‘All power to the soviets!’
Did Lenin’s April theses mark a fundamental change in Bolshevik strategy? In this series of articles Lars T Lih demonstrates that this was not the case
‘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. In this essay and others to follow, I would like to examine the origin of this slogan in its original context of Russia in 1917.
In Russian it consists of just three words: 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 a specific set of meanings arising out of the revolutionary experience of 1917.
In this series, I will often use the Russian original of another term in this slogan: namely, vlast. ‘Power’ is not an entirely adequate translation; indeed, in an attempt to catch these nuances, vlast is often translated in English by the unidiomatic phrase ‘the power’ (for example, by John Reed in Ten days that shook the world). Vlast has a more specific reference than the English word ‘power’; the Russian word refers to 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, “a monopoly of the legitimate use of force”, goes to the heart of the matter.
When, why and how did the Bolsheviks come to adopt this slogan in the spring of 1917? The usual answer to these questions asserts that, in order for the party to arrive at the slogan, it had to be rearmed by Lenin’s April theses. The metaphor of rearming was first used by Lev Trotsky in the early 1920s, but today it is by no means restricted to writers in the Trotskyist tradition. Indeed, the rearming narrative is the heart of a broad consensus about the Bolsheviks in 1917 upheld by both activists and academic historians.
Among the basic themes of the rearming narrative are the following:
- Lenin’s April theses contained a radical political and ideological innovation. The exact nature of this innovation is vague, with little agreement among writers, but usually it has something to do with socialist revolution in Russia.
- The April theses represented Lenin’s de facto acceptance of Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’ outlook.
- The April theses ‘exploded like a bomb’ among the Bolsheviks; they were shocked and scandalised by the theses because of their rejection of ‘old Bolshevism’ or perhaps even of basic Marxist principles.
- The April theses constituted a sharp change of political line from the ‘semi-Menshevik’ policies hitherto pursued by Petrograd Bolsheviks, who had earlier shown their confusion and dismay by censoring Lenin’s ‘Letters from afar’.
- Lenin won over the party to his views in a hard-fought campaign, although a significant portion of the party and its leadership were never convinced.
- The April theses were a necessary condition for the Bolshevik victory in October.
I believe these propositions are all incorrect - or, at best, seriously misleading. As a challenge to them, I argue for what I call the ‘fully armed’ interpretation of Bolshevik politics in spring 1917. As opposed to the rearming narrative, which cuts Bolshevism off from its past, I stress the continuity with old Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks were not flummoxed by the February revolution: they faced the post-February situation with a winning strategy that was based firmly on old Bolshevism’s class scenario. The return of Lenin and other émigré leaders to Russia in early April marked an important shift in tactics - but this shift was not due to the controversial April theses. Bolshevik praktiki who expressed misgivings about the April theses did so because they shared the goal of soviet power. The canonical ‘All power to the soviets!’ was not adopted as a party slogan until early May - after the debate over the April theses had been settled at Bolshevik party conferences.
My proposed counter-narrative has met a lot of resistance and will no doubt continue to do so. One big reason for this is that it seems to fly in the face of established facts. What about the ‘critical support’ for the bourgeois provisional government shown by such Bolsheviks and Lev Kamenev and Iosif Stalin? What about the notorious censorship of Lenin’s ‘Letters from afar’ by the editors of Pravda? Didn’t the April theses cause great scandal among the Bolsheviks (for example, a vote in the Petrograd party committee rejected the theses in toto by a lopsided vote of 13 to two)? Don’t Trotsky’s writings from 1917 illustrate the rearming narrative? And so on.
These are valid questions, and the aim of the present series is to respond to them in detail. By the end of the series, the tables will be turned, and the defenders of the standard rearming narrative will have a mountain of new evidence to consider. In the meantime, I am heartened by the fact that scholars who have done empirical research on these issues after I first put forth my hypotheses a number of years ago have validated essential parts of my argument, as shown by recent blogs from Eric Blanc.1
‘Biography of a slogan’, the essay that opens the series, will set forth my ‘fully armed’ interpretation with a minimum of polemic. My heartfelt thanks for the encouragement and support of John Riddell, who has generously provided a home for this extensive series.
Biography of a slogan
From the days of Lassalle, social democracy had always given a great deal of attention to slogans - watchwords, mots d’ordre - as a way of focusing political campaigns and imposing unity on mass action. A history of social democracy in its various national manifestations could be written based on its slogans over the years. ‘All power to the soviets!’ is assuredly one of the best of these: short enough to fit on a banner, extensive enough to provide a response to almost any issue. In April, Grigory Zinoviev responded to some written questions from factory workers, and one such question was: when will we get some decent cafeteria service in this factory? Zinoviev’s response: when the whole vlast is given to the soviets.
The political strategy behind the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’, is based firmly on the application of old Bolshevism to the prevailing circumstances in Russia after the February revolution. The heart of old Bolshevism was a reading of the constellation of class forces in Russia in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution - the so-called ‘driving forces of the revolution’. This reading gave rise to a political strategy that the Bolsheviks called ‘hegemony’ (not to be confused with later uses of the protean word). We will examine the hegemony strategy in detail later in the series, but we can summarise it here: the Bolsheviks must strive for a vlast based on the workers and peasants that would carry the revolution “to the end” (achieve the maximum of political and social transformation available at the time) - in opposition to the drive of anti-tsarist liberals to halt the revolution as soon as possible.
As soon as the dust had cleared after the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in early 1917, the Bolsheviks had little trouble mapping the hegemony strategy onto the basic political realities of the new situation. The vehicle of the worker/peasant vlast would obviously be the soviets, first in Petrograd and then nationwide. Unlike the prototype soviets of 1905, the Petrograd Soviet of 1917 also represented the soldiers in the Petrograd garrison, and thus, indirectly, the peasants. The anti-tsarist liberals were ensconced in the provisional government and, as predicted, they were trying to take over the leadership of the revolution and put a halt to revolutionary change as rapidly as possible. The implications of hegemony for political strategy under these circumstances were straightforward: worker/soldier soviets must take over the full vlast and carry out the revolutionary programme, come what may.
In March 1917, this strategy was given concrete application in March by Petrograd Bolsheviks, including Kamenev and Stalin. Faced with a soviet that, on the one hand, was recognised as an authority by the workers and soldiers, but, on the other hand, had itself ceded state authority to the provisional government, the Bolshevik leaders wagered on an inevitable confrontation between the provisional government and the soviet constituency, since events would rapidly reveal the provisional government’s total inability to carry out the demands of the soviet constituency - and indeed its hostile and counterrevolutionary desire to eliminate soviet influence. As soon as the soviets and their mass base grasped these realities (as the Bolsheviks believed them to be), they would take “full and complete vlast [vsia polnota vlasti] into 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”.2
Although the Petrograd Bolsheviks put the goal of soviet power firmly on the agenda, they refrained from issuing a direct call for it in slogan form. Two main tactical dilemmas led to this restraint. First, such a call would be perceived as anti-soviet, given its present leadership and majority outlook. Second, a premature call to overthrow the provisional government, prior to acquiring support among the soviet constituency in the capitals and in the provinces, would be extremely disorganising. As Kamenev remarked in March, “Nevazhno-vziat’ vlast, vazhno-uderzhat” (It’s not such a big deal taking power - but keeping it, that’s a big deal).
These considerations were not the result of a namby-pamby lack of revolutionary fervour, but rather of some very real tactical dilemmas - dilemmas that caused problems for the Bolsheviks throughout the year (consider the July days). In the meantime, the Bolshevik leaders undertook to hasten the great day by “organisation, organisation and organisation”, as well as by setting in motion the standard social democratic technique of an exposure campaign.
A typical campaign of this kind made concrete demands on the ruling elite with the aim of persuading the masses that these demands would not be met, as long as the “bourgeois” elite government was in power. A paradigmatic example in 1917 was the demand to publish the secret treaties. This campaign was launched in March before Lenin’s return and continued right up to the moment when Trotsky entered the foreign affairs building.
An open call for full soviet power became part of the Bolshevik message in April, along with the crucial proviso that persuading the soviet constituency was an essential prerequisite. This shift (not turnaround) in tactics can be ascribed to the return of the émigré leaders, Lenin and Zinoviev (a perusal of Pravda in April will quickly reveal Zinoviev’s major role), and also to the accelerating political crisis that (as predicted by Petrograd Bolsheviks in March) deepened the rift between the provisional government and the soviet constituency.
The impact of these various factors should not automatically be assigned to the April theses in and of themselves. Let us take a look at the Pravda issue of April 8 that appeared very soon after Lenin’s return and the publication of his theses. On page 4 can be found a short article by Kamenev, entitled ‘Our disagreements’, that contained a critique of Lenin’s theses, thus signalling disagreement within Bolshevik ranks and the beginning of an intra-party debate. On the front page of the same issue was emblazoned an extensive article by Zinoviev in a manner that suggested a semi-official statement that reflected a party consensus. This article is a clear, succinct and authoritative exposition of the thinking behind ‘All power to the soviets!’ - with special emphasis on the ‘All’ - without, however, anything resembling the actual slogan itself.
As Zinoviev accurately states in this article, “revolutionary social democracy in Russia” (aka Bolshevism) had traditionally seen a victorious Russian Revolution as “a prologue, an introduction to socialist revolution in the west”. This perspective imposed a duty upon Russian revolutionaries, which Zinoviev summed up using the time-honoured formula of “carrying the Russian Revolution to the end [do kontsa]”. And how would this goal be accomplished?
Among the Kadets we hear protests that are more and more envenomed against the dual power [dvoe vlastie] that now exists in Russia. We protest against the fact that alongside the government of Lvov/Guchkov/Miliukov there exists another vlast: the vlast of the Soviets of Worker and Soldier Deputies - so say the Kadets.
We also do not want dual power - so we, the revolutionary social democrats, answer. We also desire that in our country there be only a single vlast. And that vlast should be the Soviets of Worker and Soldier Deputies.
Zinoviev’s article gives us a template for Bolshevik rhetoric throughout the year: take a widely accepted revolutionary goal and point out that it cannot be achieved until the soviets that truly represent the workers and peasants have all the vlast.
On April 8, then, we find in Pravda both a clear and unambiguous statement of the goal of soviet power in a manner that suggests party unity and an opening round in the party dispute over Lenin’s famous theses. In order to assess their impact, therefore, we need to take a careful look at the reception they received. Since this document does not present a unified message, but rather sets forth a number of disparate propositions, it is not helpful to speak of a reaction to the theses as a whole. We need to break down the theses in a way that helps us distinguish different reactions to different points.
The reception of the April theses by party activists can be divided into three categories. First are the positions that were not controversial, because they expressed a Bolshevik consensus. The goal of soviet power was definitely one of these widely shared positions, along with the imperialist nature of the war, no confidence in the provisional government, and rejection of ‘revolutionary defencism’. These positions - by far the most important - did not lead to any pushback. On the contrary. Here are the words of the most articulate critic of Lenin’s theses, Sergei Bagdatev:
Everywhere and always, every day, we have to show the masses that, until the vlast has been transferred into the hands of the Soviets of Worker and Soldier Deputies, there is no hope for an early end of the war and no possibility for the realisation of their programme.
Bagdatev used these words in April precisely to explain why he had misgivings about some of Lenin’s propositions.
Bagdatev’s remarks lead us to the next category of the reception of the theses: misgivings about the possible practical implications of this or that proposition. These misgivings were not occasioned by the goal of soviet power, but rather by disagreements about the best way to attain it. They arose because Lenin was far from clear, both in his elliptical theses and in various other comments made after his return. According to recent news stories, a group of Catholic cardinals have presented Pope Francis with a set of dubia, or request for clarification about the implications of some of his pronouncements. These dubia are an excellent model for this category of theses reception.
The essential feature of the Bolshevik dubia in April 1917 was that they were passionately pro-soviet power. Later in the series we will examine the two most extensive critiques - those of Sergei Bagdatev and Lev Kamenev. Although the former is usually placed on the extreme left of the party and the latter on the extreme right, their critiques substantially overlapped - indeed, Bagdatev quoted Kamenev and solidarised with him. There is no mistaking the fervour with which these two Bolsheviks warn against what they consider to be fatal missteps in achieving the goal of soviet power.
The process of clearing up misunderstandings began almost immediately, since Lenin had to provide defensive glosses to prevent misunderstanding in the very article that contains the canonical text of the theses. After repeating what he had earlier made public in speeches immediately after his return, Lenin adds: ‘Some people deduce from my theses that I don’t support the constituent assembly - what slanderous nonsense!’
In 1926, the pioneer party historian, Vladimir Nevsky, published the first substantial source-based history of Bolshevism. His book appeared in the brief interval after primary sources had been collected, but before Stalinist orthodoxy ended genuine historical debate. Nevsky himself was active in the Petrograd Bolshevik organisation and therefore speaks with the authority of an eye-witness, as well as of a historian who is still highly regarded today. He makes the following extremely revealing comment about the reception of the April theses:
We must stress that even in the ranks of our party were people who at first understood these theses incorrectly, taking them as a call to an immediate implementation of socialism, despite categorical explanations [to the contrary].
In fact, Lenin’s position [in the April theses] was the natural development of the doctrine that he had worked out long ago in the previous periods of the history of our party, since one of the basic propositions of Bolshevism … was the one put forward already during the first Russian revolution [in 1905]: the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. This same idea also implied all the conclusions and all the measures inevitably arrived at, as soon as the party was convinced of the necessity and the inevitability of a proletarian-peasant dictatorship.3
Later in the series we will look at the response of both Lenin and Trotsky to this particular misunderstanding about socialism. But at present we need to stress two crucial implications of Nevsky’s authoritative remarks. First, misunderstandings were indeed crucial to the reception of the April theses. Of course, Nevsky removes any blame from Lenin for causing these misunderstandings, and no mention is made of the possibility that Lenin himself might have misunderstood the outlook of Petrograd Bolsheviks such as Kamenev.
Even more revealing is Nevsky’s firm assertion of the essential continuity between old Bolshevism and the April theses: “Lenin’s position [in the April theses] was the natural development of the doctrine that he had worked out long ago in the previous periods of the history of our party.” Nevsky sums up the continuity by quoting Lenin’s formula about “the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, which, when unpacked, is equivalent to the hegemony strategy: a vlast based on the workers and peasants in order to carry the revolution “to the end” (achieve the maximum of political and social transformation available at the time) in opposition to the drive of anti-tsarist liberals to halt the revolution as soon as possible. Nevsky knew Bolshevik Party history better than anyone living today and his testimony on this point should be given due weight.
The process of clearing up misunderstandings worked in both directions: having just arrived in Russia from abroad, Lenin himself had misconceptions about the position of the Petrograd Bolsheviks. As we shall see later in the series, probably the most important of these misconceptions concerned the propriety of making ‘demands’ on the provisional government. Due to his passionate émigré polemics against Kautsky and the social democratic ‘centre’, Lenin came back to Russia breathing fire and brimstone against the whole idea of making ‘demands’ - in his eyes, such demands only spread illusions about the possibility of reform. What?! (asked the critics) - do you mean to say we should forego exposure campaigns that make demands such as ‘publish the secret treaties’?
A very similar issue was kontrol, which is better translated as ‘supervision’ than ‘control’: in the present context, kontrol means keeping an eye on the government to ensure that they carried out the demands of the soviet. Lenin rejected any talk of kontrol for the same reason that he was hostile to making ‘demands’: any such talk seemed to imply a belief that the provisional government would actually carry out the programme or the demands of the soviet. But Kamenev and other Bolsheviks wanted to use kontrol by the soviet precisely in order to expose government failure - like Lenin, they believed there was no chance that the government would actually carry out the policies demanded by the soviet.
The following three comments about the issue of ‘demands’ from the party conferences in April are a miniature paradigm of the rather messy process of clearing up misunderstandings. According to Lenin,
Our line should not consist of showing that we are demanding the publication of treaties from the government. That would be an illusion. To demand this from a government of capitalists - it’s just like demanding that it uncover commercial frauds. If we say that we must reject annexations and indemnities, then we have to point out how this can be done; and if we are asked how to do it, we will say that it is basically a revolutionary step, and such a step can only be taken by the revolutionary proletariat.
Should we, as a political party, take on ourselves to demand the publication of the secret treaties - announce that this is our political demand? People will say to me: excuse me, you’re demanding something impossible. But the demands I make are not founded on the expectation that Miliukov will respond to me and publish the treaties.
The policy of making demands that I am advocating is an agitational device for the development of the masses, a method of exposure of the fact that Guchkov and Miliukov cannot do this, that they do not want the publication of the secret treaties, that they are against the policy of peace. It is a device for showing the masses that if they really want to create a revolutionary policy on an international level, then the vlast must be transferred into the hands of the soviet.
After this exchange, Kamenev and Lenin strove to minimise their differences. Kamenev affirmed that he was dissatisfied with Lenin’s reports “mainly for technical reasons”. According to Lenin, “Kamenev and I are on the same path, except on the question of kontrol. Subjectively, he understands this word better than Chkheidze and others.” Chkheidze was a Menshevik leader of the soviet, who genuinely hoped that the provisional government would really and truly carry out the programme of the soviet.
One aim of the present series is to make what was apparent to Lenin at the end of April 1917 equally as apparent to readers in 2017 - namely, that Kamenev and others were on the same page as Lenin and not on the page of Menshevik leaders such as Chkheidze. For the present, let us note that the Bolsheviks found it perfectly possible to have agitation campaigns about the secret treaties that met the criteria of both Lenin and Kamenev. I am now looking at a photograph that shows soldiers during the April days standing under a banner reading “Trebuyem nemedlennogo vskrytiia soiuznykh dogovorov” - We demand the immediate uncovering of the Allied treaties (emphasis added).
Misgivings about ‘demands’, kontrol and a variety of other topics were not rebutted - they were cleared up. Consensus about the April theses was reached not because Lenin changed the minds of the praktiki - rather, he made it clear to them that they did not have to change their minds in order to accept his theses.
The final category of the reception of the April theses can be labelled ‘Lenin’s enthusiasms’: those parts that are not in the core consensus, but also were not perceived by his fellow Bolsheviks as antithetical to it. Under this category falls bank syndicalisation, renaming the party and the soviets as a higher form of democracy (in contrast to the soviets as a vehicle for the worker/peasant vlast). These proposals were not shocking or controversial as such, but nevertheless people wondered how relevant or helpful they were to the task of crafting a dynamic party message in the ongoing revolution. In the end, these points were not rejected, but simply allowed to drift into the fine print of the Bolshevik message - even as set forth in Lenin’s own writings that are directly addressed to the soviet constituency in 1917 (which means that State and revolution is excluded, since it was published in 1918).
All three categories of the reception of the theses are exemplified by some remarks by the important Bolshevik activist, Mikhail Kalinin, at the April party conferences. As we recall, the first category consists of fundamental points that caused no controversy. For example, Kalinin specifically endorses Lenin’s agrarian policy and refers to his own Pravda article from March 17. The basic message of this earlier article can be summarised as ‘All power to the peasant committees!’ Crucially, in his comments to the conference, Kalinin also specifically endorses the goal of soviet power: “The Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies is for the present moment the only possible vlast.”
Because of his agreement on these fundamental positions, Kalinin insisted that the April theses did not constitute a radical break with the longstanding party outlook: “The method of thinking remains an old Bolshevik one that can handle the particularities of this revolution.” Neither did they constitute a break with recent Bolshevik tactics in March: “All you have to do is read our first document during the revolution - the manifesto of our party - and you will be persuaded that our picture of the revolution and our tactics differ in no way from comrade Lenin’s theses.”
I have stated that the second reception category consists of practical misgivings: ‘Has Lenin considered the full implications of this or that point - implications that we praktiki believe will hamper the drive for soviet power?’ For example, Kalinin did not object to changes in the name of the party per se, but he felt that “from practical considerations” the party should go slow when instituting the change. Kalinin shows his awareness that the source of some of Lenin’s concerns was émigré polemics: “I understand the comrades who have arrived from abroad, where the phrase ‘social democrat’ has been so befouled. But that’s not the case with us.”
To repeat, the final category of reception is acceptance of Lenin’s personal enthusiasms without making them in any way a central part of the actual Bolshevik message. For example, one of Lenin’s theses insisted on bank nationalisation. Kalinin had no substantive objection to such a measure, but he commented that “the point about the banks doesn’t have much practical propagandistic significance”. As we saw earlier, Kalinin endorsed the soviets as a vehicle for the class vlast of the workers and peasants, à la old Bolshevism. Nevertheless, he did not endorse Lenin’s own personal enthusiasm about the soviets as a higher type of democracy:
The only thing new in comrade Lenin’s theses is the assertion that the Soviet of Worker Deputies is the only [acceptable] form of government. That’s not true, but what is true is that the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies is for the present moment the only possible vlast. So a correction is needed here.
In the event, Lenin’s rationale about the soviets as a higher type of democracy was certainly not rejected, but it was also not given more than marginal status in the Bolshevik message during 1917. This issue thus illustrates the way Lenin’s personal enthusiasms become no more than the fine print of the Bolshevik message.
All in all, we get a more accurate picture of the Bolshevik message throughout the year by reading Kalinin’s remarks than by reading the April theses themselves. The core of this message was based on what Lenin and Kalinin had in common: the twin goals of power to the soviets and land to the peasants. But, as accurately foreshadowed by Kalinin, bank nationalisation, the soviets as a higher type of democracy and the party name-change all remained marginal.
Great slogans found, not made
All in all, the story of ‘All power to the soviets!’ can be told without mentioning the April theses - nothing essential would be lost thereby. So we return to our regularly scheduled story about the Bolshevik slogan. The thinking behind the slogan derived from old Bolshevism and was never really in doubt. As we have seen, the open call for soviet power as a proximate goal was made in early April, when the debate over the theses had barely begun.
But the canonical slogan itself - Vsia vlast sovetam! - is still nowhere in evidence. The slogan certainly does not appear in the April theses. I have looked through the resolutions and proclamations of local party committees in April found in various document collections. On the basis of this evidence, neither our familiar slogan nor any recognisable variant of it was used anywhere during the month. The absence of a pithy formulation of a key demand made itself felt in the various appeals and calls for action issued by local Bolsheviks.
In the resolutions of the all-Russia Bolshevik conference that ended on April 29, the call for “full state vlast” for the workers and peasants is an insistent Leitmotif throughout the text. Yet the wording is not only clumsy, compared to the crisp, canonical slogan, but also unfocused. The most common wording is “transfer of all of the vlast into the hands of” - with significant variation in the identity of the hands involved. Sometimes the vlast is placed in the hands of the soviets, but in other places it is transferred directly into the hands of social classes such as “the proletariat”. Other “organs of democratic self-government” - even the constituent assembly! - are also mentioned as possible vehicles for the vlast.
Who first came up with the exact wording of the canonical slogan? On present evidence, it was some mid-level Petrograd Bolshevik who was involved in the organisation of demonstrations during the April crisis. The first appearance I have tracked down was on a banner that appeared in the streets on April 21 (as reported in Pravda the next day). This activist was no doubt summarising what he had been reading in Pravda. The banner attracted the attention of Lenin, either from direct observation or from newspaper reports, and he mentions it in his description of events.4 Lenin liked the slogan well enough to use it himself a little while later in a Pravda article on May 2.
Lenin is usually - and incorrectly - associated with the canonical slogan via his theses at the beginning of April. Nevertheless, Lenin does deserve major credit for its adoption. During the April demonstrations at the end of the month, Lenin was perspicacious enough to observe the slogan and note its possibilities. On present evidence, Lenin was indeed the leader who lifted it out of anonymity and made it central to Bolshevik agitation.
The first appearance of the slogan that I have been able to find in an authoritative party document - not just on an anonymous banner or in a signed article by an individual - occurs on May 7 on the front page of Pravda in ‘Draft of a mandate for use in electing delegates to the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies’. The aim of the mandate was to help the soviet constituency to distinguish a genuine red from an ‘Albino’ (A Lousy Bolshevik In Name Only). As such, this document is a good guide to the meaning of the slogan in the context of 1917. I have therefore appended the entire text of the May mandate to this article. The mandate ends with these ringing words:
All of the vlast to the Soviets of Worker and Soldier Deputies! The whole world will believe in it. Only then can we end the war and bring Russia to happiness.
The mandate goes through the challenges facing the country and argues in each case that soviet power is a precondition for an effective response:
Unless the vlast goes into the hands of the workers, soldiers and poorest peasantry - those who genuinely do not want to be predators - we will continue to spill our blood only to serve the interests of a handful of capitalists and landowners.
The mandate calls for state kontrol of production and distribution, but also makes clear that this is something the state would be doing anyway - the only question is who will have the vlast, who will have the final say about the actual policies. Thus the flipside of ‘All power to the soviets’ is condemnation of any “agreement” with the capitalists:
All of the vlast in the country must belong solely to the Soviets of Worker, Soldier, Peasant and other Deputies (we must include the soviets of the railroad workers and other civil servants). Agreement with the capitalists, leaving the capitalist gentlemen with the vlast, prolongs the war and worsens the situation within the country.
The theme of socialism is conspicuous by its absence. Also absent are any of Lenin’s personal enthusiasms from the April theses: soviets as a higher form of democracy, shift of focus to the batrak, model farms on confiscated estates, bank regulation. Otherwise, the policies advocated by the mandate came from the social democratic “minimum programme” and the common “democratic” platform of the socialist parties: a just peace, land to the peasants, eight-hour day, a universal militia. The campaign against the secret treaties is not forgotten. Even the old slogan of the German Social Democratic Party - ‘Not one penny!’ - is called back into service. To sum up, the mandate is a concrete application of the long-standing Bolshevik consensus: a vlast based on the workers and peasants committed to carrying the revolution to the end by enacting a broad, “democratic” transformation of Russian society.
We conclude our short biography of a slogan with an excellent evocation of the meaning of ‘All power to the soviets!’, as it was received by the soviet constituency. In his description of a factory rally in Moscow in May 1917, one of the workers, Eduard Dune, pushes away learned Marxist discourse about types of revolution with some impatience:
How could one know whether the bourgeois revolution was finished or whether Russia was ripe for socialist revolution? The Bolsheviks spoke in a way that was more comprehensible. We must preserve and strengthen the power we had won during the revolution, not give any of it away to the bourgeoisie. We must not liquidate the soviets as organs of power, but transfer power to them instead, so that there would no longer be dual power, but a single revolutionary government …
For sociologists the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat was more complicated than it was for us. We wanted only one thing: the establishment of a revolutionary government that could be trusted and the strengthening of those practices that had been tried and tested by the experience of the revolution. We were for land to the peasants, for an end to the bloody war, for everything that workers in other countries wanted. There was no revolution anywhere else as yet, but there would be. Foreign soldiers trusted their officers as little as we trusted ours and would soon follow our example. All those who spoke against power to the soviets were enemies of the revolution, hiding the fact that at a suitable moment they would act against the gains that it had brought about.5
We could perhaps continue the story of our slogan along the standard lines of a biography of a famous movie star: an early success in the demonstrations on June 18, a period of rejection, confusion and self-doubt after the July days, and finally a triumphant return to star billing in September, ending with a historic performance in late October. But for the present, we here conclude the first chapter in the biography of ‘All power to the soviets!’.
This article was originally published at https://johnriddell.wordpress.com.
2. Lev Kamenev’s Pravda editorial, March 14 1917.
3. Istoriia RKP(B): kratkii ocherk 1926.
4. VI Lenin, ‘Lessons of the crisis’ Pravda April 22 1917.
5. E Dune Notes of a Red Guard Champaign 1993.