Posts Tagged ‘Lenin’

Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (Introduction) by Hilary Wainwright

January 20, 2013 1 comment

The following post is the introduction (written by Hilary Wainwright) from the book Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism. Although originally printed in 1979, this is from the second edition “revised and enlarged”. The foreword and acknowledgements are already available on Libcom. By posting this introduction I hope to commit myself to post the rest of the book in installments, I will mostly be working on the scanning on Sundays and will post on Libcom once complete.

I’m going to go ahead and post the blurb before the introduction…

This is the most sustained argument for a reappraisal on the left of all its traditions that has yet to come out of the women’s movement in Britain. It is written by three women who have been active in both feminist and socialist politics. Whether from the experience of Leninist organizations, or of libertarian politics, each writer analyses the problems and contradictions of her own personal background.

The women’s movement not only suggests different ways of organizing for socialist politics, but also critically questions the way the left has integrated the insights of the women’s movement and confronted its own reproduction of authoritarian and hierarchical structures. The authors argue not just for a rhetorical acceptance of feminism, but for a redefinition of priorities, a new approach to theory and consciousness, and for an open and searching examination of past and present forms of organisation.

They do not offer ‘answers’ – indeed their distinct concern and emphases would make that impossible – but instead hope that their ideas will be discussed amongst socialist and feminists involved in a wide range of activities and hope that through their effort other people will be encouraged to speak their mind and communicate their understanding.

By Louis Mackay

By Louis Mackay


Hilary Wainwright

After a decade of intense socialist agitation, more working-class people than ever in post-war years voted Tory at the last election. At the same time, fewer people than at any election since 1931 voted for the Labour Party. It seems then that as far as the mass influence of socialist politics is concerned, not only have we a long way to go, but in one respect at least we have not been moving forwards.

Of course, the way people vote does not sum up their consciousness. Many of those who did not vote Labour will undoubtedly have been active in militant strikes and demonstrations over the last few months. And a low vote for the Callaghan government was more indicative of the crisis facing the Labour Party than the failure of socialist agitation. But when the reactionary rhetoric of Tory ‘freedom’ can evoke such a groundswell of working-class support, socialists need to ask a few questions about our inability to translate the awareness of a vanguard of socialist activists in to any lasting change in mass consciousness. The inability applies both to socialists organized through the Labour Party and, in a different way to socialists organized in Leninist parties.

The flaw which they have in common is that they both are organized in ways more appropriate to seizing power – governmental power and state power respectively – than to the necessary preliminaries of raising and extending socialist consciousness and grass-roots organization among the majority of working people. In the former case the priorities of the electoral machine, the overriding imperative of retaining or gaining parliamentary/council power tends to suppress political debate and inhibit political involvement in industrial and social struggles. In the latter case, the pretensions and disciplines of democratic centralism tend to produce an arrogance and sectarianism which make the Leninist groups unable to contribute to and encourage the many sources of socialist initiative and activity. The Communist Party too has its own version of organizing for power before organizing to change consciousness, in its desire for trade union positions often at the cost of challenging the apathy and conservatism still prevalent on the shop floor.

We feel that the women’s movement has, at the very least, raised the consciousness, and encouraged the self-organization of thousands of women. In doing so it has also begun to challenge relations of power. If the left is to achieve the change in consciousness and the growth in self-organization which is a condition for resolving the problem of power, then there is much that socialists can learn from the women’s movement’s values and ways of organizing. For we cannot just put the problems down to ‘objective conditions’ like socialists tended to during the boom years of the fifties and sixties. In many ways objective conditions have never made socialism seem so necessary and so achievable. Capitalism’s self-justification as the natural means of meeting human needs and expanding human possibilities seems more obviously groundless than ever, with every structure of the economy out of joint with human needs (not just the ‘declining’ sections of industry as in the thirties). Health services are short of money while private corporations keep millions in ‘deferred’ – unpaid – tax; thousands are homeless with building workers on the dole; millions are spent on the technology of defence while cheap heating, nurseries, aids to the handicapped, preventive medicine, public transport systems, etc., still remain primitive; and so the list goes on, touching on everyone’s day-to-day experience. In such conditions the possibility of producing for need rather than profit, of planning production by working people rather than by the civil service or the corporations should seem more relevant than ever. Moreover, the means – or at least the groundwork – for achieving such a society, the organizations created by working people themselves, have grown in numbers and, with occasional setbacks, in strength, as the crisis has deepened. It’s not like the thirties when a socialist vision was there – whatever criticisms we may now make of it – but the strength was lacking. Not only have the traditional workers’ organizations, so far, retained their grass-roots strength but also oppressed groups which were previously passive or angry in isolation, women, gays, blacks and youth, have become militant and organized.

Why Go Beyond The Fragments?

Our concern in writing this book is with the forms of organization necessary to develop socialist consciousness out of this grass-roots industrial and social strength. Perhaps this concern in itself needs some justification. ‘Why go beyond the fragments?’ radical feminists, syndicalists and others might ask. After all, they might say, socialist organizations have not been spectacularly successful in fighting against inequality, arbitrary power, exploitation, racial, sexual and other forms of oppression. A wider political organization, they might add, blunts the power of the autonomous movements. Their conclusion is that the best chance of success for each movement is through the direct exertion of their own power.

There might be some logic in this if all the inequalities and sources of exploitation and oppression which the women’s movement, the trade union movement, the black movement, etc., are up against were separate, unconnected to each other. If workers were simply up against bosses, women up against the sexual division of labour and sexist culture, blacks against racial repression and discrimination, with no significant connection between these forms of oppression, no state power linking and overseeing the institutions concerned, then strong independent movements would be enough. But it is precisely the connections between these sources of oppression, both through the state and through the organization of production and culture, which makes such a piecemeal solution impossible.

For example, consider all the connections which lie behind the demands of the women’s movement. To win these demands there would have to be a massive shift from corporate profits to socially useful facilities (nurseries, abortion, day-care facilities, and so on) and from defence expenditure to expenditure on health and education; there would have to be a radical reorganization of work and control over work, to provide men and women with full opportunities for childcare and leisure, without jeopardizing job prospects; there would have to be a democratization of health and education and of the media, among other things, if women’s needs were to be met. The list of all the wider ramifications of women’s liberation could be extended, but from this list alone it is clear that our demands challenge all the priorities of the present-and previous-governments. Moreover they challenge the vested interests of the armed forces, the big corporations and hierarchy of the civil service. Changes of this sort affect and concern all the other movements of oppressed people, workers, blacks, youth, and so on. Unless women’s demands are integrated with the needs of these other groups then it is unlikely that women’s demands will ever get the support necessary to take on the powerful vested interests they are up against. For example, without incessant argument for an alternative which meets the needs of all oppressed and exploited groups, trade unionists in the private sector will see our demands for more social expenditure as a threat to their jobs; council house tenants will see our demands as competition for scarce resources, and so on.

So one problem is that of drawing up a common programme of political and social change, meeting the needs of all oppressed groups, and arguing for it among each group. The other problem is that of gathering together all the different sources of strength, uniting the social power of the community with the industrial power of those in production, and pitching this popular power against the existing state. This requires a strategy, based on the ideas and experiences of each movement, and drawing from the lessons of past struggles and from international experiences. The solution to these problems needs more than just ad hoc contact between the different movements. Neither is the merging of the movements any solution; there are good reasons for each movement preserving its autonomy, controlling its own organization. For women, blacks, trade unionists, gays, youth, and national minorities have specific interests which may sometimes be antagonistic to each other both now and probably in a socialist society. The solution lies in bringing together all those involved in the different movements and campaigns who agree on a wider programme of socialist change, based on the demands of the different movements in the context of organizing for social ownership and popular political power.

New Ways of Organizing

In organizational terms this could imply some sort of federal structure which provides a framework for united actions following from the fundamental principles on which revolutionaries could agree, for collective discussion of our differing experiences and traditions, and autonomy to take initiatives where tactical disagreements keep us apart. But this book is not about organizational prescriptions. It is rather intended to begin a discussion of the limits of traditional principles of revolutionary and social democratic organizations, in the light of the advances and insights made by recent movements, starting with the women’s liberation movement.

The method by which Sheila Rowbotham theorizes the problems of socialist organization is very different from that which has dominated discussions within and between left groups; though it is not hostile to these discussions. Her argument draws on a variety of past experiences of creating socialist organizations – including but not restricted to the Leninist tradition. It draws critically from the classic theorists of socialist organizations. But her central contribution is to theorize and give political credence to many of the organizational principles and insights of what most political organizations would treat as a ‘sectoral’ movement, of significance only within that ‘sector’.

Of course the struggles of the women’s movement are focused on a specific oppression: the oppression of women as a sex. But the women’s movement, like all other movements arising to resist a particular oppression, also has a wider significance for the way we organize as socialists. For every form of subordination suppresses vital understandings which can only be fully achieved and communicated through the liberation of the oppressed group itself. No ‘vanguard’ organization can truly anticipate these understandings. For example, no such organization had any real understanding of the subjectivity of oppression, of the connections between personal relations and public political organization, or of the emotional components of consciousness, until the women’s movement had brought these issues to the surface and made them part of political thought and action.

If a revolutionary movement is to be truly able to encourage, develop and guide the self-activity and the organized power of the oppressed then it must be able to learn from and contribute to these understandings. It must be organized in a way which can bring them together into a vision of socialist transformation. To a very large extent socialist politics should derive, and at times has derived, its main content from these understandings. But one reason why socialism has become so sterile and dead to most working class people in the post-war years is because it has not, until recently, become open to the understandings arrived at through the movements of oppressed groups and classes. The debates of political parties have, until the late sixties, tended to be seen as ‘above’ the concerns of specific movements, except insofar as an item might be added to a programme. In relation to this, Sheila quotes Fernando Claudin, who, in his book on Eurocommunism, pointed to this tendency in the Communist Party and other left parties:

to regard political action as a private reserve and to try and restrict other organizations-the trade unions, organs of grassroots democracy, the women’s movement, etc.-each to their own ‘specific problems’, preventing them from taking initiatives in relation to general questions.

In the past five years or so some process of learning and dialogue has gone on within the political organizations. But in general it has been limited to the specific ‘sectoral’ concerns of each movement. Fernando Claudin’s description still applies. For example, revolutionary organizations will readily admit that they’ve learnt about sexism through the women’s movement, racism through black organizations, etc. But when it comes to developing the principles of revolutionary politics, the principles or organizing which seek to overthrow capitalism as a whole, this has traditionally been the internal concern and monopoly of formally political organizations. Such a view had some justification at the time of mass socialist or communist parties as in Europe in the 1900s and the 1920s, when the vast majority of socialist activists in the various social and industrial movements, for example the shop stewards’ movements of that time, were also members of mass political parties. In these conditions the developments within the movements would have a direct political expression, and an influence on the shape of the political organization. New political initiatives and sometimes new political organizations would arise from debates and sometimes splits would be stimulated by the movements, but occurring from within these parties.

By contrast, one reason why socialists now have to make a much more conscious effort to theorize the understandings of these movements is because we do not have such a close relation to a mass socialist party. On the contrary, we are now faced with creating a socialist organization not primarily through debates, struggles and splits within existing parties (although that will be an important part of the process especially in relation to the Labour Party), but through the coming together of socialists based in the various ‘sectoral’ movements, the majority of whom are not members of any political party. For the radicalization which took place in the late sixties occurred against the background of a virtual political vacuum and a real discontinuity in the influence of the traditional workers’ parties, the Labour Party especially. The conditions of the boom were one factor: militant industrial organizations had grown accustomed to gaining partial victories without any active involvement in the Labour Party. And when the Labour Party returned to office it became so quickly integrated into the capitalist state, and the Labour left showed so little sign of activity that industrial militants, plus the new movements of students, women, and black organizations, were quickly thrown onto their own resources.

In this situation the women’s movement, solidarity movements with international struggles, many shop stewards’ combines or local action committees, the anti-fascist movement, theatre groups, alternative newspapers, militant tenants, squatters and community groups have themselves become a political focus. That is to say, the vast majority of people who became socialists – through many different routes – after the boom, tended to concentrate their energies on activities and organizations directly concerned with their own lives, experiences and skills. Many briefly passed through, worked with, or eclectically drew on the activities and ideas of the revolutionary groups (the IS and IMG especially). And these groups have at different times been very important catalysts and educators. But only a small minority of socialists have found either these groups, or for different reasons the Communist Party or Labour Party, to be an adequate political framework. The rest have applied and developed their socialism in more specific areas of struggle, building up ideas on broader ways of organizing from these limited and often localized experiences.

By pointing to the present strength of these fragmented working-class activities we do not want to imply that these are timelessly superior to a co-ordinated national organization. As Lynne describes later in this book, there are serious limits to, for example, isolated local organizations. She explores the question of organizing from her experience of the efforts of libertarian Marxists and anarchists to form non-hierarchical networks in the early 1970s. She shows the similarities and interconnections between libertarianism and some aspects of the women’s movement in this period. Both movements shared a basic openness to tackling dilemmas which faced people in their everyday life. She traces the development of these politics in the area of London in which she lives, through women’s centres and the Islington Gutter Press, which has shown itself to be among the most resilient and popular of the local papers which sprang up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such accounts of local radical activity are vital. Unrecorded they disappear even from the recent political memory.

Nonetheless, after spending eight years within the local movement of Islington radicalism she has become very aware of the real vulnerability and limitations inherent both in women’s community activity and indeed of an isolated localism which lacks political links to activity elsewhere. This slow but growing realization was behind her decision to join a small nationally-based group, Big Flame, last year.

At a more general level it is also obvious that the National Front could never have been so effectively challenged if it had not been for the national focus and leadership the Socialist Workers Party, as well as members of other organizations, in the Anti-Nazi League. Most industrial struggles, whether against government wage restraint or closures in a multi-plant company, require national – if not international – co-ordination. The women’s movement derives strength and support from being international as well. A mass socialist newspaper – which perhaps Socialist Worker or Women’s Voice could become if they were more open to rank and file organizations and less party recruitment papers – and a paper for the left, like Socialist Challenge, clearly require national co-ordination. And looking into the longer term, a revolutionary movement will only succeed through the overthrow of the national state machinery and its international supports. What I would suggest though is that in creating the wide network of links which make up a political rather than single issue movement, the local impetus will at this stage be crucial. When a new movement is not emerging only as a split from an existing, cohesive political party, people will tend to build these wider links with people they know and trust; and they will do so in ways that are close to their own experience. This will tend to mean that the possibilities in the localities, of going beyond the fragments, of creating the foundations of a revolutionary movement, will for a time be far greater than on a national level.

We have had occasional glimpses of what such alliances could be: a means of exchanging the understandings arrived at by different movements – industrial militants, for example, contributing their sharp sense of the material sources of working-class power, that flows from a detailed knowledge of how production is organized, or feminists challenging the competitive ego-tripping and ego-trampling arrogance which still erodes the collective strength and democracy of many trade union and socialist organizations (it afflicts feminist organizations too sometimes but at least we’re very conscious of the problem); a forum for political debate and discussion through which the truths and weaknesses of different traditions can be sifted and tested in relation to the contemporary problems; a focus for socialist culture and ideas, and a resource centre for organizing campaigns and struggles. It was partly from a desire to build on and improve on these beginnings that we decided to write this book.

The Insights of Feminism

In the three contributions which make up this book we discuss some of the difficulties which need to be overcome to create such a democratic, and united – albeit loosely – socialist organization out of those involved in all the fragmented movements, campaigns and political groups in which socialists are involved. We have written it because we feel the experiences of the women’s liberation movement have much to contribute to overcome the problems which hold back the growth of such an organization.

The women’s movement, arising as it does to resist an oppression which comes from inequalities of power and confidence in interpersonal relations, and from a hierarchical division of labour, has been intensely sensitive and self-conscious about inequality and hierarchy in the creating of its organizational forms. In this process the women’s movement has made important insights which are directly relevant to how we organize as socialists. Moreover, again because of the form of oppression which it confronts, the women’s movement has radically extended the scope of its politics and, with this, has changed who is involved in politics and how. Much of the oppression of women takes place ‘in private’, in areas of life considered ‘personal’. The causes of that oppression are social and economic, but these causes could only be revealed and confronted when women challenged the assumptions of their personal life, of who does the housework, of the way children are brought up, the quality of our friendships, even the way we make love and with whom. These were not normally the subject of politics. Yet these are the problems of everyday life, the problems about which women talk most to other women (and about which many men would talk more if they could). When the women’s movement made these issues part of socialist politics, it began to break down the barriers which have kept so many people, especially women, out of politics. Before the women’s movement, socialist politics, like all other sorts of politics, seemed something separate from everyday life, something unconnected with looking after children, worrying about the meals and the housework, finding ways of enjoying yourself with your friends, and so on. It was something professional, for men, and among men, for the shop steward or the party activist. The activities of the women’s movement have begun to change that as far as women are concerned. But it’s meant a different way of organizing, a way of organizing which does not restrict political activity to, ‘the professional’.

The insights of the women’s movement then do not simply concern the issue of ‘sexism’ in a socialist organization. They could contribute in general ways to creating a more democratic, more truly popular and more effective socialist movement than was possible before.

Answering the Criticisms

Since we produced the first edition of this book the issues raised have been debated at many meetings and taken up in reviews. We have received a large number of letters, more requests to speak than we can possibly manage and been involved in lengthy discussions.

In response to the first edition of Beyond the Fragments a lot of people would say, ‘It’s all very nice your talk of the need for a socialist organization that can both allow for the open expression of conflict between different groups and develop the particular understandings which these differences bring to socialism, but you don’t really say anything practical about getting there!’ That’s a true comment but there are good reasons. First, our limited experiences do not give us the grounds for confidence to arrive at such general practical conclusions. Secondly, we question the idea that you can really only step into the debate about political organization when you have a general solution, a clear way forward. There would never have been a women’s movement at all if we had accepted this approach. Often the inadequacies of traditional ways of organizing initially become apparent through very specific experiences. It is important that these are expressed and reflected on, partial though they be. If change and innovation to cope with new conditions, new problems had to wait for a new masterplan (or mistressplan for that matter!) the old ways would become ossified and there would be little chance of change. So we have written from our common experiences in the women’s movement and from the interaction of these experiences with our other particular involvements in revolutionary groups, in local socialist newspapers and socialist centres and in work with other working-class organizations. We have written in the hope that others would complete, develop or modify the picture from their different experiences; and that maybe out of that process would come a clearer way forward.

The discussions we have had since the first edition have not changed our view of these necessary limits of what we are doing. But they have made us see the need, first, to be more explicit about the general political assumptions behind our discussion of the insights of the women’s movement; secondly, to draw out more practically the general political directions in which our conclusions tend. Thirdly, we have become aware of the need to move outside arguments which are only about the revolutionary left, the women’s movement or local community politics and tackle the wider context of labour politics. So in ‘Moving Beyond the Fragments’ I try to draw together .some of the developments on the extra-parliamentary left and consider their relationship to the Labour Party and the contribution feminism has made and would make to them.

There has also been criticism that in Beyond the Fragments we did not discuss the nature of the state. We do not make it clear whether we think socialists should aiming to control it, change it, overthrow it and what will be our alternative. A full discussion of this requires several volumes! All we can do is make clear our basic assumptions.

The Women’s Movement and the State

The women’s movement has come repeatedly into conflict with the state. The force of the police has been used against for instance the ‘Miss World’ demonstrators in the early seventies; against women picketing during strikes, Irish women, Astrid Proll, ‘Reclaim the Night’ marchers. But on the whole, the areas of struggle have been around male-dominated definitions of the law, e.g., in relation to lesbian mothers and rape, and around the every day and apparently benign aspects of state power, some of which Lynne and Sheila describe – for example, conflict over social security, child benefit, for nursery provision against the attitudes in medical institutions toward women’s bodies and minds. In contesting the law women have been challenging important areas of power behind the ‘common sense’ of male-dominated capitalism. In demanding control over welfare, which because of women’s position in the family is such an immediate concern, the women’, movement has focused on an old problem for socialists. Socialists have tended to either emphasize the need to strike at the directly coercive force of the state or, obversely, to make demands as if the state were a neutral force. The women’s movements has been part of a new recognition which the welfare state has made possible. First, that we need the gains made by the working class and the feminist movements of the past. Secondly, that the existence of the gains makes possible new forms of resistance in which we can fight for control over welfare. Thirdly, that no improvement is ever finally ‘achieved’. For within a capitalist society, the original radical intention can be channelled or transposed into quite different purposes. For example, welfare networks can accumulate a considerable amount of information which is sometimes used against people. When the economic tide turns no legal or social gain are secure.

The practice of the women’s movement points toward the need for an understanding of how we are faced not simply with a coercive state with a military machine which we must destroy, but also with the complex ramifications of the law and welfare, and intervention in industry and the economy, in which movements of opposition to capitalism have established a certain-albeit limited-presence. This continuing process of everyday contestation is a crucial factor in weighting the balance of forces within capitalist society. To say this is not to argue that the making of socialism will not come up against coercion, but that struggle in areas in which the state power appears to many people to be legitimate is equally important. The women’s movement has contributed towards challenging how this legitimacy is defined – for example, in questioning the dominant notion of the family in social policy. It has also begun to search for forms of resistance which acknowledge that the social resources which modern capitalism has been forced to concede are needed by people, while insisting that these must be in the control of those who use them. This requires a strategy which does not simply oscillate between rhetorical repetition of the need to smash the bourgeois state and a policy of piecemeal demands for bits of social welfare, the proverbial crumbs from the rich man’s table, easily given or taken away at his discretion. We need instead to see our everyday struggle for control as part of the creation of a new form of political power based on local, regional and national assemblies of working people controlling all areas of social life, social services, production and distribution, internal order, external defence, and foreign trade.

Such a political system could only be achieved against such sources of extra-parliamentary power as the big corporations, the financial institutions, the institutions of international banking and trade, the leadership of the army and NATO and sections of the civil service. It could not be achieved in Britain alone or through parliament alone. As the experience of Labour governments demonstrate, the extra-parliamentary institutions we have just mentioned have a power which far outweighs the power of a majority government. This is especially true of countries like Britain, so dependent on international trade and investment and therefore on the ‘goodwill’ of international financial, trading and state institutions.

For socialists to win a parliamentary majority will be important, but only on the basis of, and accountable to, a strong extra-parliamentary movement able to confront the existing state apparatus and the financial interests it protects. For it is this movement which, having destroyed the coercive powers of the present state, will provide the basis of the new democratic form of political power. The exact form of the political organizations that will be capable of giving this movement a lead, fighting for its interests within the existing political system and organizing its defence against repression and violence, cannot yet be seen. It cannot be determined until the working class and other oppressed groups have developed a level of consciousness, sense of purpose and degree of self-confidence to re-make society. The purpose of socialist organization now should be to develop that consciousness together with a vision of an alternative society.

For this we need a very flexible and yet co-ordinated form of organization. It needs to be able to build on and make links between all the initiatives towards popular democracy and control which working people are already making, however limited and fragmented these initiatives may be. Such initiatives have a long history; no socialist organization can wipe the board clean and create only the initiatives that fit in with its own scheme. At this stage, for example, it might include strengthening initiatives which are taking place in political frameworks that are not in themselves revolutionary. For example, the socialists fighting within the Labour Party for the accountability of MPs to the extra-parliamentary labour movement have at one level a common cause with socialists who are seeking to strengthen the power, and develop the consciousness of Industrial organizations, women’s groups, black movements, and so on. The principle of parliamentary accountability is an important principle in strengthening the extra-parliamentary power of working people and their local organizations. It will be a necessary part of the organization which eventually emerges as the socialist alternative to social democracy.

So we do not see the ideas in Beyond the Fragments as a one-way communication about or within the women’s movement. We hope they will be discussed among groups of socialists involved in a whole range of activities and we hope that other people will be encouraged to speak their minds and communicate their own understandings by our effort.

The three of us have all travelled differing political journeys and it will be clear we do not come at the question of how we can think about organizing from the same place. Whereas Lynne has just joined a left group, Sheila had a brief connection to another, the Socialist Workers Party, and I had a longer involvement with the International Marxist Group. But we have all three been involved in the women’s movement. Through this we have come to agree on the questions that need to be asked, though we still argue about the answers.

We have worked together on this because we feel the need to air actual political experiences, reassessing our politics by sharing these, not because we think we have the ‘answer’. We feel that any genuine, new form of socialist organization will have to grow from such a collective process.

Open Letter To The Portugese Revolution: A Reply

August 23, 2010 2 comments

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