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The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine. A Political Account of Joseph Stalin Tony McKenna. A Review.

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The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine. A Political Account of Joseph Stalin Tony McKenna. Sussex Academic Press.

“I recently read an interview featuring a cultural commentator of the left. Alongside the interview a photo appeared of this individual against a backdrop which featured an image of Joseph Stalin.” In the Preface to The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine, Tony McKenna observes in this, not uncommon, gesture, a “certain wry sympathy for Stalin’s political endeavours.” The Chair of no less than the Stop the War Coalition, Andrew Murray, has expressed such empathy on many occasions. For these people Stalin’s title of Generalissimo and Hero of the Soviet Union, awarded in June 1945, was due recognition for a leader prepared to “get his hands dirty” in defence of the USSR. This judgement, McKenna states, with appropriate severity, “does a great disservice to the millions Stalin had murdered” (Page xi).

This is a study that attempts to explain the “objective trajectory of Stalinism” in Marxist terms, and the course of a life that is full of “terrible darkness”. Its premise is that the original form of “the Soviet democracy remains the first form of democracy in human history which was not premised on some manner of class exploitation.”(Page 169) This “…fused the economic organs of society, the factories and the workplace with a political decision-making process where power flowed from the bottom-up. (Page vii) That it “abolished the capital-labour relation.” (Page 170) A bold effort, “drowned in blood”. And yet, “Most of all I wanted to challenge the assumption that Stalinist totalitarianism was the automatic and inevitable result of a revolution which mobilised the poorest in society”. (Page x)

McKenna considers, then, that “Stalinism represented the negation of the proletarian revolution”. Lenin stood for the emancipation of the working class “to be an act by the workers themselves” (Page 42) Nothing could be more clearly opposed to Stalin’s “overwhelming distrust – not only for the masses, but for the process of revolution itself” (Page 16) For those who recount the political conflicts of the early Soviet Union as a clash between a growing bureaucracy, and those, siding with Lenin who railed against administrative power and privilege, this is a decisive difference. Leninism was popular creative power; Stalinism was the rules and regulations, backed by repression, of the office.


This guiding contrast in The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine is not without problems.  There is a different view, expressed by Rosa Luxemburg, that this was not, in practice, how Lenin’s ideology worked. To her Lenin had “a dangerous rigidity in argumentation, certain scholasticism in his political ideas, and a tendency to ignore the living embodiment of the masses, or even to coerce it into accepting preconceived tactical plans.”(1) There is the claim that, under Lenin’s aegis, there were “always various tendencies and groups within the Party, which was considered natural and normal.”(2) There is another picture of less than tolerant Bolshevik, as revealed in his years of exile of “ceaseless polemics with all those he considered philistines, pedants, whiners, sceptics, defeatists. (3) Or, more strongly that when with his hands on the levers of power these were not just arguments, “Lenin, as we have seen time and time again, could not assimilate opposition. It could only be overcome and destroyed. In place of complete creative freedom Lenin turned to a new discourse based on a completely opposite theme – iron proletarian discipline.”(4)

A recent biography of Stalin puts this more sharply, “assertions of a Bolshevik collective leadership predating Stalin’s ring hollow. Lenin’s secretariat took on an essentially limitless range of issues, setting a precedent, and no one did more than Lenin to establish a living example of one-man rule at the top. (When the other ‘collective leaders; disagreed with Lenin he threatened to expel them or, failing that, to quit the party and form a new one.” (5) One may contest this judgement. Others talk of ‘Stalin’s team’, a tightly bound group at the top- broadening some of McKenna’s focus on the General Secretary. In either case the legacy, however reshaped in new hands,  from Lenin’s rule cannot be ignored.  (6)

Iron Discipline.

McKenna’s book does not however shirk from describing the mechanisms used to enforce this “iron discipline” during, and after, the Civil War. This was, above all, the work of the secret police, the Cheka. He defends, “out of military necessity”,  “mass compulsion” “terror” was an absolute requirement in a context where a class or nation state is in the process of fighting for existence goes more or less without saying” (Page 29) But the “generalisation of terror to a social class carte blanche  – and specifically the petty bourgeoisie…. the peasantry” “the bureaucracy was beginning to weave their theoretical rationale for its terrorisation for the very group whose surplus produce was integral to its survival..(Ibid) It used “indiscriminate force” against peasant or proletarians who “bridled against the increasingly coercive power and needs of the bureaucracy itself.” (Ibid)

According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn the Gulag Archipelago could not have built without the early sanction of these measures of compulsion. “In the first months of the October Revolution Lenin was already demanding decisive draconian measures to tighten up discipline” In December 1917, he suggested for consideration, confiscation of all property.. confinement in prison, dispatch to the front and forced labour for all who disobey the existing law.” (6) During the period of War Communism, Trotsky advocated ever tighter punishments, and the militarisation of labour (Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky 1920) He  asserted that the dictatorship of the proletariat was able to make use of organized state power by the working class to crush its opponents and to pave the way for social transformation.

If every Cook could run the State, as envisaged in the State and Revolution, those who broke the rules risked more than admonishing in an acidic polemical article. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly was the end of ‘formal’ democracy and its replacement by the ‘superior’ form of workplace rule. As experience rapidly showed, adversaries of ‘Soviet power’ from the right, the dissident left, and not all because of the violent opposition of the left Social Revolutionaries (Uprising 1918. Exclusion: Fifth Soviet Congress, 1918), the right and then the left Mensheviks and Anarchists, particularly those with suspect “class origins” (which began to be treated as a hereditary taint) were progressively excluded from the ‘democracy’ of the Soviets. The system was designed to be the opposite of ‘agonistic’ politics where open clashes between opposed views would be freely expressed.

Lenin’s Last Struggle.

Was Stalin’s hold on these reins of power inevitable? During Lenin’s later lifetime and following his death, disputes between bureaucrats – that is state employees – Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Stalin, to cite some well-known names, continued. But already the shrinking of political freedom had caught up with the Party itself, as factions had been banned, and all dissent was suspect. There seemed to be an inevitability about further moves towards enforced unity – “discipline” –  around One line One leader, on every single issue, economic, cultural, political, and ideological. Yet Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle (1975) underlines the view that his Testament explicitly called for Stalin’s removal from office. Lewin claimed, “the use of constraint – let alone terror – is ostensibly excluded in establishing the foundations of a new society”. (8) This ‘tolerance’, at best putting up with people, was, as we seen, very limited. As McKenna narrates, not only was the Testament suppressed, and Stalin’s office confirmed, not to be, but also the range of forces allied with him, and the hesitations of his opponents, prevented even the document being discussed.

The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine is a passionate intervention into debates on these issues. The description of the full “shadow of totalitarianism”, Stalin’s 1930s Great Terror, and a thorough, searing, look at the Gulag, is outstanding. McKenna’s concluding hopes for a direct ‘utopian’ democracy that takes collective control of a socialised economy takes inspiration from the best side of the Soviet ideal. This review has argued that we cannot ignore, with Claude Lefort, and many others, the other side, the ‘temporary’ limitations on democratic expression sketched above. They cannot be ignored. They turned out to be the permanent basis for a totalitarian regime, and whatever form of erratic command economy one cares to call it.  Perhaps truly universal – unblemished – inspiration cannot be found in the early years of the Russian Revolution. The all-too-ready use of force to resolve political issues played some part in the emergence of Stalinism. The means, exile, imprisonment, forced labour and killing, by which the “Pouvoir soviétique se déliverent des enemies”, (how Soviet power got rid of its enemies) are not foreign to the emergence of Stalin’s system of rule, warped by his own personality though it may have been. (9) We should also ensure that this blood-drenched tyranny is never repeated.

  1. Page 85. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. Edited by George Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza. 2011.
  2. Page 385. Let History Judge. Roy Medvedev. Spokesman. 1971.
  3. Page 110. Lars T. Lih. Rekation Books. 2011.
  4. Page 212. Christopher Read. Routledge 2005.
  5. Page 419. Stalin. Paradoxes of Power. 1878 – 1928. Stephan Kotin. Allen Lane. 2014.
  6. On Stalin’s team. Sheila Fitzpatrick. Princeton University Press. 2015.Pages 19 – 10. The Gulag Archipelago. Vol.2. Colins/Fontana. 1976.
  7. Page 134. Lenin’s Last Struggle. 1975.Un homme en trop. Réflexions sur l’Archipel du Gulag. Claude Lefort. New Edition. 2015 (1976)

Louis Project writes,

The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin.

Tony McKenna is a bona fide public intellectual who contributes to Marxist journals without having any connections to academia or to the disorganized left. This gives his writing a freshness both in terms of political insight and literary panache. I first encountered his work in a collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective” that reflected a familiarity with culture high and low and an ability to put works such as “The Walking Dead” into a broader political and social context. Was the popular AMC zombie show a good preparation for “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin”, his latest book forthcoming from Sussex press? I’d like to think so.

Although I think that McKenna would be capable of turning a Unix instruction manual into compelling prose, the dead tyrant has spurred him to reach a higher level—one that is in inverse proportion to the degraded subject matter. At 186 pages, his study is both an excellent introduction to Stalin and Stalinism as well as one that gives any veteran radical well-acquainted with Soviet history some food for thought on the quandaries facing the left today. Drawing upon fifty or so books, including a number that leftist veterans would likely not be familiar with such as leading Soviet military leader Gregory Zhukov’s memoir, McKenna synthesizes it all into a highly readable and often dramatic whole with his own unique voice. It is a model of historiography and one that might be read for no other reason except learning how to write well. (McKenna is an editor and an aspiring novelist.)

More via above link.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 18, 2016 at 1:59 pm

22 Responses

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  1. Just FYI: this old piece by the late Ken Tarbuck discusses Trotsky’s “militarization” idea: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/supplem/ktintro.htm


    November 18, 2016 at 3:14 pm

  2. By the way, if Lenin was an authoritarian from the get-go how does one explain this:

    “By seizing full power, the Soviets could still today—and this is probably their last chance—ensure the peaceful development of the revolution, peaceful elections of deputies by the people, and a peaceful struggle of parties inside the Soviets; they could test the programmes of the various parties in practice and power could pass peacefully from one party to another.”



    November 18, 2016 at 3:19 pm

  3. See also Lenin on freedom of the press: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/nov/04.htm

    And Lenin on why freedom of the press was deemed impossible later: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/aug/05.htm

    One can argue with Lenin in the latter piece but it’s not a nonsense argument.


    November 18, 2016 at 3:32 pm

  4. He dissolved the Constituent Assembly: that is a pretty good indication of his attitude towards ‘formal’ democracy from the word go.

    As for his tolerance of different ideas even when they were not by those advocating violent opposition to the new state, there is this: “he Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia
    by Lesley Chamberlain.
    On September 29 1922, the Oberbürgermeister Haken left Petrograd and sailed into the Baltic, destined for Stettin. Six weeks later, a sister ship, the Preussen, set out on the same course. According to the company’s advertisement, the vessels boasted “every comfort, large elegant salons, spacious cabins, bathrooms etc. with all modern conveniences”. The starched linen table napkins of the Haken and the Preussen were a bizarre accompaniment to the grey Baltic swell and a rotten fate.

    Aboard were 50 or so of the most eminently qualified men in Russia, plus family members. Handpicked by Lenin for deportation, they were – as Lesley Chamberlain puts it – the victims of a process of “deliberate negative selection” of an intelligentsia that was “erudite, professional and cosmopolitan as never before”. And yet the Philosophy Steamer (as the two transports came to be known) slipped moorings with little more than a brief mention in Pravda and a huff and a puff in the Times. It was a scandalous event, the more so for being ignored. As Chamberlain grimly notes: “What Leninism stripped out of the Russian fabric was what those ships carried away, in terms of cultural decency and intellectual independence.”

    “The choice for the philosophers – among them Nikolai Lossky, Yuly Aikhenvald, Nikolai Berdyaev, Semyon Frank – and their companions was a cell in the basement of the Lubyanka (known as “the Ship of Death”), or a one-way journey into exile on the steamers. No matter that, almost to a man, they had spent years campaigning against tsarist social evils and had done so publicly from within Russia – unlike Lenin himself, who had worked abroad and underground. No matter that none of them, post-revolution, thought of themselves as dissidents. Their problem was that they could not accept that Pushkin was gone and that the light coming from Tolstoy’s country estate was extinguished.

    These metaphysical antiquities had no place in Lenin’s world, which was anti-metaphysical, rationalist, atheist. As Chamberlain writes, under Lenin reason “took a perverse, political form . . . which became the foundation of the totalitarian system. It led to a militant and incriminating ban on all expressions of faith and an attempt to destroy individual conscience and human inwardness.” Lenin spoke of religion as getting off on the dead; he referred to those he was evicting as “the shit”. Trotsky, eager assistant in the deportations, described one of the victims as “a philosophical, aesthetic, literary, religious sponger, that is, he’s the dregs, trash.”


    I have read Chamberlin’s book.

    My own stand is – I would sincerely hope – that of the atheist Brotteaux in Anatole France’s Les Dieux ont soif , set during the Paris Terror, who pays with his life on the guillotine after protecting an old priest and a royalist prostitute.


    Andrew Coates

    November 18, 2016 at 5:46 pm

  5. Victor Serge:

    “The Winter of 1919 was a cold and bitter one. Civil War raged, exiled Russian Aristocrats traded currency with the Tsar still on it, while the Bolsheviks printed it like it was going out of fashion and used it to procure arms. That’s right, the Bolsheviks printed money with the Tsar’s image on it. As Serge says “we used to print them for the poor fools (Russian Exiles)”[9]. The widespread cloak of hunger hung over the whole country. In the midst of this mess, the infamous Bolshevik secret police, the Chekas carried out their dastardly work. The telephone rapidly became an enemy of any sympathetic official and Serge was no exception. He writes “At every hour it brought me voices of panic-stricken women who spoke of arrests, imminent executions, and injustice, and begged me to intervene at once, for the love of God!”[10]. At this stage the custom of arresting and executing hostages had become “generalised and legal.”[11]

    The mere existence of a secret police is a rapid insight into the nature of the Party’s politics at the time. From 1918 onwards the leadership, from Lenin downwards, had become increasingly more paranoid and saw plots and treachery everywhere. The Cheka were formed to counteract this but as Serge writes he believed it “was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918.”[12] He claimed that revolutionary tribunals, letting in defensive evidence and functioning in the clear light of day rather than the cloak of the night, would have functioned efficiently with “far less abuse and depravity.”[13] When Serge brought up Zinoviev (Lenin’s appointed President of the Third International and member of the Politbureau) around this time in a conversation with Gorky, Gorky shouted out “Don’t talk to me of that beast ever again – tell him that his torturers are a disgrace to the human image.”[


    Andrew Coates

    November 18, 2016 at 5:59 pm

  6. Stalin was all right, get a grip people. Stalin saved the Russian Revolution and destroyed the fascist octopus.
    only reactionaries and revisionists and ultra leftist counter revolutionaries attack Stalin.

    Stalin is the successor of Lenin, there is no such thing as ‘Stalinism’, Stalin never claimed to be more than a Marxist Leninist.

    Trotsky was a douchebag, he did some good stuff in the 1930s before he threw his lot in with the imperialists.
    Trotskyism was only invented to split the workers movement and derail it down dead end paths, just as they are doing now.
    Long live Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.


    “The record shows that the tribute was deserved. Had Stalin not won the fight for industrialization and defeated the Trotskyists and Bukharinites, the USSR would have become a Nazi province.”


    November 18, 2016 at 7:45 pm

  7. And yet Serge never denounced Lenin per se. My stance vis-a-vis the Bolsheviks is little different from Serge’s. Serge even agreed that the Kronstadt ’21 uprising had to be put down though he rightly condemned the mass killings of those who surrendered.

    As for the Constituent Assembly — you’d be hard pressed to find a Marxist who’s studied what happened who condemns its dissolution. Even Samuel Farber, whose BEFORE STALINISM is hardly “light” on Lenin and Trotsky, thinks it was perfectly justifiable to dissolve it because the Bolsheviks and their supporters really did think that the soviets represented a higher form of (proletarian) democracy.

    I think soviet democracy has innate flaws and in practice is much less like Paris Commune general-assembly-type democracy than Lenin thought, but I don’t think he and the Bolsheviks and Left SRs were being deliberately anti-democratic when they dissolved the CA.


    November 18, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    • I suppose you consider Kautsky was a non-Marxist…..

      But that aside – dissolving the asssembly was for many in the context valid, and it’s a good point, but, regardless of the issue at the particular time, representative democracy has lasted a lot longer than Soviets and it would be hard to find Marxists with any influence today advocating dissolving present-day elected assemblies.

      Andrew Coates

      November 19, 2016 at 12:25 pm

  8. By the way, we should never discuss Red Terror without discussing the far greater White Terror. Google “White Terror Finland 1918” and you’ll realize just why the Bolsheviks “lost their heads.”


    November 18, 2016 at 11:19 pm

  9. I think Kautsky started drifting away from Marxism around 1910. So did Rosa, who knew him better than you or I. (Yes, Rosa opposed dissolving the CA…and then changed her mind.)

    Soviets are representative bodies too, of course. They involve electing people. The Commune was an elected body too.

    Representative democracy doesn’t equal liberal/parliamentary democracy (with its separation of the legislative and executive powers). That’s just one type, and an inferior form (IMHO) to a Commune-inspired democracy which dissolves the independent executive (a monarchy holdover) into the legislature, has the right of recall of all officials, etc.


    November 19, 2016 at 4:58 pm

  10. “Immediately after the capture of the Government by the Bolsheviks, the new regime was confirmed by the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, albeit in opposition to a strong minority, which left the Congress protesting. But even the majority did not yet repudiate the idea of the Constituent Assembly.

    The resolution confirming the Soviet Government began with the words: “Pending the calling together of the Constituent Assembly, a Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government is to be formed, which is to be called the Council of People’s Commissaries.”

    The Constituent Assembly then is recognised here as taking precedence of the Council of People’s Commissaries. On November 3 the Government dissolved the Town Council of Petrograd on the ground that it was in conflict with the outlook of the people, as manifested by the Revolution of November 7, and by “the elections to the Constituent Assembly”. The new members were proclaimed on the basis of the existing general franchise. Soon, however, a defect was discovered in the elections to the Constituent Assembly.

    On December 7, the All-Russian Executive Committee of Soviets published a resolution, in which it was stated: “However the electoral arrangements of a body composed of elected representatives may be devised, these can only be considered to be truly democratic and really to represent the will of the people, when the right of recalling their members by the electors is recognised and exercised. This principle of real democracy applies to all representative bodies and also to the Constituent Assembly. The Congress of the Councils of Workmen’s, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Delegates, who are chosen on equal grounds, has the right to issue writs for a new election in the case of town and parish councils, and other representative bodies, not excluding the Constituent Assembly. On the demand of more than half of the electors of the circumscription in question the Council must order a new election.”

    The demand that the majority of the voters may at any time recall a deputy, who is no longer in agreement with their views, is entirely in accordance with the principles of democracy. But it is not clear, from this standpoint, why the Soviets should take the step of ordering new elections. However, at that time this represented the widest interference with the Constituent Assembly that had been made. Neither the establishment of the Assembly, nor the elections were touched.

    But it was becoming ever clearer that the elections had not given the Bolsheviks the majority
    . Therefore, the Pravda of December 26, 1917, published a number of propositions relating to the Constituent Assembly, which Lenin had drawn up, and the Central Committee had accepted. One of them declared that the elections had taken place shortly after the victory of the Bolsheviks, but before the Social Revolutionaries had yet divided. The left and the right Social Revolutionaries had therefore had a common list of candidates. Consequently, the elections gave no clear indication of the real voice of the masses.

    Whoever entertained this view, in face of the above-mentioned proposition of December 7, was committed to the conclusion that new elections should be ordered to the Assembly in districts which had chosen social revolutionaries. To what other end had this resolution been drawn up? Yet on December 26 it was already forgotten. And suddenly quite another song was heard in the other proposition of Lenin, with which we are here concerned. After he had shown us that the Assembly just elected was not suitable, because it did not express the real voice of the whole people, be declared that any assembly elected by the masses by general suffrage was not suitable: “The Soviet Republic represents not only a higher form of democratic institutions (in comparison with the bourgeois republic and the Constituent Assembly as its consummation) it is also the sole form which renders possible the least painful transition to Socialism.”

    It is only a pity that this knowledge was arrived at after one had been left a minority in the Constituent Assembly. Conflict with the Assembly was now inevitable. It ended with a victory for the Soviets, whose dictatorship as a permanent form of government in Russia was proclaimed.”

    “The Soviet organisation is, therefore, one of the most important phenomena of our time. It promises to acquire an outstanding significance in the great decisive struggles between Capital and Labour which are before us.

    Can we ask even more than this of the Soviets? The Bolshevists, who, together with the left-wing Social Revolutionaries, obtained a majority in the Russian Workers’ Councils after the November Revolution of 1917, after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, proceeded to make an organ of government of the Soviets, which’ hitherto had been the fighting organisation of a class. They did away with the democratic institutions which had been conquered by the Russian people in. the March Revolution. Quite properly the Bolsheviks ceased to call themselves Social Democrats, and described themselves as Communists.

    Indeed, they did not repudiate democracy entirely. In his speech of April 28, Lenin described the Soviet organisation as a higher type of democracy, a complete break with its “bourgeois distortion”. Entire freedom was now secured to the proletarian and the poor peasant.

    Hitherto democracy had connoted equal political rights for all citizens. The sections privileged by law had always possessed freedom of movement. But one does not call that democracy.

    The Soviet Republic is to be the organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the only means, as Lenin expresses it, whereby the most painless transition to Socialism is made possible. This is to be done by depriving of political rights all those who are not represented in the Soviets.

    Why should this step make less painful the transition to Socialism than would be the case with universal suffrage? Obviously, because the capitalists are in this way excluded from the making of laws.

    Now there are two alternatives. Suppose the capitalists and their supporters are an insignificant handful. How could they then prevent the transition to Socialism under universal suffrage? On the contrary, universal suffrage would reveal them as an insignificant minority, and consequently they would the sooner resign themselves to their fate than if the franchise were so shaped that no- one could say with certainty which party had behind it a majority of the people. In reality, however, the capitalists cannot be deprived of rights. What is a capitalist in a legal sense? A possessor.

    Even in a country so highly developed economically as Germany, where the proletariat is so numerous, the establishment of a Soviet Republic would disfranchise great masses of the people. In 1907, the number of men, with their families, belonging to occupations which comprised the three great groups of agriculture, industry and trade, that is, wage-earners and salaried persons, amounted to something over 35,000,000, as against 17,000,000 belonging to other sections. A party could therefore very well have the majority of wage-earners behind it and yet form a minority of the population. On the other hand, when the workers vote together, they need not fear the united votes of their opponents. By obliging them to fight their common foes, universal suffrage causes them to close up their ranks sooner than if the political struggle were confined to the Soviets, from which the opponents are excluded, and in which the political struggle of a Socialist party takes the form of attacking another Socialist Party. Instead of class-consciousness, sectarian fanaticism is thereby induced.

    Now for the other alternative. Suppose the capitalists and their supporters are not a small minority, but a great mass which is well able, in a Parliament elected on the basis of universal suffrage, to constitute a respectable opposition?

    What purpose would be served by reducing this opposition to silence in the governing body? The capitalists themselves are everywhere only a small section. But in comparison with the Socialists, their supporters may be very numerous. It should not be thought that only personal interest or payment would induce people to enter the lists for capitalism. Except Socialism, capitalism is to-day the only possible method of production on a large scale.”

    Karl Kautsky. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat


    On Council Democracy this is worth reading:



    Andrew Coates

    November 19, 2016 at 5:05 pm

  11. Kautsky was either misinformed or dishonest. He’s suggesting that the soviets disenfranchised everyone who wasn’t an employed worker. And yes that’s how many in Europe and America interpreted soviet democracy.

    But look at the Soviet Constitution of 1918. It propose self-government of localities (including the workplaces in those localities) through universal-suffrage councils, with the central decision-making body government taking the form of delegates from the local councils. It does NOT propose ONLY the election of delegates of workplaces.

    See: https://www.marxists.org/history/ussr/government/constitution/1918/

    The real problem with the Russian soviet state is that Congress of Soviets, which met infrequently, couldn’t hold its Executive Committee to account – let alone the Sovnarkom which was theoretically accountable to the Executive Committee. In order to hold the government to account, the congress would have needed to become a standing body which met every weekday apart from holidays, like a parliament. But the form (infrequently meeting congress/ soviet – more frequently meeting executive committee, plus daily meeting government) is copied from the form of workers’ organizationals (trade unions and parties).

    Organizations of struggle are inappropriate in their forms to the task of exercising power, i.e. taking coordinating decisions for all of society. Lenin et al. didn’t realize this, but we should.

    A more literal “copy” of the Paris Commune would have been preferable to either soviet democracy or parliamentary democracy and could have avoided the pitfalls of both.

    As for disenfranchising (ex-)capitalists — that’s a matter of circumstance and not of principle.


    November 22, 2016 at 6:33 pm

  12. “Kautsky was either misinformed or dishonest. He’s suggesting that the soviets disenfranchised everyone who wasn’t an employed worker.”

    Where did Kautsky suggest that? He’s what he actually wrote:

    The last All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which terminated on July 12, 1918, drafted a constitution of the Russian Soviet Republic. This lays it down that not all the inhabitants of the Russian Empire, but only specified categories have the right to elect deputies to the Soviets. All those may vote “who procure their sustenance by useful or productive work”. What is “useful and productive work”? This is a very elastic term. Not less elastic is the definition of those who are excluded from the franchise. They include any who employ wage labourers for profit. A home worker or small master, with an apprentice, may live and feel quite like a proletarian, but he has no vote. Even more proletarians may become disfranchised by the definition which aims at depriving private traders and middle men of the vote. The worker who loses his work, and endeavours to get a living by opening a small shop, or selling newspapers, loses his vote.

    Another clause excludes from the franchise everyone who has unearned income, for example, dividends on capital, profits of a business, rent of property. How big the unearned income must be which carries with it loss of the vote is not stated. Does it include the possession of a savings bank-book? Quite a number of workers, especially in the small towns, own a little house, and, to keep themselves above water, let lodgings. Does this bring them into the category of people with unearned income. Not long since there was a strike at the Obuchovist Factory, “this hotbed of the Revolution,” as Trotsky styled it in 1909 (Russia in the Revolution, page 83). I asked a Bolshevist comrade how he explained this protest against the Soviet Government.

    “That is very simple,” he said, “the workers there are all capitalists who own a little house.”

    One sees how little it takes, according to the Constitution of the Soviet Republic, to be labelled a capitalist, and to lose the vote.

    The elasticity of the definition of the franchise, which opens the door to the greatest arbitrariness, is due to the subject of this definition, and not to its framers. A juridical definition of the proletariat, which shall be distinct and precise, is not to be had.

    I have not found a reference to the appointment of a specific authority which shall verify each person’s vote, compile voting lists, and carry out the election, either by secret ballot or a show of hands. Clause 70 determines: “The exact procedure of election will be decided by the local Soviets, in accordance with instructions from the All-Russian Central Committee.”

    “But look at the Soviet Constitution of 1918.”

    Article 4, chapter 13 explicitly bars certain persons from voting:

    65. The following persons enjoy neither the right to vote nor the right to be voted for, even though they belong to one of the categories enumerated above, namely:

    (a) Persons who employ hired labor in order to obtain [sic] form it an increase in profits;
    (b) Persons who have an income without doing any work, such as interest from capital, receipts from property, etc.;
    (c) Private merchants, trade and commercial brokers;
    (d) Monks and clergy of all denominations;
    (e) Employees and agents of the former police, the gendarme corps, and the Okhrana (Czar’s secret service), also members of the former reigning dynasty;
    (f) Persons who have in legal form been declared demented or mentally deficient, and also persons under guardianship;
    (g) Persons who have been deprived by a soviet of their rights of citizenship because of selfish or dishonorable offenses, for the period fixed by the sentence.


    (b) is particularly striking — anyone with a bank account that generates interest would be barred from voting. Ditto working people who rent out their flats (a la BNB), as Kautsky noted above.

    Article 4, chapter 12 gives the right to vote only to certain groups of people:

    (a) All who have acquired the means of livelihood through labor that is productive and useful to society, and also persons engaged in housekeeping which enables the former to do productive work, i.e., laborers and employees of all classes who are employed in industry, trade, agriculture, etc., and peasants and Cossack agricultural laborers who employ no help for the purpose of making profits.
    (b) Soldiers of the army and navy of the soviets.
    (c) Citizens of the two preceding categories who have in any degree lost their capacity to work.


    (c) gives disabled people who can’t work the right to vote (how charitable!) but a person who is able-bodied but unemployed has no right vote. (a) gives Soviet authorities (i.e. Bolsheviks) to disenfranchise workers who are engaged in labor or occupations they deem to be ‘unproductive’ or ‘not useful’ to society.

    “[The Soviet Constitution of 1918] propose[s] self-government of localities (including the workplaces in those localities) through universal-suffrage councils, with the central decision-making body government taking the form of delegates from the local councils.”

    Really? Where? Article 3 — “Organization of Soviet Power” — which spells out the structure of the Soviet republic says nothing about universal suffrage.

    If Kautsky was “either misinformed or dishonest” on this question, so was Rosa Luxemburg because she agreed with Kautsky on this point:

    Let’s take another striking example: the right of suffrage as worked out by the Soviet government. It is not clear what practical significance is attributed to the right of suffrage. From the critique of democratic institutions by Lenin and Trotsky, it appears that popular representation on the basis of universal suffrage is rejected by them on principle, and that they want to base themselves only on the soviets. Why, then, any general suffrage system was worked out at all is really not clear. It is also not known to us whether this right of suffrage was put in practice anywhere; nothing has been heard of any elections to any kind of popular representative body on the basis of it. More likely, it is only a theoretical product, so to speak, of diplomacy; but, as it is, it constitutes a remarkable product of the Bolshevist theory of dictatorship.

    Every right of suffrage, like any political right in general, is not to be measured by some sort of abstract scheme of “justice,” or in terms of any other bourgeois-democratic phrases, but by the social and economic relationships for which it is designed. The right of suffrage worked out by the Soviet government is calculated for the transition period from the bourgeois-capitalist to the socialist form of society, that is, it is calculated for the period of the proletarian dictatorship. But, according to the interpretation of this dictatorship which Lenin and Trotsky represent, the right to vote is granted only to those who live by their own labor and is denied to everyone else. …. growing sections of the proletariat, for whom the economic mechanism provides no means of exercising the obligation to work, are rendered politically without any rights.



    November 22, 2016 at 8:37 pm

  13. You and I are reading these passages differently. But given that we agree that soviet democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, best to agree to disagree on this issue which now is mainly of historical interest.

    Socialist revolutions in the future will probably have a sort of dual power character but I doubt that they’ll involve the creation of soviets as they existed in the 20th century.


    November 23, 2016 at 4:36 am

  14. FYI — worth a read on the issue of Russian soviets and who they represented: http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/685/what-is-workers-power/


    November 23, 2016 at 4:47 am

  15. @pplswar:

    Some Leninist groups continued with these positions on limiting the franchise to ‘productive’ workers till comparatively recent times.

    Perhaps some still hold this view (it is sometimes said the SWP does).

    On the other points: There was a programme on BBC4 about Russia last night,

    A Timewatch Guide Series 3: 3. Russia: A Century of Suspicion
    Historian Saul David looks at how television has portrayed Russia through the years.

    During it one of the historians underlined Lenin’s repression, that is killing political opponents, well before Stalin’s rule and after the Civil War had ended.


    Andrew Coates

    November 23, 2016 at 1:56 pm

  16. “You and I are reading these passages differently.”

    There are literally no clauses in the Soviet constitution that say what you claim they say.


    November 23, 2016 at 5:04 pm

  17. Honestly I thought the references to VILLAGE soviets in the Constitution would have been enough to end skepticism about Soviet suffrage but if that’s not enough read John Reed: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/27332


    November 26, 2016 at 7:47 am

  18. I cannot take John Reed seriously as a historical source.

    Why not Emma Goldman, who painted a very different, equally partisan, picture in My Disillusionment in Russia? (Written: 1922-23, of her experience in 1920 – 1921)


    This is her account of Reed’s positions at the time,

    “THE Ninth Congress of the All-Russian Communist Party, held in March, 1920, was characterized by a number of measures which meant a complete turn to the right. Foremost among them was the militarization of labour and the establishment of one-man management of industry, as against the collegiate shop system. Obligatory labour had long been a law upon the statutes of the Socialist Republic, but it was carried out, as Trotsky said, “only in a small private way.” Now the law was to be made effective in earnest. Russia was to have a militarized industrial army to fight economic disorganization, even as the Red Army had conquered on the various fronts. Such an army could be whipped into line only by rigid discipline, it was claimed. The factory collegiate system had to make place for military industrial management.

    The measure was bitterly fought at the Congress by the Communist minority, but party discipline prevailed. However, the excitement did not abate: discussion of the subject continued long after the congress adjourned. Many of the younger Communists agreed that the measure indicated a step to the right, but they defended the decision of their party. “The collegiate system has proven a failure,” they said. “The workers will not work voluntarily, and our industry must be revived if we are to survive another year.”

    Jack Reed also held this view. He had just returned after a futile attempt to reach America through Latvia, and for days we argued about the new policy. Jack insisted it was unavoidable so long as Russia was being attacked and blockaded. “We have been compelled to mobilize an army to fight our external enemies why not an army to fight our worst internal enemy, hunger? We can do it only by putting our industry on its feet.” I pointed out the danger of the military method and questioned whether the workers could be expected to become efficient or to work intensively under compulsion. Still, Jack thought mobilization of labour unavoidable. “It must be tried, anyhow,” he said.”

    Andrew Coates

    November 26, 2016 at 12:49 pm

  19. “Last March, the constitution of the Soviets was worked out in detail and applied universally. It restricted the franchise to: citizens of the Russian Socialist Republic of both sexes who shall have completed their eighteenth year by the day of election; all who have acquired the means of living through labour that is productive and useful to society and who are members of labour unions.

    Excluded from the right to vote were: employers of labour for profit; persons who lived on unearned increment; merchants and agents of private business; employers of religious communities; former members of the police and gendarmerie; the former ruling dynasty; the mentally deficient; the deaf and dumb; and those who had been punished for selfish and dishonourable misdemeanours.”

    — John Reed, agreeing with me, Kautsky, and Luxemburg on the absence of universal suffrage in the Soviet system.

    I had no idea that the Soviets barred disabled people from voting and people who committed misdemeanors.


    November 27, 2016 at 1:22 am

  20. Let me clear this up: when I said “universal” I meant “universal” among the Russian proletariat and poor peasantry. Yes Russian capitalists were excluded. So? Maybe in Russia 1918 there was good reason for this?

    Mike Macnair again:

    In the 1918 constitution of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (RSFSR) the local soviets were ordinary local authorities elected in cities and villages, by geographical suffrage on the basis (in cities) of one deputy per 1,000 population. The franchise was restricted to “(a) those who earn a living by productive and socially useful labour (as well as persons engaged in housekeeping, which enables the former to work productively), viz, wage and salaried workers of all groups and categories engaged in industry, trade, agriculture, etc and peasants and Cossack farmers who do not employ hired labour for profit; (b) soldiers of the Soviet army and navy; and (c) citizens belonging to categories listed in paragraphs (a) and (b) of the present article who have been to any degree incapacitated.”

    This is a structure radically unlike the common far-left image of soviets/workers’ councils as delegates of factory committees. It is equally unlike the soviets of 1917 – delegates of factory committees, soldiers’ committees, trade unions, workers’ political parties, etc.

    Why? The date pretty much precludes the possibility that this was part of a rightist turn by the Bolsheviks. The key is in two aspects of the franchise provisions. The first is “as well as persons engaged in housekeeping, which enables the former to work productively”; the second “citizens … who have been to any degree incapacitated”.

    [And @pplswar will like this passage]

    The point is that the ‘classic image’ of the soviet/workers’ council form, as applied to a state as opposed to an organ for struggle, would disenfranchise a large part of the proletariat as a class. Back to a point I have made several times before. The proletariat as a class is defined in Marxist theory by its separation from the means of production: not by being at any particular moment employed, or employed in industry. The unwaged, including ‘housewives’ and pensioners, are part of the proletariat.


    November 27, 2016 at 7:23 am

  21. Just found out today that teachers were disenfranchised by the soviets for roughly 2 years starting in 1917.

    “Teachers and other cultural-educational workers this year for the first time will be able, in an organized manner through their union, to take an active part in the work of the Petrograd Soviet of Deputies. This is the first and most difficult examination for the working intelligentsia of the above-named categories. Comrades and citizens, scholars, teachers, and other cultural workers, stand this test in a worthy manner!”

    Petrograd soviet’s newspaper Izvestia, July 3, 1919.

    Unfortunately by 1919 there was only 1 party for the city’s teachers to vote for.


    October 9, 2017 at 9:12 pm

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