What are workers' councils? (Part 2): The resurgence and crisis of workers’ councils in 1917

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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.


History of the workers' movement: 

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