The Russian Revolution of October 1917 saw the working class, through its own democratic committees or “soviets”, seizing power, and creating the beginnings of a workers state that, in turn, began the task, never completed, of creating a socialism. I am, in this article, taking a deeper look at the soviets, and considering their significance.
Russia, after the Revolution, formed a working class state based on the foundation stones of the democratic structures known as Soviets that were in fact first set up in the 1905 attempt at revolution. In fact, structures like this are typically set up world-wide wherever the working class builds up a challenge to capitalist rule.
So, today one of the main sub-themes of our celebration of the centenary of the Russian Revolution is the celebration of this democratic form of organization, and to keep the memory of this kind of democratic committee that soviets are, alive in our memories. It is key to the future success of the struggle for socialism that there are democratic structures that will seize power, and not some political party that holds a putsch. The working class, world-wide, seems to know instinctively that its emancipation is intimately linked with the victory of the idea of democratic organization.
The context of the 1917 Russian Revolution and its democratically run committees (the soviets) was not an easy one. The majority of the people were still in the peasantry, a conservative class. There were less than 10% of people in the industrial working class. The imperialist wars for seizing land, profits and oil under the ground, had exacted a massive price from the Russian peasantry and working class already. Famine and misery were rife.
What is a soviet?
The word “soviet” is quite simply the Russian word for “council” or “committee” (in Kreol konsey). What is different about soviets is, first, that they are set up under the impulsion of and at the initiative of factory workers, peasants, soldiers or sailors from the ranks. Secondly, they are born during a revolutionary process. They are not just set up “at will”. Thirdly, they have the flexibility to adapt very quickly to the changing situation of a revolution, to expanding demands into a wider platform.
Where does the authority of soviets come from? It is certainly not from the army, or any established institution of the state, nor according to any law. In Mauritius, most “associations” are set up, by contrast, under the existing law, the Registration of Associations Act, a department under the Ministry of Labour! unions likewise. So Associations and unions register with parts of the bourgeois state that exists in the interests, taken overall, of the capitalist class. That is why we call the Government a “bourgeois” government.
The authority that soviets have is born directly from the mass action of the working class and other oppressed classes.
And soviets, as they aim to take power, they do not report to the bourgeois state, nor pay taxes to it. They are totally independent of it. Then they, during the revolutionary process, get transformed into organizations that can call for insurrection. They thus represent the embryo of the future working class state that is in the process of being born. Its power and authority lies with the majority classes – working class, peasantry, all the oppressed classes.
The Birth of Soviets
In May 1905, in Ivano-Voznesensk, near Moscow, which was the centre of the textile industry, there was a general strike. 30,000 workers joined together and elected a council of 110 delegates. The aim at the beginning was to negotiate with the bosses and to give the strike a democratically elected leadership (a strike cannot function without one). However, soon what was a strike committee transforms into a program of demands and different parties become strong within it. At the time the Russian Social Democratic party was strong in the strike committee.
To give an idea of what happens. The early soviet could use big municipal halls without seeking permission from anyone. When decisions are taken by the strike committee, they are written on a “notice” and signed by all the delegates of the strike movement. Soon demands include Free expression, the right to meet and to associate, and the need for a Constituent Assembly in the country.
The strike committees, however, were dissolved at the end of the strike.
So, soviets grew from these.
The best known soviet from their first appearance in 1905, was without a doubt the Petrograd Soviet, in October 1905. St Petersburg was the centre of the revolutionary movement in Russia, and the place where the working class was most active. There were immense factories there, bigger than in the more developed countries. Soon there were workers’ committees elected by workers in every factory, every workshop and every enterprise. They then elected delegates: one for every 500 workers in big enterprises to go to the Petrograd Soviet. In the Petrograd soviet in November 1905, there were 562 delegates from 147 factories, 34 from workshops and 16 from unions.
This is a very advanced form of democracy compared with the parliamentary democracy we are still landed with. The soviets represented the rail workers, textile workers, print workers, wood and metal workers, office workers, workers from commerce, the post and telegraph sectors, and they each had their own political affiliations, which changed with the situation.
The Tsar crushed the revolutionary movement of 1905 in Petrograd, but the idea of the soviets had been born. It remained alive in the minds of all those who had been in it, and in the hearts of the Russian proletariat.
Twelve years after the 1905 Petrograd Soviet, when revolution broke out again, the soviets or democratic councils came back to life. Workers, soldier-peasants, sailors all had their delegates. Each factory had its committee and its delegates elected by all the workers of the enterprise. Each section of the army had its committee. There were Agrarian Committee in each village to represent peasants; by October 1917, these fulfilled a role similar to soviets. The Agrarian Committees had in fact been set up by the Provisional Government in February 1917 supposedly just to gather statistics for a later agrarian reform, and originally pulled together civil servants, doctors and land surveyors. However, soon it was peasants who replaced the rural intellectuals, and the Committees became organizations of struggle. They acted. They expropriated land from the big estates. They called for rent strikes by poor peasants.
To get back to the city soviets. From February 1917, the Bolshevik party had come to promote the soviets, and to represent the very idea of them. In particular, leaders like Trotsky and later Lenin. However, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries had more influence than the Bolsheviks at the beginning of 1917.
Soon, there was a situation of “dual power”. The Provisional Government representing the capitalist forces and their parties, and the Soviets representing the working class, soldiers and peasants.
It was in April that Lenin published his “April Thesis” which called for all power to the Soviets. This would then separate the petty-bourgeois leadership of the soviets at the time from the bourgeoisie that ran the Provisional Government.
The Bolsheviks political work was principled, patient and tenacious, and it exposed to workers and soldiers and peasants the dangers of the conciliatory politics of the Mensheviks and Social revolutionaries.
And by October, the Bolsheviks were in a majority in almost all the Soviets. And it was the soviets that could bring the end to war and begin to resolve the economic crisis. While the Bolsheviks had 79,000 members in February, this more than doubled to 170,000 by October.
So, by October, the Bolshevik government in the soviets could
- show that the war could be ended
- give peasants effective control of the land they worked, through cooperatives
- prepare the ground for a new kind of economic system from the bottom upwards (factory committees and workers’ control)
- begin to create a new society based on more liberty, more democracy, more equality.
The importance of the soviets, the democratic committees that would become the new state, was multi-form:
- it allowed for the class consciousness amongst workers to grow, and to get institutional representation.
- it gave the working class, peasantry and oppressed classes the means of exercising poiwer.
- it showed there could be an end to the dictatorship of a minority class of capitalists, and (for the interim) the majority classes could impose their laws (what was then called the dictatorship of the proletariat).
Today it’s still important. The global capitalist system is still incapable of ending war and assuring peace on the planet. It is still unable to assure everyone a job and a house. It is incapable of protecting the planet from pollution, or to ensure ecological balance. Workers’ Committees like soviets will, in the future, again show the way.
This article by Alain Ah-Vee is based on his notes for a short speech at the LALIT Celebration of the Russian Revolution Centenary on 8 October. There were six other short speeches on different aspects of the Revolution. His actual speech is short and not identical with these notes; it is available in Kreol. The order of the speeches was:
Introduction – by Rada
What is the Russian Revolution? - Tony
The Build Up to the Revolution, especially from February to October, 1917 - Ragini
The role of a Party in the Revolution - Rajni
The importance of the Soviets in the Revolution - Alain
On the Civil War - Ram
The Stalinist counter-revolution, including as opposed to internationalism - Lindsey