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The alternative to a system controlled by a tiny few
How will workers run society?

September 13, 2002 | Page 8

"NICE IDEA, but it will never happen." For many people, this is the common-sense response to socialism--a society based not on greed and violence, but on cooperation and fulfilling human need. A society in which the working-class majority--which provides the labor that makes the system work--would make the decisions.

History provides many examples of workers uniting and fighting back--and sometimes challenging the very foundations of capitalist society. Societies as different as early 20th-century Russia and late 20th-century Portugal gave rise in a period of working-class rebellion to remarkably similar models for how workers can democratically make decisions.

AMY MULDOON explains how the workers' councils worked.

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RUSSIA 1905 is one of first great examples of workers challenging capitalism. With Russia's economy crippled by a war with Japan, Russian workers faced wage cuts of 25 percent and 10- to 12-hour workdays. The fight for an eight-hour day--abandoned in a wave of patriotism at the war's start--resumed as inflation squeezed the workers.

The initial approach was to gently ask the dictatorial Tsar Nicholas to intervene. But when workers organized a peaceful demonstration, they were met with machine guns. More than 1,000 people were killed. This experience made it clear that, in order to win basic economic demands, a larger political struggle would have to be fought.

As new challenges for the struggle arose, so, too, did new methods of organizing. Committees to organize strikes began to develop and spread. These bodies were called "soviets," the Russian word for "council."

The soviets provided a forum for organizing struggles, as well as the basis upon which to make decisions about a new society. As the Russian socialist Lenin wrote, "In several cities, these Soviets of Workers Deputies began more and more to play the part of a provisional revolutionary government, the part of organs and leaders of an uprising…For a time, several cities in Russia became something in the nature of small local 'republics.' The government authorities were deposed and the Soviet of Workers Deputies actually functioned as a new government."

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THIS DYNAMIC has turned out to be universal. In any large workers' struggle, new problems and new solutions arise. During revolutionary uprisings in Spain in 1936, for example, the bosses shut down factories and whole industries to break the rising tide of workers' demands. In response, the people who worked in those factories reopened them--under workers' rule, through a factory council.

Councils from individual factories began to link up, forming local and regional councils to organize the wider struggle. These councils might, for example, seize the machinery from industries that they had decided were of secondary importance to produce weapons needed by the workers' militias to fight an uprising by the fascists. Thus, candy-making machines were reconstructed to build shells and ammunition.

An eyewitness report from Germany during the uprising following the First World War gives a good sense of what a workers' government looks like. "The workers arrive on time, then take off their coats, read their newspapers and slowly begin work," he said. "This is interrupted by debates and meetings. The employers are as powerless as the managerial staff. All power is in the hands of the workers' committees. On all questions, ranging from the re-conversion of the factory to peacetime production, the supply of labor, work methods and sharing out of work, on all these, the workers have the last word."

When the bedrock idea of capitalism--that the minority who own and control the resources of society will make all the important decisions--begins to shake, a lot of other ideas begin to fall apart. All great upheavals of the working class have forced the question of solidarity and unity into the spotlight because this is necessary to move the struggle forward.

So in Russia, Jews participated side by side with non-Jews, both in 1905 and again during the revolution of 1917--despite generations of scapegoating and pogroms under the tsar.

For women, workers' movements often accomplish more in weeks than is achieved through years of reform. During the 1917 Russian Revolution, women's demands included not only equal pay, but the right to abortion and divorce.

None of this is because some groups of workers are smarter or just "get it." Massive changes in people's ideas are produced by massive changes in material conditions.

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WHILE MOST industrial countries have seen huge working-class rebellions, the only one that has succeeded in overthrowing capitalism and establishing a workers' government for any length of time is Russia in 1917.

As the First World War ground on, rebellions in Russia's main cities in early 1917 spread to the countryside and also to the front lines of the war. As in 1905, the heart of the revolt was the workers' councils.

The Tsar was toppled in February 1917. But his power was replaced by the provisional government, which had rode the mass revolt to power, but wanted a continuation of capitalism.

For months, Russia's leading revolutionary socialist organization, the Bolshevik Party, argued that a second uprising would be necessary to cement the power of the soviets. This was finally done in October of 1917, with a minimum of bloodshed since the old ruling class had only tiny support.

Descriptions of how Russian society was turned upside down are electrifying. As the U.S. socialist John Reed described in Ten Days That Shook the World: "All Russia was learning to read, and reading--politics, economics, history--because people wanted to know…Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organizations, and poured into the armies, villages, the factories, the street. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression…Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable."

The 1917 revolution ended Russia's participation in the First World War. And across Europe and into Asia, a wave of resistance shook governments and big capitalists following the war. Germany's workers overthrew the Kaiser and created a democratic republic, with the workers' and soldiers' councils playing the leading role and vying for power. In Italy, workers occupied factories and experimented with worker's control.

Even in the U.S., Seattle dockworkers refused to move arms shipments to the supporters of the ex-tsar in 1919, sparking a general strike which threw control of the city into question for weeks on end.

Unfortunately, none of these rebellions led to a revolution that put a workers' government in power. Russia's workers' state was easily isolated, facing economic devastation and invasions from 14 imperialist armies.

Eventually, the revolution was defeated, though the rule of a minority was re-imposed in an unexpected form--under the state bureaucracy led by Joseph Stalin, which cynically continued to use the language of Marxism to justify its brutal rule. This is why the word "soviet" has--tragically--become associated with a society of tyranny and oppression.

But the defeat of Russia's revolution didn't erase the fact that it happened. Socialists must keep this history alive, as a model for the socialist alternative we fight for today--a democratic society where human need is the highest goal.

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