By Ian Birchall
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People Power

This article is over 18 years, 9 months old
Workers' power is far more democratic than parliament.
Issue 273

When I went to live in Tottenham in 1964, I was surprised to learn that local people had elected a Tory MP. Walking through the relentlessly working class streets, I could not understand how the people had elected a Tory. Then I discovered that they hadn’t. A left wing Labour MP elected in 1959 had ‘changed his mind’ in 1960 and crossed to the other side. The voters of Tottenham could do nothing until the next general election. This illustrates one of the great defects of parliamentary democracy. Once elected, MPs live in a different world from those they represent and are not accountable to them. Yet is there an alternative? Over the last 150 years the working class movement has repeatedly invented new forms of direct democracy far more responsive to the popular will than parliament.

Recalled at any time

In 1871, after military defeat by Prussia, the working people of Paris resisted government troops who tried to seize their cannon, and established an independent state. As Karl Marx described, the members of the Commune were elected, could be recalled at any time and were paid workmen’s wages. The Commune lasted only a few weeks, but it carried through measures which would have taken a parliamentary body far longer–it cancelled rent payments, abolished night work in bakeries and allowed pawned goods to be reclaimed free.

There were few large workplaces in Paris, and the Commune was based on constituency elections. Next time workers’ democracy emerged it was based much more firmly in the workplace. For many years the word ‘Soviet’ has been misused simply as another word for Russian. But the original soviets (the Russian word simply means ‘council’) grew out of workers’ struggles in Petrograd in 1905. Typesetters on piecework demanded to be paid for punctuation marks as well as letters–a very low level, narrow trade union demand. But as the strike spread, the strike committees became more and more important, and took on a political role. And as workers began to impose their power, many of their old prejudices melted away. Anti-Semitism was rife among Russian workers but they elected a talented young Jew, Leon Trotsky, as president of the Petrograd soviet.

The soviet was crushed and Trotsky went to jail, but in 1917 soviets revived. After the February Revolution a sort of parliamentary democracy was established in Russia, but alongside it the soviets exercised enormous power, so that they formed in effect a parallel government. As Trotsky described it: ‘The soviets under pressure from the workers decreed the eight-hour day, removed reactionary executives, ousted the more intolerable commissars of the Provisional Government, conducted searches and arrests, suppressed hostile newspapers. Under the influence of continually increasing food difficulties and a goods famine, the provincial soviets undertook to fix prices, forbid export from the provinces, and requisition provisions.’

After the October Revolution, the soviets continued to be the basis of working class power. As with the Paris Commune, the right of recall ensured that the soviets constantly represented the will of workers. As the American revolutionary journalist John Reed explained: ‘No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will changes with great rapidity. For example, during the first week of December 1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favour of the Constituent Assembly–that is to say, against the soviet power. One of these parades was fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards, and several people killed. The reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within twelve hours the complexion of the Petrograd soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik deputies were withdrawn, and replaced by Mensheviki. And it was three weeks before public sentiment subsided–before the Mensheviki were one by one retired and the Bolsheviki sent back.’

During the grim days of the civil war the soviets continued to coordinate and inspire the revolutionary struggle. Victor Serge depicted a meeting of the soviet in Petrograd in October 1919, when reactionary forces seemed about to invade the city: ‘The meeting of the soviet is thinly attended. A number of its members are at the front. There are many army greatcoats, fur or leather jackets, revolvers on belts. Young women, workers, soldiers, Bashkirs [Urals Muslims]. Not a single intellectual in sight. It really is the people itself, the people which suffers, toils, labours, fights, the people with horny, chapped hands, the people which is inelegant, rough, a little brutal, with clumsy movements, with faces not refined by civilisation. Nobody speaks to reply or ask questions. This is not the time for debating; in any case the soviet does not debate much, there is nothing parliamentary about it. As it is at the moment, it is nothing but a very simple apparatus for popular consultation and dictatorship. By a show of hands, almost unanimously, they accept the sober and concise resolution which Zinoviev reads out. It can be summed up in four words: struggle to the death.’

For a short time it seemed that the workers’ democracy could spread across Europe. When Germany was defeated in 1918, the old order collapsed. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were set up across the country. In the workplaces factory councils were formed. One contemporary account shows the enormous power they briefly enjoyed: ‘The workers arrive on time, read their newspapers and slowly begin to work. This is interrupted by debates, arguments and meetings. The employers are powerless. All power is in the hands of the workers’ committees. On all questions ranging from converting the factories back to peacetime production, hire and fire, work methods–on all these the workers’ committees have the last word.’

The German Revolution failed to get off the ground. In Russia the civil war undermined the working class and Stalinism crushed the last remnants of democracy. Apart from a brief flare-up in Spain workers’ democracy seemed dead. But like a mole working underground it eventually came to the surface again. When workers challenged the Russian Empire which had stolen the label ‘Soviet’, they did so by reinventing soviet democracy.

In November 1956 Russian troops stormed into Hungary to assert their political control of the country. Hungarian workers responded with a general strike and the creation of workers’ councils. As a participant in the Budapest movement recalled: ‘We held our first meeting with the representatives of the most important industrial plants. It was a common aspiration that there should be a central workers’ council to organise the work of the district and factory councils.’ Elsewhere 30,000 miners elected delegates to demand free elections, while peasants around Budapest organised food supplies. Khrushchev, the so called ‘liberaliser’, was so afraid of workers’ democracy that he was prepared to authorise a massacre to destroy the Hungarian councils.

Mass meetings in workplaces

Again and again workers’ democracy has been reborn. In Chile in 1973, when the Allende government was under threat of a right wing military coup, workers formed cordones (industrial belts), to link up the factories and organise resistance. One cordon issued instructions: ‘Take over all the factories… Centralise within the factory all vehicles and materials that may be useful for the defence of the factory, the working class and the government… Every hour on the hour each factory shall sound its siren to indicate that all is well. If help is needed, the siren should be sounded continuously… Organise assemblies and keep the workers informed.’ If Allende had worked with the cordones, the right might have been beaten. Instead he denounced them and tried to placate the army, thus digging his own grave.

In Portugal the following year a military coup threw out the old fascist regime and promised to establish democracy. Workers who had previously had no legal right to even the most elementary trade union organisation immediately began to organise to fill the vacuum. By the end of May 1974–just five weeks after the fall of fascism–workers’ commissions, councils and committees had been set up in almost all the workplaces in the Lisbon area. By October some 4,000 workers’ commissions had been formed, usually by mass meetings in workplaces. The movement brought Portugal to the brink of revolution.

In Poland in 1980 the strike wave at Gdansk led to the formation of the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee (MKS), consisting of delegates from all striking workplaces in the region. As Colin Barker recounts, measures were taken to ensure immediate accountability: ‘The delegates elected an inner executive committee, under their immediate control. The major negotiations with the state were conducted in front of microphones, which were linked into the shipyard tannoy system so that thousands of workers could follow the proceedings and assess the progress being made. Delegates returned to their workplaces with tape recordings of the day’s proceedings, to report and renew their mandates.’

Today, in Venezuela and Argentina, working people are inventing new forms of organisation to defend their interests. In Britain we face an unprecedented situation in which on a number of issues–firefighters’ pay, the monarchy, war on Iraq–the majority of the population is well to the left of a Labour government. The inadequacy of parliament is daily more apparent. Last month’s People’s Assembly called by the Stop the War Coalition was not a soviet–only a small minority of delegates came from workplaces–but it reflected a dawning recognition of the need for an alternative form of democracy. Names and organisational details may vary, but in the coming years we can be sure that the tradition of the Commune and the soviets will be revived.

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