Lars T. Lih: ‘All Power to the Soviets’: a biography of a slogan
"All power to the soviets!"
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By Lars Lih
August 18, 2014 -- Johnriddell.wordpress.com, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- “All power to the Soviets!” is surely one of the most famous slogans in revolutionary history. It is right up there with “Egalité, liberté, fraternité” as a symbol of an entire revolutionary epoch. I would like to examine this slogan in its original context of Russia in 1917, in order to see why it arose, where it came from, and to what extent it was carried out in practice.
Our slogan consists of three words: вся власть советам, vsya vlast’ sovetam. “Vsya” = “all,” “vlast’” = “power”, and “sovetam” = “to the soviets”. The Russian word “sovet” simply means “advice,” and, from that, “council.” By now, of course, we are very used to the Russian word, because it evokes the specific set of meanings arising out of the revolutionary experience of 1917.
In this talk, I would like to use the Russian original of another term in this slogan, namely, vlast (I will transliterate here without the soft sign). “Power” is not an entirely adequate translation for a variety of reasons. Without going into details, I will just say that vlast has a more specific reference than the English word “power,” namely, the sovereign authority in a particular country. In order to have the vlast, one has to have the right of making a final decision, to be capable of making the decisions and of seeing that they are carried out. An effective vlast needs firm control over the armed forces, a strong sense of legitimacy and mission, and a social base. Max Weber’s phrase “the monopolization of the legitimate use of force” goes to the heart of the matter.
Often, in English, in an attempt to catch these nuances, vlast is translated by the unidiomatic phrase “the power” (for example, by John Reed in Ten Days that Shook the World). In this talk, I will use the Russian word, and I hope that by the end, you will have a good sense of its basic meaning in Russian political discourse of 1917.
In order to trace the various roots of this slogan, I will treat each of the three words separately. As we shall see, vlast or “power” represents the past of the slogan, “all” represents its specific 1917 context, and “to the soviets” represents the more universal claims implied by the slogan. But before turning to these three aspects, I will outline some of the basic facts about the situation in 1917 that gave rise to the response embodied in our slogan.
Who had the ‘vlast’ in 1917?
In order to give you a sense of the situation in 1917, I am going to read you some excerpts from a book by an American woman Rheta Childe Dorr, correspondent, fighter for women’s rights, a self-proclaimed socialist, although, as we shall see, a peculiar one. The name of the book is Inside the Russian Revolution. In the following passage, she describes her first impression in Russia (p. 10):
About the first thing I saw on the morning of my arrival in Petrograd … was a group of young men, about twenty in number, I should think, marching through the street in front of my hotel, carrying a scarlet banner with an inscription in large white letters.
“What does that banner say?” I asked the hotel commissionaire who stood beside me.
“It says ‘All the Power to the Soviet’,” was the answer.
“What is the soviet?” I asked, and he replied briefly:
“It is the only government we have in Russia now.”
Judging from this passage, when did Dorr arrive in Russia? Most of us would naturally assume it was after the Bolshevik revolution in October, when the soviets overthrow the Provisional Government. But in actuality, Dorr arrived in late May 1917 and stayed in Russia only until the end of August. Her book consists of newspaper columns written in the fall; it was sent to press before the October revolution. Her outlook thus gives us an invaluable look at what was happening in 1917, free of hindsight.
Dorr’s account brings home an essential fact:
The soviets, or councils of soldiers’ and workmen’s delegates, which have spread like wildfire throughout the country, are the nearest thing to a government that Russia has known since the very early days of the revolution … Petrograd is not the only city where the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates has assumed control of the destinies of the Russian people. Every town has its council, and there is no question, civil or military, which they do not feel capable of settling (pp. 10, 19).
Dorr herself was intensely hostile to what she felt was the tyrannical rule of the mob, partly because of her devotion to the war against Germany. She regarded soviet rule as no better and in some ways worse than the tsars. Take censorship of the press:
Even if [the average American traveler] could read all the daily papers, however, he would not get very much information. The press censorship is as rigid and as tyrannical today as in the heyday of the autocracy, only a different kind of news is suppressed (p. 5).
In order to give her American readers an idea of “the committee mania” that had taken over Russia, she used this analogy:
Try to imagine how it would be in Washington, in the office of the secretary of the treasury, let us say, if a committee of the American Federation of Labor should walk in and say: “We have come to control you. Produce your books and all your confidential papers.” This is what happens to cabinet ministers in Russia, and will continue until they succeed in forming a government responsible only to the electorate, and not a slave to the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates (pp. 47-8).
Dorr was unconvinced by the protestations of the Soviet that they did not want to have the supreme vlast in the land. She describes an episode in the political infighting leading up to the October revolution:
The Soviets? They have over and over, after fierce fighting, voted to give Kerensky support. Once they voted to give him supreme power. But they were never in earnest about it, and Kerensky knew it very well. They proved that they were insincere, it seems to me, by their action in October in refusing to support any ministry not made up exclusively of Socialists, and then making such a body subject to criticism and control (p. 205).
For Dorr, the only hope of salvation for Russia was for the sane elements in society to “take that huge, disorganized, uneducated, restless, yearning Russian mob by the scruff of the neck and compel it to listen to reason” – an operation she knew would require a fair amount of bloodshed (pp. 34, 38). She is grimly optimistic toward the end of her book, because she feels that Hunger and Cold and “General January” will destroy soviet power in the coming months. Her final judgment on Russia prior to October: “I saw a people delivered from one class tyranny deliberately hasten to establish another, quite as brutal and unmindful of the common good as the old one” (p. 2).
As Dorr truly observes, soviet power was established in February 1917, and not in October. In fact, we can say that the fundamental lines of force for the whole year were set up in the first few hours of the revolution, during what I call the “big bang” of the revolution that took place on 27 February, 1917. During this day, the following happened:
- The tsarist vlast that had ruled Russia for hundreds of years collapsed in the capital city of Petrograd – indeed, vanished. Tsarism had been a vlast in the full sense of the word: it had control over the armed forces, a strong sense of legitimacy and mission, and a social base. The end of the Romanov dynasty that followed quickly upon the collapse of authority in the capital city was just the most visible manifestation of the disappearance of “the historic vlast” throughout Russia.
- The Petrograd Soviet was created by socialist intellectuals calling for representatives from the factories and, very quickly, the soldiers. Very soon, the famous Order Number One issued by the Soviet gave it the most indispensable quality of a vlast: control over the armed forces. By calling for democratization and formation of soldier committees, the Petrograd Soviet earned the soldiers’ loyalty and trust. The Soviet also had, at least in embryo, the other attributes of a vlast: it was inspired by a sense of mission about the democratization of the country and it had a social base in the workers and peasants (as represented by the soldiers).
- The Provisional Government was formed by liberal elite politicians. Although the Provisional Government tried to claim some sort of legitimacy from continuity and legal transmission of power, it essentially represented a reaction to the creation of the Soviet. Thus, from the very beginning, the elite classes were thrown off-balance, faced with an unexpected obstacle in the form of a functioning soviet vlast. Luckily for it, the Provisional Government found allies in the moderate socialist leadership of the Soviet, who felt it was imperative to keep the more progressive elite elements on the side of the revolution.
As 1917 rolled on, it became evident that the Provisional Government could achieve its program—war until victory, loyalty to the Allies, “law and order” at home—only after having eliminated the rival vlast embodied in the soviets. This imperative followed from the very nature of a vlast: there can only be one in a country. When we hear the expression “dual power” or dvoevlastie, we should realize that the existence of more than one vlast is a contradiction in terms. To adapt a phrase from the Westerns, the Provisional Government and the Soviet were forced to realize that “this country ain’t big enough for the two of us.”
Everybody in Russia—right, left and center—agreed that the absolutely necessary first step toward solving the accelerating crisis of the country was the creation of a “firm vlast” (tverdaia vlast). The only question was: what had to be eliminated to pave the way for this “firm vlast.” Thus, we can say that the real story of 1917 is not “how the soviets overthrew the Provisional Government.” Rather, it is “how the Provisional Government failed to overthrow soviet power.”
‘Vlast’: The heritage of the 'Old Bolshevik' scenario
The question arises: were the Bolsheviks prepared by their past outlook and strategic conceptions to respond to the new situation created by the “big bang” of the February revolution? A strong consensus that unites both activists and academic historians answers “no, not in the least.” A forthright and influential statement of this position comes from Robert C. Daniels in his path-breaking book The Conscience of the Revolution, published in 1960: “the February Revolution caught the Bolsheviks completely off guard. The assumption of power by a conservative middle-class regime, supposedly impossible, made Lenin’s doctrine of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ meaningless.”
In my opinion, however, the opposite is the case: the Bolsheviks were fully prepared to find their bearings in the new situation, for the simple reason that they had always been centrally concerned with the nature of the revolutionary vlast. As Lev Kamenev put it in 1910, the proletariat must always “raise all issues and all struggles to the level of a struggle for the vlast” (Kamenev’s emphasis).
The Old Bolshevik scenario grew out of the experience of the 1905; it was a strategy for attaining the maximum possible gains during and after the revolutionary outbreak that the Bolsheviks firmly believed was imminent in Russia. Here, in extremely condensed form, are the principal points of this scenario, set forth without technical Marxist language:
- The revolution must give rise to a vlast based on the workers and peasants. Taken together, the workers and peasants, along with other “laboring classes,” constitute the narod, the people. Thus the new revolutionary government would constitute a narodnaia vlast.
- The internal structure of this vlast would consist of the socialist proletariat providing political leadership on a national scale to the peasantry. This crucial relationship was signified by the term “hegemony”, a key term in Bolshevik discourse. The assertion that the peasants were capable of understanding their interests, of fighting for them, and of accepting the necessary political leadership was based on quite optimistic assumptions about their political consciousness, assumptions which the Mensheviks did not share.
- The aim of the narodnaia vlast, the worker-peasant power, was to carry out the revolution “to the end” (do kontsa, another key term in Bolshevik discourse, unfortunately hidden from view in existing translations). Carrying out the revolution to the end meant obtaining the maximum amount of change possible during the revolutionary period. Thus the Bolsheviks set their sights on a vast social transformation of Russia.
- The Russian liberals, although they also wanted to move beyond tsarist absolutism, would inevitably try to halt the revolution midway. They were afraid of sweeping democratic reforms, and they were also afraid of the direct participation of the workers and peasants in the revolutionary process. In order to halt the revolution at a point convenient to them, they would try to assert their own class leadership over the peasants. In response, the principal political task of the socialist proletariat must be to combat liberal influence over the peasantry.
Of course, there is much more to be said about Old Bolshevism, but these are the basic planks in the Bolshevik platform. Two points should be made. First, our emphasis should be on the vast scope and ambition of Bolshevik aims. Marxist categories such as “democratic vs. socialist revolution” or “minimum vs. maximum program” have their usefulness, but the danger exists that we will let them blind us to the huge scope of what the Bolsheviks proposed to accomplish in the so-called “democratic revolution.” We should remember that the so-called “minimum program” was a technical term that meant the absolute maximum that could be achieved under capitalism – so that, in more normal language, there was nothing “minimum” about these aims.
Second, the Old Bolshevik scenario was focused exclusively on the class content of the projected revolutionary vlast, and not on its institutional form. The soviets that arose in 1905 might possibly be the vehicle of the worker-peasant vlast, but this was not necessary or inevitable. The exact institutional form was left open, to be decided during the revolutionary period.
We conclude this section by giving Kamenev’s succinct summary of the Old Bolshevik scenario, as formulated in 1910: the events of 1905 showed that “the Russian revolution—as opposed to liberalism—strives for its full completion: the transfer of the vlast into the hands of the revolutionary classes and a thorough-going agrarian transformation.” In the inevitable future revolution, therefore, the proletariat “will again be called in the name of its class tasks to play the role of leader and hegemon in the struggle.”
‘All’: The challenge of 1917
Comparing this scenario to the actual situation in 1917, we will not be surprised to discover that the Bolsheviks in Russia, without the guidance of the émigré leadership, were ready to grasp the essence of the results of the February days: organs of popular power trying to bring the revolution all the way “to the end” vs. organs of elite power trying to halt the revolution midway.
What the Bolsheviks did find disorienting was that fact that the Petrograd Soviet, the organ of worker-peasant power, was not fighting against the Provisional Government, but attempting to cooperate with it. In other words, the Soviet majority rejected the plank in the Bolshevik platform that insisted on the inevitability of liberal attempts to roll back the revolution. As a consequence, Bolshevik influence in the Soviet was very small. In my opinion, even Lenin did not grasp this surprising (for Bolsheviks) fact until after his return to Russia.
An adjustment was needed. The Bolsheviks needed to formulate a message that would convince the soviets and their constituency that the long-standing Bolshevik diagnosis was correct. The kernel of the message devised for this purpose was: you can’t share power with the elite. Their class interests are opposed to yours, they will never accept the revolutionary program, they will sabotage your efforts to carry it out. This was the message sent day in, day out, throughout the year. It resulted in a Bolshevik majority in the soviets, not because the Bolsheviks were clever propagandists, but because events seemed to prove them right.
This Bolshevik message is encapsulated by the key word “all” in our slogan. Ironically, the emphasis on “all” was taken over from bourgeois rhetoric. The elite insisted that “dual power” was self-destructive and illogical: the Provisional Government had to have all the vlast in order to do its job. The Bolsheviks responded: you’re right about the fact that an effective response to the crisis requires an organ with all the vlast, since a vlast by its nature cannot be divided. But the only candidate for this undivided vlast is not you, the Provisional Government, but the Soviets.
The actual canonical formula “all power to the Soviets” appears for the first time in April, after Lenin’s return. But the emphasis on “all” had already been formulated prior to his return. In a Pravda editorial of March 14—that is, about two weeks after the February days and two weeks before Lenin’s return—we find the following:
We must realize that the paths of the democracy and of the Provisional Government will diverge—that, when the bourgeoisie comes to its senses, it will inevitably attempt to halt the revolutionary movement and not permit it to develop to the point of satisfying the essential needs of the proletariat and the peasantry … This full satisfaction of their demands is possible only when vlast in all plenitude [vsia polnota vlasti] is in their own hands. Insofar as the revolution is going to develop and to deepen, it will come to this, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.
This editorial was unsigned to show that it represented a collective declaration, but it had been drafted by Kamenev. The insistence on “all” the vlast is central to Kamenev’s diagnosis of the situation. Nevertheless, he was reluctant to issue a slogan such as “all power to the Soviets” as a directive from the Bolshevik leadership. Such a directive would be logically equivalent to saying “down with the Provisional Government”, with the strong implication that the time had come to go out on the streets in order to bring this government down. But Kamenev and the other Bolsheviks were convinced that any such effort would be premature and highly disorganizing. Removing the Provisional Government could only be done with much more mass support than existed in spring 1917. It should be noted that Lenin did not disagree with this diagnosis.
The slogan adopted in April – “All power to the Soviets!” – is much more snappy and decisive than Kamenev’s careful prognostications in March. It conveys the Bolshevik program in three eloquent words. But adopting this slogan did carry the risk that Kamenev foresaw, namely, that eager workers and soldiers would take the slogan so seriously that they would make a premature attempt to remove the Provisional Government. In April, June and most dramatically in July, the Bolsheviks had to deal with the consequences feared by Kamenev in March: undisciplined and premature attempts to overthrow the Provisional Government. This is not to say that issuing the slogan in April was wrong—only that it carried a real cost.
‘To the Soviets’: A universal claim for an institution.
The essence of the Bolshevik message in 1917—“you can’t share the vlast with the elite, you will have to take all the vlast and beat off inevitable efforts to take it away from you”—was in place in March, before Lenin’s arrival. This message was a relatively straightforward application of Old Bolshevik thinking to the particularities of the new situation. The question arises: if the Bolshevik message was indeed ready to go in March, then what impact did Lenin’s arrival and his April Theses make on the slogan?
We have already given part of the answer. Lenin was instrumental in turning the Bolshevik strategy into a slogan, that is, into a pithy summation of the immediate program that in itself could play a vital role in coordinating mass collective action. But Lenin also came back to Russia with a set of new ideas about the soviets, not simply as an expression of a class vlast in a particular situation, but as an institutional form. Lenin now claimed that the soviets, as a form of permanent government, constituted the “highest form of democratism” and the only adequate form for the proletarian dictatorship. These were universal claims, not an assessment of the concrete situation in Russia.
The nature of Lenin’s innovation was instantly appreciated by Mikhail Kalinin, who responded to Lenin’s April Theses by saying: “The only thing new in comrade Lenin’s theses is the idea that the soviet of worker deputies is the only form of government. This is not true, but it is true that the soviet of worker and soldier deputies is the only possible vlast in the present situation.”
The nature of these claims are familiar to us, since they are put forward in one of Lenin’s most widely read books, State and Revolution. I shall just briefly recall some of Lenin’s arguments:
- “Soviet democracy” is an advance over “bourgeois-democratic parliamentarism”
- The soviets will eliminate police, bureaucracy, etc., insofar as these represent institutions placed above the people and uninfluencable by them
- The soviets ensure mass participation in government
- Constant re-elections ensure accountability
These ideas are familiar to us, not only because of State and Revolution, but precisely because they make universal claims and are therefore detachable from the specifics of Russia 1917. Let us set aside for the present any consideration of the more general validity of Lenin’s ideas about the soviets, and ask ourselves: what impact did this aspect of our slogan have on the course of events in 1917? In particular, how large a role did advocacy of the soviets as an institutional form play in the Bolshevik message broadcast throughout the year?
State and Revolution itself played no role, for the simple reason that it was only published in 1918. As I said earlier, the basic theme of the Bolshevik message was the class content of the vlast. The significance of the soviet system was that it was the vehicle for the class power of the workers and peasants, the narod. Consequently, the idea behind “all power to the Soviets” could be and often was expressed as “all power to the narod”, вся власть народу.
If we examine Bolshevik agitation in 1917, we will find it difficult to uncover much in the way of claims that the soviets were a higher democratic form. This at least is my conclusion—still somewhat provisional—after reading through party pamphlets as well as articles by Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin himself. These claims were not urgent enough in the context of the ongoing crisis of 1917. The Bolshevik message focused on the essentials: if you want to emerge from the crisis, if you want to defend the revolution, then throw out the elite government, beat back the incipient counter-revolution, and give the entire vlast to the workers and peasants, as represented by the soviets.
Looking ahead: ‘All Power to the Soviets’ during the Lenin era
We have looked at three different aspects of our slogan, each symbolized by one of its three words: its roots in the Old Bolshevik scenario (“power” or vlast), its adaptation to the specific political situation in 1917 (“all”), and the claims for the soviets as “the highest form of democratism” and the only adequate political form for the proletarian dictatorship (“to the soviets”). I have argued that, in 1917, the work of the slogan was done overwhelmingly by the first two aspects.
I will conclude with a brief and speculative look at developments after October 1917. Lenin’s hopes for the soviets as a highly democratic form were real enough, and they were shared by many Bolsheviks. But by the end of the civil war, all these leaders understood that the actual soviets had not lived up to this promise. A formulation proposed by the Menshevik leader Iulii Martov in 1919 gives a good encapsulation of this outcome. He pointed to the verbal shift from the formula “the power of the soviets” (vlast’ sovetov) to the formula “soviet power” (sovetskaia vlast’). The first version, he stated, meant that the actual, democratic soviets had real sovereignty; the second version pointed to a vlast that was based on the Bolshevik party, with only a historical or sentimental connection to original, independent soviets.
While explicitly acknowledging this failure, the Bolsheviks tended to put the blame on the exigencies of the civil war. One strand of Lenin’s ideas, however, did become a reality: the new state did draw its personnel more and more from the narod, the workers and peasants.
Although Lenin’s high expectations were not met, we can still say that the slogan “all power to the soviets” is the key to the Russian revolution—and indeed, that the slogan was translated into reality. As we saw from the observations of Rheta Childe Dorr, soviet power as established during the February days, with all its strengths and weaknesses, was a reality throughout 1917. This soviet power beat off the attempts of the Provisional Government to defang or eliminate it, and it continued to defend itself successfully against later attempts to destroy it. Although highly undemocratic in very many ways, soviet power continued to be an expression of the Russian narod, creating a new society where the narod set the tone—for better or for worse.
. This essay is based on a talk given at the Ideas Left Out conference at Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre, Ontario, on 4 August 2014. I would like to thank the organizers, and particularly John Riddell, for the invitation to speak; this text reflects the results of the discussion following my remarks.
. Inside the Russian Revolution (New York: MacMillan, 1917). Dorr’s book is available online.
. I cannot leave Dorr’s book behind without preserving the following passage for posterity: “Many members of this council are well-meaning theorists, dreamers, exactly like thousands in this country [USA] who read no books or newspapers except those written by their own kind, who ‘express themselves’ by wearing red ties and long hair, and who exist in a cloudy world of their own. These people are honest and they are capable of being reasoned with. In Russia they are known as Minsheviki [sic], meaning small claims. A noisy and troublesome and growing minority in the council are called Bolsheviki (big claims), because they demand everything and will not even consider compromise. They want a separate peace, entirely favorable to Germany” (p. 13). For Dorr, the Bolsheviks in general and Lenin in particular were paid German agents.
. Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Russia, p. 38 (Harvard University Press, 1960). For a recent affirmation of this approach, see Christopher Read, Lenin (London, 2005: Routledge), p. 154.
. I will illustrate my remarks today mostly with material from second-tier Bolsheviks such as Kamenev, rather than Lenin himself, since I want to document, not Lenin’s own rather complicated thoughts, but the outlook shared by the Bolshevik movement at large. The writings of Kamenev and others aimed at presenting this basic outlook. For further discussion, see Lars T. Lih, “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context,” Russian History 38 (2011), 199–242; for Kamenev’s remark, see p. 206.
. As cited in Lih, “Ironic Triumph,” p. 206.
. As cited in Lih, “Ironic Triumph,” p. 222.
 The relevant excerpt from Martov’s book World Bolshevism, under the title “The Ideology of ‘Sovietism’,” can be found on the Marxists Internet Archive at http://www.marxists.org/archive/martov/1919/xx/sovietism.htm. Martov’s essay is a valuable statement of the issues.