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All Power to the Soviets!

Al Richardson

From New Interventions, Vol.8 No.2 1998

THE vocabulary of Marxism, for obvious reasons, is dominated by technical terms from German and Russian, together with French admixture, and only a little English (mainly to do with economics). This is the result of the historical experience of the theory and practice of Marxism over the years since its appearance, and reflects the origins of those who elaborated and practised it, and the places where it was most successfully introduced into political life. The lack of any significant additions to the technical word stock of Marxism, fixed two generations ago, is in itself a confession that not a great deal of creative theoretical elaboration or practical application has gone on since. One of the unfortunate consequences of this has been a decay in the understanding of its concepts, a meaningless repetition of its terms, and a naive expectation that a successful revolution in the future must repeat the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917 with an identical vocabulary. I have elsewhere tried to deal with this fetishisation of the concepts of revolutionary party, democratic centralism, united front, transitional politics, etc,1 but of course one of the key words must remain that of the Soviet.

It is universally agreed that the revolution of October 1917 was a Soviet Revolution, and that the state set up by it was a Soviet state, a name it continued to claim right up to the time of its collapse, in spite of the absence of any workers’ councils for many a year. Trotskyists, some Stalinists, council communists and Bordigists of all stripes all agree that the existence of soviets is a prerequisite for any revolution, and that this is the only possible form of working-class government. Some even feel that they can use the word itself as an agitational slogan in the working-class movement at large. But the naive hope that by repeating a Russian word we might repeat the Russian experience has more in common with primitive magic than with Marxism.

Let us briefly remind ourselves what a socialist revolution is – the transference of state power from whatever are the organs of the capitalist state to whatever are the institutions that the working class has built and regards as its own. Obviously, these institutions have to become more profoundly democratised and transformed, for the working class can only come to power conscious of its tasks and historic mission, and a battle has to take place within them in which the Marxists gain the majority from the reformist and Stalinist misleaders for the seizure of power in a workers’ insurrection. This can only happen at a time of acute crisis in society, a deep class polarisation in which the working class organisations confront the capitalist state and effectively impede its functioning, generally known as dual power. If this is resolved by the transfer of all the power to the workers’ movement, the government based upon these institutions is then called the dictatorship of the proletariat, or a workers’ state (a term that does not appear in Marx at all, to my knowledge).

This is the essence of a revolution, but the peculiarities of the Russian experience seem to have stamped themselves upon our understanding to such a degree that we have been unable to disentangle the essence of soviets from their outward form. For a start off, let us remind ourselves that Marx called the Paris Commune the dictatorship of the proletariat, and it was a city council, not an alliance of overtly working-class institutions at all, even if all the groupings of the Parisian proletariat were represented in it.2 I have already pointed out that the Russian soviets themselves contained the whole of the revolutionary democracy of the time, and were certainly not "pure" working-class institutions (if such a thing ever existed).

Lenin was well able to distinguish between the essence of soviets and their outward appearance. The only organisation that he called a soviet in Britain was the Council of Action, which sought to prevent British support for the Poles in their war with Russia. As he points out, "the British press started to get worried, screaming that this meant dual power. And it was true. Britain was at that stage, as regards political relations [at] which Russian was after February 1917".4

Let us remind ourselves what this Council of Action actually was. It was set up by a joint meeting of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, the Labour Party Executive and the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting in the House of Commons – the executive bodies of all the main working-class institutions, in other words. The main speakers at its conference in Westminster Central Hall were all the biggest right-wing scoundrels in the labour movement, including Ramsay MacDonald, J.R. Clynes, Ernie Bevin and Jimmie Thomas, who moved the main resolution. Though it was obviously opposed to the government, at least on this issue, it was hardly a revolutionary conventicle. Yet 350 local councils of action sprang up modelled upon it.

Trotsky was also able to apply the concept of the soviet without being mesmerised by its Russian name and outward form. Speaking of the problem with regard to Spain, he pointed out:

"In 1931, at the beginning of the revolution, I wrote that I believed that it would not be advisable to begin with the slogan for soviets. During massive strikes, as in Russia in 1905, strike committees were built, but the workers didn’t understand at the time that this was the beginning of soviets. At present, the word ‘soviet’ signifies the Soviet government. The worker who is involved in a strike cannot understand what connection that has with a soviet. The socialists and anarchists would oppose it as the dictatorship of the proletariat. My opinion, therefore, was that it was necessary to create mass organisations but not to give them the name of ‘soviets’, rather to name them ‘juntas’, a traditional Spanish name, and not so concrete as soviet."

The Trotskyist writers about the Spanish Civil War identified the Spanish equivalents of soviets with the various committees, and particularly with the Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias of Catalonia.6

Lenin’s attitude during the Russian Revolution also shows that the slogan of "All Power to the Soviets" was for him a tactical question, and not a call for soviets as the only possible form of working-class government. Everyone knows that Lenin raised this slogan on his return to Russia, but many have forgotten that during the July Days, when the Petrograd Soviet supported Kerensky’s suppression of the movement, Lenin was prepared to withdraw it again. His argument is a most interesting one:

"Too often it has happened that, when history has taken a sharp turn, even progressive parties have for some time been unable to adapt themselves to the new situation and have repeated slogans which had formerly been correct but had now lost all meaning – lost it as ‘suddenly’ as the sharp turn in history was ‘sudden’.

"Something of this sort seems likely to recur in connection with the slogan calling for the transfer of all state power to the soviets. That slogan was correct during a period of our revolution – say, from 27 February to 4 July – that has now passed irrevocably. It has patently ceased to be correct now."7

And whilst still arguing that the soviet form was the best basis on which to build a state, he pointed out that "soviets may appear in the new revolution, but not the present soviets, not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie", adding that "the substitution of the abstract for the concrete is one of the greatest and most dangerous sins in a revolution".8

Everyone knows that in the Letters from Afar and the April Theses, Lenin rearmed his party in 1917 with the slogan of "All Power to the Soviets". But what is not generally known is that when Lenin had first been informed of the existence and authority of the soviets, he did not launch this slogan to begin with, and they hardly figured in his original programme. Lenin’s telegram of 6 (19) March talks of "arming the proletariat" and "immediate elections to the city council", with no mention of soviets at all.9 The same goes for the letter he wrote to Volksrecht shortly afterwards, which emphasises elections to "municipal bodies", and in particular the Petrograd City Council to "help the proletariat organise and strengthen its revolutionary positions".10 And whilst the Draft Theses of 4 (17) March does say that "soviets of workers’ deputies must be organised", its main demand for agitation against the government is for "elections to the St Petersburg, Moscow and other city councils on a basis of genuinely universal suffrage, repeal of restrictions on the rights of all local government bodies".11 Even Krupskaya notes that "he did not write of the seizure of power by the soviets of workers’ deputies as a perspective, but urged that concrete measures be taken to prepare for the seizure of power".12 This is all the more extraordinary because during his lecture to the young workers in Zurich about the 1905 Revolution less than two months earlier, Lenin had noted that the soviets of that time "began more and more to play the part of a provisional revolutionary government".

Why Lenin should have been so cautious to begin with in 1917 as to rely on the municipalities rather than the soviets would seem to be a great mystery, but I believe it can be explained by an examination of the information that was first available to him. Let us first remind ourselves that Lenin was stuck in Zurich, surrounded by nations at war, each with a heavily censored press more slanted than usual by wartime requirements. It so happens that he himself gives us a clue as to his sources when he remarks that "today there are reports from England that the tsar has not yet abdicated",14 identifying its source as "Bonar Law’s statement",15 and finally telling Inessa Armand to "buy The Times: the best information".16

Now if we examine The Times at this period, we can see that its reports from "Our Own Correspondent" in Russia are indeed exceptionally detailed. We must assume that it is highly unlikely that in wartime conditions Lenin would get the paper in Switzerland on the same day, and the time lag would be increased by the weekend, for the first full report was published on Friday 16 March, followed with another very detailed one of the same length on the Saturday. Now the only mention of the soviets in the former report is the following:

"The relations between the Provisional Committee of the Duma, which represents the whole nation, and the Council of Labour Deputies, representing purely working-class interests, but in a crisis like the present wielding enormous power, have aroused no small misgivings among reasonable men regarding the possibility of a conflict between them – the results of which might be too terrible to describe. Happily this danger has been avoided, at least for the present, thanks to the influence of M. Kerenski, a young lawyer of much oratorical ability, who clearly realises the necessity of working with the committees in the interests of his labour constituents. A satisfactory arrangement was concluded today, whereby all unnecessary friction will be avoided."17

The impression that the Soviet and the Provisional Government were working amicably together is strengthened by the next day’s report, that "the Minister [Kerensky] who received an ovation, announced that the Provisional Government had taken office in virtue of an agreement with the workmen’s and soldiers’ delegates. The Council of these delegates had approved the agreement by several hundred votes against 15".18

Now it is very interesting that the first report of a clash between the government and the Soviet does not even mention the Soviet at all, for "Order No. 1" is merely described as "a proclamation of a most seditious character" by "the Social Democratic Party",19 "extremists" who had "issued a manifesto full of the most dangerous sentiments".20 So unless you knew that these were identical with the "Council of Labour Deputies" separately mentioned you would not be able to form any picture whatsoever of the acute radicalisation of the Soviet. Only in the issue dated Monday, 19 March, which Lenin would have received a day or so later, is there a full and clear description of the affair, and "Order No. 1" is finally attributed to "the Committee of Labour Deputies and Soldiers’ Delegates".21

Yet in the first detailed report of the revolution, we get the following interesting snippet of information: "Members of the city militia, enrolled by the municipality, united with students’ organisations, are cooperating with the troops on the orders of the district committees. Since yesterday they have been actively hunting the police."22 The next day, the paper announced that under the new constitution council, elections were "to be carried out on the basis of universal suffrage".23

We can see from these reports that Lenin would obviously get the impression that whilst the Soviet had been effectively tamed by Kerensky and was completely subservient to the Provisional Government, the real revolutionary elements were in the municipalities, and this obviously explains why Lenin’s original programme for March 1917 concentrated upon democratising the municipalities and arming the workers. Only when further information made the real situation much clearer was he able to elaborate the Soviet strategy and slogans of the Letters from Afar and The April Theses.

Lenin was therefore no fetishist, of soviets or of anything else. He analysed institutions in their concrete relationships, and framed his politics accordingly. So should we. For a soviet is really no more than an apparatus that emerges to centralise existing working-class institutions in a crisis situation, whatever they may be in any given country, and is not anything artificial imposed them from outside, or above, in order to conform them more closely to a Russian model. As Gramsci summarised it:

"The socialist state already exists potentially in the institutions of social life characteristic of the exploited working class. To link these institutions together, coordinating and ordering them in a highly centralised hierarchy of instances and powers, while respecting the indispensable autonomy and articulation of each, means creating a true and representative workers’ democracy here and now. Such a democracy should be effectively and actively opposed to the bourgeois state, and already prepared to replace it in all its essential functions of administration and control of the national heritage."24


1. A. Richardson, "The Progress and Stagnation of Marxism", What Next? No.2, 1996.

2. It should be noted, however, that Trotsky regarded the Central Committee of the National Guard as the equivalent of the Soviet during the Paris Commune, not the Commune itself. See "The Appeal ‘To Revolutionary Organisations and Groups’", 4 January 1936, in L.D. Trotsky, The Crisis of the French Section (1935-36), New York, 1977, pp.129-30.

3. Richardson, op. cit.

4. V.I. Lenin, "The International Significance of the War with Poland", 22 September 1920, in A. Richardson (ed), In Defence of the Russian Revolution, London, 1995, p.146. The only part of this key text previously published was a garbled extract in Pravda (Collected Works, Volume 31, Moscow, 1966, pp.275-9). The parallel passage to that quoted is on p.277. See also Lenin’s "Speech Delivered at a Congress of Leather Industry Workers", 2 October 1920: "The entire British bourgeois press declared that the Council of Action meant the Soviets. They were right. It did not call itself by that name, but actually that is what it was" (Collected Works, Volume 31, op. cit., p.308).

5. L.D. Trotsky, "The POUM and the Call for Soviets", 1 October 1937, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), New York, 1973, p.298.

6. Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, New York, 1974, pp.83-5; Mieczyslaw Bortenstein, "Spain Betrayed: How the Popular Front Opened the Gates to Franco", and Jean Rous, "Spain: The Murdered Revolution", in The Spanish Civil War: The View from the Left, Revolutionary History, Volume 4, nos 1-2, Winter 1991-92, pp.132-3, 349.

7. V.I. Lenin, "On Slogans", mid-July 1917, Collected Works, Volume 24, Moscow, 1966, p.183. See also his "The Political Situation", 10 July 1917: "This slogan is no longer correct, for it does not take into account that power has changed hands and that the revolution has in fact been completely betrayed by the SRs and the Mensheviks" (Collected Works, Volume 24, op. cit., pp.177-8).

8. V.I. Lenin, "On Slogans", op. cit., p.189. See also his "They Do Not See the Wood for the Trees", 1 September 1917, Collected Works, Volume 25, Moscow, 1966, pp.252-3; and Victor Serge, "Lenin in 1917", Revolutionary History, Volume 5, No.3, Autumn 1994, pp.21-2.

9. V.I. Lenin, "Telegram to the Bolsheviks Leaving for Russia", Collected Works, Volume 23, Moscow, 1964, p.292.

10. V.I. Lenin, "Letter to Volksrecht", Collected Works, Volume 23, op. cit., p.293.

11. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 23, op. cit., pp.289-9O.

12. N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, London, 1970, p.287.

13. V.I. Lenin, "Lecture on the 1905 Revolution", 9 (22) January 1917, Collected Works, Volume 23, op. cit., p.248.

14. V.I. Lenin, "Draft Theses", 4 (17) March 1917, Collected Works, Volume 23, op. cit, p.287.

15. V.I. Lenin, "Letter to Kollontai", 17 March 1917, Collected Works, Volume 35, Moscow, 1966, p.297.

16. V.I. Lenin, "Letter to Inessa Armand", 23 March 1917, Collected Works, Volume 43, Moscow, 1977, p.620.

17. "The New Ministers", The Times, Friday, 16 March 1917.

18. "Amnesty and Liberty for All", The Times, Saturday, 17 March 1917. We should, of course, bear in mind while reading these reports that the Soviet of 1917, unlike that of 1905, was expressly called into existence by its Executive Committee of Mensheviks and SRs in order to channel working-class support behind the Provisional Government. Whatever tension there was between Soviet and government was regrettable as far as they were concerned. The accounts written by The Times correspondent no doubt express the aspirations of the Soviet leaders, if not the reality.

19. "The New Regime", The Times, Friday, 16 March 1917.

20. "The Situation in Russia", The Times, Saturday, 17 March 1917.

21. "Difficulties of Duma Committee: Delay in Abdication", The Times, Monday, 19 March 1917.

22. "The New Regime", The Times, Friday, 16 March 1917.

23. "The New Constitution", The Times, Saturday, 17 March 1917.

24. A. Gramsci, "Workers’ Democracy", 21 June 1919, in Soviets in Italy, Nottingham, 1974, p.1.