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The Revolutionary Democracy of 1917

Those who draw a straight line from the October Revolution to Stalinism invariably ignore the civil war that came in between.

The Petrograd soviet assembly, 1917. Kristallstadt / Wikimedia

For almost a century, most commentators have agreed that the October Revolution represented an undemocratic seizure of state power. Instead of allowing liberal democracy to grow after February, the Bolsheviks moved rapidly to take control.

But how democratic was Russian liberalism in 1917? Were alternative forms of democratic participation — structured through soviets, factory committees, peasant land committees, and other bodies — available? Against the mainstream consensus, the history of the Russian Revolution suggests that rather from being anti-democratic, the Bolsheviks supported the most radical democratic forces of their time against the attempts of liberals to constrain those forces.

Democracy in the February Revolution

Russian liberals wanted to avoid revolution altogether as long as World War I continued. When the February uprising began, they remained loyal to the tsar, and when Premier Golytsin signed the order to dissolve the Duma, they did not object.

The farthest the liberals would go was to form a private committee of Duma members to keep themselves informed. Only when the tsar’s fall became inevitable did this committee become the Provisional Government.

As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa explained nearly four decades ago, the liberals tried to enact an impossible policy: they legitimized their Provisional Government with reference to the old regime. Though they had accepted the Duma’s dissolution, they nevertheless claimed authority because the Provisional Government emerged from that body.

When dealing with the tsar, they showed themselves as defenders of law and order against anarchy. Even when they asked for his abdication, it was in hopes of staving off the revolution.

Almost as soon as the Provisional Government formed under Prince Lvov, it made its disinterest in democracy obvious. In a pattern established by the French Revolution, the creation of an elected constituent assembly accompanied the conclusion of a successful democratic uprising, but the Provisional Government did everything it could to delay this vote.

On March 3, it declared that elections would take place on the basis of universal, secret, direct, and equal votes. This was a bold reform considering the tsarist Duma’s indirect and class-based voting system. But the very next day, Pavel Miliukov, leader of the Constitutional Democrats (the main liberal party), informed the French ambassador that he was trying to avoid setting a date.

The Provisional Government also refused to say whether women would be able to participate. Since the 1905 revolution, the Russian feminist movement had demanded women’s suffrage. Now the feminists were wary, because the government would not clarify if “universal” included women. Alexander Kerensky, the only socialist in the first Provisional Government, declared on March 11 that the question of women’s voting rights would have to wait for the Constituent Assembly to decide.

The feminists organized a large demonstration on March 19. Forty thousand women marched, including significant numbers of workers, but they rejected Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai when she tried to make a speech.

The Provisional Government claimed that including votes for women would delay the elections. The feminists pressured moderate leaders in the soviets, and, on July 20, the government modified the law. But, by then, the liberals were already planning a coup with a right-wing general, so this hardly counts as a democratic turn on their part.

We can see the Provisional Government’s less-than-serious attempts to organize democratic elections when we examine the process in detail. It took the government three weeks to announce the names of the members of the election commission. Then discussions dragged on for another two months, as commissioners debated everything from the age of suffrage to whether deserters and the tsar’s family should have the vote.

These procedural hurdles all helped the Provisional Government postpone the announcement of the date. Finally, in June, during the First Congress of Soviets — as Bolshevik strength among the Petrograd workers increased massively and as the clamor for the Congress of Soviets to take power grew — the Provisional Government acted. On June 14, it declared that elections would take place on September 17.

But when most liberals resigned from the government in early July, the new coalition government insisted that elections be pushed back to November 12. All the while, these liberals were supporting General Kornilov’s conspiracy, which would have put an end to any democratic elections.

Class Self-Organization

In contrast to the liberal Provisional Government’s resistance to democracy, many institutions sprang up after February that handed political and economic control to workers, soldiers, and peasants.

In the 1905 revolution, workers had created soviets without regard to political affiliation. They elected their own representatives and only granted party leaders consultative roles. In February 1917, the call to elect soviets came from two quarters: militant workers and left-wing activists, notably the Vyborg district Committee of the Bolsheviks.

The Russian Social Democratic Workers Party-Internationalists, a group more often known as Mezhraionka, was the first to call for soviets, which the party believed would become the true revolutionary government. In contrast, the Mensheviks formed the Executive Committee of the Soviets, in which they rectified the error of 1905 by putting party leaders in first and only then calling for the election of delegates.

However, while liberals and moderate socialists alike expected that workers and soldiers would follow the Executive Committee, they did not even want this elite group to lead. Instead, as the Menshevik Internationalist Nikolai Sukhanov wrote in his memoirs four years later, his party believed that the government that supplanted the tsar had to be a purely bourgeois government.

The workers and soldiers disagreed. For them a revolution that did not respond to their needs was no revolution at all, so they started making demands. While Executive Committee leaders were urging the liberals to take power, soldiers called for an end to the feudal military life.

They practically dictated the text of what became known as Order No.1 to Matvey Skobelev, a Menshevik leader of the Petrograd Soviet. This decree called for the election of soldiers’ committees in military units as well as the inclusion of soldiers’ representatives in the soviets. It put the military under the Soviet, rather than the Provisional Government. Soldiers agreed to accept military discipline while on duty, but they demanded civil rights for enlisted men. Finally, the order abolished feudal customs in the army and handed control over weapons to the soldiers’ committees.

The Provisional Government tried to breathe life into institutions like city Dumas — municipal bodies where people of all classes could vote as citizens — but the soviets emerged as the crucial democratic institutions. Even before October, soviets were taking over from the organs of local government.

Local soviets developed in Moscow, Yaroslav, Kazan, Nikolaev, and Rostov-on-Don, where they subordinated the existing bureaucracy to their control. Under military protection from the city, these organizations dealt with local problems. Ordinary citizens put together factory councils, trade unions, specialized committees, and local militias.

For example, urban soviets worked with rural organizations to manage the food supply. On March 5, Petrograd workers discovered almost two hundred trucks of grain consigned to private individuals. The soviet’s food committee sent them to the Northern Front instead, having learned that soldiers there had only one day of food left.

The Executive Committee of the Krasnoyarsk Soviet sent a telegram along the Siberian Railway line forbidding food delivery for speculative purposes, and the Moscow soviet initiated the All Russia Food Congress in May 1917.

Rural soviets appeared a little later. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky recorded the patterns of rural struggles, suggesting that peasants looked at soviets skeptically until the councils began to reflect their political attitudes. The anti-feudal struggle initially united agricultural workers, rural semi-proletarians, and the peasants into a range of institutions.

Some were state sponsored, like township’s executive committees or land and food committees. Peasants also formed soviets, but they could take shelter behind the state institutions to push for action, even if those same organizations were moving rightward at higher levels.

Though soviets did not immediately appear in the countryside, by late July, fifty-two of Russia’s seventy-eight gubernia (governorates) had Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies. Almost half of the Russia’s 813 uyezds (counties) had local-level peasant soviets as well.

Workers’ Control

Beginning in March 1917, the struggle for the eight-hour day united workers against the capitalists in factories as well as at the industrial, municipal, and national levels. Factory employees wanted more democratic working conditions, less exploitation, and essential rights.

These demands clashed with the capitalist drive for profits and the government’s desire to prioritize the war effort over everything else. These struggles forced the workers to realize that they need a new order — not only in government but also in the workplace.

They began electing factory committees, which varied in function and intention. Two major studies — S. A. Smith’s, which is relatively critical of the Bolsheviks, and David Mandel’s much more sympathetic account — present us with a clear picture of these organizations.

Workers control had not figured in any of the socialist parties’ platforms before the February revolution. Even the Bolsheviks, who shifted considerably left after Lenin’s return in April — especially compared to Kamenev’s and Stalin’s conditional support for the Provisional Government — nevertheless remained vague about when power would pass to the soviets.

In the April Theses, Lenin remarked that the aim was to bring social production and the distribution of products under the control of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. From Carmen Sirianni to Mandel, several scholars have emphasized that kontrol in Russian has a different sense than in English. The Russian word implies supervision, regulation, or oversight — not complete administration.

Practical problems drove the workers forward. One of the first calls was to establish a democratic or a constitutional regime in factories, which the elected committees would supervise. But issues quickly became more complex. The bourgeoisie pushed back against the demand for an eight-hour day. The capitalists claimed that the workers were making selfish demands while soldiers were dying at the fronts, clearly trying to drive a wedge between two parts of the revolutionary class.

This campaign backfired: amid these arguments, workers started questioning management’s decisions. Some factory owners claimed that productive capacity was standing idle because of the absence of supplies. The factory committees demanded they be allowed to verify these statements, building worker power.

By May, even right-wing Mensheviks thought the capitalists were planning a hidden lockout. In 1905, a coordinated capital strike had defeated the struggle for the eight-hour day, an experience still alive in the workers’ memories.

In mid-May, the Petrograd Soviet adopted modest regulations to revitalize the economy, and the minister of Trade and Industry, factory owner Alexander Konovalov, resigned, warning that hundreds of enterprises would close in the near future. Ryabushinskii, another leading industrialist, explained that state control was impossible because the state was under soviet control.

In response to these challenges, Petrograd workers called a citywide conference of factory committees. On June 1, the conference voted in favor of a Bolshevik resolution calling for a full transfer of state power to the soviets. The factory committees pushed the Workers’ Section of the Petrograd Soviet to the left. On May 31, this body suggested that the real solution to the growing economic crisis lay in establishing workers’ control both from below (at the factory level) and from above (through the state).

Factory Committees grew in numbers and influence and were rapidly radicalized. At the June conference, left-wing Socialist Revolutionary V. M. Levin explained that the workers had to become active because the industrialists were not.

But when anarchists demanded a takeover from below, even the Bolsheviks were opposed. A Bolshevik delegate explained:

Control is not yet socialism. … Having taken control into our hands, we will learn in a practical way to work actively in production and we will direct it toward socialist production in an organised manner.

In some cases, factory committees took on management roles in order to keep their workplaces running. This created clashes on both the Right and the Left. At the national conference of factory committees in October, David Ryazanov remarked that a “member of the factory committee involuntarily turns into an agent of the entrepreneur.” At an earlier conference, Lenin had called the factory committees “errand boys” for the capitalists. A delegate from the New Arsenal factory explained that if workers did not find raw materials, the factories could not run for long.

These disagreements show the vitality and diversity of democratic debate in this revolutionary year. Grassroots organizations came together to solve problems in the ways that did not always coincide with party leaders’ ideas about how the revolution should go.

October and After

Even liberal historians who accept the reality of this explosion of revolutionary democracy in 1917 tend to argue that October ended it all. The reality is rather more complex.

No insurrection is carried out after a vote. But the Bolsheviks, notably Trotsky and Yakov Sverdlov — the effective operational leaders — used the soviets and soldiers’ committees to win over the majority of the garrison and neutralize the rest.

Apart from the soldiers, the working-class movement built their own Red Guards. As Rex Wade has shown, the Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary leadership immediately distrusted this class project, designating it a Bolshevik initiative. The July Days had actually decreased open Bolshevik influence over the Red Guards, but the struggle against Kornilov firmly reasserted Lenin’s party’s political hegemony in this field.

Orlando Figes, one of today’s most widely read right-wing historians of the revolution, has produced a set of online articles covering his research. In “Lenin and the October Coup,” Figes insists that Lenin urged his party toward “a coup d’état, which is how he conceived the seizure of power.” Figes provides no evidence for these claims, and he is even less keen to explain that Trotsky and Sverdlov did not follow Lenin’s strategy, which called for a nationwide uprising.

In fact, a soviet institution, the Military Revolutionary Committee, led the October insurrection. In its immediate aftermath, the Congress of Soviets tried to create a real power structure, passing basic decrees on land, peace, and soviet power. It also adopted Julius Martov’s resolution, calling for a government that would include all the socialist parties.

However, the Mensheviks, the right and centrist Socialist Revolutionaries, and even the Menshevik Internationalists, led by Martov himself, eventually rejected any such government. They refused to subordinate the government to the Congress of Soviets.

The Socialist Revolutionary party had split shortly before the October insurrection, and the Left faction, led by Maria Spiridonova, Boris Kamkov, and others, supported the Congress and became the dominant force in the Extraordinary Congress of Peasant Deputies in November and the regular Peasant Congress in December. For several months, they participated as the Bolsheviks’ partners and played an important role in the government. Historians’ tendency to neglect this phase has led them to ignore how this revolutionary democracy worked.

The Congress elected a new All Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, or VTsIK. This organization’s minutes show that it debated real issues and that the Bolsheviks themselves disagreed on the correct approach.

For example, the minutes from November 1 show a long debate over the formation of an all-socialist government, in which the Bolsheviks expressed their willingness to include other parties in the government as long as they accepted the Second Congress of Soviets as the source of authority and subordinated the new government to the VTsIK. The moderate socialists’ refusal showed their rejection of soviet power.

Negotiations also stalled over the moderate socialists’ demand that Lenin and Trotsky not participate in any new government. Some argue that this debate shows Bolshevik intransigence, particularly from the Leninist wing. Instead, we should recognize it as the moderates’ intransigence. Willing to collaborate with bourgeois liberals and with tsarist generals, the Socialist Revolutionaries were unwilling to accept revolutionary democracy.

Nevertheless, the claim persists: the Bolsheviks destroyed democracy. The civil war, the Bolsheviks’ flaws, and the role of anti-Bolshevik forces has to be examined elsewhere, since they unfolded over several years. But we should stress the continuity of soviets beyond October and the absurdity of the claim that a disciplined party aimed to take all power in its hands from the beginning.

In February 1917, the Bolsheviks numbered about 24,000. By July, they had grown to about ten times that size and to approximately 400,000 by October. These were not all hardened Leninists. Rather, they were militant workers, soldiers, and peasants.

In 1917–18, Lenin’s idea of a worker’s state was one where “any cook could govern.” This definition reflected a genuine desire to simplify the state apparatus. In late 1917 and early 1918, in a period of continuing class struggle in which capitalists refused to collaborate with the new regime, the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, the VTsIK, and the Supreme Economic council carried out just over 5 percent of all nationalizations. So the factory committees carried out the rest. Soviet institutions continued past October and developed at all levels.

Alexander Rabinowitch showed that the First City District Soviet in Petrograd created its own peoples’ court network that replaced the old judiciary. It had an investigation commission, a social-welfare section, a legal section, a housing section, a culture and education section, and its own press. In May and June of 1918, it put on a conference that included Bolsheviks, Left Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Menshevik Internationalists, and Socialist Revolutionaries. As Rabinowitch puts it, the meeting represented “an honest effort to restore meaningful links with the masses despite the stirrings of civil war.”

We cannot ignore that war if we want to understand the end of this revolutionary democracy, and those who draw a straight line from October 1917 to Stalinism invariably ignore or downplay the impact of that bloody conflict.