The Bolsheviks did not 'smash' the old state

by Ed Rooksby / November 3, 2019

Theory and Strategy  }
Debates between partisans of “reform” or “revolution” presume that the Bolsheviks really “smashed” the Tsarist state. What if this isn’t true? 2975 words / 12 min read

The recent debate that has broken out over the legacy of Karl Kautsky signals a very welcome return to fundamental questions of socialist strategy today – part of a wider reassessment of classic arguments on matters of reform and revolution that have acquired a new currency and sense of relevance in the context of the resurgence of left wing politics especially in Britain and the US.

As so often, this debate really shakes down into a confrontation between those arguing for a (pro-Kautsky) strategic orientation that seeks to combine electoral and parliamentary activity on the one hand, with extra-parliamentary mobilisation on the other, versus a (pro-Lenin) strategy that hinges on the need for the insurrectionary overthrow of the existing parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of soviets (workers’ councils).

What divides them is of course the question of the relevance and applicability of this insurrectionary orientation in the context of advanced capitalist democratic states today. But what both sides in this debate share in common is an assumption that this ‘Leninist’ strategy was actually put into effect (however briefly it lasted) in Russia in 1917.

The classic text, in this respect, is of course Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution. It’s here that Lenin first set out the overall strategic approach in relation to the state and the question of the socialist exercise of power that would come to define what became known as ‘Leninism’.

Whatever the ambiguities in Lenin’s vision of the (withering) proletarian state to come, the core argument of the text – drawing on Marx’s observation in the context of his analysis of the lessons of the Paris Commune, that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’ - is hard to miss. For Lenin, the old state must be destroyed and replaced with a new one manifesting the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘A revolution’, he emphasises ‘must not consist in the new class ruling, governing with the aid of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing with the aid of a new machinery’. While what specifically Lenin means by the bourgeois ‘state machinery’ (its boundaries, the exact range of its institutional components) is left rather imprecisely stated, he is certainly clear that what is to be destroyed comprises two core elements – the standing army and what he calls ‘the bureaucracy’.

Most Marxists today, whether ‘Leninist’ or not, seem to agree that whatever the later compromises, retreats and forms of degeneration, this is precisely what happened in the early phase of the Russian revolution under the leadership of the Bolsheviks and in this sense Marxists today tend to take Lenin at his word in State and Revolution, regarding the text as a more or less accurate guide to the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary practice. That is, it is often taken as an established fact, a truism indeed repeated time and time again, that the old Russian state was ‘smashed’ and replaced with a new one based fundamentally on soviet power.

Take for example, Ernest Mandel’s comments in his Introduction to Marxism:

The old state apparatus and the Provisional Government collapsed. The Second Congress of Soviets voted by a large majority for the coming to power of the workers’ and peasants’ soviets. Over the vast territory of a great country a state on the model of the Paris Commune had been set up for the first time – a workers state.

Or take Joseph Choonara’s and Charlie Kimber’s Arguments for Revolution where, after echoing Lenin’s argument that the capitalist state must be smashed and replaced ‘with a new kind of state’, it is stated; ‘[t]his is what existed for a period after the Russian Revolution of 1917’.

Of course, as the story normally continues the early hopes and intentions of the Bolsheviks were dashed with the revolution’s failure to spread internationally and under the weight of isolation, blockade, foreign intervention, and the brutalising consequences of famine and civil war. The general degeneration of the regime, it’s often added, was directly reflected in its grim trajectory toward intensifying bureaucratic centralisation and top down authoritarian statism – a process that reached its apogee with Stalin’s consolidation of his grip on power in the years after Lenin’s death. But what had been achieved for at least a little while before this process of degeneration took hold, it’s widely agreed, was a definitely workers’ state modelled closely on the Paris Commune, with soviet power as its key characteristic – a ‘new kind of state’ built upon the smashed ruins of the old.

But the central claim here – that the old state was ‘smashed’ in 1917 and a new one based (however fleetingly) on soviet institutions set up in its place – is a myth.

Although Lenin claimed, in his 1918 polemic against Kautsky that in Russia ‘the bureaucratic machine has been completely smashed, razed to the ground’, later pronouncements were quite different. While it was true that in January 1918 the Constituent Assembly had been dispersed, this was of course a fledgling institution and certainly not an established state organ. In reality much of the old state apparatus remained almost unchanged. A later statement by Lenin from 1923 is quite instructive in this respect (and completely at odds with his earlier declaration):

Our state apparatus, with the exception of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, represents in the highest degree a hangover of the old one, subjected to only the slightest extent to any serious change.

Indeed, as T. H. Rigby demonstrates in his study of the formation of the ‘Soviet’ system of government in Russia, Lenin’s later comments here provide a much more accurate guide to the reality of the system put in place after the revolution than his comments in State and Revolution. As Rigby comments, there was a ‘high level of continuity in the central administrative machine of the Russian state’, before and after the revolution – so much so, that ‘the structural changes’ put into effect by the Bolsheviks ‘were scarcely greater than those sometimes accompanying changes of government in Western parliamentary systems’. While it’s certainly more than plausible to say that the old ‘standing army’ was smashed during the revolution (though, of course, a new one was soon built by Trotsky very much along the lines of the old) that other core instrument of the old state Lenin identifies – ‘the bureaucracy’ – was not.

As Rigby shows, despite Lenin’s stress in State and Revolution on the non-bureaucratic character of the new proletarian state, ‘equipping itself with an effective bureaucracy was in fact the main preoccupation of the Soviet state during its initial phase’ and moreover, ‘predominantly this expressed itself in efforts to “take over” and “set in motion” the old ministerial machine’. This, of course, was something that could not be achieved immediately and for the first few weeks after the insurrection the first steps toward asserting the authority of the new regime were coordinated by the body that had organised the seizure of power in the capital – the Military Revolutionary Committee. By December 1917, however, with the abolition of the MRC, central authority had passed to what would now form the political nucleus of the revolutionary state: Sovet Narodnykh Komisarov (Council of People’s Commissars) – known as Sovnarkom. Set up by decree of the Second Congress of Soviets within hours of the insurrection, Sovnarkom was tasked with ‘administration of the country up to the convening of the Constituent Assembly’ as a ‘Temporary Worker and Peasant Government’. Membership of Sovnarkom would comprise the chairs of various commissions, or commissariats, that would constitute governmental branches of the revolutionary state, with Lenin as the chair of this central council. Sovnarkom was to operate under the sovereign authority of the Congress of Soviets and its Central Executive Committee (CEC).

Even at this very early stage, at the time of this decree, the similarities between the proposed structure of commissariats and the old ministerial structure inherited by the Provisional Government from the Tsarist regime are very striking. For one thing the division of responsibilities between the various commissariats was virtually identical to that between the old ministries, and further, there seemed little to distinguish Sovnarkom from the pre-revolutionary government executive. Sovnarkom was essentially a ‘cabinet’ of ministers along surprisingly conventional lines. As Rigby comments, only two (apparently) important innovations were incorporated into the new structure of government. Firstly, the head of each government department (‘People’s Commissar’) would share authority with a ‘commission’ of which s/he would be a chairman – but in reality commissariats rarely functioned in this way. The second major innovation was in terminology. As Rigby puts it:

In calling their government the ‘Council of People’s Commissars’, the Bolshevik leadership were seeking to de-emphasise formal and structural similarities to ‘bourgeois’ governments and to proclaim and dramatise the revolutionary role and class content they believed it to embody.

But even here – at the level of mere terminology – differences with the old regime can be exaggerated. As Rigby comments:

That the title of the new government contained the word ‘soviet’ (sovet) some have seen as designed to identify it with the new revolutionary institutions of the masses, as the topmost soviet in a hierarchy of soviets. This supposition seems highly dubious, since sovet is simply the usual Russian word for ‘council’, and the pre-revolutionary government executive had been called Sovet Ministrov (Council of Ministers).

But it’s not just at the level of formal similarity that the revolutionary government was structured to conform to the main divisions of the pre-revolutionary administrative machine. Within a few months the new government had also moved literally to incorporate the extant administrative apparatuses (including most of their personnel) left over from the old regime. At first the various commissariats of the new government operated almost entirely from the Smolny Institute – but this only served as an initial headquarters from which the various People’s Commissars ventured out to seek to establish control over ‘their’ ministries (i.e. the old government departments). The main task of the commissars at this time was to persuade and cajole the old government officials – or at least significant sections of them – to return to work in the ministries under Bolshevik control (now renamed ‘commissariats’). With the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in early 1918, most of the initial resistance among old officials melted away and the People’s Commissars were able to transfer their offices and core support staff from Smolny to the old government department buildings – merging this new staff with the old one.

This arrangement did not last long, since with the German advance in the period before Brest-Litovsk, followed by the territorial concessions made under the terms of that treaty, the decision was made to move the seat of the government from Petrograd to Moscow. The main point here, however, is that what was transferred to Moscow and re-established there were, for all intents and purposes, the old ministries – their existing structures and much of their personnel more or less in toto.

None of this is to say that there were no significant changes to the state structures seized by the Bolsheviks. In the months following the revolution there were substantial reorganisations in several commissariats (including the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs mentioned in the 1923 Lenin quotation above) and, in addition, two new organs of government were set up which, as Rigby puts it, ‘were destined before long to assume great importance’ – the Cheka (which first cut its teeth in bloody suppression of ‘anarchists’ in Moscow – against the vigorous protest of local soviet authorities – to establish ‘order’ in preparation for the transfer of the seat of government) and the National Economic Council (NEC). But even here in the case of the NEC, there were strong lines of continuity with the old Ministry of Trade and Industry in terms of its functions and structures. Several of the old institutions of the imperial state were, of course, destroyed – the monarchy key among these. But, as Rigby puts it, when ‘it came to the apparatus of the executive arm of the government, however, destruction was far less apparent’.

What of the soviets though? As we have seen, the decree setting up Sovnarkom declared that this organ and the commissariats it coordinated should have been answerable to the Congress of Soviets (represented between congresses by its executive arm, the CEC). Indeed the 1918 Constitution defined the Congress of Soviets as the ‘supreme authority’ of the new Republic. But in practice as Rigby demonstrates, the Congress was soon sidelined by Sovnarkom and indeed, in reality, the former ‘can scarcely be said to have acted as a constraint or even as a serious influence’ on the latter. As the new structures of government solidified after an early period of flux, the role of the Congress had been reduced to that of merely rubber stamping the decisions promulgated by Sovnarkom, and as a source of legitimacy for those decrees.

The onset of the civil war further reduced the vitality of the Congress and CEC. In part this reflected the atrophy of local soviets under civil war conditions (and the ascendancy of the Cheka, Defence Council and Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Council as ’emergency’ organs of power), but it also reflected the emergence of single party dictatorship, making it extremely difficult for other parties to gain representation in the soviets. An attempt was made at the end of the civil war to revitalise the soviets, which involved significant empowerment of the CEC vis-a-vis Sovnarkom (since it was realised that the latter had lost much of its legitimacy, particularly in the eyes of the peasantry, given that it was associated with the widely hated Cheka) – but as Rigby points out, the chief beneficiary of the decline in Sovnarkom’s power was the Communist Party, which more and more began to act as an institutional factor of cohesion binding central government to local organs of power and increasingly imposing cohesion too in relation to the bureaucratic dysfunction of the central organs of Lenin’s state. By 1921 the party’s Central Committee and its two chief inner organs, the Politburo and Orgburo, were ‘well on the way to becoming the true government of the Soviet Republic’ – a development that reached its culmination after Lenin’s death.

It’s often assumed that the soviets were workplace organisations. In fact, as Carmen Sirianni points out, though there was some overlap between them, the soviets were usually distinct from the organs of power that emerged within workplaces to challenge capitalist ownership and control – the factory committees. As Sirianni documents, in the first months of the revolution hundreds of firms were taken over spontaneously from below by groups of workers forming factory committees. But as he also documents, the Bolshevik leadership sought very strenuously to hold back and reverse this wave of spontaneous expropriations - supporting the retention of private ownership in most cases. This was informed by Lenin’s view that the immediate task of the revolution was to organise a transitional economy on the basis of ‘state capitalism’ – a situation in which a ‘workers’ state’ would superintend an economic base in which basic relations of production remained essentially unchanged and in which private ownership was still the norm. It was only very reluctantly and through sheer unavoidable necessity in conditions of near economic collapse that in June 1918 the new regime moved decisively to nationalise all large industrial enterprises under the aegis of the NEC (one of the new organs of government power mentioned above). Indeed the main function of the NEC was to rein in the factory committees, bringing them under the domination of the much more conservative and pliable trade unions, in a struggle to stamp out what the Bolshevik leadership regarded as deviant ‘syndicalist’ tendencies among the proletariat.

The organs of mass struggle manifesting workers’ control of industry, then, fared even worse under Lenin than the soviets. Neither soviets nor (much less) factory committees constituted the real heart of power in the early months and years of the revolution – the major seat of power in this the ‘heroic period’ of the revolution was Sovnarkom and the commissariats.

So what must be understood is that, contrary to the myth of the October Revolution and ‘soviet power’, the main structures of the ‘workers’ state’ that emerged under Lenin’s leadership looked very little, for even the briefest period, like the description in State and Revolution. At its core were institutions and structures inherited directly and often more or less wholesale from the overthrown old regime.

None of this is simply a matter of historical interest – grasping this myth is key to gaining clarity on strategic debates still raging on the socialist left today. Indeed the major strategic division that has been drawn by ‘Leninists’ ever since 1917 between, on the one hand, ‘reformists’, ‘left reformists’ and so on who seek to utilise existing state institutions as a core part of their approach, and, on the other hand, ‘revolutionaries’ who seek to ‘smash’ and replace that state machinery on the basis of what Lenin’s Bolsheviks are purported to have attempted (or briefly achieved), pivots on a misunderstanding/ misrepresentation of the historical reality. As we have seen the bureaucratic apparatus of the old regime in Russia was not smashed at all – in fact Lenin’s party sought, precisely, to ‘lay hold of’ this ‘ready-made state machinery’ and to ‘wield it for its own purposes’. Grasping this is a first step toward thinking beyond the simplistic and fetishistic terms of the reform/revolutionary dichotomy that has sunk deep roots in the collective socialist psyche and toward a genuinely open engagement with the crucial question of the necessary contours of a feasible strategy of socialist transformation today.


Ed Rooksby (@EdRooksby)

Ed Rooksby is a lecturer in politics.