Graeme Kemp and Alan Woodward (Letters, May SR) raise a number of interesting questions about the nature of workers' democracy.
Graeme Kemp cites China and Russia as examples of supposedly socialist revolutions that 'went wrong'. However, there are fundamental differences between the two. The Russian Revolution of February 1917 was achieved by masses of ordinary working people who created organs of democratic self government - soviets, or 'workers' councils'. The soviets were not initially perceived to be in conflict with the official state, but simply as a way of running society in a time of crisis. Lenin and Trotsky, however, were convinced that these were far more democratic than anything Russia had seen before.
It soon became clear that the ruling class did not want to relinquish control, that the power of the soviets could not coexist with that of the bourgeois state. The Bolsheviks won the argument - the revolution had to move forward. This meant the seizure of power by the soviets in the October Revolution.
It is misleading for Graeme Kemp to use the phrase 'the successful revolutionary party'. Any truly socialist party would not want to create a successful revolution itself - that is the task for millions of ordinary people. Our job is to fight alongside them, and win them over to the most effective strategy - the party must successfully persuade the class to seize power, but the emancipation of the working class must be an act of the working class.
Of course, once workers' councils come to power in one country, the matter is not finished. There can be no such thing as 'socialism in one country' - the revolution must be spread internationally.
Graeme Kemp's other example, China, shows what can happen if a so-called revolutionary party detaches itself from the working class. Here, Mao's was a conquering army. He actively discouraged independent strikes and peasant uprisings. As the Communists took over cities, they had to put up posters telling residents they had nothing to fear.
Alan Woodward comments that there have been a number of countries where workers' councils have been formed without strong revolutionary parties. True though this is, I think it was a weakness, not a strength. If Portugal in 1974, or Argentina today, had a revolutionary party which saw the workers' councils as an embryonic workers state, which realised the need to smash the old ruling class before it smashed them, then perhaps there would have been a greater chance of success.
While Russia, Portugal and Argentina had the potential for success, Mao's model of revolution was doomed to state capitalism from the start. The task for socialists today is to fight alongside the working class against each injustice, from low pay to the war. But we must also aim to unite together those who want to fight on all these issues. Next time workers' councils emerge, we must be a force capable of arguing for revolution. This is the tradition of socialism from below.