For or against ‘AGREEMENTISM’?

In his third and final article in this series Lars T Lih analyses the duel over support for the Provisional Government that divided the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks before Lenin’s return from exile in Switzerland

In Petrograd at the end of March 1917, delegates from soviets all over Russia gathered for the first national meeting of the soviet system.

A striking feature of the All-Russian Conference in March was a set of duelling speeches between the Menshevik, Irakli Tsereteli, and the Bolshevik, Lev Kamenev. Despite their party affiliations, these orators were the spokesmen of two wider standpoints that were in fundamental opposition one to the other: ‘agreementism’ vs anti-‘agreementism’. The Menshevik, Tsereteli, was the spokesman for agreementism: that is, the political tactic based on the viability of a working political agreement with the ‘bourgeois’ forces of society. The Bolshevik, Kamenev, was the spokesman for anti-agreementism: that is, the political tactic based on the rejection of any such agreement, and thus ipso facto looking forward to full soviet power (vlast).

The essence of this dispute can be distilled in just a few words taken from these speeches: “the path of agreement” vs “inevitable clash”. This article will reveal the contours of this great divide - one that manifested itself over a wide variety of issues and yet had a tight inner logic. Thus the fundamental clash dividing the Russian socialists throughout the revolutionary year was set forth in the All-Russian Conference of soviets at the end of March in complete clarity. But we will also look at what united all soviet spokesmen, whether they were agreementist or anti-agreementist - what I call the ‘unwritten constitution’ of the soviet system. As we shall see, even though the anti-agreementist Bolsheviks were in a small minority at the beginning of the year, the logic of the unwritten constitution already favoured them.

Historians have pretty much overlooked this first all-Russian gathering of soviet delegates, but it took place at an extraordinarily revealing time. The original political agreement between the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government goes back to the very beginning of March. In mid-March, both Kamenev and Tsereteli arrived in Petrograd from Siberian exile and quickly assumed leadership positions in their respective camps. The sessions of the conference took place from March 29 to April 3. Within hours of the closing of the conference, Lenin and Zinoviev arrived to shake things up. Thus the conference gives us an extensive, well-documented look at the state of play in the soviet camp on the eve of Lenin’s return.

Irakli Tsereteli probably needs an introduction to many readers, although he was a central figure in the politics of 1917. Like many prominent long-time Mensheviks (and like Stalin) he was originally from Georgia. After the revolution of 1905, he was elected to the Second Duma (the duma was the new legislature created in the aftermath of the revolution), but in June 1907, after its unconstitutional disbanding, he was arrested, spent six years in prison and was then compelled to reside in western Siberia. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he adopted the Zimmerwald position of opposition to the war. After the February revolution freed him and other political exiles, such as Kamenev and Stalin, he was able to return to Petrograd, where he arrived on March 19. He quickly became the acknowledged leader of the forces within the soviet camp who urged support for the Provisional Government.

Tsereteli’s name will be forever associated with ‘revolutionary defencism’ - a genuinely new synthesis of anti-imperialism and national defence. The logic behind it went something like this: the war right now is indeed imperialist and pursued for illegitimate, undemocratic aims, but the February revolution allows us to renounce war aims, such as annexation, and to pursue a genuinely democratic peace. But, while we carry out this policy of revising war aims, we, of course, must continue to defend Russia against the imperialist German invaders.

Thus a split grew up in the soviet camp between ‘revolutionary defencism’ and ‘internationalism’. Despite these labels, the real defining issue that divided the Russian socialists was agreementism. If Russia was going to continue the war until final victory, then some sort of solid political agreement was necessary between soviet forces and elite society. Conversely, if Russia was to avoid a devastating civil war between these two parts of society - and avoiding civil war was a central value for Tsereteli - then the war had to be continued, but with refurbished anti-imperialist aims. Thus ‘revolutionary defencism’ demanded agreementism, and agreementism demanded ‘revolutionary defencism’. This logic will become more clear, as we examine the debate over agreementism, to which we now turn.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks coined the euphonious word soglashatelstvo as a term of abuse for their socialist rivals who aimed at some kind of agreement, deal, partnership, understanding between the soviet system and elite society - or at least with the progressive ‘vital forces’ within elite society. The coinage soglashatelstvo is based on the very ordinary Russian word soglashenie which has the very ordinary English translation, ‘agreement.’ So why not talk of ‘agreementism’ instead of ‘compromise’ or ‘conciliation’ - the usual and very misleading terms? The critique of agreementism was central to the Bolshevik message - so much so that Lenin argued that the rejection of agreementism by a majority of the soviet constituency in fall 1917 was equivalent to the acceptance of full soviet power - thus legitimising an armed uprising.

‘Agreementism’ - my new translation of this key word - is thus simply a more direct and more accurate translation of a central item in Russian political discourse in 1917. Two other terms that were central to political debate in 1917 are harder to translate - and in fact, they are usually translated in various ways, thus making their centrality invisible. One such key word is vlast, which can be defined as the sovereign authority in a society, the institution with the right to make ultimate decisions and to see those decisions enforced. It is variously translated as ‘regime’, ‘power’, ‘authority’, ‘government’ and more. All of these pick up some connotations of vlast, while ignoring others, and importing into the term yet more. I have observed how one and the same historian will use terms such as ‘tsarist regime’ ‘soviet power’ and the ‘firm authority’ demanded by the liberals - all of these in a single paragraph - without ever mentioning that these are all instances of the vlast. But for Russians in 1917, vlast was a single word and a single, if complex, concept. Furthermore, the sudden disappearance of the Romanov dynasty put the question of the vlast unavoidably front and centre. Everybody across the entire political spectrum was convinced that what Russia needed more than anything was a tvërdaia vlast - a tough-minded vlast that could get things done.

Narod is usually translated as ‘the people’, but it implies a much sharper, clearly defined contrast with elite, educated society than anything in our experience. It included workers, soldiers (mainly peasants in uniform), civilian peasants, urban lower classes, as well as the more plebeian, ‘democratic’ sections of the intelligentsia. The term ‘revolutionary democracy’ (or simply ‘the democracy’) pointed essentially to the narod in its political aspect. The term ‘narod’ also has an emotional resonance that was an essential part of the rhetoric of all the socialist parties. The quotations that follow will give a better idea of what words such as ‘agreementism’, vlast and narod meant than any explanation from myself.

Great divide

In the first two instalments of this series,1 we examined the Bolshevik message, which can be summarised as follows: an exclusive worker-peasant vlast based on the soviets is the only way to effectively defend the revolution and carry out its goals. We showed that this message was based on a Bolshevik consensus much more fundamental than any debated issue - a consensus that united Kamenev and Lenin. We also showed that Kamenev and other Bolshevik leaders, such as Stalin, had been propagating exactly this message already in March, before Lenin’s return to Russia - despite the inaccurate account presented by many historians and activists on the left.

But the full meaning of the Bolshevik message in the highly charged context of 1917 can only be discovered when we see it in company with its rival: the agreementist message that commanded a majority in the soviet system until fall 1917 and that was crafted by Tsereteli more than any other single politician.

In order to show both the logical undergirding of the debate over agreementism and the range of issues which it touched, I have constructed a little quiz. First, in order to set forth the essential nature of this clash, I have extracted statements from the speeches of Tsereteli and Kamenev. These quotations will provide the reader with a sense of the essence of agreementism and anti-agreementism. I then present a list of 15 questions that touch on a wide range of the central political issues of the day. For each question, I paraphrase the agreementist and the anti-agreementist response. My paraphrases are all based directly on the speeches of Tsereteli and Kamenev at the March All-Russian Soviet Conference.

I present the dramatically opposed positions on each of these issues in the form of a quiz: the reader has to choose which responses are based on the speeches of the agreementist, Tsereteli, and which on those of the anti-agreementist, Kamenev. At the end of the quiz, I provide a key. The quiz format is not only for fun and games (a consideration not to be despised, of course), but to make a vital point about this debate and its political significance.

I expect this quiz to be extremely easy! But what does this tell us? First, the basic logic of agreementism vs anti-agreementism, as set forth in the quotations given below, manifests itself in a wide range of issues in unambiguous fashion. And this clarity, we must remember, is present in March, in wide-ranging debate at an all-Russian conference, before Lenin’s arrival. Second, if the clash between agreementism and anti-agreementism is fairly obvious to us, then it must have been completely obvious to informed participants and observers at the time. And it was!

Tsereteli, the agreementist:

Comrades, it was not the proletariat alone or the army alone who adopted this path of agreement; but, I affirm, this path of agreement was adopted by an enormous part of the bourgeoisie - otherwise we would not have had the Provisional Government … If one were to say that already the time is ripe for us to regard the Provisional Government as a small group of people expressing the self-centred interests of a particular sector of the bourgeoisie that is attempting to fight against the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies, it would mean that one does not see what is occurring.

Kamenev, the anti-agreementist:

Our attitude toward the Provisional Government at the present moment can be expressed this way: we foresee inevitable clashes, not between individuals, not between official bodies, not between groups, but between the classes of our Russian revolution. We therefore should direct all our forces toward supporting not the Provisional Government, but the embryo of a revolutionary vlast as embodied by the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies, which sits here in our person.

Tsereteli, the agreementist:

As long as there exists a platform which unites around it the enormous nucleus of the working class and the revolutionary army, as long as the responsible circles of the bourgeoisie have not deviated from this platform, we cannot say that our aim is to create another organ of executive vlast, as embodied in the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies, with the idea that we should direct this vlast to overthrow the vlast embodied in the Provisional Government …

We proclaim that the Russian democracy is sacredly fulfilling its duty to Russia and to all the peoples [narody] of the world [by pushing for a democratic peace and revision of war aims] and will continue to fulfil this duty, but, until its aspirations are realised, not only in Russia but also in other countries, it considers it a debt of honour to stand in the defence of the country, and it views the present war in the light of the conditions under which it is being waged - under the ascendancy [gospodstvo] of the Russian democracy - as the business [delo] of Russian democracy.

Kamenev, the anti-agreementist:

Too many high-sounding words have covered up the robber policies that triumphed and led to war. Not high-sounding words, not a cover-up for the imperialist war, but the truth, the naked truth about what kind of war this is - this is what all the peoples [narody] demand. We here, we alone - the victorious revolution - can say this truth, and we must say it. We must say that this is not a narodnyi war, that this war was not dreamed up by the narody, that the imperialist classes of all countries have doomed us to this war …

There is, comrades, one situation when we will say that this war - not started by us, but fought over markets and colonies - has indeed become ours, when we will not only support our brothers dying in the trenches, but when we will say: let us create a revolutionary army, let us arm the whole narod, declare revolutionary war. This situation is when the toiling classes of society conquer the vlast by themselves for themselves, when these classes will defend in a revolutionary struggle the principles of a system in which there will be neither war nor classes. Our war, the one we will conduct, will be fought to create this system.

Issues of the day: a quiz

1. Is there a clear and present danger from bourgeois counterrevolution in Russia?

a. A significant majority of the bourgeoisie understands the necessity for moving forward alongside the revolutionary democracy - the soviet constituency - to accomplish the ideals of the democracy at home and to bring about a democratic peace abroad by revising war aims. Yes, the ‘dark forces’ are trying to create a split between the workers and the soldiers by slandering the workers. The best way to counteract these efforts is to demonstrate the patriotism of the workers by straining every muscle to support the army.

b. A bourgeois counterrevolution aimed directly at the soviets is already forming; it uses the Provisional Government - which covertly tolerates it - as a banner. Be on your guard!

2. Is there a qualitative difference between the two warring coalitions?

a. There is no essential difference between the two sides in this war: they are all imperialist bandits. The Provisional Government is under the thumb of the Anglo-French capitalists, and the only way to revise the war aims of the Allies is by a popular uprising.

b. One coalition - the Germans and the Austrians - is a militaristic threat to Russia’s very existence and is now encamped on its borders. We owe a debt of honour to the other coalition - our Allies with democratic political systems - not to act unilaterally, but rather to strive for a general revision of war aims.

3. Is a fundamental clash between the Soviet and the Provisional Government an inevitability in the near future?

a. No doubt a clash is theoretically possible, but it is highly unlikely. If such a clash should occur - if the bourgeoisie that now backs the Provisional Government were to refuse to honour the original agreement - then, yes, we will need to talk about replacement of the government. But even then a not insignificant part of the bourgeoisie will still be on our side.

b. Yes, and soon, because we’re dealing here with classes - classes with irreconcilable differences. And so, when the inevitable clash occurs, replacing the Provisional Government with a vlast exclusively based on the soviets will be put on the agenda as a practical task.

4. On March 25, just before the All-Russian Conference opened, the Provisional Government issued an official declaration that gestured toward support of the views of the Petrograd Soviet about war aims and a democratic peace. Was obtaining this declaration a great victory for Russian revolutionary democracy?

a. In itself, it’s not a bad thing - but, really, so what? This carefully worded and oh so diplomatic document is the very least we can expect from a soi-disant revolutionary government - and it took us a whole month to get even that! Besides, who cares if a few individuals (and can we trust long-standing imperialist politicians like Guchkov and Miliukov?) announce their rejection of aspirations toward conquest. We need to think in terms of classes, not chance individual leaders.

b. The government’s declaration is a great victory for the Russian revolutionary democracy. Foreign policy is always a harder nut for democratic forces to crack than domestic reforms. The history of the declaration also shows that we who represent the soviet are able to successfully exert pressure on the government.

5. What is the main aim of kontrol: that is, keeping a vigilant and informed eye on the doings of the government?

a. Kontrol is necessary because we can’t trust these guys a second. Vigilant kontrol will reveal a growing chasm between pious declarations and actual deeds.

b. Kontrol is an essential tool for keeping the government on the straight and narrow path of the original agreement, and therefore it should serve to reassure the democracy that the agreement remains in force.

6. Did the Provisional Government really arise out of the revolution itself?

a. The Provisional Government did arise from the depths (nedra) of the revolution. The government fights with us against the tsarist counterrevolution and against the ‘dark forces’. It will help us build a democratic Russia and bring about a democratic peace.

b. The Provisional Government did not arise from the milieu (sreda) of the revolution. These people were, are and always will be alien to us.

7. We all agree that a ‘double vlast’ [dvoevlastie, usually translated ‘dual power’] is an unworkable contradiction in terms. The very definition of a vlast - the final sovereign authority in the country - presupposes that only one such authority exists. But is ‘double vlast’ an accurate description of Russia’s present situation?

a. No, ‘double vlast’ does not exist in Russia at this time. In the original agreement between revolutionary democracy and the government, the soviet wanted neither to take over the vlast itself nor to hand it over to forces alien to the revolution. Thus there is only one executive vlast - the Provisional Government - that can legitimately issue authoritative orders. Yes, one or two times in emergency situations, the Petrograd Soviet took it upon itself to issue such orders, but these were exceptions that occurred in the early days of the revolution.

b. Yes, Russia is experiencing a crippling ‘double vlast’. And, since any double vlast is inherently unstable, the situation will soon have to be resolved one way or the other: either an undivided vlast of the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie or an undivided vlast of the narod.

8. Who expresses ‘the will of the narod’: that is, the workers, peasants, soldiers and other lower classes?

a. The will of the narod is expressed by both the Soviet and the Provisional Government, working together on the basis of a common platform defined by the original and originating agreement.

b. The soviets, and only the soviets. Thus the soviets are the embryo of a fully-fledged revolutionary vlast.

9. Has there been a clean rupture with tsarist foreign policy?

a. No, not in the least. We are still conducting a war whose aims are defined by secret treaties we know nothing about - treaties negotiated by tsarist bureaucrats with complete lack of transparency that tie us hand and foot to the Anglo-French capitalists.

b. A decisive break with tsarist foreign policy has indeed occurred, as shown by the Provisional Government declaration on war aims issued just the other day. Of course, this rupture does not preclude full cooperation with our allies, France and England.

10. Is the cooperation of the Provisional Government with the Soviet due to sincere understanding of the situation and an acceptance of basic Soviet aims, or is it due to a reluctant and short-lived accommodation to force majeure: that is, the dominant position of the workers and especially the soldiers on the streets of Petrograd during the February revolution?

a. The latter (accommodation to force majeure).

b. The former (sincere understanding of the situation).

11. Can we have confidence in the Provisional Government?

a. Are you kidding? We certainly can’t trust the individual members of the government any further than we can throw them. Given the class composition of the Provisional Government, the only rational attitude is absolute lack of confidence [absoliutnoe nedoverie].

b. Of course, we shouldn’t blindly trust a government that is, after all, a body that represents and is responsible to the bourgeoisie. Of course, there is always a possibility that things will change later on. But to picture the government straining at the bit to break the terms of our agreement is not to see what’s happening. At the present time, the government and, behind it, a significant majority of the bourgeoisie, deserve our confidence.

12. Under what terms should the workers provide material support for the army?

a. We should not disorganise the army, if only because we need it to combat counterrevolution. But this is not our war - it is a war of the bourgeois gentlemen (gospoda burzhua), not the narod.

b. This war is very much the business of Russia’s revolutionary democracy. We should strain every muscle, in concert with all the vital forces of the nation, to give the army everything it needs. To limit ourselves to the paltry negative standard of ‘don’t disorganise’ is glaringly insufficient: we need to assure the peasant soldiers who make up the army that this is their war.

13. How urgent is peace?

a. Extremely urgent. Every extra day, every unneeded drop of blood, prolongs the sufferings of the narod, enriches the elite, and threatens the revolution. (Of course, if the revolutionary classes take full power, it will finally become our war and we will be ready to fight for revolutionary aims.)

b. We all want peace - but it has to be a general democratic peace, negotiated in coordination with our allies. As we speak, we are working to bring about a general revision of war aims. But in the meantime we have to keep on fighting (and therefore talk of immediate peace is demobilising).

14. We know you cannot say this part out loud, or perhaps even contemplate it in foro interno. But, if forced by circumstances to choose the lesser evil, which would it be: a ‘shameful’ separate peace, or a risky, all-or-nothing military offensive? (NB: in June 1917, the coalition Provisional Government launched a risky offensive, and in spring 1918 the Bolsheviks signed a ‘shameful’ separate peace.)

a. While working to revise war aims, we need to undertake a truly effective and ‘strategic’ defence, and this certainly includes the possibility of ‘active operations’.

b. We should offer to open immediate negotiations with any country that is willing to accept basic democratic principles (no annexations, no indemnities, right of national self-determination). What’s shameful about that? (And if other countries reject our offer and refuse to negotiate, can we be blamed for negotiating with only one side?)

15. Is coalition - the formal entry of socialist parties into the government - the logical and inevitable outcome of an ‘agreementist’ tactic?

a. No. Coalition is unneeded and undesirable.

b. Yes, thus demonstrating the basic flaw of the whole tactic.

In case it is not obvious to you, the responses of the agreementist, Tsereteli were: 1.a; 2.b; 3.a; 4.b; 5.b; 6.a; 7.a; 8.a; 9.b; 10.b; 11.b; 12.b; 13.b; 14a; 15a.

Unwritten constitution

Anyone who has completed the above ‘Agreementist quiz’ will now have a firm grasp of the fundamental choice facing the soviet constituency, and thus the fundamental dividing line between the Bolsheviks and other anti-agreementist groups, as opposed to the agreementist parties, who enjoyed a majority in the soviet system in spring 1917.

But to fully understand the political implications of this division, we need to look at a feature of the agreementist definition of the situation that the Bolsheviks were only too happy to accept. This feature can be called the unwritten constitution of Russia’s new political system, as seen by the soviet constituency and the socialist parties (and one never accepted by elite society). A constitution defines the location of the sovereign authority, the vlast, in a political system. An unwritten constitution is one that is not formally ratified, but rather sets forth a compelling narrative about the origin and legitimacy of the system.

The key claim in revolutionary Russia’s unwritten constitution, as set forth by Tsereteli and other agreementist spokesmen, was that the soviets had de facto sovereignty. The ‘revolutionary classes’ represented in the soviet had made the February revolution, and they could therefore legitimately expect to see any government in revolutionary Russia carry out the soviet programme. The Bolsheviks had no reason to reject this definition of the situation. Let us take a closer look at how Tsereteli portrayed the unwritten constitution.

The Provisional Government was not viewed by agreementist spokesmen as an above-class, sovereign authority, or as an expression of the overarching Russian state, or even as an institution responsible to the whole population. Rather, it was presented as the political expression of elite society, of ‘the bourgeoisie’. This picture was complicated, but only slightly, by the presence in the cabinet of Alexander Kerensky - still seen in March as a genuine representative of the Soviet. The Provisional Government as a whole was pictured by agreementist speakers as not only the representative of the bourgeoisie, but responsible to it.

Where then was the vlast located in this system? As we have seen, the agreementist leadership did not describe the arrangement as ‘double vlast’ - indeed, they consistently and insistently denied that this description was anything but slander. The Provisional Government had the vlast, no-one else - so the agreementist spokesmen said. Nevertheless, at the same time, they also assured the soviet constituency that they - the revolutionary workers and soldiers - had de facto sovereignty. They were in charge (khoziain polozheniia - ‘masters of the situation’). This assurance was backed up by the following account of events, which can be viewed as the legitimising theory of the soviets’ unwritten constitution:

  1. The workers and revolutionary soldiers of Petrograd carried out the revolution.
  2. They, the ‘revolutionary classes’, brought the Provisional Government into existence due to an original agreement, negotiated via the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet, in the early hours of the February revolution.
  3. The Provisional Government committed itself in this agreement to carrying out the will of the revolutionary narod, mandating vast, democratising reforms at home and an energetic search for democratic peace abroad.
  4. The soviet system has the right not only to outline the government’s basic programme, but to impose kontrol over policies and to name ministers. It may for its own reasons choose not to exercise this option - but this choice remains its decision.

The duel over agreementism was not over this legitimising narrative. It was not over whether to retain or transfer this de facto vlast to another body. It was over the following fundamental choice within the unwritten constitution: could the de facto sovereignty of the soviets best be exercised via a political agreement with elite society, as represented by the Provisional Government? Could the revolutionary programme - vast democratisation at home, democratic peace abroad - be realised by means of such an agreement? Or was any such agreement unworkable and bound to fail?

The following quotations document Tsereteli’s obsessive insistence on assuring his listeners that the revolutionary democracy embodied in the soviets was indeed ‘master of the situation’:

Comrades, never has the Russian democracy [that is, the narod, the soviet constituency] been in such a position of responsibility as at the present time, because it has never had such enormous strength inside the country as it has now, after the overthrow of the old system …

Inside the country, the democracy is not in the position of an irresponsible minority, but in the position of an enormous force, and without its assistance a government cannot exist in Russia, it cannot govern the country …

[The All-Russian Conference of Soviets] views the present war in the light of the conditions under which it is being waged - that is, given the ascendancy [gospodstvo] of Russian democracy - as the business [delo] of Russian democracy …

We on our part are fulfilling our duty at a time when the democracy has triumphed in Russia …

Comrades, if our conference does not place itself on this path [revolutionary defencism], it shows that it does not understand what an enormous, determinative power [sila] the democracy constitutes during the revolutionary period …

Only because the bourgeoisie accepted this agreement [to carry out a common democratic platform] did the democracy recognise this government and commit itself to support all the steps of the government taken in this direction …

In view of the balance of forces that now exists, I think that the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies, should it consider this necessary for the interests of the whole narod, could even seize the vlast.

Why did Tsereteli insist with such vehemence on the “determinative power” of the revolutionary democracy? First, he wanted to reassure his listeners that elite, educated society had no choice but to satisfy revolutionary demands. Second, Tsereteli made heavy use of ‘Spiderman’s mantra’: with great power comes great responsibility. The revolutionary narod must use its immense power wisely - for instance, by exhibiting ‘wisdom’ about the need to defer its ‘extreme class aspirations’ or by enthusiastically mobilising for the war effort.

Whatever the motives of Tsereteli, the undeniable fact remains that the soviet constituency itself thought it had the de facto vlast: the right and the duty to make ultimate decisions on the most crucial issues. Any attempt to deprive it of this vlast was ipso facto counterrevolutionary. Agreementist spokesmen insisted on this implication as much or more than their opponents. Agreementist and anti-agreementists parted ways on how best to exercise this de facto sovereignty: by taking ‘the path of agreement’ or by rejecting it as unworkable. Given this definition of the situation by the soviet constituency as a whole, events could unfold in only one of three broad ways:

  1. As Tsereteli hoped and predicted: clear and visible progress on the revolutionary programme will convince the soviet constituency of the basic sincerity of elite society or, in any event, of its “vital forces”, as opposed to the admittedly counterrevolutionary “dark forces”. A Constituent Assembly elected by both narod and educated society will quickly set up a generally recognised vlast and thus put an end to any lingering ambiguity about the location of sovereign authority. Russia will proceed peacefully into the future.
  2. As Kamenev hoped and predicted: there will be an “inevitable clash” between the Provisional Government and the soviets on basic issues, and this will convince the soviet constituency that the anti-agreementist Bolsheviks had been right all along: the only way to effectively exercise de facto sovereignty of the soviets is to make this sovereignty de jure, to deprive elite society of any political influence whatsoever and to install an exclusively soviet government.
  3. As those outside the soviet system - the liberal Kadets and points right - hoped and predicted: the soviets will renounce their de facto sovereignty, either voluntarily or (more likely) under compulsion.

Under the terms of the unwritten constitution, this last outcome would be perceived as successful counterrevolution. The following implication should therefore be kept in mind: if a clear majority of the soviet constituency ever decided to no longer give the benefit of the doubt to elite society - if it ever concluded that elite society was counterrevolutionary to its core and partnership with it was impossible - then the outcome predicted by Kamenev is the only one that respected the unwritten constitution of March 1917.

And, in the end, this is what happened. The soviet constituency rejected agreementism for what seemed to it as compelling reasons. The Bolsheviks were then able to use the unwritten constitution that was first put in place by their agreementist opponents in March to present themselves in October as the champions of this constitution - and to portray the agreementist parties who refused to accept October as the constitution’s enemies.


There are three takeaways from our examination of the Kamenev-Tsereteli duel over agreementism. First, the duel was fought out in late March 1917 at the first all-Russian conference of soviets in full view of the country. All participants and observers to the debate understood the profound nature of the clash, and they understood as well that the Bolsheviks had made themselves the spokesmen of anti-agreementism. Lenin’s arrival soon afterwards did not change the essential contours of the great divide, as shown by the actual Bolshevik message broadcast to the soviet constituency throughout the year.

Second, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Tsereteli was doing Kamenev’s work for him. One is reminded of those cartoons that contrast ‘what you say’ to ‘what they hear’. What did the soviet constituency actually hear, when Tsereteli told them so eloquently that they were masters of the situation? Was it not the following: you are going to get your demands satisfied; if these demands are not satisfied, it is the fault of the Provisional Government; in this eventuality, you workers and soldiers have the right, the ability and even the duty to replace the Provisional Government.

And, taking a step back, we have to say that Tsereteli also made some very unrealistic promises to the soviet constituency about how much cooperation was to be expected from elite society. He wrote cheques based more on wishful thinking than a realistic appraisal of the very real conflicts separating elite society and narod - and so he went politically bankrupt when the cheques became due.

Third, thanks to their loyalty to the unwritten constitution, the Bolsheviks were able to present themselves throughout the year as its rightful champion. Accepting their minority status in the beginning of the year, they later gained the legitimacy to form a fully soviet government, after the tide turned and the soviet constituency abandoned any belief in agreementist tactics. In contrast, the agreementist socialists by and large rejected the right of the new anti-agreementist majority to form an exclusively soviet government. They showed that their true loyalty was to their agreement with educated society and with the Allies rather than to the unwritten constitution they themselves had propagated.

In a very real way, soviet power was already proclaimed in the immediate aftermath of the February revolution. Tsereteli’s insistence on the de facto sovereignty of the soviets - his message that the soviets were “masters of the situation” - established an unwritten constitution for revolutionary Russia, as seen by the soviets.

The significance of October is not, then, that it proclaimed soviet power, but rather that the soviets had now made the fateful choice of adopting the anti-agreementist recipe of an exclusive worker-peasant vlast and of giving leadership to the one party that had consistently advocated anti-agreementism from the very beginnings of the revolution.

  1. See ‘A curious case’ Weekly Worker December 17; and ‘Consistent Bolshevik message’ January 7.↩︎