Academic histories tend to neglect the study of Soviet government institutions in favour of accounts focused on the role of the party. That is because they want to project the later degeneration of the workers’ state and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy back onto the original revolution.
At the beginning, neither the Bolshevik party central committee nor the Politburo (formed in 1919) functioned as the government. Sovnarkom led the government and neither Lenin nor Trotsky occupied any post in the party machine (Rigby 1979).
It was to be several weeks before the Bolsheviks established control over the chief public offices in Petrograd. Many civil servants refused to accept the legitimacy of the new regime and some actively sought to sabotage it. Sovnarkom minutes indicate that it met 77 times between 15 November and its final meeting before transferring to Moscow on 10 March 1918 — a period of 102 days (Rigby 1979).
The early Soviet workers’ state was accountable to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, where delegates were elected by local soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers.
The Third All-Russian Soviet Congress took place in January 1918 and ratified the dissolution of a Constituent Assembly (very belatedly called by the bourgeois Provisional Government). That congress elected a new CEC, comprising 162 Bolsheviks, 122 Left SRs, and 21 members of other parties (Rigby 1979).
The Fourth All-Russia Congress of Soviets (14–16 March 1918) ratified the Brest-Litovsk treaty, after a widespread and very public debate between and within parties.
Soviets took the place of previous organs of municipal government, such as Dumas and zemstvos, across Russia. By February 1918, 86% of townships had created soviets; these were not always dominated by Bolsheviks and Left SRs (Smith 2002).
What slippage in working class democracy was there in this period?
One measure is fewer meetings of soviet bodies. Sovnarkom convened 203 times in 1918 but only 97 times in 1919, 69 meetings in 1920 and 51 in 1921.
Another measure is the weakness of the CEC. After June 1918 its meetings fell from about two a week to one a fortnight, and in the course of 1919 apparently ceased altogether. From June 1918 to 1921 the CEC consisted almost entirely of Communists (Rigby 1979).
There were also delays and interference in local soviet elections. Rabinowitch has documented how the Bolsheviks contrived a majority in the new Petrograd Soviet in June 1918. He concedes that “judging by official tabulations, the Bolsheviks had most success in direct elections at the workplace, electing 127 of 260 factory delegates”. However, he raises “the nagging question of how many Bolshevik deputies from factories were elected instead of the opposition because of press restrictions, voter intimidation, vote fraud, or the short duration of the campaign” (Rabinowitch 2007).
Similarly, the second Northern Oblast Congress of Soviets on 1-2 August 1918 “was a less meaningful dialogue on key issues than a political rally, similar to what plenary sessions of the Petrograd Soviet had become by then” (Rabinowitch 2007).
The decline of the soviets is explained mainly by the political and economic situation. The Bolsheviks inherited economic chaos, they were forced into terrible terms of peace with Germany, they lacked reliable domestic allies. The Left SRs, rebelling against the peace with Germany, went from participation in the Soviet government in November 1917 to active pursuit of its violent overthrow from July 1918.
Any honest reckoning must conclude that Soviet democracy had ceased to function by 1921. At the Moscow Guberniia (province) conference of Soviets (15 to 17 December 1920) Kamenev acknowledged that the soviets had been emptied of their democratic functions (Farber 1990).
In April 1921 new soviet elections were called, the first after the civil war. As Pirani has explained, in Moscow, the Bolsheviks had a majority, but only because they won seats in small workplaces and among office workers. The non-party socialists heavily defeated the Bolsheviks in all the large factories, and out of 2,000 delegates they had 500 seats. When the soviet convened, the Bolsheviks ignored appeals by the non-party socialists to work together on the soviet executive. The soviet was “an empty talking-shop”, because the Bolsheviks used it to rubber-stamp resolutions that had been worked out in advance inside the party. “The Moscow soviet died of boredom”, wrote the Menshevik Boris Dvinov. This represented “a lost chance to revive workers’ democracy” (Pirani 2008).