The soviets. History and debates

By Emilio Poliak

On October 13 – 26 of our calendar—1905, the first Soviet of Workers’ Delegates of St. Petersburg was created [1]. The soviets (“councils” in Russian) were a decisive factor in the Russian Revolution. This article intends to cover its history, development, importance in the October Revolution and, at the same time, explore the debates that rise from the fact that this type of organizations have not emerged again in many decades.

 “The history of the council of the worker’s delegates of St. Petersburg is the history of fifty meetings: from October 13, 1905, when the founding meeting was held, till December 3, when it was dissolved by the government troops” [2], Trotsky wrote in 1906. Its birth did not happen in one day, but as a result and conclusion of the various struggle organizations that the working masses built during the first Russian revolution in 1905.

The Russian Empire was then ruled by an autocracy led by the Tsar Nicholas II. The monarchic political regime and the feudal viciousness in the countryside were combined with a rapidly developed industrialization in the lasts decades of the 19th century. St. Petersburg, Moscow and other cities had become great manufacturing centers with an important concentration of workers. At the beginning of the 20th century, the workers’ mobilizations were growing due to the misery conditions and State repression, worsened by the Russo-Japanese War that started in 1904. Meanwhile the liberal bourgeoisie demanded the opening towards a bourgeois republic, although their orientation as focused on demanding the Tsar be the head of the reforms. It knew that a revolutionary process would not just stop at the democratic demands.

Bloody Sunday. The revolution begins

At the beginning of 1905, a series of strikes take place in St. Petersburg for improvements in the economic situation, against lay-offs and for a working day of 8 hours. The head of the movement was the Association of Workers of Factories and Plants –led by the priest Georgii Gapon—that had been boosted by the dominant classes to prevent the revolutionary parties from influencing the working class. On January the 9th, the Association called for a pacific manifestation to hand the Tsar a petition requesting the call for a Constituent Assembly. democratic freedoms, the right to strike and other measures “that we will directly and openly expose to you, oh sovereign!, as our father.” [3] A wave of more than 200,000 people headed towards the Winter Palace, the government’s headquarters, holding sighs with the image of the Tsar and religious standards. The government responded with a merciless repression that caused hundreds of casualties and thousands injured. The Tsar intended to give an exemplary lesson but achieved the opposite. Any possible expectation in the autocracy definitively vanished, the movement spread to many other cities and the socialist parties gained more influence among the working class. The economic and social demands opened the door for a political struggle to take down the monarchy. The Tsar tried to dismantle the process by granting some limited concessions, like the establishment of a Duma (a kind of parliament) that was only for consultation and which electoral regime excluded most of the working class. He did not succeed. Throughout the entire year, strikes and manifestations took place and, with more or less intensity, incorporated new sectors of workers and spread to the entire country. The revolutionary climate also penetrated the army, giving rise to riots like the famous riot of the sailors of the battleship Potemkin in June and the uprising of Kronstadt in October. Towards the end of September and the beginning of October, a new uprising of the labor movement took place. On September 19, the typographic workers of Moscow called for a strike, on October 2 the typographers of Petersburg joined in solidarity, on the 9th the railroad strike began. On October 13, a general strike in the capital was declared and soon spread to great part of the Russian territory.

The soviet of St. Petersburg

During the months since January 9, the masses created different organizations to lead their struggle: factory committees, unions, assemblies, congresses. All of them were, in some way, the embryos which would give rise to the Soviet of Workers’ Delegates. Its first meeting was held on the night of October 13 with about forty delegates. It was immediately decided to call on the proletariat of the capital to proclaim a political general strike and to elect delegates.  A manifesto was drafted which, among other things, proclaimed: “Strikes cannot be allowed to arise and be extinguished in a sporadic way. For this reason we have decided to concentrate the leadership of the movement in the hands of a Common Workers’ Committee. We propose to each factory, to each workshop and to each profession that they elect delegates, one for every five hundred workers. The deputies of each factory or workshop constitute the Factory or Workshop Committee. The meeting of the delegates of all the factories and workshops constitute the General Committee of Petersburg”. [4]

An Executive Committee was formed, voted by the assembly of the soviet. In general, there were no fixed rules of organization; they were built in the heat of the needs of the struggle. As the strike spread, the council expanded and more and more factories elected their representatives to the new body. The second meeting was attended by delegates from 40 large plants, 2 factories and 3 unions: those of the printers, the sales clerks and the office workers.  In mid-November, the number of deputies to the Soviet was 562, delegates from 147 factories, 34 workshops and 16 trade unions. Of these delegates, 508 represented the factories and workshops and 54 represented unions. Altogether they represented no less than 250,000 workers, that is, the great majority of the proletariat of the capital. Of the 50 members that made up the Executive Committee, 28 represented factories and workshops, 13 represented unions and 9 represented socialist parties (3 Bolsheviks, 3 Mensheviks and 3 from the revolutionary social party) [5].

The socialists and the soviets

At first the Bolsheviks did not give much importance to the Soviet because they saw a clash between it and the party, which was supposed to lead the insurrection. This position would change after the intervention of Lenin, who, from his exile in Geneva, wrote […] the Soviet of workers’ delegates or the Party? It seems to me that this is not the approach, that the solution must be, unconditionally, one or the other: both the Soviet of Workers’ Delegates and the Party. […] the Soviet of Workers’ Delegates must tend to include in its ranks delegates of all the workers, employees, servants, laborers, etc., of all those who want to and can fight together to improve the life of all the working people […] And we, the Social Democrats, will try for our part […] to take advantage of the joint struggle with the proletarian comrades, without distinction of ideology, to preach untiringly and firmly Marxism, the only truly consistent and truly proletarian conception of the world. Every step of the proletarian struggle, indissolubly linked to our social-democratic activity, planned and organized, will bring the masses of the working class of Russia ever closer to social-democracy. […] Perhaps I am mistaken, but I believe (from the information that I have, incomplete and only from the “papers”) that in the political aspect it is necessary to consider the Soviet of workers’ delegates as an embryo of the provisional revolutionary government” [6].

From that moment on, the Bolsheviks would play a prominent role, especially in the Moscow Soviet. The Mensheviks, for their part, saw it as the realization of their conception of the broad organization of the class, but they did not assign it a role beyond being an organization of struggle. Trotsky joined the second session of the Petersburg Soviet and would play a prominent role by being elected for the Executive Committee, directing its press and when on November 22 the president of the council, Khrustaliev, was arrested, Trotsky was elected for that position.

The Soviet of Workers’ Delegates was the leadership of the political strike, but as the strike spread and paralyzed the functions of the State, it took on real government tasks to ensure that the paralysis did not turn against the working class itself, controlling transport, supplies and even dictating measures on taxes.  “The council of workers’ delegates proclaimed freedom of the press. It organized street patrols to ensure the safety of citizens. It almost completely dominated the mail, the telegraph and the railroads. It tried to make the eight-hour day mandatory. By paralyzing the absolutist state through strikes, it introduced its own democratic order into the life of the working classes of the city” [7].

The example of the Petersburg Soviet spread to other cities in the heat of strikes and mobilizations. The liberal bourgeoisie was as terrified as the Tsar. It was clear to them that the awakening and organization of the workers would not end with the establishment of a Constituent Assembly. With the manifesto of October 17, where the government promised a Constitution and the extension of powers to the Duma, the bourgeoisie definitively went over to the side of the autocracy to destroy the revolution. On December 3, the Tsarist troops surrounded and entered the building where the soviet was in session and arrested all its members. In Moscow there was fierce resistance with armed confrontations for ten days until finally the workers were defeated.

Despite the defeat, the experience of the Soviets of Workers’ Delegates would remain engraved in the consciousness of the Russian workers’ movement. In 1906 Trotsky wrote: “There is no doubt that the next assault of the revolution will mean the constitution of workers’ councils everywhere. [8] Twelve years later, reality would confirm this statement.

The soviets in 1917

When the revolution that overthrew the Tsar broke out in February, the Soviets re-emerged throughout the country. The new revolution was based on the experience of 12 years ago, but it went beyond that. Just a few days after the fall of the monarchy an Executive Committee was formed and the first congress of the Soviets of all Russia was called. Soldiers’ and peasants’ councils were also created. The first Executive Committee was dominated by the Social Revolutionaries (SR) and Mensheviks who, consistent with their conception that the revolution was democratic and therefore it was the bourgeoisie that should lead the process of constituting a bourgeois republic, gave their support to the provisional government. The Bolsheviks had a similar position in the beginning, but after Lenin’s return from exile they argued that the stage of the democratic revolution had been closed. The task was synthesized in one slogan: All power to the soviets! In the April Theses prepared by Lenin, this orientation was synthesized in “Explaining to the masses that the Soviets of workers’ delegates are the only possible form of revolutionary government and that, for that reason, while this government submits to the influence of the bourgeoisie, our mission can only consist in explaining the errors of its tactics in a patient, systematic, tenacious way, especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses. As long as we are the minority, we will develop a work of criticism and clarification of the mistakes, at the same time advocating the need for all state power to be passed to the Soviets of workers’ delegates, so that, on the basis of experience, the masses will correct their mistakes”[9].

Trotsky, in his Theory of the Permanent Revolution, written in the heat of the 1905 revolution, already defined the socialist nature of the revolution. This political convergence between Lenin and Trotsky produced the approach that would end in a process of unification, thus the inter-district committee lead by Trotsky entered the Bolshevist Party in the congress of August 17.

 The period between February and October was characterized by the existence of a duality of powers: on the one hand that of the councils of workers, soldiers and peasants – whose resolutions were the only ones accepted by the popular masses – and on the other hand that of the provisional government, which was only sustained by the support given to it by the reformist parties. But it is also the period of an accelerated experience of the masses with the conciliatory leaderships. The soviets, being a democratic organization of all the sectors in struggle, allowed the policies of the different currents to be confronted. While the provisional government continued to fail to satisfy the demands made by the February revolution, the Bolshevik agitation that it was only possible to achieve peace, bread and land if the soviets took power was gaining more and more weight among the workers, soldiers and peasants. In September the Bolsheviks won a majority of delegates to the councils in Petrograd, Moscow and the main cities. The road to insurrection had begun. Under Trotsky’s leadership, the capital’s soviet created the Military Revolutionary Committee that led the seizure of the Winter Palace and the main public buildings. The Second Congress of All-Russia Soviets finally proclaimed the birth of the Soviet Republic.

The experience of October 1917 reaffirmed the importance of the soviets as organizations of unity of the mobilized masses and instruments of insurrection, but at the same time made it clear that without the leadership of a revolutionary party, they were not enough for the dispute for power. Probably without the existence of the soviets, Bolshevik influence would not have developed so rapidly, but without the existence of that party the soviets would not have taken power.

Strike committees at first, leadership of the political strike then, an organization of self-determination of the revolutionary masses, an instrument for insurrection and finally a fundamental institution of the new Workers’ State. Such was the evolution from that first soviet that emerged in 1905.

The soviets in power

From October 25 the soviets became the basis of the new regime. In class societies, the state is the instrument of the ruling classes to ensure the oppression of the rest of society. Thus, even in the most democratic forms of bourgeois regimes, the state continues to be the tool of a minority of capitalists, a class dictatorship that guarantees the exploitation of the majority of the working people, based on repressive forces and in the best of cases with some mechanism of formal democracy. With the establishment of the republic of the soviets, for the first time in history it was the working classes that effectively exercised political power, imposing democracy on the majority of society: the working class and the peasants.  It was the government of the vast majority of the people based on democratic bodies and their militias. “The Soviets are directly elected by the workers of the factories, by the soldiers of each regiment, by the peasants of each village, and in this sense they are the perfect expression of their will and their aspirations. Members of the Soviets, unlike representatives in the bourgeois parliaments, do not receive any remuneration for the exercise of their functions, and they can be relieved of their duties at any time if those who have elected them consider that they no longer represent their aspirations or are worthy of their trust”. [10]

All parties recognized by the working class could take part in the soviets. “In Russia Soviet power has been conquered and the transition of government from one Soviet party to another is assured without any revolution by the simple renewal of deputies in the soviets,” Lenin said after the revolution, adding: “the peaceful election of the delegates of the people, the peaceful struggle of the parties within the soviets, the testing in practice of the program of the various parties and the peaceful transition of power from one party to another.”

The outbreak of the civil war and the isolation of the Soviet Union as a result of the defeat of the European Revolution gave rise to a bureaucracy that gradually took over the party and the state. The soviets became  empty, bureaucratic and ended up becoming empty shells. However, the experience of the first years of the Soviet State was a demonstration of the possibility of the working people governing themselves through a regime of workers’ and popular democracy. A model that we continue to claim.

Causes of exceptionality

In the first years after the Russian Revolution, in the heat of the revolutionary uprising, councils were born in Germany, Hungary and with different levels of development also in Italy and other countries. These processes were defeated. In the case of Germany it was social democracy itself that crushed the revolution and the soviets to ensure the preservation of capitalism and the establishment of a bourgeois democratic regime. This experience confirmed that, for the struggle for socialism, together with the organizations of self-determination of the revolutionary masses, the leadership of a revolutionary party is fundamental. From then on the emergence of organizations of this type was sporadic and the new postwar revolutions took place without their existence. In view of this reality there are debates about whether this type of organization is a thing of the past and therefore it would be a symptom of dogmatism to insist on a perished model.

The first important point to analyze is that both in Russia – in 1905 and 1917 – and in Germany – in 1918 – the soviets were pushed by all the workers’ parties, including the reformists. Even though their goals were different, the push of all the parties gave the soviets the character of a united front of the working class and the mobilized masses. But just as the revolutionaries drew important conclusions from experience, in the sense of the need to promote the councils as instruments for struggle, insurrection and as embryos of the new workers’ and people’s power, the reformists and bureaucracies of all kinds drew their own: to prevent them from developing. The soviets, moreover, were fundamental for the Bolsheviks, a minority at the beginning of the revolution, to be able to accompany the experience of the mass movement with Mensheviks and SRs, speaking directly, without intermediaries, and by that means they were increasing their influence to the point of displacing the reformist parties from the leadership of the soviets. For that reason, just as we revolutionaries try in every revolutionary process to promote the emergence and development of organizations that democratically express the will of the mass movement, of the Soviet type, the reformists and the bureaucracy try to hinder them or eliminate them as soon as possible.

Soviet fetishism and the democratic organizations of the workers

This does not imply that they cannot arise again, but it is necessary to differentiate form from content.  Every revolution, in the heat of the uprising, develops new organizations or modifies the character of the existing ones. The obsession of revolutionaries should be to discover them and intervene in them to develop them. For that there is no use in schemes or recipes. There are many experiences in this sense.

In Germany in 1923 Trotsky insisted on the need to give great importance to factory committees, saying: “In our country, both in 1905 and 1917, the Soviets of workers’ delegates emerged from the movement itself as its natural form of organization at a certain level of struggle. But the young European parties that have more or less accepted the Soviets as ‘doctrine’, as ‘principle’, will always be exposed to the danger of a fetishistic concept of them in the sense of autonomous factors of the Revolution. Because, in spite of the immense advantage they offer as an organization of struggle for power, it is perfectly possible that the insurrection will develop on the basis of another organic form (factory committees, unions) and that the Soviets will emerge as an organ of power only at the moment of the insurrection or even after the victory. ” [11] Something similar was proposed for Spain in relation to the slogan of creating soviets: “In Russia we were successful in creating soviets because it was not only we who were demanding from them, but also the Mensheviks and the social revolutionaries, although evidently these had other objectives. In Spain we cannot build soviets precisely because neither the socialists nor the unionists want them. This means that we can neither form a single front nor unite our action with the majority of the working class on this slogan”. [12] And he advised taking the slogan promoted by the socialist leader Largo Caballero on workers’ control to develop from there the united front organizations and workers’ self-organization.

In Bolivia, both in 1952 and 1985, the Bolivian Workers Center (COB) not only brought together the bulk of the working class, but also incorporated peasants and students and promoted the formation of militias that defeated the repressive forces of the State.

In Chile, the industrial cords emerged in the decade of the 70s as real Soviet embryos.

In the heat of the Argentinazo of 2001 the Neighborhood Assemblies were born. With their limitations, they were an expression of the grouping of the broad vanguard that was leading the mobilizations of those days and an embryo of a popular power that was developing mainly in the streets, questioning the bourgeois regime. There, not only partial questions were being debated, but an alternative program to the crisis, at the same time as the massive mobilizations to Plaza de Mayo and other centers of political power were being organized. It even developed the coordination of dozens of assemblies in the inter-neigbourhood. There, the revolutionary left was acquiring more and more weight to the point that its proposals were voted in the majority of those bodies. The reformists played at crushing them, trying to integrate them into the institutionalism of the regime or dilute their political character into instruments of social action. Because of its own weaknesses and because of the action of reformism – facilitated by the sectarianism of a part of the left – this process did not develop further.

These debates are currently of great importance because to the extent that the capitalist crisis deepens, new revolutions will take place and in them a fundamental task of the revolutionaries will be to promote the development of democratic organizations of self-organization of the working people. From the journey and experiences that are developed in the article, some key conclusions can be drawn to act in that sense. 1) In the heat of the revolutionary processes new organizations will emerge or old organizations may acquire a new character; 2) it is difficult to predict what they will be like, but the task of the revolutionaries is to identify those embryos of genuine organizations of self-determination of the movement of the masses in struggle and to fight to develop them in dispute with the reformist and bureaucratic organizations that will try to destroy them or sterilize them as tools of workers’ and people’s power; 3) reformist or bureaucratic leaderships can participate or even at a certain moment promote them – for other purposes – and we must act with political firmness but without sectarianism, because it is not a question of building bodies only of revolutionaries, since our aim is that they be the expression of the broadest layers of the mobilized mass movement, the united front of the working classes. Because it is there, in dispute with the bureaucracy and reformism that we revolutionaries can dispute over leadership and grow in political influence; 4) that the development of councils or other organizations of democratic self-determination are key to the development of the revolution, but that without the leadership of a revolutionary party its victory is impossible.


  1. Capital of the Russian Empire. It changed its name to Petrograd in 1914.
  2. León Trotsky.  The Soviet and the Revolution. 1907.
  3. Workers´ petition to the Zar. January 1905.
  4. “Manifiesto of the Soviet of Workers´ Deputies” – October, 1905.
  5. Cited by L. Trotsky in “The Year 1905”.
  6. V.I. Lenin. “Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers´ Deputies”  – 1905.
  7. L. Trotsky. “The Soviet and the Revolution” – 1907.
  8. L. Trotsky. Ibid.
  9. April Thesis.
  10. A. Nin.
  11. L. Trotsky. “Lessons of October”
  12. L. Trotsky. “On the Slogan of Soviets” (Letter to Nin, September 1931.


  • León Trotsky. “Results and Perspectives.”
  • Andreu Nin. “the Soviets: their origin, developement and funcions.”
  • Santiago Mas. “La revolución de 1905 en Rusia”, in Historia del Movimiento Obrero. Centro Editor de América Latina