Yes, there was a working class revolution in Russia in 1917. Yes, soviets dominated the scene after the October Revolution, the new Bolshevik regime based itself on the soviets and their majoritity within them. In that sense, the new regime has a certain revolutionary legitimacy. However, that legitimacy eroded quickly, the soviets saw their strength diminished, Bolshevik support drained away. Bolshevik power, from the beginning uneasily combined with soviet power, evolved more and more in opposition to the remnants of that power. Already in 1918, there was a break between the regime above, and the power of workers and peasants to take and keep control of society.
Two factors were relevant. There were, firstly, the horrendous circumstances under which the revolution succeeded, and under which the new regime tried to build a new society. There were, secondly, the concepts and ideas that the Bolsheviks held on to in building that society. The first made the building of socialist society built on workers’ and peasants’ democracy virtually impssible, and Bolshevik ideology or ambition cannot be blamed for that. The second, however, meant that this failure took the form of the building of a new bureaucratic state under Bolshevik leadership which crushed the revolution. Here, the Bolshevik leadership can, and should, be blamed. From 1918 onwards, the regime lost its proletarian-revolutionary legitimacy and stood in opposition to the forces which tried to build the revolution from below.
How dit this come about? In the first moths after October 1917, we saw two things. On the one hand, the spread of soviets and similar forms of democracy, far and wide through society. In general, Bolshevik leaders encouraged this spread in this period. Numerous quotes of Lenin can make this clear. Bolshevik goals and workers ‘ initiatives went in the seme direction – although the workers tended to move faster, in a more radical fashion than the Bolshevik leadership. There was tension already.
At the same time, however, that Lenin encouraged workers’ and peasants’ initiatives, the Bolshevik regime did something else as well. They began building a state, above the soviet structues, though still moe or less under the influence of those soviets.. This was the period in which the regime started founding commissariats, basically a replica on lower level of the governmental structure on top, the Council of People’s Commissars, i.e. the government. Where the masses answered every problom with the election of a committee, a mini-soviet, the party leaders answered every problem with the building of such a commissariat. Two kinds of structures, in uneasy coexistence.
This was more or less viable for a while, as long as the soviets remained strong and full of life. And this strength and viability depended on the strength of the classes which expressed its power through these soviets: the workers and the peasants. Ecomimic catastrophe, however, started to destroy the strength of these classes. Russia withdrew from the war. This meant that millions of soldier went home, to jobs that were not there, or to their villages on the countryside. At the same time, war production collapsed because of a sudden lack of demand. Mass unemployment followed. Years of war and a collapsing infrastructure meant severe interruption of food suplies. Hunger enterded the cities in full force in the first months of 1918.
This had disastrous effects on the soviets. Factories – the basis of workers’ councils – closed down, workers had to use all their energy to survive. Time and opportunity to decide and vote upon the running of society was no longer a given. The basis of soviet power started to erode quite quickly. You cannot have workers’ councils without a more or less cohesive workforce in the factories.
This is the factor that Trotskyist analases punt very much in the forefront of their eplanations of what went wrong. And yes, it was a very important factor – but not the only one. For there was more to it than circumstances. Under pressure from the economic crisis, the new regime started to limit workers’ initiatives. Production, so Lenin’s reasoning went, had to take precedence above all else. A strong management in the factories was needed to guarantee labour discipline. Direct workers power in the factories – the factory committees, a kind of soviets on factory level – was seen as an obstacle, and pressure was brought to bear to bring them under the control of the trade unions which were much more centralised and open to government directives. Efforts of workers themselves to encourage production and coordination through factory committees themselves were not encouraged, even pushed aside, The solution, als Lenin saw it, should come from the centre, from above, from planning agencies under indirect workers’ influcence – not through workers’ direct control and certainly not through workers’ self management. Here, we see more than circumstances at work. Here, we see a clash of visions. On the one hand, a centralised, top-down vision with clear Social Democratic roots. On the other hand, a bottom-up vision, with clear anarcho-syndicalist elements (and yes, anarchosyncicalism was not without influence in these days and events).
There was strong resistance from workers against the centralised policies that the party leadership encouraged. Workers had fought for workers’ control since before October, and had pushed that control in the direction of direct self-management of the factories. They considered this the essence of their revolution, and did not want to give this up. Here, we saw the beginnings a a break between regime and a considerable part of its working class base.
This, in itself, would not yet have been a fatal break, however. In Lenin’s view, the centralised management structure that replaced direct workers democracy in the factories, was still embedded in general soviet democracy. Soviets – or commissariats still leaning upun soviet legitimacy – were supposed to appoint managers. But the soviets themseves were still elected, so workers’ power was still respected in an indirect way.
However, there were two problems. The elections of soviets was based in the factories. While these factories were under workers’ management, these elections could find place in an environment the workers could consider their own. But when these elections had to find place in an environment in which they had an old-fashion appointed director, this was no longer the case. Workers had to exercise their freedom in a factory in which they were no longer so free.
Soon, a second, much larger problem, took precedence. The soviets themselves lost much of their democratic character. In the spring of 1918, there were a number of re-elections of local soviets in central Russian cities. Bolsheviks lost their majorities, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) gained. This was worrying, not just for the Bolsheviks, but for the revolution itself. For these Mensheviks and SRs opposed the revolutionary goal of soviet power, and wanted to replace it with parliamentary rule, a much more limited form of democracy which the working masses had decisively rejected in the October revolution. Worse, SRs and Mensheviks were not above collaborating with right wing forces in armed efforts to overthrow the revolution. With these parties in control of soviets, the revolution would indeed be in danger.
However, this danger had its reasons. Workers’ discontent had been growing for months. Bolshevik answers to that discontent had already contained a serious dose of repression. That workers started to support exactly those parties that they had rejected in 1917 showed a failure of the Bolsheviks to keep the trust that they had gained during 1917. Not all of that was due to failues on the Bolshevik side. But part of it was. And anyway, when you set yourself up as a government above the working classes, you should not be surprised that these classes hold that government responsible for whatever goes wrong. This is what workers, understandably and justifiably, did. They started to demonstrate and strike, they were met with Bolshevik armed force, ans sometimes with lethal bullets. They started to make their opposition visible. They started to vote Menshevik and SR. Bolshevik power, however, did not accept the results. The new majorities were prevented from taking their soviets positions. In the place of soviets, revolutionary committees were formed, appointed by Bolsheviks, filled with Bolsheviks. Power from above, no longer from below.
The lesson was clear: Bolsheviks were for soviet power, but not unconditionally so. As soon as workers started to elect on-Bolshevik majorities, the Bolshevik party reserved the right to overthrow these majorities. All for the good of the revolution, of course. But should the final arbiter of what is good for the revolution not be the class that makes the revolution and tries to build its own new society?
In a very serious sense, the working class had lost the core of the power it had gained in 1917. Workers’ councils were no longer truly in control, and in as much as they still were, Bolshevik pressure saw to it that these soviets had solid Bolshevik majorities whether workers voted freely that way or not. From the early summer of 1918, the Bolshevik regime was no longer a faithful expression of the proletarian revolution but a force standing above and against that revolution.
The Trotskyist position of defending the proletarian-revolutionary legitimacy of that regime – already a shaky proposition for the contradictory times in the first months after October – becomes clearly wrong after that. You can side with the revolution of the working classes of Russia. Or you can side with the regime that came from this revolution but came to stand in opposition to these classes. But you cannot do both.