In 1917, the world sees not only the rebirth of the soviet institution, but the birth of the Soviet State. Last time, we finished our story by showing how the principles guiding the birth of the Soviet State proved to be problematic, and we promised we would delve not only into the solutions devised for these problems, but also into reflections on the significance of the soviet as a social institution whose power rendered possible three revolutions, with variable results, in the span of little more than a decade.
On July 10th, 1918, when the first Soviet state constitution is proclaimed, we already see a change from the ideal that has guided the Bolsheviks in their fight to take power: all power to the soviets. Let’s make no mistake and remember that they promised peace, bread and land and, in the initial movement, these three promises were kept. But faced with considerable opposition both from its national constituents (tsarist nationalists, the Orthodox Church, Cossacks, moderate social-democrats) and from foreign armed forces (England, France, Czechoslovakia, Japan and the USA all send foreign troops against the Bolsheviks), the political leadership will institute legislation to maintain its grip on power.
In the 1918 Constitution, the words are revealing: soviets become the “transmission and lever” of the party, the “guiding force in the system of proletarian dictatorship”; individual civil rights are replaced by the “proletariat’s class rule”, with the aim of “removing any exploitation of man by man”; voting rights are limited to “those who earn their living by productive and socially useful labour”, thus excluding all persons who employed wage earners or lived on un-earned income, merchants, and clergy.
This kind of top-down style of government will weaken participation of the masses in the soviets; the mythical rate of participation of “99%” will only be “achieved” under Stalin. Indeed, the centralization that is being put into place is structured around the vision of soviets as the combination of executive and legislative powers, with an important detail: even though soviets at all level (regional, provincial, county and rural) decide of all local questions, they must at all times execute the orders of superior organs of soviet power.
We’ll come back shortly to the a more detailed picture of how this works, but for now the key highlight is that this goes completely counter to Lenin’s past principles. For varied reasons (foreign military threats, economic chaos, theoretical considerations), Lenin will announce that in order to realize the enormous task of erecting a new socialist order, workers must increase productivity, organize internal competition, and observe strict discipline… this, in some respects, closely resembles how things work in the capitalist mode of production.
The revolution has only just smashed the oldest, strongest and heaviest of fetters, to which the people submitted under duress. That was yesterday. Today, however, the same revolution demands—precisely in the interests of its development and consolidation, precisely in the interests of socialism—that the people unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of labour. (Lenin, 1918, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government)
Soldiers’ election of officers in the army were forbidden, rights of soldiers’ committees were weakened and more important roles were given to individuals who had worked in the tsarist bureaucracy; at the factory, the party introduced piece rates, compulsory overtime and strict control of labor mobility. The factory measures, especially, will remain for decades. Soviet election dates start to be announced on very short notice, so that delegates out of favour can be removed, and elections of Red Army and union members are prioritized.
The implementation of all these measures reflects what Bolshevik leaders freely admit: not only is there conservative opposition to their rule, but the majority of Russian workers and peasants are anti-Communist. It is striking to see the radical transformation of the soviets, from organs of workers’ self-administration as a spontaneous system of representation, to a tool of the government elite who can impose a system which seems to be contrary to the desires of the majority that “tool” is supposed to represent.
It is all the more striking that party leaders admit this. Trotsky will say that in the Bolshevik soviet system, the soviets exist not to reflect the majority statically, but to form it dynamically. Lenin will say that, because of Russia’s low cultural level, “the soviets, which had been planned to be organs of government by the workers for the workers, become government by the proletarian vanguard, not by the working masses themselves”.
The lucidity of these leading figures of the revolution, describing a situation where the workers are forced to fight for their emancipation, in the sense that they do not desire it under this form, throws a pretty thick fog for the outside observer: somehow, the success of the fight of these workers has led to a situation that has become undesirable and, more importantly, uncontrollable.
This tension will realize itself materially in the six years of civil war that will challenge the grip of the Bolsheviks on state power. It will be exemplified in the 1921 Kronstadt insurrection (eventually brought to heel by the Red Army), where the most radical workers and sailors will take the port by arms and will demand the restoration of political freedoms, the end of the agrarian policy allowing intervention in the property of peasants, and the abolition of food rations in the cities.
Ok. So let’s sum up until now: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party had envisaged a state system modeled on the Paris Commune (abolition of the army, civil servants subject to recall and destitution and paid a workers’ salary, etc.) but, in practice, the state model was realized more on the principle of a dictatorship, of the proletariat more or less…
The practice of centralization will continue in the name of industrialization and collectivization, especially after the death of Lenin and the rise to power of Stalin, from the end of the 1920s and especially during the 1930s. Stalin will be particularly brutal and conniving in his efforts to centralize power in his sole hands: this will include the institution of the soviet, but although soviets will have to realize unquestioning subordination to the center, in the long run, their character will not change that much.
After the reinforcement of Stalin’s power with the 1936 constitution of the USSR, the soviets and their delegates will have to practice double subordination: to the population that elected them, but especially to higher soviets in the administrative hierarchy. While voting rights will be granted to all, eliminating the bias towards industrial workers, soviets will only be required to hold sessions four times per year, instead of the previous one or two times a week. During World War 2, even though two thirds of country-wide soviet deputies perished, the soviets will continue to exist and to meet, although more often on paper than otherwise.
With the death of Stalin and the arrival of Kruschev to the Party leadership in 1961, the institutionalized discourse partially returned to the kind of “Leninist lucidity” we’ve seen before: the formal and decorative character of the soviet session were strongly criticized, and measures were implemented to encourage the participation of the population, notably by transferring some administrative powers to the local soviets. The pendulum of discourse was swinging back from “dictatorship” to “democracy”.
In the course of this reorientation, even though the proportion of soviets holding regular sessions will rise from 25% to 95%, the monopoly of legitimacy will be maintained in the hands of the sole Communist Party. The system of soviets will continue to function under the principle of the “double subordination” that we’ve already seen, but it will also have to more strongly institute “democratic centralism”. Centralism, because inferior soviet organs will have the obligation to execute the decisions of higher organs (who also have the power to overturn decisions they consider illegal); democratic, because all soviet representatives will have to be elected and they will have to not only regularly present their results (aka be accountable) but they will also be subject to recall, in addition to being able to make formal propositions to superior organs.
Thus, on the one hand, the power of soviets grew in their local jurisdiction (they can now decide on how trash will be collected, how local commerce will be regulated); on the other hand, the Party maintained an important influence in the nomination of candidates for elections, which rendered the results more or less determined.
In our era of regular tides of public opinion polls, it is interesting to note that, in the post-1961 period (after Stalin’s death), public opinion polls were never used in the USSR, because it was considered doubtful whether the public had any competence as to public affairs and politics: in Soviet perspective of that time, it was considered that in order for public opinion to mean something, it had to be informed. Food for thought.
To link back to the evolution of the soviet institution after Stalin, a result of the principle we just highlighted was that the greater part of the discourse proliferated by the Party was to consider the soviet as a place where the population could be educated, where a political culture could be cultivated. To do this, the Party put forward the mechanisms of voter mandate (the voter, with a serious request, could force the delegate to promise to implement the proposition) and of recall (very rarely used but frequent enough so that it be taken seriously by delegates).
As to the concrete activity of deputies, it varied, depending on the level of importance of the soviet they were delegated to. At the lower levels, the deputy acted as a reference point for citizens in the case of problems with governmental services, like housing or pensions. And in the case of decisions, deputies rarely had the resources and education to get involved in the superior levels of decision-making: after all, they were deputies, but they also had a regular job to attend to. So the decision-making level will remain in the hands of the executive committees of each soviet, and the members of these committees will most often be chosen by the Party.
This will remain the case until the fall of the USSR at the end of the 20th century. After 1961, citizens of the USSR had the possibility of involving themselves, through their soviet, in local government, but very few of them took advantage of these occasions, especially due to the structure of the system of soviets, which heavily discouraged open conflict and competition: this applied to the functioning of the institution of soviets, but also, to some important extent, on Soviet society at large.
Now that we’ve discussed the general aftermath following the mobilization of the soviet institution in order to seize state power, it is almost time for us to offer our reflections on this historical saga. Before we do, let us review what we’ve seen these last four parts.
We started by looking at the social stratification of prerevolutionary Russia. In the course of this summary exposition, we witnessed the severe hardships and the privileged classes that peasants and workers had to face, and we witnessed the birth of the Petrograd Soviet in 1905.
The revolution of 1917 took place in the context of an important weakening of social ties: divisions and conflicts of interest between castes as well as between factions of each caste, the collapse of the bloodiest war up to that point, an ossified autocracy desperately hanging on to its increasingly marginal power. The initial success of February 1917 takes place hastily and almost without bloodshed: enough blood had been spilled in the decades before.
After February, the state dyarchy constituted by the Petrograd Soviet on one side, and the Provisional Government on the other, frustrates soldiers, peasants and workers: they desire peace, bread and land. The Bolshevik Party promises them not only all three, but also power. In October 1917, with a majority in the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets, Lenin proclaims the fall of the Provisional Government, an immediate ceasefire and all power to the soviets.
During the months following October, the world witnesses the hour of glory of this new institution, this proletarian parliament. Through the institution of the soviet, long-fought-for ideals such as the 8-hour workday, freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom of election become law. For the first time in Russian history, after millennia of autocratic rule, workers no longer feel the yoke of the threats of unemployment, famine or death by rifles.
But the Bolshevik Party in power pushes for an industrialist and internationalist vision of socialism: productivity, centralization, exclusion of historically privileged minorities… the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The loss of direct control is negatively appreciated by a lot of workers and, especially, by the majority of peasants; further, the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist spirit of the Bolshevik regime attracts the wrath of European nations, themselves on the cusp of their own domestic revolutions.
In the ensuing civil war, the Bolshevik regime is besieged by a great part of its population and by foreign armed forces. After great difficulties, they maintain their grip on power, but the price is steep: the institution to which they owe their power has been perverted. First characterized by their practice of self-determination, “Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Soviets” will become bureaucratic machines with the purpose of accomplishing the will of the Bolshevik Party, become Communist Party. At the end of the 20th century, they will disappear with the fall of the communist regime in Russia, but not before witnessing a partial renewal after Stalin’s death.
As for our reflections… here they are.
We have managed to touch multiple issues: the social conditions announcing a revolution of social relations; the structure of an institution by and for the workers; the process by which such an institution loses its dependence on the masses in the name of a greater power and efficiency.
The story of soviets first grants an insight as to the extreme social conditions (world war, ossified authority, disjointed social stratification, abject living conditions, absence of political liberties) in which the usurpation of power by a workers’ governmental organ is possible. Further, it informs us as to the difficult implications once this has been achieved: maintaining a balance of power on the international scene; the conservative reaction on the national scene; the reorganization of production along (de)centralizing principles; the question of who will hold political leadership and under what conditions; and finally, linked to this last question, the organization of armed forces and the question of the entity who will be invested with the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence.
In a context of class struggle, or at least in a context where exploitation as an objective process is realized between the owners of the means of production and those who only own their own labour power, the division of a State’s population along class lines seems inevitable as long as the interests between owners of capital and workers are strongly divergent. In this sense, as long the process of exploitation generally exists, the notion of a “proletarian dictatorship” remains relevant. However, this relevance has less to do with the inversion of power relations between owners and disowned, but it rather has to do with the articulation between the immense masses of workers, and the executive bodies who should represent and safeguard their will.
If, for example, workers do not wish for a socialist and productivist order, they bear the risk of being brought to heel by foreign interventions (military invasions, financing of opposition groups, economic blockades/embargoes) who will not tolerate an alternative order of social relations that might encroach on the reproduction of their own (capitalist) structure of social relations. Concrete examples of this are more than abundant: Russia in 1917-1921, France and Italy in 1947, Cuba in 1960, Chile in 1973, and so on… “What Is To Be Done?” is indeed the question that arises when considering Lenin’s seizure of power.
Another certainly imperfect but maybe pertinent way of asking the question is:
How does one reconcile “the dictatorship of the proletariat” with democracy among workers?
In other words,
Is it possible for those who are subjected to an objective process of exploitation to break free of their chains through a democratic process, without the result leading to an absence of democracy?
If we want to be as truthful as possible, we should refrain from directly answering the question: rather, we would suggest to reformulate it, so that it may be better understood. Indeed, there are two key terms which we have not explained nor detailed: objective process of exploitation, on the one hand; democracy on the other.
When we refer to the theoretical discovery of a process of exploitation (which we attribute to Marx), it implies a way of viewing the world which some simply qualify as “materialism”; we prefer the notion of “historical materialism”, but the term doesn’t matter that much. The point is that this way of viewing the world is one where attention is almost completely dedicated to the relations between material conditions of existence and the cultural interpretations that are linked to those conditions of existence.
When one adopts such a theoretical viewpoint, the interrogation of the notion of democracy leads to the finding that the re-appearance of democratic regimes in Western Europe are closely correlated in time to the beginning of the processes (enclosures, industrial production, intensified division of labour, etc.) which created the possibility of a systematic (re)production of Capital. For example, John Locke’s treatise on property is linked in time to the efforts of some Englishmen to enclose communal land.
With this in mind, even if we still aren’t able to directly answer our question, we can already offer an improvement:
Is it possible for those who are subjected to an objective process of exploitation historically supported by democratic regimes, to free themselves of their chains, while keeping the very democratic processes which are at the foundations of the regimes exploiting them?
If the question was rather open-ended last time, our theoretical perspective has radically focussed its horizon around the contradiction between exploitation and democracy, or more properly said, around the issue of democratic exploitation.
The theoretical foundation of historical materialism, whose irreducible element is neither determinism nor subjectivism but praxis, is only one path, solitary and disputable, among others. If we consider that the first historical act is the production of material life and that the morphology of social forms and “ideologies” must accommodate itself to the constraints (techniques, resources, already present social relations) of this material production, others may believe and argue otherwise.
Nevertheless, I believe our position to be well-founded, and the end of our inquiry into the soviets lays bare the task ahead of us: to justify. Indeed, we have only tackled democracy as a concept here, and already our question became far more interesting. In the weeks and months ahead, we will have to tackle exploitation. To do so, I want to finally delve into Marx’s magnum opus, where I hope to better understand in what conditions exploitation happens.
In so doing, my hope is to work my way through additional improvements in the question that now drives us, in the hope of finding an improvement to the way in which the soviet institution shaped the 20th century. Other paths are possible, but I have chosen this one in view of the fundamental intuition that the best answer to a question is another question; in other words, the wording, the formulation of a question is its own solution. Along this path and in this work, maybe we can also become worthy of the question we are looking for.
Lenin, 1918, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, [online here].
1918 RFSR Constitution, [online here].
For more on Locke and his timing: Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Agrarian Origin of Capitalism, [online here].
ANWEILER, Oscar. The Soviets : The Russian Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921, New York, Pantheon Books, 1974.
HAHN, Jeffrey W. Soviet Grassroots : Citizen Participation in Local Soviet Government, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1988.
Still reading it but could be of interest for further reading into the nitty-gritty details of Soviet rule, especially Stalin: LEWIN, Moshe. The Soviet Century, Verso, 2005.