The first congress of Soviets assembles in Petrograd

The first congress of the soviets, which sanctioned the offensive for Kerensky, assembled in Petrograd on June 3 [June 16 on the modern calendar] in the building of the Cadet Corps. There were 820 delegates with a vote and 268 with a voice. They represented 305 local soviets, 53 district and regional organisations at the front, the rear institutions of the army, and a few peasant organisations. The right to a vote was accorded to Soviets containing not less than 25,000 men. Soviets containing from 10,000 to 25,000 had a voice. On the basis of this rule – by the way, none too strictly observed – we may assume that over 20,000,000 people stood behind the soviets. Out of 777 delegates giving information as to their party allegiance, 285 were Social Revolutionaries, 248 Mensheviks, 105 Bolsheviks; a few belonged to less important groups. The left wing – the Bolsheviks, and the Internationalists adhering to them – constituted less than a fifth of the delegates. The congress consisted for the most part of people who had registered as socialists in March but got tired of the revolution by June. Petrograd must have seemed to them a town gone mad.

The Congress began by ratifying the banishment of Grimm, an unhappy Swiss socialist who had been trying to save the Russian revolution and the German social democracy by means of back-stage negotiations with the Hohenzollern diplomats. The demand of the left wing that they take up immediately the question of the coming offensive was rejected by an overwhelming majority. The Bolsheviks looked like a tiny group. But on that very day and perhaps hour, a conference of the factory and shop committees of Petrograd adopted, also with an overwhelming majority, a resolution that only a government of soviets could save the country.

The Compromisers, no matter how near-sighted they were, could not help seeing what was happening around them every day. In the session of June 4 the Bolshevik-hater, Lieber, evidently under the influence of the provincials, denounced the good-for-nothing commissars of the government to whom the power had not been surrendered in the provinces. “A whole series of functions of the governmental organs have as a result gone over into the hands of the soviets, even when the soviets did not want them.” Those people had to complain to somebody even against themselves.

One of the delegates, a school teacher, complained to the congress that after four months of revolution there had not been the slightest change in the sphere of education. All of the old teachers, inspectors, directors, overseers of districts, many of them former members of the Black Hundreds, all of the old school programmes, reactionary textbooks, even the old assistant ministers, remained peacefully at their posts. Only the czar’s portraits had been removed to the attics, and these might any day be stuck back in their places.

The congress could not make up its mind to lift a hand against the State Duma, or against the State Council. Its timidity before the reaction was covered up by the Menshevik orator Bogdanov with the remark that the Duma and the Soviet are “dead and non-existent organisations anyway.” Martov, with his polemical wit, answered: “Bogdanov proposes that we should declare the Duma dead but not make any attempt upon its life.”

The congress, in spite of its solid government majority, proceeded in an atmosphere of alarm and uncertainty. Patriotism had grown rather damp and gave out only lazy flashes. It was obvious that the masses were dissatisfied, and the Bolsheviks were immeasurably stronger throughout the country, and especially in the capital, than at the congress. Reduced to its elements, the quarrel between the Bolsheviks and the Compromisers invariably revolved around the question: With whom shall the democrats side, the imperialists or the workers? The shadow of the Entente stood over the congress. The question of the offensive was predetermined; the democrats had nothing to do but accede.

“At this critical moment,” preached Tseretelli, “not one social force ought to be thrown out of the scales, so long as it may be useful to the cause of the people.” Such was the justification for a coalition with the bourgeoisie. Seeing that the proletariat, the army, and the peasantry were upsetting their plans at every step, the democrats had to open a war against the people under guise of a war against the Bolsheviks. Thus Tseretelli had declared the Kronstadt sailors apostates in order not to throw out of his scales the Kadet Pepelyaev. The coalition was ratified by a majority of 543 votes against 126, with 52 abstaining.

The work of this enormous and flabby assembly in the Cadet Corps was distinguished by grandeur in the matter of declarations, and conservative stinginess in practical tasks. This laid on all its decisions a stamp of hopelessness and hypocrisy. The congress recognised the right of all Russian nationalities to self. determination, but gave the key to this problematic right not to the oppressed nations themselves, but to a future Constituent Assembly, in which the Compromisers hoped to be in a majority and capitulate before the imperialists, exactly as they had done in the government.

The congress refused to pass a decree on the eight-hour day. Tseretelli explained this side-stepping by the difficulty of reconciling the interests of the different layers of the population. As though any single great need in history was ever accomplished by “reconciling interests,” and not by the victory of progressive interests over reactionary!

Grohman, a Soviet economist, introduced toward the end of the congress his inevitable resolution: as to. the oncoming economic catastrophe and the necessity of governmental regulation. The congress adopted this ritual resolution, but only so that everything might remain as before.

“Having deported Grimm,” wrote Trotsky, on the 7th of June, “the congress returned to the order of the day. But capitalistic profits remain as before inviolable for Skobelev and his colleagues. The food crisis is getting sharper every hour. In the diplomatic sphere the government is taking blow after blow. And finally this so hysterically proclaimed offensive is obviously getting ready to come down on the nation, a monstrous adventure.

“We should be willing to watch peacefully the sanctified activities of the ministers – Lvov–Tereshchenko–Tseretelli – for a number of months. We need time for our own preparations. But the underground mole digs too fast. With the help of the ‘socialist’ ministers the problem of power may rise before the members of this congress a great deal sooner than any of us imagine”

Trying to shield themselves from the masses with a higher authority, the leaders dragged the congress into all current conflicts, pitilessly compromising it in the eyes of the Petrograd workers and soldiers. The most resounding episode of this kind was the incident about the summer home of Durnovo, an old czarist bureaucrat who had made himself famous as Minister of the Interior by putting down the revolution of 1905. The vacant home of this hated, and moreover dirty-handed, bureaucrat was seized by workers’ organisations on the Vyborg side – chiefly because of the enormous gardens which became a favorite playground for children. The bourgeois press represented the place as a lair of pogromists and hold-up men – the Kronstadt of the Vyborg district. No one took the trouble to find out what the facts were. The government, carefully avoiding all important questions, undertook with fresh passion to rescue this house. They demanded sanction for the heroic undertaking from the Executive Committee, and Tseretelli of course did not refuse. The Procuror gave an order to evict the group of anarchists from the place in twenty-four hours. Learning about the military activities in preparation, the workers sounded the alarm. The anarchists on their side threatened armed resistance. Twenty-eight factories proclaimed a protest strike. The Executive Committee issued a proclamation accusing the Vyborg workers of aiding the counter-revolution. After all these preliminaries a representative of justice and the militia penetrated into the lions’ den. They found complete order reigning; the house was occupied by a number of workers’ educational organisations. They were compelled to withdraw in shame. This history had, however, a further development.

L.D. Trotsky, “The Soviet Congress and the June Demonstration,” The History of the Russian Revolution

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