Prof Rempel lecture: the Soviet as revolutionary instrument

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The Soviet as Revolutionary Instrument

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


The Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies played a key role in the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was not an invention of 1917, however, but originated in the course of the 1905 Revolution, where its role was not that conspicuous. Yet the idea of a Soviet or Council was a new thing in Russian revolutionary history and, perhaps, also something unique in the history of revolution in general.

In 1905 it grew out of the burgeoning strike movement of that year, which brought the monarchy to its knees. The number of strikers grew from eighty thousand in April to two hundred and twenty thousand in May. Of these, the one in Ivanovo-Voznesensk was outstanding, being the one of longest duration in 1905 as well as the one most nearly revolutionary in nature.

Begun two days before the news of the Tsushima straits defeat was received and lasting ten weeks, it involved seventy thousand men and women, virtually the whole labor force of the ''twin cities.'' Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a major textile center of Vladimir province, located some two hundred miles northeast of Moscow and known as the ''cotton kingdom,.' had experienced strikes in the past but had no history of political disaffection. By May, however, a strike sentiment was developing in Ivanovo-Voznesensk and being taken up with enthusiasm by the workers--just why, is difficult to determine. Perhaps economic distress had made them susceptible to political propaganda.; perhaps growing awareness of the regime's weakening had encouraged them to take action for economic improvement.

Whatever the reasons for the strike, when it began, the troops available were insufficient to prevent the workers from meeting openly in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, where their names and temper induced such fear that most of the factory owners and managers hurriedly left the area. But soon, provincial governor Leontiev sent additional troops, and the strikers were forced to move their meetings to the banks of the nearby Talka River. There they worked out a rudimentary organization for bargaining collectively and directing the strike.

Their strike committee of 150 (a quarter of whom were SD's) began, about the middle of May, to call itself a soviet of deputies. And gradually the soviet began to assume political powers in local affairs, prohibiting storekeepers from raising prices, even organizing a workers' militia. This was the first Russian soviet of the type that was later to become a powerful revolutionary institution: a body of workers, peasants, or soldiers deputies that arrogated political power. It was a spontaneous phenomenon, but it corresponded to the Menshevik notion of the revolutionary body ultimately to take over power from the autocracy.

A similar council developed in St. Petersburg, deliberately modeling itself on the earlier experiment. In the beginning this soviet was no more than a strike committee with a different name, but as the strike continued it became evident that several of its leading members- notably the elected chairman, George Khrustalev-Nosar, a lawyer with Menshevik ties, and its vice-chairmen, the Menshevik Leon Trotsky and the Socialist Revolutionary Nicholas Avksentev hoped that it would develop into something more.

In its composition, the soviet was a mixed labor and socialist group, with a slight liberal tinge. Though not a part of the onion of Unions, it maintained connections with it and was sympathetic to its aims. It represented a major part of the factory labor force of the capital, a substantial number of white-collar workers, and a small number of professionals, mostly pharmacists. The great majority of those it represented were not socialists, but simply anti-government and anti-management dissidents who, for the time being, wee willing to follow a leadership in which socialists and intellectuals happened to predominate.

While attending to its duties of conducting and extending the strike, the St. Petersburg Soviet found time for some other, and quite ambitious, activities also--again reflecting the nature of the earlier soviet. It sent a delegation of workers and intellectuals to the municipal duma to make an extraordinarily bold, but unsuccessful, request for funds to aid the strikers and buy arms, and it began to issue orders for which it had no legal authority (for example, that retail stores open for certain hours each day to meet the basic needs of the population) .

The St. Petersburg soviet and other bodies born of the general strike survived and grew after the strike was over. When ending the strike in the capital, the soviet transformed itself into a continuing organ of labor, the main purpose of which was declared to be the continuation of the struggle for a constituent assembly.

As far as was obvious, it was simply a body that had been improvised with little clear design in response to circumstances and, like many others, was now deciding to prolong its functioning. It appeared to be no more than it had been' a council of deputies elected by the trade unions and socialist groups, which in turn elected an executive committee of twenty-two that met frequently to make decisions on matters concerning the workers represented by the soviet.

On the day after the issuance of the October Manifesto, however, it began to demonstrate that it was a body with power. Without waiting for the government to work out the legislation necessary to provide for civil liberties, the soviet decreed the end of censorship and, furthermore, made its decree effective by ordering printers to refuse to print newspapers that had been submitted to the censor. The decree was illegal, but it was effective. And it was the beginning of a practice that was to make yet another change in the development of the revolution.

The idea of soviets was not conceived in St. Petersburg, but the success of the one established in that city encouraged the growth of similar bodies already existing and inspired the establishment of others. In all, nearly fifty soviets of workers deputies, several peasant soviets, and a number of short-lived military soviets came into being in the fall of 1905. The Moscow soviet, formed in November and representing eighty thousand workers, was next in importance to that in the capital.

Almost all of these organizations maintained, or .ad the support of, worker's militias or fighting detachments, and that fact lent more than a little strength to their pretensions. In St.. Petersburg at least six thousand workers possessed arms of some kind. Armed workers guarded the buildings of the Free Economic society, in which the Soviet met; and in some districts, armed workers patrolled the streets for the declared purpose of dealing with Black Hundreds--and for the undeclared purpose of harassing the police.

The soviets and kindred organizations soon began to establish ties among themselves, the St. Petersburg Soviet acting as the chief source of leadership and energy. Its representatives visited soviets of various cities; and representatives of other soviets, of socialist parties and of local branches of the Peasants Union met from time to time with its leaders in St. Petersburg. Here was an embryonic form of a national organization of the labor, agrarian, and socialist movements, one that might become part-ally, part-rival to the Union of Unions. In fact, such an organization was envisioned by ambitious leaders, and an all Russian congress of soviets was actually planned.

Though the soviets were not definite threats to the imperial government, for about two months after the October Manifesto was issued, those in St.. Petersburg, Moscow, and several other cities were powerful enough to encroach boldly and with impunity upon established authority, and to operate openly in defiance of the law and the government. The chairman of the St. Petersburg Soviet, Khrustalev-Nosar, appropriated so much administrative control that observers saw more truth than humor in a local newspaper's statement that the odds were about even on the question of whether Witte would arrest him or vice versa. These quasi-political bodies were, in fact, just one type of outlet for the spirit that was pervading Russia in the fall of 1905, a period often called ''freedom days.''

Freedom days blossomed again in March 1917 and with them came a rebirth of the soviet idea. The initiative in summoning the Petrograd Soviet of 1917 cannot be traced to any individual or organized group, but the idea of reviving the 1905 revolutionary assembly would seem to have occurred more or less simultaneously to a number of radical intellectuals and labor leaders. In the afternoon of March 12 when the mutiny of the Petrograd garrison was in full swing, left-wing members of the Duma, political prisoners just released from incarceration and a motley assortment of professional men (journalists, doctors, lawyers, zemstvo employees, and so on) forgathered in the Taurida Palace and set up the Provisional Executive Committee of the still non-existent Petrograd Soviet.

In the evening of the same day the first plenary session of the Soviet--a large, tumultuous assembly of uncertain provenance--was held at the Taurida Palace and confirmed the Executive Committee. None of the participants in this haphazard gathering, nor indeed any one else, realized at the time that the birth of the Petrograd soviet was to prove a turning point in the history of Russia and of the world.

Information on the mechanics of elections to the early Soviets is scarce and fragmentary. It was clearly impossible to devise an orderly and uniform electoral procedure in the hectic days of March and April, but even later, after a scheme of representation in the Soviets was officially adopted, the situation remained chaotic. On March 16 the Petrograd Soviet had l,300 members, a week later nearly 3,000; of that number 800 represented factory workers and the balance army units. The disproportion was all the more striking because in Petrograd workers by far outnumbered soldiers.

Rules approved by the Petrograd Soviet on March 31 provided for one deputy for each 2,000 of either workers or soldiers, a measure designed to reduce the assembly to a manageable size and to restore the balance between the two elements represented in the Soviets, but these regulations were honored more in the breach than in the observance. Trotsky, the proud father of the 1905 Soviet, notes that in 1917 the Soviets in Petrograd and elsewhere comprised ''numerous casual intruders, adventurers, impostors, and talkers used to the tribune,'' who represented ''various problematic groups and, as often as not, but their own ambitions.

The Taurida Palace was unable to accommodate the huge assembly, and the plenary sessions of the soviet were transferred, first, to the Mikhailovsky Theater and later to the Naval Academy. The membership of the Soviet was highly fluid, its jurisdiction was undefined, it had no fixed rules of procedure, and the bulk of its members were possessed with an irresistible desire to talk; the usefulness of the soviet as an effective organ of administration and control, therefore, was limited and its business was actually transacted by the Executive Committee, or, more precisely, by a group of leaders within that body.

The Executive Committee, formed on March 12, had fourteen members, Its chairman, Chkheidze, and one of the two vice chairmen, Skobelev, were Mensheviks; Kerensky was the other vice chairman. The membership of the committee rose to nearly forty by the addition of representatives of various socialist and revolutionary groups. The first conference of the Soviets in April reorganized the Executive committee by adding to it delegates from provincial and army Soviets.

The enlarged committee thus assumed the character of a national institution, but its membership of ninety proved unwieldy and led to the formation of a permanent bureau of twenty-four members, the actual managing board of the Soviet. The first congress of the Soviets, which was held in June, formally established a national executive agency by electing the All-Russian Central Executive committee, an assembly of over 250 members which, however, was dominated by the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet.

The example of the capital was emulated throughout the country. Soviets of various types were rapidly set up, and by the beginning of September their number was officially estimated at 600, representing theoretically some 23 million voters. The complexion, jurisdiction, and methods of local soviets were, if possible, even more casual and haphazard than those of the Petrograd Soviet, yet their authority was great, not perhaps because of the whole-hearted support of the masses but because of the disintegration of state authority.

Local Soviets played an important part in dealing with local situations and as agencies for carrying out directives from the center, but they made no significant contribution to the shaping of national policies, which were determined by a small group of leaders at the head of, first, the Petrograd Execute committee and, later, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee.

In the early weeks of the revolution the social democrats (both Menshevik and Bolshevik) and the socialist revolutionaries who controlled the Petrograd Executive Committee shared the belief that a degree of cooperation between socialist and liberal forces was essential to prevent the restoration of the old regime; and the Provisional Government, which was to include two representatives of the soviet (Chkheidze and Kerensky) was formed by the provisional committee of the Duma after consultation with, and with the approval of, the Executive committee.

A plenary session of the Soviet held in the morning of March 15 repudiated the agreement, however, and the Executive Committee, reversing itself, passed a resolution prohibiting socialists from serving in a bourgeois cabinet. Chkheidze vowed to hold to this decision, but Kerensky's passionate appeal to the plenary session of the Soviet resulted in the approval, by acclamation, of his participation in the Provisional Government. The interdict of the Executive Committee was not rescinded, yet Kerensky remained both minister of justice and vice chairman of the Executive Committee. At the time of its inception and, indeed, for weeks to come the Soviet showed no intention of superseding the Provisional Government.

The slogan "all power to the soviets" was coined in March by the garrison of the Kronstadt naval base. At first it met with little response in the capital, although the Bolshevik's Pravda denounced the Provisional Government as a ''government of capitalists and landowners'' and called for a ''democratic republic." to be established by the Constituent Assembly. With the return to Petrograd of a group of exiled Bolshevik leaders in the middle of March, these attacks became less virulent. The attitude of the Soviet towards the Provisional Government was formulated in an ambiguously worded resolution of March 16: The Soviet would support the policies of the Provisional Government in so far as they correspond to the interest of the proletariat and of the broad democratic masses of the people.''

A contact committee was appointed by the Executive Committee to inform the Soviet of the intentions and activities of the Provisional Government, to inform the latter of the demands of the revolutionary people, to bring pressure upon the Provisional Government in order to ensure the satisfaction of these demands, and to exercise ceaseless control over the execution of appropriate measures''.

The resulting situation was not cooperation, but what came to be known as the regime of ''dual power", the Soviet relentlessly encroaching upon the prerogative and functions of the Provisional Government. During the period of their uneasy co-existence both the Provisional Government and the Soviet evolved towards the left, but this trend was less pronounced in the case of the former than of the latter and, with the final breakdown of the army and the flood tide of social unrest and economic disorganization, inexorably led to the advent to power of the more extreme, resolute, and ruthless political faction--the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin.

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Background to Revolution
  1917 Revolutions
  Lenin's Russia
  Stalin's Russia 1927-39   
Stalin: Economics & Terror, 1927-41



casahistoria is recommended by:
BBC Radio 4 History Channel 4 History
BBC radio,
Channel 4 TV, UK Birmingham GRID for Learning, UK UK joint university database Argentina's national paper
SBC Education
Blue Ribbon HOT site, USA
SovLit, Harvard Univ, USA


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