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Soviet (council)

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Soviets (singular: soviet; Russian: сове́т, sovét, [sɐˈvʲet], literally "council" in English) were political organizations and governmental bodies, primarily associated with the Russian Revolutions and the history of the Soviet Union, and which gave the name to the latter state.



“Soviet” is derived from a Russian word signifying council, assembly, advice, harmony, concord, and all ultimately deriving from the Proto-Slavic verbal stem of *vět-iti "to inform", related to Slavic "věst" ("news"), English "wise", the root in "ad-vis-or" (which came to English through French), or the Dutch "weten" (to know; cf. "wetenschap" = science).

The word "sovietnik" means councillor.

A number of organizations in Russian history were called "council" (Russian: сове́т). For example, in Imperial Russia, the State Council, which functioned from 1810 to 1917, was referred to as a Council of Ministers after the revolt of 1905.

Workers' Councils

According to the official historiography of the Soviet Union, the first workers' council (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.

Russian Revolution

The popular organizations which came into existence during the Russian Revolution were called “Councils of Workmen's and Soldiers' Deputies.” These bodies were supposed to hold things together under the provisional government until the election of a constituent assembly could take place; in a sense, they were vigilance committees designed to guard against counter-revolution. The Petrograd Soviet of 4,000 members was the most important of these, on account of its position in the capital and its influence over the garrison.

At the beginning of the Revolution, these soviets were under control of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and even the Mensheviks had a larger share of the elected representatives than the Bolsheviks. But as World War I continued and the Russians met defeat after defeat, and the provisional government proved inadequate at establishing industrial peace, the Bolsheviks began to grow in support. By degrees, the Bolsheviks dominated with a leadership which demanded "all power to the soviets." The Bolsheviks promised the workers a government run by workers' councils to overthrow the bourgeoisie's main government body - the Provisional Government. In October 1917, the provisional government was overthrown, giving all power to the Soviets. John Reed, an American eyewitness to the October Revolution, wrote, "Until February 1918 anybody could vote for delegates to the Soviets." Even had the bourgeoisie organised and demanded representation in the Soviets, they would have been given it. For example, during the regime of the Provisional Government there was bourgeois representation in the Petrograd Soviet – a delegate of the Union of Professional Men which comprised doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. Similarly, Leon Trotsky wrote in Terrorism and Communism (1920) that "In Petrograd, in November 1917, we also elected a Commune (Town Council) on the basis of the most democratic voting, without limitations for the bourgeoisie. These elections, being boycotted by the bourgeoisie parties, gave us a crushing majority. The democratically elected Council voluntarily submitted to the Petrograd Soviet... the Soviet Government placed no obstacle in the way of the bourgeois parties; and if the Cadets, the SRs and the Mensheviks, who had their press which was openly calling for the overthrow of the Soviet Government, boycotted the elections, it was only because at that time they still hoped soon to make an end of us with the help of armed force... If the Petrograd bourgeoisie had not boycotted the municipal elections, its representatives would have entered the Petrograd Council. They would have remained there up to the first Social Revolutionary and Cadet rising, after which...they would probably have been arrested if they did not leave the Council in good time, as at a certain moment did the bourgeois members of the Paris Commune."

Lenin wrote that the Soviets were originally politically open and inclusive entities, writing in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918) that, "the disenfranchisement of the bourgeoisie is not a necessary and indispensable feature of the dictatorship of the proletariat." And in Russia, the Bolsheviks, who long before October put forward the slogan of proletarian dictatorship, did not say anything in advance about disenfranchising the exploiters. This aspect of the dictatorship did not make its appearance “according to the plan" of any particular party; it emerged of itself in the course of the struggle...even when the Mensheviks (who compromised with the bourgeoisie) still ruled the Soviets, the bourgeoisie cut themselves off from the Soviets of their own accord, boycotted them, put themselves up in opposition to them and intrigued against them. The Soviets arose without any constitution and existed without one for more than a year (from the spring of 1917 to the summer of 1918). The fury of the bourgeoisie against this independent and omnipotent (because it was all—embracing) organisation of the oppressed; the fight, the unscrupulous, self—seeking and sordid fight, the bourgeoisie waged against the Soviets; and, lastly, the overt participation of the bourgeoisie (from the Cadets to the Right Socialist—Revolutionaries, from Milyukov to Kerensky) in the Kornilov mutiny — all this paved the way for the formal exclusion of the bourgeoisie from the Soviets."

The Bolsheviks and their allies came out with a program called "soviet government." The soviet system was described as "a higher type of state” and “a higher form of democracy" which would "arouse the masses of the exploited toilers to the task of making new history." Furthermore, it offered "to the oppressed toiling masses the opportunity to participate actively in the free construction of a new society". According to Lenin, the author of these quotations, soviet rule "is nothing else than the organized form of the dictatorship of the proletariat." A code of rules governing elections to the soviets was framed in March 1918, but the following classes were disqualified to vote: "Those who employ others for profit; those who live on incomes not derived from their own work — interest on capital, industrial enterprises or landed property; private business men, agents, middlemen; monks and priests of all denominations; ex-employees of the old police services and members of the Romanov dynasty; lunatics and criminals."

With village and factory soviets as a base, there arose a vast pyramid of district, cantonal, county and regional soviets, each with its executive soviet. Over and above these stood the "All-Russian Soviet Congress," which appointed an "All-Russian Central Executive Committee" of not more than 200 members, which in turn chooses the "Soviet of People's Commissaries" — the Ministry. Beginning with a minimum of three and maximum of 50 members for smaller communities, the maximum for town soviets was fixed at 1,000 members. The soviet system was seen as an alternative to parliamentary systems for administering republican governments.

Soviet Union

The soviets formed as a grassroots effort to practice direct democracy. Russian Marxists made them a medium for organizing against the state, and in 1917, between the February and October Revolutions, the Petrograd Soviet became a powerful force. The Bolsheviks used the slogan "All power to the soviets!" (Vsya vlast sovyetam!; Вся власть советам!) to oppose the Provisional Government led by Kerensky.

Based on the Bolshevik view of the state, the word soviet extended its meaning to any overarching body that obtained the authority of a group of soviets. In this sense, individual soviets became part of a federal structure - Communist government bodies at local level and republic level were called "soviets", and at the top of the hierarchy, the Congress of Soviets became the nominal core of the Union government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), officially formed in December 1922. Successive Soviet Constitutions recognised the leading role of the Communist Party in politics, - the 1936 Constitution deemed it the "leading nucleus of all organisations of workers, whether public or state". The soviets were structured as the instruments through which the Party governed the country. Thus the organs of the Communist Party (the highest being the Central Committee) made decisions on state policy, while the soviets acted as a system for public approval of implementing the Party's programme.

Later, in the USSR, local-government bodies were named "soviet" (sovet: "council") with an adjective indicating the administrative level, customarily abbreviated: gorsovet (gorodskoy sovet: city council), raysovet/raisovet (rayonny sovet: raion council), selsovet (sel'sky sovet: rural council), possovet (poselkovy sovet: settlement council). In practice deputies in a soviet often worked in standing committees and carried out functions with the help of unpaid volunteers (the aktiv - Russian: актив).

Modern Russia

Although English speakers perceive the term as connoting the defunct Soviet Union, the same word is used in Russian for the Upper House (Council or Senate) of the modern Russian Parliament. Its untranslated name is Сове́т Федера́ции (Soviet Federatsii).

Outside Russia

The term soon came to be used outside the former Russian Empire following 1917. The Limerick Soviet was formed in Ireland in 1919. A soviet republic was established in Bavaria on 7 April 1919. In 1920, the Workers' Dreadnought published “A Constitution for British Soviets” in preparation for the launch of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). Here the focus was on “household” soviets “[i]n order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented.”


Soviet (council) Wikipedia