Soviets, workers' democracy, and workers' control

Submitted by martin on 24 August, 2018 - 7:51 Author: Paul Vernadsky

"Soviet" is the Russian word for council. In 1905 and in 1917 the Russian workers, in great social rebellions against the Tsarist regime, created "workers' councils" of delegates which not only coordinated struggles but, especially in 1917, took over functions of government.

The Russian workers' revolution of October 1917 had to create a new machinery of government. The old machinery of government had been broken up, and whatever fragments remained were mostly hostile. The Soviets took over the job of governing.

Then and now, Marxists saw the soviets - with frequent election and recall at any time of delegates, with no privileges for officials, and with no separate executive body standing above the elected delegates - as a form of democracy suited to working-class rule and more authentically democratic than bourgeois parliamentary forms.

After the Stalinist counter-revolution the "soviets" existed at best in name and as shells. Sometimes, however, the term "Soviet" was used as an identifying adjective for the Stalinist institutions, as in "the Soviet economy", "Soviet foreign policy", or such. That usage of the word "soviet" has nothing in common with the original meaning, or with what we mean when we talk about "soviets" emerging in future.

From The Russian Revolution: when workers took power

The Marxist worldview is well summed up in the rules of the First International, that ”the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. Working class self-liberation is the heart of socialism. Without the working class to drive trains, sew clothes, enter data, or look after the next generation of workers, capitalists cannot make profits. The working class has huge potential strength and strategic power in capitalist society. But to combat the enormous forces of the owners and managers of capital, capitalist states and the dominance of bourgeois ideology, the working class needs its own strong, political organisations.

Marx believed that the development of an organised labour movement was the crucial agency for affecting emancipatory socialist transformation. In the Communist Manifesto, he lauded the combination of workers into trade unions, “permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts” and the “organisation of the proletarians into a class and consequently into a political party”. The task of workers’ organisations are to ensure that “the working classes are bestriding the scene of history no longer as servile retainers, but as independent actors, conscious of their own responsibility”.1

On the eve of 1917, some 2.6 million workers were employed in the Russian empire’s manufacturing establishments, twice the figure of 1890. These establishments were concentrated in the west of the country. In addition, more than half the industrial workforce in Russia were employed in factories with more than 500 workers. Thousands of workers in a single factory was not uncommon. A number of factories employed more than 10,000 workers each. The Putilov metal works in Petersburg had 30,000 workers by the time the revolution broke out. These factors made a comparatively strong and dynamic working-class.

Workers displayed tremendous militancy. Workers’ strikes toppled the tsar. On returning to their workbenches, workers proceeding to dismantle the autocratic structure of management in the factories. They demanded the “constitutional factory” in parallel with demands for liberty in politics as a whole. Workers set up soviets (councils) as alternative nodes of power, emanating from workplaces but taking over the functions of local and eventually central government. According, to historian Steve Smith, democratisation of factory relations assumed a variety of forms. Hated foreman and administrators fled or were expelled. At the Putilov works, “workers thrust the one-time leader of the factory Black Hundreds, Puzanov, into a wheelbarrow, poured red lead over his head, and trundled him off to a nearby canal, into which they threatened to deposit him in punishment for his past misdemeanours”. Factory rule books, with their punitive fines and humiliating searches, were torn up. Most importantly, factory committees were created to represent the interests of workers to management.2

In 1917, working-class democracy flourished as never before. Different forms of workers’ organisation thrived — soviets, factory committees, trade unions, political parties and other ad hoc arrangements. These forms, which had developed previously (particularly around the 1905 revolution), overlapped each other, combining political and economic fronts of the class struggle. They yielded strikes and other forms of workers’ action, giving rise to debates about workers’ control. These modes of organisation inspired other workers internationally and were copied widely decades after the Russian experience. A revived working class movement in the 21st century will need to assimilate the lessons of these struggles —they are essential to working class self-liberation.

Russian workers’ organisation before 1917

The first attempts by Russian workers at self-organisation took two principal forms: strike committees and mutual-aid societies. In February 1885 a strike broke out in the Morozov textile plant in Tver. Management called on the workers to elect deputies to conduct negotiations. When the strike ended, most of the elected delegates were sacked. Similar incidents occurred ten years later during a textile workers strike in Ivanovo-Voznesensk. The strikers were asked to select spokespersons to present workers’ demands to the governor. The twenty-five deputies included several women. Negotiations proved fruitless and some of the delegates were arrested.

Another form instigated by the police chief Zubatov were state-sponsored yellow unions. The autocracy allowed permanent delegations so that workers could negotiate legally with industrial managements and governmental factory inspectors. A law was passed in 1903 creating factory eIders (starosti) in industry. Father Gapon’s Union of Russian Factory and Mill Workers of St Petersburg, which instigated the demonstration in 1905 that was so savagely repressed, was one such organisation.3

Historian Oskar Anweiler chronicled the history of the soviets as part of these wider efforts by Russian workers to organise. The soviets are rightly synonymous with the Russian revolution. It was the soviets that became the basis of state power in place of the Provisional Government and the old tsarist state. “All power to the soviets” was the unifying demand the Bolsheviks popularised throughout much of 1917. It was the soviets that organised from workplaces up to government level. It was soviets that not only workers, but soldiers and peasants adopted, forming the most representative democratic bodies ever seen in history.

The soviets emerged out of the strike movement in 1905. The workers on their own initiative (though often influenced by Marxist activists) elected representatives who were increasingly recognised by management as the workers’ representatives in charge of negotiations. These committees had various names: assembly of delegates or deputies, workers’ commissions, commission of electors, council of factory elders, council of authorised representatives, strike committee, and the like — or simply deputies.

The first soviet of the Russian revolution appeared in mid-May 1905 in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, where the RSDLP was dominated by the Bolshevik faction. On 11 May, a party conference took place outside the town attended by factory and mill delegates. By the evening of 12 May, some 30,000 workers were on strike. They constituted the Ivanovo-Voznesensk council of representatives with the support of a factory inspector. The soviet numbered 110 deputies. The majority of representatives were under 25 and they included at least 28 women. The Bolsheviks took a leading role in the soviet, with about a third of the delegates. The soviet ran the strike for three weeks, before the military intervened. When the employers demanded a declaration from every worker that they would return to work under the old conditions, the strike dragged on until mid-July, when several leaders were arrested. Although the workers gained no material advantages, the Ivanovo-Voznesensk strike left a lasting impression on Russian public opinion by its unprecedented solidarity and its long duration.4

Strikes by printers and rail workers in September-October prompted the formation of the Petersburg soviet in October 1905. The first meeting took place at the Technological Institute with about 40 delegates involved. S Zborovski, a Menshevik, presided at the first session. The participants issued their appeal to Petersburg workers for election of delegates. As the soviet expanded representatives from the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) were officially admitted. Pyotr Khrustalev (Nosar) was elected permanent chair of the soviet. The prestige and authority of the Petersburg soviet prompted the formation of workers’ councils in Russia's larger and smaller industrial cities from October to December 1905. About fifty councils of workers’ deputies have been traced, as well as several soldiers’ and peasants’ councils. On 27 November, the day after Khrustalev was arrested, Trotsky replaced him as chair of the Petersburg soviet. On 3 December, the executive committee and about 200 deputies were arrested.v

The attitude of some socialists to the first soviets was not good. On 26 and 27 October, the workers and deputies of a number of large concerns decided on their own initiative to introduce the eight-hour day. When the question was debated at a plenary of the Petersburg soviet, Viktor Chernov, leader of the SRs opposed the eight-hour day campaign as a "syndicalist deviation", declaring, “we are not yet done with absolutism, and you want to take on the bourgeoisie”. Leading Mensheviks were little better. Martynov, put it quite plainly: “The coexistence of two independent proletarian organisations — a social democratic party organisation and another one that is officially nonpartisan, though influenced by the social democrats — is an abnormal phenomenon that must disappear sooner or later. When we recommended the creation of organs of the revolutionary self-government of the proletariat, we considered this form of organisation as something provisional and temporary”.

Bolshevik workers participated in the founding of the Petersburg soviet during the October strike. The party committee sent its official representatives to the executive committee; among them Bogdan Knuniants, Pyotr Krasikov and Dmitri Sverchkov. During the first few days of the soviet's existence, when it functioned as a strike committee, the Bolsheviks were supportive. This changed when after the October strike ended the soviet began developing into an instrument of political leadership for the metropolitan working class. The Bolsheviks got the joint committee representing both factions of the RSDLP to pass a resolution demanding that the soviet officially accept the social democratic programme. Knuniants wrote an article, ‘Soviet or Party?’ (1905) which posed the question, “which political party it recognises as leader and which political programme it follows”. But Lenin intervened, perceiving the soviets as embryonic organs of workers’ power and convincing the Bolsheviks to participate in building them. All social democratic factions henceforth agreed on the importance of participating in the soviets as militant working-class fighting organisations.6

The revival of soviets in 1917

As we saw in chapter 2, the soviets were revived in 1917 by social democratic activists, starting in Petrograd during the last days of the tsar. In the first weeks of its existence, the Petrograd soviet was a huge permanent assembly of workers and soldiers. The number of delegates exploded. In the first week of March 1917 it reached 1,200. By the second half of March it rose to almost 3,000. The executive committee, which consisted of 42 members, established a “bureau” of seven members in mid-March to deal with current business. After the all-Russian conference of soviets in late March and early April 1917, 16 provincial representatives were taken into the executive committee. The bureau was enlarged to 24 members and from then on it met daily, while the executive committee sat three times a week. The leadership of the Petrograd soviet was politically dominated by the Mensheviks and SRs. Borough soviets were also established, with the Bolsheviks stronger at this level.

Soviets again spread across Russia. At the Moscow district conference of soviets, held between 25-27 March, 70 workers’ councils and 38 soldiers’ councils were represented. The Moscow soviet of workers’ deputies was the second largest in Russia. By 1 June, 700 deputies belonged to it. A conference held in the Donets Basin in mid-March numbered 48 soviets. In April, representatives of 80 soviets met at a district congress in Kiev. Since Mensheviks and Bolsheviks belonged to the same organisation in a number of cities until spring 1917, it was not until later that the Bolsheviks appeared as a separate faction in the soviets. Recent research by historian Nikolai Smirnov has estimated that by the end of March there were already more than 600 soviets of workers’, soldiers’, sailors’, peasants’ and Cossacks’ deputies in operation. According to the incomplete data available, by October 1917 there were 1,429 soviets functioning in Russia. Of these, 706 involved workers and soldiers, 235 were united soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants, 455 were peasant, and 33 were soldiers’ soviets.7

Soldiers’ soviets were established in great numbers during 1917, often jointly with workers. On 1 March, Order No.1 of the Petrograd workers’ and soldiers’ council decreed the election of troop committees in the infantry companies, battalions, and regiments, and in equivalent units of other armed services, at militia headquarters, and on ships of the navy. Although the order was addressed only to soldiers in the Petrograd military district, and a few days later the wording of Order No.2 specifically restricted the first order to the capital, news about formation of independent soldiers’ committees spread as rapidly as tidings of the revolution itself. Only a few days later, frontline units also began to elect their own soviets of soldiers’ deputies.

On 6 March, at the instigation of the workers’ soviet and the soldiers’ soviet, delegates from nearby villages met in Moscow for a conference, and on 18 March formally established a soviet of peasants’ deputies, after an appeal of the Moscow association of cooperatives. In mid-April, a council of peasants’ deputies of the Petrograd garrison was established with 280 deputies elected by the soldiers. Typically, the first peasant councils were formed not at the lowest level in the villages, but in urban centres. Between March and May 1917, 20 provincial councils were established in the respective capitals. They emerged from conferences of peasants’ deputies, intellectuals, and party people, especially SRs.

The first all-Russian congress of peasants’ deputies, held in Petrograd from 4 to 28 March 1917, represented an important stage in the movement. However, the peasants’ congress met before there were many peasant councils in the villages to speak of. The number of village soviets remained small, especially because the old village assemblies had survived. Peasants’ soviets at various levels generally remained independent of workers’ and soldiers’ soviets that existed alongside them. Anweiler argues that “very rarely was a soviet of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies formed; more frequently the soviets met in joint congresses within the provinces or their executive committees held joint deliberations”. The SRs, who predominated in the peasants’ councils, “increasingly feared takeovers by more radical workers and soldiers’ soviets, and therefore resisted mergers”.8

In June, the first all-Russian congress of soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, and the first all-Russian congress of soviets of peasants convened. With 20 million represented, these were by far the most democratic gatherings in Russian history. The congresses created the central executive committee (CEC) of the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, and the executive committee of the soviets of peasants’ deputies, respectively. Until November 1917 these two leading soviet organs operated separately. At the congress of soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, more than a thousand delegates represented 305 workers’ and soldiers’ soviets, 53 regional soviets, and 21 army organisations. Politically, the SRs with 285 members and Mensheviks with 248 dominated, against 105 Bolsheviks and some members of several smaller socialist groups, and 73 non-affiliated delegates. The CEC, with more than 250 members, was composed of 104 Mensheviks, 100 Socialist Revolutionaries, 35 Bolsheviks and 18 members of other socialist parties. At its first meeting, the CEC elected a 9-person presidium (executive) with Nikolai Chkheidze chairing, and a 50-member bureau, also composed according to party parity.

As described in chapter two, the Bolsheviks were able to win majorities in a large number of soviets by the autumn of 1917. Hundreds of soviets passed resolutions calling for “Peace, Bread, and Land” and “All Power to the Soviets”, replacing the original leaders with more militant revolutionaries prepared to take the power.

The subsequent success of the October insurrection depended on a preponderance of Bolsheviks in soviets winning political influence and holding strategic positions. In Kronstadt, where the soviet had achieved sole power as early as May, new elections secured the left's majority. In Finland, the Bolsheviks captured a majority in most soviets, notably in Helsinki and Vyborg, and came close to eliminating the Provisional Government's power as early as September. In Estonia the soviets newly elected in September in Reval (Tallinn), Dorpat (Tartu), and Wenden (Tsesis) also had a strong majority of Bolsheviks and Left SRs. The Centrobalt, the organisation of Baltic Fleet sailors, ignored all orders from Petrograd and dealt directly with the commanders concerning possible military operations. The fifth army, considered the best at the northern front, in mid-October elected a new army committee with a Bolshevik majority. Just before the October insurrection, Bolsheviks were elected leaders in the majority of the workers’ soviets of most industrial cities and in most soldiers’ soviets in garrison towns. Their strongholds were in Finland, Estonia, Petrograd and its environs, parts of the northern front, the fleet, the central industrial region around Moscow, the Ural region and Siberia. The Bolsheviks found allies among the Left SRs and some anarchists. In other soviets, SRs and Mensheviks continued to hold the balance of power.9

After the February revolution the Petrograd soviet, for all practical purposes, possessed sole power in the capital. It controlled the barracks and thus the revolution’s armed force. The minister of war Guchkov wrote on 9 March to the military commander-in-chief, General Alekseev: “The Provisional Government has no real power. Its orders are followed only if endorsed by the soviet of workers and soldiers deputies. The soviet possesses the actual power, such as troops, railroads, and postal and telegraphic communications”. Stated bluntly, “the Provisional Government exists only by the soviet permission. The military especially can issue only orders that do not openly contradict those from the soviet”. Sukhanov rightly characterised the Petrograd soviet as “a state within the state”.

However, the dominant parties, the Mensheviks and the SRs, saw the soviets as subordinate to the Provisional Government. The all-Russian conference of soviets held in March-April 1917 advocated support of the Provisional Government, with simultaneous control by the soviets. On the night of 1 May the executive committee of the Petrograd soviet passed a resolution favouring socialist participation in the government. Kerensky himself assured the British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, as early as May, “the soviets will die a natural death”.

The Bolsheviks enthusiastically advocated “All power to the soviets”, even when they were in a minority. However, they were not soviet fetishists, tailing behind the Menshevik and SRs leaders who held sway in the soviets. After the July days and the crackdown on the Bolsheviks, Lenin rejected the slogan “All power to the soviets”, accusing the moderates of depriving the soviets of power, transforming them into a “fig leaf of counterrevolution”. The soviets had become “ciphers, puppets; the real power is not in them”. Instead he looked towards the factory committees as an alternative. The sixth Bolshevik congress in July debated the issues and withdrew the formula for soviet power. However, after defeating the Kornilov revolt and winning majority support in a large number of soviets, the Bolsheviks again agitated for “All power to the soviets” and took power under that slogan in October.10

Factory committees

In 1917, workers created factory committees to abolish the autocracy of the factory and bring about the democratisation of factory life. As early as 5 March, the Petrograd soviet called for formation of such committees, and on 10 March the soviet and the employers agreed on introduction of the eight-hour day and formation of “elders’ councils” in the factories. On 23 April the Provisional Government issued regulations for factory committees. It facilitated the setting up of committees to represent workers’ interests vis-à-vis management on questions such as pay and hours, to settle disputes between workers, to represent workers before the government and public institutions, and to engage in educational and cultural work. The law thus defined the functions of the factory committees narrowly. The aim of the government was to institutionalise them. Even the Petrograd Society of Factory and Mill Owners (PSFMO) backed the law.

Until the spring and early summer, especially in the metal industries, Mensheviks and SRs tended to dominate the factory committees. However, the committees became more radical as strike action ensued. This enabled Bolsheviks to take the lead and raise more revolutionary demands, including on the war and equality for women. At the first conference of the Petrograd factory committees, (30 May-5 June 1917), 499 delegates met. The strongest group among them was 261 metalworkers from 172 factory committees. The final resolution, introduced by Zinoviev, called for workers' control in the central economic institutions of the government and in private industry. It passed by 297 votes in favour, 21 against and 44 abstaining. Bolsheviks also predominated in the central council elected by the conference.

At the second Petrograd municipal conference, 7-12 August, approval was given by 213 votes against 26 nays and 22 abstentions to the resolution on workers' control, which had been accepted by the Bolshevik sixth party congress. In Moscow, on the other hand, the Mensheviks were still in the majority at the city-wide conference of factory committees in July: of 682 delegates only 191 voted for the Bolshevik resolution.

The employers launched an offensive against the factory committees over the summer of 1917. The PSFMO demanded that Matvei Skobelev, the Menshevik minister of labour, take action to curb the committees. On 23 August Skobelev issued a circular affirming that the right to hire and fire belonged exclusively to the employers, and five days later he issued a second circular forbidding the committees to meet during working hours.

The result, as with the soviets, was a further shift of support towards the Bolsheviks. The first and only all-Russian conference of factory committees was held 12-17 October, just before the October revolution. Its composition reflected the victory of the left among metropolitan workers: among 167 delegates, there were 96 Bolsheviks, 24 Socialist Revolutionaries, 13 anarchists, seven Mensheviks, five Maximalists, one Menshevik-Internationalist, and 21 unaffiliated members.

The factory committees did not last long under the new workers’ government. At the first all-Russian congress of trade unions (7-14 January 1918) the dissident Bolshevik David Riazanov called on the factory committees to “choose that form of suicide which would be most useful to the labour movement as a whole”. The sixth and final conference of Petrograd factory committees was held 22-27 January 1918. Most delegates recognised the necessity for the factory committees to become the workplace cells of industrial unions and thus the structures were absorbed into the newly constituted independent labour movement within the workers’ state.11

What is the balance sheet on the factory committees? Their strength lay in their democratic structures, close to the base of working class power and therefore able to impose constraints and even workers’ control on employers. As such they acted like the best trade unions — unions without bureaucrats at the top, unions that took militant action to tip the balance of forces at work in favour of the workers, unions that were led by delegates who were accountable directly to the rank and file workers. They became vehicles for workers to improve their wages, cut their hours and, in places, to lift some of the pressure of exploitation from the necks of workers. They were simultaneously political bodies, with committees elected often on party slates, which discussed and connected plant level issues to wider politics. The Bolsheviks were able to fight on wider issues, such as equality, and for male workers to accept women as comrades and leaders.

Of course they could not completely shake off shop patriotism, parochialism, and other elements of craft consciousness that exist in all labour movements. For example, at the all-Russian conference of factory committees, Alexandra Kollontai admonished delegates that “in the provinces you are doing nothing, or at least not enough, to raise the class consciousness of the working women”.12 The factory committees did not all push on to workers’ control or beyond this to workers’ self-management, with takeovers during 1917 mostly being temporary measures to ward off employers’ sabotage, rather than a positive introduction of public ownership. But these weaknesses do not detract from the importance of the factory committees’ experiment, which gave voice to thousands of workers, and underpinned the drive of the Russian working class to bring consistent democracy to society from top to bottom.

Trade unions

The first real trade union founded in Russia was the Moscow printers’ union, set up illegally in 1903.

However, trade unions as a legal form of worker organisation really only emerged in Russia in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution. Legalised by the law of 4 March 1906, trade unions quickly formed and spread in Russia’s major economic centres. But after Stolypin’s coup d’état in June 1907, unions and other forms of labour organisation were banned.

In February 1917, 11 unions maintained a shadowy existence in the Petrograd underground. But, following the overthrow of the tsar, unions were active in coordinating strikes in the first four months of the revolution. By May, the Bolsheviks commanded a majority on the Petrograd council of trade unions, with the support of the Mezhraionka, Riazanov and some of the Menshevik Internationalists. By the middle of June 1917, 1,733 trade unions had organised 1.8 million workers in 30 industries, ranging from textiles (38 unions with 346,000 members) to metals (200 unions with 285,000 members), medical services (100 unions with 66,000 members) and mining (two unions with 32,000 members).

Labour departments of local soviets collaborated actively in establishing trade unions. The third all-Russian conference of trade unions, 20-28 June 1917, was arranged by the labour department of the Petrograd soviet and the central bureaus of the trade unions in Petrograd and Moscow. Some of their work consisted in settling major and minor labour disputes from the early months of the revolution. The conference elected a provisional all-Russian central council of trade unions.

Toward the end of the summer and into the autumn, however, trade unions more actively discouraged strike activity as economically and politically counterproductive, while a large number of strikes proceeded without union approval in this period. By October as many as 2,000 unions, with a membership of over two million, about 10% of wage-earners of all kinds, had been formed. By December 1917, thousands more had joined the labour movement, which then totalled 2,753,300 workers in more than 2,000 unions. Trade union membership continued to climb, reaching 3.5 million by the end of the following year.13

The anarchist turned Bolshevik Bill Shatov quipped at the first congress of trade unions in 1918 that the trade unions were “vestiges of capitalist society at best, or ‘living corpses’ at worst”. But the workers’ revolution opened up enormous possibilities for independent trade unions to organise and to become a material factor in workplaces and wider political life.


One measure of the strength and development of the working-class movement in Russia during 1917 was the extent of strikes. The pattern of strikes has been mapped and dissected by historians Diane Koenker and William Rosenberg.

Strike activity as a whole in 1917 occurred in two distinct patterns, one related to strikes as single events, the other to the number of workers on strike. Strikes occurred in two broad clusters, in May-June, and again in late September-October. March and April witnessed relatively few strikes, and in early to mid-July, at the time of the military offensive and the July Days crisis, there were also relatively few strikes (although in Petrograd and elsewhere, there were a large number of demonstrations and protests of other sorts). The spring and autumn strike clusters were roughly equal in terms of the numbers of strikes which occurred, and there was certainly no dramatic increase from spring to autumn. In contrast, looking at the numbers of strikers rather than strikes, the growth in participation is stunning. There were a relative handful of strikers in April, increasing substantially in May, June and July, before escalating again quite dramatically in late September and October, when as many as half of a million workers walked off their jobs.

Over the eight-month span from March to October 1917, no less than 2.4 million workers went on strike to press claims for better wages, better working conditions, changes in work rules, dignified treatment and, less frequently, political change. Some 1,300 strikes have been recorded, which may well underestimate the extent of activity during these months. Koenker and Rosenberg argue that the strike movement played an important role in the evolution of both class formations and social identities during 1917 in several ways. For many workers, “the very act of participating in strikes was a means of identifying with a broader collective based on the relationship to the means of production. To be a ‘worker’ took on an important social and political meaning, even if one worked as a waiter in a Petrograd cafĂ© or a cab driver in Piatigorsk”.

The pages of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda were full of long and attentive reports about strikes by a wide range of workers, including woodworkers, clerks, dyers and laundry workers, shop assistants and other service-sector employees. Strikes involving woman were prominently reported — notably the Petrograd laundry workers’ dispute in May. Koenker and Rosenberg argue that Bolshevik strike reports were distinguished by “the apparent recognition that activist behaviour by generally ‘dormant’ workers like shop assistants and women laundry employees was itself a matter of real political import, worthy of extensive reporting largely one suspects as an example to others”. Bolshevik papers portrayed the strike movement “in the grandest possible terms, encouraging diverse segments of the labour force to abandon their narrow interests and to identify with a working class that transcended the limits of manufacturing industries
 A broad commonality of interest and an aggregate workers’ ‘class’”.14

It is important to point out that the total number of strikes during 1917 in Russia was not that high by global and historical standards at the time or since. Strike activity played an important role in developing class consciousness, but lots of strikes do not equal revolution — and, equally, revolution is much more than just lots of strikes. Although there was a rising crescendo of strikers in September-October, other forms of economic struggle (such as workers’ control and soviet democracy) as well as political action were more indicative of the rise in revolutionary understanding among the working class.

Workers’ control

Alongside widespread strike activity during 1917, other forms of class struggle flourished. One of the most novel was the movement for “workers’ control”, which grew up from the workplace to become one of the first decrees passed by the new revolutionary workers’ government.

Smith argues that the slogan of “workers’ control” arose spontaneously among workers in Petrograd in the spring of 1917. Its roots appear to be more anarcho-syndicalist than social-democratic. But the movement for workers’ control, “far from aiming at an anarchist utopia based on factory communes”, was, in its initial stages at least, “concerned with the far more practical aim of limiting economic disruption, maintaining production and preserving jobs”. The policy of workers’ control of production was “first and foremost an attempt by factory committees to stem the tide of economic chaos... The impulse behind the movement, far from being ideological, was initially practical”. In the majority of factories, the key concern of the committees in the early stages was to keep production going rather than establishing industrial democracy or workers’ self-management.

However, the demand for workers’ control evolved during 1917. Smith argues that in the eight months between February and October, “workers’ control went from being reactive, defensive and observational to being active, offensive and interventionist. From being concerned essentially to supervise production, workers’ control developed into an attempt to actively intervene in production and drastically limit the authority of capital”. For example, some factory committees transcended the “normal” sphere of trade-union activity moving to the realm of “control” of hiring and firing workers. However, the extent of this activity should not be exaggerated: in Russian, control implies oversight, as distinct from administration.

By October 1917, 289,000 workers, or 74% of Petrograd’s industrial workforce, worked in enterprises under some form of workers’ control. There were 244 factory committees in Petrograd province by October, but only 39% operated under workers’ control. Workers’ control thus affected only large factories, and left the majority of smaller enterprises untouched. As historian David Mandel has documented, despite the popularity of the slogan of workers’ control, “genuine control, in the sense of full access to documents and systematic monitoring of management, largely eluded the workers before October”.15

Cold War western interpretations of workers’ control of production posit a dichotomy between the Bolshevik party and the factory committee movement. This is particularly obtuse since most of the leading cadres in the factory committees advocating workers’ control were also members of the Bolshevik party. Bolsheviks did not believe that workers’ control and state organisation of the economy were incompatible; in fact, democratic control at work was a necessary condition for workers to rule politically. The Bolshevik attitude sharply contrasted with those of the majority of Mensheviks and SR leaders, who utterly rejected workers’ control.16

At a national conference of factory committees on the eve of the October revolution, a Menshevik delegate argued that one could not discuss workers’ control without first deciding the nature of the revolution, which “we say
 is not a social but political but with a social leavening”. An anarchist delegate was equally definite: “We are living through a social revolution.” But the Bolshevik Nikolai Skrypnik insisted that “workers’ control is not socialism. It is only one of the transitional measures that bring us nearer to socialism”.17


Workers’ democracy is an irreplaceable component of our vision of the class struggle that drives the fight for socialism. In just about every high point in working-class struggle, workers have taken over their workplaces and effectively posed the question of power. But clarity about the meaning of terms is important.

Workers’ control means at least “dual power within a workplace” — a situation where the bosses may still formally own the plant, but workers have an effective veto over key decisions, extending beyond wage bargaining to other conditions, working practices, hiring and firing. Workers’ control may go as far as establishing new social relations of production within a workplace, even where capitalist relations dominate for the economy as a whole. But workers’ control is transitory, unstable. Either it leads to nationalisation, a workers’ government taking over the industry in which that workplace is situated ,and the installing of workers’ self-management of that industry, or it is inevitably driven back and workers lose control of the limited powers they have won.

Worker participation is something altogether different. It may mean having worker directors on the management board, it may involve formal channels of consultation, such as safety committees, staff meetings and working parties. But ownership and power still lie effectively with capitalists and their managers. Worker participation is often not a step towards workers’ control but, at best, ameliorating exploitation — ultimately it is taking a hand in our own exploitation. In the words of one syndicalist-turned-communist from the time, “such methods force workers to undertake responsibility for the development of property which they do not own, and become part of an organisation which is pledged to prevent them from ever owning it”.18 It is a long way from workers’ control — especially when the bourgeois state remains intact and workers have not formed their own mass workplace organisations.

Workers’ self-management is different again. Self-management is about the running of workplaces under socialism, when workers also establish their own state, and are breaking down capitalist social relations between workplaces and replacing them with social relations of production based on needs. The starting point for these higher forms of social production is building a militant, democratic and independent labour movement in today’s conditions. It means socialists organising in the workplaces, organising across workplaces and unions in rank-and-file movements and drawing on the experiences of the past to take power.

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