N. Ossinsky’s Critique of State Capitalism in Russia (‘Kommunist’, April 1918)

On its website the CWO has recently published an English translation of the first part of a two part article, written by Nikolai Ossinsky for the review Kommunist, with the title: The construction of Socialism. This article appeared in the first two issues (April 20 and April 27, 1918) of the organ of the first left fraction that emerged within the Bolshevik party after the takeover of power in Russia by the soviets in October 1917. The latter organized in the course of the Spring of 1918 around Bukharin and Radek in the Moscow party bureau, in opposition to the conclusion of the Brest-Litovsk separate ‘peace treaty’ by the Soviet government with Germany and on the question of addressing the catastrophic economic situation the revolution in Russia was facing in the most dire and immediate ways. In his article Ossinsky drew on the latter questions from a proletarian perspective. In the following we reproduce the CWO’s introduction to Ossinsky’s article with reference to Lenin’s polemic, who made a turn on the question of the economic and political measures to be taken by the soviet government, and thereby on the question of “nationalization” and the role of the proletariat. We want to encourage our readers to take notice of the forthcoming translation of this article as a whole. H.C. 

CWO’s Introduction

Valerian Obolensky (1887-1938) is more famous under his revolutionary name of Nikolai Ossinsky (or Osinsky). He participated in the 1905 Revolution and joined the Bolsheviks. He was imprisoned by the Tsarist regime in 1910 but was on the streets of Moscow to take part in the 1917 Revolution. In December that year he became the first Chair of the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenkha) which also included Bukharin, Lomov and Vladimir Smirnov. All of them were future participants in the Kommunist project. Vesenkha was set up “apparently at the behest of the factory committee leadership” [R.V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, p.84] to coordinate the socialisation of the economy that was already underway from the bottom up by the various factory committees which had emerged in the course of 1917. At this point in time Lenin enthusiastically endorsed the Left Communists’ approach. The day before Vesenkha was set up Lenin wrote “There was not and could not be a definite plan for the organisation of economic life. Nobody could provide one. But it could be done from below, by the masses, through their experience. Instructions would, of course, be given and ways indicated but it was necessary to begin simultaneously from above and from below.” [Collected Works (Moscow 1964), Volume 26, pp.365-6]

This was no one off. From the start of the October Revolution right through the winter of 1917-18 Lenin constantly hammered on the theme that: “Creative activity at the grassroots is the basic factor of the new public life. Let the workers’ control at their factories. Let them supply the villages with manufactures in exchange for grain… Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach: living creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.” [op. cit. p. 288]

At the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in March 1918 he was still arguing that “… socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by the Party. It can be implemented by tens of millions when they have learned to do it for themselves.” [Collected Works (Volume 27), p. 135]

However, by this time there was a growing mismatch between socialist intentions and the need for economic survival in the face of the horrendous economic situation which the Soviet power had inherited from the Provisional Government. It is this that is the target of Ossinsky’s articles in Kommunist.

Basically he sticks to the position that the Bolsheviks appeared agreed on at the start of the revolution: that socialism cannot be decreed from above, not even by a working class party, but must be the product of the initiative of the working class itself. And indeed the initiative for the socialisation of industry came initially from the workers themselves who took over their factories in many places (often after the employer fled) and demanded it be “nationalised” (i.e. that the Soviet power took on responsibility for keeping production going).

The consequences of workers’ management of the factories were not always positive through a combination of ignorance and lack of experience. In the cruel situation in which the new Soviet regime found itself getting production up was essential to overcome a dire economic crisis. This brought the majority of Bolsheviks to take an instrumentalist and productionist approach to the issue. The “productive forces” had to be developed but these were seen (as was common throughout a Social Democratic movement dominated by the ideas of those like Kautsky who saw the productive forces primarily in technological terms) as being all about machines and not about people.

Ossinsky opposed all this. He argued that the only road to socialism had to be based on worker initiative, however long that took. And if the working class could not achieve socialism on its own initiative then it clearly wasn’t ready for it. One thing was certain; bringing in capitalist management techniques would not be temporary but permanent, as workers would never learn to run things themselves. Management would dominate workers, not the other way round.

Ossinsky also criticised the direction of economic policy as leading to “state capitalism”. This gives him the honour of using the term first to describe the direction of policy of the new society. However, two points need to be made about this. The first is that he can quite clearly see that “nationalisation” is not socialism but is perfectly compatible with a capitalist regime (here he was repeating Engels from the 1880s). However the state capitalism he was criticising in 1918 was more specific. It was one where the state and private enterprise would enter into a profit-sharing partnership. This was proposed but did not actually take place as footnote 11 makes clear. (1) By the time the article came to be published the Bolshevik majority had decided to proceed without the assistance of the old capitalists. Lenin never claimed that they were seriously building socialism in an isolated Russia. At the most the Bolsheviks were carrying out a holding operation until the world revolution arrived. However its failure condemned the Bolsheviks to create a new form of state capitalism, a bureaucratic command economy which did not do away with the capital-wage labour relationship and which tragically, in time, came to sully the very name of socialism itself.

Perhaps Ossinsky’s biggest mistake in this document was his identification of the social retreat on the production front with the backward step on the international front represented by the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It is entirely understandable that he did this since the Left Communists had first come together to oppose signing the Treaty. However they had already lost that particular battle and within two months Bukharin and Radek would be confessing the error of their position on the Treaty. By associating his penetrating analysis of the social direction of the Revolution with opposition to the Treaty, Ossinsky undermined the strength of his own argument and gave an easier target for the majority to exploit. Lenin could now lump his criticism with the other “revolutionary phrasemongers” and ridicule his fears.

In a savage and, at times, deliberately misleading, polemic Lenin concluded that “Only the development of state capitalism, only the painstaking establishment of accounting and control, only the strictest organisation and labour discipline will lead us to socialism. Without this there is no socialism.” [Speech to the All-Russia CEC, Moscow, April 29, 1918 (but not published until 1920) in Collected Works (Volume 27), p.297]

There is much more to be said on this identification of state capitalism as a step on the road to socialism. It is a view held by many so-called socialists today (Trotskyists and Stalinists, etc) but the experience of the Russian revolution has taught us that state capitalism was not only not a step on the road to socialism but its very opposite for the reasons Ossinsky gives here. By undermining the initiative of the masses and replacing the old bourgeoisie with a new class of “commissars” the essential basis of the mode of production could not be changed. Capital and wage labour still confronted each other even if that capital was now in the hands of the state.

History has now vindicated Ossinsky on this issue but in April 1918 the Left Communists were a small minority lacking deep roots in the working class. Had the workers’ revolution been extended to the more advanced parts of Europe in the years that followed (and thus given it a springboard for a world revolution) the policy might have been reversed, but the imperialist invasions and support for the Whites from 1918-20 transformed the agenda into one of military and economic survival. Productionism gradually replaced the social experiment of workers’ control and the Bolshevik military victory by 1921 could not disguise the fact that capitalist relations still prevailed albeit in a new and unprecedented form.

CWO, September 8, 2017

1 This footnote reads as follows: “Prince V. Mechtchersky, iron and steel magnate owned the leading factories for building locomotives and wagons. Representing an important group of capitalists in the machine and metallurgy industries in March 1918 he proposed to the Soviet government to set up a new trust. The group would hold half the shares of the metallurgy trust and the state the other half. The group would be responsible for management in the name of the trust. On the basis of a narrow majority the government decided to negotiate but on 14 April finally rejected the proposal in favour of the complete nationalisation of industry. The Government suspected that German capitalists were behind Mechtchersky’s proposal.”


The Construction of Socialism


English (translation by C.W.O.)


Two part article in the revue ‘Kommunist’ (Moscow, April 1918)



Web link:



Question of the ‘construction of socialism’ after October 1917


Communist Left in Russia; ‘Kommunist’ 1918; nationalization vs. socialization