“All power to the Soviets!”: Reflections on reading The History of the Russian Revolution in 2017
Sam Tilley | August 2017
Leon Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution analyses the build-up to and happenings of both the February 1917 and October 1917 revolutions. He undertakes this analysis because of the extraordinary nature of these events. Even though these revolutions occurred 100 years ago, examining them can provide important lessons for workers and the left all over the world today.
The October 1917 revolution was the first and only time in world history that workers overthrew the capitalist government, and put in place a workers’ state. While other, later governments claimed to be workers’ states, in reality they were controlled by a privileged bureaucratic elite who continued to oppress workers. These governments were largely typecasts of the regime that had developed in the USSR due to the degeneration of the Russian revolution. Despite this degeneration, the Russian revolution in its initial stages is the prime example of workers seizing state power. While we try to draw lessons from this example, we must also ask ourselves why the revolution did not maintain its success, and why it was not replicated in other parts of the world.
Before February 1917, Russia was semi-feudal. It was ruled by a tzar, the equivalent of a king. However, due to the involvement of Western capitalist countries in Russia, the country also had elements of capitalism. Because of this strange way in which Russia had developed, the capitalists were unable to carry out a democratic revolution against monarchy and feudalism, as had happened in other countries. This revolution had yet to come, but it could not be carried out by the weak Russian capitalists. Russia’s involvement in World War I, by incurring massive suffering upon the ordinary people, and grouping huge sections of the peasantry together in the army, accelerated the arrival of this revolution. In February 1917, the workers and the army came together to overthrow the monarchy, and place in power a government made up of the capitalists on one hand, and representatives elected by the revolutionaries to a body called the Soviets on the other.
According to Trotsky in 1905, the Soviets first emerged in October 1905, on the eve of a strike aimed against the monarchy. They were non-party organisations created by workers to unify workers and take forward the struggle against the monarchy. Worker representatives were elected from workplaces. These structures were created by workers in the heat of struggle in a matter of days. Workers taking it upon themselves to create such independent structures in times of heightened struggle can also be seen in how the miners at Marikana formed independent worker committees in 2012 to take their strike for a living wage forward.
In his History, Trotsky describes how, since their first formation in 1905, the Soviets were to emerge almost automatically at times of heightened struggle. The same thing happened after the February revolution was successful on the 27th. The structure was extended to the soldiers, reflecting how the two groups had worked together to achieve victory in February. As a result, state power was shared between the capitalist government and the Soviets. There was a constant tension between these two irreconcilable structures, one which was to be resolved in the October revolution. The uniqueness of this situation should make it clear that one should not use the Russian revolution as a script for a revolution against present-day capitalism.
All power to the Soviets
Among the Bolsheviks, Lenin was quickest to notice the significance of this tension. He predicted that the Soviets would immediately come into conflict with the government. From April 1917, Lenin called/ for the transfer of all state power to the Soviets. In June and July 1917, this was captured in the famous slogan, “All power to the Soviets!” Lenin, being aware that it is only the power of the workers which can overthrow capitalism, observed the structures formed by the workers themselves, and demanded that the Bolsheviks should support the transfer of power to these structures. As discussed above, the workers often form such structures in times of heightened struggle. It is important to be able to recognise similar structures when workers create them, and to relate them to the situation which gave rise to their creation. In Russia in 1917, workers and soldiers rallying around the cry “All power to the Soviets!” was to lead to the seizing of state power by the workers, and the establishment of a workers’ state
Trotsky on the role of individuals
It is important to note how Trotsky deals with the role of individuals in his History of the Russian Revolution for two reasons. Firstly, even though Trotsky was a participant in most of the events analysed in the book, he does not rely on personal experience. He relies on documents, testimony and other historical evidence. He is not writing about his role in the revolution, but he is trying to write about events on a broader scale. To focus on his role would be to individualise this history, to miss the bigger picture, and to ignore the crucial and leading role that workers played; something which many radical intellectuals are guilty of.
Secondly, Trotsky argues that individuals do not fall from the sky. They live in, and are influenced by society. However, it is also possible for the actions of individuals to influence and change society in turn. This action cannot be understood outside of the way social forces have shaped this person. Individuals therefore can have influence on events, but this influence is limited and directed by the underlying social forces which gives rise to these types of individuals and the situations that they find themselves in. Middle class historians tend to see history as a series of isolated events caused by the actions of individuals. By doing this they fail to analyse the social forces underlying events, which leads to a failure to understand events correctly.
It is clear when one examines the February and October revolutions that the involvement of the Bolshevik party changed over time. In the February revolution, the party was far behind the workers. The important members of the party were in exile or prison. Those remaining were out of touch with the workers. In examining who drove the February revolution, Trotsky finds that none of the political parties had a hand in events. He argues that the revolution was driven by workers who had been educated by the Bolsheviks, and who had the experience of the 1905 revolution. The February revolution, therefore, was another example of the power that workers have to change society, even if revolutionary parties are not on hand to support the workers at the time.
Return of Lenin
However, with the return of Lenin in April, the party began to play a much more influential role in events. Lenin acknowledged that the party was in the minority in the Soviets, and that the reformist parties dominated. He argued that it was the Bolsheviks’ role to patiently explain to the workers, soldiers and peasants the impossibility of the Soviets working with the capitalist government. The reformist parties, because of their politics, would inevitably disappoint the workers, soldiers and peasants. The Bolshevik party would need to show their support for the interests of these groups (without sacrificing a programme centred around the workers) to win the majority in the Soviets. The demand of “All power to the Soviets!” while the reformist parties dominated was a clever one, because the Bolsheviks knew that the reformists would not take power. Once the workers, soldiers and peasants realised that the reformist parties would not take power to fulfil the demands of the February revolution, they would come over to the Bolsheviks. Gradually, by June and July, this was the case. However, in addition to helping some workers and soldiers to understand their frustration and disappointments, the Bolsheviks had another role to play in this period.
From the first days after the February revolution, there were many groups that saw the futility of working with the capitalist government, and only recognised the power of the Soviets. As the capitalist government failed to deliver on the basic demands of the revolution, these groups became more numerous, frustrated and militant. Geographically, however, these were concentrated around Petrograd, the epicentre of the February revolution and the government. Premature action taken by these isolated groups was punished harshly by the government. As frustration grew, the Bolsheviks had to work to prevent the taking of premature, militant action against the government. If the workers and soldiers in Petrograd tried to take power too soon, there was a risk that they would be crushed, and the opportunity for a revolution at a later stage lost. While in hindsight it seems that this was the correct strategic decision, the Bolsheviks were placed under huge pressure from the militant workers and soldiers, and in trying to constrain and control working class action they acted similarly, on a superficial level, to many reformist parties and unions in South Africa today. However, unlike parties subscribing to the National Democratic Revolution theory, they were not postponing the revolution to an indefinite time in the future, but were actively working towards the workers seizing state power.
The Russian revolution is the prime example of workers taking power. It is therefore crucial for workers to examine the revolution, and draw lessons which will aid in today’s struggle against the bosses and capitalism. When examining the role of the Bolsheviks in the revolution, it becomes clear that a working class organisation is necessary to spread lessons learnt in struggle. Trotsky engages with the history of the Russian revolution in a way which places individuals as a product of history, and thoroughly engages with the underlying social forces that produce this history. Only workers can lead and win the struggle to overthrow capitalism and change the course of history by putting in place a socialist society driving towards equality and true democracy.
Sam Tilley is a student at the University of Cape Town and member of the Lest Students Forums (LSF)