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Soviet

Marxist Dictionary

Committees, commissions, workers councils or “soviets” are bodies directly elected by the workers assemblies, responsible exclusively to them and revocable at any time. They are born out of the extension of the mass strike and, in the development of the struggles they tend to become the form of organization of the whole class as a “party” of the bourgeois society, that is, they assert a “dual power” that prepares them to become the organ through which the class will exercise its “dictatorship”. They then become a real “transitional state” which, as the revolution becomes globalized, will be able to undertake the decommodification of society.

Origins

With the development of imperialism, in the last decade of rising capitalism, the class struggle intensified and began to take on new forms throughout the world. The main one, the mass strike, is far from the syndicalist fantasy of a “revolutionary general strike”. The “unexpected” and unplanned mass strike becomes entangled with the revolution. There is no macro-organization to call for it, there is no structure of trade union officers nor a gigantic resistance fund.

Therefore, if the Russian Revolution teaches us anything, it is, above all, that the mass strike is not artificially “manufactured”, that it is not “decided” at random, that it does not “spread”; it is a historical phenomenon that, at a given moment, emerges from social conditions as an inevitable historical necessity. Therefore, the problem cannot be understood or discussed on the basis of abstract speculations about the possibility or the impossibility, about the usefulness or the harm of mass strikes. The social factors and conditions that give rise to mass strikes in the present stage of the class struggle must be examined. In other words, it is not a matter of subjective criticism of the mass strike from the perspective of what would be desirable, but of objective investigation of the causes of the mass strike from the perspective of what is historically inevitable.

Rosa Luxemburg. Mass strike party and trade unions, 1906

But if the mass strike is the primary form that class constitution takes in the imperialist era, the constitution of the class as a party in society will come from the extension and merging of workers’ assemblies in the course of those struggles. Assemblies that elect committees accountable to them and can be recalled at any time. These committees, an evolution of strike committees, become councils (in Russian “soviets”) of delegates that will expand to become territorial class organization structures.

The soviet organized the working masses, led strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers and protected the population against pogroms. However, there were other revolutionary organizations that did the same before, at the same time and after it, but never had the same importance. The secret of this importance lies in the fact that this assembly emerged organically from the proletariat during a direct struggle, determined in some way by events, which waged the working people’s world “for the conquest of power”. If proletarians, for their part, and the reactionary press for their part gave the soviet the title “proletarian government” it was because, in fact, this organization was nothing but the embryo of a revolutionary government. The soviet held power insofar as it was guaranteed by the revolutionary power in the workers’ quarters; it fought directly for the conquest of power, insofar as it remained in the hands of a military and police monarchy.

Before the emergence of the soviet we find among the workers of industry numerous revolutionary organizations, led above all by social democracy. But they were formations “within the proletariat”, and their immediate aim was to fight “to acquire influence over the masses”. The soviet, on the contrary, was immediately transformed into “the very organization of the proletariat”; its aim was to fight for “the conquest of revolutionary power”.

Being the point of concentration of all the revolutionary forces in the country, the soviet did not dissolve into revolutionary democracy; it was and remained the organized expression of the class will of the proletariat. In its struggle for power, it applied methods that came naturally from the character of the proletariat as a class: these methods referred to the role of the proletariat in production, the importance of its numbers and its social homogeneity. Moreover, in fighting for power, at the head of all the revolutionary forces, the soviet did not fail for a moment to guide the spontaneous action of the working class; it not only contributed to the organization of the trade unions but also intervened in the particular conflicts between workers and employers. And precisely because the soviet, as the democratic representation of the proletariat in the revolutionary epoch, stood at the crossroads of all its class interests, it suffered from the very beginning from the all-powerful influence of social democracy. This party then had the possibility of using the immense advantages that its initiation into Marxism gave it; this party, being capable of orienting political thought in the existing “chaos”, did not have to make any effort to transform the soviet, which did not formally belong to any party, into an organizing apparatus for its influence.

Leon Trotsky, Conclusions of 1905, 1909

Committees and unions in the great revolutionary wave of 1917-1937 and later

These workers committees and councils or “soviets” will also be the protagonists of the revolutionary wave that opened up with the first great imperialist world war by confronting and overcoming the trade unions which at that moment already openly defended the state into which they were being integrated. Within the framework of the mass strike, they evolve from strike committees to “soviets”, from a system of mass organization to an organ of class power in the very course of the revolution.

The Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 brought about the emergence of a new fighting body that originated in social reality itself: the factory committee or council, democratically elected in the workplaces, whose members can be revoked at any time. They were seen appearing in St. Petersburg and Moscow at the end of the 1905 revolution, of which they mark the climax. However, still too weak and inexperienced, they proved incapable of fulfilling the task they had assigned themselves, the overthrow of Czarism.

They could be seen reappearing from the beginning of the 1917 revolution, by then more self-confident, and would soon spread throughout the country. Driven by Lenin and Trotsky, they carried out the October Revolution. Meanwhile, the trade unions dragged behind them, holding back the movement with all their might. No revolutionary initiative was owed to them, on the contrary. John Reed, in his “Ten Days that Shook the World,” makes clear the unions’ hostility to the Soviets on several occasions, to the extent that railway workers had to violate union discipline in order to transport from Petrograd to Moscow the reinforcements necessary to reduce the counter-revolution of the Junkers in this second city.

The German workers, soldiers and sailors who rose up in 1918 did not think for a moment about turning to the trade unions to conduct their struggle against the imperial regime; in the midst of the struggle they set up their committees of struggle, which took over the factories and ships and drove out the capitalist authorities. The trade unions intervened only later, to stop the struggle, to contain the revolution within bourgeois limits, that is, to betray it. This spectacle makes the thinking of the German revolutionaries clearer and shows Hermann Gorter and the German-Dutch left the way forward, making him one of the first theoreticians of left-wing communism and of a real class struggle tactic.
In the Spanish revolution of 1936, from the first days of the insurrection, committees emerged everywhere, like mushrooms in the wake of a storm. But unlike in Russia, where the Soviets relegated the unions to the background, the latter stifled the committees (boards). As a result, stalinism triumphed without the unions really opposing it. They even joined to collaborate to its triumph, through a liaison committee C.N.T.-U.G.T. and the revolution ended up being betrayed by a stalinism that opened the door to Franco.

G.Munis, “The factory committees, engine of the social revolution” in “The unions against the revolution”, 1960

When the miners’ strike in Asturias in 1962 gave the first sign of a new sharpening of the class struggle after the reconstruction following the Second Imperialist World War, the phenomenon was reaffirmed. The strike committees in the mine shafts spontaneously started to organize themselves into “workers’ commissions”, as the occasional strikes turned into mass strikes. Franco’s repression will give the Stalinist PCE the opportunity to capture and “unionize” them. A “double edged sword” strategy that we will see again and again since the mass strikes of 1968-69 and that in Poland will have its peak with the enthronement of “Solidarnosc”.