The Arab Revolution: The reformist illusion of democratic control of bourgeois governments
by Michael Pröbsting
This text is the English-language translation of an excerpt from a book on the Arab Revolution published by the Revolutionary Communist Organisation for Liberation (RKOB) in early August 2011. The Book – Michael Pröbsting: The Half Revolution. Lessons and Perspectives of the Arab Uprising – is in German language and contains eight chapters. The translation was done by Adam Beltz.
The leaders of the Peoples' Committee hold the incorrect view. For example, Khaled Abdel Shaheed, a leader of the Conference of the Peoples' Committees supports a combination of peoples' committees and bourgeois government. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram quoted him as saying:
"Our ultimate aim is for there to be social monitoring in the coming period for all branches of the government and all institutions as a guarantee of the revolutions' consummation." (1)
The slogan of "government monitoring" by committee or by a popular front party alliance is also supported by various left-wing organizations. We have already shown that the Hoxhaistiche PCOT and the Fourth International in Tunisia or the NPA of France.
But they are not alone. The League for the Fifth International (LFI) uncritically hailed the "Conference of the Peoples' Committees" as a “revolutionary conference” and states that the "monitoring of all branches of government and all institutions as a guarantee of the revolution's consummation" is "absolutely right." (2) Such a policy of support for the illusory "monitoring of bourgeois government to complete the revolution" is anything but "absolutely right." It is completely false and reformist. It is a further sign of the LFI slipping into centrism and away from their existing revolutionary program. "Pure nonsense" is what Lenin had to say about the policy of "monitoring of bourgeois government."
Naturally the desire for social control of political power on the part of the newly formed Peoples' Committees is positive. But the concept of an inclusion of the Peoples' Committees in the bourgeois system of government is what is politically incorrect. It is a dangerous fallacy to believe that such a combination-the bourgeoisie and their government continue to retain power while the Peoples' Committees look over their shoulder to make sure everything goes alright- consummates a revolution. Various centrist and left-reformist forces have clung to such a dangerous illusion. For example, the leaders of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (such as Rudolf Hilferding) and the Austrian left Social Democrat Max Adler were committed to combining the bourgeois parliament with workers' and soldiers' councils under which the latter would have the power of veto on political and cultural decisions. (3)
Even within the Bolshevik party during the fall of 1917 the right wing (under Zinoviev and Kamenev) supported such a reformist approach, which they described as a "combined type of state institutions." In March 1917-before Lenin arrived in Russia – also Stalin himself supported such a reformist policy of "control of government by the Soviets." Thus in a speech given at the party conference of the Bolsheviks on March 29 Stalin argued:
"The power has been divided into two Organs, of which neither one possesses full power. There is and ought to be friction and struggle between them. The roles have been divided. The Soviet has in fact taken the initiative in effecting revolutionary transformations. The Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies is the revolutionary leader of insurrectionary people; an organ of control over the Provisional Government. On the other hand, the Provisional government has in fact taken the role of fortifier of the conquests of the revolutionary people. The Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies mobilized the forces and exersizes control, while the Provisional Government, balking and muddling, takes the role of fortifier of these conquests by the people which they have already seized as a fact. Such a situation has disadvantageous, but also advantageous sides. It is not to our advantage at present to force events, hastening the process of repelling the bourgeois layers, who will in the future inevitably withdraw from us." (4)
Lenin (who was in exile in Switzerland) learned from the bourgeois press about the establishment of a "contact commission" by the Soviets to supervise the Provisional Government. He initially responded positively to the slogan of monitoring the Provisional Government. (5) But a few weeks later, when he returned to Russia and became acquainted with the concrete situation of dual power and noted the difference between the coverage in the newspapers and the reality of bourgeois revolution, he changed his position. From then on he became against the slogan of "control of government by the Soviets." So in early April he laid out a pamphlet opposing the attitude of the petty-bourgeois reformists (Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks) and the Bolsheviks on the question of monitoring the government through the "contact commission" of the Soviets as follows:
"Question: Should the Provisional Government be supported?
Response of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks: It should but on condition that it carries out its agreement with the Soviet and attends the meeting of the Contact Commission.
Response of the Bolsheviks: No; let the capitalists support it. Our job is to prepare the people for full and undivided power wielded by the Soviets.
Question: For undivided power or dual power?
Response of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks: For dual power. The Soviets to exercise "control" over the Provisional Government. It is bad to reflect whether control can be effective without power.
Response of the Bolsheviks: For the undivided power of the Soviets from the bottom up all over the country."
At the Petrograd city conference of Bolsheviks in April 1917 Lenin argues against the "control solution":
"In revolutionary times control means deception. To seek the truth in the contact commission is impossible. there can be no control without power. To control by means of resolutions, etc., is sheer nonsense. Control means dispelling the petty-bourgeois illusions, fog." (6)
At the Petrograd City Conference of the Bolshevik Party Lenin argued against the supporters of the slogan for “controll”:
"Control in a revolutionary period is a swindle. (…) Without power one ca not control." (7)
As Trotsky said, Stalin soon rejected the slogan of government control by the Soviets.
"Only after the lesson of the April days, Stalin at last came out against the theory of benevolent "control" over the Provisional Government, cautiously retreating from his own previous position." (8)
The Comintern and Trotsky on the mixture of bourgeois and working class power
The rejection of the centrist theory of mixing a combination of soviet and bourgeois government was a cornerstone of the Bolsheviks and the Communist International. In an article on the founding of the Communist International Lenin denounced the policies of the centrist Independent Socialists in Germany, which strove for such a connection of the councils and parliament:
"This manifesto accuses the Scheidemanns of wanting to abolish the Workers ' Councils, and proposes - don't laugh - that the Councils be combined with the Assembly, that the Councils be granted certain political rights, a certain place in the constitution.
To reconcile, to unite the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat! How simple! What a brilliantly philistine idea.
The only pity is that it was tried in Russia under Kerensky, by the united Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, those petty-bourgeois democrats who imagine themselves socialists.
Anyone who has read Marx and failed to understand that in capitalist society, at every acute moment, in every serious class conflict, the alternative is either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie or the dictatorship of the proletariat, has understood nothing of either the economic or the political doctrines of Marx.
But the brilliantly philistine idea of Hilferding, Kautsky, and Co. of peacefully combining the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat requires special examination, if exhaustive treatment is to be given to the economic and political absurdities with which this most remarkable and comical manifesto of February 11 is packed." (9)
In his "Lessons of October", where in 1924 Trotsky generalized the experiences of the October Revolution and undertook a severe criticism of the centrist drift of the Stalin/Zinoviev/Kamenev leadership as well as the Menshevik policies including the "control" of bourgeois government"
"Lenin's position was this: an irreconcilable struggle against defensism and its supporters; the capture of the Soviet majority; the overthrow of the Provisional Government; the seizure of power through the soviets; a revolutionary peace policy and a program of socialist revolution at home and of international revolution abroad. In distinction to this, as we already know, the opposition held the view that it was necessary to complete the democratic revolution by exerting pressure on the Provisional Government and in this process the soviets would remain the organs of "control" over the power of the bourgeoisie." (10)
And further: "We are to participate in a block with the petty-bourgeoisie and exercise control over the bourgeois power until the bourgeois revolution has been completely accomplished. The pattern is obviously Menshevik. Imitating in a doctrinaire fashion the tasks of the revolution by its nomenclature (a "bourgeois" revolution), one could not fail to arrive at the policy of exercizing control over the Provisional Government and demanding that the Provisional Government should bring forward a policy of peace without annexations, and so on." (11)
The centrist Italian communists developed a similar idea to Hilferding and Zinoviev/Kamenev in the 1920's. The stood for a "Republican Assembly based on the Workers' and Peasants' Committees”. Trotsky vehemently rejected this improper mixing of bourgeois and proletarian organs. He wrote:
"Class organs of the workers and poor peasants...always constitute organizations of struggle against the bourgeois state, then become organs of insurrection, to be transformed finally, after the victory, into organs of the proletarian dictatorship. How, under these conditions can a Republican Assembly - supreme organ of the bourgeois state - have as its basis organs of the proletarian state?" (12)
Now a centrist could argue: "But then why have Lenin and Trotsky demanded the slogan of workers control in the factories with relevant veto rights for the delegates of the employees at the companies' leadership? Perhaps Lenin and Trotsky made a mistake when they rejected the slogan of "workers control" over the bourgeois government?"
The answer is clearly: no. These comrades have overlooked several things. First, the solutions cited include the "supervision of government" by bourgeois and reformist parties or by committees, which are usually referred to as embryonic councils although they normally don’t develop into councils of action.
Secondly - and this is far more important - a “control” of the bourgeois state apparatus is not possible and leads inevitably to corruption and capitalist integration of the councils in the bourgeois state apparatus. This is because the specifics of the proletarian revolution consists in the fact that the critical and qualitative turning point is precisely in the destruction of the political power of the bourgeoisie - ie, the political state apparatus of the ruling class. Dual power does not mean a combination of two opposing class institutions - be it as simple as "monitoring" like a counselor. For such an understanding - to put it in Trotsky's words - "The organ of the bourgeoisie and the organ of the proletariat - were to be combined in a peaceful system of dual power." (13)
By such an institutionalization the people of the councils/committees are integrated into the capitalist state and thus become bourgeois. The Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky criticized - based on the experience with the councils of the revolutions in Europe 1917-1920 - such a strategy of "mixed political systems":
"The attempt by the social traitors in Germany to clip the soviets' (the Russian word for council) wings, debase them, and incorporate them into the overall bourgeois-democratic constitutional system is a betrayal of the workers' cause and misleads the workers. For real soviets are only possible as a form of state organization that supersedes bourgeois democracy, shatters it, and replaces it with a workers' dictatorship.
The propaganda by right-wing leaders of the Independents (Hilferding and Kautsky, among others) aimed at demonstrating that the "soviet system" is compatible with a bourgeois national assembly either shows a complete lack of understanding of the laws of development of the proletarian revolution or is a conscious effort to mislead the working class. Soviets mean the dictatorship of the proletariat. National assembly means the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. It is not possible to unite and reconcile workers' dictatorship with dictatorship by the bourgeoisie." (14)
No, the role of councils/committees would be rather that they become real. For this they must integrate the oppressed classes. Their task is not to "supervise" the existing bourgeois government, but to fight and overthrow it.
The mixture of bourgeois and working class power in the light of the experience of the October Revolution
In his great book on the history of the 1917 revolution, Trotsky once again addressed the opportunistic theory of the combined form of government and set out the central arguments of both sides:
“The touchstone of a revolutionary political leader is the question of the state. In their letter against the insurrection of October 11th Zinoviev and Kamenev wrote: “With correct tactics we can win a third, yes and more than a third, of the seats in the Constituent Assembly. . . . The Constituent Assembly plus the Soviet, that is the combined type of state institution toward which we are travelling.” The “correct tactics” meant a renunciation of the conquest of power by the proletariat. The “combined type” of state meant a combination of the Constituent Assembly, in which the bourgeois parties would constitute two-thirds, with the soviets, where the party of the proletariat was in command. This type of combined state subsequently formed the basis of Hilferding’s idea of including the soviets in the Weimar constitution. General Lisingen, commandant of the Mark of Brandenburg, in forbidding the formation of soviets on November 7, 1918, on the ground that “institutions of this kind conflict with the existing state order,” showed at least a great deal more penetration than the Austro-Marxists and the German Independent Party.
Lenin gave warning in April that the Constituent Assembly would sink into a subordinate place. However, neither he himself nor the party as a whole ever during the year 1917 formally renounced the idea of democratic representation, it being impossible to declare confidently in advance how far the revolution would go. It was assumed that having seized the power, the soviets would succeed soon enough in winning the army and the peasants so that the Constituent Assembly – especially after a broadening of the electorate (Lenin proposed in particular to lower the voting age to 18) – would give a majority to the Bolsheviks, and merely supply a formal sanction to the soviet regime. In this sense Lenin sometimes spoke of a “combined type” of state – that is, of an accommodation of the Constituent Assembly to the soviet dictatorship. The thing actually developed along different lines. In spite of Lenin’s insistence, the Central Committee could not make up its mind after the conquest of power to postpone for a few weeks the call for the Constituent Assembly – although without this it was impossible either to broaden the electorate or, what is most important, give the peasants a chance to re-define their relation to the Social Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks. The Constituent Assembly came into conflict with the Soviet and was dissolved. The hostile camps represented in the Constituent Assembly entered upon a civil war which lasted for years. In the system of soviet dictatorship not even a secondary place was found for democratic representation. The question of the “combined type” was withdrawn in fact. Theoretically, however, it retained all its importance, as was subsequently proven by the experiment of the Independent Party in Germany.
In 1924 when Stalin, obedient to the demands of an inner-party struggle first attempted to make an independent appraisal of the past, he came to the defence of Zinoviev’s “combined state,” supporting himself in this with a reference to Lenin. “Trotsky does not understand . - the peculiarities of Bolshevik tactics when he snorts at the theory of a combination of the Constituent Assembly with the soviets as Hilferdingism,” wrote Stalin in his characteristic manner. “Zinoviev, whom Trotsky is ready to turn into a Hilferdingist, wholly and completely shares the point of view of Lenin.” This means that seven years after the theoretical and political battles of 1917, Stalin had completely failed to understand that with Zinoviev as with Hilferding it was a question of bringing into accord and reconciling the powers of two classes, the bourgeoisie through the Constituent Assembly and the proletariat through the soviets, whereas with Lenin it was question of combining two institutions expressing the power of one and the same class, the proletariat. The idea of Zinoviev, as Lenin explained at the time, was opposed to the very foundation of the Marxian teaching about the state. With the power in the hands of the soviets,“ wrote Lenin against Zinoviev and Kamenev on October 17th, ”the ’combined type’ would be accepted by everybody. But to drag in under the title ’combined type’ a refusal to transfer the power to the soviets . . . is it possible to find a parliamentary expression for that¿‘ We see, then, that in order to evaluate this idea of Zinoviev, which Stalin declares to be ”a peculiarity of Bolshevik tactics“ supposedly not understood by Trotsky, Lenin found it difficult even to find a parliamentary expression, although he was not distinguished by an excessive squeamishness in these matters. A little over a year later Lenin wrote, applying the same thought to Germany: ”The attempt to combine the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with the dictatorship of the proletariat is a complete renunciation both of Marxism and of socialism in general.“ Could Lenin indeed have written otherwise?
The ”combined type“ of Zinoviev was essentially an attempt to eternalize the dual power – that is, a revival of the experiment completely exhausted by the Mensheviks. And if Stalin in 1924 was still standing on the same ground with Zinoviev on this question, it means that in spite of his adherence to the theses of Lenin, he has nevertheless remained at least halfway true to that philosophy of dual power which he himself developed in his report of March 29, 1917: ”The roles have been divided. The Soviet has in fact taken the initiative in the revolutionary transformation. . . . The Provisional Government has in fact taken the role of fortifier of the conquests of the revolutionary people.“ The mutual relations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are here defined as a simple division of labor.” (15)
Particularly absurd, although consistent in the logic of reformism, is the idea of "completing the revolution" with the combination of bourgeois government and "committees." How should a merger of the dictatorship of the proletariat (we leave the usually embryonic nature of the peoples' committees aside) and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie complete the revolution? A revolution in the interests of which class? In the interests of the bourgeoisie? The proletariat cannot and must not complete such a revolution, for it will be at their own expense. A revolution in the interests of the proletariat? Such an upheaval will in turn provoke the most violent opposition of the bourgeoisie.
Either one understands this Marxist principle or one slides into reformism. It is thus hardly surprising that the idea of soviet "control" of bourgeois governments neither in Trotsky's Transitional Program nor in programmatic texts of Marxist classics appears.
In his "Lessons of the Revolution" Trotsky characterized the strategy of "mixed state systems" as indicative of centrist forces as they "fight against the seizure of power by the proletariat." (16)
Dual power in the Marxist sense is the temporary coexistence of two mutually hostile and irreconcilable class organs - a coexistence that sooner or later must end with the victory of one and the defeat of the other. Bolshevik communists fight for the confrontation, for the fight of the soviets against the bourgeois government and against centrist distortion of "supervision"- the combination of soviet and bourgeois government.
(1) Yassin Gaber: Popular committees hold first general conference, 22 Apr 2011, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContentPrint/1/0/10556/Egypt/0/Popular-committees-hold-first-general-conference.aspx
(2) siehe Markus Halaby/Jeremy Drinkall: Egypt: the struggle for freedom continues (Workers Power Nr. 354, Mai 2011, http://www.workerspower.co.uk/2011/04/egypt-struggle-for-freedom/;
(3) See on this e.g.: Raimund Löw: Theorie und Praxis des Austromarxismus; in: Raimund Löw/Sigfried Mattl, Alfred Pfabigan: Der Austromarxismus – eine Autopsie, Frankfurft a.M. 1986, S. 69ff.
(4) Josef Stalin: Report on the attitude to the Provisional Government (29.3.1917); in: Leo Trotzki: The Stalin School of Falsification (1932), London 1974, S. 186f. The minutes of this conference were never published in the USSR under the Stalin regime.
(5) See W. I. Lenin: Briefe aus der Ferne. Brief 2 (1917), in: LW 23, S. 332; Second Letter from afar
(6) W. I. Lenin: Die politischen Parteien in Rußland und die Aufgaben des Proletariats. (1917), in: LW 24, S. 84f.; Political Parties in Russia and the Tasks of the Proletariat, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/x02.htm
(7) W. I. Lenin: Zwei Entgegnungen in der Diskussion zur Resolution über die Stellung zur Provisorischen Regierung (1917), in: LW 24, S. 138f.
(8) Leo Trotzki: Geschichte der Russischen Revolution, Frankfurt a. M., 1973, Band 1, S. 301; The History of the Russian Revolution, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/download/hrr-vol1.pdf
(9) W. I. Lenin: Die Dritte Internationale und ihr Platz in der Geschichte (1919), in: LW 29, S. 301f.; The Third International and Its Place in History, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/apr/15.htm
(10) Leo Trotzki: Die Lehren des Oktober (1924); in: Die Linke Opposition in der Sowjetunion 1923-1928, Band II, S. 210; The Lessons of October, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lessons/1924-les.pdf
(11) Leo Trotzki: Die Lehren des Oktober (1924); in: Die Linke Opposition in der Sowjetunion 1923-1928, Band II, S. 211; The Lessons of October, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lessons/1924-les.pdf
(12) Leo Trotzki: Problems of the Italian Revolution (1930); in: Writings 1930, S. 221f.
(13) Leo Trotzki: Geschichte der Russischen Revolution, Frankfurt a. M., 1973, Band 2.2, S. 820; The History of the Russian Revolution, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/download/hrr-vol3.pdf
(14) Leitsätze über die Bedingungen der Bildung von Arbeiterräten. Resolution des II. Weltkongreß der Kommunistischen Internationale, in: Die Kommunistische Internationale, Manifeste, Thesen und Resolutionen, Band I, Köln 1984, S.196f.; Theses on the Conditions under which Workers' Soviets may be Formed, http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/doc02.htm
(15) Leo Trotzki: Geschichte der Russischen Revolution, Frankfurt a. M., 1973, Band 2.2, S. 995f.; The History of the Russian Revolution, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/download/hrr-vol3.pdf
(16) Leo Trotzki: Die Lehren des Oktober (1924); in: Die Linke Opposition in der Sowjetunion 1923-1928, Band II, S. 220; The Lessons of October, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lessons/1924-les.pdf