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Revolutionary Democracy in 1917 and the Bolsheviks

Kunal Chattopadhyay ( is with the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

It was the highly proletarianised Bolshevik party that was central to revolutionary democracy coming into being in 1917, but the bulk of the non-Bolshevik left chose to go along with liberalism. Hostile to any notion of revolutionary democracy in opposition to bourgeois institutions, the major non-Bolshevik left parties felt more at ease with the liberals than with the “dark” proletarian masses, who appeared uneducated or semi-educated, and who seemed to be moved by illusions rather than the left intelligentsia’s doctrinaire understanding of Marxism. What mainly killed the fledgling revolutionary democracy was the reluctance of the other socialist parties to form a government with the Bolsheviks on the basis of an acceptance of the Congress of Soviets as the foundation of that proposed government’s power. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries pulling out of the Soviet government and the coming of the Civil War did the rest.

One of the tragic figures of the Revolution of 1917 was Yuliy Osipovich Tsederbaum, better known as Martov. A left-wing Menshevik who opposed the war, the central leader of the Menshevik-Internationalists faction, Martov was in exile in Switzerland, like V I Lenin, when the February Revolution occurred. Like Lenin, but after hesitations, he took the German offer and returned to Russia via Germany in May. Like Lenin again, Martov found himself in opposition to the position taken by his comrades in Russia. Martov believed that while the Russian Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, the tasks of the revolution could becarried out only by the working class, so he was opposed to a coalition with the bourgeois liberals. Unlike the position of the Mensheviks in the 1905 Revolution, when they had mostly seen the peasants as a reactionary class, Martov was astute enough to see that no meaningful democracy could exist in Russia if the peasants were excluded. Thus, between May and October, he advocated a strategy of what he called Dictatorship of Democracy.

But this was to not step beyond bourgeois democracy. And so, Martov would walk out of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. And as he pointed out in his letter to his comrade Pavel Axelrod, one of the founders of Russian Marxism, his refusal to have Mensheviks in the Soviet Executive was despite the desire of Menshevik workers to take part in it. Martov denied that soviet power could be the basis of revolutionary democracy, and would insist that the only solution was a popularly elected Constituent Assembly. He was also to oppose the banning of the Constitutional Democratic (or Kadet) Party, the main bourgeois party, which had supported counter-revolution. By early 1918 he was also opposing workers’ control (Burbank 1986: 16–29).

This serves to underscore that even the most left-wing of Mensheviks, and the bulk of left-leaning intellectuals, were hostile to any notion of revolutionary democracy beyond, or different from, a parliamentary system. It is often forgotten, when the focus is on Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Nikolai Bukharin, or Lev Kamenev, that the Bolsheviks were a deeply proletarianised party with very few intellectuals. It will be argued in this essay, that an alternative, revolutionary democracy had emerged in 1917, and that what killed it was primarily the role of the non-Bolshevik left, which found it easier to go along with liberalism despite its opposition to democracy, than with the “dark” proletarian masses, who appeared uneducated or semi-educated, and who seemed to be moved by illusions rather than the left intelligentsia’s doctrinaire understanding of Marxism.

Was There Bourgeois Democracy in 1917?

Before looking at the institutions of revolutionary democracy that emerged with explosive force, we need to look at whether there was at all a bourgeois-democratic or liberal-democratic alternative in Russia throughout 1917. In the Revolution of 1917, two liberal parties had emerged. The Kadets were more to the left, in 1905 even demanding some amount of landreform. The Union of 17 October, or Octobrists were moderate liberals who accepted the Tsar’s promises made in October 1905. The most important leaders of these two parties were respectively Pavel Miliukov, a noted historian, and Alexander Guchkov, an industrialist. During World WarI, Miliukov, in a speech of March 1916, asserted that if he was told that to organise Russia for victory meant organising her for revolution, then he would be in favour of keeping Russia unorganised (Rosenberg 1974: 43–45). No liberal party before February thought of abolition of the monarchy.

February 1917 saw the liberals fearful of revolution. Therevolution began under the banner of International Working Women’s Day on 23 February (the Russian calendar lagged behind the reformed Western calendar). On the fourth day, when all Petrograd was in a state of uprising and general strike, Mikhail Rodzianko, the President of the State Duma, the semi-parliament of Russia, demanded that reliable troops be sent from the front. Till 27 February, Rodzianko was also to stop any formal meeting of the Duma from taking place. Meanwhile, obeying the orders of a Tsar on his way out, his Prime Minister on the way out, Anatoliy Golitsyn, had dissolved the Duma on 26 February. The Deputies to the Duma, assembled on the 27 February because they were alarmed at the developments, learned about this, and, in the words of Rodzianko, “submitted to the law” (Trotsky 2014a: 173). The Duma members, excluding the Monarchist Right, and the workers’ representatives (arrested), that is, mainly the members of the liberal bloc known as the Progressive Bloc, met informally, and decided to elect what they called a Provisional Committee.

Rodzianko, accompanied by Nicholas’s brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, attempted to impress upon the Tsar the seriousness of the situation. Meanwhile on the evening of 27 February, the members of the Provisional Committee met, hoping to take control. At about the same time, in the same building, the Tauride Palace, Menshevik patriots like Gvozdev and Bogdanov, released from jail by insurgent workers and soldiers, had met their colleagues, Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary Duma Deputies, as well as representatives of trade unions and cooperative movements.

While Bolsheviks released from jails went immediately to the districts to organise the workers, the moderate socialists made for the corridors of power. One Bolshevik, the leader of the Bolshevik Central Committee’s Russian Bureau, the metalworker Alexander Shlyapnikov, did turn up. An Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies was set up. In 1905, workers had elected their representatives first, and party leaders who were not sent as elected representatives had only voice but not vote in the Council (Soviet) that was created. In 1917, the moderate socialists “rectified” that error, by first creating a small Presidium and a somewhat largerExecutive Committee in which they put themselves, before a full-fledged Soviet was created. For all its limitations, however, this Soviet would respond to the pressure of the masses. Among the urgent tasks it took up were the organisation of a workers’ militia and the creation of a food commission to regulate supplies, in some kind of coordination with the streets. Elected to the Presidium was Alexander Kerensky, who however paid little attention to the Soviet. He was also a member of the Provisional Committee of the Duma, to which he went.

On 1 March, in the morning, the Soviet Executive Committee met to decide the question of power. The majority believed that it was necessary to transfer power to the bourgeoisie, possibly through the Provisional Committee. Only six minority members, three Bolsheviks, two hard Left Socialist Revolutionaries (LeftSRs), and one Mezhraionets (member of the RussianSocial Democratic Workers’ Party—Internationalists, better known as the Mezhraionka) wanted the formation of a provisional revolutionary government excluding the Duma members. This was in line with the position common between the old line of Lenin, the central leader of the Bolsheviks, Chernov and people further to his left in the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party (though Chernov would move right and Lenin would move further left in 1917), and Trotsky, the main inspirer of the Mezhraionka.

Meanwhile, as the Executive Committee debated, the representatives to the Soviet had gathered. The Menshevik Skobelev went to meet them to plead for more time. While he was speaking, armed soldiers came in. The Military Commission of the Soviet had already been merged with the Commission set up by the Provisional Committee, and Rodzianko was demanding that soldiers should surrender their newly conquered weapons. Under pressure of the soldiers, and practically dictated by them (says the valuable eye witness, Nicholas Sukhanov, a Menshevik Internationalist who left behind a multivolume memoirs of the revolution), the Soviet issued a resolution, known as Order No 1, which laid down what Leon Trotsky was to call the “single worthy document of the February Revolution.” Order No 1 consisted of seven points:

(i) Soldiers’ committees were to be elected in military units.

(ii) Soldiers would send elected representatives to the Soviets.

(iii) In political matters soldiers would be subordinated tothe Soviet.

(iv) Soldiers would be subordinated to the Military Commission only if its orders did not contradict the soviet’s.

(v) Soldiers Committees would control the weapons.

(vi) Soldiers would obey military discipline while on duty, but in all other contexts they would enjoy full civil and political rights.

(vii) Feudal customs and rituals in the army were to be abolished, such as use of derogatory terms by officers to soldiers.

But the Menshevik–Socialist Revolutionary majority and smaller parties like the Bund, Plekhanov’s Edinstvo, the Popular Socialist Party, etc, were determined not to take power. Late on the night of 1 March, Sukhanov, Chkheidze, Sokolov and Steklov from the Soviet went off to meet members of the Duma. Terms for Soviet support were to be discussed. Power was in the hands of the socialists. They had all read Marx and Engels, and were aware that control over the repressive apparatus was a central aspect of any revolution. Order No 1 had taken control over the army away from the officers, and therewith fromthe bourgeoisie. So the transfer of power to the liberals was accomplished by the socialists. The liberals agreed. Someone sober had to take power, after all. The workers and soldiers were creating all manner of unruly institutions.

However, the liberals were opposed to Order No 1, and they were hung up on the monarchy. The monarchist deputy Shulgin told Rodzianko, who was opposing taking part in a rebellion:

There is no rebellion in this at all; take the power as a loyal subject … Everything quiets down—the sovereign names a new government, we turn over the power to him. Or it doesn’t quiet down. In that case if we don’t take the power, others will take it, those who have already elected some sort of scoundrels in the factories …. (Trotsky 2014a: 179)

After much dispute, and after an intervention by officers who probably warned that immediate rejection of Order No 1 could lead to a massacre of right-wing officers, the Duma Deputies agreed to take power. What the Soviet leaders demanded was not the minimum programme that the socialists had inscribed on their banners for so many years—land, an eight hour working day, a republic, and the end to the war. All they wanted was that they should have freedom of agitation.

The Provisional Government and Democracy

So a Provisional Government was created. Rodzianko, the Lord Chamberlain, and go between of Tsar and Duma, was not suitable when former Duma members were negotiating with the Soviet. So Prince L’vov, who had headed a liberal body, the War Industries Committee, became the Prime Minister. Surreptitiously, the Provisional Committee of the Members of the State Duma to restore order had become the Provisional Government. But the liberals were keen to have the monarchy. When Nicholas II abdicated, and announced the abdication of his son as well (which was bad in law, but few cared) they hoped that Grand Duke Mikhail would take power. It was only the refusal of Mikhail Romanov that compelled Miliukov to temporarily give up his struggle to save the monarchy. And even so, the Provisional Government did not declare a republic, but left that for the Constituent Assembly.

And so we come back to the institution we had mentioned at the beginning, as the institution Martov saw as crucial to democracy. The French Revolution of 1848 had also occurred in February. The Provisional Government was created on26 February, and elections to the Constituent Assembly were held on 23 April. My aim is not to claim that the results of the French Revolution of 1848 were great, but to point out that holding elections take a limited amount of time, if there is a genuine desire. In the Russian case, there was only the desire to push back the elections.

Some democratic steps had to be taken. The right to strike was recognised (after all, a general strike toppled the Tsar). It was declared that the Constituent Assembly would be elected on the basis of universal suffrage. However, feminists soon discovered that the Provisional Government was hedging about the meaning of “universal.” When feminists organised a mass demonstration (with about 40,000 women participating) they had to put pressure first on the Soviet leaders, and then, armed with Soviet support, go to the government. However, the government continued to hedge, and the necessary law changes did not occur till June. Other democratic reforms included religious freedom, the right to organise meetings and express one’s viewpoint.

On 3 March, the Provisional Government declared that the preparations for the election of a Constituent Assembly, by universal, equal, direct and secret ballot, would start immediately (Browder and Kerensky 1961: 135). Three weeks went by before the Election Commission was named. The Kadets in reality wanted to avoid elections. Kerensky, too, accepted their logic to a considerable extent (Abraham 1987: 149). Within a day of the announcement by the Provisional Government, Miliukov told the French ambassador that he wanted to avoid giving a fixed date. The best guide to an understanding of this liberal opposition is the modern historian who has sympathetically traced the history of the Kadets, William Rosenberg (1974).

In a revolutionary situation of the kind that existed in Russia in 1917, to achieve a lasting bourgeois hegemony the bourgeoisie needed a stable party system and a firm social base. They had neither. There were close to 70 parties in the Russian Empire that took part in elections (Rosenberg 1969: 131–63). After the February Revolution, the extreme right parties, the Black Hundreds (proto-fascists) and others withdrew. But many of their members joined the centre-right parties. Among the centre right, apart from the Kadets and the Octobrists, there was the Trade Industrialist Party. The Kadets took the lead after March 1917. They put forward an image of their party as one standing above classes. Kadets saw an influx of conservatives, and worked closely with leading capitalists like Alexander Konovalov or the Ryabushinskys. Since the left- wing Kadets, such as Nekrasov, were in favour of land reforms and some degree of state regulation of industry, many of the big industrialists looked at them with jaundiced eyes. But it was soon perceived that for the propertied, the Kadets were the best option. And the collaboration that was achieved meant a shift against the left-wing of the party. On matters of main principles, the Kadet left received barely a third of the votes at their party’s gathering (Rosenberg 1974).

When, after the October insurrection, the Bolsheviks organised the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the Kadets secured barely 6%–7% of the vote, and only 17 out of 700 representatives. And this despite having over 1,00,000 members and local branches spread over Russia. The reason for this was the failure of the Russian Liberals to secure a firm footing among the petty bourgeoisie, the peasants, and even sections of the working class, which is what has been the key to stable bourgeoisdemocracies wherever such has existed.

As Rosenerg has shown, in the big cities, such as Petrograd, the Liberals fared badly. In the Vasilievsky Island centre of the capital, where the university was located, the Kadets obtained just 18% of the vote. During the first Duma elections of 1905 they had received 61% of the vote. In the city municipal elections of May 1917 they got 22%. In Samara, where in 1905 they had won all the seats, in 1917 they got only 9% of the vote. Onlyin smaller towns did they score better (Rosenberg 1974: 161, 164, 166, 168).

It was an early recognition of this lack of a firm social base that made liberal leaders firmly opposed to real applicationof even modest bourgeois (or liberal) democratic principles. Lionel Kochan suggests that in the early months, they were afraid that theSRs would sweep, and that, rather than any fear of the Bolsheviks, made them oppose an early convocation of the Constituent Assembly. It was not socialist revolution, but any radical democratic revolution that they opposed (Kochan 1967: 183–92).

The reluctance to move from pious declaration of intent to actual implementation of democracy is shown by the fact that complicated debates were raked up to squander time. Three weeks to form the Election Commission, two months to decide how to contest, then deep debates—should the age of voting be 18, 20 or 21? Equally debated were two issues—should the vast numbers of deserters be given the vote, and should the Romanov’s get the vote? (at that time all the Romanovs numbered around 47, including minors). At last, in June 1917, the Bolsheviks called for a mass demonstration, demanding that the Congress of Soviets then meeting should take all the power, and that the bourgeois ministers of the by then coalition Provisional Government should be ousted. That demonstration, called for 10 June, was blocked by threats from the Soviet Congress majority. However, that also forced the hands of the liberal bourgeois-moderate socialist bloc, which announced that elections would be held on 17 September.

At the beginning of July, the bulk of bourgeois ministersresigned, creating a crisis, and one of their terms for returning to government was a further postponement of the elections to 12 November. Meanwhile, General Lavr Kornilov had beenappointed head of the army, and a conspiracy was underway, with Kadets, military officers, sections of the bourgeoisie, all involved, to stage a coup d’état. As that was planned for the end of August, the postponement of the elections was clearly intended to serve the purpose of scuttling democratic elections altogether (Trotsky 2014b: 624–779; Asher 1970: 286–300 for the Kornilov coup and its collapse).

There has been a huge effort by right-wing historians to deny that Kornilov planned a counter-revolutionary coup. Katkov (1080) claimed there had been no Kornilov plot, but rather, it was the product of Kerensky’s wild imaginations. He has been answered by others, summarised in Long (1984).

In reality, there had been two conspiracies, as Trotsky had shown long back, and at one point the two separated. Appointing Kornilov as the head of the army, Kerensky, who had been raised to the position of Prime Minister after the July crisis, had aimed to reduce his dependence on the soviets. For the same reason, to reduce his dependence on the Soviets, Kerensky called a state conference in Moscow which arbitrarily decided seats for various groups, and excluded the Bolsheviks. This conference was clearly divided between a left-wing, consisting of the socialists and their allies, collectively designated“The Democracy,” and a right-wing consisting of the liberals, bourgeois leaders, officers, old monarchists who were again raising their heads, etc. Kerensky planned on a deal with Kornilov, while the Kadets and Kornilov planned on masking their plot by appearing to play along with Kerensky. Obviously, such plots seldom keep fully open tracks; hence Katkov could make his claim. However, the memoirs of general Denikin and other material show clearly that the Kadets had egged Kornilov on. That he attempted to march on the capital and was defeated, not by Kerensky, but by the resurgent workers and revolutionary soldiers, is a matter of record well-documented.

Democratic Alternatives

If I have spent so much space on the liberals, that is because of the persistence of the claim that wicked Bolsheviks destroyed democracy, and that Lenin and Trotsky were the direct precursors of Stalinism and the Gulag. We now need to look at the actual democratic alternatives that emerged.

In Russia, in 1917, right from the beginning, it was the masses who pushed for the creation and development of organisations that truly represented them. These included soviets, factory committees, trade unions, soldiers’ organisations, peasant committees. Workers and soldiers elected representatives, and could replace them whenever they were dissatisfied. Moreover, the way the soviets started functioning at the local level, meant that even before October, in growing parts of the country,soviets were taking over from the organs of local government like city Dumas and rural zemstvos. And they were also subordinating the bureaucracy to their control. Local sovietsdeveloped in cities under the city soviets. This happened in Moscow, Yaroslav, Kazan, Nikolaev, Rostov-on-Don and elsewhere (Marik 2008: 327). Under military protection from the city soviet, they dealt with local problems. Factory councils, trade unions, various kinds of committees to deal with specific problems, local militias all sprang up.

Food supply began to be taken over by coordination between the soviets of big cities and rural organisations. On 5 March, Petrograd workers discovered 180 trucks of grain consigned to private individuals. The Food Commission of the Petrograd Soviet appropriated these and sent them to the soldiers of the Northern Front, having learnt that they had only one day’s food left (Podovolstvenny Vestnik, 30 July 1917).

The Executive Committee of the Krasnoyarsk Soviet sent a telegram along the Siberian Railway line forbidding delivery of food for speculative purposes. And an All-Russia Food Congress was called in May 1917 with 333 delegates. The Moscow Soviet took the initiative in this (Andreyev 1971: 75).

But why should soviets, representing workers and soldiers, be more democratic than institutions representing all citizens? First of all, as we have already seen, the Provisional Government was not moving towards a quick creation of “democratic” structures. Second, the point that Lenin was to make, in his April Theses, in his State and Revolution, and elsewhere, was that one of the vital differences between the institutions of democracy where passive citizens simply elected the representatives, and soviet-like bodies, was the way the latter functioned.

If we look at the Petrograd Soviet, we get a detailed picture. In the early period it was practically a daily mass meeting, with deputies increasing to 1,200 in early March. By the second half of March this rose to nearly 3,000. The representation was skewed in favour of the soldiers, since every military unit sent representatives, and though there were many more workers than soldiers, the workers were represented more formally. For specific issues, separate worker and soldier sections of the Soviet were also formed. In course of the second half of March and April, further formalisation was brought about. Executive Commissions of the two sections were created. So many kinds of tasks fell upon the soviets, or were assumed by them; many commissions were created. By mid-March, the Executive Committee of the Soviet (to be distinguished from the Executive Commissions of the Workers’ Section and the Soldiers’ Section) had been enlarged, and so a smaller bureau was created. After the first Conference of Soviets, the Executive and the Bureau were enlarged, and thereafter the Bureau met daily. By June, the Petrograd Soviet was also employing several hundred persons.

So was it simply a new bureaucratic structure? In the first place, it was still in closer touch with the mass of workers and soldiers. And while the mass meeting character of the early days could not be permanently maintained, the Soviet continued to have regular plenary meetings, and the Executive and its Presidium were ultimately subordinate to it. This was shown most dramatically on 31 August–1 September. After the failed Kornilov coup, Kamenev for the Bolsheviks put forward a moderate (by Bolshevik standards) but leftward moving proposal, calling for a government of representatives of only the working class and the poor peasants. Early in the morning of 1 September, after an overnight debate, the Soviet plenary meeting voted in favour of Kamenev’s motion. Given the time, 5 am, voters were relatively few—279 for, 115 against, and 51 abstentions. On 5 September, the Moscow Soviet too voted for the Bolshevik motion.

The Petrograd Soviet’s right-wing Menshevik andSR leadership argued that the vote for Kamenev’s motion had been accidental, since so few were present, and on 9 September, mobilised their supporters and threatened to resign if the decision were not overturned. Speaking for the Bolsheviks, Trotsky asked whether the by now utterly hated Kerensky was still a member of the Executive. The moderates had to acknowledge him. Trotsky reminded the Soviet that therefore, in voting for the old Executive and its policies they were also voting for Kerensky. The Petrograd Soviet voted 519 to 414, with 67abstentions, with the Bolsheviks and against the Presidium, which resigned and was replaced on 25 September by a new Presidium consisting of one Menshevik, twoSRs, and four Bolsheviks, giving the Bolsheviks a clear majority for the first time. One of the four was greeted with loud applause. Still out on bail and 12 years after his previous commanding role in the St Petersburg Soviet of 1905, Leon Trotsky took his seat. His immediate resolution, stating that the solution for the revolution lay in the new All-Russian Congress of Soviets, was passed overwhelmingly. Even the road to insurrection was thus covered with Soviet resolutions and actions.

Across Petrograd, and in some of the other big cities, there developed district or borough soviets. These borough soviets were intended to deal with borough problems specifically and to execute resolutions of the general soviet, but several borough soviets acted quite independently. In the working-class Vyborg quarter a workers and soldiers’ council was formed as early as 28 February; by 3–4 March other boroughs had soviets. In a number of borough soviets, the Bolsheviks had greater influence from an early stage (Matveev 1932: 221–22, n 24).

Growth of Soviet Structures and Soldiers’ Committees

In 1917, from an early stage, as we have already noted, soviets were involved in attempts to decide what should be done with food supplies and with other work. Moreover, with party structures and party lines much more clearly separated in 1917 (compared to 1905), soviets and other institutions of grass roots democracy were the terrain where the different radical parties fought out their divergences in front of the mass of workers, soldiers, and peasants. Given the bourgeoisie’s complete lack of hegemony over the workers and peasants, the absence of bourgeois parties did not appear as in any way problematic for the masses.

During March, soviets appeared in all the big cities. The Moscow District Conference of Soviets, meeting on 25–27 March, had 70 workers’ councils and 38 soldiers’ councils. In the Ukraine, a Congress in April gathered 80 soviets. The historian Anweiler (1974: 113), writing about the soviets in 1917, suggests that the total number of councils may have grown from 400 in May to 600 in August and 900 in October, in round numbers. The Moscow Soviet was the second largest in Russia, after the Petrograd Soviet. But workers and soldiers initially had separate soviets. The Workers’ Soviet had 700 deputiesat the beginning of June. Like the Petrograd Soviet, it had many commissions to deal with specific purposes. In this city too, borough/district soviets were created, and here toothe Bolsheviks made quicker headway at that level than inthe city Soviet.

In provincial soviets differentiation along party lines took time. Till the return of Lenin and his fight for a sharp separation of the Bolsheviks from the “defencists” (those who wanted a continuation of the war under whatever plea), in many places even party structures were relatively blurred.

A significant development, a direct consequence of theOrder No 1, was the creation of soldiers’ committees, not only in the rear garrisons, but in front-line units. Under pressure from the liberals and the generals, the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet a few days later tried to restrict the operation of Order No 1 to the rear, by issuing an Order No 2. But soldiers in the front started electing their own committees. Facing a situation where rejection of the committees could lead to total loss of control over the armies, General Alexeiev issued an order on 30 March regulating the formation of such committees at the level of company, battery or squadron, which in turn were to be the basis for higher committees. Legitimisation of soldiers committees was the price paid by the unwilling generals to stop soldiers from electing officers as they had wanted.

On the front line, army and front-line congresses were the equivalents of the regional or city soviet meetings. The first War Minister, the Octobrist Guchkov, openly told the generals that he could not rescind Order No 1. The next War Minister was the socialist Kerensky. Hoping to use his popularity, he sent Commissars to control the armies. As the Commissars tried to push Kerensky’s war drive in the summer, they went more and more into opposition to the committees, which represented the soldiers’ desire for a rapid end to the war.

Peasant Councils and the Agrarian Revolution

In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky records that soviets were initially less important among the peasants.Anweiler’s (1974) study partly supports him. Anweiler shows that the creation of peasant soviets started from the provincial capital level, with 20 provincial soviets being set up between March and May. The initiative was taken by theSR Party,in collaboration with peasants and populist intellectuals.An All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Deputies was heldin Petrograd.

However, Trotsky writes, on the basis of data collected in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, that out of the 624 counties constituting old Russia, 482, or 77%, were involved in large-scale peasant struggles by the autumn. This raises the question of the peasant organisational structures. In the initial period, Trotsky asserts, the peasants displayed a degree of coolness to the soviets, because the political leadership of the soviets came from Right Socialist Revolutionaries (RightSRs) and Cooperative bureaucrats who wanted to hold back peasant radicalism rather than to push it forward. Nor were theyinterested in the democratic zemstvos pushed by the Provisional Government. It was initially to the land committees, especially their village/town level rungs, that the peasants turned. It was only when the Soviets were to turn left, with the Bolsheviks in the ascendant and the LeftSRs breakingout of party discipline and urging agrarian revolution, that peasants would turn to soviets (Trotsky 2014c: 859, 860–62, 870–76, 881–84).

The peasants were initially to support theSR Party. Traces of this support were to remain all the way to the elections of the Constituent Assembly. In the Constituent Assembly, the SRs received the highest votes—40.4%, and 370 seats. One major reason for this, opponents of the SRs on the left argued, was the delay in the split of the LeftSRs, led by Spiridonova, Natanson, Kamkov and others. The peasants were attracted to the SRs due to the historic programme of the SR Party, but because the right-wing controlled the party the bulk of the candidates were right SRs. Where the Left SRs were able to put up their own candidates they scored quite well. In Petrograd the LeftSRs received 16.2% and the Right SRs 0.5%; in Kazan the respective figures were 18.9% and 2.1%, and in the Baltic Fleet 26.9% and 11.9% (Marik 2008: 391). That the LeftSRs, coalition partners of the Bolsheviks and defenders of the policy of land seizure, were supported by peasants can be seen when we look at the two peasant Soviet Congresses held after October. Between 23 and 28 November of the Western Calendar, an Extraordinary Congress of Peasants’ Deputies was held. The LeftSRs won a majority in it. In the regular Peasant Congress, held a little later, too, the Left SRs, supported by the Bolsheviks, again got a majority.

The difference in how peasants acted through the land committees and the role that the upper tiers of peasant soviets played under moderate leadership is clear. A point made by Marx and often misrepresented in anti-Marxist literature is the difficulty of the peasantry to coordinate action across the country. Marx had in mind the contradiction between their hostility to landlord and bourgeois exploitation and their support to Louis Bonaparte in France. But he had also insisted that the working class had to forge an alliance with them, if it intended to succeed in its revolutionary struggle. Both Lenin and Trotsky had insisted, during the Revolution of 1905, that this was necessary. In the case of Lenin, this is so well known that it hardly requires documentation.

The case of Trotsky has been obscured due to repeated attacks and distortions. But the strategy of permanent revolution outlined by him had insisted that in the most critical period, the proletariat could not hope to succeed without peasant support (Chattopadhyay 1987: 87–101 discusses this at length). For lack of space I adduce just two citations here. In his account of the revolution of 1905, looking back Trotsky (1971: 52) wrote:

The complete formula for the agrarian problem is as follows: expropriation of the nobility, liquidation of Tsarism, democracy … The agrarian problem in Russia is a heavy burden to capitalism: it is an aid to the revolutionary party and at the same time its greatest challenge: it is the stumbling block for liberalism, and a memento mori for counter-revolution.

And in his foreword to a Russian edition of Marx on the Paris Commune, the lessons he drew from Marx and theconcrete historic experience of the Russian Revolution included the following:

The supremacy of the proletariat will mean … also the recognition of all the revolutionary land redistributions (seizures) undertaken by the peasantry. The proletariat will make these changes the starting point for further state measures in agriculture. (Day and Gaido 2011: 514–15)

By contrast, the bulk of Mensheviks had been deeply negative about the peasants. At the 1907 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, Rosa Luxemburg, speaking for the Social Democracy of Poland and Lithuania, which had joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), summarised the Menshevik view on the peasantry in order to condemn it:

The peasantry is a reactionary class and anything more cometh of evil. The bourgeoisies is a revolutionary class and anything more cometh of evil. … The role of the peasantry, and the proletariat’s relation to it, is determined in exactly the same way as the role of the bourgeoisie—not by the subjective wishes and efforts of these classes but by their objective position … It is quite clear that political leadership of the chaotic peasant movement in Russia today, and the exercise of influence over it, are the natural historical responsibility of the conscious proletariat. (Day and Gaido 2011: 563–64)

In her speech, she repeatedly invoked Plekhanov, theBund (the Jewish Socialist organisation aligned with the Mensheviks) and the Mensheviks generally as the people who wrote off peasants.

In 1917, this strategic difference was to turn into concrete policies and actions. The peasants might electSR (because historically, this party had talked about a peasant road tosocialism, and had pledged support to land seizure). But peasants were taking direct action, using the local committees, while at higher levels the stress was on waiting for the ConstituentAssembly. This had its impact eventually on peasant attitude to the party. As Radkey, the sympathetic but careful historian of theSR Party has written, when theSR Party finally split in September 1917 into left and right wings (the right continuing to support the coalition government with the liberals, representatives of the propertied classes), 

… nearly all the sailors and a large majority of the workers and army went with the L[eft] SRs, most of the intelligenty and white collar workers stayed where they were, and the peasantry divided into two camps, the larger loyal to the [Right] SR but the lesser one already sizable and steadily growing. ... From every quarter came complaints of a dearth of intellectuals which seriously impeded the activity of the new party. Sukhanov termed it the party of the rural plebs and ranked it even lower on the cultural scale than the Bolsheviks, the party of the urban plebs. (Radkey 1963: 159)

Peasants, even in the early stages, while having faith in their apparent leadership, demanded certain specific actions. Thus, Tambov villages sent a telegram in April 1917 to the Provisional Government:

We desire to keep the peace in the interests of the freedom won. But for this reason, forbid the sale of the landlords’ land until the Constituent Assembly. Otherwise we will shed blood, but we will not let anyone else plough the land. (Trotsky 2014c: 859)

From July, the government attempted to use force to subdue the peasants. Struggles grew more bitter. Trotsky reports: “Over 42 per cent of all the cases of destruction recorded by the militia occurred in the month of October” (2014c: 864). And he explains that behind the destructive activities stood the logic of peasant struggles—to raze to the ground the fortified positions of the enemy. As long as there was no confidence of the peasants in the government, they were in no mood to rely on some future government action. The well-to-do, the landlords, were either trying to hang on to their land, or where more intelligent, were hoping that the Constituent Assembly would award them substantial compensation. Agrarian struggles, too, showed that it was the anti-feudal, anti-landlord struggles that dominated. The Soviet historian Vermenichev showed that between February and October, there were 4,954 agrarian conflicts between landlords and peasants, and only 324between peasant bourgeoisie and agricultural workers and the poorest peasants (Trotsky 2014c: 871). As Trotsky concluded:

The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries of Russian history climbed up on the shoulders of the 20th, and bent it to the ground … the peasant war did not urge the bourgeois revolutionists forward, but threw them back convulsively into the camp of reaction. (2014c: 888)

Factory Councils

Apart from Trotsky, no Russian Marxist had thought, before 1917, that the revolution in Russia could go beyond “bourgeois democratic” limits. Even Trotsky had argued that the revolutionary government, under proletarian hegemony, would have to make inroads on the power of capital, but had not considered in detail the consequences of his argument. Similarly, in 1917, when Lenin talked about the conquest of power by the Soviets, his basic assumption had been that political power would pass to the working class, supported by the agricultural workers and the poorest layers of peasantry, but the economy would still remain capitalist, with the working class state power imposing regulating mechanisms. However, the class struggle between workers and capitalists could not be split so neatly between the political and the economic.

In practice, political dual power was followed pretty soon by economic dual power. The general strike that toppled tsarism was also a strike over lack of food, declining real wages, and other burning economic issues. Apart from better wages and shorter working hours, two immediate demands, workers also fought for what they called a constitutional regime in the factories. They wanted to end the despotic power given tofactory and mill owners under the tsar. In 1912, an association of factory and mill owners had rejected even the minimal shop-level representation allowed by law, and rejected trade union interference in wages, working conditions, hiring and firing, and the internal regimes of factories (Mandel 2016: 121). The internal regimes of the factories were quite oppressive.

This was true not only in Petrograd, but elsewhere. Kevin Murphy’s study of a Moscow factory notes:

By March 1917 real wages were half of what they had been four years earlier, and as one worker memoir notes, employees seemed increasingly aware that Guzhon’s earnings during the war had come at their expense. Ultimately the hard-line strategy of war profiteering came at a price that could not be measured in rubles. It fuelled workers’ fierce hatred toward their bosses and contributed to the widening chasm between rulers and ruled in a society increasingly divided along class lines. (2005: 36)

The outbreak of the war had only added new repressive measures to the industrialists’ arsenal against the workers, including the loss of military deferral.

As a result, the first steps taken by workers in many factories when work was finally resumed, was to purge the management, ejecting the worst elements. At the Putilov works in Petrograd, workers thrust Puzanov, a leader of the Black Hundreds in the factory, into a wheel barrow, poured red lead on him, and threatened to dump him into a nearby canal (Marik 2008: 404). Next came the destruction of factory rulebooks with their punitive fines and humiliating searches, followed by the factory committees. These factory committees were the central element, argues David Mandel, who has studied them extensively (1983, 1984, 1993, and 2016), of the constitutional regime desired by the workers. They did not want to take over the factories. But at a number of workplaces, assemblies of workers created such committees, and told them to help work out rules regarding the length of the working day, minimum wages,labour discipline, and other important issues.

The movement for the creation of factory committees came up from below, in response to concrete problems faced by the workers. The Russian bourgeoisie was just as eager to accept democratic reforms as any other bourgeoisie, that is, not at all. At the same time, the workers tended to put some stress on the physical integrity of the factory showing they were concerned about production.

Within a short period, conflicts started flaring up. The owners were not happy about any of the concessions they had been forced to make. Neither the eight-hour workday nor the recognition of permanent factory committees had gone down well. In 1905, the struggle for the eight-hour workday had been defeated by a widespread lockout imposed by the owners (Trotsky 1971: 194–201). In 1917, therefore, workers were wary. A campaign was launched about how the supposed egoismof the workers was harming the war and the soldiers—in an obvious ploy to divide workers and soldiers. In the course of this campaign and their responses, workers began to question the explanations offered by factory management as to why productive capacity was standing idle. From this began thedemand for worker’s control.

In Russian, kontrol meant something distinct from the English. It was mainly a matter of supervising/monitoring the work of the owners/management. By May, cutbacks in production were being noted by the left wing of the socialist movement—Bolsheviks, Menshevik Internationalists, and the Anarchists. The bourgeoisie were also rejecting proposals for increasing state powers to regulate the economy. Alexander Konovalov, Minister of Trade and Industry, resigned in late May, citing his objection to a (rather moderate) Menshevik–Defencist andSR proposal for state economic regulations. He also warned effectively of a lockout in the near future (Novaya Zhizhn,19 and 20 May 1917).

Conflicts were not restricted to Petrograd. Mandel cites the case of Ivanovo–Voznesensk, where owners refused to reopen several textile mills after the Easter holidays, claiming supply problems, but when the local soviet decided that the workers would receive full wages and set up an industrial control commission, the owners reopened the mills (2016: 126). At the end of May and in early June 1917, the First Conferenceof Factory Committees met in Petrograd. The left-wingSR,V M Levin, a member of the conference’s organising committee, opened the conference saying:

Whether they want to or not, the factory committees have to intervene in the economic life of their factories—otherwise they will shut down. All the factories in Petrograd are in crisis. But management has not been active in securing the supply of materials and fuel. The workers have to become active where the industrialists aren’t … This is an entirely new task that the revolution has placed before us. (Oktyabrskaya revolyutsiya i fabzavkomy, 1: 81, Moscow 1927)

On 1 June, the conference voted in favour of a Bolshevik resolution (297 votes, with 85 for the Mensheviks, and 45 for the anarchists) (Marik 2008: 405). The push from the factory committees also led to a radicalisation of the Workers’ Section of the Petrograd Soviet, which on 31 May suggested that a real economic solution to the growing economic crisis lay in establishing workers’ control both from below (at the factory level) and from above (through the state) (Mandel 1993: 13–14). A Bolshevik resolution of 1 June spoke of transfer of state power to the soviets to ensure workers’ control from above. Factory Committees grew in numbers and influence, and were rapidly radicalised.

The defeat of Kornilov, and thereupon the hope of capitalists that they could wrest political power by a swift military action, meant a growing determination to not yield on the economic front. The struggle for workers’ control therefore went on. However, it was hampered for two reasons. The right-wing of the socialist movement, insisting that it was a bourgeois revolution, opposed any worker intervention in management. And parts of the left were sceptical aboutexactly what the committees were trying to achieve. In one exchange, Lenin criticised the committees for acting as errand boys of capitalism, since they were looking for fuel or raw< material to keep the factories running. He was arguing that without soviet power at the top the factory committees could not serve class interests of the workers. However, a delegate from the New Arsenal factory answered Lenin, saying that “If we didn’t support the factories in this way, who knows what would happen?” (Oktyabrskaya revolyutsiya i fabzavkomy,1: 91–92, 100).

The workers did not at this point want to take over the running of factories. There was an awareness that the movement could turn into pushers for the owners, and an attempt to ensure that this did not happen. And apart from the anarchists, no current thought that taking over the factories immediately was an answer. On the eve of the October insurrection, the Bolshevik Skrypnik, part of the Factory Committee movement, told a national conference of the committees that “workers’ control is not socialism” (Oktyabrskaya revolyutsiya i fabzavkomy 2: 184–85).

Once the soviets assumed power after the October Revolution, matters changed. It was the Factory Committees that fought for greater control, all the way to nationalisation. The Bolshevik slogan of “bread” was translated concretely into a decision to implement workers’ control, so that owners could not simply shut down production. But the refusal of the capitalist class to cooperate with the new regime brought the conflict to a head. Rank and file workers tried to set up a full system of workers’ control, to ensure state regulation succeeded. So when owners refused to cooperate, direct intervention by the workers into production, not merely supervision, was necessary. Between November 1917 and March 1918, only 5.8% of all forms of nationalisations and seizures were carried out by the Council of People’s Commissars or the Supreme Economic Council set up after the revolution. The rest came from below (Marik 2008: 407; Mandel 1993: 33; Smith: 235–39].

The Bolshevik Party in 1917

The next point I want to emphasise is that working-class democracy cannot be established, without internal democracy in the revolutionary party or parties of the working class. This is something that both right-wing scholarship and journalistic propaganda, and much of contemporary left-wing politics,ignores. The common view within the left is that democratic centralism simply means that once the party decides a line through a Party Congress, the leaders reach a decision and the rest follow. Rightist historians claim that ever since What Is to Be Done? Lenin had a one-track mind, and simply wanted to take power for and by a small coterie. The researches of Paul Le Blanc (2015), Lars Lih (2006) and Soma Marik (2008) seriously challenge such views.1 In this article, my aim is to look simply at 1917, and make the case that a very broad, democratic political culture pervaded the Bolsheviks, and that it was the complete antithesis of what Stalinist (and Maoist) politics has insisted ever since the late 1920s.

We see this in how different Bolshevik groups and organisations responded to the February Revolution. We see this in the rightward lurch under the leadership of Stalin and Kamenev in March 1917 and the conflict Lenin had in April with them.2 When Lenin arrived in Petrograd in April, he had sent twoletters ahead of him, only one of which had been published in Pravda. And his April Theses were published as his personal view, with the editorial board and the leadership dissociating themselves from it. This was followed by a month of sharp inner-party struggle before he could win over a part of the party to his position. At the Seventh All Russian Conference of 24–29 April, the crucial resolution, “On the Current Moment,” won with Lenin getting 71 votes, Kamenev, his leading opponent and co-reporter, getting 39 in opposition, and eight delegates abstaining (Sed’maia Konferentsia: 50, 106).

Inner-party debates continued throughout 1917. And these were not restricted to the leaderships. In June, a debate took place over whether to organise a public demonstration demanding that the Congress of Soviets should end the Provisional Government. The decision was taken not by the nine-member Central Committee, but a meeting of the Central committee, along with the Petrograd Committee, the Military Organisation, and representatives from the trade union and factory-committee party cells. This meeting decided by 58 votes to 37, with 52 abstentions, that a demonstration would take place. But the All Russian Congress of Soviets declared that the demonstration would be used by counter-revolutionaries and called for a ban. Faced with this situation, an emergency meeting attended by five Central Committee members decided with three voting for and two abstaining, to call off the demonstration. The party ranks responded by angry resolutions against the Central Committee. Lenin, in a speech before the Petersburg Committee, on 11 June, said that “Your right, the right to protest against the actions of the Central Committee, is a legitimate one, and your decision must be a free one” (Marik 2008: 334–35).3

It was this combination of revolutionary practice with full democracy that enabled the Bolsheviks to grow among the masses, and transform from a small organisation of under 24,000 to about 4,00,000. In Petrograd, in early March they had 2,000 members; the Mezhraiontsy had about 350 to 400. At the Sixth Congress, where the latter were also to merge with the Bolsheviks, the total Petrograd membership was 26,000.

The immediate background to the insurrection also showed how debates were conducted. Following the failure of Kornilov, as Bolshevik influence grew, Lenin from his underground location (where he had been driven as a result of the month of slanders when he was accused of having taken German money) started insisting that the Bolsheviks should now think of an insurrection. But cut off from the capital and direct working class action, Lenin’s tactical prescription for insurrection was to depend on direct Bolshevik influence over workers’ militias and military units, and he thought in terms of an uprising across the country, at least in major centres. But he faced resistance in the Central Committee. In its meeting of 15 September, it was decided, with six votes for and four against, and six abstentions, toburn Lenin’s letters (all but one copy) (Bone 1974: 58). On 23 September, 15 members of the Central Committee voted by eight to seven for a policy of entering a relatively spurious body named the Democratic Conference with a line of confronting the moderates, while a minority was for boycotting the Democratic Conference. Finally, on 5 October, Lenin and Trotsky got their way in the Central Committee, with the decision to withdraw from a body named Council of the Republic. But Kamenev expressed his dissent.

Kamenev, supported by Zinoviev, felt that an insurrection was tactically unwise, and it was better to go on strengthening the party’s forces. The two of them wrote this openly in Gorky’s paper on 18 October. An angry Lenin demanded their expulsion. But others differed. Stalin felt that the differences were not irreconcilable. And when the insurrection began, Kamenev took part in its actual conduct. Not even Sverdlov and Trotsky, the two Central Committee members most closely involved with organising the insurrection, agreed with the demand for expulsion.

The October Revolution and Revolutionary Democracy

That the October Revolution did not mean the scrapping of democracy by the Bolsheviks, can be argued at length. I would like to mention, briefly, three points. The first is the Bolshevik search for a wider coalition. The October insurrection was made in the name of the Soviets, and it was to the Second Congress of Soviets that the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, which had seized power, submitted its proposal that power be taken. So the Bolsheviks were willing to form a government with other socialist parties, provided they accepted the Congress of Soviets as the foundation of the government’s power. The minutes of the All Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, elected by the Second Congress of Soviets, provide ample evidence of that. Indeed, at the Soviet Congress itself, when Martov proposed that a government of all socialist parties be formed, Lunacharsky, speaking for the Bolsheviks, accepted the proposal (Trotsky 2014c: 1151–52). But the centre and right Mensheviks andSRs refused to work with the Bolsheviks. At which point, Martov also withdrew. In the first days, what existed was a Council of People’s Commissars which was exclusively Bolshevik. But the Bolsheviks went on attempting negotiations. What led to the collapse of such negotiations was the emphasis of the Right SRs and all Mensheviks that the government should not be subordinated to the Congress of Soviets. In other words, they were seeing it as, at best, another Provisional Government, to give way to bourgeois parliaments at the end. An additional factor was the demand of the right-wing socialists that Lenin and Trotsky must be excluded from any government.

Eventually, the LeftSRs agreed to join the government. They remained in it till March 1918. This period, and the functioning of the coalition under soviet power, has not been often treated seriously. Later Soviet historiography treated the LeftSRs as petty bourgeois and unstable forces lacking seriousness (Spirin 1968). Western historiography, often influenced by the Russian moderate socialists, saw them as dupes of the Bolsheviks (Felsh’tinskii 1985; Ulam 1966). Cinella (1997) shows that the LeftSRs remained a considerable force in the soviets in the spring of 1918. Melancon’s studies have shown that radicalism in 1917–18 was not identical with Bolshevism (Melancon 1997). Melancon has also suggested with some documentation that LeftSRs were influential in shaping the land law towardssocialisation and the equal distribution of land, as adopted by the Sovnarkom (Melancon 2012: 59–88). The LeftSRs shared with the Bolsheviks the concept of legitimacy of the Congress of Soviets, and were therefore in agreement about the need to dissolve the Constituent Assembly. The main condition for LeftSRs entry was parity between worker and soldier representation and peasant representation in the VTsIK. This was done on 15 November 1917, with the terms of agreement providing for the inclusion of 108 representatives each from the VTsIK of the two soviets, along with those of the navy and army, as well as those of the trade unions generally, and members from the railway union and the post and telegraph union (Keep 1979: 130).

Lenin argued that particularly on issues like the land laws, if the proposed measures of the LeftSRs went against the Bolshevik programme, they should abstain (rather than oppose), because

if the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (as well as the peasants who support them) agree to workers’ control, to the nationalisation of the banks, etc, equal land tenure would be only one of the measures of transition to full socialism. For the proletariat to impose such transitional measures would be absurd; it is obliged, in the interests of the victory of socialism, to yield to the small working and exploited peasants in the choice of these transitional measures, for they could do no harm to the cause of socialism. (Lenin 1918)

Six LeftSRs served as People’s Commissars, including Kalegaev (Agriculture), Shteinberg (Justice), Proshian (Post and Telegraph), Trutovskii (Local Self Government), Izmailovich (Property of the Republic—but in practice she did not take up her work), Kamkov (Co-Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs, and also later Izmailovich’s Department), Algasov (Collegium of Internal Affairs member, Commissar without Portfolio) (Keep 1979: 149, 201), but Keep’s text does not mention Izmailovich. Only in the long note appended by Keep (1979: 373–75) do we get her name. Keep is keen to show that most of this was window dressing by the Bolsheviks. But LeftSRs also joined the Collegia of the other People’s Commissariats. In other words, in the making of decrees, they now had considerable voice.

Between December 1917 and March 1918, the Sovnarkom met 53 times. The Left SRs were regularly in attendance. They were able to influence not only issues like land questions, but a range of other matters. Thus, when a band of soldiers killed two former ministers—Kokoshkin and Shingarev—Shteinberg was instrumental in ensuring that Lenin called for a full investigation and punishment of the murderers.

The LeftSRs left the coalition after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, though, as the debates at their Second Party Congress show, many leaders including Spiridonova felt they should return to government (Partiia levykh 1: 334–44, 349).

Ruination of Revolutionary Democracy

Far more important than the Left SRs pulling out was,however, the coming of the Civil War and the destruction of revolutionary democracy as a result of the Civil War. At this juncture, after close to a century, there is, however, also aneed to distinguish between the principled and the tactical, and to recognise that Bolshevik actions also contributed to the decline of revolutionary democracy. The Civil War of course meant that forces which were fighting, arms in hand, with imperialist support, could not be accepted, nor given democratic rights. But the Bolsheviks tended to create institutions that posed problems. The most important of these was the Cheka. Leggett (1981) has shown that this was an institutionalisation and bureaucratisation of terror that moved away from class conflict conducted by a revolutionary working class democracy to a basically anti-democratic structure.

It is worth noting, however, that in the Red camp there were oppositions to the Cheka, not only from the Left SRs, butrepeatedly, even in Bolshevik Party Congresses. Leggett (1981) notes that the power of the Cheka tended to increase when threats to the regime intensified, while the Commissariat of Justice tried to reduce its powers at other times. The choice was not democracy versus dictatorship, since the Whites, wherever they took power, used far more open and unrestrained forms of violence. But recent left-wing critics of the Bolsheviks have often been one-sided. Farber (1990), forexample, wrote that White Terror is assumed to be given. This ignores that White Terror preceded Red Terror, when the Whites in Finland carried out a massacre of the left, or that in Russia, White Terror was what compelled the Bolsheviks to take up the policy of War Communism, which in turn tightened the institutionalised violence. Instead, Farber makes the completely unfounded claim that War Communism was a conscious choice, not a response to a crisis. This enables him to draw a direct line from Lenin to Stalin.

It is, therefore, necessary to take a look at the continuity of soviets beyond October. All the way to 1921, the local soviets showed that they were not in a majority. In the Volost executive committees, non-party members predominated. In district executive committees, communists had a slight majority. But even the presence of party members could not at that stage always mean a tight discipline. We have seen that the membership of the Bolsheviks grew from 24,000 in February 1917to approximately 4,00,000 by October. So these were not all supposedly hardened Leninists portrayed as blind followers of the words of the leadership. In 1919, the only year for which detailed data is available, only 12.5% of the district and city executive committees could be considered Old Bolsheviks, those who joined the party before the revolution (Vladimirsky 1920: 7). The proportion of Old Bolsheviks in the district CongressExecutive Committees in fact declined from 12.2% in 1919 to 7.6% in 1921 (Abrams 1968: 576). Equally significant is the age composition. In 1919, in a sample of 2,662, taken from 30% of all local Soviet Executive Committee members in the District Congress and City Executive Committees, and 40% of those in the Provincial Congress and City Executive Committees, under 25 years accounted for 13.7%, 25–29 year-old persons 30.3%, and 30–39 year-old people 44.2%. This clearly represented the elimination of the older bureaucratic layers and the coming forward of workers and peasants. This supposition is further borne out when we see that the educational qualifications had come down with 20.6% having no more than a high school education and only 4.5% having university education, among the District Executive Committees (Abrams 1968: 577; Vladimirsky 1920: 4–6).

Alexander Rabinowitch showed that in Petrograd the First City District Soviet had its own peoples’ court network, replacing the old judiciary, an investigation commission, a social welfare section, a legal section, a housing section, a culture and education section and its own press. In May–June 1918, it held a conference, where the 201 voting delegates included 134 Bolsheviks, 13 LeftSRs, 30 Mensheviks and Menshevik Internationalists, and 24 RightSRs. As Rabinowitch puts it, it was an attempt at “an honest effort to restore meaningful links with the masses despite the stirrings of civil war” (quoted in Marik 2008: 400–01).

It is of some significance that in recent times not even many on the left have investigated the Civil War and the White Terror, and the tendency of the right-wing of socialism to often side with the extreme right. That the democratic aspirations of 1917 were destroyed not too many years later can be hardly disputed. But the tendency to see Bolsheviks as villainous actors and all others as mere victims distorts the picture terribly.


1 The present writer’s views about Lih can be found in Kunal Chattopadhyay, “Lenin and Democracy: Recovering Truth from Mythology,” EPW, Vol 44, No 8, 21 February 2009.

2 This is the subject of extensive debates, all the way to the present. My own position has been spelled out in two articles in Bangla, one published in Montage, Autumn No, 2017, and the other, “Sramik Sreni, Bolshevik Dol O Netritwer Prosongo: February Biplab O Tar Abokshay” (The Working Class, The Bolshevik Party and the Question of Leadership: The FebruaryRevolution and its Decline), to be publishedin a collection of articles by Soma Marikand myself.

3 For a popular and detailed narrative by a major novelist, basing himself on many specialist works, see China Mieville, October, London: Verso, 2017, 142–52.


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Updated On : 3rd Nov, 2017


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