Difference between socialist industrial unions and soviets or workers' councils


The difference between socialist industrial unions and soviets or workers' councils

The People February 6, 1993 page 6 Question Period

What is the difference between the socialist industrial unions advocated by the SLP, and the Soviets, or workers' councils, that arose in Russia in 1905 and again in 1917? Since the Soviets were the spontaneous product of workers' uprisings, and socialist industrial unions are just an abstract concept, shouldn't Soviets be the preferred form for a workers' government?


Socialist industrial unions are 'unions that embody the true mission of unionism-organizing and uniting the entire working class for the express purpose of taking, holding and operating the industries, putting an end to capitalist-class rule in its entirety. They are central to the establishment of a genuine socialist society; they would at once provide the organized economic might needed to ensure the defeat of the capitalist system and provide the basic organizational structure of the socialist industrial government.

Through the socialist industrial unions, every worker in a socialist society would have a voice and a vote in the running of their own workplace, their particular industry, and the economy as a whole. Meeting where they work, the workers would elect, and recall as necessary, their own managers, their own representatives to local, regional and national councils charged with administering their industry, and their own representatives to an all-industry congress charged with administering the economy as a whole.

Soviets, on the other hand, were essentially political, or parliamentary, bodies-elected by factory workers, and subsequently by soldiers, sailors and peasants as well. They were first formed by representatives of strike committees in 1905, and to a limited extent tried to function as an alternative, workers' government in some cities before that rebellion was crushed.

They re-emerged in 1917 and became the central organs of the new Russian state following the October Revolution, but were soon subordinated to the party-dominated Supreme Economic Council, the Council of People's Commissars and other party-run administrative bodies in the emerging hierarchy. In time, they became purely formal, rubber-stamp legislative councils, thoroughly controlled by the party bureaucracy.

Geographic vs. Industrial Organs

The key word here is that the so-viets were state bodies-organs of continued class rule, standing over society as a whole, not of workers' self-government. They were never intended to be used to administer the means of production and distribution: They were geographically based, not industrially based bodies, organized by city or village, district, county, and region, with an All-Russian Congress of Soviets ostensibly representing the nation as a whole. Accordingly, they were not, and are not, an appropriate model for the classless society of socialism, in which the workers themselves, collectively and democratically, are to administer the forces of production and distribution.

(It should be noted that the Soviets are sometimes confused with the factory committees that the Russian workers formed in 1917-which were industrially based organizations aiming to establish democratic workers' control over the forces of production. However, those bodies, too, were subordinated to the party-state machinery in short order, before they could form their own central authority for administering the economy as a whole.)

As to the second question, while it is true that the Soviets were created by workers during a revolutionary period, that does not confer superior status on them. Neither does the fact that they were more "spontaneous" in their origin. Actually, there is no such thing as a "spontaneous" organization; no organization can be formed without some degree of forethought.

'Spontaneity' Is No Virtue

Nonetheless, some "revolutionary" theorists make a fetish of "spontaneity," contending, in effect, that only organizations built in the heat of crisis, with little forethought, are truly "revolutionary," and that there is no point to trying to build revolutionary organizations with greater forethought and deliberateness.

That notion is refuted by common sense and historical experience. The Paris Commune, the factory committees and similar bodies of workers' power formed in Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918, Spain in the 1930s, Portugal in 1974, etc.-however inspiring and instructive their history may be-all suffered from the lack of a coherent and unifying program for administering the economy going into the revolutionary period, and all were defeated, in part, because of it.

Moreover, the Soviets were the product of a workers' uprising in an underdeveloped country that was far from being ripe for socialism; their inadequacies reflect those circumstances. And the final fate of the Russian Soviets and the "Soviet" government hardly recommends them as a model organization for Socialists to advocate today.

Finally, while it is true that there are no socialist industrial unions in existence today, the SIU concept is not a mere abstraction. It is itself a product of the class struggle in the United States, the most developed capitalist nation in the world, a nation that is ripe for socialism, at least in terms of having the necessary material foundation. The SIU program was formulated and first articulated by Daniel De Leon, but he didn't just dream it up: It evolved as a consequence of the lessons learned by the SLP in the course of its involvement in the class struggle and its efforts to build socialism under U.S. conditions.

More specifically, it evolved as De Leon and the SLP identified the pitfalls of the "purely political" or reformist "socialism" of the Socialist Party, on the one hand, and the pitfalls of "pure and simple," or pro-capitalist, trade unionism on the other. From these experiences, De Leon and the SLP drew the logical conclusion that a classconscious, economic organization of labor must play an essential, leading role in the establishment of socialism, with the party playing an equally essential, but supporting and transitory role. The SIU concept took concrete form with the organization of the original Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, though that effort came to naught when anarchist forces disrupted and split the organization in 1908.

But that initial disaster does not disprove the correctness of the concept. On the contrary, historical experience since then-including the fate of the Bolshevik Revolution and other attempts to reconstruct society under the political rule of a party-has only further affirmed that the socialist industrial union program is the real pathway to genuine socialism.