Chapter 7 - Constituent Assembly or Commune-type State?
The demand for a democratic (bourgeois) republic governed by a Constituent Assembly was one of the main planks of Russian Social Democracy from its foundation, and considered by Lenin as one of the ‘three pillars of Bolshevism’ until at least 1915 (see, for example, On Two Lines in the Revolution(1)). But what happened in 1917-18? A Bolshevik-only Government solved the agrarian question, the key task of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, immediately on establishing the dictatorship of the (urban) proletariat and, rather than empower the popular Constituent Assembly, dispersed it at bayonet point. What does that tell us about Lenin’s transition to a permanentist position?
In 1917 the development and change of Bolshevik attitudes towards the Constituent Assembly was complex and contradictory. The call for All Power to the Soviets, and the preparations by the Bolshevik Central Committee for an armed uprising to take state power in the name of the Soviets was, in reality, completely at odds with the simultaneous call for convocation of the Constituent Assembly. In their public statements, the Bolsheviks demanded elections for the Assembly be held immediately, and repeatedly argued that the best way to ensure the convocation of the Assembly was to give all power to the Soviets. At the same time the Bolsheviks were organising for a Commune-type state based on soviets from top to bottom, in which all power would be with the proletariat (and poor peasants).
How could Lenin, usually so clear on political matters have allowed such confusion? The answer appears sixfold: (i) the call for the Constituent Assembly had enormous popular appeal, and the Bolsheviks were keen to accept the popular will - as in the Land Decree - if it took the revolution forward, as the call for the Constituent Assembly initially appeared to do, (ii) demands for the convocation of the Assembly revealed the non-democratic nature of the Provisional Government, (iii) a significant section of the Bolshevik leadership simply failed to see the contradiction between a Commune-type state and a Constituent Assembly - even after the October Revolution, (iv) Trotsky, at least among the Bolshevik leaders, saw the Assembly as a possible fall-back if the planned uprising failed, (v) some in the Bolshevik leadership believed that after more than a decade of calling for a Constituent Assembly the masses needed the educational experience of seeing the actual Assembly in action before it could be jettisoned, and (vi) Lenin, himself, until almost the last moment, appeared to have had an over-optimistic expectation of the elections - as late as 27 September he saw a bloc with the Left SRs as a possible means of achieving a majority in the Assembly, giving an essential coherence between the Assembly and Soviet power, and stability in the country.
7.2 The Slogan of the Constituent Assembly, 1903 to February 1917
From May 1903, when the League of Russian Revolutionary Social Democracy Abroad published Lenin’s pamphlet To the Rural Poor - An Explanation for the Peasants of What the Social-Democrats Want(2), the bourgeois-democratic Constituent Assembly was the RDSLP’s declared governmental goal in the Russian Revolution. To the Rural Poor stated that the key to ending the poverty and brutality of peasant life, lay in three demands, the first of which was the convocation of a national Assembly to establish an elected government in place of the Tsarist autocracy. The second was freedom of political expression, and the third was abolition of all forms of serf bondage and for the equality of the peasantry with the other social estates(3).
By early 1905, following the peasant revolts of the previous two years and the upsurge in the towns after Bloody Sunday, SD was faced with how free and fair election of deputies to the Constituent Assembly could be assured. If the purpose of the Constituent Assembly was to get rid of the autocracy, could officials responsible to the Tsar be trusted to convene the Assembly on the basis of universal, direct, and equal suffrage by secret ballot, and ensure real and complete freedom of expression during the elections? Of course not. Lenin concluded that only an interim government that originated from within the revolutionary forces determined to overthrow the autocracy, and committed to the success of the Assembly, could be trusted(4).
The demand for a Constituent Assembly may have been a key part of the Bolshevik programme but, as Lenin pointed out, even the Cadet Party, representing the liberal bourgeoisie, was publicly calling for an elected Constituent Assembly, but with a Tsar, and a two-tier governmental structure with an non-elected upper house, somewhat on the English model. The Cadets proposed that the officials of the autocratic state, with the Tsar Nicholas II still in power, would organise and monitor the elections, and convene the Assembly. Such an expectation, in Lenin’s view, made the Cadets brazen charlatans or hopeless fools.
At the Third (Bolshevik-only) Congress of the RDSLP, April 1905, Lenin emphasised that the Russian proletariat needed a period of the fullest possible political freedom if it was to achieve its ultimate aim of the socialist revolution, and this would require the replacement of the autocracy by a democratic republic(5) to allow (amongst other things) the RDSLP to transform itself into a mass movement of the working class. This republic would be founded in an armed uprising of the people which would overthrow the Tsar and establish a provisional revolutionary government which, in turn, would organise the election of a Constituent Assembly.
The Congress resolved that in the event of a victorious uprising, the RDSLP would participate in any resulting provisional revolutionary government subject to a number of conditions: party control over its representatives, the party would defend, consolidate, and extend the gains of the revolution in the interests of the working class, the party would be irreconcilably opposed to the bourgeois parties, the party would continue to strive for the socialist revolution, etc.(6). However, it was clear that such conditions could be met, and were intended to be met, within the limits of bourgeois democracy.
To preserve the revolutionary content of the demand for a Constituent Assembly, Lenin now emphasised the associated demands which would give the Assembly its power and authority: the Tsar had to be overthrown by the armed people who would create a provisional revolutionary government whose duty it was to repel the counter-revolution and convene the Assembly. The Bolsheviks were clear that only a provisional revolutionary government based on a victorious popular insurrection could secure free elections and subsequently convene an Assembly that would genuinely express the will of all the people. Only in this way would a democratic republic place supreme authority in the hands of the people. Without this, Russia would have an Assembly that would be little more than a mechanism for allowing the big bourgeoisie to bargain with the Tsar(7,8).
Lenin’s major work of this period Two Tactics(9), reinforced and extended the arguments put forward in the Third Congress concerning the responsibilities of the RDDPP. One point in particular was repeated: “Its formal purpose must be to serve as the instrument for convening a popular constituent assembly”10.
To avoid confusion on the aims of the RDDPP, and dispel any “absurd, semi-anarchist ideas” that it might attempt to put into effect the maximum programme of the RDSLP, Lenin was quick to emphasise that the tasks of the provisional revolutionary dictatorship would be limited to the RDSLP minimum programme(11). To confirm that the provisional revolutionary government and the Constituent Assembly would not necessarily have a proletarian character, Lenin pointed out that the armed workers led by the RDSLP would exercise pressure on the provisional revolutionary government, not to overthrow it but to ensure it extended the gains of the revolution until they fulfilled the whole of the RDSLP minimum programme(12).
Of particular interest here, in June 1905, was Lenin’s rejection of the Paris Commune as a model for the forthcoming Russian Revolution, precisely because it had combined the tasks of fighting for a democratic (i.e. bourgeois) republic with those of fighting for socialism. Lowy has correctly pointed out that since Marx’s Civil War in France, May 1871, the Paris Commune had been understood as the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and thus when Lenin wrote in Two Tactics that the Commune was an example not to be emulated, he was clearly limiting the extent of the activities of the provisional revolutionary dictatorship(13). The Paris Commune was: “a workers’ government that was unable to, and could not at that time, distinguish between the elements of a democratic revolution and those of a socialist revolution, that confused the tasks of fighting for a republic with the tasks of fighting for Socialism, ... it was a government such as ours should not be”(14).
Trotsky took a different, more sympathetic view. It may well have been that he had been influenced by Engel’s description of Paris as a city in which large-scale industry and manufacturing was springing up, where worker representatives had provided the dynamic leadership of the Commune, whose decision to take control of these factories and combine them into one union had been the first steps on a process which would have led to “Communism”(79). The lessons to be derived from the Commune were directly relevant to the Russian working class because, without the mass of handicraft workers present in Paris, and the enormously enhanced social, political and numerical weight of the proletariat, the objective development of the class struggle in Russia confronted the proletariat with the possibility of taking governmental and state power and the first steps towards socialism(15).
In late April and early May 1906, with the experience of 1905 behind him, Lenin attended the Fourth (Unity) Congress of the RDSLP in Stockholm. On the Constituent Assembly and the RDDPP Lenin spelled it out - the urgent task confronting the party was to join with the revolutionary democrats and unite the insurrection by helping to form a provisional revolutionary government. Only in this way could a victorious insurrection completely crush the resistance of the autocracy and its supporters, ensure electoral freedom, convene a Constituent Assembly capable of really establishing the sovereignty of the whole people, and put into effect the minimum social and economic demands of the proletariat. The Soviets of Workers’ Deputies were institutions on which the provisional revolutionary government could be based, and so they must possess their own military forces(16).
Not only were the Soviets to seek to extend their membership to the revolutionary elements of the urban petty bourgeoisie, but Lenin proposed that the RDSLP should enter into temporary fighting agreements with those revolutionary democratic parties which consistently fought for democracy, recognised the armed uprising as a legitimate means of struggle, and were actually trying to bring it about. The major such organisation was the SR Party which closely represented the interests and views of the masses of the peasantry by strongly opposing landlordism and the semi-feudal state. The objective of such temporary fighting agreements was to secure the convocation of a Constituent Assembly by revolutionary means(17), and an essential condition for such unity was a parallel struggle by the RDSLP to ideologically expose the pseudo-socialist character of its allies.
At the Unity Congress, Lenin repeated his view that, irrespective of whether or not the RDSLP was included in the provisional revolutionary government, an armed proletariat led by the RDSLP would bring constant “pressure” to bear upon the provisional government, to protect, consolidate and enlarge the gains of the revolution(18). In principle, then, even if the RDSLP were excluded from the provisional revolutionary government, the armed proletariat would not seek to overthrow a bourgeois or petty bourgeois government, but limit itself to exerting “pressure” on it.
In the light of the 1905 Revolution, Lenin redrafted the agrarian programme of the RDSLP. He stressed the necessity of the complete victory of the peasant uprising since, without such a victory it would be impossible for the peasants to expropriate all church, monastery, crown and state lands, and the landlords’ estates, and freely divide these amongst themselves. The Constituent Assembly would fulfil the peasants’ dreams by legitimising the land seizures(19), repealing all laws that restricted the peasants selling or renting their land, authorising the reduction of exorbitant rents and annulling all contracts entailing an element of bondage(20).
Lenin’s attitude to the Constituent Assembly remained more or less constant until 1917 as, for example, in 1911 when he wrote:
“As before, the aim of our struggle is to overthrow Tsarism and bring about the conquest of power by the proletariat relying on the revolutionary sections of the peasantry and accomplishing the bourgeois-democratic revolution by means of the convening of a popular constituent assembly and the establishment of a democratic republic”(21).
Similarly in October 1915, when he wrote for the Sotsial-Demokrat his Several Theses Proposed by the Editors(22), he repeated the slogan of a Constituent Assembly, and re-emphasised that it could not stand alone. The war had made the question of who would convene the assembly even more relevant, but his core message was the same; the RDDPP would be victorious only if it overthrew the autocracy, the nobility and the feudal landowners in an insurrection, with the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies the major organs of the insurrection and revolutionary rule until the Constituent Assembly was in place.
7.3 The Constituent Assembly - the Goal of the Revolution?
After the news of the 1917 February Revolution reached him, and before his return to Russia, Lenin wrote his Letters from Afar. We note the beginning of a new attitude towards the Paris Commune, which had now become an example to be emulated. In the Third Letter he said:
“Following the path indicated by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the proletariat must organise and arm all the poor, exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should take the organs of state power directly into their own hands, in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power”(23).
By calling for the proletariat, the poor and exploited sections of the population to control the organs of state power, Lenin was implicitly placing a question mark over the role of a Constituent Assembly. Whether, at that time, Lenin foresaw that an elected Assembly composed mainly of peasant representatives, would block attempts to introduce the Bolshevik programme is not clear(24). However, in his rebuttal of Kautsky’s criticism that he (Lenin) opposed the Constituent Assembly in December 1917 and January 1918, only after it became clear that the Bolsheviks did not have a majority, Lenin claimed that as soon as he arrived in Russia he “proclaimed the superiority of the Paris Commune-type state over the bourgeois parliamentary republic” and, more than that, directly counter-posed the Commune-type state to bourgeois democracy:
“the conference of the Bolshevik Party held at the end of April 1917 adopted a resolution to the effect that a proletarian and peasant republic was superior to a bourgeois parliamentary republic, that our Party would not be satisfied with the latter, and that the program of the Party should be modified accordingly”(25).
During the crucial Petrograd City Conference (April), Lenin refers to the Paris Commune in his Report on the Present Situation in a very different manner from Two Tactics, effectively reversing his previous opinion of the Commune as “a government such as ours should not be”:
“The Paris Commune furnished an example of a state of the Soviet type, an example of direct power wielded by the organised and armed workers, an example of the dictatorship of workers and peasants. ... There can be no dual power in a state. The Soviets are a type of state where the existence of a police is impossible. Here the people are their own rulers, and there can be no return to the monarchy. ... To safeguard freedom, all the people to a man must be armed. This is the essence of the commune. ... Events have led to the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry being interlocked with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The next stage is the dictatorship of the proletariat”(26).
Also in April, in his Letters on Tactics Lenin wrote: “The Commune, unfortunately, was too slow in introducing socialism”(27). The qualitative difference between his assessment of the Commune as made in 1905, and in early 1917, shows that Lenin had revised his assessment of the class nature of the state that would result from the revolution and thus, implicitly at least, the role of the Constituent Assembly. If “the next stage” were achieved, the need for a bourgeois-democratic Assembly fell.
During the spring of 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks showed no open opposition to the Constituent Assembly, but at the Bolshevik Seventh All-Russian Conference Lenin demanded that undivided power rested with Soviets “from the bottom up” all over the country. In his Report on the Current Situation,(24 April) he said:
“We are all agreed that power must be wielded by the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. ... This would be a state of the Paris Commune type. ... The Soviets must take power not for the purpose of building an ordinary bourgeois republic, nor for the purpose of making a direct transition to socialism. This cannot be. What, then, is the purpose? The Soviets must take power in order to make the first concrete steps towards this transition”(28).
Simultaneously with the Conference Lenin published a short series of articles in the newspaper Volna(29), in which he answered the question: should a Constituent Assembly be convened?, with an unambiguous ‘Yes’. Not only that, but he called for it to be convened as soon as possible, and the best way of ensuring that was to increase the number and strength of the Soviets, and to organise the arming of the working-class masses.
However, the perspective of establishing a commune-type state meant a bourgeois Constituent Assembly could no longer be the governmental goal of a Soviet power. Despite the public statements, the resolution passed at the Seventh All-Russia Conference resolved that the Bolshevik Party should take the necessary steps to “the successful transfer of the entire state power into the hands of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies or other organs directly expressing the will of the majority of the people (organs of local self-government, the Constituent Assembly, etc.)”(30). This marked a definitive and qualitative change in the party’s formal position on the Assembly.
The emphasis here is quite different from Lenin’s declared aims pre-1917. Now “the entire state power” is to be transferred to the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, and the Constituent Assembly - the goal of the Soviets before 1917 - is relegated to an also-ran of “other organs” and put on a par with local self-government. In practice, the Bolsheviks were everywhere applying their energy to extending the Soviets to include the maximum number of people in revolutionary activity in order to raise their political consciousness, with the aim of the Soviets taking power and making the first steps towards socialism.
In July 1917, Lenin outlined the six-month history of the demand for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly in Constitutional Illusions(31). He described how the Provisional Government, aware that any Constituent Assembly would have a majority of peasants who were well to the left of the SRs, had continuously postponed the calling of elections because, with such a Constituent Assembly, it would have been virtually impossible to protect the interests of the landowners. In Russia, where the bourgeoisie was closely intertwined with the landowners and the nobility, the seizure of the land without compensation, could have been achieved only by carrying through the most ruthless revolutionary measures against capital. Lenin and the Bolsheviks proclaimed that only the strength and authority of the Soviets could guarantee the successful election and convocation of such a Constituent Assembly, giving the impression that the Constituent Assembly remained an acceptable goal for the party.
Thus, while the general direction the party was taking on the question of the Constituent Assembly was clear, there remained considerable ambiguity in the individual published statements of Lenin and others on the precise relationship between the Soviet regime and the Constituent Assembly. Nevertheless, it had become clear that the role of the Assembly would be determined by the outcome of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. With the victory of the proletariat and its allies, the Assembly would become subordinate to the organs which best represented the interests of the victors, the Soviets. In this inversion of the importance of the proletarian and bourgeois-democratic institutions, lay a qualitative difference between 1905 and 1917.
Trotsky gave an insight into the relative strengths, and contradictory relations, of the Soviets and the bourgeois-democratic institutions which allows a better understanding the fate of the Constituent Assembly, when he reported on the outcomes of the May elections to the local councils (dumas and zemstvos). These were democratically-elected bodies, based on a wide franchise, with one vote per person over the age of 21 and, in theory, they had responsibility for such important functions as municipal transport and food supplies. In fact, however, in many country districts the peasants tended to see these bodies as a means of preserving the landlords’ hold on the land, and it was often necessary to use force to overcome peasant opposition, and allow the elections to proceed(32). Generally, the SRs gained the largest single vote, typically at least one third of the votes cast. Thus, a combination of SRs and Mensheviks shared leadership and nominal control of both the local councils and the local Soviets(33). This leadership had, as its common perspective, the goal of a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly, making it all the more surprising that the functions of the local councils were subsumed into the Soviets and not the other way round. Trotsky explains this as being due to the class nature of the two institutions: “... at critical moments, when the interference of the masses was defining the further direction of events, these governments simply exploded into the air, their constituent elements appearing on different sides of a barricade”(34).
Lenin returned to the lessons to be learned from the Commune in State and Revolution, written while in hiding in August and September 1917. He pointed out that the most significant change to the Communist Manifesto was made by Marx and Engels on the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune and quoted: “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’”(35). Lenin would continue to extol the Commune as an inspiration until the end of his life(36,37), but he was keen to emphasise that one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not act with sufficient vigour. He drew the lesson that in Russia it was necessary to smash the bureaucratic-military machine as a pre-condition for an alliance between the peasants and the workers. This could “be achieved only by the proletariat; and by achieving it, the proletariat at the same time takes a step towards the socialist reconstruction of the state”(38). The progression is that the workers first destroy the military bureaucratic machine and simultaneously take the initial steps towards socialism, as the pre-condition for the alliance with the peasantry! This is a radical version of Trotsky’s ToPR!
Lenin’s attitude to the Provisional Government was clear, overthrow it by armed insurrection and replace it with Soviet power. How did the Constituent Assembly fit into this? Lenin replied that the Commune, or Soviet, substituted the parliamentarism of bourgeois society with institutions in which the elected representatives themselves had to account for their actions directly and immediately to their constituents. Representative democracy remained without a parliament. The arguments advanced by Lenin in State and Revolution were a drawing together of his ideas, as developed over the previous seven months, and left little space in the proletarian state for the presence of a Constituent Assembly. Lenin and Trotsky may have been flexible on governmental form and structure, but they would have found it impossible to have accepted the existence of a Constituent Assembly which was, in principle, in fundamental contradiction with core Bolshevik perspectives.
In 1905, Lenin had disputed with the Mensheviks on whether or not it was permissible for the Social Democrats to participate in the transitional revolutionary government. Only Trotsky unequivocally foresaw “the participation of the proletariat in a government ... as a dominating and leading participation”(39). How far and how fast Lenin moved in Trotsky’s direction on this point is indicated by an event that happened on 4 June 1917. During a speech, the Menshevik Tsereteli, then a Minister of the Provisional Government, said that there was no political party which was prepared to take full power in Russia. Lenin interrupted and shouted “There is!” Later in his own speech from the rostrum, Lenin declared that the Bolshevik Party was “ready to take over full power at any moment”(40).
By mid-September, the Bolsheviks had obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both Moscow and Petrograd, and Lenin had reached the conclusion that they could and should, take state power through armed insurrection. Lenin wrote to the Bolshevik Central Committee and argued that by immediately ‘giving’ the land to the peasants and by establishing democratic institutions and liberties, the Bolshevik Party would form a government which nobody would be able to overthrow(41). However, even at this stage Lenin could say “Our Party alone, on taking power, can secure the Constituent Assembly’s convocation”(42). Lenin was now talking in terms of the Bolsheviks alone taking power, establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat and convening a bourgeois Constituent Assembly!
Thus, in September, the convocation of the Assembly, after full and free elections, was seen as requiring the success of the revolutionary forces, but no clash of interests between the two was indicated. Why was the door to the convening of the Constituent Assembly being kept open even at this late stage? One possible reason for this apparently ambiguous policy was given by Trotsky; “the Bolsheviks .... had not yet renounced the idea of the Constituent Assembly. Moreover, they could not do this without abandoning revolutionary realism. Whether the future course of events would create the conditions for a complete victory of the proletariat, could not with absolute certainty be foreseen”(43). In other words, the Constituent Assembly was seen as a possible safety net. At the beginning of October, Lenin wrote Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?(44), in which he argued that the Bolshevik Party alone had sufficient base in revolutionary Russia to take power and hold onto it. The Constituent Assembly is referred to, but only to draw attention to the failure of Kerensky’s government to convene it, and the widespread intimidation of peasants through arrests and military measures to rig the outcomes of the elections.
7.4 Lenin, the October Revolution and the Constituent Assembly
After the October Revolution the Bolsheviks still did not close the door on the Constituent Assembly. The promise to allow elections was kept; partly because the cancellation of the elections could have alienated a section of the peasantry, partly because it did not have sufficient authority in all areas and districts to stop the elections going ahead, partly because the Bolsheviks would have found it difficult to say no after having called for the election of an Assembly since February, but also because the majority of the Bolshevik leadership was committed to the elections(45). A section of the leadership (Kamenev and Zinoviev) actually had as its goal, the establishment of a dual-power in Russia - the Constituent Assembly with the Bolsheviks a strong minority within it, and the Soviets with the Bolsheviks a strong majority. Their trajectory over this period - support for the war, against the October Revolution, for a coalition government - was parallel to that of the Left SRs(46), possibly giving the latter hope of determining governmental policy.
Trotsky described the internal situation within the Bolshevik leadership: Lenin was not opposed in principle to the election of a Constituent Assembly, but wanted to postpone it to avoid an Assembly with a Menshevik and SR majority which could pose serious problems for the revolution(47). Trotsky was to later claim that Lenin had decided that if the Bolsheviks had a majority in the Assembly they would have formally dissolved it and handed all power to the Soviets. Indeed, the democratically elected Petrograd Town Council which had a substantial Bolshevik majority did just that(78).
The first decree, on peace, drafted by Lenin was issued the day after the insurrection, 26 October 1917. On the same day, the decree abolishing private ownership of the land, also drafted by Lenin, was issued. On taking power, and without waiting for the Constituent Assembly, the Soviets introduced a number of measures to destroy the old state, and take the first steps in the construction of the new:
2 November: Right of the peoples of Russia to self- determination and secession. Right of the peoples of Russia to self-determination and secession.
10 November: Castes and civil hierarchy abolished.
14 November: Decree for workers’ control in industry.
Nationalisation of the banking and credit institutions.
21 November: Right of recall established as a necessary condition for any truly democratic and really representative body.
22 November: Decree passed to replace all serving judges who were, henceforth, to be elected.
9 December: Brest-Litovsk peace talks commence.
11 December: Education taken out of the hands of the church.
14 December: Decree making banking a state monopoly.
16 December: Ranks in the army abolished,
Russo-Belgium Metals Company confiscated.
17 December: Market in living accommodation abolished in the cities,
1886 Electric Company confiscated.
18 December: Civil marriage instituted.
19 December: Divorce instituted.
21 December: Code for revolutionary courts decreed.
24 December: Putilov factories confiscated.
3 January: Russian Federation of Soviet Republics proclaimed,
Decree issued for the constitution and organisation of the Socialist Red Army(48,49).
These decisions and decrees were being implemented in parallel with the elections to, and convening of, the Constituent Assembly. The decisions taken by the Bolshevik-dominated Soviets determined policy on all the important issues of the day, particularly the two most pressing questions facing Russia: the end to the war and agrarian policy. Simultaneously, the power of the state in the period of the disintegration of the armed forces, was the Red Guard, sailors and army units loyal to the Bolsheviks. In such a situation, the Constituent Assembly could not, realistically, exert any state or governmental authority which did not accord with the policies of the Soviets. But it could become the focus for the campaign against the Soviet regime, and lend legitimacy to anti-Soviet forces. In fact, the Assembly did, indeed, become a rallying point for the so-called democratic forces, all of whom ceded real power to the counter-revolution.
Much of the following material on the elections to, and convening of, the Constituent Assembly is drawn from The Sickle Under the Hammer(50), and Russia Goes to the Polls(51), both by Oliver Henry Radkey. The elections for the Constituent Assembly were held between 12-14 November. The SR Party gained the largest single number of votes, over 22,000,000 from a total of about 42,000,000, and obtained approximately 438 of the 703 seats declared. However, the candidates who made up this block were predominantly middle class intellectuals and army officers who had been selected by a system that effectively excluded the left wing of the party, which would soon break away to become the party of the Left SRs. The split would be over whether to support the October Revolution and, in many areas, the Left SRs constituted the majority of the party membership.
The vote for the Constituent Assembly included all sectors of the population, in or outside the Soviets. The results showed that at the time of the elections, in the west of Russia, from the army front lines through Minsk and across to Smolensk, the solid majority of all peasants supported the Bolsheviks rather than the SRs. The Bolsheviks also held all the major towns and the majority of the soldiers within them. Radkey concludes that this was an under-estimation of Bolshevik support as the dynamic of the revolution was everywhere strongly in favour of the Bolsheviks, even in the SR rural heartlands(52).
Immediately after the elections, in preparation for the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, the Centre/Right SRs met in Petrograd. By the time they met, the delegates were aware of the enormous number of votes cast by the peasants for SR candidates but were also well aware that nearly all their strength in the urban centres and many barracks had evaporated, going either directly to the Bolsheviks or to the Left SRs. The programme and policies they decided would provide the basis of the SR challenge to the Bolsheviks for power. Four major issues confronted them, the SR’s attitude to the Soviets, peace, land, and the national question(53).
The complete divorce of the Centre/Right SR leadership from reality is best represented by the policy adopted on the agrarian question. Meeting in the face of the Bolshevik land decree which enacted SR policy, they rejected this as far too radical, even though it was clearly what their remaining electoral base - the peasant masses - wanted. Instead they decided that the Constituent Assembly would plan for land socialisation to take place at some, unspecified, future date. In the given situation such prevarication was political suicide. How to explain it? Radkey notes that of all the monies paid into the SR treasury, only 3% came from party organisations, and 97% came from the banks in the form of loans! He suggests that this dependence of a party that called itself socialist and revolutionary, upon the institutions of finance capitalism “may explain more than one puzzling circumstance in the conduct of the party in 1917”(54).
The leadership of the Centre/Right SRs rightly saw the decision of the Bolsheviks to convene the Third Soviet Congress only three days after the opening of the Constituent Assembly, as preparation for closing down the latter, and concluded that they would have to defend the Assembly militarily. The real strength of the SR Party was now revealed; it managed to gather only a few dozen militants who were simply brushed aside by the Red Guards and sailors assigned by the Bolsheviks to “guard” the Assembly. The SR Party failed to mobilise peasants for this venture because they saw the Assembly as a distraction from the seizure and re-distribution of the land. The rapidly-declining number of soldiers still loyal to the SRs were too far away on, for example, the Rumanian front, to help.
Faced with the results of the elections, Lenin published nineteen theses in Pravda on 26 December, which offered serious practical reasons why the Constituent Assembly did not really represent the true opinions of the electorate: the lists of candidates presented did not reflect the split in the SR Party, and those representing possibly the majority of members were a small minority of the candidates; the elections had taken place before the news of the October Revolution had spread to many areas, and certainly before its significance for the land question was realised by the overwhelming majority of the peasants; achieving an end to the war could be attempted only as a result of the October Revolution and this was not yet widely appreciated; there was no right of recall of deputies to correct these imbalances(55).
Lenin half-heartedly justified the Bolshevik demand for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly prior to the October Revolution (it was the highest form of bourgeois democracy), but the situation had changed. Now a government best capable of achieving a painless transition from a bourgeois to a socialist system was required, and a republic of Soviets was most suitable. Of course, this was the direction in which the Bolsheviks had been heading since April 1917, and it is, perhaps, surprising that it took Lenin so long to spell it out. The situation was laid bare in Thesis 14:
“Only the complete victory of the workers and peasants over the bourgeois and landowner ... can really safeguard the proletarian-peasant revolution. The course of events and the development of the class struggle in the revolution have resulted in the slogan ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly!’ - which disregards the gains of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution, which disregards Soviet power, which disregards the decisions of the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, of the Second All-Russia Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, etc., - becoming in fact the slogan of the Cadets and the Kaledinites and of their helpers. The entire people are now fully aware that the Constituent Assembly, if it parted ways with Soviet power, would inevitably be doomed to political extinction”(56).
All the preparation for the Constituent Assembly came to nothing. The Assembly met on 5 January 1918, but of the 800 elected representatives, fewer than 500 attended, and further credibility was lost when it became known that with the withdrawal of the 150 Bolsheviks and Left SR delegates, fewer than 40% of the elected delegates remained. Sverdlov, for the Bolsheviks, proposed that the Constituent Assembly endorsed the Declaration of the Rights of the Labouring and Exploited Masses drafted by Lenin and adopted by the All-Russian Soviet Executive. The Centre/Right SRs and their allies re-ordered the business of the day by 237 votes to 146 and by-passed the Soviet declaration(57). In this way the Assembly issued a direct challenge to the Soviet regime by showing itself not prepared to accept the fundamentals of Soviet policy. The Bolsheviks caucused with the Left SRs and then withdrew from the Assembly on their own, to be followed by the Left SRs some time after midnight, after unresolveable differences emerged between them and the Centre/Right SRs over whether to support Soviet peace negotiations.
At 4.40 am on the 6th, the Red Guards and sailors present declared the session closed(58). The dispersal of the Assembly caused remarkably little response. Only Kharkov City Soviet in all of Russia is known to have passed a resolution condemning the dissolution, although this was later reversed by a meeting of the local provincial Soviet(59). In the spring the Centre/Right SRs made some half-hearted attempts to revive the Constituent Assembly in Kiev, but this came to nothing.
Before the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, both the Centre/Right SRs and Left SRs had decided to mobilise their respective peasant support by each convening a Third All-Russian Peasants’ Congress separately from one another. The Centre/Right SR Third Congress of Peasant Soviets opened on 10 January, the Left SR Third All-Russian Congress of Peasant Soviets opened on the 14th, and the Bolshevik Third All-Russian Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets also opened on 10 January. The Third All-Russian Congress called by the Centre/Right SRs had over 300 delegates. It never properly met because a contingent of sailors and Red Guards dispersed it during the opening ceremonies. That the Centre/Right SRs were already a rump organisation by this time was confirmed by the fact that there was no recorded dissent to the dispersal of this Congress, not even in the SRs’ strongest areas such as Saratov province. The Congress was the SRs’ last national action before political extinction(60). Events had confirmed Lenin’s opinion that the results of the Constituent Assembly elections did not reflect the reality of the Russian Revolution.
Was the entry of the Left SRs into the government in December a manoeuvre by Lenin to forestall the Constituent Assembly?(61) Of course, timing is important in a revolution, and it may well have been that having the Left SRs in the government bought the Bolsheviks valuable time in which to build up and consolidate their support amongst the peasantry, particularly through the masses of soldiers who had shifted their allegiance from the SR Party to the Bolsheviks and were returning home. However, after July but before October, the Left SRs were gaining rapidly at the expense of Centre/Right of the Party, but were meeting with much less success in holding their lines against Bolshevism. “The picture varied little from one part of the country to another - everywhere the Bolsheviks were going forward and the Left SR’s fighting just to hold their own”(62). After the Bolshevik government’s Land Decree this process underwent a step change, and the SRs, Left, Right and Centre, never regained their former mass support amongst the peasantry. Prior to the elections Lenin genuinely believed that an alliance with the Left SRs could benefit the revolutionary transition in Russia, but after the elections the argument for such an alliance lost much of its force.
All that Radkey says confirms Lenin’s analysis that;
“... the Russian proletariat won the peasantry from the Socialist-Revolutionaries, and won them literally a few hours after achieving state power; a few hours after the victory over the bourgeoisie in Petrograd, the victorious proletariat issued a ‘decree on land’, and in that decree it entirely, at once, with revolutionary swiftness, energy and devotion, satisfied all the most urgent economic needs of the majority of the peasants, it expropriated the landowners, entirely and without compensation”(63).
With the decision of the Third All-Russian Congress of Peasant Soviets convened by the Left SRs to merge with the Third All-Russian Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, to form the All-Russian Congress of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, the Bolsheviks could legitimately claim that the Soviets represented the vast majority of the working population.
7.5 The Workers, the Red Guard, and the Power of the State
On 28 January 1917 (prior to the Mensheviks and SRs voicing their opposition), the Petrograd Soviet sent a directive to each factory to organise a workers’ militia. This gave the green light to local activities and received an enthusiastic response, typifying direct proletarian self-assertion. By the end of February, workers militias had sprung up in most of the factories, and by the start of March some 20,000 militia men were under arms in Petrograd alone(64).
The longstanding, formal position of the Bolsheviks (though only the grass roots acted on it in early 1917) was to support the creation of workers’ militias and Red Guards, and when both the Mensheviks and SRs counter-posed a militia loyal to the city dumas they de facto ensured that the bands of armed men that would form the power of the Soviet state remained firmly in Bolshevik hands alone. The Bolsheviks formed Soviet militias under their control in all provinces and towns with a proletarian element, including those areas where the Left SRs had their strongholds(65). Arming the workers had been explicit Bolshevik policy from 1905, so the existence of an armed workers’ militia does not offer a criterion by which to judge whether the goal of the 1917 Revolution was a Constituent Assembly or Commune-type state, a RDDPP, or a dictatorship of the proletariat - however, the actions taken by the Red Guards after the October Revolution do.
In Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power(66), the state order that followed the revolution would be based on the activities of the Red Guards, and Lenin gives examples of how it would be the workers’ militia that would determine day-to-day decision-making in the new state. This makes the activities of the Red Guard very important - would the armed might of the workers remain outside the factory gates, or would it flow into the factory? In fact, the spontaneous actions of the workers’ militia confirmed Trotsky’s central prediction that if the armed workers held the power outside the factory gate, that authority would naturally spill over into a direct challenge to the management and ownership of the enterprises. Dune described how, as soon as the news of the revolution reached his factory, the workers disarmed the owners’ factory guard, took their weapons (revolvers and sabres) and formed a “revolutionary defence force”(67). He went on to say that the factory committee elected by all the workers took over day-to-day running of the factory, but that none of the Mensheviks in the factory joined the Red Guard and left it to the Bolsheviks(68).
Given the geographic and social distribution of Russian society - the workers had to live close to their factories, public transport was a luxury they could not afford - the workers’ militias and Red Guard units were, of necessity, factory-based, since there was no realistic alternative. Such a structure posed a serious practical problem for the theory of the RDDPP, but lent great strength to the ToPR. As Wade reported:
“For the factory workers and their factory committees, then, the presence of factory-based armed units gave emphasis to their demands. ... Indeed, the coercive relationship between the management and workers was reversed. Now the workers had arms ... whereas management had lost its factory guards and the ultimate threat of government police and troops”(69).
Just as Trotsky had predicted, based on his experience of 1905, the workers saw no reason to keep the Red Guards outside the factory gate, quite the opposite, Red Guards provided the muscle to support workers’ demands for a larger voice in the factories and, even, workers’ seizure of the factories(70). After October, the Red Guards right across Russia, gradually extended their control beyond the environs of the factories and took responsibility for security within the cities and larger towns, exercising political control by breaking up opponents’ demonstrations and meetings, arresting participants and seizing their weapons.
Wade reported that up to the October Revolution, workers were in the majority in the Red Guard units across Russia, typically at least 60%, rising to about 80% in the industrial centres and over 90% in Petrograd(71). He showed that while the Bolsheviks were initially a minority of the rank and file of the Red Guard, as 1917 progressed they assumed an increasingly important role in leadership, and by October held nearly all the senior positions(72), at which time Wade estimates there were between 100,000 and 200,000 Red Guards in Russia, a key force because - unlike the peasant soldiers in the army - they were prepared to fight (and die) for the revolution(73).
Carr confirms that the leaders of the Bolshevik Party had no further plans for socialisation of the economy after the nationalisation of the banking and credit institutions and the decree for workers’ control of industry on 14 November, but:
“... the innumerable economic conflicts that had gone on before October now multiplied, and indeed became more serious as the combativity of the contestants was everywhere greater. The initiative for acts of expropriation, undertaken as necessities of struggle rather than according to any design for socialism, came from the masses rather than the government. It was only eight months later, in June 1918, that the government adopted the great decrees of nationalisation, under the pressure of foreign intervention. ...
The liquidation of the political defences of their capitalist exploiters launched a spontaneous movement among the workers to take over the means of production. Since they were perfectly able to take control of the factories and workshops, why should they abstain? The employers sabotage of production entailed expropriation as an act of reprisal. When the boss brought work to a halt, the workers themselves, on their own responsibility, got the establishment going again. [Council of Peoples’ Commissars had to decree the nationalisation of Russo-Belgian Metal Company’s factories, the Putilov works, the Smirnov spinning-mills and the power station belonging to the 1886 Electrical Company.]”(74).
7.6 Town and Country
In Pravda in December 1917, Lenin had presented nineteen theses explaining why the Constituent Assembly elections were not truly representative of the balance of forces in Russia. In his 1918 dispute with Kautsky, and later in his 1919 review of the elections to the Constituent Assembly, Lenin added another argument to his list, one that was little more than an elaboration of Trotsky’s dictum: “The history of capitalism is the history of the subordination of the country to the town”(75), one of the foundation stones of Permanent Revolution:
“The country cannot be equal to the town under the historical conditions of this epoch. The town inevitably leads the country. The country inevitably follows the town. The only question is which class, of the “urban” classes, will succeed in leading the country, will cope with this task, and what forms will leadership by the town assume? ....
Capitals, or, in general, big commercial and industrial centres ... , to a considerable degree decide the political fate of a nation, provided, of course, the centres are supported by sufficient local, rural forces, even if that support does not come immediately”(76).
Trotsky had argued in the ToPR that the proletariat, having taken political and state power in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, would immediately approve all revolutionary expropriations carried out by the peasants. By this it would effectively rob the Constituent Assembly of its most important prop, and thus, in the initial stages of the revolution, the Russian peasant would have a vested interest in maintaining the proletarian regime, not a Constituent Assembly. Lenin developed this idea of Trotsky’s, fleshing it out not only with the practical details of the actual Russian Revolution, but also in terms of Marxist theory:
“But these conditions [Bolshevik domination of the towns and capital] could have ensured only a very short-lived and unstable victory had the Bolsheviks been unable to win to their side the majority of the non-proletarian working masses, ... state power in the hands of one class, the proletariat, can and must become an instrument for winning to the side of the proletariat the non-proletarian working masses, an instrument for winning those masses from the bourgeoisie and from the petty-bourgeois parties.
The proletariat must (after mustering sufficiently strong political and military “striking forces”) overthrow the bourgeoisie, take state power from it in order to use that instrument for its class aims. .... the proletariat must first overthrow the bourgeoisie and win for itself state power, and then use that state power, that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as an instrument of its class for the purpose of winning the sympathy of the majority of the working people.
... the proletariat can, and must, at once, or at all events very quickly, win from the bourgeoisie and from petty-bourgeois democrats ”their” masses, i.e., the masses which follow them -- win them by satisfying their most urgent economic needs in a revolutionary way by expropriating the landowners and the bourgeoisie. ...”(77).
A review of Lenin’s attitude towards the Constituent Assembly and the Commune-type state shows that until 1917 his goal for the Russian Revolution was a Constituent Assembly elected by free and universal suffrage of all the people, heading a bourgeois state. During 1917/18, the Constituent Assembly was first demoted to assume second place to Soviet power, and then disbanded when it threatened that power. Lenin’s attitude to the Constituent Assembly is clearly paralleled in his references to the Paris Commune which, initially rejected in 1905, had by early 1917, become a model that the Soviets were to emulate. The study of Lenin’s attitude towards the Constituent Assembly clearly demonstrates his transition from a stagist to a permanentist position, culminating in the socialist October Revolution 1917 and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly.
1. Lenin, V.I., On Two Lines in the Revolution. November 1915, CW 21:418
2. Lenin, V.I., To the Rural Poor - An Explanation for the Peasants of What the Social-Democrats Want,, March 1903, CW 6:361-432
3. Lenin, V.I., Ibid, CW 6:427
4. Lenin, V.I., The Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry, April 12 1905, CW 8:293-303
5. Lenin, V. I., Draft Resolution on the Provisional Revolutionary Government, April 1905, CW8:397
6. Lenin, V.I., The Third Congress of the RDSLP, April 1905, CW 8:396-397
7. Lenin, V.I., The Democratic Tasks of the Revolutionary Proletariat, June 1905, CW 8: 513-4 and 517
8. Lenin, V.I., Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, June 1905, CW 9:26
9. Lenin, V.I., Ibid, CW 9:15-140
10. Lenin, V.I., Ibid, CW 9:28
11. Lenin, V.I., Ibid, CW 9:28
12. Lenin, V.I., Ibid, CW 9:29
13. Lowy, M., Combined and Uneven Development, Verso, London, 1981, p61
14. Lenin, V.I., Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, June 1905, CW 9:80
15. Trotsky, L.D., Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, London, 1962, p232
16. Lenin, V.I., A Tactical Platform for the Unity Congress of the RDSLP, March 1906, CW 10:155-157
17. Lenin, V.I., Ibid, CW 10:158-159
18. Lenin, V.I., Ibid, CW 10:156
19. Lenin, V.I., Revision of the Agrarian Programme of the Workers’ Party, April 1906, CW 10:189-190
20. Lenin, V.I., Ibid, CW 10:194
21. Lenin, V.I., ”The Peasant Reform” and the Proletarian - Peasant Revolution, March 1911, CW 17:128
22. Lenin, V.I., Several Theses Proposed by the Editors, October 1915, CW 21:401-404
23. Lenin, V.I., Letters From Afar, March 1917, CW 23:325-326
24. White, J.D. Lenin The Practice and Theory of Revolution, Palgrave, 2001, p156-157
25. Lenin, V.I., The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Oct-Nov 1918, CW 28:265
26. Lenin, V.I., Report on the Present Situation April 1917, CW 24:145
27. Lenin, V.I., Letters on Tactics, April 1917, CW 24:53
28. Lenin, V.I., Report on the Current Situation, April 1917, CW 24:239-241
29. Lenin, V.I., The Political Parties in Russia and the Tasks of the Proletariat, April 1917, CW 24:99
30. Lenin, V.I., The Seventh (April) All-Russia Conference of the R.S.D.L.P.(B.), April 1917, CW 24:275
31. Lenin, V.I., Constitutional Illusions , July 1917, CW 25:194-207
32. Trotsky, L.D., History of the Russian Revolution. Three volumes, Sphere Books Ltd, London, 1967, Vol 3 p32
33. Sukhanov, N.N., The Russian Revolution 1917 A Personal Record, Oxford University Press, London, 1955, p496-497
34. Trotsky, L.D., History of the Russian Revolution. Three volumes, Sphere Books Ltd, London, 1967, Vol 1 p345
35. Marx, K. and Engels, F., Manifesto of the Communist Party, Selected Works, Moscow, 1951, 1:22
36. Lenin, V. I., How to Organise Competition, Dec 1917, CW 26:413
37. Lenin, V. I., Extraordinary 7th Congress of the RCP(B), March 1918, CW 27:133
38. Lenin, V. I., The State and Revolution, Aug-Sept 1917, CW 25:422 and 426
39. Trotsky, L.D., Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, London, 1962, p202
40. Daniels, R.V., Red October, Secker and Warburg, London, 1967, p17
41. Lenin, V.I., The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power: A Letter to the Central Committee and the Petrograd and Moscow Committees of the RDSLP(B), September 1917, CW 26:19
42. Lenin, V.I., Ibid CW 26:19
43. Trotsky, L.D., History of the Russian Revolution. Three volumes, Sphere Books Ltd, London, 1967, 2:328
44. Lenin, V.I., Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? October 1917, CW 26:87-136
45. Thatcher, I. D., Trotsky, Routledge, London and New York, 2003, p94
46. Carr, E.H., The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923. Three Volumes. Pelican, 1983, 1:118
47. Trotsky, L.D., On Lenin George Harrap and Co., London, 1971, 105-106
48. Serge, V., Year One of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press, London, 1992, p122,
49. Cliff, T.C., Lenin: Revolution Besieged, Pluto Press, 1975, p8-11
50. Radkey, O.H., The Sickle Under the Hammer, Columbia University Press, New York, 1963
51. Radkey, O.H., Russia Goes to the Polls, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1989
52. Radkey, O.H., The Sickle Under the Hammer, Columbia University Press, New York, 1963, p280-301
53. Radkey, O. H., Ibid, p179-200
54. Radkey, O. H., Ibid , p200
55. Lenin, V.I., Theses On The Constituent Assembly, December 1917, CW 26:380-382
56. Lenin, V.I., Ibid, CW 26:381
57. Radkey, O.H., The Sickle Under the Hammer, Columbia University Press, New York, 1963, p396
58. Radkey, O.H., Ibid, p413-414
59. Radkey, O.H., Ibid, p431
60. Radkey, O.H., Ibid, p440-444
61. Carr, E.H., The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923. Three Volumes. Pelican, 1983, 1:121
62. Radkey, O.H., The Sickle Under the Hammer, Columbia University Press, New York, 1963, p154
63. Lenin, V.I., The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, December 1919, CW 30:264
64. Wade, R. A., Red Guards and Workers’ Militias in the Russian Revolution, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1984, p59-60
65. Wade, R. A., op cit, p219-221
66. Lenin, V.I., Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power, October 1917, CW 26:112
67. Dune, E. M., Notes of a Red Guard, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1993, p36
68. Dune, E. M., Ibid, p38
69. Wade, R. A., op cit, p67
70. Wade, R. A., op cit, p299
71. Wade, R. A., op cit, p279, Table 3 et seq.
72. Wade, R. A., op cit, p285
73. Wade, R. A., op cit, p294-295
74. Carr, E.H., The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923. Three Volumes. Pelican, 1983, 1:135-138
75. Trotsky, L.D., Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, London, 1962, p204-205
76. Lenin, V. I., The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, December 1919, CW 30:253-75
77. Lenin, V. I., Ibid, CW 30:264
78. Trotsky, L.D., Terrorism and Communism, George Allen & Unwin, 1921, pp43 and 76
79. Engels, F., Introduction to the Civil War in France, Martin Lawrence Ltd., London, 1933, pp14 and 16.