Mainstream, VOL LV No 15 New Delhi April 1, 2017
Russian Revolution and Soviet Power
Sunday 2 April 2017, by
One read with great interest the articles of Rosa Luxemburg (Mainstream, November 5, 2016) and Dr Paresh Chattopadhyaya. (Mainstream, Annual Number, 2016) Both bring to light the contra-dictory nature of Soviet revolution and its complexities, which continue to daunt scholars and analysts alike
Nature and Role of Soviets
The origin and evolution of the Soviets and their subsequent loss pf power under the rule of the Communist Party is a rich and increasingly complex task in view of the growing body of historic facts/documents. Therefore, the Russian revolution needs very careful treatment without reaching rash conclusions.
There is undoubtedly a serious need for rethinking on the entire history of the revolution and its various aspects.
The Soviets were born spontaneously in the first decade of the 20th century in the course of the revolution of 1905. This is a crucial fact, having bearing on their subsequent history. The Soviets were genuine mass organisations, which formed the basis of the revolution of 1917.
The fact cannot be underestimated that the Soviets were the organisation of the workers, peasants and the soldiers. Often the role of the soldiers is ignored. It was during the First World War (WW I) that the Soviets spread rapidly among the Army units at the front. The soldiers played the decisive role in the Russian Revolution, imparting it a relatively peaceful form. They made the Tsarist downfall and revolution possible. An armed revolution from ‘outside’ would not have been possible in Russia; hence the great importance of the armed forces joining it.
A Genuine Revolution
Much is being written these days on the genuineness of the Russian Revolution, whether it was carried out by the people or by the Soviets and party or it was just a coup by a handful. Much work is needed in clarifying the several issues related. Roy Medvedyev’s seminal work on October 1917 revolution is great contribution. We need to discuss more.
Yet it is an undeniable fact that it was the Soviets which overthrew the Tsar, not any party. The power passed partially to the Soviets of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers in Petrograd or St Petersburg in March (February) 1917. All the major parties of the revolution were present, and yet no party led them. The balance of military forces within the Russian Armies made it possible for the soldiers to take over power, supported of course by the workers and peasants and guided, to an extent, by the Mensheviks and other factions.
So the Soviets were the genuine revolutionary force, acting as the main vehicle of the giant transformations in Russia. They virtually held the real power at a time when the Kerensky Government held formal power. This feature was aptly brought out by Lenin as a rare event in history in the form of a ‘dual power’. This was one of the main reasons why Lenin was able to lead the great events in Russia.
In his celebrated ‘April Theses’, Lenin identifies the axis of the tactics of the revolution in taking over full power, that is, also the governmental power. Here, Lenin has identified the crucial role of the Soviets in the Russian Revolution.
The crisis of world imperialism, sharpest in Russia, tore asunder the feudal-monopoly tsarist political order, making it the weakest link. Here the Soviets were to play a central role. Millions of people joined the anti-tsarist revolt. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers began to desert the war fronts, joining the growing revolutionary upsurge in Russia. The most crucial arm of the state machine, the armed forces, began to turn against the Tsar himself. Russia was becoming mature for revolution.
Two centres of power emerged after the overthrow of the Tsar: the Soviets and the Constituent Assembly. There was a constant conflict between the two till the eve of the November Revolution. This conflict decided the fate of the revolution.
Lenin, Soviets and Revolution
Here a crucial point arises. It appears the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin, were the only force to have recognised the great revolutionary potential of the Soviets as the mass organisation of the revolution. There could be any amount of criticism of Lenin on the relationship between the party and the Soviets. A lot of work is being done and many facts are coming to light. Reassessment of several aspects of the Russian Revolution is needed, undoubtedly.
But the fact remains that it was none other than Lenin who understood the potential of the Soviets. It was mainly he who galvanised them into an unprecedented revolutionary upsurge after dispelling their illusions.
February to October (or March to November, 1917) is one of the most fascinating periods in world history. In this brief period, the revolution turned into one of the most momentous events. It was all in its greatest splendour, revealing now one and now the other aspect in a rich display of historic shifts and quick changes. The revolutionary tactics had to change almost every week, even every day, and therefore had to be extremely flexible. Only an organisation and an individual who had mastered dialectics could negotiate such a rich complexity. It was Lenin again who rose to the occasion and led the forces in the vanguard through complicated pathways to victory. It was Hegelian dialectics in practice by him. Never before or after has dialectics been so well practised. It remains an example for all the revolutionaries of the world.
The Soviets, consequently, became the carrier of the revolutionary process, leading up to its successful culmination. Objectively, the Soviets became the ground for conflicting interests and tactics. The resolution of these contradictions would open the way forward.
Lenin alone among all the major figures of Russian Revolution understood the central role of the Soviets. There can be any amount of criticism of his role, and we definitely need to go deeper into history. But it is undeniable that Lenin alone understood the historic place of the Soviets. No other leader has been able to do this. This was the greatness and depth of Lenin’s theoretical and practical understanding as well as of his contribution to Marxism.
The councils (‘soviets’) in Germany of the period had similar potential, perhaps even more. During 1918-23, the country was constantly lingering on the verge of a classical proletarian revolution. But it missed the opportunities constantly because mainly of the subjective factors. The various parties of the social democrats, including the Spartacists, and the later Communists failed to really live up to the situation. The blame goes mainly to the social democrats, who held a majority among the working class. The leaderships failed to theoretically sum up the great revolutionary build-up. As a result, they failed to mobilise and throw the councils into the decisive action to take over all power. They swung between the extremes of premature or late actions, and ultimately got annihilated.
The extreme weakness of the German CP was also a big factor.
In contrast, the Bolsheviks, and in particular Lenin, were theoretically absolutely clear as to their tactics leading up to the revolution since April 1917: the ‘Dual Power’ had to be ended; to resolve it, the masses inside and outside the Soviets had to be cleared of the illusions regarding the nature of the government; this had to take the form mainly of a prolonged peaceful explanatory work among the working masses; full power thus had to be taken over by the Soviets which already had the ‘real power’ in contrast to the ‘formal’ power of the ruling party/class, etc.
The concept of ‘dual power’ and the need to end it is one of the extraordinary concepts in the history of the theory of revolution. Dual power could not go on for ever: it had to be settled or it would settle down (get resolved) either in favour of one side or the other. Either the big bourgeois-imperialist-feudal combine would win or the Soviets representing the working masses, including the working class, peasants and the soldiers.
Lenin adopted the strategy and tactics of taking over full power. To this end the Bolsheviks decided to gain a majority in the Soviets by convincing them of the correctness of their strategy. The struggle to defeat the Kornilov Revolt of July 1917 was a major milestone on the way, when the extreme Rightwing was defeated, the Kerensky Government was successfully defended and the power of the Soviets considerably strengthened.
Various political trends and parties fought out in the broad platform of the Soviets, including the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Cadets, Socialist Revolutionaries, etc. Their debates are rich. They went through stages whereby the Soviets were convinced of the futility of the World War and of the legitimacy of the Kerensky Government. This realisation finally prepared the Soviets in favour of the revolution.
There is one contestable and debatable point on way to November 7. That is about the role of the Constituent Assembly (CA). It can be argued whether the CA could have been turned into a people’s tribune. It is very difficult at present to provide a final answer.
Yet it cannot be doubted that the mass of the people led by the Soviets took full power on November 7, 1917, staging the first ever successful working class revolution, participated in by the peasantry and the soldiers.
Lenin, Party and the Soviets
The subsequent history of the Russian Revo-lution and the collapse of the Soviet Union have opened up many issues, generating debate and discussions. They have only enriched the theory of the revolution and of socialism. An extra-ordinary amount of literature has come up, inviting indepth study and analyses. Many clarifications are coming up as to what should not have been done. It is clear that a revolution cannot proceed further and socialism cannot be built without democracy. This in two senses: One, the democratic revolution, that is, preparing the ground for the move towards socialism, has to be prolonged and with material preparations. Two, revolution and socialism have to fully assimilate the spirit and build structures guaran-teeing democracy. Socialism must have the in-built mechanism of democracy, the system of checks and balances. Socialism must have in-built guarantees against centralisation and ‘Stalini-sation’.
The question of the actual nature and practice of the working class power is yet to be solved.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks committed many mistakes, including creating certain grounds for the subsequent rise of Stalinism. The questions should be put against the background of WW I, the intervention in Soviet Russia by 14 imperialist countries and the resultant Civil War. It appears that Lenin overestimated and overstated the socialist or proletarian nature of the Russian Revolution. This only helped to short-circuit the prolonged democratic nature of the revolution.
Power indeed passed into the hands of the Soviets, no doubt about it. The power structure was cut out according to the ‘Soviet’ nature, not the party nature. The Council of People’s Commissars and the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the Soviets were the most democratic structures in the history of the Soviet Union. It was these structures that step by step got corroded, thanks to centralisation and subsequent Stalinisation. The Party and its leading bodies, particularly the Polit-Bureau, replaced the Soviets. Thus power passed from the Soviets to the party in the course of Stalinisation. Lenin and his colleagues have to bear some responsibility for it.
Yet, it is to the credit of Lenin that he recognised the growing degeneration of Soviet and party power and the loss of democratic rights. A little earlier, Rosa Luxemburg pointed out the growing centralisation of power in the party and the state. Lenin mentioned in 1920 that the peasants had every right to overthrow the Soviet power because of its misdeeds. He was gravely concerned about centralisation, and said between 1920 and 1922 that the Tsarist state machine had remained basically intact. He called for the removal of Stalin as the General Secretary of the RCP(B). Had Lenin lived he would have no doubt gone deeper into the problems of democratisation.
Much is to be learnt from Lenin about collective and democratic functioning. He never held the post of the General Secretary and there never was such a post in the party till 1922. Lenin did not insist on creating it till that year. It was created more to coordinate the party centre. He became the Prime Minister only under pressure, a post lower than the that of the Chairman of the CEC. He often was in a minority, and had several different viewpoints in his team. He regularly convened the party Congresses, almost every year.
There is a need to go deeper into the mechanics of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and re-examine it in order to understand what exactly is the nature and structure of the working class power.
The author is a Marxist ideologue.