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The following talk was presented by video to meetings organized by Socialist Alliance in Australia on 7 November 2017.
By John Riddell.November 29, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary website — Tonight we’re going to revisit the Russian revolution by telling the story of a slogan that shaped its outcome, “All power to the soviets.” Before beginning, I want to acknowledge my debt to recent historical writing on this period by Lars Lih, Eric Blanc, China Miéville, and Paul Le Blanc. Thanks also to Doug Williams, my videographer, and Lars for originating the idea of tracing the “biography” of this slogan.
And so let us go back to Russia a little more than 100 years ago, to a gray and hungry Petrograd still locked in winter, where people’s hearts were suddenly full of hope.
On 27 February 1917, the ancient Russian empire of the Tsars collapsed, toppled by an uprising of workers and soldiers in its capital, Petrograd. Across the city, the rebel masses sealed off the last remnants of police resistance while celebrating their newly won freedom. Meanwhile, two small groups of worried politicians gathered at opposite ends of the sprawling Tauride Palace, seat of the Duma or parliament.
Russia no longer had a government! What was to be done?
In the right-hand wing of the Tauride, a self-appointed group of concerned parliamentary deputies, liberal critics of the fallen tsarist regime, concluded that they must accept its overthrow and form a government. But how? The Tsar, among his last actions, had dissolved their parliament, the State Duma. All the instruments of power in Petrograd: guns, trains, telephone lines, and above all, moral authority, were in the hands of the insurgents.
In the other wing, a group of moderate socialists, some recently sprung from jail, moved to claim the leadership of the mass movement swirling in the streets. They convened a meeting of an as-yet-nonexistent Petrograd workers’ “council” – the Russian word is “soviet” – to be held that evening. The appeal drew on memories of the renowned Soviet of 1905, a rank-and-file assembly leading a general strike, forcibly dispersed by the tsar.
Word went out to factories and regiments to send delegates at once. That evening, the noble corridors of Tauride filled with hundreds of shabby and exhausted workers and soldiers. Amid excitement and confusion, they met and took decisions: for a workers’ militia to replace the police; for a food commission to assure supply; for a permanent structure: a Presidium and an Executive to which it would report. The Soviet also issued its famous Order Number 1 to the army, freeing soldiers from the officers’ tyranny. Already, the Soviet possessed key attributes of power: a mission, to democratize the country; moral authority; and the armed strength to enforce its decisions.
But when the Soviet Executive Committee met the following day, its moderate socialist leaders – mostly aligned with the Mensheviks or Socialist Revolutionaries (called SRs) – were determined to vest power in the Duma deputies. A minority made up of the Bolsheviks and other left currents, seeing no need of this, called for a Provisional Revolutionary Government of forces in the Soviet, excluding the Duma liberals. But the moderates prevailed and gave the Duma group a Soviet mandate to set up a government of capitalist politicians, subject to Soviet supervision.
The two institutions born of these meetings – the soviets and the Provisional Government – dominated Russian political life until the soviets’ triumph in October that year. Their coexistence was termed dvoevlastie or “dual power,” which in Russian is not a complimentary term. The Russian word vlast’ (power) implies “sovereign authority,” so dual power signifies an abnormal, contradictory situation.
This curious outcome reflected a doctrinal debate among Russian socialists based on conflicting readings of the country’s unsuccessful revolution in 1905. Socialists agreed that the driving forces of the coming upheaval were the working class and the peasantry, and that its thrust was toward what they called a “democratic revolution” – abolition of tsarist tyranny, institution of a democratic republic, equal civil rights for all, a radical land reform, and other measures for a profound transformation of Russian society..
The limiting factor in such a revolution, they believed, was the peasantry, made up the vast majority of the population, smallholders locked into feudal or pre-feudal productive relations. The socialists believed that few small peasant proprietors could be won to socialism. That is why they spoke of a “democratic” revolution – limited to what could be achieved within capitalism. But the prospect of socialism was not distant. Social democrats considered it likely that a democratic revolution in Russia would unleash a socialist transformation in central and western Europe, which in turn would make socialism a winning proposition in Russia.
As I said, these points were broadly agreed. The more moderate socialists, including most of those in the Menshevik current, concluded from this that when tsarism fell, the Russian revolution would be carried out by an alliance of workers with capitalist forces – the bourgeoisie – and would need to establish a Provisional Government under bourgeois leadership.
The Bolsheviks and other radical socialists believed that the bourgeoisie would resist rather than lead such a thorough-going democratic revolution. An alliance of workers and peasants should therefore establish their own revolutionary government, independent of the bourgeoisie. The worker-peasant government would drive through to the end achievement of all demands possible within the existing capitalist framework.
The influential independent socialist Leon Trotsky had a similar prognosis for anti-tsarist struggle but believed that a worker-peasant provisional government would be forced to move rapidly beyond capitalism. In 1917 Trotsky’s views converged with those of the Bolsheviks, and he joined them soon after his return to Petrograd in May.
Rise of the soviets
When world war broke out in 1914, the Bolsheviks believed that it put revolution on the agenda in the main warring countries. In keeping with resolutions of the prewar Socialist International, the Bolsheviks and their allies in the West sought to utilize the crisis of war to hasten that revolution. Overthrow of Russian tsarism would be a big stimulus in that direction. And if the war led to a triumph of socialism in the west, this would create conditions for a transition to socialism in Russia as well.
When revolution came to Russia in 1917, it had an unexpected and totally paradoxical result. The two counterposed outcomes envisaged by moderate and radical socialists both materialized simultaneously. The network of worker and soldier soviets, which soon extended across the tsarist empire and embraced peasant communities, was the embryo of a worker-peasant government. But the moderate socialists had thrust power on bourgeois politicians who had done nothing for the revolution but aimed to reap its rewards. The Provisional Government was inherently weaker but was sustained by the Mensheviks and their friends who then led the soviets.
Still, in the early days, the new freedom was universally celebrated. Trotsky later wrote of “raptures, embraces, and joyous tears.” The new government was treading carefully, gaining respect by proclaiming the new freedoms demanded by the soviets. The Bolsheviks also stepped cautiously – many say too cautiously – in the new terrain. As a party with mass influence, it had to avoid rash calls to action that might isolate vanguard workers and spark disastrous armed confrontations.
Writing in mid-March, Bolshevik leader Lev Kamenev expressed party strategy in carefully chosen words: the bourgeoisie “will inevitably attempt to halt the revolutionary movement and not permit it to … satisfy the essential needs of the proletariat and peasantry.” These needs can be met only “when power in all its plenitude is in their own hands…. It will come to this, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”
By “dictatorship,” Kamenev was referring to a form of democratic mass rule. The notion of worker-peasant power is clearly stated. But the full quote is close to 100 words – a bit long for a banner!
As the days grew longer and warmer, working people became more impatient with the Provisional Government. It was stalling on land reform and convocation of a constituent assembly. Above all, it was doing nothing to extract Russia from the ruinous war, which had taken the lives of millions of soldiers, ruined agriculture and the economy, created critical food shortages, and raised the spectre of famine. Rank-and-file pressure grew to resolve the problem of non-functional dual-power. As Trotsky later wrote, alienation from the Provisional Government embraced not only workers and locally garrisoned soldiers but “all the variegated small people of the towns – mechanics, street peddlers, petty officials, cab-drivers, janitors, servants of all kinds.” He continued:
The masses poured into the Soviet as though into the triumphal gates of the revolution. All that remained outside of the Soviet seemed to fall away from the revolution… Beyond the boundaries of the Soviet remained the world of the property owner.
A U.S. writer on the spot, Albert Rhys Williams, wrote that the soviets “have drawn to themselves the vital forces in each community. They have been schools for the training of the people, giving them confidence.” In many ways they were “already acting as a government.”
Historian China Miéville notes that on March 10 the Petrograd Soviet won agreement from local employers to institute the eight-hour-day, a central working-class demand. But in fact many workers had already refused to work a longer day, imposing their new rule by direct action. Recalcitrant foremen were “wheelbarrowed” – that is, thrown in a wheelbarrow and dumped in the nearest canal.
In Moscow, when the bosses refused to grant the eight-hour day, the local Soviet simply imposed it by decree, bypassing the Provisional Government. And the decree stood.
The network of soviets spread to small towns and the countryside. Village assemblies debated the next steps of the revolution. As the impulse for self-government spread, committees were formed on every level, for tasks of every sort.
Populations long silent in servitude raised their voices. In early May, for example, 900 Muslim delegates from every part of Russia, a quarter of them women, met in conference in Moscow to debate their future. The conference called for their communities to receive cultural autonomy – a first step toward the idea of liberation.
A slogan is born
On 4 April Lenin returned to Russia from exile and presented the Bolsheviks with a series of proposals called the April Theses. They sparked a debate in the Bolshevik party, whose meaning is even today disputed among socialist historians. A number of relevant studies are posted on my personal website. Have a look. You’ll get a close-up view of how the Bolshevik party actually functioned: how central leaders interacted with each other and with branch organizers, how disputes were handled, how experiences of the worker ranks shaped decisions. You’ll find points of similarity with Socialist Alliance.
So what is at issue in this debate?
Many socialist historians, including Trotsky, have held that the April discussion led the Bolsheviks to a sharp change of course, away from accommodation to the Provisional Government and toward a campaign for Soviet power. Some maintain that the initial wrong position flowed from a flaw in Bolshevik strategy going back to 1905. Recently, a viewpoint has emerged holding that Bolshevik strategy was consistent right through and that the adjustment in April was tactical in nature. This interpretation is presented by Lars Lih and Eric Blanc in articles on my website, and I share this view, although we came to this opinion independently of each other and do not agree on all points.
In the April 1917 discussion, Lenin called for a forceful campaign for the soviets to assume power. This was in step with the course of events, and was generally agreed. There was an array of other questions, such as on Lenin’s insistence that workers should not place demands on the Provisional Government, questions that were resolved through discussion.
The key point on which all agreed was the need for a worker-peasant government independent of the capitalists, landlords, and generals. It was also agreed – Lenin insisted on this point – that the campaign for soviet power must be one of “patient explanation,” while avoiding premature confrontation.
But nowhere in all this do we find the slogan, “All power to the soviets.” The thought is there, yes, but not the slogan. So where did it come from?
Later that month, the Provisional Government reaffirmed its loyalty to its allies’ war aims of conquest. There was a wave of protest in Petrograd – against the war and the government both. Such marches in 1917 displayed a forest of hand-lettered banners – in themselves proof of the revolution’s vitality. On 21 April, an unknown Bolshevik activist brought a sign that displayed three words: Vsya vlast’ sovetam – all power to the soviets. It was noticed by a reporter from Pravda, the Bolshevik paper, who mentioned it in an article. Lenin called attention to the slogan in an article published on 2 May. Five days later the Bolsheviks issued a programmatic statement built around the slogan. Going through a list of the problems before the country, it argued that in each and every case the solution was: All power to the soviets.
The slogan used a strong word for “power”: vlast’, meaning “sovereign authority” and the armed strength to back it up. “Vsya” – that is, “all” – meant no more dual power, no more “agreements,” deals or coalitions with elite classes; the provisional government must step down. And “sovetam” lodged the power in the hands of the country’s only mass, democratic, representative structure, one familiar to all – indeed by June the soviets had 37 million members.
And it was only 16 letters long: short enough to fit on the banner on a single line!
From defeat to triumph
In May and June the slogan caught on and won wide support. But it had an obvious weakness: The Mensheviks and SRs leading the Soviet Executive rejected it, still refusing to accept governmental responsibility. Meanwhile, the Provisional Government balked at radical measures. The revolution was stalled. Reactionary forces were regaining confidence, aiming for a right-wing military takeover that could drown the revolution in blood.
Early in July, despite Bolshevik calls for patience, the anger of Petrograd workers and soldiers boiled over. The call “All power to the soviets” was taken up by armed rallies and marches, in which the Bolsheviks took the lead. Workers were then attacked by troops aligned with the Soviet majority in its support to the provisional government. Once again the streets of Petrograd echoed with the sound of battle. Hundreds of protesters were killed in these attacks and hundreds more arrested. When fighting ended, the government launched a slander campaign against the Bolsheviks while driving the party semi-underground. Trotsky and other leaders were jailed; Lenin was forced into hiding.
From his refuge in nearby Finland, Lenin then proposed to drop the slogan “All power to the soviets.” It was now wholly compromised by the moderate soviet leaders’ support for right-wing repression, he said. Another road must be found. The Bolsheviks adopted Lenin’s position, but according to Eric Blanc, it was not fully carried out by the party branches.
And then, suddenly, the situation changed abruptly.
Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government was in negotiations with a right-wing general, Kornilov, with the goal of occupying Petrograd with right-wing detachments and suppressing radical workers and their soviets. But Kerensky, himself a socialist of sorts, concluded that Kornilov intended to betray him. Kerensky deposed the general. Kornilov then rose in revolt, backed by a number of top army commanders. Kornilov sent army detachments to the capital by train with instructions to topple Kerensky, suppress the soviets, and impose Kornilov as dictator. Kerensky called for resistance.
The Bolsheviks now faced a crucial decision. Should they bloc with the hated Kerensky, who had thrown their leaders in jail? Their conclusion: Definitely yes. The Bolsheviks joined with the moderates leading the Soviet to oppose the coup. Bolsheviks took the lead in mobilizing workers for the city’s defense. Pro-Soviet forces met Kornilov’s troops not with bullets but with persuasive arguments.
For example, Kornilov’s “Savage Division” – an elite unit of Muslim troops – was met by a delegation of the Union of Muslim Soviets, including the grandson of Imam Shamil, the legendary hero of resistance to nineteenth-century Tsarist conquest. The soldiers welcomed their visitors, and the night was spent in passionate and fraternal discussion. Through such initiatives the revolt collapsed.
During the workers’ and soldiers’ mobilization against Kornilov, the demand “all power to the soviets” was reasserted, in various wordings, by workers’ assemblies and also by Bolshevik leader Anatoly Lunacharsky. Workers experienced a surge of confidence, which affected the moderate socialists as well. Kamenev, for the Bolsheviks, proposed to the Petrograd Soviet a motion for a government “of workers and poor peasants only” to institute radical land reform, workers’ supervision of industry, and a democratic peace – a tactful reformulation of the Soviet power demand. It was adopted by a 63% majority, including many left Menshevik and SR votes.
Seizing the opening, the Bolsheviks challenged the moderate socialists to form a soviet-based government. Bolsheviks would tolerate it, they said, while continuing to seek support in soviet bodies. Lenin said it was a chance for a peaceful transfer of power. The Bolsheviks took a number of initiatives to press the moderates to agree – and expose them if they refused. But the moderate socialists would not give up their bloc with Kerensky and the capitalist politicians.
The months of September and October were marked by growing political crisis, accompanied by mass labour and soldiers’ struggles, lawlessness, and threats against the soviets. The Bolsheviks gained a majority in the Soviets of the two main cities, Petrograd and Moscow, and in a growing number of provincial centres. They campaigned for a Russia-wide soviet conference in late October that could authoritatively assume power. But to make that possible, the revolutionaries had to regain effective control of the city.
To that end, the soviets established a military arm, the Military Revolutionary Committee, to defend workers and soldiers against threats whether from German attack, right-wing militarists, or Kerensky’s forces. When Kerensky assembled armed forces to secure his regime, the Soviet defense structure was already in place to head this off. The soviet forces secured the bridges, opened the streets, and took the Winter Palace, the seat of government.
The next day the all-Russian Soviet congress assumed power and appointed a government of People’s Commissars. Its adopted decrees for an armistice and peace negotiations and for land to the peasants. Decrees followed quickly, addressing the main needs of the country: provision of food; freedom for subject nationalities; equality for women.
“All power to the soviets” was now a reality.
The Russian October in a new century
Setbacks were soon to follow: rightist revolts, foreign invasions, blockade, civil war, and collapse of the Soviet governmental coalition, leaving the Bolsheviks to rule alone. Under the blows of isolation and misfortune, the regime gradually hardened, and a workers’ democracy was transformed, over many years and through many stages, into a bureaucratic tyranny headed by Joseph Stalin.
Yet nonetheless, around the world, the inspiration of the October revolution spread as proof that working people could form a government and rule a country and as a working example of how this self-rule could function.
Workers’ councils were formed in other countries, but never with the authority and staying power of those in Russia, and they did not achieve power. Nonetheless, the idea underlying “all power to the soviets” – of rule by the exploited and oppressed victims of capitalism – spread and took root. Workers and farmers found other paths to ending capitalist rule, in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and other countries. These revolutions fell short of the Russian example in many ways, yet in other respects some of them were more successful.
Today, the capitalist order, despite its achievements, faces existential challenges, beginning with the growing war danger and looming ecological catastrophe. Capitalism cannot even address these dangers, let alone head them off. In our new century, the Russian revolution provides an eloquent example of our capacity, as producers and creators, to join in forging a new future.
So: “All power to the soviets.” It is not a blueprint. It is a vital link in a chain of memory of struggles by working people that shaped our present world. We are utilizing a centenary – a historic victory exactly a century ago – to help us better understand, recover, and expand our memory of the heritage of ideas and experiences bound up in our movement.
Capitalist society tends to stifle and obliterate memories of struggle. As best we can, we try to reclaim this memory and pass it on to a new generation to weigh and assess. The hopes and the efforts of revolutionary predecessors come alive in us and find expression in our movements. In this sense the hundred-year-old story of a slogan, “All Power to the Soviets,” will be a part of our future victories.
Chamberlin, William Henry, The Russian Revolution, 1917-1918, Princeton University Press, 1987.
Blanc, Eric, Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917 (and other articles), https://johnriddell.wordpress.com.
Le Blanc, Paul, October Song, Haymarket, 2017.
Lih, Lars, “All Power to the Soviets” (A seven part series. See table of contents on https://johnriddell.wordpress.com.)
Miéville, China, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, Verso, 2017.
Trotsky, Leon, History of the Russian Revolution, Pathfinder, 1980.
See also: The Bolsheviks in 1917: Index to a Debate