Continuing a series of extracts from Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Here Trotsky describes the inception and initial political and social character of the Petrograd soviet. For most of 1917 the soviet backed the bourgeois Provisional Government.
The organisation created on February 27 in the Tauride Palace, and called “Executive Committee of The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies”, had little in common with its name. The Soviet of Deputies of 1905, the originator of the [soviet] system, rose out of a general strike. It directly represented the masses in struggle.
The leaders of the strike became the deputies of the soviet; the selection of its membership was carried out under fire; its Executive Committee was elected by the soviet for the further prosecution of the struggle…. The February revolution, thanks to the revolt of the troops [in Petrograd], was victorious before the workers had created a soviet. The Executive Committee was self-constituted [mainly by members of the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party] in advance of the soviet and independently of the factories and regiments after the victory of the revolution. We have here the classic initiative of the radicals — standing aside from the revolutionary struggle, but getting ready to harvest its fruit.
The real leaders of the workers had not yet left the streets. They were disarming some, arming others, making sure of the victory. The more far-sighted among them were alarmed by the news that in the Tauride Palace some kind of a soviet of workers’ deputies had come into being. Just as in the autumn of 1916 the liberal bourgeoisie, in expectation of a palace revolution which somebody was supposed to put through, had got ready a reserve government to impose upon the new czar in case it succeeded, so the radical intelligentsia got ready its reserve sub-government at the moment of the February victory.
Inasmuch as they had been, at least in the past, adherents of the workers’ movement and inclined to cover themselves with its tradition, they now named their offspring Executive Committee of the Soviet. That was one of those half-intentional falsifications with which all history is filled, especially the history of popular revolutions. In a revolutionary turn of events involving a break in the succession, those “educated” classes who have now to learn to wield the power, gladly seize hold of any names and symbols connected with the heroic memories of the masses. And words not infrequently conceal the essence of things — especially when this is demanded by the interests of influential groups. [The Executive Committee], ratified by the first chaotic meeting of the soviet, thereafter exerted a decisive influence both upon the membership of the soviet and upon its policy.
This influence was the more conservative, in that the natural selection of revolutionary representatives which is guaranteed by the red-hot atmosphere of a struggle no longer existed. It required months of new conflicts and struggles in new circumstances, with the consequent reshuffling of personnel, in order that the soviets, from being organs for consecrating the victory, should become organs of struggle and preparation for a new insurrection. We emphasise this aspect of the matter because it has until now been left completely in the shade.