All Power to the Soviets: 1917 Rebirth


B. Kustodiev’s 1920 “The Bolshevik”. Credits to UK Royal Academy of Arts.

Last time, we explored Russia’s 1905 crisis and revolution, specifically focusing on its specificity: the power of the Petrograd soviet. We ended by saying that social revolt had calmed for multiple reasons, the most important of which was the cancelling of the annual redemptive payments from the 1861 reform and the excellent harvests of 1908-1909. This time, we will delve into the heart of the Beast: Russia, 1917, and the rebirth of the institution that will define the 20th century.

Russia was the first state (outside of Serbia and Austria-Hungary) to mobilize its forces; on June 28th, Gavrilo Princip had done his thing, and by the evening of July 30th, orders for full mobilization had been issued. It feels important to note that, although there are many nuances and details to discuss, it is the Russian mobilization (against Austria-Hungary’s aggression of the Balkans) that chronologically triggered the respective German, French and British mobilizations. Military mobilization (and war) would prove to be the Russian ruling class’ last important act of state. It hearkens to the maxim that Badiou attributes to Lenin: “Either revolution will prevent war, or war will provoke revolution.”

At first, like every other country that will get involved, the workers are taken by a patriotic impulse but, as the war takes its toll on the population, already thinly stretched in material terms, new strikes take place in 1915. War production is also very demanding, and the need for efficiency leads to the creation of “war industry committees”, where workers representatives are sent by election at their local factory. After 10 years of enforced silence, there is again debate among workers. Strikes become even more important in 1916: about 187 000 strikers are counted in October 1916. One can already hear the Bolshevik calls for Workers’ soviets, but it is too early: on January 26th 1917, arrest warrants are issued for some bothersome members of a worker committee.

In the meanwhile, the Tsar is constantly losing territory in the face of the Kaiser, and Russian soldiers live as martyrs. Once again, in January 1917, a new “decisive” offensive is called close to Riga:

Tormented and decimated by enemy artillery, peasants will advance for the last time by multitudes in the deep snow, badly shod, with an empty stomach, as the shells howl around them and their own artillery cannot answer, for lack of munitions. These armies, destined to die without hope, commanded by incompetents or by officers resigned to the virtue of obedience, will march on for the last time in the name of the Tsar, whose court has decided this pointless butchery, against the polar wind and an enemy that secretly governs as much in front of them as behind them. (Marabini, pp. 21-22)

At home, overwork, destitution and famine haunts the majority of families. It’s too much, the pressure on soldiers and workers has long passed its natural limit. A hostile ambience precedes the days before February 24th, when a cumulative 200 000 workers are counted on strike. On the 25th, the general strike is called in Petrograd, the Empire’s capital, previously known as St. Petersburg. Its previous Germanic name is a clue pointing towards the end of our previous quote.

In any case, after the 25th, things get out of hand. Bloody clashes take place between strikers and the military, and after two days of continuous fighting, strikers showing no sign of relenting (probably because at this point they literally don’t have anything to lose anymore), certain military units change sides and join the strikers. This initiates a snowball effect, and the government soon finds itself without any coercive power.

On February 27th, the Tsar dissolves the Imperial Duma and on March 2nd, he will abdicate; his son is sick and his brother refuses the throne. Three hundred years of the Romanov dynasty and more than a millennia of autocratic rule are abolished in the space of a week, and Russia makes its entrance into modern times.

It’s a late entrance, but the Russian people will soon be mercilessly pushed into a brutal modernization. And the institution that will act as a main lever for the transformation of Russia is the soviet. Indeed, even before the Tsar’s abdication, the form of the Soviet imposes itself in the context of the severe social upheaval of those days. On the morning of February 27th, as soon as the governments power is weakened, members of a workers’ committee just freed from prison make their way to the Winter Palace; there, in front of the crowd, they announce elections for a new soviet, at a rate of representation of one deputy per 1000 workers; soldiers are also granted representation at a rate of one deputy per company (100-250 soldiers).

The same day, around 21h00, the first session of the Soviet is opened, and almost nobody is present, except for those in Petrograd that had had time to immediately proceed to organize elections in factories and barracks. But over the next days, more will join.


March 1917, Petrograd Soviet. Credits: Wikimedia.

Afraid of military units possibly still loyal to the Tsar (remember, this is before his abdication on March 2nd), the Soviet constitutes an executive committee and a general staff who orders the occupation of strategic points around the city. Other commissions are formed, like in 1905: these will take responsibility of aspects like food supply, finances and literature.

But contrary to 1905, the Petrograd Soviet does not limit itself only to the temporary management of strikes and the afferent daily troubles. This time, sensing that the revolutionary spirit of the capital is about to bubble over, it explicitly declares that its basic function is the organization of the people’s forces in the struggle for political freedom and people’s rule in Russia, for the annihilation of the old regime and the convocation of a constituent national assembly, to be elected by universal, impartial, direct and secret ballot.

And contrary to 1905, the 1917 Soviet is now made up of both workers AND soldiers, which gives it an unexpected authority. After the dissolution of the Imperial Duma, a “Provisional Government” composed of the main actors of the Duma is created, and this “private Duma committee” decides, against many pacifist slogans, that the war will continue. The Soviet has decided not to join this Provisional Gov., but rather to exercise pressure on it.

Thus, on March 1st, in response to the continuation of the war, the Soviet cements its authority by issuing Order No. 1: addressed to all Russian soldiers, it instructs them to obey the orders coming from the Provisional Gov. only if they do not contradict the decrees of the Petrograd Soviet. It also called on units to elect representatives to the Soviet and for each unit to elect a committee which would run the unit.

On March 2nd, as we’ve said, the Tsar will abdicate, but his selected successor, the Grand Duke Michael, will refuse to take the throne. Maybe the Soviet’s activity of the preceding days gave him some food for thought?


Order No. 1. Credits: WordPress All Power to the Soviets blog.

The structure of the Soviet took time to stabilize. At first, the plenary was attended by about 3000 deputies, without any particular organization or verification of accreditations. A little soviet of around 600 deputies was elected among the 3000 to further divide the tasks by, in turn, electing commissions (around 15) to manage diff rent tasks like we’ve seen above. But the majority of practical activity stayed in the hands of the Executive Committee, whose political decisions had to subsequently be approved by the plenary. The Committee was composed by 42 members, and it was dominated by the intelligentsia: only seven among the 42 were workers.

And in the middle of March, this Committee set out to elect an even more distinguished body: the “Bureau of the Executive Committee”. On April 12th, the Bureau was enlarged to 24 members who met daily, while the Committee met three times a week. In emergencies, the Bureau was authorized to take independent action, confirmation of which could come later from the Committee. As the Soviet acquired greater efficiency, we see how it also gradually lost direct touch with the masses (of people and deputies).

In the course of the following weeks and months, reproductions of the Petrograd Soviet proliferated in all of the cities of the Russian Empire, from Finland to the Pacific Ocean; all of these sent delegates or observers to the Petrograd Soviet. Gradually, memberships to radical parties also rose. Applicable most to factory workers and soldiers, the phenomenon of the soviet least affected peasants, who remained isolated from urban centers.

We’ve commented before on how disjointed and divided the social structure of Russia had become, in part because of its complexity and in part because of its modernization. In this context, in 1917, only the institution of the soviet seemed invested of the legitimacy to govern: only the soviet could order the end of the general strike on March 5th, only the soviet decided that newspapers could be published again; and, most importantly, employers accepted, on March 10th, the introduction of the 8-hour work day. In 1905, this last demand had been the element to break the Petrograd Soviet’s back; now, this demand was accepted almost “naturally”.

For us, it is worth highlighting here the dimension of temporality at work: in time, the objective conditions of life and work will gradually inscribe their power onto the minds and bodies of people, but most importantly onto the structure of social relations. What was not possible at one point becomes possible at another, and the points are not separate but intertwined: future informs past, past sets up future. K. Kosik, in Dialectics of the Concrete, says that the specificity of man among animals is his ability to delay gratification in time, more important in the time of the process of work. This makes sense: when we put in the time in a task that gives us no pleasure but that we force ourselves to do, what we feel most, above all else, is the sudden weight of time.

Back to 1917. Lenin, from exile, and his Bolshevik party are, at the beginning of 1917, still very far from any resemblance of majority in the composition of deputies in the Petrograd Soviet. They are nonetheless pushing the agenda “all power to the soviets”; the Soviet refuses to follow this principle and even explicitly declares that the Provisional Government is the sole governmental authority, as long as its decisions are not protested by the Soviet. This kind of contradictory declaration is precisely the kind of weak principle that will prove fruitless in concrete measures for the working class, the futility of which will give the Bolsheviks the opening they need. In addition, the declaration is also not representative of more isolated regions of Russia, where tsarist authorities have often been deposed or arrested and where the local soviet exercises an unlimited authority.


Lenin at Putilov Works. Credits: Magnoliabox.

Liber, a Menshevik, will give this answer to the Bolsheviks, sustained by a majority in the Soviet (May 1917):

Evidently the soviet fails to assume power, not because it can’t, but because it won’t… Doing so would obligate it to solve all current revolutionary problems – and alone, without approval by other social strata, even against their wishes. (Anweiler, p. 140)

The Mensheviks, with the support of the Social Revolutionaries (SR), desire a gradual transfer of the functions exercised by the Soviet to the Provisional Government and eventually to a Constituent Assembly, called to design a constitution and a new structure for the Russian state.

But months pass and the war rages on, the peasants obtain nothing but half-measures with no gains of land and the workers’ impatience is boiling over in front of a situation that isn’t moving in any direction. In July, a demonstration organized by the Bolsheviks, chanting “all power to the soviets”, is ended by the intervention of some military units in a spasm of violence. In September, general Kornilov tries himself in an attempted putsch that fails miserably. Since the beginning of the year, the Petrograd Soviet has lost nothing of its spectacular power, and in September, through continual promises of peace, land and bread, the Bolsheviks win majorities in the elections to the Petrograd and Moscow soviets.

Lenin’s gambit, that moderate socialists will continue the war and that his party had only to wait and profit of the inevitably disappointing results of this strategy, has a resounding success. Those that had wanted to govern with the approval of other social strata have lost power. The Bolsheviks, with Lenin at their head, have promised to realize another set of principles: 1) to wield power as a direct usurpation originating from the popular masses; 2) to replace the police and the army by the arming of the entire population, in the ideal of a State protected by armed workers and peasants; 3) the replacing of public servants and of bureaucracy with elected agents, subject to recall at popular demand, whose salary equals that of a factory worker.

In October, with a majority in the two most important soviets, the Bolsheviks put into action a plan that otherwise seemed a fantasy: “all power to the soviets”. Lenin will plead his case a last time, and it is reflective of the change of attitude:

We must not wait! We stand to lose everything! The people have the right and the duty to resolve such questions, not by votes, but by force; the people have the right and the duty, in critical moments of the revolution, to direct even their best representatives and not to wait for them. (Lenin quoted in Anweiler, p. 188)

The military committee of the Petrograd Soviet will be the main organizing force of the armed insurrection. On the evening of October 24th, Red Guard troops occupy, on the order of the Soviet, all the strategic points of the city. A few hours before the evening of the 25th, when the opening of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets is to take place, Trotsky announces the dissolution of the Provisional Government. The Congress will be attended by less representatives than the previous one, and the old leaders of soviets will not even be present: they know what the Bolsheviks want.


Lenin at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Credits: Britannica.

Before adjourning, the Congress proclaims the fall of the Provisional Government and encourages local soviets to depose former commissars and to assume full power; the Congress also confirms a new “Council of the People’s Commissars”, with Lenin at its head, his first position in a soviet. This Council will act as the cabinet of government.

But the transition desired by the new “cabinet” will be difficult to realize: the success of soviets in the transition depends on local factors, and even if the majority of soviets and of the masses they represent see the fall of the Provisional Government as a good thing, they are against a Bolshevik-led government. However, the initial neutrality of soldiers in the face of such a change will transform in support thanks to the promises of immediate peace, and this military support will aid in the transition.

Nonetheless, these are the first signs that the acts of the Bolsheviks are problematic. And the problematic character deepens as the months pass: workers take seriously the orders from Petrograd that all power be transferred to soviets, and they institute direct controls on production through factory committees, with little to no consideration for the national economy. Further chaos is fomented by proclamations throughout Russia of semi-independent republics, autonomous regions, independent communes, all of which pay little heed to decrees from Petrograd.

The central council will attack the situation with the proclaiming of the Constitution of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. In our fourth and final part on the origins of soviets, we will study the changes effectuated in order to maintain order in Russia, and we will also present our reflections on the significance of the soviet as a social institution.

For now, we have seen flashes of 1917 Russia, as it transformed from a tsarist autocracy to a communist soviet federation. We have highlighted the power of time in making certain things possible, and in our case, the First World War is the timely event that will create the conditions of possibility. Indeed, Russia’s enemy, Germany, as it holds the upper hand on the eastern front of the war, wants to close that front as a victory and focus its troops to the west, and Lenin and his Bolsheviks are an essential element in the realization of that plan. Once again, material conditions show the power they wield in the setting up of social structures and relations.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. (Marx, Preface to A Contribution…)

Again, my main reference for this piece was:

ANWEILER, Oscar. The Soviets : The Russian Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921, New York, Pantheon Books, 1974.

The Marabini book: MARABINI, Jean. La vie quotidienne en Russie sous la Révolution d’octobre, Paris, Hachette, 1965.

A few Wiki articles: 1; 2; 3; 4; 5.

Badiou interview where he references Lenin: here.

Marx quote is from: MARX, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859. Available online here.

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