The Soviet Executive Committee

The organisation created on February 27 in the Tauride Palace, and called “Executive Committee of The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies,” had little in common with its name. The Soviet of Deputies of 1905, the originator of the system, rose out of a general strike. It directly represented the masses in struggle. The leaders of the strike became the deputies of the Soviet; the selection of its membership was carried out under fire; its Executive Committee was elected by the Soviet for the further prosecution of the struggle. It was this Executive Committee which placed on the order of the day the armed insurrection.

The February revolution, thanks to the revolt of the troops, was victorious before the workers had created a soviet. The Executive Committee was self-constituted, in advance of the Soviet and independently of the factories and regiments after the victory of the revolution.

We have here the classic initiative of the radicals – standing aside from the revolutionary struggle, but getting ready to harvest its fruit. The real leaders of the workers had not yet left the streets. They were disarming some, arming others, making sure of the victory. The more far-sighted among them were alarmed by the news that in the Tauride Palace some kind of a soviet of workers’ deputies had come into being. Just as in the autumn of 1916 the liberal bourgeoisie, in expectation of a palace revolution which somebody was supposed to put through, had got ready a reserve government to impose upon the new czar in case it succeeded, so the radical intelligentsia got ready its reserve sub-government at the moment of the February victory. Inasmuch as they had been, at least in the past, adherents of the workers’ movement and inclined to cover themselves with its tradition, they now named their offspring Executive Committee of the Soviet. That was one of those half-intentional falsifications with which all history is filled, especially the history of popular revolutions. In a revolutionary turn of events involving a break in the succession, those “educated” classes who have now to learn to wield the power, gladly seize hold of any names and symbols connected with the heroic memories of the masses. And words not infrequently conceal the essence of things – especially when this is demanded by the interests of influential groups. The immense authority of the Executive Committee from the very day of its birth rested upon its seeming continuance of the Soviet of 1905. This Committee, ratified by the first chaotic meeting of the Soviet, thereafter exerted a decisive influence both upon the membership of the Soviet and upon its policy. This influence was the more conservative, in that the natural selection of revolutionary representatives which is guaranteed by the red-hot atmosphere of a struggle no longer existed. The insurrection was already in the past. All were drunk with victory, were planning how to get comfortable on the new basis, were relaxing their souls, partly also their heads. It required months of new conflicts and struggles in new circumstances, with the consequent reshuffling of personnel, in order that the soviets, from being organs for consecrating the victory, should become organs of struggle and preparation for a new insurrection. We emphasise this aspect of matter because it has until now been left completely in the shade.

However, not only the conditions in which the Executive Committee and the Soviet arose determined their moderate and compromising character. Deeper and more enduring causes were operating in the same direction.

There were over 150,000 soldiers in Petrograd. There were at least four times as many working men and women of all categories. Nevertheless for every two worker-delegates in the Soviet, there were five soldiers. The rules of representation were extremely elastic, and they were always stretched to the advantage of the soldiers. Whereas the workers elected only one delegate for every thousand, the most petty military unit would frequently send two. The grey army cloth became the general ground tone of the Soviet.

But by no means all even of the civilians were selected by workers. No small number of people got into the Soviet by individual invitation, through pull, or simply thanks to their own penetrative ability. Radical lawyers, physicians, students, journalists, representing various problematical groups – or most often representing their own ambition. This obviously distorted character of the Soviet was even welcomed by the leaders, who were not a bit sorry to dilute the too concentrated essence of factory and barrack with the lukewarm water of cultivated Philistia. Many of these accidental crashers-in, seekers of adventure, self-appointed Messiahs, and professional bunk shooters, for a long time crowded out with their authoritative elbows the silent workers and irresolute soldiers.

And if this was so in Petrograd, it is not hard to imagine how it looked in the provinces, where the victory came wholly without struggle. The whole country was swarming with soldiers. The garrisons at Kiev, Helsingfors, Tiflis, were as numerous as that in Petrograd; in Saratov, Samara, Tambov, Omsk, there were 70,000 to 80,000 soldiers; in Yaroslavl, Ekaterinoslav, Ekaterinburg 60,000; in a whole series of other cities, 50,000, 40,000 and 80,000. The soviet representation was differently organised in different localities, but everywhere it put the troops in a privileged position. Politically this was caused by the workers themselves, who wanted to go as far as possible to meet the soldiers. The soviet leaders were equally eager to go to meet the officers. Besides the considerable number of lieutenants and ensigns at first elected by the soldiers themselves, a special representation was often given, particularly in the provinces, to the commanding staff. As a result the military had in many soviets an absolutely overwhelming majority. The soldier masses, who had not yet had time to acquire a political physiognomy, nevertheless determined through their representatives the physiognomy of the soviets.

In every representative system there is a certain lack of correspondence. It was especially great on the second day of the revolution. The deputies of the politically helpless soldiers often turned out in those early days to be people completely alien to the soldiers and to the revolution – all sorts of intellectuals and semi-intellectuals who had been hiding in the rear barracks and consequently came out as extreme patriots. Thus was created a divergence between the mood of the barracks and the mood of the soviet. Officer Stankevich, whom the soldiers of his battalion had received back sullenly and distrustfully after the revolution, made a successful speech in the soldiers’ section on the delicate question of discipline. Why, he asked, is the mood of the Soviet gentler and more agreeable than that of the battalions? This naïve perplexity testifies once more how hard it is for the real feelings of the lower ranks to find a path to the top.

Nevertheless, as early as March 8, meetings of soldiers and workers began to demand that the Soviet depose forthwith the Provisional Government of the liberal bourgeoisie, and take the power in its own hands. Here again the initiative belonged to the Vyborg district. And could there be, indeed, a demand more intelligible and nearer to the hearts of the masses? But this agitation was soon broken off, not only because the Defensists sharply opposed it; worse than that, the majority leadership had already in the first half of March bowed down in real fact to the two-power régime. And anyway, aside from the Bolsheviks, there was no one to bring up squarely the question of power. The Vyborg leaders had to back down. The Petrograd workers, however, did not for one moment give their confidence to the new government, nor consider it their own. They did listen keenly, though, to the soldiers and try not to oppose them too sharply. The soldiers, on the other hand, just learning the first syllables of political life, although as shrewd peasants they would not trust any master who happened along, nevertheless intently listened to their representatives, who in turn lent a respectful ear to the authoritative leaders of the Executive Committee; and these latter did nothing but listen with alarm to the pulse of the liberal bourgeoisie. Upon this system of universal listening from the bottom toward the top everything rested – for the time being. However, the mood from below had to break out on the surface. The question of power, artificially sidetracked, kept pushing up anew, although in disguised form. “The soldiers don’t know whom to listen to,” complained the districts and the provinces, expressing in this way to the Executive Committee their dissatisfaction with the divided sovereignty. Delegations from the Baltic and Black Sea fleets announced on the 16th of March that they were ready to recognise the Provisional Government in so far as it went hand in hand with the Executive Committee; in other words, they did not intend to recognise it at all. As time goes on, this note sounds louder and louder. “The army and the population should submit only to the directions of the Soviet,” resolves the 172nd Reserve regiment, sad then immediately formulates the contrary theorem: “Those directions of the Provisional Government which conflict with the decision of the Soviet are not to be obeyed.” With a mixed feeling of satisfaction and anxiety the Executive Committee sanctioned this situation; with grinding teeth the government endured it. There was nothing else for either of them to do.

Already early in March, soviets were coming into being in all the principal towns and industrial centres. From these spread in the next few weeks throughout the country. They began to arrive in the villages only in April and May; at first it was practically the army alone which spoke in the name of the peasants.

The Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet actually acquired a state significance. The other soviets guided themselves by the capital, one after the other adopting resolutions of conditional support to the Provisional Government. Although in the first months the relations between the Petrograd and provincial soviets worked themselves out smoothly, and without conflict or serious disagreement, nevertheless the necessity of a state organisation was obvious in the whole situation. A month after the overthrow of the autocracy a first conference of soviets was summoned – incomplete and one-sided in its membership. Although, out of 185 organisations represented, two-thirds were provincial soviets, these were for the most part soldiers’ soviets. Together with the representatives of the front organisations, these military delegates – for the most part officers – were in an overwhelming majority. Speeches resounded about war to complete victory, and outcries resounded against the Bolsheviks, notwithstanding their more than moderate behaviour. The conference filled out the Petrograd Executive Committee with sixteen conservative provincials, thus legitimising its state character.

That strengthened the right wing still more. From now on they frightened the malcontents by alluding to the provinces. The resolution on regulating the membership of the Petrograd Soviet – adopted March 14 – was hardly carried out at all. It is not the local soviet that decides, but the All-Russian Executive Committee. The official leaders thus occupied an almost unassailable position. The most important decisions were made by the Executive Committee, or rather by its ruling nucleus, after a preliminary agreement with the nucleus of the government. The Soviet remained on one side. They treated it like a meeting: “Not there, not in general meetings, is the policy wrought out; all these ‘plenary sessions’ had decidedly no practical importance” (Sukhanov). These complacent rulers of destiny thought that in entrusting the leadership to them the soviets had essentially completed their task. The future will soon show them that this is not so. The masses are long-suffering, but they are not clay out of which you can fashion anything you want to. Moreover, in a revolutionary epoch they learn fast. In that lies the power of a revolution.

L.D. Trotsky, “The Executive Committee,” The History of the Russian Revolution

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