An Anarchist FAQ - What happened to the soviets after October?
As indicated in the last question, the last thing which the Bolsheviks wanted was "all power to the soviets." Rather they wanted the soviets to hand over that power to a Bolshevik government. As the people in liberal capitalist politics, the soviets were "sovereign" in name only. They were expected to delegate power to a government. Like the "sovereign people" of bourgeois republics, the soviets were much praised but in practice ignored by those with real power.
In such a situation, we would expect the soviets to play no meaningful role in the new "workers' state." Under such a centralised system, we would expect the soviets to become little more than a fig-leaf for party power. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what they did become. As we discuss in section 7 of the appendix on "How did Bolshevik ideology contribute to the failure of the Revolution?", anarchists are not surprised by this as the centralisation so beloved by Marxists is designed to empower the few at the centre and marginalise the many at the circumference.
The very first act of the Bolshevik revolution was for the Second Congress of Soviets to alienate its power and hand it over to the "Council of People's Commissars." This was the new government and was totally Bolshevik in make-up (the Left SRs later joined it, although the Bolsheviks always maintained control). Thus the first act of the revolution was the creation of a power above the soviets. Although derived from the soviet congress, it was not identical to it. Thus the Bolshevik "workers' state" or "semi-state" started to have the same characteristics as the normal state (see section H.3.7 for a discussion of what marks a state).
The subsequent marginalisation of the soviets in the "soviet" state occurred from top to bottom should not, therefore be considered an accident or a surprise. The Bolshevik desire for party power within a highly centralised state could have no other effect. At the top, the Central Executive Committee (CEC or VTsIK) was quickly marginalised from power. This body was meant to be the highest organ of soviet power but, in practice, it was sidelined by the Bolshevik government. This can be seen when, just four days after seizing power, the Bolshevik Council of People's Commissars (CPC or Sovnarkom) "unilaterally arrogated to itself legislative power simply by promulgating a decree to this effect. This was, effectively, a Bolshevik coup d'etat that made clear the government's (and party's) pre-eminence over the soviets and their executive organ. Increasingly, the Bolsheviks relied upon the appointment from above of commissars with plenipotentiary powers, and they split up and reconstituted fractious Soviets and intimidated political opponents." [Neil Harding, Leninism, p. 253] Strange actions for a party proclaiming it was acting to ensure "All power to the soviets" (as we discussed in the last section, this was always considered by Lenin as little more than a slogan to hide the fact that the party would be in power).
It is doubtful that when readers of Lenin's State and Revolution read his argument for combining legislative and executive powers into one body, they had this in mind! But then, as we discussed in section 4, that work was never applied in practice so we should not be too surprised by this turn of events. One thing is sure, four days after the "soviet" revolution the soviets had been replaced as the effective power in society by a handful of Bolshevik leaders. So the Bolsheviks immediately created a power above the soviets in the form of the CPC. Lenin's argument in The State and Revolution that, like the Paris Commune, the workers' state would be based on a fusion of executive and administrative functions in the hands of the workers' delegates did not last one night. In reality, the Bolshevik party was the real power in "soviet" Russia.
Given that the All-Russian central Executive Committee of Soviets (VTsIK) was dominated by Bolsheviks, it comes as no surprise to discover it was used to augment this centralisation of power into the hands of the party. The VTsIK ("charged by the October revolution with controlling the government," the Sovnarkom) was "used not to control but rather extend the authority and centralising fiat of the government. That was the work of Iakov Sverdlov, the VTsIK chairman, who -- in close collaboration with Lenin as chairman of the Sovnarkom -- ensured that the government decrees and ordinances were by the VTsIK and that they were thus endowed with Soviet legitimacy when they were sent to provincial soviet executive committees for transmission to all local soviets . . . To achieve that, Sverdlov had to reduce the 'Soviet Parliament' to nothing more than an 'administrative branch' (as Sukhanov put it) of the Sovnarkom. Using his position as the VTsIK chairman and his tight control over its praesidium and the large, disciplined and compliant Bolshevik majority in the plenary assembly, Sverdlov isolated the opposition and rendered it impotent. So successful was he that, by early December 1917, Sukhanov had already written off the VTsIK as 'a sorry parody of a revolutionary parliament,' while for the Bolshevik, Martin Latsis-Zurabs, the VTsIL was not even a good rubberstamp. Latsis campaigned vigorously in March and April 1918 for the VTsIK's abolition: with its 'idle, long-winded talk and its incapacity for productive work' the VTsIK merely held up the work of government, he claimed. And he may have had a point: during the period of 1917 to 1918, the Sovnarkom issued 474 decrees, the VTsIK a mere 62." [Israel Getzler, Soviets as Agents of Democratisation, p. 27]
This process was not an accident. Far from it. In fact, the Bolshevik chairman Sverdlov knew exactly what he was doing. This included modifying the way the CEC worked:
"The structure of VTsIK itself began to change under Sverdlov. He began to use the presidium to circumvent the general meeting, which contained eloquent minority spokesmen . . . Sverdlov's used of the presidium marked a decisive change in the status of that body within the soviet hierarchy. In mid-1917 . . . [the] plenum had directed all activities and ratified bureau decisions which had a 'particularly important social-political character.' The bureau . . . served as the executive organ of the VTsIK plenum . . . Only in extraordinary cases when the bureau could no be convened for technical reason could the presidium make decisions. Even then such actions remained subject to review by the plenum." [Charles Duval, "Yakov M. Sverdlov and the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets (VTsIK)", pp. 3-22, Soviet Studies, vol. XXXI, no. 1, January 1979, pp. 6-7]
Under the Bolsheviks, the presidium was converted "into the de facto centre of power within VTsIK." It "began to award representations to groups and factions which supported the government. With the VTsIK becoming ever more unwieldy in size by the day, the presidium began to expand its activities." The presidium was used "to circumvent general meetings." Thus the Bolsheviks were able "to increase the power of the presidium, postpone regular sessions, and present VTsIK with policies which had already been implemented by the Sovnarkon. Even in the presidium itself very few people determined policy." [Charles Duval, Op. Cit., p.7, p. 8 and p. 18]
So, from the very outset, the VTsIK was overshadowed by the "Council of People's Commissars" (CPC). In the first year, only 68 of 480 decrees issued by the CPC were actually submitted to the Soviet Central Executive Committee, and even fewer were actually drafted by it. The VTsIK functions "were never clearly delineated, even in the constitution, despite vigorous attempts by the Left SRs . . . that Lenin never saw this highest soviet organ as the genuine equal of his cabin and that the Bolsheviks deliberated obstructed efforts at clarification is [a] convincing" conclusion to draw. It should be stressed that this process started before the outbreak of civil war in late May, 1918. After that the All-Russian Congress of soviets, which convened every three months or so during the first year of the revolution, met annually thereafter. Its elected VTsIK "also began to meet less frequently, and at the height of the civil war in late 1918 and throughout 1919, it never once met in full session." [Carmen Sirianni, Workers' Control and Socialist Democracy, pp. 203-4]
The marginalisation of the soviets can be seen from the decision on whether to continue the war against Germany. As Cornelius Castoriadis notes, under Lenin "[c]ollectively, the only real instance of power is the Party, and very soon, only the summits of the Party. Immediately after the seizure of power the soviets as institutions are reduced to the status of pure window-dressing (we need only look at the fact that, already at the beginning of 1918 in the discussions leading up to the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty, their role was absolutely nil)." [The role of Bolshevik Ideology in the birth of the Bureaucracy, p. 97] In fact, on the 26th of February, 1918, the Soviet Executive "began a survey of 200 local soviets; by 10 March 1918 a majority (105-95) had come out in favour of a revolutionary war, although the soviets in the two capitals voted . . . to accept a separate peace." [Geoffrey Swain, The Origins of the Russian Civil War, p. 128] This survey was ignored by the Bolshevik Central Committee which voted 4 against, 4 abstain and 5 for it. This took Russia out of the Great War but handed over massive areas to imperialist Germany. The controversial treaty was ratified at the Fourth Soviet Congress, unsurprisingly as the Bolshevik majority simply followed the orders of their Central Committee. It would be pointless to go over the arguments of the rights and wrongs of the decision here, the point is that the 13 members of the Bolshevik Central Committee decided the future faith of Russia in this vote. The soviets were simply ignored in spite of the fact it was possible to consult them fully. Clearly, "soviet power" meant little more than window-dressing for Bolshevik power.
Thus, at the top summits of the state, the soviets had been marginalised by the Bolsheviks from day one. Far from having "all power" their CEC had given that to a Bolshevik government. Rather than exercise real power, it's basic aim was to control those who did exercise it. And the Bolsheviks successfully acted to undermine even this function.
If this was happening at the top, what was the situation at the grassroots? Here, too, oligarchic tendencies in the soviets increased post-October, with "[e]ffective power in the local soviets relentlessly gravitated to the executive committees, and especially their presidia. Plenary sessions became increasingly symbolic and ineffectual." The party was "successful in gaining control of soviet executives in the cities and at uezd and guberniya levels. These executive bodies were usually able to control soviet congresses, though the party often disbanded congresses that opposed major aspects of current policies." Local soviets "had little input into the formation of national policy" and "[e]ven at higher levels, institutional power shifted away from the soviets." [C. Sirianni, Op. Cit., p. 204 and p. 203] The soviets quickly had become rubber-stamps for the Communist government, with the Soviet Constitution of 1918 codifying the centralisation of power and top-down decision making. Local soviets were expected to "carry out all orders of the respective higher organs of the soviet power" (i.e. to carry out the commands of the central government).
This was not all. While having popular support in October 1917, the realities of "Leninism in power" soon saw a backlash develop. The Bolsheviks started to loose popular support to opposition groups like the Mensheviks and SRs (left and right). This growing opposition was reflected in two ways. Firstly, a rise in working class protests in the form of strikes and independent organisations. Secondly, there was a rise in votes for the opposition parties in soviet elections. Faced with this, the Bolsheviks responded in three ways, delaying elections. gerrymandering or force. We will discuss each in turn.
Lenin argued in mid-April 1918 that the "socialist character of Soviet, i.e. proletarian, democracy" lies, in part, in because "the people themselves determine the order and time of elections." [The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, pp. 36-7] However, the reality in the grassroots was somewhat different. There "the government [was] continually postponed the new general elections to the Petrograd Soviet, the term of which had ended in March 1918" because it "feared that the opposition parties would show gains. This fear was well founded since in the period immediately preceding 25 January, in those Petrograd factories where the workers had decided to hold new elections, the Mensheviks, SRs, and non-affiliated candidates had won about half the seats." [Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 22] In Yaroslavl, the more the Bolsheviks tried to postpone the elections, the more the idea of holding new elections became an issue itself." When the Bolsheviks gave in and held elections in early April, the Mensheviks won 47 of the 98 seats, the Bolsheviks 38 and the SRs 13. ["The Mensheviks' Political Comeback: The Elections to the Provincial City Soviets in Spring 1918", The Russian Review, vol. 42, pp. 1-50, p. 18] The fate of the Yaroslavl soviet will be discussed shorted. As Geoffrey Swain summaries, Menshevik and SR "successes in recalling Bolshevik delegates from the soviets had forced the Bolsheviks increasingly to delay by-elections." [The Origins of the Russian Civil War, p. 91]
As well as postponing elections and recall, the Bolsheviks also quickly turned to gerrymandering the soviets to ensure the stability of their majority in the soviets. In this they made use of certain institutional problems the soviets had had from the start. On the day which the Petrograd soviet was formed in 1917, the Bolshevik Shlyapnikov "proposed that each socialist party should have the right to two seats in the provisional executive committee of the soviet." This was "designed, initially, to give the Bolsheviks a decent showing, for they were only a small minority of the initiating group." It was agreed. However, the "result was that members of a dozen different parties and organisations (trades unions, co-operative movements, etc.) entered the executive committee. They called themselves 'representatives' (of their organisations) and, by virtue of this, they speedily eliminated from their discussions the committee members chosen by the general assembly although they were the true founders of the Soviet." This meant, for example, Bolshevik co-founders of the soviet made way for such people as Kamenev and Stalin. Thus the make-up of the soviet executive committee was decided upon by "the leadership of each organisation, its executive officers, and not with the [soviet] assembly. The assembly had lost its right to control." Thus, for example, the Bolshevik central committee member Yoffe became the presidium of the soviet of district committees without being elected by anyone represented at those soviets. "After October, the Bolsheviks were more systematic in their use of these methods, but there was a difference: there were now no truly free elections that might have put a brake to a procedure that could only benefit the Bolshevik party." [Marc Ferro, October 1917, p. 191 and p. 195]
The effects of this can be seen in Petrograd soviet elections of June 1918. In these the Bolsheviks "lost the absolute majority in the soviet they had previously enjoyed" but remained its largest party. However, the results of these elections were irrelevant. This was because "under regulations prepared by the Bolsheviks and adopted by the 'old' Petrograd soviet, more than half of the projected 700-plus deputies in the 'new' soviet were to be elected by the Bolshevik-dominated district soviets, trade unions, factory committees, Red Army and naval units, and district worker conferences: thus, the Bolsheviks were assured of a solid majority even before factory voting began." [Alexander Rabinowitch, Early Disenchantment with Bolshevik Rule, p. 45] To be specific, the number of delegates elected directly from the workplace made up a mere third of the new soviet (i.e. only 260 of the 700 plus deputies in the new soviet were elected directly from the factories): "It was this arbitrary 'stacking' of the new soviet, much more than election of 'dead souls' from shut-down factories, unfair campaign practices, falsification of the vote, or direct repression, that gave the Bolsheviks an unfair advantage in the contest." [Alexander Rabinowitch, The Petrograd First City District Soviet during the Civil War, p. 140]
In other words, the Bolsheviks gerrymandered and packed soviets to remain in power, so distorting the soviet structure to ensure Bolshevik dominance. This practice seems to have been commonplace. In Saratov, as in Petrograd, "the Bolsheviks, fearing that they would lose elections, changed the electoral rules . . . in addition to the delegates elected directly at the factories, the trade unions -- but only those in favour of soviet power, in other words supporters of the Bolsheviks and Left SRs -- were given representation. Similarly, the political parties supporting Soviet power automatically received twenty-five seats in the soviets. Needless to say, these rules heavily favoured the ruling parties" as the Mensheviks and SRs "were regarded by the Bolsheviks as being against Soviet power." [Brovkin, Op. Cit., p. 30]
A similar situation existed in Moscow. For example, the largest single union in the soviet in 1920 was that of soviet employees with 140 deputies (9% of the total), followed by the metal workers with 121 (8%). In total, the bureaucracies of the four biggest trade unions had 29.5% of delegates in the Moscow soviet. This packing of the soviet by the trade union bureaucracy existed in 1918 as well, ensuring the Bolsheviks were insulated from popular opposition and the recall of workplace delegates by their electors. Another form of gerrymandering was uniting areas of Bolshevik strength "for electoral purposes with places where they were weak, such as the creation of a single constituency out of the Moscow food administration (MPO) and the Cheka in February 1920." [Richard Sakwa, Soviet Communists in Power, p. 179 and p. 178]
However, this activity was mild compared to the Bolshevik response to soviet elections which did not go their way. According to one historian, by the spring of 1918 "Menshevik newspapers and activists in the trade unions, the Soviets, and the factories had made a considerable impact on a working class which was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Bolshevik regime, so much so that in many places the Bolsheviks felt constrained to dissolve Soviets or prevent re-elections where Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries had gained majorities." [Israel Getzler, Martov, p. 179] This is confirmed by other sources. "By the middle of 1918," notes Leonard Schapiro, "the Mensheviks could claim with some justification that large numbers of the industrial working class were now behind them, and that for the systematic dispersal and packing of the soviets, and the mass arrests at workers' meetings and congresses, their party could eventually have won power by its policy of constitutional opposition. In the elections to the soviets which were taking place in the spring of 1918 throughout Russia, arrests, military dispersal, even shootings followed whenever Mensheviks succeeded in winning majorities or a substantial representation." [The Origin of the Communist Autocracy, p. 191]
For example, the Mensheviks "made something of a comeback about Saratov workers in the spring of 1918, for which the Bolsheviks expelled them from the soviet." [Donald J. Raleigh, Experiencing Russia's Civil War, p. 187] Izhevsk, a town of 100,000 with an armaments industry which was the main suppliers of rifles to the Tzar's Army, experienced a swing to the left by the time of the October revolution. The Bolsheviks and SR-Maximalists became the majority and with a vote 92 to 58 for the soviet to assume power. After a revolt by SR-Maximalist Red Guards against the Bolshevik plans for a centralised Red Army in April, 1918, the Bolsheviks became the sole power. However, in the May elections the Mensheviks and [right] SRs "experienced a dramatic revival" and for "the first time since September 1917, these two parties constituted a majority in the Soviet by winning seventy of 135 seats." The Bolsheviks "simply refused to acquiesce to the popular mandate of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries." In June, the Bolshevik leadership "appealed to the Karzan' Soviet . . . for assistance." The troops sent along with the Bolshevik dominated Red Guards "abrogated the results of the May and June elections" and imprisoned the SR and Menshevik soviet delegates. The summer of 1918 also saw victories for the SRs and Mensheviks in the soviet elections in Votkinsk, a steel town near Izhevsk. "As in Izhevsk the Bolsheviks voided the elections." [Stephan M. Merk, "The 'Class-Tragedy' of Izhevsk: Working Class Opposition to Bolshevism in 1918", pp. 176-90, Russian History, vol. 2, no. 2, p. 181 and p. 186]
However, the most in depth account of this destruction of soviet is found in the research of Vladimir Brovkin. According to him, there "are three factors" which emerge from the soviet election results in the spring of 1918. These are, firstly, "the impressive success of the Menshevik-SR opposition" in those elections in all regions in European Russia. The second "is the Bolshevik practice of outright disbandment of the Menshevik-SR-controlled soviets. The third is the subsequent wave of anti-Bolshevik uprisings." In fact, "in all provincial capitals of European Russia where elections were held on which there are data, the Mensheviks and the SRs won majorities on the city soviets in the spring of 1918." Brovkin stresses that the "process of the Menshevik-SR electoral victories threatened Bolshevik power. That is why in the course of the spring and summer of 1918, the soviet assemblies were disbanded in most cities and villages. To stay in power, the Bolsheviks had to destroy the soviets. . . These steps generated a far-reaching transformation in the soviet system, which remained 'soviet' in name only." Brovkin presents accounts from numerous towns and cities. As an example, he discusses Tver' where the "escalation of political tensions followed the already familiar pattern" as the "victory of the opposition at the polls" in April 1918 "brought about an intensification of the Bolshevik repression. Strikes, protests, and marches in Tver' lead to the imposition of martial law." [Brovkin, Op. Cit., p. 46, p. 47, p. 48 and p. 11] Thus Bolshevik armed force not only overthrew the election results, it also suppressed working class protest against such actions. (Brovkin's book The Mensheviks after October contains the same information as his article).
This Bolshevik attack on the soviets usually started with attempts to stop new elections. For example, after a demonstration in Petrograd in favour of the Constituent Assembly was repressed by the Bolsheviks in mid-January 1918, calls for new elections to the soviet occurred in many factories. "Despite the efforts of the Bolsheviks and the Factory Committees they controlled, the movement for new elections to the soviet spread to more than twenty factories by early February and resulted in the election of fifty delegates: thirty-six SRs, seven Mensheviks and seven non-party." However, the Bolsheviks "unwillingness to recognise the elections and to seat new delegates pushed a group of Socialists to . . . lay plans for an alternative workers' forum . . . what was later to become the Assembly of Workers' Plenipotentiaries." [Scott Smith, "The Social-Revolutionaries and the Dilemma of Civil War", The Bolsheviks in Russian Society, pp. 83-104, Vladimir N. Brovkin (Ed.), pp. 85-86] This forum, like all forms of working class protest, was crushed by the Bolshevik state. By the time the elections were held, in June 1918, the civil war had started (undoubtedly favouring the Bolsheviks) and the Bolsheviks had secured their majority by packing the soviet with non-workplace "representatives."
In Tula, again in the spring of 1918, local Bolsheviks reported to the Bolshevik Central Committee that the "Bolshevik deputies began to be recalled one after another . . . our situation became shakier with passing day. We were forced to block new elections to the soviet and even not to recognise them where they had taken place not in our favour." In the end, the local party leader was forced to abolish the city soviet and to vest power in the Provincial Executive Committee. This refused to convene a plenum of the city soviet for more than two months, knowing that newly elected delegates were non-Bolshevik. [Smith, Op. Cit., p. 87]
In Yaroslavl', the newly elected soviet convened on April 9th, 1918, and when it elected a Menshevik chairman, "the Bolshevik delegation walked out and declared the soviet dissolved. In response, workers in the city went out on strike, which the Bolsheviks answered by arresting the strike committee and threatening to dismiss the strikers and replace them with unemployed workers." This failed and the Bolsheviks were forced to hold new elections, which they lost. Then "the Bolsheviks dissolved this soviet as well and places the city under martial law." A similar event occurred in Riazan' (again in April) and, again, the Bolsheviks "promptly dissolved the soviet and declared a dictatorship under a Military-Revolutionary Committee." [Op. Cit., pp. 88-9]
The opposition parties raised such issues at the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets (VTsIK), to little avail. On the 11th of April, one "protested that non-Bolshevik controlled soviets were being dispersed by armed force, and wanted to discuss the issue." The chairman "refus[ed] to include it in the agenda because of lack of supporting material" and such information be submitted to the presidium of the soviet. The majority (i.e. the Bolsheviks) "supported their chairman" and the facts were "submitted . . . to the presidium, where they apparently remained." It should be noted that the "same fate befell attempts to challenge the arrests of Moscow anarchists by the government on 12 April." The chairman's "handling of the anarchist matter ended its serious discussion in the VTsIK." [Charles Duval, Op. Cit., pp. 13-14] Given that the VTsIK was meant to be the highest soviet body between congresses, the lack of concern for Bolshevik repression against soviets and opposition groups clearly shows the Bolshevik contempt for soviet democracy.
Needless to say, this destruction of soviet democracy continued during the civil war. For example, the Bolsheviks simply rejected the voice of people and would refuse to accept an election result. Emma Goldman attended an election meeting of bakers in Moscow in March, 1920. "It was," she said, "the most exciting gathering I had witnessed in Russia." However the "chosen representative, an Anarchist, had been refused his mandate by the Soviet authorities. It was the third time the workers gathered to re-elect their delegate . . . and every time they elected the same man. The Communist candidate opposing him was Semashko, the Commissar of the Department of Health . . . [who] raved against the workers for choosing a non-Communist, called anathema upon their heads, and threatened them with the Tcheka and the curtailment of their rations. But he had no effect on the audience except to emphasise their opposition to him, and to arouse antagonism against the party he represented. The workers' choice was repudiated by the authorities by the authorities and later even arrested and imprisoned." After a hunger strike, they were released. In spite of chekists with loaded guns attending union meetings, the bakers "would not be intimidated" and threatened a strike unless they were permitted to elect their own candidate. This ensured the bakers' demands were met. [My Disillusionment in Russia, pp. 88-9]
Unsurprisingly, "there is a mass of evidence to support the Menshevik accusations of electoral malpractice" during elections in May 1920. And in spite of Menshevik "declaration of support for the Soviet regime against the Poles" the party was "still subject to harassment." [Skawa, Op. Cit., p. 178]
This gerrymandering was not limited to just local soviets. The Bolsheviks used it at the fifth soviet congress as well.
First, it should be noted that in the run up to the congress, "on 14 June 1918, they expelled Martov and his five Mensheviks together with the Socialist Revolutionaries from the Central Executive Committee, closed down their newspapers . . and drove them underground, just on the eve of the elections to the Fifth Congress of Soviets in which the Mensheviks were expected to make significant gains." [Israel Getzler, Martov, p. 181] The rationale for this action was the claim that the Mensheviks had taken part in anti-soviet rebellions (as we discuss in section 23, this was not true). The action was opposed by the Left SRs, who correctly questioned the legality of the Bolshevik expulsion of opposition groupings. They "branded the proposed expulsion bill illegal, since the Mensheviks and SRs had been sent to the CEC by the Congress of Soviets, and only the next congress had the right to withdraw their representation. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks had no right to pose as defenders of the soviets against the alleged SR counter-revolution when they themselves has been disbanding the peasants' soviets and creating the committees of the poor to replace them." [Brovkin, The Mensheviks After October, p. 231] When the vote was taken, only the Bolsheviks supported it. Their votes were sufficient to pass it.
Given that the Mensheviks had been winning soviet elections across Russia, it is clear that this action was driven far more by political needs than the truth. This resulted in the Left Social Revolutionaries (LSRs) as the only significant party left in the run up to the fifth Congress. The LSR author (and ex-commissar for justice in the only coalition soviet government) of the only biography of LSR leader (and long standing revolutionary who suffered torture and imprisonment in her fight against Tsarism) Maria Spiridonova states that "[b]etween 900 and 100 delegates were present. Officially the LSR numbered 40 percent of the delegates. They own opinion was that their number were even higher. The Bolsheviks strove to keep their majority by all the means in their power." He quotes Spiridonova's address to the Congress: "You may have a majority in this congress, but you do have not a majority in the country." [I. Steinberg, Spiridonova, p. 209]
Historian Geoffrey Swain indicates that the LSRs had a point:
"Up to the very last minute the Left SRs had been confident that, as the voice of Russia's peasant masses, they would receive a majority when the Fifth Congress of Soviets assembled . . . which would enable them to deprive Lenin of power and launch a revolutionary war against Germany. Between April and the end of June 1918 membership of their party had almost doubled, from 60,000 to 100,000, and to prevent them securing a majority at the congress Lenin was forced to rely on dubious procedures: he allowed so-called committees of poor peasants to be represented at the congress. Thus as late as 3 July 1918 returns suggested a majority for the Left SRs, but a Congress of Committees of Poor Peasants held in Petrograd the same day 'redressed the balance in favour of the Bolsheviks,' to quote the Guardian's Philips-Price, by deciding it had the right to represent the all those districts where local soviets had not been 'cleansed of kulak elements and had not delivered the amount of food laid down in the requisitioning lists of the Committees of Poor Peasants.' This blatant gerrymandering ensured a Bolshevik majority at the Fifth Congress of Soviets." [The Origins of the Russian Civil War, p. 176]
Historian Alexander Rabinowitch confirms this gerrymandering. As he put it, by the summer of 1918 "popular disenchantment with Bolshevik rule was already well advanced, not only in rural but also in urban Russia" and the "primary beneficiaries of this nationwide grass-roots shift in public opinion were the Left SRs. During the second half of June 1918, it was an open question which of the two parties would have a majority at the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets . . . On the evening of 4 July, virtually from the moment the Fifth Congress of Soviets opened in Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, it was clear to the Left SRs that the Bolsheviks had effectively 'fabricated' a sizeable majority in the congress and consequently, that there was no hope whatever of utilising it to force a fundamental change in the government's pro-German, anti-peasant policies." While he acknowledges that an "exact breakdown of properly elected delegates may be impossible to ascertain" it was possible ("based on substantial but incomplete archival evidence") to conclude that "it is quite clear that the Bolshevik majority was artificially inflated and highly suspect." He quotes the report of one leading LSR, based on data from LSR members of the congress's Credentials Committee, saying that the Bolsheviks "conjured up" 299 voting delegates. "The Bible tells us," noted the report's author, "that God created the heavens and the earth from nothing . . . In the twentieth century the Bolsheviks are capable of no lesser miracles: out of nothing, they create legitimate credentials." ["Maria Spiridonova's 'Last Testament'", The Russian Review, pp. 424-46, vol. 54, July 1995, p. 426]
This gerrymandering played a key role in the subsequent events. "Deprived of their democratic majority," Swain notes, "the Left SRs resorted to terror and assassinated the German ambassador Mirbach." [Swain, Op. Cit., p. 176] The LSR assassination of Mirbach and the events which followed were soon labelled by the Bolsheviks an "uprising" against "soviet power" (see section 23 for more details). Lenin "decided that the killing of Mirbach provided a fortuitous opportunity to put an end to the growing Left SR threat." [Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 427] After this, the LSRs followed the Mensheviks and Right SRs and were expelled from the soviets. This in spite of the fact that the rank and file knew nothing of the plans of the central committees and that their soviet delegates had been elected by the masses. The Bolsheviks had finally eliminated the last of their more left-wing opponents (the anarchists had been dealt with the in April, see section 24 for details).
As discussed in section 21, the Committees of Poor Peasants were only supported by the Bolsheviks. Indeed, the Left SRs opposed then as being utterly counter-productive and an example of Bolshevik ignorance of village life. Consequently, we can say that the "delegates" from the committees were Bolsheviks or at least Bolshevik supporters. Significantly, by early 1919 Lenin admitted the Committees were failures and ordered them disbanded. The new policy reflected Left SR arguments against the Committees. It is hard not to concur with Vladimir Brovkin that by "establishing the committees of the poor to replace the [rural] soviets . . . the Bolsheviks were trying to create some institutional leverage of their own in the countryside for use against the SRs. In this light, the Bolshevik measures against the Menshevik-led city soviets . . . and against SR-led village soviets may be seen as a two-pronged attempt to stem the tide that threatened to leave them in the minority at the Fifth Congress of Soviets." [The Mensheviks after October, p. 226]
Thus, by July 1918, the Bolsheviks had effectively secured a monopoly of political power in Russia. When the Bolsheviks (rightly, if hypocritically) disbanded the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, they had claimed that the soviets (rightly) represented a superior form of democracy. Once they started losing soviet elections, they could find no better way to "secure" workers' democracy than to destroy it by gerrymandering soviets, disbanding them and expelling opposition parties from them. All peaceful attempts to replace them had been destroyed. The soviet CEC was marginalised and without any real power. Opposition parties had been repressed, usually on little or no evidence. The power of the soviets had been replaced by a soviet power in less than a year. However, this was simply the culmination of a process which had started when the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917. Simply put, the Bolsheviks had always aimed for "all power to the party via the soviets" and once this had been achieved, the soviets could be dispensed with. Maurice Brinton simply stated the obvious when he wrote that "when institutions such as the soviets could no longer be influenced by ordinary workers, the regime could no longer be called a soviet regime." [The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, p. xiii] By this obvious criteria, the Bolshevik regime was no longer soviet by the spring of 1918, i.e. before the outbreak of civil war. While opposition groups were not finally driven out of the soviets until 1923 (i.e. three years after the end of the civil war) their presence "does not indicate the existence of a multi-party system since they in no way threatened the dominating role of the Bolsheviks, and they had not done so from mid-1918." [Richard Sakwa, Op. Cit., p. 168]
Tony Cliff, leader of the British Leninist party the SWP, justified the repression of the Mensheviks and SRs on the grounds that they were not prepared to accept the Soviet system and rejected the role of "constitutional opposition." He tries to move forward the repression until after the outbreak of full civil war by stating that "[d]espite their strong opposition to the government, for some time, i.e. until after the armed uprising of the Czechoslovakian Legion [in late May, 1918] -- the Mensheviks were not much hampered in their propaganda work." If having papers banned every now and then, members arrested and soviets being disbanded as soon as they get a Menshevik majority is "not much hampered" then Cliff does seem to be giving that phrase a new meaning. Similarly, Cliff's claim that the "civil war undermined the operation of the local soviets" also seems lacking based on this new research. [Lenin: Revolution Besieged, vol. 3, p. 163, p. 167 and p. 150]
However, the Bolshevik assault on the soviets started during the spring of 1918 (i.e. in March, April and May). That is before the Czech rising and the onset of full scale civil war which occurred in late May (see section 3 of the appendix on "What caused the degeneration of the Russian Revolution?" on Bolshevik repression before the Czech revolt). Nor is it true that the Mensheviks rejected constitutional methods. Though they wished to see a re-convocation of the Constituent Assembly they believed that the only way to do this was by winning a majority of the soviets (see section 23). Clearly, attempts to blame the Civil War for the elimination of soviet power and democracy seems woefully weak given the actions of the Bolsheviks in the spring of 1918. And, equally clearly, the reduction of local soviet influence cannot be fully understood without factoring in the Bolshevik prejudice in favour of centralisation (as codified in the Soviet Constitution of 1918) along with this direct repression.
The simple fact is that the soviets were marginalised and undermined after the October Revolution simply because they did reflect the wishes of the working class, in spite of their defects (defects the Bolsheviks exploited to consolidate their power). The problem was that the workers no longer supported Lenin. Few Leninists would support such an obvious conclusion. For example, John Rees states that "[i]n the cities the Reds enjoyed the fierce and virtually undivided loyalty of the masses throughout the civil war period." ["In Defence of October", pp. 3-82, International Socialism, no. 52, p. 47] Which, of course, explains the vast number of strikes and protests directed against the Bolshevik regime and the workers' resolutions calling its end! It also explains why the Bolsheviks, in the face of such "undivided loyalty", had to suppress opposition parties and impose a party dictatorship!
Simply put, if the Bolsheviks did have the support Rees states they did then they had no need to repress soviet democracy and opposition parties. Such "fierce" loyalty would not have been amenable to opposition arguments. Strange, then, that the Bolsheviks continually explained working class unrest in terms of the influence of Mensheviks, Left SRs and so on during the civil war. Moreover, Rees contradicts himself by arguing that if the Kronstadt revolt had succeeded, then it would have resulted in "the fall of the Bolsheviks." [Op. Cit., p. 63] Now, given that the Kronstadt revolt called for free soviet elections (and not "soviets without parties" as Rees asserts), why did the Bolsheviks not agree to them (at least in the cities)? If, as Rees argues, the Reds had the fierce loyalty of the city workers, then why did the Bolsheviks not introduce soviet democracy in the cities after the end of the Civil War? Simply because they knew that such "loyalty" did not, in fact, exist. Zinoviev, for example, declared that the Bolsheviks' support had been reduced to 1 per cent in early 1920. [Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 188]
So much for working class "loyalty" to the Bolsheviks. And, needless to say, Rees' comments totally ignore the election results before the start of the civil war which prompted the Bolsheviks to pack or disband soviets. As Bertrand Russell summarised from his experiences in Lenin's Russia during the civil war (in 1920): "No conceivable system of free elections would give majorities to the Communists, either in the town or country." [The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, pp. 40-1] Thus we have a major contradiction in the pro-Leninist argument. On the one hand, they stress that the workers supported the Bolsheviks wholeheartedly during the civil war. On the other, they argue that party dictatorship had to be imposed. If the Bolsheviks had the support they claimed they had, then they would have won soviet elections easily. They did not and so free soviet elections were not held.
This fact also explains the fate of the so-called "non party" conferences favoured by the Bolsheviks in late 1920. In spite of praising the soviets as "more democratic" than anything in the "best democratic republics of the bourgeois world," Lenin also argued that non-Party conferences were also required "to be able to watch the mood of the masses, to come closer to them, to respond to their demands." [Left-Wing Communism, p. 33 and p. 32] If the soviets were as democratic as Lenin claimed, then the Bolsheviks would have no need of "non-party" conferences. Significantly, the Bolsheviks "responded" to these conferences and "their demands" by disbanding them. This was because "[d]uring the disturbances" of late 1920, "they provided an effective platform for criticism of Bolshevik policies." Their frequency was decreased and they "were discontinued soon afterward." [Richard Sakwa, Soviet Communists in Power, p. 203] In other words, they meet the same fate as the soviets in the spring and summer of 1918.
Perhaps we should not be too surprised by these developments. After all, as we discuss in section 8 of the appendix on "How did Bolshevik ideology contribute to the failure of the Revolution?", the Bolsheviks had long had a distinctly undemocratic political ideology. Their support for democratic norms were less than consistent. The one thing they were consistent was their hypocrisy. Thus democratic decisions were to be binding on their opponents (even if that majority had to be manipulated into being) but not upon them. Before the revolution Lenin had openly espoused a double standard of discipline. "We will not permit," he argued, "the idea of unity to tie a noose around our necks, and we shall under no circumstances permit the Mensheviks to lead us by the rope." [quoted by Robert V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, p. 17] Once in power, their political perspectives had little trouble ignoring the will of the working class when it classed with what they, as that class's self-proclaimed vanguard, had decided what was in its best interests. As we discussed in section H.5, such a autocratic perspective is at the heart of vanguardism. If you aim for party power, it comes as no surprise that the organs used to achieve it will wither under it. Just as muscles only remain strong if you use them, so soviets can only work if it is used to run society, not nominate the handful of party leaders who do. As Kropotkin argued in 1920:
"The idea of soviets . . . of councils of workers and peasants . . . controlling the economic and political life of the country is a great idea. All the more so, since it necessarily follows that these councils should be composed of all who take part in the production of natural wealth by their own efforts. "But as long as the country is governed by a party dictatorship, the workers' and peasants' councils evidently lose their entire significance. They are reduced to . . . [a] passive role . . . A council of workers ceases to be free and of any use when liberty of the press no longer exists . . . [and they] lose their significance when the elections are not preceded by a free electoral campaign, and when the elections are conducted under pressure of a party dictatorship . . . It means the death-knell of the new system." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, pp. 254-5]
Clearly, the fate of the soviets after October shows the dangers of Bolshevism to popular self-management and autonomy. We should be try and learn the lessons from the experience rather than, as pro-Bolsheviks do, rationalise and justify the usurpation of power by the party. The most obvious lesson to learn is to oppose the creation of any power above the soviets. This was not lost on Russian anarchists active in the revolution. For this reason, anarcho-syndicalists resolved, in August 1918, that they "were for the soviets but categorically against the Soviet of People's Commissars as an organ which does not stem from the soviet structure but only interferes with its work." Thus they were "for the establishment of free soviets of workers' and peasants' representatives, and the abolition of the Soviet of People's Commissars as an organisation inimical to the interests of the working class." [contained in Paul Avrich, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, p. 118 and p. 117] This resolution was driven by the experience of the Bolshevik dominated "soviet" regime.
It is also worth quoting Rudolf Rocker at length on this issue:
"Let no one object that the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' cannot be compared to run of the mill dictatorship because it is the dictatorship of a class. Dictatorship of a class cannot exist as such, for it ends up, in the last analysis, as being the dictatorship of a given party which arrogates to itself the right to speak for that class. Thus, the liberal bourgeoisie, in their fight against despotism, used to speak in the name of the 'people'. . . "We already know that a revolution cannot be made with rosewater. And we know, too, that the owning classes will never yield up their privileges spontaneously. On the day of victorious revolution the workers will have to impose their will on the present owners of the soil, of the subsoil and of the means of production, which cannot be done -- let us be clear on this -- without the workers taking the capital of society into their own hands, and, above all, without their having demolished the authoritarian structure which is, and will continue to be, the fortress keeping the masses of the people under dominion. Such an action is, without doubt, an act of liberation; a proclamation of social justice; the very essence of social revolution, which has nothing in common with the utterly bourgeois principle of dictatorship. "The fact that a large number of socialist parties have rallied to the idea of councils, which is the proper mark of libertarian socialist and revolutionary syndicalists, is a confession, recognition that the tack they have taken up until now has been the product of a falsification, a distortion, and that with the councils the labour movement must create for itself a single organ capable of carrying into effect the unmitigated socialism that the conscious proletariat longs for. On the other hand, it ought not to be forgotten that this abrupt conversion runs the risk of introducing many alien features into the councils concept, features, that is, with no relation to the original tasks of socialism, and which have to be eliminated because they pose a threat to the further development of the councils. These alien elements are able only to conceive things from the dictatorial viewpoint. It must be our task to face up to this risk and warn our class comrades against experiments which cannot bring the dawn of social emancipation any nearer -- which indeed, to the contrary, positively postpone it. "Consequently, our advice is as follows: Everything for the councils or soviets! No power above them! A slogan which at the same time will be that of the social revolutionary." [Anarchism and Sovietism]
The validity of this argument can be seen, for example, from the expulsion of opposition parties from the soviets in June and July 1918. This act exposes the hollowness of Bolshevik claims of their soviet system presented a form of "higher" democracy. If the Bolshevik soviet system was, as they claimed, based on instant recall then why did they, for example, have to expel the Mensheviks and Right SRs from the soviet CEC in the first place? Why did the electors not simply recall them? It was two weeks after the Czech revolt before the Bolsheviks acted, surely enough time for voters to act? Perhaps this did not happen because the CEC was not, in fact, subject to instant recall at all? Being nominated at the quarterly soviet congress, they were effectively isolated from popular control. It also means that the Bolshevik government was even more insulated from popular control and accountability. To "recall" it, electors would have to either wait for the next national soviet congress or somehow convince the CEC to call an emergency one. As an example of workers' running society, the Bolshevik system leaves much to be desired.
Another obvious lesson to learn was the use of appointments to the soviets and their executives from other organisations. As seen above, the Bolsheviks used the "representation" of other bodies they control (such as trade unions) to pack soviet assemblies in their favour. Similarly, allowing political parties to nominate representatives in soviet executives also marginalised the soviet assemblies and those delegates actually elected in the workplaces.
This was obvious to the Russian anarchists, who argued "for effective soviets organised on collective lines with the direct delegation of workers and peasants from every factory, workshop, village, etc., and not political chatterboxes gaining entry through party lists and turning the soviets into talking shops." [contained in Paul Avrich, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, p. 118] The Makhnovists, likewise, argued that "[o]nly labourers who are contributing work necessary to the social economy should participate in the soviets. Representatives of political organisations have no place in worker-peasant soviets, since their participation in a workers' soviet will transform the latter into deputies of the party and can lead to the downfall of the soviet system." [contained in Peter Arshinov's History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 266] As we discuss in section 15 of the appendix on "Why does the Makhnovist movement show there is an alternative to Bolshevism?", Leninists sometimes distort this into a claim that the Makhnovists opposed members of political standing for election.
This use of party lists meant that soviet delegates could be anyone. For example, the leading left-wing Menshevik Martov recounts that in early 1920 Bolsheviks in a chemical factory "put up Lenin against me as a candidate [to the Moscow soviet]. I received seventy-six votes he-eight (in an open vote)." [quoted by Israel Getzler, Martov, p. 202] How would either of these two intellectuals actually know and reflect the concerns and interests of the workers they would be "delegates" of? If the soviets were meant to be the delegates of working people, then why should non-working class members of political parties be elected to a soviet?
However, in spite of these problems, the Russian soviets were a key means of ensuring working class participation in the revolution. As recognised by all the socialist oppositions to the Bolsheviks, from the anarchists to the Mensheviks. As one historian put it:
"Small wonder that the principal political demand of Mensheviks, Left SRs, SR Maximalists, Kronstadt sailors and of many oppositionists . . . has been for freely elected soviets which would this be restored to their original role as agents of democratisation." [Israel Getzler, Soviets as Agents of Democratisation, p. 30]
The sad fate of the soviets after the Bolshevik seizure of power simply confirms the opinion of the left Menshevik Martov who had "rubbed it in to the Bolsheviks . . . at the first All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions [in January 1918], that they who were now extolling the Soviets as the 'highest forms of the socialist development of the proletariat,' had shown little love of them in 1905 or in 1917 after the July days; they loved Soviets only when they were 'in the hands of the Bolshevik party.'" [Getlzer, Martov, p. 174] As the next few months showed, once the soviets left those hands, then the soviets themselves were destroyed. The civil war did not start this process, it just gave the latter-day supporters of Bolshevism something to use to justify these actions.