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Open Letter To The Portugese Revolution: A Reply

Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat – Revolutionary Brigades

Tony Cliff, a founding member of the ‘International Socialists’ published an ‘Open Letter to the Portuguese Revolution’ in ‘Socialist Worker‘ on October 11, 1975. In this letter he advises his Portuguese co-thinkers of the Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat – Revolutionary Brigades to concentrate on two main objectives:

1) to struggle for the creation of mass councils of workers and soldiers, and for the setting up of a central body representing all the councils in the country. This central council could become the revolutionary authority, entrenching and establishing a new society.

2) to direct their efforts towards the creation of a mass revolutionary party, to function within the workers and soldiers’ councils, fighting off the reformist tendencies and guiding the councils on a permanently revolutionary course.

These two proposals are identical with Lenin’s tactics of 1917., The fact that in Russia the councils were formed without the advice of the Bolsheviks is here beside the point. The real question concerns the relation between the councils and the revolutionary party. In Russia Lenin advocated the slogan ‘All power to the Councils’ as the main weapon for overthrowing the Kerensky government. At the same time the Bolsheviks tried to win over the workers and soldiers represented in the councils. Eventually the Bolsheviks achieved a majority within certain councils and wielded the authority of these councils to carry out the October revolution. However, once the old regime was overthrown the Bolsheviks dropped the policy of ‘All power to the Councils’, adopting instead a policy which ensured all power to the Bolshevik Party. As early as November 1917 Soviets were dissolved if of the ‘wrong’ political complexion. Nor was this surprising. Had not Lenin, two months earlier, stressed ‘our Party, like every other political party, is striving to secure political domination for itself‘. (Selected Works, vol.6, p.209).

Leninists tend to gloss over this fundamental political issue. They refuse to declare openly to the rest of the revolutionary movement that if they had to choose between ‘All power to the Councils’ and ‘All power to the party’ they would opt unhesitatingly for the latter. It is one thing to wield influence through being a major groups within the councils, while political authority remains vested in the councils themselves. It is another matter to use the council system merely as a means to achieve a majority, and to destroy it when this aim has been achieved. The Leninist policy towards the council system deliberately evades a discussion of (and commitment to) the council system in post-revolutionary society.

The Leninists specifically refuse to give a clear answer to the following questions:

1) What do they consider the role of the councils to be after a victorious revolution? Are the councils to be the institutions ,of decision-making in every aspect of social life, including all political decisions? Or are they merely to control the implementation of economic decisions taken by the Central Committee of the revolutionary party?

2) Are the Leninists committed to uphold the council system (in a post-revolutionary society) if they find themselves in a minority within it? What will they do if the councils take decisions with which the Leninist party does not agree?

Lenin never committed himself on these issues. But when conflict between the Councils and the Bolsheviks emerged after the revolution his policies revealed the meaning of his earlier reticence. The slogan of ‘All power to the Bolshevik Party’ came to imply ‘Down with the Councils’ . The councils were first reduced to the role of supervisors of decisions taken by the party on matters relating to production. Decisions on issues like war (e.g. with Poland) were not considered to be a matter for the councils. Later, when the councils took decisions which conflicted with those of the party, the Leninists destroyed them.

Cliff knows this history, and this problem, very well. But he has not published a critique of Lenin’s attitude to the council system in post-revolution Russia. This implies that he endorses it.

The question which revolutionaries must put, before a revolution, to Leninists who advocate the council system is:. ‘Are you ready to commit yourself to support the council system and its role of supreme decision-making authority in all social matters after the revolution too? And, if the answer is positive, ‘What is your critique of Lenin’s policies on this issue?’.


Solidarity: For Workers’ Power, Vol. 8, No. 3 (December 1975), pp. 24-25


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