An essay on the Soviets published in 1932 by the co-founder of the Spanish POUM, sympathetic to Lenin and critical of the “profound errors committed, after the death of Lenin, by the leadership of the Communist Party”, that characterizes the Soviets as “a system of government that is infinitely more democratic than the freest bourgeois republic”.
The Soviets: Their Origin, Development and Functions – Andreu Nin
The origin and nature of the Soviets
The Russian word “Soviet” simply means Council or Committee. This term’s meaning, however, is still largely unknown despite the fact that the Russian Revolution has definitively incorporated it into the vocabulary of every country. The term therefore has nothing mysterious about it, and the Soviet is not a creation that belongs exclusively to the “Slavic soul”, as those who have an interest in making the great October revolution appear to be a specifically Russian phenomenon would have us believe, but is rather a form of organization and combat that the Russian working class created and which the proletariat of all countries has adopted. It is possible that a large part of the exploited masses are unaware of the true meaning of this term, but they know perfectly well that it was with the slogan of “all power to the soviets” that the Russian proletariat overthrew the capitalist regime in 1917, and which, with the Soviets as their foundation, is building a new society without exploiters. And this, together with the profound hatred felt by the bourgeoisie for the idea of the Soviets, is enough to make the workers of the entire world understand that its emancipation is indissolubly linked to the victory of this idea.
But this understanding, dictated by class instinct, is not enough. For the Spanish workers and peasants the problem of the Soviets acquires an eminently practical character, since, without the creation of Soviets or analogous institutions, their victory will be impossible. It is therefore clearly useful for the working class masses to have a clear idea of the origin, development and functions of these organizations.
The Soviets arose during the course of the first Russian Revolution in 1905. Their creation was not the result of the initiative of any political party or group, but was the spontaneous achievement of the masses during the unfolding of the revolutionary events. The Soviets did not arise all at once, with the relatively well defined forms that they were to assume in October of 1905, when the movement reached its peak, but were the result of the transformation of distinct combat organizations created in the heat of the struggle. A very original process was underway. “History”, as the Russian writer Nevsky says, “by means of the working class masses that created it, seemed to pass from one form to another, changing at each step, eliminating some elements, introducing others, sometimes simplifying, at other times complicating the organization.” In some locations, Soviets arose as a natural outgrowth of the strike committees created by the railroad workers. In other locations, they emerged from the development of the factory and workship committees themselves. This was the case, for example, in Ekaterinoslav, Rostov, Novorossiysk, Krasnoyarsk, Kiev, Libau, Reval and other cities. These committees, which at first only “pursued the task of leading the strike movement, were gradually transformed, under the sway of the revolutionary events, into representative institutions of the entire working class, which reached agreements with the representatives of the various proletarian parties and established coalitions for struggle. The Soviets in Saint Petersburg had the same origin. At the beginning they were only a system of factory representatives, delegated by their comrades to deal with the employers, collect money for the strikers, etc.
The appearance of these organizations played a major role in the course of the Revolution of 1905. Without them, the movement would have escaped the control of the proletariat, since, prior to their creation, the movement was led by distinctly bourgeois organizations, which hijacked the movement, depriving the proletariat of hegemony and subordinating it to the leadership of the liberal bourgeoisie. Without these organizations created by the proletariat in the heat of the struggle, the powerful movement of 1905 would not have been capable of being transformed into an insurrection.
In any event, the fact is that the Russian working class created a completely original organization that was distinguished from all the other organizations, both by the fact that it was created exclusively on the initiative of the class, and by the procedures employed in its creation and the goals for which it was formed. The Soviets are created solely by the revolutionary classes (workers, peasants, employees); they are formed, not in accordance with the law, but by the revolutionary path, by the direct activity of the exploited masses, and are transformed into instruments of insurrection and the embryo of the future proletarian power. In reality, they are already a power, the seed of the dictatorship of the proletariat. “They acted as a government,” Lenin says, “when, for example, they seized printing plants (in St. Saint Petersburg), and arrested police officials who were preventing the revolutionary people from exercising their rights (such cases also occurred in St. Saint Petersburg, where the new organ of authority concerned was weakest, and where the old government was strongest). They acted as a government when they appealed to the whole people to withhold money from the old government. They confiscated the old government’s funds (the railway strike committees in the South) and used them for the needs of the new, the people’s government”. “The organs of authority that we have described,” Lenin continues, “represented a dictatorship in embryo, for they recognised no other authority, no law and no standards, no matter by whom established. Authority—unlimited, outside the law, and based on force in the most direct sense of the word—is dictatorship. But the force on which this new authority was based, and sought to base itself, was not the force of bayonets usurped by a handful of militarists, not the power of the ‘police force’, not the power of money, nor the power of any previously established institutions. It was nothing of the kind. The new organs of authority possessed neither arms, nor money, nor old institutions. What was the power based on, then? It was based on the mass of the people. That is the main feature that distinguished this new authority from all preceding organs of the old regime. The latter were the instruments of the rule of the minority over the people, over the masses of workers and peasants. The former was an instrument of the rule of the people, of the workers and peasants, over the minority, over a handful of police bullies, over a handful of privileged nobles and government officials”. [From “A Contribution to the History of the Question of the Dictatorship: A Note” (1920). Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Vol. 31, pp. 340-361—Translator’s Note.]
At first, the workers parties were unaware of the immense importance of the Soviets. Until December, when the struggle assumed the form of an armed insurrection, they did not completely grasp their profound significance. There were even attempts on the part of representatives of the workers parties to withdraw from the new organs of the new revolutionary power. However, the Bolsheviks were the first to understand the importance of the Soviets as organs of insurrection, as the most appropriate framework for achieving the united front of all the revolutionary elements of the proletariat, and thus, as the events moved towards a decisive turning point, it was the Bolsheviks who played the main role in the Soviets.
One thing that does not admit of the least doubt is the fact that the Russian proletariat, by creating the Soviets, gave the international proletariat a new form of working class organization. The Soviets are, in reality, distinctly revolutionary institutions, inconceivable in the era of peaceful development, which pursued the goal of the immediate and radical transformation of all social relations. The prestige enjoyed by this new form of organization among the Russian working class masses was immense. The workers said: “What the Soviet says, we shall do”; and, in effect, they viewed it as their own Government, and they carried out its orders and decrees without hesitation. Never before was there such an organization that could count on such unlimited confidence on the part of the masses and which was so closely connected with them. The workers in the factories elected their deputies to the Soviet. The latter had to provide an account of their deeds to those who elected them and it was common for those deputies who did not satisfactorily fulfill the mission delegated to them by their constituency to be dismissed and replaced by another deputy. As we shall see below, an examination of the structures of the Soviets will reveal that almost all of them had an Executive Committee for day-to-day affairs; but all the important questions were fully discussed in plenary sessions. The Soviets were a rank and file organization based on fully democratic methods of operation.
The functions and the role of the Soviets changed according to the changing circumstances. At first, as we have seen, they were mere Strike Committees; later, they became representative organs of the entire working class; then, they were transformed into organs of insurrection and the embryonic form of a new power; finally, with the victory of the proletarian revolution, the Soviet form is the precise form assumed by the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Soviet form of the dictatorship of the proletariat is therefore the form of the proletariat organized as state power that provides the possibility for complete political rule and becomes a powerful instrument of social and political transformation.
The Soviets prior to the seizure of power
1. The first Soviet
The first Soviet emerged in Ivanovo-Voznesensk.
Ivanovo-Voznesensk is the most important center of the Russian textile industry. The workers movement of this city was one of the oldest in the country. Socialist ideas exercised a powerful influence here, but the movement was distinguished by one feature in particular: the leadership role was not exercised by outside agitators or intellectuals, as so often was the case elsewhere, but by elements from within the working class masses of the city itself. The masses, however, were generally uneducated, as was often the case in this industry. And the latter was always distinguished, in every country, by the worst working conditions.
The revolutionary movement of 1905 had an immediate repercussion on this mass of exploited workers, who were particularly influenced by the proximity of such important proletarian strongholds as Moscow and Orehovo-Zuevo, where revolutionary agitation had reached a high point.
The strike of the textile workers broke out in Ivanovo-Voznesensk on May 12, and became a general strike and played an immense role in the history of the Russian workers movement. On May 13, on the banks of the river Talki, an Assembly of strikers attended by 30,000 workers elected a Council or Soviet composed of 110 delegates, who were responsible for carrying out negotiations with the employers and the authorities in the name of all and to assume leadership of the strike. This Committee was not just an ordinary strike committee, by virtue of both the way it was elected as well as its character. From the very first moment of its existence the Soviet established close links with the Social Democratic Party, whose local Committee inspired all the resolutions of the new institution.
The Soviet, under the influence of events taking place in Russia, rapidly acquired an extraordinary importance and a definite revolutionary character. Its power and its prestige were immense. In reality, during this period there was already dual power in Ivanovo-Voznesensk. Nothing could be printed without the authorization of the Soviet. The latter refused, for example, to authorize the printing of a document in which a government representative sought to address the new institution created by the workers. While the Soviet subjected the publication of all documents produced by the enemy class to its control, it freely published anything that met with its approval. Social Democratic propaganda, for example, encountered no obstacles whatsoever. The Soviet made free use of the public meeting halls, without asking for permission from anyone, for its assemblies and meetings. This right had been conquered by force, and nothing and no one could prevent the working class from exercising it, not even the massacre carried out on July 3 by the Czarist authorities. Naturally, it was the Soviet that led the strike. It allowed no separate negotiations; no one could return to work without the Soviet’s agreement. The latter organized security patrols for the factories and the warehouses of the cities, and during the entire period that it exercised absolute control over the city, not one single act of theft or looting took place. It was precisely when the Soviet was dissolved that the attacks on shops began.
The Soviet made decisions of a distinctly political kind, which were transmitted to the Government Ministry by means of a notice signed by all the deputies of the Soviet, to which were added the signatures of thousands of strikers. In these notices complete freedom of speech, and the right to assembly and association, as well as the convocation of a Constituent Assembly were demanded. The Soviet called for the formation of a tribunal to try those responsible for the attack staged by the forces of public order against the strikers on July 3, organized commissions to gather funds for the destitute, detachments to guard the factories, etc. Immediately after it was formed, it organized a committee, composed of five members, that was undoubtedly analogous to the Executive Committees elected in the Soviets that later emerged in various parts of the country.
The plenary assemblies were held every morning at nine a.m. After the end of each session, the General Assembly of the workers convened, which examined all the questions related to the strike. The assembly was informed concerning the progress of the strike, the negotiations with the employers and the authorities, etc. After the discussion, proposals prepared by the Soviet were submitted to the Assembly. Then the party militants spoke concerning the situation of the working class, and the meeting continued until the people were tired. Then, the crowd sang revolutionary songs and the Assembly was dismissed. This took place every day.
After the massacres of July 3, the Assemblies were not held for two weeks and, once they resumed, the first meeting was attended by approximately 40,000 workers. The Assemblies were followed by peaceful demonstrations and meetings in the center of the city. On July 25, the Soviet decided to end the strike in view of the growing hunger of the households of the workers and due to the fact that the employers had made significant concessions.
On the day the strike ended, the Soviet of Ivanovo-Voznesensk spontaneously dissolved, but its members still played a role as representatives of the workers. In all the factories they were considered to be their “deputies”, and in all the conflicts with management they acted as the representatives of the working class masses, and the employers accepted this.
2. The Saint Petersburg Soviet
Saint Petersburg was not just the official capital of the country, but also the center of the revolutionary movement. It was in Saint Petersburg where the proletariat was most active and possessed the most ardent combative spirit. It was from Saint Petersburg that revolutionary initiative and ideas spread even in the days of December when the capital was quiet, but Moscow was undergoing a bloody struggle. Saint Petersburg was connected by a thousand threads to the rest of the country, and this circumstance helped it to assimilate the experiences of the other proletarian centers and the results they had obtained, to elaborate them in its revolutionary laboratory, and finally, in October 1905, to give them the most perfect organizational form, the Soviet of Workers Deputies, which exercised an enormous influence on the revolutionary movement of the whole country.
The Soviet was formed at the moment when the revolutionary struggle was at its peak. The idea of its creation was suggested on October 12 at an Assembly held in the Technological Institute. But the masses has already been involved in the process of its creation by developing, from the very beginning of the revolution, the various forms of representation in the factories and workshops. On October 13, the Soviet celebrated its first plenary meeting. One of the principle resolutions adopted by that first session was that of issuing a manifesto addressed to all the workers, in which, among other things, the Soviet said: “We cannot allow the strikes to break out and dissolve sporadically. This is why we have decided to concentrate the leadership of the movement in the hands of a Joint Workers Committee. We propose that each factory, each workshop and each trade should elect deputies, one for each 500 workers. The deputies of each factory or workshop will constitute the Factory or Workshop Committee. The meeting of the deputies of all the factories and workshops will constitute the General Committee of Saint Petersburg.” This manifesto was signed by “The Soviet of deputies of the factories and workshops of Saint Petersburg”. At first, the workers, having elected their deputies, considered them to be their representatives on the general strike committee, which sometimes called itself “The General Workers Soviet”, and at other times simply “The Workers Soviet”, but from the very start the term, “Soviet of Workers Deputies” entered into general use, known now throughout the world, and which appeared already in the first issue of the Izvestia (news), the official organ of the Soviet.
Not even one of the participants in the movement was aware of the immense importance of the role that the organization to which they elected their representatives would be called upon to play. However, the most conscious militants understood perfectly well that it was not just a simple strike committee and that its mission was to lead the political strike, not just to obtain the eight-hour working day, but to struggle for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly and the achievement of political liberty.
By mid-November, there were 562 deputies to the Soviet; they were the delegates of 147 factories, 34 workshops and 16 trade unions. Of these deputies, 508 represented the factories and workshops and 54 represented the trade unions. They represented no fewer than 250,000 workers, that is, the overwhelming majority of the proletariat of the capital. In the forefront, as always, were the metal workers, who constituted the vanguard of the revolutionary movement. They elected 351 deputies; the textile workers were next, with 57 deputies; then the printing workers, with 32; the woodworkers, with 23, etc. But the office and shop employees, the post office workers, the telegraph operators and the revolutionary parties were also represented in the Soviet. Of the 50 members who composed the Executive Committee, 28 represented the factories and workshops, 13 were from the trade unions and 9 from the socialist parties. The Petrograd Soviet successfully embodied—according Lenin’s definition—the effective unity of the revolutionary social democracy: this was both its greatest strength as well as its weakness. Its strength, because it united the entire proletariat; its weakness was neutralized, up to a certain point, by the indecisiveness and vacillations of the radical petty bourgeoisie.
In 1905 Saint Petersburg was the center of all the events, and in the capital itself, the Soviet was the center of the entire movement, and this was so, for the most part, as Trotsky said, “because this purely class-founded, proletarian organization was the organization of the revolution as such. The Soviet was the axis of all events, every thread ran towards it, every call to action emanated from it. What was the Soviet of Workers' Deputies? The Soviet came into being as a response to an objective need -- a need born of the course of events. It was an organization which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thou sands of people while having virtually no organizational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self control -- and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours.” [Leon Trotsky, 1905, available online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1907/1905/1905.pdf, pp. 69-70—Translator’s Note.]
None of the existing revolutionary parties, and none of the trade unions, which were in any event quite small, could play this role. Despite their enormous influence among the working class masses, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had a membership of between two and three thousand at the end of the summer and between five and six thousand at the end of the year. With the help of the Soviet, the social democratic parties aroused the masses. The Soviet was a center that attracted to the organization and the struggle, under the leadership of the social democracy, not only the proletariat, but also the petty bourgeois sectors of the population.
When the Soviet was first formed, Saint Petersburg had a Municipal Duma, which was merely a nominal institution for municipal administration, and whose prerogatives were narrowly circumscribed by the Czarist government. This institution was elected solely by the ruling class. One of the first acts of the Soviet was to present a series of demands to the Municipal Duma. These demands were as follows:
1. Take immediate measures to regulate the supply of food and necessities to the working class masses of the capital;
2. Allow public buildings to be used for workers assemblies;
3. Abolish the grants of premises and subsidies to the police, the civil guards, etc.;
4. Deliver money to the Municipal Fund of the Soviet for the arming of the proletariat of Saint Petersburg, which was fighting for the freedom of the people.
These demands were submitted to the Duma, during one of the latter’s sessions, by a special delegation from the Soviet. We hardly need to mention that the members of the Duma remained deaf to the demands of the proletariat. They promised to examine the question in a special session, but nothing ever came of this.
The political program of the Soviet was inspired by the social democracy. Its basic slogans were the overthrow of the autocracy, Constituent Assembly, democratic republic and the eight-hour day.
The Soviet led three strikes: the general strikes of October and November and the Postal and Telegraph workers strike. It distributed approximately half a million leaflets; it established, by revolutionary means, the eight-hour day in the factories and workshops; it proclaimed freedom of the press and of assembly, which it enforced by confiscating the printing presses and public buildings; it organized support for unemployed workers; it led the movement that compelled the autocracy to issue the Manifesto of October 17, which promised the convocation of the Duma and a list of political freedoms; and, by means of the November strikes, it forced Czarism to lift the state of emergency in Poland. For a while, that is, during the period of the peak of the revolution, it actually acted as the ruling power and was victorious. The Soviet proclaimed the slogan, “Take up arms”, which was enthusiastically received by the proletariat. Armed detachments were formed in the factories. The Soviet formed its own workers militia, which guarded the printing plant that printed the Izvestias, fought against reactionary gangs, protected the Assemblies, etc.
The Soviet’s authority was immense. Everyone, all the exploited, and all those who were the victims of abuses, attended its sessions seeking assistance. During its later period it was more and more common for it to be visited by peasants’ delegations, and it also began to establish relations with the soldiers. The courts allowed witnesses to be excused from court proceedings if they were deputies to the Soviet, so that they could comply with their mandates. If the police arrested one of the deputies on a charge of inciting public disorder, he was quickly released as soon as he showed them his membership card from the Soviet. The military authorities who guarded the electric power plant, allowed electric service for the printing of Izvestia, by order of the Soviet, and submitted official communiqués to the latter notifying it that its orders had been obeyed. The railroads and the telegraph service were entirely at its disposal, while the President of the Council of Ministers was unable to use them whenever he wished to do so. Among the subscribers to the bulletin of the Soviet were Witte, the Prime Minister of the Czarist government, and Birlov, the Minister of the Navy. When the pogroms began, organized by the “black hundreds” throughout the entire country, the Soviet issued an order to the workers telling them to take up arms. The workers, however, unable to acquire firearms, began to manufacture bladed weapons in the factories and workshops. A veritable museum was established at the Soviet, unprecedented for its variety. Later, however, as we have said, they bought guns. The militia was composed of 6,000 workers, and as an institution it operated openly, so openly in fact, that the newspapers published the phone numbers of the militia outposts so that the population could contact them in case of an emergency.
On November 26, Khrustalev, the first president of the Soviet, was arrested. The Soviet responded with the following announcement: “The president of the Soviet of Workers Deputies has been taken prisoner by the Government. The Soviet is electing another president and continues to make preparations for the insurrection.” As it turned out, Trotsky was elected as president of the Soviet. But the Soviet would not last much longer.
On December 2 the Soviet distributed a manifesto to the people appealing to them to withdraw their money from the Savings Banks and State Bank, and to demand that they be paid in gold. This appeal was enthusiastically received by the people, and represented a serious blow to the government.
The Soviet had become a serious force. Under its influence, similar institutions were formed in other cities. The moment was approaching when it would have to unite with the peasants for decisive action, but the revolutionary democracy, represented in the Soviet, and the liberal bourgeois opposition groups, were content with the victory of October and turned their backs on the people by making an arrangement with the Czar. This gave confidence and encouragement to the autocracy, which ultimately emerged victorious. On December 3 the public forces of order surrounded the building where the Executive Committee of the Soviet was in session and arrested its members, who were subsequently tried and condemned to deportation to Siberia. Afterwards, there were attempts to create a “clandestine Soviet”; but they were unsuccessful. While an Executive Committee of the Soviet continued to meet, it was actually a purely nominal organization without any power or prestige. This clandestine Executive Committee was arrested in the Spring of 1906. The Saint Petersburg Soviet, unlike the Moscow Soviet, was not an institution of armed insurrection, which is largely explained by the predominant influence exercised by the Mensheviks in Saint Petersburg.
3. The Moscow Soviet
The Moscow Soviet was formed quite late during the movement, later even than some of the provincial Soviets. Formally, it was established on November 22, but the idea of its creation had already been suggested in September, during the printers strike, which triggered a powerful movement of solidarity among the working class in Moscow that led to meetings, rallies, demonstrations, barricades and clashes with the troops. The printing workers elected a Committee that was in reality the embryo of the future Soviet. In effect, this strike committee became a revolutionary institution that proclaimed and established, on its initiative, freedom of assembly and speech, organized assemblies in public buildings, which were permitted after it was legalized, and later presented a list of demands of a political character. At first, each workshop elected one deputy. Later, a rule was established that called for the election of one deputy for every 20 workers. The printers committee was transformed, during the subsequent events, into the Moscow Soviet. During the final days of its existence, the latter was composed of 200 deputies, who represented more than 100,000 workers, that is, the overwhelming majority of the working class of Moscow.
The need for the creation of the Soviet was born from the circumstance that a strike committee already existed—which led the political movement against the autocracy—which was mainly composed of bourgeois elements, with a minority of workers. The same was true of other cities, such as Samar and Kiev, for example. Various unification proposals had been made, some of which originated among the workers, who thought that the collaboration of all forces was indispensable for the struggle against the common enemy. The Soviet demurred, however, without categorically refusing to collaborate in concrete cases of struggle against the autocracy. The Soviet of Workers Deputies represented a major step forward in the development of the movement, becoming an institution of insurrection. The Moscow Soviet took a much more resolute stance than the Saint Petersburg Soviet with regard to arming the workers and the task of propaganda and organization among the soldiers. For a brief period, there was even a functioning Soviet of Soldiers, which held only one meeting. In the Moscow Soviet the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks played a secondary role. The principal role was played by the Bolsheviks, whose influence was predominant, despite the fact that formally the three parties had exactly the same representation on the Executive Committee (two deputies for each party).
Besides the central Soviet, there were also neighborhood Soviets, which were very active throughout the course of the movement.
The Soviet assumed leadership of the December insurrection. The decision to proclaim the general strike adopted by the Social Democratic Party was endorsed by the Soviet and the general Assemblies held in every factory.
The Soviet enjoyed, as in Saint Petersburg, a great deal of prestige among the working class masses. The entire working class of Moscow participated in the elections of the deputies to the Soviet, and the workers accompanied the deputies to the first meeting of the Soviet amidst a great display of enthusiasm. To get an idea of the enthusiasm of the workers and the scale of their participation in the elections, we shall refer to the very characteristic words of an old foundry worker from the Lefortovo neighborhood, elected by his comrades. “Comrades,” he said, “only now do I understand the power that the unity of the working class can display. I have seen that, in collective action in the struggle with our enemies, the bourgeoisie, we can obtain all rights and all liberties. I, who am already old, could not even have dreamed of being elected to defend our workers rights and to bear the honorable title of representative of the Soviet of Workers deputies; but I think that we will not be able to avoid a bloody struggle with our oppressors, and for that reason, your elected deputies beseech you to uphold with arms in hand your Soviets of Workers Deputies.”
Without the Soviets, the Party organization would not have been able to incite the masses to engage in the armed struggle or to create the atmosphere of struggle and solidarity that sustained the working class masses.
4. The Soviets in the provinces
Most of the Soviets in the provinces were organized in November and some were even organized as late as December, under the direct influence of the Soviet that had been created by the working class of Saint Petersburg. Furthermore, both the Saint Petersburg and the Moscow Soviets had dispatched delegates to the provinces who actively encouraged the formation of Soviet organizations.
Of course, the efforts of these delegates would have been fruitless if the conditions were not ripe for their agitation. As it turned out, embryonic organizations existed everywhere for some time that would later become the basis for the formation of Soviets. Under the impact of the ongoing events, the spread of strikes, the attacks of the public forces of law and order, and the general revolutionary situation that existed throughout the country, these embryonic organizations underwent a rapid transformation. Nothing is more fertile than a revolution. The revolution offered an immense field of action to the creative activity of the masses, who, under these circumstances, put into practice in a few hours all the plans and proposals which the leaders of the movement had contemplated for days and weeks in their offices.
Very little information exists concerning the origin and character of the Soviets in the provinces. Some bore more similarities with the Moscow Soviet, others were more like the Saint Petersburg Soviet. In some locations they exercised real power. The peasants, too, under the influence of the Peasant Alliance, created revolutionary mass organizations that often assumed the name of Soviets and established relations with workers Soviets. All of them had armed groups, well organized and subject to strict discipline. In many localities, both the employers as well as the government authorities established official relations with the Soviets, to which they submitted official documents. In Kostroma, for example, in response to pressure from the Soviet, the Municipal Duma conceded a subsidy to the strikers and 1,000 rubles to the unemployed. This same Municipal Duma was also compelled to free four workers who had been arrested. Women—and this was by no means the least important feature of the movement—played an extremely active role in the life of the Soviets.
It was in Siberia where the Soviets assumed the most decidedly revolutionary character and actually became institutions exercising real power. This can be explained, above all, by the influence of the soldiers who had returned from the front in the Far East, who formed Soldiers Soviets and entered into close contact with the Soviets organized by the workers. In Krasnoyarsk, for example, the Soviet expropriated the railroads and the landowners and assumed complete control over the Postal Service and the Telegraph Service. Similar measures were implemented in other towns in the region. In some places, the reactionary elements temporarily succeeded in disorganizing the movement, but the working class masses responded energetically by silencing and neutralizing the gangs of the “black hundreds”.
In general, the Soviets of the provinces exercised complete control over the press and printing plants. When they did not publish their own bulletins, they published a bulletin of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party instead, which addressed the same questions in the same spirit. Every Soviet that was formed became a center to which the workers and even the peasants of the neighboring villages flocked to voice their complaints and to seek advice.
There is no complete list of all the Soviets of Workers Deputies that existed in Russia during the Revolution of 1905. With regard to the Soviets of peasants and soldiers, the data we possess are even more incomplete. We can, however, state without any doubt at all that they played a major role in the revolution. All the documents of that period provide irrefutable testimony to this fact. We must, however, point out that, in 1927, when the Russian communist opposition recommended the immediate creation of Soviets in China and, in support of its recommendation, recalled the role played by the Soviets in the Russian Revolution of 1905, Stalin, in order to justify his Menshevik policy calling for the subordination of the proletariat to the Kuomintang bourgeoisie, asserted, with his proverbial scorn for historical truth, that in 1905 only two or three Soviets had been formed in Russia and that their influence on the course of events was almost nonexistent. However, between May and October of 1905, besides the Soviets of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, Soviets were formed in the following cities: Novorossiysk, Rostov, Samara, Kiev, Chita, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Kostroma, Saratov, Mytischi, Tver, Orehovo-Zuevo, Vyatka, Ekaterinburg, Nadeyadino, Vodkino, Odessa, Nikolayev, Kremenchuk, Yuzovka, Mariupol, Taganrog, Baku, Bialystok, Smolensk, Libau and Reval.
We must point out that this list, as we have already mentioned, is very incomplete, and that the number of Soviets that were formed in 1905 was certainly much greater. Nonetheless, this incomplete list provides some idea of the magnitude of the movement. The Soviets did not arise in just one particular region, but throughout the immensity of the Russian land, both in the north and in the south, in the center of the country, and in the distant regions of Siberia, although, naturally, those that played the most important role were the ones in Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
5. The structure of the Soviets
The factory was the main stronghold of the Soviets. The rules for elections varied greatly depending on the locality, but in all localities absolutely all of the workers who were employed in each enterprise participated in the elections of the deputies, without any exceptions or restrictions of any kind. In Saint Petersburg and Moscow one deputy was elected for each 500 workers; in Odessa, one for each 100; in Kostroma, one for each 25; elsewhere, there was no definite ratio. In any case, the Soviets everywhere represented the overwhelming majority of the working class, and in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Ekaterinburg they represented almost all of the workers. Their prestige was so great that in some cities even the petty shopkeepers attempted to elect Soviets.
How were they organized? In Saint Petersburg, Rostov, Novorossiysk and certain other cities, general Soviets were directly elected; in Moscow, Odessa and cities, neighborhood Soviets were elected alongside the general Soviets. In Moscow, the neighborhood Soviets sent representatives directly to the general or central Soviet; elsewhere, elections were first held for the neighborhood Soviets, and then the latter held a general meeting to form the local Soviet.
As a general rule, an Executive Committee or Commission or a Discussion Board was designated. The president, the secretary and other important officers were elected by the general Assembly of the Soviet.
Auxiliary institutions were created, such as commissions for aid to the unemployed, committees to organize rallies and meetings, sections for administering publications and propaganda, finance committees, etc. And where the Soviets led the insurrections or became institutions exercising real power, they created armed detachments or militias and nominated the managers of the institutions over which the Soviet assumed control (Postal Services, Telegraph Services, Railroads). Some Soviets, such as those of Krasnoyarsk and Chita, whose formation, as we saw above, was heavily influenced by soldiers returning from the front, possessed considerable armed forces.
Not all the Soviets had their own press organs. Some made use of the legal press or the party publications. The Izvestias (News) were printed—as we have seen—by seizing control of printing enterprises. All the Soviets distributed leaflets and proclamations that had enormous influence from the point of view of agitation.
In general, there was no fixed form of organization. The forms assumed by the Soviets, as well as their character and their functions, were crystallized in accordance with circumstances.
6. Soviets and parties
In the first Soviet that was formed in Russia, that of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, the question of how the Soviet should relate to the parties never arose, because the Soviet was in fact led by the city’s social democratic organization.
It was only in Saint Petersburg where this question was to become a topic of heated debate. As we have already pointed out, the Soviet of the Russian capital was at first a workers committee responsible for leading the strike. But as the revolutionary events unfolded, the Soviet became the center of the proletariat’s entire struggle. The Soviet issued political slogans, presented economic demands, and exercised the functions of the Trade Unions, which did not exist at that time in Saint Petersburg. In short, it was a new revolutionary force that led an active political struggle against the autocracy. Under these circumstances, it replaced to some extent the socialist parties as the leading force of the class struggle and therefore the question of the role of the Soviet and the relation of the latter with the workers parties could not be ignored.
Already on October 19, on the occasion of a debate regarding whether or not to end the strike, the representative of the Bolsheviks pointed out the need to coordinate the actions of the Soviet with those of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party. On October 27, the Vyborg section of the Soviet debated the question and decided to submit a proposal that the Soviet should ratify the social democratic program, and the Bolshevik delegates even threatened to resign from the Soviet if the latter did not ratify the program.
The question was discussed in the various neighborhoods and factories. Everywhere, fierce debates ensued. The federative Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, whose membership was evenly divided between Bolshevik and Menshevik representatives, decided to propose to the Soviet that it issue a concrete declaration concerning the Party’s political platform. The Soviet found itself in a very critical situation. It encountered no difficulties in obtaining the adoption of a resolution of support for the social democratic program, since the immense majority of its delegates were members of the party or sympathized with its program. But the Soviet also had delegates from other parties—the Social Revolutionaries, for example—and workers who did not belong to any party and, above all, to ratify the social democratic program would have contradicted the basic principle upon which the Soviet was constituted: the representation of the all the masses of the workers in one combat organization.
Taking all these factors into consideration, after a brief discussion, the Soviet decided to table the proposal and withdraw it from the agenda for debate. The Bolshevik representatives, however, despite their statements to the contrary, did not resign.
In reality, the question was merely evaded, and would continue to be the subject of passionate debates in political meetings and the working class press. In any event, if the question had been brought up for a final vote in the Soviet of Workers Deputies this would have led to a split in the Soviet and would have resulted in the disorganization of the proletariat of Saint Petersburg at one of its most critical moments.
We have already mentioned the view that was generally held by the Bolsheviks. Because of the importance of the question, however, it is worth the trouble to consider it in more detail. At that time, it was once again demonstrated that whenever Lenin was absent, the Bolshevik leaders made major mistakes. From the very beginning, these leaders adopted a negative attitude towards the Soviet. To exercise political leadership—they said—you need a well-defined political program and concrete goals. Because of its political structure the Soviet was incapable of assuming leadership and, in any event, it was incapable of replacing the party. It was also pointed out that the Soviet was an organization that was not formally subordinated to any party, and was therefore susceptible to opportunist deviation and transformation into an instrument that could be used by the bourgeoisie to lead the workers astray. The conclusion drawn from this reasoning logically followed: the Soviet was not only unnecessary, but it even constituted a danger to the proletariat. Lenin’s arrival in Saint Petersburg put an end to this absurd attitude. Lenin immediately grasped the immense importance of the Soviets, and in articles published in Novaya Zhizn he restricted himself merely to recommending that efforts should be made to reinforce the party’s influence within the Soviets. This view served as the basis for the relations between the Soviet and the party after the October Revolution, together with the resolutions approved at the 7th and 8th Party Congresses, where it was formally recognized that the Soviets were neutral organizations, but organizations whose leadership by the party was absolutely necessary.
The Mensheviks, despite the fact that they undoubtedly and correctly proclaimed the slogan calling for the creation of workers committees, possessed a very confused idea of their purposes. As soon as the Soviet was formed and began to intervene in political life, the Mensheviks themselves were frightened of the unexpected results produced by their propaganda and, just like the Bolsheviks, demanded that the new institution adopt the social democratic program. The Menshevik leader Martov, in an article published in Nachalo, after having acknowledged that the Soviet of Workers Deputies was the first outstanding experience of the independent representation of the proletariat, said: “The Soviet and the party are independent proletarian organizations that cannot coexist for very long.” The Mensheviks did not understand the role that the Soviets were destined to play. The latter fought for power, because it was the question of power that was raised by history to the first point on the agenda. Generally, the Mensheviks thought of the Soviets as a kind of Working Class Parliament, without any function in the class struggle and mass action.
As for the Social Revolutionaries, it must be pointed out that this petty bourgeois party had no definite policy towards the Soviets, as they did not express any definite position with regard to any of the important questions mentioned above. On the other hand, the influence of this party in the Soviet was minimal. Only one year later, in the autumn of 1906, the Social Revolutionaries supported the Menshevik position on the Soviets.
The anarchists, despite their appeals, were not admitted in the Soviet. Lenin, in an article on this question, approved of the Soviet’s refusal to admit them because, according to him, the Soviet was not a Working Class Parliament, but a combat organization for the achievement of concrete ends, and there was no place in this organization for the representatives of a tendency that stood in contradiction with the basic goals of the Revolution. This point of view, profoundly erroneous in our opinion, would in fact later be rectified by the Bolsheviks, since, in the Soviets of 1917, the anarchists were represented with the same rights as the other sectors of the revolutionary workers movement.
The social democracy, both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, did not arrive at a well-defined position concerning the Soviets, as we have seen in the discussion set forth above, until the period of the Stockholm Congress, when it became possible to formulate a retrospective judgment concerning the events of 1905.
Among the preliminary proposals submitted for discussion at the Unification Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, one that was not debated was the proposal of the Mensheviks to define the Soviets as institutions destined to unite the interests of the working class masses against the rest of the population.
The Bolsheviks, without denying the importance of the Soviets as organizations of mass representation, pointed out that, in the course of the struggle, from simple strike committees they would be transformed into “organs of the general revolutionary struggle” and that they were the “embryo of revolutionary power”.
7. The Soviets and their enemies
Now that we have described the attitudes of the various sectors of the workers movement with respect to the Soviets, we should also present at least a brief account of the judgment passed against the latter by elements that, as a result of their class position, were necessarily hostile towards them.
Among the representatives of the extremist reactionary elements in the enemy camp, the ones that best understood the role and the importance of the Soviets were those grouped around Novoye Vremya, the newspaper of the landed nobility and the bureaucracy; after the occupation of their printing plant for the printing of the bulletin of the Saint Petersburg Soviet, in their commentary on this event they drew attention to the indisputable existence of dual power and also said: “If tomorrow it occurs to them to arrest Witte and imprison him in the Peter and Paul Fortress together with his ministers, we would not be in the least surprised. If the revolutionaries have not yet done so it is only because they do not think it is necessary.” In the same issue of the journal from which we have taken this quotation, they published another article in which they said: “Now in Saint Petersburg we have two governments, one with vast legal powers, but no influence at all: that is Witte’s Government. The other possesses no legal powers at all, but everyone obeys its orders: the Soviet of Workers Deputies.” But even more eloquent is the article signed by N. Menshikov, in which he says: “up until now Russia has had the pleasure of dealing with one bad government. Now we have to deal with two bad governments. Alongside the old historical power, now decrepit, another has taken shape, which is noisy and obstreperous, and we, out of habit, have submitted to it with touching submissiveness. The empire anxiously awaits the orders of a handful of proletarians: go to work or go on strike.”
These passages are eloquent testimony to the fact that the most typical representatives of Russian reaction understood perfectly well that the Soviet was an institution that was fighting for power and that it was the embryo of a new regime.
The creation and growth of the Soviet produced an impression of fear and resignation in the Government. We have already related elsewhere in this pamphlet that the authority of the Soviet was so immense that some government bodies unhesitatingly carried out all its orders. The meetings of the Soviet were held openly; the newspapers published the announcements of the meetings and the police checked the delegates credentials at the doors of the building where the meeting was held, despite the fact that other Assemblies were prohibited and even dispersed by force.
The witnesses’ testimonies in the trial of the deputies of the Saint Petersburg Soviet unanimously confirm that the latter was in fact a government and that the Czar, disconcerted, only provoked disorder. Only in November did the imperial ministers begin to assert their authority and, forming a bloc with the big reactionary bourgeoisie, fundamentally modified their tactics and took measures to put an end to such a dangerous state of affairs. As early as the 3rd of November, the Saint Petersburg Chief of Police declared that the population “is tired” of the Soviet. The Soviet then published a response that concluded as follows: “The Soviet of Workers Deputies expresses its conviction that the upcoming events will show who is tired in this country”; but the revolutionary proletariat had already begun to falter, the proletariat of Saint Petersburg began to show signs of fatigue, and this proved that this declaration was no more than a vain threat. The situation favored the adoption of energetic measures by the Government and on the 3rd of December the Soviet of Workers Deputies of Saint Petersburg, as we have already mentioned, was dissolved and arrested by the forces of law and order.
The bourgeoisie assumed towards the Soviet an attitude similar to the attitude that it had generally taken with respect to the proletariat and its role in the Revolution of 1905. But at first it did not realize the character that the Soviets were to display and it even proved to be favorably disposed towards them and preferred to deal with the Soviets rather than a large number of separate bodies. This point of view, however, did not last long. When the proletariat, under the direct leadership of the Soviets, did not limit itself to fighting against the autocracy, which to some extent coincided with the wishes of the liberal bourgeoisie, but engaged in a frontal assault against capitalism, demanding the eight-hour day and social legislation, the bourgeoisie, afraid that the workers movement would transcend these limits and overthrow the entire regime of capitalist rule, turned its back on the Revolution and formed an alliance with the autocracy. That was when the Government’s offensive against the Soviets began, with the active collaboration of the liberal bourgeoisie.
The Soviets as institutions in power
1. The Soviets and the February Revolution
The Revolution of 1905 was defeated, but the working class never gave up for even one moment its hope for victory. As has been often pointed out, the insurrection of 1905 was only a test run for the Revolution of 1917. In 1905 the masses were still inexperienced; the Bolshevik party had only just begun to form its cadres. The Soviets had emerged in many different locations in the country, but they did not coordinate their activities. There was an attempt to convoke a General Congress of Soviets, which would have marked a major step forward, but it never progressed beyond the planning stage. Furthermore, while in many locations peasants had attended the Soviets seeking aid, there was no regular connection between the proletarian movement and the uprisings in the countryside. We have also seen that only in Siberia and briefly in Moscow were Soldiers Soviets formed. All of these circumstances were major reasons for the failure of the Revolution. This failure, however, was by no means surprising. It was the first time that the Russian proletariat had risen in a large-scale struggle against the autocracy. The proletariat can learn from its experience. And it can be stated that the lessons of those great events did not fall into oblivion. The experience of the Soviets of 1905 played a premier role in 1917. Despite the passage of twelve years, the idea of the Soviets was still alive in the hearts of the Russian workers and this is why, when in February of 1917 the workers and soldiers of Petrograd flooded the streets and overthrew the age-old power of the autocracy, the idea of the Soviets arose again with renewed vigor.
As everyone knows, Czarism was overthrown by a spontaneous movement of the working class masses. Due to various circumstances, especially as a result of the fact that when the Revolution first broke out the most eminent figures of Bolshevism were in jail, in Siberia or in exile, the movement lacked leadership, and the reins of power, instead of passing into the hands of the working class, passed into the hands of the bourgeoisie, represented by the Duma, the same bourgeoisie that, when the revolution first started, had called upon the Czar’s government to drown the movement in blood. The Revolution was carried out without the Soviets, but on the same day that the liberal bourgeoisie appointed the Provisional Government, the Soviet of Workers Deputies of Petrograd was formed. Under the impulse of the ongoing events, the organization created in 1905 and destroyed by the victorious autocracy rose again.
Due to the circumstances mentioned above, in this first Soviet, as in all the Soviets that were formed during those days throughout the country, the Bolsheviks exercised only a secondary influence. The leadership of these institutions was seized by the radical petty bourgeoisie, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, who represented, with their bombastic and fatuous rhetoric, the confused ideology, the desires and the vague aspirations of the first moments of the revolution. The brilliant orator easily swayed the enthusiasm of the crowds and the petty bourgeois representative never went beyond, as always, revolutionary rhetoric, and in reality only played into the hands of the enemies of the proletariat. The most logical step would have been for the leaders of the Soviets to take control of the revolution and deliver power into the hands of the working class, which had by its sole unaided efforts overthrown the autocracy. However, since they were afraid of the mass movement, and furthermore, out of deference to the long-held view that the first stage of the revolution would be bourgeois-democratic and power would have to naturally pass into the hands of the bourgeoisie, they submissively handed power over to the latter. And the bourgeoisie—needless to say—made haste to accept this mission for the purpose of doing everything possible to decapitate the revolution and to prevent the masses from extending their attack to the privileged classes of agrarian landowners and the industrial bourgeoisie. The Soviet restricted itself to dispatching one of its representatives, Kerensky, to the Provisional Government and nominating a Control Commission, responsible for surveillance over the activities of the Provisional Government.
The Revolution, however, had its own logic, and despite all the efforts of the government leaders, the Soviets developed with an irresistible force, and it became increasingly difficult to govern in opposition to them. This situation led to what has been called dual power, that is, the parallel existence of two powers: that of the bourgeoisie, represented by the Provisional Government, and that of the working class masses, represented by the Soviet; the history of the Revolution between February and October is nothing but the struggle between these two powers. Depending on the correlation of forces, that is, depending on the greater or lesser strength of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the struggle assumed one character or another: either the Provisional Government attacked and the Soviet was forced to yield, or the Soviet took the offensive and the Provisional Government was forced to make concessions. A detailed account of the episodes of this struggle, so rich in lessons, would lead us too far afield and would give this text a character distinct from the one we intended. For the reader who would like to pursue an in-depth study of this most interesting period, we recommend the magnificent History of the Russian Revolution, by Leon Trotsky. For our purposes we must limit ourselves to setting forth the general outlines of the development of the Soviets until they became institutions exercising power.
What did the Bolsheviks think of the new regime? The Bolshevik leaders who were in Petrograd when the Revolution broke out did not at first understand the importance of what was taking place. They were actually unprepared and the insurrection was carried out by the rank and file militants. Once the Revolution was victorious, the new elements who returned from Siberia—especially Stalin and Kamenev—pursued a distinctly opportunist policy. Imprisoned within the perspective of the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants”, advocated by Lenin since 1905 and now rendered obsolete by the course of events, they entrenched themselves in their old positions and defended a policy that consisted in not departing from the framework of the bourgeois-democratic revolution and support for the Provisional Government to the extent that the latter worked on behalf of that revolution.
Lenin, who had arrived in Russia on April 3, put an end to these vacillations. Both Lenin, who was in Switzerland, and Trotsky, who was in America, agreed in their appreciation of what had taken place. This gave rise to the curious situation where the two great leaders of the Revolution, who had opposed views concerning the Russian Revolution for many years, came together at the decisive moment, while the “Bolshevik old guard”, who understood nothing of the teachings of the master, adopted an unequivocally opportunist attitude.
Lenin, from the very moment of his return from Switzerland, immediately understood the true nature of the events. Upon receiving news of the uprising in Petrograd, and the establishment of the Provisional Government, he wrote: “… this government is not a fortuitous assemblage of persons. They are representatives of the new class that has risen to political power in Russia, the class of capitalist land lords and bourgeoisie which has long been ruling our country economically, and which during the Revolution of 1905–07, the counter-revolutionary period of 1907–14, and finally—and with especial rapidity—the war period of 1914–17, was quick to organise itself politically, taking over control of the local government bodies, public education, congresses of various types, the Duma, the war industries committees, etc. This new class was already “almost completely” in power by 1917, and therefore it needed only the first blows to bring tsarism to the ground and clear the way for the bourgeoisie. The imperialist war, which required an incredible exertion of effort, so accelerated the course of backward Russia s development that we have “at one blow” (seemingly at one blow) caught up with Italy, England, and almost with France. We have obtained a “coalition”, a “national” (i.e., adapted for carrying on the imperialist slaughter and for fooling the people) “parliamentary” government. Side by side with this government—which as regards the present war is but the agent of the billion-dollar “firm” “England and France”—there has arisen the chief, unofficial, as yet undeveloped and comparatively weak workers’ government, which expresses the interests of the proletariat and of the entire poor section of the urban and rural population. This is the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in Petrograd….” [Lenin, “Letters from Afar. First Letter”. March 1917. Available online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/lfafar/first.htm#v23pp64h-297 (Translator’s Note).]
On the basis of this assessment of the situation Lenin deduced, with rigorous consistency, all his subsequent tactics. Lenin, once he arrived in Petrograd, expressed his opposition to the position adopted by the party leaders and elaborated the basic outlines of his ideas in his famous “April Theses”, which served as the basis for all the party’s subsequent activity and its eventual seizure of power. The essential ideas of the Theses are as follows: after the overthrow of the autocracy, power passed into the hands of the bourgeoisie. The war was still an imperialist war; therefore, the proletariat could not participate in it without betraying socialism. It must be “patiently explained” to the masses that it is impossible to bring the war to an end in a truly democratic manner without overthrowing capitalism. The particular characteristic of the moment consists in the existence of dual power, in which “[a]longside the Provisional Government, the government of bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”. [“The Dual Power”, Pravda No. 28, April 9, 1917; online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/09.htm—Translator’s Note.] We cannot grant any confidence in or lend any support to the Provisional Government: all power, from the bottom up, must belong to the Soviets. At the present time the Bolshevik Party is in the minority. The majority of the Soviets are in the hands of the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, and thus under the influence of the bourgeoisie, which supports them, and they are afraid to break with the capitalists and take power into their hands. For now, the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” does not yet imply the dictatorship of the proletariat, but is equivalent to demanding that power be delivered into the hands of the petty bourgeois democracy, for the purpose of separating the latter from the bourgeoisie. As long as we are in the minority, we must expose the conciliatory policy of the petty bourgeois parties, point out their errors to the masses, and, by means of patient and tenacious work among the workers, soldiers and peasants, win their confidence, and conquer the majority in the Soviets. Lenin was confident that the masses could be convinced by reason to support the Bolsheviks, and once their support was won, they could be led to the consciousness of the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat as the only force capable of putting an end to the imperialist war and solving the economic crisis of the country.
Experience would brilliantly confirm the correctness of the tactics advocated by Lenin, who rapidly overcame the resistance to his recommendations and won over the immense majority of the party to his point of view. Step by step, the Bolsheviks went on to expose the role of the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries and won the confidence of the masses. One after another, the Soviets fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. This magnificent result was not obtained in a mechanical way, but by the correct application of a correct tactic. The crowning achievement of this patient labor was the conquest of the majority in the Petrograd Soviet. This achievement was of decisive importance for the future of the Revolution. Petrograd was the center of the revolutionary movement of the country; it was in Petrograd that the most class conscious and combative proletariat of Russia was concentrated. Petrograd was, furthermore, the capital of the country. The conquest of the Soviet of Petrograd could not but have a decisive importance and that indeed proved to be the case. From then on, the Revolution proceeded at a faster pace. The Provisional Government was losing all its points of support. The mass movement became irresistible. The peasants were demanding the land, without any more delays and postponements. Everyone was calling for peace and the formation of a truly popular Government. Such a Government could only be a Soviet Government, and the slogan “All Power to the Soviets”, disseminated by the Bolsheviks, is now supported by millions of workers, soldiers and peasants. The proletariat of Petrograd, the heart and soul of the revolution, burned with impatience. The leaders of the Bolshevik Party feverishly prepared for decisive action. As in 1905, it was the Soviet that was the center where the entire movement converged. The creation of the Revolutionary Military Committee indicated that the stage of propaganda had now given way to the stage of organization. The Revolutionary Military Committee would concentrate in its hands the technical leadership of the movement. Everything was mature for the seizure of power. All that was still necessary was to fix the moment for action. After doubt and hesitation it was resolved to fix the date for action, in opposition to Trotsky’s proposal, for the day when the Second Congress of Soviets was scheduled to take place. Thus, the violent seizure of power took place, led and organized by the Petrograd Soviet, and was followed by the ratification of this act of force by the vote and consent of the representatives of the masses of all the workers in Russia.
2. The victory of October and its meaning
On October 25, 1917, the armed forces of the Petrograd Soviet occupied all public buildings, stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government. The victory was won almost without bloodshed. The struggle would be more difficult in Moscow, where fighting would last a whole week. The Congress of Soviets declared the Provisional Government to be dismissed and proclaimed the constitution of the Soviet Republic. With this act a new chapter in the history of humanity was opened. The Russian workers and peasants, by founding the Soviet Republic, offered the exploited masses of the entire world a new type of state organization—the dictatorship of the proletariat—which is the most perfect realization of democracy, since the Soviet regime, unlike the regimes in other countries, is the Government of the immense majority of the population. The Soviets are directly elected by the workers of the factories, by the soldiers of each regiment, by the peasants of each village, and in this sense they are the perfect expressions of their will and aspirations. The members of the Soviets, unlike the representatives in bourgeois parliaments, do not receive any pay at all for the exercise of their functions, and can be recalled at any time from their posts if those who elected them believe that they no longer represent their wishes or are unworthy of their confidence.
Like any system of representation, that of the Soviets naturally has its defects, but even so, they are incomparably less serious than those exhibited by bourgeois democracy. The Russian experience has shown that the dictatorship of the proletariat finds its most perfect expression precisely in the Soviet regime, and, in this sense, the idea of the Soviets is the patrimony of the entire international proletariat. It is evident that the proletarian revolution will have different modalities in the other countries, but it cannot be doubted—the Russian experience irrefutably proves this—that it will not be able to do without organizations that are substantially the same as the Soviets.
3. The Peasant Soviets and the October Revolution
Before examining the new regime created by the October Revolution, we would like to devote a few words to the peasant Soviets, for up until now we have spoken exclusively of the Soviets of Workers and Soldiers Deputies. Up until October there were no peasant Soviets in the strict sense of the word. This does not mean, however, that the peasants did not take part in the Soviet movement. The Soldiers Soviets were composed, in their overwhelming majority, of peasants. Furthermore, there were organizations in the villages which, although they did not bear the name of Soviets, essentially played the same role. We are referring to the Agrarian Committees. These Committees were formed by the Provisional Government for the purpose of collecting and analyzing data for a proposed agrarian reform, which was to be enacted by the Constituent Assembly. At first, these Committees were composed of the intellectual elements of the rural areas (doctors, government employees, surveyors, etc.). Under the impact of the revolutionary events, however, they rapidly underwent a change of character, and the “intellectual” elements of the first stage were replaced by the direct representatives of the peasants. Thus, these Committees, which had at first been assigned very modest goals, became the organs of struggle of the peasants, issuing orders to the landowners and often carrying out expropriations of land on their own initiative or ordering the peasants to stop paying rents to the landlords and to deposit their rent with the Committees until the Constituent Assembly could definitively resolve the problem of the land.
Thus, potential Soviets already existed in the villages before the October Revolution. After October they were created throughout the entire country, and together with the Soviets of Workers Deputies, they formed the foundation of the new regime established by the victorious Revolution.
4. The structure of the Soviet republic
a)The rural Soviets[/i]
The new regime created by the October Revolution was based on the urban and rural Soviets.
The rural Soviets were elected on the basis of one deputy for every one hundred inhabitants and one deputy for every twenty voters among the workers in the factories, workshops and state farms, and units of the Army and the Navy in the Russian territories; deputies were elected in General Assemblies of the citizens who had voting rights in separate Assemblies. The workers in the factories, the government employees and the regiments voted in their respective workplaces and military units. The legislation of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic and the Russian Soviet Republic made provisions for the organization of National Soviets wherever national minorities were concentrated.
The principle functions of the rural Soviets were as follows: a) to implement and monitor the execution of all the resolutions of the superior institutions of power; b) assist the representatives of the latter to fulfill their missions in the villages; c) undertake measures to raise the economic and cultural level of the population; d) guarantee the maintenance of revolutionary order and fight against the counterrevolution and banditry; e) use the local workers to maintain sanitary infrastructure, bridges, etc., and for the struggle against natural disasters; f) engage in conservation efforts to preserve forests, arable land, railroads, and telephone and telegraph service in the Soviet’s territory; g) ensure the correct use of the land; h) oversee the distribution of land and organize reserves of seeds; i) encourage agrarian cooperation, support state farms, organize libraries, etc.; j) contribute to the elimination of illiteracy and engage in cultural work among the national minorities.
Not all the rural Soviets had their own budgets, but those that did enjoyed juridical independence and could sign contracts.
In general, for the purpose of coordinating the activity of all the members of the Soviet, special Commissions were organized for each Soviet. These Commissions have the right, with the authorization of the Soviet, to solicit the collaboration of citizens who were not members of the Soviet and who had the right to vote. Control Commissions were also associated with the Soviets, elected in the same manner as the Soviets, and which exercised control over the financial activities of the Soviets and rendered accounts of their activities to the General Assembly of citizens.
b) The urban Soviets
The urban Soviets are elected by the citizens who reside in their territories who have the right to vote, on the basis of one deputy for every one hundred voters among the workers, the Red Army, the fleet and the militia and one deputy for every three hundred voters from among the office employees of state and private institutions and other categories. It is the responsibility of the urban Soviets to resolve all local questions and debate all problems of general interest.
The urban Soviets have their own budgets, thanks to which they actively participate in the reconstruction and transformation of the people’s economy and social and cultural life. Their budgets are made possible by free access to all the goods of local significance. In accordance with this status they have the right to exploit the land and the commercial establishments and the right to implement local taxes, negotiate public loans, control goods under their jurisdiction, open new productive establishments, lease those under their control, etc. They also have the right to maintain order, contribute to the correct organization of the judicial mechanism, and to oversee the normal operation of all the local institutions of state power.
The directive organ of the Soviet is its plenary meeting, which is held at least once a month. The plenary meeting examines and resolves all the basic questions under its jurisdiction and ratifies the budget.
The meetings of the Soviets are open to the public. The representatives of the Factory Committees, Trade Unions, Regiments and other organizations are admitted and allowed to participate in deliberations but not to vote, except in those cases when secret sessions are held. In order to establish closer contact with the workers, the Soviet, to the greatest extent possible, organizes its factory sessions, those of political clubs, etc., so that the plenary meetings can be held when at least half of the members of these other organizations can attend.
The deputies to the urban Soviets are elected for one-year terms, that is, until the next round of elections. The members of the Soviet cannot be arrested without first notifying the Executive Committee or the president of the Soviet. In exceptional cases arrests can be made when the Executive Committee is notified within twenty-four hours.
The various Sections of the Soviet are of great importance in the activity of the Soviet, as they incorporate the participation of all the working class in the Soviet. These Sections are, generally, the following:
1. Municipal administration;
3. Public education;
6. Workers and peasants inspectorates.
With the consent of the Soviet, the above Sections can be subdivided into independent Sections or they can create new ones (administrative, juridical, housing, labor, industry, social security, agriculture, etc.). These Sections examine the operational plans for which they are responsible, study the basic questions under the jurisdiction of the executive organs, elect, when necessary, permanent commissions to establish closer contact with the various institutions of the executive, participate in the meetings of the Commissions and conferences held by the Soviets, investigate the activities of the various institutions, offer their opinion on questions submitted to the Sections by the plenary meetings or the Soviet Executive, etc.
In order to provide better service for the working class masses from the cultural and administrative points of view and to help the urban Soviets resolve basic problems associated with the socialist transformation of the country, neighborhood Soviets are organized in parallel with the general urban Soviets, and these neighborhood Soviets are subordinated to the urban Soviets, function under its direction and provide reports to the latter concerning their activities.
c) The Soviet Congresses and their Executive Committees
The supreme organs at the highest level of the regime are the Soviet Congresses and their Executive Committees.
The rural Soviets of each district elect a district Congress on the basis of one deputy for every ten members of each Soviet. For the county Congress all the rural Soviets elect representatives, on the basis of one deputy for every two thousand inhabitants, and the urban Soviets, on the basis of one delegate for every two hundred voters. The Provincial Congress is elected in accordance with the following rules of representation: from the district and county Congresses, on the basis of one deputy for every 10,000 inhabitants; from the urban Soviets and the factories, on the basis of one deputy for every 2,000 voters. The regional Congresses, where they exist, are formed by representatives of the urban Soviets and the county Congresses, on the basis of one delegate for every 25,000 inhabitants, and one delegate for every 5,000 voters in the cities. The Congresses of the Soviets of the Federated Republics are elected according to the rules of the regional or provincial Congresses. The All-Russian Congress of Workers, Peasants, Red Army Soldiers and Cossacks is constituted on the basis of the following rules of representation: a) from the urban Soviets, on the basis of one deputy for every 25,000 voters; b) from the provincial Congresses, on the basis of one deputy for every 125,000 inhabitants. The Congress of the Soviets of the U.S.S.R. is constituted in accordance with the same rules as the All-Russian Congress.
The difference between the Soviets and the Congresses consists in the fact that the deputies to the former are elected for a fixed term (one year), while the delegates to the Congresses are elected only for the duration of each Congress, and once the tasks of the Congress are concluded, they cease to perform their function as delegates, leaving only the Executive Committee they elected.
The district Congress meets once a year and elects an Executive Committee of three members. It can hold extraordinary sessions at the proposal of the Executive Committee of the county at the demand of no less than one-third of the population of the district. The county Congress also elects an Executive Committee of eleven members and five alternates. The Executive Committee of the provincial Congress must be composed of no more than twenty-five members, with the exception of Leningrad and Moscow, where this number is increased to forty. The Congresses of the Federated Republics, the All-Russian Congress and that of the U.S.S.R. also elect their Executive Committees. The first two are composed of 270 members and 117 alternates, while the last is composed of 371 members and 138 alternates, respectively.
Such is, in general outlines, the structure of the Soviet regime. We shall now examine the functions of these institutions.
The district Congresses examine and resolve all questions relating to the districts and implement the decisions of the institutions of power to which they are subject. The Congress elects a Control Commission. The extensive powers the latter exercises allows it to obtain 40% of the agrarian budget, 25% of the construction budget, and 25% of the budget set aside for the judiciary, and it also seeks additional sources of income from the goods under its jurisdiction. The members of the Executive Committee enjoy full immunity and cannot be arrested without the previous consent of the president or the supreme committee of the Congress.
The supreme organ of power in the territory of the county is the Soviet Congress. The functions, rights and obligations of the Executive Committees of the county are as follows:
1. Ensure compliance with the decrees and orders of the central power within the borders of the county;
2. Publish the resolutions that apply to the county;
3. Enforce disciplinary measures against officials and members of the lower Executive Committees;
4. Exercise control over the activity of all the institutions of the county, not excluding those that are directly answerable to the power of the Republic or the U.S.S.R. This control function does not apply to the institutions of the Red Army or the judiciary;
5. Examine and approve the district budgets;
6. Maintain public order;
7. Exercise control over the operations of all the institutions of power;
8. Support agriculture;
9. Adopt measures to raise the cultural and political level of the population;
10. Safeguard public health and take measures to protect children and pregnant women;
11. Oversight of the commercial and industrial establishments under its jurisdiction, etc.
The provincial Congresses examine and approve the provincial budgets, the reports of the Executive Committee and their Sections and elect the Executive Committee.
The Executive Committee has the right to request of the corresponding institution of the Republic or the Soviets that the resolutions of the central organs be annulled or modified if it considers them to be harmful from the point of view of local conditions.
The Autonomous Republics form part of a Republic of the U.S.S.R., and have Executive Committees and Councils of Peoples Commissars.
In the Federated Republics of the U.S.S.R., the supreme organ is the Soviet Congress, which is responsible for all legislative, executive and judicial power. The Soviet Congresses meet regularly every two years and also convoke extraordinary sessions when the Executive Committee deems it necessary or the local Soviets that represent no less than one-third of the population of the Republic in question request such sessions be held. The Council of Peoples Commissars of each Republic is the executive organ of the Central Executive Committee.
Finally, the supreme organ of the Soviet regime is the Soviet Congress of the U.S.S.R., definitively constituted on December 30, 1922. The principal functions of this Congress are as follows: a) election of the Central Executive Committee and ratification of the members of the Council of Nationalities elected by the Republics and the Autonomous Regions of the U.S.S.R.; b) approval and modification of the fundamental principles of the Constitution of the U.S.S.R.; c) resolution of any outstanding disagreements in those cases that were dismissed by the Reconciliation Commissions and the directive organs; d) modification of the resolutions of the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R. at the request of the delegates or the Congresses or the Executive Committees of the Federated Republics.
The Central Executive Committee is composed of the Council of the U.S.S.R. and the Council of Nationalities. These two institutions enjoy complete equality of rights. The Council of Peoples Commissars is the executive organ of the Central Committee. The decrees and resolutions of this Council are compulsory throughout the territory of the U.S.S.R.
d) The right to vote
There is no universal suffrage in the U.S.S.R. The proletariat, once it took power in October of 1917, did not allow itself to be fooled by the mirage of the democratic form, and established its dictatorship. As a result, it is logical that certain limitations should have been put in place with regard to the exercise of the right to vote.
According to the Soviet Constitution, all adults who are at least eighteen years of age, of both sexes, have the right to vote, if they meet the following qualifications:
1. All those who earn their living by useful work or who perform housework that permits the former to conduct their work (for example, the spouse or other person who takes care of the children of the workers, etc.);
2. Soldiers and Sailors in the Red Army and Navy;
3. Citizens of either of the above categories who are no longer able to work;
4. Foreign citizens who live and work in the territory of the U.S.S.R.
The following categories can neither vote nor be elected, even if they meet any of the above qualifications:
1. Those who hire wage labor for the purpose of making a profit;
2. Those persons who live off of income that did not originate from their own labor;
3. Traders and commercial intermediaries;
4. Monks and other servants of religion;
5. Former employees and agents of the old police forces, as well as members of the ruling family;
6. Mentally ill people, as well as those who are under guardianship;
7. Those who have been condemned by the tribunals.
The Central Executive Committee of the Soviets or the Congress of the latter has the right to annul these limitations in general or with respect to individual persons, although this right is to be utilized with extreme caution.
5. Soviet democracy
We have provided a basic description of the origin and development of the Soviets in the period prior to the Revolution and the concrete form assumed by the Soviet regime after the proletarian victory of October 1917. One conclusion may be drawn from this brief study: the Soviet regime is not an artificial creation, but the direct achievement of the working class masses and the most perfect realization of democracy. It is easy to predict the objection of the hypocrites of bourgeois democracy: can you speak of democracy when the right to vote is limited and part of the citizenry is deprived of this right? There is no formal democracy, the covert form of the bourgeois dictatorship, in the U.S.S.R., but workers democracy. The reader will allow us, in connection with this question, to reproduce a few paragraphs from our work, The Dictatorships of Our Time: “The liberals and social democrats oppose the dictatorship of the proletariat with pure democracy. However, as long as classes exist—and, as a result, exploitation and social inequality—one cannot speak of pure democracy. The entire mechanism of the state, even in the countries that have the most democratic regimes, is placed at the service of the exploiting class, which constitutes an insignificant minority of the population. Furthermore, in the democratic countries, the subordination of state power to the banks and the stock exchange is more direct than anywhere else. There is no constitution, no matter how liberal, that does not leave the hands of state power free to repeal constitutional guarantees and adopt extra-legal measures of repression against the working class if the preservation of order in the affairs of democracy in general is endangered. The Marxist never forgets to ask: Order for what class? Democracy in general exists in no civilized capitalist country; only the democracy of the bourgeoisie exists. There are some essential differences between the bourgeois dictatorship and the proletarian dictatorship, however. The former, even in a democracy, is the rule of a minority over the majority; the latter is rule exercised by the immense majority of the population….” “… Without dictatorship, no profound revolution has ever been successful. However, the difference between the bourgeois dictatorship (even in its most democratic forms) and the proletarian dictatorship resides in the fact that the former consists in the violent repression of the resistance of the majority of the population, composed of the working class masses of the cities and the countryside, and the former consists in the repression of the resistance of the exploiters, who comprise an obvious minority…. Under the regime of the Soviets, the immense majority of the population—that is, all the citizens who get their livelihood from their own labor and not from the surplus value derived from the labor of others—have the effective right—and not just the nominal right of the bourgeois democracies—to participate directly in public administration, to vote and to stand for election, to recall at any moment the representatives who have not shown themselves worthy of the confidence conferred upon them, and the duty to be vigilant in the preservation of these rights by violently reducing the enemy class to powerlessness. In conclusion, since it is a regime that is inspired by the interests of the immense majority of the population, who directly exercise their power with the help of the vast popular organizations known as the Soviets, the proletarian dictatorship, or in other words, Soviet democracy, is a system of government that is infinitely more democratic than the freest bourgeois republic.”
This profound democracy of the Soviet regime is what has provided it with its immense power and has allowed it to effectively repel all the attacks of the capitalist world. So great is the vitality of this regime, that it has even been able to survive the profound errors committed, after the death of Lenin, by the leadership of the Communist Party. Which is one more reason why all the real friends of Soviet Russia engage in an implacable struggle against the deformations of the regime and tirelessly fight for the reestablishment of real Soviet democracy.
First published in Cuadernos de Cultura, Valencia, 1932.
Translated from the Spanish original available at the website of the Fundación Andreu Nin.