The Soviet organisation was a product of the Russian Revolution of 1905. At that time the proletariat engaged in mass action, for which it required a form of mass organisation. The secret organisation of the Social Democrats, as also of the Social Revolutionaries, only comprised hundreds of members who influenced some thousands of Workers. Political and industrial mass organisations could not be formed under the Absolutism of the Czar. The only mass organisations of the workers which existed when the Revolution came were those which had been brought into existence by the capitalists themselves and related to single trades. These new became mass organisations for the struggle of the proletariat. Each trade was now transformed from a place where material production was carried on into a place of political propaganda and action. The workers of each trade came together and chose delegates, who united to form a council of delegates, or a Soviet. It was the Mensheviks who gave the impulse to this most significant movement. Thus a form of proletarian organisation was created, which became the most comprehensive of all because it included all wage earners. It ha made powerful action possible, and left a deep impression in the consciousness of the worker. When the second Revolution broke out in March, 1917, the Soviet organisation again came to the fore, and this time upon a firmer basis, corresponding with the development undergone by the proletariat since the first Revolution. The Soviets of 1905 were local organisations confined to single towns. Those of 1917 were not only more numerous, but closely knit together. Single Soviets were affiliated to a greater body, which in its turn was part of an organisation comprehending the whole Empire, its organ being the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, and a permanent Central Executive Committee.
Already the Soviet organisation can look back on a great and glorious history. A more important period lies before it, and not in Russia alone. Everywhere it is apparent that the usual methods of the political and economic struggle of the proletariat are not sufficient to cope with the enormous strength at the disposal of finance capital in the economic and political spheres.
These methods need not be abandoned, as they are essential for ordinary conditions, but at times they are confronted with tasks to which they are not equal, and success is only likely with a combination of all the economic and political power of the proletariat.
The Russian Revolution of 1905 brought the idea of the mass strike to a head in the German Social Democracy. This fact was recognised by the 1905 Congress. That of 1906 endeavoured to allay the sensibilities and fears of the Trade Union officials. On the question of the mass strike, it resolved that when the executive should consider the necessity for the political mass strike to exist it should get into touch with the General Commission of the Trade Unions, and concert all measures necessary to secure successful action.
After all our experience with the mass strike, we know to-day that this resolution was fundamentally wrong. For one reason because a mass strike is likely to be all the more successful by breaking out unexpectedly in a particular situation, with spontaneous suddenness. Its organisation by party and Trade Union machinery would make necessary such preparations as would lead to its frustration.
We, therefore, understand why the Trade Union bureaucracy tends to oppose all spontaneous action on a large scale. Trade Unions are absolutely necessary. The proletariat is the stronger the greater the number of its members, and the larger the financial resources of its Trade Unions. Widespread and permanent organisations, with many ramifications, are not possible without a machinery for permanent administration, that is a bureaucracy. The Trade Union bureaucracy is as essential as the Trade Union itself. It has its faults like Parliamentarism and Democracy, but is as indispensable as these for the emancipation of the proletariat.
This is not, however, to say that all its pretentions must be recognised. It should be restricted to its first function, in performing which it cannot be replaced; that is the administration of Trade Union funds, the extension of organisation. and the giving advice to the workers in their struggles. But it is unsuitable for leading that powerful mass strike which tends to become the characteristic of the times.
By virtue of their experience and knowledge, Trade Union officials and Parliamentarians may here successfully assist, but the initiative tends to fall into the hands of Workshop Committees. In various countries outside Russia, such as in England, these institutions (shop stewards) have played a big part in mass struggles, side by side with ordinary Trade Unionism.
The Soviet organisation is, therefore, one of the most important phenomena of our time. It promises to acquire an outstanding significance in the great decisive struggles between Capital and Labour which are before us.
Can we ask even more than this of the Soviets? The Bolshevists, who, together with the left-wing Social Revolutionaries, obtained a majority in the Russian Workers’ Councils after the November Revolution of 1917, after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, proceeded to make an organ of government of the Soviets, which’ hitherto had been the fighting organisation of a class. They did away with the democratic institutions which had been conquered by the Russian people in. the March Revolution. Quite properly the Bolsheviks ceased to call themselves Social Democrats, and described themselves as Communists.
Indeed, they did not repudiate democracy entirely. In his speech of April 28, Lenin described the Soviet organisation as a higher type of democracy, a complete break with its “bourgeois distortion”. Entire freedom was now secured to the proletarian and the poor peasant.
Hitherto democracy had connoted equal political rights for all citizens. The sections privileged by law had always possessed freedom of movement. But one does not call that democracy.
The Soviet Republic is to be the organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the only means, as Lenin expresses it, whereby the most painless transition to Socialism is made possible. This is to be done by depriving of political rights all those who are not represented in the Soviets.
Why should this step make less painful the transition to Socialism than would be the case with universal suffrage? Obviously, because the capitalists are in this way excluded from the making of laws.
Now there are two alternatives. Suppose the capitalists and their supporters are an insignificant handful. How could they then prevent the transition to Socialism under universal suffrage? On the contrary, universal suffrage would reveal them as an insignificant minority, and consequently they would the sooner resign themselves to their fate than if the franchise were so shaped that no- one could say with certainty which party had behind it a majority of the people. In reality, however, the capitalists cannot be deprived of rights. What is a capitalist in a legal sense? A possessor.
Even in a country so highly developed economically as Germany, where the proletariat is so numerous, the establishment of a Soviet Republic would disfranchise great masses of the people. In 1907, the number of men, with their families, belonging to occupations which comprised the three great groups of agriculture, industry and trade, that is, wage-earners and salaried persons, amounted to something over 35,000,000, as against 17,000,000 belonging to other sections. A party could therefore very well have the majority of wage-earners behind it and yet form a minority of the population. On the other hand, when the workers vote together, they need not fear the united votes of their opponents. By obliging them to fight their common foes, universal suffrage causes them to close up their ranks sooner than if the political struggle were confined to the Soviets, from which the opponents are excluded, and in which the political struggle of a Socialist party takes the form of attacking another Socialist Party. Instead of class-consciousness, sectarian fanaticism is thereby induced.
Now for the other alternative. Suppose the capitalists and their supporters are not a small minority, but a great mass which is well able, in a Parliament elected on the basis of universal suffrage, to constitute a respectable opposition?
What purpose would be served by reducing this opposition to silence in the governing body? The capitalists themselves are everywhere only a small section. But in comparison with the Socialists, their supporters may be very numerous. It should not be thought that only personal interest or payment would induce people to enter the lists for capitalism. Except Socialism, capitalism is to-day the only possible method of production on a large scale.
Who holds Socialism to be impossible, must, if he thinks in a modern sense at all, be for capitalism, even if he be not interested therein. Even of those backward sections, who are opposed to capitalism, many take their stand on the basis of private property in the means of production, and therefore on the basis on which capitalism grows. In a backward country, therefore, the number of those in the population who directly or indirectly would protect capitalism may be very large. Their opposition would not be lessened if they were deprived of political rights. They would all the more energetically oppose the measures of the new tyrannical regime. By universal suffrage in a real democracy all classes and interests are represented in the governing body according to their strength. Every section and party may exercise the fullest criticism upon each Bill, show up all its weaknesses, and also make known the strength of the opposition which exists amongst the people. In the Soviet all hostile criticism is excluded, and the weaknesses of laws do not come so easily to light. The opposition which they arouse amongst the population ii not learned in the first instance.
Only afterwards, when the law is promulgated, do criticism and opposition manifest themselves. Instead of during the debates, the weaknesses of laws come to light when they are put into operation. Even the Soviet Government has already, in the case of very important laws, been obliged, by supplements and lax administration; to let in by the backdoor elements that it solemnly threw out of the front door.
That, as compared with general suffrage, vote by occupation has a tendency to narrow the outlook of the electors, we have already shown. That by this means the transition to Socialism is rendered painless is very much in doubt.
Not less doubtful is the dictatorship of the proletariat under . the Soviet regime. Dictatorship, certainly. But of the proletariat?
In the economic structure of Russia the Soviets could only attain the position of rulers in 1917 by not confining themselves to the industrial proletariat of the towns, as in 1905. This time the soldiers and peasants were also organised in Soviets. With the disbanding of the army the soldiers have lost their numerical importance. The small army raised by the People’s Commissaries was more useful to them, from the point of view of bayonets than of votes. Nevertheless, the votes of the Red Army have played a considerable part. In some Soviets, for example, at the latest elections in Petrograd the major portion of the mandates were reserved to its members. Of much more importance, however, were the votes of the peasants, who comprise the great majority of the Russian people. What is represented to us as the dictatorship of the proletariat, if it were logically carried out and a class were able to exercise directly the dictatorship which is only possible for a party, would turn out to be the dictatorship of the peasants. It would therefore appear that the least painful transition to Socialism is effected when it is carried out by the peasants. Although the peasants form the majority in the Soviet organisations, these do not include the whole of the proletariat.
At first it was not clear who might organise in Soviets, and which Soviets might affiliate to the general organisation. It was thought by various people that every trade organisation might form a Soviet, and be regarded as such.
On May 28, 1918, the Leipziger Volkszeitung published an article entitled the Soviet Republic, which obviously came from Bolshevist sources. It was there stated:
The Soviet representation is superior to democratic representation. It concedes to all citizens full and equal rights, and all classes in the land enjoy the full possibility of securing representation in the Soviets, exactly corresponding to their strength and special social importance. To this end they must be independently organised, not in parties, as hitherto, on the lines of democracy, but in special classes or trade organisations.
Legien and his friends may be very contented with this subordination of the Social Democratic Party to the Trade Unions, as well as the reactionaries who want to substitute a class vote for general suffrage. The champion of proletarian dictatorship continues:
The bourgeoisie as such have hitherto not been represented in the Soviets, because on the one hand, they have boycotted them, and on the other, are not disposed to be organised on the proletarian scheme, but not because they have been excluded.
Are they really not so disposed? Has our Bolshevist friend ever belonged to an employers’ association, and does he think that the capitalist isolated under general suffrage is really more dangerous than an employers’ association in a Soviet?
But we are about to learn wherein consists the superiority of the Soviet organisation over general suffrage: “It can obviously adopt the attitude of excluding any bourgeois organisation from the Soviets.”
In other words, the Soviet organisation has the advantage over general suffrage of being more arbitrary. It can exclude all organisations which it considers obnoxious. It “concedes full and equal rights to citizens”, but “obviously” they must only be exercised to the liking of the Soviet Government.
Meanwhile, it has been discovered that this does not work. The last All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which terminated on July 12, 1918, drafted a constitution of the Russian Soviet Republic. This lays it down that not all the inhabitants of the Russian Empire, but only specified categories have the right to elect deputies to the Soviets. All those may vote “who procure their sustenance by useful or productive work”. What is “useful and productive work”? This is a very elastic term. Not less elastic is the definition of those who are excluded from the franchise. They include any who employ wage labourers for profit. A home worker or small master, with an apprentice, may live and feel quite like a proletarian, but he has no vote. Even more proletarians may become disfranchised by the definition which aims at depriving private traders and middle men of the vote. The worker who loses his work, and endeavours to get a living by opening a small shop, or selling newspapers, loses his vote.
Another clause excludes from the franchise everyone who has unearned income, for example, dividends on capital, profits of a business, rent of property. How big the unearned income must be which carries with it loss of the vote is not stated. Does it include the possession of a savings bank-book? Quite a number of workers, especially in the small towns, own a little house, and, to keep themselves above water, let lodgings. Does this bring them into the category of people with unearned income. Not long since there was a strike at the Obuchovist Factory, “this hotbed of the Revolution,” as Trotsky styled it in 1909 (Russia in the Revolution, page 83). I asked a Bolshevist comrade how he explained this protest against the Soviet Government.
“That is very simple,” he said, “the workers there are all capitalists who own a little house.”
One sees how little it takes, according to the Constitution of the Soviet Republic, to be labelled a capitalist, and to lose the vote.
The elasticity of the definition of the franchise, which opens the door to the greatest arbitrariness, is due to the subject of this definition, and not to its framers. A juridical definition of the proletariat, which shall be distinct and precise, is not to be had.
I have not found a reference to the appointment of a specific authority which shall verify each person’s vote, compile voting lists, and carry out the election, either by secret ballot or a show of hands. Clause 70 determines: “The exact procedure of election will be decided by the local Soviets, in accordance with instructions from the All-Russian Central Committee.”
In a speech of April 28, 1918, Lenin mentioned the following in connection with the Socialist character of the Soviets: (1) The voters are the working and exploited masses, only the bourgeoisie being excluded; (2) All bureaucratic formality and restriction cease. The masses themselves decide the procedure and the date of the elections.
It seems, then, that any body of electors may order the electoral procedure according to their whims. This would give the greatest scope for arbitrary action, and make it possible to get rid of any inconvenient element of opposition within the proletariat itself.
It need only be remarked in passing that the election to the regional Soviet is an indirect one, which in any case makes easy the influencing of elections to the detriment of the opposition.
However, this has not prevented the opposition from coming to expression in the Soviets.
The “least painful transition” to Socialism obviously requires the silencing of all opposition and criticism. So on June 14, 1918, the All-Russian Central Committee passed this resolution:
The representatives of the Social Revolutionary Party (the right wing and the centre) are excluded, and at the same time all Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, Peasants’ and Cossaoks’ Deputies are recommended to expel from their midst all representatives of this fraction.
This measure was not directed against particular persons, who had committed some punishable acts. Anyone offending in this way against the existing order would at once be imprisoned, and there would be no need to exclude him. There is no word in the constitution of the Soviet Republic respecting the immunity of deputies. Not particular persons (but particular parties) were thereby excluded from the Soviets. This means in practice nothing less than that all proletarians, who take their stand on the ground of party, lose their votes. Their votes are no longer counted. For this no specific clause exists. Clause 23 of the Constitution of the Soviet Republic determines: “In the interests of the working class as a whole the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic may withdraw rights from any persons or groups who misuse them to the detriment of the Socialist Revolution.”
This declared the whole opposition to be outlaws. For every Government, even a revolutionary one, discovers that the opposition misuse their rights. Yet even this was not sufficient to ensure the painless transition to Socialism.
Scarcely had the Bolsheviks got rid of the opposition of the Mensheviks and the Centre and Right Wing of the Social Revolutionaries within the Soviets, when the great fight broke out between them and the left Social Revolutionaries, with whom they had formed the government. The greater .part of these were now driven out of the Soviets.
So within the proletariat itself the circle of those who participate in political rights, upon whom the Bolshevist regime rests, becomes ever smaller. Starting out with the idea of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat the Bolshevist regime was bound to become the dictatorship of a party within the proletariat. Yet it might be for a long time the dictatorship of the majority of the proletariat over the minority. To-day even that has become doubtful.
Nevertheless, every regime, even a dictatorship, is under the necessity of appearing to be the expression of the needs of the majority, not merely of the proletariat, but of the whole people. Even the Bolsheviks cannot escape from this.
The Populaire of Paris, on July 6, 1918, reported an interview which Longuet had with Litvinoff, the London Bolshevik Ambassador. Among other things Longuet remarked:
You know, citizen Litvinoff, that even the comrades in the West, who have the strongest sympathy for your movement, are pained by the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. I had already told you this on my own account, when I last saw you in January. Do you not think that, in order to meet the attacks that are made on you. you ought at any rate to hold new elections?
To which Litvinoff replied:
This is not possible at the moment in view of the present situation. Democracy expressed in the form of the Soviets – a more precise expression of the will of the masses – is the sole form of representation suitable to Russia at the present time. Besides those who protested against the last Soviet elections, which were disastrous for them, would also oppose elections for a new Assembly, in which we should certainly have the majority.
If Comrade Litvinoff and his friends are so sure of this, why do not they take steps to hold such elections. If these were held in the fullest freedom, and gave a Bolshevist majority, the existing Government would gain a far stronger moral basis at home and abroad than ever it can win as a Soviet Government on the present methods of election and administration. Above all, Socialist critics, would lose every ground of objection, and the whole International of the fighting proletariat would stand behind them with unanimity and with full force.
Why renounce this enormous advantage if one is so sure of a majority? Because general suffrage is not suitable to Russia at the present time, and only the Soviet organisation meets its requirements? But how can this assertion be proved? It is indeed understandable when one remembers that every Government likes to identify itself with the country, and to declare that what does not suit it is also not suitable for the country.
One thing can certainly be granted. The present situation is not favourable to the suggestion of elections to a Constituent Assembly. At the time when the elections to the first Assembly were prepared and completed a certain amount of peace still prevailed in the interior. To-day all Russia is torn by civil war. Does, however, this record of nine months of the Soviet Republic furnish the proof that the Soviet organisation is the most suitable to Russia, and the one which least painfully effects the transition to Socialism?
Last updated on 19.1.2004