Soviets in the Russian revolution
One twentieth century event, writes Daniel Lopez in Socialist Aternative, towers over all others in terms of its significance for revolutionary politics: the Russian Revolution of 1917. And within this revolution, one form working class organisation towered above all others: the soviets. Within the soviets, working women and men, normally despised, tested their power and spoke in their own voices.
The meetings were chaotic, but with every demonstration, strike and meeting, they became more confident. This movement culminated in the October revolution. This article will focus on the role of the soviets in the Russian Revolution. I want to describe how they worked, and examine the political dynamics within them. This is not for historical curiosity: organisations like the soviets have appeared in most working class revolutions. Understanding them is a key part of understanding the process of workers’ revolution.
The structure of the soviets
The 5 days of the February 1917 revolution and the weeks afterwards were a period of immense social destruction and creation. On one hand, the Tsarist state was rendered impotent. The Tsar abdicated. His ministers fled or were arrested. The police and Okhrana were beaten down on the streets and scattered, and officers who had enjoyed the right to physically abuse and even kill soldiers, scrambled to save their own lives. In the factories the employers made themselves scarce. The ruling classes were not defeated, but were dealt an enormous blow. To fill the power vacuum the masses created the soviets. The word soviet is simply the Russian for council. First established, and then crushed, in the 1905 revolution, the idea of soviets remained in the minds of the best workers, and so in 1917 soviets re-emerged, like mushrooms after rain.
To begin with, the soviets met in the largest factories, like the Putilov with its 40,000 workers, and in industrial districts, like the town Vyborg, on the outskirts of Petrograd. Given that the revolution was far from secure, the immediate work of the soviets was to consolidate, by linking up with other factories and the army. Within a short space of time each factory, garrison and front line unit became the scene of intense debate: hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people were drawn into politics, most for the first time.
Mass-meetings were a daily occurrence. In each soviet, militants from the different parties argued about everything, from questions about the government and the war, down to supply and logistics. These soviet meetings elected committees that were charged with organising and leading their constituents, liaising with other committees and dealing with the employers or officers.
Wherever delegates or committees were elected, they were non-privileged (i.e., did not receive a financial subsidy any greater than the wages of a skilled worker), and were subject to recall. A recall was a simple enough procedure: it simply involved moving a recall motion at a mass meeting. After debate, a simple majority would either vindicate or castigate the offending delegate or committee.
Within days of the revolution, the city-wide Petrograd Soviet was established, bringing all the industrial soviets under its umbrella. Larger factories were granted one delegate per 1,000 workers. All factories or workplaces with under 1,000 workers were granted one delegate, as was each unit in the army. In return for this representation, factories and army units agreed to defend the Soviet and carry out its orders.
By drawing together all the factories, the soviet exercised power over production, distribution, the press, and electricity. Later on, following the October revolution, the Petrograd Soviet would develop a host of other functions. For instance, it established a social welfare section to manage poor relief and to organise common kitchens. It also established a culture and education section that began organising schooling from preschool up, and a press section. Similarly, policing (by workers’ militias, the “Red Guards”) and the administration of justice via revolutionary tribunals were organised by the Petrograd Soviet.
In the early days of the revolution, the Petrograd Soviet cemented its power by passing “Order No. 1 of the Petrograd Soviet“. This historic order called on soldiers to elect their own delegates. It invalidated all orders given by officers that ran contrary to the Soviet. It called for the disarming of all officers, the abolition of deferential and aristocratic forms of address, and granted soldiers full civil and political rights, which they had hitherto been denied. This order was a cornerstone of the unity between the rank and file of the army and the working class. Nikolai Sukhanov, a Menshevik-Internationalist chronicler of the revolution, commenting on this unity, wrote:
By April 17… [the Soviet] had become the master of the situation… Now the Soviet had in its hand a strongly organised, spiritually united army; now ten million bayonets were the immediate instruments of the Soviet, which with them had in its hands the totality of all real state power and the entire fate of the revolution.
Peasants also had their own soviets, although they were more limited. For most peasants life revolved around the family farm. Richer peasants, the kulaks, often exploited the labour of poorer or landless peasants. Additionally, peasant life was removed from towns and villages, let alone the cities. Primitive or non-existent communication as well as widespread illiteracy meant that the peasant movement lagged behind the cities, and was infinitely less political. Politics, for peasants, was overwhelmingly about land, and words were not the usual weapons of choice when peasants seized their landlords’ estates. However, in some areas peasant soviets were set up in villages or towns. In December of 1917, a congress of these peasant soviets voted overwhelmingly in favour of the October revolution, and unification with the soldiers’ and workers’ soviets.
Despite concentrating overwhelming real power in their hands, the soviets did not proclaim themselves the government of Russia. This was left to a self-appointed committee formed out of the old Duma (the undemocratic Tsarist parliament). This became known as the provisional government. It boasted luminaries such as the noble Prince Lvov as prime minister, and Alexander Guchkov, a wealthy insurance baron with a taste for duelling, as war minister.
This government was never elected, although it did change its composition over time to include individuals like Alexander Kerensky who had some nominal connection to socialism. Publically, provisional government ministers, such as the liberal Pavel Milyukov, spoke about democracy and liberty. Privately (until it was leaked, at least) he wrote notes to the Allied countries saying that Russia fancied Constantinople as a reward for its effort in World War One. The overwhelming priority for the provisional government was to accumulate power in order to restore the state, and to destroy the revolution. Insofar as there was a right and left inside it, the right advocated immediate military dictatorship, while the left advocated military dictatorship in a few months’ time.
This provisional government was viewed by the working class at best with suspicion and at worst with outright hostility. Yet the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet – its day to day leadership committee – decided to back the provisional government completely. This is was a contradiction: the soviet was a class institution with opposing interests to the bourgeoisie. Nowhere have soviets been able to coexist with capitalism for long: their existence threatens capitalism to the core. While the provisional government knew this, to begin with, the soviets did not. So explaining this contradiction, and its resolution, is the pivot upon which an understanding of the entire Russian Revolution rests.
Political struggle in the soviets
The problem was political and fought out between revolutionaries and their moderate rivals. The Bolshevik Party brought together the revolutionaries. They argued that the working class must liberate itself; that it was necessary to smash the provisional government and for workers to take power. They advocated a soviet government – a workers’ state – to end the war, guarantee the redistribution of land to peasants, to ensure workers’ control of the factories, and to satisfy a host of other popular demands. At the beginning of 1917, the Bolsheviks had about 3,000 members, but probably tens of thousands more supporters, as they had been a steadfast part of the workers’ movement for more than two decades. Yet they found themselves in a minority in almost all the soviets around Russia.
The other party claiming to be Marxist was the Mensheviks. The Mensheviks argued that any talk of socialism in Russia was premature. They believed that Russia required a period of capitalism, and as such the revolution must be limited to its “bourgeois democratic” stage. The Mensheviks drew the logical conclusion from their position: support for capitalism meant support for the priorities of capitalism. As such, they were reluctant to support even the most elementary reforms, such as the eight-hour day. They could offer the bourgeoisie something it didn’t have: popular appeal and credibility in order to restrain the revolution
The other major party, the Socialist Revolutionary Party, known as the SRs, was similar, but with a slightly different style. They were populists. They rejected Marxism in favour of romantic and liberal rhetoric. In place of the working class, they spoke lovingly of “the people”. Instead presenting a clear program, or theory, they spoke confusingly of revolutionary democracy, universal justice and freedom, failing to note that these values are rendered hollow under capitalism. They were never taken seriously by the bulk of the working class, but they did appeal to radicalising soldiers. Additionally, their vague approach to politics made them a natural home for discredited right wing politicians, officers and ex-government officials seeking to re-brand themselves. Kerensky – a man who championed the war while ordering soldiers to shoot down demonstrating workers – was an SR.
These two parties commanded a large majority in the soviets, and hence, monopolised the leadership. They fought to subordinate the soviets to the provisional government. People backed them for a number of reasons. Firstly, the leaders of these parties were well accustomed to the manoeuvres involved in politics. While workers and soldiers were still fighting in the streets, Mensheviks and SRs were attempting to place themselves at the head of the revolution. Secondly, the moderate parties exploited political naivety and inexperience in the working class and among the soldiers. For example, although most workers were loyal to socialism as a goal, they believed that they could reach socialism through a democratic parliament and constitution. In other words, most people’s consciousness was reformist, in one way or another. This, and other political weaknesses, left them open to manipulation by the SRs and Mensheviks.
Furthermore, the basic Bolshevik demand for a soviet revolution was radical and unsettling: many workers and soldiers had risked their lives for the February revolution, and the idea of a new revolution seemed dangerous. So, all of these factors conspired to place soviet power in the hands of people committed to the power of the provisional government.
The soviets become revolutionary
The Bolsheviks often argued that it would not be Marxists who would teach the working class, but life itself. This is precisely what happened during 1917. Every day after the February revolution would begin with group readings of the different political papers. Regular mass meetings with reports from strikes, demonstrations and soviet meetings, brought politics to even the most apolitical. But beyond this, the exhilaration of having made a revolution inspired people. Having lived most of their lives under a stifling autocracy, the masses in Russia breathed politics.
In the first months of the revolution the demand for an eight-hour day became widespread. Of all the soviet parties, only the Bolsheviks supported this campaign. This gave workers a valuable lesson. Then there was the question of war. By July, the stream of casualties and the privations of the war had shaken the pro-war consensus sufficiently to turn masses of people against the offensive proclaimed by Kerensky. Again, the Bolsheviks were the only ones to stand against this and lead anti-war demonstrations and meetings.
The final blow for the provisional government, and the “parties of compromise”, (as the Mensheviks and SRs were known) came when Kerensky conspired with the arch-reactionary general Kornilov, in August of 1917, to use military force to declare military law throughout Russia. The vast bulk of the population now saw that the provisional government and its backers in the soviet leadership were unwilling to defending the revolution. In stark contrast, the Bolshevik party demanded, and won, the arming of the working class, and organised a massive and successful popular defence against Kornilov.
At the factory or garrison level, the composition of the soviets changed dramatically. Mass meetings withdrew Menshevik and SR delegates, putting Bolsheviks in their place. The Bolshevik party grew phenomenally – to in excess of 250,000 members. The readership of Pravda, the main Bolshevik paper, was in the millions. This shift was a conscious one. The Bolshevik party, under Lenin’s leadership, had argued consistently that only soviet power could solve the problems people faced. In the lead up to October, Bolshevik agitators toured the country, arguing before mass meetings, and passing motions condemning the provisional government. They held demonstrations hundreds of thousands strong in favour of soviet power. So the Russian masses made a conscious political decision: they broke with the parties of compromise and capitalism, and embraced revolutionary Marxism.
The culmination of this deep radicalisation was the October revolution. On the 25 October the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies, elected in soviets all over Russia, met. Of 650 delegates, approximately 350 counted themselves as Bolsheviks, delivering a clear majority in their own right. Of the rest, around 160 were left-Social Revolutionaries, who had broken with their party in order to side with the Bolsheviks in favour of soviet power. Many of the remainder were individual revolutionaries; only a rump of Mensheviks and right wing SRs remained, and these further disgraced themselves by walking out of the congress when it didn’t go their way. Coinciding with the congress, the Bolsheviks organised an insurrection that captured the remnants of the provisional government.
Anatoly Lunacharsky, long time Bolshevik, and future commissar of education, after announcing the overthrow of the provisional government, read out the following proclamation:
The soviet government will propose and immediate and democratic peace… It will secure the transfer of lands to the peasants, without compensation… it will establish workers’ control over production… it will establish guarantee all the nations inhabiting Russia the genuine right of self-determination. The congress decrees: all power shall pass to the Soviets of Workers’, Solders’ and Peasants’ Deputies.
When this was put to the vote only two people, of all the soviet representatives of Russia, could bring themselves to vote against. Soviet power was born.
Soviet power, which existed for only a few brief years before it was destroyed by Stalinism, proved the central claim of Marxism: workers can become conscious of their interests and can lead a socialist revolution. The soviets were the actualisation of the potential inherent in the working class. They united the working class in democratic bodies. They allowed the working class to intersect with and lead other sections of society, such as the soldiers and peasants. They provided a forum for both discussion and action. They gave workers a huge amount of power – and all of these factors raised the political consciousness of the Russian working class to the level of revolutionary socialism. This was the greatest triumph of the Russian Revolution.