A note on the use of the word 'Soviet' - Neil Fernandez

A note on the use of the word 'Soviet' - Neil Fernandez

Comments on radicals' use of the word "soviet" and its relationship to workers' councils and the USSR.

A Note on the Use of the Word 'Soviet'

Neil C Fernandez

The inclusion of the word 'Soviet' in the title of a capitalist State, designed to support a ruling group's claim that its own legislative organs were in some kind of continuity with the bodies of workers' delegates of 1905 and 1917, is nothing if not mendacious. Indeed the claim is especially noxious in view of the fact that tendencies expressed themselves within these bodies - just as they did in the factory committees, as well as outside of formal organisations altogether - which were part of a genuinely anti?capitalist revolutionary movement; and what is more, the centralisation of State administration in the hands of the Politburo in 1918, away from the soviets, was not simply a consequence of this movement's destruction, but also, to a limited extent, a means. One does not have to glorify the form of the soviet to recognise this. Outside of Russia, for a few years at least, there was thus undoubtedly good reason, from a world revolutionary point of view, to insist on an exclusively radical usage of the term - just as workers were said to 'speak Russian' whenever they went on strike and rose up. If we assume good faith, the insistence here is just where it should be: on the overriding importance, the antagonistic nature, and the international field of operation of the class struggle; on the global commonality of working class needs; and on the need for the unification of the struggle at an international level - or more precisely, at a level which is anti-national and worldwide. Why accept without a fight the word's exclusive usage as a nationalistic symbol, as part of the title of a State: that is, as a sort of flag denoting its referent-country's supposed uniqueness? After all, does intellectual revolutionary critique not necessarily demand an engagement in all sorts of fights over words?

Indeed it does. From this very perspective, however, there are various facts to bear in mind. First of all, the Russian word 'soviet' was not at all freshly-coined in 1905. It had then and it retains now other commonplace usages of which non-Slavophones are usually unaware. Thus it was and is the normal term for a 'discussion body' or 'council' - indeed, for almost any type of council - as well as for 'advice' or 'counsel.' A family meeting is a soviet; so is a Privy Council. Is it really world-revolutionary to argue in English that the only 'real' soviets are revolutionary proletarian soviets when one could hardly say the same thing in Russian?

In this context Anglophones will probably find it useful to think of the example of the Privy Council, a discussion body (council) which exists to give advice (counsel) to the monarch and whose members are known not as Councillors but rather as Counsellors. In Russian the word 'soviet' does the work of both concepts single-handedly. Thus the Privy Council established by Alexander I, and which eventually gave its title to the upper house of the Duma in 1906, was known as the Gosudarstvenniy Sovet; or in literal translation, the Council of State or State Council. If, however, we wish to refer in English to the USSR's later Supreme Council (Verkhovniy Sovet) as the Supreme Soviet, which is of course the common usage - just as one refers to the Paris Bourse or the Israeli Knesset, and to Russian Tsars rather than Emperors - it follows that we must correspondingly refer to the earlier body as also being a Soviet: namely, the Soviet of State, or, with even greater precision, the State Soviet. For a native Russophone the point we are making could hardly be more obvious, since exactly the same word is used in both cases. It is surely unfortunate that the vast majority of non-Russophones, encouraged by the community of sovietologists, would baulk at the statement that the State Soviet was a well?known feature of the Russian State from as early as 1810. But in Russian this is immediately a matter of undeniable fact.

As used in 1917, the slogan 'All power to the Soviets' was therefore perhaps even more revolutionary than 'common knowledge' would suppose, insofar as it involved an inversion of the usual meaning of the term 'soviet.' Whereas the slogan 'All power to the advisers' would clearly be self-contradictory, this is not of course what the revolutionary workers actually meant. On the contrary, they were using the term 'soviet' in a very specific and new context, not so much to denote an achievement - from anyone's point of view, it was obvious that the Russian conditions of 1917, simplified as 'dual power,' could not last - but rather an advance which was still in the process of being made, a dynamic, a devenir or becoming: the development of a movement which had already led to the creation of new organisational forms and which, it was hoped, had the potential to go further still. Many of this movement's participants strove consciously to 'turn the world upside-down.' This is what a revolutionary movement must always involve, and in this context it was apparent that even a commonplace word could bear revolutionary meanings, in direct relation to the workers' antagonistic practice at the time. The neologisms - terms such as histomat, diamat, proletkul´t - only became widespread once the movement was defeated.

It is not surprising that the word 'soviet' lost its revolutionary connotations when the forces of capital began to 'roll back' the power of the workers. But this does not mean that its appropriation by the capitalist authorities, and its widespread usage in non-revolutionary meanings by means of the emergent communications media and within the official 'education' system - which sovietologists would refer to as a matter of 'political socialisation', usually omitting to cover continuities such as the use of icons in schoolrooms and workplaces - were major causes of the movement's defeat. We should perhaps concede that the distortion of historical actuality by such means was to some extent a contributory factor, but nonetheless the main causation was the other way around.

Much later, in the television era, the colloquial term 'hit squad' has occasionally been used under western capitalism to refer to organisations of proletarian enforcement, even though its main use has been to denote non-judicial groups of executioners in the pay of governments or organised criminals (two terms the distinction between which is without profound categorial importance). To be sure, the term's usage is not exactly analogous to that of the word 'soviet,' but surely it would be quite bizarre to insist that it only be used in one meaning or the other. It can hardly be sensible to ask, "Would the 'real' hit squad/soviet please stand up?"

Second, since one of our main concerns is precisely that of global anti-nationalism, we should also consider the rise of workers' councils in Germany at the end of 1918: that is, in the same historical period as the Russian events of 1917, but after the radical tendencies in the soviets in Russia had largely been defeated. Although they too were taken over by the capitalist counterrevolution - indeed more rapidly than in Russia - there was a major difference in the three years that followed. While many of the radical workers in Russia were calling for 'new elections' to the soviets - the insurgents of Kronstadt being the best-known example - their counterparts in Germany were quite explicit in struggling outside and against the existing councils, in explicitly 'illegalist' fashion. Of course one can compare and contrast Petrograd with the Rühr, the factory committees (fabkomy) with the General Workers' 'Leagues' (Unionen), Lenin and Stalin (members of the Council of People's Commissars) with Noske and Scheidemann (members of the identically titled organ in Germany, which similarly presented itself as deriving its authority from the workers' councils), and so on, for as long as one pleases, and it is worth bearing in mind that in neither region did a 'consciously pure communist' struggle take place which sought intellectually and practically to achieve full communisation there and then and everywhere and forever. However, it does appear that there was more revolutionary consciousness in Germany than there was in Russia. And from this it surely follows that the emergence of the sovety prior to that of the raten can hardly justify the belief that in terms of revolutionary workers' organisation it was the 'Russian model' that was the 'real thing.' Why, then, should we insist on using the word 'soviet' in exclusively radical connotations when we would surely take quite a different attitude to the words 'council' and 'rate'? Does the putting of the Russian events on a pedestal, to say nothing of formalism, not actually hinder a thoroughgoing appraisal of the post-war confrontations both individually and generally? This is quite aside from the fact that workers' councils have arisen more recently elsewhere, for example in Hungary in 1956 and Kurdistan in 1991, given names in Hungarian and Kurdish.

Third, let us recall that the slogan of 'restoring power to the soviets' was heard loud and clear in the mid-late 1980s in the USSR itself, in association with the demand for legal reform and the repeal of Article 6 of the 1977 Constitution, concerning the leading role of the Party. The desired means was the introduction of multi-party elections at all levels; the aim was the granting of more power to the capitalist State's elected legislative bodies relative to its official executive - or more precisely, to bosses and aspiring bosses who had tied their wagons to one horse rather than the other, or to organs of a 'new political party' character. Insofar as the idea was to endow the executive bodies with the degree of 'representativeness' removed in 1918, in the belief that this would be more useful than the 'leading role' of the Party in allowing them to fulfil an active function, surely the view that this would involve some sort of reversal of the developments of 1918 - in the formal administrative sense, that is - was not completely false. What would be false, though, would be to associate this with an advance of the interests of the working class. Unsurprisingly, many of the poor showed little interest in the demokratizatsiia of this time - despite the fact that the rulers gave it heavy coverage on television - refusing to ditch their traditional terms nachal´stvo and zhul´´e to denote the 'bosses' and their institutionalised 'thieving' respectively. And in 1989 the Donbass miners were similarly class?conscious when they called their organs of struggle not sovety but rather zabastkomy (strike committees) or stachkomy (uprising committees). They may not have said so explicitly, but by omission they showed a degree of practical recognition that a thoroughgoing opposition to the State must necessarily involve a rejection of the principal ideology of bourgeois democracy: the separation of power.

Taking all these factors into consideration, we do not place inverted commas around the word 'Soviet' when referring to the USSR.