Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Redux: A debate with an anarchist on the 1917 Russian revolution

‎"What a great moral influence strikes have, how they affect workers who see that their comrades have ceased to be slaves and, if only for the time being, have become people on an equal footing with the rich! Every strike brings thoughts of socialism very forcibly to the worker’s mind, thoughts of the struggle of the entire working class for emancipation from the oppression of capital. It has often happened that before a big strike the workers of a certain factory or a certain branch of industry or of a certain town knew hardly anything and scarcely ever thought about socialism; but after the strike, study circles and associations become much more widespread among them and more and wore workers become socialists." - V.I. Lenin, "On Strikes"
I posted the foregoing quote on Facebook and immediately received a comment from one of my anarchist-leaning friends that this was ironic because Lenin had "made strikes illegal in Russia starting in 1918."

The following debate enabled me to put some scattered thoughts down about the Russian revolution which I wanted to put down here as well, for posterity's sake, and because it helped me clarify my own ideas in the process. So, here's what I wrote (slightly edited):

I'm curious where you get that information from? From what I've read/heard, strikes were not completely made illegal in Russia until the late-1920s/30s. The anarchist Emma Goldman even talks about the strikes she witnessed in Moscow, Petrograd, and elsewhere when she was in Russia in 1920-1. Certainly some of these strikes were vehemently opposed by the Soviet government, for a number of reasons, but other of these strikes were settled on terms favorable to the striking workers (something which Goldman smugly extols in these writings). [See]

[Also, see this document from 1920 which summarizes Russian labor laws at that time -]

I recommend reading "Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory," by Kevin Murphy which documents the strikes, work stoppages, and job actions which occurred in one of the lagrest factories in Moscow between 1917 and the 1930s. It shows the evolving relations between the workers, the Soviet government, and the Communist Party, as the revolution decayed during the 20's and 30's.

There is no doubt that the Russian workers' government was becoming more and more corrupted throughout the period of Civil War and the 1920s (NEP, etc). Workers and peasants suffered privations, to be sure, owing to Russia's economic poverty, international isolation and economic blockade, and vicious civil war against bourgeois counter-revolution.

Nonetheless, workers and unions in Russia still maintained essential control over production until the mid-1920s or so. Here is a really good piece I translated from the original French on the question of workers' control of production in revolutionary Russia -

Also, if you're interested, here's a great piece written in 1922 by the American revolutionary and leading original member of the IWW, "Big" Bill Haywood. Haywood was then living in Russia and was working with the unions there (alongside Lenin) as part of the Soviet government. Here he responds to many of Emma Goldman's criticisms -

Before Stalin, the question of the trade unions in relation to both the working-class as a whole and the representative workers' Soviets in particular was hotly debated within the Russian Communist Party. However, the clearest statement comes from the Tenth Party Congress in 1921, which is interesting in that Lenin argues that the trade unions in Russia must remain independent of the government and must continue to act as the protectors and defenders of the workers' interests both within the workplace and, as need be, against the increasingly bureucratized government itself.

For instance, see - and
"Trade unions are not just historically necessary; they are historically inevitable as an organisation of the industrial proletariat, and, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, embrace nearly the whole of it.... It follows from what I have said that the trade unions have an extremely important part to play at every step of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But what is their part? I find that it is a most unusual one, as soon as I delve into this question, which is one of the most fundamental theoretically. On the one hand, the trade unions, which take in all industrial workers, are an organisation of the ruling, dominant, governing class, which has now set up a dictatorship and is exercising coercion through the state. But it is not a state organisation; nor is it one designed for coercion, but for education. It is an organisation designed to draw in and to train; it is, in fact, a school: a school of administration, a school of economic management, a school of communism. It is a very unusual type of school, because there are no teachers or pupils; this is an extremely unusual combination of what has necessarily come down to us from capitalism, and what comes from the ranks of the advanced revolutionary detachments, which you might call the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat. To talk about the role of the trade unions without taking these truths into account is to fall straight into a number of errors." - Lenin, 1920
At this point, my friend retorts: 
Well I definitely can't respond with any thing as comprehensive as this. I'm no expert on the Russian Revolution, but I think I've got a pretty good grasp on it so I will try to keep up.

There were many strikes and insurrections in Russia after the revolution. Why wouldn't there be? The state took over the means of production and paid out piecemeal wages. Workers still created value for capital, the basic economic relationship was still M-C-M, so of course class struggle continued between the workers and new owner state (Lenin referred to the Soviet Union as state capitalism positively as early as 1918 and in this, at least, he was right).

Stikes were, however, made illegal in 1918 as part of Lenin's War Communism economic plan. This is simply fact, you can look it up. The policy went as far as to specify that any striker could be shot.

Surely I don't have to stress that what politicians say does not necessarily translate to what they mean or do? A huge impetus for Lenin's strategic support of unions was that they were bureaucratic and controllable, as opposed to the factory committees that, before the revolution existed in the vast majority of factories in Moscow and Petrograd (and whose model was used in smaller soviets and agrarian committees, who they federated with quite effectively). Lenin wished to see the committees integrated into the more controllable, less spontaneous and certainly less communist trade unions. He succeeded in this, returning one man management where the workers had collectivized, de-equalizing wages where they had voted to equalize them, etc. etc.

I could find hundreds of Lenin quotes that are great out quotes that I totally agree with out of context (I could probably do the same with Barack Obama 2008 campaign), nearly all of them come from the April Theses and State and Revolution, two texts written while Lenin was trying to win the favor of militant workers in the factory committees, local, smaller soviets and the agrarian committees (who collectivized 70% of farm land before Lenin symbolically passed land reform!) Lenin even went as far, in 1917, to say that factory committees should be the "organs of insurrection" and alluded to their being the social unit of a new communist order. A month later, when the Bolsheviks won control of Petrograd and Moscow soviets (basically assuring their rise to power), he completely abandoned his support for the committees, who he no longer needed. The moment he gained power he began the task of deconstructing them. A huge part of this was shifting focus to the more conservative trade unions. But once power was consolidated enough for Lenin to pass War Communism, even striking was made illegal (unions were not).

My favorite piece on the subject is this pamphlet. I think its useful because it is truly worker centric, equally critical of anarchists and party communists.
Then I, again: 

I tried to look up the (il)legality of strikes in 1917-20 and could not find anything. maybe you're more adept at google than i am or something, but i can't find this 'fact' anywhere. also, the pamphlet you link to makes no mention of this except to have one quote from Trotsky in 1919 in which he expressed the opinion that there should be no strikes in Russia, but then goes on to say that Lenin did indeed recognize the right to strike ...

i do seem to remember at one point reading something in an anarchist publication that attributed a quote to Lenin (maybe it was in 1918) where he said something to the effect of shooting any striking worker, but there was no citation for the quote, and i was unable to find it anywhere in his collected writings ...

Then he, once more: 
Sorry, the pamphlet was more in response to the nature of Lenin's lip service to unions and applying a healthy skepticism given the political conditions for that support.

Well, th
ere are not many available documents on War Communism on the internet so we are at a bit of a stalemate here. If you search "war communism strikes made illegal" there are countless sites that reference it, but none with any English translated documents. The source on the Wikipedia article is in French, perhaps you could find it!

I hope you don't view me as a belligerent anarchist partisan in this argument. Anarchist did almost as little for the Russian revolution as socialists. The only difference is that they did not actively dismantle the progress that the workers made on their own. All the great successes of the Russian Revolution were made by mostly non-partisan workers and peasants organized in militant, federated committees and soviets, whose revolutionary activity spawned from their own class interests.

I guess I just don't understand why, if you are going to post a quote about the effectiveness and beauty of strikes, you don't choose from one of the millions of militant participants in strikes throughout history, rather than the middle class intellectual socialists who try to co-opt them.
Finally, I conclude:

Yes, I see that the wikipedia article makes mention that part of War Communism was that "strikers could be shot," which itself is a quite ambiguous statement. Anyway, the citation for this is: Nicolas Werth, "Histoire de l'Union Soviétique de Lénine à Staline," 1995. I will definitely try to get my hands on a copy of this book, but I will tell you I am already skeptical about the validity of this because Werth is a notoriously pathological anti-communist and apologist for capitalism who equates communism (not Stalinism, but communism) with Nazism. he thinks capitalism is a great form of democracy and wants to paint socialism as inherently tyrannical. i really can't stand academic intellectuals like him who get paid handsomely to publish books defending capitalism and trying to depict every historical socialist movement as a form of inchoate fascism. [See for more info on Werth].

ultimately, we just differ in our appraisal of the russian revolution, the bolsheviks, and lenin's role. i just happen to agree with lenin's whole approach to what it takes to win a succesful revolution over the ruling class (russia of 1917 was, after all, the only time in history we've so far seen the working class actually overthrow -- not just resist -- the rule of the bourgeoisie in a nation and replace it with a totally different form of workers' government based on socialized production under workers' control).

the bolsheviks spent decades fighting against Tsarist repression, organizing strikes, unions, protests, and were the only major political force in pre-1917 Russia to consistently oppose and expose the capitalist class through-and-through. this is why lenin was so popular amongst the workers of Russia (which is quite indisputable).

i think lenin has some of the most powerful statements in the revolutionary tradition exposing every filthy aspect of capitalist society; talking about the need for workers to collectively rise up and free themselves from oppression & exploitation; the need for workers to actively oppose racism, xenophobia, and oppression within the working class; criticizing the reformist socialists who want to compromise with the capitalist class rather than wage a ruthless struggle to overthrow them.

it was lenin and the bolsheviks who were quite alone in pre-revolutionary russia in arguing that socialists ought to not only focus on building the struggle around economic issues within the labor movement, but must also act as "the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.... Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected." []

and these were not just words. the bolsheviks did this in practice. and they won. you forget to mention that the context of War Communism was precisely the Soviet government waging a protracted, ruthless Civil War against the the former capitalist class and its armies who wanted to crush the workers' revolution and exact vengeance upon the masses for daring to overthrow them.

you say that there are lenin quotes (or even obama quotes) which taken out of context you would support, and that may be true. but compare this speech (below) given by Lenin in December 1917 to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies with any speech ever given by Obama or any other reformist-capitalist politician. indeed, if obama ever gave a speech like this, i would vote for him in a heart-beat.
"The revolution of October 25 had shown the exceptional political maturity of the proletariat and its ability to stand firm in opposition to the bourgeoisie. The complete victory of socialism, however, would require a tremendous organizational effort filled with the knowledge that the proletariat must become the ruling class.

“The proletariat was faced with the tasks of transforming the state system on socialist lines, for no matter how easy it would be to cite arguments in favor of a middle course such a course would be insignificant, the country’s economic situation having reached a state that would rule out any middle course. There was no place left for half-measures in the gigantic struggle against imperialism and capitalism.

“The workers should and did understand this; this was obvious because they had rejected half-way, compromise decisions. The more profound the revolution, the greater the number of active workers required to accomplish the replacement of capitalism by a socialist machinery. Even if there were no sabotage, the forces of the petty bourgeoisie would be inadequate. The task was one that could be accomplished only by drawing on the masses, only by the independent activity of the masses.

“The illusion that only the bourgeoisie could run the state must be fought against. The proletariat must take the rule of the state upon itself.

“The tasks of organizing production devolved entirely on the working class. They should do away, once and for all, with the illusion that state affairs or the management of banks and factories were beyond the power of the workers. All this could be solved only by tremendous day-to-day organizational work.

“Every factory committee should concern itself not only with the affairs of its own factory, but should also be an organization nucleus helping arrange the life of the state as a whole. It is easy to issue a decree on the abolition of private property, but it must and could be implemented only by the workers themselves. Let there be mistakes—they would be the mistakes of a new class creating a new way of life.

“There was not and could not be a definite plan for the organization of economic life. Nobody could provide one. But it could be done from below, by the masses, through their experience. Instructions would, of course, be given and ways would be indicated, but it was necessary to begin simultaneously from above and from below." (Lenin, Complete Works, XXII, p. 125-127)
As we know, things in Russia did not quite ultimately work out this way, despite the revolutionary heroism and energy of the working class. But the historical significance of the Russian revolution and the crucial part played by the Russian Bolsheviks remains paramount. I agree with the assessment of the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg who wrote the following in 1918, shortly before her death at the hands of the German police:
"The Russian Revolution is the mightiest event of the World War.…

"Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western social democracy lacked were represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.…

"Everything that happens in Russia is comprehensible and represents an inevitable chain of causes and effects, the starting point and end term of which are: the failure of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism. It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy…

"The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity forced upon them by these fatal circumstances…and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.…

"What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks.…

"It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’

"This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘bolshevism.’" (

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