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What are workers’ councils? (Part 2 & 3)

By • Aug 17th, 2010 • Category: Commentaries

Source: International Communist Current

The resurgence and crisis of workers’ councils in 1917

The aim of this series is to respond to a question posed by many comrades (readers and sympathisers), above all among the youngest: what are the workers’ councils? In the first article of this series ,[1] we saw how they appeared for the first time in history in the heat of the 1905 revolution in Russia and how the defeat of this revolution led to their disappearance. In this second part, we are going to see how they reappeared during the February 1917 revolution and how, under the domination of the old Menshevik and Social Revolutionary (SR) parties who betrayed the working class, they distanced themselves from the will and growing consciousness of the worker masses, becoming, in July 1917, a point of support for the counter-revolution.[2]
Why did the soviets disappear between 1905 and 1917?

Oskar Anweiler, in his work The Soviets,[3] underlined how numerous attempts took place to revive the soviets following the defeat of the revolution in December 1905. A workers’ council thus appeared in Spring 1906 in St. Petersburg, which sent delegates to factories in order to push for the renewal of the soviet. A meeting, which regrouped 300 delegates in Summer 1906, came to nothing because of the difficulties in taking up the struggle again. This council wasted away little by little with the weakening of the mobilisation and definitively disappeared in spring 1907. In Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev, Poltava, Ekaterinburg, Baku, Batoum, Sostoum and Kronstadt, councils of the unemployed, though more or less ephemeral, also appeared throughout 1906.

Some soviets also appeared sporadically in 1906-07 in some industrial towns of the Urals. It was however in Moscow that the most serious attempt to set up a soviet took place. A strike broke out in July and quickly spread to numerous workers’ concentrations. It rapidly mandated some 150 delegates who aimed to meet up, form an Executive Committee and launch appeals for the extension of struggles and the formation of soviets. Conditions however were not those of 1905 and the government, aware of the faint echo aroused by the mobilisation in Moscow, unleashed a violent repression which put an end to the strike and to any new soviet.

The soviets disappeared from the social scene until 1917. This disappearance surprises many comrades who ask how is it possible that the same workers who had participated with so much enthusiasm in the soviets of 1905 could have forgotten them? How do you understand why the “council” form, which had demonstrated its efficacy and its strength in 1905, disappeared as if by magic for just over a decade?

In order to answer this question, one cannot start off from the point of view of bourgeois democracy, a view that considers society as a sum of “free and sovereign” individuals, as “free” to set up councils as to participate in elections. If that were the case, how do you understand that millions of citizens who “had decided” to set up soviets in 1905 then “chose” to neglect this form of organisation for long years?

Such a point of view can’t understand that that the working class is not a sum of “free and self-determined” individuals, but a class which can only express itself, act and organise when it affirms itself through its collective action in the struggle. This struggle is not the result of “individual decisions” but rather the dynamic product of a whole series of objective factors (the degradation of the conditions of existence and the general evolution of society), and of subjective factors (indignation, concern about the future, the experience of the struggle and the development of class consciousness animated by the intervention of revolutionaries). The action and organisation of the working class is a social, collective and historic process, which reveals an evolution in the balance of forces between the classes.

Further, this dynamic of class struggle must in its turn be put in the historic context that permits the birth of the soviets. During the historic period of capitalism’s ascendency – and particularly during its “golden age” of 1873-1914 – the proletariat had been able to constitute great permanent mass organisations (particularly the trade unions) whose existence was one of the first conditions for undertaking successful struggles. In the historic period which opened at the beginning of the 20th century, that of the decadence of capitalism marked by the First World War, the general organisation of the working class was constructed in and through the struggle, disappearing with it if the latter was unable to go to the end, that’s to say up to a revolutionary combat to destroy the bourgeois state.

In such conditions, the acquisitions of the struggles could no longer be reckoned in the manner of an accountant, as a sum of staggered gains consolidated year on year, nor by mass permanent organisation. These acquisitions were concretised by “abstract” gains (the evolution of consciousness, enrichment of the historic programme due to lessons from the struggle, perspectives for the future…) won in great moments of agitation which then disappear from the immediate understanding of the larger masses and retreat to the small world of minorities, thus giving the illusion of never having existed.
February 1917: the heat of the struggle gives rise to the soviets

Between 1905 and 1917, the soviets were thus reduced to no more than an “idea” orienting the reflection and also the political struggle of a handful of militants. The pragmatic method which only accords importance to what one can see and touch doesn’t allow for the idea that the soviets contained an immense material power. In 1917, Trotsky wrote: “Without doubt the revolution’s next new assault will bring in its wake everywhere the establishment of workers councils.”[4] The great actors of the February revolution were effectively the soviets.

The revolutionary minorities, and more particularly the Bolsheviks after 1905, defended and propagated the idea of setting up soviets in order to push the struggle forward. These minorities kept alive the flame of the workers’ councils in the collective memory of the working class. It was for this reason, with strikes breaking out in February, which rapidly took on great breadth, that there were numerous initiatives and appeals for the constitution of soviets. Anweiler underlines that “the idea took hold of re-establishing the soviet, both in the striking factories and among the revolutionary intelligentsia. Eye-witnesses report that as early as February 24 spokesmen were elected in some factories to a projected soviet.”[5] In other words, the idea of soviets, which for a long time had remained confined to some minorities, was largely taken in charge by the masses in struggle.

Secondly, the Bolshevik Party contributed significantly to the rise of the soviets. And it did so not by basing itself on a prior organisational schema of imposing a chain of intermediary organisations which would lead to the formation of soviets, but through a quite different contribution, as we will see, related to a hard political combat.

During the winter of 1915, when strikes began to break out above all in Petersburg, the liberal bourgeoisie contrived a plan to dragoon the workers into war production, proposing that in the factories a Workers’ Group was elected within the committees of the war industry. The Mensheviks stood for this and, having obtained a large majority, tried to use the Workers’ Group to put forward demands. They were proposing in fact, in the image of the unions in other European countries, to use a “workers’ organisation” to sell the war effort.

The Bolsheviks opposed this proposal in October 1915 through the words of Lenin: “We oppose participation in war-industries commissions which further the imperialist, reactionary war”[6]. The Bolsheviks called for the election of strike committees and the Petersburg Party Committee proposed that “Representatives of factories and workshops, elected by proportional representation in all cities, should form an all-Russian soviet of workers’ deputies”.[7]

At first, the Mensheviks, with their electoral policy in favour of Workers’ Groups, controlled the situation with an iron grip. The strikes of winter 1915 and the more numerous strikes of the second half of 1916 remained under the control of the Menshevik Workers’ Groups but despite that, here and there, strike committees appeared. It was only in February that the seeds began to germinate.

The first attempt to set up a soviet took place during an improvised meeting held at the Tauride Palace on February 27. Those that participated were not representative; there were some elements of the Menshevik Party and the Workers’ Group with some Bolshevik representatives and other independent elements. From this arose a very significant debate which put on the table two totally opposed options; the Mensheviks maintained that the meeting had to call itself the Provisional Soviet Committee; the Bolshevik Shliapnikov “opposed [this], arguing that this couldn’t be done in the absence of representatives elected by the workers. He asked for their urgent convocation and the assembly agreed with him. It was decided to end the session and to launch summons to the main workers’ concentrations and to the insurgent regiments.”[8]

The proposal had dramatic effects. On the night of the 27th it began to spread to the workers’ districts, the factories and the barracks. Workers and soldiers closely followed the development of events. The following day, numerous assemblies took place in the factories and barracks and, one after the other, they took the same decision; to set up a soviet and elect a delegate. In the afternoon the Tauride Palace was full from top to bottom with workers’ and soldiers delegates. Sukhanov, in his Memoires,[9] describes the meeting that went on to make the historic decision to constitute the soviet: “when the session opened there were perhaps 250 deputies, but new groups endlessly entered the room.”[10] He recalled how, when voting for the agenda, the session was interrupted by soldier’s delegates who wanted to relay messages from the assemblies of their respective regiments. And one of them made the following summary: “The officers have disappeared. We no longer want to serve against the people, we are associating ourselves with our brother workers, all of us united to defend the cause of the people. We will give our lives for this cause. Our general assembly asked us to salute you”. Sukhanov adds: “And with a voice full of emotion, in the middle of thunderous applause, the delegate added: Long Live the Revolution!”[11] The meeting, constantly interrupted by the arrival of new delegates who wanted to transmit the position of those that they represented, progressively confronted different questions: the formation of militias in the factories, protection against looting and the actions of Tsarist forces. One delegate proposed the creation of a “literary commission” to draw up an appeal addressed to the whole country, which was unanimously approved.[12] The arrival of a delegate from the Semionovski regiment – famous for its allegiance to the Tsar and its repressive role in 1905 – led to a new interruption. The delegate proclaimed: “Comrades and brothers, I bring to you salutations from all the men of the Semionovski regiment. Up to the last man, we have decided to join the people”. This provoked “a current of enthusiasm which ran throughout the assembly” (Sukhanov). The assembly organised a “general staff of the insurrection” occupying all the strategic points of Petersburg.

The assembly of the soviet didn’t take place in a void. The masses were mobilised. Sukhanov underlines the atmosphere which surrounded the session: “The crowd was very compact; tens of thousands of men came there to salute the revolution. The rooms of the Palace could no longer contain so many men and, in front of the doors, the cordons of the Military Commission arrived in order to contain a more and more numerous crowd”.[13]
March 1917: a gigantic network of soviets spreads throughout Russia

In 24 hours, the soviet was master of the situation. The triumph of the Petersburg insurrection provoked the extension of the revolution throughout the country: “The local workers and soldiers soviets throughout Russia were the backbone of the revolution.”[14] How could such a gigantic extension happen that, in so little time, spread throughout the whole of the Russian territory? There were differences between the formation of the soviets in 1905 and in 1917. In 1905, the strikes broke out in January and successive waves of strikes unfolded without any massive organisation bar a few exceptions. The soviets were really constituted in October. In 1917 on the contrary, it was at the beginning of the struggle that the soviets were set up. The appeals of the Petersburg Soviet of February 28 fell on fertile soil. The impressive speed with which this soviet was set up was, by itself, indicative of the will to bring it into being that animated large layers of workers and soldiers.

Assemblies were held daily and didn’t limit themselves to electing delegates to the soviet. It often happened that they were accompanied by a general assembly. Also and at the same time, workers’ district soviets were set up. The soviet itself made such an appeal and, the same day, the workers of the combative Vyborg district, a proletarian area on the outskirts of Petersburg, took the lead in constituting a District Soviet and launched a very combative call for such soviets to be formed throughout the country. Workers in many other popular quarters followed their example in the ensuing days.

And in the same way factory assemblies constituted factory councils. The latter, although born out of the need for immediate demands and the organisation of work, didn’t limit themselves to these aspects and became more and more politicised. Anweiler recognised that “In time the Petrograd factory committees achieved a solid organization that to some extent competed with the soviet of workers deputies. They united into borough councils and elected representatives to a central council, headed by an executive committee … Because the committees represented the worker right at his place of work, their revolutionary role grew proportionately as the soviet consolidated into a permanent institution and lost touch with the masses.”[15]

Thus, the formation of the soviets spread like wildfire. In Moscow “elections were held in the factories, and the soviet met for its first session, at which a three-man Executive Committee was elected. On the following day the workers soviet received its final form; ratios for representatives were set, deputies to the Petrograd soviet were elected, and formation of a new Provisional Government was approved.” [16] “The revolution’s triumphal march through Russia, leading in only a few days to collapse of the czarist government and its administrative machinery, was accompanied by a wave of revolutionary organisation among all levels of society, most strongly expressed in formation of soviets in al cities of the nation, from Finland to the pacific”.[17]

Even if the soviets were concerned with local affairs, their main preoccupation was with general problems: the world war, economic chaos, the extension of the revolution to other countries, and they took measures to concretise these preoccupations. We should underline that the efforts to centralise the soviets came from “below” and not above. As we saw above, the Moscow Soviet decided to send delegates to Petersburg, considering it quite natural as it was the centre of the whole movement. Anweiler emphasises that “Workers and soldiers councils in other cities sent delegates to Petrograd or maintained permanent observers.”[18] From mid-March, initiatives began to appear for a regional congress of soviets. In Moscow a conference of this nature took place on the 25th to the 27th with the participation of 70 workers’ councils and 38 soldiers’ councils. In the Donetz basin, there was a conference with the same characteristics which brought together 48 soviets. All these efforts culminated in the holding of a First All Russian Congress of Soviets which took place on the 29th March to the 3rd of April and regrouped delegates of 480 soviets.

The “organisational virus” spread to soldiers who, sick of war, deserted the battlefields, mutinied, expelled their officers and decided to return home. Contrary to 1905, where they practically never existed, soldiers’ councils multiplied and proliferated in the regiments, armouries, naval bases and arsenals… The army was made up of a conglomeration of social classes, essentially peasants, the workers being a minority. Despite this heterogeneity, the majority of the soviets united around the proletariat. As the bourgeois historian and economist Tugan Baranovski noted: “it is not the army that has unleashed the insurrection, it’s the workers. It wasn’t the generals, but soldiers who went to the Duma of the Empire.[19] And the soldiers supported the workers, not at all to docilely comply with the injunctions of their officers, but… because they felt related by blood to the workers as a class of toilers like themselves.”[20]

Soviet organisation progressively won ground, broadening out from May 1917 when the formation of peasant councils began to move these masses, for centuries used to being treated like beasts of burden. This was also a fundamental difference with 1905, where there were relatively few, mostly totally disorganised, uprisings. That all of Russia was covered by a gigantic network of councils is a historic fact of enormous significance. As Trotsky noted, “in all preceding revolutions, the workers, artisans and a certain number of students, fought on the barricades; some soldiers played their part; then, the well-to-do bourgeoisie, who had prudently observed events on the barricades through their windows, recovered power”[21], but this didn’t happen this time. The masses stopped fighting “for the others” and fought for themselves through the councils. They applied themselves to all the business of economic, political, social and cultural life.

The worker masses were mobilised. The expression of this mobilisation was the soviets and, around them, a great network of soviet-type organisations (district councils, factory councils), a network that fed on itself and, in its turn, impulsed an impressive number of assemblies, meetings, debates and cultural activities that multiplied… Workers, soldiers, women and youth took up a feverish activity. They lived in a sort of permanent assembly. Work stopped to attend the factory assembly, the town or district soviet, gatherings, meetings and demonstrations. It’s significant that after the strike of February, there were practically no strikes except at particular moments and in one-off or local situations. Contrary to a limited vision of the struggle, restricted to that of the strike, the absence of the latter did not mean a demobilisation. The workers were in permanent struggle, but the class struggle, as Engels said, constitutes a unity formed by the economic, political and ideological struggle. And the worker masses were involved in simultaneously taking on these three dimensions of their combat. With massive actions, demonstrations, gatherings, debates, the circulation of books and papers… the worker masses of Russia had taken their own destiny in hand and found in themselves inexhaustible reserves of thought, initiative, and research, all being addressed tirelessly in collective forums.
April 1917: the combat for “all power to the soviets”

“The Soviet took possession of all the post offices and telegraphs, the radio, all the stations, printers, so that without its authorisation it was impossible to send a telegram, leave Petersburg or publish a manifesto” were the words in his Memoires of a Cadet Party deputy.[22] However, as Trotsky noted, a terrible paradox existed since February: the power of the soviets had been entrusted by the majority (Menshevik and Social Revolutionary) to the bourgeoisie, practically obliging it to create the provisional government,[23] presided over by a Tsarist prince and made up of rich industrialists, cadets, and, to top it all, the “socialist” Kerensky.[24] The provisional government, hiding behind the soviets, pursued its policy of war and showed little concern for finding any solution to the serious problems that the workers and peasants were posing. This led the soviets to become ineffective and to disappear, as one can surmise from these declarations of leading Social Revolutionaries: “From their beginning the soviets did not…want to replace an all-Russian constituent assembly… On the contrary, leading the country toward a constituent assembly was their primary purpose… The soviets represent neither a state power paralleling the constituent assembly, nor one aligned with the Provisional Government. They are advisers to the people in the struggle for their interests…and they know that they represent only part of the country and are trusted only by the masses for whom they fight. Therefore the soviets have always refused to pre-empt power and form a government.”[25]

At the beginning of March, a sector of the working class was however becoming conscious of the fact that the soviets were tending to act as a screen for, and an instrument of, the policies of the bourgeoisie. There were also very animated debates in some soviets, factory and district committees on the “question of power”. The Bolshevik minority were then lagging behind, its Central Committee[26] having just adopted a resolution of support critical of the provisional government, despite strong opposition from different sections of the party.[27]

The debate redoubled in intensity in March. “The Vyborg Committee called a meeting of thousands of workers and soldiers who, almost unanimously, adopted a resolution on the necessity for the Soviet to take power (…) The Vyborg resolution, by virtue of its success, was printed and displayed through posters. But the Petrograd Committee formally prohibited this resolution…”[28]

The arrival of Lenin in April radically transformed the situation. Lenin, who had followed with concern, since his exile in Switzerland, the little information on the shameful attitude of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, was reaching the same conclusions as the Vyborg Committee. In his April Theses he expressed it clearly: “The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution, which – owing to the insufficient class consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie – to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.”[29] Many writers do not see in this decisive intervention of Lenin an expression of the role of the avant-garde of the revolutionary party and its most remarkable militants but, on the contrary, consider it an act of political opportunism. According to them, Lenin grasped the opportunity to use the soviets as a platform for conquering “absolute power”, shedding his “strict Jacobin” clothes in order to put on those of an anarchist partisan of the “direct power of the masses”. In fact, an old party member let fly that: “For many years, the place of Bakunin in the Russian revolution has been unoccupied; now it’s taken by Lenin.”[30] This legend is completely false. The confidence that Lenin had in the soviets in fact went very far back, to the lessons he drew from the 1905 revolution. In a draft resolution he proposed to the 4th Party Congress in 1906, he said that: “insofar as the soviets represent cells of revolutionary power, their strength and significance depend entirely on the vigour and success of the insurrection”, and he added that “Such institutions are inevitably doomed to failure if they do not base themselves on the revolutionary army and overthrow the government powers (that is, transform them into a provisional revolutionary government.”[31] In 1915, he returned to the same idea: “Soviets of workers deputies and similar institutions may be considered instruments of the insurrection and of revolutionary power. These institutions can be of definite usefulness only in spreading the political mass strike and an insurrection, depending on the degree of preparation, development, and progress.”[32]
June – July 1917: the crisis of the soviets

Lenin was conscious however that the battle had only just begun: “It is only in fighting against this unconscious trust of the masses (a struggle which can only and must be made with the ideological arms of friendly persuasion, by referring to living experience) that we will really be able to rid ourselves of the present outbursts of revolutionary phrases, and really impulse the consciousness of the proletariat as well as that of the masses’ local initiative, audacity and resolution.”[33]

This would be bitterly verified at the time of the First Congress of All-Russian Soviets. Convoked in order to unify and centralise the network of different types of soviets spread out over the territory, its resolutions not only went against the revolution but led towards the destruction of the soviets. In June and July, a serious political problem appeared: the crisis of the soviets and their estrangement from the masses.

The general situation was marked by total disorder: a rise in unemployment, paralysis of transport, crop failures in the countryside and general rationing. Desertions multiplied in the army along with attempts to fraternise with the enemy on the front. The imperialist camp of the Entente (France, Britain and latterly the United States) pressurised the Provisional Government to launch a general offensive against the German front. The Menshevik and SR delegates, happy to oblige, adopted a resolution at the Congress of Soviets supporting the military offensive, whereas an important minority, regrouping not just the Bolsheviks, was against. To crown it all, the Congress rejected a proposal to limit the working day to 8 hours and had no interest in the agrarian problem. From the voice of the masses, it became the spokesman for what they hated above all, the continuation of imperialist war.

The circulation of Congress resolutions – and, in particular those supporting the military offensive – provoked a profound disappointment in the masses. They saw that their organisation was slipping between their fingers and they began to react. The district soviets of Petersburg, the soviet of the neighbouring town of Kronstadt and various factory councils and committees of several regiments proposed a great demonstration for June 10 whose objective would be to bring pressure on the Congress so that it changed its policy and oriented itself towards the taking of power, expelling the capitalist ministers.

The response of the Congress was to temporarily forbid the demonstrations under the pretext of the “danger of a monarchist plot”. Delegates of the Congress were mobilised to move around the factories and regiments in order to “convince” the workers and soldiers. The evidence of a Menshevik delegate is eloquent: “Throughout the night, the majority of the Congress, more than five hundred of its members, stayed awake and went to factories, workshops and the Petrograd barracks, urging men not to go on the demonstration. In a good number of workshops and factories, and also in some parts of the garrison, the Congress had no authority… The Congress delegates were very often welcomed in a strongly unfriendly manner, sometimes with hostility and were frequently, angrily, shown the door”.[34]

The leadership of the bourgeoisie had understood the need to save its main card – the confiscation of the soviets – to use against the first serious attempt of the masses to recuperate them. This it did, with its congenital Machiavellism, by utilising the Bolsheviks as a test of strength, launching a furious campaign against them. At the Congress of Cossacks which took place at the same time as the Congress of Soviets, Miliukov proclaimed that “the Bolsheviks were the worst enemies of the Russian revolution… It is time to finish with these gentlemen.”[35] The Cossack congress decided “to support the threatened soviets. We Cossacks will never quarrel with the soviets.”[36] As Trotsky underlined, “against the Bolsheviks, the reactionaries were even ready to march with the soviet in order to put it down much more quietly afterwards.”[37] The Menshevik Liber clearly showed the objective in declaring to the Congress of Soviets: “If you want for yourselves the masses that are turning towards the Bolsheviks, break with Bolshevism.”

The violent bourgeois counter-offensive against the masses was made in a situation where, on the whole, they were still politically weak. The Bolsheviks understood this and proposed the cancellation of the June 10 demonstration, which was only reluctantly accepted by some regiments and the most combative factories.

When this news reached the Congress of Soviets, a delegate proposed that a “really soviet” demonstration be convoked for the 18th of June. Miliukov analysed this initiative thus: “Following some speeches with a liberal tone at the Congress of Soviets, having succeed in preventing the armed demonstration on June 10…the socialist ministers felt that they went too far in their rapprochement with us, that the ground shifted under their feet. Alarmed, they abruptly turned towards the Bolsheviks”. Trotsky rightly corrected this: “Understand that it’s not a question of a turn towards the Bolsheviks, but of something quite different, an attempt to turn towards the masses, against the Bolsheviks.”[38]

This was a bitter setback for the bourgeois-dominated Congress of Soviets. Workers and soldiers participated massively in the June 18 demonstration, brandishing banners calling for “all power to the soviets”, the dismissal of the capitalist ministers, the end of the war, appeals for international solidarity. The demonstrations took up the orientations of the Bolsheviks and demanded the opposite of what the Congress asked for.

The situation got worse. Pressed by its allies in the Entente, the Russian bourgeoisie was in an impasse. The famous military offensive turned out to be a fiasco, the workers and soldiers wanted a radical change of the policy of the soviets. But the situation wasn’t so clear in the provinces and the countryside where, despite a certain radicalisation, the great majority remained faithful to the SRs and to the Provisional Government.

The moment was approaching for the bourgeoisie to try to lay an ambush for the masses in Petersburg by provoking a premature confrontation which would allow it to deliver a sudden blow to the avant-garde of the movement and thus open the door to the counter-revolution.

The forces of the bourgeoisie reorganised. “Officers’ soviets” were set up whose task was to organise elite forces in order to militarily wipe out the revolution. Encouraged by the western democracies, the Tsarist black gangs raised their heads. According to the words of Lenin, the old Duma functioned as a counter-revolutionary office without the social-democratic traitor leaders posing the least obstacle to it.

A series of subtle provocations were programmed in order to drive the workers of Petersburg into the trap of a premature insurrection. First of all the Cadet Party withdrew its ministers from the Provisional Government so that the latter was only composed of “socialists”. This was a sort of invitation to the workers to demand the immediate taking of power and launch themselves into insurrection. The Entente then gave a real ultimatum to the Provisional Government: choose between the soviets or a constitutional government. Finally, the most violent provocation was the threat to remove the most combative regiments from the capital and send them to the front.

Important numbers of workers and soldiers in Petersburg took the bait. From numerous district, factory and regimental soviets, an armed demonstration was called for July 4. Its slogan was that the soviets take power. This initiative showed that the workers had understood that there was no outcome other than revolution. But, at the same time, they were demanding that power was assumed by the soviets as they were then constituted, that is to say with the majority in the hands of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries whose concern was to subordinate the soviets to the bourgeoisie. The subsequently celebrated scene, where a worker addressed a Menshevik soviet member, “why don’t you take power once and for all?” is significant of the persisting illusions within the working class. This was like inviting the wolf into the sheep-pen! The Bolsheviks warned against the trap that was being laid. They did not do so with complacency, from high on a pedestal, telling the masses on which points they were mistaken. They put themselves at the head of the demonstration, shoulder to shoulder with the workers and soldiers in order to contribute all their forces so that the response was massive but didn’t slide towards a decisive confrontation whose defeat was written in advance.[39] The demonstration ended in good order and did not launch a revolutionary assault. A massacre was avoided, which was a victory for the masses for the future. But the bourgeoisie couldn’t retreat; it had to continue its offensive. The Provisional Government entirely made up of “worker” ministers then unleashed a brutal repression aimed particularly against the Bolsheviks. The party was declared illegal, numerous militants were imprisoned, its entire press was forbidden and Lenin had to go into clandestinity.

Through a difficult but heroic effort, the Bolshevik Party contributed decisively to avoiding the masses’ defeat, dispersion and rout that was threatened by their disorganisation. The Petersburg Soviet, by contrast, supporting the elected Executive Committee at the recent Congress of Soviets, reached the depths of ignominy by endorsing the unleashing of a brutal repression and reaction.
How was the bourgeoisie able to derail the soviets?

The organisation of the masses in workers’ councils from February 1917 created the opportunity to develop their strength, organisation and consciousness for the final assault against the power of the bourgeoisie. The period which followed, the so-called period of dual power between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, constituted a critical stage for the two antagonistic classes, which could lead, for one or the other, to a political and military victory over the enemy class.

Throughout this period, the level of consciousness in the masses, which was still weak relative to the need for proletarian revolution, constituted a breach that the bourgeoisie had to try to fill in order to abort the emerging revolutionary process. For this it used a weapon as dangerous as it was pernicious, the sabotage from within exercised by bourgeois forces behind a “radical” ” workers'” mask. This Trojan Horse of the counter-revolution was at this time in Russia constituted by the Menshevik and SR “socialist” parties.

At the beginning, many workers entertained illusions in the Provisional Government and saw it as a product of the soviets, whereas in reality it was their worst enemy. As for the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, they enjoyed a certain trust among the great mass of workers who they had deceived with their radical speeches, their revolutionary phraseology, which allowed them to politically dominate the great majority of the soviets. It was from this position of strength that that they strove to empty these organs of their revolutionary content in order to place them at the service of the bourgeoisie. If they failed in this attempt it was because the permanently mobilised masses, through their own experience, led them with the support of the Bolshevik Party, to unmask the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, to the point that the latter were led to assume the orientation of the Provisional Government on such fundamental questions as war and the conditions of life.

In the next article, we will see how, from the end of August 1917, the soviets were able to regenerate themselves and really become launch-pads for taking power, culminating in the victory of the October revolution.

C.Mir, March 8 2010

[1]. Cf. International Review n°. 140.

[2]. We now have lots of material and much more detail on how the Russian revolution developed, and also on the decisive role played by the Bolshevik Party. In particular, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed, our pamphlets on the Russian revolution as well as numerous articles in our International Review, cf. n°s. 71, 72, 89 to 91.

[3]. Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets: The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921, Pantheon, 1974. Very anti-Bolshevik, the author could nevertheless narrate the facts faithfully, and with impartiality recognize the contribution of the Bolsheviks, which contrasts with sectarian and dogmatic judgments delivered from time to time.

[4]. Quoted by Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.90.

[5]. Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.104.

[6]. Ibid., p.99.

[7]. Ibid., p.100.

[8]. Gérard Walter, Overview of the Russian revolution.

[9]. Published in seven volumes in 1922, they give the perspective of an independent socialist, a collaborator of Gorki and Martov’s Menshevik internationalists. Even though he disagreed with the Bolsheviks, he supported the October revolution. This and the following quotes are extracted and translated from a summary of his Memoires, published in Spanish.

[10]. According to Anweiler, there were around 1,000 delegates at the end of the session and up to 3,000 by the next one.

[11]. Sukhanov, Op. Cit., p.54.

[12]. This commission proposed the permanent edition of a soviet paper: Izvestia (The News), which appeared regularly from then on.

[13]. Sukhanov, Op. Cit., p.56

[14]. Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.116.

[15]. Ibid., pp.125-6.

[16]. Ibid., pp.113-4.

[17]. Ibid., p.113. This quote differs slightly from that in the French version of this article.

[18]. Ibid., p.122.

[19]. Chamber of Deputies.

[20]. Quoted by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Constitutional Democratic Party (KD) of the big bourgeoisie, hastily formed in 1905. Its leader was Miliukov, eminence grise of the Russian bourgeoisie at that time.

[23]. Trotsky tells how the bourgeoisie was paralysed and how the Menshevik chiefs used their influence in the soviets to reserve for themselves unconditional power, of which Miliukov “made no bones about showing his satisfaction and agreeable surprise” (Memoires of Sukhanov, a Menshevik very close to events within the provisional government).

[24]. This lawyer, very popular in workers’ circles before the revolution, ended up being appointed head of the provisional government and then led various attempts to finish off the workers. His intentions are revealed in the memoires of the British ambassador at the time: “Kerensky urged me to have patience, assuring me that the soviets would end up dying a natural death. They would soon give up their functions to the democratic organs of autonomous administration.”

[25]. Cited by Anweiler Op. Cit., p.142..

[26]. Composed of Stalin, Kamenev and Molotov. Lenin was in exile in Switzerland and had no practical means of contacting the party.

[27]. During the Petrograd Party Committee meeting on March 5th, the draft resolution presented by Shliapnikov was rejected. It said: “The task now is development of a provisional revolutionary government through federation of local soviets. For conquest of the central power it is essential…to secure the power of the workers and soldiers deputies” (Cited by Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.147).

[28]. Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[29]. We can’t discuss here the content of these Theses, extremely interesting though they are. Cf. International Review n°. 89, “The April Theses: Signpost to the Proletarian Revolution”.

[30]. Cited by Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[31]. Cited by Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.82.

[32]. Ibid., p.85.

[33]. Lenin, Selected Works.

[34]. Cited by Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[35]. That the head of the bourgeoisie in Russia could talk in the name of the revolution reveals all the cynicism typical of this class!

[36]. These regiments were characterised by their obedience to the Tsar and to established order. They were the last to go over to the revolution.

[37]. Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[38]. All the quotes are extracts from Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[39], See our article on “The July days and the indispensable role of the party”, International Review n°. 90. We refer our readers to this article for a more detailed analysis of this event.

The revolution of 1917 (July to October)

What are workers’ councils? (Part 3): The revolution of 1917 (July to October)

In the series “What are workers’ councils?” we want to answer the question by analysing the historical experience of the proletariat. It isn’t a case of putting the soviets forward as a perfect model for others to copy; we want to understand both their mistakes as well as their achievements, so that current and future generations will be armed with this knowledge.

In the first article we saw how they emerged in the revolution of 1905 in Russia.[1] In the second we saw how they were the centrepiece of the revolution of February 1917 and how they entered a deep crisis in June-July 1917 until being taken hostage by the bourgeois counter-revolution.[2]

In this third article we will see how they were recaptured by the mass of workers and soldiers who would then seize power in October 1917.
After the defeat of July, the bourgeoisie is intent on destroying the soviets

The process of evolution, both in nature and in human society, is never linear. Its course is full of contradictions, convulsions, dramatic setbacks, retreats and advances. This analysis can readily be applied to the struggle of the proletariat, a class that by definition is excluded from the ownership of the means of production and has no economic power. Its struggle is one of convulsions and contradictions, with retreats, with what seem like permanent acquisitions appearing to be lost, with long periods of apathy and despondency.

Following the February Revolution, the workers and soldiers seemed to skip from one victory to another. Bolshevism became more influential; the masses – especially in the region around Petrograd – were moving in the direction of revolution. It was like a fruit ripening.

However, in July there were moments of crisis and hesitancy that are typical of the proletarian struggle. “A direct defeat was experienced by the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, who in their urge forward had come up against the confusedness and contradictions of their own aims, on the one hand, and, on the other, the backwardness of the provinces and the front.”[3]

The bourgeoisie seized the opportunity to launch a furious offensive: the Bolsheviks were vilified as German agents[4] and arrested en masse; paramilitary gangs were organised who attacked them in the street, imposed boycotts of their meetings, wrecked their premises and print shops. The fearsome Tsarist Black Hundreds, the monarchist circles, the government bodies regained the upper hand. The bourgeoisie – with the backing of British and French diplomats – was aiming to destroy the soviets and to impose a ferocious dictatorship.[5]

The revolution that began in February reached a point where the spectre of defeat became ever more likely: “Many thought that the revolution in general had exhausted itself. The February Revolution had indeed exhausted itself to the bottom. This inner crisis in the mass consciousness, combining with the slanders and measures of repression, caused confusion and retreat – in some cases panic. The enemy grew bolder. In the masses themselves all the backward and dubious elements rose to the surface, those impatient of disturbances and deprivations.”[6]
The Bolsheviks inspire the response of the masses

However, at this difficult time, the Bolsheviks proved to be an essential bastion of the proletarian forces. Pursued, slandered, shaken by violent debates in their own ranks and the resignation of many militants, they did not weaken or fall into disarray. They concentrated their efforts on drawing the lessons of the defeat and in particular the key lesson: how had the soviets been taken hostage by the bourgeoisie and their existence threatened?

From February to July there was a situation of dual power: The soviets were on the one side and on the other was the power of the bourgeois state, which had not been destroyed and still had enough in reserve to make a full recovery. The events of July had destroyed the impossible equilibrium that existed between soviets and state power:

“The General Staff and the military leaders, with the deliberate or semi-deliberate assistance of Kerensky, whom even the most prominent Socialist-Revolutionaries now call a Cavaignac,[7] have seized actual state power and have proceeded to shoot down revolutionary units at the front, disarm the revolutionary troops and workers in Petrograd and Moscow, suppress unrest in Nizhni-Novgorod, arrest Bolsheviks and ban their papers, not only without trial, but even without a government order. […] The true meaning of the policy of military dictatorship, which now reigns supreme and is supported by the Cadets and monarchists, is preparations for disbanding the Soviets.”[8]

Lenin also showed how the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries “have completely betrayed the cause of the revolution by putting it in the hands of the counter-revolutionaries and by turning themselves, their parties and the Soviets into mere fig-leaves of the counter-revolution.”[9]

Under such conditions, “All hopes for a peaceful development of the Russian revolution have vanished for good. This is the objective situation: either complete victory for the military dictatorship, or victory for the workers’ armed uprising […] The slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ was a slogan for peaceful development of the revolution which was possible in April, May, June, and up to July 5.”[10]

In his book The Soviets, Anweiler[11] uses this analysis to try to show that “This was the first barely veiled proclamation that the Bolsheviks aimed to win sole power. Lenin aimed to take power for his party with or against the soviets. […] Plainly to him the soviets were only pawns and had no intrinsic value as a superior democratic form of government.”[12]

Here is the now famous and often repeated charge that Lenin “used the soviets tactically to achieve absolute power”. However, an analysis of the article that Lenin wrote at a later date demonstrates that his concerns were radically different from those attributed to him by Anweiler: he was trying to find a way to get the soviets out of the crisis they were in, to pull them back from the false path that was leading to their disappearance.

In the article On slogans, Lenin was unequivocal: “After the experience of July 1917, it is the revolutionary proletariat that must independently take over state power. Without that the victory of the revolution is impossible. […] Soviets may appear in this new revolution, and indeed are bound to, but not the present Soviets, not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is true that even then we shall be in favour of building the whole state on the model of the Soviets. It is not a question of Soviets in general, but of combating the present counter-revolution and the treachery of the present Soviets.”[13] He specifically asserts: “A new cycle is beginning, one that involves not the old classes, not the old parties, not the old Soviets, but classes, parties and Soviets rejuvenated in the fire of struggle, tempered, schooled and refashioned by the process of the struggle.”[14]

The writings of Lenin contributed to a stormy debate in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party, which crystallised during the Sixth Party Congress. It was held from July 26th to August 3rd in the strictest secrecy and in the absence of Lenin and Trotsky, who were being pursued by police. In the Congress three positions were put forward: the first, reflecting the disorientation of the defeat in July and the drift of the soviets, openly proposed “abandoning them” (Stalin, Molotov, Sokolnikov); the second vehemently supported sticking with the old position of “All power to the soviets”; the third advocated entrusting the “grass roots” organisations (factory councils, local soviets, district soviets) with responsibility for reconstituting the collective power of workers.
In mid-July, the masses are beginning to recover

It was the last that proved to be the correct position. From mid-July the “grass roots” soviet organisations had begun a fight for the renewal of the soviets.

In the second article of this series we saw how the masses were organised around the soviets in a huge network of soviet organisations of all sorts, that expressed their unity and strength.[15] The apex of the soviet system – the soviets in the towns – did not preside over an ocean of passivity of the masses; just the opposite, there was an intense collective life embodied in thousands of assemblies, factory councils, district soviets, inter-district assemblies, conferences, formal and informal meetings… In his Memoires, Sukhanov[16] gives us an idea of the atmosphere that prevailed at the Conference of the Petrograd Factory Councils: “On May 30th in the White Hall, a conference of workshop and factory committees from the capital and surrounding areas was convened. The conference had been prepared from the ‘grass roots’; its planning had been conceived in the factories without the involvement of any government bodies concerned with labour issues, or even the soviets. […] The conference was truly representative: the workers came from their workbenches, and they participated actively in its work in large numbers. For two days, this workers’ parliament discussed the economic crisis and the breakdown inside the country.”[17]

Even in the worst moments following the July Days, the masses were able to maintain these organisations, which were less affected by the crisis than “the big soviet organs”: the Petrograd Soviet, the Congress of Soviets and its executive committee, the CEC (Central Executive Committee).

Two concomitant reasons explain this difference. First, the “grass roots” soviet organisations were directly convened under pressure from the masses who, realising the problems and the hazards, called for an assembly and saw it convened within the space of a few hours. The situation of the soviet organs “at the top level” was very different: “However as the Soviet worked more efficiently, it lost proportionately its direct contact with the masses. The plenary sessions, almost daily during the early weeks, were less frequent and only sparsely attended by the deputies. The Soviet Executive became increasingly independent, even though it remained subject to certain controls of the deputies, who had the right to discharge it.”[18]

Secondly, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were concentrated in the bureaucratic nucleus of the large soviet organs. Sukhanov described the atmosphere of intrigue and manipulation that emanated from the Petrograd Soviet: “The Presidium of the Soviet, which was originally an organ to manage internal procedure, tended to substitute itself for the Executive Committee in its functioning. In addition, it strengthened itself through a permanent and somewhat occult organisation that got the name ‘the Star Chamber’. It included members of the Presidium and a sort of clique made up from the devoted friends of Cheidze and Tsereteli. The latter, with the shame and the disgrace that went with it, was one of those accused of being dictatorial inside the Soviet.”[19]

By contrast, the Bolsheviks conducted an active and daily intervention inside the soviets at the grass roots level. Their presence was very dynamic, they were often the first to propose meetings and debates and the adoption of resolutions that would give expression to the will and the advancement of the masses.

On July 15th, a demonstration of workers from the large factories in Petrograd massed in front of the building housing the soviet to denounce the slander against the Bolsheviks and to demand the release of prisoners. On July 20th, the assembly at the arms factory in Sestroretsk demanded the payment of wages that had been withheld owing to workers’ involvement in the July Days; they devoted the money they recovered to funding the anti-war press. Trotsky recounts how, on July 24th, “…a meeting of the workers of 27 plants in the Peterhoff District passed soon after that a resolution of protest against the irresponsible government and its counter-revolutionary policy.”[20]

Trotsky also noted that on July 21st delegations of soldiers from the front arrived in Petrograd. They were tired of all the hardship they were suffering and the repression the officers inflicted on the most visible individuals. They spoke about it to the Executive Committee of the soviet, which didn’t consider it of any significance. Then several militant Bolsheviks suggested contacting the factories and the soldiers’ and sailors’ regiments. The reception there was completely different: they were received like brothers, listened to, fed and housed.

“At a conference that nobody summoned from above, which grew up spontaneously from below, representatives were present from 29 regiments at the front, from 90 Petrograd factories, from the Kronstadt sailors and from the surrounding garrisons. At the focus of the conference stood the trench delegates – among them a number of young officers. The Petrograd workers listened to the men from the front eagerly, trying not to let fall a word of their own. The latter told how the offensive and its consequences had devoured the revolution. Those grey soldiers – not in any sense agitators – painted in unstudied words the workaday life of the front. The details were disturbing – they demonstrated so nakedly how everything was crawling back to the old, hateful, pre-revolutionary regime”, says Trotsky, and he adds the following: “Although Socialist-Revolutionaries obviously predominated among the men from the front, a drastic Bolshevik resolution was passed almost unanimously: only three men abstained from the voting. That resolution will not remain a dead letter. The dispersing delegates will tell the truth about how the Compromise leaders repulsed them and the workers received them.”[21]

The Kronstadt Soviet – one of the vanguard posts of the revolution – also got to hear: “On 20th July a meeting in Yakorny Square demanded the transfer of power to the soviets, the sending of the Cossacks to the front with the gendarmes and police, the abolition of the death penalty, the admission of the Kronstadt delegates to Tsarskoe Selo to make sure that Nicholas II was adequately guarded, the disbandment of the ‘Battalions of Death’, the confiscation of the bourgeois newspapers, etc.”[22] In Moscow, the factory councils had agreed to hold joint meetings with the regimental committees, and in late July a conference of factory councils to which soldiers’ representatives were invited adopted a resolution denouncing the government and demanding “new soviets to replace the government.” In the elections on August 1st, six of the ten district councils in Moscow had a Bolshevik majority.

Faced with the price increases agreed by the Government and plant closures organised by the bosses, strikes and mass protests began to grow. Sectors of the working class hitherto considered to be “backward” (paper, leather, rubber, and janitors, etc.) also took part.

Sukhanov reported a significant development in the Workers’ Section of the Petrograd Soviet: “When the Workers’ Section of the Soviet created a Presidium, which it did not have before, the Presidium was found to be made up of Bolsheviks.”[23]

In August a National Conference was held in Moscow whose objective was denounced by Sukhanov, as: “suppressing ‘all democratic’ opinion to benefit ‘nation-wide’ opinion, thus freeing the government of ‘the whole country’ from the control of all kinds of organisations, of workers, peasants, Zimmerwaldians, half-Germans, half-Jews and other groups of hoodlums.”[24]

Workers recognised the danger and many assemblies voted motions calling for a general strike. The Moscow Soviet rejected them by 364 votes to 304 but the district soviets protested against this decision: “The factories immediately demanded new elections to the Moscow Soviet, which was not only lagging behind the masses, but coming into sharp conflict with them. In the Zamoskvoretsky (Moscow suburb south of the Moskva) district soviet, which met jointly with the factory committees, a demand for the recall of those deputies who had ‘gone against the will of the working class’ received 175 votes with 4 against and 19 abstaining!”[25] More than 400,000 workers went on strike, which spread to other towns like Kiev, Kostrava and Tsatarin.
The mobilisation and self-organisation of the masses foils the Kornilov coup

These are only a few significant facts, the tip of the iceberg of a vast process that showed a turning point in the attitudes that predominated from February to June – more passive, still suffering many illusions, and with the protests more restricted in workplaces, districts or towns:

* numerous unitary assemblies of workers and soldiers were opened up to peasant delegates. The conference of factory and district soviets and factory districts invited soldiers’ and sailors’ delegates to work with them;
* there was growing confidence in the Bolsheviks: after being slandered in July, the indignation at the persecution they suffered fuelled increasing recognition of the validity of their analyses and their slogans;
* the multiplication of demands could only be met by the renewal the soviets and by taking power.

The bourgeoisie saw that the gains it had made in July were at risk of going up in smoke. The failure of the National Conference in Moscow was a big setback. English and French Embassies pushed for “decisive” action. This was the context of the “plan” for a military coup by General Kornilov.[26] Sukhanov emphasised that “Miliukov Rodzianko and Kornilov themselves had conceived it! Dumbfounded, these valiant heroes of the revolution had begun urgently to prepare, in secret, their plan of action. To allay suspicion, they stirred up public opinion against what the Bolsheviks might do next.”[27]

We cannot analyse here all the details of the operation.[28] The important thing is that the massive mobilisation of workers and soldiers managed to stop the military machine in its tracks. And what is remarkable is that this response was made by developing an organisational effort that would provide the final impetus for the renewal of the Soviets and their march towards the seizure of power.

On the night of August 27th, the Petrograd Soviet proposed the formation of a Military Revolutionary Committee to organise the defence of the capital. The Bolshevik minority accepted the proposal but added that such a body “must be supported by the mass of workers and soldiers.”[29] At the next session the Bolsheviks made a new proposal, accepted reluctantly by the Menshevik majority for, “the sharing of weapons in the factories and working-class neighbourhoods”.[30] When announced, there was a quick response: “In the districts, according to the workers’ press, there immediately appeared ‘whole queues of people eager to join the ranks of the Red Guard’. Drilling began in marksmanship and the handling of weapons. Experienced soldiers were brought in as teachers. By the 29th, Guards had been formed in almost all districts. The Red Guard announced its readiness to put in the field a force of 40,000 rifles. […] The giant Putilov factory became the centre of resistance in the Peterhoff district. Here fighting companies were hastily formed. The work of the factory continued night and day; there was a sorting out of new cannon for the formation of proletarian artillery divisions.”[31]

In Petrograd, “… the district soviets were drawing more closely together and passing resolutions: to declare the inter-district conferences continuous; to place their representatives in the staff organised by the Executive Committee; to form a workers’ militia; to establish control of the district soviets over the government commissars; to organise flying brigades for the detention of counter-revolutionary agitators.”[32] These measures “meant an appropriation not only of very considerable government functions, but also of the functions of the Petrograd Soviet. […] The entrance of the Petrograd districts into the arena of the struggle instantly changed both its scope and its direction. Again the inexhaustible vitality of the soviet form of organisation was revealed. Although paralysed above by the leadership of the Compromisers, the soviets were reborn again from below at the critical moment under pressure from the masses.”[33]

This generalisation of the self-organisation of the masses spread across the country. Trotsky cites the case of Helsingfors where “a general congress of all the soviet organisations which sent its commissars to the offices of the governor general, the commandant, the Intelligence service, and other important institutions. Thenceforth, no order was valid without its signature. The telegraphs and telephones were taken under control”,[34] and something happened that was very significant: “On the second day, a rank-and-file Cossack appeared before the Committee with the announcement that the whole regiment is against Kornilov. Cossack representatives were for the first time introduced into the Soviet.”[35]
September 1917: the total renewal of the soviets

The suppression of the Kornilov coup provided a dramatic reversal of the balance of power between the classes: the Provisional Government of Kerensky was implicated in the whole thing. The masses took sole control over these events, by strengthening and revitalising their collective organs. Their response to Kornilov was “the start of a radical transformation of the whole situation, a revenge for the July Days. The Soviet was reborn!”[36]

The newspaper of the Cadet Party,[37] Retch, was not mistaken when it stated: “The streets are already swarming with armed workers who terrorise peaceable inhabitants. In the soviets, the Bolsheviks firmly demanded their imprisoned comrades be set free. Everyone was convinced that once the action of General Kornilov was over, the Bolsheviks, opposed by the majority in the Soviet, would use all their energy to force it to adopt at least a part of their programme.” Retch was however mistaken about one thing: it was not the Bolsheviks who forced the soviet to follow their programme; it was the masses who forced the soviets to adopt the Bolshevik programme.

The workers had gained enormous confidence in themselves and they wanted to apply this to the complete renewal of the soviets. Town after town, soviet after soviet, in a dizzying process, the old social traitors’ majorities were overthrown and new soviets with majorities for Bolsheviks and other revolutionary groups (Left Social Revolutionaries, Menshevik internationalists, anarchists) emerged after discussions and massive voting.

Sukhanov describes the state of mind of the workers and soldiers: “Driven on by class instinct and, to some extent, class consciousness; with the theoretical input provided by the Bolsheviks, tired of war and the toll of suffering; disappointed by the sterility of the revolution that had given them nothing as yet; angry with the bosses and the government who were themselves still living in comfort; wishing to exercise the power that was theirs at last, they were eager to go into battle.”[38]

The episodes in this re-conquest and renewal of the soviets are legion. “On the night of September 1st, while still under the presidency of Cheidze, the Soviet voted for a government of workers and peasants. The rank-and-file members of the compromisist factions almost solidly supported the resolution of the Bolsheviks. The rival proposal of Tsereteli got only 15 votes. The compromisist presidium could not believe their eyes. The Right demanded a roll call and this dragged on until three o’clock in the morning. To avoid openly voting against their parties, many of the delegates went home. But even so, and despite all the methods of pressure, the resolution of the Bolsheviks received in the final vote 279 votes against 115. It was a fact of great importance. It was the beginning of the end. The presidium, stunned, said they would resign.”[39]

On September 2nd, a conference of all the soviets in Finland adopted a resolution for power to be assumed by the soviets, by 700 votes for, 13 against, with 36 abstentions. The Regional Conference of Soviets in Siberia approved a similar resolution. The Moscow Soviet did the same on September 5th during a dramatic meeting in which it approved a motion of distrust in the Provisional Government and the Executive Committee. “On the 8th, the Bolshevik resolution was adopted in the Kiev soviet of workers’ deputies by a majority of 130 votes to 66 – although there were only 95 deputies in the official Bolshevik faction.”[40] For the first time, the Soviet of peasants’ representatives from the Petrograd region elected a Bolshevik as its delegate.

The culminating point of this process was the historic session of the Petrograd Soviet, on September 9th. Preparations were made through countless meetings in factories, neighbourhoods and in the regiments. Around 1,000 delegates attended a meeting where the Bureau had proposed to cancel the vote of August 31st. The new vote gave a result that signified the definitive rejection of the social traitors’ policy: 519 votes against cancellation and for the soviets taking power; 414 votes for the presidium and 67 abstentions.

One might think, from a superficial standpoint, that the renewal of the soviets was merely a change of majority, passing from the social- traitors to the Bolsheviks.

It is certain – and we’ll deal with it at greater length in the next article in this series – that the working class and therefore its parties too, were still burdened by a vision strongly influenced by parliamentarism in which the class chooses “representatives to act in its name”, but it is important to understand that this was not the basis for the renewal of the soviets.

1) The renewal was built on the vast network of meetings of grass roots soviets (factory and district councils, committees from the regiments, joint meetings). After the Kornilov coup, the occurrence of these meetings multiplied dramatically. Each soviet session adopted a unified and clear position derived from an infinite number of preliminary meetings.

2) This self-organisation of the masses was consciously and actively driven by the renewal by the soviets. While previous soviets were autonomous and called only a few massive gatherings, the new soviets called for open meetings on a daily basis. While the former soviets feared and even disapproved of the assemblies in the factories and neighbourhoods, the new ones continually summoned them. The soviet called for meetings “of the grass roots” around each significant or substantial debate so it could adopt a position. The fourth coalition Provisional Government (on September 25th) met a reaction: “Close upon the resolution of the St. Petersburg Soviet refusing to support the new coalition, a wave of meetings swept through the two capitals and the province. Hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers, protesting against the formation of the new bourgeois government, pledged to carry out a determined struggle against it and demanded power to the Soviets.”[41]

3) The proliferation of regional congresses of soviets – which spread like wildfire across all Russian territories from mid-September – was spectacular. “During these weeks the numerous regional soviet congresses meeting reflected the mood of the masses. The Moscow regional congress held in early October demonstrated a typically rapid Bolshevisation and polarisation. At the beginning of the deliberations the Social Revolutionaries offered a resolution opposing the transfer of power to the soviets, which carried 159 votes against 132. But in another vote, three days later, the Bolshevik fraction won 116 votes with 97 opposed. […] At many later soviet congresses Bolshevik resolutions were also passed, all calling for the assumption of power by the all-Russian Soviet Congress and for removal of the Provisional Government. In Ekaterinburg, 120 delegates from 56 Ural soviets met on October 13th; 86 of them were Bolsheviks. […] In Saratov, the Volga regional congress rejected a Menshevik-Social Revolutionary resolution and adopted a Bolshevik one…”[42]

But it is important to clarify two issues that are fundamental for us.

The first is the fact that the Bolsheviks’ resolutions winning a majority meant much more than a simple delegation voting for a party. The Bolshevik Party was the only party clearly in favour not only of the seizure of power but of putting forward a concrete way of doing it: an insurrection with a comprehensive plan which would overthrow the Provisional Government and dismantle the power of the state. While the social-traitor parties announced their intention to force the soviets to commit hara-kiri, while other revolutionary parties made unrealistic or vague proposals, only the Bolsheviks were convinced that “…the Soviet of Workers; and Soldiers’ Deputies is a reality only as an organ of insurrection, as an organ of revolutionary power. Apart from this, the Soviets are a meaningless plaything that can only produce apathy, indifference and disillusion among the masses, who are legitimately disgusted at the endless repetition of resolutions and protests.”[43]

It was therefore natural that the masses of workers put their trust in the Bolsheviks not by giving them a blank cheque, but by seeing them as an instrument of their own struggle that was approaching its high point: the insurrection and taking power. “The camp of the bourgeoisie now had reason to be alarmed. The crisis was clear to everyone. The movement of the masses was visibly overflowing; the excitement in the working class neighbourhoods of St. Petersburg was evident. We only listened to the Bolsheviks. At the famous Modern Amphitheatre, where Trotsky, Volodarsky and Lunacharsky came to speak, we saw endless queues and crowds that the huge building was unable to hold. The agitators encouraged the move from rhetoric to action and promised power to the Soviet in the immediate future.” This was how Sukhanov, despite being an opponent of the Bolsheviks, described the atmosphere that prevailed in mid-October. [44]

Secondly, the accumulated evidence of September and October pointed to a significant change in the mentality of the masses. As we saw in the previous article in this series, the slogan “All power to the soviets” raised tentatively in March, defended forcefully by Lenin in April, proclaimed massively in demonstrations in June and July, had until then been more an aspiration than a consciously adopted programme of action.

One reason for the failure of the movement in July was that the majority was demanding that the soviets “force” the Provisional Government to appoint some “socialist ministers”.

This division between Soviet and Government showed a clear misunderstanding of the work of the proletarian revolution, which is certainly not “to choose its own government” and so preserve the structure of the old state, but to destroy the state apparatus and assume power directly. Although, as we will see in the next article, the multitude of new problems and confusions would affect the consciousness of the masses, they were beginning to see the slogan “All power to the soviets” in more concrete and accurate terms.

Trotsky shows how, having lost control of the Petrograd Soviet, the social traitors used every means at their disposal, concentrating on their last bastion, the CEC: “The Executive Committee had in good season taken away from the Petrograd Soviet the two newspapers established by it, all the administrative offices, all funds and all technical equipment, including the typewriters and inkwells. The innumerable automobiles that had been at the disposal of the Soviet since February, had every last one of them been transferred into the keeping of the compromisist Olympus. The new leaders had nothing – no treasury, no newspapers, no secretarial apparatus, no means of transport, no pen or pencil. Nothing but bare walls and the burning confidence of the workers and soldiers. That, however, proved sufficient.”[45]
The Military Revolutionary Committee, soviet organ of the insurrection

In early October, a flood of resolutions from soviets throughout the country called for the Congress of Soviets, continually postponed by the social-traitors, to be held so that practical measures could begin for the seizure of power.

This orientation was a response both to the situation in Russia and to the international situation. In Russia, the peasant revolts were spreading into almost all regions and there were widespread seizures of the land; soldiers were deserting their barracks and returning to their villages, exhibiting growing fatigue faced with an inextricable war; workers in the factories were having to deal with production being sabotaged by some bosses and managers; the whole of society was threatened with famine due to the total breakdown of supplies and the increasing cost of living. On the international frontline, desertions, insubordination and fraternisation between soldiers of both sides multiplied; a wave of strikes swept across Germany, a general strike broke out in August 1917 in Spain. The Russian proletariat had to seize power, not only to respond to the intractable problems facing the country but, more importantly, to open a breach through which the world revolution could develop against the terrible suffering caused by three years of war.

Against the revolutionary upsurge of the masses, the bourgeoisie used its own weapons. In September, it attempted to hold a democratic conference which failed once again, like that in Moscow. For their part, the social-traitors did everything possible to delay the Congress of Soviets, with the goal of keeping the soviets throughout the country dispersed and disorganised and thus preventing their unification for the purpose of seizing power.

But the most formidable weapon, and one still taking shape, was the attempt to sabotage the defence of Petrograd so that the German Army could crush the most advanced bastion of the revolution. Kornilov, the “patriot”, had already tried out this coup in August when he abandoned revolutionary Riga[46] to German troops who “restored order” in a bloodbath. The bourgeoisie that makes national defence its credo, using it as a poison against the proletariat, does not hesitate to ally itself with its fiercest imperialist rivals when it sees its power threatened by the class enemy.

This issue, the defence of Petrograd, led the discussions in the Soviet to the formation of a Military-Revolutionary Committee, composed of elected delegates from the Petrograd Soviet, from the soldiers’ section of this Soviet, from the Soviet delegates from the Baltic Fleet, from the Red Guard, from the Regional Committee of Soviets in Finland, from the Conference of the factory councils, from the railway union and from the military organisation of the Bolshevik Party. A young and combative member of the Left Social Revolutionaries, Lazimir, was appointed head of this committee. The objectives of the committee were both to defend Petrograd and to prepare the armed uprising, two objectives which “heretofore mutually exclusive, were now in fact growing into one. Having seized the power, the Soviet would be compelled to undertake the military defence of Petrograd.” [47]

The next day a Standing Conference of the whole garrison of Petrograd and the region was summoned. With these two organs, the proletariat was equipping itself with the means for the insurrection, the essential and indispensable means for the seizure of power.

In a previous article in the International Review, we demonstrated how – contrary to the fairy tales woven by the bourgeoisie that present October as a “Bolshevik coup d’etat” – the insurrection was the work of the soviets and more specifically the Petrograd Soviet.[48] The organs that had meticulously prepared, step by step, the military defeat of the Provisional Government, the last bastion of the bourgeois state, were the Military-Revolutionary Committee and the Standing Conference of the garrisons. The MRC forced the Army headquarters to submit for approval any order and any decision, no matter how trivial, thus completely paralysing it. On October 22nd during a dramatic meeting, the last recalcitrant regiment -that of the Peter and Paul – agreed to submit to the MRC. On October 23rd, on a momentous day, thousands of assemblies of workers and soldiers were involved in the final seizure of power. The checkmate executed by the insurrection of October 25th, which occupied the headquarters and the seat of the Provisional Government, confronted the last battalions that were faithful to it, arrested ministers and generals, occupied the centres of communication and thereby laid the conditions so that the next day the Congress of Soviets of all the Russias took power.[49]

In the next article in this series, we see the enormous problems that the soviets had to face after taking power.

C. Mir 6-6-10

[1]. International Review n° 140.

[2]. International Review n° 141.

[3]. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, volume 2, chapter 11 “The Masses Under Attack, p. 756 (Pluto Press).

[4]. See the very detailed refutation of this thesis in Trotsky op. cit., volume 2, chapter 4, “The Month of the Great Slander”.

[5]. General Knox, head of the English military mission, said: “‘I’m not interested in the Kerensky government, it is too weak. What is wanted is a strong dictatorship. What is wanted is the Cossacks. This people need the whip! A dictatorship – that is just what it needs.’ So said the representative of the government of the oldest democracy”, quoted in Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 9, “The Kornilov Insurrection”, p.724.

[6]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2 , chapter 11, “The Masses Under Attack”, p.764.

[7]. Cavaignac: French general (1802-1857), executioner of the insurrection of Parisian workers in 1848.

[8]. Lenin, The political situation (Four theses), 23 (10) July 1917.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. See references in the previous article in this series.

[12]. The Soviets, The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1917; Chapter 4, “Bolshevism and the Councils of 1917”, p. 170 (Pantheon Books, 1974).

[13]. Lenin, On slogans, Mid- July 1917.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. See the previous article in this series in the section headed “March 1917: a gigantic network of soviets spreads throughout Russia”, International Review n° 141.

[16]. Sukhanov, a Menshevik Internationalist, split from the left wing of Menshevism where Martov was a militant. He published his Memoires in 7 volumes. An abridged version was published in French as The Russian Revolution (Editions Stock, 1965). All quotations below are our translations from this French edition.

[17]. Sukhanov, op. cit., “Triumph of the reaction; Around the coalition”, p.210.

[18]. Anweiler, op. cit. Chapter 3, “The Soviets and the Russian Revolution of 1917”, p.108.

[19]. Sukhanov, op. cit. “The Triumph of the reaction; In the depths”.

[20]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 11, “The Masses Under Attack”, p.767.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Ibid.

[23]. Sukhanov, op. cit. “Counter-revolution and disintegration of democracy; after July: the second and third coalitions”.

[24]. Sukhanov, op. cit. “The Shame of Moscow”.

[25]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 6, “Kerensky and Kornilov”, p.658.

[26]. Kornilov: fairly incompetent general who distinguished himself by his constant defeats at the front, was then praised by bourgeois parties and considered a “patriotic hero” after the July Days.

[27]. Sukhanov, op. cit. “The bourgeoisie unified in action”.

[28]. See Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 5, “The Counter-Revolution Lifts its head”; chapter 6, “Kerensky and Kornilov”; chapter 8, “Kerensky’s Plot” and chapter 9, “Kornilov’s Insurrection”.

[29]. Sukhanov, op. cit., “The bourgeoisie unified in action”.

[30]. Ibid.

[31]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 10, “The Bourgeoisie Measures Strength with the Democracy”, p.735.

[32]. Ibid, p.734.

[33]. Ibid, our emphasis.

[34]. Ibid, p.737.

[35]. Ibid.

[36] Sukhanov, op. cit., “The bourgeoisie unified in action”.

[37]. Cadet Party: Constitutional Democratic Party, the main bourgeois party of the time.

[38]. Sukhanov, op. cit., “The Disintegration of Democracy after the Kornilov Uprising”.

[39]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 12, “The Rising Tide”, p.803.

[40]. Ibid.

[41]. Sukhanov, op. cit., “The Artillery Preparation”.

[42]. Anweiler, op. cit., chapter 4, “Bolshevism and the Councils, 1917,” p.182. In the appendices there is a list of the many regional conferences that virtually covered the whole empire, and through their votes decided on the seizure of power.

[43]. Lenin, Theses for the report to the conference of 8th October on the organisation of Petersburg. “On the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets'”, October 8th, 1917.

[44]. Sukhanov, op. cit., “The Artillery Preparation”.

[45]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 12, “The Rising Tide, p.807.

[46]. Capital of Estonia, then part of the Russian Empire.

[47]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 3, “The Military-Revolutionary Committee”, p.945.

[48]. See our article “The Russian Revolution, part 2, The Soviets take power ” in International Review n°72.

[49]. In our article “October 1917, A Victory of the Working Masses ” (International Review n°. 91), we develop a detailed analysis on how the insurrection of the proletariat had nothing to do with a revolt or a conspiracy, what rules it followed, and the indispensable role played in it by the party of the proletariat.


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