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Their democracy and ours
“The working class needs an entirely different kind of state—a democratic workers’ state based on councils of workers’ delegates.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
IN THE Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels write, “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”
There were two very important ideas expressed here; one, that in overthrowing the old ruling classes, the working class must set up its own class rule in order to implement its program of social transformation; and second, that working-class rule would be the democratic rule of the majority.
But beyond these compact phrases, Marx and Engels did not go. Nor could they, because they were anticipating developments that would enrich and clarify their views.
Later, socialists such as Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the German Social Democrats, would interpret the idea of “winning the battle of democracy” to mean that the socialist movement must strive, through electoral means, to seize control of the same state machine that had served to maintain the rule of the capitalists. (At the time, those who believed in a gradualist, parliamentary road to socialism were called “revisionists.” Today, we call them reformists).
That isn’t what the authors of the Communist Manifesto had in mind. The rising of the Parisian workers and the brief existence of the Paris Commune in 1871 was the pivotal event that helped them put more meat on the skeletal structure they had presented in the Manifesto.
“One thing especially was proved by the Commune,” wrote Engels in 1888, quoting one of Marx’s addresses on the Commune, “that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’“
The state, Marx argued in that address, “with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy and judiciary, was nothing but an instrument for the maintenance of capitalist rule.”
“At the same pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labor,” he explained, “the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labor, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.”
All previous revolutions had merely passed control of the state machine from one exploiting class to another, who then made some changes to it to suit its own needs. The capitalists, even in the most democratic republic, had merely refined and expanded the state apparatus, whereas the task of the working class was to do away with the old state machine.
The Commune showed Marx that the working class in revolution not only did away with the old state machine, but also replaced it with the armed people (in Paris, the national guard, under the control of the Parisian workers, seized control of the city to prevent the government from surrendering it to the Prussians, whose army was near the city after defeating the French army of Napoleon III).
The Commune-state established by the workers was based on “municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms,” Marx wrote. All Commune officials were paid workers’ wages, and the Commune “got rid of the standing army and the police.”
Can we abolish the state?
But if the goal for socialists is a classless society, and consequently, a stateless society, why should workers bother with setting up a new state? That was the question that the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin asked in his book State and Anarchy: “If the proletariat is to be the ruling class, over whom will it rule?”
Marx answered Bakunin thus:
“[A]s long as other classes, above all, the capitalist class, still exist, and as long as the proletariat is still fighting against it (for when the proletariat obtains control of the government, its enemies and the old organization of society will not yet have disappeared), it must use forcible means, that is to say, governmental means; as long as it remains a class itself, and the economic conditions which give rise to the class struggle and the existence of classes have not vanished, they must be removed or transformed by force, and the process of transforming them must be accelerated by force.”
To put it simply: if the state is the product of class division, it cannot be abolished until class divisions are eradicated. The workers need their own, democratically organized state—a state, however, that works itself out of a job by doing away with class divisions.
The capitalists had great economic power that had developed under feudalism and absolutism before they assumed political power. But the working class has no economic power unless it has political power—i.e., state power.
The Commune was based on a municipal system of voting. In later revolutions, new systems of working-class democracy were created based on the workplace. In Russia, the workers’ councils, or soviets, became the basis of the workers’ state created in October 1917. The soviets sprang up after the Tsar was overthrown in February 1917 and consisted of revocable delegates elected directly from the workplace (and later also from army regiments and peasant villages).
The American socialist John Reed, in his 1918 article “Soviets in Action,” explains that the workers’ councils “originated in 1905, when, during the first general strike of the workers, Petrograd factories and labor organizations sent delegates to a Central Committee. This Strike Committee was named Council of Workers’ Deputies.”
The 1905 Petersburg Soviet began as a tool to organize the general strike—that is, as an organ of struggle. It soon, however, became more than that. “For a short time,” Reed writes, it “was recognized by the Imperial Government as the authorized spokesman of the revolutionary Russian working class.”
In 1905, the soviet never went beyond being an embryo of a workers’ government. What changed them from institutions of struggle to institutions of power in 1917 was the intervention of radical socialists in the ranks of the working class who made a case for soviet government. In their call “All Power to the Soviets,” the Bolshevik Party was arguing that the soviet was the basis of the future workers’ state if it could strike power from the hands of the capitalists.
As Reed wrote:
“No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will changes with great rapidity. For example, during the first week of December 1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favor of a Constituent Assembly—that is to say, against the Soviet power. One of these parades was fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards, and several people killed.
“The reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within 12 hours, the complexion of the Petrograd Soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik deputies were withdrawn, and replaced by Mensheviki. And it was three weeks before public sentiment subsided—before the Mensheviki were retired one by one and the Bolsheviki sent back.”
Workers’ councils were not specifically Russian institutions. They have sprung up, under various names and forms, in many revolutionary workers’ upheavals. They were created in Germany in 1918 after the Kaiser’s fall; in Hungary in 1919 and again in 1956; in China in 1925. In Chile in the early 1970s—before Pinochet’s coup—they were called cordones.
In virtually every case, they arose as democratic organs of working-class struggle; a way to overcome sectionalism and unite workers across all boundaries of language, nationality, sex and race.
In each case, the workers’ councils had the potential to move from facilitating struggle to becoming organs of power. However, whether workers’ councils can become institutions embodying workers’ rule depends on whether the working class has its own political party prepared to organize and promote it.