Lenin on the Russian Soviets as a New Form of Workers’ Democracy

The word ‘Soviet’, as in the name for the old USSR – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – meant a council. These were original councils workers, peasants and soldiers, which were set up by the Russian working people themselves during the 1905 and 1917 revolutions before the Bolshevik coup. The largest and most important was the Petrograd Soviet, in what is now St. Petersburg. They were composed of delegates elected by the workers, peasants and squaddies of the Russian Empire, in contrast to the Russian duma, the country’s parliament. The soviets were not originally the sole monopoly of the Bolsheviks. Their members included representatives from all of the Russian Socialist and revolutionary parties, including as well as Lenin’s Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Trudoviks. They became a pillar of the monolithic, totalitarian Communist state after the Bolshevik coup and the dissolution of all parties except the Communists. Lenin deliberately changed the name of his faction from Social Democrats (Bolsheviks) to Communists to show that the model for the new, Marxist Socialist society was going to be the Paris Commune of 1872, which rose up in protest against both the French monarchy and the German invasion during the Franco-Prussian War.

Lenin made the ideological nature of the new, governmental system through workers’ councils clear in the section ‘A new Type of State Emerging from Our Revolution’ in his April Theses. He wrote

The Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, Peasants’ and other Deputies are not understood, not only in the sense that their class significance, their role in the Russian revolution is not clear to the majority. They are not understood also in the sense that they constitute a new form or rather a new type of state.

The most perfect, the most advanced type of bourgeois state is the parliamentary democratic republic: power is vested in parliament; the state machine, the apparatus and organ of administration, is of the customary kind: the standing army, the police, and the bureaucracy – which in practice is undisplaceable, is privileged and stands above the people.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, however, revolutionary epochs have advanced a higher type of democratic state, a state which in certain respects, as Engels put it, ceases to be a state, is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word”. This is a state of the Paris Commune type, one in which a standing army and police divorced from the people are replaced by the direct arming of the people themselves. It is this feature that constitutes the very essence of the Commune, which has been so misrepresented and slandered by the bourgeois writers, and to which has been erroneously ascribed, among other things, the intention of immediately “introducing” socialism.

This is the type of state which the Russian revolution began to create in 1905 and in 1917. A Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, Peasants’ and other Deputies, united in an All-Russia Constituent Assembly of people’s representatives or in a Council of Soviets, etc., is what is already being realised in our country now, at this juncture. it is being realised by the initiative of the nation’s millions, who are creating a democracy on their own, in their own way, without waiting until the Cadet professors draft their legislative bills for a parliamentary bourgeois republic, or until the pedants and routine-worshippers of petty-bourgeois “Social-Democracy”, like Mr. Plekhanov or Kautsky, stop distorting the Marxist teaching on the state.

Marxism differs from anarchism in that it recognises the need for a state and for state power in the period of revolution in general, and in the period of transition from capitalism to socialism in particular.

Marxism differs from the petty-bourgeois, opportunist “Social-Democratism” of Plekhanov, Kautsky and Co. in that it recognises that what is required during these two periods is not a state of the usual parliamentary bourgeois republican type, but a state of the Paris Commune type.

The main distinctions between a state of the latter type and the old state are as follows.

It is quite easy (as history proves) to revert from a parliamentary bourgeois republic to a monarchy, for the machinery of oppression – the army, the police, and the bureaucracy-is left intact. The Commune and the Soviets smash that machinery and do away with it.

The parliamentary bourgeois republic hampers and stifles the independent political life of the masses, their direct participation in the democratic organisation of the life of the state from the bottom up. The opposite is the case with the Soviets.

The latter reproduce the type of state which was being evolved by the Paris Commune and which Marx described as “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour”.

We are usually told that the Russian people are not yet prepared for the “introduction” of the Commune. This was the argument of the serf-owners when they claimed that the peasants were not prepared for emancipation. The Commune, i.e., the Soviets, does not “introduce”, does not intend to “introduce”, and must not introduce any reforms which have not absolutely matured both in economic reality and in the minds of the overwhelming majority of the people. the deeper the economic collapse and the crisis produced by the war, the more urgent becomes the need for the most perfect political form, which will facilitate the healing of the terrible wounds inflicted on mankind by the war. The less the organisational experience of the Russian people, the more resolutely must we proceed to organisational developments by the people themselves, and not merely by the bourgeois politicians and “well-placed” bureaucrats. Lenin: The April Theses, 3rd Edition (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1970) 36-8.

Plekhanov and Kautsky were two of the great leaders of European Marxism at the time. Plekhanov was one of the founders of Russian Marxism, while Kautsky was the leader of the Austrian Social Democrats. Both defended parliamentary democracy. The Cadets Lenin also criticises aren’t students at a military academy. They were the Constitutional Democrats, a liberal party and I think the largest party in the duma at the time. Most historians now also believe that Marx, Engels and Lenin were wrong about the Socialist nature of the Paris Commune. The Communards weren’t motivated by Socialism so much as the Parisian local tradition of political autonomy, against the rest of the France, and patriotic outrage at defeat by Prussia, and the government that had failed to defend France, during the Franco-Prussian War.

Parliamentary democracy is superior to a government by workers’ councils, in that it does allow everyone in the state a vote and the opportunity to participate politically. This was recognised by Kautsky, who was a bitter critic of Bolshevik tyranny. However, there is still something deeply attractive about a governmental system that allow working people some measure of direct political power, rather than relying on a class of MPs, who may become distant from their electors, as has frequently happened.

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2 Responses to “Lenin on the Russian Soviets as a New Form of Workers’ Democracy”

  1. vondreassen Says:

    was it Socrates who said..’democracy can only work with an educated public’ ie one NOT controlled by an educated Elite…

    • beastrabban Says:

      I don’t know – it may well have been, though it could also be Plato or Aristotle. It’s definitely one of those. And it’s the reason America has a public – free state – school system.

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