Russia 1917 A radical workers’ democracy comes to life

The February 1917 revolution in Russia, 100 years ago this month, brought the repressive tsarist regime crashing down. With the revolution came a radical new form of democracy, one that – in contrast to the limited and contorted democratic systems that exist under capitalism – began to wrest control away from the rich and powerful, and put it in the hands of workers and the poor. Sandra Bloodworth explains.

The outbreak of revolution throughout Russia in February 1917 brought millions of people who previously had little say over politics right to the centre of political life.

Historian Rex Wade describes how masses of people “burst forth with a dazzling display of self-assertiveness, public meetings and creation of new organisations”. This description of the “newly unfettered public life” is one of many which speak of the streets of cities like Petrograd (as St Petersburg was renamed) and Moscow as “one vast and on-going meeting”.

Speakers on every corner drew huge crowds. Red flags fluttered everywhere, people wore red ribbons and raised high red banners, creating a festive atmosphere. Singing of revolutionary songs, bands playing “The Marseillaise” rang out. Talking, talking and more talking, people reading everything they could find: posters plastered around the city, newspapers, leaflets.

But this radical and participatory “democracy of the streets” was only the beginning. Even before the tsar’s humiliation was complete, workers began electing delegates in their workplaces to the Soviet of Workers Deputies. Within days, 2,000 delegates attended the soviet assembly.

Nikolai Sukhanov, a moderate supporter of the revolution, a left Menshevik, wanted to see “order” restored with a new, bourgeois government to ensure capitalist rule. Nevertheless, he recognised a problem at the heart of the revolution. Would the working class allow the establishment of capitalist rule now they had a sense of their power and a taste of freedom?

He noted a certain amount of muddle in the soviet, but recognised it as “the very crucible of great events, the laboratory of the revolution” with “undisputed authority” because it alone was capable of “rapid and decisive actions”. For instance, the soviet, with delegates from the relevant unions, could ensure that reactionary publications did not appear.

Within days, workers were setting up “a staggering multitude of new organisations”. These debated how to win their demands: the eight-hour day, increased wages, equal pay, better working conditions, an end to sexual harassment of women workers by bosses and foremen, provision for those injured or suffering ill health.

And these were just the immediate tasks in the workplaces. Workers also debated issues such as how they could stop World War One, which they recognised as the root of so much of the suffering that had provoked the rebellion.

But it wasn’t all talk. Many workplaces moved immediately to expel or discipline hated managers. Many were dumped in wheelbarrows, often with a sack over their head and left in the street; some were thrown in waterways. In other places, managers were made to stand on tables and apologise, promising to change their attitude.

Historians refer to this humiliation as symbolic of workers asserting their own dignity. But it was more than symbolic; it was a means to establish a new balance of power. The government had changed, and workers wanted to change their immediate oppressive conditions.

However, the establishment of the self-appointed Provisional Government could not be ignored. It embodied the elitism and supreme confidence of the capitalist class and its supporters among the liberal intelligentsia that it alone could rule.

It was clear only to the most class conscious then, but by the autumn it would become clear to the mass of workers, that if their exercise in democracy was to make possible a fundamental change to their conditions, the Provisional Government would have to be swept into the dustbin of history along with the monarchy.

Workers’ democracy

The soviets were not the only form of radical workers’ democracy.

Factory committees – elected in workplaces by all workers regardless of sex, religion or background – dealt with everything from fixing light bulbs, discouraging drunkenness, collecting contributions for funds to distribute to the lowest paid, to leading fights for better conditions.

Rules drawn up by city-wide conferences decreed that elections should be held every six months. But an election could be called by the monthly workplace general assembly to which delegates were required to report and in which final authority was vested. S.A. Smith comments in his detailed history of the Petrograd committees:

“Members of the committees … viewed their ‘office’ as a means of effecting economic and social change. They … enjoyed no stability of tenure … they were not appointed by some impersonal organisation, but elected by and accountable to the workers.”

District and city-wide soviets were elected in workplaces, with delegates easily recallable, reflected in their changing composition as political consciousness became increasingly radical. More than 2,000 trade unions mushroomed in 1917, holding elections and frequent meetings.

The exact responsibilities of the different layers of representation and involvement were the subject of constant debate. Often all of them intervened around a strike or met to discuss general political issues.

Factory committees and unions fought for or at times simply imposed things like meal breaks and sick leave; they demanded a say in hiring and firing, and burnt old rule books that listed all the petty humiliations of the past.

The factory committees were the closest to their constituents, and so were initially the most pro-active and later some of the first to reflect the changing political alliances.

The eight-hour day was a key demand. It was the basis for workers to participate as citizens in the organs of their democracy. It allowed time for leisure, for cultural and educational activities – seen by broad layers as an essential aspect of their revolution. This in turn meant a further plethora of organisations, clubs and societies to facilitate these activities.

By 10 March, the Petrograd Association of Manufacturers, in spite of its hostility to the incursions into their members’ right to manage their enterprises, signed an agreement with the city soviet to recognise the eight-hour day. This decree really only recognised the status quo imposed by the committees and workers themselves. Women workers were the most vehement enforcers of the shorter day and keeping overtime to a minimum.

Moscow – with a workforce far less dominated by the most politically advanced such as metalworkers – was less radical. Here, while some factory committees implemented the eight-hour day, many argued that such a serious reform could be mandated only by the city soviet. Moderate Mensheviks insisted that the government must legalise it.

This was a test of the democratic structures and how much workers could influence their representative bodies. Several workplaces reported that a negative decision by the soviet would “dreadfully undermine” its authority. In the end, the soviet resolved to back the shorter day for all of Moscow and call on the government to introduce it for the whole of Russia.

This “conflict between procedure and substance” as Diane Koenker, a historian of the Moscow workers’ movement put it, reveals serious issues workers grappled with and the uneven political development among them.

Factory committees wanted a significant degree of say over conditions in their workplaces. But their debates and actions had to navigate the tension between imposing their will on employers while not becoming an arm of management or the government.

They consistently rejected both anarchist calls to take over the factories and Menshevik support for control by the Provisional Government. Majorities invariably supported Bolshevik and Left Socialist Revolutionary (SR) motions that embodied both a flavour of radical supervision in the factories and the need for the soviets to take central power.

There was recognition that factory closures were a means to dissipate the organised strength of workers. So committees would go to extraordinary lengths to keep them open. In one instance, they convinced a union to lend them some of its strike fund in order to buy fuel to keep production going. Others organised to redistribute fuel and materials to companies with shortages.

A vibrant culture of debate and creativity permeated a bewildering array of committees and conferences. How political organisations intervened in this turmoil and activity determined who gained influence and who lost it.

By May, Bolshevik motions were winning majorities in the committees, and their members were some of the most pro-active in them. The soviets, dominated from the start by the Mensheviks, who opposed workers’ power, did not elect Bolshevik majorities until August.

As Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had predicted in April, workers changed their positions through a combination of experience and arguments. Factory committees’ exposure of management lies about fuel shortages as an excuse to stop production, or keeping production going in individual factories without an overall plan to deal with growing economic crisis, illustrated very concretely the revolutionaries’ argument. Only a workers’ government of soviets could coordinate to make factory level control a reality.

A Provisional Government attempt to send troops back on the offensive in the war, and general Kornilov’s march on Petrograd to carry out a counter-revolutionary coup, demonstrated that only a soviet government would defend the revolution, let alone win reforms.

The factory committees were critical in organising to defeat Kornilov: tearing up railway lines, diverting army instructions to the wrong destinations (some of them were seen postered up in city streets, making a mockery of the counter-revolution). And the Bolsheviks’ leading role convinced wide layers that only they were intent on and were capable of defending and extending the gains of the revolution.

Throughout these events, workers were forming militias, sometimes on their own initiative, others because they took on the role of securing their factory from vandalism or threats from employers. The more organised of these became known as the Red Guards. They were important in the fight to defeat Kornilov.

October and beyond

By October, it was clear to most workers that they needed control over the economy, which explains a lull in strikes and activity. This is not “proof” that the October revolution was simply a Bolshevik coup. Lenin explained it at the time:

“It implies not the ebb of the revolution … but the ebb of confidence in resolutions and elections. In a revolution, the masses demand action, not words from the leading parties, they demand victories in the struggle, not talk. The moment is approaching when the people may conceive the idea that the Bolsheviks are no better than the others, since they were unable to act when the people placed confidence in them.”

In any case, the weeks before the insurrection were marked by a frenzy of organising and mass meetings to test opinion. Bolsheviks such as Trotsky toured the soldiers’ barracks, convincing them to prepare to defend a soviet government. Workers worked with their guns beside them ready for the coming showdown. Red Guards openly drilled in the streets. Based among workers, they were more reliable and determined than many of the soldiers and played a role in encouraging and steadying them in both Petrograd and Moscow.

On Petrograd Soviet Day – Sunday, 22 October – hundreds of thousands flocked to meetings in halls and in the streets, listening for hours to radical orators, raising their hands in unanimity when asked if they were for the soviets taking power.

Without all these elements of workers’ democracy, it is highly unlikely that the Bolsheviks could have overthrown the Provisional Government in a coup and held government for any time in the face of the moderate socialists’ hostility.

Across the empire, workers’ and peasants’ soviets had in some areas – especially, but not only, in industrial centres – begun taking power before the All-Russian Congress of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Soviets.

After the seizure of power, the Mensheviks, many of whom joined the counter-revolution, propagated the lie that the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup. But Martov, the Menshevik leader and one of Lenin’s most bitter opponents, admitted in a private letter:

“Understand, please, that before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat – almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising.”

The Bolsheviks, in coalition with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, formed government. They staked everything on the expectation that workers’ revolution in the West would bring urgently needed economic relief.

However, there was a crescendo of demands for nationalisation of industry from factory committees well before the government was capable of funding and organising it. Many capitalists simply walked away when workers tried to take over, increasing the economic chaos.

From the first weeks of 1918, civil war loomed and later all the major imperialist powers invaded. Resources were consumed in fighting the counter-revolution. Economic blockade of the already debilitated economy meant terrible hunger. Tens of thousands of the most committed revolutionary workers perished in the war.

Yet in the midst of war, economic collapse and international isolation, the Soviet government instituted far-reaching and radical changes, some of which we still have to win in the richest democracies.

The SR program of land reform became government policy, and the peasantry were urged to take matters into their own hands, to take the land and use it as they saw fit.

In its first year, the Soviet government decreed universal suffrage and abolished the right of inheritance. Marriage and divorce laws were taken out of the remit of the church or state, same sex relationships and marriage were recognised. Illegitimacy was abolished as a legal concept, paid maternity leave before and after birth was enshrined in law. Communal kitchens and childcare centres proliferated to free women from the burdens of the family.

Literacy programs and education were a priority, but the start of the school year in 1918 had to be delayed because teachers, in the tradition of workers’ democracy, were still debating methods of teaching. National minorities were granted the right to independence up to and including secession from Russia, religious minorities were guaranteed respect, and anti-Semitism was condemned.

Determined to sue for peace, the government was forced to make terrible concessions to Germany, losing vast resources. This caused bitter debates which split the Bolsheviks and led to the SRs leaving the government and carrying out terrorist attacks on Bolshevik leaders.

Astonishingly, the counter-revolution was defeated, a tribute to the workers’ democracy. It was a beacon of humanity in spite of fighting a vicious war, compared to the anti-Semitic pogroms, massacres and reinstatement of the hated landlords by the White Army and its imperialist backers. And so it engendered in the peasantry – a class not inclined to collective organisation or submission to a state or cities – a reluctant submission to the needs for grain by the cities and Red Army.

The tragedy was that unemployment reduced the workforce to a fraction of its former power. By April 1918, the factory workforce in Petrograd was only 40 percent the size of the previous year – and kept declining. In the first six months, one million left Petrograd. The social basis of workers’ democracy was destroyed. Even employed workers at times had to scrounge for food in the country to survive.

The defeat of workers’ revolutions in the West left Russia devastated. The material basis for socialism – workers’ democratic power in the workplaces and sufficient resources to provide a decent life for all – did not exist.

Stalin, formerly a Bolshevik leader, oversaw the final counter-revolution. The monstrous, bureaucratic class rule he built trampled all the gains won by the workers’ democracy, and besmirched its reputation.

Today we face the same barbarism and inhumanity that the workers of Russia overthrew for a few brief years. Their example, possible in a backward country a century ago, is rich with lessons that the next round of workers’ uprisings will benefit from studying.