All Power to the Meaningless

V. I. Lenin, chairman of the Council of Workers' and Peasants' Defence.           1919.

“All power to the Workers Councils,” proclaimed the Bolsheviks as they built support for an insurrection against the Kerensky Provisional Government in Russia.  “All power to the Soviets,” it ran.  The Soviets were the workers’ councils that sprang up in cities and factories all over Russia in 1917.  The Bolshevik Party used this slogan in an attempt to unite the various revolutionary forces under the Party’s banner.  Unfortunately for the workers involved in said councils, it was a hollow slogan.  After the Bolsheviks took over and consolidated political power under the Party, they proceeded to take all the power away from these soviets, thus making the slogan, at that time, rather meaningless. 

 “All power to the Workers Councils” as a phrase, however, was passed on.  It is still used as a rallying point for Council Communists, Anarchists, and the like.  But it also found it’s way into the vernacular of the New Left movements of the 1960’s.  As the Black Panther Party and others promoted the phrase,  “All Power to the People” the meaning shifted.  This semantic change from “Worker’s Councils” to “The People” was likely inspired by a Maoist view of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, Third World peoples, and non-industrial laborers. 

This “All Power to the Soviets” which originally implied that economic and social control of society was going to be exclusively in the hands of the proletariat as organized in councils, became a slightly more vague term when converted to “All Power to the People”.  I’m certainly all for giving the power to the people but the phrase itself doesn’t reference ‘how’ or ‘where’ that power will be wielded. The phrase shifted to a imply synonymity with “Black Power” when Panthers such as Fred Hampton adopted the phrase, “Black Power to Black People, Red Power to Red People, Yellow Power to Yellow People, White Power to White People, and Brown Power to Brown People.  All Power to the People.”  I like this phrase in its spirit but not in its confusion of what we are talking about – the power to do what?  (As evidenced in how “White Power” is synonymous with racism and white supremacy but Black Power translates to throwing off oppression and gaining political,  social, and economic power through struggle.) 

“All power to the Workers Councils” implies that the mechanisms of capitalist control will be destroyed and a new mechanism for workers’ control of production will be instituted.  The phrase implies that productive and political power will be wielded by the Workers’ Councils.  The slogan lost a certain clarity when it was changed to “All Power to the People.”  Its tough to know exactly who are ‘the people’ in contradistiction from ‘the Man.’

   However, the phrase was then snipped short by dropping “All” so it read simply, “Power to the People”.  With “All” missing, its unclear that we are still talking about productive and political power.  We might then be talking about a ‘go get ’em spirit’ as in “Power to the People!” “Right on!” “Give ’em hell!”.  With some of the specific reference missing, ‘power’ in this slogan might soon play a stand-in for electricity. 

The phrase stopped off in Paris in 1968 when the slogan “All Power to the Imagination,” presumably scrawled with spray paint in the Sorbonne or the Latin Quarter, appeared.  My imagination thinks they are saying, “Don’t set up an oppressive ‘Soviet’ and give it the Power.  Let’s recapture the Power in our creativity, enthusiasm, and go get ’em spirit, etc.!”  I suspect it is a Situationist watchword.  Nevertheless, the argument still stands that the phrase is loosing its pointedness.

There is an Anti-flag (punk rock) song called “Power to the Peaceful” and, in reading the lyrics, it seems like a fine anti-war song.  I also happen to know that there is a well-known music festival, with a quasi-political edge,  in San Francisco by the same name and it is a popular spot for free spirits, etc.  Now, following our train of thought in both cases, who exactly are the “peaceful” and what “power” are we wishing them to have?  I haven’t the foggiest, personally.  Chances are we are declaring “Right on!” to these peace-loving tribes and encouraging them in their endeavors.

Our last stop, as you could have imagined, is securely inside capitalist-occupied territory.  “Power to the Players,” is the slogan for the video game retailer GameStop.  What it means is hard to decipher.  It conjures, for me, a dramatic scene where two teen-aged youngsters are battling the evil warlords on the TV screen and right at the moment of crescendo a surge of immense electronic force zips through the cables and into the hand controllers of our Players as the TV explodes.  Our couched heroes struck the final blow to the bad guys in Zelda or Halo 3 or whatever as the lights of the metropolis go dark. 

 Thus, in the end, All Power went to the suburban video game Players.  The final victory was had (by the capitalists), and the slogan proclaimed by V.I. Lenin in 1917,  in our era, passes into commercial coinage.

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8 Comments

  1. Brad B said,

    January 15, 2010 at 4:36 am

    This all sounds like Commie talk. 🙂 Glad to see The Dialect has been resurrected. Fascinating how language changes both organically and artificially (marketing, government, etc.).

  2. mjones460 said,

    January 23, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    That is really sharp and interesting. Nice work taking the language through each change.
    With language is there any hope in trying to pull back a phrase or set of words from the abyss? And at what point does language get so corrupted do we not fight for it.
    For example I do not feel strongly about the phrase power to the people, last time I heard it was on the Boondocks I think. But take some other terms I personally use commonly, Industrial Democracy for example. Its trajectory as a term has been linked with many different scenarios, from the old IWW and even AFL, to labor/mgt coop agreements, to workplace occupations in Argentina. Does it still make sense to use these terms, or are they too empty to convey meaning?

  3. thedialect said,

    January 24, 2010 at 2:13 am

    Good question, mjones460. Socialism, for instance, as a word still has a lot of potential in it – both for positive uses and negative (see Micheal Moore interviewees vs. haters on Obama). Whereas communism, I would think in the US has lost any positive use (except for the hard cores).

    Industrial Democracy sounds like “Western Developed Countries” and maybe has been replaced with Economic Democracy. If you like the word then you can try to give it new meaning. I like ‘Cooperative Commonwealth’ but I may be the only one who does.

    One angle would be to look at different ethnic demographics. Do Spanish speakers use a word that still has a whole lot of meaning? “Si, se puede” still means a whole lot of good things to people but its English equivalent (cleverly invented by Obama’s campaign) “Yes we can!” is absolutely meaningless for me, to use myself as small a survey sample.

    I like “Workers Power” and I’d like to see that become a known and potent phrase. “Revolution” is a known and potent phrase still but what exactly you are talking about is completely missing (see Jesse Ventura’s book “Don’t start the revolution without me” or christian tripe “the irresistible revolution” etc to infinity.)

  4. oliver said,

    January 24, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    I have it in my head that the situationists were critical of the slogan “all power to the imagination” but I can’t find anything online saying that.

    Interesting geneology overall though. In “The Bolsheviks and Workers Control” i believe Brinton shows that Lenin always distinguished “power” from “control”, and used power to mean oversight, elections, etc. without actual power. Or maybe its reversed.

    I also like the phrase ‘Cooperative Commonwealth’. I’m also partial to ‘Communism’ (or ‘Gemeinwesen’, the Material Human Community). I don’t like ‘Industrial Democracy’ or ‘Economic Democracy’ because I think that both halves of those phrases are ideological (in the sense of coming from ideology, an imagined relationship to ones real conditions of existence): Democracy is integral to a society that continually atomises people further and further into ‘individuals’ with no community, and a material human community would, by definition, not have an economy (just as other forms of community, such as some families, tribes, friendships do not have economies). Industry is similarly a term inextricably tied to the capitalist mode of production and wage labor. It was somewhat understandable in 1905 to imagine that we could simply take over the mines and the factories and run them ourselves without bosses. (Though even reading Capital it is obvious that machinery is defined by its quality of turning the worker into a simple appendage, and is therefore inherently alienating). But it should be painstakingly obvious now that the means of production are continually revolutionised in order to minimize labor and maximize profit, in other words, capitalist workplaces are not just capitalist in their organizational structure but in their material structure as well. Workers power would (and should) almost certainly see the immediate destruction of all call-center headsets, all sweatshop sewing machines, all cash registers, etc. One of the first priorities of the revolution will be to continually destroy capitalist machinery as soon as we can determine that it is not necessary, whether that is because the commodities it used to produce are not necessary (i.e. we don’t need to produce new cars because people do not need to commute to work), or because we have ways of creating something desirable in a way that is not ‘labor’ but is closer to ‘art’ (I’m thinking of beer brewing and the large numbers of people who would love to try to make excellent beer – this is also historically linked to the Brewers Union that helped found the IWW and supported the Cooperative Commonwealth because they wanted to be able to make the best beer possible). Obviously as I mentioned this is a gradual process, but also an urgent one.

    Sorry that this went a little off the topic but I hope its still a good contribution to discussion.

  5. Adam W. said,

    January 25, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    I loved your breakdown and word analysis on this. Wonderful writing and way to show the evolution and eventual co option of a slogan.

  6. thedialect said,

    January 27, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    Thanks for all the complimentary statements. If you dig the Dialect, forward the link onto some word nerd friends of yours.

    Also, I don’t have any evidence that the Situationists used that phrase, that was just a supposition that I din’t think anyone would challenge. I’m glad you challenged it though. Keeps me honest.

    Adam W. or Brad B. – do you have any suggestions on how to bring back an old word or how to keep certain words potent?

  7. emkaaay said,

    February 6, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Just came across this tonight:

    http://www.allpowertotheimagination.com/

  8. thedialect said,

    March 2, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Another find: The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ announced their fundraising campaign surrounding a series of glass sculptures with the slogan: “Tower for the People!” (note the grammatical change from ‘to the people’ to ‘for the people’) Now its not even Power that we are given but in fact ‘Tower’.


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