The 1917 October Russian revolution produced the world’s first workers’ state. But how did the Bolsheviks govern? Historian Lara Douds has mined state and party archives in Moscow to produce an excellent book, Inside Lenin's Government: Ideology, Power and Practice in the Early Soviet State (2018) on how the central apparatus operated.
In the early period of Soviet power, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) rather than party bodies governed. Douds argues that “in no way could the party central committee be viewed as the effective government of the nascent Soviet regime. Instead, it is clear that Sovnarkom occupied this position”. Only from 1919 did the Bolshevik Politburo eclipse Sovnarkom.
The Bolsheviks took power without a detailed blueprint of how to rule. Lenin’s The State and Revolution, written in 1917, sketched the Bolshevik approach. He took from Marx and Engels that a state of some form would be needed to suppress the remnants of the old ruling classes and to regulate the surplus product during the transition period. Lenin also drew on the Paris Commune as a guide for how a democratic workers’ government would function.
Until 1919, Sovnarkom functioned as a cabinet government, but went beyond bourgeois democracy. It was a government based on mass organisations, the soviets, councils of elected and recallable delegates. Millions of workers, peasants and soldiers were represented for the first time.
Although the first Sovnarkom was entirely Bolshevik, from December 1917 until March 1918 the Bolsheviks and Left SRs established a joint administration. At the beginning Sovnarkom met almost daily, sometimes twice a day. During its first three months Sovnarkom sat on 72 out of a possible 91 days (53 times as a dual-party cabinet). By late 1918, Sovnarkom sat on average three days a week. Pay for People’s Commissars was fixed at 500 roubles, comparable to a skilled worker’s wage.
Sovnarkom established a ‘reception’ soon after the revolution. This allowed visitors to make requests or complaints directly to commissars. The reception was a means of gathering information about the situation on the ground and to hear the views of the masses. However Douds suggests it may have “unintentionally replicated paternal aspects of the political culture of tsarist autocracy”.
Sovnarkom was envisaged as a collegial organ. The ‘Decree to Form the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’ (27 October 1917) stated: “The management of individual branches of state activity is entrusted to commissions… and shall work in close contact with mass organisations of men and women workers, sailors, soldiers, peasants and office employees. Government authority is vested in a collegium of the chairs of these commissions i.e. the Council of People’s Commissars.”
By spring 1918 the collegia of the 17 commissariats had regular sittings. The collegia included elected representatives from mass organisations relevant to the collegium’s jurisdiction. So the collegium of the Commissariat of Labour included representatives from the trade union movement.
Douds argues that “In the first year or so of Soviet power the collegial form of administration was dominant in the work of many of the People’s Commissariats”. Collegiality was replaced by individual authority from 1920.
The early Soviet state was not run by an enormous bureaucracy. The Sovnarkom apparatus was built from scratch. Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich was head of the Administration Department. In its early days Nikolai Gorbunov, a 25-year old chemistry student, typed official paperwork out on two fingers, due to his inexperience.
The Sovnarkom Administration Department had only 32 permanent employees by the end of 1917. By 1 June 1918 it had grown to around 100 staff and remained at that level until 1922. The Secretariat had a staff of eight by 1920, headed by experienced Bolshevik, Lidiia Fotieva.
Iakov Sverdlov occupied a special place in the early years of the workers’ government. During 1917 he chaired the Bolshevik Central Committee Secretariat. However soon after the seizure of power, Sverdlov was appointed chair of the Soviet Central Executive Committee (VTsIK).
Sverdlov has often been portrayed as a hatchet man who subjugated the soviets to the party. In fact he ran an inclusive, democratic soviet executive, engaging constructively with other parties. Up to November 1918, the VTsIK met around once a fortnight. It then met at three weekly intervals until mid-February 1919.
Douds suggests that Sverdlov’s role in the VTsIK resembled that of a chief whip in a parliamentary system – to ensure the outcome of the vote. He organised the Bolshevik party fraction, explained party policy to the caucus before leading discussions through VTsIK. Douds argues that “Sverdlov managed party-state relations so that the integrity of the central Soviet apparatus was not destroyed and the party apparatus did not encroach on its jurisdiction”. This was cut short in March 1919, when Sverdlov succumbed to Spanish influenza aged just 33.
The Bolshevik party did not micro-manage the state from the start. The central committee met sporadically between March 1918 and March 1919. It sat three times per month in March, April and May 1918. There was then a four-month break until its next sitting on 16 September 1918. The central committee sat three times in October, twice in December 1918, once in January 1919 and once in February 1919. Delegates at the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919 complained that the central committee had “worked poorly” and “did not exist as a collegial decision making organ”.
The party did not operate a gargantuan bureaucracy. The size of the Secretariat staff remained small until after Sverdlov’s death, consisting of only around 30 people.
The Eighth Party Congress created the Politburo. By the end of 1920, the Politburo began to meet more frequently. From September 1921 to March 1922 it presided on an average of 21 days per month. By 1921 the Secretariat grew to more than 600 staff. As the Civil War receded, the Politburo widened its reach over domestic matters previously the preserve of Sovnarkom.
By 1922 Lenin recognised that the Politburo had begun to encroach on daily government business. He condemned this development in his speech at the Eleventh Party Congress in March 1922. Osinsky was even more scathing. He told the congress:
“If there is a Politburo directive to decide the question a certain way, this stops the state machine and the commissars fall silent… This created an astounding flow of vermicelli, departmental decay and disintegration of the central organ of authority… If [not] we will have an unsuitable, obsolete system of government unable to deal with the complex tasks of class society.”
Probably the biggest discovery from the archives concerns Trotsky’s opposition views on party-state relations before the Twelfth Party Congress in April 1923. Trotsky drafted the Theses on Industry. He criticised the inter-relationship between party and soviet organisations and calling for delineation. Kamenev and others proposed major amendments. Trotsky wrote to the Politburo:
“Should the Politburo lead the work of Sovnarkom? No. Should the Politburo lead the work of separate commissariats? No. The programme of the work of separate commissariats, basic changes of their programme… achievements of the commissariats, their internal organisation, funds for their activity, selection of their workers: all this should remain wholly outside consideration and solution by the Politburo, and in a huge part, outside its jurisdiction…
“Such types of decisions [when made by the Politburo] are always like a lottery, since the question is torn out of its connection with all other questions and then decided in a ten minute discussion which does not allow each to be a planned decision.”
Trotsky defended his position in a further letter on 27 March, but his proposals were outvoted in the Politburo and Central Committee on 30 March. He was forced by party discipline to the deliver the approved version of his theses at the Twelfth Congress. The theses published in his name (and available in English) did not fully reflect his thinking.
The party takeover of government functions took hold while Lenin was sick. Lenin had his first stroke on 25 May 1922 and a further stroke on 10 March 1923. He was incapacitated until his death in 1924. In 1921 Lenin presided over 42 of 50 Sovnarkom sittings, but the following year he participated in only 7 out of 83. Two Sovnarkom deputy chairs were appointed during 1921: Rykov and Tsiurupa. Both were too ill to assist.
During 1922 Lenin proposed appointing Trotsky, alongside Kamenev, as his deputies in Sovnarkom. Trotsky rejected the offer, believing as one of four he would be ineffective. Although Trotsky and Lenin formed a bloc to fight against the bureaucratisation, it was too late. Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev held the whip hand.
Douds argues that the party-state that emerged in the 1920s was the unintended outcome of the Bolsheviks’ attempts to construct a radically democratic and revolutionary form of government. This is an important contribution to understanding post-revolutionary Russia.