Issue 275 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review



Workers to rule

Graeme Kemp and Alan Woodward (Letters, May SR) raise a number of interesting questions about the nature of workers' democracy.

Graeme Kemp cites China and Russia as examples of supposedly socialist revolutions that 'went wrong'. However, there are fundamental differences between the two. The Russian Revolution of February 1917 was achieved by masses of ordinary working people who created organs of democratic self government--soviets, or 'workers' councils'. The soviets were not initially perceived to be in conflict with the official state, but simply as a way of running society in a time of crisis. Lenin and Trotsky, however, were convinced that these were far more democratic than anything Russia had seen before.

It soon became clear that the ruling class did not want to relinquish control, that the power of the soviets could not coexist with that of the bourgeois state. The Bolsheviks won the argument--the revolution had to move forward. This meant the seizure of power by the soviets in the October Revolution.

It is misleading for Graeme Kemp to use the phrase 'the successful revolutionary party'. Any truly socialist party would not want to create a successful revolution itself--that is the task for millions of ordinary people. Our job is to fight alongside them, and win them over to the most effective strategy--the party must successfully persuade the class to seize power, but the emancipation of the working class must be an act of the working class.

Of course, once workers' councils come to power in one country, the matter is not finished. There can be no such thing as 'socialism in one country'--the revolution must be spread internationally.

Graeme Kemp's other example, China, shows what can happen if a so-called revolutionary party detaches itself from the working class. Here, Mao's was a conquering army. He actively discouraged independent strikes and peasant uprisings. As the Communists took over cities, they had to put up posters telling residents they had nothing to fear.

Alan Woodward comments that there have been a number of countries where workers' councils have been formed without strong revolutionary parties. True though this is, I think it was a weakness, not a strength. If Portugal in 1974, or Argentina today, had a revolutionary party which saw the workers' councils as an embryonic workers state, which realised the need to smash the old ruling class before it smashed them, then perhaps there would have been a greater chance of success.

While Russia, Portugal and Argentina had the potential for success, Mao's model of revolution was doomed to state capitalism from the start. The task for socialists today is to fight alongside the working class against each injustice, from low pay to the war. But we must also aim to unite together those who want to fight on all these issues. Next time workers' councils emerge, we must be a force capable of arguing for revolution. This is the tradition of socialism from below.
Dan Mayer

  • Graeme Kemp and Alan Woodward (May SR) are quite right that my short piece on workers' democracy (April SR) left many questions unresolved. Hopefully there will be further discussion of this central question at Marxism 2003 and in the SWP press. For those who want to go further, I recommend The Western Soviets by Donny Gluckstein, and Revolutionary Rehearsals, edited by Colin Barker.

    Three brief points for further discussion:

      (1) There is no guarantee in advance that any future revolution will not be bureaucratised. We shall need permanent vigilance and constant efforts to spread democratic involvement.
      (2) A major reason for the rapid decline in the Russian soviets was the war provoked by foreign intervention. We need an international movement strong enough to defend from invasion any country in which workers take power.
      (3) Another serious problem in 1917 and after was that almost all the old leaders of the socialist movement had betrayed it in 1914, leaving the new wave to be led by inexperienced militants. To build and defend workers' councils we need activists who are both committed to socialist ideas and experienced in representing the interests of their fellow workers. The best way to prepare workers' councils of the future is to build a socialist movement rooted in the workplaces now.

    Ian Birchall

  • We welcome letters and contributions on all issues raised in Socialist Review. Please keep your contributions as short as possible, typed, double spaced if you can, and on one side of paper only.
    Send to: Socialist Review, PO Box 82, London E3 3LH
    Fax: 020 7538 0018 Phone: 020 7538 3308


    John Rees's article (May SR) should be a starting point for an active debate about the tasks for socialists in the coming months. The scale of the anti-war movement has led to a deep politicisation--in every workplace, school and community there are people who are thinking about how to change things. People have moved seamlessly from opposing the war to generalising about imperialism and neoliberalism. Now their anger against Labour is directed against privatisation, Sats or foundation hospitals.

    This debate is taking place in the context of people making all sorts of active links across issues and campaigns. Having built one movement, they are creating new and diverse networks. As socialists we need to have the same fluidity. We need to be organically linked to the tens of thousands of activists who are debating where next. The Socialist Alliance scored some impressive results in the local elections. But we need to try new things and be open to wider possibilities of involving more people. That can only work if we throw ourselves into the centre of wherever there is a campaign or a fight (or simply the prospect of one).

    The best way to win the argument about the alternative to Labour is by making real the existence of an alternative based on the collective experience of the anti-war movement, which can enable us to build networks that are open and inclusive, but also reflect the depth of the political debate around us. Some of our existing networks may not be up to this task and may need to be discarded. Others need to be transformed quickly by recognising the potential and looking outwards. It is an important opportunity, and an exciting one.
    Simon Basketter

    Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page