About two years after the arrest of the Soviet of 1905, a number of former leaders of that organization, among them Chrustalyov Nossar, the first chairman, and Trotzky, the second chairman, met abroad after having escaped from Siberian exile. They decided to sum up their Soviet experiences in a book which they called The History of the Council of Workingmen’s Deputies. The book appeared in 1908 in Petersburg, and was immediately suppressed. One of the essays of this book is here reprinted.
In his estimation of the rôle of the Soviet Trotzky undoubtedly exaggerates. Only by a flight of imagination can one see in the activities of the Soviet regarding the postal, telegraph and railroad strikers the beginnings of a Soviet control over post-office, telegraph and railroads. It is also a serious question whether the Soviet was really a leading body, or whether it was led by the current of revolutionary events which it was unable to control. What makes this essay interesting and significant is Trotzky’s assertion that “the first new wave of the revolution will lead to the creation of Soviets all over the country.” This has actually happened. His predictions of the formation of an all-Russian Soviet, and of the program the Soviets would follow, have also been realized in the course of the present revolution.
The history of the Soviet is a history of fifty days. The Soviet was constituted on October 13th; its session was interrupted by a military detachment of the government on December 3rd. Between those two dates the Soviet lived and struggled.
What was the substance of this institution? What enabled it in this short period to take an honorable place in the history of the Russian proletariat, in the history of the Russian Revolution?
The Soviet organized the masses, conducted political strikes, led political demonstrations, tried to arm the workingmen. But other revolutionary organizations did the same things. The substance of the Soviet was its effort to become an organ of public authority. The proletariat on one hand, the reactionary press on the other, have called the Soviet “a labor government”; this only reflects the fact that the Soviet was in reality an embryo of a revolutionary government. In so far as the Soviet was in actual possession of authoritative power, it made use of it; in so far as the power was in the hands of the military and bureaucratic monarchy, the Soviet fought to obtain it. Prior to the Soviet, there had been revolutionary organizations among the industrial workingmen, mostly of a Social–Democratic nature. But those were organizations among the proletariat; their immediate aim was to influence the masses. The Soviet is an organization of the proletariat; its aim is to fight for revolutionary power.
At the same time, the Soviet was an organized expression of the will of the proletariat as a class. In its fight for power the Soviet applied such methods as were naturally determined by the character of the proletariat as a class: its part in production; its numerical strength; its social homogeneity. In its fight for power the Soviet has combined the direction of all the social activities of the working class, including decisions as to conflicts between individual representatives of capital and labor. This combination was by no means an artificial tactical attempt: it was a natural consequence of the situation of a class which, consciously developing and broadening its fight for its immediate interests, had been compelled by the logic of events to assume a leading position in the revolutionary struggle for power.
The main weapon of the Soviet was a political strike of the masses. The power of the strike lies in disorganizing the power of the government. The greater the “anarchy” created by a strike, the nearer its victory. This is true only where “anarchy” is not being created by anarchic actions. The class that puts into motion, day in and day out, the industrial apparatus and the governmental apparatus; the class that is able, by a sudden stoppage of work, to paralyze both industry and government, must be organized enough not to fall the first victim of the very “anarchy” it has created. The more effective the disorganization of government caused by a strike, the more the strike organization is compelled to assume governmental functions.
The Council of Workmen’s Delegates introduces a free press. It organizes street patrols to secure the safety of the citizens. It takes over, to a greater or less extent, the post office, the telegraph, and the railroads. It makes an effort to introduce the eight hour workday. Paralyzing the autocratic government by a strike, it brings its own democratic order into the life of the working city population.
After January 9th the revolution had shown its power over the minds of the working masses. On June 14th, through the revolt of the Potyomkin Tavritchesky it had shown that it was able to become a material force. In the October strike it had shown that it could disorganize the enemy, paralyze his will and utterly humiliate him. By organizing Councils of Workmen’s Deputies all over the country, it showed that it was able to create authoritative power. Revolutionary authority can be based only on active revolutionary force. Whatever our view on the further development of the Russian revolution, it is a fact that so far no social class besides the proletariat has manifested readiness to uphold a revolutionary authoritative power. The first act of the revolution was an encounter in the streets of the proletariat with the monarchy; the first serious victory of the revolution was achieved through the class-weapon of the proletariat, the political strike; the first nucleus of a revolutionary government was a proletarian representation. The Soviet is the first democratic power in modern Russian history. The Soviet is the organized power of the masses themselves over their component parts. This is a true, unadulterated democracy, without a two-chamber system, without a professional bureaucracy, with the right of the voters to recall their deputy any moment and to substitute another for him. Through its members, through deputies elected by the workingmen, the Soviet directs all the social activities of the proletariat as a whole and of its various parts; it outlines the steps to be taken by the proletariat, it gives them a slogan and a banner. This art of directing the activities of the masses on the basis of organized self-government, is here applied for the first time on Russian soil. Absolutism ruled the masses, but it did not direct them. It put mechanical barriers against the living creative forces of the masses, and within those barriers it kept the restless elements of the nation in an iron bond of oppression. The only mass absolutism ever directed was the army. But that was not directing, it was merely commanding. In recent years, even the directing of this atomized and hypnotized military mass has been slipping out of the hands of absolutism. Liberalism never had power enough to command the masses, or initiative enough to direct them. Its attitude towards mass-movements, even if they helped liberalism directly, was the same as towards awe-inspiring natural phenomena — earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. The proletariat appeared on the battlefield of the revolution as a self-reliant aggregate, totally independent from bourgeois liberalism.
The Soviet was a class-organization, this was the source of its fighting power. It was crushed in the first period of its existence not by lack of confidence on the part of the masses in the cities, but by the limitations of a purely urban revolution, by the relatively passive attitude of the village, by the backwardness of the peasant element of the army. The Soviet’s position among the city population was as strong as could be.
The Soviet was not an official representative of the entire half million of the working population in the capital; its organization embraced about two hundred thousand, chiefly industrial workers; and though its direct and indirect political influence was of a much wider range, there were thousands and thousands of proletarians (in the building trade, among domestic servants, day laborers, drivers) who were hardly, if at all, influenced by the Soviet. There is no doubt, however, that the Soviet represented the interests of all these proletarian masses. There were but few adherents of the Black Hundred in the factories, and their number dwindled hour by hour. The proletarian masses of Petersburg were solidly behind the Soviet. Among the numerous intellectuals of Petersburg the Soviet had more friends than enemies. Thousands of students recognized the political leadership of the Soviet and ardently supported it in its decisions. Professional Petersburg was entirely on the side of the Soviet. The support by the Soviet of the postal and telegraph strike won it the sympathy of the lower governmental officials. All the oppressed, all the unfortunate, all honest elements of the city, all those who were striving towards a better life, were instinctively or consciously on the side of the Soviet. The Soviet was actually or potentially a representative of an overwhelming majority of the population. Its enemies in the capital would not have been dangerous had they not been protected by absolutism, which based its power on the most backward elements of an army recruited from peasants. The weakness of the Soviet was not its own weakness, it was the weakness of a purely urban revolution.
The fifty day period was the period of the greatest power of the revolution. The Soviet was its organ in the fight for public authority. The class character of the Soviet was determined by the class differentiation of the city population and by the political antagonism between the proletariat and the capitalistic bourgeoisie. This antagonism manifested itself even in the historically limited field of a struggle against absolutism. After the October strike, the capitalistic bourgeoisie consciously blocked the progress of the revolution, the petty middle class turned out to be a nonentity, incapable of playing an independent rôle. The real leader of the urban revolution was the proletariat. Its class-organization was the organ of the revolution in its struggle for power.
The struggle for power, for public authority — this is the central aim of the revolution. The fifty days of the Soviet’s life and its bloody finale have shown that urban Russia is too narrow a basis for such a struggle, and that even within the limits of the urban revolution, a local organization cannot be the central leading body. For a national task the proletariat required an organization on a national scale. The Petersburg Soviet was a local organization, yet the need of a central organization was so great that it had to assume leadership on a national scale. It did what it could, still it remained primarily the Petersburg Council of Workmen’s Deputies. The urgency of an all-Russian labor congress which undoubtedly would have had authority to form a central leading organ, was emphasized even at the time of the first Soviet. The December collapse made its realization impossible. The idea remained, an inheritance of the Fifty Days.
The idea of a Soviet has become ingrained in the consciousness of the workingmen as the first prerequisite to revolutionary action of the masses. Experience has shown that a Soviet is not possible or desirable under all circumstances. The objective meaning of the Soviet organization is to create conditions for disorganizing the government, for “anarchy,” in other words for a revolutionary conflict. The present lull in the revolutionary movement, the mad triumph of reaction, make the existence of an open, elective, authoritative organization of the masses impossible. There is no doubt, however, that the first new wave of the revolution will lead to the creation of Soviets all over the country. An All–Russian Soviet, organized by an All–Russian Labor Congress, will assume leadership of the local elective organizations of the proletariat. Names, of course, are of no importance; so are details of organization; the main thing is: a centralized democratic leadership in the struggle of the proletariat for a popular government. History does not repeat itself, and the new Soviet will not have again to go through the experience of the Fifty Days. These, however, will furnish it a complete program of action.
This program is perfectly clear.
To establish revolutionary coöperation with the army, the peasantry, and the plebeian lower strata of the urban bourgeoisie. To abolish absolutism. To destroy the material organization of absolutism by reconstructing and partly dismissing the army. To break up the entire bureaucratic apparatus. To introduce an eight hour workday. To arm the population, starting with the proletariat. To turn the Soviets into organs of revolutionary self-government in the cities. To create Councils of Peasants’ Delegates (Peasants’ Committees) as local organs of the agrarian revolution. To organize elections to the Constituent Assembly and to conduct a preëlection campaign for a definite program on the part of the representatives of the people.
It is easier to formulate such a program than to carry it through. If, however, the revolution will ever win, the proletariat cannot choose another. The proletariat will unfold revolutionary accomplishment such as the world has never seen. The history of Fifty Days will be only a poor page in the great book of the proletariat’s struggle and ultimate triumph.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00