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Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Councils

The Petrograd Soviet
The Petrograd Soviet, 1917

Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Councils, also known as soviets in Russian, were the democratic ideal of 20th century socialism. During this century, when the traditional social order breaks down, people organize popular assemblies in the place where they spend their time. In the 20th century, at least, that place would be their place of work, where most people were consigned for over 8 hours a day. Thus, when social institutions crumbled, workers turned to their co-workers in the factory. From their assemblies, deputies were elected to a council, to provide direction and order amid social chaos.

Origin and History

The first workers’ councils appeared during the first Russian Revolution, in 1905. They evolved from traditions of Russian labor disputes, wherein capitalists preferred “councils of factory elders” to dealing with trade unions and strike committees. During the 1905 revolution, workers’ councils in urban areas and peasants’ councils in the countryside first appeared as means of self-government alternative to traditional local government, and for advancing the interests of the represented class. Among all the many Russian social revolutionaries, only Lenin predicted at the time that the soviets would become the principal form of socialist democracy.

When the Russian Revolution destroyed the tsarist autocracy in 1917, workers’ councils were again the dominant mode of popular governance. The Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) Soviet was the effective authority of the Revolution. While a traditional (bourgeois) “Provisional Government” existed, the Soviet was the assembly that workers looked to. When military units began sending delegates to the Soviet (making it a Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies), the Revolution was entirely in the hands of the Soviet. The Provisional Government could do nothing without the authority of the Petrograd Soviet.

Across Russia, soviets of a single class (either workers or soldiers or peasants) or mixed soviets (workers’ and soldiers’ councils, or workers’ and peasants’ councils, etc.) effectively governed their own patch of land. The Bolsheviks were the only party that advocated peace and Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War. Thus, they dominated the weary Russian soldiers and sailors, who in turn recognized only their own soviets, not their officers, as an authority. Meanwhile, the Social Revolutionary Party was by far the most popular of the revolutionary political parties. It was the support of the soldiers’ soviets, and not their democratic victory, that propelled Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power. The Bolsheviks dissolved the constituent assembly, and instead turned to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets to write the new socialist constitution. This constitution made Russia a “soviet republic”, and its later inclusion of other, conquered soviet republic created a “Union of Socialist Soviet Republics”.

The soviet phenomenon spread across Europe, as far west as a creamery in Ireland. Germany was another hotbed of workers’ self-organization. The German Revolution began when the sailors at Kiel refused to reenter the slaughterhouse of the First World War. The soldiers and sailors at Kiel established a workers’ and soldiers’ council and took the city under their control. In time, soldiers’ and workers’ councils would take many cities. In Munich, the workers’ and soldiers’ council abolished the Bavarian monarchy and created a Bavarian Soviet Republic. German “free militias” – the seeds of German fascism – responded and successfully crushed the German soviets. The Social Democratic Party, Germany’s principal socialist party, stepped aside and allowed the private militias destroy the workers’ councils. The German soviets threatened their own domination of the new German Republic, now remembered as the ineffectual Weimar Republic. A neutered form of workers’ councils remains, though. The Weimar Republic established the German tradition of co-determination in their corporations, in which employees elect “works councils” to represent them to the corporation, and to share power on the corporate board.

Workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils appeared in other times and places throughout the 20th century. Wherever there was industry and social dissolution, workers’ councils appeared. Sometimes this was the result of socialist ideology, but mostly it was the organic result of people organizing where they spent their time. Workers’ councils appeared during the various revolutions of the 20th century, including in China, Spain, France, Chile, Portugal, Iran, and even Hungary in 1956, when soviets were formed in rebellion against the Soviet Union.

Operation

Workers’, soldiers’, or peasants’ councils are formed when the social order breaks down and a new order is needed. The dissolution of authority means that capitalists no longer have the means to command their workers, because the police or private security are unwilling to help compel employees to obey. Soldiers refuse to obey their officers, and so obedient soldiers no longer quash the rebellious soldiers. Instead, responding to the ancient democratic that lies dormant in the minds of human beings, they gather into assemblies. Those assemblies unite across a common area by a council of elected deputies. Because the workers and soldiers formed these councils spontaneously, there was rarely any consistent standard of constituency. Some deputies were elected by a single factory, some by a number of small factories. Soldiers often elected deputies by unit. This could result in enormous councils. The Petrograd Soviet was composed of 3000 deputies in its final form. And because of the inconsistent representation between workers and soldiers, two-thirds of the council were soldiers’ deputies. As much as its perceived legitimacy, its control by the disaffected military was a source of its power over the city in revolution.

The soviets gradually developed a standard form for dealing with the issues that came before it. All business went before a smaller Executive Committee, elected by the soviet. The Executive Committee in turn submitted its decisions back to the whole soviet for acceptance or denial. Executive Committees would subdivide into subcommittees to handle more specific matters.

At first, the soviets governed their own little piece of Russia, but soon they convoked an “All-Russian Congress of Soviets” to reunite revolutionary Russia. The Congress of Soviets was a body of deputies elected by local soviets or provincial congresses of soviets. Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants were thus represented “indirectly” in the Congress, because they did not vote for their deputies to the Congress. Rather, they elected their soviet, and the soviet elected deputies to other congresses. Again, the Congresses of Soviets tended to be huge, with the important Third Congress having 2400 deputies. The Congress turned deliberation of legislation over to a Central Executive Committee (CEC) of 500 of its members. Originally, the CEC would draft legislation and deliver it to the Congress’ three annual sessions for their approval. Eventually, though, the Bolshevik dictatorship dispensed with the democratic fiction and the CEC passed legislation on its own. The CEC turned administration over to a Council of People’s Commissars (ministers of state), periodically elected.

Stalin eventually effaced most of these unique features of the soviet system in his 1936 constitution. A directly elected “Supreme Soviet” replaced the indirectly elected Congress of Soviets, and traditional ministers of state replaced the people’s commissars. Stalin intended that the Soviet Union resemble European parliaments as much as possible, while at the same time resurrecting czarist and nationalist Russian traditions.

Evaluation

Workers’ councils have been the democratic hope of heterodox socialists and communists throughout the 20th century. Mainstream Communists towed the line dictated from Moscow or Beijing, in which workers’ democracy was whatever Dear Leader said it was. But sidelined socialists, communists, and anarchists delved into the workers’ councils concept, and what this spontaneous creation of the working class meant.

The first notable element of workers’ councils is their class basis. Because deputies are elected from the places of work in capitalist societies, the councils exclude the capitalist class (who typically is not at the scene of work). Territorial constituencies would include any person in that territory, but factory-, farm-, and barracks-based constituencies only capture the classes that inhabit those spaces. Thus, Lenin thought that soviets alone would be the organ of proletarian (and peasant) revolution. This is also their weakness as a governing organ, however. Unless the industry was considered “women’s work” (as textiles were and are), the workers’ councils would be dominated by men. Many Russian working women were housewives, or worked in trades that were not socialized, such as domestic labor. Thus, women would be excluded from the soviets. The same would be true for the unemployed. Only the working class may have composed the workers’ councils, but not all the working class.

The socialist tradition envisions precisely the indirect representation that the soviets adopted in the form of Congress of Soviets. Instead of what we are used to today, in which we vote directly for representatives to our national assembly, Russians would elect their soviets, and those soviets would send delegates to a district or provincial congress of soviets, and those congresses would send delegates to an “All-Russian” Congress of Soviets. After more soviet republics were added (conquered), their congresses of soviets would send delegates to the All-Union Congress of Soviets. The benefit of this structure was that each constituency is organized. Each soviet is capable of debating and deciding national policy and directly instructing their deputy with their decision, and likewise in each congress of soviets up the ladder. The diffuse electorates that elect representatives do not have that ability to confer with one another. However, in contemporary research, indirectly elected representatives are found not to be as representative as directly elected representatives. In most nations, the trend has always been away from indirect election. In the United States, the 17th Amendment transferred the election of Senators from state legislatures to the people of the state. For several decades at least, this prevented the corruption of the state legislatures from infecting the federal government. Likewise, the indirect election of the president has created a host of electoral problems – namely, that the president does not have the support of the majority.

However, in the revolutionary socialist vision, the government is not meant to satisfy the same purpose as is conceived in liberal capitalism. In liberal capitalism, the government wields the coercive power of the sovereign state as a means of maintaining the rights of the individual. In a socialist democracy, the purpose of the government is to progressively take the means of production into the democratic control of the working class. Coercion “withers away”, because the purpose is to organize all economic activity as a public service, and not to enforce law against individual persons. This is the classical socialist aim of replacing the bureaucratic “government of man” with the democratic “administration of things”.

Thus, perhaps soviets would be an effective means of such administration. Housewives and the unemployed do not need to be represented on a workers’ council, because they do not operate the means of production (the offices, factories, and farms). The social organs do not exist to coerce people in their non-economic lives, so they do not need to be represented. Citizens of liberal societies demand equal and accurate representation because they expect to be equally bound by the law. However, the “comrades” of a socialist state collectively comprise an administration for organizing the economy, and so strict, numerical, and direct representation is not as important. In this case, perhaps soviets and their congresses are not suitable representative organs by liberal standards, but might be by socialist standards.

Prospects

History has not provided us with an experiment in a society organized (in part or in whole) into workers’ councils. Most revolutions that feature workers’ councils are crushed either form without or within. The Russian, Chinese, and Iranian Revolutions were stifled by their revolutionary “vanguard”. The Bolsheviks swept to power in Russia through their power in the army. Even though they were the only party to advocate for soviet power, they progressively stripped new soviet institutions of their effective power. The Soviet Union that was meant to be a union of workers’ councils became a vassal to the Communist Party dictatorship. The same happened in China; when democratic institutions threatened Mao’s power, he turned on them. In Iran, the clerical government snuffed out the shoras. Most councils are shut down by outside forces. The Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian council movement in 1957; the United States destroyed the workers’ councils of Chile’s poder popular in 1973.

We might not see the return of workers’ councils either. In 21st century social collapse and revolution, popular assemblies have appeared more prominently in neighborhoods than in workplaces. In Argentina, while many workers recuperated their factories and workshops, the neighborhood assemblies were the locus of social organization. In socialist Venezuela, the government organizes communal councils in neighborhoods, but few workers’ councils, despite the demands of the working class. In Syrian Kurdistan, neighborhood communes serve as the basis for its revolutionary democracy.

This might be a trend throughout the century. The working hours of developed industrial nations have shrunk to an 8-hour day, which means that most workers do not spend all of their waking hours at the workplace. Industry contracts as capitalists move capital resources to the nation with the lowest labor costs. A new pattern in employment is emerging, in which low wages force people to take on multiple part-time jobs instead of a single full-time job. Employees can be fired at will, without recourse to effective regulatory intervention or labor unions. And now, industry is becoming completely automated, which means few workers will be required at all.

These are only possibilities, and social trends are hard to parse. An alternative proletariat emerges. While old industries fall away, previously professional occupations become “proletarianized” – turned into rote, unskilled tasks. For example, educational corporations and universities continue to force teachers into the proletarian mold, disastrously ripping away the professional autonomy and ineffectively trying to deskill education.

However, if these trends away from a traditional industrial society are not just historical outliers and do persist, we will not see workers’ councils in the future, at least of the 20th century kind. The center of popular power will return to the neighborhood as the source of popular power.