- Capitalism and Alternatives -


Posted by: Barry Stoller on December 29, 1999 at 10:54:07:

Frenchy and I have been discussing (in the string beginning with this post) the question of whether bosses are needed at all in state government and / or the workplace...

Engels famously argued that leadership in specific instances was necessary:

[T]he necessity of authority, and of imperious authority at that, will nowhere be found more evident than on board a ship on the high seas. There, in time of danger, the lives of all depend on the instantaneous and absolute obedience of all to the will of one.(1)

Most particularly, Engels saw the industrial process itself ('which cares nothing for individual autonomy'(2)) as authority---an authority that presupposes, in the human mastery over the industrial process, intense centralization. For example, in the factory, the distribution of raw materials, tempo of automated equipment, allotment of labor and supplies---all this organized activity subordinates the momentary inclinations of the individual worker to the overall task of production. A rational industrial operation would be ready with replacement workers to step in here and there; nonetheless industrial work---such as an assembly line---requires a centralized plan.

This view was adopted by Lenin, who stated:

[I]t must be said that large-scale machine industry---which is precisely the material source, the productive source, the foundation of socialism---calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labor labors of hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of people. The technical, economic and historical necessity of this is obvious, and all those who have thought about socialism have always regarded it as one of the conditions of socialism. But how can such strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.(3)

Of course, this passage and the following decree that workers must have 'unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader' while at work (4) has prompted bourgeois historians to state that the Bolsheviks openly advocated bureaucratic dictatorship.

Nothing could be more mistaken.

To give an example of the sort of 'unquestioning obedience' Lenin was referring to, imagine a hospital operation in which one surgeon, two nurses and an anesthesiologist received into their care a severely wounded person. The surgeon calls for two cc's of x and demands a scalpel. This is dictatorship.

The surgeon is NOT requesting two cc's of x when it is most convenient for the nurse to produce them. The surgeon is NOT asking for a scalpel when the other nurse feels like it. The surgeon is NOT asking for a vote or a discussion into the relative merits of two cc's of x over y or requesting a show of hands on the issue of using a scalpel. The surgeon is DICTATING instant activity to the other workers---exactly what, exactly where.

To adopt the anarchist shibboleth of 'liberty in the workplace' is to advocate the patient's death. Some work requires intense centralized authority. Some work requires unquestioning obedience.

What the Bolsheviks REJECTED, however, was any authority that failed to merit the confidence of all those who worked with that boss.

That is why bosses were ELECTED---elected by all the workers.

Lenin again, from the same statement above:

The socialist character of Soviet, i.e. proletarian democracy, as concretely applied today, lies first in the fact that the electors are are the working and exploited people... Secondly, it lies in the fact all bureaucratic formalities and restrictions are abolished; the people themselves determine the order and the time of elections, and are completely free to recall any elected person.(5)

(That, of course, is part the bourgeois historians leave out!)

To understand Lenin's conception of 'unquestioning obedience' to a freely elected work supervisor 'subject to recall at any time' is to grasp the distinction between democratic centralism and bureaucratic centralism.

Democratic centralism, simply put, is exhaustive discussion of an issue by all pertinent parties,* a vote to establish a course to be taken, and the subordination of all parties to the vote's outcome.

To return to the surgeon example, if the surgeon is elected the authority in the operation room, then the surgeon's authority there must be unquestioned. However, this authority is conditional. Democratic centralism would degree that the nurses submit to the surgeon's authority during the operation, but have ample opportunity to criticize freely---and even DISMISS---the surgeon after the operation if the surgeon's professional conduct was remiss.

Bureaucratic centralism, on the other hand, is authority from above: inflexible and inexorable---like the U.S. Supreme Court.

To summarize...

Bosses, in some endeavors,** will be necessary in the socialist future. Large-scale production will be centralized and coordinated---as it is now. Experts and specialists will decree particular activities in the workplace by authority of their notable experience and training---as they do now.

However, these bosses will be subject to the control of all workers. These bosses will be elected and must continue to inspire confidence in those who are affected by their authority in order to retain their positions. Authority, when needed, will be obeyed; authority, when needed, will be questioned; and authority, when needed, will be replaced. Such authority will be nothing more than the will of the workers themselves---in centralized but revocable form.



1. Engels, 'On Authority,' Marx & Engels Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Feuer, Anchor 1959. p. 484.

2. Ibid., p. 483.

3. Lenin, 'The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,' Collected Works volume 27, Progress 1977, pp. 268-9.

4. Ibid., p. 271.

5. Ibid., p. 272.


* So important was this discussion process that Lenin once chastised the Central Committee (who complained of an excess of 'vermicelli affairs'), saying: '[T] o draw a line between trivial questions and questions of principle is to undermine the very foundations of democratic centralism.' (Lenin, 'Speech to the R.C.P. (B.) Group at the 8th Congress of Soviets during the debate on the Report of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee and the Council of People's Commissars concerning Home and Foreign Polices, December 22 [1919],' Collected Works volume 42, Progress 1977, p. 253.)

** I am referring to bosses on the workforce, NOT bosses in the government. Government work---affecting all members of society, must be in the hands---equally---of all members of society.

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