Soviet democracy

Soviet democracy (sometimes council democracy) is a political system in which the rule of the population by directly elected soviets (Russian for "council") is exercised. The councils are directly responsible to their electors and are bound by their instructions. Such an imperative mandate is in contrast to a free mandate, in which the elected delegates are only responsible to their conscience. Delegates may accordingly be dismissed from their post at any time or be voted out (recall).

In a Soviet democracy, voters are organized in basic units, for example the workers of a company, the inhabitants of a district, or the soldiers of a barracks. They directly send the delegates as public functionaries, which act as legislators, government and courts in one. In contrast to earlier democracy models according to Locke and Montesquieu, there is no separation of powers. The councils are elected on several levels: At the residential and business level, delegates are sent to the local councils in plenary assemblies. These, in turn, can delegate members to the next level. The system of delegation continues to the Congress of Soviets at the state level. The electoral processes thus take place from the bottom upwards. The levels are usually tied to administrative levels.


The process begins when the workers of a city elect their local soviet. Each workplace, district, or barracks elect delegates to represent them, who convene in a local assembly. This body holds both legislative and executive power for that city. Local soviets may also elect delegates for a higher-level council. These soviets can continue to elect councils above itself for each administrative district. Each soviet has legislative-executive power over the territory it governs.

Each soviet then elects and forms the Congress of Soviets, which is the supreme governing body of the nation. This may also be called the "supreme soviet" or the "national soviet". The Congress of Soviets is formed up by delegates elected by each soviet, who all convene in a general assembly to govern. The Congress of Soviets can make laws, manage the economy, and run public utilities. It is not just an economic body, and acts as the nation's government.

Each soviet can elect a small executive committee. This committee deals with the day-to-day affairs of the territory that its soviet governs. The executive committee is subservient to its soviet, its actions must be in accordance with the soviet's legislation, and it only operates during times when the soviet is not in session.[1] This method is likely borrowed from Athenian democracy.

Proponents argue that this form of government is a method through which the dictatorship of the proletariat can be exercised in large populations. Soviet democracy is democracy by proxy.[2] The theory is that members of the soviets, being close to those workers or lower soviet members that they represent, can thereby accurately translate the people's decisions into legislation, and be more responsive than a centralized parliamentary democracy. Ultimately soviet democracy is based on direct democracy, especially with its advocacy of recallable delegates.[3]

According to council communists, the soviets are the natural form of working class organization during a proletarian revolution.[4] Workers naturally create soviets by forming a strike committee, made up of workplace delegates, which coordinates labor actions in the region when trade unions become ineffective.[5] The strike committee then assumes the functions of the now paralyzed state and becomes the soviet.[6] Workers' councils are also viewed to run the economy based on production for use and common ownership in a lower-stage communist society.[6]

History in Russia and the Soviet Union

The first soviets, also called workers' councils, were formed after the Russian Revolution of 1905. Lenin and the Bolsheviks saw the soviet as the basic organizing unit of society in a socialist system and supported this form of democracy. The soviets also played a considerable role in the February and October Revolutions. At that time, they represented a variety of socialist parties in addition to Bolsheviks.

According to the official historiography of the Soviet Union, the first soviet was formed in May 1905 in Ivanovo (north-east of Moscow) during the 1905 Russian Revolution (Ivanovsky Soviet). However, in his memoirs, the Russian Anarchist Volin claims that he witnessed the beginnings of the St Petersburg Soviet in January 1905. The Russian workers were largely organized at the turn of the 20th century, leading to a government-sponsored trade union leadership. In 1905, as the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) increased the strain on Russian industrial production, the workers began to strike and rebel. The soviets represented an autonomous workers' movement, one that broke free from the government's oversight of workers' unions. Soviets sprang up throughout the industrial centers of Russia, usually organized at the factory level. The soviets disappeared after the Revolution of 1905, but re-emerged under socialist leadership during the revolutions of 1917.

In post-revolutionary Russia local workers' soviets would elect representatives that go on to form regional soviets, which in turn elect representatives that form higher soviets, and so on up to the Congress of Soviets. Later the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union would become the highest legislative body of the entire country.

After Lenin's party, the Bolsheviks, only got a minority of the votes in the election to the Russian Constituent Assembly, he disbanded it by force after its first meeting, citing the refusal of the Right SRs and Mensheviks to honor the sovereignty of soviet democracy, arguing that a system in which parliamentary democracy was sovereign could not fairly represent the workers since it was in practice dominated by the bourgeoisie, that the proportional representation did not take into account the SR split, and that the Soviets (where the Bolsheviks did get a majority) more accurately represented the opinion of the people, which had changed as shown in the elections to the Soviets between the time of the elections to the Assembly and the first meeting of the Assembly. He also explicitly stated that democracy did not include those considered bourgeois.[7]

After the revolution, the Bolsheviks had to defend the newly formed government in World War I and the Russian Civil War. According to some critics, many of the effects of the wars on the new Soviet government may be part of what led to the decline of soviet democracy in Russia (due to the authority the state took on in war time) and to the emergence of the bureaucratic structure that maintained much control throughout the history of the Soviet Union.[8] Some believe that one key blow against soviet democracy occurred as early as March 1918, when all nineteen city soviets that were elected during the spring were disbanded in a series of Bolshevik coups d'etat because workers returned Menshevik-SR majorities, or non-Bolshevik socialist majorities.[9] Not addressing these events directly, Lenin argued that the Soviets and the principle of democratic centralism within the Bolshevik party still assured democracy. However, Lenin also issued a "temporary" ban on factions in the Russian Communist Party. This ban remained until the revolutions of 1989 and, according to some critics, made the democratic procedures within the party an empty formality, and helped Stalin to consolidate much more authority under the party. Soviets were transformed into the bureaucratic structure that existed for the rest of the history of the Soviet Union and were completely under the control of party officials and the politburo.[10]

Other historians like Robert W. Thurston argue, while the top of the Soviet system became largely bureaucratic, the local levels of society remained largely participatory.[11] He writes "while sane, calm, and sober, no worker would have dared to say that socialism was a poor system or that Stalin was an idiot" but then goes on to argue that these bounds still allowed for citizens to have meaningful participation on their immediate situation and this local participation meant "ultimately relatively little was controlled by the government or party decree".[11]

History in Germany and the Weimar Republic

In October 1918, the constitution of the German Empire was reformed to give more powers to the elected parliament. On 29 October, rebellion broke out in Kiel among sailors. There, sailors, soldiers, and workers began electing workers' and soldiers' councils (Arbeiter und Soldatenräte) modeled after the Soviets of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The revolution spread throughout Germany, and participants seized military and civil powers in individual cities.

At the time, the Socialist movement which represented mostly laborers was split among two major left-wing parties: the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which called for immediate peace negotiations and favored a soviet-style command economy, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) also known as "Majority" Social Democratic Party of Germany (MSPD), which supported the war effort and favoured a parliamentary system. The rebellion caused great fear in the establishment and in the middle classes because of the revolutionary aspirations of the councils. It terrified the well off classes as the country was on the brink of a working class revolution.

The Spartacus League, originally part of the USPD, split as a more radical group which advocated for violent proletarian revolution to establish communism. After the failed Spartacist Uprising, the Spartacist League became the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). The Communist Workers' Party of Germany (KAPD) split from the KPD as a distinct council communist tendency. Their main goal was an immediate abolition of bourgeois democracy and the constitution of a dictatorship of the proletariat through the seizure of power by the workers' councils. Communists in the KAPD formed the General Workers' Union of Germany (AAUD), who sought to form factory organizations as the basis of region wide workers' councils.

In view of the mass support for more radical reforms among the workers' councils, a coalition government called "Council of the People's Deputies" (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) was established, consisting of three MSPD and three USPD members. Led by Ebert for the MSPD and Hugo Haase for the USPD it sought to act as a provisional cabinet of ministers. But the power question was unanswered. Although the new government was confirmed by the Berlin worker and soldier council, it was opposed by the Spartacist League. Ebert called for a "National Congress of Councils" (Reichsrätekongress), which took place from 16 to 20 December 1918, and in which the MSPD had the majority. Thus, Ebert was able to institute elections for a provisional National Assembly that would be given the task of writing a democratic constitution for parliamentary government, marginalizing the movement that called for a socialist republic.

In January, the Spartacus League and others in the streets of Berlin made more armed attempts to establish communism, known as the Spartacist uprising. Those attempts were put down by paramilitary Freikorps units consisting of volunteer soldiers. Bloody street fights culminated in the beating and shooting deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht after their arrests on 15 January. With the affirmation of Ebert, those responsible were not tried before a court martial, leading to lenient sentences, which made Ebert unpopular among radical leftists.

The National Assembly elections took place on 19 January 1919. In this time, the radical left-wing parties, including the USPD and KPD, were barely able to get themselves organised, leading to a solid majority of seats for the MSPD moderate forces. To avoid the ongoing fights in Berlin, the National Assembly convened in the city of Weimar, giving the future Republic its unofficial name. The Weimar Constitution created a republic under a parliamentary republic system with the Reichstag elected by proportional representation. The democratic parties obtained a solid 80% of the vote.

During the debates in Weimar, fighting continued. A Soviet republic was declared in Munich, but was quickly put down by Freikorps and remnants of the regular army. The fall of the Munich Soviet Republic to these units, many of which were situated on the extreme right, resulted in the growth of far-right movements and organisations in Bavaria, including Organisation Consul, the Nazi Party, and societies of exiled Russian Monarchists. Sporadic fighting continued to flare up around the country. In eastern provinces, forces loyal to Germany's fallen Monarchy fought the republic, while militias of Polish nationalists fought for independence: Great Poland Uprising in Provinz Posen and three Silesian Uprisings in Upper Silesia.

See also


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website

  1. "1924: HWCLecture14". Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  2. (1886-1937), Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938), Evgenii Preobrazhensky. "Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky: The ABC of Communism - Chapter VI : The Soviet Power". Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  3. Lenin, Vladimir. "Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?". Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  4. Pannekoek, Anton (1952). "Letter on Workers Councils".
  5. Pannekoek, Anton (April 1936). "Workers Councils".
  6. Pannekoek, Anton (1938). "General Remarks on the Question of Organisation".
  7. Lenin, Vladimir. "The Proletarian Revolution And The Renegade Kautsky".
  8. Blunden, Andy. "The Collapse of the U.S.S.R." Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  9. "Jean-Paul Martin: Democracy and Workers' Rule (March 1953)". Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  10. See note regarding Library of Congress Country Studies. Chapter 7 - The Communist Party. Democratic Centralism
  11. "Thurston, Robert Reassessing the History of Soviet Workers - Opportunities to Criticize and Participate in Decision-Making". Google Docs. Retrieved 2019-09-22.

Soviet and pro-Soviet works on Soviet democracy

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