Workers' democracy in the Russian Revolution – part one

The Russian Revolution is the greatest event in human history, because for the first time the working class not only led a revolution, but took power directly into their own hands and proceeded to transform society. The act is slandered as undemocratic, when in reality it involved the most far-reaching and revolutionary democracy the world has ever seen. In this two-part article, Daniel Morley explains how this worked in practice.

[Part two]

“Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your Soviets are from now on the organs of state authority, legislative bodies with full powers.

“Rally around your Soviets. Strengthen them. Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.”

These powerful words of Lenin, addressed to the Russian masses 10 days after taking power, faithfully reflect his real attitude to workers’ democracy. One day previously, Lenin had made the same point in more detail.

“The creative, living, activity of the masses, is the principal factor of the new society. The workers must begin to organize workers’ control of their factories, revitalize the farms with industrial products and exchange them for wheat. Every object, every pound of bread should be counted, for socialism is above all else census-keeping. Socialism is not created by orders from on high. It is a stranger to mindless, official bureaucratism. Living, breathing socialism is the creation of the popular masses themselves.”

With these revolutionary proclamations, Lenin announced the greatest event in history and the beginning of a radically new era. Let no one lie that the October Revolution was undemocratic. The Russian Revolution, as these statements show, ushered in the most thoroughly democratic form of state ever realised.

Under capitalism, we hear a lot about democracy of a different type. Our politicians, media, prominent intellectuals, the establishment in general, never tire of proudly extolling the virtues of ‘democracy’, at least in the abstract.

Where they are vague and abstract, let us be concrete. The democracy they praise is actually only one form of democracy, that is bourgeois democracy. This, as Lenin said, is like democracy in Ancient Greece – democracy for the slave owners. It masks the dictatorship of capital.

Workers’ democracy is very different, indeed it is directly opposite from bourgeois democracy. Bourgeois democracy is formal and contrived. Insofar as it even exists – and don’t forget it was fought for against the ruling class over many centuries – its associated rights and freedoms say very little about what you really have the freedom to do. We all have the formal freedom to vote – but this is in the context of an economic system that we have no control over. A clear recent example is the referendum on EU-imposed austerity in Greece, in which 61 percent voted against the austerity. This was duly ignored because it did not conform to the imperatives of the all-important European banks, and even harsher austerity was meted out as a punishment.

That voting in this system usually achieves little, and that the real decisions are controlled, day by day, by big banks and other leading bourgeois figures behind the scenes – is a widely held opinion, and rightly so. Parliament is largely a talking shop. Over the last period, the struggles within the British Labour Party have been very instructive of the extent to which the ruling class manipulates and hems in the democratic process behind the scenes. Yes, workers can join and participate in the Labour Party, which is a real freedom. But should they vote in a leader from the left, this will face relentless opposition from organisations such as Progress – a right-wing faction of Labour funded by billionaires. At every step, the bourgeoisie has its money and agents pulling strings, whilst the workers struggle on meagre incomes and lack the time to devote to politics. Democracy in the end is a material, and above all, a class question.

The first example of a workers’ state

Workers’ democracy is an altogether different form of rule – it is the rule of the majority. It is not a contrived and fixed set of rules drawn up to mask what is really happening, nor does it serve to hinder as much as to empower. Workers’ democracy places real power in the hands of the proletariat. It is a real, practical and initially spontaneous development.

It is not some ideal plan invented by Marxists. Instead, we have derived it from real events. The first example, from which Marx and Lenin derived much inspiration, was the Paris Commune of 1871.

“[The Paris Commune] was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.

“Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage.

“In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents…. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes” (Marx, The Civil War in France, The Third Address).

From this inspirational and heroic initial experience, Marx and then Lenin derived general principles of the form of a democratic workers’ state, which we will discuss later. The main point for us here is that workers’ democracy is a product of the practical experience of the working class, and reflects the real needs of the workers’ revolutionary struggle of self-emancipation.

Barricade Voltaire Lenoir Commune Paris 1871 Image public domainThe Paris Commune of 1871 was the first example of a workers' state, from which Marx and Lenin derived much inspiration / Image: public domain

It was also from this experience that Marx came up with the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. By this he meant not a dictatorship over the proletariat, but exactly what we saw in the Paris Commune – the working class democratically organising itself as the ruling class and running society on its terms. In Marx’s day, the term ‘dictatorship’ lacked the bad connotations it has today, and was actually a reference to a tradition of Ancient Rome.

One of the abstractions of bourgeois democracy is that we are all equal atoms, assumed to command equal resources and time, and therefore each vote represents exactly the same as the next. But behind this fiction lies the reality of incredible material inequalities, and, crucially, conflicting class interests. But in bourgeois democracy, these fundamental truths are ignored, and behind the scenes, the vast wealth of the capitalists pulls the strings.

From the standpoint of these liberal abstractions, workers’ democracy appears less democratic, for it necessarily excludes the capitalists. But this flows from the conditions from which it springs. As a practical and real democracy, this is necessary. Bourgeois democracy gives everyone the vote (at least, after various struggles won universal suffrage) as a means to hide where power really lies, and to condemn the democratic system to the status of a useless talking shop.

When workers form a trade union, do they invite the boss into its meetings? Would it be more democratic if they did so? Or would it hinder their ability to discuss freely and put into practice their decisions?

Workers’ democracy, across society, must mean the dictatorship of the proletariat, just as in the workplace it must mean the exclusion of the boss. It is honest about it. Bourgeois democracy is really the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, only it is not honest.

The Soviet system

The Soviet state was built through just such a spontaneous, living and practical example of workers’ democracy – the Soviets. They were the greatest-ever creations of workers’ democracy. Many of their principles and rules were inspired by those of the Paris Commune, the first real instance of workers’ power.

"The new constitution did not so much create new forms of government as register & regularise those which were in course of being established by uncoordinated initiative in the aftermath of the revolutionary upheaval” (EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1932, vol I, p 134).

The word Soviet means council, or alternatively advice or assembly. Soviets were initially created in the 1905 Revolution, and then recreated in 1917, as defensive organisations of the working class. Informal and flexible, their form depended on the needs and stage of development of the class struggle. Generally, workers and members of the local community would elect delegates from their own workplace or community to attend the local Soviet, which would debate matters pertaining to the revolution and then put decisions into practice. The experience of building Soviets facilitated the most enormous advancing of political consciousness amongst workers.

1917petrogradsoviet assembly Image public domainThe Soviets were the greatest-ever creations of workers’ democracy. Many of their principles and rules were inspired by those of the Paris Commune / Image: public domain

Due to their spontaneous and informal character, and owing to their origins in the revolution, they quite naturally took on the character of being a class-based democracy, or organs of the oppressed classes to fight for their emancipation. It never occurred to anyone to formally exclude the rich, for they never turned up.

Although upon their first appearance in 1905, many Bolsheviks did not grasp the significance of Soviets, Lenin did. For him, these were not mere ad hoc committees of defence, but organs of workers’ power in potential; the embryo of a new, workers’ state, similar to the Paris Commune. The possession of this idea was a decisive difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1917 – the latter often leading the Soviets without understanding them – and it inspired the all-important slogan that defined the October Revolution: ‘All Power to the Soviets!”

Following the seizure of power on 7 November (modern calendar) 1917, the Soviets finally became the organs of the new workers’ state, as Lenin had envisaged 12 years before.

On 16 January 1918, the Declaration of Rights of the Working and Exploited People was passed by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets and was published the next day in Izvestia. It formally declared that, throughout Russia, the Soviets were sovereign. Unsurprisingly this resolution, when presented to the rival Constituent Assembly the next day, was rejected.

But we should not forget that, included within this victory of workers’ democracy in a socialist revolution, was the realisation of a whole swathe of bourgeois democratic freedoms to a hitherto unheard of degree. There was a huge extension of rights & freedoms. Freedom of speech and of assembly were guaranteed, and indeed workers were positively encouraged to assemble! Freedom of religion (whilst stripping the official church of its official status and vast land holdings), freedom of sexuality, equal freedom for women and men to divorce and equality in all other aspects of marriage, the right to abortion – all these and more were granted by the October Revolution and the Soviet government.

On 3 July 1918, the draft of the new Soviet Constitution was finished, and would be presented to the Fifth Congress of Soviets later on for approval. It declared:

“[T]he federal character of the republic; the separation of church from state and school from church; freedom of speech, opinion and assembly for the workers, assured by placing at their disposal the technical means of producing papers, pamphlets and books as well as premises for meetings; the obligation for all citizens to work on the principle ‘he that does not work, neither shall he eat’ [this was directed against bourgeois individuals who lived off the labour of others, not the disabled or jobless proletarians]; the obligation for all workers of military service in defence of the republic; the right of citizenship for all workers living on Russian territory and of asylum for foreigners persecuted on the ground of political or religious offences; and the abolition of all discrimination on grounds of race or nationality.” (EH Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1932, vol I, p 135, our emphasis).

It is a common feature of bourgeois society that it cannot even realise its ‘own’ freedoms. In Britain, with the ‘mother of Parliaments’, we have another (unelected) parliament with the right to block legislation passed in the elected chamber. It is composed of appointees, aristocratic peers and the anachronistic church hierarchy. Britain’s head of state is the queen, to whom the military swear allegiance. It is the task of the socialist revolution to fully realise all democratic freedoms, as well as going on to put the organised workers in charge and to end capitalism.

The Soviet constitution declared that the supreme power in society was:

“[The] All-Russian Congress of Soviets, composed of representatives of city soviets on the basis of one deputy to every 25,000 inhabitants and of provincial Soviets on the basis of one deputy to every 125,000 inhabitants. The All-Russian Congress elected the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of not more than 200 members which exercised all powers of the congress when the congress was not in session” (Ibid, p136).

Similar provisions were made for how regional Congresses of Soviets, responsible for smaller regions, would be composed of the smaller, local Soviets, which according to the constitution, “down to [the] smallest, is fully autonomous in local questions, but conforms its activity to the general decrees & resolutions of the central power & to larger Soviet organisations”.

In 1918, the All-Russian Congress, which was composed not of professional politicians elected only once every five years, but of working-class delegates from all over society, met four times, usually for about a week. It debated with intensity the fundamental questions of the revolution and how to build a new society. Specifically, it “authorises, amends and supplements the constitution, directs general policy, declares peace and war, fixes the plan for the nation’s economic life, votes the budget, regulates financial and similar arrangements, legislates and amnesties” (Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, 1992 p273).

The Soviet constitution required at least two such congresses every year, which would mean the executive committee would be held accountable and re-elected by the delegates at least twice yearly. The executive committee, or one-third of local Soviets, had the right to call emergency Congresses. This body was not an invention of the Bolsheviks. In fact, the first Congress was held in the middle of 1917, before the October Revolution made it sovereign. It was a living product of the revolution created by the workers’ themselves, and therefore had democratic legitimacy in their eyes.

The principles of the Paris Commune

The most general principles of this democracy were formulated by Lenin in State and Revolution, and inspired by the experience of the Paris Commune (as well as of the Russian Soviets in 1905 and early 1917). They were:

1) Free and democratic elections and the right of recall for all officials.

2) No official to receive a wage higher than a skilled worker.

3) No standing army but the armed people.

4) Gradually, all the tasks of running the state to be carried out in turn by the workers: when everybody is a "bureaucrat" in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat.

These are the general principles and watchwords of proletarian power, the best rules by which the working class retains democratic control of their state. At the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1918, Lenin also argued for the following ten principles of the new power,

  1. Unity of all the poor and exploited masses.
  2. Unity of the conscious, active minority for the re-education of the whole labouring population.
  3. Abolition of parliamentarianism, which separates legislative from executive authority.
  4. A unity between the masses and the State which will be closer than in the older democratic forms.
  5. Arming of the workers and peasants.
  6. More democracy and less formalism, greater facilities for election and recall of delegates.
  7. Close links between the political authority and production.
  8. The possibility of eliminating bureaucracy.
  9. The transition from the formal democracy of rich and poor to the real democracy of the toilers.
  10. Participation of all members of the Soviets in the management and administration of the State.

One feature of the Paris Commune that Marx noted positively was the fusing of the executive, legislative and judicial functions. Bourgeois democracy insists upon their separation, ostensibly as protection against ‘tyranny’. But tyranny in the eyes of the bourgeois liberals means primarily state tyranny against private property, and property for them is the key to freedom. The separation of powers really serves to preserve the capitalist status quo, to grant capital the freedom to dominate behind the scenes whilst the state restricts its own power. The socialist transformation of society is an enormous practical task requiring ‘all hands on deck’, ‘all forces to the point of attack’. The working class, with its finger on the pulse of production, must exercise collective power over the economy and society in order to reorganise it to meet the needs of the masses and end the anarchy of the market.

The franchise

In making the Soviets sovereign, the constitution made the franchise within this system exclusive to those who work, as well as soldiers and the disabled; those who employed others to work for them were excluded from participating. Naturally, there were no gender restrictions to the franchise. Soviets could recall their delegates, if unhappy with them, at any time. As Lenin said, “All bureaucratic formalities and limitations disappear from the elections, and the masses themselves determine the ordering and timing of the elections with free right of recall of those elected.”

Soviets were the real organs of power that the workers had themselves created, elected directly from the factories and truly reflecting their wishes and power. They could not involve the capitalists, who had never even tried to participate in Soviets. For the Soviet system to be what it needed to be – the most democratic system ever created – it had to base itself exclusively on the living struggle of the masses against their exploiters.

Lenin speaking1919 Image public domain"The old bourgeois apparatus—the bureaucracy, the privileges of wealth, of bourgeois education, of social connections, etc... all this disappears under the Soviet form of organisation" / Image: public domain

Lenin wrote that the Soviets were originally politically open and inclusive entities, noting in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918):

"[T]he disenfranchisement of the bourgeoisie is not a necessary and indispensable feature of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And in Russia, the Bolsheviks, who long before October put forward the slogan of proletarian dictatorship, did not say anything in advance about disenfranchising the exploiters. This aspect of the dictatorship did not make its appearance “according to the plan" of any particular party; it emerged of itself in the course of the struggle...even when the Mensheviks (who compromised with the bourgeoisie) still ruled the Soviets, the bourgeoisie cut themselves off from the Soviets of their own accord, boycotted them, put themselves up in opposition to them and intrigued against them. The Soviets arose without any constitution and existed without one for more than a year (from the spring of 1917 to the summer of 1918). The fury of the bourgeoisie against this independent and omnipotent (because it was all-embracing) organisation of the oppressed; the fight, the unscrupulous, self—seeking and sordid fight, the bourgeoisie waged against the Soviets; and, lastly, the overt participation of the bourgeoisie (from the Cadets to the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, from Milyukov to Kerensky) in the Kornilov mutiny — all this paved the way for the formal exclusion of the bourgeoisie from the Soviets."

In the same work, Lenin argued that, far more important for the realisation of democracy in practice, is not the granting of formal freedoms (such as that of speech), but the practical measures necessary to realise this, which again must take on a class character, i.e. it was necessary to nationalise, and grant workers’ control over newspapers, airwaves, meeting halls etc., in order to guarantee the workers access to them. They filled these legalistic provisions with material content.

As Lenin explained,

“The old bourgeois apparatus—the bureaucracy, the privileges of wealth, of bourgeois education, of social connections, etc. (these real privileges are the more varied the more highly bourgeois democracy is developed)—all this disappears under the Soviet form of organisation. Freedom of the press ceases to be hypocrisy, because the printing-plants and stocks of paper are taken away from the bourgeoisie. The same thing applies to the best buildings, the palaces, the mansions and manorhouses. Soviet power took thousands upon thousands of these best buildings from the exploiters at one stroke, and in this way made the right of assembly—without which democracy is a fraud—a million times more democratic for the people. Indirect elections to non-local Soviets make it easier to hold congresses of Soviets, they make the entire apparatus less costly, more flexible, more accessible to the workers and peasants at a time when life is seething and it is necessary to be able very quickly to recall one’s local deputy or to delegate him to a general congress of Soviets.

“Is there a single country in the world, even among the most democratic bourgeois countries, in which the average rank-and-file worker, the average rank-and-file farm labourer, or village semi-proletarian generally (i.e., the representative of the oppressed, of the overwhelming majority of the population), enjoys anything approaching such liberty of holding meetings in the best buildings, such liberty of using the largest printing-plants and biggest stocks of paper to express his ideas and to defend his interests, such liberty of promoting men and women of his own class to administer and to “knock into shape” the state, as in Soviet Russia?

“In Russia, however, the bureaucratic machine has been completely smashed, razed to the ground; the old judges have all been sent packing, the bourgeois parliament has been dispersed—and far more accessible representation has been given to the workers and peasants; their Soviets have replaced the bureaucrats, or their Soviets have been put in control of the bureaucrats, and their Soviets have been authorised to elect the judges.”

The Constituent Assembly

In 1917, the first workers’ government formed out of this process was actually a coalition between the Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionaries (SRs). At this time, all these parties – both left and right SRs, all the Mensheviks etc. – were participating in Soviet elections, being elected to the Congress of Soviets, and freely publishing their papers.

Military delegates to a session of the 3rd All Union Congress of Soviets Image public domainThe Constituent Assembly, essentially a bourgeois parliament, simply ceased to exist when its guards refused to keep it open. Real, material power lay with the Soviets / Image: public domain

However, in the course of the struggle of the Civil War, beginning in mid-1918, it is true that many of these freedoms were restricted. That this was necessary shows there can be no real 'supra' class democracy. These other parties took up arms against the regime, they conspired with imperialist governments in the Civil War that would lead to so many deaths and so much hardship. To treat them in the manner of a gentlemanly debating club would be impossible.

After having rejected the Bolshevik Chernov’s resolution that the Constituent Assembly accept the power of the Soviets as sovereign in its first ever session on 18 January 1918, the assembly, essentially a bourgeois parliament, simply ceased to exist when its guards declared they were too tired to keep it open. In other words, real, material power lay with the Soviets. They commanded the ‘armed bodies of men’, not through compulsion but through class loyalty, since these armed bodies of men were Red Guards from the working class. Any would-be state that can find no one to enforce its will is doomed from the start.

The following day a decree dissolving the assembly succinctly explained that “the toiling masses have become convinced by their own experience that bourgeois parliamentarism is outdated; that it is completely incompatible with the construction of socialism; for only class institutions, not national institutions, can break the resistance of the propertied classes and lay the foundations for the socialist society.” (Quoted in Serge, op cit, p135).