The great revolutionary upheavals of the 20th century were marked by a distinctive pattern. Workers mounted mass strikes that originated as or developed into confrontations with the state.
To wage their struggle more effectively workers would begin to create their own organisations. These would cut across existing divisions – linking different crafts and industries, uniting trade unionists and unorganised workers, and drawing together those with different political allegiances and with none.
These class-wide organisations would be based in workplaces. The first version was the soviet (council) of workers’ deputies that emerged in St Petersburg during the 1905 Russian Revolution. The St Petersburg Soviet brought together factory delegates from across the city.
The more effective workers’ organisations were, the greater the challenge to the state. More or less openly, a situation would develop that the great Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin called “dual power”. Lenin described the situation in February 1917 when Russian workers again rose up in Petrograd – as St Petersburg had been renamed – overthrowing the Tsar:
“This dual power is evident in the existence of two governments. One is the main, the real, the actual government of the bourgeoisie, the ‘provisional government’...which holds in its hands all the organs of power.
“The other is a supplementary and parallel government, a ‘controlling’ government in the shape of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which holds no organs of state power, but directly rests on the support of an obvious and indisputable majority of the people, on the armed people and soldiers.”
This pattern – the coexistence of two forms of class power within the framework of the same state – emerged in more or less developed forms in the great workers’ struggles of the 20th century, from Russia in 1905 to Poland in 1980.
Dual power is unstable. As Lenin wrote, “There is not the slightest doubt that such an ‘interlocking’ cannot last long. Two powers cannot exist in a state. One of them is bound to pass away.”
In the vast majority of cases, the capitalist state took advantage of hesitations and divisions on the workers’ side to take to the offensive and crush the workers’ councils, restoring bourgeois order.
The exception came in Russia in October 1917. Here the Bolshevik party, informed by Lenin’s analysis, won the debate within the soviets, persuading them to overthrow the provisional government and take power. This has made the October Revolution a model for revolutionary socialists ever since.
But how well does this model stand up in the 21st century? The most important political upheavals of the past 20 years, the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, involved no significant experience of dual power.
This reflected the fact that the basic structure of class power in these societies was unchanged by these revolutions. They changed only the political regime, allowing Western-style market capitalism to replace state capitalism.
Today, however, it is the dominant neoliberal version of market capitalism that is being challenged, above all by the mass movements that have developed in Latin America over the past few years.
The closest these movements have come to creating a situation of dual power came in Bolivia in October 2003 and June 2005, when mass blockades of the capital, La Paz, forced the resignation of successive neoliberal presidents.
The blockades were organised from El Alto, where 800,000 poor people live high above La Paz. El Alto developed in the past two decades, through mass migrations from the countryside and from the tin mines, which were largely destroyed by neoliberal policies.
In El Alto the traditions of working class militancy, developed over many decades by the miners, fused with other traditions, for example those of the indigenous peoples, to create new forms of class organisation. Raul Zibechi described the organisations of El Alto for Socialist Worker in April last year (go to El Alto: the heights of the Bolivian movement):
“Classic trade unions hardly exist... There are two main forms of organisation. One is the neighbourhood assembly. There are 550 of these – one for each barrio... The assemblies come together in the Federation of Neighbourhood Assemblies of El Alto. This is the most important organisation – the one that led the uprisings of 2003 and 2005.
“The other main form of organisation is the trade association of market vendors, which is grouped together in the Workers’ Regional Centre... The organisations are all territorial – they control an area, a barrio or a market.
“In October 2003 people used their territorial control by means of road blocks and control of the highways. They cut off the roads so gas and food couldn’t get through to La Paz.”
This is a significantly different way of organising from the classical soviet, which mobilised the collective strength of workers in the workplace to challenge the political power of the capitalist state.
But a territorial form of organising makes sense in a city such as El Alto, dominated by small businesses usually employing four or less workers. This pattern of dependence on the so-called “informal sector” of small businesses and casual labour is very common in the cities of the Global South. It would be familiar to many of those living in slums – estimated by the United Nations at a billion people worldwide.
There are historical precedents for this kind of organisation. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels hailed the Paris Commune of 1871 as the first workers’ state. But the Commune was organised on the basis of neighbourhoods, not workplaces.
This made sense in a city economically dominated by small workshops. In 1860 there were an average of three workers per firm in the biggest industry, clothing and textiles, seven per firm in metals and engineering, 19 per firm in construction and 12 per firm in transport equipment.
In his book Paris, Capital of Modernity, David Harvey argues that “many small firms were nothing more than subcontracting units for larger forms of organisation. They therefore functioned more as labour systems beholden to capitalist producers or merchants who controlled them at a distance.”
Nevertheless, writes Harvey, the craft workers of Paris remained “self-confident to the point of arrogance, opinionated, boisterous, and incurably independent to the point of indiscipline...
“They continued to exercise collective pressure on labour markets, largely by staying put in their traditional quarters (even in the face of urban renewal and rising rents). Industries that needed their skills had to go to them.”
It is hardly surprising that these workers, confronted with war and making revolution in 1871, should rely on their neighbourhood-based traditions of class militancy when organising the Commune.
The soviets of the 20th century emerged from giant industrial factories, increasingly based on assembly line production – from the Putilov works in Petrograd, the Bolshevik stronghold in 1917, to the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk from which the Polish workers’ rebellion exploded in August 1980.
In Petrograd in 1917, some 68 percent of the workforce was employed in enterprises of 1,000 workers or more. Workplaces were even bigger in the metalworking industry that dominated the city.
By comparison, the Commune might seem to represent an earlier stage of class organisation. But neoliberal capitalism has reactivated apparently obsolete forms of exploitation.
Describing the small workshops of mid-19th century Paris, Harvey writes, “By keeping these units perpetually in competition for work, the employers could force down labour costs and maximise their profits. Workers, even though nominally independent, were forced into subservience and into patterns of self-exploitation that could be as savage and as degrading as anything to be found in the factory system.”
This diagnosis captures the world of outsourcing and precarious labour that many workers experience today. The territorial class organisation of the Commune may come to be increasingly important in the 21st century.
This may seem fairly clear in the case of the vast cities of the poor in the Global South. In the advanced capitalist countries the profile of the giant industrial workplace has only declined a little as a result of the brutal economic restructuring of the past 30 years.
The proportion of the US workforce working in establishments of 500 or more has fallen only slightly, from 23 percent in 1975 to 20 percent in 2003.
Nevertheless, big industrial workplaces have become more dispersed geographically, as firms shift production to “green field” sites. The big cities have been de-industrialised, their workforces dominated by office and shop workers.
These changes may mean that new explosions of working class insurgency take different forms. Another social shift is the concentration in most cities of large student populations, substantial sections of which have to support themselves through low-paid casual labour.
The French student revolt in March and April last year saw university students blockading their campuses and winning the solidarity of trade unionists. Future struggles may throw up more of this kind of hybrid pattern of organisation.
None of this alters the significance of workplace-based organisation. Workers’ power stems ultimately from the collective strength that they have to paralyse and take control of production.
But the organisational expressions of this power have changed over time. The Paris Commune and the St Petersburg Soviet were invented by particular working classes in specific historical conditions. Their heirs will undoubtedly invent new forms of class organisation and adapt old ones to meet their needs.
Alex Callinicos is the author of several books, including An Anticapitalist Manifesto and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. They are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com
Several of Lenin’s essays and articles on revolution and dual power in Russia are available online at www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/
Ian Birchall has recently written a short introduction to Lenin’s ideas entitled A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin (£2).
Donny Gluckstein’s recent book The Paris Commune – A Revolutionary Democracy provides an accessible but thorough guide to the events of 1871.
Mike Gonzalez has written an account of the Bolivian uprising for International Socialism journal. It is available online www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=138&issue=108