An article on the Libcom website called “The Soviet State myths and realities 1917-21“ is well worth quoting at length
"The history of the Russian Revolution as told in Soviet textbooks takes place in two phases: the rising of the masses against tsarist oppression, then against Kerensky's bourgeois democracy, engendered a process of radicalization of which the Bolsheviks were both inspirers and spokesmen, preparing the ground for the second phase of the revolution, October 1917. In other words, the communists perceive an historical and theoretical continuity between the autonomous origins of the councils and the Leninist theory of the State, a view which is held even by the anti-Stalinist Marxist-Leninists.
This misrepresentation of the true course of events was essential in order to paper over the divergences between the masses and Bolshevik policy insofar as the Bolsheviks claimed, and still do claim, to incarnate the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was vital to create harmony between Party and masses. But this version of the history of the Russian Revolution contains a double mystification. On the one hand, there was not one type of soviet, but two quite distinct types. The first made its appearance in Russia in 1905, and we find traces of it up to May 1907. These were councils that had arisen spontaneously out of the January-February 1905 strike. We may say that these soviets largely expressed the self-action of the Russian proletariat. Then there were the Russian soviets of 1917, followed by their central European counterparts. In Russia, at least, their emergence was supervised, provoked even, by all those bustling around the revolution in one capacity or another: politicians, trade unionists, journalists, adventurers and demagogues...
...According to a variety of matching accounts, the 1905 soviets arose absolutely spontaneously and were independent of any external 'initiatives'. The popularity of these soviets among the masses derived largely from the absence of political agitators and party representatives in their midst. They expressed the workers' political and economic demands in a situation where trade unions were non-existent and where the parties had little real influence over the masses...The situation was quite different in 1917. Although the February strikes were completely spontaneous (both the Putilov strikes on the 18th and the general strike on the 25th), the councils did not arise directly out of them as they had done twelve years earlier. This time they resulted from the combined efforts of politicians and workers' leaders... the politicians of the Duma Committee and the members of the Workers' Group sitting on the Central Committee for the War Industries (an employers' and State organization), attempted to organize elections in Petrograd for a Central Soviet. The impetus for this came from the latter group, which installed itself in the Tauride Palace on 27 February and set up a provisional executive committee of the council of workers' delegates, to which committee several socialist leaders and members of parliament attached themselves. It was this committee which called upon workers and soldiers to elect their representatives. This explains why, when the first Provisional Soviet met that very evening, it still contained no factory delegates! ...
...the 1917 soviets were neither an entirely spontaneous nor a completely original institution. It would be a mistake to think, however, that they were imposed from above: the idea of a central workers' council was in the air, and was widely favoured by workers and soldiers. What had changed was the way the parties now assessed this institution. Seeing in them a springboard to power, they wooed the councils from all sides, which explains why the intellectuals acquired decisive influence in the Petrograd Soviet and why this Soviet so rapidly lost contact with the masses....
....with Lenin still absent from the scene; Molotov's programme, drawn up on 28 February, did not even mention the soviets. On his arrival in Petrograd, Lenin astonished everyone with his slogan: 'All power to the soviets'. But, from the outset, he had identified the revolution with the seizing of power by his Party. The slogan he was now propagating with such vehemence was of a purely tactical nature. As if additional proof were needed, see the Bolsheviks' sudden volte-face after the events of 3-5 July 1917, organized under their auspices and designed to force the Petrograd Soviet's hand into seizing power. When the latter refused, the Bolsheviks resumed their old hostility to the institution of the soviets, calling them 'puppets, devoid of real power'...
...When the capital's council regained popularity after repulsing Kornilov's attacks, the Bolsheviks returned to their old slogan of 'All power to the soviets', at the end of September. This time, it was for good, especially now that Lenin's partisans had won a majority inside the councils.Power was seized in the name of the latter: the Party gave power to the soviets and thus established its superiority over them. They now served merely to confer legal form on the Party's power.As early as December 1917, Maxim Gorky was able to write in the newspaper Novaia Zizn (no. 195, 7 December 1917) that the revolution was not attributable to the soviets, and that the new republic was not one of councils, but of peoples' commissars. What follows is history: the councils were institutionalized by the July 1918 constitution, which voided them of all content. This was a superfluous precaution insofar as the Bolsheviks already had complete control over them...
... If the councils were still an independent expression of the Russian proletariat in the course of 1917, they only were so partially and ephemerally. Contrary to what happened in 1905, they became the scene of factional and partisan in-fighting: they were fought over partly for their historical prestige and partly for their real leading revolutionary role. The Bolsheviks played their hand masterfully in this struggle. They were unequalled as tacticians, but it would be presumptuous and a perversion of the simple historical truth to try to set them up as the defenders of the soviets if one sees in the latter the expression of the struggling masses...."
The article then goes on to counterpose the soviets with the factory committees
"The factory committees (fabzavkomii) (14) emerged in the wake of the January-February 1917 strikes. They mushroomed throughout Russia, taking on the role of workers' representation inside the factory....The role of the committees expanded throughout 1917 as the soviets increasingly lost contact with the mass of workers and stuck to political programmes proclaimed in advance....The Bolsheviks were naturally interested in these revolutionary bodies and conquered them from within more easily and earlier than in the case of the councils, inasmuch as the fabzavkomii were still free of any massive partisan intrusion. But they implanted themselves in the regional (subsequently national) coordinating bodies, which themselves had little influence over the local and factory committees. Thus, at the first conference of the Petrograd factory committees (30 May-5 June 1917), the Bolsheviks already possessed a majority, and the radicality of their slogans competed with those of the revolutionary left. They cunningly called for 'workers' control' in opposition to the Mensheviks and the social revolutionaries, without ever stating very clearly what they meant by it....
....Visibly moved by a desire to conciliate the masses, Lenin introduced workers' control into all enterprises employing more than five workers. While legalizing a defacto situation he provided for the annulment of decisions taken by the fabzavkomy, the 'congresses and the trade unions' and made the workers' delegates answerable to the State for the maintenance of order and discipline within the enterprise. This plan, which already marked a step backwards by comparison with the existing situation in certain factories, was still further watered down before being published in its final form on 14 November 1917. In its definitive version, the decree laid down that factory committees should be subordinate to a local committee on which would sit representatives of the trade unions; the local committees themselves would depend upon a hierarchy crowned by an All-Russian Workers' Control Council. Moreover, as Pankratova notes, this did not imply workers' management such as the anarchists had called for, but the supervision and control of production and prices...Lenin had never made much of a secret of the fact that he saw workers' control as a 'prelude to nationalizations' or that an accountable administration should exist alongside the factory committees....
...the fabzavkomy were heirs to an ancient tradition of delegation, of 'elders' (starosty), in short, of legal or clandestine workers' representation, whereas trade union organizations had been stimulated into life by the parties and were, as a result, battlefields in the struggle for influence between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. At the moment of the conquest of power, the latter found themselves masters of the trade unions, still poorly represented in the factories. The conflict between unions and factory committees is therefore between a largely bureaucratic structure, without any real base, and the direct organs of political and economic struggle of the industrial proletariat...”
The rest of the article has much to say about the manouverings and manipulations of workers organisation by the Bolsheviks.
The essence of the debate is simple. Did the Bolsheviks desire the working class to control its own destiny or did it simply use the working class as stepping stones to political power and a totally different agenda from one of workers self management?
In retrospect, many early supporters of the Bolsheviks such as Pannekoek re-evaluated the role of them and grew critical. For the SPGB, its clear what judgement should be made on the Bolsheviks and Lenin. There were cross-roads and choices to be made and different roads to travel down. Some will defend the turnings that Lenin took, but where did the destination end up?
The SPGB view as expressed repeatedly in the Socialist Standard is socialism could not be established in backward isolated Russian conditions where the majority neither understood nor desired socialism. The takeover of political power by the Bolsheviks obliged them to adapt their programme to those undeveloped conditions and make continual concessions to the capitalist world around them.In the absence of world socialist revolution there was only one road forward for semi-feudal Russia, the capitalist road, and it was the role of the Bolsheviks to develop industry through state ownership and the forced accumulation of capital.
For the SPGB the opportunism the Bolsheviks was demonstrated by the abolition of the workers councils and the instructions to its followers in the more advanced capitalist countries to adopt the policy of "revolutionary parliamentarianism" aiming not to smash the state and transfer power to (malleable) workers councils, but to capture state power without recourse to the supposed "universal form" of the soviet. Those soviets originally thrown up as products of popular will and democratic intent under Tsarist autocracy proved to be the dispensable means to an end for the Bolsheviks. The SPGB recognised the unique role of the soviets in the absence of legitimate bourgeois parliamentary government but as a product of backward political conditions they were easily used by the Bolsheviks .
Julius Martov's, the Left Menshevik, critique was Marxian, as is the SPGB'S.
Marx knew from experience that before there could be a socialist revolution, capitalism must have reached a high stage of development for "no social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room within it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society" The Bolsheviks, however, thought it possible for an active minority, representing the vague aspirations of the workers, to gain political power before the capitalist revolution itself had been completed.
What would happen if such a minority gained a political victory over the capitalist classes?
In those circumstances, the minority become merely the tools of the capitalist class, which has not been virile enough to gain or hold power. Such a minority finds itself in the position of having to develop and run capitalism for a class unable, at the time, to do it successfully itself. Hence, let it be remembered, in running capitalism, the minority will be compelled to use its power to keep the working class in its slave position. Says Marx: "its victory will only be a point in the process of the bourgeois (capitalist) revolution itself, and will serve the cause of the latter by aiding its further development. This happened in 1794, and will happen again as long as the march, the movement, of history will not have elaborated the material factors that will create the necessity of putting an end to the bourgeois methods of production and, as a consequence, to the political domination of the bourgeoisie."
The Bolsheviks, finding Russia in a very backward condition, were obliged to do what had not been done previously, i.e. develop capitalism. The Bolsheviks performed the task of setting Russian capitalism on its feet .
Lenin's concepts of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", the leading role of the vanguard party and a transitional society of "socialism" (The Workers State and state capitalism) are Lenin's main distortions of Marxism and severely damaged the development of a socialist movement when the radical wing of the international Social Democratic movement after 1917 were side-tracked into supporting the Bolsheviks. There are other things such as Lenin's anti-imperialism which is also at variance with Marxist economic orthodoxy.
The Canadian-based scholar, Paresh Chattopadhyay, understands that the abolition of capitalism involves the disappearance of money, wage-labour, commodity production and buying and selling generally and that “Marx does not distinguish between communism and socialism. Both stand for the society succeeding capitalism. (The distinction was first to be made famous, if not introduced, by Lenin)”.
From the SPGB view, Lenin had got into an impossible position. Having seized power as a minority in a country where socialism was not possible for all sorts of reasons (economic backwardness, isolation from the rest of the world, lack of a majority underestanding for socialism), they had no alternative but to do the only thing that was possible: to continue to develop capitalism. Lenin found himself in the position of having to preside over -- and, in fact, to organise -- the accumulation of capital. But, as capital is accumulated out of surplus value and surplus value is obtained by exploiting wage-labour, this inevitably brought them into conflict with the workers who, equally inevitably, sought to limit their exploitation. Lenin justified opposing and suppressing these workers' struggles on the ground that the Bolsheviks represented the longer-term interests of the workers. The course of history has answered and it is a negative . The Marxist fact is that no force can cut short the natural development of society until it is ready for change.
In 1905-6 it has been argued that Lenin defended the need for the Soviets not to be seen as simply appendages to the party.But what do we actually read of Lenin , the Party and the soviets of the period ?
"...if Social-Democratic activities among the proletarian masses are properly, effectively and widely organised, such institutions may actually become superfluous...that a most determined struggle must be waged against all disruptive and demagogic attempts to weaken the R.S.D.L.p. from within or to utilise it for the purpose of substituting non-party political, proletarian organisations for the Social-Democratic Party...that Social-Democratic Party organisations may, in case of necessity, participate in inter-party Soviets of Workers’ Delegates, Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, and in congresses of representatives of these organisations, and may organise such institutions, provided this is done on strict Party lines for the purpose of developing and strengthening the Social-Democratic Labour Party "
An advocacy for them to be mere appendages to the Party !!
It is also argued that Lenin in the early 20's worried about how the working class could better gain control over an increasingly out of control state. I think its more a matter of re-organising the Party over the State since his writings concentrate upon the reform of State institutions by an improved Party-selected personnel . I don't see any real endeavour or evidence that Lenin was willing to go beyond the internal reform of the Party to establish any working class control over the State .
Conditions in Russia in 1917 weren't ripe for a socialist revolution there. We tried to counter over-optimistic expectations of many workers and even today, we still are required to dispute with those who say the Revolution had the seeds of Stalinism within it but that it held also many other different seeds flies in the face of Marxism.
Socialism can only be achieved by a politically conscious working class. It is the experience of workers under capitalism which drives them to understand the need for socialism and this process is enhanced by the degree of democracy which they have won for themselves. Dictatorial power wielded by a vanguard minority, no matter how sincere its intentions, can never act as a substitute. That way the workers remain a subject class and the dictators, having acquired a taste for power, consolidate their own rule.
The SPGB meet frequently the criticism that our analysis was that of armchair revolutionaries yet there is an advantage of distance - one can see the wood from the trees. But their view was also augmented by eyewitness accounts
" [Bill] Casey was expounding the S.P.G.B. position and as the Bolsheviks had just gained control in Russia, he lost no time in analysing the position. Probably aided by articles in the "S.S.", he became a caustic critic of the "Neo-Communists." He was delegate to represent the Seamen at an International T. U. Conference in Moscow. This, being one of the earliest "Missions to Moscow" was beset with difficulties all the way. Passports were forged; passages were "stowing away," Dutch, German, Polish and Russian frontiers had to be "hopped." Guides were often un-reliable; "go-betweens" were often in the pay of both sides; sometimes both had to be discarded until bona-fides were definitely established, a delicate job under the conditions then prevailing on the continent. The ultimate arrival in Moscow, after much suffering, danger and perseverance, was hailed as a masterpiece of undercover work. Once at the gates of the Kremlin, most delegates became insufferable Bolshevik "Yes-men" whereas Casey and his co-delegate, Barney Kelly (another adherent of the S.P.G.B.) soberly tried to obtain a truthful estimate of the position. A few days sojourn in Moscow drew the following observations from Casey:
"Production was in a straight-jacket, lethargy and indifference permeated the whole economy; the people were entirely lacking in a sense of time. Without the normal industrial development of production and some measure of buying and selling (war-communism was the order of the day) drift and indifference would gradually strangle the economy of the Soviet".
These observations were greeted with disgust and dismay by the other delegates. However, before they left Moscow, Lenin introduced his "New Economic Policy" which, in essence, provided for the very things which Casey opined was needed to stabilize the Russian economy. In contrast to their hostile reception of Casey’s prognostications, the "yes-men" cheered and echoed Lenin’s belated pronouncements. Back in Australia, he submitted his report to Tom Walsh (then a leading Communist and foundation member of the Australian Communist Party), General President of the Australian Seamen’s Union. Walsh rejected the report and refused to publish it on the ground that it criticized the Bolsheviks and the Russian system." - from his 1949 obituary in Western Socialist "
Leninism has proved to be a political tendency that set the clock back for socialism. In claiming that socialism could be created by a political minority without the will of the majority of the population, and through their wilful confusion of socialism with nationalisation and state-run capitalism they shamelessly distorted the socialist political programme. The SPGB was the first organisation in Britain (and possibly the world) to foresee the disastrous state capitalist outcome of the Bolshevik takeover but we gained no satisfaction in doing so. Even now the association of socialist and communist ideas with state capitalism, minority action and political dictatorship is one of the greatest barriers to socialist understanding. As attempts to create socialism they didn’t just fail, they were positively injurious, regardless of how sincere many of their number may have been at the outset. The tragedy which befell Marx was that he was Leninised.
And for the SPGB view on Lenin himself, it could be considered quite sympathetic to him. The obituary "The Passing of Lenin" stated :-
“The first thing Lenin did when in office was to keep his promise. He issued a call for peace to all the belligerents on the basis of’ “no annexations, no indemnities.” This astonished the politicians of the Western Nations to whom election promises are standing jokes.
It was at this point that Lenin made his greatest miscalculation. He believed that the working masses of the western world were so war weary that upon the call from one of the combatants they would rise and force their various Governments to negotiate peace. Unfortunately these masses had neither the knowledge nor the organisation necessary for such a movement, and no response was given to the call, except the snarling demands of the Allies that Russia should continue to send men to be slaughtered. This lack of response was a terrible disappointment to Lenin, but, facing the situation, he opened negotiations for a separate peace with Germany. And here he made a brilliant stroke. To the horror and dismay of all the diplomatic circles in Europe he declared that the negotiations would be carried on in public, and they were.
What then are Lenin’s merits? First in order of time is the fact that he made a clarion call for a world peace. When that failed he concluded a peace for his own country. Upon this first necessary factor he established a Constitution to give him control and, with a skill and judgement unequalled by any European or American statesman, he guided Russia out of its appalling chaos into a position where the services are operating fairly for such an undeveloped country, and where, at least, hunger no longer hangs over the people’s heads. Compare this with the present conditions in Eastern Europe!
Despite his claims at the beginning, he was the first to see the trend of conditions and adapt himself to these conditions. So far was he from “changing the course of history”...it was the course of history which changed him, drove him from one point after another till today Russia stands halfway on the road to capitalism. The Communists, in their ignorance, may howl at this, but Russia cannot escape her destiny."
Julius Martov’s critique of the Bolsheviks is summed up thus:-
"The idea that the "Soviet system" is equal to a definitive break with all the former, bourgeois, forms of revolution, therefore, serves as a screen behind which - imposed by exterior factors and the inner conformation of the proletariat - there are again set in motion methods that have featured the bourgeois revolutions. And those revolutions have always been accomplished by transferring the power of a "conscious minority, supporting itself on an unconscious majority," to another minority finding itself in an identical situation."
The case made by the SPGB that the Bolsheviks supported the soviets in order to help seize power as a minority and not as a instrument of advancing working class interests is supported by no other than Trotsky who in one of his more sober self-assessments explains “Could the Communist Party succeed, during the preparatory epoch, in pushing all other parties out of the ranks of the workers by uniting under its banner the overwhelming majority of workers, then there would be no need whatever for soviets..."
Overall, the SPGB argument is, that the material conditions in Russia meant the development of capitialism, which the Bolsheviks were unable to avoid. In fact, they had to carry it out.