W. E. Harding

What are Soviets?

(An Outline Sketch)

Source: The Communist Review, May 1921, Vol. 1, No. 1.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Dave Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

“The Soviet is probably the most important contribution of the Russian Revolution.”—Lenin.


Capitalist society, like every other form of human society, is in the long run based upon a definite method of production. Upon the classes into which the particular method of production divides the population, their mutual relations, the mental outlook and habit of thought which their respective occupations produce, is built up all the superstructure of the given state of society; and, first and foremost, the State which is concerned with maintaining the mutual relations of the classes as they are. It is natural, consequently, that we should look for really fundamental changes in the character of the State when the relations between the classes are radically shaken out of their equilibrium, assuming the character of an open struggle; in other words, when production itself comes to an end, either temporarily or permanently.

In capitalist society, such an event implies a general strike or an insurrection. When all the processes of production are brought to a standstill simultaneously—in a general strike—all functions of the State are stopped abruptly, and its entire dependence upon the productive processes is brought out most clearly.

Factories stop working, trams and omnibuses cease running, lighting and heating stops, no papers appear. In each inhabited point, the population is suddenly cut off from the mechanical comforts and aids upon which capitalist civilisation is built up. By the breakdown of rail, road, and telegraphic communication, the Capital is entirely cut off from the districts, and these in turn are thrown upon themselves.

And yet the striking workers must every day eat, move about, receive information, and protect themselves; what organisation is to see to this for them? Obviously, the body which they have entrusted with carrying on the strike as a whole—the Strike Committee. The capitalists temporarily commit their scattered interests to the one concentrated organ of the bourgeois State, of which the workers now realise the true nature. They in their turn have necessarily to hand over all their interests to a hastily-constructed organisation, which assumes all the public functions previously carried on by the State they are now fighting.

The workers have thus produced their own organ of government.

Outside Russia, such occasions have not been frequent since the war; nor have they, in any one case, covered a whole nation; but each general strike has invariably produced certain characteristic features. At Johannesburg, in Italy, in Luxembourg, at Glasgow, at Belfast, at Limerick, at Winnipeg, at Seattle, a central body representing the workers passed from the strict functions of a Strike Committee to those of a local organ of government—a State administrative organisation, controlled by and in the interests of the working class. And it must be noticed that it is precisely this adoption of State functions that is characteristic of all the organisations in these several cases; it is not this or that method of election, or apportionment of representation, that is common to them all. A Trades Council composed mainly of trade union delegates, a Camera del Lavoro composed of workship delegates, a Joint Strike Committee of union and workshop representatives, may indifferently be the original form of the new organisation. On the solitary occasion on which a general strike for apolitical purpose was threatened in Great Britain—during the Russian crisis of August, 1920—a network of Councils of Action sprang up all over the country, took the lead of the protest movement, and would undoubtedly have acted as the only efficient public authorities, centrally and locally, had matters come to a general strike. And yet these bodies were for the most part hastily constituted amalgamations of indirectly representative trades councils and definitely sectional political parties; not infrequently their nucleus and most active section was formed by an entirely non-representative and self-constituted body—the local Hands-Off Russia Committee:

But here again the acid test was: “Has this body the implicit, loyal confidence of the workers? Will they respond to its appeals, submit to its regulations, accept its discipline? Will it, in return, give them the elementary needs of life from day to day, thereby ensuring their ultimate victory? Will it, in other words, play the part of a State organisation—a State organisation in the midst of a war?”

The logical culmination of this assumption of State duties—the organisation of a defensive force, the seizure of all factories and public buildings, and the proclamation of the workers’ dictatorship—has never taken place in this country, and where it has, in Germany and Czecho-Slovakia, partly in Italy, it has so far been crushed. But it is obvious that it is not at such a moment either that the workers’ main concern would be with elections. Common-sense teaches us not to change horses in mid-stream. It was neglect of this truth, the frittering away of precious time on elections, that destroyed the Paris Commune—the first attempt by the workers themselves to control their affairs.

This applies no less to the first Russian Soviets-the two Strike Committees in Petrograd and Moscow which, more particularly the former, from September to December, 1905, directed the course of the gigantic general strike of that year, and assumed all the functions of government, with the exception of control of armed force. Yet these bodies were composed partly of self-appointed members of the Social-Democratic Party, and partly (owing to the absence of an organised trade union movement), of delegates direct from some of the more important factories and workshops of the capitals. In neither case did they contain representatives of the provinces. And yet the Petrograd Soviet of 1905 for a time was the real master of Russia.

In 1917, again, in spite of the existence of many more similar bodies throughout the country, it was the Petrograd Soviet alone that in the long run challenged, fought, and defeated the Provisional Government in the contest for state power, and thus became the highest authority in the country. And the Petrograd Soviet itself was not by any means formally representative of all the workers in the city. In return, however, it had an enormous advantage over its opponent—it had the confidence of the industrial working masses, owing to the revolutionary line of action it took up; and by that sign it conquered.

“But would not that qualification make the Communist Party itself eligible for the post of dictator?” one can hear some enquirer asking. Precisely; that is what actually happened, and there is nothing for us to be ashamed of or for the masses to fear. It is the Communist Party (the Bolsheviks in Russia) that stands for Soviet rule against the hostility of the capitalist dictators and the hypocrisy of the “Socialist” parliamentarians; it is the Communist Party, consequently, that will find itself in majority in the Soviets when the workers realise the latter’s purpose at last (August-September, 1917, in Russia); and it is the Communist Party, therefore, with its strict party discipline, that is bound actually to wield the power, through its organised groups in the Soviets, so long as the Soviet, regime is in danger, (1917-1920 in Russia).

In general terms, therefore, we have arrived at an answer to our question: “What are the Soviets?” In despite of the conviction of many comrades, they are not necessarily “Councils of Workshop Delegates” to give as nearly exact a title as possible. What they are, and what distinguishes them from every other body of men in history—including even “Councils of Workshop Delegates” in non-revolutionary periods—is: the central fighting organisations of the struggling proletariat during the period of revolution; first assuming the most elementary, then winning one by one the remaining functions of the State organisation of the capitalist class; and finally emerging from the struggle as the State organisation of the victorious proletariat during the Period of Communist reconstruction.