The election of the radical left-wing SYRIZA party in Greece and a possible victory of the similarly radical party Podemos in Spain has raised the hopes of millions of people across Europe and the globe that we can put an end to austerity-type policies, put in place policies that will protect working people from the capitalist crisis and advance society to a new era of social justice governments.
The SYRIZA victory and the electoral victories of left-wing governments in Latin America over the past 15 years have placed on the political agenda the issue of whether socialists can use elections in capitalist society as springboards to a deeper revolutionary socialist transformation of society in the interests of the majority of working people.
Many socialists had rejected this possibility. They claim to be arguing in the tradition of a “genuine socialism” that supposedly understands that any attempt to follow this course will only lead to defeat for working people, as occurred in Chile in 1973, when the military overthrew the elected socialist president Salvador Allende and imposed a vicious dictatorship. These socialists also claim that this is essentially the experience of all revolutionary socialist movements since the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Lessons of the Russian Revolution
I agree that the 1917 Russian Revolution has provided important lessons for socialists wanting to transform society and bring working people to power.
The revolution had a profoundly democratic and popular character. It attracted support from around the world, including in New Zealand from then-leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, Harry Holland.
An important part of the Russian revolutionary experience was the formation of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils or “soviets” as elected and representative institutions that organised the new republic to deal with the crises and hunger resulting from the terrible world war into which the tsarist monarchy and its imperialist allies had plunged the country. These soviets emerged with the first revolution in February 1917, which overthrew the tsarist monarchy. They formed a type of counter power to the new government that was based in the discredited tsarist parliament and consisted of parties representing the capitalists and landlords who wanted to continue the hated war and refused to carry out land reform and a host of other revolutionary measures that the masses of people were demanding. The period from February to October 1917 (using the old calendar in use at the time) in Russia was dubbed a period of “dual power”.
Campaigning for “peace, bread and land”, the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and its allies eventually gained a majority in the soviets. It was a national congress of these soviets that assumed power in October and, in the immortal words of Lenin to the congress, began “the construction of a new, socialist order”. The majority of the Soviet congress elected a coalition government consisting of the Bolshevik and Left Social Revolutionary parties. The Bolsheviks had majority support in the major cities and the Left SR’s had majority support in the countryside.
Almost immediately, a civil war was launched against the revolutionary government by the capitalists and landlords who saw their interests threatened. They were supported by nearly every imperialist power in existence at that time – Great Britain, France, Japan, the US. By siding with the counter-revolution and with the foreign imperialists, choosing military weapons as their method of “discussion”, the non-revolutionary parties excluded themselves from the Soviet structures. The exigencies of civil war soon corroded the internal democracy of the Soviets and a bureaucracy began to grow into an uncontrollable force.
The bureaucracy was a product of the terrible destruction of the civil war in both human and material terms. The resulting conditions of harsh, material want; death of many, many key cadre; and low cultural level of the country to begin with (illiteracy) combines to allow the bureaucracy to overthrow the direct rule of the working class through the soviets.
The bureaucracy found its political representative in Joseph Stalin, who turned the country into a police state and murdered nearly all of the generation that made the revolution, including nearly all of the Central Committee members of his own party, the Bolsheviks. The bureaucracy claimed to rule in the name of socialism and workers’ power but only represented their own narrow material privileges. Many decades later, the descendants of the original caste of bureaucrats in the Soviet Union and in East Europe led the restoration of capitalism, including the privatisation of the vestiges of collective property that still remained by the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Among the presumed lessons of the Russian Revolution drawn by revolutionaries in other countries in the immediate aftermath of 1917 was that the process of formation of workers’ and peasants’ councils (soviets) would be repeated elsewhere, with only modest variation, if genuine socialism was to form. This would be especially true, it was thought, in more advanced capitalist countries like Germany, where workers made up a much larger proportion of the population than in Russia and therefore soviet-type councils were even more likely to form and would wield even greater power.
This seemed to be confirmed by the revolutionary crisis that erupted in Germany in 1918 and led directly to the defeat of German imperialism in World War I. As in Russia, councils of workers and of soldiers and sailors arose. They challenged the existing capitalist government for power. The advance to workers’ power seemed to be connected to the spread of these councils rather than elections to parliament.
But these workers’ councils were undermined and subverted from within, including through clever methods by Germany’s experienced social-democratic leaders by appearing to favour the soviets, all the better to prepare to strangle them. The German soviets lost momentum and became disoriented. Eventually, they were disbanded by force as the social-democratic led government of defeated Germany led a counter-revolution.
The revolutionary waves that followed in Germany during the early 1920s didn’t necessarily follow the same “soviet” formula and the possibility of winning elections to the existing state and federal government structures became a topic of discussion. The question was asked as to whether a revolutionary majority could be won in the capitalist governing institutions that could stimulate the further advance of the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. The congress of the Communist International that convened in 1922 and discussed this very issue answered in the affirmative.
A revolutionary upsurge in China in 1925-27 was accompanied by the formations of workers’ and peasants’ councils, but the bourgeois-landlord Chiang Kai Shek regime launched a bloody counterrevolution against the young Communist Party of China and the survivors retreated to the countryside to launch a prolonged revolutionary war, which eventually triumphed in 1949.
A period of revolutionary upsurge and contestation for power in many countries of Europe in the 1930s was defeated, resulting in the elimination of bourgeois democracy and formation of fascist governments in Italy, Germany and Spain.
The lesson of this period in history seemed to be that before a revolutionary working-class party or parties can win a majority in a country and have the possibility of winning an election to a parliament, all forms of democracy will be destroyed by the capitalist class. And they will use all the most vicious and murderous ideologies and methods to achieve their goals if need be. Capitalist “civilisation” will be crushed under the heel of the fascist jackboot with the capitalists and landlords cheering the brown shirts on.
Following World War II, a war allegedly in support of democracy and against fascism, the “democratic” imperialists – France, the Netherlands, Britain and the USA – sought to reestablish colonial rule in the places where it was weakened and being challenged, such as China, Vietnam and Indonesia. It also embarked on crushing the strong leftwing movements that arose during the war, to the point of threatening capitalist rule — in France, Greece and Italy, in particular.
Even after independence, the former imperialists manipulated and attacked the new governments to force them to become simply vassals to preserve the interests of the major capitalist corporations extracting their wealth from the natural resources and labour that existed there. Where they could, right wing military regimes were established to prevent the working class and peasants asserting their interests.
The only victories for revolutionary movements seemed to come when the revolutionary forces already had a military force and territory under their control and were able to establish a form of “dual power” on a geographic and political level where they could contest for power. This occurred in China, Korea, Vietnam and Laos.
The Cuban revolution triumphed in 1959 after a relatively short revolutionary guerrilla war of a little over two-years led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The revolution has maintained Cuba’s independence and freedom ever since. In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation front (FSLN) triumphed over the Somoza family dictatorship in Nicaragua after a decade-long armed revolt. An armed uprising in tiny Grenada established a revolutionary government led by Maurice Bishop in 1979.
It seemed that there was little chance of a popular revolution in the interests of working people without an immediate confrontation with military or fascist dictatorships or outright imperialist invasion. The appeared to be true whether you lived in a capitalist state with democratic forms or a dictatorship.
In those circumstances, discussing what would happen if socialists won an election and were determined to overthrow the capitalist system and bring in a genuine socialist democracy based on real institutions of people’s power seemed academic. The initial discussion of that possibility by the Communist International in its early years in the 1920s was forgotten or ignored, seemingly having no relevance to current circumstances.
Another aspect of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution also bore down on revolutionary thinking. Because of the extreme polarisation of society during the revolution, Russia ended up with virtually all the parties opposing the revolution joining the armed revolt against it. The revolution was turned into a one-party state. Stalinism turned that de facto reality into a permanent principle. In addition, the fact that virtually every capitalist and landlord joined the armed opposition, together with the need to mobilise all resources for survival during the civil war, had led to the rapid nationalisation of virtually all aspects of economic life.
Such a rapid process was never intended by the Bolshevik Party leaders. They planned for the nationalisation of banking, key industries and transport, but they wanted to leave much of the economy in private hands during a period of transition that could stretch for some years. As soon as the civil war ended, the Bolsheviks began to allow private commodity production to recover in those less centralised economic spheres where the state couldn’t be expected to be as efficient or effective in production and distribution. They advised those who wanted to follow their example to learn from the Bolsheviks and “effect a slower, more cautious and more systematic transition to socialism”.
The socialist program had initially been for the “commanding heights” of the economy to be nationalised. These would include the big banks, railways, energy production and telecommunications. That would allow the working class to democratically plan all strategic economic development. Small businesses and farmers would be encouraged to enter into cooperative relations by example and persuasion rather than the use of force. However, Stalinism could brook no competition in economic or political terms and opted for the suppression of all commodity production outside the state.
The victory of Stalin’s Russia over Nazi Germany in World War II meant the extension of this bureaucratic form of state control into countries of liberated Eastern Europe, where workers and peasants wanted an end to capitalist rule. For a period of several decades in Russia and Eastern Europe, the state-controlled economies grew at a rapid rate. But when it came to being able to creatively advance with new technologies, these economies lacked either the motive of private profit or the creativity of free thinking individuals. Economic life stagnated.
Despite the continuing existence of broad sympathy for democratic socialist ideas, the bureaucrats and their ideologues saw only the restoration of private profit as the way out — for them that is. The majority of the people were excluded from any say in what happened and were too demoralised and alienated from the regimes to see any point in opposing their overthrow. However the price workers have paid for the restoration of capitalism has been horrendous.
Example of Bolivia and Venezuela
I mention this experience because the failure of the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia to nationalise even more of economic life than they have already is seen by some on the left as a sign that they are not really socialists. Whilst there remains some decisive sectors like banking that will need to be nationalised before socialist economic forms can become predominant, it is not necessary to nationalise the small traders and businesses in which large numbers of people are engaged for survival.
Tens of thousands of working people in the barrios of Caracas and Laz Pas and other modern urban cities are actually small business people by definition but have been enthusiastic supporters of the revolutionary process. Industrial workers in large factories and farms are only a small percentage of the working population and while they can play a leading role through their unions and communities, they need allies among the “petty-bourgois” layers, especially among the small farmers. The desire of the revolutionary governments to minimise economic disruption and protect the jobs and living standards of their supporters is a smart tactic. It is also necessary to train a whole new layer of revolutionary minded professionals to provide some of the technical expertise needed.
Some of the challenges a revolution can face were demonstrated by fact that the “bosses” of the state-owned oil company in Venezuela, who had been sucking the company and therefore the country dry for decades, were able to virtually shut the industry down for three months from December 2002 to February 2003 as part of the attempts by the capitalist class as a whole to overthrow the Chavez government. Defeating that strike was a mini-civil war all in itself. Thousands of managers were sacked and replaced by retired workers, overseas experts and newly promoted and retrained workers. Chavez called this process the renationalisation of the oil company. Once normality had been restored the income available to the state multiplied many fold and has been able to be used in the interests of the people for the first time.
The oil income has also allowed the government to bypass direct challenges to some parts of the existing state that are oriented to the needs of the rich and build new popular institutions to deliver needed health and education services to the majority.
However the challenges remaining are huge. The capitalists are continuing to hoard goods, conduct black-market operations and speculation, and even sabotage production. They hope to break the link between the revolutionary leaders and the mass of the people. Many state institutions like the police remain very corrupt and have been controlled by local city authorities where the capitalists and landlords remain influential. The military however seems largely to have been purged of its right-wing officers who had joined various coup attempts against Chavez and lost.
Many attempts have been made to develop alternative institutions of popular power to the existing system of representation. The modest progress in this area until recently is also a sign that this process is not simply a case of a leader or bureaucrat issuing and instruction and, hey presto, it is done. It requires patient work organising and mobilising people in new and creative ways. A review of this process published by NACLA called “The Communal State: Communal Councils, Communes, and Workplace Democracy” deals with many of the problems that process faced under Chavez but which continues under the new President Nicolas Maduro. They wrote:
In January 2007, Chávez proposed to go beyond the bourgeois state by building the communal state. He thus picked up and applied more widely a concern originating with anti-systemic forces. The main idea was to form council structures of all kinds (communal councils, communes, and communal cities, for example), as bottom up structures of self-administration. Councils of workers, students, peasants, and women, among others, would then have to cooperate and coordinate on a higher level in order to gradually replace the bourgeois state with a communal state. According to the National Plan for Economic and Social Development 2007-2013, “since sovereignty resides absolutely in the people, the people can itself direct the state, without needing to delegate its sovereignty as it does in indirect or representative democracy.”
In his government plan for 2013-2019, presented during the electoral campaign for the 2012 presidential elections, Chávez stated clearly “We should not betray ourselves: the still dominant socio-economic formation in Venezuela is of capitalist and rentist character.”14 In order to move further towards socialism, Chávez underlined the necessity to advance in the construction of communal councils, communes and communal cities, and the “development of social property on the basic and strategic factors and means of production.”15 His successor, Nicolás Maduro, committed to the program, and one of the central slogans of the movements supporting his electoral campaign was “Comuna o nada”.
The Venezuelan government has advanced a course that has deepened the revolutionary process and sought to expand the power of working people and survived for 15 years. Socialists need to learn from this example of what may be possible if socialist forces committed to radically changing the power relations in society in the interests of working people may be able to do.
This doesn’t mean we should minimise the dangers. In fact we need to be constantly aware of those dangers. Imperialism and the local ruling class have sought to undermine, overthrow and destroy the Bolivarian revolution by any means necessary. But a smart, determined, revolutionary approach that takes the mass of the people with you in steps that are sensible and achievable at each stage of the process is a necessary part of our tool kit for revolutionary change.
As Maurice Bishop, the assassinated leader of revolutionary Grenada, commented, it is wrong to think that “a revolution is like instant coffee; you just throw it in a cup and it comes out presto”. Bishop himself was overthrown by a secret faction strongly influenced by Stalinist administrative and bureaucratic methods. This faction claimed to want to push the revolution forward but had no understanding of the need to patiently organise and educate working people to take on tasks that matched the level of consciousness and the objective class relations and material conditions and level of development. The end result of their seizure of power was to disarm and demoralise the workers and farmers of Grenada and open the door to invasion by the US under President Reagan in 1983.
Elections in capitalist ‘democracies’
Participation in elections in advanced capitalist “democracies” has been steadily declining in recent decades. In the USA, the last presidential election attracted 55% of the voting-age population and the recent House of Representatives election only 33% participated. The great Republican Party election win in 2014 was achieved with 16% of the voting-age population voting for it
Even in the polarised Greek election, where the stakes seemed very high, one in three did not participate. But the example of the elected SYRIZA-led Greek government standing up for the people against international capital has seen support for it soar. New polls show that 56%-60% are pleased with the election result and 70% believe SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras would make a good prime minister. Similar huge majority support has been in evidence for the left governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Clearly, new methods of engaging people meaningfully in decisions about their future needs to be developed and the old systems aren’t delivering that. Socialists are correct to seek new forms of direct democracy that have mandated representatives. But I think it is also legitimate to have geographic assemblies based on universal suffrage where individuals and parties present alternative programs for discussion and debate. There must also be opportunities in the age of 24/7 television, radio and internet to have a genuine mass participation in debates and informed decision making that have never been available as readily before. Any elected representatives should earn no more than the average wage and be subject to recall if they don’t deliver.
Often it is true that organs of popular power have emerged in revolutionary situations and were not able to develop because the parties of the parliamentary left were opposed to that happening. That was certainly true for Spain from 1936-39 and at least partly true for Chile in 1970-73. But it could have been radically different if the party that had a parliamentary majority supported the growth of organs of popular power while pursuing a program of social measures that was able to win majority support in the country.
‘We haven’t chosen the terrain. We have inherited it. We have the government, but we don’t have power’
I am convinced it would be a mistake for genuine socialists to think that they cannot win majorities in parliaments in capitalist democracies and that this initial, limited and partial power cannot be used to lead broader and deeper struggles to transform society. This was eloquently put by Podemos leader Pablo Igesias, who deserves the last word in this discussion:
But I don’t want my speech today to be a compendium of sterile encouragement. We are among comrades, and it’s time now to accept responsibility for the difficulty of the tasks confronting us.
I just got back from Latin America. There I was able to meet with Evo Morales, with Rafael Correa, and with Pepe Mujica. I am sure that many of you were excited when you saw State of Siege by Costas Gavras and learned about the Tupamaros. Today, an ex-guerrilla, a Tupamaro, is president of Uruguay.
I also met with many government ministers and political leaders. Among them was the son of Miguel Enriquez, leader of the MIR [Movement of the Revolutionary Left], who died in combat in 1974 in Chile. It was moving to remember the Chilean experience — the experience of democratic socialism to which we also aspire.
But upon seeing the son of Enriquez, I remembered what Salvador Allende said to the young members of the MIR: “We haven’t chosen the terrain. We have inherited it. We have the government, but we don’t have power.” That bitter clarity of Allende is something I also found among our brother-presidents in Latin America. What we have ahead of us is not going to be an easy road. We first have to win the elections — and only afterwards will the real difficulties begin.
The polls say that in Greece SYRIZA will win the next election. In Spain the polls say that [Podemos has] already passed the Socialist Party, that we are competing to become the second strongest electoral force in the country, and that every day we are seen more and more as the real opposition force.
We already have more than 130,000 members, and we will leave our constituent assembly next month with our organizational muscle ready. It will be hard, but it’s entirely possible that Podemos in Spain, like SYRIZA in Greece and Sinn Fein in Ireland, will lead a political change. But it is essential that we understand that winning an election does not mean winning power.
To speak of fiscal reform, an audit of the national debt, of collective control over the strategic sectors of the economy, of defense and improvement of public services, of the recovery of sovereign powers and our industrial fabric, of employment policies through investment, of favoring consumption, and of ensuring that public financial entities protect small and medium enterprises and families is what any social democrat in Western Europe would have talked about thirty or forty years ago.
But today, a program like this means a threat to the global financial powers. There is a worldwide party that is much stronger than the Third International was. It’s the party of Wall Street, which has functionaries everywhere. These functionaries have many ID cards. Some have cards from New Democracy, others from PASOK, others from Merkel’s CDU, others from the Socialist Party in Spain or France. Juncker, Merkel, Rajoy, Samaras, Hollande, andRenzi are all members of the same party — the party of Wall Street. They are the Finance International.
This is why, no matter how modest our objectives are, no matter how wide the consensus in our societies regarding them is, we must not lose sight that we are confronting a minority with a lot of power, with very few scruples, and fearful of the electoral results when their parties don’t win. Don’t forget that the powerful almost never accept the results of elections when they don’t like them.
Brothers and sisters, we have a historic task of enormous dimensions ahead of us. What we have to do goes far beyond getting electoral support. We are called upon to defend democracy and sovereignty, but what’s more, we have to defend them on a terrain, like Allende said, that we ourselves have not chosen.
That’s why we have to deal with sectarians strictly. Revolutionaries are not defined by the t-shirts that they wear. They are not defined by converting theoretical tools into a religion. The duty of a revolutionary is not to take pictures of themselves with a hammer and sickle — the duty of a revolutionary is to win.
That’s why our duty is to get closer to civil society. We need the best with us. We need the best economists, the best scientists, the best public sector workers, in order to manage the administration and carry out viable and effective public policies.
Patriotism is not threatening someone, or believing you are better because you have another skin color, or because you speak a language, or because you were born where your mother’s water broke.
The true patriots know that to be proud of your country is to see that all the children — no matter where they come from — go to schools clean, clothed, well-fed, and with shoes on their feet. To love your country is to defend that your grandparents have a pension and that if they get sick that they are attended to in the best public hospitals.
We also need to strengthen our ties with workers in the public finance office, and all other public offices. Some believe that it’s the leaders who make the hospitals, schools, media, and transportation work. They are not the ones who make sure that public facilities are clean, so that they can be used — it’s a lie.
It’s workers who take countries forward. And I know that many who work in public administration wish that people like us were governing, so that they could do their jobs, and that they are sick of corrupt and useless leaders, like we have had up until now.
We must finally work together — in Europe and for Europe. It’s not necessary to read Karl Marx to know that there are no definitive solutions within the framework of the nation-state. For that reason we must help each other and make ourselves be seen as an alternative for all of Europe.
Winning elections is far from winning power. That’s why we must bring together everyone who is committed to change and decency, which is nothing more than turning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a manual for government.
Our aim today, unfortunately, is not the withering away of the state, or the disappearance of prisons, or that Earth become a paradise. But we do aim, as I said, to make it so that all children go to public schools clean and well-fed; that all the elderly receive a pension and be taken care of in the best hospitals; that any young person — independently of who their parents are — be able to go to college; that nobody have their heat turned off in the winter because they can’t pay their bill; that no bank be allowed to leave a family in the street without alternative housing; that everyone be able to work in decent conditions without having to accept shameful wages or conditions; that the production of information in newspapers and on television not be a privilege of multi-millionaires; that a country not have to kneel down before foreign speculators.
In one word: that a society be able to provide the basic material conditions that make happiness and dignity possible.
These modest objectives that today seem so radical simply represent democracy. Tomorrow is ours, brothers and sisters!