National Sections of the L5I:

Soviets or Parliament?

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

In nine months of struggle with the bourgeoisie and its agents within the workers' movement the Bolsheviks had won the majority in the soviets to support and carry through the seizure of power. In late October and throughout November, in city after city, in towns and in villages, all over the country the soviets took power into their own hands. But the fate of this power would depend in the short run on whether it could make headway on the very issues that had won the Bolsheviks the confidence of the masses: Bread, Peace and Land.

On 26 October the decrees on peace and on the land were issued. The former called for 'immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace'. It called for the renunciation of all annexations and of demands for indemnities. It renounced secret diplomacy and announced the impending publication of the Tsarist regime's secret treaties and war agreements to divide up the Ottoman Empire and to establish 'protectorates' over Poland and other central European countries. On the land question the soviet decree announced 'landlord ownership of land is abolished forthwith without any compensation'. The landed estates of the nobility, the Tsar and the church with all their livestock, implements and buildings were transferred to the township land committees and the peasant soviets pending the 'convocation of the Constituent Assembly.'

On 2 November a further decree - a Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia announced the right of the peoples of Russia to free self-determination, even to the point of separation and the formation of an independent state and the abolition of any and all national and national religious principles and disabilities. The linguistic and religious oppression of the erstwhile 'prison house of nationalities' was lifted by the Soviet government's decrees. On 14 November a momentous decree on workers' control was issued. Workers' control of production and exchange was recognised through the means of the factory and shop committees. Every large city, province or industrial area was to organise a soviet of Workers' Control. Commercial secrecy was abolished and managements were obliged to 'open all their books and records to the organs of workers' control'.

Internationalism
In all the declarations of the first Soviet government Lenin made it clear that the task of the new regime was to link up with victorious proletarian revolutions across Europe. Ten days after the seizure of power he stated:

“We shall march firmly and unswervingly to the victory of socialism which will be sealed by the leading workers of the most civilised countries and give to the peoples solid peace and deliverance from all oppression and all exploitation.”

This reliance on and commitment to the international proletarian revolution was an absolute bedrock of Lenin's, Trotsky's and the Bolshevik's strategy in October. However, the divisions which had marked the history of the party between February and October did not disappear after 25 October. The right wing of the party of Kamenev, Rykov, Lunacharsky, Zinoviev and many others, still bitterly opposed Lenin's strategy.

They kept up their insistence that a 'socialist coalition' be formed to include the Mensheviks and SRs. They maintained that the present government was merely provisional until the Constituent Assembly was summoned. Above all they opposed Lenin's repeated references to the socialist nature of the government and to the socialist nature of the tasks that lay ahead of it.

The question of the summoning and election of the Constituent Assembly was to prove the last and most decisive battle over the nature of the power established in the October Revolution. If the revolution was merely the fulfillment of a bourgeois-democratic revolution then the Constituent Assembly's sovereignty could not be in question. Alter all, the right-wing argued, had not the Bolsheviks throughout 1917 demanded its speedy convocation? Did not this tie them to accepting its decisions as final?

One of the last acts of the Provisional Government, terrified by the impending Bolshevik uprising, had been to fix the date of the elections to the Constituent Assembly for 12 November. This sudden about face after nine months of delay is instructive. Whilst the bourgeoisie and its 'democratic' hangers on had hoped to hold onto power and indeed disarm the revolutionary workers and soldiers, there had been no question of democratic elections to an all-Russian assembly. Here the awkward questions of the land, the continuing imperialist war and the very nature of the constitutional order would have to be faced.

Constituent Assembly
The Russian bourgeoisie, tied inextricably to the landowners, had no wish to see their land seized. At best constitutional-monarchist, it had no wish for a democratic republic. Desperate to strike the jackpot of annexations and reparations when the Allied western powers finally crushed Austria, Germany and Turkey, they loathed the thought either of a general peace or a separate one which would 'rob' them of their plunder. For all these reasons they and their politicians postponed and delayed for all they were worth. This, and the fact that the demand had been the pinnacle of the party's democratic demands since the second congress of the RSDLP - the Bolsheviks demanded the immediate convocation of a Constituent Assembly. To this slogan they linked their demands for an immediate peace and for the expropriation of the big landowners. They also demanded democratic rights in the villages and a freely available press - especially the working class press. This was vital because if the peasants were deceived and coerced the Assembly would be a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Thus after the seizure of power-whilst Lenin himself had serious misgivings the Council of People's Commissars allowed the Electoral Commission to go ahead with the elections. There would of course be serious problems with the elections. The electoral registers were out of date and discriminated against the illiterate rural poor. The backwardness and isolation of hundreds of thousands of Russia's villages meant that the events in the cities were less well known there. For example, the split during the Autumn between the pro-bourgeois right-wing Socialist Revolutionaries and the Left SRs was hardly known about. Local dignitaries of the old party were returned and turned out to be fierce reactionaries. The effects of the decrees on peace and land had no time to be felt. The returning troops had only just begun to make the Bolshevik's programme known in the remote areas of the countryside.

Lenin sensed that elections in these conditions would not favour a pro-Soviet power majority. He was keen to amend the electoral law to give the vote to the young by lowering the voting age to 18 years, to legalise the recall of candidates and delegates and to bar the open counter-revolutionaries like the Cadet Party from standing or voting. Above all he wanted to postpone the elections till the effects of the October decrees could be felt. But the overwhelming majority of the leadership in the Party felt that the elections could not now be delayed. Lenin considered this an error but vowed “this error shall not cost us the revolution.”

Lenin began a relentless struggle against 'parliamentary illusions', against any attempt to fetishise the Constituent Assembly and against any tendency to elevate the sovereignty of the Assembly above that of the soviets.

What Lenin was arguing can be seen most clearly in his Theses on the Constituent Assembly written on 11/12 December and published in Pravda at the end of the month. He shows that the Constituent Assembly was long a part of the Russian Marxist's programme, 'because in a bourgeois republic the Constituent Assembly represents the highest form of democracy'. But whilst continuing to call for its convocation against Kerensky and company's various rigged pre-parliaments and councils the Bolsheviks had, since the Spring, 'repeatedly emphasised that a Republic of Soviets is a higher form of democracy than the usual bourgeois republic with a constituent assembly.' Not only that but since October the Russian proletariat had set itself a new task. Lenin emphasises this:

'For the transition from the bourgeois to the socialist system, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Republic of Soviets is not only a higher type of democratic institution but is the only form capable of securing the most painless transition to socialism.'

Compared with this the Constituent Assembly is infinitely less democratic in the sense of being less responsive to the wishes of the workers, the poorer peasants and the rank and file soldiers. Lenin concluded that the change of class forces meant that now the slogan 'All power to the Constituent Assembly' - 'which disregards soviet power' - has changed its nature and 'is becoming the slogan of the Cadets.'

He concluded that if the Constituent Assembly parted ways with Soviet power it would inevitably be doomed to political extinction.

Anti-Soviet majority
By the end of November the elections were over, though it took a month to collect all the results in. On 30 December the official announcement confirmed Lenin's forebodings. Of the 707 deputies elected, 175 were Bolsheviks, 410 SRs, 17 Cadets and 16 Mensheviks.

The national minorities were represented by 86 deputies. Of the SRs only 4O belonged to the Left. It was clear that the Assembly would have a large majority against soviet power. This majority represented the revolution's pre-October past and not its present or its socialist future. What were the Bolsheviks to do faced with this manifestation of the counter-revolution?

The right-wing Socialist Revolutionaries saw the Assembly as the means of ousting the Bolshevik 'usurpers'. They legally and openly set up a committee for the defence of the Constituent Assembly. Their party's military organisation had the support of two regiments in the Petrograd garrison plus an armoured car division.

They were prepared for an armed assault on Smolny. But so obsessed with parliamentary legalism were their leaders, Chernov and others of his ilk, that they actually did very little to co-ordinate and mobilise this force. Their constant theme was 'the Bolsheviks will not dare'. Lenin and the Bolsheviks however were preparing.

The most that the Menshevik and SR leaders would do was to organise a demonstration on 5 January. It was made up mainly of petit-bourgeois elements and a few rifle shots from over-enthusiastic sailors scattered them like sheep.

Politically the Bolsheviks had prepared for the Assembly by issuing a Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People. This pointedly declared Russia to be a Republic of Soviets and maintained that all power belonged to the Soviets. It repeated all the key proposals of the Soviet government and clearly subordinated the Constituent Assembly to the Soviet power. The Bolsheviks thus presented the assembly of parliamentarians with an ultimatum: recognise the measures and authority of the October Revolution or get out!

And they were right to do so, for the soviets were not merely more representative of the masses, by virtue of the directness of their elections, they were also made up of accountable delegates. Compared with this the 'democracy' of the Constituent Assembly was indirect and not at all based on the principles of accountability and recallability. Most important it was, like all parliamentary forms of democracy, bourgeois in its class content Soviet democracy, on the other hand, was the democracy of the toiling masses.

Sverdlov for the Bolsheviks mounted the rostrum at the opening session and demanded that the Assembly pass the Declaration, endorsed as it was by the All-Russian Soviet Executive. The Assembly noisily dissented and insisted on elections for the chair. The Bolsheviks and Left SRs proposed Maria Spriridonova - the leader of the latter party.

The majority proposed Chernov who was easily elected by 244 votes to 153. Then the speech making began. It went on until four in the morning.

The bourgeois windbags were fearful that if the sitting were abandoned the Bolsheviks would no allow it to reassemble. Chernov was still in full flow reading the draft agrarian law when an anarchist sailor, in charge of the guard, leapt onto the platform and announced to Chernov, 'The guards are tired, please leave the hall!' To make the point more forcefully the lights in the Tauride Palace were unceremoniously switched off.

Incompatible
So ended the Constituent Assembly. The Central Executive Committee of the Soviets declared that since it would not recognise the Soviet Congress' decrees or indeed the power of the Soviets, it was dissolved forthwith.

Its decree drew a vital lesson from the whole experience of the Russian Revolution:

“The toiling masses have become convinced by their experience that bourgeois parliamentarism is outdated; that it is completely incompatible with the construction of socialism; for only class institutions, not national institutions, can break the resistance of the propertied classes and lay the foundations for the socialist society”

The anarchist Victor Serge was later to comment: 'The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly made a great sensation abroad. In Russia, it passed almost unnoticed.'

It passed unnoticed because the issue of the day was peace. Attention shifted to Brest-Litovsk where the Soviet delegates led by Trotsky were opening negotiations with the Germans. Attention shifted to the armed forces of counter-revolution massing in the most backward regions of the country. Civil war was about to begin. In this civil war the Constituent Assembly and its professional parliamentary cretins counted for less than nothing. The Whites were out to restore the land to landowners and the factories to the capitalists. They would do this under the banner not of 'pure democracy' but of Black Hundred Tsarism or a military dictatorship.

The task now facing Russia's workers was to defend their own dictatorship against counter-revolution. Lenin expressed the Bolshevik's determination when he addressed the Central Executive Committee on 6 January:

“The Constituent Assembly is dissolved. The Soviet revolutionary republic will triumph no matter what the cost.”