What are workers’ councils?

13 September 2022

By Dave Stockton

It is widely known that the Russian ‘October Revolution’ of 1917 was carried through by the Bolshevik Party, under the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’. Far fewer people understand the full significance of the soviet form of organisation, or what this legacy means for working class militants today.

The word ‘soviet’ in Russian originally meant ‘council’. However, the word began to take on a sharpened meaning with the development of the revolutionary workers’ movement in the early 20th century, when it began to be applied specifically to assemblies of workers’ delegates.

The 1905 Revolution

The first Russian soviet was created in the town of Ivanovo-Voznesensk on 28 May 1905. It was not the result of an initiative by a revolutionary party (although the Bolsheviks soon became the dominant party within it), nor of a trade union. During a strike by 40,000 workers – many of them women—a mass meeting of the strikers, held on a riverbank, spontaneously decided to elect a body to run the strike. At the time, no trade unions were legal in Tsarist Russia.

Beginning life as a strike committee, which put all vital decisions to a mass meeting, the soviet began to take on a broad range of functions including raising money for the strikers, defending them against the police, organising food supplies, and issuing news reports. In short, it became an alternative centre of power to the state and municipal authorities. It united all the workers on a city-wide basis, irrespective of their trade or industry.

The Ivanovo soviet won most of its demands, and its success caused the soviet idea to spread like wildfire throughout Russia. By the autumn there were workers’ councils in most major cities and industrial areas. The most significant were in the capital of the Tsar’s Empire, St Petersburg, and in the old capital Moscow. Here, revolutionary socialists from the underground organisations, or who had returned from exile, were often elected to the soviet by the workers and soon became leading figures—most notably 26 year-old Leon Trotsky, who became chair of the St Petersburg soviet.

The local Bolsheviks were suspicious of the soviet at first, fearing it would become a rival to the revolutionary party. But under Lenin’s influence (once he returned from foreign exile), they soon came to see it as a remarkably effective expression of the power of the proletariat and its poor peasant allies.

The St Petersburg soviet armed its own militia, and for weeks the police hardly appeared on the streets; the troops, especially the sailors, were openly mutinous. It was able to mobilise tens of thousands of workers across all industries in strike action for the eight hour day.

This situation of dual power, in which the forces of the soviets were counterposed to the Tsar’s government, lasted for 50 days: the “Days of Freedom”. The soviet enabled freedom of assembly, allowing a huge variety of public meetings. It abolished Tsarist censorship – political parties and trade unions organised openly, and revolutionary and liberal newspapers were freely on sale. Local government bodies consulted the soviet regarding food supplies and maintaining order. The Black Hundreds, a proto-fascist organisation backed by the Tsar and the Tsarina which incited pogroms against Russia’s Jews, was suppressed.

During the revolutionary years 1905-06, the Bolsheviks came to understand the historic significance of the soviet form of organisation—a democratic organisation representing all of the exploited and oppressed, basing itself on the principle of direct elections, recallability of delegates and according no special privileges to bureaucrats or officials.

By virtue of these characteristics, the soviets soon revealed themselves as an ideal instrument for revolutionary struggle. Because Soviet delegates were elected and could easily be recalled, they were highly trusted by their constituents and could effectively call them to arms. Trotsky commented that the 1905 Soviet in St Petersburg resembled a ‘council of war, more than a parliament’.

In 1905, the soviet was ultimately unable to permanently win over the soldiers; the members of the St Petersburg Soviet were arrested; and attempts to win their release by a general strike failed. In Moscow, by contrast, the soviet led an armed insurrection—but after days of barricades and street fighting, the elite guards’ regiments, sent from St Petersburg, put down the rising.

Re-emergence of the Soviets

After the revolution in February 1917 the soviets developed again, but on a larger scale than in 1905, and far more widespread nationally. From the outset of the 1917 revolution, the soviets won the allegiance of both the workers and the largely peasant soldiers, who were exhausted and alienated after three years of war.

The soldiers refused the Tsar’s orders to suppress the uprisings in Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been re-named) and formed their own soldier’s committees in the barracks. They soon sent delegates to the city soviets. The concept spread to the large garrisons stationed in other cities, and when the soldiers at the front began to form soviets themselves, fighting stopped and fraternisation began between the former ‘enemies’.

The workers’ council is the most advanced form of class struggle organisation developed by the proletariat.

However, the result of the first the soviet elections was a big majority of delegates from the Mensheviks, the right-wing faction of the former Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) which the Bolsheviks had finally split from in 1912; as well as the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a peasant populist party. They were prepared to continue support for the continuation of the World War, and consequently to postpone the peasants’ demand for the land; and also to ignore the urban workers’ demands for food.

Prior to the revolution of 1917, Lenin had believed that the Russian revolution was ‘only’ a bourgeois revolution—one which, although requiring the leadership and the seizure of power by the proletariat, would be limited to the “revolutionary democratic” tasks of land redistribution, plus major reforms for the workers like the eight hour day, and in which, after a period of dictatorship over the old landowning classes (which Lenin called the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry), power would eventually be vested in a Constituent Assembly, and after that in a parliament.

In his famous April Theses, Lenin rejected his former view and explained the linked conclusions that he had arrived at regarding the revolution: that the soviets should take and hang onto the power to establish a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (allied with the poor peasantry) and adopt measures transitional to socialism – he therefore raised the slogan: ‘All Power to the Soviets’.

The Bolsheviks were able to undermine the Menshevik and SR majority (collectively known as the “compromisers”) in the soviets and weaken the Provisional Government of the liberal Cadet Party and its compromiser supporters by agitating around the slogans Bread, Peace and Land: bread for the workers; peace for the soldiers; land to the peasants. When Tsarist  generals under Kornilov tried to restore discipline in the army by mounting a coup d’état, the compromisers panicked and rapidly armed the Bolshevik workers. Soviet ‘red guards’, the revolutionary soldiers of Petrograd, and the sailors of the Kronstadt naval base swiftly crushed the attempted counter-revolution.

Following this incident, the former Tsarist army was in disarray, and armed power was now concentrated in the hands of the soviets.  In the elections to the soviets in August and September, the Bolsheviks became the majority.  Now it was simply a matter of ending the state of dual power by overthrowing the Provisional Government, and replacing it with a government based on the soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies.

Workers’ councils after 1917

The success of the Russian Revolution caused the idea of soviets to spread internationally. The workers council appeared repeatedly during the intense periods of class struggle which followed. In Germany, in November 1918, Arbeiter-und Soldatenräte (workers, soldiers and sailors’ councils) emerged, and the Kaiser’s government was overthrown. However, unlike in Russia, the right wing Social Democrats not only won a majority but retained control of these councils and even supported fascistic ex-soldiers, the Freikorps, to murder the communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The newly formed German Communist Party was clearly not yet strong enough to act as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia.

In Italy during the Biennio Rosso in 1919–20, factory occupations in Turin and other northern cities saw workers committees’ function much like the Soviets. But here too, the absence of a strong revolutionary party sizable enough to exercise leadership and armed with a programme for doing so demonstrated that, although democratic organs of working class power such as soviets are necessary for the seizure of power by the working class, alone they are insufficient to guarantee the success of the socialist revolution.

In several other countries, proto-soviet bodies emerged—often, as in Ivanovo, out of strike committees—and then took on wider functions. There were the councils of action during the movement in 1920 in Britain to prevent British troops being sent to Russia to crush the Bolsheviks. They reappeared during the nine days of the 1926 General Strike, often as expanded trades’ councils. Indeed, ‘councils of action’ became the British term for the bodies which emerge when the trade union struggle and mass political protest movements merge and develop into a genuine class-wide struggle.

Another example of proto-soviets were the cordones industriales in the Chilean Revolution of the early 1970s. And embryos of them could be seen in Britain too, in the support committees set up by trade unionists and socialists during the two great miners strikes of the early 1970s and even more so in the next decade.

More recently still, we have seen such bodies created in France in the 1990s and 2000s, during mass strikes and social movements of youth and school students, that actually defeated various neoliberal ‘reforms’. They were effective because they created assemblées générales (mass assemblies) and coordinations (coordinating committees, which became the organisational basis which allowed the movement to continue advancing.

Of course, we need to be aware that the workers’ council (or soviet) form of organisation arises at the point of a general social crisis. They are an extraordinary form of organisation to deal with the extraordinary problems posed by such situations. However, they remain the most advanced form of class struggle organisation which has thus far been developed by the proletariat.

Indeed, the present cost of living crisis holds the possibility for such bodies to emerge, and it is the duty of socialists and trade union activists to actively fight for their creation during the coming period. As the October Revolution proved, such workers’ councils have the potential to become the basis for a new form of state power; one which can be utilised by the revolutionary working class in order to construct a socialist society.

Tags:  •   •   • 

Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter