Debate with the International Socialist Organization Continued

By Tom Wetzel

The piece below is part of a debate that was prompted by Eric Kerl’s article “Contemporary anarchism” in the July-August issue of International Socialist Review. In the September-October issue of the ISO’s journal the debate was continued with three short pieces, by myself (a longer version first appeared in ideas & action on July 3rd), Sebastian Lamb of the New Socialist Group in Canada, and Eric Kerl. The piece below is a rejoinder to Eric Kerl’s response.

1. Marxism, Leninism, Syndicalism

Kerl and the ISO want to frame the debate in such a way that those of us who disagree with the ISO from the libertarian socialist left are seen as “against Marxism.” But ISO’s “anarchism versus Marxism” theme is a false way of framing the disagreement. Workers Solidarity Alliance is not an “anti-Marxist” organization. A number of our members find value in various aspects of Marxism as I do.

Our beef with the ISO is over their Leninism.

Why is this important? The problem is that the writings of Lenin and the politics and practice of Bolshevism in the Russian revolution provide precedents and justifications for a political practice that, in our view, is likely to lead to the emergence of a society dominated by a bureaucratic class…with the workers continuing as a subordinated and exploited class. This is why we reject Leninism.

Kerl claims that “the heart of Marxism is working-class self-emancipation.” He also claims that socialism is to be achieved through “mass struggle from below.” Thus far, we’re in agreement. Revolutionary syndicalism is indeed a strategy to acheive a self-managed socialist society through “mass struggle from below.” However, as Sebastian Lamb of the New Socialist Group points out in his contribution to this debate, “Not all supporters of socialism from below have beeen Marxists…[and] most Marxists have not been supporters of socialism from below.”

From a libertarian socialist point of view, the “self-emancipation of the working class” can’t happen unless the working class builds organized mass movements that they control, such as labor organizations. This is the fundamental basis of syndicalism as a revolutionary strategy. Kerl doesn’t talk about self-managed mass organizations as the basis for achieving worker power. If it isn’t the working class-based mass social movements that are to acheive the change in society, then how can the ISO claim that they see this change as occurring through “mass struggle from below”?

Although Kerl talks about the Leninist party’s “leadership” growing “organically” out of working class struggles and movements, he doesn’t say anything about the need for rank and file control of mass organizations, the importance of direct democracy, or the role of the mass organizations in a revolutionary transition. Although the Bolshevik Party in the Russian revolution did amass a large membership through recruiting rank-and-file leaders and activists in the factory committees, unions and soldier committees, this did not prevent them from conceiving of “worker power” as their party controlling a state.

2. Leninism as Partyist

I have characterized the Leninist strategy as partyist, that is, a a strategy of a political party capturing state power, and then implementing its program top-down through the hierarchies of the state.

Kerl says this is “Cold War mythology.” That’s a rather odd response. Why would Cold War defenders of “capitalist democracy,” as they call it, be opposed to political parties “implementing their programs through the hierarchies of the state”? After all, liberals and conservatives who talk about our supposed “capitalist democracy” tend to identify “democracy” with elections of politicians — political party leaders…who then implement their decisions through the top-down hierarchies of the state. Cold Warriers don’t propose to do away with the hierarchical state machine.

It’s fairly easy to show that the actual strategy of the Bolshevik Party in the Russian revolution was partyist.

Central Government Rules by Decree

In October 1917 the Congress of Worker and Soldier Soviets agreed to take power and disband the unelected “provisional government” of Alexander Kerensky. This was a decision supported by the majority of the Left in Russia — syndicalists, the majority of the Menshevik Party (moderate socialists), the Left Social Revolutionary Party (the party with the largest support among the Russian peasantry), and most anarchists. Although the libertarian Left had criticisms of the top-down way local soviets were often structured, they were willing to give “critical support” to this change because they assumed they could continue to organize in workplaces, unions and soviets for their viewpoint.

Therefore, it is incorrect to describe this as a “coup d’etat,” as Cold Warriors do. When a social-democratic opposition walked out, the Bolshevik party attained a temporary majority of the remaining delegates. They used this to push through a proposal of Lenin to give government authority to a small committee, the Council of People’s Commissars. The Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Congress was to continue in session as the country’s nominal parliament.

But the Bolsheviks worked to pack the Central Executive Committee with dozens of trade union bureauracts and other officials loyal to the Bolshevik Party…in violation of the soviet principle of direct election. Within some months after October, the Bolshevik government was treating the nominal parliament as a mere rubber stamp. Soon they were ruling by decree, not even submitting proposed laws to the nominal legislature.

How were ordinary workers and peasants in Russia supposed to participate in the making of decisions about the future of the country or the running of the economy?

Top-Down Local Soviets

Also, the major soviets (councils of worker and soldier deputies) in St. Petersburg (Petrograd), Moscow and other cities were structured in a top-down way. These soviets had initially been set up by the social-democratic Menshevik party at the time of the collapse of Tsarism in March, 1917. Power was centralized in executive committees which mainly consisted of members of the political party “intelligentsia.” In the Moscow and St. Petersburg soviets, power was further concentrated into the hands of an even smaller group, the Presidium. According to eye-witness accounts, the executive committees tended to treat the plenaries of delegates as mere rubber stamps. The plenary meetings soon evolved into simply a place where a delegate could go to publicize particular issues or struggles, but as a place where decisions were made.1

There were exceptions to this, such as the Kronstadt soviet — a soviet of workers and sailors at the main navy base of the Russian Baltic fleet. In Kronstadt, 1917-1921, Israel Getzler gives a concrete description of the workings of the soviet in Kronstadt. Here it is clear that the ordindary working class delegates were the people who debated and made the actual decisions themselves. But neither of the main Marxist parties (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) were dominant in Kronstadt. Two libertarian socialist organizations — the Union of Socialist Revolutionaries-Maximalists (usualy called “Maximalists”) and the anarcho-syndicalists — had the most political support.

In addition, there were also weekly assemblies in all the workplaces and among the crews of the ships in the Baltic fleet. These assemblies and workplace committees kept a close eye on their soviet delegates and were an important example of direct participation by the rank and file in the decision-making process.

But this kind of direct democracy was not advocated or emphasized by the Bolshevik party. After the Bolsheviks consolidated their hold in Kronstadt during the Russian civil war, they did away with the workplace and ship assemblies.

And what happened to the local soviets in other places? The first new elections of delegates to the local soviets in Russian cities after October, 1917 took place in the spring of 1918. In many of these cities the Bolsheviks were defeated…receiving only a minority of the vote in the elections. The Bolshevik Party responded to this situation by using armed force to stay in office or overthrow the soviet, replacing it with a Military Revolutionary Committee controlled by their party. It was around this time that Lenin began to talk about “the dictatorship of the party.”2

Even before the Bolshevik Party moved to abrogate soviet democracy, the only participation of rank-and-file workers they emphasized was voting for representatives, not participating in assemblies to make decisions themselves.

Top-down Central Planning

Within a few weeks after the creation of the Council of People’s Commissars, the Bolsheviks created another important institution — the Supreme Council of National Economy. This body was appointed from above and consisted of various experts, trade union officials and various Bolshevik Party members. It was given authority to devise — from above — an economic plan for the whole national economy. This body eventually became the Soviet central planning agency Gosplan in the ’20s. When various regional and industry councils were created under this body, Lenin insisted that workers could not elect more than a third of the representatives.3

There were alternatives to this. At the First All-Russian Trade Union Congress in January 1918, the syndicalist delegates (with the support of their maximalist allies) proposed a national congress of the factory committee movement to create a national economic plan and control coordination between workplaces — “from below.” But the combined vote of Bolshevik and Menshevik delegates defeated this proposal.

Top-down local soviets, a central government ruling by decree, a hierarchical army run by ex-Tsarist officers, a top-down central planning apparatus, appointment of bosses from above to control workers in industry — these are all examples of top-down, hierarchical structures that were well-adapted to rule from above. They were not accountable to workplace assemblies, worker congresses or soviet plenaries.

Thus it seems to be quite accurate to describe Leninism as a strategy of a party gaining control of a state and then implementing its program top-down through the hierarchies of the state. This is in fact what the Bolshevik party did.

3. Workers Self-management or Leninist “Worker’s Control”?

After the creation of the Council of People’s Commissars in October 1917, Lenin did issue a law authorizing “workers control.” However, Lenin uses a very weak concept of “control” where this allots to workers only the power to “check” management, have a veto on hiring and firing, and demand that management “open the books,” as part of their surveillance and checking of management. Moreover, this merely legalized gains the workers committee movement in Russia had already achieved through class fights during 1917.

In the fall of 1917, Lenin assumed that capitalist management of factories would continue for some time. Thus he saw the “checking” of management by workers as a way to keep them from sabotaging the revolution.

After Lenin’s “worker control” law was passed, a syndicalist group in the factory committee movement in St. Petersburg issued a “manual of workers control” that advocated going beyond mere “control” to expropriation of capitalists and collective worker management of production. To oppose this, the central government issued a statement on November 14, 1917 which said:

“The right to issue orders relating to management, running and functioning of enterprises remains in the hands of the owner.”4

In Kronstadt 1917-1921, Israel Getzler describes a proposal in Kronstadt in January 1918 to expropriate all land and businesses and all housing. This motion was proposed in the Kronstadt soviet by Efim Yarchuk — a member of the executive committee of the Russian anarcho-syndicalist federation. This measure passed by majority vote in the Kronstadt soviet — despite the fact that the Bolshevik and Menshevik delegates voted “No.”

Like many pre-World War 1 Marxist social-democrats, Lenin envisioned socialism as retaining the hierarchical managerial systems created by capitalism. He believed this hierarchical structure could be wielded by the working class through a “workers state.” This idea is expressed in the following passage in The State and Revolution:

“A witty German Social-Democrat of the last century called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system. This is very true. At the present the postal service is a business organized on the lines of a state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually transforming all trusts into organizations of a similar type, in which, standing over the “common” people, who are overworked and starved, one has the bourgeois democracy. But the mechanism of social management is here already to hand. Once we have overthrown the capitalists, crushed the resistance of these exploiters with the iron hand of the armed workers, and smashed the bureaucratic machine of the modern state, we shall have a splendidly-equipped mechanism, from from the “parasite,” a mechanism which can very well be set going by the united workers themselves, who will hire technicians, foremen and accountants, and pay them all, as indeed all state officials in general, workmen’s wages….To organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service…all under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat — that is our immediate aim.”5

Lenin and the main Bolshevik leaders had a fixation on top-down centralization. Thus Lenin often insisted that the economy, revolutionary army and the soviet state should be “subordinated to a single will.” For example in March 1918 he wrote:

“Large-scale machine industry — which is…the foundation of socialism — calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labors of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people. The technical, economic and historic necessity of this is obvious…But how can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.”6

If workers do not directly manage the workplaces, who will? A bureaucratic hierarchy of one-man managers, assisted by “foremen, accountants and experts”? This provides a real material basis for a bureaucratic class-dominated economy. Their class power would make all talk of “equal wages” null because they would be in a position to ensure privileges for themselves over time.

Kerl responds on this point as follows:

“As for Lenin’s opposition to workers’ self-management, suffice it to say that Wetzel’s criticism leaves out context. The fledgling workers’ state existed in conditions of encirclement by Western armies, well-funded by counterrevolutionary White armies, economic chaos and collapse, and the dissolution of the working class (by as early as April 1918, the workforce of Petrograd had declined to 40 percent of its January 1917 level, and the number of metalworkers in the capital declined by almost 75 percent…). The shift toward top-down centralization and away from self-management was…a product of…the centrifigual collapse of Russian’s industrial system in the midst of civil war. It is this that explains Lenin’s shift from support for workers’ control toward more centralized forms of economic management.”

In reply:

First, Kerl’s last sentence is disingenuous. Kerl is here supposing that Lenin’s “workers control” is the same thing as workers self-management. And this is simply false. To say that Lenin “moved away from self-management” implies that at one time he supported or advocated it. But in fact he never did.

Direct participation by ordinary workers through assemblies and direct self-management of workplaces by workers were never a feature of Bolshevik practice in the Russian revolution nor were they characteristic of Bolshevik Party politics. As Marxist sociologist Sam Farber writes:

“After October…Lenin’s perspective [on workers’ role] in Russian factories never went beyond his…usual emphasis on accounting and inspection [that is, Lenin’s concept of “workers control”]….The underlying cause here was not, as some have claimed that Lenin and the party leaders were cynically manipulating the factory committees and that once the party leaders ‘got power’ they had no more use for them….The key problem was that Lenin and the mainstream of the Bolshevik Party, or for that matter the Mensheviks, paid little if any attention to the need for a transformation and democratization of the daily life of the working class on the shopfloor and community…For Lenin the central problem and concern continued to be the revolutionary transformation of the central state.”

Farber also points out that “there is no evidence indicating that Lenin or any of the mainstream Bolshevik leaders lamented the loss of workers’ control or of democracy in the soviets or…referred to those losses as a retreat.”7 If Lenin and the Bolsheviks had advocated workers’ self-management or thought it was important, why was there no expression of regret? When Lenin and the Bolsheviks retreated from the state-run economy of War Communism and implemented free trade under the New Economic Policy in 1921, Lenin did declare this to be a retreat…but not so with absence of worker power of decision-making in production.

Second, Kerl’s claim about the “dissolution of the working class” is an exaggeration, to say the least. St. Petersburg’s population before World War 1 was about a million. This had swelled to 2 million during the war because a large part of war production for the Russian army during World War 1 was centered there. After Russia pulled out of the war, war production collapsed. But the decline of the urban population was less severe in other Russian cities.

Moreover, the mass strikes in protest to Communist policy in St. Petersburg and Moscow was dramatic evidence that the working class still existed and was capable of collective self-activity. The Communist government responded to the St. Petersburg general strike in February 1921 with violent repression and martial law. This is the event that triggered the rebellion of the workers and sailors of Kronstadt, which was actually a solidarity strike.

Third, the civil war in Russia didn’t get underway until the summer of 1918. But top-down state planning began with the creation of the Supreme Council of National Economy in the fall of 1917. And Lenin was already beating the drum for one-man management (bosses appointed from above) and Taylorist piece-rates (a technique of pitting workers against each other in competition to increase productivity) by April of 1918. The defeat of the syndicalist proposal for a national congress of factory committees and planning “from below” occurred in January 1918. The civil war can’t be blamed for actions and policies that began before the civil war.

Lenin had been aware that economic disruption, violent clashes and potentially civil war are characteristics of a period of revolutionary transition. If Lenin and the Bolshevik party leaders quickly tossed out democratic worker militias, worker management of workplaces and the right to free election of soviet delegates, doesn’t this tell us they did not see these things as crucial? If Kerl agrees with this reasoning, what does this tell us about the likely actions of the ISO if they were the dominant “leadership” in such a situation?

Nor can civil war explain opposition to workers management. In the Spanish revolution, the onset of civil war in July 1936 was the occasion for a deepening of the revolution through widespread worker expropriation of industry and farm land. The direct worker power in agriculture and industry was itself important to the ability of the workers’ movement to create and sustain a large worker militia — hundreds of factories were converted to war production through the initiative of the workers. These revolutionary conquests motivated workers to produce and fight. Self-management strengthened the revolution.

The Spanish Communist Party did denounce the worker self-management of industry as “inopportune” “utopian experiments,” and they opposed them for this reason. It’s ironic, then, that Kerl is agreeing with the rationale of the Spanish Communist Party for opposing workers’ management — a type of Marxist organization the ISO usually denounces as “Stalinist.”

“Workers State” or Social Self-management?

Kerl writes:

“Wetzel incorrectly paraphrases Engels on the state — as ‘an apparatus that is separated off from effective popular control’ rather than a coercive instrument of class rule…”

According to Engels, the state

“is the product of society at a particular stage of development…cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms…classes with conflicting interests.”

This leads to a “public power” emerging that places “itself above society and increasingly alienated from it.8 Now, why is the state “alienated from” the populace it rules over? If we look at the state, we see various bureaucratic structures where decision-making authority and key kinds of expertise are concentrated in the hands of a few, that is, forming a hierarchy, with a chain of command structure. This top-down character of the state apparatus indicates the class character of the state in two ways. First, public workers are themselves subordinate to a bureaucratic class. And, second, the state is structured this way to make it more feasible for it to act to defend the interests of a dominating, exploiting class.

A state is indeed “a coercive instrument of class rule” but it is an instrument of a dominating, exploiting class. Thus it is not possible for the working class to wield a state as the basis of its own collective self-management of society. This is why a “workers state” is a contradiction in terms.

In our “Where We Stand” statement, WSA says:

“The working class can liberate itself through the development of self-managed mass movements that develop through the class struggle. We thus advocate a strategy for social change from below, based on mass participation, direct democracy, collective direct action and self-managed mass organizations….

To liberate itself from subordination to dominating classes, the working class must dismantle the hierarchical structures of the corporations and the state. The working class, through its own united action, must seize and manage directly the entire system of production, distribution and services.

Self-management must not be limited to the workplaces but must be extended throughout the society and to governance of public affairs. Self-management means that people control the decisions that affect them. The basic building blocks of a self-managed society would be assemblies of workers in workplaces and of residents in neighborhoods.”

In my ISR piece I described the structure of social self-management this way:

“A self-managing society needs a governance structure through which the people make and enforce the basic rules of the society and defend their social order. Thus we think there would be a central role for regional and national congresses of delegates elected by the base assemblies. To ensure accountability to the base and direct participation by the rank and file, we favor a rule that allows controversial decisions of congresses to be forced back to the base assemblies for debate and decision.”

The working class-based organized mass movement that creates this structure of industrial and social self-management would also create its own people’s militia, accountable directly to them. This would be necessary for self-defense of the revolutionary movement against external or internal attempts by armed organizations to re-create a capitalist regime.

My essay in ISR already provided the answer to questions Kerl raises: “Wetzel proposes an armed body…Will this militia exist indefinitely? What is the basis for its dissolution?” The mass working class-based movement that creates the structures of social and workplace self-management also creates the militia. The popular power this movement creates is the basis for the control of this militia.

The idea that the working class mass organizations are the source of “the authority” of the militia is a long-standing syndicalist principle. Thus the principles of the syndicalist International Workers Association say:

“Revolutionary unionism advocates…the replacement of standing armies, which are only the instruments of counter-revolution at the service of the capitalism, by workers’ militias, which, during the revolution, will be controlled by the workers’ unions.”9

Thus syndicalism is opposed to party armies, like the party-army that the Chinese Communist Party used to put itself in power in China. Party armies are embryonic states.

Kerl responds to my description of a governance structure based on assemblies, delegate congresses and a people’s militia as a “workers state” under another name. But, then, a few sentences later he contradicts himself:

“Wetzel…misunderstands the workers’ state…” He says I “ignore the purpose of a militia — organized coercion.” But if I say that the governance structure proposed by libertarian socialists must have the means to “enforce” its decisions (including a militia), how am I ignoring the existence of “organized coercion”?

Moreover, the ability of a society’s governance system to exercise “organized coercion” does not make it a state. In early tribal societies that lacked a division into classes and lacked the bureaucratic structure of a state, their ability to govern their affairs still entailed occasional ability to use “organized coercion”…as when one tribe went to war against another in a fight over land. An armed band fighting to exclude another tribe from their lands is a form of “organized coercion.”

Kerl’s reply in ISR fails to engage with libertarian socialism in any meaningful way but relies on hackneyed phrases and misconstruals. Leninist state socialism in the 20th century was a monumental failure…a failure that contributed to discrediting socialism itself in the eyes of many. It’s not plausible to propose to simply go back to Lenin and the Bolsheviks of 1917 as if their politics had nothing to do with the emergence of dismal bureaucratic class-dominated regimes.


  1. Peter Rachleff, “Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution”
    ( []
  2. The refusal of the Bolsheviks to accept the results of soviet elections in the spring of 1918 is
    is discussed in Vladimir Brovkin, The Mensheviks After October. See also Samuel Farber,
    Before Stalinism, p 22 ff. []
  3. Maurice Brinton, “The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control” in For Workers Power, p. 293 ff. []
  4. Brinton, p. 327. []
  5. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 25, p. 426 ff. []
  6. V.I. Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government”, Collected Works, Vol. 27, p. 268. []
  7. Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 72. []
  8. “Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, p. 229. []
  9. []


  1. A very good, well-written article. I agree with all of your points. I can’t believe there are working class folks still advocating Leninism…we know where that road leads.

  2. Perfect. This article addresses all of the authoritarian apologies for Leninism, with a great amount of research behind it for us to look into further.

    This is a great time to be having this debate – with so many of our fellow workers looking for an alternative to capitalism, its important to put Leninism where it belongs: the dust bin of history!


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