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September 2002 • Vol 2, No. 8 •

From the Arsenal of Marxism

The Structure of the Soviet System

By John Reed

The article below was first published in the July 1918 issue of Liberation magazine. Reed, a leader of the Socialist Party was one of the founders of the American Communist Party. The Hollywood movie, Reds, was based on John Reeds’ book, Ten Days that Shook the World, which has been translated and published in most of the world’s languages.

Part 1

Through all the chorus of abuse and misrepresentation directed against the Russian Soviets by the capitalist press there runs a voice shrill with a sort of panic, which cries: There is no government in Russia! There is no organization among the Russian workers! It will not work! It will not work!

There is method in the slander.

As all real socialists know, and as we who have seen the Russian Revolution can testify, there is today in Moscow and throughout all the cities and towns of the Russian land a highly-complex political structure, which is upheld by the vast majority of the people and which is functioning as well as any newborn popular government ever functioned. Also the workers of Russia have fashioned from their necessities and the demands of life an economic organization, which is evolving into a true industrial democracy. In my last article I told something of the external aspect of proletarian Russia. In this I shall sketch the framework of the Soviet state.

History of the Soviets

The Soviet state is based upon the Soviets—or Councils—of Workers, and Peasants’ Soviets. These Councils—institutions so characteristic of the Russian Revolution—originated in 1905, when, during the first general strike of the workers, Petrograd factories and labor organizations sent delegates to a Central Committee. This Strike Committee was named Council of Workers’ Deputies. It called the second general strike of the fall of 1905, sent out organizers all over Russia, and for a short time was recognized by the Imperial Government as the authorized spokesman of the revolutionary Russian working class.

Upon the failure of the 1905 Revolution, the members of the Council either fled or were sent to Siberia. But so astoundingly effective as a political organ was this type of union that all revolutionary parties1 included a Council of Workers’ Deputies in their plans for the next uprising.

In March 1917, when, in the face of all Russia rearing like a sea, the Tsar abdicated and Grand Duke Michael declined the throne, and the reluctant Duma was forced to assume the reins of government, the Council of Workers’ Deputies sprang fully fledged into being. In a few days it was enlarged to include delegates of the Army, and called the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

Except for Kerensky the Duma Committee was composed of bourgeois, and had no connection with the revolutionary masses whatever. Fighting had to be done, order had to be restored, the front guarded. The Duma2 members had no way of executing these duties; they were obliged to appeal to the representatives of the workers and soldiers—in other words the Council. The Council took charge of the work of Revolution, of coordinating the activities of the people, preserving order. Moreover, it assumed the task of assuring the Revolution against its betrayal by the bourgeoisie.

From the moment when the Duma was forced to appeal to the Council, two governments existed in Russia and these two governments struggled for the mastery until November 1917,3 when the Soviets, with the Bolsheviks in control, overthrew the Coalition Government [the Duma]. There were, as I have said, Soviets of both Workers’ and of Soldiers’ Deputies. Somewhat later there came into being Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies. In most cities the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets met together; they also held their All-Russian Congress jointly. The Peasants’ Soviets, however, were held aloof by the reactionary elements in control, and did not join with the workers and soldiers until the November revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Government.

Constitution of the Soviets

The Soviet is based directly upon the workers in the factories and the peasants in the fields. Until the spring of 1918 there existed Soviets of Soldiers’ Deputies. These were abolished after the demobilization of the old army at the treaty of Brest-Litivsk,4 when the soldiers were absorbed into the factories and the farms.

At first the delegates of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Soviets were elected according to rules which varied with the needs and population of various localities. In some villages the peasants chose one delegate for each fifty voters. Soldiers in garrison were given a certain number of delegates for each regiment, regardless of its strength; the army in the field, however, had a different method of electing their Soviets. As for the workers in the great cities, they soon found out that their Soviets became unwieldy unless the delegates were limited to one for each five hundred. In the same way, the first two All-Russian Congresses of Soviets were roughly based upon one delegate for each twenty five thousand voters, but in fact the delegates represented constituencies of various sizes.

Until February 1918 anybody could vote for delegates to the Soviets. Even had the bourgeoisie organized 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.

Last March, the constitution of the Soviets was worked out in detail and applied universally. It restricted the franchise to “Citizens of the Russian Socialist Republic of both sexes who shall have completed their eighteenth year by the day of election.…” “All who have acquired the means of living through labor that is productive and useful to society and who are members of labor unions.…”

Excluded from the right to vote were: employers of labor for profit; persons who lived on unearned increment; merchants and agents of private business; employers of religious communities; former members of the police and gendarmerie; the former ruling dynasty; the mentally deficient; the deaf and dumb; and those who had been punished for selfish and dishonorable misdemeanors.

As far as the peasants are concerned, each hundred peasants in the villages elect one representative to the Volost (or Township) Soviet. These Volost Soviets send delegates to the Uyezd (or County) Soviets, which in turn send delegates to the Oblast, or Provincial, Soviet, to which also are elected delegates from the Workers’ Soviets in the cities.

The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which was in operation when I was in Russia, may serve as an example of how the urban units of government function under the socialist state. It consisted of about 1200 deputies, and in normal circumstances held a plenary session every two weeks. In the meantime, it elected a Central Executive Committee of 110 members, based upon party proportionality, and this Central Executive Committee added to itself by invitation delegates from the central committees of all the political parties, from the central committees of the professional unions, the factory shop committees, and other democratic organizations.

Besides the big City Soviet, there were also the Rayon (or Ward) Soviets. These were made up of the deputies elected from each ward to the City Soviet, and administered their part of the city. Naturally, in some wards there were no factories, and therefore normally no representation of the ward either in the City Soviet or in Ward Soviets of their own. But the Soviet system is extremely flexible, and if the cooks and waiters, or the street sweepers, or the courtyard servants, or the cab drivers of that ward organized and demanded representation, they were allowed delegates.

Elections of delegates are based on proportional representation, which means that the political parties are represented in exact proportion to the number of voters in the whole city. And it is political parties and programs which are voted for—not candidates. The candidates are designated by the central committees of the political parties, which can replace them by other party members. Also the delegates are not elected for any particular term, but are subject to recall at any time.

No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution the popular will changes with great rapidity. For example, during the first week of December 1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favor of a Constituent Assembly —that is to say, against the Soviet power. One of these parades was fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards, and several people killed. The reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within twelve hours the complexion of the Petrograd Soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik deputies were withdrawn, and replaced by Mensheviki5. And it was three weeks before public sentiment subsided—before the Mensheviki were retired one by one and the Bolsheviki sent back.

The Soviet State

At least twice a year delegates are elected from all over Russia to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Theoretically these delegates are chosen by direct popular election: from the provinces, one for each hundred and twenty five thousand voters—from the cities, one for each twenty five thousand; in practice, however, they are usually chosen by the provincial and the urban Soviets. An extraordinary session of the Congress can be called at any time upon the initiative of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, or upon the demand of Soviets representing one third of the working population of Russia.

This body, consisting of about two thousand delegates, meets in the capital in the form of a great Soviet, and settles upon the essentials of national policy. It elects a Central Executive Committee, like the Central Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, which invites delegates from the central committees of all democratic organizations. This augmented Central Executive Committee of the Russian Soviets is the parliament of the Russian Republic. It consists of about three hundred and fifty persons. Between All-Russian Congresses it is the supreme authority; it must not act outside the lines laid down by the last Congress, and is strictly responsible in all its acts to the next Congress.

For example, the Central Executive Committee can, and did, order that the peace treaty with Germany be signed. But, it could not make this treaty binding on Russia. Only the All Russian Congress has power to ratify the treaty. The Central Executive Committee elects from its midst eleven Commissars, to be chairmen of committees in charge of the different branches of government, in place of ministers. These Commissars can be recalled at any time. They are strictly responsible to the Central Executive Committee. The Commissars elect a chairman. Ever since the Soviet Government has been formed, this chairman—or Premier—has been Nicolai (Vladimir Ilyitch, or V. I.) Lenin. If his leadership were unsatisfactory, Lenin could be recalled at any moment by the delegation of the masses of the Russian people, or in a few weeks’ time directly by the Russian people themselves.

The chief function of the Soviets is the defense and consolidation of the Revolution. They express the political will of the masses, not only in the All Russian Congresses, for the whole country, but also in their own localities, where their authority is practically supreme. This decentralization exists because the local Soviets create the central government, and not the central government the local Soviets. In spite of local autonomy, however, the decrees of the Central Executive Committee, and the orders of the Commissars, are valid throughout all the country, because under the Soviet Republic there are no sectional or private interests to serve, and the cause of the Revolution is everywhere the same.

Ill-informed observers, mostly from the middle class Intelligentsia, are fond of remarking that they are in favor of the Soviets, but against the Bolsheviks. This is an absurdity. The Soviets are the most perfect organs of working class representation, it is true, but they are also the weapons of proletarian dictatorship, to which all anti-Bolshevik parties are bitterly opposed. So the measure of the adherence of the people to the policy of proletarian dictatorship is not only measured by the membership of the Bolshevik Party—or, as it is now called, the Communist Party—but also by the growth and activity of local Soviets all over Russia.

The most striking example of this is among the peasants, who did not take the leadership of the revolution, and whose primitive and almost exclusive interest in it was the confiscation of the great estates. The Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies at first had practically no other function except the solution of the land question. It was the failure of the land solution under the [capitalist] coalition government which turned the attention of the great mass of peasants to the social reasons behind this failure—that, coupled with the ceaseless propaganda of the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and of the Bolsheviki, and the return to the villages of the revolutionary soldiers.

The traditional party of the peasants is the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The great inert mass of peasants whose only interest was in their land, and who had neither fighting stamina nor political initiative, at first refused to have anything to do with the Soviets. Those peasants, however, who did participate in the Soviets soon awoke to the idea of the proletarian dictatorship. And they almost invariably joined the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party, and became fighting partisans of the Soviet government. In the Commissariat of Agriculture in Petrograd hangs a map of Russia, sprinkled with red-headed pins. Each of these red-headed pins represents a Soviet of Peasants’ Deputies. When I first saw the map, hanging in the old headquarters of the Peasants’ Soviets at 6 Fontanka, the red points were sprinkled sparsely over the vast country, nor did the numbers grow. For the first eight months of the revolution there were volosts, uyezds, whole provinces in fact where only one or two large towns would show a Peasants’ Soviet, and perhaps a scattering of villages. After the November Revolution, however, you could see all Russia redder under your eyes, as village after village, county after county, province after province, awoke and formed its Peasant Council.

At the time of the Bolshevik insurrection a Constituent Assembly with an anti-Soviet majority could be elected; one month later it would have been impossible. I saw three All-Russian Peasants Conventions in Petrograd. The delegates arrived—the vast majority of them Right Socialist Revolutionaries. They met in session—and very stormy sessions they always were—under the presidency of conservatives of the type of Avksentiev and Peshekhanov. In a few days they would move to the left and be dominated by pseudo-radicals like Tchernov. A few days later the majority would become very radical, and Maria Spiridonova would be elected chairman. Then the conservative minority would split off and set up a rump convention, which in a few days dwindled to nothing. And the main body would send delegates to join the Soviets at Smolny. This happened every time.

I shall never forget the Peasants’ Conference which took place towards the end of November, and how Tchernov fought for control and lost it, and that wonderful procession of grizzled proletarians of the soil who marched to Smolny through the snowy streets, singing, their blood-red banners floating in the bitter wind. It was dark night. On the steps of Smolny hundreds of working men were waiting to receive their peasant brothers, and in the dim light the two masses moving one down and the other up, rushed together and embraced, and wept, and cheered.

Land Committees

The Soviets can pass decrees effecting fundamental economic changes, but these must be carried out by the local popular organizations themselves. The confiscation and distribution of the land, for example, were left to the Peasants’ Land Committees. These Land Committees were elected by the peasants at the suggestion of Prince Lvov, first premier of the [capitalist] Provisional Government. Some settlement of the land question was inevitable, by which the great estates should be broken up and distributed among the peasants. Prince Lvov asked the peasants to elect Land Committees, which should not only determine their own agricultural needs, but should also survey and make a valuation of the landed estates. But when these Land Committees attempted to function, the landlords had them arrested.

When the Soviets seized the power, its first action was to promulgate the Decree of the Land. This Land Decree was not a Bolshevik project at all, but the program of the Right (or moderate) Socialist Revolutionary Party, drawn up on the basis of several hundred-peasant memorials. It abolished forever, private title to land or to natural resources in Russia, and gave over to the Land Committees the task of apportioning the land among the peasants, until the Constituent Assembly should finally settle the question. After the dissolution of the Constitution Assembly, the Decree was made final.

Outside of these few general propositions, and a section providing for the emigration of surplus population in congested neighborhoods, the details of confiscation and distribution were left entirely to the local Land Committee. Kalagayev, the first Commissar of Agriculture, drew up an elaborate set of rules to guide the peasants in their action. But Lenin, in a speech before the Central Executive Committee, persuaded the government to leave the peasants to manage the matter in a revolutionary way, merely advising the poor peasants to combine against the rich peasants. (“Let ten poor peasants oppose every rich peasant,” said Lenin.) Of course no peasant could own his land, but still, he could take what land was due him and treat it as his private property. But the policy of the government, acting through the local Land Committee, is to discourage this tendency. Peasants who wish to become private landlords may do so, but they are not assisted by the government. On the other hand, peasants who farm cooperatively are given credit, seed, implements and modern technical training.

Attached to the Land Committees are agricultural and forestry experts. In order to coordinate the practices of the local Committees a central body is elected from them, known as the Main Land Committee, which sits in the capital, in close touch with the Commissariat of Agriculture.

Labor Unions

Labor Unions in Russia, as at present constituted, are less than twenty years old. Before the Revolution of 1905 there was very little economic organization among the workers and that was illegal. During the Revolution of 1905 actual paid membership in the Professional Unions was about fifty thousand, and the reaction of 1906 outlawed them entirely.

The Russian Unions are an artificial development. They were designed by intellectuals, who made a scientific study of the labor organizations in other countries, constructed on paper the ideal labor union (in this case, a combination of the French syndicates with the German trade-union system), and applied it to Russia. The Russian unions, however, are industrial unions of the broadest kind—for example, in a cannon-factory the carpenters who make the gun carriages are members of the Metal Workers Union.

In the first three months of the Revolution the membership of the Unions grew to more than two hundred thousand. Five months later the number of organized men over a million, and two months after that more than three million were registered. After the manner of Labor Unions everywhere, the Professional Unions undertook the routine business of working for higher wages, shorter hours and better conditions, demanded Boards of Arbitration, and were granted representation in the Ministry of Labor of the Provisional Government.

This was not enough for Russian workers in Revolution. Although large numbers joined the Unions, still open shops existed, many workers could not see the necessity for organizing, and the struggle between the working mass and the bosses of industry was confused and deadened by the Unions.

Then, too, like the soldiers’ Army Committees, the constitution of the Unions was such that their policy was controlled by reactionaries, against the rapidly quickening pulse of the rank and file. Thus at the time of the Bolshevik insurrection the central Committees of the telephone workers, the postal and telegraph employees and the railway men were able to call strikes against the Bolsheviki in Smolny Institute, and temporarily isolate them from all Russia. This in spite of the revolutionary majority of the workers, who soon called conventions and reversed the policy of their outworn leaders, electing new Committees.

At the present time the function of the Professional Unions is to standardize wages, hours and conditions throughout each industry, and to maintain laboratories for efficiency and labor-saving experiments. But the Professional Unions occupy a secondary role in the organization of Russian industrial workers. The precedence belongs to another organization, a product of the conditions of the Revolution themselves—the Factory Shop Committee.






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