Does it matter?

Some will dismiss our leaflet by saying that it is "old news," that "lessons have been learned" and so on. This does not stop them praising the Bolshevik revolution and urging us to repeat it! Nor does it stop them justifying and rationalising Bolshevik actions, so creating the atmosphere in which such actions will be repeated. Nor does it stop them using the same slogans as before, such as "nationalisation under workers' control," a "workers' government" and so on.

The question is, can libertarian socialist ideas be grafted onto a different conceptual framework? And if so, is it to say anything new or to preserve something old with ideological formaldehyde? Does it represent a real change or simply the appropriation of libertarian socialist rhetoric to hide an authoritarian ideology?

This is not some academic point. The ramifications of Bolshevism appropriating such ideas (or, more correctly, the rhetoric associated with those ideas) has have negative impacts on actual revolutionary movements.

Lenin's definition of "workers' control" is a case in point. As with the ideas of the current anti-capitalist movement, the "factory committees launched the slogan of workers' control of production quite independently of the Bolshevik party. It was not until May [1917] that the party began to take it up." However, Lenin used "the term in a very different sense from that of the factory committees." In fact his "proposals . . . [were] thoroughly statist and centralist in character, whereas the practice of the factory committees was essentially local and autonomous."1 However, the similarities in rhetoric allowed the factory committee movement to put its weight behind the Bolsheviks. Once in power, Lenin's position was implemented while that of the factory committees was ignored (indeed, one Bolshevik resolution complained that "the workers misunderstand and falsely interpret workers' control."2).

Or take the slogan "All power to the Soviets." For anarchists it meant exactly that organs for the working class to run society directly, based on mandated, recallable delegates. As such, this slogan fitted perfectly with our ideas, as anarchists had been arguing since the 1860's that such workers' councils were both a weapon of class struggle against capitalism and the framework of the future libertarian society. For the Bolsheviks, that slogan was simply the means for a Bolshevik government to be formed over and above the soviets. The difference is important, "for the Anarchists declared, if 'power' really should belong to the soviets, it could not belong to the Bolshevik party, and if it should belong to that Party, as the Bolsheviks envisaged, it could not belong to the soviets."3 Reducing the soviets to simply executing the decrees of the central (Bolshevik) government and having their All-Russian Congress be able to recall the government (i.e. those with real power) does not equal "all power," quite the reverse the soviets were simply a fig-leaf for party power.

So when someone says that they, too, are "anti-capitalist" we cannot assume we mean the same thing. As the history of Bolshevism shows, a hostility to private capitalism can hide support for state capitalism and the same slogans can mean different things. And if the Russian Revolution teaches us anything, it teaches us that history does matter and that libertarian slogans can be used as a cover by authoritarians to further their plans. Let us ensure that "anti-capitalism" does not suffer that fate.


1 S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd, p. 154
2 quoted by M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, p. 32
3 Voline, The Unknown Revolution, p. 213


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