In Russia in 1917 it was the popular councils formed by workers, peasants and soldiers – the soviets – which brought about the February and October revolutions. When, following the civil war, a new state was established it was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The soviets were supposed to be a central, constituent part of the government. But as the years passed the role of the soviets became an empty formality. It was the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which really exercised power.
Extraordinary changes in people’s lives were achieved in the Soviet Union – rapid industrialization, mass education, public health services, etc. The fact that the Soviet system had mass support was demonstrated during World War Two when the great majority of the population stood by it despite the massive reverses suffered following the Nazi invasion. In World War One when Russia suffered much less severe losses in the face of the German assault, the workers and peasants at the front voted with their feet and brought down the Tsarist regime.
The principal factor in the eventual undoing of the Soviet Union was the failure to develop mass proletarian democracy where the people as a whole really do exercise power, (unlike bourgeois parliamentary democracy where it is the capitalist class who really hold power). The absence of proletarian democracy allowed a new type of bourgeoisie, a state bourgeoisie, to emerge within the party and state apparatus. These people, led by Nikita Khrushchev, came to the fore in the nineteen fifties and started instituting “reforms”, especially in the economy, which eventually undermined the whole socialist system and popular support for it.
In China the People’s Republic established in 1949 was very much modelled on the Soviet Union, their “big brother”. However with the rise of the Khrushchev clique to power Mao Tse-tung and his colleagues began to question whether the Soviet model was one which really gave the people the power to build socialism. The revolutionaries in the Communist Party of China came to see the danger of a new state bourgeoisie emerging within the CPC, the “capitalist roaders”. The Cultural Revolution 1966-76 was an attempt to get the workers and peasants to depose “those in power” taking the capitalist road. It failed to do so and capitalism has now been fully established in China. Mao’s attempt to create real proletarian democracy came too late.
The drives for socialist transformation in Russia and China brought about enormous benefits for the great mass of people, something a constant barrage of reactionary propaganda tries to deny. Today it is obvious that capitalism is a failing system which needs to be replaced by socialism. But this can only be achieved if revolutionaries learn from the failure to achieve proletarian democracy in Russia and China. Yes, our slogan should be ‘All Power to the Soviets!’