The Road to Red October: Chapter 3. All power to the Soviets




The October Revolution in Russia was carried through by the Bolshevik Party under the slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” In the course of the 1905 and, decisively, in the 1917 revolutions, Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had come to understand the historic significance of the soviet form of organisation.


The soviet, a council representing all of the exploited and oppressed groups, basing itself on the principle of direct elections, recallability and the abolition of bureaucratic privilege, was rightly seen by the Bolsheviks as the best possible organisational expression of the power of the proletariat and its allies. It was the best possible basis for the dictatorship of the proletariat – the soviet state.


In 1938 Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Programme that, “The slogan of soviets, therefore, crowns the programme of transitional demands.” He explained that in the struggle for power soviets were the means for uniting all of the forces struggling against capitalism. In Lenin and Trotsky’s view there was no substitute for soviets as organs of working class power. What led them to this view was the actual nature of the soviets themselves.


Soviet representation


The soviet form of organisation – directly elected councils – arises at the point where the day-to-day struggles of the masses take place in the context of a revolutionary crisis. Soviets are an extraordinary form of organisation to deal with the extraordinary problems posed by a revolutionary situation. Precisely because of this, they are more immediately sensitive and responsive to the needs and wishes of the masses than the established, often bureaucratic, forms of organisation. They are representative of workers and their allies in struggle. Aparticipant in the local (Rajon) Soviet in Vyborg in 1917 gives a flavour of this truly representative characteristic of the soviet form:


“. . . the masses of the Rajon (Vyborg) brought all their needs and expectations to the Soviet; for them it was the meaningful and accessible organ of power. From morning to night workers, youth, soldiers, came with various problems. None went away without an answer.”


Compare this proximity of the soviet to the rank and file with the distance the TUC bureaucrats place between themselves and their nine million members!


By virtue of representing the masses in struggle the soviet develops another characteristic. It is uniquely suited to serve as an instrument for revolutionary struggle. Because it is truly representative of these masses it can, all the more easily and effectively, call them to arms. In 1905 and 1917 the Petrograd Soviet was able to mobilise tens of thousands across industries in strike action to secure the eight hour day. Its job was to coordinate and direct the struggle of those to whom it was accountable. Of the 1905 Soviet in Petrograd, Trotsky commented that it resembled a “council of war, more than a parliament.”


This very feature was what made Trotsky optimistic in 1917 that the soviets were susceptible to Bolshevik influence. The test of action could not be easily delayed by a cumbersome bureaucratic machine. Every passing hour posed a new problem for the soviets to resolve in practice. The programme of revolutionary action can, quickly and often dramatically, reveal its superiority to the masses. The programme of delay and compromise of reformism is not protected by the million-and-one delaying mechanisms of the parliamentary talking shop. Trotsky noted:


“Of all the forms of revolutionary representation, the soviet is the most flexible, immediate and transparent. But it is still only a form. It cannot give more than the masses are capable of putting into it at a given moment. Beyond that it can only assist the masses in understanding the mistakes they have made and correcting them. In this function of the soviets lay one of the most important guarantees of the development of the revolution.”


The third vital element of the soviet form that led Lenin and Trotsky to value it so highly for the purposes of revolution, was that it was an embryonic organ of power, of workers’ power. This was revealed in both 1905 and 1917. The soviets developed out of strikes but took on the functions of administration, of organising supplies and of organising a proletarian militia. In the strikes of 1905 the soviet was born in Russia. The first one developed in Ivanovo-Voznesenk, in May. During a strike by 40,000 workers in this textile town, 110 deputies elected by the strikers met on the river bank. The significance of this meeting was that it united all the workers of the district on a city-wide basis, irrespective of trade or skill.


The Petrograd proletariat – the vanguard in 1905 as it was in 1917 – was quick to emulate its brothers and sisters in Ivanovo-Voznesenk. During the October general strike forty delegates met in the Technological Institute and established a soviet to organise the strike, but also to do more. It declared:


“The assembly of deputies from all factories will form a general workers’ committee in St Petersburg. The committee will strengthen and unify our movement, represent the St Petersburg workers to the public, and decide actions during the strike as well as its termination.”


This was no mere strike committee. By November it had 562 delegates. It issued Izvestia as a daily bulletin occupying the printing presses of the bourgeois papers to ensure it was regularly and professionally produced. Under Trotsky’s leadership it advanced a programme of political demands aimed against the power of the Tsarist autocracy. It forbade the distribution of papers that were censored by the state. Only those bearing an “uncensored” stamp from the Soviet were distributed. Most significantly, it continued its existence and its struggles after the strike was terminated. The St Petersburg chief of police was so worried about the Soviet that he warned, prophetically, that it was threatening to become a “second government”. Its potential as an organ of workers’ power revealed itself in October 1905. This potential was realised in October 1917.


Initially in 1905 the Bolsheviks were suspicious of the Soviet. They saw it as a Menshevik ploy to set up a rival non-party body, through which they could then outmanoeuvre the Bolsheviks. This suspicion stemmed from the Soviet’s refusal to confine itself to purely trade union questions. Aleading Bolshevik agitator, P Mendelev, declared:


“The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies has no right to exist as a political organisation, and the Social Democrats must resign from it, since its existence damages the development of the Social Democratic movement. The Soviet may exist as a trade union organisation or it should not exist at all.”


Menshevik intentions


The suspicions that the Bolsheviks felt towards the Soviet, more precisely to the Mensheviks who they believed were behind the Soviet, were far from groundless. The Mensheviks were enthusiastic to build soviets as “workers’ congresses”.These congresses could, in Martynov’s words, serve as the means of “exerting revolutionary pressure on the will of the liberal and radical bourgeoisie.” The Mensheviks believed the role of the proletariat was to encourage the bourgeoisie forward during the democratic revolution. The soviet, as a form of local government and workers’ congress was seen, not as an organ of power, but a pressure point on the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the Mensheviks believed that it was within such a forum that a mass party of the working class, which would encompass multifarious political trends, could be built. Thus for Martynov the soviet was “abnormal”, but could be used to achieve the norm of international Social Democracy, a mass party:


“. . . that is wide enough to include or render superfluous organisations on the pattern of the soviets of workers’ deputies.”


Lenin perceived the real essence of the soviets – their representative nature, their capacity for revolutionary struggle and their potential as organs of power – despite the influence of Menshevism within them. By posing the soviets, not as an alternative to the Bolsheviks, but as the organisational means of fulfilling the Bolshevik’s governmental slogan – the Provisional Revolutionary Government – Lenin won the Party to the need for the struggle for leadership within the soviets. For him the soviets were both “instruments of insurrection” and “cells of the new revolutionary power”. In 1906 he wrote of the Petrograd Soviet: “That was the face of the new power – or rather its germinal form, since the victory of the old power destroyed the young shoots very early on.”


In February 1917, following the overthrow of the autocracy, the young shoots sprouted once again. This time the Bolsheviks, after Lenin’s return and the triumph of his “April Theses” which placed socialist revolution and the creation of a soviet government as a workers’ and peasants’ government in the immediate agenda, waged a struggle to make the soviets the sole organs of power throughout Russia. The Mensheviks, bound hand and foot to the bourgeoisie, sought to contain the soviets to a monitoring and advisory role over the capitalist Provisional Government. In fact, after February power was split between the bourgeoisie and the soviets, a situation of dual power prevailed.


In the afternoon of 27 February 1917, in the Tauride Palace, a group of Petrograd workers’ leaders set up the Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. It agreed to elect deputies on the basis of one per 1,000 workers. When it met in the evening there were between forty and fifty deputies present. At the meeting of the soviet, soldiers as well as workers were represented. Deputies elected from the army companies that had joined the revolution were instrumental in turning the Petrograd Soviet into an organisation of workers and soldiers.


The significance of this was immense. Not only did it bring military support and arms to the soviet, it brought the peasantry – for the soldiers were, for the most part, “peasants in greatcoats” – into contact with the proletariat. It helped forge the alliance that was eventually to be consummated in the revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government after October.


After the evening meeting of 27 February the Soviet went from strength to strength. In Petrograd eleven major (local) soviets were set up by late March. The central Petrograd Soviet grew, through March, to a body of 3,000 delegates. Through out the length and breadth of the old empire, soviets sprang up. There were 400 by May, 900 by October. At the first All Russian Soviet Congress in June 1917 1,090 delegates representing twenty million workers, soldiers and peasants assembled in the capital.


The Soviets developed in more than just a numerical sense. To the consternation of their initial Menshevik leaders they constantly intruded into government business. In the naval base town of Kronstadt where the Bolsheviks and Left SRs were in a majority from the outset, the Soviet declared in May: “The sole power in the city of Kronstadt is the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which acts with the Petrograd Soviet in government matters.”


The Soviet dismissed the Provisional Government’s representative in the city and even declared a republic.


This struck terror into the hearts of the compromisers in the Petrograd Executive Committee. Tsereteli and Skobelev were dispatched to persuade the Kronstadters to desist from such actions. But these compromisers were like Canute before the advancing tide – helpless to prevent it. Everywhere, the dynamic of the soviets was pushing them in a similar direction to Kronstadt in the Bolshevik stronghold of Vyborg in Petrograd, home of the major factories, the soviet oversaw workers’ control in the factories and took over the prison bakery at Kresty to ensure that the workers got bread.


The Vyborg factories were at the forefront of the struggle for soviet power from early on. In April, the bourgeois minister Miliukov was forced out of the Provisional Government following the publication of his note to the allies declaring Russian fidelity to the Tsar’s war aims. In response Vyborg issued the loudest calls for an end to dual power. The resolution of the Optico Machine Construction factory typified the Vyborg mood:


“. . . Therefore, we find the Milyukov-Guchkov Co. not corresponding to their appointment and recognise that the only power in the country must be the soviets of workers’ soldiers and peasant’ deputies, which we will defend with our lives.”


Until June Vyborg and Kronstadt were relatively isolated in calling for the resolution of the dual power. The bourgeoisie was well aware of the problem it faced, having to co-exist with the power of the soviets. Guchkov expressed his grasp of that problem as early as 9 March:


“The Provisional Government has no real power. Its orders are endorsed only by the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. . . stated bluntly, the Provisional Government exists only by the soviets’ permission.”


The point about the dual power situation was that until September the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet – looked to throughout Russia for leadership – granted that permission. The Executive concluded a deal with the bourgeois has-beens of the State Duma Committee and then told the workers and soldiers:


“As long as the agreement between the Petrograd Workers and Soldiers’ Soviet and the Provisional Government is not breached, the Provisional Government must be regarded as the sole legal government for all Russia.”


After the departure of Guchkov and Miliukov and the entry of Soviet representatives into the Provisional Government Tsereteli drew the logical conclusion from the Menshevik/Right SRpoint of view and argued:


“Now, all power would be yielded [by the soviet – PR] to the Provisional Government . . . [the soviet must] not meddle in administrative business. We should not hinder national government, but sound the alarm in case of mistakes.”


Fear of counter-revolution


Why were the compromisers able to instil into the mass of workers and peasants deference to the Provisional Government for so many months? In the first place, it was because the Mensheviks and Right SRs were stronger than the Bolsheviks within Russia at the outbreak of the February Revolution. They were better placed than the Bolsheviks to rapidly assume positions of leadership in the soviets. As such they were able to play on the genuine fears workers had of counter-revolution, to limit the role of the soviets to monitoring the government. Remembering the persecution that followed 1905, many workers were not prepared to assume sole responsibility for the fate of the revolution. The Menshevik thesis of leaving government to the bourgeoisie fitted in with such fears. As a delegate to the April City Conference of Bolsheviks ruefully put it:


“When the proletariat still feared to take power into its hands, at that time the bourgeoisie made its way to the Duma and began to issue proclamations and elect deputies. Our best workers, fearing counter-revolution, facilitated the accidental composition of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”


But it was not only fear that played a part. Until Lenin’s return no party of the revolution was, or had ever, advocated constructing soviet power as the immediate objective of the revolution. The Bolshevik formula was for a revolutionary provisional government. Even leading figures in the party like Kamenev, advocated critical support for the Provisional Government created in February. It is not surprising, therefore, that the mass of the working class and army saw their job as keeping the government on the democratic straight and narrow. Typical of this outlook was the resolution of the Baltic Shipbuilding Factory, which proclaimed


“. . . full confidence in the Soviet, and we are sure that the Soviet, basing itself upon our trust and the support of organised revolutionary democracy, will be able to force the Provisional Government to take into account the wishes of the revolutionary army and people.”


From the end of April to July the Bolsheviks, initially a weak fraction within most soviets (forty out of 3,000 deputies in Petrograd at the end of March), hammered away at the slogan “All Power to the Soviets”. Their aim was to escape the pro-bourgeois politics of the compromisers and win leadership in a soviet republic established, if possible, by peaceful means. By June they were beginning to make considerable headway.


The Provisional Government was incapable of solving the great problems of economic production, of the land question or of the war. More and more the workers came to blame the capitalists for obstructing the solution of these burning problems. More and more they looked to their own organisations to do the job for them. When, in June, the Soviet leadership banned a Bolshevik demonstration out of fear, they were obliged to call an official march to let off steam. The march was over 400,000 strong and was made up of workers and soldiers. The rest of “democracy” cowered in the cafes and salons. Despite the “official” character of this march, its moods and slogans reflected the fast growing influence of Bolshevism. Eyewitness to the march, Sukhanov, noted:


“And again, and again, as the insistent call from the very bowels of the revolutionary capital, as destiny itself, like the fateful Burnham Wood, they came toward us: ‘All power to the Soviets!’, ‘Down with the ten capitalist ministers !’”


The drive to counter-revolution after the July Days (see Chapter 5) caused the Bolsheviks to debate a change of slogans with regard to the soviets. The illegalisation of the Bolshevik Party, the arrest of many of its leaders and the repression against the most advanced workers and soldiers, all measures backed by the Soviet leadership, the SRs and the Mensheviks, led the Bolsheviks to drop the slogan “All power to the Soviets”. The Bolsheviks hopes for a peaceful development of the revolution evaporated.


Despite the repression which closed the Bolshevik paper Pravda and temporarily drove most of the party leaders underground, the Bolshevik Party survived the weeks of “German Agent” hysteria that swept the country after the July days. Lenin and Zinoviev – in hiding at Razliv, just across the Finnish border – were able to send letters and documents. As early as 13 July the Party was able to hold a two day strategy conference of the Military Organisation, the Central Committee and the committees of the Petrograd and Moscow districts.


Lenin prepared for this a document “The Political Situation”. It consisted of four theses. Thesis one proclaimed that “the counter-revolution has actually taken state power into its hands”, and that “Russia is virtually a military dictatorship” whose policy “is preparation for disbanding the soviets”. Thesis two stigmatised the Mensheviks and SRs for having completely “betrayed the cause of the revolution by putting it in the hands of the counter-revolution” for which they now act as “mere fig leaves”. Thesis three proclaimed that all hope of a peaceful transition had vanished for good and that now an armed workers’ uprising was necessary. Consequently Lenin argued that the slogan “All power to the Soviets” must be withdrawn. The reason Lenin gave was that a) “it was a slogan for the peaceful development of the revolution” and b) “power has changed hands” and the Mensheviks and SRs have “completely betrayed” the revolution. The fourth thesis explained that the Party must combine legal with illegal work aiming towards an insurrection the aim of which would be “to transfer power to the proletariat supported by the poor peasants, with a view to putting our party programme into effect.”


Lenin’s theses were the subject of fierce debate. Volodarsky, Nogin and Rykov attacked them and even Zinoviev, sharing Lenin’s exile, sent word that he disagreed. Sverdlov and Stalin supported Lenin’s views. The disputes centred on whether or not the counter-revolution was triumphant – that is, whether the dual power had been resolved in favour of the bourgeoisie, whether the Mensheviks and SRs were definitely exposed as counter-revolutionaries, whether a peaceful evolution within the soviets could still take place which would allow a soviet government to come to power and whether an insurrection was indeed needed. Were the soviets no longer to be the centre of Bolshevik activity? Ordzhonikidze later remembered that Lenin had argued in this period that the factory committees, not the soviets, would become organs of insurrection.


Lenin’s position


In essence Lenin’s position was strategically, i.e. programmatically, correct. But in terms of an assessment of the situation and in terms of tactics and slogans it was inadequate. Party debate corrected these inadequacies and the Bolshevik tactics during August and September overcame the problems the Party was facing. Lenin over-estimated the totality of the counter-revolution. In that it was a counter-revolution after July it remained a democratic counter-revolution and not the imposition of a military dictatorship. The army high command, the Cadets and the rival would-be Bonapartes (Kerensky and Kornilov) had not resolved the duality of power. Rather the reformist leaders led the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets into allowing “emergency powers” against the proletarian vanguard. But to install a military dictatorship would necessitate the crushing of the soviets and soldiers’ committees and the complete disarming of the workers. To do this a further coup would be necessary. Lenin’s tactical error was the complete abandonment of the slogan”All power to the Soviets” as necessarily tied to “peaceful development”. Lenin at this time saw it solely as a slogan synonymous with ‘Mensheviks and SRs take the power”.


The two errors were linked. Lenin clearly thought that there would be no further period of “soviet legality” during which the Bolsheviks could continue to win ever more delegacies in the soviets and eventually a majority. But this was not the case and the Bolsheviks after only a few weeks continued their remorseless advance within the soviets. Certainly it was correct to withdraw the agitation for “All power to the Soviets” in the form hitherto used when the majority parties had exposed their total complicity with the counter-revolutionaries. But it still had meaning as the expression of the need for a workers’ state rather than bourgeois democracy, and when the Bolsheviks were in the process of becoming a majority it would take on a new concrete agitational meaning: “All power to the (Bolshevik) Soviets.”


Lenin was aware of the danger of separating the organisational form from its political leadership. Under a reformist leadership soviets can play a reactionary role, as indeed they did in July 1917 in Russia. However, with a revolutionary leadership the soviets would, once again, play a revolutionary role. The struggle for new soviets actually became, in August 1917, the struggle for Bolshevik leadership. The existing soviets were renovated and cleansed of their reactionary leadership. In the debate at the Bolshevik Congress in July, Buhkarin had perceptively warned:


“. . . the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater . . . We must not denounce the form of soviets because their composition has proved unsuitable.”


To a large extent, particularly in the local soviets, Bukharin’s advice was heeded. By September, across Russia the Bolsheviks began to win majority after majority in the soviets, leading Trotsky to comment:


“For this reason the slogan ‘Power to the Soviets’ was not removed from the agenda a second time, but it was given a new meaning: all power to the Bolshevik soviets. In this formulation the slogan formally ceased to be a call for peaceful development. The Party approaches armed uprising through the soviets and in the name of the soviets.”


At the Party’s Sixth Congress, starting on 26 July and continuing for eight days, Lenin’s position was developed and amended. The programmatically correct elements of Lenin’s theses were retained – namely that the Mensheviks and SRs had definitively proved themselves tools of the counter-revolution. In essence, and using terms developed later, these parties were not centrist but counter-revolutionary. No fusion or conciliation was permissible with them. July had proved this decisively. Only the Martovites, the Menshevik Internationalists and the left SRs were still vacillating elements (centrists). At this congress the Mezhraiontsy and Trotsky definitively fused with the Bolsheviks, so that all consistently revolutionary elements were now consolidated into one party [see appendix]. In addition, the congress recognised that whilst winning a majority in the soviets and defending them against counter-revolution would continue to be central, the Provisional Government, Kerensky and the generals could not be removed by peaceful means. The correctness of this line of march was vindicated in the aftermath of the Kornilov coup attempt.


On 9 September a debate on the composition of the Praesidium of the Petrograd Soviet took place. Trotsky, now a Bolshevik, led the attack on the compromisers. He spoke for the majority of Petrograd’s proletariat. The compromisers were defeated by 519 votes to 414. Bolshevik majorities in other soviets throughout the country began to be recorded at the same time. On 25 September Trotsky once again became chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. In 1905 in that capacity, he had been obliged to order the breaking of weapons and submission to the Tsarist police. In 1917 there was no such need to submit. On 25 October at the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets, following the rising of the night before, the first soviet republic in the world was established.