The word ‘soviet’ is Russian for ‘council’, and these originated during the 1905 revolution in Russia. In 1905, the Russo-Japanese War increased the strain on Russian industrial production, the workers began to strike and rebel. They represented an autonomous workers movement, one that broke free from the government’s control over trade unions. Soviets sprang up throughout the industrial centers of Russia, usually organized on the factory level. The soviets disappeared after the Revolution of 1905, but re-emerged under Socialist leadership during the Revolution of 1917.
After the toppling of the tsar from power, soviets were once again organised under the provisional government to almost keep things together until the constituent assembly was elected.
At the beginning of the February Revolution of 1917, these soviets were under control of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, and even the Mensheviks had a larger share of the elected representatives than the Bolsheviks. But as World War I continued, the Russian army met defeat after defeat, and the provisional government proved inadequate at establishing industrial peace, the Bolsheviks began to grow in support. By degrees, the Bolsheviks dominated with a leadership which demanded “all power to the soviets.”
The Bolsheviks promised the proletariat a state run by workers’ councils to overthrow the bourgeoisie’s main political body – the Provisional Government. In October 1917 (this actually happened in November, but the Julian calendar that was used in Russia at the time didn’t account for leap years, so was behind everyone who used the georgian calendar), the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government, giving all power to the Soviets. It is important to note that the Soviets were heavily dominated by The Bolsheviks, which meant the Bolsheviks had the support of the vast majority of the proletariat.
With village and factory soviets as a base, there arose a vast pyramid of district, cantonal, county and regional soviets, each with its executive soviet. Over and above these stood the “All-Russian Soviet Congress,” which appointed an “All-Russian Central Executive Committee” of no more than 200 members, which in turn chooses the “Soviet of People’s Commissaries” — the Ministry. Beginning with a minimum of three and maximum of 50 members for smaller communities, the maximum for town soviets was fixed at 1,000 members. The soviet system was seen as an alternative to parliamentary systems for administering republican governments. The deputies were accountable and were able to be recalled by those who elected them.
John Reed (author of ‘Ten days that shook the world’) wrote:
“Until February 1918 anybody could vote for delegates to the Soviets. Even had the bourgeoisie organised and demanded representation in the Soviets, they would have been given it. For example, during the regime of the Provisional Government there was bourgeois representation in the Petrograd Soviet – a delegate of the Union of Professional Men which comprised doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc”.
Leon Trotsky wrote in Terrorism and Communism (1920) that “In Petrograd, in November 1917, we also elected a Commune (Town Council) on the basis of the most “democratic” voting, without limitations for the bourgeoisie. These elections, being boycotted by the bourgeoisie parties, gave us a crushing majority. The “democratically” elected Council voluntarily submitted to the Petrograd Soviet…the Soviet Government placed no obstacle in the way of the bourgeois parties; and if the Cadets, the SRs and the Mensheviks, who had their press which was openly calling for the overthrow of the Soviet Government, boycotted the elections, it was only because at that time they still hoped soon to make an end of us with the help of armed force…If the Petrograd bourgeoisie had not boycotted the municipal elections, its representatives would have entered the Petrograd Council. They would have remained there up to the first Social Revolutionary and Cadet rising, after which…they would probably have been arrested if they did not leave the Council in good time, as at a certain moment did the bourgeois members of the Paris Commune.”
Unfortunately, due to the majority of parties support for the counter revolution, all opposition parties had to be banned. The Left SRs and Left internationalist Mensheviks were allowed to run for the soviets, and many of these people later joined the Bolsheviks, in fact the left SRs entered a coalition with the Bolsheviks from the start of Soviet rule. The ban on opposition parties, as well as general poverty due to a world war, a civil war and the fact that 14 foreign armies had invaded, ultimately lead to the Thermidorian reaction taking over the Bolshevik party, and Stalin and his bureaucratic clique ruled with an iron fist, crushing all autonomous workers organisations.
Capitalism is in a crisis, and the light at the end of a tunnel is an oncoming train. We must seize control of our workplaces, public places and town halls and turn them into forums to decide our collective future. Our workplaces must no longer belong to the few, but to the people who work there; most importantly, we should fight to get representatives of the proletariat into parliament, to increase class consciousness and to gain concessions from the bourgeoise; we must form a SPD-like mass party and form militias. It is only when the majority of the proletariat is class conscious that we can topple the bourgeois state and form soviets and workers committees, because the fruits of our labour should belong to us, not to a small elite.