away from the masses the gains they had made through the February revolution. That meant imposing the will of the landlords upon the peasants, the will of the capitalists upon the workers, and the will of the old czarist officers upon the troops. As a result, even the lower soviet organs began to be turned into indirect organs of reaction — and even the soldiers’ committees. "Just as the Executive Committee was becoming an instrument of the Entente for taming the revolution, the soldiers’ committees, having arisen to represent the soldiers against the commanding staff, were being converted into assistants of the commanding staff against the soldiers".7
In a real sense, the so-called "Soviet Executive Committee" was a fraud perpetrated upon the masses. Trotsky writes :
"The organization created on February 27 in the Tauride Palace, and called ‘Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies’, had little really in common with its name. The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies of 1905, the originator of the systems, rose out of a general strike. It directly represented the masses in struggle. The leaders of the strike became the deputies of the Soviet; the selection of its membership was carried out under fire; its Executive Committee was elected by the Soviet for the further prosecution of the struggle. It was this Executive Committee which placed on the order of the day the armed insurrection.
The February revolution, thanks to the revolt of the troops, was victorious before the workers had created a soviet. The Executive Committee was self-constituted, in advance of the Soviet and independently of the factories and regiments after the victory of the revolution.
We have here the classic initiative of the radicals standing aside from the revolutionary struggle, but getting ready to harvest its fruit… The radical intelligentsia got ready its reserve sub-government at the moment of the February victory. Inasmuch as they had been, at least in the past, adherents of the workers’ movement and inclined to cover themselves with its tradition, they now named their offspring ‘Executive Committee of the Soviet’".
Its social composition was almost totally un-representative of the working-class. "No small number of people got into the Soviet by individual invitation, through pull, or simply thanks to their own penetrative ability. Radical lawyers, physicians, students, journalists, representing various problematical groups — or most often representing their own ambition… Many of these accidental crashers-in, seekers of adventure, self-appointed Messiahs, and professional bunk-shooters, for a long time crowded out with their authoritative elbows the silent workers and irresolute soldiers".9
The Executive Committee was the highest state organ of the working masses. It was their highest organ of power. Trotsky writes that "from the moment of its formation the Soviet, in the person of its Executive Committee, begins to function as a sovereign".
But besides being their organ of power, the Executive Committee, composed as it was almost entirely of bourgeois intellectuals and petit-bourgeois radicals, was the masses’ organ of impotence. The last thing it wanted to do was to take power into its hands. This inability was the essential characteristic of the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries who dominated the Soviets. "At the head of the Soviets everywhere stood the Social-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks who rejected with indignation the Bolshevik slogan, ‘Power to the Soviets!’" (11) According to ‘Trotsky, immediately after the turbulent "April Days", "the power should have gone over wholly to the Soviets; this could have been accomplished without any civil war whatever, merely by a raising of hands — merely by wishing it. But the Compromisers did not want to wish it, and the masses still preserved their faith in the Compromisers, although it was badly cracked".12 The Compromisers found power being pushed upon them by the masses they represented and, far from wanting this power, they were actually embarrassed by the power of the masses which they knew not what to do with. And the more power was pushed upon them, the more they hated it and tried to get rid of it. As Trotsky writes:
"…the socialists, having so easily arrived at the head of the Soviets, were worrying about only one question : Will the bourgeoisie… consent to accept the power from our hands? Its consent must be won at any cost. And since obviously a bourgeoisie cannot renounce its bourgeois programme, we, the "socialists" will have to renounce ours: we will have to keep still about the monarchy, the war, the land, if only the bourgeoisie will accept the gift of power".13
Since the soviet leaders were in this way actually agents of the bourgeoisie, it was not surprising that the left anarchist and radical opponents of marxism were able to simply confuse the Soviets as a whole with the bourgeois state apparatus. As time wore on, a mood of demoralization and hatred of the Soviets developed even among backward sections of the masses, particularly the peasant troops. Trotsky writes of the growing economic crisis, and of how even the shortage of bread and the continuation of the war got blamed on the Soviets, and in particular on its Executive Committee.
"The commissar of the 12th Army reports to Kerensky at the beginning of July as to the mood of the soldiers. ‘Everything is in the long run blamed on the bourgeois ministers and the Soviet, which has sold out to the bourgeoisie’"14
There can be no doubt that, had it not been for the slogan of power to the Soviets, which would never have been raised had it not been for Lenin’s personal insistence on this, (against the initial complete opposition of the Bolshevik leadership) and which the Bolsheviks had to raise despite the Soviet’s own policies — the Soviets would before long have been defeated. They would have been defeated not merely by the direct actions of the ruling classes, but also by the masses’ own demoralization and disgust at the Soviet’s sellout. The situation was saved purely and simply by the Bolsheviks’ organized demand that this same Soviet take full power into its own hands.
The situation can be clearly understood by a comparison with the (generally very different) circumstances in Britain, in which the masses are turning against their Labour Party and Trade Union organs precisely because of the misuse of these organs at the highest state level by the capitalist class. In Britain the Labour Government — the organ recognized as sovereign by the class-conscious working people — is being used by the bankers and employers (due to the willingness of the top labour leaders to allow themselves to be used) to impose on the workers
capitalist policies. Harold Wilson and his entourage (whom Trotsky would have classified as belonging to the ‘educated petit-bourgeoisie’) orient themselves on the workers, but hobnob with the bankers and bosses. While forming a part of the labour movement and Labour Government, through which the demands of the lower classes find their way up to the official state, the Labour Ministers serve at the same time as a political screen for the bourgeoisie. The possessing classes "submit" to the Labour Government provided it keeps the dominant power pushed over to their side. The masses submit to the Labour Government, in so far as they hope it might become an instrument of rule by the "working man". Contradictory class tendencies intersect in Westminster and Whitehall and they both cover themselves with the name of the Labour Government — the one through unconscious trustfulness, the other with cold-blooded calculation. The struggle is ultimately about who is to rule the country, the bankers and employers, or the organized workers.
It is almost uncanny how the terms in which Trotsky describes the ‘Soviet Executive Committee’ describe virtually word-for-word Britain’s ‘Labour Government’. Marxism does not merely make comparisons: it isolates from widely different concrete social situations in different periods and places certain essential features which are identical. Here is Trotsky describing the Harold Wilsons of Russia in the months between February and October 1917. Here he is, describing for us the ‘Labour Government which the Bolsheviks toppled over through their demand that it take the power:
"The educated petit-bourgeois oriented himself upon the workers and peasants, but hobnobbed with the titled landlords and owners of sugar-factories. While forming a part of the soviet system, through which the demands of the lower classes found their way up to the official state, the Executive Committee served at the same time as a political screen for the bourgeoisie. The possessing classes "submitted" to the Executive Committee so long as it pushed the power over to their side. The masses submitted to the Executive Committees in so far as they hoped it might become an instrument of the rule of workers and peasants. Contradictory class tendencies were intersecting in the Tauride Palace and they both covered themselves with the name of the Executive Committee — the one through unconscious trustfulness, the other with cold-blooded calculation. The struggle was about nothing more or less than the question who was to rule the country, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat?"
For marxists the difference in name between the so-called ‘Soviet E.C.’ in Russia 1917, and the so-called ‘Labour Government’ in Britain 1969 is less important than their similarity in class-substance. Future historians will see that both were sub-governments trapped (despite all their ‘sovereignty’ in the eyes of their working-class supporters) beneath the dead weight of a semi-monarchist, semi-feudalist state machine which was the direct instrument of the capitalists and old ruling classes. Naturally there are huge differences due to the totally different histories of Russia and Britain. The transition from landlordism to a workers’ state occurred in Russia, politically, ‘in a flash’ — between February and October 1917. In Britain there stretches between these two historical stages an intervening period of bourgeois rule occupying several centuries. The duration of bourgeois political rule in Russia was effectively reduced to a time-span of zero, whereas in Britain the bourgeoisie has ruled longer than anywhere else in the world. But despite these differences and many others there is something essential in common between the extremely unstable and short-lived situation of dual power in Russia’s eight-month transition-period on the one hand, and the prolonged constitutional history of dual and conflicting sovereignties, (Crown versus Parliament, then Parliament versus trade unions and Labour Party), stable, yet occasionally erupting into dual power, peculiar to Britain. Trotsky writes to this effect in his chapter on dual power in the History of the Russian Revolution. In Britain, Parliament’s partial victory over the monarchy (i.e. the victory of the bourgeoisie over the aristocrats, bishops and landowners) did not immediately transform itself into a victory of the lower classes over the property-owners’ Parliament. Three centuries have passed, and we have still not reached this latter stage. Immediately after its
victory in the English revolution of the seventeenth century (‘consummated’ by the execution of Charles Stuart), the English bourgeoisie was able to re-align with the defeated remnants of the feudalist aristocracy it had fought against in order successfully to prevent the semi- ‘proletarian’ plebeians (Levellers) from ‘completing’ the revolution in the direction of communism. In the first dual power conflict (London and Parliament versus Oxford and the King) the crisis was brought to a head and resolved by the victory of Parliament. There then developed a second dual power conflict — the lower ranks of the Parliamentary army, not satisfied by their still merely partial victory against privilege, try to rise up against their own leaders, against Cromwell and against parliament. "But", says Trotsky,16 "this new two-power system does not succeed in developing: the Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie, have not yet, nor can have, their own historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years". Whereas in Russia, the victory of the ‘Parliamentarians’ (Provisional Government, dumas, Constituent Assembly etc) over the ‘King’ (the Romanovs) is almost immediately followed by the victory of the ‘Levellers’ (the Petrograd workers and soldiers under their Soviet) over Parliament — in Britain the full development of this second dual-power conflict is only now becoming possible after a postponement of three centuries. England’s ‘Permanent Revolution’ has been of extraordinarily long duration. But it is in its class-features the same revolution: the transformation of a bourgeois victory over feudalism into a proletarian victory over capitalism.
This second victory in England hinges around the constitutional contradiction between the official sovereignty of the ‘Queen in Parliament’, and the unofficial sovereignty, in the eyes of the working-class voters and the labour movement, of the Labour Government as the highest organ of the labour movement and working-class, whose policies are determined by the unions and workers by means of the Labour Party Conference. This is an absolute and irreconcilable contradiction, with on the one hand the capitalists and their state claiming all ministers as ‘ultimately responsible to the Queen in Parliament’, and on the other hand the organized workers claiming labour ministers as responsible to themselves and their class. The final outcome of this steadily developing situation of dual power (as yet still only in its embryonic stages, though this could change with extreme suddenness in the event, for instance, of an economic collapse, strike-wave or Party Conference victory) will be determined not by existing constitutional dogmas but by the respective strengths, organization and class- consciousness of the two main contending classes.
In seventeenth-century Britain, rather as Parliament after its victory began to ‘submit’ once again to the Crown provided it did not attempt to contradict Parliament (this ‘submission’ of course won the bourgeoisie the support of the squirearchy etc against the Plebeians), the Levellers and plebeians after Cromwell’s victory wished to ‘submit’ to the Parliament of property-owners provided it did not contradict the interests of the property less. The ‘submission’ of Parliament was in reality no such thing; the hope of the Levellers that a conflict with Parliament could be avoided proved, on the other hand, vain. It was their defeat which, in its ‘world-historic re-appearance’ in Russia 1917, turned into victory. Here the property-owners’ ‘Parliament’ was not given an opportunity to develop itself; it remained and died a ‘Provisional’ capitalist Government. Here the ‘Levellers’ have a mighty organ, the Soviet, whose Executive Committee has already, even at the very beginning of the purportedly ‘bourgeois’ revolution, acquired the significance of a state organ. Trotsky describes the situation as follows:17
"Delegations from the Baltic and Black Sea fleets announced on the 16th of March that they were ready to recognize the Provisional Government in so far as it went hand in hand with the Executive Committee; in other words they did not intend to recognize it at all. As time goes on, this note sounds louder and louder. "The army and the population should submit only to the directions of the Soviet", resolves the 172nd Reserve Regiment,
and then immediately formulates the contrary theorem: "Those directions of the Provisional Government which conflict with the decision of the Soviet are not to be obeyed." With a mixed feeling of satisfaction and anxiety the Executive Committee sanctioned this situation; with grinding teeth the government endured it. There was nothing else for them to do… The Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet actually acquired a state significance. The other Soviets guided themselves by the capital, one after the other adopting resolutions of conditional support to the Provisional Government…"
Return to Britain, but jump three hundred years forward from the time of the Levellers to 1969, and we see instead of Cromwell’s Parliament, and instead of a capitalist ‘Provisional Government’ a peculiar organ, a peculiar remnant of an old dual power — a sovereign organ of capitalism known as ‘The Queen in Parliament’. And instead of a ‘Leveller’ band of armed artisans and peasants, and instead of a Petrograd Soviet E.C., we have an organ of the political ‘party’ (although hardly a ‘party’ in the usual sense of this word) of the trade unions, a ‘Labour Government’. This organ is as useful and as useless to the labour movement in Britain as was the Soviet E.C. to the Russian Soviets. The important thing is that we determine our relationship to it in accordance with the tried and successful strategy and tactics used by the Bolsheviks in Russia on the basis of an accurate understanding of this country’s history.
Rather as the Russian sailors described by Trotsky were at first very unwilling openly and in so many words to refuse recognition to the organ of the capitalists (the Provisional Government), so the British labour movement is by no means willing as yet to admit any contradiction between loyalty to its own organs and loyalty to ‘The Queen in Parliament’. It is naturally felt that such a contradiction should not exist, and that the ‘Queen in Parliament’ should be independent of the capitalist system and responsive to the needs of labour. Hence, despite attempts now and again to agitate against the existence of Parliament, house of Lords, Crown etc, the general feeling amongst the working class tends to be that provided these institutions make no attempt to interfere with the power and functions of a Labour Government as a trade unionists’ organ, then they can be accepted as they are. It is absolutely taken for granted that they have no power to interfere with the processes of democracy as interpreted by the labour movement. And rather as the Russian workers took the Soviet E.C. as their sovereign organ to start with, rather than a Congress of Soviets, so the class-conscious British workers tend to look, not upon Labour Party Conference, but upon the virtually self-appointed ‘Labour Government’ as ‘sovereign’ over the movement as a whole. For this reason, just as the Bolsheviks always demanded of the Soviet E.C. that it ‘seize all power’, we are obliged by objective circumstances to make this demand of the Labour Government. For the Congress of Soviets to have appeared to masses as sovereign, it was first necessary for the Compromisist E.C. to refuse to refuse to take power when called upon to do so. In the same way, only the refusal of the Labour Government to take power when instructed to do so by a united labour movement could turn sovereignty within the British labour movement back upon a (by then) enlarged and seething Party Conference, its doors thrown open to all competing tendencies within the working class – enabling it to become a fully democratic Congress of the whole people constituting themselves the government through their control over the productive forces.
Russia’s February Revolution appeared at first sight as a bourgeois revolution, the powerlessness of the bourgeoisie in Russia, however, immediately revealed it (to the Bolsheviks, but not to the Mensheviks) as simultaneously proletarian. The political impotence of the bourgeoisie in Russia (due to the fatal postponement of its revolution against autocracy) meant a disproportionate political strength in the working class. Hence every political crisis of the autocracy (1905, March 1917) meant the eruption of the workers’ organs in a particularly powerful, direct and ‘dangerous’ form, an absolutely intolerable form from the stand-point of both the weak national bourgeoisie and the autocracy. Quite the opposite applies to Britain. Here the bourgeoisie, due to its having won its anti-feudal revolution before any other
bourgeoisie in the world, has been extraordinarily powerful and has dominated the globe. Hence it has been quite able to tolerate a truly enormous working-class population at home without fear. If 1926 be excepted, it has not suffered a serious threat to its rule since its victory three centuries ago. This power of the bourgeoisie has meant the gradual appearance of the workers’ organs on a very large scale but in the mildest possible form: bureaucratised, strongly influenced by the outlook and even the interests of the bourgeoisie, and, despite occasional sharp flashes of cruel class-conflict, on the whole tolerable to the system. That is the essential difference between the Soviets in Russia and the Labour Party in Britain. Both are class-organs transcending the individual factory or industry and ‘reaching towards’ state power. But the Soviet form springs direct from the factories within a given region, who simply send deputies to a town or regional council — the Soviet. The Labour Party form is just as securely based upon the working class in the factories, and is just as ideologically colourless, providing a forum in which all views can compete amongst one another (this holds generally, despite occasional attempts against this freedom), but it is based in a far less direct manner on the workers at work in their factories. It has arisen as a political organ of the trade unions. This indirectness has always provided a form of ‘cushioning’ between the leaders at the top, transmitting their bourgeois influences down, and the workers at the bottom, thrusting up their proletarian class-demands. A thick layer of bureaucrats has softened the political clash of the classes within the whole apparatus and the state. This bureaucracy has even caused certain socialist sects to consider the Labour Party a direct instrument of capitalist rule against the workers.
As organizational forms the Russian Soviets and the British Labour Party are very different. This applies especially at the lower levels of the two — at the highest state levels the Russian Soviet B.C. (in 1917, not in 1905) and Britain’s Labour Government are not so different. Naturally, the non-existence of a Russian ‘Parliament’ prevented the Soviet B.C. from possessing the parliamentary context of the Labour Government. Nevertheless, despite differences in forms, for marxists the important thing is the identical class-nature. As Lenin himself put it at the April Conference: "The Soviets are important for us not as a form; rather is it important to see what classes the Soviets represent."
In Britain, as a situation develops in which industrial workers are forced to a consciousness of their own position and potential as a class (and this will be partially dependent on the theory and practice of the marxist vanguard within the movement), and as workers begin to feel able to take political matters independently into their own hands, the bureaucratization of the Labour Party will begin to be smashed and dissolved, power will shift more and more to the factories and work-places themselves, Trades Councils and Party General Management Committees will be brought together to form stronger organs, and the gulf between the Soviet form of organization and Britain’s Labour form will be narrowed.
Already the gulf is by no means absolute. Russia’s Soviet and Britain’s Labour organs have in common that they are the traditional political organs of the working class in their respective countries. They are not the conscious creations of political theorists but ‘spontaneous’ i.e. unconscious (from a marxist standpoint) products of the class-struggle itself. Hence the original Soviet of 1905 developed out of a giant strike-wave which of its own momentum became a political strike. The Labour Party sprang from Tory attempts (partially supported by the Liberals) to bring in crippling legislation against trade unions during a period (1880-1900) when British capitalism’s world hegemony was being eroded by foreign competition. The Trades Union Congress responded by forming a ‘Labour Representation Committee’ in 1900;
the object of the Committee was merely to ensure some direct trade-union representation in Parliament. Brom this was bom the ‘Labour Party’ when in 1906 the first twenty-nine ‘Labour Members of Parliament’ took their seats.
It would be a mistake to draw any too close parallels between two such very different organizational forms. But to what has already been said it could be added that neither the Soviet, or the Labour Party, is itself a political party in the usual sense of the word. Both are rather forums within which real ‘political parties’, i.e. definite political tendencies within the working-class, can compete for support and representation amongst one another. Given workers’ power, both forms could become whole ‘Parliaments’ (in the best, not the capitalist sense of the word) of the entire working class and a premise and ‘constitutional’ basis for complete freedom for a limitless multiplicity of political parties possessing the power not only to talk (as is the case in Britain’s Parliament at present) but to act.
For the present, we should base our attitude towards the Labour Party not only on our own experience but, in addition, on the invaluable experience of the Bolsheviks with the Soviets in Russia. For Lenin the Labour Party was not merely a ‘capitalist instrument’ (although he recognized the grain of truth in this attack on reformism) but a working-class forum in which it was essential that revolutionaries should participate.
"It must be borne in mind that the British Labour Party is in a particularly peculiar position: it is a very original sort of party, or more correctly, it is not a party at all in the ordinary sense of the word. It is made up of the members of trade unions with a membership of about four million, and allows sufficient liberty to all the affiliated political parties…
…such peculiar conditions now prevail in Britain that if a political party wishes, it may remain a revolutionary workers’ party, notwithstanding the fact that it is connected with a peculiar labour organizsation of four million members which is half trade-union and half political and is headed by bourgeois leaders. Under such circumstances it would be a great mistake if the best revolutionary elements did not do everything possible to remain in such a party…"18
V I Lenin at the Second Congress of the Communist International, 1920.
Lenin’s view did — as it still does -meet with furious resistance from those ‘left’ opponents of marxism who are psychologically unable to distinguish workers’ bureaucracies, reactionary trade unions and other distorted organs of the working class from the direct state organs of the capitalists. In the following passage (from Lenin’s "Left-Wing Communism") we can gain a good idea of the kind of opposition Lenin had to put up with, and also the sense of urgency and perhaps near-exasperation with which he fought it. Here Lenin refers to the refusal to work in reactionary trade-unions. Marxists in Britain cannot help but see his words applying to those ‘ultra-lefts’ who in this country refuse to work in the Labour party, in a period when representatives of millions of workers are for the first time passing from a complete faith in reformism to an acceptance of the class struggle, even to the extent of passing millions of votes for resolutions demanding socialization and workers’ control!
"Millions of workers in Britain, France and Germany are for the first time passing from a complete lack of organization to the elementary, simplest, lowest, and (for those still thoroughly imbued with bourgeois-democratic prejudices) most understandable form of organization, namely the trade unions yet the revolutionary, but unwise, Left Communists stand by, shouting the "masses", the "masses"! — and refuse to work within the trade unions\\, refuse on the plea that they are "reactionary"!! and invent a brand-new, immaculate little "Workers’ Union", guiltless of bourgeois-democratic prejudices and innocent of craft or narrow trade-union sins, which, they claim, will be (will be!) a broad organization, and the only (only!) condition of membership of which will be "recognition of the Soviet system and the dictatorship"!!
Greater unwisdom and greater damage to the revolution than that caused by the ‘Left’ revolutionaries cannot be imagined! Why, if we in Russia today, after two and a half years of unprecedented victories over the bourgeoisie of Russia and the Entente, were to make "recognition of the dictatorship" a condition of trade union membership, we should be committing a folly, we should be damaging our influence over the masses, we should be helping the Mensheviks. For the whole task of the Communists is to be able to
convince the backward masses, to be able to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them by artificial and childishly "Left" slogans…"19
We can make it clear to the "Left" revolutionaries in Britain today that we certainly do understand their feelings with regard to the Labour Party. Young idealists want immediate action, and the slowness the heaviness — even perhaps the very strength and momentum — of the official trade union, T.U.C. and Labour Party apparatus can be extremely frustrating. This is so even at the best of times for the Labour Party. But now, when there is a deepening mood of utter demoralization throughout the local Constituency Parties, when it would appear that the whole apparatus is rotting and decaying under the leadership of the Wilsons, Castles and the rest, the refusal of young revolutionaries to go anywhere near the Labour Party is particularly ‘natural’ and ‘understandable’. Apparently the Labour Government, by surrendering to the capitalist class and the tories on every ‘principled’ issue (unemployment, school-milk for secondary schools, prescription charges , wage-‘restraint’, anti-union legislation etc. etc.) is busily engaged in destroying itself and its Party organization and morale. "The Labour Government and the Labour Party are reformist instruments of the bourgeoisie" say the young "Left" revolutionaries to themselves, "Why shouldn’t we let them destroy themselves if they want to?"
What would have happened had the Bolsheviks allowed the Soviets to destroy themselves? For this would certainly have happened had they been left to themselves. Without the presence of the growing Bolshevik minority within them, the Soviets would have remained under the leadership of the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, the "compromisists", the Wilsons"
and the "Browns", "Castles", "Jenkinses" and such characters. Under such circumstances what would happen to such organs? Trotsky gives the answer, which under today’s circumstances applies equally to Britain’s Labour organs:
"Remaining compromisist, the Soviets would turn into a spineless opposition under a counter-revolutionary government, and then soon come to an end altogether…" 20
But then everything would have been lost for at least a whole epoch. The possibility is in a certain sense only a theoretical one, for Lenin and Trotsky were really bound to insist on the slogan of power to the Soviets, just as we in this country are bound to insist on our slogan. The objective circumstances, once subjectively understood, in each case simply dictate the correct and only possible course. But it is certain that the Bolsheviks could not have taken power without the Soviets, just as we cannot take power "on our own" but only inasmuch as the traditional organs of labour can take the power as a partial result of our activity. As Trotsky puts it:
"The problem of conquering power can be solved only by a definite combination of party with Soviets — or with other mass organizations more or less equivalent to Soviets".21
Instead of allowing the Soviets to destroy themselves, the Bolsheviks carried out a determined campaign of simultaneous attack and defence of the Soviets. As appendages of the petitbourgeois leaders, as transmitters of bourgeois influences on to the masses, as powerless talking-shops instead of state organs of the masses they were mercilessly attacked. But as mass-organs of the proletariat and peasantry, as potential state organs of a new social order they were defended with the utmost vigour. This dialectical approach is illustrated in the following words of Lenin:
"…the S.R. and Menshevik leaders of the Soviets have prostituted them, have degraded them to the role of talking shops, of accessories to the conciliationist policy of the leaders. The Soviets have been rotting and decaying under the leadership of the Libers, Dans, Tseretellis, and Chernovs. The Soviets can only develop properly and expand to the full their promise and capabilities when they assume full state power, for otherwise they have nothing to do; otherwise they are simply embryos (and an embryo cannot endure too long) or mere playthings. Dual power means the paralysis of the Soviets.
Had not the popular creativeness of the revolutionary classes given rise to the Soviets, the proletarian revolution in Russia would have been hopeless, for there is no doubt that with the old state apparatus, the proletariat could not have retained power, while it is impossible to create a new apparatus all at once…"22
Partly because of the attitude of the Bolsheviks (which really expressed in clear form the already-existent yet mixed feelings of the masses), the masses’ ultimate faith in their own organs was never quite broken, despite the most anti working-class policies of the "prostituted" Soviets. Trotsky writes that despite the endless betrayals of the official soviet organs at the highest level, nevertheless
"…the masses had no intention of breaking with the Soviet; on the contrary, they wanted the Soviet to seize the power… "23
Trotsky shows how the demand that the Soviet B.C. take power into its hands in fact expressed politically the mixed feelings of the workers and soldiers with regard to their Soviet. The dialectical, two-fold "attack-defence" policy of the Bolsheviks, the challenge to the authority of the official leaders which underlay the demand that these leaders "take the power into their own hands", in other words, the whole policy summed up in the slogan "All Power to the Soviets!", was a clear (theoretically-based) expression of the actual feelings of the masses. Without the Bolsheviks providing the masses with this voice and political language through which to express their feelings, the masses’ will would have remained un-expressed and frustrated. The masses’ need for the Bolsheviks is conveyed by Trotsky, writing of the July days:
"The workers and soldiers felt clearly enough the contrast between their moods and the policy of the soviet — that is, between their today and their yesterday. In coming out for a government of the Soviets, they by no means gave their confidence to the compromisist majority in those Soviets. But they did not know how to settle with this majority. To overthrow it by violence would have meant to dissolve the Soviets instead of giving them the power… "24
After the July days, when the Soviet helped to shoot demonstrators calling for all power to the Soviet, even the Bolsheviks felt temporarily obliged to withdraw the slogan of "All Power to the Soviets!" There was nothing dogmatic or mechanical about Lenin, who always knew how to keep in tune with the actual feelings of the masses (even though in this respect, being forced into hiding, he was occasionally less ‘in touch’ with immediate mass feelings than Trotsky and other, worker. Bolsheviks who were ‘on the spot’). However, the slogan was soon revived when it became necessary to defend the Soviet against Kornilov. Finally the Compromisers were politically defeated by a "compromise" towards them made by the Bolsheviks – namely a complete return to the slogan "All Power to the Soviets!" in all its implications, (immediate, and less direct). This "compromise" was really no more than the kind of "compromise" we in Britain are forced to make in calling, not for "All Power to the Factory Committees" or to other rank-and-file organs, but "All Power to the Labour Government!" It was simply a recognition of objective reality — of the authoritative position of the leaders and the illusions of the masses, in so far as both these factors remained as yet not overcome. From the start, "All Power to the Soviets!" had been ambiguous as a slogan – the ambiguity reflecting the real contradiction in the whole situation. In the long run, the Bolsheviks knew, it meant or would mean the transfer of power to themselves and to the masses as a whole, the transfer of power to Bolshevized Soviets. In the same way, "All Power to the Labour Government!"
means, for the marxist vanguard, (and for ourselves in as much as we, with certain other tendencies, provide at least the germs for a real vanguard which will be forged out of events), all power to "us" i.e. to "ourselves" and the working-class as a whole, to a revolutionized labour movement which will take power in the name of the Labour Government, and will, once power is actually in its hands, thereby find itself in a position to ignore the so-called "Labour" Ministers of the Queen and constitute itself the ‘Labour Government’. But this is
only the long-term meaning. In its immediate sense, "All Power to the Labour Government!"
of course means the transfer of full industrial and political power to this Government, the transfer of full power to the Wilsons etc. If they were to take the power there would be no need for us and the working-class rank-and-file of the labour movement to do so: a great deal of trouble could be avoided. In the same way the immediate sense of "All Power to the Soviets!" was not for power to the Bolsheviks but for power to the Compromisers. As Trotsky writes:
"The transfer of power to the Soviets meant, in its immediate sense, a transfer of power to the Compromisers. That might have been accomplished peacefully, by way of a simple dismissal of the bourgeois government, which had survived only on the goodwill of the Compromisers and the relics of the confidence in them of the masses".25
And this "proposal" — the transfer of power to the Compromisers — was the "compromise"
through which the Bolsheviks finally exposed the official leaders and won enough support in the Soviets to take the power. Trotsky writes:
"…Lenin made fun of those phrase-mongers who reject all compromises whatever: the problem is ‘throughout all compromises in so far as they are inevitable’ to carry out your own aims and fulfil your own tasks. ‘The compromise on our part’, he said, ‘will be a return to our pre-July demand : All Power to the Soviets, a government of Social- Revolutionaries and Mensheviks responsible to the Soviets…’"26
This is the "compromise" the Bolsheviks made, this is the slogan the Bolsheviks raised, which finally won them mass support when the Social-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were seen to refuse to take the power. It was a return to the slogan "All Power to the Soviets!", the demand that the Menshevik and S-R Soviets should seize full power. As a result of it, the authority of the compromisers in the eyes of the masses was shattered and the Soviets came under Bolshevik control. Only then could the slogan be changed to a demand that the now Bolshevik organs take power.
And this "compromise" is the one which we need to make in Britain. We need to raise the slogan of "All Power to the Labour Government!" which is a "compromise" inasmuch as it is a recognition of the objective situation, of our lack of mass support, of the power which the official leadership and the Labour Government still wield over the movement, of the illusions which the masses still have in the Labour Government.
Just as Trotsky writes that, despite everything, the masses in Russia did not want to break with their Soviet, so in Britain, despite everything the Labour Government has done, (wage-freeze, social-service cuts, anti-union attempts etc) nevertheless the class-conscious workers by and large do not want a final break with "their" Government.
Only when large numbers of workers discover that their own leaders are afraid to take real power into their hands even when given the opportunity to do so can a real revolutionary consciousness begin to develop. Only then can a decisive section of the working class reach the conclusion which we have come to as revolutionaries: that if the power is to be taken in this country, we must take it ourselves.
Our job is to become the majority in the rank-and-file of the labour movement. The idea that any tiny group of revolutionaries can make the decision whether the mighty British Labour Movement is, or is not, going to come to power in this country — such an idea is absurd. That decision can be made only by the bodies recognized as sovereign within the movement by the organized workers themselves. In view of the record of the Labour Party in Parliament, it is likely that more and more workers will transfer their loyalties to the Labour Party Conference, the Trades Union Congress or to new bodies as time goes on. Should any of these bodies, in
the course of their struggle against capitalism and the Tories, come to the conclusion that they have no way out but to seize the reins of Government directly into their own hands, using their industrial strength for the purpose, we and all revolutionary groups would support them. But the decision, as long as we represent a minority, is theirs, not ours.
In issue No 3 of SPARK, in October 1965, the comrades around the MILITANT correctly called on the Labour leaders and Government to take the full power into their hands, pointing out that the failure to do so could only help the tories and endanger the whole future of the movement. They wrote:
"We must tell the leadership of the Party that it must take one of two alternative courses. The first is voluntarily to limit itself to working for reform within the capitalist framework. At this juncture, after the peak of the boom, this will in practise mean witholding reforms, and passing to counter-reforms. The price of maintaining capitalism will be unemployment, lower wages, eventually fascism and war. The other alternative is to use the parliamentary majority to put Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution into practise, to pass an Enabling Act giving the Government emergency powers to nationalize the banks, the insurance companies, the land and the 400 monopolies that dominate the British economy, mobilizing all sections of the British population behind it in the C L Ps, the trade unions, the shop-stewards committees, the Co-ops and new consumers’, technicians’, and small business men’s committees. A real national plan of production could then be worked out democratically after full discussion in these bodies, which could, on the basis of Britain’s tremendous wealth created by centuries of toil and sweat, immediately halve the working day and double the standard of living. This should be combined with an appeal to the workers all over the world to take similar steps so that an international plan could be undertaken.
If the Labour leaders took these bold steps, making every effort to confront the population with the real issues, on television, in expropriated space in the press, and in free Government bulletins, the mass of the population would swing into support of them…"
This method of posing the alternatives was absolutely correct. It has pointed out that because of the vast industrial strength and potential of the Labour Party, the Labour Government could use its Parliamentary majority to pass an Enabling Bill giving it emergency powers to implement Clause IV.
The irony is that, at the time this was written, the ideas expressed received comparatively little support within the Labour Party or Movement. The idea that the Government should give itself full powers against the employers and bankers seemed unnecessary to many at the time. It seemed that the Government already had enough power. At that time, it was not necessary for Ministers to try and re-assure the Party that they were not being dictated to by bankers or organized business. Few people thought they were. "Gradualist" hopes — based on the "Parliamentary" illusion that power was in the hands of the elected representatives of the people – were still holding strong. Things are not the same today.
Yet it is precisely today that the MILITANT comrades have abandoned their position. They say that in October 1965 the Labour Government could have introduced a socialist programme, whereas now it could not, even if it wanted to.
We agree that in October 1965 the Labour Government could have introduced a socialist programme. But this was not because of the "high morale" in the Labour Party or the "opinion poll" popularity of the Government. It was simply because of the strength and confidence of the organized working class, a potential strength which is available to a Labour Government (and not to a Tory or Liberal Government) because of the trade-union structure of the Labour Party. And this strength, the power and the willingness for action of the working class, is greater now than it was then.
For that reason it is absurd to say that the Labour Government "could not" mobilize the movement which supports them to take full power. They just do not want to, and there’s an end to it. In that respect fighting the rising militancy within "their own" organizations, they
resemble the Mensheviks and S-Rs who headed the Soviet apparatus prior to October 1917. The demand for power is not less "realistic" now than in 1965, but more so. Not only was there less industrial militancy in 1965. There were widespread illusions then, among
sections of the trade unions and Labour Party, that by gaining the Parliamentary majority they had already gained full power. It is only now that the movement is instinctively realizing that the power has still to be taken.
But even today there are many workers who accept that the Labour Government has "full power". It serves the Tories to cultivate this myth. Their line is even that the Labour Government is "dictating" against the private sector. The myth enables the capitalists who back the Tories to throw the whole blame for the economic policies of their own making back upon "socialism" and the Labour Government. It is this kind of trick that Lenin called "the selfish class-lie of the capitalists". According to the Tories and their allies, Labour has had full power for a number of years — yet has achieved no results in its efforts to end "stop-go" or cure the ills of the economy. Its "planning" has come to nothing. Socialism does not work, and is indeed the cause of the country’s drift towards economic ruin. Lenin fought just such a "class-lie" in the months before 1917 — the assertion that the Soviets already had full power and yet "they could not obtain any satisfactory results in their campaign against economic ruin".
In the above lines (in "Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?") Lenin quotes one Bazarov, a Menshevik, who thinks the Soviets have had "full power" all along and made a mess of everything (his conclusion being that "All Power to the Soviets" is a ridiculous slogan). Lenin’s reply is of invaluable use to ourselves:
"Now, really, to speak of the Soviets as having had anywhere in Russia, at any time, ‘full power’, is simply absurd (if it is not a mere repetition of the selfish class-lie of the capitalists). Full power means power over the whole land, over all the banks, all the factories; a man but slightly acquainted with historical experience, with scientific data concerning the connection between politics and economics, could not have ‘forgotten’ this ‘slight’ circumstance.
The lying method of the bourgeoisie consists in this, that, while refusing to give the Soviets power, sabotaging every one of their serious attempts, keeping the government in their own hands, holding power over the land and banks and so on, they yet throw all the blame for the economic ruin on the Soviets! It is just this that forms the whole deplorable experience of the coalition.
The Soviets never had full power, and their measures so far could yield nothing but palliatives and further entanglements".
Just so. To speak of the Labour Government as having had at any time in Britain "full power"
is simply absurd, or else a repetition of the deliberate class-lie of the Tories. Full power means power over the whole economy, over all the land, all the banks, all the factories. The lying method of the capitalists is this, that while refusing to give the Labour Government power, sabotaging its (admittedly feeble) attempts at planning, keeping the state power in their own hands, holding power over finance and industry and so on, they yet throw all the blame for the "drift towards economic ruin" on the Labour Government! It is just this that forms the whole ‘deplorable experience’ of the attempt to collaborate with these people. The Labour Government never had full power, and its measures so far could yield nothing but palliatives and, as Lenin would have put it, "further entanglements" and utter confusion for the masses. That is why we demand that the Labour Government make use of its industrial power-base in
the trade union movement and take into its own hands the industrial and financial power of this country. In this demand we have the will of thousands of the most loyal Labour trade-unionists behind us.
Objections to the policy and slogan.
1. The Labour Party cannot be compared with the Soviet. The Soviet was an organ of direct workers’ democracy, the most perfect workers’ organization 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 idealized 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 B.C. to "take the power" while this same E.C. 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 counter-revolution. 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".
Far from thinking of the Soviets as "pure" democratic workers’ organizations, Lenin at this point felt that the Soviets 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 counter-revolution 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 counter-revolution and the treachery of the present Soviets."
In the same article ("On Slogans "s Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol 25 Moscow 1964 pp 189-90) 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, i.e. 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."
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 Governments not the Soviet B.C., 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 the 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 Ten 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 counter- revolution behind the peoples’ 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 counter-revolutionary 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 out-lived 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 organized 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 — i.e. 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 N.E.C. and the T.U.C., 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 T.U.C. 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 organization, 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.
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’ organizations and no-where 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 organizers 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 seventeenth-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 no-where 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 petit-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 Parliaments 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 realized 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 organized 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 M Ps, 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 organizations 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 organizations of the British working class are quite capable, in a revolutionary or pre- revolutionary situation, of breaking out of their Parliamentary straight-jacket, 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 re-constituting the Labour Government on the basis of workers’ power.
1. F. Engels, Socialism: Utopian & Scientific, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, p 123.
2. L. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, Pioneer Publishers, New York, pp 50-51.
3. F. Engels, op, cit., p 120.
4. L. Trotsky, The Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, Socialist Labour League, London 1965, p 233
5. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Victor Gollancz, London 1965, p 233.
6. Ibid. p 265.
7. Ibid. p 385.
8. Ibid. p233.
9. Ibid. p 234-235.
10. Ibid. p 177. 11. Ibid. p372. 12. Ibid. p 373.
13. Ibid. p 187.
14. Ibid. p 439.
15. Ibid. p 578.
16. Ibid. p 226.
17. Ibid. p 237.
18. VILenin On Britain, 2nd Impression, Moscow, pp 543-544.
19. Ibid. p 459.
20. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution , p 817. 21.7^. pl021.
22. V I Lenin, Will the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? Little Lenin Library, Vol 12, International Publishing Co. N Y 1932, p 18.
23. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p 526.
24. Ibid. p 575.
25. Ibid. p 816.
26. Ibid. p 817.