How workers' power was organized

Amy Muldoon explains how the workers' council system arose out of the revolution and provided an example of unprecedented democracy.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

"What do we need some Constituent Assembly for when we have our soviets, where our deputies meet, and which can decide everything and know how to go about everything?"

THE RUSSIAN soldier who uttered these words spoke for millions of impoverished workers, peasants and soldiers who took onto their own shoulders the project of ending the tyranny of the Tsar and constructing a society free of unaccountable, exploiting rulers.

Socialists embrace the Russian Revolution not just because a hated autocrat was deposed, but because the whole Tsarist system was overthrown by the most far-reaching, democratic movement of the oppressed that history has ever seen. The soviets (Russian for "councils") were the mechanism of the transformation and stand as a model of the creativity and efficiency of workers' self-rule.

The soviets first appeared in the 1905 Revolution in Russia, which was inspired by the fight for a shorter workday, but quickly led to a direct political assault on the despotism of the Tsar.

Initially created out of strike committees, the soviets rapidly evolved into organizing centers throughout Russia's major cities for the working class to debate and implement tactics in the struggle. The soviet was both a weapon of workers' power against the old system and the beginning of an accountable, democratic replacement.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky--who was elected to head the soviet in the capital of Petrograd in 1905, and again in 1917--described their birth:

A proletariat, impelled by the course of events to improvise such unheard-of revolutionary activities, must at whatever cost produce from its depths an organization corresponding to the dimensions of the struggle and the colossal tasks. This organization was the soviets--brought into being by the first revolution, and made the instrument of the general strike and the struggle for power.

Based on elected deputies, or delegates, from each workplace (in the case of peasants, by location, and in the case of soldiers, by units), the soviets were incredibly sensitive to the changing moods and demands of the population. With no perks or terms of office or bloated campaign funds, soviet representatives truly voiced the wishes of their constituents--or were soon replaced if they didn't.

Though the 1905 Revolution was defeated and the struggle suppressed by the Tsar, the experience and memory of the soviets left a deep impression on the working class and Lenin's Bolshevik Party.

When the First World War drove Russian society to the brink of destruction--and sparked a revolutionary upheaval--the soviets re-emerged around the country to facilitate workers' struggle.

But this time, the soviets were reproduced on a much wider scale--appearing among peasants, soldiers, even students and housewives--and were joined by other forms of workers' organizations.

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THE FEBRUARY Revolution was the culmination of months of strikes by workers, protests by the urban poor, land seizures by peasants, and desertions and mutinies by soldiers.

In the cities, workers were faced with the collapse of industry as bosses couldn't secure materials at a profitable rate or refused to negotiate with workers demanding better pay or shorter hours. In many factories, employers refused to grant the eight-hour day--but they were powerless to stop workers from simply walking out.

Unions took root in previously unorganized industries. Workers also set up factory committees to oversee production since owners and managers were making such a mess of things.

Lacking the entrenched bureaucracy of the modern labor movement, Russian workers improvised immediate means to express their dissatisfaction with managers. One of the most popular was to throw an unpopular manager into a wheelbarrow and wheel him out of the factory, sometimes depositing him in a nearby river or canal.

Factory committees became very powerful forces in the workplace, initially monitoring bosses to prevent hoarding or sabotage, then moving on to oversee hiring and firing, production, securing materials and eventually distribution. In some larger workplaces, the committees took on demands for child care and food among workers.

Russia's workers and soldiers didn't start this process with an eye to replacing capitalism with socialism. But the model of workers' councils embodied in the soviets gave them the mechanism to go about attempting to solve Russia's crises.

If employers were sabotaging the economy, the workers' soviets were the means to decide democratically how to make and distribute what was needed. In the army, soldiers elected committees to impose their demands on officers. And peasants rioted, looted and occupied land--often under the influence of soldier family members who had had some experience of direct action in the army.

The rapid changes in consciousness bubbled through the soviets, causing their composition to change repeatedly between the overthrow of the Tsar in February and the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October.

Initially, the moderate socialist parties that dominated the All-Russian Congress of Soviets' Executive Committee were set on keeping the soviet a junior partner to the Provisional Government, comprised of the parties of the landowners, bosses and middle classes. This matched the expectation of the majority of people, who thought that with the Tsar gone, a parliamentary democracy would bring peace and justice.

But the direct participation of millions of people in the revolution put the soviets on a collision course with the Provisional Government--and raised a deeper sense among workers about what was possible.

For example, the shop committee of the Narva-Peterhof district--home to Russia's largest factory, the Putilov works--issued this statement on setting up factory committees in April 1917:

By becoming accustomed to self-management, the workers are preparing for that time when private ownership of factories and works will be abolished, and the means of production, together with the buildings erected by the workers' hands, will pass into the hands of the working class as a whole. Thus, while doing small things, we most constantly bear in mind the great overriding objective toward which the working people are striving.

The soviets' ability to function as a simultaneous political, economic and even military center was revealed the actual events of the revolution--most of all, in the failed military coup in August, led by General Lavr Kornilov.

As word spread of the Kornilov threat, local soviets formed Committees for Struggle that united workers and soldiers of different political parties into militias that received arms from factory committees, vehicles from chauffeurs and transport unions, and food from mill and restaurant workers.

Printers' unions refused to print counterrevolutionary newspapers. Railway workers sabotaged rail lines, even ripping up tracks to prevent right wing troops from entering Petrograd.

When the soldiers that Kornilov had counted on remaining loyal were told what their mission was--by workers and soldiers who surrounded their train and harangued them--they raised a red flag that read "Land and Freedom" at their headquarters, and arrested the commandant when he protested.

Not satisfied with simply stopping the coup, the troops then formed their own revolutionary committee to prevent any other assaults on Petrograd--because solidarity was the heart of the revolutionary mood--to spread the word to other units to abandon the mission.

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ON THE day after the October insurrection--the final act in the 1917 Revolution--the conservative daily newspaper Novoe Vromia wrote:

Let us suppose for a moment that the Bolsheviks do gain the upper hand. Who will govern us then: the cooks perhaps, those connoisseurs of cutlets and beefsteaks? Or maybe the firemen? The stable boys, the chauffeurs? Or perhaps the nursemaids will rush off to a meeting of the Council of State between the diaper-washing sessions? Who then? Where are the statesmen? Perhaps the mechanics will run the theaters, the plumbers foreign affairs, the carpenters, the post office.

The October Revolution was a mighty "yes" in response. When Russia's workers and oppressed wrested control over the different aspects of running society, they ceased to be "just" cooks or carpenters.

As Trotsky wrote, "The revolution gave land to the peasants, the revolution gave power to the workers and the peasants: these were great achievements, but no achievement of the revolution is more important than the awakening of the human personality in every oppressed and humiliated individual."

Russia in 1917 gives us a flavor of the kind of democracy that the oppressed and exploited can create--the workers' council system that can be the platform for a full flowering of human liberation.

This article first appeared in the May 18, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.